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One Telling One

April 14, 2013

Sermon:  One Telling One
Text:  Acts 8:26-38

 

Today concludes our Week of Emphasis for North American Missions.  Please turn in your Bible to Acts 8:26-38, a passage suggested for importance this week.  Hear now the Word of God.

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

 31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

 34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

 36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [37]38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

This compelling passage of Scripture is the Word of God for all of us this morning.

Keep your Bible open to this passage in the book of Acts for a moment, and turn back to Acts 1:8:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  This verse, called the second Great Commission, offers a summary or outline of the entire book of Acts.  In this simple statement Jesus tells how the gospel will be spread, beginning in Jerusalem and traveling through Judea and Samaria, and finally reaching the capital city of the entire Roman Empire, Rome.  Matthew 28:19-20, of course, offers the first Great Commission:  “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In Acts 6 we learn that the number of people in the church increased so rapidly that problems arose about the distribution of food to the widows.  The apostles determined that appointing seven people known as deacons or servants, coming from the word Diakonos, would be a good idea.  These people be charged with the responsibility of caring for the poor – especially the widows and orphans.  Verse 5 reveals that this proposal pleased the entire group, and we learn the names of those chosen:  “…Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” You recognize two of the names immediately:  Stephen, the first Christian martyr; and Phillip, who appears several times in the book of Acts.  This deacon named Phillip is frequently confused with Jesus’ apostle named Phillip.  They are two different people not to be confused.  The Phillip mentioned in our text was chosen to care for the poor in the early Christian community in Jerusalem.  You, as well as most biblical scholars, know nothing about the other five mentioned here and only here.  That does not mean that they were inactive.  I have every confidence that those five quietly worked behind the scenes, as many good deacons do.

After the martyrdom of Stephen, the church experienced great turmoil and chaos.  According to Acts 8:1, “On that day great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”  Phillip traveled first throughout all of Samaria, preaching with much success.  One of his converts was a magician named Simon Magnus.  We are told that Phillip later went to the towns along the coast, some of them traditionally occupied by Philistines.  Finally he came to Caesarea Maritima, the northern seaport town that Herod the Great built.

According to Acts 21 Phillip was living in Caesarea when the Apostle Paul traveled through that region on his way to the Jerusalem church.  Phillip actually hosted Paul and his companions at his house.  We also know that Phillip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.

From our text today we learn that between Phillip’s time in Samaria and Caesarea, on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, he had an incredible encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, instructing and baptizing him in the middle of the desert.

When we say Ethiopian eunuch, we are referring to a man who has been emasculated as a child.  As a young boy he would have had no voice in this decision made for him.  The effects, of course, changed his life forever.  The boy’s endocrine system changed, resulting in many hormonal consequences.  One effect was a high voice for the rest of his life.  For that reason, the men often served as treble singers.  Many cultures, going all the way back to the time of the patriarchs – the 21st century B.C. – made young boys into eunuchs.  Emasculating boys, however, was not a practice among the Hebrew people who considered it to be mutilation.

Sometimes the process was performed for religious purposes and/or domestic reasons.  Eunuchs were seen as more trustworthy than other household servants.  They could work in the home without being threats to the lady of the house.  Eunuchs who were especially bright and skilled in administrative matters were designated as government officials.  They were often named as guardians of the potentates’ harems.  Eunuchs had no loyalties to the military; they were not expected to serve.

After becoming a eunuch, the boy had no family of his own, no in-laws, and no divided loyalties.  Eunuchs, people of low estate, had no strand of aristocracy.  This condition lowered their social status even more, and they became regarded more as property than as real people.  Most of the cultures practicing emasculation dictated that eunuchs could be discarded, replaced, or killed without penalty or repercussion.

The Bible makes many references to eunuchs.  Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all engaged in this practice.  The book of Esther alone names six eunuchs.  Many believe that perhaps Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the governor and man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, was himself a eunuch.  Were other Hebrew men returning from exile eunuchs?  We know that since emasculation was a common practice in Babylon, many of the men exiled in that country and held as captives were frequently made eunuchs.  We must ask if Daniel was a eunuch.  What about Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego?  We simply do not know.

Isaiah 56 contains a remarkable passage.  Imagine how men who had been emasculated responded to this Word from the Lord:For this is what the Lord says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.

It is interesting to note that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from Chapter 53 of the book of Isaiah.  Was he familiar with this particular passage from Isaiah 56?  Perhaps.

Jesus himself addressed the topic of eunuchs right on the heels of his discussion about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:10-12:

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Some members of the early church actually emasculated themselves because of this very passage.  The early theologian Origen of Alexandria found here scriptural justification.  He took the passage literally and made himself a eunuch. He also promoted the idea that Christians should practice emasculation in order to make themselves pure.

Perhaps the best-known of all the eunuchs mentioned in the Bible is the one in our text for today, the Ethiopian.  What do we know about this man?  He was African with skin the color of polished ebony, dark black.  He would have appeared as a wealthy man wearing fine clothing. Scripture tells us that he was riding in a chariot, probably pulled by horses and guided by a driver.  I doubt he could have read Scripture and driven the chariot at the same time.  This chariot may have actually been nothing more than an oxcart since the Greek word used in the Scripture has both definitions.

Clare and I recently saw a woman pull out of Fernwood Drive onto Main Street.  Two dogs were perched in her lap, and another was looking over her shoulder out of the driver’s window.  The woman was driving, managing those dogs, and texting on her cell phone at the same time.  I gave her a wide berth.

Our text informs us that this Ethiopian was under the charge of Kandake, queen of the Ethiopians.  Kandake is a word similar to Caesar; it is a general word to describe the Roman emperor, as in Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.  Kandake is not a proper name; it is a position.  We also learn that this eunuch was a very religious slave.  Scripture says that he had traveled all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship.  He may have become a Jew.  We know that he was a searcher, maybe a proselyte, searching the Scriptures.  More than likely, he was what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile attached to Judaism, believing in the one God of Israel.

Two men met on a desert road.  One has skin that is olive-colored; the other has skin that is ebony.  One is an ethnic Jew by birth; the other is an Ethiopian.  One is a deacon and evangelist; the other is the secretary of the treasury in his home country.  One is a Christian; the other is deeply religious, earnestly seeking the truth.  One was on his way to Africa, sent there for this divine appointment by, we are told, an angel of the Lord; the other was on his way back to Africa. Something remarkable happened when these two men, who both valued the Scripture, met.

As the two approached each other, Phillip heard the eunuch reading from the book of Isaiah. The Scripture under consideration was the great Messianic passage, one of the servant poems that Christians have long taken to mean Jesus.  The passage tells of Jesus being led to the slaughter like a sheep, his life taken from him.  It goes on to say, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; and with his stripes we are healed” (53:5).

Phillip asked the man, “Do you understand?”

The Ethiopian answered, “No, I need help.”  His question to Phillip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” opened the door for Phillip to share the gospel.  He then invited Phillip to enter the chariot and guide him in the meaning of the passage.  Phillip was more than ready to share.

Eventually when they came to water, the eunuch asked, “What hinders me from being baptized?”

Did you notice in your text that Verse 37 is missing? While it occurs in some ancient manuscripts, it does not occur in the oldest manuscripts.  A footnote at the bottom of the page in your translation may supply Verse 37:  “Phillip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may (be baptized).’  The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’”  In that omitted verse, the eunuch expressed his faith.

Baptism is not a public profession of faith as we sometimes say; it is a picture of what Jesus has already done in our lives.  We use the words of Roman 6:4: “We are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.”  The word baptism means to immerse, but it is far more than just getting wet.  Baptism is not so much a public profession as it is an outward symbol of an inward grace, a symbol that demonstrates what Christ has already done in our hearts.

Here in this desert this baptism of the eunuch was not public at all.  No one else was present, with the exception of a driver and several animals.  Basically Phillip and the Ethiopian were alone.

An open question exists about how much water they could find.  The Scripture certainly says they both went into the water.  How much water can you find in the desert?  I do not know.  I do know that the Scripture says the eunuch went on his way, rejoicing.  I can promise you that Phillip was rejoicing as well.

Sometimes people are converted from being religious.  At Pentecost 3000 very religious people who had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover accepted Christ.  Saul, an extremely religious Pharisee who was zealous for the law, had an incredible experience that changed his life.  On his self-assured way to Damascus, this Pharisee of the Pharisees and Hebrew of the Hebrews, had a vision of the risen Christ.  Saul’s life, as well as his name, changed.  In fact, the whole world also changed.  Others who were converted included Cornelius, a Roman centurion living in Caesarea.  A Gentile who feared God and prayed always, he sent for Simon Peter to tell him about the gospel.  We also know of Lydia, the first convert in Europe, who observed the Sabbath every single week to pray with others.  Sometimes people are converted because their faith is half-hearted.  Conversion requires whole-hearted faith, which is the very essence of the missing verse, Verse 37.  Earlier in the book of Acts we saw conversions of many people, 3000 on the Day of Pentecost and 2000 on Solomon’s porch just one chapter later.  We see multitudes converted in Samaria.  Now, however, the conversion begins with one person telling another person.

Why did Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, spend so much time on this one encounter between a disciple and a eunuch who, in his home country, would not have been considered fully human? Christ died for this man. Christ died for every person, no matter the condition.  Luke took the time to tell us this story because each person matters.

I often hear people say that they are praying for revival.  In some places in the world, masses are coming to the Lord; more often, however, salvation comes one person at a time, on a one-to-one basis.  We might have an opportunity to preach to large crowds, but for most of us salvation occurs one person at a time.  Regardless of whether it is a large crowd or merely one person that is converted, the truth that Paul speaks in Romans 1:16 is still accurate:  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The gospel of Christ Jesus is contagious like chickenpox.  You catch it from someone and give it to someone else.  It can happen within families, in the workplace, in school.  We see just how simple the plan of salvation is with the conversion of this Ethiopian.  Accepting Christ Jesus as Lord is not complicated.

My grandmother would sometimes look out of her kitchen window and see a dog eating grass.  She would say, “There is something he ain’t getting.”  She meant, of course, that some nutrient was missing in the dog’s diet.  If you look at people, it is not hard to tell that they, too, are missing something.  Everybody has missing parts.

Perhaps you have heard the story about the man who came to Morningside several years ago to line spaces in our parking lot.  He walked inside the church and asked me how many places I wanted marked handicapped.  I suggested, “Mark them all handicapped.  Every single person in this church is missing a part.”  Some handicaps are evident and require wheelchairs, walkers, casts, or slings.  Some handicaps are hidden by shiny cars and royal robes like those of the Ethiopian.  Some handicaps are devastating and hurt deeply as in the loss of a marriage, a job, or even integrity.  Those handicaps not readily apparent may actually hurt worse.

Have you ever encountered an Ethiopian eunuch along a desert road?  Probably not.

I would like to share the stories of three men I have encountered, men with missing parts.

I became a Christian at Croft Baptist Church when I was seven years old.  Soon afterwards, my dad and I went to the apartment buildings near the church one Saturday and visited a couple.  The following Sunday the husband came to Croft’s worship service.  I saw him across the aisle and noticed that he ducked his head and remained silent and still during the hymn and pastor’s invitation.

I felt compelled, at seven years of age, to walk over to him and say, “If you want to ask Jesus into your heart, I will go down front with you.”

He scowled at me and hissed, “No thanks.”

I was crushed.

Later my dad explained, “Kirk, your job is to tell people about the gospel of Christ and to invite them to accept Jesus as their Savior.  It is their job to respond.  Don’t you ever quit sharing the gospel and inviting people.  Know that many will tell you no.”  His words of advice have been so true.

I tried to discuss salvation with another man over a period of twenty-five years.  Each time he dodged the topic and refused to confer.

One day when I walked into his place of business, his partner said, “Please go visit him in the hospital.  He is really sick with leukemia.”

I walked into his room at Regional and asked, “You are ready to talk, aren’t you?”

The man could hardly speak due to chemotherapy treatments that had made his tongue resemble a piece of fried bacon.  Within five minutes, he was so ready to accept Christ; it was like picking a ripe tomato.  I had prayed for twenty-five years before this man accepted my invitation to discuss salvation.  The following Christmas Eve I conducted his funeral.

On a New Year’s Day following a wedding here at Morningside, I walked back to my office and found a young man sitting on the floor by my door.  He looked as if he had been traveling and had had a rough time.  This is Jason’s story.

Jason said he had simply wanted to talk to a preacher that day.  He had seen cars parked at the church, found an open door, and waited for me.  He revealed that the week after Christmas he had hitchhiked from Atlanta to Union County to see his father who was dying of cancer.  The father would have nothing to do with his son, who was HIV-positive and living a homosexual lifestyle.  The two men had become totally alienated.  As we talked about his faith, Jason revealed that his father had led him to Christ when he was a young boy.  Jason, a man who had so many missing parts and a life pockmarked by sin, needed to know that Christ Jesus loved him.

Many people with damaged lives simply need to know the love of Christ.  It is what Jesus called the “one thing needful” (Luke 10:42).  Paul words it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17:  “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.  Former things pass away and all things become new.”

Is your life damaged?  Is it missing some parts?  Do you need to know the love of Christ, God’s love fully expressed in Jesus?  If so, we invite you to make a decision to accept Christ.  I ask those who are already Christians to join me in prayer, asking God to give us the opportunity to say some word of witness to people.  Ask God to allow you to speak a word of gospel truth to people who are hurting and need to know the love of Christ.  I have found that God gives me many opportunities. I pray that I will not miss them.  You respond to God’s invitation.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2013
 

 

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