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Lesson 21: How God Evangelizes the World (Acts 8:26-40)

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William Carey, a poor English shoemaker, was born in 1761. After his conversion at age 18, he began preaching in some small Baptist chapels, supporting himself by his trade. Reading Captain Cook’s Voyages sparked his interest in foreign missions. As he continued to study the Bible, he became convinced that the central responsibility of the church should be foreign missions.

That thesis probably does not sound very radical to you, but in Carey’s day, it was revolutionary. The prevailing hyper-Calvinist view of his time was that the Great Commission had been given only to the apostles. It had been fulfilled in previous times. The heathen had rejected the gospel, and so they would have to await their fate on Judgment Day.

But Carey, who was a Calvinist, dared to ask whether Jesus’ command to make disciples of all the nations was not obligatory on all Christians. An older minister accused him of being “a miserable enthusiast” (Mary Drewery, William Carey [Zondervan], p. 31). When he shared his ideas at a minister’s gathering, one pastor retorted, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine” (cited by Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], p. 115). When Carey actually proposed going himself to India as a missionary, his father exclaimed, “Is William mad?” (Drewery, p. 44).

But William Carey went to India, where he labored for 40 years. He supervised and edited translations of the Bible into at least 36 languages. He published grammars and dictionaries, labored to abolish widow-burning and infanticide, and studied botany to promote agricultural improvements. In a sermon that he preached before he left England, Carey uttered his now-famous words, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” He is often called the father of modern missions.

In our study of the expansion of the gospel in Acts, we have seen Philip take the gospel into Samaritan territory. God blessed his efforts as many came to faith in Christ and were baptized. We don’t know for sure the time frame, but it would seem that right in the middle of this revival in Samaria, the Lord sent an angel to tell Philip to leave that region. He was to travel to a deserted road that led south from Jerusalem to Gaza. God arranged a meeting there between Philip and one man, an Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling home after worshiping in Jerusalem. God opened this man’s heart and Philip led him to faith in Jesus Christ.

In biblical times, Ethiopia referred to the region south of Aswan, Egypt, but north of Khartoum, Sudan. So the man was probably a Sudanese eunuch! He was probably dark-skinned. We don’t know if he was physically a eunuch or if it was just the title of a high-ranking court official. He was the equivalent of Treasury Secretary under the Queen. “Candace” was a dynastic title, like Pharaoh or Caesar, not the name of the queen.

This story shows us, as William Carey’s story also did, that God is sovereign in evangelism, but also that His people must be obedient to His command. It teaches us that …

God evangelizes the world through obedient Christians who explain the gospel to seeking souls.

The story reflects four elements in the conversion of a soul: (1) the Holy Spirit’s initiative and preparation; (2) the Word of God penetrating the minds and hearts of sinners; (3) the obedient Christian who explains the gospel message; and, (4) the response of obedient faith in the person hearing the message.

1. God sovereignly takes the initiative in the salvation of souls.

God’s sovereignty in the salvation of this Ethiopian man is a dominant theme. He sent an angel to tell Philip to go to a particular remote place. He arranged for Philip’s and this man’s paths to cross. He prompted Philip (8:29) to go up to the man’s chariot. At that very moment, God had providentially arranged for the man to be reading aloud (most people in the ancient world read aloud) from Isaiah, and not just from any part of Isaiah, but from Isaiah 53. You couldn’t pick a better opening for the gospel from the Old Testament! At the right moment, after the man had trusted in Christ, they came upon some water, and so the man was baptized.

At that moment, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away (8:39). Some do not take this to be a miracle, but it seems to me to be a miracle. The word “snatched” is the same word used to describe the church’s being “caught up” to be with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:17). So God was sovereign in getting Philip to go to this Ethiopian man and in taking him away. As all the Scriptures proclaim, it is God who sovereignly works to save His elect.

Note two things about this process. First, God is not always as efficient as we would want Him to be. This Ethiopian had just made a 1,000-mile journey to Jerusalem. After making this long journey, and considering that he probably stayed in Jerusalem for a period of time, why didn’t the Lord direct one of the apostles in Jerusalem to share the gospel with him there? He could have led the man to Christ and given him a crash course in discipleship before he left. Meanwhile, Philip could have continued his fruitful ministry in Samaria. Later, Philip settles in Caesarea, where a centurion needed to hear the gospel. But rather than send Philip, who was there, God sent Peter, who was not there (chapter 10)!

We cannot view world missions as an efficient, American business enterprise. God’s ways are not our ways. Sometimes He does things that seem to us like a waste of money or personnel. Our job is not to question the Lord, but to be obedient. William Carey must have wrestled with God’s “inefficiency” when, after 19 years of labor, a warehouse fire destroyed ten complete Bible translations, his massive polyglot dictionary, two grammar books, and all of the tediously shaped type fonts. But God used the tragedy to spread the word about the mission, and in two months enough gifts had poured into the mission to pay for the huge losses. “Carey accepted the tragedy as a judgment from the Lord and began all over again with even greater zeal” (Tucker, p. 120).

Second, note that God’s target is the world. Foreign missions was not something that the church or some brilliant strategist cooked up. It is God’s program. He commanded Philip to evangelize this Gentile man from Ethiopia. Someone has observed that in Acts 8 we see the conversion of a son of Ham; in Acts 9, a son of Shem (Paul); and, in Acts 10, a son of Japheth (the Roman centurion). These represent the three divisions of humanity after the flood. Thus Luke is showing us the gospel going out to all the nations, just as Jesus had commanded. In Revelation 5:9, John sees before God’s throne the four living creatures and the 24 elders singing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Until all whom Jesus purchased with His blood are brought to salvation, we must, as Paul put it, “do all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

2. God uses His Word to penetrate the minds and hearts of sinners.

People can discern the existence of God and some of His attributes from creation (Rom. 1:20). But they can only learn how to be saved through the revelation of God’s Word, which tells us the good news about Jesus Christ. Knowledge of the one true God may have spread to this man’s country about 900 years before, when the Queen of Sheba returned from her visit to Solomon. Also, there was a large Jewish colony in Alexandria, hundreds of miles north along the Nile River. The truth about God could have spread south from there.

At any rate, this Ethiopian eunuch was interested enough in seeking God to make the long and difficult journey to Jerusalem. He must have been somewhat let down by what he found there. The Pharisees and Sadducees controlled a religion that was largely legalistic, ritualistic, and highly politicized. They did not know the God whom they professed to follow. As a Gentile, this Ethiopian could not go beyond the Court of the Gentiles in the temple. It is hard to imagine that his experience in Jerusalem had met the hunger of his heart that had motivated him to take this lengthy journey.

But at least he came away from there with a scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the Greek Septuagint version. He was so interested in reading it that he did not wait until he got back home. He started reading it as he sat in his carriage, plodding along the bumpy desert road toward Egypt. No doubt a man of his rank had a large retinue with him, including a driver, so that he was free to read as they traveled. Presuming that he had started at the beginning, he was almost through the entire book. He was reading Isaiah 53:7-8 when Philip came alongside his chariot. Once it was explained to him, God used these prophetic words about Jesus to bring this man to salvation.

Don’t underestimate the power of God’s Word to bring people to salvation! As 1 Peter 1:23 explains, “For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” James 1:18 states, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth….” Paul tells Timothy that from childhood he has “known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). God’s Word is powerful to save sinners.

I read of a Muslim priest who was asked to do a series of character studies on great people from the Koran: Abraham, Joseph, David, and the prophet Jesus. When he came to prepare his talk on Jesus, he wanted more background information, so he borrowed a Bible and began to read the gospels. As he realized that Jesus was more than a prophet, his Muslim friends were appalled and excommunicated him. He continued to read and on his own trusted Christ as Savior. He went to a local Christian and asked if he could be baptized. He now works with Operation Mobilization doing evangelism among his own people (OM India Newsletter, Summer, 1997).

Thus we should encourage people to read the Bible, especially the gospels. Give out Gospels of John or New Testaments. When you share the gospel, have the person read the Bible verses himself. God uses His Word to bring sinners to salvation.

3. God uses obedient Christians to explain the gospel from His Word to seeking souls.

Although God sovereignly works to bring people to salvation, He does not usually do it apart from His obedient people. Here is Philip in the midst of an exciting revival, when an angel tells him to go to a deserted stretch of road where no one lived! I can imagine myself thinking, “Why doesn’t the angel go there himself?” Or, “What about all those apostles sitting around in Jerusalem? They aren’t as busy as I am. Besides, they’re closer. Send one of them.” Or, “I’ll go, Lord, but after things quiet down here.”

But as far as we know, Philip did not raise any objections. The angel said, “Arise and go.” The next verse (8:27) says, “And he arose and went.” When he got there, he was a bit surprised, as seen by the word, “behold” (8:27). What in the world is this Ethiopian official and his entire retinue doing out here in the midst of this forsaken road? The Spirit prompted Philip to go up and join himself to his chariot. It would have been traveling at a slow pace, so Philip could easily catch up to it. When he did, he heard the man reading, and to his amazement, Philip recognized it as Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” He invited Philip to join him.

His question was not about the interpretation of the words, although they are a bit difficult to interpret. The text is speaking about a man who was treated unjustly. Rather, his question was, “Of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else?” Contemporary Jewish interpretation was divided about this matter. Some said that it referred to the nation, some that Isaiah was speaking of himself, and some that he referred to the Messiah. But Philip had no doubts: “Beginning from this Scripture, he preached Jesus to him” (8:35).

Just prior to this, the eunuch would have read, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Philip thus would have explained that we all have sinned. Because of our sin, none of us can merit eternal life by our own efforts or good deeds. Thus the Lord, to satisfy His holy justice, out of love for us, provided a substitute who bore the penalty we deserve. Jesus Christ bore God’s wrath for our sin on the cross. Perhaps Philip went to other Scriptures as well. But whatever Scriptures he used, Philip told the man about Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended as the only Savior from God’s righteous judgment. He also explained that we must put our trust in Jesus personally as our own sin bearer. The eunuch, prepared by God, responded in faith.

Every Christian should be able to do what Philip did here: Starting with any Scripture or spiritual topic, we should be able to preach Jesus to a seeking soul. If a person brings up evolution, you may need to say, “That’s an interesting subject, and there are competent scholars on both sides of the issue. Sometime maybe we could discuss it at length. But the question that is far more important than evolution is, ‘Who do you think Jesus Christ is?’” Whether the person brings up the problem of suffering or the question about the heathen who have never heard or whatever, after a brief answer, steer the conversation back to Jesus Christ. The person needs to know who Jesus is, what He came to do, his own desperate condition apart from Christ, and how to receive Christ by faith. Everything else is peripheral. If Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be, Christianity is true. If He is not who He claimed to be, then Christianity is a fraud. It all centers on Him.

We have seen that God sovereignly takes the initiative in evangelizing the world. He uses His Word to penetrate the minds and hearts of sinners. He also uses obedient Christians to explain the gospel to seeking souls. Finally,

4. God sovereignly works in the hearts of sinners to impart new life and obedient faith.

In Romans 3:10-11, Paul writes, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God.” Isaiah 53:6 puts it, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” John 3:19-20 says, “And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” None of us are naturally inclined toward the gospel. Sinners do not seek after God.

Thus salvation is all of God and His grace, and not from any good inclination in our hearts to seek God. Therefore, no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9). This means that whenever we see a man like the Ethiopian eunuch, who was seeking God by traveling to Jerusalem and by reading God’s Word, God is already at work in his heart, drawing him to Jesus (John 6:44).

We can infer, then, that God graciously imparted new life and obedient faith to this man when he heard Philip present the gospel. Apparently, inferring this was not enough for some early scribe who was copying the manuscript of Acts. So he inserted verse 37, where the eunuch confesses, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” The verse is not in any of the early or best manuscripts, and the style, according to Greek scholars, is not Luke’s style of writing. But even though the verse is not original to Acts, the eunuch must have given some such confession of his faith in Christ, or Philip would not have baptized him. The difference between this man’s genuine faith and Simon’s false faith (8:13) was that the eunuch’s faith came from God, whereas Simon’s faith came from himself.

The act of baptism, as we have seen, is a public confession of what God has done in a person’s heart through faith in Christ. Either the man knew the meaning and significance of baptism, or Philip had explained it. Those who do not believe in immersion argue that there could not have been enough water in the desert to dunk a man. But the words “they both went down into the water” and “they came up out of the water” indicate that it was a deep enough pool to immerse him. The Greek word for “baptize” means to dip, and immersion best pictures what baptism symbolizes, namely, complete identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

As the men came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. He couldn’t even do any follow-up! But even though the eunuch never saw Philip again, he went on his way rejoicing. God had met the longing of his heart. He knew that Jesus had forgiven his sins and given him eternal life. We do not know from history if he became an evangelist to his people, but it is not hard to imagine that he did. A life of joy in Jesus is hard to keep to oneself! It is the best advertisement for the gospel. As for his part, Philip found himself at Azotus, about 20 miles north of Gaza. Although he had no direct command from God, he kept on doing what he always did, preaching the gospel to the cities as he traveled north to Caesarea.

Conclusion

If evangelizing the lost, especially those of other cultures and nationalities, were up to our abilities, it would be hopeless. But, thankfully, evangelism depends on our sovereign God working through our obedience. In his book, The Preacher’s Portrait [Eerdmans], John Stott shows that according to the Bible, lost people are both sightless and lifeless, blind and dead. Then he asks, “How can we reach him? Are we so foolish as to imagine that we can somehow, by our own argument or rhetoric, induce within him either spiritual understanding or life? No. It is not given to us to give sight to the blind or life to the dead. God alone is the author of light and life” (pp. 107-108). Later (p. 118) he cites Charles Spurgeon, who used to say over and over to himself as he climbed the stairs into his high pulpit, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost.” Spurgeon wrote,

The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preachers’ learning; otherwise it would consist of the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it—the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. O Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as to preach to humanity, unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word to give it power to convert the soul.

The same Holy Spirit who used Philip to reach the Ethiopian eunuch and who used Spurgeon to reach thousands with the gospel wants to use you and me to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to Flagstaff and beyond. With William Carey, let’s obediently expect great things from God and attempt great things for God as we take the gospel to a lost world!

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some practical ramifications of relying on God’s sovereignty in the process of evangelism?
  2. Is being a cross-cultural missionary a special gift? Are only some called to go to foreign lands with the gospel? How can a person know that call?
  3. How can we know whether God is prompting us to talk to a particular person about Christ? How can we get into the topic?
  4. How much pressure should we put on people to believe in Christ? Where’s the balance between urgency and letting the Lord work in His time?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)