Stephen’s martyrdom triggered mass persecution against the early church in Jerusalem, vv. 1-4. Chaos descended, few avoiding the havoc wrought by Saul and others. A church that had been richly blessed now experienced severe oppression. Nevertheless, under God’s unassailable sovereignty, ‘they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word’, v. 4,1 ultimately each believer being carefully planted in the place where God wanted them to be. Thus, the Lord used their suffering to further His purpose and to spread His word. Later, after Saul’s salvation, the Lord used conditions of peace to bless His word, ‘then had the churches rest … and … multiplied’, 9. 31. If we can hold on to the truth of God’s sovereignty, not only regarding our salvation, 1 Pet. 1. 2, but also our circumstances, we will be motivated to evangelize, like those early saints, regardless of our location and conditions.
The spread of the gospel is often a corporate effort, v. 4. Although many of these saints may not have been evangelists per se, Eph. 4. 11, they fulfilled the great commission, Matt. 28. 19, 20, ‘announcing the glad tidings (euaggeliz?) of the word’, v. 4 JND. Philip, who was a gifted evangelist, ‘preached (k?ryss?, announced authoritatively) the Christ’ to the whole city of Samaria, v. 5 JND. He did not rely on social enterprise, worldly innovation, images, or even charitable works. But, because ‘faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God’, Rom. 10. 17, Philip obeyed Christ’s command, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel’, Mark 16. 15. The gospel is a message that is meant to be communicated primarily through words. Even though public preaching is currently out of vogue, we must continue to follow the example of those first-century Christians and the mandate of Christ Himself.
The Lord Jesus is the Chief Sower and He desires His people to share in the work of sowing and reaping, John 4. 35-38. He said, ‘Look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest’, v. 35. Sowing God’s word is a hard and long-term work that requires diligence. But if we never sow, we will never reap. Furthermore, we may sow and others may water, but it is God who gives the increase, 1 Cor. 3. 6. The Samaritan woman had previously ‘left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?’ John 4. 28, 29. Philip was now another link in the chain at Samaria, each individual having their part to play.
The spread of the gospel inevitably encounters opposition, vv. 9-13, 18-23, the root cause being Satan himself, the god of this world blinding unbelieving minds, 2 Cor. 4. 4. Just as there was demonic activity in Samaria, v. 7, Christians still ‘wrestle not against flesh and blood … but against spiritual wickedness in high places’, Eph. 6. 12; cp. 2 Cor. 10. 3, 4.
When spreading the gospel, we can encounter people who profess salvation, without being truly saved. Simon the sorcerer was such an individual. Whereas the Samaritans believed in the name of Jesus Christ, v. 12, Simon was more interested in Philip’s miracles. Kenneth Wuest translates verse 13 as follows: ‘Simon himself also believed and … continuing as an adherent of Philip, viewing with an interested and critical eye … the attesting miracles … which excited wonder as they were being performed, was being rendered beside himself with amazement’.2 Sadly, as with so many, Simon’s profession of faith was based merely on externals; he was not truly resting on Christ.3
The fact that Simon never received the Holy Spirit and was strongly rebuked by Peter, vv. 18-23, shows that he did not have saving faith. If there is no fruit of the Spirit, there was never new birth by the Spirit. If there is no change in the life, there is no salvation. ‘Faith without works is dead’, Jas. 2. 20, 26. Unless a person continues to make their ‘calling and election sure’, 2 Pet. 1. 10, the likelihood is they were never saved.
Since this was a new work at the dawn of a new dispensation, it was important for it to have apostolic confirmation, vv. 14-17. Philip humbly accepted Peter and John as they joined, and endorsed, his labours. Because jealousy spoils God’s work, we must constantly remember we are only slaves in the Master’s service – there is no room for self.
The visible manifestation of the Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit proved that they were now part of the church, ‘where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision … but Christ is all, and in all’, Col. 3. 11. They were not inferior to their Jewish brethren. This is the ultimate goal in all our evangelism: Christ glorified and pre-eminent.
D. L. Moody once said to a critic, ‘Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it’. The lesson is simple – go out and preach the word, v. 25.
Personal evangelism is an important, though often neglected, aspect of gospel outreach. This brief account of Philip’s rendezvous with an Ethiopian eunuch models how it should work, God’s sovereignty acting in perfect harmony with our efforts to bring sinners to Christ.
During a fruitful gospel campaign in the city of Samaria, ‘the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert’, vv. 5, 6, 26. Having been ‘destroyed by Alexander the Great in the fourth century … (and then) in 96 BC, completely overthrown by the Maccabean prince Alexander … (Gaza) was literally desert’.4 It made no sense. Why would an evangelist move from a city, with many people, to a desert, with none? Nevertheless, Philip ‘arose and went’, v. 27.
It is only after he recorded Philip’s obedience that Luke pointed out, ‘Behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come (more than 200 miles) to Jerusalem for to worship, was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet’, vv. 27, 28. This man was spiritually disadvantaged in at least three ways. First, as a Gentile, he was alien ‘from the commonwealth of Israel, and … (a stranger) from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world’, Eph. 2. 12. Second, being a eunuch, he was barred from entering the congregation of Israel, Deut. 23. 1. Third, his high-ranking office in the Ethiopian court, and probable great personal wealth, made it harder for him to receive Christ. ‘For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God’, Luke 18. 25.
But God had awakened in this Ethiopian eunuch a true desire for Himself, cp. Rom. 3. 11. In Isaiah’s prophecy, Jehovah promised godly Gentiles, ‘Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people’, Isa. 56. 7. He assured faithful eunuchs, ‘Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters’, v. 5. In relation to how difficult it is for rich men to enter the kingdom, Christ explained, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God’, Luke 18. 27. In the Sermon on the Mount He taught, ‘Seek, and ye shall find’, Matt. 7. 7. This eunuch sought God. He did not find the solution to his quest at Jerusalem. But God answered his seeking by giving him Isaiah’s prophecy, which speaks about Christ, and Philip the evangelist, who knew Christ!
Of course, God’s timing was perfect. ‘Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot’, v. 29. Still obedient, and not wishing to miss any opportunity to evangelize, ‘Philip ran thither to him’, v. 30. Far from being forceful, he courteously ‘heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?’ v. 30. The eunuch, who was humbly searching for the truth, replied, ‘How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him’, v. 31. He had been reading Isaiah chapter 53, which so graphically foresaw Christ’s submissive suffering. The Septuagint’s reversal of the phrases ‘led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth’, v. 32, emphasized the barbaric character of the cross, as well as the Saviour’s perfect self-control. ‘When he was reviled, (He) reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not’, 1 Pet. 2. 23; cp. Prov. 19. 11. With an excellent knowledge of the Bible, ‘Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus’, v. 35.
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