Acts 8:26-40 is a classic example of God’s role in evangelism. Earlier in the chapter, we have seen something of people’s role: ‘Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.’ (Acts 8:4) God wants us all to be messengers of this good news of the gospel; it is not something reserved for an educated few, but should be the passion of every one of Jesus’s disciples. God also calls some people to the work of an evangelist (see Eph 4:11) and undoubtedly those with the gift of evangelism are a great blessing to the church. Nonetheless, this passage shows us something that is often overlooked in our understanding of evangelism, namely the role of God Himself in this work.
Divine intervention is the name of the game in this chapter. God sends an angel of the Lord to Philip with specific directions (Acts 8:26); the Holy Spirit gives further instructions (telling Stephen which particular chariot to go to and what to do when there, Acts 8:29) and then moves him on when the job is done. (Acts 8:39) There can be no doubt that God is at work, directing, leading and inspiring Philip and connecting him with a specific person for a specific purpose. When evangelism is inspired by God in this way, the outcomes will truly be miraculous.
This kind of divine intervention, as well as ‘making the most of every opportunity’, feature throughout the book of Acts. Peter is divinely inspired to go to Cornelius; Jesus appears directly to Saul and then Ananias is divinely inspired to go to Saul. There is also the less spectacular job of preaching, debating and gossipping the gospel, which nonetheless remains under the power of the Holy Spirit. In this passage, we also see the role of Scripture in bringing someone to faith. All of these factors are hugely important in evangelism, but none more so than God’s role in bringing the messenger and one in desperate need of the message together by divine appointment.
Acts 8 gives us insights into both the message and methods of evangelism. In this chapter, we see Philip (later given the title of evangelist, see Acts 21:8) reaching out with the good news of Jesus Christ to the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian official. At first glance, it looks like these two groups have little in common: the Samaritans were considered half-Jewish, half-Gentile and were generally hated by Jews, whereas the Ethiopian official seems to have been attracted to Judaism, but not necessarily a convert (the fact that he was a eunuch would have prevented this at that time.) What Philip is clear about is that everyone needs to hear this good news and therefore it doesn’t matter who the person is or what they already believe. Every encounter provides an opportunity for evangelism. The same is true for us today.
The message of the good news of Jesus Christ does not change (see Acts 8:12, 35) and we need to be clear to proclaim to people, as Philip did, this good news. Our methods may well have to adapt, however, depending on our audience. Paul said, ‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’ (1 Cor 9:19-22) The key to Philip’s success as an evangelist was his ability to adapt; John Stott writes, “It is this combination of change (in relation to context and methods) and changelessness (in relation to the gospel itself), together with the ability to discern between them, which is one of Philip’s abiding legacies to the church.” (The Message of Acts, P 164) We too need this ability to discern between change and changelessness and live accordingly.
Evangelism is defined as ‘the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness’ and is one of the most important functions of the church. The church is not meant simply to be a social club or a place where like-minded people gather, though fellowship and teaching are vitally important. It is the only ‘organisation’ that exists for the benefit of others, someone has said, and certainly the church that does not reach out will wither and die. We desperately need the passion and conviction shown by the early disciples to preach the word wherever we go and to reach out to our local communities with the love of Jesus and the good news that He brings.
Acts 8 shows us the importance of evangelism to the early church and also demonstrates the involvement of God in this outreach. We see Philip and others preaching to crowds in Samaria, but we also see the need for personal evangelism (Philip’s outreach to the one Ethiopian eunuch had huge consequences not only for the individual, but also for his country.) As a church, we need to be involved in corporate outreach (our youth club and Parent & Toddler group are examples of this, but there is also the Franklin Graham mission in Sheffield in June 2020 which could involve many of us and we need to ask God for revelation about other means of evangelism) and in personal outreach. Philip is an example to us of a man full of the Holy Spirit who was sensitive to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The things he achieved as a result were astounding. May 2020 be a year of sowing and reaping as we heed God’s call to make disciples of all nations, teaching others to obey all that Jesus has commanded, baptising them (as Philip did with the Ethiopian eunuch) and seeing darkness turned to light.
At a particularly tumultuous time in my life, Aaron Shust’s song ‘Mighty Fortress’ became a vivid reminder to me of who God is compared to how I often think He is and was the lifeline which held me up when I felt I was sinking under the weight ot doubt and uncertainty.
‘He won’t abandon,
He won’t deceive.
He won’t desert us,
He won’t ever leave.
He’ll never forsake us,
He’ll never run.
He’ll never reject us,
The faithful one.
Your love will remain
Your love will remain.’ (‘Mighty Fortress’, Aaron Shust)
The reminder that God will not forsake us (Heb 13:5) is something which acts like a buoy to our faith when we may well feel we are drowning in stormy waters. He holds us up and carries us through the storms. No matter what other people may do, God is the one sure certainty in life.
Many of us struggle with a sense of hopelessness and meaninglessness. Those without jobs can easily feel that their lives are pointless; those with jobs can easily feel that life is just a meaningless round of work, with no time to enjoy anything. Without a sense of purpose and destiny, our humdrum existence can very quickly spiral into depression and even despair, making gratitude and thankfulness apparently impossible. ‘What have I got to thank God for?’ people will say. If life is mere existence, then we can feel we would rather not exist.
The Bible teaches us that we are made in God’s image and for Him: ‘all things have been created through him and for him.’ (Col 1:16) It teaches us that ‘we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ (Eph 2:10) This gives purpose and meaning to our lives beyond our earthly jobs, beyond our human relationships and beyond our own understanding. Being God’s creation, loved by God and made for Him, gives us a reason to live.
One of the greatest blessings of Christmas is contained in the name given to Jesus (thus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy) that ‘“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).’ (Matt 1:23) Jesus is God’s sign to us that He is with us and that He is for us. Moreover, we now have His permanent presence through His Spirit who dwells in us. (Rom 8:11) Because of this, we don’t have to live life under our own steam, but can be helped, encouraged and blessed by the fact we are never alone.