The Gospel is free for everyone. If we miss this, the effectiveness of our church is over. If we exclude anyone from hearing the gospel, we discount the sacrifice of Jesus and become Pharisees. If we refuse anyone the opportunity to hear about and know Jesus, we’ve missed the point of being Christians.
As we continue our journey through Acts we begin to see the strategic expanding of the Kingdom by the Holy Spirit. It’s very clear that as we read these chapters we can see the providence of God. What I mean by this is that God knows very well what he is doing and what may seem like a negative turn in the story is really God using some sort of teaching tool to direct us to the next step. We see this all over scripture. Take Joseph for instance. He had a good life. He had a coat with lots of colors on it. His dad liked him best. He didn’t have to go into the fields and do hard labor; he got to sit at home and make tortillas, maybe play with the family goat that was going to become dinner.
Then he had a dream, given by God I might add, which said he was going to be greater than his brothers. Now I don’t know if it was one of those situations in which an older sibling has just gotten the better of you or some sort of fit of insanity, but for whatever reason Joseph decides his brothers need to know about this dream of his. They don’t take too well to the idea of bowing down to Joseph, so they decide to kill him. Prudence gets the better of them so they throw him in a well. Then they decide they could make a little coin off their brother so they sell him to some slave traders. Now they’ve made some money, their annoying brother is gone, and the only one who’s sad is Jacob.
This would seem like a negative turn in Joseph’s story, and indeed it was a long and painful journey for him which included several more positive and negative situations, but it’s what allowed him to become exactly what he dreamed about. He became the second most powerful person in all of Egypt and his brothers did actually bow down before him. What everyone thought was a bad thing actually turned out to be exactly what God used to propel Joseph into the life he was meant to lead.
We see the same thing with the church. In the first 7 chapters of Acts we’ve seen the church start from the small group of followers Jesus had amassed and grow to now more than 8,000 new believers. Because of this rapid growth they were met with hostility from the religious leadership and the Jewish council. They met so much hostility, in fact, that they began to be persecuted, scattering the believers across the region. Stephen was martyred and it seemed like this great movement might end. Indeed, had we lived in the first century, we might have felt like it was ending, like this thing that started with such momentum was going to fall away.
However, these were not just run-of-the-mill pew-sitters. These were men and women whose lives had been transformed and they couldn’t go back to who they were before. They were bold followers of Jesus Christ who sold their possessions and gave to the needy. These were men and women who performed miracles and couldn’t stop preaching about the truth of Jesus. This was hardly over.
If we look back at Acts 1:8 we see that Jesus was already preparing the disciples for what would happen. He said “You will be my witnesses.” Looking closer at this word “witnesses” in the original language we find it comes from the Greek word “marturious.” Going even further we find it comes from the same root from which we get the English word “martyr.” Jesus was telling the disciples that they would not only tell the world about him, but would be so devoted to the message they would be willing to die for it. Are we that way? Are we so committed to the message that we would risk everything to deliver it?
Beyond being witnesses, Jesus told them they would go to the “ends of the earth.” They were going to distribute around the globe and tell the good news. They weren’t going to stay where they were comfortable. They weren’t going to stay in the familiar. They were going to the ends of the earth. Perhaps they weren’t moving quickly enough. Maybe they thought it was for other people to do. Whatever the reason, the distribution of the Gospel wasn’t going forward.
The persecution of the church, while violent and painful for those involved, served to do the scattering of the believers. Now they were moving towards the ends of the earth. Now they were taking the message of Jesus to those who had never heard of him. Now was when the great movement of the Gospel began to take place.
We have seen the Holy Spirit fall on the apostles. We have seen the Holy Spirit fall on the other believers. We are about to see the Spirit come to those who had no clue about Jesus and who weren’t even Jews.
With the stoning of Stephen we begin to see the commitment level of these new believers. They were willing to give everything up to be followers of Christ. There was no greater thing to them. The Gospel of Jesus, the church, the Kingdom of God was more important than their lives.
Luke tells his story in this fashion because he wants his readers to understand why things happened the way they did. Luke is a Gentile Christian probably writing to a mostly Gentile audience. His purpose is to explain what had happened from the death of Jesus following the early church through most of the first century. As he reports events, we can clearly see the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the outskirts of the Roman Empire. What Jesus proclaimed in 1:8 became reality by the end of the book! God really does know what he’s doing!
So here we are in Acts 8. The church has been dispersed throughout the region after the stoning of Stephen and the believers are scattered far and wide. As we’ve said, what seemed like a negative turn for these early Christians has turned out to be the exact impetus needed to spread the message of Jesus throughout the world.
Our story picks up with Philip, a Jewish believer who is now in Samaria preaching and teaching Christ to the Samaritans. Scripture says the crowds “with one accord” paid attention to and listened to the words of Philip, with many being saved and many being healed and there was “much joy” in that city. What do we remember about the Samaritans in the Gospels? They were hated by the Jews. They were viewed as half-breeds and dogs that didn’t deserve the traditions and festivals of real Jewish life. What has happened here is the good news of Jesus has transformed them. Not only that, but it transformed Philip. He was simply talking about Jesus where he was, like we’ve been talking about for three weeks now, and the Spirit took over. People began to put their trust in Jesus and Philip, through the Spirit’s power, healed many. The Gospel is good news to everyone.
There was even a man named Simon who believed. Simon’s story is unique for a couple of reasons. He was a magician (think sorcerer). He had amazed people with his uncanny ability to perform magic. Rather than actual miracles and great wonders like the disciples were performing, I’m thinking this was a guy very much like the sorcerers in Pharaoh’s court, men who could perform tricks that would fool people. Possibly this magic was available to them through some sort of demonic power, but I’m just speculating here. For whatever reason, though, scripture points out that Simon had made himself out to be a great man, but there was obviously something different about what he was doing in comparison with miraculous healings of the disciples. Simon was intrigued by the signs and wonders being done by Philip and he recognized there was a great power behind them, even greater than the power he claimed to possess, so he followed Philip.
The disciples heard what was going on in Samaria and more than anything, they were interested in seeing for themselves what had happened in this place they once hated. As they had done with every other situation, they sent Peter and John. When Peter and John got there they prayed that the new believers might receive the Holy Spirit. Now this can be a confusing text for modern-day Christians because it is our understanding and belief that the Holy Spirit indwells new believers immediately upon conversion. Why did Peter and John have to pray for the Holy Spirit to come? I’m not sure. It seems related, though, to the text which says they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus. I don’t really know what this means, but for whatever reason the new believers received the Spirit at this point.
Why do I digress on this point? It’s important for us to understand as much about Scripture as we can. In order to do this, we have to deal with difficult texts. We aren’t going to shy away from things we don’t understand, but instead embrace them and do our due diligence to try to know more. In the letters of Paul, he seems to suggest that the Spirit does come immediately into our lives. What we must understand about Acts is that it is not a theological book, but a narrative of the events observed by others. Simply telling what happened does not equate a prescribed method for how they should or will happen every time. All we know is that in this particular event, this was how things happened. Perhaps Luke tells these events so we will understand what was about to happen with Simon.
Back to the story. Simon was amazed at the power the apostles had. He wanted that power for himself. He was so obsessed with the miraculous and wonderful that he offered the apostles money if they would grant him the same gift, the ability to distribute the Holy Spirit at will. This does not make Peter happy at all. Peter rebuked him harshly, reminding him that the things of God cannot be bought with money. Simon had no real desire to follow Christ; he simply wanted the blessings that come with being a Christian. Before we get to pious, though, and ridicule Simon, don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we try to trick God into giving us his blessing without really following Jesus? Don’t we make deals with God in order to get our way? Don’t we sometimes go to church because we want to be blessed and we think if we give God Sundays that he’ll be satisfied with our effort?
Peter’s rebuke of Simon serves a greater purpose. It reminds us that the blessings and the gifts of God don’t come because we’ve bought them or earned them, but because God is gracious enough to give them to us. The Spirit doesn’t come to us because we are something special, but because God is so good. Why does God bestow upon us his gifts and his Spirit? Because we choose to follow him. We get the blessings of eternal life because we make Jesus the Lord of our life. We get the gifts of the Spirit because we follow Jesus, to live a life that is not about us, but about him. This was Simon’s fault. His life was about him. Even when he began following Philip, it was because he was amazed at the signs and wonders and hoped he could learn how to do the same things. To be fair, Simon did seem penitent at the end of this encounter. He did seem to get what Peter said. We don’t know what happened with the rest of Simon’s life, but he did seem to possibly make the right decision after this encounter.
After this the apostles went back to Jerusalem and the Spirit led Philip into the desert on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Along the way Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch of the court of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship and was on the return journey home in his chariot. He must have been familiar with and a worshipper of God at least in some form or fashion because he had been worshipping in Jerusalem. When Philip met him he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Directed by the Spirit, Philip went up to the chariot and asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch answered that he couldn’t possibly understand unless someone explained it to him. (I occasionally feel the same way when reading the prophets.) He invited Philip into the chariot with him.
As Philip read over the passage in Isaiah, he began to tell the good news about Jesus. Somewhere in this conversation the eunuch began to understand what Philip was talking about. He believed Jesus was the truth and desired to be baptized following Jesus’ example. As they came across a body of water the eunuch asked Philip what prevented him from being baptized right then. At that, the eunuch stopped the chariot and they got out and Philip baptized him. The Scripture then says that when they came out of the water, the Spirit took Philip away. He just disappeared in front of the eunuch. This was obviously a special encounter and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Philip then found himself in Azotus and continued to preach the gospel.
The Gospel is for everyone: for Samaritans, for magicians, for eunuchs from Ethiopia, even, as we’re about to see, for murderous Pharisees who persecuted the church. The Gospel is for everyone. This is important information to have because as we go forward in Acts, if we don’t get this we won’t understand what’s about to happen.
In chapter 9 we re-encounter Saul, a young energetic Pharisee who stood by as the “keeper of the coats” while Stephen was being stoned. Saul was a persecutor of the church. He sought out followers of “the Way” so that he might arrest them and/or have them killed. As we acquaint ourselves with Saul in chapter 9 we find him requesting letters from the high priest granting him permission to go disciple hunting in Damascus, his goal being to bring these men and women back to Jerusalem. The high priest and Jewish council have discovered that while they don’t want the apostles preaching the message of Jesus in Jerusalem, they really don’t want them to do it outside of their watchful eyes. The letters are granted and Saul sets out for Damascus.
Along the way something remarkable happened. Saul was blinded by a bright light and fell to the ground. The voice of Jesus spoke to him and asked “why are you persecuting me?” Being terrified by this voice, Saul inquired as to its source. You see, the Jews (of which the Pharisees were a major sect) didn’t think much of Jesus. They didn’t think he was the Messiah, nor did they take too kindly to his seeming neglect of all their laws. They found him to be a trouble maker and charlatan, as well as a blasphemer. For Saul to be confronted by the voice of the one whose followers he was persecuting did not sit well with him. First of all it proved that his beliefs were false and his persecution of the disciples was sinful. Secondly it left him blind and disoriented. His entire purpose for being changed in a matter of moments. After this event he fasted for three days. His life had been shattered. He knew God. He was a good Jew. He was a keeper of the law and very zealous about the ritual of being Jewish. To discover that he had been wrong was a terrific shock. He didn’t know what to do.
In the same town there lived a man named Ananias. He was a disciple of Jesus. In a vision he heard the voice of God tell him to go find Saul at the house of a man named Judas and to lay his hands on Saul that he might receive his sight back. Ananias was not unfamiliar with the name of Saul. He knew the disciples of Jesus had been persecuted. He knew this man Saul was one of the most zealous of these persecutors. Not surprisingly this filled Ananias with more than a little trepidation. Go to the house with the disciple killer?! But God told him that Saul had been set apart to reach the Gentiles. Saul had been chosen to take the message of Jesus to yet another group of people. The Gospel is for everyone. The Lord also revealed to Ananias that Saul’s task would not be without pain and heartache, that he would suffer much for the sake of His name.
Whether that comforted Ananias much, we have no idea. But he was obedient and went to Saul. He laid his hands on Saul’s head and prayed that the Holy Spirit might fill him and that his sight might be regained. Immediately Saul was able to see again. He was baptized and he ended his fast.
This event is a turning point in the movement of the church. Have you ever known someone that you thought “if only that person would get saved then everyone would know God is real?” You know the person that would never go to church but was always so popular that you knew if they were to become a Christian it would somehow lend legitimacy to your youth group or FCA or something like that. That was Saul. It was a complete coup that Saul became a follower of The Way. He was so antagonistic to Jesus and his followers that he would never be a believer. And yet God chose him to be the catalyst behind the movement to take the Gospel to all those outside the Jewish faith.
Saul, being a zealot in every sense of the word, immediately began to preach in the synagogues saying “Jesus is the Son of God.” All the people who heard him were amazed at this transformation. Saul was such a logical thinker and skilled orator that he confounded everyone by proving Jesus was the Messiah. Because of this, though, the Jews who were once on his side began to plot to kill him. If this message was so powerful it could convert one of their most staunch allies, what could it do to the rest of the people? They looked for a way to kill him, but Saul heard of their plan and the disciples helped him leave the city by lowering him over the wall in a basket.
Naturally the rest of the disciples were a bit skeptical about this conversion, possibly thinking that Saul was trying to infiltrate them in order to turn more of them over to the high priest, but a disciple named Barnabas, whom the others respected, validated Saul’s story and told of Saul’s bold preaching in Damascus. The disciples accepted Saul and he began to preach even more, quickly becoming one of the more prominent and bold preachers of the Gospel.
The Gospel is for everyone. No one is left out or excluded. Anyone can follow Jesus. Anyone can know him. Time after time after time Luke tries to paint this picture for us. The power of God wasn’t limited to Jesus, Peter and John healed a guy beside the gate to the Temple. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just for the apostles, Stephen and Philip performed many signs and wonders. The good news of Jesus wasn’t just for the Jews; whole cities in Samaria, a magician, and an Ethiopian eunuch were converted because of the preaching of Philip. With the conversion of Saul and his subsequent ministry to the Gentiles we will see that the true movement of Jesus had just begun.
God knows what he’s doing, whether it’s Joseph being sold into slavery, a shepherd killing a giant, his son being killed by his own people, or his church being scattered; God knows what he’s doing. Every event is an opportunity to share the Gospel. Every day is a new day to share Jesus’ love with someone. Even the start of this church isn’t without controversy and hardship. People wonder what we’re doing. It’s difficult to grasp. Sometimes even we don’t feel like we completely understand. If, however, we are obedient to God, if we can somehow capture what it is he’s called us to do, we don’t have to know. We just have to be faithful to the calling placed on our lives.
Saul’s life came crashing down around him. I think he, like Martin Luther who came so many years later, was a true believer in his religion. He really did believe in God and his power. He truly believed that what he was doing was right. He wasn’t looking for power or prestige, but to serve God better. When he found out he had been persecuting the very God he thought he’d been serving, he was broken. But to also find out he could be a part of the plan to save the nations must have made him so glad! From then on Paul was unstoppable. He was still a zealot. He was still bold. He was probably oftentimes cantankerous and cranky, but he served Jesus with a passion.
There is so much meat in this text today. We could talk about it for weeks and still not be done. The Gospel is for everyone. No one is excluded. We can all follow Jesus, but following implies that we let him lead. Following means we are not in charge. Following means we place him first.
We’re going to enter into a time of worship in response to the truth of Scripture. May the Holy Spirit move in your soul. May the power of the Almighty become more aware to you. May you begin to comprehend the awesome beauty of our creator and want to give your life away to serve him.
Remember Acts 1:8. You will be my witnesses. You will be my martyrs. This message of good news is worth more than my life. I must speak the truth of the Gospel to all with whom I come in contact. May the name of the Lord Jesus be praised!