Becoming a Christian - the ordinariness of the means and the spectacular nature of the end:
- Forgiveness of sins;
- Rescue from the wrath to come;
- Hope of Resurrection from the dead;
- Restoration (set back in order);
- Place in the New Creation;
- Eternal Glory.
By Acts 8, there is murder, persecution, prison, arrest & weeping and that whole happy church is scattering in fear and disaster. Throughout Judea & Samaria, they were running for their lives. Those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip goes off to Samaria and we get an account of what God does through him in Samaria and then we find him on the desert road a little later on.
This is not an accident that things are moving outwards. God is in control as marked out by these special interventions. For since the exclusion from the Garden of Eden, and scattering in Genesis – all God’s salvation activity has been towards a geographical centre – Jerusalem as the Bible accounts become clearer. And the central place in Jerusalem where God’s glory is revealed, where God’s name is known, is the temple.
The Old Testament story heads inwards to a particular geographical point where God has established his person. It’s a big surprise to find things moving outwards.
2 things going on at this point:
- The good news about Jesus is going out from Jerusalem, beyond the boundaries of the regular people of Israel, and
- Through the speech of non-apostles
Often we think that maybe God works there, but not here. Then, but not now. There, but not here. God had made a promise in Acts 1:8 that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea & Samaria & to the ends of the earth. By Acs 9:31, we can tick off nearly everywhere what God had promised from the list.
From nothing special about here & now, in fact, from horrors and disaster, God has crossed boundaries and massively multiplied his church.
The Samaritans are the descendants of the Northern 10 tribes of Israel. They are compromised, they are into magic & demons. They are not good & they are not Jewish. There has been centuries of wall building to keep Samaritans out of the temple of Israel.
Ezekiel 37: God tells the prophet to find 2 sticks – to write Judah on one, Ephraim (another word for the 10 tribes with their capital in Samaria) on the other. God says to join the 2 sticks into one stick in his hand & say: I will make one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel with one King who shall be king over them all. No longer 2 nations, no longer divided into 2 kingdoms.
1 Persecution leads to preaching (Ac 8:1-4)
As the church scatters, they don’t lose the confidence that Stephen has. So they don’t keep quiet. Persecution leads to preaching and because Jesus is King & the Word is the active agent & the next bit of God’s plan comes true. We tick off the Samaritan! But it’s God’s plan not theirs.
There’s no promise that God will always fulfil my plans. It is mistaken thinking that God will always do what I want. We don’t know what God will do, we don’t know what his plans are, we pray & God can do anything. There’s no doubt that God will build his church.
2 Preaching leads to belief (Ac 8:5-13)
All of the evangelism so far has been by the apostles. Philip is just a deacon who is on the run for his life but he preaches Christ and the Samaritans believed.
- 2 deacons to 2 cities: both speak powerfully & backed up with miracles – one city angry & murders the deacon; the other city is joyful & believes in Jesus. Who would expect the angry city to be Jerusalem & the joyful city to be Samaria
- Acts 8:9 Simon the magician: Samaritans are into magic which is a big deal in first century lives and it will be a big thing outside of Palestine in the Book of Acts. Simon claims to be the power of God that is called Great. Luke contrasts by using same phrase:
- Acts 8:11 Used to pay attention to Simon, now pays attention to Philip.
- Acts 8:12 Simon amazed them with magic, now Simon amazed by Philip’s signs & great power (works of power).
- Acts 8:9 Simon says he himself is somebody great but Philip acts & speaks for Jesus & says Jesus is somebody great: his kingdom and his name.
Philip is the real thing & he offers the hated, nearly Gentile Samaritans a place in the kingdom of God. The one king has come & his name is Jesus. The split that has lasted almost a thousand years is over. The promise that has been running since Ezek 37 & Ac 1:8 comes true.
God is powerful. God uses persecution & preaching to bring a thousand year split to an end. The Samaritans are Christians.
3 Apostles prevent an Internal Threat (Ac 8:14-18)
The first threat is that we would end up with 2 churches instead of one Israel.
The Jews & the Samaritans, they might easily have thought they are better off in separate churches. But God thought otherwise. He even delayed the Spirit’s arrival until the leadership of the one church could be there to welcome them all in altogether.
This exceptional event belongs in the new age of the Spirit. It’s after Acts 2 when everybody who repents and believes in the Gospel will receive the Holy Spirit from that moment.
The apostles go, they pray, they lay their hands and they are present to witness Samaritans receiving the Holy Spirit. And God has done what he promised. The nation of Israel is complete again, the walls have come tumbling down as Jesus replaces the old temple.
Luke’s point here is also to say there’s no reason whatsoever, if God brings that wall tumbling down, to go building any more walls of our own. Then we can keep working to welcome everybody who truly repents and believes into fellowship with us.
The second threat is all about Simon the magician. Luke presents him as a different kind of threat.
The threat to the church here is that the Samaritan kind of church will be like the Samaritan past history: infected with magic, mixed in with the religious practices of the other nations & religions around them.
4 Not Samaritan costly magic but the free gift of God (Ac 8:19-25)
Simon combines the threat we have before, about money corrupting church, with a threat we haven’t had before of magic, distorting the church, or an interest in power distorting the church.
The association between money & the church, between powerful people & the church, is one that is there right through history as a huge distorting, disrupting threat to the Gospel going out.
A warning for those whose hearts find a similar desire to be thought great and powerful, or made rich.
There is a call not to let any church have anything to do with a Simon style ministry which is a destruction of the gift of God.
Excluded and Excluders
The Ethiopian eunuch lacks 2 important things:
He knows nothing about God’s Rescuer (Acts 8:28-33)
This man has been to Jerusalem, and he’s been to the temple in Jerusalem, to the place where knowledge of God is supposed to be had, he’s come to a place where there has been plenty of opportunity to hear about the death & resurrection of Jesus, and yet he is on his way home, completely ignorant of the significance and what the Scripture he’s reading means (Isaiah 53:4-8). It must be because the truth has been suppressed there rather than being broadcast (Acts 4:17, 5:40, 7:57, 58).
He lacks joy in God’s presence (Acts 8:34-40)
Normally that would have given him full access to the temple. But he’s a eunuch – which would almost certainly have meant full access was denied to him (Deuteronomy 23:1).
And yet the Old Testament is very encouraging for people like this. Isaiah is looking forward to what God will do in the future (Isaiah 56:3-5).
Where is it that this man receives joy?
Joy in God’s presence not at the temple, but on his way home in the desert (Acts 8:39). It’s not the visit to the middle that brings him to God, it’s the Gospel on the way home that brings him to God. The temple is no longer the place of revelation about God; It’s no longer at the centre of God’s plan.
1 Idolatry of Institutions
We organize, we plan, we put structures in place to serve the goal. When the institution gets in the way of the goal, it’s the beginning of the end. We stop doing things that serve the goals and start doing things that serve the institution.
It’s the goal that’s the critical thing with the Gospel. The message of Jesus going to the world is the big thing.
As the body of Christ, we need to focus on building people of faith and not sight. We do things with the Gospel by faith and not sight. Will we keep the Gospel going out as of primary importance?
That is not an encouragement to be irresponsible.
2 Little words by little people
Once upon a time, to know God, you had to come to a place. Now all you have to do is to hear some words – you can hear any way, any time, from anyone. Nobody’s excluded, not even foreign eunuchs. An extraordinary thing is that just by hearing mere words about Jesus, any old way, any old time, you can be ushered into access to God, full on – eternal access and the hope of glory to come. Little words spoken by little people can do that.
Here’s an excluded man on the outside who suddenly and unexpectedly realizes with joy that there’s nothing to stop him from being on the inside: if the people of God starts excluding, it shows they have a defective understanding of the Gospel of Jesus.