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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Acts part 17: Accepted by the church.

Building the right foundation part 17

Acts 9:10-22 

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptised; and taking food, he was strengthened.
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying,“He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

English Standard Version Anglicised
Saul has had the most amazing experience on his way to Damascus, he had met with the risen and glorified Lord Jesus Christ who had spoken to him from heaven. Through this experience Saul had to recognise that he did not know God at all. The brightness of the Light of the Lord had left him blinded which caused the great and powerful man to be humbled and was then led by his accomplices into Damascas. For three days Saul was blind and he neither ate nor drank. It is after these three days that the events in our passage take place.
Our purpose this morning is to consider how it was that Saul the persecutor of the church can become an accepted member of the church in Damascus. As we shall see in the weeks to come this is only the beginning of his being fully accepted by the church. Saul was just about to set out on a 17 year journey to acceptability! Chapter 9 of Acts covers this whole period of time and is quite remarkable as an historical account. At first reading the events of the chapter seem to flow and give the impression that they cover just a few days or weeks but it is only when you compare Acts with scriptures in the New Testament that the reality is fully discovered, but more of that next time.
Today we will consider how the church in Damascus accepted Saul into their number. It all started with:
  • An unsung hero; who was:
  • Led by the Holy Spirit; which resulted in :
  • Saul being accepted by the church.

Ananias an unsung hero:
It just so happened that Ananias was a member of the church in Damascus, he was a disciple of Jesus who had a very important and specific job to do. As far as I can see this is the only time that this Ananias is mentioned in scripture; he is best known for this purpose recorded here.
If we stop for a moment and consider what it was that the Lord expected him to do it was a fearful task!
Just imagine for a moment the scene:
Ananias as a member of the church in Damascus knew well of Saul's reputation. They all knew of the great harm done to the church in Jerusalem. They had heard of the great persecution that he had orchestrated and so for anybody to have anything to do with him would be foolishness at the very least.
They also knew of Saul's commission. They knew that Saul was there for the purpose of arresting all of the Christians that he could lay his hands upon. Later on in his letter to the Galatians Paul reveals how he had persecuted the church with great violence in his attempts to destroy it. That reputation had gone before him and hence the church in Damascus clearly were afraid of his arrival. Saul had the full backing of another Ananias (and his evil High Priestly family in Jerusalem) to be about the business of killing Christians and ridding Judea of the followers of Jesus.
Ananias went into the house where Saul was staying and greeted him as a brother. Ananias really put his life on the line in doing so. We of course know of the leading that he had received from the Spirit of God but before we look at that we need to see that being an ordinary believer sometimes leads us into great adventures. I have just finished reading the 60th anniversary edition of Brother Andrew's “God's smuggler.” In his conclusion to the book, Brother Andrew challenges his readers that if God can use a man such as he who had very little schooling and had a violent past and who after his conversion did not even complete a bible school education then He can use any one of us for what Andrew calls the great adventure of being a Christian. Ananias' visit to Saul of Tarsus was the beginning of an adventure that Luke would record until the end of the book of Acts. The key player in this adventure from this moment on is Saul who would soon become known as Paul.
God on that day in Damascus was clearly working out His purpose in getting the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul of Tarsus was God's chosen man for the task and Ananias was chosen to heroically go to Saul's house and help him. He was to pray for him and to lay hands upon him whereupon Saul's conversion would be completed by the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
What a privilege that Ananias to be a part of this!
When he spoke to Saul, Ananias knew the purpose had for Saul. He told him that he knew of his experience on his way into Damascus and that he was now about to receive his sight once again which would authenticate that this was the work of Jesus. Isaiah in chapter 35:5 of his prophecy told of the day when the work of the Messiah would be proven by the blind seeing or the deaf hearing. Saul's sight restored was a sign that proved to both himself and Ananias that this was a work of God.
What a privilege it is to see God at work!
We can only expect to see God at work when we are faithful and bold as was Ananias. Do not undervalue what it was that this unsung hero did, it was like one of us going into the home of the leader of Islamic State and speaking of Jesus to him. Saul was just as dangerous as any other enemy of the gospel and yet Ananias went to him.
How could that happen?
It was because he was:
Led by the Holy Spirit:
See how the Holy Spirit led Ananias to go and do such an heroic thing. It might seem obvious but firstly the Holy Spirit of God came to Ananias. For Ananias it was by way of a dream but the more we study scripture we find that the Holy Spirit came to various people in a variety of ways. He always comes with a purpose which is to speak to them and to direct them in the way that they should go. The New Testament tells us that formerly God spoke through the prophets but now He speaks through His Son. The scripture is the normal way that God speaks today and so God will never instruct His people to do what or to go where scripture forbids.
The Holy Spirit of God on this occasion instructed Ananias to go to Saul. His instructions were specific; Ananias was told exactly where to go and to whom. He was also told that Saul would be expecting him because the Holy Spirit had also spoken with Saul.
God never works in a vacuum, as He works out His purposes He also prepares the way for all who are involved.
Saul was already waiting for a man called Ananias to come to him. Just consider for a moment what would have happened if Ananias had refused to go. God's sovereignty would have been compromised and then who could ever trust Him again? But of course that did not happen.
We do however see the grace of our God in this, He is not above being questioned by His people. Ananias articulated to God the difficulties that he had for such a commission. We have looked at them earlier and so we now see how God dealt with them. He had already told Ananias that Saul was praying, in other words Saul is a changed man and his prayers were now heard and accepted by God. He is then told to simply go to him because Saul is chosen by God and will take the gospel to the Gentiles and also to royalty and Israel.
Saul was to be a much better known servant than Ananias was but Ananias was to be instrumental in Saul's commissioning.
We also are called to be faithful to the calling of God on our lives, it is never wrong to question God about His calling; we are not expected to be automatons who are unquestioning, God expects us to check out our calling but then when it is confirmed then we are to be like Ananias who went and did exactly what God had instructed him to do. When he did Ananias was the first Christian that Saul would have met, he was the first to greet him as a fellow Christian and he was the man that introduced Saul to the church.
Ananias was immediately making a disciple of Saul, he was mentoring him by introducing him to the company of believers. I am glad that this account is recorded by Luke because it is a challenge for us. Do we introduce people to the church or are we so negative towards our brothers and sisters that we would never bring others to meet the church and to be a part of it? Would we be as bold as was Ananias with Saul? Are we willing to go where God directs however difficult it might seem to be to us? We must be faithful to God's calling otherwise we will miss out on the blessing that faithfulness brings. I can imagine Ananias after this following closely the ministry of Saul and being proud of being part of what God was doing through him.
Saul was also accepted by the church in Damascus:
Luke simply records that Saul was for some days with the disciples at Damascus. A small statement of fact but it was massive in content. All that Ananias had gone through in accepting Saul the whole church now had to come to terms with. Ananias I am sure had to convince every single believer that this was a genuine conversion and not a deception that would bring about their annihilation. But he was clearly successful in doing so and Saul was accepted by the church.
I can think of few people who would be more odious than Saul of Tarsus and yet he was embraced by the church.
How do we accept new people, are they really welcome amongst us or do they feel the suspicion that comes towards them from us? The church must be a place of total acceptance for true believers and yet it is so often by reputation a place of negativity towards one another.

Who knows who it is that comes amongst us and what the Lord has in store for them and through them and us together!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Acts part 16: The conversion of a radicalised young man.

Building the right foundation part 16

Acts 9:1-23 

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were travelling with him stood speechless,hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptised; and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

English Standard Version Anglicised
The passage that we have before us today is truly remarkable in every way. We have this man Saul of Tarsus whom we have already encountered on a couple of occasions. Saul was a young man who at the time was probably in his early thirties. He was born in Tarsus at around or just after the birth of Jesus. There is no evidence found in scripture that he had ever met or heard Jesus speak but it would seem highly probable that he would have done. Saul was the up and coming Pharisee who by his own testimony was zealous for the law and a top notch Pharisee of Pharisees. He was clearly a proud and arrogant young man who was fast heading for the top. He had trained under the best authority of the day and was obviously very intelligent and a top scholar of his religion. He was also vital to the leaders of Judaism and had been entrusted with cleansing society of those who followed what he described as the Way. He hated the church and the disciples of Jesus and was commissioned to do all in his power to rid the world of the curse that is the church. Humanly speaking there can be no hope for such a man as this!


Thankfully we do not live in the hopes and aspirations of man. God has a plan and purpose in this world and He chooses to use people from all sorts of backgrounds for gospel purposes. God chose to use Saul of Tarsus as an Apostle who would eventually write a large proportion of the New Covenant scripture and who would also take the gospel to the surrounding area and in particular to the Gentile nations. Before that could happen an amazing transformation had to take place.

An amazing transformation:
Paul's own testimony is more powerful and indeed more accurate than my interpretation will ever be. Therefore come with me to Paul's defence in Jerusalem as accounted by Luke in Acts 22:3-5
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed towards Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.”
Look also to Paul's own defence before Agrippa as recorded in Acts 26:9-12
I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”
In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests.”
It is obvious from Paul's own words that he had no desire to be a follower of Jesus, in fact he says of himself that he was “ignorant and unbelieving.” (1 Timothy 1:13) Saul of Tarsus could not have been further from the faith but yet he was stopped in his tracks on that day as he travelled to Damascus. He was rabid for his religion and hated the very name of Jesus and the church, today we might say of him that he had become “radicalised!” As such an extremely religious man he could easily justify the torture and killing of Christians.
We have from his own lips a description of his own total depravity.
It seems that he loved his work and we know from the accounts that we have in scripture that he was good at it, his reputation had gone before him. Ananias when called by God to visit the newly converted Saul gave testimony to the reputation of Saul in verses 13-14.
There is also another side to what we hear from man's testimony; the Lord Jesus Christ also has an opinion. From heaven He had been observing all that was happening to the church by Saul; this passage gives us some insight as to how Jesus is affected by the persecution of His people. When He called from heaven to Saul He did not ask why he was persecuting the church but “why are you persecuting me?” Saul's attack may have been directed at the people of God but it was Jesus that was the offended One. The reason for that is that the Church is God's people, we are one with Him, when we are attacked He feels it even more than we do. It is He that is mortally wounded by the attacks that we are under as Christians therefore Jesus was offended by what Saul was doing.
By His mercy and grace the Lord Jesus Christ reached out to this unregenerate evil man and saved Him. Saul did not ask for it, he did not reach out to Jesus but Jesus reached out to Him and saved him and an amazing transformation took place.
Many Christians believe that Saul's conversion is the model for all conversions. In some ways they are right, Saul heard the word of Jesus, believed and repented and was saved. That is always the pattern of salvation but:
the mode that Jesus used to bring Saul to Himself was entirely unique to Saul of Tarsus.
He was suddenly sanctified on the road to Damascus. Does it then follow that we are all to have a Damascus Road type of experience? In one way the answer is yes in that we need our blind eyes to be opened to the truth of the gospel
the way that the Lord does that for each person is completely individual. In fact it similar to a snowflake which is totally unique in shape, size and pattern; there is not another amongst the many billions that are like it. Likewise before God we are all totally individual and so He treats us just as unique individuals. Some He brings to Himself in moments others it is a long road that leads to saving faith over a long period of time. The one thing that is certain is that He saves all that call on His name in repentance just as did Saul of Tarsus on that day. The call to salvation is twofold as is a British coin. On the one side is the sovereign's head and the other is the value and the emblem of the country. Both are together making the coin complete.
In conversion Jesus calls out to sinners and then sinners in turn call out to Him and conversion is complete!
The important question for you this morning is:
Have you called on the name of the Lord and been saved?”
If you have not then you remain under the judgement of God and if you were to pass from this life in that state then no amount of church attendance will be good enough to give you access to heaven. There is no name other than Jesus given under heaven by which you must be saved, why not trust Him today and then experience the same amazing transformation that Saul of Tarsus did. Paul was immediately transformed from radicalised terrorist to an apostle of Jesus Christ.
For Saul it was to be an amazing transformation and for those travelling with him it would be:
An amazing experience:
Just imagine being one of those travelling with Saul on that day. They would have been a happy band of brothers travelling with one purpose in mind. They were like the pack of hounds with the fox in sight. They could smell blood and were pursuing those wretched Christians wherever they could find them. But an extraordinarily bright light shone from heaven which caused Saul to fall prostrate to the ground and to speak to somebody that was unseen.
They did not know it but they were in the presence of the risen and ascended Lord of Glory.
Jesus was showing Himself to Saul; in 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul explains that Jesus appeared to Him even though he was unworthy and was persecuting the church.
The most amazing thing was happening in Saul but his friends knew nothing of it. In fact they saw the bright light:
The Light of the world was right next to them and they did not see Him!
They heard Him and were themselves struck dumb but they still did not call out to Him. Saul was led away by them, he was now blinded by the light and they were unmoved.
How amazing is that?
A miracle of grace was taking place and the onlookers were amazed but untouched by it, they simply carried on with life as before. They took Saul to Damascus but he was now of no use to them, a blind and converted terrorist is not what they needed!
Unbeknown to them Saul was now a new creation, he was done with the old way of life and now he was part of those whom he had come to destroy.
I am so glad that Luke recorded these facts because it shows clearly that people are not absorbed into the life of faith by the experience of others. We might think that this event would have been conclusive evidence to Saul's companions. After all many would say that if Jesus were to visit earth then they would believe, they never did on this occasion. They never did as Jesus lived on earth for 33 years and they never will until the day when He appears finally in glory and judgement and when he will take the church to be with Him in glory by which time it will be too late for them.
Saul's companions that last day will be saying to Jesus “did I not see You when you visited Sail on the road to Damascus?” Jesus will say “ But I never knew you!” Others will say “Did I not do this that or the other for you?” and He will once again answer “but I never knew you!” Still others will be saying “but I lived a good life, I was religious, I even attended church every week!” and Jesus will say “but I never knew you!!!”
Please do not be one of those!
If you are trusting in anything or anybody other than Jesus for your eternal security please stop and come to Him alone who alone can forgive all of your sins and transform your life just as He did Saul of Tarsus.
Jesus is:
An amazing Saviour:
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus when instructing husbands to love their wives told them that they must love their wives in the same way that Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25)
Saul on his way to Damascus learned something of Christ's amazing love, grace and mercy.
It was Jesus that arrested him on his way, it was Jesus who called out to him from heaven. It was Jesus who knew his name and called him in exactly the same way as he had Samuel of old. Just as in 1 Samuel 3:10 the Lord called “Samuel, Samuel” in calling him into service so it was with Saul. There are eight incidences recorded in scripture where God calls them by name twice.
  1. Abraham when God calls out to him as he is about to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:11-13, Abraham had proven that he was willing to obey God in whatever way that God called.
  2. Jacob when he had just discovered that his son Joseph wasn’t dead but in fact he was second in command in the Egyptian empire. Jacob was old and wanted to see Joseph before he died. On his way to Egypt in a vision God called to him naming him twice and telling him not to be afraid. (Gen 46:1-4)
  3. Moses after he had killed an Egyptian and fled from Pharaoh’s punishment. He was living as a shepherd when he saw the burning bush from which God called: “Moses, Moses” God proceeded to commission Moses to bring the Israelites out f slavery. (Exodus 3:1-10)
  4. Samuels as above.
  5. Martha Jesus visited his friends Martha and Mary, who both had opposite response to the Lord. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching. Martha busied herself preparing food etc and had got herself upset because her sister was not helping she therefore appealed to Jesus to tell her off but He simply said “Martha, Martha she has chosen a better way.” The Lord was calling her to faithfulness to Him and not servitude. (Luke 10:38-42)
  6. Jesus at the last supper spoke to arrogant Peter who was waxing lyrical about how great he was by calling: “Simon, Simon” and proceeds to tell him that he will deny Him but that later he will be restored and we know that after Jesus had risen from the dead He returned to the subject and commissioned Peter to testify of Jesus and also to die for Him. (Luke 22:31-32 & John 21:15-19)
  7. Saul as we are considering.
  8. Finally it is Jesus calling out to God Himself from the cross when in fulfilment of all that Psalm 22 prophesies He cries “My God, My God why have you forsaken me.”
Apart from the last one each time that a person is called twice it is to call them into a clear and active service for God. It is amazing that our God knows His people by name and that He calls them personally into a working relationship with Him. The last occasion where Jesus calls out to God the Father demonstrates His own total reliance and dependence upon God and His plan of salvation. Jesus was willing even at the extremity of pain and suffering to submit to His Father's calling upon Him.
Jesus is the most amazing Saviour that calls the radicalised terrorist Saul to be adopted into His family and to save him from his sins even though he was totally dead in his iniquity and sin. This same Jesus is our Lord who has also called us by name to be His children.
Do we stand amazed in His presence and do we follow and serve Him fully as our Lord and Master just as He did His heavenly Father?
I stand amazed in the presence
of Jesus the Nazarene,
and wonder how he could love me,
a sinner, condemned, unclean.

For me it was in the garden
he prayed: "Not my will, but thine."
He had no tears for his own griefs,
but sweat-drops of blood for mine.

In pity angels beheld him,
and came from the world of light
to comfort him in the sorrows
he bore for my soul that night.

He took my sins and my sorrows,
he made them his very own;
he bore the burden to Calvary,
and suffered and died alone.

When with the ransomed in glory
his face I at last shall see,
'twill be my joy through the ages
to sing of his love for me.

How marvellous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvellous! How wonderful
is my Saviour’s love for me!

Charles H. Gabriel

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Acts part 15: "What prevents me from being baptised?"

Building the right foundation part 15

Acts 8:26-40

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said,“How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptised?” (And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”) And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptised him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
English Standard Version Anglicised
Before we consider the passage together it is important for us to consider the highlighted words contained in our reading. They are in brackets because they are not to be found within most of the modern translations of the bible but are included in versions such as the Authorised and New King James. This has caused many to be disturbed by modern translators and scholars who have decided to put it in the footnotes. It is the short discourse of Philip telling the Ethiopian that he can be baptised if he believes with all of his heart and the Ethiopian confirming his faith that Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
New testament scholars believe this to be part of an early baptismal liturgy which was later added to the text by a scribe who believed that Philip after baptising Simon the magician falsely would have been keen to make sure that the Ethiopian was not baptised wrongly. That is a strong possibility but is somewhat unprovable and it is certainly true to say that the statement is not found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts from which our bible is translated. It is therefore right to treat it with caution and therefore sensible to highlight the problem. That having been said the man's declaration is a fair one without which he should not have been baptised.
Back to the passage: Luke has recorded Philip's next evangelistic adventure for our encouragement. As we have previously said, the gospel is moving ever outwards and towards the Gentile world just as Jesus had commanded that it must.
To move on from his ministry in Samaria Philip has:
A heavenly encounter:
It is by a visit from a Messenger (Angel) of the Lord who is none other than the Holy Spirit. In verse 26 He is referred to as an angel of the Lord speaking and directing Philip. By the time we come to verse 29 it is the Spirit who is speaking and directing and in verse 39 it is the Spirit of the Lord who carried Philip away.
This encounter is purely of the Lord whose purpose in coming to Philip is the conversion of one very important man.
As far as Philip was concerned he had been preaching the gospel to the Samaritans and proving that Jesus is their long awaited Messiah resulting in many being converted. Now all of a sudden his ministry is to take a sudden change of direction. God spoke to him and told him to go to the Jerusalem to Gaza road which is desert.
Philip immediately obeyed and went!
I wonder if we are as willing to go to where God by His Spirit calls us. Our God is never changing, He is always the same and he always works with His people in just the same way. Therefore the God who called Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees; who called Moses out of the wilderness to Egypt and who called the prophets to stand and speak to the nation for Him is the same God who directed Philip on that day to go with a message to a man in the desert.
God is still calling and sending His people to a lost world.
Sometimes God's call is simply by circumstance of life as it had previously been for Philip in Samaria and at other times it is directly by His word as it was on this occasion. Sometimes His call is to a whole town as Philip in Samaria but on other occasions it is for the benefit of just one man. Whatever God's purpose is He is still sending us His people out into the world with the glorious gospel of salvation.
It is safe to say that the majority of us here today are where we are by God's directing through circumstance, of course some may be here because they have been clearly directed by God's Spirit. The truth is that we are all here and we have a purpose, it is not simply to enjoy life. Enjoying life is a part of our purpose but as we enjoy the privilege of belonging to Jesus and His church then we also have a responsibility to introduce all that we can to the Saviour.
Are we like Philip willing to go wherever God leads us and to take that opportunity to direct others to Jesus?
When Philip went he met:
A man in need:
Luke goes to great pains to tell us many things about this man. Firstly he was an Ethiopian which means that he came from Africa. He also tells us that he was a eunuch which simply means that he had been castrated in order to make him loyal to his employers. We are told also that he was a court official to the queen of Ethiopia. Candace was probably not a name of the particular person but was an official title given to the queen mother who office was to represent the king on various occasions and functions. Luke tells us that this man was basically the accountant in charge of all of her financial dealings.
This man could not be more different from the Samaritans amongst whom Philip had previously been evangelising.
There are more significant differences also, the Samaritans were an apostate nation who had no care for Judaism but this man was returning from worshipping in Jerusalem which means that he was either Jewish by birth or a convert to Judaism. He was not only returning from worshipping in the temple but he was also reading the prophet Isaiah which was something else that the Samaritans would never do, they had long before rejected the word of the prophets.
In every way this man had been prepared for this very encounter, he was reading Isaiah 53 and could not understand who it spoke of, he was confused as to whether it was concerning Isaiah or somebody else.
What a wonderful opportunity that Philip had!
As we said a little earlier Philip was led by God's Holy Spirit out into the desert for the purpose of speaking with this very important man. God's purposes are not only for the poor and marginalised as were the Samaritans, He is concerned for the salvation of people from every walk of life and from every nation in the world. There are none that are excluded from His saving grace. There are no untouchables in gospel work, we are simply called to go where God sends. Before going to my previous church in the wealthy part of South Wales I had to be reminded that the gospel is for the wealthier of society just as much as it is for the poorer people in the mining valleys.
We must never be selective with the gospel but must be like Philip and be willing to speak of the Lord Jesus to whoever we are in contact with. As the church here in Callington we must be about a gospel witness. We must take the opportunities that God gives today. Philip moved on from Samaria and spoke of Jesus freely in the new circumstances that he found himself in. As Christians we are often guilty of having our heads pointing in the wrong direction. We seem to think that just because we evangelised in one particular way in the past then we must always do the same things.
That could not be farther from the truth.
We are what we are today and we are here in Cornwall in this particular day with all of it's complexities therefore we must reach out to the people in a way that is relevant for today. We are not about setting up groups simply because they were once successful but will be led by the Lord to reach out as He by His Spirit directs. That is why we must pray for His guidance, starting with the leaders but eventually as the whole church. We will start nothing until we are convinced that it is of God and that we therefore have the personnel for the task. We need to pray that God will equip us as His people for the gospel work that He has for us.
The gospel effect:
Philip asked the man a simple question: “do you understand the scriptures?” The man's answer was
who can understand unless somebody guides them?”
As Christians we so quickly forget this very truth, the bible is there for all to read but we know the words of eternal life, we are to be interpreters of the bible to those who cannot understand it for themselves. Therefore we must know what the bible is all about and how it works, which is why we have our “Reading the bible for all of its worth” studies. The man was reading Isaiah 53 which speaks of the Suffering Servant who we know is Jesus but he did not and so Philip began with that passage and declared the gospel of Jesus.
Are you able to speak of Jesus from the scriptures? All of scripture speaks of Jesus; would you be able to help somebody who was reading a portion of scripture to find Jesus as Philip did? The man heard the good news of Jesus which simply means that Philip was able to tell the man that the Promised One of God would fulfil all that Isaiah 53 speaks of. It is He that takes all of our iniquity, it was Him who was crushed for our transgressions. It is by His wounds that we are healed from the sickness that is sin. It is Him that brings eternal peace to the sinful soul because it was He who would suffer and die in order that we might have forgiveness of sin and the promise of life eternal.
As Philip was explaining all of this the man's heart was being dealt with by the Spirit of God, he was believing all that he was hearing and was trusting in Jesus as his own personal Saviour. This is a very different response to the gospel that Simon the magician had displayed. This wealthy Ethiopian man simply believed and then wanted to prove that all of this was true for him and so when he saw water he asked Philip:
what prevents me from being baptised?”
Philip's unrecorded answer is “nothing now prevents you from being baptised” and so they stopped the chariot and Philip went into the water and baptised the man.
Many at this point try to prove the point of total immersion because it says that they went down into the water. Total immersion cannot be proven from that comment because it would logically mean that both the man and Philip were totally immersed as they went down, be careful of fanciful interpretations. That is not the point of the passage.
Luke is once again simply recording what happened, we can logically draw the conclusion from this episode that it is important for a new convert to be baptised in obedience to the word of God. The Gospel message preached by the apostles was to repent, believe and be baptised.
The Ethiopian eunuch obeyed the word of the Lord and was faithful in his witness as he was baptised.
There are many Christians today that do not see baptism as important.
If you are one of those who are not baptised then I would ask you to think again. It is true that baptism is not necessary for salvation but it is vital to prove obedience to Christ!
Are you baptised, we would be very pleased to talk to you about it. If you are truly born again I would ask you:
What is it that prevents you from being baptised?”
This baptistery can soon be filled with water for you to be baptised in obedience to the Lord Jesus' command. Why not obey the command of your Master and follow Him through the waters of baptism?

As far as Philip was concerned his was job done. The man took the gospel with him to Ethiopia and Philip was transported by the Holy Spirit on his next missionary adventure of spreading the gospel from Azotus to Caesarea. The work of grace in the man's heart was all of God's grace and he was safe and sound in God's care, he went on his way singing praise along with countless angels in heaven.

Let us also move on in our gospel witness both as individuals but also as the church.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Acts part 14: Taking liberties with the gospel.

Building the right foundation part 14

Acts 8:8-25 “Taking liberties with the gospel.”

There was much joy in that city. But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptised he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

English Standard Version Anglicised
Philip has found himself away from home due to the severe persecution of the church that Saul was causing. As we saw last time; persecution rather than halting the gospel was the vehicle which spread it outside of the borders of Judea. Philip instead of sulking about being ejected from home took the opportunity to tell the Samaritans of Christ. The people were enthralled at the gospel which was accompanied by signs and wonders which in turn brought great joy into the city. Our passage today begins with a but, as always there is a negative response to the preaching of the gospel. On this occasion it came by a man named Simon who himself was a recognised wonder-worker and who called himself great.
It seems that the people of that city in Samaria were keenly interested in spiritual things. Luke recorded in verse 6 that the crowds with one accord paid attention to the gospel as Philip preached he also tells us in verse 10 that they had up until this time paid attention to Simon. From the highest to the lowest of society they believed Simon to be “the power of God that is called Great!” To them Simon was the Messiah who for a long time had amazed them all with his own wonder-working power. As you can imagine there was now a conflict; a battle was ensuing and the gospel was about to be victorious. Many believed the gospel and were baptised, the news of this when it reached Jerusalem caused the apostles to send Peter and John to go to Samaria to check it out. They discovered that these people who had heard the word preached and had responded and been baptised were not yet in receipt of the Holy Spirit. Peter and John pray, lay hands on them and the Holy Spirit is received.
The New Testament clearly teaches that when a person believes and is baptised they receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit as Peter preached in Acts 2:38. Therefore this account of what appears to be a two tier Christian experience is highly controversial. Many use it as evidence of a normal two fold Christian experience either to further their belief in the baptism of infants and then confirmation of faith at a later stage. Others believe that it is the theological basis for a two tier Christian experience that proves that a baptism of the Holy Spirit comes later and is accompanied with signs such as tongues.
Is that what Luke is teaching here?
Luke as a good historian is simply recording the facts without comment, the Holy Spirit was given to the people at the hands of Peter and John therefore the event must be measured up against the full weight of New Testament theology. The New Testament always whether it be Paul or Peter teaches that the Holy Spirit is gifted to repentant believers. This event in Samaria is unique in that it is the first effective gospel outreach to Samaria and so as such it must be treated as a one off event in the same way that the Pentecost experience was. So what can we learn from it?
Spiritual interest is not necessarily conversion:
It is important for us to once again emphasise that this is a history and not a theological treatise. Luke is simply and accurately recording the events as they happened. The one thing that we can be certain about in this account is that Philip's preaching to the Samaritans was unique in that it was the first time that the gospel had gone beyond the borders of Judea and that it was being received eagerly by the Samaritans. The “But” of verse 9 puts the brakes on what is happening and throws up a number of warning signs. Simon the magician has been for a long time doing similar miracles to Philip in the city and has a great following. He is their proclaimed messiah and now there is conflict therefore something has to give. The city folks allegiance to Simon is now under threat. The but that introduced Simon is now trumped by the but of verse 12 which reminds us that Philip preached and the people believed the good news of Jesus. Upon faith they were baptised in accordance with what has already been taught by the apostles. Even Simon was included in this number. Simon then followed Philip and was amazed at the signs and great miracles performed.
This whole event caused the apostles to send Peter and John to investigate!
They had heard that the Samaritans had received the word of God and went to see what was going on. We have to remember here what we considered last time that this was a unique occasion the Samaritans who had erred from the true worship of Yahweh were now embracing the Lord Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. That was massive and needed authentication. There was so much contention between Jew and Samaritan that there could easily have been a disastrous split in the infant church due to this very event. Luke records that the apostles simply went along and discovered that because the Holy Spirit had not come upon the believers that they were to be part of the conversion experience of these new believers. They therefore prayed and laid hands upon them and they received the Holy Spirit. Conversion was then complete.
From the text it is impossible to discern whether before the receiving of the Holy Spirit the people were truly born again but personally without the filling of the Spirit I cannot see how that was possible. The gift of the Holy Spirit is intrinsically bound with conversion! On this unique occasion there was a delay in the process of being fully regenerated which was significant because of who it was that was being converted. The gospel was now spreading out into all of the world of which Samaria was the beginning.
We are however on safe ground when we consider Simon whose experience is similar to that of the rest of the people. Simon along with the people displays a desire to know the truth and is fascinated formerly with the miracles of Philip and then with the gifting of the Holy Spirit at the laying on of hands by the apostles and now simony is born. Simony is the term used for somebody who wants to buy favours from God for their own gain. It is obvious that Simon wants to continue his deception to the city by having the power to dispense God to whom he pleases which in turn brings a sharp rebuke from Peter to him. He is told that his heart is not right before God and therefore that he needed to repent and pray for forgiveness and also that Peter could see the total depravity of his heart. (verse 24)
Simon is clearly a different case to the rest of the people, he was never really impressed by the word which was irresistibly drawing the people to Jesus. He was out for personal gain but yet at first he looked just like the rest and was baptised upon faith in Jesus which goes to prove that outward spiritual interest does not prove personal conversion. The apostles came to Samaria in order to confirm that this was truly a work of God's Spirit but also to expose disingenuous faith.
Simon was taking liberties with the gospel and was found out.
He tried to be like the rest but was unconverted and then when confronted couldn't even pray for himself, even though he had been told that he must. He would not humble himself to pray but wanted others to do it for him, repentance must always come from the individual; even the apostle Peter could not work that miracle. If you are taking liberties with the gospel today then you are in the same situation as Simon was and therefore you must repent and pray for forgiveness.

What can we learn from this passage?
  • Firstly that we must not take historical accounts by themselves to be proof texts for our own doctrinal desires. This passage might well suggest a two tier conversion experience but that is not consistent with the rest of New Testament teaching. It was not normal circumstances therefore God worked on this occasion uniquely. The bible is the best interpreter of the bible and so we must weigh up all that is recorded in the historical accounts with the doctrinal sections of scripture and reconcile all that is going on. Normally when a person believes and repents of their sin and is baptised then the gift of the Holy Spirit is given.
  • A large number of people on that day in Samaria were truly converted certainly by the time that they had received the Holy Spirit at the hands of the apostles Peter and John. God authenticated His work of regeneration in their hearts at the hands of the Apostles which in effect brought them into a united fellowship with the rest of the infant Christian church. The nationalistic barriers were broken down. There was neither Samaritan nor Jew but they were all one in Christ Jesus. The Prince of Peace brings peace even to deeply divided people.
  • There will always be some amongst us who are disingenuous, they will for a time look the part but they are merely followers of man rather than Jesus. They want the privileges of belonging but not the Saviour. It is the responsibility of the elders of the church to check out a work of grace as genuine. It is not negative to wait and see whether great claims of faith are real or not!
  • God by His Spirit will work in the way that He chooses and not in the way that our particular theologies dictate. This passage is somewhat uncomfortable for all on both side of a theological divide. Our considerations this morning are totally inadequate to fully understand what is going on. There have been centuries worth of debate on the issues at hand and so we need to re-visit and discuss all angles but what we can say is that God chose to work on that occasion in the way that Luke recorded. We must not expect Him to do it again and neither must we deny that He could if He so wished to. The case is open for God's purposes alone.
  • Saving faith comes from personal repentance and prayer and never from a third party. However much we might like to pray somebody into the kingdom it is not at all possible as Simon no doubt discovered.