Providence and conversion - Acts 8:26-40
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
What would you say is the greatest gift that God in his providence could ever bestow upon you? Remember that we defined providence as, ‘God our heavenly Father working in and through all things by his wisdom and power for the good of his people and the glory of his name.’ Is it good health, a sound mind, a happy family perhaps? Well, these and many other things are to be received as gifts of Providence which God so freely gives not only on believers but unbelievers as well, so says Jesus, ‘He causes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous alike’- that is the kind of God he is. But surely by far for the Christian the greatest event which testifies to the shear wonder and power of Providence is the fact that they are Christians at all. In other words, God’s work of providence in ensuring our conversion to Christ. Let me quote again the 17th century preacher, John Flavel: ‘In nothing does Providence shine forth more gloriously in this world than in ordering the occasions, instruments and means of conversion of the people of God. However skilfully its hand had moulded your bodies, however tenderly it had preserved them and how bountifully it had provided for them; if it had not ordered some means or other for your conversion, all the former favours and benefits it had done for you had meant little.’ (The Mystery of Providence, p60) And I would imagine that if we were to take a dozen Christians from the congregation at random this morning and ask them to come forward to the lectern, each one would have a different story to tell of how God brought them to himself. As our associate minister Lee is so often fond of saying; while there is only one way to God there are many ways to Christ. For some of you it would have been a matter of being brought up in a Christian home and to be frank you can’t remember a time when you did not trust in Christ. For some it will have been through the faithful work of a Sunday school that you came to know him. For others it will have been in later years as a student or in mid life or even older. The point is God in his love, power and wisdom so ordered all events and people to bring you to the point when you would experience his saving love. How else could it have been? If he had set his heart on you from all eternity, as Paul says in Romans 8:29, ‘Those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’, that means he had to be intimately involved in every minute detail of the world’s history so as to shape your personal history so that you could come to know him. And this morning we are going to look at one episode in the Bible which illustrates this mindboggling truth- the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Now I normally don’t do this from the pulpit because I never want attention to be drawn to myself but to Christ, but in order to illustrate this I want to share with you how I see God’s Providence being at work in my life so that someone like me who for years wanted nothing to do with Christ was found by him.
First of all as we turn to the passage we can’t miss the lengths to which God goes- v4-8; 26-27: ‘4Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. 8So there was great joy in that city…….26Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.’
This is really quite remarkable. Philip is in Samaria at the vanguard of what appears to be wholesale revival- conversions, healings the lot. And this is clearly all part of God’s plan as declared by the Lord Jesus in Acts chapter 1 before he ascended into heaven when he gave the disciples their marching orders: ‘. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Well, the Gospel has already been proclaimed in Jerusalem and Judea and here we are in the next crucial stage- Samaria. And notice they were paying close attention to what Philip had to say, folk were responding with great joy- of course, as there was great joy in heaven. We might think, surely the divine strategy must be to keep Philip there who is doing such a good work- even Peter and John had turned up to see what was going on and gave it their blessing. But God has another plan and it is so counterintuitive, It was something that no one in their right mind would ever entertain such that God has to send an angel to convince Philip it was the right thing to do. Philip is to leave the crowds, vacate the city and stand in the middle of a desert road. That is not the place you would normally think of going to do a spot of evangelism is it? It is hardly the place were you will get a good hearing, apart from one or two vultures perched on a cactus. But Philip obeys. And lo and behold what does he see coming down the road but the equivalent to a six door limousine- a royal chariot no less with the top civil servant of a significant Middle Eastern country. And why does God go to such lengths of taking Philip out of a vibrant mission field, then ensures that he and the Ethiopian ‘happen’ to be together at the right place at the right time? It is because God wants this person to get converted.
God wasn’t making any mistakes here. He hadn’t made a mess of the divine timetable so that he had a clash of appointments- he meant to have Philip in Gaza but he had overlooked that fact and had him in Samaria instead when what he should have done was avoid the clash altogether by sending someone else. No. While we may make such mistakes because of what we call unforeseen circumstances- God has no such limitations- he foresees everything; that, in part, is what it means to be God.
When you think about it, Philip is a brilliant choice for this task. In the first place he has proved that he has been given the gift of an evangelist, that special unction of the Holy Spirit leading people to faith. In the second place he has already been evangelising folk who are beyond the pail as far as the Jews were concerned- Samaritans. He is a cross-cultural missionary and is not hung up by social barriers or religious prejudice. So he would be well disposed to speaking to a Coloured Gentile, a eunuch at that, who, according to the Old Testament law were not allowed to worship God in the temple. That is exactly the kind of person you want to share the Gospel of God’s saving love to a rank outsider isn’t it?
Then you have the Ethiopian official himself. Notice how Luke describes him in verse 27- he is an ‘important official in charge of the treasury of Candice, Queen of the Ethiopians.’ Someone like that is going to have tremendous clout back home. He has the ear of the Queen. So what he says will carry an awful lot of weight. If this man gets converted just think how many doors would be flung wide open for the Gospel back in Ethiopia? Indeed, the present Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have been founded by this man. God does things like that.
As many of you know I was raised with no Christian background at all, indeed, quite the contrary. From a strong coal mining family, from a very early age I was steeped in socialist- communist principles which I took with me into my teenage years. Marx’s quip that ‘religion is the opiate of the people’ seemed a pretty good description of the church as far as I could see. So how was God going to bring someone like me who wouldn’t be seen dead going into a church or clutching a hymn book to even given Christianity a hearing? He did it through an informal game of football. During the summer holidays after I had completed my ‘O’ levels, one day I found myself bored with little to do. So I thought that I would call around on someone I had just got to know at school who lived in the next village. So I Went and with a few of his friends we went onto the local school playing field to kick a ball around. Later I went into his house to meet his Mam and a friendship was struck up. Unbeknown to me at the time, this family was Christian- the first Christians, who to my knowledge I had ever met. That is Providence- seemingly insignificant things like a teenager’s boredom, a casual acquaintance at school, and a knock about game of football- God superintends. I wouldn’t have designed things that way to bring someone into the way of God’s people and his Gospel- but then again thankfully, I am not God.
Secondly we can note the extent to which God prepares-v27b, ‘This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." 30Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. 31"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth."34The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus’
It is ever hardly the case that someone becomes a Christian believer totally ‘out of the blue’, overnight as it were, there is always God providentially doing some groundwork long before so that the seed of the Gospel can find receptive soil. That is clearly the case here. For a start, the Ethiopian would be what we might call today a ‘warm contact’. We are told that this man ‘had gone to Jerusalem to worship.’ He wasn’t a Jew nor was he a Samaritan. He was not even what is called a proselyte or convert to Judaism. However, he was someone who was interested in the religion of Israel, hence him coming back from Jerusalem reading part of the Bible. He is an example of a Gentile God-fearer. These are people who are unwilling or unable to submit to the ceremony of circumcision and so they worship God from afar. So somehow God had brought this man under the sound of the Old Testament- maybe through his official visits to Israel. And so he had some sort of framework in which to understand the Gospel when it came to him. He knew that there is but one God who is creator of all. He knew that he was holy and we are cut off from him by our sin. He knew that God took steps to provide sacrifices-limited though they be- to enable people to draw close to him. he knew that he promised to send a King, a Messiah to establish his reign on earth. That is a fair bit of knowledge when you think about it.
But remarkably God had been overruling in another way which is nigh on miraculous, because God superintended events so that the Ethiopian would be reading a certain passage of the Old Testament when Philip came along- part of Isaiah 53-"He was led like a sheep to the slaughter and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth." Not only is this a gift of a text for any evangelist, but it is what lies on the other side of it that is particularly interesting. You have to realise that he was not reading a book, but a scroll. And scrolls came in sections. Why would the Ethiopian be reading this section rather than any other? It could be because of what comes next in chapter 56- ‘Let not the eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree”…To the eunuchs who…hold fast to my covenant-to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.’ This is a promise that when the Christ comes eunuchs will no longer be banned from being part of the people of God. You know, that would have meant a lot to this man. He admired the Jewish religion and he wanted to be part of it, but he couldn’t. And yet here is a promise that one day it will all change. We all turn to our favourite passages of the Bible time and time again don’t we? Thinking of those promises which mean so much to us. But here is God’s providence. He couldn’t purchase this part of the scroll without purchasing Isaiah 53. So even his sad state of being a eunuch is not lost on God. Do you not think that in eternity God didn’t specifically have this man in his minds eye when he inspired Isaiah to write that particular portion of Scripture? It wasn’t just for him of course but it was for him. God is that great; weaving everything together so that people can be saved.
But having the Bible is one thing, understanding it is another. And so God Providentially prepares Bible teachers and evangelists like Philip so he can use them to bring the message of his saving love to folk like this man. In a million and one ways God has been at work years before, even centuries before so that this divine encounter could take place. He does that with all those he wants to reach out with the Gospel. So Philip explains the passage to him, that this prophecy made hundreds of years before has been fulfilled in the God-man from Nazareth, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the one led like a lamb to the slaughter on a cross. He is the one who died to put away the sins of all those who put their trust in him as a sacrifice. He is the one raised from the dead who justifies many. And Philip had personally met people who had seen all of this with their own eyes.
I take it that it was within the Providence of God that I was born into a country where Christians can freely tell other people about the Lord Jesus Christ. I was also brought up at a time when RE was taught in schools and the set form of worship was Christian. That meant that although I didn’t know what the Christian message was, as it was never properly explained to me at school, I knew about the Bible, the life of Jesus, stories of his death and resurrection, the early spread of Christianity. We were also given free Bibles at school and all of this was good in preparing me for the time when the Christian message would not only be explained to me, but displayed to me by a family who really did know God and love him. And I would assume much can be said of those of you who are here this morning. In countless ways God has made it possible for you to hear him speak; making his overtures of love to you. Some of you may not be Christians but have a Christian husband or wife- that is a great gift of God to you. Having a church like this which faithfully opens God’s Word week in week out is a wonderful provision by God for you. So please don’t despise it by taking it for granted. One thing is for sure there is no one here who on judgement day will have a shred of an excuse for not having become a Christian believer.
This brings us to the final observation- a response which God requires, v36- ‘As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.’ Let me tell you: God has given us this book and people to explain this book not simply to provide us with information but to bring about a transformation- what Jesus calls being ‘born again’, a change on the inside whereby God becomes a living reality leading to a change on the outside whereby we live out that reality. Baptism is a sign of that taking place. The Ethiopian had obviously followed Philip’s logic through that if we believe Jesus is God’s promised Son, who is to be in charge of our lives and baptism is a sign of obeying the Gospel and water is there available- then you get on with the business- get baptised now! We are not to be slow or lazy in responding to God’s providential overtures. And it may be that you find yourself here this morning and that is exactly what you are in danger of doing. For ages now you know that God has so orchestrated things in your life that he has been calling you to follow him- but you are still dragging your feet. Perhaps apathy has got you in its icy cold grip, things are just too comfortable. Well, God can soon change all that at a stroke. ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found’, says the Bible in Isaiah 55, implying he may not always be found. Like the Ethiopian, you are being called to grasp this offer of a new life with Christ with both hands now!
At the beginning of August I received a letter from the father of the family through whom I became a Christian. He is now in his late eighties and had just read my book on Genesis, let me read to you what he said: ‘As I was reading your book my mind was time and time again drawn to William Cowper’s wonderful hymn, ‘God moves in mysterious ways..’ My mind also went back to a day in 1971 when I came home from work and asked Lois (wife) ‘What sort of day have you had’. Tea was delayed as I heard how a young 16 year old had spent the afternoon talking about the future. Melvin was concerned about whether he would be able to go to university or not. I gathered that the conversation went on for about 2 hours. Lois let it be known that he would always be welcome at our home and suggested he have a big talk with his Dad and Mam. A few days later we were delighted to know that university was to be the way forward. The visits became more regular and invitations to attend Sunday services were accepted. The rest is history, for the Lord opened your heart Melvin as the Holy Spirit spoke to you through the Word and you could sing and mean, ‘O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee my saviour and my God.’ Praise the Lord.’
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