One to One - Acts 8:26 - 40:26
We all love stories. Isn't that why Eastenders and Coronation Street always head the TV ratings? They're stories.
Christians should love stories as well. Especially stories of how other people have become Christians. We often call them 'testimonies', I suppose because they testify to the work God has done in brining that person to the point of giving their lives to Christ.
One of my favourite stories is from South Africa. A Christian student was in his room, practising the outline of the Christian message which he was learning. He was reciting aloud some verses from the Bible, together with an explanation of those verses. Suddenly, from the other side of the room, came the voice of his room mate. It seems there was some kind of partition dividing the room. He thought he'd been all alone, when in fact every word had been overheard. The voice said, "Is that all true, what you've just been saying?" "Yes, it is." "Then I think I'd better become a Christian."
Now, in many ways that's an extraordinary story. No-one else's story is quite like it. And yet it is. The truth is that everyone who becomes a Christian has the same story, because the same God brings them to trust in the same Lord Jesus. And yet every story is different because we're all different and God brings us to Christ in different ways. He organises the things in our lives to get us to that point: we meet a particular person; we have a certain conversation; we find ourselves in a church service; we read a book we came across.
The Bible is full of stories of people becoming Christians - not surprisingly. And we have one of the most interesting and exciting before us tonight. It's an extraordinary story, there's nothing quite like it - just listen to the way it begins, verses 26-30.... Philip is sent by an angel and spoken to by the Spirit. And when he arrives, well he's not English, is he? There's a marvellous story about a young Englishmen who decided to mature himself by trekking across the Syrian desert on a camel. After several days, he saw three camels approaching. As they drew nearer, the question was: Should he speak to the other rider? Luckily, the other man was also English, so they simply lifted their hands to their caps and waved their arms in courtesy. There's certainly an impertinence about Philip's approach to the chariot. Can you imaging a student cycling along Cottingham Road when he sees the Lord Mayor in his car. As he pulls up alongside at the lights, he notices a Bible open on the Mayor's lap. So, he leans across and shouts through the open window: Do you understand what you're reading?
It's an extraordinary story. But it's also like any other story of how people become Christians and it has something to say to all of us. I'll be very surprised if, by the end of the story, you don't see where you fit into it. The story is driven along by the three questions the Ethiopian asks. Each one is a key that unlocks a scene in the story and teaches us the main lesson for that scene. They're the kind of question that, once they've been asked, the answer's there for everyone to see. The kind of question which the best kind of interviewer learns to ask.
Here's the first question, verse 31...
1. How can I (understand) unless someone explains it to me?
Philip's just asked him if he understands, and he knows he doesn't, so he invites him up to be his teacher. The Lord Mayor pops the student into the car alongside him and sticks his bike in the boot. Now, this Ethiopian has the Bible, or at least a key part of it, the book of Isaiah, but he still doesn't understand what he's reading. He's just been to Jerusalem to worship. Perhaps he picked up the scroll there, in the Wesley-Owen bookshop. Whatever he's heard in Jerusalem, from the Jews, it's enough for him to understand. And the Holy Spirit is at work. He's just sent Philip up to the chariot - but the man still can't work out the Scriptures for himself.
Can I say something here about the work of the Spirit?... Have you heard anyone say something like this? What we need to do is to find out what God is doing in the world and join in with his work, rather than set our own agenda. And who could argue with that? But we must let God himself tell us what he's doing, and not decide for ourselves. That is, we must let the Bible tell us what God is doing in the world. Do you know the song, There is a Redeemer? It's a great song. In the chorus, the words are: Thank you, O my Father, for giving us your Son, and leaving your Spirit till the work on earth is done. What is that work? Well, it's not different to God giving his Son. It has the same aim and that is to bring all things in heaven and on earth under one head, even Christ. That is the Spirit's work.
And this story shows us how he does it. He sends a teacher.
That is God's chosen way of working throughout the Bible. When he wanted to call the people of Israel back to himself, he sent prophets to speak to them. When he wanted to warn the city of Nineveh of his judgement, he sent Jonah to tell them. When he wanted to tell the world of his plan for our forgiveness, he sent his Son. Jesus told his disciples: The harvest is plentiful, and then told them to pray, asking the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. He could have told them to ask God to bring in his harvest. Nothing wrong with that, but the way God will do it is by sending out workers - teachers.
That's the lesson from this scene: There's no understanding without a teacher. Have you realised the need for teachers if God's word is to go out and people are to be saved? Not just any kind of teacher, but those able to explain God's word clearly and faithfully. Have you realised your own need for a teacher? That's one of the first signs that God is at work in our lives, when we recognise that we don't have all the answers and need a teacher. And we won't stop needing such teachers until we're in heaven with The Teacher.
Why have we invited Philip Hacking to be our speaker for Jesus 2000? It's not just because he's a nice man (although he's very nice). It's not just because he supports Sheffield Wednesday and we feel sorry for him. It's because there's no understanding without a teacher and we want him to be our teacher that week, so that others can find understanding. We've also designed a bookmark to go in with the Gospels we're distributing. It looks very nice. But the main reason is that we want to provide people with a teacher, to teach them the gospel as they read the Gospel.
Now let's have the second question. It comes in verse 34....
2. Who is the prophet talking about? He's been reading in Isaiah 53 and he's puzzled. We're told what he's been reading: verse 32-33.... It's a very reasonable question: who's the prophet talking about? It's a classic exam question if you study Theology at University. I remember reading a book on the question. It had the title, I, He We and They. In other words, "nobody knows who the prophet's talking about, but here are some suggestions". So often, these academics ask reasonable questions but fail to find the right answers because they look in the wrong places (their own heads or the books of other scholars), rather than in the Bible. Here's the answer: verse 35... Isaiah 53 is about Jesus.
In fact, Jesus is the key to the Scriptures. We need no other key to unlock them. A few hundred yards down Beverley Road you'll find the Christian Science Reading Room. Outside there's a glass fronted cabinet with two books open in it. One is the Bible, the other is by their founder, Mary Baker Eddy, called The Key to the Scriptures. She's completely missed the point. The key to the Scriptures is in the Scriptures, not outside it. Jesus is the key. We need the Spirit to open our eyes. We need a teacher to teach us, but Jesus is the key.
My son, who's almost two, seems to understand this better than Mrs Eddy. When we tell him it's time to read the Bible before bed, he charges into his room calling out Bible-Jesus. He's worked out the Bible is all about Jesus. He thinks all the pictures are Jesus - whether they're really Moses or Elijah or Daniel. I was telling a friend that I'd have to correct this misunderstanding when he corrected me, pointing out that all these figures lead us to Christ.
We'll never understand Isaiah 53 until we see Jesus there, on the cross. It is Jesus who was pierced for our transgressions, Jesus who was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Jesus. But why was this man reading Isaiah 53? I haven't even pointed the most significant detail about him yet. We're told he's an Ethiopian - once. We're told he's an important official, something like the Chancellor of the Exchequer - once. And we're told he's a eunuch - five times. As a eunuch, he has a problem. He can't have children and marriage would be out of the question. Worse, he could never join the gathering of God's people. The book of Deuteronomy makes that clear (on the sheet): No-one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. Yet even so, this man was somehow drawn to the God of Israel. Could it be that he knew the promise of Isaiah 56, just a few chapters on from where's he reading? I'll read it to you: Isaiah 56 v3b-5.... Could it be that he's musing on it as he travels along. Thinking to himself, How I long to be included among God's people. If only that could be true now. And then he comes across this passage in Isaiah 53. He finds a figure who himself will be cut off from his descendants, as verse 33 says: Who can speak of his descendants? Yet that same chapter goes on to say that he will see his offspring and prolong his days. Philip would be able to tell him that God raised Jesus from the dead, accepting his sacrifice and giving him the lives of those for whom he's died. He was to have countless offspring. And in that same Jesus, this eunuch could at last have a name that would last forever. He could be welcomed into God's people.
Philip told him the good news about Jesus. Literally, he evangelised Jesus to him or even he gave him Jesus, the good news. This was no academic tutorial, equipping the eunuch for future studies at the University of Addis Ababa. He now knew that Jesus had died for him, a eunuch, to make peace between him and God.
That's the lesson from this scene: There's no gospel without Jesus, the Jesus who gave himself for us on the cross. And there's no joy like the joy of knowing that Jesus died for you - and you're in the clear with God because Jesus has settled the account. At the home groups this week, we heard John Wesley's story, describing that very experience: I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. No longer just abstract and academic, but concrete and personal. Can you say that for yourself? I trust in Christ, Christ alone... he has taken away my sins, even mine. Wesley could. The eunuch could. I can. Can you?
So, to our third and final question, verse 37....
3. Why shouldn't I be baptised?
And immediately we can think of all sorts of reasons... Well, you need to get yourself into a church first - although where he'll find one back in Ethiopia, I don't know. You need to attend our preparation course, then we'll consider it. But this isn't a child being brought unwittingly to baptism by unbelieving parents. Philip must have explained baptism to him for him to ask for it like this. He's not only an adult, he's an important man. Such men naturally and wisely guard their reputations. You only have to think of our Chancellor, Gordon Brown, asking to be baptised to get some idea of what it would cost him. He's serious all right. He may never see Philip again, or set foot in Jerusalem again, but he wants to be identified with Christ and his people. He knows that Jesus gave himself for him - and he wants to give himself to Jesus. He belongs to Jesus and wants to show he does.
That's the lesson from this last scene (not quite as tidy as the first two, I'm afraid): There's no baptism without repentance and faith. That is, there can be no outward identification with Christ and his people without an inward turning to Christ and trusting in Christ. But having turned to Christ and trusted in Christ, the most natural step is to identify with Christ's people. Have you done that? The question isn't just 'Have you been baptised?', but Have you identified yourself with Christ's people? Have you attached yourself to other Christians in such a way as to be known as one of them?
The eunuch has given us three great questions. I now have a question for you as we close. I cannot read your minds and see into your hearts, so I don't know what God may have been saying to you tonight as an individual. But I would like you to think about it by asking you this question: Where do you see yourself in this story? * Have you recognised your need for a teacher? Or are the things of God still a mystery to you? You've got a Bible, you've been to church, you may even have Christian friends, but you still need someone to explain it all to you. If that describes you, please don't be too proud to admit your need and ask for help. Perhaps you haven't yet realised that Jesus died for you? You've been piling up knowledge about the Christian faith, but Jesus is not yet your personal Saviour. Please don't go away thinking that having the right information makes you a Christian. Why not turn to Christ tonight and thank him for dying for you? It may be that you need to identify yourself with Christ's people in more than a formal way - committing yourself to church, to a home group, to the Christian group in your school or university. And there may be some, even the majority here tonight, who need to go on and be a teacher to others - in the family, in the Sunday School, among your friends, for some in full-time paid gospel ministry.
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