Expansion to Samaria

Expansion to Samaria

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who died and went to heaven, and as he approached the pearly gates he came to Peter.  Peter asked him, “What have you done to be worthy of entering heaven? And don’t tell me about helping a little old lady cross the street.  People think  any little good deed will get them to heaven. Tell me something that’s significant.

The man thought for a moment and said, “Well, there was the time when I was walking through a really bad part of town and heard a woman screaming and pleading for help. And I looked over and saw a woman surrounded by a group of gang members with chains and knives threatening to hurt her.

“Well, I was scared to death, but I could see the terror in the woman’s eyes, and I was filled with indignant anger and rushed into the middle of them and said, ‘You leave her alone.  You ought to be ashamed of yourselves wanting to hurt a defenseless young lady like this. What would your mother think about what you are doing? And what would God think? Leave her alone!!!’ “

Peter stroked his beard and said, “Well, that is kind of impressive.  When did this happen?”

“The man said, “Oh, about five minutes ago.”

Well, first of all, there is only one valiant deed that will get you to heaven.  And that is what Jesus did when He died on the cross for us. That is the only deed sufficient to earn our way to heaven. Put your trust in what Jesus did, not in your own goodness.

Secondly, where did we get the idea that Peter will be the one standing at the gate of heaven deciding who should come in and who shouldn’t?

Well, undoubtedly it comes from a verse in Matthew 16, verse 19,  where Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19, ESV)

You see, Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and he has the duty of letting people in or not letting them in.  Is that what Jesus meant by this saying?  I think not.  There is a far better, explanation, one that perfectly fits the scriptural narrative, one that we will be looking at this morning as we study Acts, chapter 8.

Turn with me in your bibles to Acts, chapter 8.  Now, if you remember, when we first began to study the book of Acts, we saw a sort of theme verse, an outline to the book. Right before He ascended into heaven Jesus told the disciples:  “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, ESV).

He promised them power.  Power to preach, power to be bold, power to perform miracles, power to love and give and speak on Jesus’ behalf.

And he gives a three-stage progression for the Holy Spirit’s witnessing work through them: Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria, and to the end of the earth. And this verse gives us an outline for the rest of the book.

So far, as we’ve studies Acts 1-7, we’ve read about what the Spirit did in Jerusalem.  Today we’ll see what happens as the gospel starts to go out into Judea and Samaria.

Last week we read about, Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Just as they had with Jesus, the authorities in Jerusalem rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and now they were definitively rejecting those who were preaching that message. Let’s read about it:

And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. (Acts 8:1–4, ESV)

Saul was a young Jewish leader who was extremely zealous for the law of Moses and was totally convinced that Jesus was an imposter, claiming to be the Messiah. And he was so opposed that he started ravaging the church, putting both men and women into prison. In his later writings we learn that he also cast his vote against those who were being put to death.

It’s almost stunning to think that this hate-filled, brutal persecutor of the church would be converted to Christ and become one of the greatest advocates for Christ of anyone who has ever lived. How did that happen?  We’ll read about that next week.

What a devastating blow this persecution must have been to the young church. Fathers and mothers in prison and some put to death. Children ripped away from their parents. Constant fear that maybe we will be next. What was God doing? Why wasn’t He protecting His church? How will the good news get out if His people are unable to safely speak or are in prison or dead?

But what happened?  The entire church, except for the apostles, fled from their city and their homes and were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  And what did they do? They went about preaching the word about Jesus.

And so, God used something really bad, a ravaging persecution, to effect something really good, the evangelization of Judea and Samaria. And so, God used a great persecution to begin the second phase of His plan that the message of Jesus be spread to all people, to the ends of the earth.

I wonder how many times God has done this type of thing in history. How many times has He used persecution or a natural disaster or a war or a pandemic to shake up His church and move us out into the world or open up opportunities for the church to reach those who need to hear about Jesus.

Perhaps we have something similar today. Certainly God has shaken up the church through this pandemic. Sometimes He prevents us from doing what we’ve always done in order to get us doing something better. He’s certainly made it more difficult for program based-ministry, like we do here on Sunday morning.  Maybe He’s forcing us to move out into more relational ministry, inviting people into our homes or meeting with people more individually. And He’s certainly made it more difficult for celebrity Christian leaders to speak to masses of people at large events.  Maybe instead of a fewer number of famous leaders, He wants to raise up millions of leaders—speaking and acting and affecting the world like leaven in a lump of dough.

It’s too early to know the outcome, but it’s certainly something for us to think about.  When He closes one door, He opens another. What might that door be for us? For me? For you?

Now, from verse five to the end of the chapter, the narrative follows Philip. No doubt there were many other stories of the good news being preached by those who scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. But Luke, the author of Acts, follows Philip. 

I find it really interesting that later on in the book of Acts, Paul, toward the end of his ministry, stays at Philip’s house in Caesarea. It’s also fascinating that Luke is with Paul. And during the following two years, Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea. And again, Luke was with him. At the beginning of the gospel of Luke, Luke explains how he carefully investigated everything before he wrote about it.  So, there is no doubt in my mind that Luke interviewed Philip during his time in Caesarea and that we are reading a firsthand account of what happened.

Now Philip was one of the church’s servants or deacons chosen in Acts 6 to distribute food to the widows who were being overlooked. Driven out of Jerusalem by the persecution, he can no longer do that work, so he goes about preaching the good news of Jesus. Let’s read about it.

Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. (Acts 8:5–8, ESV)

Map: (Yellow marks Phillip’s trip to Samaria)

Now Samaritans were on the outer fringes of Judaism. Jews considered them heretics, and Samaria was considered a “polluted place.”  When Jews traveled from Galilee to Judea, they would typically cross the Jordan, taking a much longer route so that they could avoid the Samaritans. So, what we have here is a strong religious and ethnic barrier. They were not ethnically part of the people of God and religiously were outside of the blessing of God’s covenant to Abraham.

So, it’s amazing to see the response of these half-breed heretics to the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  “With one accord,” which is a way of saying, “all of them,”  paid attention to Philip, saw the miraculous signs that he was performing, and joyfully received the message.

What a contrast to the how Jews in Jerusalem responded. Yes, many thousands of Jews believed, but by and large, the nation and its leaders rejected their Messiah and drove His followers out of their city.

So, it shouldn’t surprise us when we receive varied responses to the gospel.  Some cultures throughout the world are far more open than others.  A few years ago, I was talking to a man who started and leads a group of churches in Austria. He said that it typically takes three years of being around Christians and investigation of the claims of Christ before the typical Austrian believes.  But he took a group from their churches on a mission trip to northern India for a week and nearly a hundred people turned to Christ, most of them on their very first hearing the gospel.

We must remember that we are not responsible for how people respond. Their response is their responsibility. Ours is to preach as clearly and lovingly and persuasively as we can. Whether people immediately respond or whether they respond slowly and with much difficulty or not at all, we should follow the early church’s example and keep on spreading the word.

Now, for sake of time, we are going to skip the story of Simon the sorcerer and skip down to verse 14.

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 baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14–17, ESV)

So, what’s this about? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit automatically indwell everyone who believes? Why didn’t they receive the Holy Spirit when they believed and were baptized? And why did Peter and John have to come down?  Couldn’t Philip have laid his hands on them and given them the Holy Spirit?

Well, it’s important to realize that in the book of Acts there’s no universal pattern of how people received the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it was through the laying on of hands, as with the Samaritans.  Other times they received the Spirit the moment they believed, without anyone laying on hands or even telling them about the Spirit.

Additionally, we must remember that Acts is a book of transitions, where the nature of the people of God is changing. Before Jesus came you had to convert to Judaism and be circumcised to be part of the people of God. But in Acts, God opens things up and accepts Samaritans and Gentiles into a new people of God, the church. And as each new group received the gospel, it was important for the Lord to affirm that this was His doing and His will, especially because there was so much animosity between the Jews and Samaritans and between the Jews and the gentiles.

Requiring Peter and John to come down from Jerusalem established apostolic authority.  God didn’t want the Samaritans to start their own church separate from apostolic leadership. And He didn’t want the believers in Jerusalem to reject or look down on these new Samaritan believers. So, Peter and John coming to Samaria and giving the Holy Spirit insured unity in the one church and insured the acceptance of these Samaritans into the people of God without having to first convert to a purer form of Judaism.

And this is where Jesus’ statement about Peter having the keys to the kingdom comes in. It’s fascinating that Peter was present when the Holy Spirit came to each of the three groups mentioned in Acts: the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. But he was not only present, he was affirming and enabling what was happening. He was opening the door of the kingdom to each group. And this was a perfect fulfillment of what Jesus had told him would happen.

Let’s read on and see another one of Philip’s adventures:

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place.

Map: Green is Philip’s journey to Gaza

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.

There are several things to note: First He was an Ethiopian. Ethiopia was south of Egypt, likely the kingdom of Aksum, so and he had traveled a long ways to come and worship God.   

Second, in that day, Ethiopia was a major power and this was a man of importance, a high official, in charge of the nation’s treasury. He was part of the upper class, a man of influence, wealth, and power.

Thirdly, he was undoubtedly black. Ancient writers talk about how the Ethiopian’s skin color was his most distinctive feature. Now, there is no evidence that there was systemic prejudice against Black Africans in the first century, but certainly his skin color set him apart as a foreigner of another ethnicity.

Also, it’s fascinating that Ethiopia was outside the Roman Empire and viewed by Romans as the southernmost end of the earth.  We just read about the gospel going out into Samaria and now we see it going out to, what was to them, the southern end of the earth.

Finally, he was a Eunuch, a man who had been neutered. It was common in those days for men who were in charge of a haram or in close contact with a queen to be eunuchs.

Now, in addition to the loss of manhood, a eunuch was looked down upon in antiquity. One ancient writer wrote that eunuchs belonged to the most despised and derided group of men.  In ancient cultures much of one’s honor was gender based. To be sexually ambiguous was to blur clear-cut gender roles and expectations and thus to bring shame upon oneself and one’s community.

So, even though a eunuch might have an important and powerful place and might be wealthy, he was also socially stigmatized.  He was in between two worlds, not really fitting in with either the upper class or the lower class.

But being a eunuch also had huge ramifications for this man’s connection with Israel and its worship. The law of Moses, in Deuteronomy, forbade anyone with damaged or missing male parts from entering the assembly of the Lord. Although he had traveled all this way to worship, he was not allowed to enter the temple area or participate in much of the worship that was going on.

One might wonder why he came at all? Clearly he had faith in the God of Israel. But how did a man in such a remote area come to know about the God of Israel and how had he become such a devout follower? We don’t know, but it is certainly clear that he was a devout man of faith—a foreigner, a black African—yet willing to travel such a distance just to be on the outside looking in—just to be on the edges of the worship of Jehovah, Israel’s God.

This is the kind of person that the Spirit directed Philip to approach—a man of contrasts—a  man of importance and wealth and influence, but also a social and religious outcast.  And a man of deep personal faith in the God of Israel.

Let’s read on:

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 baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized 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. (Acts 8:26–40, ESV).

Could it be any more obvious that this was God’s doing? God knew this man and wanted this man and went after him. With perfect timing, God tells Philip to go, evidently knowing exactly how long it would take him to get there and knowing exactly when the Ethiopian would be there. And when Philip approached, the Ethiopian just happened to be reading from Isaiah 53, one of the clearest Old Testament passages about the suffering Messiah. And it just so happened that as the eunuch was ready to believe Philip’s message, they came upon a body of water, perhaps the only one within many miles in that desert place. The hand of God is unmistakable at every step, orchestrating events.

Have you ever seen the hand of God in your life? Has He ever orchestrated events around you to bless you and bring you closer to Himself? If we had time I bet we could have dozens of people get up here and share how the hand of God was involved in bringing them to Christ or in leading them into through a significant turn in their life.

Up until a year ago, I was involved in helping to lead Great Commission Churches, the association of churches that we’ve been a part of, I would fly several times a year, to Chicago or Ohio or Florida or Washington DC. 

Have you ever noticed that when you fly you are usually forced to sit next to someone and they are forced to sit next to you? I knew that, and often I would pray that God would give me the courage to strike up a conversation and then attempt to share the good news of Jesus with someone.

I never felt like doing it. I was always afraid.  It’s amazing how much I can fear rejection from total strangers. Sometimes I would chicken out, but sometimes I would have the courage and opportunity to strike up a conversation and share the gospel. And a few times people were really interested and, right there on the airplane, believed in Christ as their Lord.

I remember one woman who responded to the message of Jesus and was obviously overjoyed. As we were deplaning, she thanked me so earnestly. She seemed to be holding back tears. 

I remember a man who was so amazed that God offers eternal life as a free gift. He believed in the Lord and again was filled with so much joy.  I emailed him later to send some materials I had promised, and he responded and said how he had talked with a co-worker about the gift of life. He said that our conversation was one that he would never forget.

Let me ask you, “Who assigned those seats?” Was it the airline? Well, yes, but it was also God who arrange us to sit next to each other. And who gave me the courage to strike up a conversation and turn it to Jesus? And who had been working in those people’s lives to soften their hearts and draw them to Jesus?

I believe that, just like the Eunuch, God saw that man and that woman loved them, and orchestrated circumstances to bring them to Himself.

Let me ask you. How open are you to His working in and around you? We should ask ourselves, how willing are we to listen and respond when we feel an urge to speak with someone or serve someone? 

Let’s ask ourselves, “What circumstances is He working in my world, in our world?  Are are we noticing that He is doing?

As we’ve been studying the book of Acts, I’ve been greatly encouraged to notice how much God was at work in the early church. He was working to draw people to Himself and to bring the message of life to the ends of the earth. And He’s still working. He’s still doing this all around us and all over the world. And He’s working to inspire us and shake us up and move us out like he did through the persecution in Jerusalem and like he did with Philip.

Luke recorded that the Eunuch went on his way rejoicing.  You can imagine what he must have felt.  He could only be on the outskirts of the worship of God and only loosely connect with God’s people. He likely battled shame as he was excluded from worship and stigmatized by culture.

But he discovered, through Philip, that the Messiah had come and now anyone who believes can be fully and totally accepted by God. Anyone, no matter what they’ve done, no matter how broken they’ve been, no matter how despised or ostracized—can be fully a part of God’s people. It makes no difference if you are male or female, what your nationality is or the color of your skin or your social status or how broken or filled with shame you are. Anyone can be fully at peace with God, accepted into His kingdom and fully a part of His family.

And who knows what might have happened when the Eunuch returned to his country? I’ll guarantee that he didn’t remain quiet. How many at the very end of the earth might have come to know Jesus and gain eternal life.

We can rest in the fact that God cares about this world. It’s His world, by the way. And He is the one who is orchestrating the work of getting the message of Jesus out to the world.  He is working to redeem His world from its current state of rebellion and disorder and hatred and strife. And He will do it fully when Jesus returns.  But until that time, He wants to do it largely through us.  We have the privilege, like Philip, of being His ambassadors, His spokesmen to a world that is so broken and in need of God’s love and peace.