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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 9am service, 2016-04-24

Text: Acts 8:5-8; 26-40

Once upon a time, a ministry in a certain church was in great need of people to serve, but everyone who was approached gave the same polite response:  “Sorry, but I’m not ready to serve.” Why? Well, one common excuse for not serving is that their circumstances are just not favourable for it. Many would think that since they are too busy most of their time with their work, their studies or personal interests, and are too occupied with settling their own problems, the time is not right yet for them to think about serving the Lord. And so they decide to wait for better circumstances before serving. But when we study the Scriptures we will be surprised to find that very often, the best time to serve is when circumstances are least favourable.

Let us look at Acts 8:1-4 – “And Saul was consenting unto [Stephen’s] death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. 4 Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.”

This passage relates what happened just after Stephen died. In a previous sermon we had seen how Stephen had been arrested on false charges of blasphemy and when he was brought to trial, he gave a very powerful defence of the Christian faith, but the Jews stoned him to death.  

Stephen’s death must have been a great loss to the church, since he was one of the 7 new leaders who were recently appointed in chapter 6, and he was also very skilled in expounding from the Old Testament. His death would have caused the church to realize how vulnerable and weak they were in the midst of a nation that was persecuting them. And this realization must have become more acute as the persecution intensified after Stephen’s death. The church now began to suffer the full force of hatred against Christ. Christians were regarded as outcasts and outlaws. They were hunted down and thrown in jail. Many of them fled as refugees, following the instruction that Christ had given in Matthew 24.

But this time when the church was at its most helpless and weakest situation, also became its strongest and most glorious moment. Instead of being destroyed by the intense persecution, we see the church growing even faster, extending her witness much further than ever before. If the church is likened to a fire that the Jews were desperately trying to put out, it seems now that what they did caused the flames to burn even brighter and the fire spread more and more, beyond control.

This morning we want to see how the church did this. How did it increase instead of decrease when faced with such extermination measures? And we will observe that this became possible because of what the believers did when persecution came. They did not let themselves be paralyzed by fear and hostility. Instead they turned their extremity into opportunity. Let us turn our Bibles now to Acts 8:5-8, 26-40.

These verses are all about Philip, one of the seven new deacons appointed in Chapter 6. He serves as a good example of what the persecuted believers of the early church did at this point. They continued to witness for Christ, keeping themselves busy in the Lord’s work, and refusing to be stopped by the most adverse circumstances. But they were not the only ones who were working.

Actually behind all this, the Lord Himself was at work, moving His church out of the confines of Jerusalem, where they had been up till then. Christ allowed them to be persecuted so severely that many had to leave and move to other places. Instead of being all together in one place, the church was now scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

This measure may have been extremely painful for them, but it was necessary for the spread of the gospel as Christ had said in Acts 1:8 –  “…ye shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” Acts chapter 8:4 records for us that as a result of this scattering of believers, the Word was now being preached everywhere, and it reached many more places and people than when it had been confined only to Jerusalem.

We also see the Lord preparing the hearts of sinners, so that when they heard the gospel, they responded with full submission by turning to Christ. Philip’s amazing success in Samaria (vv.5-8) and also with the Ethiopian eunuch (vv.27-39), can only be accounted for by the fact that the Lord had gone before him to prepare their hearts and minds to receive the Word.

But at the same time as the Lord was working, we see that Satan was also at work. The intensified persecution of the church were obviously his attempts to destroy God’s work, using unbelievers to do this. We also see that when God’s work makes progress, Satan may sometimes attempt to destroy it from within. In Acts 5 we had seen how he moved Ananias and Sapphira to lie about their gift, and they were struck dead instantly.

In last Sunday’s message we saw how Simon the Sorcerer came into the church. Simon proved himself to have had ulterior motives for becoming a Christian. He was so impressed by the signs and wonders of Philip and the apostles that he coveted their power and offered them money for it. Because of this, Peter rebuked him and Simon begged Peter not to let God’s judgment fall on him.

An early church father named Irenaeus tells us that after this event, Simon became the first great heretic and cult group leader of his time. He eventually twisted the Gospel and led many Christians astray by his teachings, even claiming that he, like Christ, was God incarnate. Many were deceived by him, because of his counterfeit conversion and his counterfeit teachings.

The damage which Simon caused to the church clearly shows that we must be vigilant because the Devil is constantly at work, thinking of new ways to destroy the church, from without as well as from within. The existence of many cult groups and false teachings are an indication of how diligent he has been. It therefore becomes needful for God’s people to be just as diligent if not more diligent than he is.

This brings us now to the theme of this sermon. Our purpose for studying what the church and what Philip in particular did in Acts chapter 8, is to understand the need to be ready to serve at all times, no matter what circumstances we are in. There are three ways in which we should be ready to serve: Firstly, by being…

I. Ready to Go Wherever the Holy Spirit Leads

As we read the story of Philip, the very first thing we notice is that he left Jerusalem to escape from the great persecution that had started there, and then he went down to the city of Samaria. One reason why he went there rather than somewhere else, was the fact that the Jews from Jerusalem would never come to Samaria, because they despised the Samaritans, and would not even touch a Samaritan. Philip’s purpose was to seek refuge there until the persecution was over.

Samaria was a region north of Judea, occupied by a group of people who were of mixed origins. Their ancestors included Israelites as well as Gentiles, and they had a religion which was very similar to the Jews, being based on the Law of Moses, but believing that the proper place for worship was at Mt Gerizim in Samaria, rather than in Jerusalem. Because of these differences, the Jews often considered Samaritans as outcasts and refused to have anything to do with them.

We remember how our Lord Jesus told the parable about the Good Samaritan, to illustrate how we should show love regardless of racial or cultural differences. We also note that Jesus Himself had crossed the cultural line when he brought salvation to a Samaritan woman at a well. And now it was Philip who went down to the city of Samaria, and who made use of his time there to preach about Christ to the Samaritans.

And the Lord gave him a very fruitful ministry while he was there, opening the hearts of the Samaritans, so that many of them were saved. As verse 6 tells us, “And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.” When the church in Jerusalem heard about this, they sent Peter and John as representatives to confirm the new believers and also to help Philip with the harvest of souls. This opened even more doors in Samaria to the Gospel. In verse 25 see that before Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, they were able to preach the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.

As we see this end result, let us not forget that all this would not had happened without the first step taken by Philip: Just one man who due to circumstances beyond his control, had to escape from Jerusalem to Samaria. But while he was there, he did not waste his time, but spent it usefully to do what the Lord wanted him to do. It was clearly the Lord who had brought him there.

This now becomes an example for us. As we go through our journey of life, we sometimes find ourselves in new places because of a change of residence or of work, due to changing circumstances. It may be that we were looking for a job and the only one that is suitable is in a place quite far away, so we had to relocate to a new place. It may be that we were assigned to work overseas.

As we get used to the new people and the new places we find ourselves in, there is one thing that we need to do: Remember that ultimately it is God who has brought us there. The next step is to find out how the Lord wants to use us there. There must be some purpose, some task for us to fulfill in God’s overall plan that we should consciously seek to do while we are there. And when our task is done, the Lord may then change our circumstances again to redirect our paths to a different place to fulfill another task.

We should therefore be sensitive to His will, asking Him, “Lord, what should I do in this place?” Our wills ought to be in step with His, so that we will not miss His directions to us. Turning back to the story of Philip, we notice that he was sensitive to the directions received from God. In v.26 we read  “the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.” The next verse tells us that he promptly arose and went, not asking for reasons why he must go, but simply trusting that God knows what He is doing. This journey all the way from north to south finally led to his opportunity to witness to an Ethiopian minister of finance who happened to be traveling back to Ethiopia from Jerusalem.

Notice that in v.29, Philip is again directed by the Holy Spirit telling him to go near and join himself to the Ethiopian’s chariot. When Philip had succeeded in leading him to Christ, the Spirit then transported him to another place for another task. This is what v.39,40 says: “And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea.”

After that it appears that he settled down with his family at Caesarea and raised up his daughters there in the fear of the Lord, who grew up to become god-fearing women. This seems to be the situation, according to Acts chapter 21, which records events happening about 20 years later. Philip’s house at Caesarea became a useful lodging and meeting place for itinerant preachers and missionaries like Paul.

Let us learn to be like Philip, constantly seeking the Lord’s will, going wherever He wants us to go, and doing whatever He wants us to do. This leads us to the next point: We need to be…

2. Ready to Give the Gospel to Others

From the story of Philip we notice that there was always a readiness on his part to give the Gospel message to people. He seems to be prepared to share his faith at any time. This is something all believers should be able to do, when the opportunity arises. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are commanded to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with humility and reverence.”  I think that the problem with many of us is that when it comes to sharing our faith, we become afraid, because we do not know how to proceed in giving an accurate, easily understood message that will lead men to Christ. What should we say first? How do we handle the questions that the person will ask, and so on.

One way to overcome this fear is to acquire some training and even practice in sharing our faith with others. But apart from this, we also ought to be excited about the message we share. It is after all, the Good news of salvation. People everywhere ought to know it. We should never grow weary of sharing this wonderful news with others.

Looking at Philip we notice that he never seemed to get tired of preaching the same glorious life-saving message of the Lord Jesus Christ, to tell again and again the wondrous story of how Christ has redeemed sinners. In v.5 we find Philip preaching Christ to the Samaritans. He seemed to have been invited to speak at a gathering of Samaritans and he was not afraid to use the opportunity to present the gospel to them. In v.35, we find Philip doing personal evangelism. Here he was, out in the desert, alone with an Ethiopian official who happened to be reading a copy of the Old Testament. Philip was ready to witness whether to many people or just to one person.

Sometimes in our conversations with our non-Christian friends and loved ones, we find it difficult to begin talking about Christ. What are the things we usually talk about? Our work, the weather, the problems of day to day life, or perhaps certain people we know. How do we switch from talking about these things to talking about spiritual matters? It is not easy, and takes some effort. We need to find a transition point, which will help to steer the course of the conversation in the direction of salvation. This transition point can take the form of a question.

This was what Philip used when he approached the Ethiopian official. As Philip came near to the chariot, he may have been wondering: “How am I going to introduce the subject of the gospel to this person. I am a total stranger to him, and he does not know me. I can’t just come out of nowhere and say to him, Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” As Philip came nearer and nearer the carriage he heard the voice of someone reading aloud, and he realized that the Ethiopian official was reading from a copy of the Book of Isaiah.

And immediately he knew how he should begin his conversation. Not by saying, “It’s a nice day isn’t it?” or “Where might you be going?”  His question was designed to lead to the gospel. He asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the expected response came immediately:  “How can I understand this unless someone guides me?” So Philip sensed the need and then offered to guide the official. This then became his golden opportunity to use the Scriptures to share Christ.

In the course of our daily interaction with people, the Lord will open doors for us to share the gospel with those we meet. But we on our part have to look for them. When the opportunity to talk to someone arises, think of ways to introduce the subject without offending him, but cultivating his interest and curiosity so that he himself will want to know God’s plan of salvation.

Another example of how to share the gospel is given by our Saviour Himself in John 4, when he met the woman at the well. You may recall that though Jesus was tired and thirsty, He turned a request for a drink into an opportunity to save a soul from sin. And the woman responded by trusting in Jesus for her salvation.

This brings us now to our third and final point of this sermon. Besides being ready to go wherever the Spirit leads and to give the Gospel to others, we should also be:

3. Ready to Help Those who Respond with Faith

This was the ultimate objective of Philip’s preaching: it was designed to bring forth a response of faith. Let us read verse 12 – “But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Let us also read Acts 8:36 – “And as they went their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” Baptism does not save them – it is only the outward expression of their response of faith in Christ.

We notice that in both instances Philip reached his desired objective. The Lord had prepared the hearts of these people, so that they responded quite voluntarily, spontaneously, and without being coerced to commit their lives to Christ. That is the way that souls are saved. Not by making attractive offers and promises of blessings of health and wealth (as some preachers today are doing), but simply preaching salvation from sin through Christ, and leaving all the results to God.

Now, we should not get the idea from this passage that when we share the gospel, we will always get the same response: that people will always be ready and willing to receive Christ. This is not the case. In the later part of the book Acts we will see that sometimes people responded to the gospel with great hostility. Paul was stoned when he preached at Lystra, and when he went to Athens, he was ridiculed by the Athenians for mentioning the resurrection from the dead. So when we attempt to bring men and women to Christ, we need not be disappointed when they are not won to Christ in the end.

Our responsibility is to sow the seed. The rest is left to God. He will cause it to germinate and grow. Sometimes the seed will live and grow, and sometimes it will not. Christ mentioned this in His parable of the sower. Sometimes the seed takes a longer time than expected to germinate. Many people hear the gospel but do not respond to it until many years later, when they encounter a crisis and call out to Christ to save them. But the timing of salvation and the results of our preaching are best left to the mysterious work in the heart by the Holy Spirit, which we cannot see. It is not for us to worry what the outcome will be. Success is not measured by the number of souls we win to Christ, but by how we use our opportunities to share the gospel with people around us.

Sometimes some of those who appear to respond to the gospel prove themselves later on to be false disciples. The conversion of Simon the Sorcerer was like this. Philip must have been thrilled when this well-known sorcerer gave up his sorcery to come to Christ. But he must also have heard later on that Simon was not genuinely converted. How should we respond when we hear news like that concerning those we have brought to Christ? We feel sad for them, but at the same time, we should not blame ourselves for what has happened, since we have already done our part for them.

And while we should not blame ourselves for any negative results of our efforts, we should also not take pride in any good results from them. All the glory for the work of salvation must go to God alone. If men and women do indeed come to know Christ through our preaching or sharing, we should never think that we are the ones who did it, and brag about the number of souls we have led to Christ. Rather, we should give God all the credit, and continue to be ready to do the Lord’s work.

Let us therefore, not just sit back and glory in our past service. But let us keep ourselves always busy for the Lord. Make use of every opportunity to bring people to Christ, like the Chinese Service Parents’ Night that will be held on 30 April, the next Gospel Sunday with Rev Philip Heng speaking here on 29 May, and the Vacation Bible School for children is coming soon on 1-3 June. Invite your friends, and loved ones to come, pray for them, and make every effort to win them to Christ!

One of China’s great Christian leaders in the 20th century was Watchman Nee (1903-1972). After he was saved at the age of 17 he gave himself fully for the Lord’s use. For 30 years he was used of God to establish churches throughout China, to conduct Bible conferences, and to write over 40 books until he was arrested and imprisoned for 20 years by the Communists.

In one message Watchman Nee said, “If a man wants to learn to serve the Lord, he must be awakened to the weightiness of his responsibility, to the urgency of the need around him, and to the fleeting nature of time! Life is short. If such a consciousness is present within him, he will become diligent and unrelenting. Brothers and sisters, our time is almost gone; the need is ever so desperate, and our responsibility is ever so great. Let us, as dying men with fleeting breath and fading opportunity, give ourselves fully to preach the gospel to those who are dying around us.”

This morning our message is that we, as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, should always be ready to serve in going wherever He leads us, in giving the Gospel to others whenever we have the opportunity, and in helping those who respond with faith as God works in their hearts. May the Lord help us to be ready to serve Him.

 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25