BEYOND JUDEA Acts 8
“A great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the Apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).The church that prospers under persecution crumbles when comfortable.
Intense persecution scattered Christians through Judea and Samaria (8:1–3). Samaritans (vv. 4–7) and even a magician named Simon (vv. 9–13) were converted by Philip’s preaching. Apostles came from Jerusalem to investigate, and gave the Holy Spirit in a way that established their authority and the unity of the church (vv. 14–17). Simon was rebuked for trying to buy spiritual power (vv. 18–25). An angel directed Philip to leave the revival to lead a lone individual to Christ (vv. 26–40).
Understanding the Text
“On that day a great persecution broke out” Acts 8:1–2.
The Apostles had been told that God’s purpose was to plant the Gospel first in Jerusalem, then “in all Judea and Samaria” and then to the “ends of the earth” (1:8). For a long time, however, the church remained a Jerusalem phenomenon. The thousands of converts came from that city—and stayed there. Why leave such a loving community of believers, such outstanding leaders? We all have a tendency to “settle down” here on earth. As strange as it seems, God’s blessings can sap our spiritual vitality. It took an outburst of persecution to scatter the Jerusalem believers—and the Gospel message—across Judea and Samaria. Let’s not “settle down” too comfortably in this world. God has work for each of us to do. “Saul began to destroy the church” Acts 8:3. We know Saul better as Paul the Apostle. But that story comes later. Now Saul, with authority from the Sanhedrin, zealously went about trying to stamp out the Christian movement. After his conversion Paul had a key role in God’s great plan for evangelizing the world. But even now, before his conversion, Paul played a key role in that same plan! It was Paul’s active persecution that scattered believers—and thus spread the Gospel. God is great enough that even His most active enemies actually promote His cause. “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there” Acts 8:4–7. Philip was one of seven “deacons” chosen to distribute food to the needy (6:1–7). Here we see him preaching and performing miracles in Samaria. Another “meals on wheels” driver had been promoted in God’s army! What’s really significant, however, is that Philip preached in Samaria. The Samaritan religion was a perverted form of Judaism, and Samaritans were viewed with hostility and contempt by the Jews. Philip, however, viewed them as human beings for whom Christ died, and preached Christ to them. How we classify people determines to a large extent how we relate to them. We Christians are not to classify others by racial or socioeconomic group, or even by such categories as drug addict, homosexual, or convict. We are to look at other believers as brothers and sisters in the Lord. And we are to look at every non-Christian as a candidate for salvation—as a person God loves, and for whom Christ died. “Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” Acts 8:14–17. Every now and then we need to be reminded that Acts is a book of history, not of doctrine. Some of the things that are reported there are not normative. That is, they are not patterns for all Christians to follow everywhere. This is one of those incidents. God did not give the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans until two apostles came down from Jerusalem. Then the Spirit was given when and only when John and Peter laid hands on the new believers. Remembering the ancient hostility and religious rivalry between the Jews and Samaritans, we can see why this was necessary. The church of Christ is one, and the ministry of the Apostles was foundational to its teaching and unity. Only such an obvious sign of unity and authority could keep the Samaritans from developing a separate church in the critical early Christian decades as they had developed a separate form of Judaism. So don’t build your doctrine of the Holy Spirit and His coming on the experiences reported in Acts. Look for the unusual reasons for God’s unusual actions. “Simon . . . offered them money” Acts 8:9–13, 18–25. Simon was one of those folks who made a good living promoting his or her supposed supernatural powers. Like the modern stage magician, Simon knew some mighty good tricks, and had deceived “high and low” into honoring him as “the Great Power.” And then Simon got converted. But he brought some of his old attitudes into his new life. Peter’s rebuke is blunt and to the point. It is also directed to you and me. Like Simon we bring too many of our old attitudes and values with us when we become Christians. And we have to get rid of them, for they have no place in people who belong to Jesus. “On his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch” Acts 8:26–35. Usually “eunuch” indicates a male who has been castrated. It was quite common in ancient times for rulers to castrate young boys and train them for administrative duties. The theory was that with no family to consider they would be more faithful to the ruler they served. In time “eunuch” was used in some societies as a title for certain officials, whether they had been castrated or not. So we can’t be sure if this high Ethiopian official was a true eunuch or not. It’s tempting to think that he was, just because Old Testament Law forbade such persons to participate in temple worship. How exciting it must have been for the Ethiopian as Philip taught him to realize that in Christ, God would welcome even him. Everyone is welcome in Christ. Whatever one’s background, whatever he has done or not done, there is room for him or her. The Good News for every outcast is, come on in! “How can I . . . unless someone explains it to me?” Acts 8:31–40 Most people do not really comprehend what they read. That’s frustrating for those of us whose ministry is writing. But it’s exciting for everyone else. I communicate by computer. But you have the opportunity to explain to friends or neighbors or folks you meet on the plane, face-to-face, the wonderful message that led to the joyful conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. I’ve been told (by publishers) that authors are (or were, before TV evangelists came along) the “superstars” of Christianity. Having received little adulation, I’m not at all convinced. But I am convinced that the most effective and most exciting ministry there is is the simple one-on-one explaining of the Gospel to someone who wants to understand what he’s read or heard. Why not ask God to send you to someone like the Ethiopian eunuch today?
Go South(Acts 8:26–40)
I’ve learned over the years that God has a habit of asking us to change directions suddenly. The night of my seminary graduation, I had the privilege of speaking for the “future pastors.” Three days later I was on a plane to interview for a position as an editor at a Christian publisher. Several years later I spoke at a church that was looking for a pastor. I was expecting a call. Two weeks later I was an assistant professor at Wheaton College Graduate School. I finally got my Ph.D. and tenure, and looked forward to a lifelong career in teaching. A few months later I moved to Phoenix, with no job, to launch a writing ministry. It seemed that every time I was set on my direction in life, God interrupted, and said, “Go another way.” That’s surely what happened to Philip. But Philip’s change of direction was even more stunning. He was right in the middle of a great revival: hundreds of people were being saved. And God said to him, “Go south to the road—the desert road.” What? Leave the city and the big tent meeting, where conversions were coming by the dozen. Go where? The desert! Philip knew better than to question. He went out by the road, and there he met an Ethiopian official that he led to Christ. Undoubtedly that official then carried the Gospel back to his distant homeland. I suppose that a Government Accounting Office official would argue that going south wasn’t cost effective. I mean, stay where you can get the most for your money. Don’t reserve all that time for just one person when it could be used to reach hundreds. But it’s kind of nice to remember that God isn’t a GAO accountant. To Him, the individual is still as important as the crowd. So the next time God says, “Go south,” to you, don’t hesitate. It may not make much sense to you. But whatever God tells us to do makes a lot of sense to Him.
Be sensitive to God’s change of direction.
(Morning prayer): “Good morning, God, I love You! What are You up to today? I want to be a part of it.”—Norman Grubb