Acts 8: Change

Application

Change is never easy for anyone. Despite its inevitability, we are almost always loathe to give up the comfort – or at least the familiarity – of what we have for something new and/or unknown. Over the last two millenia, the church has been compelled to change in a number of ways including geography, culture, language, form, style, and more. With each shift, there was a great deal of pain, and often at least some turmoil. But I really think that the most difficult change in the history of the church – not counting the ascension of Jesus – was probably recorded in Acts 8.

Acts 8 marks a dramatic shift in the direction of the Church. Up until this point, the gospel spread almost exclusively among the Jewish population in Jerusalem. With the stoning of Steven and the eruption of a great persecution – we learn in the chapter opening that Saul was passionately intent on destroying the church – the gospel quickly pushed into regions that were dominated by peoples who were definitely not Jews.

Samaria, which was really just a day’s or so walk from Jerusalem, was the first. The people there, known as Samaritans, were despised by Jews because they were the result of intermarrying between those Israelites left after the Assyrians and Babylonians exiled everyone else to foreign lands and the foreigners the Assyrians and Babylonians hauled in from everywhere else to replace them. As such, the Samaritans were considered by their Jewish neighbors to be even lower than most Gentiles, to the point that the Jews would even walk days out of their way just so they didn’t have to walk through Samaria.

And then came Ethiopia. Or, more specifically, an Ethiopian eunuch who had at least started the process of converting to Judaism and was now on his way home. This man didn’t look like a Jew. He didn’t talk like a Jew. With the queen’s chariot as his ride, he most certainly didn’t travel like a Jew. And as he poured over the book of Isaiah, reading the same passage over and over again without comprehending, he clearly didn’t understand like a Jew.

It is remarkable that the same man, Philip, was used to take the gospel to both Samaria and the eunuch. But what is even more remarkable is the fact that, in verse 25, Peter, John, and the church that they led was willing to accept and even embrace the inclusion of these people who were so different and even despised. Here’s why:

To accept this change meant that the Church would have to get over its Jew-only club status. It sounds ridiculous, even alien, because we would never have that kind of a problem. But how often we do have the same kind of problem! When we look around our churches, I dare say that an unfortunate number of them are almost completely homogeneous. The vast majority are white (or black or yellow or pink or blue, etc.). They’re young (or old or even middle-aged). They’re rich (or poor or middle-class). We’re one or the other. What Philip did was dare the church to strive to be one and the other. It meant being deliberate about meeting them on their own terms. It meant being accepting of those things that weren’t directly contrary to Scripture. It meant being ready  to embrace those who don’t look, talk, act, think, or even be exactly like us. And all that necessitates change. If the Church is going to thrive in the twenty-first century, we must get over our [your descriptor here]-only status.

To accept this change meant that the Church would have to move past our pews. Whether you’ve noticed or not, you’ve seen it. Sure, we have all these outreach programs and ministries that we call evangelism, but how often are these programs centered at the church. And how often do the people that attend them already belong to the church? In too many cases, we’ve somehow translated the Great Commission’s mandate to “go and make disciples” to mean, “get disciples to come to you.” There are a number of fundamental problems with this paradigm. It assumes that the people “out there” are disciples; they just have to find our church. They’re not, and they won’t. It implies that we just have to find the right mix of programs and styles to draw a crowd. Programs and styles don’t make a church, and a crowd’s just not good enough. We are called to go and meet the world where it is. And we are commissioned to lead the people we meet there to the life-transforming power of God’s grace. If the Church is going to be effective today, we must move past our pews.

There is more: we must abandon our fear of being rejected, despised, etc. We must actually wield Scriptures as the sharp, double edged sword it is designed to be. We must share the gospel message as though it truly is the greatest news we’ve ever heard and, more importantly, believed.

Of course, you can talk about other things that need to change (e.g., worship styles, ministry techniques, venues, etc.), but the point is that we’re always going to have to confront change. And while the gospel message at the core of the Church must always remain the same, whether we’re witnessing in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or to the ends of the earth, we must always be willing and resolved to change so that we can meet the world where it is and convince it to believe.

Notes

  • (1) The scattering of the believers marked the beginning of a radical transition in the church. No longer would it be solely in Jerusalem, and soon, no longer would it be solely for Jews.
  • (3) According to Charles Ryrie in Ryrie’s Study Bible, the word rendered “destroy” means “to ravage like a wild beast.” Such was the intensity of Saul’s hatred for the church!
  • (3) It’s hard to believe that one man could cause such trouble. And yet, is it not a vocal minority that causes problems for the church today?
  • (4) This is an amazing revelation. On the run for their lives, the disciples nevertheless preached – as in, related in such a way as to persuade others to believe – the gospel message! How many of us would cower in the corner hoping no one saw us? Or run and keep absolutely silent so that the trouble would pass? Ours is a totally different paradigm than these early believers! Oh, how we should return to their perspective on ministry and evangelism!
  • (5-6) Once again, we see that Philip’s ministry afforded his message credibility. He could have preached all day, but it was his willingness to miraculously meet people’s needs that provided the evidence necessary so that they could believe.
  • (9-13) The account of Simon is one of a hardened pagan coming to belief. If Simon could be convinced to believe, EVERYONE can be.
  • (14-17) I wonder if Peter and John really expected the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. They were sent to investigate if it was truly possible for Samaritans believe. Was this the test to see if it could be real? If so, what an amazing spirit of faith they had! Hey, we’re open to this if it’s the will of God. And He’ll demonstrate His will by sending His Spirit. How many of us would simply declare, “There is no way, no how,” and that would be it?
  • (18-24) I kind of feel bad for Simon. The poor guy has been trying to change his life around by following Phillip, and now he is desperate to have the same kind of power that Peter and John display. He clearly doesn’t fully understand the nature of the Holy Spirit – or the gospel message – since he is consumed with the Holy Spirit for its spectacular side effects, he mistakenly believes that he can purchase it with money, and Peter and John’s response indicate that his primary motivation for purchasing it was to use it in his act to make more money. What’s worse, his response to their challenge was not to pray himself to repent, but to ask them to pray for him so that he wouldn’t suffer the consequences.
  • (25) On the return trip, Peter and John demonstrated the fullness of their openness to the will of God. They put behind them the historical aversion they had to dealing with the half-Jew, half-Gentile Samaritans because God had demonstrated His will to include them in the kingdom. This wasn’t just a passive resignation to the will of the Lord; it was a proactive and unconditional embrace of the will of the Lord! And a complete change of paradigm for Peter and John!
  • (26-40) As though the inclusion of Samaritans wasn’t enough, Philip was sent to minister next to an Ethiopian. This man had at least started the process of converting to Judaism, but still lacked a great deal of understanding. Yet Philip witnessed to him, starting where he was, and he, too, was saved. In one chapter, the gospel has been opened to Samaritans and Gentiles! Talk about a change!
  • (35) This is an essential part of effective evangelism. You must start where the listener is, ministering to them in their context and language. Only then will they be willing and able to follow you as you lead them to salvation!
  • (40) Azotus was just the start of a ministry circuit that eventually led Philip to Caesarea, a Gentile city. So just in case the salvation of the eunuch wasn’t convincing enough, Philip went and ministered to an undeniably Gentile community.
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