Acts, week 3

Weekly Readings: Acts 8-11

Small Group Questions

  1. What caused the early church to be scattered? How did God use that?
  2. Name out loud or in writing some of the borders, boundaries, or barriers that were crossed with the good news in this week’s reading.
  3. One of the most formative things we can do in reading scripture is to discover where the biblical story connects with our lives. Do you see anything in Saul’s experience (Acts 9) that connects with your own human experience?
  4. Paul thought he was obeying God until God opened his eyes to His perfect will. Have you ever thought you were doing what was right and later discovered this was not God’s will?
  5. In Acts 10, Peter realizes his “animals on a sheet” vision is not about unclean animals, but unclean people! Can you think of some people that our own society, culture, and community would label “unclean,” but for whom God’s heart breaks?
  6. Are you challenged to love certain people? What does Acts 8-10 have to say about this?

Sermon: “The Church Crosses Borders”

Texts: Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 53:7-8, Isaiah 56:1-8

You can listen HERE, slide to about  28:00, and wait for it to start at the beginning of the sermon. Or just hit play and enjoy the whole service! Written sermon below:

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

I want to introduce the sermon today by identifying the introduction of this week’s reading in Acts. We will look this week at chs.8-11. And at the beginning of Acts 8, which is where we left off last week, we find that the church is scattered due to persecution resulting from Stephen’s death. Stephen was the first Christian killed for the faith, he was stoned to death, and a great persecution broke out. This is the introduction this week. Listen to how the stage is set in Acts 8:1 – “At that time, the church in Jerusalem began to be subjected to vicious harassment. Everyone except the apostles was scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Now, I want to go back to the very beginning of the book at verse 1:8. Listen to what Jesus told the disciples before they were to receive the Holy Spirit: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Do you see it? Here Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit is going to come upon them in power and then they are to be His witnesses throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. They receive the Holy Spirit, but up until ch.8 the good news has stayed only in Jerusalem. Then, here finally in ch.8 the church finds itself being scattered through Judea and Samaria. This is the backdrop of our message today. The Church is now poised for what it was always intended to do – crossing borders.

The first man to flee into the territory of Samaria that we are told about is Philip. And after a successful spreading of the gospel there he is led into an encounter we are going to spend this morning looking at.

After witnessing in Samaria, we read in Acts 8:26 that Philip receives instruction not from the Holy Spirit but “an angel of the Lord” in the same way the prophets of the Old Testament were given divine guidance.[1] He was appointed to take a specific road, a desert road to Gaza. Had he taken another road he would have missed the divinely appointed border crossing, an encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. Question #1: Have you ever had a divinely appointed border crossing…an ordained encounter that you were pretty sure was from God and afterward you had no doubt because of what God did through it? Or, have you ever thought that maybe God was nudging you to cross a border, but you talked yourself out of what may have been a divine appointment?

Philip engages in this divine appointment. He takes the desert road. As Philip makes it to the road, this time the Spirit (not just an angel of the Lord) instructs Philip to approach a carriage and stay with it. Philip walks alongside the carriage in which is riding an Ethiopian eunuch. The kingdom of Ethiopia lay on the Nile River in Africa near Egypt and Sudan. This man was the royal treasurer, and is coming from worshiping in Jerusalem. He was probably a Gentile worshiper of the God of Israel.[2] The text suggests that like other Jews he had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the annual Jewish festivals. Now, what was significant about this man being an Ethiopian eunuch? Well, for one thing, Ethiopia was located at the edge of the known world at that time. So, when Jesus commanded His disciples in Acts 1:8 to be witnesses throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Ethiopia would have been considered to be at the end of the earth! He was also a Gentile and a eunuch. Deuteronomy 23:1 prevents eunuch’s from being “part of the Lord’s assembly.” A eunuch was prohibited from being part of the people of God. He could be a worshiper, but not belong to the community. Why? Because lacking the male sexual organs made a man incomplete or unclean. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the mark of the covenant was circumcision. If a man had no genitals, circumcision was not an option. Thus, being a part of God’s covenant people was not an option. For this eunuch, being part of God’s family would never be part of his future, and he knew it, even though he was a sincere worshiper and God-fearer. But all this was about to change. As this Ethiopian eunuch royal treasurer is returning home on this desert road he is reading an Isaiah scroll in Greek.

Philip hears the eunuch reading aloud Isaiah 53:7-8, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth?” Philip hears the familiar passage and recognizes his chance to engage. It is Philip who initiates the encounter. Philip crosses the border. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The eunuch replies, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then, he invites Philip climb up into the carriage with him to look at the passage of scripture.

What’s amazing to me is an insight Craig Keener points out in the Immersion Bible Studies book on Acts, that just three chapters ahead of where this Ethiopian eunuch is reading, the prophet Isaiah already predicted the good news in 56:3-5:

“Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say, ‘The Lord will exclude me from the people.’ And don’t let the eunuch say, ‘I’m just a dry tree.’ The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant, in my temple and courts, I will give them a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed.”

How providential that this eunuch was reading a prophetic word about Jesus just three chapters before the passage that would tell him that one day the Lord would give him a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. He would belong to God forever.

Continuing the story, “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?’ Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.” (Acts 8:34-35) Philip is able to answer the question of the Ethiopian, because he was an apostle. In other words, he had witnessed the good news about Jesus! He knew the one about whom this scripture was written.

“As they went down the road, they came to some water. The eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?’ He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him.” (Acts 8:36-38)

The eunuch’s response to Philip’s witness blows me away. For one, it addresses a major shift in God’s requirements to be part of His family. Another reason it blows me away is the passion it reveals in the heart of the Ethiopian – “What would keep me from being baptized?” The mark of being in the family of God is no longer circumcision. It’s baptism. And this will become an issue for the Jewish community later in this section in Acts. The fact that he is a eunuch no longer prohibits him from being part of the Lord’s assembly. The Ethiopian’s question pours from a heart of gratefulness, conviction, and desire to belong to God. And now, the borders have been crossed, the barriers torn down, for this man to have a home in the Body of Christ.

What is going on here? Border crossing. In this same section in Acts, we will read this week another story of border crossing in which a man named Saul who thought he was living in God’s will shall be confronted by Jesus and called to serve His Church. Paul would later write these words in Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

One thing I hope you’ll discover as we encounter the book of Acts is that what happens to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is continued in Acts in, through, and to the Church, the Body of Christ. And one image that comes to mind from the end of the gospel of Luke is when Jesus breathes His last on the cross, the sun stops shining, and the seamless curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. In the sacrifice of Jesus, the barriers and boundaries between God and humanity are torn down. Borders disappear, and the grace of God is freely available to all peoples. The curtain between Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female are torn down as all are given access to the one true God of love and redemption. This, brothers and sisters, is the activity of God that is still going on through His Church. We re-present Christ every day in how we live, act, and speak as witnesses to the world around us. We evidence every day over and over that the Temple curtain has been torn. The barriers, the boundaries, and borders between how can belong to God and who can’t, who is acceptable to God and who’s not, who can receive grace and who can’t have been breached by what Christ has done for humanity. It is our job to make the world aware that the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the power of Resurrection is now available to everyone who would accept it. Church is a place where the racism, sexism, ageism, and classism of the world are torn down and there is one category of redeemed humanity who needs Jesus and has access to Him with no borders. We must be border crossers.

At the end of this amazing story in Acts 8 we see that Philip has fulfilled the mission the Spirit led him to carry out. So, at the end of the story we see the Spirit “taking him away,” leading him without wasting any time on his next mission to cross borders with the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the universal availability of God’s love. The Ethiopian leaves as anyone should leave baptism – rejoicing. He has been made new. It is clear that this man is baptized in one instance with both water and the Holy Spirit. He receives forgiveness and an overwhelming “joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).[3] And now this one, this Gentile God-fearer whom the Law of the Old Testament barred from God’s assembly, is not only accepted into the Body of Christ as a reborn child of God, but is given a new vocation as missionary to his own people. Christ now has a living witness in Ethiopia of royal influence. The gospel is indeed beginning to reach the ends of the known world.

What better picture of redeemed humanity without borders than Communion – a Table with common elements shared by all regardless of any category or label the world would attach. In a moment we will come to this Table, not as Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, not as a certain ethnicity or social class, but as a beloved child of God redeemed by Jesus Christ. So, as we prepare our hearts to receive God’s grace anew and afresh this day, I ask…

What borders, boundaries, and barriers is God showing you in your own sphere of life? What might be keeping those around you, the people you regularly interact with, from knowing and accepting the love of God in Christ? Can you cross those borders? Will you let the Holy Spirit lead you? I pray it will be so…for you and for me.

[1] Bruce. The Book of Acts, rev. ed. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998; p.174

[2] Ibid.; 175

[3] Ibid.; 178


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