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Sent to be on Mission

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Sent to Be on Mission

Acts 8 NIV

Several years ago Billy Graham was told of a man who had criticized his evangelistic efforts in crusade methods. In fact, the man had indicated that Dr. Graham, in his opinion, had set back the church in America a hundred years.

With a twinkle in his eye and his normal gracious demeanor, Dr. Graham responded, “Only one hundred years? I’ve been trying to set it back two thousand years!”

What was it about the first-century church that made it so contagious? As it exploded on the scene of a pluralistic society with a tremendous bent toward secularism (much like our own), it grew by leaps and bounds. It was a church on the cutting edge!

It is that contagious kind of Christianity that North America needs so desperately in our day. It seems frighteningly clear that we are following in the tracks of modern England. For it was in that great bastion of civilization that the church of the 1800s was contagious—the home of the Wesley brothers and George Whitfield. England has seen its society impacted with the Christian message like few nations in the world. Tutored and taught later by the prince of the pulpit, Charles Hadden Spurgeon, they reached a climax of Christian impact.

Historians tell us that the Victorian age in England may well have been one of the most significantly “churched” populations of history. That is to say, that the greatest percentage of the population somewhat regularly attended some type of church service.

By 1987 there had been a marked change in the religious demographics of England:

  • One-third of the Baptist churches had significant difficulty finding a pastor.
  • The average Sunday school attendance was thirty-four.
  • The average baptismal rate was one-half person per year.
  • Every nine days a church closed its doors for good.
  • Every fourteen days a Muslim mosque or learning center opened its doors to the future.

In seeing this frightening trend, I asked our research department at the North American Mission Board and study when the highest percent of the population in the United States somewhat regularly attended church. The answer came back—1958 and 1959. In eighty years England fell from a society greatly impacted by the church to an incredibly secular society. The United States now stands approximately halfway through that journey of eighty years since our high point of percentage of population being involved in church.

So let’s take a look at what impacted the church in the first century to change its world and turn it right side up. As the church exploded in the city of Jerusalem, the whole city became aware of this new life-changing movement. On the day of Pentecost, three thousand people placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Not many days hence, great numbers were being added daily as they put their faith in the risen Christ (Acts 2:47). Within weeks we are told that many who had heard the message believed and that the number of men placing their faith in Christ as Savior grew to about five thousand (Acts 4:4). With such great success it is no surprise that the Jewish leaders and the Roman government looked with alarm on this life-impacting set of beliefs.

As the church exploded, there had to be incredible excitement. However, success can also breed comfort zones. And God never called us to comfort zones but rather to conviction and commitment and to be on mission as a way of life. But there was one sure cure for the comfort of success—persecution.

Acts 8 tells us that as persecution came against the church at Jerusalem, the apostles stayed there, and Jerusalem served as the nerve center of the new church. However, godly men who had come to know Christ and had been discipled for Him spread out into the far reaches of the known world. The church had already penetrated Jerusalem and Judea; now it would bridge into Samaria—where it would have to cross economic, social, cultural, and linguistic barriers.

And of all people to be thrust into Samaria, we find a Jewish layman by the name of Philip being the chosen agent of change. This is significantly important because Samaria is the last place a Jewish man would have wanted to be sent on mission. Great racial and cultural tensions strained life between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were the result of the Assyrian invasion of Israel in Old Testament times. When many of the people were carried off into bondage, Assyrians moved in and intermarried with those who were left. The results of those marriages were children who would become Samaritans—half-breeds. And the true Jews resented and despised Samaritans.

Yet it was here that God and His unpredictable strategy sent Philip to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The Scripture tells us in Acts 8 that the equivalent of a Billy Graham Crusade broke out. What a marvel it must have been to Philip to see God move in the midst of a people whom Philip’s own kin despised. How could this be happening, and how could the gospel bridge such deep chasms?

Yet there it was, before his very eyes, in reality.

But once again God would do the unpredictable. In the middle of this major awakening in the city of Samaria, God’s Spirit came with a new assignment for Philip.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Phillip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:

“He was led like a sheep to slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea (Acts 8:26–40).

There are four powerful aspects about this story.

I. There Was a Perplexed Seeker

I want to tell you a few things about this perplexed seeker that are very relevant to our day and time.

This perplexed seeker was born ethnic. He was not of the same race or cultural background as Philip. Philip was having to extend even further across cultural, linguistic, and social barriers. This man most likely came from an area of what is today called the Sudan. The racial and cultural differences between Philip and this leader from the continent of Africa could not have been greater.

In similar ways our culture in America today is dramatically changing ethnically. I recently spoke in Houston, and a leader of the city told me that by the year 2020, the population will grow in a number equivalent to the entire population of San Antonio and that one out of every two people moving to Houston will be Hispanic. If you look at the 1990s in the demographics of our nation, you will find that the Anglo population experienced zero growth. This means there were as many deaths as there were births. At the same time, Asian, Hispanic, and African-American populations grew in double-digit percentages. It is estimated that by the year 2050 just under one-half of the United States will be white Anglo-Saxon. With that ethnicity comes a vastly different religious background.

Likewise today, our American society has seen a radical religious shift. The Muslim population seems to be superseding Judaism as the second largest religious body in our land, growing by 25 percent between 1989 and 1998. With more than one million Hindus, this religion is the second fastest-growing religion in North America. And Buddhism is growing nearly three times faster than Christianity.

This leader from Africa whom Philip baptized had also been to the big city. Going into the 1900s, some 30 percent of the population of the United States lived in cities. Today, a full 85 percent live in the top 276 metropolitan areas of our land. Taking just the top fifty cities, 57 percent of the U.S. population would be located in them. And one out of three people lives in the top-ten cities of our nation. And in these cities 81 percent of the African-Americans will be found. Eighty-eight percent of the Hispanics live in them. Ninety percent of the Asians make the cities their home. And a startling 48 percent of Native Americans are found in our cities.

In addition, the convert from Ethiopia had been to the big church. It says in Acts 8:27 that he had been “to Jerusalem to worship.” But unfortunately, he evidently didn’t find what he was looking for. George Barna tells us that today “people are desperate for spiritual truth—but they can’t find the answers they need in Christian churches. He further states, “Those have turned to Christianity and churches seeking truth and meaning and have left empty-handed, confused by the apparent inability of Christians themselves to implement the principles they profess.”

As I moved from being a senior pastor to being the president of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, I had a very difficult challenge. For the first time in years, I was looking for a church rather than a church looking for me. My wife Cheryl and I were amazed at how many churches we visited and the reception we experienced. Often, even when the church had greeters, they were spending more time talking to one another or other church members than they were greeting guests. Not once did we attend a Bible study class in which people invited us to sit with them during the worship service. No one ever asked us out for lunch or to join them. Overall, we found it to be a very lonely and troubling experience and couldn’t help but wonder how often this was happening across America.

Then we see that this perplexed seeker came away with big questions. Reading a scroll of the book of Isaiah, he was trying to sort out for himself a message he had evidently missed in worship. There must be a number of people like that in our land. In the research department of the North American Mission Board, we estimate that there are 224 million people in the United States and Canada who do not claim a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (200 million in the U.S. and 24 million in Canada). Tom Clegg and Warren Bird in their book Lost in America, report that in the year 2000 one-half of all churches in America did not add one new person through conversion growth. Theologian and religious analyst Tom Rainer, in collecting data for his book The Formerly Unchurched, found that it takes eighty-five Christians in the United States working over one year to produce just one convert! While the church is the primary institution in society which was created to exist for those who are not there yet, it seems that too often the church has fallen to the temptation of turning in on itself.

The amazing thing is that there are perplexed seekers like this, much like the searching man from Africa, all around us. I know that from personal experience. When Cheryl and I moved to the North Atlanta suburb to take this new position in 1997, we determined we must do what we asked others to do—reach out evangelistically to those surrounding us. We determined to begin a neighborhood Bible study. As we put together the flyer, we made it as attractive as possible and planned the launch for five weeks down the road. Passing out the flyers to neighbors in the surrounding several streets, we began to pray that God would do something special through this time.

I got busy traveling and sooner than expected, the five weeks were upon us. On the Thursday night we were to begin the Bible study, I had been gone for five days and arrived home at approximately five o’clock. Putting my luggage down in the hallway, I must honestly say there was a part of me that wished nobody would show up. I had been with people without stop for five days, and I was ready for a break! I just wanted to be brain-dead! In addition to that, I hadn’t eaten all day, and Cheryl told me I would just have time to grab a quick bite. Sitting down at the table, I smiled and suggested to Cheryl that if we turned out the lights in our house, nobody would know we were there. As usual, she just shook her head and went about her work getting my dinner ready. As I sat down and took the first bite, suddenly there was a knock at the door. Even as Cheryl made her way to the front of the house, I was calling out, “It’s still not too late to turn out the lights!”

But when she opened the door and we heard that voice, the night took on a whole different meaning. A mellow young voice in a female New York accent said, “Hi, I’m Toni Ann, and I need God! I’ve been to over ten churches trying to find Him, and none of them could tell me how to do that. I got your flyer a few weeks ago, and I thought this was my last hope. If I don’t find Him here, I’m giving up the search. Can I please come in? I’ve been sitting outside your house for over an hour.”

As Cheryl brought Toni Ann into the house, we had the privilege of sharing Christ with her. During the following day, Cheryl had the joy of seeing Toni Ann accept Jesus Christ as Savior.

But that’s not the miraculous part alone! In the following weeks her son came to know Jesus Christ. Her Jewish husband started asking a lot of questions. Her Jewish mother-in-law got involved in a Bible study in Mississippi on the book of Romans because of the change in Toni Ann’s life. Her sister made a renewed commitment to Jesus Christ. And at a bar mitzvah for her niece, her sister-in-law came up and exclaimed, “Toni Ann! What in the world has happened to you? You are just not the same person!”

As Toni Ann recounted the event to us, she said with a big grin, “And you know me, I couldn’t keep quiet so I just told her about Jesus right there in the midst of the bar mitzvah!”

My wife discipled Toni Ann for a year. When they finally moved to California, we were elated to get our first call from them. It seems that God had used Toni Ann to establish a brand-new Bible study and prayer group for mothers of school kids who gathered weekly in her new home to pray for students, the administration and faculty, and one another.

Are you looking for the perplexed seekers around you?

II. A Prepared Messenger

But second, in this passage, there is a prepared messenger. Never once does it indicate that Philip had to wonder what he should say or which approach to take. Instead, the message of Jesus Christ simply flowed out of him.

That’s exactly how the Bible says it ought to be with us. First Peter 3:15 clearly implores us, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” This is the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Christ’s charge to the church in Acts 1:8. He has charged us with making disciples, not just counting decisions. And it is to be accomplished by our being simple witnesses. It is important for us to remind ourselves that to be a witness is simply to be a person who honestly and straightforwardly testifies to what he has personally experienced.

It is in the context of being a witness that we simply take the initiative to share Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Then we leave the results to God! And as we do, we will never be the same. Paul made this clear in Philemon 6 when he said, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” This tells us that if we are active in sharing our faith, we will increasingly come to know every good thing we have in Christ. The opposite, however, is also true. If we aren’t regularly sharing Christ, we will not grow into a full understanding of everything we can experience in Christ. That’s why the Old Testament says, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say this” (Ps. 107:2).

But too often I find Christians who are like Magelina DeVrie. As Magelina came through security checks at the airport in Milan, Italy, security was concerned. She just didn’t look right. There was something about her that gave off clues that they had been trained to be on the lookout for. Yet every check seemed to indicate that everything was fine. When a complete check of her baggage and her clothing provided nothing as evidence, the head of security took a significant gamble—he asked that she be X-rayed. This was a great challenge because he knew if he was wrong he could be fired.

Amazement was the only word that could be used for what everyone felt when they saw the X-rays. In small balloons, Magelina DeBrie had swallowed a total of 10,999 small-cut diamonds and 217 emeralds. She was a walking treasure chest!

It reminds me of a lot of Christians. God has said He has put His treasure into the earthen vessels of our lives so that we in turn might give it away to others. But too often, we are simply trying to sneak the treasure through by keeping our lips sealed.

Far too often I hear people in churches say, “But, Bob, that is not my gift.” Though some would disagree with me, I do not find strong biblical evidence that evangelism is primarily a spiritual gift. Ephesians 4 makes clear that it is a spiritual leadership office of the church. I do not find strong evidence that evangelism is primarily a gift. Rather, I find an indication that it is a responsibility—a responsibility of every Christian!

Too often, also, well-meaning church members say, “But I witness by my life.” The difficulty with that is when we witness by our lives alone, the only thing we witness about is our own goodness. People cannot know what is making a difference within us. That is why Samuel Shoemaker, a converted layman of years ago who fell madly in love with Christ and giving Him away to others, said, “I cannot witness by my life alone; I must include my lips. For if I witness by my life alone, I proclaim too much of me and too little of Him.”

III. A Powerful Savior

The message in the text that Philip shares with the man from Ethiopia is that of a powerful Savior. Notice that when Philip had the opportunity to give the man understanding about what he was reading in Scripture, he never proclaimed a message about a pastor of a church. While the pastoral role of leadership is critically important, it is never to be the main message of the church.

Nor did Philip lift up some Christian personality. In our day Christian performers and entertainers have too often become front and center. I am thankful for the marvelous gifts of such talented people. But they must not be the central message or image of the church.

Nor did Philip tell this perplexed seeker about some special program that the church was having. In our day we are blessed with churches that have ministry upon ministry addressing every need imaginable. Yet even despite those kinds of resources, the message of Philip was not a program. Instead, the message of Philip, beginning from the very Scripture that the eunuch was reading, was Jesus!

It is the same message that Peter preached on the day of Pentecost when he stood boldly before the throngs of people and proclaimed, “Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!” (Acts 2:36). Paul, proclaiming the focus of his message in 1 Corinthians 2:2, said, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

The church’s message is not to be about a pastor; it is not to be about a personality or even a program—it is to be about a Savior! And His name is Jesus Christ! That is why Paul proclaimed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). That is the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Jesus alone must be the focus of the message in the New Testament church.

  • For those who are hungry, He is the Bread of life.
  • For those who are spiritually thirsty, He is the fountain of living water.
  • For those who are sick, He alone is the Great Physician.
  • For those who are troubled, He is the wonderful counselor.
  • For those who are lonely, He is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
  • For those who are lost, He is the Shepherd looking for the lost sheep.
  • For those who feel shut out, He alone is the open door.

IV. A Permanent Reminder

And lastly, you find in the account of Philip and the Ethiopian that there was a permanent reminder. Remember, God is not looking simply for decisions but for disciples. And the first step of discipleship in the New Testament church of the first century was believer’s baptism.

I wear a wedding ring on my left hand. I wear it proudly because it is a symbol of an act of commitment I have made. I want everybody to see it because it says, “I am taken.” I am not looking for another relationship, nor am I open to anything else. By an act of my will, I have given my life to a woman whom I love very much, and her name is Cheryl. I have made a public statement for the world to see that this commitment, having been made in the past, is ongoing in the present. In the same way, believer’s baptism is an outward picture of an inward reality of commitment. Once a believer in the New Testament church accepted Christ, he followed by believer’s baptism to publicly proclaim to the world that he had given his life to Jesus Christ and had invited Him into his life as Savior and Lord.

But there is a divine order in how it must happen. According to Scripture, there must be first a conviction of our need of Jesus Christ; next, a conversion by placing our faith in Him alone for a relationship with God; third, a public confession of that conviction and conversion by believer’s baptism.

If a person’s baptism is out of that order, it is out of divine order. That happened to me early in life. When I was ten years of age, my best friend went forward in a Sunday morning worship service. As I watched him walk down the aisle, numerous adults patted him on the back and gave him wonderful words of encouragement. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this must be a very good thing to do. I immediately fell in behind him.

Up in front of the church, a well-meaning and loving pastor greeted me. He asked me if I had come to make a decision, and I responded, “Yes.” He asked me if I wanted to make that decision that very day, and I responded, “Yes.” He asked me if I wanted to pray with him, and I responded (you guessed it), “Yes.”

And then we sat down on the front row and prayed. There was only one problem. The pastor was the only one who prayed. Soon I filled out a card, and two weeks later I was baptized. For over ten years I lived with the presumption that because I had gone forward and been baptized, I was a Christian. It was not until I was a young adult that I came to the point of knowing Romans 10:9–10. This passage plainly proclaims that everyone must make his own decision, with his own heart, and express his confession with his own lips. No one can do it for you.

Suddenly I had a dilemma. Now as a young adult having accepted Jesus Christ, I had already been baptized when I was ten years old. What was I to do? Due to embarrassment I decided to do nothing. It was not until I was thirty-five years of age and serving as a copastor of a church that I realized that I was out of divine order. While I had gone through the water at age ten, it had not been believer’s baptism because I was not a believer at that point. As a result, I had to humble myself and admit to my church that this was something God convicted me of, and as a result I needed to get it in proper order. And it was a key changing point of my life. You can’t obey Jesus Christ and take Him at His word and not see your life radically change.

So it was with this new believer from Africa. Seeing the water, and evidently understanding that this was the first act of discipleship in the New Testament church, he asked that the chariot be stopped and that he be baptized. And as Philip baptized him, suddenly the Spirit of God led Philip away. The gentleman from Africa would never see Philip again. The Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. He evidently took the message of Christ back to his continent and became the first seed of a great future harvest

How great was that investment of Philip? Amazing! Statistics tell us today that in the continent of Africa, twenty thousand people per day are coming to know Jesus Christ as Savior! Not a bad return on the investment of one man who, hearing the direction of Christ, obeyed it immediately and approached a perplexed seeker as a prepared messenger and shared with him a powerful Savior that led him to the experience of baptism, which would become a permanent reminder.

What perplexed seeker is God leading you toward today? Are you prepared?

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