In Touch with God
Philip: the Touch of God
Reading Acts for the first time, none of us would have guessed when we came to the dawn of Philip’s ministry in chapter 6 that he would ascend to such spiritual heights in chapter 8. Philip’s ministry began as a lay-deacon humbly doling out the widow’s portions in the Jerusalem church. But it soared to unimagined heights when persecution hit. Though he was not a “pro,” God’s power coursed through him to the despised Samaritans, and large numbers of them believed the good news and were saved.
In the last half of Acts 8 Philip’s ministry is still at its zenith. However, instead of the vast multitudes of Samaria, the transforming touch of God now comes through Philip to one man in a desert place far from the teeming city. God valued that individual as much as the multitudes, and he used Philip to touch his life.
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought
By the touch of the Master’s hand.
Each of us, like Philip, can bear the gracious touch of God to others.
In Touch with the Spirit (Vv. 26–29)
When Philip was installed as deacon, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3). That means he exhibited the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control—and that he had a melody in his heart (cf. Galatians 5:22–23; Ephesians 5:18ff.).
Being in touch with the Holy Spirit, Philip was open to the Spirit’s direction. This sensitivity to divine guidance was a major factor in his becoming the touch of God to others. We must all beware of rigid suppositions as to how the Holy Spirit works or leads. We cannot assume that since God directed men in a certain way in the past, that is the way he will do it for anyone who is truly Spirit-led today. For example, some preachers have looked down on me for developing my sermons beforehand and thus not being subject to the Spirit’s guidance while preaching. (The other side of the coin is the story of the preacher who told his congregation one Sunday morning, “I have had a terrible week and have not been able to prepare, so I am going to have to depend on the Holy Spirit. But let me assure you, this will never happen again!”) We must never confine the Spirit’s guidance to the box of past experience. He just will not fit!
Philip had enough spiritual understanding not to resist the unfolding guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit first directed Philip through persecution to leave his ministry in Jerusalem and go to Samaria for a much wider ministry. Philip knew by experience that God directs by difficulties, but he did not believe that is the only way God leads.
Next Philip was led by an angel. As Philip was busy ministering in Samaria, “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…” (vv. 26–27a). Hebrews 1:14 tells us that angels are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.” All of us, all the time, are being touched by the ministry of angels, though we usually do not see them. The point is, God guided Philip in a new way, and Philip was enough in touch to respond.
As we read on, we see Philip’s continued openness to the Spirit’s unique direction:
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.” (vv. 27–29)
Philip obeyed the subjective inner voice of the Holy Spirit. He remained open as to how God would lead him.
When we are in touch with the Holy Spirit, we will be sensitive to his guidance—sometimes through difficulties, sometimes through an inner voice, maybe even through angels—and thus we will be the touch of God to others.
Philip was so in touch with the Spirit that he was not only flexible as to how the Holy Spirit would lead, but as to where the Spirit would use him. And he was obedient. Put yourself in Philip’s place. You are not one of the Twelve or the Big Three, but you really have something going in the Samaritan crusade. Simon the magician has been defeated. The entire town thinks your message is God’s truth and knows you are from God. It is a happy time—a marvelous revival, and suddenly the Lord tells you to take a hike to, of all places, the desert! Philip went from an exciting city and a growing congregation to a lonely desert road and a congregation of one. It would have been so easy to be discouraged. “Lord, do you really want me to go to the desert? There is nothing there but lizards. Have I not proved myself worthy of a broader ministry? I have been faithful in the small things—I even waited on the widows. And now the desert? Lord… !”
But that is not how Philip responded. He was ready to serve anywhere anytime. This is a great example to emulate. Over the years I have encountered individuals who are absolutely blah until they are in front of a crowd of several hundred, and suddenly they were ministers who were excited, charming, full of power! The refreshing reverse of this happened when I recently met Billy Graham. Almost the first thing he said was, “Do not call me Dr. Graham. I do not have an earned doctorate. I am just Billy.” Then he went on to ask questions about me, my wife, my children. Humble submission to the Spirit of God is essential for joyful living and effective service.
Philip was so in touch with the Spirit that he became the touch of God anywhere and in any way and to anyone that God asked him to be. He was flexible and sensitive to the Spirit’s direction. These are wonderful qualities, but the transcending element of Philip’s divine touch was his obedience to the Lord: “And he arose and went” (v. 26); “Philip ran up to the chariot” (v. 30). Why did God use Philip? Were not there other laymen who could have served just as well? Maybe not. Perhaps his obedient spirit was unique at that time.
The text presents two perspectives on the Ethiopian eunuch’s coming to Christ. From above we see the sovereign God working in a man’s heart in such a way that after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem he remains spiritually hungry. While reading a scroll of Isaiah as he is borne across the desert in a chariot, he encounters a Spirit-sent ambassador of Christ, Philip, who leads him to the Savior.
From ground level we see the role of human obedience. Would the eunuch have been saved even if Philip had disobeyed? The question is irrelevant. God chooses to use human obedience to carry out his plan. Exactly whom he uses or how is incidental. As Lloyd Ogilvie says, “The Lord of all creation has ordained that he would do his work through us. Our seeking the Spirit’s guidance and obeying what he wants us to do and say is the way he works to bless the world.” God’s sovereign work plus man’s obedience brings the touch of God to needy human lives. Put another way, there are all kinds of “chance” meetings ready to take place in a life that is sensitive and obedient to God’s leading.
Ian Thomas tells of getting on an airplane and being so tired that he planned to just curl up and sleep. But then he heard a “psssst” and then another “psssst.” Looking in the direction of the sound, he heard a man say, “I am reading in the Bible about Nicodemus in John 3, and I do not understand it. Do you know anything about the Bible?”
Once when I was flying back from a hectic missions conference in California, I was looking forward to reading Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm. But as I got on the plane I prayed, “Lord, if you want me to share Christ with someone, I am willing.” As I sat down, the seat next to me was already occupied by a young man reading an Isaac Asimov novel. I took out my Lewis and said, “Are you enjoying the book?” I do not even remember the jet taking off or the meal being served, but I do know I had the opportunity to share Christ with a young man who lived within five blocks of my former California residence. I was so caught up in my divine appointment that I left my Letters to Malcolm on the plane!
Divine appointments await us if we are obedient to God’s leading. That was Philip’s experience, and it can be ours.
In Touch with the Gospel (Vv. 30–38)
Imagine how Philip’s heart jumped when he saw the Ethiopian’s entourage out there in the desert. It must have been an impressive caravan because the man was the secretary of the treasury for the Candace Dynasty of the kingdom of what was then known as Ethiopia (between the Egyptian city of Aswan and the Sudanese city of Khartoum, corresponding to the modern region called Nubia). The eunuch was a black man and therefore a Gentile. He had just completed a thousand-mile religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem and had a searching heart. Evidently while in Ethiopia he had come under the influence of Judaism and had gone to Jerusalem to become either a proselyte or a near proselyte. Most commentators feel he was probably a full proselyte because he had a copy of the Scriptures, which were then difficult to obtain.
In any event, he was a noble man on a noble search. As he traveled along in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah 53:7–8 aloud (as was the universal practice in the ancient world). And suddenly there stood Philip, God’s hitchhiker. “Have Spirit, will travel.”
Philip was so much in touch with the Spirit and God’s Word that what followed came naturally.
The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip 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 the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. ln 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. (vv. 29–35)
Note that final phrase: “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.” There is perhaps no better place in the Old Testament from which to preach Jesus. No doubt Philip took the man through all twelve verses of Isaiah 53, describing his royal lineage, the Incarnation, the vicarious atonement. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” I am sure Philip explained about the suffering and resurrected Messiah—and what he said was absolutely revolutionizing. Dr. Longenecker says, “A doctrine of a suffering Messiah was unheard of and considered unthinkable in first-century Jewish religious circles.” Undoubtedly Philip quoted other Scriptures as well (Psalm 22; 34; 69; 118; Isaiah 42–44; 49; 50), and the two men examined them together. Only the angels know how long they rode in the chariot. But we know that the Ethiopian was convinced and marvelously converted!
The principle here is clear: all of us are called to be in touch with the Spirit and with the gospel. All of us should be able to explain Christ from the Scriptures. Unfortunately, too few can do so.
Meanwhile, the eunuch was not only convinced—he wanted to take the next step.
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?” Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The official answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. (vv. 36–38)
As a proselyte or near proselyte, the Ethiopian knew that baptism was the expected external symbol for a Gentile’s repentance and conversion. Maybe Philip even ended his explanation of the gospel with an appeal for baptism like Peter did at Pentecost. For whatever reason, a memorable baptismal service took place in that ancient desert setting while the eunuch’s dark-hued attendants looked on. Luke concludes that narrative in verses 39–40:
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.
The result of Philip’s Samaritan ministry was “great joy” (v. 8), and here the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). The touch of God produces genuine joy! Philip disappeared, but he was not missed, for the black man now had Christ! Irenaeus says this man became the first missionary to the Ethiopians, and it may well be true. He certainly would not have been able to keep his merriment to himself!
In Touch with People
Reportedly a man stood up in one of D. L. Moody’s meetings and said, “I have been for five years on the Mount of Transfiguration.” “How many souls have you won to Christ?” was the sharp question that came from Moody in an instant. “Well, I do not know.” “Have you won any?” persisted Moody. “I do not know that I have,” answered the man. “Well,” said Moody, “sit down then. When a man gets so high that he cannot reach down and save others, there is something wrong.” It does little good to be in touch with the Spirit and the Word if we are not in touch with people.
If Philip had not loved people with Christ’s love, he would never have reached across the substantial barriers between Samaritans and Jews. It was the same with the Gentile Ethiopian. Philip loved Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, whites, blacks—it made no difference. He was in touch with people and genuinely cared about them.
George MacDonald wrote:
I said: “Let me walk in the field.”
He said: “No, walk in the town.”
I said: “There are no flowers there.”
He said: “No flowers, but a crown.”
I said: “But the skies are black;
There is nothing but noise and din.”
And he wept as he sent me back—
“There is more,” he said;
“There is sin.”
I said: “But the air is thick,
And fogs are veiling the sun.”
He answered, “Yet souls are sick,
And souls in the dark undone!”
I said: “I shall miss the light,
And friends will miss me, they say.”
He answered: “Choose tonight
If I am to miss you or they.”
I pleaded for time to be given.
He said: “Is it hard to decide?
It will not seem so hard in Heaven
To have followed the steps of your Guide.”
I cast one look at the fields,
Then set my face to the town;
He said, “My child, do you yield?
Will you leave the flowers for the crown?”
Then into his hand went mine;
And into my heart came He;
And I walk in a light divine,
The path I had feared to see.
God’s path leads to people!
The book of Acts gives us a glimpse of the dawn of Philip’s ministry and a rather extended look at the great high noon of his service for Christ. It also provides us with a brief peek at his life near sunset.
Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. (21:8–9)
Twenty years have now passed, and Philip’s stellar ministry has faded from prominence but not from obedience and faithfulness. His four gifted daughters are testimonies to that. As the shadows lengthened with the years, Philip the deacon remained in touch with the Spirit, in touch with the Word, and in touch with people and so continued to be the touch of God to others. Paul and Luke found rest and restoration under his favored roof.
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar in Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green. (Psalm 92:12–14)
To bring a touch of the Master’s hand to those around us, we must:
1. Daily yield to the Spirit’s guidance, remembering that he guides in many different ways.
2. Understand and proclaim the gospel—the old, old story of God’s gracious rescue of repentant sinners.
3. Love people with God’s love.
O Lord, may we each be full of the Spirit, full of the gospel, full of your compassion for people—sinners who need a Savior. May we each bear your touch today and in days to come! Please help us to be channels of your grace to all those around us. Thank you for your willingness to use us to reach others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Hughes, R. Kent, Preaching the Word: Acts—The Church Afire, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books) 1998, c1996.