But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth." And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?" And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus, and passing on he preached the gospel to all the towns till he came to Caesarea.
An Unlikely Candidate for Conversion
What stands out in this story is that a very unlikely candidate for conversion to Christ is found and converted through the supernatural leading of the Lord himself, and not through human planning. The person was from Ethiopia in Africa and had come all the way up to Jerusalem (at least 500 miles) to worship God (v. 27). So out of all the tens of thousands of Jews and Gentiles and Samaritans that need Christ, the Lord sovereignly sets his favor on this man and sends an angel to Philip, the deacon-evangelist, and says in verse 26, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."
The Perfect Timing of the Spirit
Philip goes, like Abraham probably, not knowing all that God has in mind. But when he gets to the road, the Spirit tells him the next step to take. This supernatural guidance comes one step at a time. In verse 29 the Spirit says, "Go up and join this chariot." That's all he says. Not what for. Nor who is in the chariot. Just go to the chariot.
The timing of the Spirit proves perfect. At that very moment Philip, no doubt wondering what he would do or say when he got to the chariot, hears the Ethiopian reading out loud the book of Isaiah (probably in the Greek version). And not only that the place where he is reading is a specific reference to the Messiah which Jesus had fulfilled in his death. Verse 32f.: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth" (Isaiah 53:7–8).
Philip Leads the Ethiopian Eunuch to Faith
Now Philip knows what the Lord has been doing in directing him to this desolate place where there is one lone chariot and man from Ethiopia. The Lord is having mercy on a man whose nationality and sexual impotence might have made him think the God of Israel would never care about him. And not only that, the Lord is orchestrating the evangelization of Ethiopia. We can't know for sure, but Irenaeus wrote in the second century that this Ethiopian became a missionary among his people (Against Heresies iii.12.8; cf. Psalm 68:31; 87:4).
Philip proclaimed the good news of Jesus to him (v. 35)—that "the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all" (Isaiah 53:6) and that we are set right with God through his death and resurrection (Isaiah 53:4–5, 11–12).
The Ethiopian believed, was baptized (v. 38) along the road, and went on his way rejoicing (v. 39), while Philip was taken up to Azotus by the Spirit.
What's the Point of This Story?
Now what is the point of this story? Why does Luke include it in the book of Acts? What does he want us to get out of this inspired story—since (as Paul says), "all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16)? How does this Scripture equip us for every good work?
I think the answer is that the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch teaches us one of the ways God uses to evangelize the world. I say "one of the ways God uses" because it is clear from the book of Acts that a lot of evangelism was done without an angel of the Lord having to tell the Christians to do it (e.g., 8:4). It's what one does if one loves Jesus and loves people. You tell the good news. Jesus already gave us a command to be about it in the Great Commission. So you don't have to have an angel of the Lord to tell you to do it any more than you need an angel of the Lord to tell you not to do it.
But on the other hand, we may be more in danger of making the other mistake, namely, of thinking that we can do all God wants done by simply evangelizing according to our own planning. So God includes in his inspired Word stories and teachings that equip us for another kind of good work—not just wise and prayerful planning on the basis of circumstances we can see, but also listening responsively to the Spirit when he may want to tell us to do something that we might never think of doing through our own planning—like, "Go down to a desert road that leads to Gaza and wait for further instructions." Philip could not have computed form Scripture and circumstances that that's where the Spirit was moving next.
So the Scriptures are wonderfully sufficient here—they protect us from the error of thinking that the only way God guides us in good work is by reasoning and planning from circumstances and principles (though this is good), and they show us that there are works God may lead us to do by means of extraordinary guidance. I count at least 18 instances of this extraordinary guidance in the book of Acts scattered among all the more ordinary ways of making decisions in evangelistic strategy. And since there is no teaching anywhere in the New Testament that says this work of the Lord is limited to the time of the book of Acts, we should assume that one of God's ways today of building his church is to give direction to his people in extraordinary ways as well as more ordinary ones.
Lloyd-Jones' Warning Not to Quench the Spirit
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the strong, Bible-based expository preacher of Westminster Chapel in London for almost 30 years between 1939 and 1968 used the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch to illustrate just this point. He cautioned against misuse, but he said,
Here again is a most extraordinary subject, and indeed a very fascinating one, and, from many angles, a most glorious one. There is no question but that God's people can look for and expect "leadings," "guidance," "indications of what they are meant to do." There are many examples of this in the Scriptures and I take one at random. You remember the story in Acts 8:26ff of how Philip the Evangelist was told by the angel of the Lord, "Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goes down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert". . .
Now there are leadings such as that . . . If you read the history of the saints, God's people throughout the centuries and especially the history of revivals, you will find that this is something which is perfectly clear and definite—men have been told by the Holy Spirit to do something; they knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking to them, and it transpired that it obviously was his leading. It seems clear to me that if we deny such a possibility we are again guilty of quenching the Spirit. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 89–90)
The reason I cite Martyn Lloyd-Jones is because he is one who believed in the unique authority and infallibility and sufficiency of the Scriptures. And one of the concerns expressed by people who love the Bible is that being open to supernatural guidance like Philip was might compromise the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Now obviously Martyn Lloyd-Jones did not think that it did. Why is that?
What the Sufficiency of Scripture Means
It's because what the sufficiency of Scripture means biblically is that Scripture gives us all we need for two things:
- it gives all the authoritative truth we need in order to be saved and grow spiritually, and
- it gives all the authoritative truth we need in order to make good judgments about what is right and wrong.
But the sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that God cannot speak through nature (Psalm 19:1) or that he cannot speak through the human conscience (Romans 2:15) or that he cannot speak through gifts of prophecy and wisdom (1 Corinthians 12:8–10). It means that these are not sufficient to save us or nurture us or guide us. But the Scriptures are sufficient, in the sense that they give the only authoritative rule for completing and assessing those other kinds of revelations.
An Analogy of a How-to Manual
Consider the analogy of a manual on how to use a sailboat. It says on the front of the manual: "All you need to know for successful sailing." So the manual claims to be a sufficient guide for sailing. You read in the manual on page 6, "Before hoisting the sail, be sure that you know the way the wind is blowing so as to put the rigging in proper position to avoid capsizing or injury." So you go out on the lake with the boat and before you hoist the sail, you hold a little cloth in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.
Suppose somebody said, "Hey, why are you lifting that cloth in the air to find out which way the wind is blowing? The manual says that it contains everything you need to know for successful sailing. Shouldn't you just look in the manual to learn which way the wind is blowing?"
That's the kind of mistake people make, I think, when they say that we should not be like Philip today and listen for the special direction of the Spirit in personal evangelism. The Bible doesn't rule out that special guidance and the Bible doesn't take its place. The Bible illustrates it, and the Bible advocates it, and the Bible regulates it—and it does so sufficiently. "All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." We have all the authoritative truth in the Bible that we need in order to properly discern and respond to God's voice in nature or in the conscience or in the dreams or visions or extraordinary revelations like: "Go south to a desert road that leads to Gaza, and await further instructions." Or: "Go up and join this chariot."
The Danger Doesn't Nullify the Value
I asked a pastor once, whose people were experiencing some of this extraordinary guidance, "Has the effect been to draw them away from the Bible? Is the excitement of receiving some special direction from the Lord making Bible reading seem dull and unattractive?" His answer was, "No. If anything, their experience is driving them to their Bibles more and more—not only for discernment, but also because they have discovered that there is a direct correlation between having the mind steeped and saturated with Scripture and being sensitive to the voice of the Spirit." If people are neglecting meditation on Scripture in favor of impressions and special words, you can be sure that their spiritual faculties will not be well tuned to hear the truth.
That's the way most cults and sects start. Someone claims a revelation and gets a following. That's why the Scripture is given to us as our only infallible and sufficient rule for judging all claims to divine guidance. So it can be dangerous to tell people to be open to the special leading of the Lord in personal evangelism and world evangelization (like Philip did). But it is dangerous like knives are dangerous. They can hurt people, but we don't outlaw them. Because, when rightly used, they are so helpful in preparing food, we don't want to do without them.
God May Be Offering Breakthroughs
I am sure that most of us have a long way to go in simply obeying what we know to be right to do in our everyday life. But it would be a mistake to say that we must arrive at perfection in one area before we take baby steps in another. I believe God may be offering breakthroughs in your life and in the life of our church especially in the ministry of evangelism and world missions if we were more like Philip. Acts 6:3 says that he (along with the other six "deacons") was "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom." And because he was full of the Spirit and wisdom (probably from long meditation on Scripture), he was alert to the voice of the Lord when one day the Spirit said, "I have a divine appointment for you. Go south to the road that leads to Gaza."
God is getting breakthroughs around the world today by the most extraordinary means. Steadfast, day-by-day perseverance in the ordinary means of grace is the meat and potatoes of the ministry that keeps the people of God fed and growing. But, just like in the book of Acts, God is also mingling in breakthroughs all over the world by extraordinary demonstrations of his presence.
Let me close with one example.
Clarence Duncan's Ministry to the Yao
In 1985 Clarence Duncan arrived in Africa as missionary to the solidly Muslim people called the Yao who live mainly in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Malawi. When he settled in his village, he called for a meeting with the elders. After the pleasantries the chief asked him his name. Clarence replied, "Mr. Clarence."
The council looked at each other for a moment and then the chief asked, "Why are you here?"
Again Clarence simply said, "I want to tell your people about Isa Al Mahsi (Jesus the Messiah)."
A couple months later, when the chief decided he could trust Clarence, he said, "Do you know why we allowed you to stay?"
Clarence said, "I never thought about it."
"Twenty-one years ago a very old Yao man came to our village and called for a meeting as you did. When we asked him his name, this Yao man said, 'Mr. Clarence'—which isn't an African name at all! When we asked him why he came, he said, 'I want to tell your people about Isa Al Mahsi.' These were your very words. Twenty-one years ago Mr. Clarence led four of our villagers to follow Jesus. So we ran them out of the village. And we killed Mr. Clarence. The reason we allowed you to stay was we were afraid."
That was 1985. Two years ago on a January morning 24 Muslim elders approached Clarence Duncan's house. After a meal the leader sat in the middle of the room and said that they had come to ask questions about Christianity. Clarence said fine but that he would only answer them by reading from the Bible so they would know he did not invent the answers. So he gave each of them a Bible in the trade language. The first question was, "Why do you Christians say that there are three gods?"
Clarence said the answer was found in Deuteronomy 6:4 and gave them the page: "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one!" And he mentioned that Isa (Jesus) said this very thing in Mark 12:29.
The questioning went on till five in the afternoon. When all had left, the leader, Sheik Abu Bakr, stayed and asked if he could see Clarence in a week.
When they met Abu asked if Clarence knew why they came to see him last week. Clarence said he assumed it was to ask questions. But Abu said, "No, it was because the Christian church is growing so fast we knew we had to kill you. We had consulted for three days and prepared our magic. You were to be struck dumb when we asked questions, then fall on the ground paralyzed and then die. But when you kept talking, and even stood up and moved around, we knew you had a stronger Spirit and gave up."
Then Abu said, "I want to become a Christian." And he told an amazing story.
"When I was a teenager, in our village we were not Muslim people and we were not Christian. We were Achewa people with our own religion. Behind our village was a hill where I would often go to pray.
"One day I was on that hill praying. Suddenly all around me was a blinding light. Out of this light I saw a big hand coming toward me holding an open book. I looked at the book and saw writing on the page. A Voice told me to read. I protested that I could not read, never having been to school. The Voice again told me to read. So I did. And suddenly the book and the hand disappeared.
"I ran back to my village and all the people were looking for me, thinking I had died on that hill! They asked about a fire they had seen up there. When I told them the story, they laughed at me saying, You can't read!
"Someone got a book and I began to read! Then people came from all around to find out more about what happened and asked questions. The Muslim authorities found out about me and I was trained in the ways of Islam. Soon all or our village became Muslim. For 15 years I was the greatest debater against the Christians."
He paused and then said, "You remember when I asked you the first question about why Christians believe in three gods? Your answer was Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 4."
"That's right," Clarence said.
Sheik Abu Bakr looked Clarence Duncan in the eye and said, "That was the same passage that this Voice on the mountain showed me. At that moment I knew that the God you were talking about was the True God!"
"Then why did you keep asking me all those questions the whole day?"
"Because," he smiled, "I wanted all these Muslim leaders to know what the Christians believe and I wanted them to hear it from you. The whole day I pretended unbelief so that I could ask more questions. Now I want to become a Christian."
In the midst of a life of steady, persevering faithfulness, God has yet more wonders to show us in the work of evangelism and world missions than we can imagine. Let's pray for eyes to see and ears to hear when he calls us to a divine appointment like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch had on the road to Gaza.