Evangelism Explosion — Part Two
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Evangelism Explosion — Part Two

Acts 8:1–25  (ID: 2444)

As the early church scattered and grew, its leaders began encountering challenging problems. Alistair Begg guides us through Philip the evangelist’s ministries, which were marked by such circumstances. In Samaria, the apostles confronted the new reality of a different people group accepting the Gospel yet not yet receiving the Holy Spirit. God wanted to make clear that these new believers had the same foundation of faith as the first believers at Pentecost—which is also the same foundation that we share today.

Series Containing This Sermon

When the Church Was Young

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let’s turn again to Acts chapter 8. And I’m sorely tempted to go to the good part, as it were, beginning in verse 26. And I’d like to get there, but as I look at my watch and I look at the text, it seems unlikely that we’re going to manage that. Because the part that we need to study—otherwise, you’ll say, “Oh, he just skipped the hard bit”—the part that we need to study is quite a difficult part. And so, for those of you who are looking for a peculiar blessing, you know, that’s going to be like a zap, it’s highly unlikely from this passage of Scripture. But if you are looking to become a student of the Bible and start to get to grips with what the Bible says and how to understand it, then I hope that it will be of help to us.

“The Most Extraordinary Statement in Acts”

Philip had to deal with the Simon factor. We saw that this morning. But he also had to deal with another factor, and that is referenced in the arrival of Peter and John in the fourteenth verse. The apostolic delegation was sent down from Jerusalem to find out just exactly what was going on. Remember that Philip himself was not an apostle. If you want to know where Philip pops up, you just turn back a page to Acts chapter 6, when the Seven were chosen. And they chose Stephen. We’ve already lost Stephen, then, in chapter 7. And he was “a man full of faith and … the Holy Spirit.”[1] And then second on the list of seven is Philip. And these men had been presented to the apostles; the apostles had laid their hands on them as a symbolic gesture of setting them apart to service. But there is no indication that Philip had gone down to the city in Samaria having been sent by the apostles in Jerusalem.

And when the news got back to Jerusalem of these conversions and baptisms, then the folks in Jerusalem were confronted with a situation that they’d never know before. Because up until this time, everything that was happening in terms of growth, in terms of evangelism, in terms of baptisms and faith, was all happening in Jerusalem. So there was no precedent for this. This was an unprecedented event. And the apostles—and this was to become a pattern, as we can see later in Acts—the apostles did what we would expect them to do: namely, they set two of their number aside to go down and to the city of Samaria and to find out exactly what was going on.

Because what they had here was a fledgling congregation. As soon as people are baptized and as soon as they have professed faith in Jesus Christ, then, of course, the pattern from Acts 2 was that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …, to the breaking of bread and to [the] prayer[s].”[2] And so the establishing of that pattern at least raised the possibility that since these people came from a Samaritan background and everything that had been happening had been within the context of Judaism, the opportunity for an immediate distinction and an immediate faction in the church was represented in this event. How were these people going to handle themselves? What were they going to do? Was it going to be a separate congregation? Was it going to be a church plant from Jerusalem? “What are we supposed to do with these people? We’ve never had to face this before.”

And it is in that context that they go down and visit the place. And in verse 15, “when they arrived, they prayed for them”—the people who were there, these converts—“that they might receive the Holy Spirit.” Now, here’s where it gets difficult. Verse 16: “Because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.” And “then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Howard Marshall, the New Testament commentator who was at Aberdeen University for so many years, refers to the sixteenth verse of Acts as “perhaps the most extraordinary statement in Acts.”[3] “Perhaps the most extraordinary statement in Acts.” Because it raises the question to anyone who’s thinking, “Why, then, was the Holy Spirit withheld? Why was the Holy Spirit not given commensurate with faith and belief exemplified in baptism? Why has this taken place in this way?”

Now, that question, of course, can be a cause for great confusion. And indeed, it is addressed in a variety of ways depending on the background from which people are coming. And I’m not going to try and tackle it exhaustively. I’m going to suggest that it is part of your homework. And if you don’t have a good commentary on Acts, then you could use this as a catalyst for getting one. And if you wanted to know one that would be really helpful, then you could take the commentary on Acts by John Stott and add it to your library, published by InterVarsity Press. And if you would like to go a little more technical than that, then the commentary by F. F. Bruce in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, the NICOT series, would also be a terrific help to you. And, of course, Howard Marshall’s commentary in the Tyndale series. You can tell I’m anticipating that you’re going to do a lot of homework on this. This is your reading list. If you read, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine as well. There is no set test, but I can guarantee that you will be helped.

In cutting through all of the various arguments—some of them are not worthy, really, of consideration—but when you get to the best of them, this is my best take on it. (And that’s as much as I can say for it at this time.) Why did God do this? Because clearly, this was an action on the part of God to withhold the giving of his Spirit in this framework. I think it makes sense to consider the fact that God wanted to make clear in this context, for the sake of the Samaritans as well as for the sake of the apostles and Philip the preacher, that what had taken place here was a real and genuine work of God and that by withholding the Spirit until the apostles showed up, it would be an indication of the fact that this, in a new environment, in a Samarian context, tied in with the Pentecostal outpouring which the apostles themselves had experienced—so that the Samaritan believers, who would be immediately prone to the possibility of thinking, “Well, we somehow or another got a raw deal. We didn’t get the real deal. The real deal was up in Jerusalem. But unfortunately, we weren’t in Jerusalem, so we didn’t get that special thing.” No, the Samaritan believers were going to understand that God was providing them with, if you like, special evidence so that these individuals who were routinely despised by the Jews would be able, in a very tangible way, to say, “What you got, we got. And we got it, if you like, in the way that God chose to give it.” It was one thing if you liked to be baptized by a freelance evangelist called Philip; it was another thing to be acknowledged and recognized and established by the apostles.

Now, we don’t want to overstate this, but it is important to think it out: God had authorized these apostles. He had done so in a way that wasn’t true of Philip. Therefore, it was important for the believers to know that their fledgling congregation… After all, it wasn’t in Jerusalem, and it hadn’t been established on the day of Pentecost. It had all the potential for people saying, “Well, you are a subservient group,” “You are a nonauthorized group,” or whatever it might be. And so the fledgling congregation needed some kind of evidence, needed some kind of assurance, that this congregation was being built on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles[4] in the way that God had established it in Pentecost.

So, when we think in terms of God acting in this way and choosing to operate in this way, there’s only, really, a couple of other places where we have these anomalies. One is in the household of Cornelius, which I think is in chapter 10, without looking, and the other is in relationship to the believers in Ephesus, where a unique event takes place,[5] and every indication seems to suggest that it is because it is a transitional moment in the development of the church, and God comes in a particular way in order to reinforce that fact.

Some of you have come out of a background where the way you’ve had this taught to you is “Well, what they needed to have was a second enduement of God, and that was what was happening here.” But that’s not what it says. It doesn’t say anything about a second enduement of the Holy Spirit. It says that those who believed and were baptized had not as yet received the Holy Spirit, and so God acted in this way.

Now, before we get ourselves all tied up in knots, at least potentially so, let me give you one of Stott’s wonderful quotes. Because immediately, our concern is to say, “Well, how does this relate to now? How does this apply to us? How are we supposed to understand it in relationship to congregation x or y?” Listen to Stott. It’s really helpful. He says, “The official visit and action of Peter and John were historically exceptional.” “Historically exceptional.” “These things have no precise parallels in our day, because there are no longer any Samaritans or any apostles of Christ. Today, because we are not Samaritans, we receive forgiveness and the Spirit together the moment we believe.”[6] So in other words, the anomaly that is represented there should not be something upon which we try and build a doctrine. And even when we’ve made our best attempt at understanding it and explaining it, we have to retreat from it, saying, “This is an anomalous situation. This is an historical exception. They understood what was going on. We may not get it exactly, but we don’t need to worry over it, because there is no direct application to our context.” And so you move on.

“The Faith That Was Once for All Entrusted to the Saints”

I think the more striking aspect of what takes place here has to do with the whole question, though, of the polity and structure of churches and the establishing of individual congregations. Because this is pivotal as well. What happens here in this growing family of faith in the city of Samaria is emblematic of what is about to happen in the Acts of the Apostles. When we affirm our belief, as we do in saying the creeds from time to time—although we don’t say them as often as we probably should—but when we say the creeds and affirm our belief in the catholic and apostolic church, we are not referring to the Roman Catholic notion of tracing a line down through bishops and popes. And if any of you think that we are, then you should know that we’re not. And the reason that we’re not is because that is not what the creed is saying. So when we affirm the nature of the universal church, its catholicity, and its apostolicity, we are not defending a notion that takes us to Rome and the hierarchical structure that emerges from there.

So, what, then, would an apostolic church be? What is an apostolic church? Some of you may have come out of an “Apostolic church” background. The church is actually called “The Apostolic Church.” And they make much of certain things, and it’s—I’ve got friends there and very happy relationships with them all. But it’s really wrong for them to sort of secure to themselves the terminology “We are an Apostolic church,” the inference being, “And if you’re not, then I guess you’re not.”

So, what do we even mean, and does it even matter? Yeah, we need to know what we mean, because it matters tremendously. It matters a great deal right now, actually. An apostolic church is one which consciously recognizes the distinctive authority of apostolic teaching. An apostolic church is one which consciously recognizes and submits to apostolic teaching. Where is apostolic teaching residing? Apostolic teaching is residing in the pages of the New Testament. Because God, remember… Christ speaks to the disciples—John 16—says, “The Spirit will come, and he will lead you into all truth,”[7] so that when the apostles spoke, they spoke “the very words of God.”[8] And when what was spoken was then written down, we had the inscripturated Word of God, which is “the faith once delivered to the saints” mentioned in the second-last book of the Bible in Jude: “I had to … urge you,” remember, Jude writes, “to contend for the faith that was once for all [delivered] to the saints.”[9] He’s referencing, there, apostolic doctrine—the things that the apostles taught about who Jesus is and what Jesus accomplished and where Jesus is and when Jesus will come. And it wasn’t infiltrated by layers of religiosity. It wasn’t infiltrated by schemes and dreams and machinations of human imagination. It was, in its pristine simplicity, established in the written record of the New Testament.

Apostolic succession is found in the ongoing communication of the gospel that the apostles preached.

So, we don’t have a succession of infallible popes or inspired prophets, but we have a deposit of inspired and infallible truth. That’s the distinction: not a succession of inspired and infallible bishops or popes but a succession which is directly related to understanding and obeying and proclaiming the truth that we have in the Bible.

So, where is an apostolic succession found? Well, the apostolic succession is found in the ongoing communication of the gospel that the apostles preached, “that was once [and] for all [delivered] to the saints” and that was to be passed on from generation to generation. So that’s why Paul, when he gets to the end of 2 Timothy, is so concerned, he’s so urgently involved, in getting this information to Timothy as a young man: because he’s already told Timothy that part of his responsibility is to “entrust” these truths “to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also,”[10] so that one generation may proclaim God’s deeds to another. And he, as the mighty apostle, is about to go the way of death, and he turns to his young lieutenant, and he says, “Now, Timothy, I want you to make sure that you stick to the material, that you don’t deviate from the path, that you are true. Up the fairway with a five iron. No funny stuff! Don’t get your driver out and try any new things. Just take a five iron and hit it up the fairway. Stay within the framework.”

Now, when you think about this for a moment, isn’t it remarkable, then, that the apostles Peter and John, having made their visit down here, went back to Jerusalem and left the congregation, apparently, to conduct its own affairs and to operate independently of any hierarchal structure? There is no indication in this instance, nor is there any indication that I can find in the Acts of the Apostles, of some kind of paternalism on the part of the Jerusalem church. No, they come down, they observe what’s going on, they are involved in the unfolding drama according to God’s plan and purpose in this exceptional circumstance, and then they leave, contented to say, “We have in common with them the same gospel, the same Holy Spirit, the same baptism, united in the same fellowship, involved in the same witness, and tied together with bonds of affection that are not denominational but are actually familial.”

So what in the world happened? How did the thing get so wacked out? How is it that within a matter of a few centuries, the church became an empire? You see, when you listen to some of your friends and neighbors talk, this is how they go at us: “We are the true church. We have the real deal. We have the headquarters. We’ve got the whole shooting match. You fellows have gone off somewhere, and it’s high time you got back. Now, you get back over here where you belong, because this is the way it’s always been.” No, it’s not! No, it’s not. This is not the way it’s always been. With the conversion of Constantine, a radical shift took place, because now, for the first time, we had a Roman emperor who was actually tied to the faith of Christianity. Up until that time, Christianity was a renegade group. They were scattered everywhere. They were gossiping the gospel. They were multivarious in their dimensions. They were in all kinds of little congregations. But they were not some great bureaucracy. They were not an empire.

And that’s why students of church history always have to answer the question, in their early classes, “Was the conversion of Constantine a help or a hindrance to the development of Christianity?” I remember I had to do that at school. I can’t remember what I said. It probably wasn’t very good. But it is a very important question. And what you really have from about the fourth century on, which takes us all the way into the Dark Ages, is a bureaucratic control, a hierarchal organization, that begins to create a paternalism that is without any basis in the New Testament at all.

And interestingly, in the current issue of Christianity Today, that fellow Ron Sider, who wrote a book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger some years ago and put the cat among the pigeons, has just completed another book. I didn’t read the book, but I read a review of the book. And in a question addressed to him, he said it is a sin for a congregation not to be part of a large denominational structure.[11] It’s a sin! Well, I understand that it is a sin to be isolationist: “Me first. Us in; everyone else out.” That’s a sin. But I don’t see how you can get to sin from the autonomy of local congregations in even a casual reading of the Acts of the Apostles, and of the Epistles. Where is the hierarchal structure? Where’s the paternalism? It’s not there.

And that’s why Martin Luther bursts out with this great cry, or these series of cries, you know: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And God lights a flame in the heart of a Roman Catholic monk who is embedded in the paternalism of the church, who is totally immersed in it. And along with his colleagues in Europe, they stand to cry “Sola Scriptura—it’s the Scriptures alone,” and “Sola gratia,” and “Sola fide,” and “Solus Christus.” These are the great cries. Now, you don’t have to be unkind in the way you speak about these things. You just have to be straightforward and honest and clear.

From Samaritan City to Ethiopian Eunuch

Well, it’s either stop or, you know, go to the next little bit. We’ll just start the next bit. Two minutes to start it off—get you started so you can do your homework. Verse 26. All the kids are going, “Oh, no! I can’t believe he did that.” Don’t worry, this is… You’re all right. Trust me. “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip…”

This takes it up a couple of notches, doesn’t it, from verse 5, where we simply read “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed Christ there”? This time we got an angel on the job. You know, if you think about somebody who’s an evangelist preaching to crowds in a city in Samaria and being asked to make a sixty-mile journey into the desert to who knows where for who knows what reason: probably going to take an angel to get the evangelist to do this. And so God dispatches one of his particular servants in order to get him out of a place that seemed to be phenomenally successful and into a place that would appear, to all intents and purposes, to really be of not great significance.

Now, what God has in mind, of course, is that Philip will be able to do privately what he’s been doing publicly. Instead of crowds, instead of preaching to crowds in a city, he’s going to preach to one man in a chariot. And God, as we’ll see when we look at this wonderful story, had been ordering the steps of this Ethiopian man. And his important government position had allowed him certain freedoms. He’d been to Jerusalem to worship. Presumably, somebody said, “If you want to visit the temple bookstore before you leave, I would encourage you to pick up some materials. You could perhaps take them and read them on your journey home.” And he’d gone into the temple bookstore, as it were, and he’d picked up part of a scroll. He was interested. He was intrigued. He was concerned. He was motivated. And as he sits in his chariot, he begins to read the Bible. And then it just goes from there.

You know I have these pictures. Not all of them are helpful. But I have this encounter very clearly in my mind. If I’m shooting this in a movie now, I’ve chosen my Ethiopian. Actually, I’ve narrowed it down to one or two. See, the Ethiopian is either going to be Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington. And so, there you have it. You have a chariot. You got Denzel in the chariot reading from the scroll. And as the chariot is trundling on its way, from nowhere, Dustin Hoffman appears and says, “Hey, do you understand what you’re reading?” So we’ll come back to Denzel and Dustin next time.

Father, thank you for the Bible. Make us students of your Word, we pray. Help us to love Christ as we learn to read our Bibles. Help us not to stumble over the hard parts but do our best and move on. Help us to view history in the framework of Scripture. And help us, Lord, as we think about our own lives, to make sure that we are trusting in you. We want to thank you for the wonderful way that you have worked in our lives, the wonder of your redemption and your goodness. We thank you for your sustaining grace, for keeping us through the years and all of the chances and changes of our lives right up until this night. And as we get ready to walk out from here, we pray that we might remind ourselves that “you have exalted above all things your name and your word”[12] and that all of the glory is due to you alone. And it’s in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

[1] Acts 6:5 (NIV 1984).

[2] Acts 2:42 (NIV 1984).

[3] I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 157.

[4] See Ephesians 2:20.

[5] See Acts 19:1–7.

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1990), 158.

[7] John 16:13 (paraphrased).

[8] 1 Peter 4:11 (NIV 1984).

[9] Jude 1:3 (NIV 1984).

[10] 2 Timothy 2:2 (ESV).

[11] Ron Sider, “The Evangelical Scandal,” interview by Stan Guthrie, Christianity Today, April 13, 2005, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/april/32.70.html.

[12] Psalm 138:2 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.