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When God’s Promises are Hard to Believe
As we continue through our study in Acts, we'll continue seeing God fulfill promises which he made to his people in the Old Testament. We’ll see that to be the case this morning in this Ethiopian eunuch, even as this story of the Ethiopian is coming off the heels of the Spirit’s work of salvation in Samaria. God is making good on his purposes and promises which he made to Israel.
We need to hear this, and see it. The more we see and hear of God’s faithfulness to his great promises, the more we will be hopeful and joyful people in Christ. Is there a problem—perhaps a sin, an addiction, or a relationship problem, an affliction in life, that you might consider to be a hopeless situation? I don’t care who you are—we are always in need of greater hope in God’s promises. Charles Spurgeon once said “Hope, kindled by the divine promise, affects the entire life of a man in his inmost thoughts, ways, and feelings.” He also said “[Hope in God’s promises] will endure trials, conquer temptations, and enjoy heaven below.”
This Ethiopian eunuch, as well as the conversion of the Samaritans in last week’s passage, are shining examples of God’s faithfulness to seemingly impossible promises.
Promises Concerning Samaria and Jerusalem
Just take last week’s story of the Samaritans as an example. Right after Stephen is martyred, we saw last week that the gospel of Christ’s kingdom spreads away from Jerusalem to Samaria, of all places. We didn’t consider the significance of Samaria last week quite as much, so we’ll look at it this morning in a moment—but in a word, the Samaritans and Jews despised one another. There was an irreconcilable hostility, going all the way back to the divided kingdom almost 1000 years prior. Samaria—land of the Samaritans—was the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom, or Judah. Jerusalem and Samaria were politically divided—but, as history made it’s course to the 1stcentury, these two groups became culturally, ethnically, and religiously divided. But I ask you—what did God promise in the Old Testament? Jeremiah said to God’s people living in Judea, "Again you [in Judea] shall plan vineyards on the mountains of Samaria… [and] there will be [Samaritan] watchmen who will call out in the hill country of Ephraim, ‘arise, let us go up to Zion’”.
That’s an awesome promise that God makes through his prophet Jeremiah. Samaria and Jerusalem would once again be united. The Lord would somehow unite the divided kingdom of Israel, even as their divisions and hostilities only increased to the time of Jesus. Do you think Jews during Jesus’s time were quick to believe these promises as they personally experienced the hostility and coldness toward the Samaritans? God’s promises are sometimes hard to believe.
Promises to an Ethiopian Eunuch
Now, take today’s story into account. The gospel is spread to an Ethiopian eunuch. These two descriptions which Acts emphasizes about this man in verse 27 ought to make us pause and consider the power of God’s promises. This man, as an Ethiopian eunuch, had certain afflictions and miseries which might have seemed impossible to overcome. We’ll talk about those afflictions a bit later. For now, just consider some of the outstanding promises which God made for a man like this.
Take the fact that he was Ethiopian. In the Old Testament, the Ethiopians are referred to as Cushites. They were from the land of Cush, if you will. If you, a Jew, hear that God is working salvation among the Ethiopians, you might consider God’s promise in Psalm 87—
Among those who know me [in Jerusalem] I will remember Rahab and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush—
“This one was born there,” they say.
And of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
That’s a shocking statement. At some point in the future, it will be said of the Babylonian, the Philistine, and the Cushites (the Ethiopians) “this one was born there”, right there in Jerusalem. God won’t regard them as gentiles who converted. No, they’ll be registered as full-blooded citizens in God’s kingdom. That’s a mind boggling promise—I imagine it would have been difficult for the Jewish people to take in at face value before Christ made his appearance.
Then, there’s the matter of the Eunuch. Just so we’re clear, and I’ll just say this once—eunuchs are in that situation where they can’t have children due to an surgical operation (I think we the point). Now, what does God promise to eunuchs? Isaiah 56, verse 1—
Let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree”...
Then, verse 5,
I will give [him]… a monument and a name, better than sons and daughters.
That is—eunuchs won’t be regarded as a fruitless tree that can bear no fruit. Their name isn’t going to die with them. In some amazing way, they’ll get an everlasting name that won’t die out, and a possession better than children. If you’re a eunuch, I can imagine that promise being a bit hard to believe.
So consider some of the promises I’ve mentioned as we look at just this chapter, in Acts 8. (1) God promised to unite the deeply divided Samaritan and Jewish people. (2) God promised a time when Ethiopians and Babylonians and Philistines would essentially be full-blooded Israelites among God’s people. Then, (3) God promised even the eunuch imponderable blessings.
Here’s what I want us to consider, as we press into considering God’s work of salvation in our passage this morning—how often are we slow to believe God’s promises and power because our problems seem too great, or his promises seem too unbelievable? Often, we will look at the depth of our problems, and we only glance at God’s promises. The result, at the very least, is a sense of doubt or restless uncertainty. God’s promises are supposed to give us rest, confidence, and a certain peace in every situation. But if we keep the depth of our problems ever before us, and we really behold the great cavern we’re in, we often doubt. And I know this by experience—the doubt often sounds like Adam and Eve in the garden. “Did God actually say he’ll reconcile the divided kingdoms—even the Judea and Samaria? Did he really mean that?” Or perhaps, “did God actually mean he’s going to bring blessings to the childless eunuch—or, was that just some obscure passage?”
What are the Promises, and How do we Receive Them?
This morning, I want these stories in Acts to instill within us a deep confidence in God’s purposes, promises, and salvation through Christ. We’ll do this in two steps.
First, I want us to consider from these passages the promises we are called to receive, as God is accomplishing them in Christ. Second, I want us to consider how we receive these promises. The Ethiopian eunuch is a fantastic example for us, to teach us how we receive God’s promises.
So, (1) what promises are in these passages for us to receive?, and (2) how do we receive them?
What Promises are we Receiving?
So first, we need to know what gospel promises God is working through Christ. When the gospel is proclaimed to us—whether we’re brand new to the faith or decades in—we need to know and be reminded what gospel promises we are being offered every day of our lives as Christians.
Promise #1: Forgiven Sins
The first and greatest promise that undergirds our passage this morning is the core message of the gospel, from which everything else flows from. That message is quite simple—through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, your sins against God are forgiven, and you can stand in good fellowship with him.
That’s been the core message which the church proclaimed from the very beginning in Acts, and it’s the message that Philip no doubt proclaimed to the Samaritans and this Ethiopian Eunuch. Verse 35 of our passage says that Philip “told him the good news about Jesus”—what is that news? We see that good news at every turn of the page in Acts.
At Pentecost, Peter first proclaimed to the Jews in Acts 2:38, “repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”. Then in the next chapter, after Peter heals the lame beggar, he says it again. He said that because Christ died—“therefore repent, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out”—I love this—“so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord”. God sent Jesus to deal with sins, so that he might send seasons of refreshing grace to us from his very presence. The weight of the curse, and the pressing guilt upon every soul can be greatly lifted when we repent and recall the blessing of God’s forgiveness and favor to us in Christ. Perhaps you’ve been pressed by the curse so long, you struggle to believe God’s promise of refreshing grace. Well, Acts 3 tells you that it starts with truly understanding the gravity of Christ’s forgiveness.
That’s the message that the early church proclaimed from town to town. It was the first order of business everywhere they went. Last week, when we looked at the first half of chapter 8, we read about the church’s first exodus away from Jerusalem, as they were kicked out of Jerusalem due to persecution. Chapter 8, verse 4—“those who were scattered went about preaching the word”—that’s the word of forgiveness through the crucified and risen Jesus, just as Peter had been proclaiming. Then, the next verse (verse 5)—“Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ”. Verse 12 of chapter 8, “when [the Samaritans] believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized”. Here in chapter 8, the message of forgiveness in Christ’s death, and eternal life in his resurrection are quite simply condensed to these summary statements—“the proclaimed to them the Christ”. Or, “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.”. Everywhere the church went, they were principally concerned about preaching the word of forgiveness in Christ’s crucifixion, and the new life he offered them through his Christ’s resurrection and Holy Spirit.
Then, of course, that takes us to our passage concerning the Ethiopian eunuch. After the Spirit told Philip to go speak with this Ethiopian about the passage he was reading in Isaiah 53, we read in verse 35, “then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture [in Isaiah 53], he told him the good news about Jesus.” It’s not at all conjecture to say that Philip’s message from Isaiah 53 was quite simple—“This man who died an unjust death was Jesus—and he willingly died to satisfy God’s wrath against your sins. Then, he rose from the dead to offer you eternal life and hope and peace. Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of your maker”.
All of God’s imponderable promises for peace and joy begin with this message of forgiveness.
Promise #2: Knowing God
Now, what does this mean, then? You’re forgiven, in good fellowship with God—what’s that mean? It means God’s immediate presence and fellowship with God. That’s a huge promise undergirding our passage this morning.
As we’re considering God’s promises that bear weight into our passage in Acts 8 this morning, I want to take a step back and consider the promise that Stephen’s sermon and martyrdom testified to. This is important, as we consider the way the gospel immediately spread out into our passage, immediately after Stephen was martyred. What was Stephen’s martyrdom all about? What were the accusations against him, and what was his sermon illustrating?
If you can think back to two weeks ago, the Stephen was killed as the first Christian martyr under two accusations: (1) he blasphemes the temple, where we had fellowship with God; and (2) he blasphemes the law of Moses, where we have knowledge of God and his ways.
What did Stephen—or, even Jesus—say about these two blessings which Israel had (the temple, and the law)?Stephen was saying that fellowship with God, and knowledge of him, isn’t constrained to the temple and keeping the ceremonial laws of Moses. Jesus offered the final sacrifice, he’s poured his Spirit out on all flesh, and he’s fulfilled the temple and the ceremonial laws of Moses. By faith, Stephen was killed for proclaim that through Christ, knowing God intimately and personally is possible apart from the ceremonial sacrifices and priests. That is the greatest promise that God secured for us in Jesus—freedom to know him. Jesus himself said moments before he died on the cross, “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. There is no greater blessing than to know God through his grace and favor in Christ. When the apostles were proclaiming forgiveness in Christ and life through his risen Spirit, they were proclaiming that an intimate knowledge of God’s glory and beauty and love is immediately available to all who receive Jesus, apart from the temple. Literally—that’s what Stephen was killed for proclaiming, as this blasphemed the Jewish understanding of the temple and the law.
While this teaching got Stephen killed, it was the necessary teaching that made missions to Judea and Samaria and Ethiopia possible. God’s Spirit, through Christ, would draw people to a saving knowledge of him without any need of the temple in Jerusalem, or the external law of Moses. Simply, “repent, believe, and be baptized” is the new requirement for intimate fellowship with God, and for knowing him personally. Through Christ and his Spirit, individual believers would become God’s dwelling place, and the Spirit would write his law upon the believer’s heart (Jeremiah 31:31). What a privilege, to know God this way through the intercession of Jesus rather than earthly priests and a temple in Jerusalem. J. I. Packer once said—
What makes a life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?
Life is about knowing his peace, his power in reconciling enemies, his power over the curse, his purity, his kindness, his purifying grace in our own lives, his fatherly care and provisions. I have no doubt that these blessings and privileges were routinely being proclaimed as blessings associated with God’s forgiveness. Jesus spoke of these things, and we see them in Paul’s letters, as they all flow from forgiveness in Christ.
Now, those are some of the promises that served as the backdrop to our passage in Acts 8. (1) promise for forgiveness of sins, and (2) the promise of fellowship and knowledge of God apart from the temple and the ceremonial laws of Moses. Now, there are a number of promises in this respect which chapter 8 uniquely sheds light on, as we see the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Samaria, and then to this Ethiopian eunuch.
Promise #3: Impossible Conflicts are Reconciled
For one thing, I want to point out something from last week’s passage that I didn’t emphasize, although it bears weight into our passage this morning with the Ethiopian eunuch. Last week, we saw the gospel make it’s first move from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, as Philip proclaimed the gospel to Samaritans, and the Holy Spirit fell upon them through the Peter and John. Why is Samaria significant, in all this? Why did Jesus design that his gospel should be spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the rest of the world?
Perhaps you’ve heard about the tension between Jews and Samaritans in a sermon on the “good Samaritan”. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that a “good Samaritan” would have been a paradox to a Jewish mind during Jesus’s time. Samaritans, you see, were sort of a half-breed between the pure-blooded Jew and the gentiles. In the Old Testament, when you read the prophets who spoke against Israel and Samaria, you read how the northern kingdom unashamedly took pagan wives and gods, and assimilated quickly with the nations around them. The kings of the norther kingdom, who ruled from Samaria, were virtually all wicked kings. Meanwhile in the south, there was a just a little bit of loyalty to God. You got a good king in the south, every here and there. It took them a little bit longer to be kicked out of the promised land—and plus, they had Jerusalem, the city of David, with the temple.
So, the southern, more pious Jews grew to despise the Samaritans, and the feelings were mutual as centuries of conflict would grow. Perhaps you remember Jesus’s interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus asks the woman for a drink, and the woman’s response is priceless. ““How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Then John adds the comment, “(For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)” No dealings at all. It’s often said that their hostilities were so cold that they wouldn’t even speak to one another. As I said before, I imagine that the Jews of Jesus’s day secretly scoffed or jeered when they read in Jeremiah that God would one day unite Samaria and Jerusalem. This conflict is just too deep.
The gospel fixes that sort of hostility, and we’re supposed to see that in these early chapters of the gospel’s advancement. Centuries of hostilities gone over the course of a few days, perhaps a few hours as Philip preached and baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ. Verse 14 says that “when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit”. The same gospel, the same Spirit through the same apostles, in the name of the same Lord Jesus Christ and his forgiveness. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This has real life ramifications, as the gospel calls believers to forgive and live peacefully with one another, forgiving one another “as God in Christ has forgiven you”. God is the God of reconciliation—he calls for it, and we can hope for it through the powerful work of Christ. When Paul is calling for unity to the deeply divided and conflicted church in Corinth, he commends them to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things”. Perhaps there’s another believer who you certainly don’t “believe all things” or “hope all things” for. If you’re gazing at the person, or the nature of the conflict, I guarantee you won’t. The hope is in Jesus’s power and forgiveness. Start the process of healing by looking there, as the Jews and Samaritans did.
So, the hope we are to receive, as we see it in Acts, is (1) the promise of forgiveness (2) the promise of knowing God apart from the temple, and (3) reconciliation of seemingly impossible conflict.
Now, that’s mostly all in the background of our passage for this morning. Let’s look directly at the hope which Jesus offers this Ethiopian Eunuch.
Promise #4: The Proselyte’s Distance from God Resolved
If Peter’s preaching in Jerusalem was Jesus’s crusade to the Jews, and Philip’s preaching in Samaria was Jesus’s crusade to the half-Jews of Samaria who bred with the pagan nations, then we see in this Ethiopian Eunuch that Jesus is beginning his crusade to save the gentiles.
Now I’ll say from the very beginning, here, that it is significant that this Ethiopian was a proselyte Jew (an Ethiopian who converted to the Jewish faith). Verse 27 says that this man “came to Jerusalem to worship, and he was returning [to Ethiopia] seated in his chariot”. It’s quite likely that he came to Jerusalem to worship God during the festivals surrounding Pentecost—and, I imagine he at least heard about this new movement concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Some people suggest that this explains why the Ethiopian was trying to study the suffering servant in Isaiah 53—“is the prophet Isaiah speaking of himself, here, or of someone else—perhaps this Jesus guy?”.
Having said that, I want us to take a moment to consider what it meant for a proselyte to worship the God of Israel. What problems do you think a man like this faced? It’s possible that they were treated as second class Jews, although I’ve read mixed opinions on that. What I think was really daunting to any proselyte living in their homeland—say, in Ethiopia—was the matter of distance from God. The Jews in exile, in Babylon, come to mind. Being away from Jerusalem meant being away from the temple, away from God’s blessings, away from the great privilege of a unique fellowship with God’s people and through the sacrificial system. More than this—a proselyte Jew like this Ethiopian would have had to make difficult and long pilgrimages to the promised land to receive certain blessings. This Ethiopian was traveling back to Ethiopia after his pilgrimage.
Jesus fixes that—and, God promised to fix that.
This really is a re-hashing of what we saw Stephen martyred for—God’s promise for immediate fellowship through Christ, rather than through the Jewish temple. That’s a fantastic promise for an Ethiopian proselyte! It means God fulfilled his promise to Cush! Again, Psalm 87:4—“Among those who know me [in Jerusalem] I will remember Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush—“This one was born there,” they say”. God made this impossibility possible! By faith in Jesus, this Ethiopian—for all intents and purposes—was born in Jerusalem with the blessings of the sacrifices and the sanctuary immediately at his disposal. This Ethiopian, by faith, died to this world in Christ, and was raised with Christ to the heavenly Jerusalem where he can enjoy immediate fellowship with God forever. He no longer needs mediation through Jerusalem in Israel—he no longer needs to make pilgrimages. He is a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, when we see him continue his journey to Ethiopia in verse 39, “he went on his way rejoicing”, all the way back to Ethiopia. I can’t imagine why.
This Ethiopian discovered the fulfillment of God’s promises to the nations in a powerful way that day. But, there’s one more promise this Ethiopian saw fulfilled in Christ.
Promise #5: Hope in Debilitating Afflictions
That’s the promise for hope amidst debilitating afflictions. I recently spoke to a man who feels as though he’s wasted his life with a particularly worldly lifestyle. Perhaps you’ve met someone in their 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s who decided to turn their lives around, but they are plagued with a certain guilt and fear that they’ve wasted their lives. Perhaps you’ve been there, yourself.
Or perhaps something happened to you that drastically changed the course of your life’s promising trajectory—cancer, or some other debilitating medical situation.
In some ways, that’s the entire life of a eunuch. If you’re a eunuch as this man was, it means you are a servant—usually of the king’s Harlem, if you track where I’m going. What that situation means for you, then, is that you will never be able to have kids, that you’ll never make a lasting name or legacy for yourself, and you’ll most likely always be a servant of the king.
More than this, however, it meant that you wouldn’t be able to fully join God’s people. Deuteronomy 28:1 says that a eunuch shall not “enter the assembly of the Lord”. Can you imagine that? Consider this Ethiopian eunuch—making his journey all the way to Jerusalem where he can’t even fully participate with God’s people. I can imagine Isaiah 56 was heavy on his mind that week, as I quoted it earlier—“let not the eunuch say ‘I am a dry tree’… for… I will give [them] in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Jesus fulfills that awesome promise, as the Ethiopian went back to his homeland rejoicing. That name he had been given, of course, was Jesus. That house he was given is Jesus’s house in glory—an inheritance and blessing far greater than sons and daughters. Romans 8:32, “he who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” No matter what you think your seemingly hopeless and fruitless situation is here on earth, you have an eternal inheritance to look forward to. More than this, you have immediate fellowship with God right now, so that you can indeed redeem the time that you have left before you die, to joyfully serve your Savior.
So, those are a number of the imponderable promises that Jesus fulfills in this passage: (1) forgiveness of sins, (2) immediate fellowship with God, which caused this Ethiopian to return to Ethiopia rejoicing, (3) reconciliation to seemingly hopeless conflict, and (4) hope to those who have no name or legacy, by worldly standards.
Now, this leaves the question open—how do we receive these promises?
How do we Receive his Promises?
As I read earlier, Peter made it quite clear in his message at Pentecost, “repent and be baptized … and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”. Repent, believe, and enjoy God’s mark of baptism placed upon you. That’s how you receive these blessings, in a nutshell.
But, I want us to consider the unique details of this story. Philip was brought to this Ethiopian Eunuch by the Spirit of God. He was sent to this one man—all the way from Samaria, south past Jerusalem, then further south into the desert area by Gaza (in the middle of nowhere). What’s the point? The only way you will ever receive God’s blessings is if God’s Spirit brings these blessings to you. He needs to take the initiative—to send his messengers, his word and Spirit. Without God’s initiative, we’ll never hear, or be moved to believe in the power of these promises we’ve just mentioned. Pray that the Lord moves you to look away from yourselves, and that he compels you to ponder his powerful promises of peace, fellowship, reconciliation, and hope.
Pray also that God would send someone to you, or to your unbelieving friend, who might be God’s spokesman of grace. We see in this passage the role of God sending preachers, evangelists, people who can explain the gospel. “Do you understand what you’re reading?!”, Philip says to the Eunuch. “How can I, unless someone guides me?”. Paul says the same thing in Romans 10, that God’s messengers are necessary.
So, we receive God’s blessings through God’s initiative, and as he sends his messengers.
His messengers, then, explain the word. There’s another one. God’s word must be the centerpiece of your hope. Isaiah 53 was the centerpiece of this conversation between Phililp and the Ethiopian. You’re faith and confidence in God’s promises will be extremely weak if you don’t have his actual promises before you—reading them and memorizing them as if they were your life. We must have his word if we are to receive his promises.
Then, of course we receive God’s promises through the sacraments, and joyfully. This Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t simply say to Philip, “ok, thanks, I feel better, adios!”. He sought to be baptized as soon as he could, and he went away rejoicing. If you have been baptized, then God’s mark of forgiveness has been placed upon you. Baptism doesn’t save you—faith saves you. So by faith, receive your baptism as God’s demonstration to you that your sins have been washed away, and that you are clean. Let that be a means of grace and rejoicing to you.
Putting it All Together
So to say all this in a sentence—God’s extraordinary promises are shown forth to you in this passage, even promises for (1) forgiveness, (2) immediate fellowship with God, (3) reconciliation to seemingly hopeless conflict, and (4) hope for those without a worldly legacy; and those promises are received (1) on God’s initiative, (2) as sends his messengers, (3) uses his word, (4) baptizes you, and (5) sends you out rejoicing with faith and repentance.
I’m not going to lie—that’s a lot, but such is God’s grace. It’s a big picture of God’s grace at work in you all, this morning. Be encouraged. “He who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion on the day of Jesus Christ”. Believe God’s hard promises. Let’s pray.