Today, we’re studying Acts 8. One of the compelling realities of a life of following Jesus is just how many wonderful (and at times frustrating) surprises there are. Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13v8), but the wind of God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes (John 3v8). The character of God is consistent throughout Scripture and yet the ways God carries out His will in the earth and the people He chooses on mission are often surprising.
At the beginning of Acts, the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus, “will you at this time restore Israel?” It was a great question. Jesus, Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, had been talking a lot about His kingdom and had just told them about a new kind of baptism as a sign of passage into His kingdom (the Spirit baptism John the Baptist prophesied about in Matthew 3v11).
Do you remember Jesus’ answer to the disciple’s question?
He said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority….” It’s going to be a surprise, in other words. Then Jesus offered a clue as to how to recognize the next divinely orchestrated surprises when they happened, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1v7-8) So far in Acts, we’ve seen the beginnings of that promise come true. Here in Acts 8, we will see the next expression of God’s surprising ways.
What Will You Learn from This Blog
The challenge of this study is for you to begin to develop a biblically-informed view of these two questions:
What Should Christians Do with Grief?
How Does God Respond to Outsiders?
Before We Begin
Before we begin, remember the surprise of Acts 6-7 was this guy Stephen, a Hellenistic, Jewish follower of Jesus. He and a few friends were appointed a specific ministry task, but Luke (the author of Acts) points out he was “full of grace”, “full of wisdom”, and “full of the God’s Spirit” (likening him to Moses and Joshua). Remember, Stephen was not just a servant-leader who was good at making sure widows were included in the distribution of their daily bread, he was a miracle-working, Spirit-empowered witness that Jesus was Israel’s crucified, risen, and ascended Messiah who gave one of the greatest sermons ever preached. Consider the high hopes the early church at large, and the Hellenists, in particular, would have put in this young man. Think of the potential impact this leader would have over a few decades of ministry. How horrified and devastated they must have felt to see him die so soon.
Listen to Acts 8
Now take a couple of minutes to listen to this Acts 8 reading.
What Should Christians Do with Grief? (Acts 8v1-25)
And Saul approved of (Stephen’s) execution.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
Now 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, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”
Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
In Acts 8, profound grief over Stephen’s public execution in Jerusalem somehow led to overwhelming joy in Samaria. How did this happen? This interesting combination of understandable sorrow and unexplainable happiness was not new to the Christian community. In their very recent memory, the followers of Jesus were still dealing with the emotional trauma of witnessing Jesus’ public execution in Jerusalem while also processing the joy of His resurrection. Stephen’s murder undoubtedly triggered those same emotions, and yet the joy that followed was also familiar.
Here in Acts 8, the Church has just “made great lamentation” over Stephen.
Lamentation isn’t new to the pages of Scripture. There’s an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations and there are a number of Psalms that express prayers of lament. In Psalm 6v6, for example, David cries out to God saying, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.” We don’t know exactly what lament the friends of Stephen prayed, but I can imagine it sounded a lot like that. “Rescue us, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of unjust and cruel men!” they may have borrowed from Psalm 71v4.
A prayer of lament is a kind of heart-wrenching outcry to God for Him to do something about unconscionable injustice.
It’s important to note in Acts 8, these devout friends of Stephen were not offering an accusative complaint by leveraging the power of their victimhood. That’s not a lament. For Christians, lament is an appeal to God on the basis of His good character in the name of Jesus, with the tenderhearted audacity of sonship. It’s the sort of prayer that really pleases God (remember this when you read Jesus’ words to Saul in Acts 9).
What should Christians do with grief?
Acts 8 doesn’t give us a “how-to” manual, but it does give us a story. This phrase “made great lamentation” is easy to miss in the narrative, but I believe it was critical to the emotional health of those who experienced it.
The result was the spread of the gospel into new territory.
Prayers of lament are an indispensable resource for those of us who experience profound loss. Lament is a channel big enough to process the anger, fears, and frustrations of whatever loss we face. Lament reminds us the joy on offer to followers of Jesus is not weak sentimentality or blind optimism. It’s a gritty hope in the face of sorrow.
Therein lies one surprising expression of the kind of Spirit-empowered witness Jesus promised. The church was on the move and lamentation enabled them to keep moving. When the people of Samaria responded to the Spirit’s work, the disciples remembered Jesus’ promise and recognized the beauty and wonder of God’s providence.
How Does God Respond to Outsiders? (Acts 8v26–40)
Now 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 place. And he rose and went.
And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over 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 someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from 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 carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Ethiopian eunuch: insider or outsider? In more than one sense, he was an insider. In his home country, he had access to the queen. In Jerusalem, he came as a worshiper. Yet, as the story reveals, he had traveled a long way only to discover the God He was seeking seemed inaccessibly distant. He didn’t understand. And by way of his lack of understanding, the Ethiopian eunuch was an outsider.
Philip: insider or outsider?
In many ways, Philip knew what it was like to be an outsider. Yes, he was a Jew, but one of the Hellenist sort. Yes, he had probably understood a little bit of Aramaic, but Greek was his native tongue. Yes, he was familiar with the Jerusalem temple customs, but he was not from Jerusalem. Yet, Philip had been chosen, alongside Stephen, to be a leader in the church. Philip was a follower of Jesus who knew Hebrew Scripture and its fulfillment in Christ. Phillip was an insider.
How does God respond to outsiders?
This story shows the lengths God will go to send insiders to reach outsiders. The Spirit-led Philip to a very specific location and then prompted him with a next step: “Go over and join this chariot.” Philip, the insider, did something undignified. He ran!
What must the Ethiopian dignitary thought when he saw Philip running alongside his chariot?
Philip, the insider, took a lowly position, to reach the outsider, at the Holy Spirit’s prompting. The Spirit inspired and empowered Philip’s witness, leading this man to Jesus. The Spirit inspired Philip the insider to come close, to be present with, the Ethiopian outsider.
For certain, this is a remarkably unique story, but it tells us something about the heart of God for outsiders. He’s paying attention to their prayers. He’s not forgotten them. They’re on His mind. He’s looking for insiders willing to participate in reaching them for His kingdom.
What outsiders might God point you to today? Are you willing to run to them when He does?
Next Week: Don’t miss what may be the most dramatic life-change story in history—Acts 9.
Read last week’s blog: Going Deeper: Acts 6-7 (12-Minute Bible Study)
The photo on this blog was taken by our very own photography volunteer, Isaac Martin. Check out more of his work here.