"The Adventure of Obedience"
(Delivered Sunday, June 1, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
(This morning, we had the opportunity to hear the testimony of some friends whom God has led into a local ministry supported by our church. I gave the following message after they shared their testimony.)
I have had the advantage of knowing our guests long before they were doing what they are now doing in the Lord's service. No one back then - including themselves - could have imagined that God would have led them to where they are now. But that's why I love their testimony so much. It illustrates that obedience to God is a great adventure; and once you step forward and say "yes" to what He calls you to do, you never know what marvelous places in His service He'll then take you.
Our walk with Jesus is a great adventure of faith that begins with simple obedience to His call. And I'd like to share very briefly from a passage of Scripture that illustrates that. It's from the Book of Acts, and concerns something that happened to the disciple Philip.
* * * * * * * * * *
Philip was a normal flesh-and-blood man - no different from you or me. But he was also outstanding in his obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We first meet him during a time of trial in the church; when it was necessary for the believers to select some leaders to deal with an important problem. The apostles ordered the church, "... Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business ..." (Acts 6:3). And among the seven that they chose was Philip. He was a man who had an outstanding reputation among the saints as someone who lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, and who was conformed to God's wisdom as revealed in His word.
That phrase - "filled with the Holy Spirit" - has become confusing in our day; and that's too bad because its meaning is really quite simple. When the Bible says that someone was "filled with wrath" (Luke 4:28), we clearly understand that to mean that their actions and behavior were controlled, in a prevailing and pervasive way, by the emotion of wrath. Or when the Bible tells us that someone was "filled with joy" (2 Tim. 1:4), we understand that to mean that such a person was dominated, in a prevailing and pervasive way, by the emotion of joy. Likewise, for a Christian to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" simply means that his or her attitudes, actions and emotions are being influenced and directed, in a prevailing and pervasive way, by the second Person of the Trinity - the indwelling Holy Spirit. We become "filled with the Holy Spirit" by yielding ourselves completely over to His sovereign rule in our lives, conforming ourselves faithfully to the directions of Scripture, and obediently doing as the Spirit commands.
And such a 'filling of the Holy Spirit' was the chief characteristic of Philip. He was a man who was completely yielded to the rule of Jesus Christ over His life; and the indwelling Spirit therefore held dominion over him. He was a man who was submitted to God's word, who was therefore faithfully doing what the Holy Spirit told Him to do. That's why the church felt led to entrust an important position of leadership to him.
And that leads us to our passage. It's the story of how the Spirit of God led Philip on a great adventure; and of how that adventure began with simple obedience to the Spirit's call. I'd like to read this story all the way through; and then, pull out a few of the principles that it has to teach us.
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, "Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is desert. So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. Then the Spirit said to Philip; "Go near and overtake this chariot." So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. The place in the Scripture which he read was this:
* * * * * * * * * *
I believe this story has much to teach us about our own "adventure of obedience" in God's will for our lives. And I believe that it illustrates that the place to start is to be what Philip was - a man or woman who is "filled with the Spirit" (that is, ruled over and influenced in a prevailing and pervasive way by the Holy Spirit). Every believer in this room can leave our service this morning "filled with the Holy Spirit". What a wonderful thing that would be! And what's more, every believer in this room can take the first step today in a great adventure of obedience to God - the surprising destination of which only He knows. But we can never expect God to take us on a great adventure in His will if we are not first yielded, in the whole of our lives, to the rule of the Holy Spirit.
What might God's adventure for you look like? The adventure God took Philip on was the kind of exciting and thrilling adventure almost any one of us would want to be on. But honesty demands that I admit that the adventure God has for you or me may be quite different in character from Philip's. For some of us, the adventure He has in mind for us may involve hardship, or trials, or suffering. In inviting you to go on this adventure, I won't engage in any 'false advertising' with you; the going might be tough. When the Lord called the apostle Paul, He said, "... He is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before the Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel" (Acts 9:15); and that certainly sounds exciting. But He then said, "For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake" (v. 16). And that certainly characterized Paul's adventure.
But even if the adventure God calls you to is a difficult one, you can know for certain that the Holy Spirit who leads you in it will also protect you, strengthen you, and uphold you through it. The divine hand that points the way is also the same one that carries you on the journey. You never have to fear stepping forward in obedience to God, and saying yes to His adventure for you - no matter what it may involve. You'll always find that, in an ultimate sense, it is far more satisfying and fulfilling to be walking in the Holy Spirit and in God's will during a time of trouble and trial then it could ever be in any other circumstance independent of the Spirit and outside God's will. And as our friends' testimony this morning shows us, God's adventure will take you to places you never imagined. You may find that the way there is rough; but once there, you'll find that you couldn't imagine being anywhere else!
Let's look again at this passage, then. Assuming the filling of the Holy Spirit, what principles of being led in God's will does this story teach us? To begin with, it teaches us that ...
1. THE FIRST STEP MAY BE GOD'S CALL TO A PLACE OF OBEDIENCE THAT WE NEVER WOULD HAVE CHOSEN (v. 26).
I see this in verse 26. An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip and said, "Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." And the writer, Luke, adds this editorial comment: "This is desert" - or, as it is in the NASB, "This is a desert road".
Historians tell us that the city of Gaza had been destroyed a little over a hundred years before Philip's day; and while a new city had been built nearby, the old city was left "desert".1 So the word "desert" may refer to a description of the place itself, or it may be a reference to the nature of the road to the place. And what's more, the word "south" can not only be used to describe the direction; but the same word can also be used to describe the time of day we call "noon" or "midday" - being the combination of the Greek words for "middle" and "day" (cf. Acts 22:6).2 Either way, this was an undesirable place to go; and no one would travel this hot and dusty path, to such a hot and dusty place, at such a hot and dusty time of day, without a very good reason for doing so. It was not a place of ministry that Philip would have chosen for himself if he could.
Similarly, God may call us to a place of ministry that seems unlikely, or potentially unfruitful, or perhaps even decidedly unpleasant. It may not be that an angel that calls us to walk down a specific road in a specific direction. Instead, it might be the quiet prompting of the Holy Spirit, through a clear command of the Scriptures, to lovingly offer a word of encouragement to someone, or to confront someone about a matter of sin in their lives. Or it might involve a sense of God's call to take on a seemingly insignificant task of service or ministry. Sometimes, God calls us to do something undesirable - something that we wouldn't want to do - as the very thing that will lead us into a greater and more fulfilling area of ministry than we could have ever imagined.
Philip's story teaches us that the pathway to God's great adventure of ministry for us begins with that first faithful step of obedience. Is there something that God is calling you to do that you know - and He knows - you really don't want to do, but are convicted that you should do? Obeying God in that undesirable call is what it means to take the first step.
* * * * * * * * * *
But what happens after that first step is taken? Where do we go from there? A second important principle we learn from the story of Philip is that ...
2. GOD MAY ONLY REVEAL THE NEXT STEPS IN THE JOURNEY WHILE WE'RE WELL ON THE WAY (vv. 27-29).
Philip arose and faithfully did as he was commanded to do. He was called to simply walk down a long, dusty road at a certain, particularly hot time of day, in a particular direction; and he put foot forward and did what he was commanded. And it was along the way that his eyes fell upon a chariot that containing a very important man from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was the land south of Egypt; and in Philip's day, it was a prosperous and culturally rich one. Because the king of Ethiopia was viewed as a divine ruler, he would entrust the administrative details of his kingdom to the queen - giving her the title "Candace" (which meant "ruler of the children"3). The man that Philip saw was a man of great importance, because he was an official of the queen - entrusted with the management of the vast Ethiopian treasury.
Ordinarily, a man such as Philip would not pursue such a chariot, but would stand respectfully aside and watch as the chariot of such an important foreign dignitary rode into the distance. But look at what happened. When Philip saw this man, the Holy Spirit told Philip, "Go near and overtake this chariot" (v. 29). God gave Philip no further instructions than that. It seems clear that Philip knew what to do once that happened, though. And make sure you understand that, if Philip had waited to take the first step until he knew ALL the steps in God's plan for him in advance, nothing ever would have happened.
This reminds us that God may wait to give us subsequent steps to His plan for us until after we have faithfully and obediently taken the first step. It's like what I found in my first job out of high-school, when I used to drive and steer old bob-tail trucks. They didn't have power steering; and it was very hard to turn the wheel and steer one of those old trucks when it wasn't in motion. You have to grip the wheel with both hands and strain to turn it. But once the truck was moving and rolling on the ground, I found that I could easily steer it with one finger. Similarly, it may be God's plan to wait, before revealing the next step in His plan for you, until after you have faithfully taken the first step and are moving forward.
Many people sit and wait for God's leading until they know everything He wants them to do. But that's not how God works. He calls us to do the one thing that He sets before us to do; and then, we become easier to lead when we are faithfully in motion. So then; when you clearly see what God wants you to do as the most immediate next step in His plan, don't wait to obey until you have all the plan laid out before you. Obey the command He has placed before you right now, and get moving - trusting that, once you're moving, He will easily steer you to the next thing He wants you to do.
* * * * * * * * * *
Another thing this story teaches us is that ...
3. ONCE WE'RE WHERE HE WANTS US, GOD WILL PROVE HOW MUCH HE HAD BEEN DOING BEHIND THE SCENES (vv. 30-38).
As we examine the story following Philip's obedience, we find that the way the details of this event all came together is amazing. Not only did Philip catch up, just in time, with the chariot to see the man, but he caught the man as he was making a return trip home from Jerusalem where he worshiped. This Ethiopian leader was a spiritually sensitive man who, perhaps, was seeking to become a proselyte to Judaism. In any event, he was clearly seeking after the God of Israel. What timing that Philip should be there to catch up with him then!
As Philip drew near, he could hear that this man was reading aloud from the Scriptures. And it just so happened that the passage he was reading was one from the prophet Isaiah. Specifically, he was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 - reading one of the most remarkably clear prophecies of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for sinners in all the Old Testament! How marvelous that, out of all the Scriptures he could have been reading, he was reading from that particular passage!
Hearing him, Philip - jogging along side the chariot - asked the man if he understood what he was reading. And perhaps ordinarily, such a man would have been involved enough what he was reading to tell this inquisitive commoner to beat it. But because he was confused by what he read, and because he felt a burning passion in his soul to understand it, he turned to Philip and said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he then invited humble Philip to join him in the chariot and explain it to him. Philip could never have arranged such a thing in his own power! But God had it all planned out. How amazing that God had already worked such receptiveness into the man's heart!
Then reading the passage about Jesus, the Ethiopian official asked the perfect question to ask a faithful, Spirit-filled Christian like Philip: "I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this ...?" Ordinarily, you have to build interest into someone before they'd listen to you tell them about Jesus. But this man already had the interest built up!! I love how it says, "Then Philip opened his mouth ..." It was clearly as if it had all been set up for him in advance! He simply begun from that Scripture passage, and told the man all about Jesus. How wonderfully God prepares, in advance, the hearts of those He sends us to!!
And there's still more. Remember what sort of a road they were traveling on? How could we believe that it was coincidence that, just at the right moment in Philip's gospel presentation, they should come across - of all things - water?!! "See, here is water," the Ethiopian man said. "What hinders me from being baptized?" (v. 36). And so, they stopped the chariot, and Philip baptized the man then and there! How thrilling it is to see the way God arranged every detail of this trip in advance - even a place to have an impromptu baptism in the desert!
Chuck Swindall once defined "providence" as "The belief that the events of our lives are not ruled by chance or fate but by our sovereign God and loving Lord who works out His plan and purpose in the lives of all His children."4 Do you realize that the same God that worked in Philip's situation is also working in your life? The Bible says, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).
As God's servants, we can go wherever He commands us to go, and do whatever He commands us to do - even into places that, to us, don't make sense to go; or into works that, to us, don't seem worthwhile to perform - knowing that He controls all the details. We can be sure that, for the one detail of His plan that He allows us to see Him perform, He also has a host of other things going on behind the scenes that we don't even know about. When we remain faithful to His call, and when the time is right, He will wonderfully and gloriously bring it all together in a way that only He can.
* * * * * * * * * *
There's one more thing I notice from all this ...
4. OUR FAITHFULNESS TO GOD IN ONE ADVENTURE PREPARES US FOR ANOTHER STEP IN HIS ITINERARY FOR US (vv. 39-40).
We're simply told that, as soon as they came up out of the water, "the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing" (v. 39). We're not told how this happened, or even what exactly it means. We're just told that, when this matter was over, the Spirit swept Philip away and took him on to the next step.
I'm not so sure even Philip knew how that happened. All that Luke tells us is that Philip was "found" or "appeared" in another nearby city; and passing through up along the coast in the opposite direction from the one he had been heading, he preached the gospel all the way up to the city of Caesarea. The point isn't how it happened that the Spirit took Philip off onto another adventure; but rather that it happened. The next time we read of Philip, it's some twenty years later in Acts 21. He had apparently taken up residence in Caesrea; and had raised a family. In fact, God gave him four virgin daughters who ministered prophetically to the church (Acts 21:9). And by this time, we read that Philip himself has a new title among the people of God: "Philip the Evangelist" (v. 8).
Among all the other things God accomplished through this seemingly unlikely call, we see that Philip's obedience to God in it was also an important step toward another great work God had in store for him. If you follow all of this on the map, you'll see that the place from which Philip began - that is, Samaria - is relatively close to the place he ended up - that is, Caesarea. The call God gave to Philip took him far away and back again. But it wasn't a pointless detour. Philip never would have entered into the next phase of God's plan for him if he hadn't been faithful to obey God's call to him in that first, initial step of obedience.
* * * * * * * * * *
I believe God has a unique place of ministry - an exciting adventure - for every believer in this room, if they will but accept it. Is there something that God is calling you to do? Is there someone He is calling you to serve? Is there someone He is calling you to talk to? Is that God's call to you? The great adventure begins by obeying Him faithfully by doing the thing that He places before you to do. He can take you from there to places you'd never dream - if you will but obey! That's how you start off in the "adventure of obedience".
1F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, p. 174.
2Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 400; mesÍmbria being the compound of mesos (middle) and hÍmera (day). Note that BAGD lists this word in both uses.
3Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, pp. 205-6.
4Chuck Swindall, Growing Deep in The Christian Life (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1986), p. 420.
Missed a message? Check the Archives!
Copyright © 2003 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights ReservedPrintable Version
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436