The transforming power of the Gospel of Christ

Readings…

a) Luke 24:13-35 – the two on the road to Emmaus.
b) Acts 8:26-40 – the one on the road to Ethiopia.

From the very day that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, the message of His death and resurrection has been changing lives in powerful ways. In these passages we read of two early examples of dramatic turning points in people’s lives. The accounts have many beautiful parallels when studied together, and they still speak to people today.

1. Sad departures from Jerusalem.

The two from Emmaus were present in Jerusalem at the time of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Possibly they were even among eyewitnesses who stood afar off, certainly they were among followers of Jesus and were well known by those who were witnesses. Although Jesus has spoken beforehand of both His death and His resurrection, and even amid rumours of His being seen alive again – the events of the crucifixion were so devastating that they turned their backs on Jerusalem and set off on as the saddest people ever to tread the well worn road to the village of Emmaus.

Some time later a chariot set off on a much longer journey away from Jersusalem. A most eminent man from Ethiopia had travelled to Jerusalem to worship, but he also left with doubt and confusion uppermost in his thoughts. He was the subject of the events recorded in Acts 8.

2. Failure in Jerusalem as a religious centre?

The two from Emmaus had been enthusiastic followers of Jesus. They were looking for a Messianic figure who would be a political and religious leader, bringing victory and freedom to the Jewish people. They had hoped Jesus was The One, but His death shattered their hopes and ambitions. It seemed as though Jerusalem was in fact the scene of the greatest let down in all of history. The Jewish leaders had opposed and rejected Jesus, and now they were left to wonder whether they had been wrong to pin their hopes in Him.

Later on, the Ethiopian had also placed great hope in finding religious fulfilment in Jerusalem. He was sure it was the global centre for true worship, but somehow none of his expectations were realised. He was leaving empty, disappointed and disillusioned. The religious leaders simply did not provide any explanation for the Scriptures he had been reading that led him to undertake such a great journey.

3. Reasoning and reading.

As the two people wearily trod the familiar road to Emmaus, they became engrossed in distressing thoughts and sad conversation. They “talked together of all these things which had happened… they conversed and reasoned”. This is all part of the human side of any spiritual journey. God expects that people will consider and reflect on the events that occur and the messages heard. The two were in no doubt that the recent events were of great significance, but just could not work things out for themselves. I don’t think that their topic diverted from the one thing that overwhelmed their minds and thoughts – who was Jesus and what did His death signify? There was no small talk, I’m sure.

We are not told that the Ethiopian had any human companions. There may well have been an entourage, but there was certainly no-one at hand to help in his spiritual questionings. However, He did have a book – or probably a scroll – as his companion for the long journey home. The contents of a certain passage in the writings were uppermost in his mind. But he just could not work out the message, although he sensed that it was of great importance. The book was the Old Testament, or at least the portion of Scripture we know as the Book of Isaiah. His whole mind was engrossed in considering the passage we now recognise as Isaiah 53. I don’t think he was even aware anymore of where he was on the journey, or of the carriage, or of the landscape he was passing through.

4. A stranger draws near and goes with them.

The two on the road to Emmaus were barely aware of another person joining them. While they conversed and reasoned another person “drew near and went with them”. He should have been familiar to them, but Luke tells us that “their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him”. As reader we are told directly that it was Jesus Himself – the risen Saviour who they thought was confined to a grave and confined to pages of past history – it was the very subject of their sad conversations who was drawing near to them. This was indeed an extraordinary circumstance.

In a similar manner, some time later, also in rather extraordinary circumstances, a man suddenly appeared in the middle of the desert running alongside the chariot heading for Ethiopia. The person was Philip, one of the few people in the New Testament identified specifically as an evangelist. Not long before, Philip had been preaching in Samaria, but he had just been instructed by an angel of the Lord to “arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza”. Philip would have known very well the strangeness of the instruction – for our benefit as readers we are told that it was desolate desert country. However, he left the buzz of the busy evangelistic campaign and obediently headed for the desert road. Then the Spirit said to Philip “Go and overtake this chariot” and so he drew alongside the vehicle to overtake it. There was to be an appointment with the occupant of the chariot.

5. Conversation – opening questions.

To the two travellers to Emmaus, the stranger entered the conversation by asking “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?”. Notice how it is gentle and indirect, simply observing their grief and inviting them to express for themselves what is on their hearts. Jesus started with these people just where they were. He did not jump on them with aggressive statements or questions.

We note how the evangelist followed the same principle as his Saviour and Lord. He quickly realised that the writings and the contents were crucial to the encounter, so even before being invited into the chariot he simply asked “Do you understand what you are reading?” Again, space was being given to the person to respond with whatever background account he might feel necessary.

We note that there could be lessons for personal evangelists of today… In fact, discerning Christian readers will find useful lessons in every step of these accounts in how to approach personal evangelism. We must start with assessing just where the hearer is on their own spiritual journey and giving them space to speak for themselves. For now we will proceed with exploring the continuing parallels between the two accounts.

6. Conversation – developing interaction.

The two heading for Emmaus respond with a question of their own, astonished that anyone within striking distance of Jerusalem could be unaware of the momentous events of the past ten days from the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Jesus, the very One at the heart of these events then asks one of the most poignant questions in the whole of recorded history – “What things?” Again, he gives space for the two to unload the burden of their experiences, and the hopes that had surrounded their links to Jesus now having been turned to doubts and fears. The whole passage from the rest of verse 20 to verse 24 details their response, even including the rumours of resurrection which had done nothing to overcome their desolation. They seem set to go on and on, and eventually Jesus takes it upon Himself to intervene.

By / in the chariot crossing the desert a conversation also developed. Again, the Ethiopian responded at first with a question of his own – “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me?” At which point, the Ethiopian does ask the expiring (or very fit) evangelist up to join him in the chariot. There follows the shared reading of the passage of Scripture concerned, which could hardly have been either more appropriate or more important. “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;” through to “For His life was taken from the earth” (Isaiah 53:7,8). In this instance it is the Ethiopian who asks the perfect leading question… “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” Philip had no doubt now about why he had been sent on this mission…

7. Significant intervention from the strangers – Jesus is preached.

Finally, Jesus Himself took charge of the conversation with the two as they got nearer to the destination of Emmaus. He did reprimand them – “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken”. He then spoke the words recorded about Christ suffering and entering into His glory. Then follows the most significant part of what Jesus Himself did – “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself”. Many commentators have expressed how this must have been one of the most wonderful experiences any human beings have ever had on this earth. Two people with the risen Lord Jesus all to themselves in this remarkable talk He must have given to them. This was the first true Gospel preaching, and the preacher was Jesus Himself!

The account of Philip and the Ethiopian is as beautiful as it is simple. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him”. Both accounts concentrate entirely on the Scriptures and on the person of Jesus Christ, focusing on His death and resurrection. These are two of the earliest and most significant accounts of the sharing of the gospel message to individuals or very small groups, and their parallels must surely leave an unmistakable sense that they provide patterns which continue to be important to follow.

8-9 – Opening of eyes and confirmation by the two great Christian institutions.

Having reached home in Emmaus, the two people invite the remarkable stranger into their home and provided a meal. During the meal the stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. It was then that there eyes were opened and they knew it was Jesus – the risen Saviour. Now they became true believers in Him as Son of God and Saviour, who had died for sin and risen again for the provision of justification and eternal life. Such significance in so few words….

Continuing the journey along the desert road, Philip and the Ethiopian passed a notable sight – some water. Philip immediately asks about being baptised. Philip first requires confirmation of what the Ethiopian now understands after his preaching about Jesus. Philip answered by saying “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and it is clear from the context that he fully understands the meaning of the death and resurrection of the Son of God for the forgiveness of sin and provision of the gift of eternal life. His eyes had now been opened and he was a believer, and very shortly became baptised as an outward symbol of his new birth into the body of Christ.

10 – Disappearances.

In their home in Emmaus, just as soon as He had been recognised, Jesus vanished.

Immediately on Philip and the Ethiopian coming up from the water of baptism, “the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more”.

11 – Doubt and sorrow transformed to certainty and joy.

By now both accounts have become urgent and breathless in tone. But it is reported that the hearts of the two from Emmaus had been burning even while still walking home as Jesus opened up the Scriptures. After the breaking of the bread and opening of their eyes their joy must have been overwhelming as they suddenly apprehended the true meaning and significance of all that had happened over the past few days. Far from being the end, the death of Jesus was but the door into a glorious new future for Him and for them as His followers. He was confirmed as the Messiah Saviour, the Lord of all.

Philip too finally had his doubts and questions answered in the most remarkable way, that gave him solid and lasting joys in the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Son of God and as his personal Saviour.

12 – Resumed journeys.

Here there is a contrast. The two from Emmaus immediately left their home, turned around and retraced their steps to Jerusalem. They had no doubt that Jerusalem was the place to be, as the disciples were to regroup and await instructions from the risen Lord. What a contrast – a joyful, excited return to the place that had so recently seemed to be the grave of all their hopes. We get just a tantalising glimpse of the excited reunion of the followers of Jesus as they all experienced the same great transformation in their lives as the reality of the person, work and provision of Jesus for them dawned in their minds, their hearts and their very souls. These blessed disciples and followers of Jesus saw and received the first gospel messages from the risen Lord Jesus Himself. However, they in turn were instructed by the Lord to spread abroad the message from Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. They all, like Philip, discovered that faithful proclamtion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in accord with the Scriptures and in the power of the Holy Spirit had just the same transforming power on others as Jesus Himself had had on each of them.

In the desert heading south, a chariot continued on a long journey still heading south away from Jerusalem, once more with a single occupant. But now he too was full of joy and certainty with a most wonderful message to take to his homeland so far away. How quickly the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ was spreading around the world, and with what dramatic and lating results in the lives of individuals. “…and he went on his way rejoicing”. How we would love to know more about his homecoming and the ongoing results as he in turn could now open up the Scriptures to the people of Ethiopia. He in turn could do the work of an evangelist and “preach Jesus” to his own people. What we can have no doubt about is that many more lives were transformed in Ethiopia, and they are continuing to be transformed there right up to this very day.

The vital lessons to learn are these.

a) The spiritual needs of all individuals are the same.
b) In personal evangelism, people should be given space to speak for themselves, and initial conversation or questioning should be gentle while keeping seeking to keep to the subject of the gospel.
c) Scripture and the person and work of Jesus – His death and resurrection and the salvation we all need and that He alone offers – are vital to the content of the message.
d) The transforming power is still the same today through the Holy Spirit as it it was through the risen Lord Himself. This is an amazing truth that should inspire all of us who are slow to take up opportunities of sharing the gospel person to person.
e) These accounts are clearly shared in the Bible because of their importance as encounters with clear and positive results. Not all endeavours will meet with success, but we must be assured that God is still at work – He desires that all should be saved and is not willing that any should perish. He desires all to undergo the same transformation, and the Holy Spirit is at work convicting the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment to come.
f) Trusting Christ is meant to bring assurance, certainty and joy in salvation and in the knowledge of Christ as personal Saviour. Jesus and Philip disappeared soon after the encounters because their ongoing presence was not necessary, even for Philip travelling alone to Ethiopia. He now had the open Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit. Christian fellowship is vitally important, but any true transforming work of the Spirit will endure and is permanent in its effect in each individual, in line with the exceedingly great and precious salvation promises, and preachers should have confidence in the power of the gospel message provided it is being shared faithfully.
g) The Holy Spirit can speak and convert directly through Scripture or the reading of literature. People are often reached individually in large gatherings. However, there is always some sort of personal spiritual journey in the background, and God calls believers to be engaged in personal evangelism to help in bringing people into a proper understanding of the gospel. (As the writer of this article, I am all too painfully aware that the message points powerfully to myself first in failure to live up to this calling).

May believers be encouraged and challenged in the fresh consideration of these powerful accounts of the gospel transforming lives, following the pattern given by the risen Lord Jesus Himself.

 

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