Early this morning (28 April 2019) Gideons from throughout our region gathered at First Baptist Church of Oxford. The occasion was this year’s “Rally Day,” a day on which Gideon speakers visit numerous churches in an area in order to speak about the Gideon ministry and to raise funds to purchase scriptures for distribution. While I normally speak in a church on these occasions, today I was instead asked to provide a word of exhortation to those assigned to speak. The following is the text of that talk.
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 Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 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. (Acts 8:26-40)
While attending Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, an unbelieving student noticed a Gideon giving away little green New Testaments to students entering the cafeteria. Relieved that the man did not stop him and try to share the Gospel with him right then, the student took the Bible out of politeness, never really intending to read it. He threw it onto the shelf of his dorm room, and didn’t look at it again until the end of the semester.
After final exams, the young man had to wait a week for his parents to pick him up and take him home, and he found himself with nothing to do. He found that New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs while cleaning his room and, without something better to do, he began to read in Psalm 62: Truly my soul waiteth upon God: from Him cometh my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation; he is my defence; I shall not be greatly moved. He didn’t understand those words at first, but providentially he found a commentary on Psalms and Proverbs in a pile of unwanted books in the dorm basement. Armed with extra help, he began to study that Gideon Bible some more, and the Lord began to open his mind and heart to the Gospel. After returning home, he went to a church where he heard the Gospel preached, and gave his heart to Christ. He later served God as a minister, and as a Navy chaplain.
I’m sure we’ve all read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch a number of times, and I’ll bet that at different times various aspects of the story jumped out at us. Maybe it was the miraculous way in which Philip was instructed to attend this divine appointment, and then the even more miraculous way that he was carried away. Maybe it is the way that Philip used Isaiah 53—a very directly messianic passage in Isaiah—as a starting point from which to preach Christ crucified to the man. As a former Baptist-turned-Presbyterian I’ve even read a number of interesting arguments from various perspectives about what it means that Philip and the eunuch “went down into the water.” Of course, the most important thing is that this man confessed Christ as Lord and Savior, and indeed a Christian church has existed in Ethiopia practically since the time this man returned home.
But for our purposes this morning what I want to point out is that, in God’s providence, this man’s conversion began with him reading the Bible himself. There aren’t too many examples of what we would call personal Bible study recorded in the Scriptures, given how difficult to produce and expensive to obtain those documents were at the time, so it is especially remarkable that Luke, under the Spirit’s direction, records for us a conversion story that begins in precisely this way. Let me share another testimony with you.
This is the story of a girl raised in a family of avowed atheists. These were loving, hospitable people, yet they were openly hostile to the Bible and to the Gospel. Still, her curiosity piqued, this girl “stole” a Gideon hotel Bible while on a family trip. Inexplicably drawn to the Book, she read in her bedroom at night, hoping her family would not find out. After leaving home for college she met a Christian girl in her dorm that explained the meaning of the stories she had read in that Gideon Bible, and as a result she was saved. In process of time, and after much prayer, most of her remaining family members also came to saving faith. Her mother, however, was stubborn and resistant, not even allowing the Bible or God to be discussed in her presence. She softened, though, when she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One afternoon, the woman that had “stolen” a red Gideon hotel Bible years before found that same Bible in her mother’s house, and used it to lead her mother to Jesus Christ. In this case, a single five-dollar copy of God’s Word was used by God to bring about the salvation of an entire family.
I chose to include these two testimonies with the discussion of Acts 8 this morning because all of the stories take a similar shape. First we have a person reading the Bible on his or her own—perhaps for reasons the person doesn’t yet understand—and having the beginnings of spiritual life stirred within. We know from Scripture that even this is from God working upon their souls—in John 6:44 Jesus himself says
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
And yet none of these individuals were brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ from reading alone. While this sometimes happens and we are thankful for this, more often it is through Christian witness and especially the preaching ministry of the church that the Holy Spirit brings those awakened through reading the scriptures to the place that they understand, repent, and believe the gospel. This ought not to surprise us either—Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2 that
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The scriptures are impossible to fully understand and believe without the Spirit’s enabling, and thus faithful preaching and Christian witness by those already so enabled are most often needed to bring people to repentance and faith.
So what we have in these three accounts—one scriptural and the others selected from among thousands of Gideon testimonies—is a person reading the Word, coming to some spiritual understanding on his or her own, and finally coming to saving faith when Christians come alongside them and lead them to Christ.
So what are we as Gideons to do? Three things.
1. Pray. We must pray for both opportunity and ability to distribute scriptures, and then pray that God would use those scriptures to save sinners. From beginning to end we are dependent upon God to provide funds and opportunity to do this work, to provide “Philips” to those who read the scriptures so that they can understand and respond, and then finally to bring people to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus. In Acts 16 we read of Lydia’s response to Paul’s preaching with these words:
The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16:14b)
Saving souls is God’s work, not ours, and it is a work in which he delights. It is our privilege to have a small part in that work, and that part begins with our praying for every aspect of this ministry, and especially for the salvation of men, women, boys, and girls around the world.
2. “Sow Seeds.” I often speak of the Gideon ministry with reference to the Parable of the Sower, speaking of these Bibles and Testaments as seeds that we are scattering everywhere we can, and once again praying that God would bring forth a great harvest. Sometimes we get the opportunity to “water those seeds” also through a word of witness or inviting a person to church, sometimes not. Either way, again, it is God who gives the growth, just as Paul said to the church at Corinth,
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)
I suppose that brings us back to prayer again, since we pray for faithfulness and opportunity in planting and watering, and just like a farmer we depend upon God to provide the harvest.
3. Encourage One Another. Finally, we are to encourage one another, or to use “Gideon-speak,” we are to associate together for service. The author to the Hebrews wrote this in Chapter 10:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
This text is most often used to exhort people to regular church attendance and participation, and rightly so, but the idea applies to us as Gideons also. As much as it rubs against my introvert tendencies, God does not intend for his people to be isolated. He intends for us to work together, pray together, encourage each other, admonish each other, and to seek one another’s material and spiritual well-being. We need this; it is how God made us.
That has been my aim this morning, men. To “stir us up.” The task you have before you today seems simple. Very likely you’ll stand in a particular pulpit for the first and last time, and deliver a message you might have given in almost this exact form dozens of times to people you probably don’t know and might never see again. It would be easy to go through the motions in your own strength, rely solely on your oratorical skills and persuasive demeanor, and achieve a predictable result. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve done that before and I’ll wager that most of you have, too. I’m asking you not to do that.
Instead, I’m asking you to pray that both you and the congregations that you will visit will be “stirred up.” After all, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and thus a part of the “one anothers” we read about in Hebrews. Pray that they will get a small part of the vision that you have for placing scriptures into as many hands as possible, that they will contribute financially to that effort, and that qualified men and their wives will consider joining with us in membership. Most of all, pray and exhort them to pray that God will use the scriptures placed as a result of your speaking today to draw men, women, boys, and girls to himself in repentance and faith.
And even though we’re not supposed to preach, find some way to give them the Gospel as you speak. Tell them Jesus Christ saves sinners, that he lived, died, and rose again for us. Tell them that salvation is free and open to all who will come. We serve a gracious God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rejoices over even one sinner who repents. Maybe God will be pleased to save someone even today.