Greyfriars Hall Spring 2016 Preaching Retreat
Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-40
The problem of exegesis and the meaning of language goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden where the serpent asked the woman: Did God really say? And ever since, men have asked why God doesn’t speak more clearly. If there is a God, why doesn’t He make himself known? And even among believers, doubts still arise. Why are there so many interpretations? Is Scripture alone really sufficient for salvation? We are all like the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” We often feel like saying, “How can I unless someone guides me?” Sometimes God seems silent.
One of the striking elements of this episode is the several parallels between this story and the story of Jesus with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. First, an unexpected visitor meets travelers leaving Jerusalem. Also, the central problem is a lack of understanding Scripture. Finally, the unexpected companion on the road leads an impromptu Bible study in order to give understanding of the Messiah Jesus and His gospel. Surrounding all of these parallels is the work of the Holy Spirit: An “angel of the Lord” initially orders Philip into the desert (8:26) which reminds us of the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness immediately after His baptism. It reminds us of the Spirit leading Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness. Perhaps it is even a bit reminiscent of Abraham being called out of Ur to the foreign land of Canaan. In a marked contrast to Jonah, Philip rises and goes immediately in obedience into this foreign land (8:27). When he arrives, the “Spirit” instructs Philip to join the eunuch’s chariot (8:29), and Philip runs to meet him (8:30). The Spirit commands, the Spirit empowers, the Spirit leads, and as the episode closes, it is the Spirit of the Lord that carries Philip away (8:39). Which Spirit is this? It is the Spirit of the Lord Jesus. This is what Luke said Acts was about. It is about what Jesus continues to do through the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1-2). This is why Philip reminds us of the risen Jesus on the way to Emmaus. The Spirit of Jesus fills him.
The Silent Text
But the Spirit is not just a random, supernatural event. The center of this passage demonstrates that this Spirit works powerfully through the Scriptures read, explained, understood, and believed in light of the cross of Jesus (8:35). It was the Spirit that inspired the Prophet Isaiah, and it was the Spirit that arranged all of these things such that the Ethiopian was reading that passage at that very moment. And that passage speaks of Jesus as the silent lamb, who opened not His mouth (8:32), and it asks, Who will declare His generation, since He was denied justice and His life was taken from the earth? (8:33). In other words, not only is the prophecy not speaking to the Ethiopian, but the prophecy is about Someone being silent, about Someone who doesn’t open His mouth. The Ethiopian wants the Scripture explained, and the Scripture is a prophecy about this One whose generation needs to be declared. It doesn’t at all seem an accident then that it is the “Spirit” driving Philip to this moment. It is the Spirit who gives utterance, who gives speech, who gives understanding (e.g. Gen. 1, Acts 2).
The Silence of the Cross
Before we arrive at what the Spirit says, it’s worth pausing at this double silence. If we think about it, there is actually a triple or quadruple silence, layer upon layer. The lamb is silent, and the text is silent to the Ethiopian. But the silent lamb is the silent Savior, hanging crucified between two thieves, denied justice, cut off from the land of the living, giving up His Spirit, laid in a silent tomb. But what does this silence mean? This is silence signifies the willingness of Jesus to die. He didn’t go to His death thrashing angrily. He didn’t go to the cross cursing and spitting. He went to the cross in silence because He was willing to die. And that willingness is His love. And this is where a fourth silence grasps the hearts of all who truly hear this silence of love. Because this miscarriage of justice is at the very same time, God’s supreme justice: what the law demands crushes Jesus in the place of sinners, so that “every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). So the silence of the Lamb points to the silence of the Cross, which is nothing less than the infinite love of a righteous God for His sinful people. And that love shuts the mouths of sinners in awe of this gospel, and all of this is related to the silence of the text.
Conclusion & Application
It turns out that in and through this seeming fourfold silence, the Spirit is heavy at work “hovering over the waters,” constantly speaking. Of course the silent Lamb was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and even as the Ethiopian wrestles with the difficulty of Isaiah, reading him out loud (apparently) in his chariot, the Spirit sends Philip to explain the Scriptures and give him understanding. But at the center of it all is the silent Lamb going willingly to the slaughter, silent because of love. This means that at the very place where unbelief scoffs at the silence of God, at the very place where our doubts creep in and Christians wonder where God is and why He will not speak clearly – at that very place, we find Him silent as a lamb, silent with love. Far from God being unwilling to be known and heard, far from Him being difficult to understand and hard to find, God’s silence is the silence of love, drawing near to sinners so that we might know Him.
This text guards us against two opposite errors in how we think about hearing the voice of God, exegesis, meaning, and truth. On the one hand, there is a sort of arrogant hubris that demands that God speak on our terms. Whether unbelievers demand some sort of supernatural sign (e.g. a thunder clap, winning the lottery, etc.) or whether believers demand some sort of simplistic formula for discerning God’s will or the correct meaning of a text. But God will not be leashed by your demands. Even the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denials of Sola Scriptura are essentially pious sounding demands that God keep within their tidy categories. But the Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord Jesus who speaks.
On the other hand, do not miss the fact that the Holy Spirit is pleased to work through Scripture, through ministers, through friends, through parents, and through rigorous study and debate to give understanding. Sola Scriptura does not claim that the Ethiopian would have figured it out eventually on his own. No, Philip was wonderfully necessary, but so was Isaiah, and so were all the other Scriptures and the eunuch’s wrestling with the text, and so, most centrally was the silent Lamb who was slain. In other words, the silence is not a problem. The wrestling is not a problem. The questions are not problems. The Spirit loves to work precisely there, speaking in and through it all, drawing us to the truth.
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