God’s Word for You
Acts 8:29-31 The external gospel
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 17, 2020
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that chariot and stay by it.” 30 As Philip ran up, he heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 The man replied, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” Then he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.
In Luther’s time there were many people who wanted to jump onto the bandwagon of the Reformation without grabbing onto the straps and railings of the word and sacraments, who were fascinated by the madness in their hearts. They imagined that the Lord might speak to them personally, apart from the word of God, and guide them toward their “own” reformation. Because they insisted on listening for the Holy Spirit to whisper or buzz in their ears, Luther called them the schwoermer (also spelled schwörmer), the “swarmers,” who swarmed around waiting for the Spirit to buzz in their ears like a bee. They were also called the Enthusiasts because they felt that their faith came from within themselves, from their enthusiasm, and not from God nor from his sacred word. They were difficult and almost impossible to reason with. They insisted that they did not need the Scriptures nor the public preaching of the gospel, which Luther calls the external word. Luther wrote:
Enthusiasm clings to Adam and his descendants from the beginning to the end of the world. It is a poison implanted and injected in man by the old dragon, and it is the source, strength, and power of all heresy, including that of the papacy and Mohammedanism. Accordingly, we should and must constantly maintain that God will not deal with us except through his external Word and sacrament. Whatever is attributed to the Spirit apart from such Word and sacraments is of the devil. For even to Moses God wished to appear first through the burning bush and the spoken word. And no prophet, whether Elijah or Elisha, received the Spirit without the Ten Commandments. John the Baptist was not conceived without the preceding word of Gabriel, nor did he leap in his mother’s womb until Mary spoke. St. Peter [2 Peter 1:21] says that when the prophets spoke, they did not prophesy by the impulse of man but were moved by the Holy Spirit, yet as holy men of God. But without the external word they were not holy, and the Holy Spirit would not have moved them to speak while they were still unholy. They were holy, St. Peter says, because the Holy Spirit spoke through them. (Smalcald Articles, Part III, VIII:9-13).
Here we see that the Holy Spirit chose not to speak to the eunuch directly, but he used his servant Philip. We don’t hear the Holy Spirit speak personally very often in the New Testament nor in Scripture in general, but here as in Acts 10:19 and 13:2, it is God the Holy Spirit who spoke. He commanded Philip to go up and stay near the Ethiopian’s chariot, and then he let his servant Philip take things from there.
The eunuch was reading from Isaiah, and as any theologian and nearly any Christian knows, there is more about the Savior Jesus in Isaiah than just about any book of the Old Testament with the possible exception of the Psalms. It was a perfect opening to talk about the Savior, and by asking nothing more than, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip got his foot, so to speak, in the door.
People who read (and those who still read) ancient manuscripts usually needed to do so aloud. The words of these documents were packed tightly together to save space on the page, and unless one reads them aloud, it can be very hard to understand what you are reading. This is how Philip came to hear what the man was reading. The fact that he was reading in his chariot also suggests that it was stopped, parked by the side of the road. It would be almost impossible to read from a hand-written scroll while driving a moving chariot on a bumpy desert road.
The Ethiopian man opened the door to the gospel by saying: “How can I (understand), unless someone explains it to me?” This was the request of a thirsty spirit to be filled up with the gospel. Who could keep from speaking (Job 4:2)? “I must open my lips and reply” (Job 32:20). If you are asked any of the great searching questions, be sure to respond.
What does this mean?
How can I get to heaven?
What happens to us after we die?
Can God ever forgive me?
You know the answers. Don’t make anyone think there is an answer outside of God’s holy word. Don’t hold back; pour out the gospel and keep on pouring. Share the words of everlasting life. That’s the external gospel at work.
Pastor Timothy Smith