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When God Is First

He Owns Our Appointments

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | November 16, 2003

Selected highlights from this sermon

Sent by God to the desert, Philip met an Ethiopian official. God worked through Philip, and that eunuch became a follower of Jesus. 

God is still preparing the hearts of men and women from every nation to receive the Gospel, and He’s still using His people to meet them. We need to trust in God and joyfully proclaim the Gospel to all. 

So what does it mean to put God first? We’re learning, aren’t we? One of the things that God demands when we put Him first is it is the end of our individual rights. I no longer have a right to this, a right to that, because my rights have been laid at the foot of the cross when God is first.

When God is first we develop intimacy with the Holy Spirit. You may be saying, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, since you are preaching these sermons on putting God first, what has this series of messages meant to you?” And you know, of course, that my messages do me a whole lot more good than they do you, because if they don’t do good to me, they can’t do good to you.

One of the things that has grown out of it is my desire to really seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit because it’s interesting that I read in Acts 2, “Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said this and that,” and then we read that Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, and Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit… And I’m saying to myself you know, “I think I’ve experienced some of the filling of the Holy Spirit, but I think that there is something deeper that I need to get.” I read what these men experienced and it was wonderful indeed.

So, we’re all learning (Aren’t we?) what it means to put God first, completely first in our lives, because, you see, what God wants to do is to say, “I want to use you, I want to direct you, I want to help you, and I need to be not only resident, but I need to be president. I need to be first.”

We deceive ourselves in this area, of course. We say that God is first, and the reason we know it’s true is because we have sung the right songs or we’ve said the right words. But if you are really honest before God, you know that making Him first is more difficult than you realize it is.

Today we’re going to look at the life of a man who was a deacon who ended up being an evangelist and who discovered that when God is first, God controls our appointments. He directs our lives to an appointed end. The story is in Acts, chapter 8. Philip, who we met last time as one of the deacons who was chosen in Acts, chapter 6, is having a great revival in Samaria. It says in Acts 8:4: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them.” And the crowds just got larger.

I have to tell you in all honesty that preachers love crowds. The more people the better. Here Philip is experiencing a great revival and suddenly the Holy Spirit says, “Leave what you are doing and go to the desert because there is somebody there whose heart I am preparing for the Gospel.”

And when God is first in our lives, first of all he sends us. I’m actually reading now verse 26: “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.’” So he started out and on his way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. “Go,” God says.

Isn’t it interesting that the angel tells Philip to go? But the angel can’t spread the Gospel himself. You know, angels know the Gospel. They saw Jesus Christ die. They understand the terms of the Gospel without taking evangelism explosion courses. The angels get it right. God says, “No, no! No angel. If the Gospel is to be proclaimed it is to be through the voice of a human servant.” So God says, “Go, Philip. Go and make the invisible God visible to this man who is seeking.” And so the Spirit of God said to him, “Go. I am sending you.”

Sometime ago my wife sent me to the post office to send a package. I didn’t take the package and just leave it at the post office and say, “Well, go ahead and pay your own postage.” Packages aren’t used to paying their own postage. You have to pay it for them. In the very same way when God sends us, He gives us the resources to do His will. And so when the Holy Spirit of God said to Philip, “Go,” God says, “Philip, I’ve given you a good pair of legs because you’re going to need this pair of legs to catch the chariot.” And God says, “I’m going to give you whatever it is that you need to fulfill My will. Go, and I will give you what you need to accomplish what I intend to be accomplished.” And so the Spirit of God said to him, “Go.”

When Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel,” what was the rest of the verse? “Lo, I am with you even unto the end of age.” Yes, He sends us. Listen to me carefully. God does not send you anywhere that the grace of God can’t keep you and bless you. When He sends He provides.

Secondly, the Spirit of God guides us. You’ll notice that he starts out and on his way he meets an Ethiopian, and an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah, the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

And so Philip is running along, and the Spirit now is speaking to him and saying, “Just stay near the chariot. Stay by it. Don’t get too close yet, because he’s in only Isaiah 52, and what I want to do is to get him into Isaiah 53 before you connect, so give him a couple of minutes. Just hang near the chariot, run alongside but don’t interact with him just yet.”

So Philip is running alongside the chariot, and then the Spirit says, “Now it’s time because he’s into Isaiah 53.” And so Philip catches him in Isaiah 53 and says to this man, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he says, “Who can? I can’t unless it’s explained to me.” Talk about God instrumental in connecting the very timing of this event.

Now what do we know about this Ethiopian? He was an African from south of Egypt. That’s where Ethiopia was in those days. It was a large region south of Egypt. We know that he was an official. We know that he was wealthy. He was riding in a chariot. That was the BMW of the age for sure. Not everybody had their own chariot. We also know that he had power, but he was spiritually empty.

Now catch this. Here’s a man who is willing to leave his own religion, his own region, and go all the way to Jerusalem, about 200 miles. And as he approached the temple I am sure that he thought, “This is where I’m going to find God,” and he gets there and discovers hypocrisy and emptiness and deadness and route lectures about the law, and he returns empty. And so Peter says, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He says in verse 31: “How can I unless somebody explains it to me?”

So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture:

“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.” The man is reading right in Isaiah 53 where Jesus is presented as the Lamb of God giving Himself up for the life of the world, the substitution of Jesus on the Cross for sinners. What better passage to preach Jesus?

Have you ever met somebody who’s got it all, somebody who has money, who has a focused career, somebody who is wealthy, somebody who is in the higher strata of society? And you’ve thought to yourself, “What in the world do I have to share with him? Why would he be interested in Jesus?” I want you to know today that he may have all that and more and yet be very, very empty. One of the reasons you find people who are so driven oftentimes is because they are trying to cover the emptiness in their lives that they will not face.

Here’s a man who in Jerusalem experienced religion but not reality, form but not fulfillment, love but not grace. He was introduced to Judaism but not to Jesus, and he met the priests who offered sacrifices, but he left without any peace. Doesn’t that describe many, many people in Chicago and in the cities of this nation? They go to the temples. They go to the synagogues. They go to the mosques. They go to the cathedrals. They go to the churches. But they are empty. It’s just a forum, just a forum.

I was in Winnipeg this week for a few moments, passing through to visit my parents who, incidentally, are doing well. My mother had her 95th birthday, and my father, as you know, is 101. The day I arrived the first thing he said to me after I gave him a hug was, “Yesterday I read the entire book of Ephesians from beginning to end.” That’s not bad for 101. That’s pretty good I’d say. (applause) I’ll tell you this. I don’t expect to be reading the book of Ephesians at 101. (chuckles)

But in the airport I met a woman from England, and I began to strike up a conversation with her, and then it was interrupted and didn’t exactly go as far as I had hoped. She was on her way to England. I was on my way in the other direction, but I asked her whether she attended church and she said, “No, very few people in England attend church; maybe two or three percent.” What I was going to say to her is, “I cannot imagine anything as boring as church.” Can you imagine anything as boring as church if you don’t know God? I mean, what could be more boring? I’m surprised that we have as many people in churches sometimes as we do because unless you’re connected with God, unless you are introduced to Jesus, it’s got to be boring.

Do you realize that there are millions of people in Chicago who know Jesus like I know Michael Jordan? I’ve read what he can do. I know his abilities. I know a little bit about his history. I know where he fits. I know about his fame. But I’ve never met him. I’ve never looked into his eyes. We’ve never shared a cup of coffee together. I can’t really say I know him. I know of him, but I do not know him, and the answer to the emptiness of our lives is to know Him.

I love the text that says, “Peter began at that text and began to preach unto him.” He wasn’t just sharing. Now, we share today. Everything is shared. Nobody preaches. We just share, and that’s fine. Just share! But it says he preached Jesus to him.

God sends us. God guides us. And then God works through us. You know, they are traveling along, and they get to talk about the Gospel, and he tells him the good news about Jesus. It says in verse 36: “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?’”

Where did he get that idea from? Philip must have told him that when you accept Christ as Savior you should identify with Christ through baptism. Philip probably told him that. And there is a verse (verse 37) that does not occur in some of the earliest manuscripts. Perhaps the scribe inserted it to help us here a little bit, to fill in a gap because the verse that is inserted says that Philip said, “If you believe with all of your heart, you may,” and the eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Now, even though that particular verse may not have been a part of the original text, clearly something like that happened along this desert road. The eunuch believed in Jesus. And the minute he believed in Jesus he wanted everybody in his caravan to know that he was a Christian, so he says, “Stop the chariot because there is water here. I want to be baptized.”

I am amazed at the number of born again Christians who talk their way out of obedience to Jesus when it comes to baptism. They’ve got every excuse in the book. They say, “Well, you know, I am saved. You don’t need to be baptized to go to heaven,” which is true. But you need to be obedient to God and to Jesus. In the early church there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. When people got saved they were baptized, so don’t talk your way out of baptism.

And so he says, “I want to go down into the water.” I don’t think he just had a couple of drops of water sprinkled on him, though we won’t go there this morning. The simple fact is he said, “I want to be baptized.”

Notice what the rest of the text is. Philip baptized him. Verse 39: “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away.” Was this a miracle? Was he just snatched away? It almost seems that way. Maybe it just simply means that the Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Philip, you’ve got another assignment. Leave him now.” However, the eunuch did not see him again. I hope that they had enough time to say goodbye, but the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Wow! The burden had been lifted.

Do you remember Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress talks about Christian finding an answer to the burden, to the emptiness, to the weight of guilt, to those flashes of guilt that come to our mind, to the recognition that we have sinned, that we are alienated from God with all the emptiness that that brings about? And then suddenly he gets to the cross and his burden is rolled, as it were symbolically speaking, onto the cross. And he feels so much lighter because he has been converted. And so we have the story of a marvelous conversion.

In the opening chapters of Acts, we have three very special conversions. Do you remember the families of the earth after the time of Noah were actually divided into three different categories? You have the family of Shem, Ham and Japheth. The Shemites were the Jews. In Acts, chapter 9, the Apostle Paul is converted. He was a Shemite. In this chapter a Hamite who migrated to Africa was converted. And in the tenth chapter, you have a Gentile, and that turns out to be the European nations, he representing them. He is converted because right in the early chapters of Acts God wanted to show that the Gospel is for all the families of the earth, whether you belong to Shem, to Ham or to Japheth. Whatever your origin, the converting power of God is for you.

Now there are some lessons to take home—transforming lessons. The first is that it is God who takes a prepared heart and brings him together with a prepared servant. God brings them together. I’ve had that experience often in my life where just through the normal course of things… I’ve never had an angel speak to me. Sometimes I had no awareness of being directed by the Holy Spirit, and yet the Spirit of God was directing me to someone, maybe not just for the purpose of conversion, but a very important friendship or connection was made that has tremendous significance down the road that you couldn’t see at this particular moment. That’s happened in your life. That has happened in mine. And sometimes God reveals that to us in a very unique way.

I remember being a student at Winnipeg Bible College and working in the downtown mission of Winnipeg. One evening we were about to close up. No one was left. Just a few students and the director were going to close up and go home, and a man comes running down the aisle and sees me and comes to me and says, “Please lead me to faith in Jesus.” Please lead me to faith in Jesus? Tell me your story. So he told me. He said, “I was hitchhiking and I was picked up by a trucker who witnessed to me and told me I had to believe in Jesus. And then when he dropped me off in Winnipeg he said, “When you get real desperate go to the mission and they’ll tell you how to get saved.” So he said, “I am here to be told how to be saved.” Wow!

By the way, the Bible says, “One sows, and another reaps, and God gives the increase.” That trucker sowed a seed. I happened to have the privilege of reaping the harvest, but it was God who saved him. And that’s the way God does it.

Sometimes those stories are dramatic. Oftentimes they’re not, but they are just as real. I need to tell you one more. I love to tell this story about us flying in 1985 from Hong Kong to Tokyo in one of those huge jets. You know, you say to yourself, “When does this plane get to Tokyo?” And I was sitting next to someone, a Chinese man, and I was reading my Bible, minding my business, but we struck up a conversation, and I discovered that sitting next to me was a Communist who taught chemistry in China—the Chinese University. And I thought, “Oh, if only I had a Bible to give him.” My daughter overheard the conversation. We weren’t able to sit together on this jet, and so my wife was a couple of seats ahead of me, and our oldest daughter overheard the conversation and turned back and said, “Dad, you know that Mother took that Bible from the hotel room in Hong Kong that’s in Chinese.” (laughter) Now, I need to tell you that my wife is not a thief. (laughter)

I told that story this summer when I was preaching to the Gideons at their annual convention, and they really got on to me. They said, “You owe us six bucks.” (laughter) And when I wanted to give them six bucks they wouldn’t take it. And I said, “What do you mean, she has a Bible from the hotel?” And so we got Rebecca and sure enough, in her case that was on the plane, she had a Bible—Chinese on one side (New Testament) and English on the other.

I gave it to the man and I asked him whether he had seen a Bible before, and he said, “No, no, no, I’ve never seen a Bible before.” And God is my witness. He held it in his hands like this and he said, “So you mean this is a Bible?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You mean this is a Bible!” I said, “Yeah, this is a Bible.” And then he asked me one more time. “Is this a Bible?”

And then he said, “I’ll tell you why I’m so interested.” He said, “My mother, who died when I was six years old, was a Christian, and I always wondered what Christians believe.” By now this huge jet was beginning to have its descent into Tokyo, and there I was explaining the Gospel to him, drawing a diagram of the cross, explaining how Jesus died for sinners. And my final words to him were this. I said, “You know, your mother probably prayed that someday you’d accept Christ as Savior so that you could be in heaven with her.” “I want to see you in heaven,” I said, as I looked into his eyes, “and your mother is there waiting for you.” And he said, “Well, who knows?” But at least he had a Bible. One of the reasons that heaven becomes exciting is that I can hardly wait to see whether he’s going to be there. I think he is because God puts that all together for us.

Now, here’s what I want to say to you today from my heart to yours. Can you think of the tragedy of a prepared heart who is empty and seeking, and God brings them up against His servants and they have nothing to say? They have nothing to say! There are people working in your office, in your hospital, in your bank, who are empty. They are searching. They don’t know where to turn, and you are there, and you have never given them a Christian book and said, “Read this and then we’ll talk about.” You have never spoken about Jesus. You have never thrown out a hint that you believe that Jesus is the one who changed your life, and therefore is also able to change the life of your colleague. And there are hungry people who do not understand what they are reading. They need someone to slip next to them and say to them, “Let me share with you.” And do you know how to do it? You can do it so, so easily by simply saying, “Would you mind if I were to share with you something that somebody once shared with me?” I’ve used that. I’ve never yet had somebody say, “No, I don’t want to hear that.”

Let me say that again. “Would you mind if I were to share with you something that somebody once shared with me that’s very special to me?” And then you tell them about Jesus. And you’ll discover that God directs your appointments, and if you don’t know what to say… That’s why we have a hundred people here at the church every Tuesday with Evangelism Explosion, teaching people how to witness, not just on Tuesday night, but teaching them to witness as a way of life.

If I had had just a few more moments in the airport in Winnipeg, that young lady, God bless her, would have heard the Gospel, but because of some interruption it didn’t happen. Why? It’s because there are all kinds of hungry people who don’t know where to turn. And when God is first, then suddenly we discover that He directs us and leads us and opens doors for us. And all that we have to do is to be obedient and to walk through them.

There’s a second lesson, and that is that the real key to witnessing is joy. You’ll notice that (We read it a moment ago.) the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. Do you remember when you were saved? Do you remember that sense of peace that you had, that overwhelming conviction that you knew God? At the age of 14 that’s what happened to me. Just such a strong sense of conviction that finally I had come to know God through Jesus. And you know sometimes that joy leaves us, doesn’t it? And I’ll tell you why it does. It is because sin causes the cup of joy to spring a leak, and so the cup drains out and there is no joy. And so many Christians are like a cup half full, trying desperately to spill over. They want to spill over at least on Sunday when we sing such wonderful hymns, but sin is there. As soon as sin enters, joy must leave. And putting God first means that we seek God, that we confess our sins, that we deal ruthlessly with it, but we take it very, very seriously. And we do whatever we need to do to find help, to overcome that which stifles, robs us of joy.

What would Moody Church look like if God were first? We would be joyful, witnessing Christians, not buttonholing people, but joyful witnessing Christians, available to the Blessed Holy Spirit of God to be led. I’ve often been led and so have you without even being aware of it, just in the casual events of life. You are led, but you are open and you are available, and the Spirit of God begins to move in and say, “If you are available and yielded, I will use you in ways that you could have never, never predicted.”

Philip, when he was chosen to wait on tables… This is the guy, now remember… When he was chosen to wait on tables I’m sure there wasn’t a chance in the world that he was thinking, “Well, you know, I’m going to be faithful waiting on tables because someday I’m going to be an evangelist and get a couple of chapters in the Bible written about me.” (chuckles) No! He was faithful, but he was Spirit-filled, and God says, “You be an evangelist, and you can speak to crowds, but you can also speak to people in airports and people who are in chariots going down a dusty road, who are seeking but don’t even know where to look.” A joyful, witnessing church when God is first!

You say in the morning, “Lord, all of my appointments today are Yours. I just give You my timetable. Whomever I meet, whatever circumstances, the interruptions, the phone calls and other people I accept as Your will because You are in charge.

I love to tell that story about Montana. You know there’s a state in this union called Montana. Well, God bless the people of Montana. There’s not a whole lot going on in Montana. I’ve been there. You drive all day to get to a little town. They are so small that when you plug in an electric razor the lights go out. (laughter) But in the 1850s gold was found in Montana in some of the riverbeds, and there were some people (about ten or them) that were getting this gold. And suddenly they came across all of this gold in the river—lots of gold, but they were tired. Their implements were broken. They had no food. They were hungry. One or two of their number had died, and they said, “There’s no way for us to do this, so let us form a pact. Let us form an agreement among ourselves that we will not tell anyone where the gold is. And let’s go back to town. Let’s get our implements. Let’s get some food. Let’s get some rest, and then we can come back and get all the gold for ourselves.” So they entered into a pact that they would do that.

Ten days later when they left the little town to go get the gold, fifty of the townspeople followed them. They couldn’t believe it.

‘What is this? Did you tell?’
‘No, I didn’t tell. Did you tell?’
“No, I didn’t tell.”
“I didn’t tell. No, not me.”

The townspeople said, “We knew that they had found gold by the smile that was on their faces.” (laughter)

Let me ask you this. Do your neighbors and friends in your sphere of influence know that you’ve found gold? Are you available to the Spirit as you say, “Yes, God, take everything that I am, everything that I hope to be, because by Your grace, You are first.” God will use you in ways that you could have never possibly imagined.

May the people of Moody Church, and may the people of Chicago know that in the evangelical churches today (because there are many fine evangelical churches like ours that preach the Word) the Christians in Chicago have found gold.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank You so much for this marvelous story of a conversion that had implications that we cannot even fathom with the Ethiopian eunuch going back to Ethiopia, possibly beginning the Coptic Church, influencing his generation all because of the obedience of somebody who was willing to leave a crowd and talk to somebody in a desert. Lord, help us to be open to what You want to say to us and what You want to do through us.

Now, what is it that God has asked you to do today? Would you talk to Him for just a moment? And if you’ve never received Christ as Savior, if you know Jesus something like I know Michael Jordan, why don’t you say, “Lord Jesus, today I want to receive You, to depend upon You for the substitutionary work of Jesus on the cross and be saved even as the Ethiopian was.”

Do you believe in your heart that Jesus is the Son of God who died for you? Accept that as yours.

Do it, Father, in our lives. Let us not rest until we’ve come to know You and made You first. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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