As I study Luke and Acts, a theme I notice is one of uncertainty in the early church. Yet Luke, the author, also brings in a sense of assurance in the midst of it. It was the most certain of times. It was also the least certain of times. It was an unprecedented time! Philip stood with Samaria before him (a very unlikely place for a good first century Jew) and the turbulent events of Jerusalem behind him. Little did he know, under these circumstances and in a place like Samaria, he would acquire the title of “evangelist.” It was during this time, a most uncertain time brimming with fear, anxiety and grief, that the commissioned and the gospel were thrust out into unchartered territory.
I am a long plane flight and two millennium away from the place and time of Philip, but uncertain times have always plagued the church. And now is one of those times. Uncertainty can be paralyzing and taxing. As one who leads and shepherds’ others in ministry, I hesitate daily. Do I encourage self-care or gospel proclamation? Do I give days off or cast vision for engagement? Do I lament or celebrate God’s work? Should I count and care for the sheep, or go after the one?
A Most Uncertain Time
Philip’s Samaritan story, like all stories, is sandwiched in the middle of a greater story. Some familiar context is needed; for it finds its beginnings two chapters prior when Philip the “evangelist” is introduced as Philip the servant.
Chapter 6 of Acts records an exciting time for the early church. It was in its infant stages, with little experience for the things to come. There was no playbook for growth, nor, of course, for wide-spread persecution. But they did have the Apostles, chosen by Christ to lead the church, and the words and example of the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit had come upon the church. Great things were happening, like no other time in history. It was truly an unprecedented time.
Though we are not given all the details, some things we can know for certain. The seasoned writer of Acts made sure of that. For Philip’s story is also Luke’s story. In the Gospel of Luke, Luke writes with purposeful details, giving assurance to readers of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke wants the reader to know the exact truth surrounding Jesus. Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke leaves off. Now he gives certainty to the reader of the details of the early church and maps out the expansion of the gospel.
As the church was increasing, needs were arising. Philip and other men of “good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” were selected to serve the neglected and underserved in this booming time. Though Stephen was listed first in this list of seven men (and often the one most remembered), Philip was a close second. By naming him second, Luke asterisks Philip as someone to note. This is someone to be mindful of. Not only were these qualities true of Philip, his community appraised him for his character and chose him for service. With prayer and the laying on of hands, he, along with the other men, had the privilege of being commissioned by the Apostles. This commissioning was providential, for little did he know what soon lie ahead and where God was sending him.
In these unstable times, when I hesitate between doubt and trust, I need to remember my own calling. There was the summer sharing the gospel as a young college student in Hungary, when I said, “Yes, Lord.” With the absence of God, college students were hungry for the truth. People wanted to hear about Jesus and saw their need for Jesus. I was convinced that God loved the world, and I wanted to as well. I had a new confidence: if God could use me “over there,” he could use me on my college campus. There was also the time right before graduation. I sensed God calling me to mission work, even though aspects (like raising financial support) seemed impossible. He gave me a strong conviction that eternal things mattered and that if he called me, he would provide. Those moments are an anchor, in a fiercely shifting sea of ambiguity.
Philip watched the church grow rapidly. And Luke described it like this, “The Word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). I would like to know what that was like! This was a time of proclamation, growth and excitement – certainly one of the best of times. Every day was probably filled with great anticipation. What was God going to do next?
Then, Stephen preached. And everything changed. It was now the most uncertain of times… (to be continued in Part 2)
Questions to ponder until next time:
- When I revisit my call, what is an anchor for me in the midst of uncertainty?
- What do I notice is “certain” in the early church of Acts?
- What are examples of the uncertainties of the times?
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