Just how personal is salvation? Is it something that is achieved by one person, alone, with God’s help? Or is it a group experience? Is salvation something that can be achieved only within a Christian community or church? What role do other Christians play in your salvation? Which is more important to God—the church or the individual members of the church?
Apart from the fact that the road from Jerusalem to Gaza was a hot, dry place to be, Phillip’s mission there was a little strange. He was obviously sent there to encounter, preach to, and baptize one man. He was a rather unusual man at that. He was an Ethiopian of considerable influence and, of all things, a eunuch!
Why was Phillip sent so far to baptize one man? What was so special about this man? We may never know entirely, but there are two important concepts that emerge from this encounter.
First, the man was a eunuch, and the law prohibited a eunuch from entering into “the congregation of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1). Time has obscured the intent of this legislation, but by his act of baptizing the man immediately and freely (Acts 8:38), Phillip made it clear that no one was to be barred from the Kingdom of God because of the mutilation of the flesh, the sins of his parents, or because of his race. These laws could easily have been misconstrued by certain legalistic Jewish Christians.
The second concept emerging from this baptism may be even more important. Someone once carelessly suggested that there was hardly any point in going out and baptizing people unless you could somehow provide a church and help them develop, teach them, feed them spiritually and bring them along to salvation. And yet here is a case where an evangelist was sent dozens of miles across rough country to baptize one man who might never in his life be able to attend church again.
When you think about it, when he got back to Ethiopia, where did he go to church? Who was his pastor? Whom did he call when he was sick? The fact is that Phillip was sent out of his way deliberately, to contact a man who would return to his own land utterly alone.
And yet was he really “alone”? Those people who had been his friends before were still his friends, and were doubtless happy to see him when he got home. The men with whom he was accustomed to have a glass of wine and a game of hounds and jackals were still there. They doubtless welcomed him back.
The Ethiopian was also what was called a “God-fearer”—he attended synagogue. Among the Gentiles who attended synagogues there were two categories: The proselytes who were circumcised and had become a part of the Jewish community, and the “God-fearers” that is, Gentiles who believed in God, worshiped Him, and attended synagogue, but who were not prepared to go the extra step and endure the painful rite of circumcision. They still had fellowship with the Jewish community and the synagogue.
So he wasn’t, strictly speaking, alone.
Tradition tells us that this man was the first preacher of the gospel in Africa. There is every reason to believe that some of the earliest Christian sects in Ethiopia may owe their origin to the work of this one man.
When a church is small, as the Church of God, and when you try to do a work over a broad area, you inevitably baptize a lot of isolated Christians. But that’s not altogether bad. Those isolated Christians are a witness. They are alight. They are the scattered “salt of the earth.” And they accomplish far more than you might think.
Even with the best of intentions, a church has a tendency to turn inward. We feel more comfortable with people who think like we think. We are more comfortable around people who are observing the same customs. We are more comfortable discussing things with people who will not disagree with us. We are happier when we do not have to justify our thoughts or our actions or our way of doing things.
As a result, our church becomes our “in group.” We are concerned about our own people. We take care of our own. We look after our own. We inquire after our own. And, gradually, we may build a little community that is primarily concerned about itself.
The Role of the Church
A church is a wonderful thing. It is good to get together with like-minded people. The encouragement and reinforcement we give one another can make all the difference. We can even keep the pressure on one another to live the Christian way of life.
But have you ever considered how much of your “Christian way of life” is due to your own personal convictions, and how much is due to the pressure of other Christians?
I used to think about this when I was teaching at a religious college. To a far greater extent than at secular institutions, students in a religious school are under enormous pressure to conform. Assuming that the religious community is right in all its beliefs, it can be easier to obey God than to disobey in such an environment. To disobey God, you must defy the whole community!
But, of course, not even the best religious institutions will be right all the time. Take, for example, the church school which held a doctrine that it was a sin for a woman to wear makeup. The pressure to conform was so intense that not a single young lady made it through that college without conforming. Even though there was little biblical support for the doctrine, the pressure was so great they either conformed or they left. Ironically, the college later changed its stance to allow makeup, but it was too late for all those lovely young ladies it had alienated and rejected.
It is, in some places and some times, easier to obey than to disobey. But obey whom—God or the church? It is all too easy for the distinction to become blurred. The Christian community can almost seem to speak for God. It may even insist that it does.
It is for this reason we are introduced to the Ethiopian. Through him we learn that the individual is paramount with God. The individual is the object of God’s love. The individual is the object of salvation.
While man is a social creature and is helped or hindered by others, there comes a time when he must act independently, solitarily, and directly with his God. There comes a time when the church cannot help him. God will not have us responding to Him while hiding in the group. Every individual must repent. Each person must believe.
The disciples asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He called over a little child, set him in the midst of them, and proceeded to explain that there was no one in His Kingdom “greater” than that one little child. “Whoever receives one such little child in my name,” He said, “receives me. Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it would have been better for him to have had a millstone hung around his neck and that he were drowned in the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
To Jesus Christ, the individual—even a little child—is priceless. No building, no work, no institution, no church is to be valued above one little child. Jesus went on to speak of a man who, having a hundred sheep, had one of them go astray. “Does he not leave the ninety and nine, and go into the mountains and seek that which has gone astray? Even so,” Jesus continued, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
What does this say of a religious institution which, finding one individual out of step, says to that individual, “You are no longer welcome here”?
Make no mistake about it, as important as the church is in God’s sight, it is important because it is composed of individuals. No individual is less important to God than any other individual or group of individuals.
A church, if it deserves to survive, should be strong enough to endure the presence of one person who is out of step. One person who is in a bad attitude today may be over it tomorrow. One person who is discouraged and despondent today may feel better tomorrow. One person who just cannot bring himself to sing today, may want to sing tomorrow.
And, of course, there is always the possibility that the community might be wrong this time. The person who may want to wear makeup today, may find that it isn’t wrong after all tomorrow. What does it say about a church when it drives away little ones over a point of doctrine that later proves to be wrong?
Does the Bible teach that the church is so important that it can tread on the individual? Is God’s church so insecure that it must expunge individuals whom it perceives as a threat?
On the other hand, is it possible for the group to be tainted by the actions of an individual? Is there such a thing as collective guilt? Is it possible for you to become guilty and to suffer because of what someone else does? There may be some comfort in the old Proverb, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” After all, it’s not my fault that I am suffering. It’s probably because my predecessors sinned.
When some ancient Israelites used this Proverb to justify their circumstances, God replied through Ezekiel: “As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this Proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the son is mine; the soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:3–4).
Ezekiel then painstakingly proceeds to draw out the lesson: A man is counted righteous before God, not for the deeds of his father or any other person, but for his own deeds. A man is considered guilty before God and may be punished by God, not for the sins of his father or some other person, but for his personal sins alone. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezekiel 18:20).
If this is true of a family, then how much more is it true of the church? If one man in the church sins, does it make you guilty? If you do what is right, you will not die. He may be punished for his sins, but you will live. We do not achieve salvation based upon someone else’s actions. There is no coattail salvation. There is no group salvation. Nor is there any collective guilt.
What are the logical consequences of all this? Consider this: (1) In the strictest sense of the word, while there may be such a thing as mass evangelism, there can be no mass conversion. You can put the gospel out by means of mass media, but a group cannot become Christian by mass action. The message must find the individual and be responded to personally, or there is no valid result.
(2) There is no such thing as salvation by proxy. There is nothing that anyone else can do to remove your past sins or your guilt, and make you right with God. Only Jesus Christ can do that, and He does that for you personally. No one else can make you right with God or get you into God’s Kingdom.
(3) There must never be coercion by the community or church in matters of faith. The individual must never be subordinated to regimentation within the church. Enforcing tithing on the membership of a church is no doubt financially rewarding in the short term. But when you force a brother to tithe by intimidation or threats of disfellowshipment and marking, what have you accomplished? Is he acting out a fear of God or fear of the church? Has he personally honored God with his tithes? Has he learned any of the lessons that come from tithing? Has he experienced the deep satisfaction that comes to the man who voluntarily, from the heart, worships God by paying his tithes?
By enforcing tithing, a church may even rob a man of the blessings he could otherwise enjoy, and like the sons of Levi, cause the people to “hate the offering of the Lord.”
If a man will not obey because God says so, what reward is there for him in obeying because the church says so? Is it right to fear the church more than God?
Nothing here should be construed as saying that there is no collective responsibility or that the church plays no role in salvation. But the individual cannot achieve salvation by simply figuring out in his mind which is the right group of people, which is the right social organization, and, by making himself a part of that, somehow achieve salvation.
The church does indeed play a role in salvation, but Philip and the Ethiopian demonstrate that salvation may be possible apart from the church.
What about the “solitary Christian”? Can he remain faithful? Can he preserve? Can he truly make it into God’s Kingdom? Can he be a part of God’s Work even though he is all alone?
Of course he can. If not, then it was an exercise in futility to send Philip to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch.
But what do you do when you’re on your own? What do you do on a Sabbath, for example, when you can’t attend church?
This may be the easiest question of all. To keep the Sabbath by yourself you rest from you ordinary labor. You give rest to anyone else for whom you are responsible. When you’re on your own, you no longer have the excuse that many church members have who can get so busy going to church on the Sabbath that they don’t have time for reading their Bible, meditation, or prayer. You will have time for that communion with God as well as communion with your family. You’ll have time for a special brunch, time to linger over coffee, time to take a walk in the woods alone with God, time to play with your children.
But what if you don’t have a family? There is no reason for you to be lonely as long as there are other lonely people in the world. You can ease your own loneliness on the Sabbath by giving of yourself to others. There are many people who would welcome a visit from you on the Sabbath (even when they don’t know it is the Sabbath). There are many older people, sometimes institutionalized, who yearn for companionship like a man lost in a desert yearns for water. There are people who can’t see well enough to read their Bibles any more who would deeply appreciate someone taking the time to sit down and read to them.
If you want to rejoice in God’s Sabbath when you’re on your own, try to meet some people you don’t know. If you had a church to attend, the church would take up much of your time. Our fellowship and friendships in the church take up so much of our time, that we have little left for one who is not in the church. We know one another and spend time with one another. We’ll go out of our way to help one another. But in the process it’s so easy to turn inward and forget about the community around us.
The Sabbath is a special day. It’s a Feast day. It’s a memorial of creation. It is a memorial of freedom. It is a day when we have time for God, time for our family, time for the needy, time for the sick, time to share, and even time for ourselves. Keeping the Sabbath alone should not be a problem. There is no reason why it should be depressing at all. It may well be that the opportunities for service are even greater for the lonely Christian than they are for those in a church. The opportunity for accomplishment may be greater.
When the Ethiopian returned home, he became like a grain of sand in an oyster. That grain of sand is an irritant which the oyster promptly begins to coat with mother of pearl. When we look at a beautiful pearl, we rarely even think of the minuscule grain of sand at its center. You’d never even know it was there, but without it the pearl would not exist.
There is no more fundamental teaching for the Christian than the sermon on the mount, and in this most basic of teachings, Jesus likened His disciples to the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
No one eats salt by the teaspoonful. We sprinkle it and scatter it. After the early church had sat in Jerusalem for several years, God allowed persecution, like a salt shaker, to pick them up and scatter them all over the Middle East. Wherever they went, they went preaching the gospel adding the savor of salt wherever they went.
You also are the light of the world. It is tempting for an isolated Christian to find an excuse to pick up and move in order to be near a church. The yearning for fellowship is understandable. But few consider that in so doing, they may remove from a community the only light that will ever be there.
God called the Ethiopian eunuch to send a message to scattered Christians throughout the world in all generations. The message? Trim up the wick and let the candle burn. That may be why you are there.