Starting Points

29 The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked. 31 ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: ‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.’ (Isaiah 53) 34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’ 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptised him.  (Acts 8:29-38)
Because Philip obeyed the Holy Spirit, he was able to share the Gospel with an Ethiopian government official and to send him back home as a missionary to his own nation. If Philip had simply blurted out the first thoughts that had come into his head, he would never have connected with the man in a chariot on the Gaza road. If he had simply tried to make him listen to his message that sin plus the cross plus repentance equals salvation, he would not have been ready to listen. The questions he was asking were all about the identity of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, and he wasn’t interested in Philip’s message until he saw how it was relevant to his starting-point. Philip captured his attention because he told him the story of Jesus as the answer to the very questions he was asking. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”

Philip was like the engineers who built the Channel Tunnel between England and France when I was a child. I still remember watching the celebrations on TV when the French and English tunnellers finally met each other at the bottom of the sea. They had halved their construction-time by digging one tunnel from England and another from France, and by using the very latest technology to ensure that they met in the middle. Each team kept a constant focus on the other team’s position so that nothing would make them miss each other and their final moment of breakthrough.

Philip and the other early believers were experts at digging Gospel-tunnels towards non-Christians. They had no interest in trying to force them to listen to a one-size-fits-all presentation of the Gospel. They were interested in finding starting-points from which to captivate their listeners with story of Jesus Christ.  They never changed the Gospel itself – that option was never open to them – but they constantly changed their manner of sharing it, so that anyone who met them was in no doubt as to the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to the questions they were asking.  

The Ethiopian was not asking questions about sin or judgment or forgiveness, even though Isaiah 53 is one of the greatest Old Testament passages about the atonement. He was simply looking for an explanation of the Scriptures he had heard people reading on his trip to the Temple in Jerusalem. Philip “began with that very passage” and used it as a launch-pad to tell him that Jesus was the person he was looking for. He did the same thing as Peter and the other apostles in Acts 2, 3, 4 and 7, when they discovered people’s starting-points were confusion over tongues-speaking, surprise over supernatural healing, indignation over claims to spiritual authority, and accusations of blasphemy. It really didn’t matter which tunnels they found their Jewish hearers digging – they could always find ways to dig to meet them and to show them that Jesus of Nazareth was the person they were looking for.

This skill became even more important once the Christians moved to the cities of Asia Minor, Greece and Europe. Very few of the pagans they met had any real interest in the God of Israel or the Jewish Messiah. Instead, the Christians needed to take time to discover their starting-points, and to tunnel towards them with Jesus as the answer to their questions. In backwater Lystra, the barbarian peasants had very few spiritual questions other than how to ensure a good harvest and avoid offending the gods like the villains of Greek mythology. Therefore Paul preached a message about the true Lord of the Harvest, and would have used this starting-point to talk about his Son Jesus had he not been interrupted. The educated Athenians asked different questions about how to appease unknown gods. Therefore Paul preached a different message in Athens which used the writings of their own philosophers and poets to convince them that the Unknown God had sent him to answer their questions by telling them about a man who was raised from the dead. In every place, the early Christians found the local starting-points and built Gospel-tunnels to those very places to explain how Jesus was the answer to the questions they were asking.

We, however, tend not to be as good at listening as the early Christians. Because we know that Jesus is the Answer to the ultimate human question, we rarely take the time to present him as the answer to people’s smaller questions too. Francis Schaeffer used to say, “Give me an hour with an unbeliever and I will listen for the first fifty-five minutes, and then in the last five minutes I will have something to say.” We tend to try it the other way around, yet wonder why unbelievers are not interested in what we have to say. Unless we are prepared to discover where people are truly digging, we will never be able tunnel towards them and lead them to Jesus as the Answer.

I’m trying to become more like Philip and the other early Christians, and I’m finding that it works when we look for starting-points like they did. When my children were young, I wanted to talk to them about Jesus, but they just wanted Dad to make some popcorn, curl up with them on the sofa and watch ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘Shrek’. I didn’t need much persuading, and when we turned off ‘Finding Nemo’, I found a chance to tell them about God the perfect Father who comes to seek and save the lost. When we turned off ‘Shrek’, I told them about the God who sees ugly sin in the hearts of self-proclaimed Prince Charmings, yet who loves to save each ogre who admits their faults and asks him to love them anyway. I want to talk to my Muslim friends about Jesus, but I find they just want to tell me about Ramadan and their story of Eid al-Adha. I’ve learned to stop and listen, before telling them that Jesus fasted forty days and nights to beat sin for them, then died as Abraham’s sheep-sacrifice to reconcile them back to God. I want to talk to other friends about Jesus, but they just want to talk about DVDs or pop music or sports. I’m learning to spot questions in their favourite films and lyrics and to explain how Jesus is the answer.

It’s still the same Gospel-message, but told from the place where people are, not from the place where I’d like them to be. Sharing the Gospel this way is what Philip did, what Paul did and what Luke tells us to do as well. It’s very, very effective when we tell people the message of Jesus from the place where they are digging. People will listen, so long as we listen first, when we tell them the Good News of Jesus from their own particular starting-point.
1)   How good are you at listening to what your nonbelieving friends are thinking and celebrating?

2)   Do you try to share the Gospel with them as a one-size-fits-all message? How could you find a better starting-point for your Gospel conversations with them?  

3)  What is the biggest piece of advice that you want to remember as you emerge from lockdown into a new world of Gospel opportunity?
Today we have not written a prayer for you to pray. Instead, we invite you to pray for each of the nonbelievers on your ‘lost list’ by name, that the Lord will help you to find starting-points for Gospel conversations with them. 
Today’s Everyday Devotions were brought to you by Phil Moore, who leads our team of whole-church elders.  

If you have time, consider carrying on your conversation with God using one of our helpful Prayer Pathways.  

Today’s Everyday Devotions have also inspired a devotional video that you can watch on our YouTube channel.