The account of Philip and the Ethiopian is one of the great conversion stories in the book of Acts. Luke, volume 2 records how Christianity took hold in the 1st century world—a culture that was as resistant to the gospel as ours is today. In chapter 8, we have the case of an African being converted to Christ. In chapter 9, we have the case of a Jew being converted to Christ. In chapter 10, we have the case of a European being converted to Christ. And that’s just the tip of the ethnic iceberg. These conversions show us that Christianity is transcultural. That is, the gospel is for everyone, regardless of nation, race, people, or tongue. The gospel is for everyone because everyone needs the gospel.
Philip shares this gospel, and the Ethiopian official accepts it, but neither of these figures is the hero of the story. Philip is an obedient servant, to be sure, and thank God for it. But he and the other deacons in Jerusalem aren’t sitting around figuring out where the gospel should go next. They’re not developing strategies based on logic and demographic studies. They’re not having an evangelistic thrust because of some great burden for the lost. Something else gets them moving in a missional direction. Neither is the Ethiopian official the hero of the story. He’s an interesting and sympathetic figure—a foreigner to Israel, a wealthy and educated man, a high court official back home, and a person truly hungry for God—a man who has traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the God of the Hebrews! But he’s not the hero of the story, either.
The story doesn’t begin with Philip or the Ethiopian. This story, like every story of salvation, begins with God. Verse 26, 29, and 39 all indicate that the Lord is the causal agent of everything good that happens in this encounter. Specifically, it’s the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the divine Trinity—who’s the hero of this story. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the hero of every conversion story. The Holy Spirit is the life of God on planet earth, accomplishing the divine will. God the Father is in heaven, seated on his throne, ruling the universe. God the Son is at his right hand, serving as High Priest and Advocate for his people. God the Holy Spirit is on earth—executing the plan and purpose of heaven.
God certainly uses his people to share the gospel with others, but it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared them to share it. And it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared people’s hearts to receive it. From beginning to end, then, it’s the Holy Spirit who orchestrates everything in a person’s conversion to Christ. That’s why churches must renew their dependence on the Holy Spirit for all that they do in seeking to fulfill the mission that God has given them. Including baptisms.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a name that has come into our vocabulary through the genius of Charles Dickens. If you haven’t read his classic novel, A Christmas Carol, chances are good you’ve seen it on stage or on television. Some of the more popular versions include:
Reginal Owen (1938)—one of the first productions in the modern era
Alastair Sim (1951)—still regarded as a classic, aesthetically pleasing rendition
George C. Scott (1984)—a rugged and highly regarded portrayal despite its various omissions
Michael Caine (1992)—a delightful children’s adaptation with the Muppets
Patrick Stewart (1999)—from a one-act play on the stage to a television movie
Jim Carrey (2009)—a noteworthy production with dark, realistic animation
Clockwise from upper left: Patrick Stewart (1999); Alastair Sim (1951); Reginal Owen (1938); Jim Carrey (2009); Michael Caine (1992); George C. Scott (1984).
Scrooge, of course, is the quintessential stingy old man who doesn’t want to be bothered with the feastings and festivities of Christmastime. He’s got a porcupine personality and scary looks to go with it. He’s got a hostile demeanor and a glaring eye to back it up. He’s got a roll of money in his pocket, but you will never get any of it. Yet, for all his material wealth, he’s a sad and lonely man. He’s a man in desperate need of redemption.
Scrooge has numerous modern descendants, too, both real and fictitious. Some know him as the Grinch who stole Christmas—the mean, green, furry creature who doesn’t know how to have any holiday fun, and doesn’t want anybody else to have any holiday fun, either. Some know him as the Abominable Snowman—the glacial beast whose mission it is to prevent children from giving and getting gifts on Christmas morning.
Do you know Scrooge? Does a face come to mind even now? Maybe it’s a sour relative who’s grouchy and hates to decorate in December. Maybe it’s a cold-hearted friend who grouses about all the charity bell-ringers at the store entranceways. Maybe it’s an edgy parent who, with great irritation, follows you around on Christmas morning with a garbage bag so that scraps of wrapping paper never touch the floor. “Bah, humbug!” is the Christmas carol sung by such folks. They snort it out whenever they’re in the presence holiday warmth and good cheer.
But according to Dickens (and more importantly, according to the Scriptures, which inspired the novel), such folks can change their tune. The dramatic conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge from a tight-fisted old grump into a benevolent big-spender and bringer-of gifts naturally warms the heart. Perhaps that’s because it’s what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones—a realchange of heart. We may not like to admit it, but there is a little bit of old Scrooge in all of us.
For one thing, Scrooge is a businessman, and the drive for profit has become for him an obsession. How many of us today are motivated by the almighty dollar (or the pound, or the franc, or the yen)? Making the big bucks in Merchant Square has eclipsed any other goal in life. Scrooge’s focus is the bottom line, regardless of the human cost or the social implications. As a result, Scrooge is incapable of neighborly love. He lacks empathy and compassion. He’s callous and coarse. To put it bluntly, he’s a selfish pig. And that selfishness comes out in many ways throughout the novel.
On the personal level, Scrooge is indifferent to the basic human needs of his own employee, Bob Cratchit, who exists for him only as a means to a financial end. He exploits Cratchit as much as he can, going so far as to save a few pennies on coal while Cratchit freezes in the next room over. Cratchit’s financial dependence on Scrooge makes him vulnerable to abuse, including the fear of losing his job at the slightest whim of his nasty boss.
On the social level, Scrooge rejects an earnest appeal for charity on behalf of the poor and the destitute. In the novel he says, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” He suggests that the poor belong either in prison or in the workhouse. When told that many would rather die than go to either place, he replies, “If they would rather die, they had better get to it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge’s language is blunt, but the sentiment he expresses certainly finds harsh echoes in today’s political debates about many social issues.
Nevertheless, while Dickens is a brilliant social critic of 19th-century England, his primary concern in the novel is not the conversion of his country but the conversion of Scrooge’s heart.Before societies can change, hearts must change. Scrooge’s own nephew gets it right early in the book. The spirit of Christmas, he says, teaches men and women to think of people below themselves as if they really were “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” How incisive.
I saw a commercial on television one time where the announcer said, “Here is one place where class and skin color don’t matter,” and the screen showed a hospital maternity ward with dozens of multi-national babies wiggling around in their incubators. “And here is the other,” said the narrator, voicing over the scene of a quiet, green cemetery with dozens of tombstones. “Fellow passengers to the grave”—all of us. That itself should be enough to get us converted. It sure got Scrooge’s attention.
Evangelicals often criticize Dickens because Scrooge’s transformation in the novel is not explicitly Christian. There’s no tent revival, no altar call, no baptism, and no clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. There’s just a brilliantly crafted self-discovery followed by genuine remorse and a change of lifestyle—sort of like the old television program Touched by an Angel, where Jesus was seldom, if ever, explicitly mentioned.
I’m sympathetic to that critique, but it should also be pointed out that: (1) Dickens was a poet, not a preacher; (2) Scrooge’s nephew cries out, “God save you!” to his wretched uncle, and reminds him that Christmastime cannot be separated from its sacred source; and (3) Dickens has told us clearly in his novel that Scrooge’s transformation comes only after intervention from heaven.
It’s the Ghost of Christmas Past that connects Scrooge to his own childhood suffering and therefore softens his heart a bit.
It’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that connects Scrooge to the impending death of Bob Cratchit’s special-needs son, Tiny Tim, and his own responsibility for that death.
And it’s the Ghost of Christmas Future that connects Scrooge to his hellish destiny—the fate of a wretched man with an uncaring, unconverted heart.
Had the heavenly realm not invaded Scrooge’s life, he never would have changed. He never could have changed. He would have remained heartless.
When we leave the world of this classic novel and enter the world of real life, we can easily fill in the gaps, for the Scriptures likewise teach that only truth revealed from heaven can tell us the true condition of our souls and reveal what God has done about that condition.
The Christian canon is about God showing us our hearts, softening our hearts, capturing our hearts, and regenerating our hearts. It’s about how God intervenes to save us. And God does not save us by sending us three ghosts. He saves us by sending us his Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, God’s Christmas present to the world was himself wrapped in skin. Because of Christmas, we can say with confidence, “God bless us, every one!”