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 many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city. – Acts 8:4-8
“When one door closes, another one opens…”, is a saying made famous by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. It is a call to perseverance that goes a little further than, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” by taking into account the fact that sometimes things in life do not go according to plan. Sometimes we get thrown curveballs. Sometimes we just get thrown out. This was the case of the first church in Jerusalem. After the multiple arrests and persecution faced by the apostles, culminating with the stoning of Stephen, it became clear to the community of disciples that they were unwelcome. Just as their Lord Jesus before them was cast out and executed, they found that the city God had chosen for his temple long ago, had no tolerance for God’s people within her walls. They had persevered (tried again and again) in the face of persecution. Undaunted by jail, torture, and even death, they continued to preach. Unshaken by divisiveness and prejudice within their own group, they continued to live together in the hope of Christ’s return.
However, there came a point where, with Christ’s blessing, they shook the Jerusalem dust off their feet and moved on. Not all of them, mind you. Many of the Apostles stayed in or near Jerusalem. However, a great many of the more than 5,000 believers left for safer surroundings. One of these was Philip, the man who had only just been named one of the seven deacons, along with Stephen. He took the gospel north, to the city of Samaria and it appears that he continued preaching the word there, just as they had been doing in Jerusalem. This move was probably not according to his plans, as most of the church was expecting Jesus to come back at any moment. Indeed, we must remember the great stress they were all under. Many of them had already sold their possessions and probably did not have much to live on, let alone move to another city. They had become vagabonds, exiles from their own homes, all for the sake of Christ, and were now traveling through Israel and beyond, praying that God would provide them with daily bread. Their plan A had failed and now they were punting.
However, our plans – even our best attempts to understand God’s plan do not always fully grasp the big picture God is painting. Disheartened, Philip could easily have just quit and gone home. God’s own top people in Jerusalem apparently did not want to hear from God, why would anyone else? Despairing, he could have renounced his faith like the disciples did when Jesus was crucified, hiding out as far away from the Jewish leaders as he could get. He did neither. He understood what Bell would say over 1800 years later that when one door closes, another door opens.
Speaking of Bell, we typically only quote half of his line. The whole statement he made was, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” It is this second part of the statement that is the difference between Philip the Evangelist, whose ministry flourished in Samaria and beyond, and those who fall away disheartened and despairing: where we are looking. It is the difference between focusing our eyes on a particular door we are trying to get through and fixing our gaze on Jesus and going wherever He goes. Planning is important in ministry. Preparation is key to successfully engaging a community with the gospel or even in simply sharing your faith with your neighbor. However, planning and preparation cannot replace the simple obedience of staying close and following Christ.
God does not change his plans around at the last minute. We just fail to grasp the bigger picture. Philip’s move to Samaria was spoken of by God in the book of Genesis, when he promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed by him. This new ministry was commanded specifically by Jesus when he commanded his disciples to make disciples of all people, from Jerusalem, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Many of these early Christians probably figured they were going to be the Jerusalem part of that plan, not the “ends of the earth” crew. Yet God had his plan and the gospel would not be stopped or even slowed by either the opposition or the comfort of the Christians. God’s love for His people will persevere and overcome any obstacles we, or anyone else may put in His path. When one door closes, God opens another one.