Bible Reading Acts 16:16-24
Last week we heard about a prayer meeting where the first European accepted Christ and of the birth of the church in Philippi, where Paul met some of his favorite people. But especially at first, it wasn’t all rosy in the community as Luke goes on to describe:
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (NIV)
Message Paul Accepts a Jailer Acts 16:16-34
What do we do with our knowledge?
John the Baptist had the right information. Last week, Lydia received the right information at a prayer meeting. Now we have a fortune teller with the right information, which shows that having that correct information cannot be the ultimate goal. John the Baptist used his knowledge to pave the way for Jesus. Lydia used the information to accept Christ. But this fortune teller did not use the information to accept Christ nor to clear the way for Paul – instead she sarcastically mocked him, [speak in an derisive way]: "These men are servants of the most high God, who are telling you the way to be saved." (You’ll have to use your imagination; I can’t imitate mocking speech very well because I try to never use it). But her biting tone eventually drew Paul’s ire to a breaking point.
We cannot control how people are going to react when we share what we know, but we can control how we are going to receive what others know and how we present what we know to others. Have we used our knowledge of faith to enter into a relationship with Jesus? Have we used our knowledge of Jesus to represent him in a way that draws people to him or increases anger about him and to reject, or at least resist him?
How do we deal with differences?
We live in a culture which increasingly desires not to reach, but to shun and even destroy (metaphorically if not literally) those who think differently than ourselves. Yet Paul, irked in anger by this consistent ridiculing message, whirled around and – and healed her. This was an extraordinary situation which meant Paul could not simply teach information, he had to confront directly and more forcefully than is the norm for us. Yet we can learn that even in confrontation, redemption and healing and growth is always the goal. We will never reach those goals if the aim of our attitude and approach is to gloatingly conquer others. It didn’t work for the fortune teller, and it will not accomplish reaching others to spread God’s grace and love through the world…
There may be times in our walks when we may be confronted – hopefully wisely and gently. If we are smart, we will respond to the checks and prompts and pangs of the Spirit within us and will not wait for a person (hopefully one where there is mutual love and trust) to tell us. In either case, it is rarely pleasant, but if it is truly of God, it will be in our best interest in the long run… and we should try not to shy away from those times but be willing to do what God wants regardless of the circumstances.
CS Lewis was a professor at Oxford. He is one of those who primarily thought rather than felt his way into faith in Christ’s gracious acceptance of himself. He did what was normal in his culture of the time and publicly explained and defended his personal relationship with God through Christ to millions of radio listeners and book readers. This embarrassed the hierarchy at Oxford and cost Lewis his chance of ever achieving a higher position on the faculty. Lewis learned that if you speak about beauty, truth, or goodness, about God as a great generic positive spiritual force, people remain friendly, but when you discuss a personal God who has a definite will and plan for your life and his world, the temperature drops considerably.
What does our use of money say about us?
And to tie it back into today’s text – this is especially true when it impacts the wallet. They used to say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but if you want to know what is in his heart, then look at his checkbook…
I’ve told you about the two dimes. Our youth trip to camp the last couple days revealed glorious sunrises and sets, a beautiful lake, beaches and trees. But take two dimes and put them in front of your eyes so you can do nothing but focus on them, and you lose sight of everything else. Granted, money is important to plan and use wisely. But also beware that even a little thing (it doesn’t have to be money) – with too much focus, these distorted priorities can potentially wreak havoc on our lives.
When Paul healed this woman, the owners of this fortune teller were blinded to her new life and wholeness because all they saw was the lack of dollars flowing their way. Therefore, they stirred up the entire town into an uproar and then falsely accused Paul and his team of creating the riots – this is something we see too often today as well – create a stir against another and then then blaming the other for the resulting stir… They escalated the conflict to accomplish their personal agenda. They also threw in the near magical slogans - those phrases so powerfully emotive that to argue them struck fear in the hearts – an example in religious circles is “The Lord told me to tell you…” How are you supposed to argue that without giving the impression you are going against God? In this case, the unarguable phrase to the city leaders would be along the lines of “Rome is not going to like this”. Remember that Philippi is a proud Roman Colony which means they had a lot of freedoms – as long as they followed the laws of Rome and kept the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. To fail to do this or please their overseers, who knows what might happen. To argue against someone who uttered something such as “Rome will not like this” would lead to accusations of being unpatriotic, of being “unRoman”, and would be political suicide.
The city leaders, in their eagerness to avoid such difficulties and to restore peace, did not investigate carefully. They stripped and beat the missionaries – not realizing that Paul and Silas were natural citizens of Rome which entitled him to rights they ignored – which was even more terrifying to them – for Rome does not tolerate this kind of treatment of its citizens -- but that goes beyond today’s text – to the end of chapter 16.
What happens next in our text is that they are thrown in jail – in the deepest part and chained in stocks as well so there would be no chance of escape. Now let’s pick up the reading from where the reader left off…
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household. (Acts 16:25-34 (NIV))
Prisoners hear them proclaiming God through prayer and song. An early church father commented, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” (Tertullian). While there is truth in that, legs are legs and pain is pain and I’ve got plenty of both. I’m sure they felt it, it may even be why they were still awake at midnight -- but somehow they managed to overcome it, and instead of the normal curses and complaints you would hear from prisoners in that place, especially ones wrongfully imprisoned; they lift praises and prayers. Perhaps it was their magnetic, powerful personalities that convinced the other prisoners to remain in place when the earthquake shakes everything and everyone loose.
The jailer woke up, I’m not sure if the quake knocked him out, he was not alert, or even if he was expected to be awake and on guard -- but he wakes up to see the doors open and only darkness within and assumed the prisoners were gone. So out of the honor of Roman soldier duty, or, as a self-imposed act of mercy compared to what his superiors would do to him for allowing the escape, he was going to kill himself. From the inner darkness, the prisoners could see the guard in the moonlight outside the outer prison doors and what he was about to do. They yell for him to stop because they were all there.
See Acts 12:1 ff Four chapters earlier, Herod received approval from the Jews for arresting church people and executing John’s brother, James. So to increase his political approval ratings even more, he had Peter thrown in prison. His plan was that after Passover, he would bring Peter out to be publicly tried and probably executed. The night before his trial he was sleeping between two guards and an angel came and woke him -- Peter’s chains fell off and locked doors opened before them and they walked the length of a street before the angel left him. Peter thought he was having a vision – and now he came to his senses and realized it had actually happened.
While in Peter’s case it is obvious what he was to do, I often wonder why Paul did not think the earthquake that loosed his chains and opened the prison doors was not also a sign to take his freedom and leave the jail. I would have thought so, but Paul clearly didn’t. There could have been a divinely led human strategy thing -- that Paul wanted to be heard in trial before Caesar, before the leaders of the land -- and in fact he later did demand an appeal before Caesar that did eventually lead him to Rome. (See Acts 25:12, 26:13), but in the shorter term, and in this Pentecost season, I suspect they were simply leaning on the nudges of the Spirit to stay. It is very important in all circumstances, to be sensitive to the checks and nudges of Spirit.
The jailer, who most likely was aware of his prisoner’s charges, and of the claims expressed by the fortune teller, (that they had a message of the way of salvation), and of the exorcism, (it wasn’t that huge a city) and now the earthquake -- the jailer had heard, felt and seen enough to be convinced that these men were divine messengers and asked how he could find this salvation. Paul and Silas explained what Jesus had done for us and to believe Jesus was Lord (to put our trust in him and commit ourselves to following his way of life).
He did, with his household, and Christianity made more inroads into Europe. Like Lydia last week, he took them home and fed them. He also washed their wounds, and joy came to his house.
Grace comes in various forms
When we lay these three stories of Acts 16 side by side, we see that God’s reaching grace may take many shapes and forms. From last week’s undramatic routine of Lydia who only needed the right information to find the Christ she was already seeking, to the crisis of life, the tipping point in the life of the fortune teller, to God’s miraculous actions that led to the salvation of the jailer and his loved ones... are just three examples of ways grace may come to us.
And if we went around this room and everyone told their personal story, I suspect some of us would relate something rather routine, some life crisis, or some miracle in their life that led them to the Lord – or maybe it would fit into yet another category – for these are just three examples of many more…
Grace often works through people
No matter the style of the experience, God almost always – though not necessarily -- I’d never limit what God can do through whatever means he chooses, but he often works his salvation through His people. You may be thinking - how can I, or who am I, to do something miraculous? I can’t perform and exorcism or create and earthquake on demand. That is something only God can do.
But it is God who does it (See Ephesians 2:3-5, 8-10)
It is true -- we cannot perform miracles by our own will. But it is also true that you cannot confront someone into salvation, and you cannot quietly teach someone to salvation. And as important is the role that humans (such as father’s or the men who take on that role – as well as the rest of us) may play in someone’s salvation experience; salvation is a miracle of God’s grace, not the result of human effort, our own salvation or someone else’s. It is only God that can do these things because only He can move a person’s heart to receptiveness. The real miracle is that while we all deserve death for our sins; God in Jesus Christ said, "I love you' and "I will take your place, and die for you - so that you can live forever with my Father God.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, help us to realize that as we serve you, it is always your work that precedes us, works around us, works through us; and it is you who brings salvation and growth to each of us. Lord we thank you that you accepted us even while were yet sinners.
Like Paul and Silas who dug deep and found spiritual joy in the midst of physical imprisonment, allow us, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, to experience the spiritual deliverance that you offer by your amazing love for us. Amen.
Closing Hymn # 363 (vv 1,3,4) And Can it Be…
May the Lord bless and keep you in his care.
As you leave this place, take his love to share.
Go now in peace for all to see ---
God's love has come to set us free. Amen.