Scripture Reference: Acts 16
The Light Shines In A PrisonDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 31, 2009
Selected highlights from this sermon
Paul and Silas knew how to share the Gospel even in the most hostile of circumstances. They weren’t intimidated by anyone or anything.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer explains how we can have that kind of faith and courage to share the good news of Christ—even in the midst of the darkest of hours.
Today I am beginning a series of messages entitled Light Shining in Darkness on how the Gospel impacts culture. And when I speak about darkness, you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? I’m speaking about moral and spiritual darkness. I’m talking about addictions and brokenness that is scattered throughout the land. How does the Gospel transform people and how does it transform culture?
I have two very specific goals in these messages that are clear to me, and I want to make them clear to you. One is to cast a vision for what the Gospel can do in a community, - whether it’s the city of Chicago or some other part of the United States or the world-to recharge our own confidence in the Gospel’s ability to change culture. So we’re not going to be talking so much about ourselves. We’re going to be thinking outside of ourselves, hopefully outside of the box as to what God can do through us right here in this city and around the world.
But there’s a second reason why I’ve chosen these messages. I want to discuss strategy. I want to talk about how the early church did it. Imagine how without television, without radio, without microphones, without all of the things that we have, without books and printing presses, they were able to turn their world upside down. And they also lived in an age of political correctness. They lived in an age when the Gospel was not being welcomed at all. They lived in an age of pluralism, an age in which you were supposed to commit yourself to the emperor and worship him, and if you worshipped Jesus, you could be persecuted.
How did the early church have the courage, the chutzpah, to say, “We are not going to be stopped; we will continue to preach and to teach and to witness”? I want to know that, and I hope you want to know that too.
Having just come from Europe, I was talking to John Lennox, the man who debated Richard Dawkins, and he, of course, in his debates I need to tell you, he always makes the Gospel look good. But he was telling me about a man by the name of Michael Reese (and I checked it on the Internet) of the Royal Society. And now I’m thinking of what the London Times said. I looked at the newspaper. The headline is, “Royal Society’s Michael Reese Resigns Over Creation Row.” When he was speaking to a group of teachers, even though he is a Darwinian (so he doesn’t believe in creation), all that he did was say that as teachers we should treat creationists’ beliefs not as a misconception but as a worldview. What he was saying is, “We should actually treat those who believe in creation with respect.” That caused such a row that within four days he was forced to resign. The very notion that creationists should be treated with respect was too much to handle. That’s, of course, part of what’s happening here in the United States, too, as we shall see. And what we’re going to learn is that the early church was not deterred because of what was happening. Though the entire world was against them, they kept on winning victory after victory, and we are going to find out why, and how, and by God’s grace we’re going to transform our culture too. I’m that optimistic.
Well we’re going to begin in Acts 16, and I’m going to preach eight messages and this is the first of eight beginning in chapter 16, and then we’re going to go through to the end of the book and try to find out how they did it. Where did Paul’s courage, faith and joy come from?
Acts 16 tells us the story of the second missionary journey. The Apostle Paul began a number of churches, and now he wanted to visit them, so he takes with him a man by the name of Silas who was from the church in Jerusalem, and they set out. When they come to a place called Lystra they pick up Timothy who is going to travel with them, and then later on in Troas, they’ll meet someone else, as we’ll see in a moment.
Starting in verse 6 it says, “As they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia…” Now let’s look at this carefully. They want to go to Asia. They want to go in the direction of Ephesus where Paul will go later, but they thought they knew where they were going, and the Holy Spirit will not let them go there. There was a check in their spirit, so they knew this was not the direction that they were to go. And then notice it says, “When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” What’s going on there in the text? These early disciples were so intimately connected to the Holy Spirit that they sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction, and they just were so in tune with God. And why was that important? It’s because God was preparing some people in another city that they were to evangelize, a place where they didn’t even think that they were going to go, and so being sensitive to the Spirit, they knew not here–not here.
And then the Bible says in verse 8, “So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.” Now Troas was a very important city. It was important because it was a seaport, but it was also here at Troas (you remember the Trojan war and Troy, which has a great deal to do with Greek mythology and Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey) that Paul sees a vision in the middle of the night. “A man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Why was Troas (and the decision that was made there) so incredibly important? It’s because now the Gospel is going to go to Europe. You know, the whole history of the Christian Church might have been different at this point if they had gone back into Ephesus, and then gone toward the east toward India. Christianity may have developed there, but because they went to Macedonia, which is really Greece, they began the work that would eventually carry all throughout Europe in obeying the vision that Paul had in the middle of the night. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Talk about the direction of God.
All that now by way of introduction, because they then catch a boat, and they go the 175 miles all the way to Neapolis and then to Philippi, and that’s where the text opens–the beginning of the church there. And the first thing they discover is, number one, that God had opened the heart of a woman. God opens hearts. It says in verse 13, “And on the Sabbath day (they are now in Philippi) we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God.” Now notice this. You need to see this in your Bible. It says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us.” And so they actually stayed in her home. Lydia, seller of purple!
You see, in those days, there was purple dye, which could be extracted from a certain shellfish drop by drop. It was very expensive, and the reason is because royalty wanted to wear purple, and the rich wanted purple. So Lydia was a successful businesswoman from Thyatira, which is really in Asia Minor, but she had come there evidently, and maybe stayed there for a while to sell her goods, and she is there at the river. Even though there wasn’t a synagogue there (probably because there weren’t enough Jewish men to begin one), there were a number of people in whose hearts God was working. She maybe heard of the Jewish faith, and the true God, and so her heart is opened when Paul preaches Christ to her.
Maybe you’re here today and you are a God fearer like she was. What that means is that you are open on the Godward side. You are a seeker and you’d like to know God, and today, even while I am speaking, it may be that God is opening your heart to understand the Gospel and to believe. The Apostles learned that salvation is a God thing. Only he can bring salvation to the heart. Only he can open the heart. She is the first convert in Europe.
Now they continue and they go back to the place of prayer. Verse 16 says, “As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us…” Now I need to stop there and tell you that in Troas there was a fourth member of the team. You have Paul. You have Silas. You have Timothy. Luke joined them in Troas. I should have pointed this out earlier. Do you notice in verse 10, it says, “And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we… .” Luke is the author of the book of Acts and also the author, of course, of the book of Luke. He wrote two books in the New Testament. He was a Gentile and he joined Paul at Troas, and that’s why he says from now on, “We did this.”
All right, now, “As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination, and brought her owners much gain by fortune telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation. And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
If, in the first instance, you have Lydia who had a tender heart, we come now to a young slave girl who has a tormented heart. She has an evil spirit. Notice that the spirit in the presence of the Apostle Paul actually speaks truth. This is not unlike the spirits that met Jesus. Do you remember that they said, “We know who you are, the holy Son of God”? In the presence of Paul, the spirit was so agitated, but he spoke truth and said, “These are servants of the Most High God, who are showing you the way of salvation.” A spirit never speaks truth unless it is forced into it.
Why does the Bible say that we should not go to fortunetellers? Well, many of them are simply cranks. There’s no doubt that there are shenanigans and a lot of predictions that any one of us could make if we had a little bit of practice, but there are some fortune tellers who actually have a spirit of divination–an evil spirit, and the devil knows the future better than we do but not infallibly. You know, after President Kennedy was assassinated (and I was in Dallas in 1963 in my first year of seminary when that happened), there were those who came out in the newspapers and said, “We predicted the assassination.” Well, you know I need to tell you that it is so much easier to predict something after it has happened than before it happens.
You see, the devil can know that Lee Harvey Oswald is planning to assassinate the President, so he knows a lot more than any human being does, but he doesn’t know infallibly that it will happen. The gun might jam, or maybe Lee Harvey Oswald would be caught as he’s going up the stairs of the Texas School Book Depository building. So the devil knows the future but not infallibly. He knows only what human beings are planning. He doesn’t know whether or not they’ll pull them off. But a spirit of divination means that you could be right probably eight times out of ten, and this girl was making money for them.
Paul didn’t want to get involved but he was agitated, and even though what she was saying was true, he couldn’t take it anymore, and you never want to hear anything from spirits, even if they happen to be telling the truth. Paul says to this spirit (not to the girl but to the spirit), “Come out of her,” and the spirit, in the name of Jesus, had to obey.
Well, you’d think everybody would be happy. I’m sure there were people there who said, “You know, we’re seeing her smile for the first time.” No, not so. You’ll notice it says in verse 19, “But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison (that’s called maximum security) and fastened their feet in the stocks.”
“You’ve taken away our means of gain.” People who use other people’s weakness and addictions for gain themselves are evil people. You have it happening every day on the street corners of Chicago (some street corners). Drugs are sold where there are those who want to get you into the drug market and get you hooked so that you become a constant source of money for them. We see this in pornography. Hugh Hefner could never have his (quote) “empire,” as it is called, if it were not for the fact that there are millions of pornography addicts that support him. It is built on the backs of addicts, and by the way, he wants your son, and he wants him very, very young so that he can depend on him for resources in the years to come. There are evil people who use other people’s weaknesses for gain.
Nobody seems to be happy that this girl is delivered. What we’re going to do is to take these men and beat them, and it says that they complained that they were doing things that were unlawful. By the way, one way to shut the Gospel down is to make it unlawful, and it is happening here in society in America.
I heard recently that there was a policeman who had a Bible study in his home and he was fined for having it because after all his home wasn’t zoned for a church. You see, you can use all kinds of laws. Someday I am going to give a one-hour lecture on the role of law in society. You can have all kinds of laws. The ACLU would like to criminalize all public expressions of Christianity in the so-called public square. “Is it unlawful for you to come here and preach the Gospel. It is unlawful for you, in the name of Jesus, to deliver this girl.” That’s what they were saying, and then the Bible says they beat them with rods. They took off their clothes and beat them with rods. Rods are sticks. They were not metal as we have rods today. They were sticks and what they would do is they would tie these sticks in a bundle and then there were professional folks who were especially trained in how to beat someone up, and they beat Paul and Silas (not Luke and Timothy) because Paul and Silas were Jews, and they beat them up with rods. Now just think about that. Your back is lacerated. You’ve been hit in the legs. You’re just literally writhing in pain, and they keep hitting you and hitting you and hitting you, and then they throw you into prison and put you in the innermost part of the prison.
Well, I think if that happened to any of us, at that point we’d be discouraged. Paul and Silas began to curse. Is that what the Bible says? Well, if that’s what your Bible says, you are reading today from the “reversed vision.” It’s a bad translation. Verse 25 says, “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.” You know, the jailer put them in jail and then he went for supper, intending to have a good night’s sleep. Suddenly the earthquake takes place, and the earthquake isn’t the great miracle in this passage. It’s the fact that these men were able to sing and give praise to God for what happened, and their hymns in the prison begin over there, and people can easily trace where the noise and where the sound is coming from, and lo and behold it’s Paul and Silas, without clothes, beaten, cold, in pain, and with welts, they are singing. Wow!
Well, in verse 27 it says the jailer saw what had happened and he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because in those days if you didn’t keep prisoners, it was your life. If you let them go because of negligence, it was your life and he wanted to kill himself. “But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible. I learned it when I suppose I was five years old. Acts 16:31 says, “And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”
If Lydia represents the tender heart, and if the slave girl represents the tormented heart, here you have a jailer who represents the tough heart. And God is going to show that He can use circumstances and He can use opposition to have His will done. I wonder how many of us believe that. When it comes to opposition we don’t want to know about it, and we complain about it. These apostles had the faith to believe that opposition could be used of God to accomplish His purpose because there was a jailer who needed to be converted.
So the jailer believes, and his household. It says in verse 32, “They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” I’ve known Christians who have been saved for ten years and they’ve never been baptized. Could you learn from the jailer? He gets saved that night, probably knowing very little about theology. How do we know that he was saved, by the way? Immediately there was a heart change. Immediately he was saying, “Come in and I’m going to wash your wounds and I’m going to give you some supper,” and then they explain to him that he should be identified with Jesus Christ in baptism, and they preach the Word to all who are in the house, and everybody is saved, and everybody is baptized. Wow!
Now this verse has often been misinterpreted. You have, for example, the idea of household salvation and that if you as parents are saved, this means it’s a guarantee that your children will be. No, no, no! Notice that they preached the Word to all who were in the house, and they all believed. That’s the whole idea.
It’s also been misinterpreted because this is a great verse for those who believe in infant baptism. They say, “See, the whole household was baptized. Surely there was a little baby there.” Well, I don’t know what Bible you are reading but I don’t see anything about babies here. I hear that they went and they preached the Word to all who were in the house. I don’t think they went over to the crib and preached the word to the baby, and then baptized him, but nonetheless, you will notice it says in verse 34, “They brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” What a story!
Let’s just pause for a minute here and catch our breath. What was it about the early Christians that helped them transform their world and their culture? What did they have that perhaps we don’t? What was this motivation, this sense of invincibility that would not stop them? Well, first of all, number one, it was faith– faith that the Gospel could spread no matter the opposition. They believed that no heart was too hard. No situation was too difficult for God. They did not look at the laws of the land as being a hindrance to their proclamation of the Gospel. They did not allow the situation, the persecution, or the beatings to hinder them. Paul says, by the way, in 1 Corinthians 3, “Three times I was beaten with rods.” It never stopped him. They just kept on going because they believed that God was in everything, even the opposition that they had. I envy their faith. I wish I had that kind of faith.
Secondly, joy just erupts from these pages. You’ll notice it says that the jailer rejoiced. When you read the book of Acts it’s just like getting joy in your face, like you get water from a jet ski. It’s just all over. There’s joy. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and joy. Where in the world was all that coming from? You know, of course, the filling of the Spirit is love and joy and nobody could shut it off.
Now let me speak to you candidly. Why don’t we have that kind of joy? I think I know, and I don’t particularly like the answer, but it’s a true answer. Sin causes the cup of joy to spring a leak. Sin blocks all joy. Sin is always angry and negative and lacks the eruption of the Spirit. Here we find joy because they believed that God was in it and it didn’t matter and they’d be faithful no matter what.
Let me read to you the words of Michael Green, whom I also met, by the way, when I was in Europe last week. He says, “You cannot defeat men like this. Tell them to keep quiet and they disobey you. Throw them into prison and they convert the jailer with them and they rejoice to be allowed to suffer for Christ’s name. Stone them to within an inch of their lives in one city, and they carry on with just the very same message in the next. Kill them and others arise to take their place. Endurance like that simply has to win in the long run.”
You see, what the disciples believed sitting there in prison (Paul and Silas) with all these wounds and all these pains, and their feet cramped, were the words of Jesus: “Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for so treated they the prophets that were before you.”
Every bit of opposition was considered as a reason for joy, and they just went on believing. And then of course, last, not only faith and joy, but they had this confidence in the Gospel message. They believed that the Gospel could change people, and obviously there in Philippi it did.
Now this is the beginning of the church in Philippi. You have a woman with a tender heart and she is a businesswoman who has done well. Her name is Lydia. You have this tormented girl and she becomes a believer after Paul’s intervention in her life, I’m sure, and the demons leave so that she can believe. And then you have a jailer, the tough man, and isn’t it interesting that the message is the same for all of them? It’s the same message for the poor as for the rich, the educated and the uneducated, and it is the Gospel that binds them together. And years later the Apostle Paul is going to write a book of the New Testament called the book of Philippians, and it is written to the church at Philippi, and as you know, that book is filled with the topic of joy. And these are the people to whom he is going to write and encourage in the faith-the confidence of the Gospel.
I have confidence that the Gospel could change you today if you believed. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Because Jesus died for sinners, and because He triumphed over evil, there is no spirit in this world that will not obey the command of Jesus. When Jesus says leave, he must leave, because Jesus is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, God of all Gods, and that’s why you and I need to have the same confidence that when we take people to a service where the Gospel is preached (or where it is performed), that that Gospel can change them, and that the hardness of their heart and the indifference that they have shown can be overcome by a message empowered by the Spirit. And that’s why we witness at work. That’s why we are sensitive to the Spirit’s leading in offices, hospitals, and banks–wherever God has placed us.
Well, what does it mean to believe on Jesus? Well, you know, there is this story about a doctor who said to a patient who was witnessing to him, “I believe in God and I believe in Jesus, but I have no assurance of my salvation.” Maybe you are here today and are like that. You believe in God. You believe in Jesus, but you have no assurance of your salvation. And the patient said, “Well, prior to my coming here, months ago, I knew about you and I believed in you, but more recently, you gave me a prescription I couldn’t read. I gave it to a pharmacist, whom I’ve never met, and he gave me medicine that I cannot pronounce, but I accepted it and it has worked. Now I trust you. I not only believe in you. Now I have proved my trust.” And that’s the bottom line. The jailer was a tough guy–the kind who would have said, “I dare you to convert me.” That’s the kind of guy he was before the earthquake, but he changed his mind afterwards. That message changed him. It changed his household. It could change you, and it could change your household too.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Transfer your trust to Him and you shall be saved. There you have it. It transforms culture because it transforms people, and it can transform you today right now. I mean right now.
Let us pray.
Father, I want to thank You so much for these accounts that have been so beautifully preserved, and so accurately preserved in Your Word. Thank you for the courage of the early church. Thank you, Father, that there was nothing that could stop them because of irrepressible joy and faith and confidence. Would You do that in my heart, and would you do that in the hearts of the members and the friends and the attendees of Moody Church? Would you, Father, by Your Spirit, teach us anew what it is to represent You where You have planted us?
And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, even as I pray this prayer, may they call out to you and say, “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. I trust Him for my salvation.”
You can say that wherever you are–whether you are here today, listening by radio, or on the Internet. I am giving you a moment. Call out to Jesus today, tender heart, tormented heart, or tough heart and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.
Father, hear the cry of all of us today, we pray, and may we be willing to follow You no matter the cost. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.