Sermon: The Power of the Gospel in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40)
Ever since Easter, I have been praying through the church calendar. There are various periods throughout the year which were established centuries ago by the church to commemorate the important events which happened in the life of all believers, past and present. The coming of Christ is Advent season and we celebrate and marvel at God’s love in sending His Son and Jesus’ love and humility as expressed through the incarnation. Lent season is a period of introspection, of confessing sins and focusing on the sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross. Then, there is Easter season which celebrates newness, rebirth, new creation, joy, victory. Easter season begins on Easter Sunday and lasts for 50 days until Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in the Upper Room in Acts 2.
And the rest of Acts outlines what happened that very first Pentecost season. It was a time of miraculous demonstrations of the Spirit’s power, salvation, the birth of the early church and the power of the gospel to transform lives.
It is my growing belief that if we approached our spiritual lives using this church calendar as a guide, we would able to shape and mold our faith around the core tenets of the Bible – God’s love and His desire to be with us by sending Immanuel to us; the problem of our sin which broke our relationship with God and our need to be forgiven; the power of the resurrection and the ushering in of a new era where the heavenly kingdom breaks into our earthly space; and the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of the gospel to transform lives and break down all kinds of barriers.
Interestingly, for this year, today is Pentecost. Maybe someone will speak in tongues today? But many who have Pentecostal inclinations in our congregation are not here so I don’t think our chances are very good.
Today, I’d like to look at one of these early churches birthed as a direct result of the very first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon those disciples huddled in the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
Let’s read Acts 16:11-40 — I’ll read the odd verses if you could read the even verses.
This is a story Luke gives to us about a church planted in an urban center. Philippi, the largest church in the region.
Luke describes 3 conversion stories from that church.
And it was not your average church. In the letter to the Philippians, it is the only church among all the churches that Paul planted where he doesn’t confront them about some problem within the church.
Out of all the churches Paul planted, the church at Philippi is arguably the healthiest, the greatest, the best church in Paul’s ministry.
Let’s read about this model church. Acts 16:11-40 – I’ll read the odd verses if you can read the even verses.
You have Lydia, a slave girl and a jailer.
Why did Luke give us these 3 conversion stories?
3 absolutely different people.
Let’s first look racially.
First, there’s Lydia. The text points out that she is from Thyratira, a region in Asia Minor in modern day Turkey. So that is her hometown although she was doing business in Philippi which is in Europe. So you have an Asian woman.
Then you have a slave girl who is presumably from that region and is therefore of Greek descent.
Third, you have a jailer who was a Roman because all the good civil jobs went to ex-Roman soldiers.
So you have an Asian, a Greek and Roman.
Let’s look at these 3 economically.
Lydia was not just your average business woman. She was a dealer in dyes and specifically purple cloth. And Thyatira was the center of dyes. We know she was wealthy because in verse 15 – after Lydia was converted at Philippi she invites them to her home. So she is a traveling business woman from Thyratira who lives there but also is wealthy enough to have a home in Philippi. An analogy is to think of her as a modern day fashion CEO.
She accomplished what is extremely difficult even in modern times, to be successful enough to have a vacation home by the beach in Laguna Beach while having a home in her hometown in Paris.
Lydia – a person of power, wealth and influence.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a slave girl. She has no money. In fact, she is being exploited for money. She was demon possessed and it was not uncommon in these cases for parents to sell their children into slavery because they didn’t know how to deal with this problem. A modern day analogy of this slave girl is a prostitute.
This nameless slave girl – impoverished, unwanted, abandoned, exploited.
Then you have the jailer.
The Roman jailer was obviously not nearly as rich as Lydia and his life was not nearly a mess as the slave girl’s. He is just a blue collar ex-GI working as an officer in the prison system. He’s your average Joe. Comfortably middle class, perhaps like many of us here. Probably lives in Alhambra.
They had different cognitive approaches. There are a quite a number of books that talk about various cognitive styles describing the various ways people process information, learn and make decisions. One study divides everyone into 3 groups — rational, intuitive or concrete-relational.
The rational folks say I want evidence. Give me an argument and I might be persuaded.
The intuitive folks say I want feeling. I need to be emotionally involved. That’s how I perceive the world.
Most people fall into the last category – concrete rational. Most are not the academic types who need arguments and hard facts. Most are not the intuitive, artistic, sentimental types. Most say, show me. Give me something concrete. Most make decisions based on practical considerations.
Lydia was a rationalist. Her attitude was teach me. The slave girl was intuitive – a sermon wouldn’t help her, she can’t even think straight.
On the other hand, the jailer types, which is the category that most people fall into, are impatient with arguments and emotions. The jailer wouldn’t step into a church with long sermons and apologetics. He is not into aesthetics so he wouldn’t set foot into a high church with all the rituals and high ceilings. And certainly, he would not step into a Pentecostal church with outward displays of emotion.
You just wouldn’t reach him. He doesn’t want to talk about religion. He just doesn’t care.
He just says, show me something concrete.
These 3 are completely different racially, economically, cognitively and also spiritually.
Lydia was rich and successful, she seemed to have life figured out, she is in total control yet something was missing. Lydia is empty. How do we know this?
It says in verse 14 that Lydia was already a worshiper of God.
The phrase “worshiper of God” is used in cases when Gentiles left their pagan religious roots and began to learn about the God of the Bible.
Lydia got everything she wanted. She is in total control of her life. Yet all the fine dining and the vacation homes did not satisfy her and so she sought answers through morality and religious living.
The slave girl is not like Lydia. The slave girl is totally out of control. She is tormented. In verse 16, it says that this slave girl had a spirit and could predict the future. An important detail is left out regarding this spirit. In the Greek, it is actually translated, she had the spirit of a python.
There was an Oracle at Delphi in Greece who could predict the future and outside the temple, it was guarded by a statue of a python.
In those days, when people came across people like the slave girl who seemed crazy and could predict the future, they considered them to have a spirit of a python.
And her owners capitalized on this gift and used her fortune-telling ability to make money.
In verse 17, we read – 17This girl 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.”
These are servants of the Most High. That might not seem like a significant phrase to you, but for Jews who heard that phrase in Paul’s time, they would have immediately thought of Isaiah 14. There, we have an account of one of the angels becoming Satan. Lucifer says, I will ascend, I will be as the Most High. “Most High” is the resentful way that Satan and all those possessed by a spirit of a python would address God.
This slave girl is shouting at Paul. She’s in utter torment, she’s out of control, she is experiencing tremendous inner turmoil and restlessness. Yet this slave girl is attracted to God’s messengers, Paul and Silas.
The jailer on the other hand is not attracted to Paul and Silas. He is utterly uninterested.
He is different from the other two. Lydia knows the God of the Bible through the Bible. The slave girl knows God through an evil spirit. The jailer doesn’t care.
But God comes after each of them in 3 completely different ways – through the mind, through a direct attack of the heart, and through being shocked by changed lives.
GOD CAME AFTER EACH OF THEM
God came after Lydia. We read in verse 14 – “The Lord opened her heart to RESPOND to Paul’s message” the Greek verb for to respond is “prosecco” – that translates to she “got it.” God helped her get it.
How did God reach this rich, successful Asian woman spiritually? Through her mind. Through a Bible study. Through a seminar.
She tried paganism and now was trying morality. And as she studied, she must have thought there must be a way of atonement. Is it through substitution and killing an animal? Paul spoke and the Lord opened her heart to “respond” – prosecco – God helped her get it.
She heard the gospel message and everything clicked – every prophet, every king, every suffering servant, all the talk of sin and the need for atonement, and all the slain lambs, everything points to Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Mosaic law. He is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the one I have been waiting for. Jesus is the one I ought to worship. He lived the life I should’ve lived and he died the death I should’ve died. It made sense to her. She got it.
God gave her a Bible study, a gentle thing.
Now comes the slave girl.
She doesn’t need a Bible study. She doesn’t need a sermon. She is not open to intellectual arguments. She can’t even think straight.
You’ll notice – Paul doesn’t say lets study the bible. How could he? She is shouting at Paul and Silas.
One fascinating thing that I want to bring to your attention – Lydia didn’t know the gospel at all – that’s why she was trying to be a good moral person.
However, the slave girl knew that there WAS a way of salvation.
That’s why in verse 17 the slave girl knows that Paul and Silas are telling people how to be saved. Interesting, isn’t it?
Just a brief comment about evil. In some ways, those that are steeped in evil have a special insight into truth that people whose life is all fine and dandy can easily miss. Those who are enslaved by evil know that there is God and nothing else. There is no in between. It’s black and white. They are just too enslaved to break the chains. Even if they want to change, they are powerless to change. They are enslaved.
Think about the fine and dandy people who have everything – they say I have God but I also have a bunch of other good things. It’s a lot of gray. God is great but so are my education, my family, my nice home and my macbook.
In some ways, the more you are sucked into evil, the more insight you get about truth. This girl understood the gospel mentally. She knew jesus was the way of salvation but she hated him. She was enslaved on the inside to a bad master and this made her enslaved on the outside to bad masters.
In verse 18, Paul, speaking to the slave girl, says, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” This is a power encounter. This is not a gentle bible study over tea. This is the power of the spiritual force of good meeting the force of evil head-on.
Paul confronts the bad master who she thought was so glorious and great. You are not more glorious than Jesus. Jesus’ name is the glorious one, Jesus’ name is the great one, He is the only true master.
And instantly, power over her is broken and she is released. This is a power encounter directly to the heart. Your heart thinks this evil is so great but he is nothing compared to the glorious Jesus.
Both Lydia and the slave girl gave Paul an opportunity to be an evangelist. Not the jailer.
You might have missed this detail but if you read carefully, the owners of this slave girl when they realized the slave girl had been cured incite a racist riot. Look at what they say in verse 19-21. In other words, these Jews are doing things that we Romans shouldn’t do. So Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison.
The jailer is told to take care of them but instead he took them to the INNER jail and tortured them.
It says their feet were fastened to stocks. Now when you think about stocks, you probably think about the wooden boards used during New England towns in the 18th and 19th C. where you have holes to place your neck and hands through. That’s incorrect. In these times, the stocks were torture devices because you would place one ankle in one hole and another ankle in the other hole and your feet would be stretched apart like this, until you reach the place of pain and they were locked. And your muscles would cramp up and it was a form of torture.
why did he torture them? He probably was a racist. He was an ex-Roman soldier and probably a brutal man.
But in the midst of that dark circumstance, God confronts him with 2 things.
First, he see Paul and Silas singing songs in the night. He’s never seen joy so deep that inmates who are being tortured and who are about to be killed can praise their God.
Where does joy come from? Health, well you take their health away, there is no more joy. Success, you take their success away, there is no more joy. Goals, you take their goals away, there is no more joy. Life, you take their life away and there is no more joy. He must be confounded – I have taken everything away from these men, these men may be dead tomorrow yet they are singing songs in the night.
It’s a joy so deep that no circumstance can get to it.
The second thing that God confronts the jailer with occurs after the earthquake. The earthquake hit and all the prison doors flew open and the chains fell off.
It was a Roman tradition in those days that if a prisoner was lost while he was under your supervision, it was your life for theirs. Your life was forfeit.
Yet, the most astonishing thing happened. Right as he was about to kill himself, Paul stops him and says, Don’t harm yourself. We are all here. Paul and Silas upheld the law and even kept the rest of the other prisoners in their cells which is nothing short of miraculous. In other words, they had overcome evil with good. They had the jailer’s life in their hands whereas he had their lives in his hands, but instead of doing tit for tat, they showed him mercy.
Witnessing this, the jailer rushes in, what must I do to be saved? The man who doesn’t care about arguments or experience. All he wants is something concrete.
And he realizes that he has nothing as concrete as Paul and Silas. Men who can sing songs in the night while being tortured. Men who have a joy he has never seen before. Men who do not take revenge when they have a chance, but rather who overcome evil with good.
They have something more concrete than he has.
As different as 3 people are, as different the approach God uses to reach them, they have all come to the same person. Jesus. Why?
This is important. While they may be superficially different. Underneath they are all the same. They are all slaves.
Why was the jailer going to kill himself?
The other jailers mentioned in the Bible didn’t kill themselves. Some ran away. Some waited for their trial and execution. Why was this jailer ready to kill himself? Because he was enslaved not to a demon but to duty.
You take away the one thing that he had to live for — his job — and he finds there is point to go on. You find many people like this in Japan. They lose their jobs and they commit suicide.
You may not have realized but all 3 were slaves. Lydia was a slave. She must have thought, when i get power, wealth and influence, then I will be happy. But she was empty.
The Bible teaches us that we are a slave to Christ or to something. Because you have to live for something.
If you get wealth, your reaction might not be as dramatic as the jailer, but it’ll be a slow despair. An eventual emptiness.
And when you fail your master, like the jailer, you may find that figuratively or literally, the only thing left is to throw in the towel.
The reason Paul and Silas were able to sing songs in the night is because they were slaves of Christ- the only master who forgives you if you fail him and utterly satisifes you with his beauty and love when you get him.
All 3 of them were only freed with the gospel.
As I begin to wrap up, what are some lessons?
1) The gospel is a power. It’s not a function of race, ethnicity, class, crisis. The gospel is not just for a person in crisis or one without crisis, it’s not just for the rich, poor, middle class, it’s for all classes. It’s not just for the ambitious or the unmotivated, it’s for all people.
There is no such thing as a Christian type – you can never look at someone and say this person will never come to know Christ. The gospel reaches all people.
2) The gospel brings all kinds of people together. The rich who eat at Ruth Chris, the prostitutes on Skid Row who eat big macs, the average Joe’s hanging out at a local pub. You’ll never see these kinds of people coming together. If they happen to be together, they just end up despising one another.
Paul was a dead white Jewish man. Every Jewish head of family was taught from a young age to pray every morning the following prayer – Lord, I thank thee that I am not a what? A woman, a slave, and a Gentile.
And people Paul grew up despising and people who were generally taught to despise people of a different nationality are now leaders of the church at Philippi. It’s remarkable.
3) Lastly, do you want to make an impact on others? Then, check out your idols. Look at your life. You may say, I am not a slave. Oh no?
Are you bored? Are you getting what you are pursuing and you still feel empty? Or maybe you say you can’t face suffering. Are you despondent? Are you ready to throw in the towel? These are all indications that you have failed your master.
It’s not anybody’s fault. You can’t blame anyone for your enslavement. It’s my fault, it’s your fault. We are not victims. We have made ourselves slaves. If people are exploiting you – it’s bc you you are exploited on the inside.
Unless you can sing songs in the night, you are enslaved to something. Unless you are so free that you can love others, you’ll never impact others.
When I was first preparing for this message, I was thinking, yes, the gospel is this powerful. We need to preach it to the entire world. Let’s go. I want to see these kinds of racial, economic, rational and spiritual barriers demolished by the power of God. That was my initial take.
But when I got to the end, I had to ask myself, am I enslaved?
I remember when I was a college student and things were so easy. I said, Lord, I surrender to you my life. It’s yours. My life is a blank canvas. Here is the brush, Lord. Paint whatever you want. Lead, I will follow.
But come on, life is easy as a college student. Parents pay for tuition. Food is provided for you. You don’t have to worry about working and paying off your bills. And it’s easy to make these kinds of bold commitments when you are living in this kind of bubble. It has been my experience that when you graduate and you start working, that’s when the testing and refining of our faiths begins.
In college, I wasn’t enslaved to career because I had none. I wasn’t enslaved to money because I was poor. I wasn’t enslaved to comfort because I lived in a house of 20 brothers from the church where there was no privacy and we shared everything. We’d have house dinners and it would be buffet style and some of the brothers would lick the food to claim their pieces of meat.
Life was simple. I had nothing so surrendering my life was no big deal. It’s easy to think we are free to serve God when there is nothing to put on the line.
Life gets complicated as you get older. As you all know, we have a third boy on the way. Oh boy! 4 men in our family means a very high food bill. We have a mortgage. Kids want to join various lessons. The bills pile up.
And I was raised in a very frugal home. You know, that’s how our generation grew up since our parents were first generation immigrants. And suddenly, as a second generation, I can easily get used to a higher standard of living. For example, I never watched TV growing up and you all know I love sports and now I have ESPN.
There is nothing wrong with having an occasional dinner out at a nice restaurant or watching sports. But as I was preparing for this sermon, I felt God was asking me, Ray, can you give all this up? God was asking me, if I needed you for the ministry and I need more of your time, are you willing to scale back your life? In my mind, I say, yes, Lord, you are the most important thing. What else do I want to invest my life in?
But in my heart, there is some hesitation. Lord, what about all the practical concerns? What about my comfortable lifestyle?
And I discovered that in that reluctance to commit and follow through with obedience, like it or not, I am enslaved, at least to some degree.
When you are enslaved, God can still use your life. But your impact on the world will be vastly reduced and contained. A sprinkling of love here, a bit of sacrifice there – that is possible even if you are enslaved to something. But God’s invitation is to make all of us free men and women of God who are are poured out like drink offerings before the Lord. That’s when the full power of the gospel is released.
Check your heart. I know God is not done with me. And I pray all of us can experience the freedom of living for the only One True Master, who if you fail him, he will forgive you and if you get him, he will fill you with his beauty and his love.