Please turn with me to Acts 16. Let’s look at the conversion accounts of these 3 people: Lydia, the slave girl and the Roman jailer. I think we can glean some important principles regarding our approach when we are preaching the gospel to those around us.
1) Follow Jesus, not a plan.
2) God will reach people exactly where they are in the exact method they need to come to a saving faith.
3) Give your life to Jesus and live as a partner of the gospel with others.
These 3 must have been very special in God’s eyes because Paul had his heart set on reaching Asia. In Paul’s day, the Great Commission was being fulfilled, due in part to persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire and due in part to Paul’s zeal to see Gentiles throughout Asia come to know Christ, and of course, it goes without saying that the Spirit of God was moving powerfully in the first century. The early church started in Jerusalem in the region of Judea. Then the church spread to the north to Samaria. There you have the church at Antioch, which is located in modern day Turkey. From there, the church spread to the west to Syria, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Galatia, where we have the Galatian church. And then the church at Ephesus was planted. Paul’s missionary travels throughout Asia were well underway. Then, God intervened. We read about it in Acts 16:6-10. [READ]
Paul had his plans to continue spreading the gospel throughout Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevented him.
Principle 1: Follow Jesus, not a plan.
We can have our plans just like Paul did. But we have to be open to the Holy Spirit. Paul was somehow prevented from going into Bithynia. God must have closed the door somehow. They ended up in Troas, which was the chief port between Macedonia (in Europe) and Asia Minor. One door closed and another door opened. Bithynia was a closed door and Troas was an open door. While he was in Troas, he had a vision of a Macedonian man calling out for help. Immediately after receiving this vision, Paul made efforts to set out to Macedonia.
Timeout. This is not the main point, but I think this section warrants a quick side bar. You may read Acts 16 and think, why doesn’t God speak to me like this? First, I want to point out that Paul was already living all out for Jesus. He was on mission with God. He was living for the gospel and salvation of others. He was investing in people and raising up partners in the gospel ministry. Second, he had his convictions and plans to reach Asia, but one vision from the Lord, and he threw out his plans. Because it was more important to obey God and follow Jesus than to fulfill his own plans, even though he had good plans to reach the lost in Asia. Paul’s obedience to this vision led to a huge shift in the expansion of Christianity. From Asia to Macedonia. The salvation of Europe began with this one vision.
Before you complain, why doesn’t God speak to me like this, ask yourself two questions. One, are you living all out for Jesus and the gospel? Two, if God has spoken to you in the past, do you have a proven track record of abandoning your plans immediately and following the will and plan of God? Perhaps, God has been speaking to you already for years, maybe not through a vision, but through whispers in your heart and impressions that won’t go away. What have you done with those things? Have you obeyed immediately, or is God wasting his breath? Maybe God even gave you a vision, but you dismissed it. It was just a dream. God doesn’t speak to people through dreams anymore. I ate a burrito yesterday and I had a hard time sleeping. That’s where the vision came from. Black beans and salsa. The vision was nothing. It wasn’t a vision. When God speaks to you through a sermon or through your Bible reading, what have you done with it? Does it remain simply an insight, a stirring in your heart, an emotion and then it ends. Or do you act on it? Paul was living all out for Jesus and he quickly obeyed whatever the Spirit of God told him to do.
When Paul went to a new place to share the gospel, he would go straight to the largest metropolitan city in the region. Like a New York, or Los Angeles. If a large city bends the knee to Christ, then the message of Christ can more easily spread to the surrounding areas. That’s why Paul went to Philippi. Philippi was significant in that region because it was a Roman colony. There was trading, wealth, commerce, it was a center of Greek language and culture. In addition, citizens of Philippi had the backing of the Roman Empire and citizens there had the same legal rights as citizens living in Rome, Italy. There, God established his first European church.
The very first person Paul met after he was rerouted from Asia to Europe was a woman named Lydia. Lydia was a business woman and she was quite wealthy. How do we know that? Acts 16:13-15. [READ]
She was from the city of Thyatira in Asia and yet she had a home also in Philippi. It’s like certain business executives who have a home in New York or LA and they have a second home at Ventura beach or in Paris. She was a dealer in purple cloth and this purple cloth was made in her hometown of Thyatira and she was in Philippi closing some business deals. Lydia was gathered on the Sabbath with a bunch of other women by the river because there was presumably no synagogue in Philippi and so their place of worship was along the river. Paul went to the group of women and he began teaching and the Lord opened Lydia’s heart and she became the first convert in Europe.
How did God reach Lydia? God reached her through a Bible study. Through her mind. Right then and there, since they were beside a river, Paul baptized Lydia and her household.
Next, we read about a slave girl possessed by a demonic spirit. She was not rich. She was on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. She was a slave. And if Lydia was a business woman who had it all together, this slave girl was out of control because there was a demon in her. How did God reach this demon-possessed slave girl? Read Acts 16:16-18. [READ]
God reached this slave girl by a power encounter. The demon within the slave girl was antagonistic toward Paul and Silas. It made the slave girl cry out to distract Paul while he was preaching. So this demon went head to head with an even more powerful spirit, the Holy Spirit that was within Paul. And the demon lost. In the name of Jesus, the demon was cast out. A traditional bible study wouldn’t have worked for the slave girl. You can’t reason your way through Scripture to help someone who has a demon within them. She needed a power encounter.
To me, it’s not surprising that to this day, in countries where there are overt cases of demonic activity and demon possession, the most effective ministers and missionaries are from our Pentecostal brethren. They have certain spiritual gifts that I, as a Baptist minister, lack. I believe that God sends the right people to minister and proclaim Christ in every situation.
Principle 2: God will reach people exactly where they are in the exact method they need to come to a saving faith.
For Lydia, she needed a bible study. A Bible teaching Baptist might have fared well in this situation. This slave girl was reached through a power encounter. A Pentecostal preacher or a person with a particular gifting was needed to reach this second convert.
What about the Roman jailer? How did God reach him? It was through a visible act of honor. Acts 16:25-34. [READ]
When the slave girl was healed, the owners were outraged because she was their source of income. Through the demon, they profited because through the demon, she could perform fortune telling. When she was healed, the owners incited a riot and a mob beat up Paul and Silas and they landed in prison.
While imprisoned, Paul and Silas were praying and singing to God. Again, you see their joy in Jesus overflowing. They could transcend their circumstances and have a worship service in a dark and dingy prison cell. They have something more than mere belief. They have a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus that was clearly evident to anyone who saw them. Even the hardened prisoners took notice and listened to them.
God placed Paul and Silas into that prison in order to reach the Roman jailer. The jailor was your classic blue collar, middle class, retired soldier from the army working at the local jailhouse. He wasn’t rich like Lydia. He wasn’t poor like the slave girl. He was average, the guy you would see at the local bar after a long day at work.
Suddenly, an earthquake struck and the prison doors were flung open and the chains fell off miraculously. Not just for Paul and Silas, but it says everyone was set free. What do you think the other prisoners did? They fled. Of course.
By Roman law, if a single prisoner breaks out under your watch, the person in charge would be killed. It was your life in exchange for theirs. Whenever a criminal managed to get free, what do you think most jailers did? Most jailers fled. Of course. Nobody wants to die.
But this Roman jailer was different. He could have fled for his life, but he is a man of honor. So he drew his sword because in his mind, it was the honorable thing to do to take his life. How did God reach this man of honor? By Paul and Silas’ decision to stay put. The prison doors were open. The chains fell off. It was every man for himself. Everyone fled. But Paul and Silas stayed put because they, too, were men of honor. They obeyed the orders of an even greater Master than Caesar. And this Master wanted them to stay put and minister to this Roman jailor. Seeing this act of tremendous honor, the jailer fell to his feet and trembling, he asked, what must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.
God reached Lydia through a Bible study. God reached the slave through a power encounter. And God reached the jailer through a visible act of honor.
Principle 3: Give your life to Jesus and live as a partner of the gospel with others.
These are the miraculous beginnings of the church at Philippi. No wonder Paul had so much affection for them. He is overjoyed at their partnership in the gospel. If you really believe in the gospel, then give your life to Jesus. Live for Jesus. Become a gospel partner.