Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 2, 2019
Acts 16:16-34 Commentary
Our reading for today serves as the exclamation point on Dr. Luke’s history of the Gospel’s spread to the ends of the earth. No, we haven’t gotten to that far horizon yet, but Luke has introduced all the major themes and players that will get us there. This story contains all those elements that will finally conquer the world for Christ.
Central to this story and to that conquest is the simple message of salvation. It begins with an evil-spirit-inspired slave girl and ends with a Holy-Spirit-converted jailer. The girl announces that Paul and Silas are “telling you the way of salvation.” And the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas give the answer that will change the world, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ….” The best way to preach this text is to simply tell the story highlighting the centrality of salvation.
There are two stories of salvation in Acts 16, and it feels as though Dr. Luke has picked these two stories for their very different feel and color. The story of Lydia is full of sweetness and light. She is worshiper of the God of Israel, even though she is a Greek. She is kind and generous and beloved by all. She gladly welcomes the Gospel into her heart and its preachers into her home.
The story that follows is full of the darkness of paganism, complete with slavery and spirits, exploitation and anti-Semitism, violence and imprisonment. Yet even there, even in the land of darkness, the Gospel can save. That’s an important prelude to the rest of the story of the Gospel’s spread into the Greco-Roman culture that dominated the ancient world.
The story begins with Paul and Silas heading out to the place of prayer where they had first met Lydia, the first female Gentile to lead a house church in Europe. But on the way they meet a very different kind of female, a young girl enslaved in two ways—first to her human masters and even worse to a spirit that enabled her to predict the future.
The Greek word describing this spirit has a long and dark history; it is the word python, which sounds like the English word for a large snake that squeezes life out of its victims. That is precisely what the word means–snake, or even dragon. In the mythology of the ancient world a python guarded the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi, that legendary fortune telling figure. In other words, this poor girl lived in the darkness of human and demonic slavery. Is it too much to think of the Dragon of Revelation 12? This is a girl who desperately needed to be saved.
So it is fascinating that she tells the truth about Paul and his evangelistic team. “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” We hear that Paul was troubled by her, perhaps because she followed them around day after day repeating her message, perhaps because her words about the Most High God made it sound like Paul’s God was one among many, or perhaps because Paul didn’t like the fact that the message of the Gospel was coming from the mouth of a girl in the grip of darkness. (Think of how Jesus commanded demon possessed people to be quiet when they announced who he was.)
Whatever the reason for Paul’s irritation, the result was good, and bad, depending on whom you ask. The girl was delivered from that spirit by the authority of Jesus Christ. “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” Immediately she was released from that part of the darkness that enslaved her. But she was still gripped by the greedy paws of the syndicate that had been getting rich off her “gift.” Her owners were furious because without that spirit, she couldn’t tell fortunes. They had lost their income stream and they weren’t going to stand for that.
We know what happened next with those angry men, and we’ll look at that in a moment. But we aren’t told what happened to the girl. In the previous salvation story, Lydia’s confrontation with the name of Jesus resulted in her conversion. What about this poor girl? She was saved from that spirit, but was her spirit saved? Some scholars say, “No,” and that just goes to show that these Gospel preachers still needed to broaden their net. Perhaps her poor status was too much for them to overcome; they hadn’t yet arrived at Paul’s “neither slave nor free.”
Well, maybe. There was definitely development in the church’s outreach to the world. But maybe this girl who announced that Paul and friends were “telling the way of salvation” had heard and believed that way. Maybe the Holy Spirit replaced that python spirit and opened her heart and she believed in Jesus Christ. Who knows but that she became part of Lydia’s church?
We don’t know that for sure, but we do know what happened to Paul and Silas. They became entangled in the Roman legal system, which, I think, is a first for them. The angry and suddenly poorer owners of the girl dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace to face Roman officials—first the “authorities” and then the “magistrates,” two levels in the local Roman system of law.
The enraged owners accused Paul and Silas, not of robbing them of their livelihood (a charge that might have cast shade on their own character), but of three serious charges. First came the anti-Semitic attack. “These men are Jews….” And not only that, they are disturbing the peace, “throwing our city into an uproar….” And worse than that, they are doing that by preaching an illicit religion, “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
This last charge threw the legal officials and listening mob into an uproar, because if there was one thing you didn’t do in the Empire, it was challenge the Pax Romana, the great peace won by Rome’s legions and enforced by Roman law.
Paul and Silas are in deep trouble now. They need to be saved, but they aren’t. Instead, they are stripped, beaten, and thrown into the bowels of the local prison where they are put in solitary confinement with their legs in shackles.
Here’s another hinge in the history of the Gospel. What will happen when Rome gets its claws into these brave men who are carrying the Good News to the ends of the earth? Well, it turns out that this revolting development will, once again, further the cause of the Gospel. Not only was the Spirit in Paul stronger than the spirit in the girl, but also the Lord whom Paul served was stronger than the Caesar whom these Romans served.
Paul and Silas knew that, so they spent the night praying and singing hymns to God with an amazed congregation of prisoners listening to them. That’s when the Lord Jesus showed everyone who was really in charge. With a sudden violent earthquake the Lord shook the foundations of the prison, blasted open the prison doors, and loosened the chains of every prisoner. But, not one ran away.
That’s what the jailer discovered when he was shaken awake, ran for the prison, and drew his sword to commit suicide when he found the prison doors open. Now the jailer is the one who needs to be saved. Sure enough, as he prepared to fall on his sword, Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here.” Why were they all there? Because God was going to use this crucial moment to advance the Gospel by saving yet another unlikely sinner, a member of the Roman legal system. (We’ve seen the salvation of a member of the Roman military in Acts 10.)
The jailer’s famous question might seem a bit abrupt. Indeed, some think he was merely asking what he needed to do to avoid being killed by the Roman authorities for his dereliction of duty. What must I do to be saved from Roman punishment?
But here’s a more likely scenario. As a citizen of Philippi, he knew about the infamous slave girl. Perhaps he had heard her message about the way of salvation. And he had surely heard about these men whose alleged crimes were so great that they deserved a place in “the hole.” Perhaps he had even overheard Paul and Silas singing and praying. So it is very likely that he was asking about a very different kind of salvation, the ultimate kind. That is surely how Paul understood him, because Paul preached to him the same Gospel he had been announcing all over the world. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved—you and your household.”
That was not the end of the story, because there is more to the Gospel than those few words and there is more to conversion than just making a momentary decision for Jesus. What follows sounds a great deal like the life of the church as we read about it in Acts 2 and 4. “Then Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord Jesus to them and all the others in his house.” More complete instruction was necessary before baptism. And before the jailer was washed with baptismal waters, he washed the wounds of the preachers. Then he took them to his home and set a meal before them. Are we to see a hint of the Eucharist here? Baptism followed by the Lord’s Supper?
In other words, the story ends as Lydia’s did—with immediate hospitality and with great joy, because not only the jailer, but also his whole family was converted. This emphasis on his household has roots in the covenantal way God has always dealt with his people; “the promise is to you and your children for the generations to come (Gen. 17:7).” God usually saves people in the context of relationships, especially family.
Furthermore, the salvation of the whole family was essential to the establishment of another church in Philippi—not just a lone individual, but a whole family was saved. “There is no salvation outside the church,” not only because salvation is proclaimed by the church, but also because salvation leads to the church. (That’s the tragedy and abnormality of today’s “spiritual but not religious” movement.) This story ends with a new house church now established in Philippi in the home of a Roman jailer. The church has begun to impact the legal system of the vast Empire, where one day Jesus would be declared Lord of all.
Many preachers have used the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. “Always preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary.” Unfortunately, Francis never said those words. Even more unfortunate is the way that “quote” seems to set verbal witnessing and life witnessing at odds.
In fact, as our story illustrates, it is virtuous behavior that sets the stage for verbal preaching. If Paul and Silas had not responded to their unjust imprisonment with prayer and hymns and a courageous refusal to lead a jailbreak after the earthquake, it is likely that the jailer would not have been as receptive as he was. On the other hand, if Paul and Silas had not answered his desperate question with clear words, he could not have been saved.
Mere good deeds cannot bring anyone to Christ; they can only witness to the goodness of those who perform those deeds. And true words alone cannot bring anyone to Christ; they will ring hollow if the preachers don’t show the truth of those words in their own lives. Paul and Silas demonstrated that Jesus saves by their response to imprisonment, and then they declared that Jesus saves in response to a desperate question.
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