Some years back my father phoned and said, ‘I see your church is in the news again.’ Well, I hadn’t seen the news, but it was the day after our building had been covered in anti-Christian graffiti by a homosexual group. And one Sunday earlier that year, a similar group had staged a protest outside, handing out leaflets to everyone on their way in, accusing us of bigotry. All of which is unsettling: it’s unsettling to feel hostility to Christianity in the culture, and unsettling to have to try to explain to friends and family why that is.
But those were minor incidents compared to what the newly planted church in Philippi saw in Acts chapter 16 – because in Acts 16, the apostle Paul is dragged into court, beaten and then thrown into jail. And that kind of thing was very unsettling for those first believers – including the man that Acts was originally written for. So, as we continue this series would you turn first to Acts 1.1, to see who it was originally written for:
1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven… (1.1)
So Luke was writing for this man Theophilus. And the best guess is that he was a well-educated Roman citizen. And Luke wrote his ‘former book’ – Luke’s Gospel – to give him the facts about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because to avoid being unsettled in your faith, you need to know it rests on facts. And then Luke wrote ‘Volume 2’, the book of Acts, to tell him about the spread of the gospel (the Christian message) and the growth of the church – including many incidents of hostility to the gospel. Because to avoid being unsettled in your faith, you also need to understand that there will be some hostility; and you need to understand why that is and how to react. So would you turn on to Acts 16.11 for a reminder of where the story has got to geographically:
11From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony… (vv11-12)
And ‘a Roman colony’ meant it was full of Roman citizens living under Roman law – a little piece of Italy planted in Greece, if you like. So this is a significant moment – because for the first time, here, the gospel moves into Roman culture. And that would really have made Theophilus sit up – because one thing he wanted to know, and his Romans friends wanted to know, is: why Christianity seems to be at odds with the culture. Why does it seem to get into trouble with the culture? So I’ve got three headings,
Firstly, EXPECT SOME CLASH BETWEEN THE GOSPEL AND THE CULTURE (vv16-24)
Look down to Acts 16, v16:
16Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future.
To which you might be thinking, ‘Can we really believe in a spirit world, with spirits able to control people like this?’ Well, on the authority of the Lord Jesus, the answer is yes: he taught the real existence of the devil and evil spirits. But experience points that way, too. I remember some school friends experimenting one night with a oija board. I don’t know what happened because they were too shaken up to talk about it. But one said to me, ‘It’s real and I will never do that again.’ And the evidence that it was real in this case was, end of v16, that:
16…She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 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.” 18She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled [I assume about both the girl’s welfare and the adverse publicity] 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. (vv16-18)
And that’s a cameo of how the Lordship of Jesus – which is the gospel – confronts the culture. Now the gospel doesn’t confront everything about a culture, as if the culture is all wrong. Since men and women are made in God’s image, even if they’re ignoring him, there are things in any culture that are good – eg, you find respect for life and marriage and children across cultures. In addition, in a culture like ours, where the gospel has strongly influenced it, there are more points of agreement. But in every culture, at some points, the gospel will confront the culture. For example, in our culture, increasingly, the only value people hold is ‘equality’. So many people claim that all beliefs are equally valid. Whereas Jesus confronts that by saying,
‘I am the way and the truth and the life; no-one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14.6)
Similarly, many people claim that all sexual lifestyles are equally good. Whereas the Bible confronts that by saying, ‘No: all but one are not good – in God’s sight and for our well-being.’
So, in every culture, the gospel will confront the culture. At which point, the culture will then react against the gospel. Read on, v19:
19When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. (v19)
So the risen Lord Jesus frees this girl, but simultaneously wipes out her owners’ source of income. And that’s what they really object to and react against. It’s a bit like Wilberforce’s campaign to end slavery. The Lordship of Jesus told him human beings shouldn’t be treated like that. But freeing slaves means loss of income – and Wilberforce was opposed by those for whom Money, not Jesus, was Lord.
But you can’t take Paul to court on the charge that he’s just exorcised your slave girl. You have to be more underhand. So look at v20:
20They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” (vv20-21)
Roman culture was pretty anti-Jewish, so labelling Paul as a Jew was a very good underhand move because it said, ‘Look, this guy only believes in one God – and he refuses to recognise any of our Roman gods.’ Which would have prejudiced people against him straight away. A bit like, today, it prejudices people when they discover you don’t worship the great god Equality and don’t think that all beliefs are equally valid or that all lifestyles are equally good – and out come the labels, ‘These men are fundamentalists… Intolerant… Bigots…’
But the other underhand move in vv20 and 21 is to say, ‘And they’re a threat to our culture and peace.’ So officially, a Roman citizen was not meant to take part in the worship of non-Roman gods. And there were laws against foreign religions proselytising among Roman citizens. And today, various cultures react to the gospel because it’s seen as a threat to that culture and its peace. For example, recently, two Christians giving out literature in Birmingham were stopped by police on the grounds that it was a ‘Muslim area’ and they were told that what they were doing could constitute ‘a hate-crime’. Now the police were in the wrong, but it shows how our culture is going. And of course in Muslim countries there’s often a complete ban on evangelism or on converting from Islam to another religion, because it’s seen as a threat to Muslim culture.
But closer to home, many head teachers are trying to make their school cultures basically secular – and the gospel is seen as a threat to the prevailing value of ‘equality’. And in such a school culture, explicitly Christian content is censored out of assemblies; and Christian Unions have to fight for their rights to meet and to advertise themselves on school premises.
Well, let’s read on, v22:
22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (vv22-24)
Now we know from last week (Acts 16.6-10) that Paul only went to Philippi because of explicit guidance from God. So what does this teach us? Well, that following God’s guidance, and being faithful, may land you in all sorts of hot water – but that doesn’t mean you’ve got anything wrong. As the Lord Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, he must… take up his cross… (Luke 9.23)
Ie, ‘He must accept some degree of rejection as part of following me.’
So, expect some clash between the gospel and the culture.
Second, REMEMBER THAT GOD IS ALWAYS WORKING TO SPREAD THE GOSPEL (vv25-34)
Just think how Acts 16 could have panned out. Here’s scenario 1: Paul and Silas are dragged into court, they appeal to their Roman citizenship and are never beaten or jailed in the first place. Now here’s scenario 2: Paul and Silas are dragged into court, beaten and jailed and the next day they appeal to their Roman citizenship and get an apology. But in fact neither of those is the scenario that God actually allowed to happen. What actually happens is scenario 3: Paul and Silas are dragged into court, beaten and jailed and the next day they do appeal to their citizenship and get an apology. But in between, the jailer comes to faith in Jesus. And that’s the point of the next bit: God is always working to spread the gospel. Verse 25:
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. 27The 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. 28But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” (vv25-28)
Now why the earthquake? Well, in part, it may have been God’s way of saying, ‘Look, human opposition can never stop me.’ So, eg, in the 1950s, all foreign missionaries were expelled from China as the communist regime clamped down on the church. And people were worried about whether it would even survive. But what did they find when China finally opened up again? That the church had become truly indigenous and grown massively – as Paul says in 2 Timothy
I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. (2 Timothy 2.9)
But the most obvious answer to the question, ‘Why the earthquake?’ is: to bring the jailer to Jesus. That’s what God is working for – because here’s a guy who’s never going to come to church or Christianity Explored to find out about Jesus. After all, he’s a rough, ex-Roman soldier, he’s not really interested in religion – and anyway, he’s got a job that ties him up 24/7. Which means that if you’re going to spread the gospel to him, you’ve got to go to where he is. So God sends Paul and Silas to jail. But then the Lord has to get the jailer in a listening frame of mind – so, cue earthquake. And even this jailer would have had some belief in a God – and that earthquakes might be a hint that you’re in trouble with him. So, v29:
29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved [ie, ‘Who is this God you believe in, and how do I get on the right side of him?’]?”
31They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The 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 family. (vv29-34)
Now the main lesson from that is what Paul says in Philippians 1, writing from another prison:
12I want you to know… that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1.12)
So going to jail doesn’t look great for the cause. But it’s really served to advance the gospel. And wherever God has put you now, and wherever he takes you in future (even if it’s somewhere you’d rather not be), it is (at least in part) to serve the advance of the gospel. That’s one reason you’re in that neighbourhood, or that job you don’t particularly like, or going back to your home country when perhaps you’d rather stay here – or whatever it is.
That’s the main lesson. But there are three others. Lesson (1) is: how quickly you can explain the gospel. It doesn’t have to take weeks of Christianity Explored. Paul was able to put it in a nutshell for this man – and we should learn how to do that, too. Eg, you could use the book, Know & Tell the Gospel, by John Chapman, to teach yourself a simple outline of the gospel. Lesson (2) is: how quickly you can respond to the gospel. For some people it takes months of reading and questioning and talking. But for others, it can be like this jailer. And maybe, tonight, you know enough and the time’s come to respond to Jesus and ask his forgiveness and ask him to come into your life to be your Lord. Well, why not do that tonight? Why not get a copy of Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk, which puts the gospel in a nutshell and has a prayer at the end which you could use to turn to Jesus? And lesson (3) is: how quickly you can baptise someone. Baptism with water is just a visual aid of what Jesus promises to do when we turn to him. He promises to forgive us – so the water in baptism is a visual aid of that washing clean of our moral track record. And he promises to come into our lives by his Spirit to help us live for him – so the water of baptism is a visual aid of his Spirit being poured into us. And as soon as this man says he’s accepted Jesus and his promises they baptise him. They don’t make him do a follow-up course first; they don’t wait six months to see if his faith is really genuine; they take his profession of faith at face value, and baptise him. Now people wonder about whether there were children and/or infants in his household, and whether they were baptised on the basis that they now came under the spiritual authority of a Christian parent. The verses don’t explicitly say. But on the one hand, the case for infant baptism doesn’t rest on these verses; but on the other hand, infant baptism is certainly entirely consistent with these verses.
So, expect some clash between the gospel and the culture; remember that God is always working to spread the gospel.
Thirdly, BE WILLING BOTH TO SUFFER AND TO STAND ON YOUR RIGHTS FOR THE GOSPEL (vv35-40)
Look on to v35:
35When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” 36The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”
37But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” (vv35-37)
So here’s Paul standing on his rights – because it was illegal to deny Roman citizens a proper trial or to beat them. So that was done to Paul publicly. And he now insisted on a public apology and vindication. Why? For the sake of the gospel – for the protection and freedom of fellow-Christians. You see if Paul had just left quietly, it would have left the new Christians in Philippi vulnerable to exactly the same kind of mistreatment – the precedent would have been set that magistrates could trample on Christians’ rights and get away with it. Whereas Paul does get a public apology and vindication – which means the magistrates will think very hard before they treat a Christian badly again. The precedent has been set the other way.
And that’s what the Legal Defence Fund of the Christian Institute is about. Where there’s a good case that Christians’ rights are being denied, the Institute is helping them contest it with the aim of setting a precedent that protects us all. Think, eg, of those Christians who were threatened by the police for handing out literature in that ‘Muslim area’ of Birmingham. The Christian Institute has helped them to press for a full, written apology – because that would not only give protection for them, but for all of us. So in any situation like that – eg, a headmaster obstructing Christian assemblies in my school – I’m not just to think of myself and how I can survive by just quietly keeping my head down. I’m to think of others and how my taking a stand could benefit all my brothers and sisters.
So, be willing to stand on your rights for the gospel. Which begs the question, why didn’t Paul stand on them back in the trial and save himself a whole lot of suffering? Why didn’t he appeal to his citizenship and play his ‘Get out of jail free’ card before he ever got into jail? Well, some people think he must have done – but was either not heard (which I don’t find credible), or not believed (which I doubt – because in v38 it seems to be news to the magistrates that Paul and Silas are claiming to be Romans citizens). So what’s more likely to me is that, just as Paul stood on his rights for the sake of the gospel and other believers, so he was willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel and other believers. You see, just imagine Paul had played his citizenship card to the magistrates and said, ‘I demand a proper trial and all the protections to which I have a right.’ What would have happened next? Well, Silas would have looked at Paul and thought, ‘Good idea,’ – and followed suit. But what if you weren’t a Roman citizen – and some of the new Christians in Philippi were probably not? Well then you’d have looked at Paul and said, ‘It’s alright for you. You can just play the citizenship card. You can avoid suffering. I can’t.’ And Paul didn’t want anyone to be able to say that. And I think it’s most likely that Paul chose not to play his citizenship card early on, so as to set an example of being willing to suffer for the gospel, just as the Lord Jesus was willing to suffer on the cross so that there could be a gospel in the first place. Which means that when suffering for the gospel does come our way, we know that our teachers like Paul, and above all our Lord and Saviour, are not asking us to go anywhere they haven’t been.
So that’s the story of how the gospel first confronted Roman culture. And it’s really a cameo of how the gospel confronts every culture. There’s bound to be some reaction against the gospel message that says, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ And we’re called to suffer that reaction for the sake of the gospel and also to use our rights for the sake of the gospel. But above all, we’re to trust that God is working to spread his gospel, and that nothing in the world can stop him.