MESSAGE FOR MAY 15, 2011 FROM ACTS 16:16-40
Read Acts 16:16-40
This week, we move into one of the best known portions of the book of Acts—the story of the Philippian jailer that you heard a few minutes ago. Only the Lord knows how many believers have been brought to faith after hearing this text preached. This text is a favorite of evangelists because the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” which tends to be a good lead-in for an evangelistic sermon. However, when you get past that one question and look at the details Luke includes in this story, many other questions are raised by this account. Questions like: Why did Paul wait “many days” before he delivered this woman from the demon—it liberated her and stopped the annoyance—why did he wait to do that? What ever happened to the slave girl? Why is there no record of Paul and Silas asserting their Roman citizenship earlier—before they were beaten? Why didn’t the Gentile prisoners in jail with Paul and Silas make a run for it when their bonds were broken? Why did the jailer ask how to be saved when, from what we know he probably would not have known enough to understand what even what salvation is? Did he have previous knowledge of Jesus Christ from Paul’s preaching or other source of information?
There are other questions, but that’s a sampling. Some of the scholars make stabs at some of them, but they all end up being mostly speculative. The reason I mention this is because these unanswered questions reveal an important truth about Biblical interpretation when you’re reading a narrative or story text in the Bible. That is—the narratives never include all the details of what happened. If we had a video tape or a transcript of this entire episode, most, if not all these questions would be answered. We don’t have a tape or a transcript—we have what God wants us to know because his purpose is not to give us an exhaustive account. His purpose is to give us what we need for our spiritual health. Everything we need to know is there. We know that in narratives, it is always appropriate to read the story through the lens of this question, “How is God revealed or honored or exalted or made much of in this account?” As we’ve said many times, the Bible is about God and that question keeps us on track with the purpose of the Bible.
In this text, I find three ways in which God is made much of. The first way God is exalted is seen in the display of his authority over the demonic powers. Luke wants us to see that the apostles have the same authority as Jesus had over the demonic because they invoke his authority. Luke tells us that as Paul and his companions were going to the place of prayer, they 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 the others crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing this 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.” Notice that Paul doesn’t even speak to the slave, but directly to the spirit. Notice also that the command for the demon to come out is given in the name of Jesus. Again, in doing that, he is not relying on any of his own authority but invokes the authority of Christ so that it is as if Christ himself is casting out this demon. This “spirit of divination” was a demon who could reveal information about situations that had been secret or unknown or also to allegedly predict future events. The question becomes, does this mean that demons know the future? They know THEIR future because they know what happened on the cross and its implications, but there is nothing in the Bible that teaches that Satan or demons can genuinely predict the future.
One thing they can do is predict what they will do in the future that will affect people. For instance, if a person comes in to this fortune teller, the spirit—if God has given Satan permission to act, may be told by Satan that he will kill or cripple someone or cause some perilous situation next Tuesday. When Tuesday comes around, the powers of darkness do what they have been given permission to do and it looks like the spirit can tell the future. Perhaps someone comes in to ask whether their spouse is committing adultery. The spirit can either lie to the person in an attempt to destroy the marriage or, if Satan has been successfully been tempting the spouse into sin, the demon will know that and can tell the victimized spouse. That’s the way this stuff works. It’s supernatural because it involves the spirit world, but it’s not miraculous. Only God knows the future in any and every detail because he alone is omniscient and sovereign. That’s why Jesus can predict things like the betrayal of Peter and his own crucifixion, not to mention all the foretelling prophecies that are fulfilled in the Bible.
One intriguing question about this encounter that is answered in the Bible is—Why would a demon publicly advertise the truth about the ministry of Paul and his fellow workers? This spirit serves Satan and is a liar. He works tirelessly to obstruct the truth of the gospel. Second Corinthians 4:4 says this about those who are perishing, “4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Why would a demon, whose task is to help blind the minds of unbelievers, publicly cry out for many days for thousands of unbelievers to hear, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation?” Commentators twist themselves into knots trying to keep this verse from saying what it plainly does and that is—this demon—as strange as it seems, is in an indirect way confessing Christ and is truthfully revealing Paul’s mission to people who he is supposed to be blinding.
We know that this is not only possible; it’s inevitable from similar texts revealing the response of the demonic realm to Jesus. Two summary statements describing how demons respond to Jesus are helpful. The first one is in Mark 3:11 where he says, “11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” These demonic masters of deception fall down before Jesus in submission to his authority and cry out the truth about his identity. Likewise, Luke 4:41 gives a similar statement saying, “41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.” Mark 1:34 says of Jesus, “34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” That tells us that what the demons knew about Jesus they were compelled to speak about him—to the point that he had to silence them.
We see several individual episodes where the demons confess Christ. In Mark 1:24, demons who had control of a Jewish man in the synagogue say to Jesus, “24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are— the Holy One of God.” In Mark chapter five we have the account of the demoniac from the Gerasenes who no one could keep chained up. Mark 5:6 says, “6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” Here we see the demons using the same name for God used as in Acts 16—“the Most High God.” The reason these demons cried out with the truth about the identity of Jesus is he is their creator and they, unlike deceived sinners, understand who he is and the authority the Creator has over his creatures and that causes them to pay tribute to him by recognizing him. When a person is converted out of their rebellion, what is one of the first things they are called to do—confess that Jesus is Lord—start behaving like a creature instead of a rebel. When Jesus forbids them from speaking, he is really excusing them from their legal obligation to formally recognize the God who created them is in their presence.
I think a similar legal obligation extended to Paul and these other men especially when you consider the purpose of this demon. His assignment from Satan was to reveal secrets—to reveal things about circumstances and people that others could not know. So, here is Paul and these other missionaries who come with the message from the Most High God. So he fulfills his assignment and in so doing confesses the truth that up to that time had not been revealed—that Paul and the others were “servants of the Most High God who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” The reason the demon cries out the truth about them and the Most High God is because…he has to. He has no choice. The confessions of these demons first in the ministry of Jesus, and now in Paul about Christ and his message of salvation foreshadow or point to that time in the future we read of in Philippians 2:9, “9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
At the judgment, all God’s creatures who can speak—in heaven, on earth and under the earth—and in that moment, all the deception will be removed. The unbelievers will no longer be able to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The time for that rebellion is past. The creatures, like these demons in the ministry of Jesus, will know that by their creaturely state before their Creator—their Owner—that they must speak that truth. The time for denial is over. When Jesus in the gospels confronts a demon and here in Acts 16 Paul is confronted with a demon who is charged to reveal secrets—we have a foreshadowing of that moment when all will be forced to reveal the truth about Jesus, their Lord in Philippians 2:9, “9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”
The second way God is exalted in this account is the display of his supremacy and sufficiency in the midst of suffering. What I mean by that is this—in their response to their suffering, Paul and Silas exalt Christ because it displays that he is worthy of their suffering—his supremacy and that he will strengthen those who suffer for him—his sufficiency. Paul and Silas experience significant suffering here. After they are seized by the slave owners, they are drug before the magistrates—are given no chance to plead their case, but instead are sentenced to what we would call today a “public caning” which either breaks the skin and or leaves welts. Verse 22 says, “…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 the prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.” To be beaten with rods was not quite as tortuous as the scourging Jesus received, but its close. To be flogged or caned this way utilized a number of long wooden rods that are bundled together, but when swung, they spread out to lay a very painful pattern of destruction on the backside of the prisoner. When Luke tells us they were beaten with many blows, I assume that means that many times these multiple rods pummeled their backs into a bruised, lacerated mass of flesh. Paul says in Second Corinthians 11 that he received this punishment three times. Next Paul and Silas had their feet put into stocks which means they were either standing or sitting rigidly straight up for hours on end or sitting with their lacerated backs against a wall. Beyond the exquisite physical pain, there was the emotional and psychological abuse of being beaten like a dog in the most public place in the city—the city square and then publicly thrown into prison.
This punishment would have left the victim bruised, bleeding and in severe pain and shame. Yet, we see the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in verse 25. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” The reason the prisoners were listening to them instead of telling them to shut up so they could get some sleep is because when two men are praying and singing when they should be moaning and groaning in agony—you listen. Something unique is happening here. How were these men able to do this? We see the sufficiency of Christ in Colossians 3:16, “16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” When the word of Christ—the gospel--dwells in your richly—it has permeated your soul—you sing and pray with thankful hearts irrespective of your circumstances. When you have been deeply impressed with the depths of your sin and therefore, the blessing of God’s forgiveness. When you are intensely aware of your total unworthiness before God—a holy God and yet a God who sent his only, innocent Son so that he could brutally punish him for your sins for your forgiveness and entrance into the family of God as a co-heir with Christ—when the word of Christ—the promises of the gospel that you will never be forsaken, that you will live in eternal bliss through Christ, that every tear will be wiped away, that you will be made glorious in your redeemed body and that you—a formerly condemned sinner will rule and reign with Christ—when that gets into your soul—you sing and you pray and the fact that your back looks like a sheet of hamburger is irrelevant.
Ephesians five puts it this way. Paul says in verse 18, “18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” A mark of being filled or under the control of the Holy Spirit is that you sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart. That’s what the Spirit does in you and Paul and Silas were filled with the Spirit and the Spirit of God and the joy he gives you in Christ overrules any physical suffering. Praying and singing hymns to God makes no sense in this situation unless you are filled with the glories of the gospel and controlled by the Spirit. Then—it makes all the sense in the world because the gospel and the Spirit are far bigger and more powerful than anything a Roman soldier could do to you with a bundle of rods. God is greatly exalted in this narrative through the display of the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ.
A third way God is exalted in this narrative is in the display of God’s providential control over sin and circumstance. As we read these narratives in the Bible, it’s always profitable to read the events as they unfold through the lens of God’s providential control. Providence is the outworking if God’s sovereign plan through nature, persons and circumstances. To see God’s providence, look at the end of the story—what God ultimately accomplished and then go back and trace his hand and notice the way he accomplished it. The net result of this story is that this jailer and his family are converted. Luke doesn’t tell us the fate of the slave—that’s not his main story line. The conclusion of the story relates to this jailer and his family. So, think about that ultimate aim of God and trace it back to see how he arrived at that place and the glory he received through each detail along the way. In this case, the scene opens with this demon working through this slave to proclaim the truth about Paul and his message. At first glance, it’s hard to see how that beginning will lead to the end of the town jailer getting saved. Those two events hardly seem related to one another.
But Paul eventually casts out this demon which enrages the slave owner, who drags Paul and Silas—the two Jewish members of the team—before the magistrates on trumped up charges designed to ignite the racial bigotry that already existed between the Romans and the Jews. Paul and Silas are then caned—a detail that may or may not have impacted the jailer, but impacted these prisoners and brought glory to God. Then, God ordains that an earthquake would occur at just this moment that would cause all the prisoners to be free of their shackles. For some reason—probably the respect that the prisoners had developed for this apostle who was singing after a brutal beating—the prisoners do not take flight, but the jailer is so devastated at the thought of his own punishment for a prison break, he prepares to take his life at which time Paul calms his fears, which impels this jailer—who by this time was in a state of incredible spiritual vulnerability to ask about his soul—what he must do to be saved. Paul then gives him the gospel and he and his family are converted and baptized. That is a very unlikely progression of events that would surely have never lead to the final result—except for the providential guidance of God’s hand.
That example of God’s providence gives us all hope, doesn’t it? Maybe you’re in your own prison of some sort—imprisoned in the confines of a horrible marriage or an addictive pattern of sin or a godless cycle of temptation or financial indebtedness or unemployment or rebellious kids or serious health concerns for you or someone you love. Maybe like Paul and Silas, you are getting the stuffing beat out of you in some way. Please know this, beloved. In the end, God will do good things, not IN SPITE of what you are going through, but like Paul in jail—BECAUSE you are going through what you are going through. The circumstances in which you now find yourself are not an accident—they did not occur randomly, but are in fact the providential outworking of God’s sovereign plan. In Romans eight Paul says, “28 And we know –it is a settled fact that we can take to the bank that for those who love God all things injustice, public beatings, imprisonment, work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Psalm 30:5 “…Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Morning is coming because the circumstances of your life are not random or running hopelessly out of control. They are controlled by a sovereign God whose providential working in your life always, always, always ends up working for good.
You may say, but you don’t understand. My prison is of my own making. My imprisonment is a result of the consequences of my own sinful decisions and patterns of behavior. Paul says, “All things.” That includes your sin. And if you need something more specific then that general promise, Psalm 107:10 says, “10 Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons, 11 for they had rebelled against the words of God, and spurned the counsel of the Most High. 12 So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor; they fell down, with none to help. 13 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 14 He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart.” If your prison bars are forged from your own rebellion, as you cry out to him, God will one day release and for now, he will fill you with his Spirit and with the fullness of the gospel dwelling in you so that you can sing in the midst of trial. And as he does that he uses you to make much of Jesus before a world that, like those prisoners with Paul and Silas, will pay attention to your singing and your joy because they know they could never do that if they were in your situation. And that honors God big time! The chorus we sometimes sing is “I will sing in times of trouble.” You can do that as you walk in the power of the Holy Spirit. Cry out to God for that and he will give it to you. He is sufficient in your time of trial and he is worth whatever suffering you are going through now.
Finally, God is glorified in this narrative because it displays the wonder of his saving grace. The jailer, having seen what he has seen is clearly disturbed about his soul and asks “What must I do to be saved?” After last week’s message, you may be thinking—I thought you said salvation was of God alone and now this jailer asks what must I DO to be saved? There’s no contradiction when you understand Paul’s response which is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” Of course we must believe in order to be saved, but we must see that command in the context of Ephesians 2:8-9. “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul says that both the grace and the faith through which you have been saved are both gifts of God. The Greek pronouns and nouns force us to understand that both saving grace and saving faith come from God. The call is to believe, but it’s understood that even this faith is from God. The result of that is –so that no one can boast. If belief is something you generate within yourself, you have something to boast about in your salvation. It’s been said that “Faith is only the open hand that receives God’s grace.” True, but if you opened your hand on your own and others did not, then you are better than they are—more spiritually insightful, less rebellious, more in tune with God and the gospel.
If you are here today and you do not know Jesus Christ—if you have never been saved from the penalty that God—as a just and holy God—must mete out for sin—you personal rebellion against him as you live for yourself instead of him. If that describes you, then by the grace of God, place your trust in him today. Like the jailer—trust in Christ who came to die in your place—take the punishment you deserve ad you too can live a life that makes much of God and brings you joy here and in eternity. May God give all of us the grace to exalt Christ in our lives as we trust in his authority over the darkness, as we exult in the truth that God is supreme and sufficient in our trials, that his providential guidance is leading the direction of our lives and that his grace is enough to save us from our sin.
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