Not The Magic Kingdom (Acts 19:11-20)

Do you want to “unlock the power of God in your life?” That’s a phrase that is used by some in more charismatic circles, but they’re not the only ones. A simple Google search will show that this is an idea that is tread over a lot out in the Christian world. Here are a few search results titles:

“Unlocking Kingdom power and authority in you.” “Unlock and develop God’s brain power.” “Unlocking our access to Divine power.” “The key to opening the heavens.” “The key to unlock the Holy Spirit’s power in your life.” “Prayer is the way to unlock the power of God.” “Faith is the key to unlock God’s power.” “3 keys you must possess to unlock the power of God.” “5 ways to unleash God’s presence and power.” “7 keys to help you unlock the power of prayer.”

These links lead to articles, books, sometimes programs or conferences which make claims and promises to move you into a category of “more.” More power. More manifestations. More tangible experience with the supernatural outpouring of God.

One such annual conference had a promo video in 2019. It wasn’t being held by some heretical church or cult. It was a church we might go to if we lived in that town. The conference billed itself as a special time in God’s presence because it is “in God’s presence” that every good thing starts. And then their list was: “The darkness scatters, cities transformed, nations restored, sons and daughters reconciled. In His presence we encounter MORE.” It then showed a montage of worship concerts and lots of people laying hands on each other.

I don’t list these things to deride the idea of God’s power pouring through God’s people to transform the world. That’s why Christ has a Body on the earth. But, so often, what we find is that there is a desire to systematize or synthesize some method, some formula, that promises to generate some wanted result, usually visibly manifested in a feeling or behavior that we label as spiritual.

Here’s the problem: This is not how the Christian life is described in the Bible. It’s not how it’s described and it’s not how it’s demonstrated. We can look at those moments of great outpouring in the Old Testament, where the Shekinah came down at the dedication of the Tabernacle or Temple and say, “There, look: They had a worship service and were going through this holy liturgy and God ‘broke out’.” But, the Church is not Israel.

What about Pentecost? Wasn’t there an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, visibly manifested, during a worshipful prayer gathering? Absolutely. And it happened once again in Acts 4. But, in those moments, we don’t see the Christians working God like a machine. Running through some formula in order to experience a particular feeling or result that they decided upon beforehand.

Now, fast forward to Acts 19, where we find ourselves tonight. We see incredible outpourings of God’s power. We see a city transformed. We see lives changed. Sinners reconciled to God. We see dramatic things happening that astonish everyone who hears about them. How did Paul accomplish this? How did he unlock and unleash God’s power in Ephesus? The truth is, he doesn’t! As Luke tells the story, Paul doesn’t even appear on the stage. He’s mentioned and referenced by some of the other characters, but we see no effort on his part.

In our verses, when some characters do take it upon themselves to try to stir up the power of God and accomplish a spiritual purpose, the result is that they get wrecked. They were looking for a particular manifestation of power but, in the end, not only did they not help the people they were trying to help, they’re worse off themselves.

In the mean time, while they’re fooling around with some spiritual chemistry kit, God is busy throughout the city doing extraordinary work. We see in this example that He did not have to be “invited” to come, or coerced or cajoled or conjured to work His magic in Ephesus.

I find this to be a hard issue because, on the one hand, we saw last time that God’s desire is for us to live supernaturally empowered lives filled with His everlasting abundance. As a Christian, you have been given Living Water. You’ve been given supernatural gifts. You’ve been given the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit. That is the present reality for those who have been born again.

But, at the same time, so often we can slip into a pattern of life that feels completely devoid of God’s power and presence. Theologically He is always with us, but what about our feelings? This is what leads to all those Google searches and conferences and programs.

What we discover as we study God’s word is that there is a difference between living in Christ’s power and just feeling something we want to feel. Some magical experience that validates us.

This scene in Acts 19 is very helpful and shows not only that God does not need to be conjured, but the dangers of trying to make the spiritual life formulaic.

Acts 19:11-12 – 11 God was performing extraordinary miracles by Paul’s hands, 12 so that even facecloths or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, and the diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.

You have to chuckle at the opening words: God was performing extraordinary miracles. Your translation may say “unusual.” Aren’t all miracles extraordinary? They are, but Luke is making a point here: Something specific and particular was happening in this moment in this city. This happens from time to time in God’s history. Think of Peter in Acts 5. There was a period where God was using him to heal people like crazy. Even if his shadow fell across them, they would be made well.

But Peter and Paul weren’t “faith healers.” There are some who claim that title today. Peter and Paul couldn’t just heal people at will, like Superman using x-ray vision. There are multiple times when Paul was unable to heal people, even when he really wanted them to be made well. We think of his own thorn in the flesh, Timothy’s infirm stomach, he left Trophimus sick at Miletus and he was heartbroken at how sick Epaphroditus was, he thought he was going to die.

These guys weren’t faith healers. Neither are the people who claim to be today. What does the verse say? God was performing the miracles. It was His work and His decision. Why was He doing so?

We can’t know the mind of God, but obviously He decided Ephesus needed this kind of ministry at the time. This was a city full of superstition and magic and occult practices. And the Lord did want to verify and authenticate the message of Paul. He was proving that this representative was true and different from every other wonder-worker in town.

We also see that, sometimes, God likes to square off against the false gods of man. He did so in Egypt. He did so when He sent Elijah to confront the prophets of Baal. God doesn’t only play defense, He plays offense too. He went to this pagan swamp and planted His flag there.

There’s no suggestion that these miracles were Paul’s idea or his method to get people’s attention. In fact, we simply see him lecturing in classes and then, it seems, working up a sweat, probably tent making. He is most definitely not selling his rags to turn a profit. If you get some offer to buy a prayer rug or some other item that is supposedly blessed by some faith healer, save your money. What we’re seeing here was unusual, even by miraculous standards.

There is an important subplot that runs through many stories in the Bible that I like to bring out when we can. And that’s that God can use anything for His glory and His eternal work. Your words, your home, your singing, your countenance. Even your old dish rags or shoebox if His plan permits.

Now, we tend to identify something that we think God should do in our city or to address some problem and then we try to convince Him to do it. Paul’s not doing that. No, it pleased God to bring this little revival to Ephesus and Paul was simply willing to participate in submission and faithfulness.

Here’s what happens when we make it our business to plan God’s work for Him.

Acts 19:13-14 – 13 Now some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists also attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!” 14 Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest, were doing this.

These aren’t Christians. They’re Jews who were sons of a priest. Not a high priest in the official sense. Scholars think they were either sons of one of the chief priests who led one of the 24 courses or priests, or they were just saying they were sons of a high priest for street cred.

Why are they in Ephesus? Well, they were vagabonds. This was their job. They would go from place to place, like Doc Terminus in the old Pete’s Dragon, getting paid to work their magic and then move on. In contrast, why was Paul in Ephesus? He was there by the leading and permission of the Holy Spirit. Let that be a warning to us individually as we think about how we serve God and to Christians involved in church planting efforts.

These guys were using a formula, incantation approach to their ministry. That was the prevailing method in that region at that time. What’s our secret sauce today? Sometimes it’s ‘data’ or methods that convert to certain behaviors or phenomena. These sons of Sceva were marrying practices from the world into their spiritual lives, hoping for a tangible result. Rather than believing and submitting to Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit, they were simply trying to harness His power for their own purposes. And, if you think about it, this is a terrible compromise on their part. They’re supposed to be priestly Jews, and here they’re invoking a man who is seen as a false messiah!

Let’s see how it goes.

Acts 19:15-16 – 15 The evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” 16 Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them, overpowered them all, and prevailed against them, so that they ran out of that house naked and wounded.

These men had no authority because they didn’t represent Jesus. If someone came to your front door and shouted, “Come out with your hands up!” and you could see that they weren’t a cop, there’d be no need for you to come out. In fact, you’d probably arm yourself for an altercation. That’s exactly what happens here. Looking back on it, it’s somewhat comical to us, but this does highlight a very important principle for the real world: There are real problems out there, people whose lives are being ruined by sin while they’re held captive by the devil. If we want to bring true solutions to a life or a city or a nation, only real Christianity is going to make the difference. Not formulas or half measures or things that just feel spiritual. We need the actual work of God. Not swaggering out in pride and presumption and sprinkles of paganism like these guys.

The good news it that God is so powerful and so gracious, He is able to accomplish the impossible in the most ruined of places, through just 1 person if necessary. Look at Joseph or Nehemiah or Daniel. Look at the revivals of history. These stories don’t start with formulas or men devising a plan. They begin with people who know God and believe Him and choose to follow His leading.

Acts 19:17 – 17 When this became known to everyone who lived in Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, they became afraid, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high esteem.

When Luke gives a vitals report of the work of God he does not elevate experience or wonders over the glory of God or the spread of His word. For the individual man in this story, it would’ve been really great for him to no longer be demon possessed. But that wasn’t the end goal. Without a permanent intervention in the form of salvation the exorcised demons might just come back, this time with a few of friends in tow. But now we see the fear of God starting to grip the hearts of the people of Ephesus. And that is a very good thing because it leads to life change.

Acts 19:18-20 – 18 And many who had become believers came confessing and disclosing their practices, 19 while many of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them in front of everyone. So they calculated their value and found it to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 In this way the word of the Lord spread and prevailed.

They came together, not to experience manifestations or emotionalism. They came to get rid of their obsession with those sort of things. Book burning is not generally a good thing, but this is one we could get behind. Instead of gathering as a church and saying, “We want to feel a tangible manifestation that makes us feel like something supernatural happened,” they said, “We want to have a tangible demonstration of our repentance!” As the Bible promises, the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom. As they learned more about what it means to be a Christian and learned more about the word of God and how it directs us, they realized, “Oh wow, I need to get rid of this book.” They believed God and what He said about certain practices.

It’s silly to say, but God has opinions. He has stances on things. He has made decisions about what is good for you and what is not good for you, what is glorifying to Him and what is outside the boundaries of your relationship with Him. We need to agree with those opinions. This is why it matters when God’s people disagree over Biblical prohibitions. God’s word has to prevail and be the authority. When someone comes along and says, “It’s not ok for you to not observe the Sabbath,” we can say, under the authority of Scripture, that they’re wrong. We don’t have to observe the Sabbath because God has dismantled that regulation. Rather, it was never for the Church. But, when people come along and say, “The Bible has antiquated and bigoted views on sexuality, we no longer need to go along with what it says,” we can authoritatively say, “No, you’re wrong. That boundary still exists.” The issues aren’t always simple, but they are discoverable as we ingest God’s word and study it and allow it to prevail in us. As we personally submit to it and say, in our own lives, “I need to burn this book of magic because it is in contention with the teaching and leading of my God.”

Those acts of obedience can be hard and costly. Scholars argue over how much money this was worth, but they agree that 1 silver piece was a day’s wage. Meaning 50,000 days of labor. If we took the average American income, that’d be somewhere north of $8,000,000. That’s a costly repentance. Of course, they were making out ahead in the end. In Paul’s letter to these Ephesians he talks again and again about the riches they received in Christ. About 8 times he speaks to them about the endless treasures of God’s kindness and grace and our rich and glorious inheritance in Him.

Amazing things were happening in Ephesus. But they weren’t by man’s design. They weren’t man’s idea. Paul, for his part, is completely passive in these verses. And yet we see the power of God shaking this town up in a remarkable way. As it was happening, we see these believers coming, not to generate some experience. They’re making it a point to separate themselves from magical mysticism and instead embrace the word of God and have it rule over their everyday lives.

The problem is, we want to see God bring revival. We want God to dramatically transform lives, even work wonders. We want to enjoy the kind of relationship with the Lord that we see in people like Paul or Jonathan Edwards or A.W. Tozer or so many other examples. And we want to feel spiritually invigorated.

Those are all good desires. And God does still work in powerful and miraculous ways at certain times and in certain places, but it’s according to His design, not ours. So, how do we unlock the power of God in our lives or in Hanford? First of all, He doesn’t deadbolt the door. The veil is torn. Paul would say, more than once, in his Ephesian letter, “you have access to God right now.”

So, what about the power? Paul said that as we trust Christ He will make His home in our hearts and then He will empower us with inner strength through the Holy Spirit by His own glorious, unlimited resources. The question is not what we do to convince God to ‘break out’ in our midst. The question is: Do we trust the Lord? Do we believe what He says in His word? “Yes I do, so I should see the following manifestations of miraculous power…” That isn’t how it works. That’s not what we see in the New Testament. “But I want to feel it.”

God’s word says you have received power. He’s given it to you. Our walk with God is supernatural. You are supernaturally gifted as a Christian. You’re part of the impossible, eternal work of God on the earth. But the when, how and look of it is God’s business. Our part is to trust, obey and be led.

Be All That You Can Be (Acts 19:1-10)

What does it mean to be a Christian? If you were asked that question how would you answer? The question is not “how do you become a Christian,” but “what does it mean to be a Christian?”

We would probably start with a set of beliefs. But what people put on that list can be shockingly varied. Organizations like Barna and Pew Research Center study these sort of questions. Here are some findings that might surprise you: Pew found that 20% of self-described Christians do not believe in the God of the Bible. 42% of evangelicals say they believe God accepts worship from all religions. 65% of evangelicals said they believed this statement: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”

While we know you can’t have Christian faith without a set of beliefs, we also know that it is more than simply a list of facts and precepts. Christianity is a life that is lived out. A new life in relationship with the living God. And so it is more than just a body of knowledge. It includes experience and advancement and participation in the unfolding plan of God as He pours out His power all over the earth. As students of the Bible, this is what we learn about the Christian life. So, when asked “what does it mean to be a Christian,” we would probably begin by talking about the Lord and the truths He has revealed which we accept in faith and then we’d also start talking about things like the Great Commission – that ongoing rescue program that God has drafted us into.

But, believe it or not, nearly half of practicing Christian millennials believe it is wrong to share your faith with someone of a different religion. In other words: evangelism. And “when asked if they had previously heard of the Great Commission, 1/2 of U.S. churchgoers say they do not know the term.”

Where am I going with all of this? It’s not just to depress us about the state of things. Tonight our text provides a great exposé on what it means to be a Christian. We will see a group of people who are earnest seekers of truth, they want to believe. Yet, the content of their faith is severely lacking. Paul comes along and starts to fill in that necessary content. But it’s not all academic. At the same time, we see the spiritual activity of Christians. Put together we see once again how Acts presents Christianity as a life that encompasses the mind, the heart and the hands and feet. That Christianity is about developing and delivering. That spiritual education and spiritual experience are both a necessity in the life of a Biblical Christian.

As we begin, we find Paul making good on the promise he made back in chapter 18, verse 21. He returns to the city of Ephesus. For background, we know that there are Christians there already, Priscilla and Aquila might still be hanging out. But now Paul’s back to do God’s work.

Acts 19:1 – While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior regions and came to Ephesus. He found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” “No,” they told him, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

Luke calls them disciples, but we’ll find out they’re ignorant of Jesus. We might think of them as Old Testament believers, though some commentators believe they were connected with the local church in town. Paul is going to be a big help to them and we’ll see him bring them along graciously.

As Christians, we should understand that the people we encounter come from a wide variety of backgrounds with different levels of exposure to the Bible and Jesus. The way forward is grace. And, as a church, we want to be as welcoming as possible while we proclaim the truth. This is one of the sad realities of churches that become really ingrown. They gather together, as a like-minded group, preaching to themselves. But if no outsiders can ever come in, what good is the preaching? We want to be welcoming to all sorts. Paul was open to speak to Pharisees or Sadducees, Jews or Gentiles, pagans or tradesmen, seekers or mockers.

We don’t know how Paul came across these guys, but as they interacted, something about them gave him the impression that they definitely had faith, but that they were deficient in their spiritual lives. We see it there, he says, “When you believed…” but, it’s clear to him that something was off.

What was it? We don’t know. But we can guess that, even in their earnestness and zeal, they lacked the marks of the indwelling Holy Spirit. What are His marks? This is an important question, because if you’re a Christian here tonight they are supposed to be marks showing on your life.

God’s word tells us what the fruit of the Spirit is: Love. Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. To be a Christian is to be marked by these. In addition, the presence of supernatural empowering to serve God with spiritual gifts.

Since we believe the Bible to speak truthfully not only about who God is but who we are, we can have certain expectations about spiritual development in our personal Christianity. The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives isn’t like Rogaine, which might encourage hair growth in some people. That’s not how the Christian life is meant to go. When we walk with God, He does complete what He began. Which means you and I do bear fruit, which will lead not only to wonderful blessings, but also to us becoming recognizably different when others look at us. Different in disposition. Different in communication. Different in focus and perspective.

Because, being a Christian doesn’t just mean you’re certified for heaven. It means you are a new creation. Brand new. A new mind. A new heart. A new purpose. New abilities given to you by the Holy Spirit to glorify God and serve Him and others. Of course that will stand out as we cooperate with what God wants to do in us.

So, Paul saw these guys and thought to himself: I’m looking at caterpillars here, not butterflies. They were missing that spiritual transformation that is promised to Christians.

Before we move forward we should recognize that these verses are a historic battleground between different groups of Christians. There’s a big fight here over Pentecostalism and the gifs of the Spirit. I’m going to touch on some of those themes tonight, but not nearly as much as is necessary, because it’s an important issue and one that people get very emotional about. If you would like to know more about what the Bible says on the subject and our church position, visit

Now, Paul asked these guys “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” It’s time to turn that question on ourselves. Doctrinally, we know, thanks to the special revelation of the New Testament, that “when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit.” So the question for us is not “did you receive,” it’s, “since you received, is there a difference?” Because the Bible also explains that Christians are able to quench the Spirit. And that, having begun in the Spirit we can drift into a life that’s not spiritual. Therefore, we’re commanded to go on being filled. Are we? Are we marked by His leading and influence and power in our lives?

Acts 19:3 – 3 “Into what then were you baptized?” he asked them. “Into John’s baptism,” they replied.

So, these guys were disciples of John the Baptist. That means they believed in repenting of their sins and were waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. There are a couple of good thoughts for us here. First of all, it’s ok to find out where people are coming from. These guys were seen as spiritual, labeled as disciples, but after a little investigation we discover they don’t even know who Jesus is. So, when you’re interacting with people (or with podcasts) do a little research.

Second, Paul asks them another great question that we can turn on ourselves. Into what were you baptized? If you’re a Christian and you’ve never been baptized, it’s something you should do because your King has commanded it. But if you have been baptized, remember what that means. It’s not just some meaningless ritual. It is the outward demonstration of what has gone on in your heart and it is the demonstration of what we might call positional reality. To be a Christian, being baptized means that you identify with Him in His death, burial and resurrection. It means now you are dead to sin. It means you have been cleansed from your unrighteousness and raised up into a new, supernaturally motivated life. It means you have now been given a ministry of reconciliation.

This verse also gives us a little devotional idea: These guys had been baptized under John the Baptist’s ministry. Here they are, 25 years later, still waiting for the Messiah. Still earnest. Still trusting God. Still living a spiritual life, incomplete as it was.

While we don’t want to be lacking in the ways they were, they are an inspiration for us. We know the Messiah, but we, too, get to wait for him, eagerly, with expectation. Whether that takes 25 years or 25 hours. Don’t lose hope. He’s coming. We’re waiting.

Acts 19:4 – 4 Paul said, “John baptized with a baptism of repentance, telling the people that they should believe in the one who would come after him, that is, in Jesus.”

These guys were missing some very important and essential information. There are essentials when it comes to Christian belief. For example, if you don’t believe Jesus Christ really lived or that He is really God or that He really died on the cross and rose again, then you are not a Christian. You may be religious or philosophical, but you’re not a Christian.

Now, these guys were good guys. We would’ve described them as holy and devout. But you see, all they had done was turn their backs on sin, as John had told them. But, without a Messiah, they were directionless.

J.C. Ryle put it this way: “You may cast away your old habits, as a serpent casts off his skin, but if you are not resting all upon the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…you have…received the grace of God in vain.”

It does no good to reform behavior if the heart is not won for Jesus Christ. These guys were fine, moral, religious men. But they needed Jesus to come and take hold of them. And, from their negative example we might say that, to be a Christian means you’re for something. Not sin. You’ve turned from those idols and left them far behind. But now your life is for the Lord. For His glory. For His service. For His pleasure. We’re not just out of evil, we’re now in Christ.

Acts 19:5 – 5 When they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

These guys are earnest, humble, obedient. Those are marks of Christianity. Having been filled in on what they were missing they immediately said, “I want to belong to Christ. I want to join His Kingdom and be forever marked by Him.”

Acts 19:6-7 – 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. 7 Now there were about twelve men in all.

So now we see that not only was their education made more complete, they also had a new, supernatural experience. There are, of course, some who believe and teach that to be a Christian means you must speak in tongues and experience what we call the “sign” gifts, like those we’re seeing here. That is neither the teaching of the New Testament or the pattern seen in Acts.

However, what is clear is that being a Christian means you will be supernaturally gifted and empowered to live out a life that includes the impossible for Christ Jesus. While we reject many of the carnal excesses of Pentecostalism, we simultaneously do not believe in or want a form of Christianity that is devoid of the supernatural. God says He has spiritual gifts for you. Different kinds and different works, but the Holy Spirit distributes to each and every Christian some sort of gift. Christianity is not just “I believe a set of doctrines and I attend church and I don’t do bad things.” What about the power of God and His living water rushing like a torrent through your life? What about overcoming the world? Confounding the wisdom of the wise? What about receiving the dynamic power of God the Holy Spirit that it might show through us like treasure in clay jars?

Christianity is not simply a moral philosophy. And it’s more than just us checking in with the Man upstairs from time to time. It is an all-encompassing, supernatural life, lived out by people who have been made dead to sin and alive in Christ who now operate as His Body on the earth.

In this passage, many commentators rush to tell you how there’s no supernatural outpouring of the Spirit in these ways anymore. That we “have no reason to expect” extraordinary gifts. But how could that be true? The Father sent the Spirit to be with us and to help us and to guide us and lead us and bring dynamic power into our lives so that we can accomplish wonderful, eternal work.

Part of that work is us exercising spiritual gifts, here demonstrated by tongues and prophecy. Some of you have these gifts. You need to exercise them. We learn the proper way to do that when gathered together as we look at passages like 1 Corinthians 12-14. But being a Christian means not leaving God’s precious gifts, hand-picked for us, left on the shelf.

So we see these guys exercising spiritual gifts. What are your gifts? If you were about to retire and your accountant said to you, “What are your assets?” You probably wouldn’t say, “I dunno.” You know what they are because you’ll need them. Or, if someone said, “You’ve received a significant inheritance.” You wouldn’t say, “I don’t need to know about it.”

God has gifted you, to grow you and bless you and use you to serve others. Being a Christian means not only discovering those things but then exercising them.

Now, if the story ended here, we might be tempted to think that charismatic experiences are the pinnacle of Christian living. But it doesn’t. We’ve got a few more verbs as Paul continued his work.

Acts 19:8 – 8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly over a period of three months, arguing and persuading them about the kingdom of God.

The Apostle showed a great ability to balance. He could balance ministry inside the church and outside to unbelievers. We find him both evangelizing and making it a point to develop strengthen those who already believe.

Being a Christian means getting involved in ministry, not simply going from experience to experience. Paul said he spoke in tongues more than anybody. And he, clearly, had a profound communion with God. But we don’t see him going from afterglow to afterglow. He was balanced looking in and looking out, doing the ministry while also continuing to develop himself.

Acts 19:9-10 – 9 But when some became hardened and would not believe, slandering the Way in front of the crowd, he withdrew from them, taking the disciples, and conducted discussions every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.

We note here that this ministry was based on “discussions,” not Pentecostal ecstasies. He could have hosted spontaneous tongues services, right? But he didn’t. So, on the one hand we see him looking at these guys in the first part and saying, “You guys need the filling of the Holy Spirit!” And leading them to that wonderful reality. And now we see him saying, “the people of this city need rightly divided truth, presented in a way they can understand.” It’s balance.

As Christians and as a church we’ve got to find a way to walk the line where our faith isn’t just a list of intellectual bullet points of orthodox doctrines. But it also cannot be just a pursuit of particular manifestations that seem amazing to us. These are the camps people tend to fall into. One or the other, and they’re both missing something vital. The Biblical way, detailed in the Epistles, exampled in Acts, is to have a vibrant relationship with God based upon truth that operates in us. That we continually grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s word, while also perpetually exercising the supernatural gifts that have been supplied by the Holy Spirit. Being a Christians means that we believe and we move. With purpose. According to truth. There should be a liveliness to us that is recognizable and yet unexplainable to the world around us. A life and a church characterized by proper knowledge and powerful activity. It’s possible. It’s God’s plan. Let’s participate. Be all that you can be as a Christian.

A Star Is Born (Acts 18:18-28)

Researchers, like those at the University of Calgary, estimate that each year 150 billion new stars are born in our universe. Closer to home, NASA calculates that the Milky Way Galaxy is producing about a half dozen new stars each year. Dr. Roland Diehl, a physicist that studies these sorts of things, says: “Our galaxy isn’t the biggest producer of stars…in the universe, but there’s still plenty of activity.”

In our text tonight, we might say a star is born. He’s not a major character in the New Testament, but he’s one we remember – Apollos, the silver-tongued preacher who would ultimately do a great amount of work and find his name listed among church leaders like Paul and Peter. He shined brightly for the Lord in Asia Minor and Greece and I’m sure many other places.

But, what we find in our verses is that he was just one individual being used by God – one star in a growing constellation of Christians who were shining the light of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. So much of Acts is dedicated to the movements of Paul and what God accomplished through him. Tonight, he’s on the move again. In fact, this is one of those sections where Luke covers a huge amount of ground in a very small number of words. Paul’s second missionary journey ends in verse 22 but Luke moves on to his third journey already in verse 23.

But it’s not just about Paul. Throughout the story we see others in each place. As we read, there’s a theme of brotherhood and connection. We see the Christian family cooperating and expanding, but also people growing in their faith and their understanding and usefulness. The second half of Acts is largely about Paul but it’s not only about Paul. Because the Church isn’t a basketball team, where you have a few superstars and then a few other guys and then support staff and then that’s the end of the list. The Church is a family and every one of us who is a Christian, whether we’ve just been born into the faith a few days ago or have been in it for 80 years, each of us is a part of what God is doing, a light shining in the darkness of our world.

So, let’s get into it, starting at verse 18. When we left off, Paul had spent at least a year and a half in the Greek city of Corinth.

Acts 18:18 – 18 After staying for some time, Paul said farewell to the brothers and sisters and sailed away to Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. He shaved his head at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.

It was unusual for Paul to be able to spend so much time in one place. Sometimes he was only in a city for a few days before having to run for his life. But his long stay with the Corinthians had come to and end. Why? We don’t know for sure, other than that God’s call on Paul’s life was not to stay planted in one place, but to go here and there as a mobile preacher of grace. The timing was up the Holy Spirit. And we’ll see in these verses that Paul was sensitive to the will of God when it came to when he stayed somewhere and when he moved on. We’re reminded of that comforting but significant phrase in Psalm 31:15, “My times are in [His] hands.” Other translations say it this way: “The course of my life is in your power,” (CSB) or “My future is in Your hands.” (NLT)

We notice, right from the start, that family feel. Paul said farewell to them as “brothers and sisters.” And though these Christians in Corinth would later be a cause of heart hurt for him, he always thought of them as family.

We see that Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila came with him. We talked about this couple a bit last time, but let’s focus in on this: Going with Paul, they had to close up shop again and step out into the unknown. They had already been driven out of Rome. They had to start all over there in Corinth. And now, they found themselves on a ship sailing again. I doubt that they were able to take all their tools and inventory to make for a soft landing in Syria. But they did it for the Lord and the Gospel. It’s a very good thing they did, but it certainly wouldn’t have made financial sense at the time.

Jesus once said:

Matthew 10:29-30 – “I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, 30 will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life.”

Now what about this vow? My, oh my do commentators get into a tizzy. First there’s the argument over whether Luke is speaking about Paul or Aquila shaving his head. Then there’s the argument over what kind of vow it was. Some say it was a Nazarite vow, others say it wasn’t. Some say it was an act of profound thankfulness to God, others say it was a failure in Paul’s life. One commentator we really love calls it a “deliberate sin” and believes this to be “the beginning of the end for Paul.”

We simply don’t know what this vow was about. It seems pretty clear that Luke had Paul as the subject. But we’re given no consequential or editorial data about this act. Paul wasn’t a perfect man. He called himself the chief of sinners, after all. But we also know that he was, at times, the lone defender of the Gospel of grace. He was the champion of Christian liberty from the Law of Moses.

Rather than argue the merits, since we simply don’t have all the information, for me it was a good reminder that Paul had a deep and active personal relationship with the Lord. It wasn’t all public. He had more than a theological relationship with God or professional exercise of his Christianity. He was speaking to His Lord one on one. Being moved to acts of devotion that we’ll never know about. Things that didn’t have to do with his official job in the church. He was growing all the time and we want to be Christians like that.

Acts 18:19 – 19 When they reached Ephesus he left them there, but he himself entered the synagogue and debated with the Jews.

We learn in Romans that there was already an established church in Cenchreae and so the trio hop over to the city of Ephesus. Paul is in a hurry, but he sets aside a morning to go and preach to some of his countrymen. Hopefully we’re never too busy to do ministry when the opportunity arises. Paul isn’t going to stay, but he had time to do the work of an evangelist that Saturday.

We’re told he “left” Priscilla and Aquila there. We don’t have all the conversations, but it reads as though Paul directed them to stay. We remember that Paul had apostolic authority and this faithful, Christian couple were willing to submit to his leadership, even though he may have started out as their employee and even though some scholars think that Priscilla was a member of nobility. They were humble and flexible and, because of that, they’re going to be very useful in a little bit.

Acts 18:20-21 – 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer time, he declined, 21 but he said farewell and added, “I’ll come back to you again, if God wills.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.

It must have been a strange sensation for Paul to be asked to stay. That’s not how it usually happened. But in his decision we see a good snapshot of his ministry mindset. First of all, if Paul was numbers oriented, he would’ve stayed. Ephesus is a big city, an important city. Conventional wisdom would say ‘strike while the iron’s hot.’ But Paul said no. He wasn’t motivated by numbers of followers or those sorts of metrics that are so prevalent in Church culture today. We also see that he believed God should set the course of ministry. His goal was not to hit a certain number of cities per year or plant a certain number of churches, but simply to be in God’s will. Because, third, he trusted God to do what was right and best in each of these places. God had a heart for Ephesus. So did Paul, but not as much as God. So he was content to allow the Master to send him out into the harvest into whatever corners and avenues of the vineyard that the Master saw fit.

Acts 18:22 – 22 On landing at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church, then went down to Antioch.

Luke covers a lot of ground here. Surely, each of these stops would’ve included great stories of God’s power. But that’s not the Holy Spirit’s focus in these verses. Instead we’re seeing place after place that either a work is getting started or there are established Christians living out their faith.

We started in Corinth where there were many believers whose lives had been dramatically transformed. Then to Cenchreae where a church had been started. On to Ephesus where something new was just beginning and Christian operatives were left to get things up and running. To Caesarea where people like Philip the Evangelist lived and Cornelius with his household. Preachers and saints ministering to the soldiers of Rome and the people on the coast. To Jerusalem where there were apostles and many others who walked with Jesus. Then to Antioch, Paul’s home church, full of faith and prayer and mission. A blend of Jews and Gentiles all together in the family of God.

In the darkness of the world, everywhere we turn we see constellations of believers lighting up. New stars being born, others shining as brightly as ever. Not because there was 1 man doing something, but countless people all functioning as the Body of Christ wherever they found themselves.

Paul had been out in the wider world, but his friends at Antioch had kept the light on for him. The same was happening in each place that he went to and would go back to starting in verse 23.

Acts 18:23 – 23 After spending some time there, he set out, traveling through one place after another in the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.

No record of Paul getting to some place where there had been a church planted and it being a ghost town. They all kept the light on. And were ready to be built up and strengthened by Paul when he came. And this was a welcome and necessary work. As Matthew Poole wrote: “though the seed be duly sown, yet it must be seasonably watered.”

That’s not only true for Galatians and Phrygians, but for Hanfordite and Lemoorons as well. Once transformed by the power of Gospel we can then go on being strengthened and built up, able to bear more, endure more, accomplish more in the power of God. Paul was a great evangelist, but he also made it his business to reinforce the faith of Christians. That’s a necessary part of the Christian life. And we see that playing out in our remaining verses.

Acts 18:24-25 – 24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native Alexandrian, an eloquent man who was competent in the use of the Scriptures, arrived in Ephesus. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately about Jesus, although he knew only John’s baptism.

So here we have a remarkable, Egyptian man. He was Jewish by nationality but had become a believer in Jesus, though he had, apparently, not heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not to mention Pentecost. He’s described as eloquent, competent, fervent and accurate. That’s a pretty good stat sheet. One resource said it like this: He had a lot to say and he said it well. But, despite his many gifts, he was incomplete. But that’s ok, because God had positioned others right where they needed to be in order to build him up and complete what was lacking in his knowledge.

Acts 18:26 – 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. After Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately.

So, we’re told in verse 25 that he had been speaking and teaching accurately about Jesus, and now in verse 26 it was explained to him more accurately. And I love that, because it shows that we don’t have to wait to preach until we have a PhD in theology, or until we have an entire Gospel memorized or anything like that. If you are a Christian, you know enough about God to become a Christian. And you don’t need to wait to tell people about Jesus. But, at the same time, all of us have room to grow in our accuracy and understanding and knowledge of the Scriptures. In that synagogue, Apollos was probably the smartest guy in the room. But it was two refugee laborers who would fill him in on what he was missing. So, while we have a green light to go and preach the Gospel, we’ve got to be sure we stay meek and humble and recognize that we do not know everything. We need to continue to be instructed in the Word of God and by His Holy Spirit. We want to become more accurate all the time. Like one of those flashlights that you can focus the zoom. If you’re in a dark room, I’m glad to have a flashlight of any kind. But even better to have one that is bright, accurate, able to be focused into a highly directional beam.

Now, before we move on, I’d like to commend the bravery we’re seeing here. There’s a lot of Christian courage in this verse. You’ve got Apollos, standing up in boldness to preach all that he knew. He obviously didn’t have every answer about Jesus, but he wasn’t going to shy away. We also see great bravery from Priscilla and Aquila. They were in the synagogue too, and they would’ve known what sort of things could happen to Christians in situations like this.

Their example reminds us that the Christian life is one of grace and kindness and tact, but also bravery. You’re commanded by God to get into the fight. To respond to the spiritual crisis this world is in. We can’t just stay home all the time and hope there’s a Paul out there somewhere. Because there’s a whole group of people right in front of us who are in desperate need of the Gospel.

Acts 18:27-28 – 27 When he wanted to cross over to Achaia, the brothers and sisters wrote to the disciples to welcome him. After he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating through the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah.

There’s no hint of jealousy or turf war or anything like that in any of this. They’re all family together. Brothers and sisters. All working together. Building each other up. Cooperating and communicating. And we see that Apollos did a couple of things: First, he didn’t just breeze in and out on his own whims. He’s connected himself with the church and he’s working with them in his desire to go over to Achaia. He’s not just a lone gunman doing whatever he wants.

We also see that he used the gifts he had. Now, on the human level, he had a lot of gifts. Eloquence and intelligence and charisma. Sometimes we slip into a mistaken mindset that since God loves to use the foolish things of this world that must mean He NEVER uses smart people or well-spoken people. That’s not true. He’ll use anyone who is submitted to Him. And Apollos put his skills and gifts into the hands of God and allowed them to be used for ministry. When Jesus was looking for ingredients, one boy came and said “I’ve got five loaves and two fish.” Another time someone had seven loaves. Apollos used his oratory, Lydia used her home. Priscilla and Aquila used their business. Dorcas used her sewing kit. David used his harp and his sling. What gifts and abilities do you have? God can use them. And He does use them. It’s not just hypothetical. Ivor Powell writes, “If Priscilla and Aquila had not been present the church may have lost one of its greatest evangelists.”

But there they were. Living a life of grace and courage. A life that cared about the proper understanding of the Scriptures. One that didn’t divide from people but which welcomed them and reached out to them. And as we see Paul moving north and west we see Apollos and others moving out in other directions. Apollos became a great help to Christians in Achaia who needed to be built up and strengthened just as he had needed to be built up and strengthened. And more and more lights were born in place after place. Connected in the family of God by the love of Christ.

When we look up certain stars seem larger or shine brighter. Some are much larger than others, some are just closer to us. The truth is, no matter the size, all of them declare God’s glory. And though many pass off the scene, year after year others are born and take their place in the night sky. The Church is like that. What started 2,000 years ago continues today. From the human vantage point, our lives may end up seeming like a luminous supergiant or maybe more like a yellow dwarf. But even the smallest of lives can be an amazing part of God’s work. Whatever the size of our ministry, whatever our orbit, we can keep the light on, continue growing in brightness and heat and constancy, and be a part of the spiritual birth of others who are currently trapped in darkness.

Living The Dream (Acts 18:1-17)

Thanks to Seinfeld the words “yada yada” have become a well-used phrase since 1997. Seinfeld wasn’t the first to use it, but it will forever be associated with the misadventures of Jerry and his 3 friends. Characters in the episode used ‘yada yada’ to skip over various details when telling a story, usually because those details revealed things they didn’t want the people around them to know. As the scenes unfold, characters are left to speculate over what those various yada yadas passed over.

In Acts 18 Luke, the writer, is relaying a new chapter in the story of Paul’s work in Greece. We find him in a new city, Corinth and as the story is told Luke passes over a lot of details. As a result, there’s a lot of speculation that goes on when studying the passage. Now, obviously this is written exactly the way that God wanted it written. We don’t need to fret as if we’re missing something essential. At the same time, if you read commentaries or sermons that deal with these verses, you’re going to find all sorts of speculation. Here are a few items that aren’t agreed upon:

Why Paul left Athens and after how long.
Whether Priscilla and Aquila were Christians before they met Paul or not.
Whether Paul was being bold in the first 4 verses or cowering in fear.
Whether Gallio was a just judge or whether he was yet another unscrupulous official.
Whether it was Gentiles who beat Sosthenes or if it was his own Jewish countrymen.

The gaps in detail are not bad, but they leave a lot of room for interpretation. And it’s surprising this story is the setup for such a significant part of Paul’s ministry life and such a significant portion of the New Testament. A lot of Biblical real estate is devoted to the Corinthian church and Paul’s relationship with them.

In this text we also get the sense that something is not quite right with our dear Paul. He’s isolated and has run out of provisions, but it’s more than that. He’s discouraged. He describes how he was feeling later in 1 Corinthians 2 where he says, “I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling.” It’s hard to imagine the Apostle Paul as frightened, but he was. And he was to so profound a degree that the Lord Jesus is going to come and appear to him, personally, and tell him to not be afraid, to not be silent and to not worry about being harmed.

Paul may have been feeling low, but by the grace of God he was about to make some of the most meaningful friendships of his life and accomplish some powerful ministry which (through his epistles) have had ongoing repercussions all over the earth for thousands of years.

Though we may wish for a few more background details, here’s what we know: First, that even the strongest of Christians can fall into discouragement. But, no matter how discouraged you are, how isolated, how out of supply or frightened of what’s coming you may be, you can be built back up in the grace of God, because our Lord has not abandoned you. And, one more thing we can be sure of from this story: No matter how bad the place or how threatening the situation, God can accomplish wonderful things, transform lives and make a difference.

So, let’s get into it in verse 1.

Acts 18:1 – After this, [Paul] left Athens and went to Corinth,

We don’t know why Paul left Athens. Things weren’t particularly volatile when chapter 17 came to a close. But, at some point, he did. And he left alone. Corinth was a trashy city if ever there was one. It was known as a city of vice. It had a pagan temple that employed 1,000 prostitutes. Even among the heathens this was a place known for drunkenness, immorality and all sorts of poor behavior.

So this is where Paul finds himself, on his own, and, apparently out of money and food, because he has to get a job.

Acts 18:2-3 – 2 where he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul came to them, 3 and since they were of the same occupation, tentmakers by trade, he stayed with them and worked.

What does it mean he “found” them? Well, again, we have to fill in the blanks ourselves a bit, but clearly he needed a job and shelter. So it’s probable that he answered an ad or went to the tent shop and inquired of whether they needed an extra hand. They quickly figured out that they were both Jews and they got on well. Was this couple already Christian when Paul met them? We can’t be sure. It seems like Luke would have relayed the story if Paul led them to Christ, the way he did in the case of Lydia, for example. But, what we do know is that this seemingly chance encounter was the start of one of the richest relationships of Paul’s life.

Of course it wasn’t chance, it was providence. There’s Paul, God’s servant, in a strange city, packed with people (at least 200,000 people lived there), he’s got no money, he’s got nowhere to live and the Lord directs him to a shop where he can not only be supplied with work and shelter, but also where he’ll find lifelong friends.

In the Christian life we want to develop a greater and greater openness to receive from the Lord and to be positioned by the Lord so that He can do great things like this for us. If our heads are always down, if we’re always looking in, if we feed selfishness and cynicism and skepticism, it’s going to make us very brittle as God tries to form and shape us. And it’s going to make it very difficult for us to receive some of the wonderful gifts God would like to give us.

Now, we learn something about Paul here: He was a tentmaker. He probably made all sorts of leather goods, but tent making would’ve been a big part of it. Couple of things here. First of all, in our culture there’s long been a divide between blue collar work and white collar work. That’s not really a good thing. You look at Paul: He had a really high level education. His original plan had been to be someone who thought and studied. But, at the same time, in that culture you always learned a trade so you could support yourself. And, for you young people, I’d highly recommend that type of mentality. Particularly if you think you’re going to go into the ministry or full time missions work. Don’t turn your nose up at skills or trade.

But, second, this spoke to me the other day: As tentmakers, Paul and Aquila and Priscilla would be supplying product and services to all sorts of people, including Roman soldiers. We live in a time when everyone wants to boycott everyone else. We live in a time when people refuse to serve others because of their politics or values or their job, those sorts of things. Can you imagine a Roman solider coming into the tent shop and Paul saying, “I REFUSE to make a tent for you, empire scum! Also, let me tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ who loves you so much He died for you!”

If you have a personal conviction from the Lord about particular products or companies that you don’t want to support, that’s your business. But let’s not just jump onto every anger bandwagon. Be gracious. Be led. Be directed by God, not by the crowd.

Acts 18:4 – 4 [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and tried to persuade both Jews and Greeks.

We see a term like “reasoned” there and it’s easy to think that it means he was giving them doctoral thesis-level lectures and intricate logic and all sorts of academic genius. But that’s not what was happening at all. Here’s what was happening:

1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 4-5 – When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. 2 For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. … 4 And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. 5 I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.

The most basic message that Jesus Christ, God come in the flesh, came and lived a perfect life, died on a Roman cross, then 3 days later rose again from the dead so that all who believe on Him and call on His name will receive everlasting life is enough to make a difference. Paul found himself in one of the wickedest cities in the world and that was the message. So, when we look out at notorious places, full of sin and ruined lives, what do they need? They don’t need hatred from us. They need the message of the cross. The Good News of that one, magnificent 3 day weekend, where everything changed.

Acts 18:5 – 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself to preaching the word and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.

There’s nothing wrong with working a regular job. Paul proves that. But in his particular situation, I think we’d all agree we’d rather him be preaching theology than patching a tent. Especially because he rarely was able to stay long in one place before being attacked. So, Silas and Timothy arrive and are able to support Paul so that he could focus on the ministry. And that is a very good thing.

As Christians, we should work to financially support ministry. Not only our own ministries, but other individuals and organizations that are proclaiming the Gospel. Allow the Lord to direct you in that.

In Luke’s description of Paul’s message we notice two things: First, that (as always) it was based upon the revealed word of God. Not trend or opinion or human philosophy. What has God said in that Scripture? Second, we see there blazing off the page: Jesus is the Messiah! He was not just a wise teacher, not just a good man, not just a great example of selfless living. He is THE Messiah. Meaning He and He alone is King, is Savior, is the Anointed One. He is the Decider for your life and my life and for the whole world. Let us all bow our knees to the King of kings and acknowledge Who He really is: Messiah and Lord.

Acts 18:6 – 6 When they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his clothes and told them, “Your blood is on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

There are two powerful realities on display here. First of all, you are responsible for your own spiritual health. No one can be saved for you, no one can obey God for you. Your faith is an individual relationship with God and you are responsible to respond accordingly. Second, Christians are also responsible to preach to the lost. Paul here is probably referencing this passage in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 33:3-6 – 3 When the watchman sees the enemy coming, he sounds the alarm to warn the people. 4 Then if those who hear the alarm refuse to take action, it is their own fault if they die. 5 They heard the alarm but ignored it, so the responsibility is theirs. If they had listened to the warning, they could have saved their lives. 6 But if the watchman sees the enemy coming and doesn’t sound the alarm to warn the people, he is responsible for their captivity. They will die in their sins, but I will hold the watchman responsible for their deaths.’

That should be a sobering and stirring message for us to be about the Lord’s business when it comes to evangelism. We are commanded to preach and to make disciples.

While Paul’s message to these Jews seems harsh and final, we know that he still loved them. And we know that he wasn’t shutting the door on ever talking to them again. Look at the next verse.

Acts 18:7-8 – 7 So he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, along with his whole household. Many of the Corinthians, when they heard, believed and were baptized.

There’s something comical about the fact that he set up shop next door. Probably offered a lot of friendly waves from the front porch. In fact, he did more than that, he continued sharing Jesus with any of those faithful Jews who came to hear. One of them was the guy in charge of the synagogue!

So far we’ve seen not only the power of God’s providence, we also can see just how usable our lives can be in His hands. Our words can be used. Our work can be used. Our financial contributions can be used. Our homes can be used. God can take any aspect of your life and apply it to His purpose and that is an exciting thought. And we also learn that opposition is no reason to quit. The Jews had responded to Paul with an organized resistance, he didn’t quit, he pivoted but continued the work. Though, it seems he was having a hard time with it all. Look at verse 9.

Acts 18:9-10 – 9 The Lord said to Paul in a night vision, “Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.”

Why Corinth and not Athens? Why Costa Mesa and not Santa Monica? Those are questions we can’t really answer. Instead of getting into arguments about election, we’d be better used if we assumed that God has “many people” in Hanford and go out and work the field. The truth is, He does have many people, all around us, currently trapped in sin and guilt and lies and we are sent to courageously be a part of the liberation effort.

On the devotional level, if you’re afraid tonight, facing some unknown or hard situation, take heart that even the Apostle Paul got afraid sometimes. But also take courage by holding fast to the Lord, who knows exactly how we feel and has a word for each of us, He has promises for us, He has provision for us from His limitless supplies of grace and strength. Be of good cheer.

Acts 18:11 – 11 He stayed there a year and a half, teaching the word of God among them.

Paul obeyed and stayed much longer there than he was usually able to. Of course we know that just because the Lord had “many people” in that city didn’t mean it would be easy. The work was hard but worthwhile.

Acts 18:12-13 – 12 While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack against Paul and brought him to the tribunal. 13 “This man,” they said, “is persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”

Now, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say “no one will lay a hand on you?” What gives? Did that promise expire after 18 months? Do you ever wonder if God’s promises really apply to you? Now, sometimes Christians take Biblical promises for themselves that don’t belong to them. Promises to Israel, for example. So, we want to be careful students of the Bible and be sure we understand what is and isn’t promised to us. But, when God has promised, it is sure and true. Thanks to Jesus, all God’s promises to us are Yes and Amen! Paul wouldn’t be hurt in this but that doesn’t mean there was no opposition. In this case, there was an official trial before a Roman official, Gallio.

Acts 18:14-17 – 14 As Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or of a serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you Jews. 15 But if these are questions about words, names, and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of such things.” 16 So he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal, but none of these things mattered to Gallio.

Some commend Gallio, saying he is a shining example of the separation of church and state. Others say he was being wonderfully impartial. It doesn’t seem like that’s the sense Luke is giving. Instead, we see a man who could care less. He doesn’t even bother to differentiate between Christianity and Judaism. He sees a man being violently assaulted in the courtroom and just lets it happen.

Historical records tell us that Gallio was not a well man. He was dying of consumption. What a sad, missed opportunity. God, in His mercy, allowed a situation in which this terminal non-believer would have the chance to hear from the great apostle, but none of these things mattered to Gallio. As one commentator put it: It matters to him now.

If Luke were here there are a bunch of questions I’d ask him about this particular episode of Paul’s life. But, here’s what we know from what we see: First, God is always busy accomplishing His purposes. Second, His promises will not fail. Third, His providence is on the move and we are invited to be a part of it. Fourth, because God is so powerful and so gracious, He can use anything that we’ve consecrated for that providence, whether it’s our tongue, our time, our money, our home, our sufferings, our triumphs, our friends, or our enemies. Fifth, no city is too far gone and no person is too far gone to be saved by the Gospel. Look at Sosthenes. He was not only the new leader of the synagogue after Crispus became a Christian, but he was probably the representative bringing the case against Paul. Their effort was a failure and he was immediately punished for it. It reminds us of how, under the Hussein regime, Olympic athletes were tortured and imprisoned when they would lose a match.

But here’s the good part: When Paul wrote his first letter to the Christian in Corinth, this is how it opens: “This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.”

We do have to speculate a bit, but it seems very probable that this is the same man. Look at what God can do. Even in a city like Corinth. Even when we’re low on supply. Even when we’re scared or discouraged or feeling alone. Even when the powers that be are against us. Even still, God is able.

Paul had a dream in which Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid but keep on speaking.” The promise was for Paul, specifically, but that charge to continue on can be ours as well as we live out this life for God’s purposes. Knowing He has much to do, many to save, and no end of options when it comes to using our lives as we submit to Him.

Head For The Hill (Acts 17:16-34)

The book of Acts is such an enthralling book. To see these astounding things happening, against all odds, with powers and empires trying to hold back God’s work, yet the Gospel keeps spreading and transforming lives. Saving people who seem unsavable. Reaching places that seem unreachable.

If you’re like me, it’s easy to start thinking of these stories as if they belong in a superhero comic or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. That they’re the fantastic exploits of larger-than-life champions, a sort of Christian mythology, far removed from the kind of spiritual life I should expect. It’s a mistake for us to think that way. When we look at these Christian examples found in the book we discover that they assumed others would also experience the filling of the Spirit, that they would be used, that God’s work would continue, not only through Apostles, but through ‘average’ Christians. Paul thought that of Timothy and Titus and, really, all the Christians he wrote epistles to. So did Peter, who wrote to all of us in his letters that he expected our faith to be strong and genuine, that we be ready for action and that the angels of heaven are eagerly watching God unfold His work through us, much in the same way we eagerly watch Him do so in the stories of Acts. It’s a mistake for us to separate out those ancient Christians from ourselves, as if we’re in a lower weight class.

But there’s also a tendency to treat the book of Acts like a recipe book. That if we simply copy the methods of the first century church, then that will “unlock” the dynamic power of God. First of all, we see that there were all sorts of different methods depending on what was going on. Second, these examples are not formulaic. They’re a historic testimony of an ongoing effort. Luke says in the very first verse that his books are a record of what Jesus began to do and to teach. For over 2,000 years Jesus has still been doing and teaching through His Body here on the earth, that’s you and me.

So, if Acts isn’t a comic book and if it isn’t a recipe book, what is it? Just a history book? We know it’s more than that. It may help to think of it as a book more in the warfare theory category. After all, the New Testament says that we are engaged in a spiritual war. Sent out with armor to demolish strongholds, to conquer, to rescue captives. Books about the practice of war will, naturally, have a historical bent, but will be more than that. They show us principles of battle science. They tell tales that not only stir our hearts but have real world application, that is, if you plan on going to war yourself. But, when learning from them, you wouldn’t say, “Ok, here’s what Napoleon did to defeat the armies of Austria, so I just need to copy him and I’ll win, no problem.”

What’s the point of all this? We’ve come to one of the more celebrated passages of Acts – Paul on Mars Hill – and I would submit to you that for us, this is one of the most relatable stories in the entire book. Of course, all of it has application and value. But for the relatively unpersecuted, 21st century Christian, we can see ourselves in this scene much more easily than locked in a 3rd world dungeon, or being beaten in the city square, or being brought before a Church council. In other parts of the world and in other times in history, those other scenes have been more comparable to what Christians regularly experience. But Paul, speaking to a diverse group of people, each with their own philosophy and perspective, that’s a lot like what we encounter. You may not find yourself in the Areopagus, but is the water cooler at work all that different? Maybe not.

So let’s take a look at this famous story and see what sort of principles we can gather about God’s heart, His work and how it might apply to us and through us.

We’re picking up in verse 16 in the city of Athens, where Paul had fled to escape danger in Berea.

Acts 17:16 – 16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols.

What was so different about this pagan city compared to every other pagan city he had visited? All these Gentile places were full of idolatry and heathen temples and all sorts of outright polytheism. So why did Paul have this sharp reaction? Well, first of all, Athens was well known for being incredibly idolatrous. Pausanias, who lived shortly after Paul’s time, is known for writing a book called Description of Greece. He said, “there were more images in Athens than in all Greece besides.”

We would also say that Paul was particularly moved by the Spirit in response to what he was seeing. He didn’t normally have a casual opinion of sin, but as he looked around and saw the saturation of idolatry, his heart was stirred. Perhaps it was even more stinging because Athens was supposed to be the center of study and learning. “A city…thought to be more enlightened than any other…[where] learning and arts were carried to greater perfection than anywhere else in the world.” And what did it produce? Lie after lie. Snare after snare. Spiritual ruin. No wonder it distressed a man who knew the Living Savior.

There’s a principle of application for us here. Paul was waiting and as he took a look around, he had a spiritual perspective and saw spiritual needs. We are waiting. Waiting for the Lord’s return. While you’re waiting, take a look around and get busy furthering God’s work.

Acts 17:17 – 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God, as well as in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

One spiritual truth that comes out of this situation is that everyone who isn’t born again needs salvation equally. The Jews needed it just as much as the idol worshipers. The Stoics just as much as the Epicureans. The idle troublemakers in the marketplace just as much as the shopkeeper. All are in need of God and all are loved by God.

A point of application here is: Paul wasn’t only distressed, he walked onto the field and got involved. There’s a lot out there to upset us, especially as God-loving, moral people. Let’s not just be upset, but to take our concern and put some legs on it and get to the Lord’s business however we can.

Acts 17:18 – 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also debated with him. Some said, “What is this ignorant show-off trying to say?” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities”—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

We don’t need to get too deep into what it meant to be a Stoic or an Epicurean. Suffice it to say, they were different philosophies about how a person should live. Some of these people believed that the gods were too far removed to have anything to do with humankind. Sort of agnostics. Others thought that the highest value of man was to live a good life and relate well to friends. Some were pantheists – thinking there is no actual, personal God. Others, I’m sure, didn’t care about religion as much as they just wanted to make a buck and mind their own business.

And this is the situation we find ourselves in today. There are a lot of people with a lot of different ideas. You come across them all the time at work or in school or in the donut shop. The internet has made junior philosophers of everybody. There are some people who fashion their lives after a Jordan Peterson video or do whatever Joe Rogan or Oprah Winfrey says. There are other people deep into Critical Race Theory. I’ve got a friend from college who has decided he doesn’t want to be a Christian anymore, he’s watched some stuff on YouTube and now he doesn’t think human beings have a free will. Not in a theological sense, in a philosophical sense.

So, on any given day, you and I might encounter a modern day “Epicurean” or “Stoic” or a scoffer or just people who don’t quite understand what you’re all about as a Christian. Paul examples to us here that, no matter who you’re talking about, the target goal is the same: Tell them the GOOD news about Jesus Christ. How He lived and died and rose again and what that means for each and every person on the earth.

We note that some called him an “ignorant show-off,” or a “babbler.” Your translation may even render it “seed picker.” Which shows that even though there wasn’t violent hostility in Athens, there was still hostility. And we should expect there to be levels of hostility to rear up when we live out or speak out our faith in Christ.

Acts 17:19-20 – 19 They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, “May we learn about this new teaching you are presenting? 20 Because what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these things mean.”

The Areopagus was a prestigious place, this was quite an opportunity, but the setting is somewhat casual. Paul’s not on trial. There’s no riot or commotion. There was a group of people interested in hearing him. In that sense, it’s like when your supervisor at work suddenly says, “You go to church, right?” That moment can feel intimidating, because in many cases such an opportunity is somewhat rare. Or maybe you’re at some training and they’re doing a Q&A time or want input and suddenly the focus is on you and you’ve got these professionals or experts and you get the chance to speak. Maybe you’re in a classroom setting or even just on the family text thread and that nonChristian sister-in-law with a Masters degree opens a door for you to say something about what you believe.

In that moment we want to react quickly, take the opportunity that is presented. We’ll see Paul doesn’t have much time, but he uses what time he has. And we want to realize that the things we say might sound new and strange to a lot of people. Our perspective on what matters in life, our perspective on suffering or generosity or truth and ethics, these are things that many people not only don’t understand but are confused by.

What we’ll find is that, in this moment, Paul is not going to present them a “teaching” as much as he is going to present to them a Person. And that is a very important principle when it comes to living as witnesses for the Lord. Christianity is not a system. It’s not a philosophy. It is a relationship with the Living God, our Creator, our Savior, who then does take our lives and give us a worldview and way of living, but it’s the Person we want to present, not a philosophy.

Acts 17:21 – 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new.

Luke gives us an editorial comment here, but it can encourage us. Some of the people around us are not on a genuine search for spiritual truth. The Philippian Jailer, that guy’s in crisis. He is genuinely looking for answers. Same with the Ethiopian Eunuch. These folks, some were probably earnest, but a lot were just going about their business without any real interest in Paul’s God. Even so, God’s word and the Holy Spirit are powerful enough to break into hearts and make a difference.

Acts 17:22 – 22 Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said, “People of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.

It’s not a good thing to be “religious in every respect.” Religion is a deadly thing. Look at what intense “religiosity” did in the Bible, whether it was the Athenian flavor or that of the Pharisees. We relate to God on the heart level, not the legal, ritualistic level.

Acts 17:23 – 23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

Now, remember, Athens was supposed to be this pinnacle of thought and learning and spirituality. But think for a moment about how silly this really is. In Greek mythology the gods would sometimes come down and mingle with the people. Imagine some god, the unknown god, showed up one day, and said, “I’m here. I’m powerful. I want to know if you worship me.” Their response was, “Oh yeah, we put a little shrine over there. That one can be yours.”

“Well, did you search for me or honor me or try to obey me?”

“Like I said, there’s a placeholder shrine over there…we’re hoping that would cover it…”

That’s the pinnacle of human philosophy. The best man can do is make gods for himself, fashioning them according to his own imagination and frailties and insufficiencies.

Luckily, we no longer need to live in ignorance, because the one true God has revealed Himself.

Acts 17:24-25 – 24 The God who made the world and everything in it—he is Lord of heaven and earth—does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives everyone life and breath and all things.

God is not only Maker, He is Master and He is the Maintainer of all things. Breathing hasn’t been quite so easy the last weeks with the fires, but let’s be reminded that every breath is literally a gift from God. He does so, not because He needs us but because He loves. He is a Giver and a Sustainer and, Christian, He will sustain you now and forevermore.

Acts 17:26-27 – 26 From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

There’s so much talk about ethnicity and race these days. We don’t want to be callous or without tact, but boiled all the way down, the Bible declares there is one race – the human race. Interestingly, the reason why mankind has split off into national groups is, according to Paul, so that God could work out His loving providence and draw all men to Himself. How can that be?

Well, we remember the first great division of people at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. There they were, working together to reject God, and God said, “For their own good we need to split them up, because if we let them continue on this path, they’re going to be lost.” So in love God confused our language. And here Paul reveals that God scatters people throughout the world and throughout the generations so that they will always be as close as possible to connecting with Him if they will turn in repentance and faith.

On a practical level, this means that God has scattered you into this time and this place for a particular, loving and spiritual reason. This is why we need to be very careful about tinkering with the movements of our lives. We don’t want to spend time in Philistine territory like David did. We want to be where God wants us to be because He wants us there on purpose.

We also learn here that any person, in any condition, can reach out for God and immediately lay hold of Him. There is no one too far gone. Whether you’re the prodigal in the pig pen or the king in the palace, God our Savior is immediately within reach and He is, in fact, reaching out to each of us.

Acts 17:28-29 – 28 For in him we live and move and have our being, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29 Since, then, we are God’s offspring, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.

When you think about nonChristian religious ideas which try to answer the questions of how we get to heaven or how to live a meaningful life, they’re pretty sad. About as sad as carving a little image and calling that a deity. People in our day-to-day lives will often say things like “I’m a good person.” Ok, but that’s not anything. That’s like saying, “I’d like to be awarded the Nobel peace prize, please.” “Ok, on what basis?” “Well, I didn’t commit genocide today.” That’s not how it works.

Now imagine a thrice Holy God who gave you life and breath and help and a way to be saved. And you stand before Him and say, “I wasn’t AS bad as I could’ve been.” “Ok. Well, did you love Me? Did you try to know Me? Did you listen when I spoke to you?” “No, I made you this carving.”

Paul highlights the fact that even unbelievers have an innate understanding that there is a God and that we owe our lives to Him. “Some of your own poets have said…” As Christians we need to preach and live out the truth that our lives are not our own. They belong to God. A gracious God, full of love and kindness. But our lives are His, for His glory, for His use.

Acts 17:30-31 – 30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has set a day when he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

No more excuses. If a person wants salvation, if they want a life of meaning, if they want to be saved from hell and be made right, they must turn toward God from whatever other idol they serve or philosophy they follow. It is commanded. And that is the first step for the unbeliever. Not some method or program or formula. Repent! And it’s urgent they do so, because each passing moment, each breath they take is one closer to that final judgment, where they will stand before a perfect God and have to answer this question: Are you righteous? There is none righteous, no not one. Only Jesus Christ passes inspection. And only those who are in His hand will escape judgment and the penalty for their sin. Christ is that Man appointed by God, He is the GodMan, who will judge the world in righteousness. And we know it’s true because He was raised from the dead.

Acts 17:32-34 – 32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him, but others said, “We’d like to hear from you again about this.” 33 So Paul left their presence. 34 However, some people joined him and believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

It would’ve been an intimidating crowd and a not-altogether friendly one, but Paul didn’t shy away from really delivering them the truth. They asked some questions, he directed them to Jesus and for their need to repent and be saved. Some people mocked him, some were shook but weren’t ready to decide, others were born again. And that’s going to be our experience as well. The encouragement is that, when we share the Gospel, the reaction is not our responsibility. There will be a whole range, like we’re seeing here. Our responsibility is the message, so let’s be sure to deliver it in full. That doesn’t mean we have to narrate the entire Bible, but we can give a presentation of the truth in telegram length, if necessary. God is real. You’re a sinner. God wants to save you. Jesus Christ is the only way. Repent and believe.

What Acts demonstrates is that, just as God has scattered people throughout the world on purpose, He has also put you in certain places on purpose so that you can further His work and testify on His behalf. We can do so with force and boldness, like Paul, but also with grace and tact, like Paul. He didn’t get into a shouting match with the scoffers. When it was time, he left peaceably.

As the chapter closes, Luke records 2 of the converts. I find this to be a very interesting post script to the scene. Dionysius was an “Areopagite,” meaning he was probably one of the judges in this prestigious institution. He would’ve been at least 60 years old, and he was named for a Greek god also known as Bacchus, as in the god of drunken revelry. Among other things, he was also the god of insanity and ritual madness. But, he was also a god who had, supposedly, died and risen again. So here we have this man, long steeped in paganism, an exemplar of Satan’s counterfeit and ruin of man. And even he could be reached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Tradition tells us that he would ultimately become the Bishop of Athens. What a great end after so many wasted years.

So, when you and I find ourselves in some intimidating conversation, take heart, take the opportunity and remember that we are part of the continuing work of God on the earth. And our God can overcome any lie of the Devil, our truth is enough to impact the smartest guy in the room, and no life is too far gone. Even old Areopagites might be brought from darkness to light and used by God.

We may not find ourselves in Philippian dungeons, but we probably will find ourselves on a Mars Hill or two at some point. Head for the hill and know that you are in good company and have a good God standing with you, filling your heart and using you for His glory.

Quiet Courage (Acts 17:1-15)

The last time we were in Acts, it had been quite a ride. Paul and Silas had faced down a demon, a riot and a brutal beating. But that was only the opening act. That night was the main event: their stay in the Philippian jail. Songs at midnight. Earthquake. Souls saved. Lives changed. And finally, Paul secures a thrilling victory, revealing their Roman citizenship, which left the fledgling church protected (at least for a time) from the meddling of unfriendly officials.

In modern times, this would have been a good opportunity for Paul to head home, secure a book deal and write a best-selling memoir. But, of course, that’s not what happens. For Paul, there were still other roads to take, other cities to visit, other crowds that needed the Gospel.

Already in his life as a missionary he’s been beaten severely, stoned to death, maligned and run out of various towns. And yet, on he goes, with his friends, convincing all kinds of people everywhere he goes to join him in this life of faith.

Tonight, with the drama of Philippi in his rearview, Paul continues on, knowing that he could expect the same violent opposition to be waiting for him in the next town, and then the next town and the town after that. But on they go, in quiet courage. Not parading themselves, not capitalizing on their exploits for personal gain, but driving deeper and deeper behind enemy lines in their mission to seek and to save those who were lost. As he goes, we see his companions also live out a strong but quiet courage, as do the new Christians that are made as they move through city after city.

We begin in verse 1 of chapter 17.

Acts 17:1-2 – After they passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As usual, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures,

Despite all that Paul suffered at the hands of his countrymen, he never lost hope that they might have their eyes opened. While the Gentiles didn’t treat him much better, when going to these Jewish communities he knew that there would be very strong reactions to his message. Some would believe and receive Christ, others would actively reject what he was saying and that rejection often included violent outbursts. But still, in place after place, he took courage and walked through the doors.

When I come here on Wednesday nights I don’t usually find myself thinking, “They might kill me for what I’m going to say today.” But Paul did. Each Sabbath was like being landed on the beach at Normandy.

In this case, the city was Thessalonica. His first letter to them would be the earliest of his epistles that we have preserved in the New Testament. Though his visit with them will be brief, the impact was great. In First Thessalonians, Paul describes the believers there as being full of work and faith, motivated by love, showing endurance and hope in spite of suffering. He says that the Gospel came to them in power, which suggests there were some remarkable things happening in those 3 weeks that he and the team were there.

One quick note about the team: We see that Dr. Luke no longer includes himself in the narrative, so it seems he stayed back in Philippi to continue the work there. He’ll join back up with the guys in chapter 20, but for now he is willing to man the fort as they press on.

Sometimes spiritual courage means doing something that isn’t your job. We can’t even imagine Luke saying, “I’m a doctor, not a babysitter!” Remember: We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. So, in a situation like that, we aren’t to think of ourselves as a “doctor” or whatever else. We’re to think of ourselves as “God’s man” or “God’s woman” in the situation and make ourselves available to whatever needs doing.

We notice, also, that Paul’s appeal was made from the Scriptures. He came with God’s eternal, revealed truth and appealed from it, not from trends or what would sound most pleasing.

Sometimes in discussions on evangelism or apologetics you might hear the question: “How do you prove the existence of God to an atheist not using the Bible?” Or, “how can I preach to a Mormon using their own books?” Those questions are understandable and aren’t necessarily wrong, however they move us down the line toward the idea that it’s intellect and reason that will convert a person. Intellect and reason are important and significant, but Paul would later explain (very clearly) that it is the Gospel that is the power of God that brings salvation. Not simply airtight arguments or human logic, but God’s revealed truth, contained in His word. And we need not be ashamed of it.

Of course, Paul met people where they were at. Mars Hill is a wonderful example of that. When the Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door, it will help to know a thing or two about how their translation works so that we can bridge to the unadulterated truth of Scripture. But, while we do want to meet people where they’re at, we want to be sure not to leave them there in their ignorance.

Now here was the main thrust of Paul’s message:

Acts 17:3 – 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead: “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.”

Very clear, very plain. Jesus is the Messiah. He said the name. In the pop culture of social media right now you’ll often see people talking about someone who has been killed and they’ll say, “Say his name,” or “Say her name.” Paul knew that it would be very controversial for him to speak this way to these devout Jews, but he was not willing to leave them with some ambiguous message, like: “Let go and let God.” Rather, he explained again and again, “Jesus is the Messiah.”

And, we’re told, he proved the necessity and reality of His sufferings and resurrection. What a comfort to know that what God has revealed is objective truth. The resurrection is one of the most provable events in human history. And the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was, indeed, the long-expected Jewish Messiah, is objectively provable. We can look into the infallible word of God and decode who that Anointed One was. We know when He would come. We know from where He would come. We know what His works would be. Christ Jesus was that One. He alone fits the list.

If you are someone who feels like you have a good handle on how to tell the story of Jesus but would like more help with the “proving” part, there are a number of helpful books that can get you started and show just how rock solid our faith is. Three books that will get you on your way are: Evidence That Demands A Verdict by Josh McDowell, The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel and God’s Not Dead by Rice Broocks. There are many more, but those are a good place to start.

Why was it ‘necessary’ for the Messiah to suffer and rise again? This idea of a slain Savior was really difficult for even thoughtful spiritual seekers to grasp. Think of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Couldn’t the Messiah come and fix everything by executive order, as it were? No, the Christ had to suffer and rise. It had to happen because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. And without the resurrection we are hopeless and of all people more pitiable. There are essentials in the Christian faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus are two of them.

Acts 17:4 – 4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, including a large number of God-fearing Greeks, as well as a number of the leading women.

Proof alone can not turn a human heart. There has to be a surrender in the will. Happily, in this case, many did surrender and acknowledge Christ as Savior and King.

Interestingly, in describing the conversions here, Luke says they “joined” Paul and Silas. There was an immediate coming together. The founding of a community. They were knit together into a local church body, all united, despite their differences in class or status or nationality.

Acts 17:5-8 – 5 But the Jews became jealous, and they brought together some wicked men from the marketplace, formed a mob, and started a riot in the city. Attacking Jason’s house, they searched for them to bring them out to the public assembly. 6 When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city officials, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too, 7 and Jason has welcomed them. They are all acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king—Jesus.” 8 The crowd and city officials who heard these things were upset.

There was a time when a riot like this seemed like a strange and antiquated thing. Not so much anymore. Of course, this is still what many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world deal with on a regular basis.

Paul and Silas were the targets here, but if they couldn’t be found, any Christian would do. Jason, for his part, wasn’t some sort of powerful, influential person, he wasn’t an apostle. But he was a Christian and that was enough. Sometimes in life we’re presented with out of the blue difficulty, whether it’s in the form of persecution or other suffering. We can take courage and know that God has not left us, even when something as unpredictable as this happens.

There in verse 6 they utter the incredible line: “These men…have turned the world upside down.” What a great thing to have said. Ironically, if these Christians were so dynamic and powerful, you’d think the people of the mob would be slow to move against them and quick to hear what they have to say. But these are people held captive by the Devil to do his will.

I also love the fact that Jason and these other fellows were included in this accusation. They hadn’t done anything but join the family and shown some hospitality. But the angry mob said, “They’re part of the whole thing!” And that’s true. Your small actions, done unto the Lord, have eternal weight.

As for the “turning the world upside down,” that’s a good reminder of what the goal of Christian ministry is. Our goal is not to make sinners more comfortable on their way to hell, but to rescue them. They are in the depths of their guilt, swimming ever deeper into the abyss. And then God sends us to grab them and help them understand that there is life above in the other direction.

As for the charge that they were acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees, well, that was mostly untrue. It had only been a couple of weeks. They didn’t have time to refuse to pay their taxes. They were great citizens. Ones who weren’t taking advantage of people or cheating the system (or starting riots). It is true that they now bowed the knee to a greater King: King Jesus. In the land of liberty it’s always good to be reminded that we serve a King. We belong to Him and it is our duty to carry out His will.

Acts 17:9 – 9 After taking a security bond from Jason and the others, they released them.

Jason and the brothers are silent in this story. They demonstrate a quiet courage to endure faithfully, even in the face of injustice and unfairness. They paid the fine. In this case, they wouldn’t have to pay in blood, but in silver. But there was still a price to pay and they were willing to pay it.

You know, so far in American history, it has been very inexpensive for people to be Christians. That may be changing. For some churches, as fines are coming down, things are starting to become more costly. We can trust that the Lord will guide us and, however He guides us, we also can walk in quiet courage like these infant believers in Thessalonica. It is courage to live a life forfeited to God.

Acts 17:10a – 10 As soon as it was night, the brothers and sisters sent Paul and Silas away to Berea.

It would be about 50 miles to Berea. Not exactly a safe trip, but courage again from Paul and Silas. It seems that, as Luke had been left in Philippi, Timothy was left in Thessalonica. That would’ve taken some courage. This young man, left to tend a brand new church that was being actively persecuted.

Acts 17:10b – Upon arrival, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.

“Hey, maybe let’s try a local park or something this time? Things seem to go poorly when we do these synagogue outreaches.” It’s true, Paul’s method met a lot of resistance, and it’s easy to focus on the opposition, but we also see that every time he did this a lot of people gave their lives to Christ. Look at verse 11:

Acts 17:11-12 – 11 The people here were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, since they received the word with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Consequently, many of them believed, including a number of the prominent Greek women as well as men.

Now, do we need to ‘cancel’ Luke for being racist here? What’s this nobility talk? Like a lot of Bible words, the term is a wide one, but most resources agree the sense of the word is “generous.” The people of Berea had a greater generosity of heart and mind than their neighbors 50 miles away.

The truth is, we know that different cities and regions have a vibe. For example, it doesn’t matter where you go, everyone is friendlier than Californians. Economists and sociologists study this stuff all the time. Barna is a group that studies things like this. In 2016 they listed El Paso, Texas and Las Cruces, New Mexico as the most generous cities in America. In the top 50 there was only 1 entry for all of California. The city? ‘Fresno-Visalia,’ ranking at #29.

Barna also researched the most “Bible-minded” cities in the US. Fresno-Visalia came in at #71 on that list. There’s only 1 California city higher than that: San Diego at #70.

In verse 12 it says “consequently” or your version might say “therefore” or “as a result.” The consequence of a person examining the Scriptures should be life change. That’s not only for people who get saved, but for you and me as well. As believers, we are to continue in an ongoing study of the Bible, allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us in all truth. Ours lives should be continually changed by the power of God’s word. And when we minister to others, we should always appeal to Scripture because it is powerful and life changing.

Acts 17:13 – 13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.

As God sends out His workers into the field, so the Devil sends his out to sow tares and ruin young crops. There is a Satanic agenda that is anti-God, anti-Israel and anti-Church that permeates this world. And though we cannot always predict when he will launch an attack, we can expect him to stand in opposition and to marshal his forces to fight against God’s work and God’s people.

Acts 17:14-15 – 14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

Again, we see a determined, quiet courage defining these Christians. You see it in Silas and Timothy, willing to stay behind while being spiritually shelled by the enemy. We see it in those brand new believers who were willing to escort Paul to Athens, standing with him in spite of the danger.

Why leave Silas and Timothy only to have them come and join him a few days later? We can’t be sure. Perhaps the situation was so serious they had to get Paul out as quickly as possible and didn’t have time to prepare properly. I also think it’s because Paul and the guys knew that, for these brand new churches, even a few more days of instruction and ministry would make a big, big difference. When you’re an infant believer, out in pagan Greece, 6 days with an apostle is much better than 3 days with one. They needed every precious ounce of spiritual guidance. Of course, even when the team left, these Greek Christians were never alone. They had each other. They had the Spirit and they had the filling of God’s courage and the demonstration of how to use it as they began their own walks with the Lord.

Tonight each of us should take courage, keep it up, and move forward in the power of God. Relying on His word to continue the life changing work in our own hearts and in the lives of the people we’re trying to rescue. As we live out our days, we should do so with quiet resolve, generosity and thoughtfulness, being willing to do whatever needs doing, expecting opposition but remembering that our King is on our side and He is leading the way, lighting our path, equipping us as we go through the world proclaiming the good news of our Messiah.

I Don’t Go Walkin’ After Midnight (Acts 16:25-40)

As of last Thursday, California prison officials said that “as many as 17,600 California inmates may be released early due to the coronavirus, 70% more than previously estimated.” We’re not the only ones. Indonesia has released 12% of their prison population, which would be like us turning out about 300,000 inmates here in the States. Some shocking things have happened as a result of this trend. While such decisions have angered some, others feel it’s not nearly enough. Human Rights Watch recently wrote that “prisoner releases have been too few and too slow.” Their perspective is that there are many people in prisons worldwide who have been wrongfully accused, held without trial or are subject to inhumane conditions like overcrowding. To be sure, the issue is complicated. There are a lot of people being held in prisons who shouldn’t be there. And there are a lot of people there because of what they’ve done.

Now take a moment and imagine yourself in one of those jails. You can pick Pelican Bay if you’d like or Lurigancho in Lima, Peru. Imagine you’re there and let’s say you’re guilty of a terrible crime. But then, one evening, the guards come and say, “They’re letting you out. COVID.” And you reply, “That’s Ok. I’ll stay here.” Or, imagine you’ve been framed for a crime you didn’t commit and now you’ve got a free ticket out. “I think I’ll just hang out, if you don’t mind.” And not only you say that, but everyone in the prison says it. I think we’d need to test the tap water!

We’ve got a scene like that before us, tonight. In a dreadful, first century jail, we find Paul and Silas crumpled in stocks, their backs still bleeding from the ruthless scourging they’d endured. Through an amazing series of events, they and all the other prisoners are busted out of their cells. And yet, they all stay right where they were. After that, Paul and Silas will be brought out of their dungeon, into a home to have a meal and some medical care. Then, of their own free will, they go back to their cell. And then, having received an official notice of release, they for the 3rd time say, “We’ll stay, for now.”

This isn’t the only strange thing that happens in this text. In fact, the more we look, the more it seems like some sort of Bizarro World, where earthquakes assist rather than destroy, jailers ask prisoners for life advice and city magistrates are at the mercy of people who had been their helpless victims just a few hours before.

They say “you can’t fight city hall.” In this case, the believers didn’t, but God did. When God fights, at least in this dispensation, He doesn’t do so with a “take no prisoners” mentality. No, He is more than happy to rescue His enemies, give them quarter and even add them to His ranks and family.

We put in at verse 25.

Acts 16:25 – 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

In our last study we talked about just how brutally these men had been treated. Their personal physician had diagnosed it as ‘severe.’ Their wounds had not been tended or cleaned, meaning they were still open and bleeding while they were fastened into agonizing stocks and left to their physical misery in the inner prison.

But, here they are, in one of the most famous and picturesque scenes in all the New Testament, singing songs in the night. That’s a special promise God has given to His people, by the way. In Job, we’re told that God gives His people songs in the night. In oppression, in suffering, in hardship or strain, God has a song for you. A melody to bring you hope and peace.

Why midnight? Well, I like to think that God was making a point. You see, the Devil had mounted an offensive at the hour of prayer, sending his agent to infiltrate the meeting of the believers. It had led to this prison scene and I’m sure Satan was quite proud of himself. There they were, in his world. The dark of night. The hopeless pit. But God answered back. He went into the dark of night, into the dark of that prison and would everything right. It may be midnight, but that only meant a new day had arrived. And what the Devil, I’m sure, had counted as a win was about to become an astonishing harvest for the Kingdom of Light.

We’re told that the prisoners were “listening” to them. The term used is for real attention. They didn’t just hear the tones, they listened intently to what was being said, what was being prayed.

What were they singing and praying about? We’re only left to speculate. But it’s not a stretch to assume that, first of all, word had spread about why these guys were here and what had happened. And, it’s not a stretch to think that Paul and Silas were praying for that young girl who had been set free from a demon. Praying for the wicked men who had enslaved her. Praying for the group of Christians there in the city. Praying for their own deliverance. I’m sure they were singing great things about a man named Jesus, who lived and died and rose again. How He is a God who never leaves us or forsakes us. There was a lot to listen to, on that unusual night.

Acts 16:26 – 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the jail were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains came loose.

This was quite a quake, not like the little ones we get here that swirl the pool a little. From top to bottom, this prison was shaken. But we see that it was a magnificent miracle, a precision airstrike from heaven, accomplishing very specific goals: Open the doors, loose the chains. Strong enough to have its effect even in the inner dungeon, but, at the same time, the walls stayed up. No casualties. This building wasn’t made of reinforced concrete. It wasn’t on rollers like modern skyscrapers in San Francisco. This earthquake was only beneficial, at least as far as the prisoners were concerned.

Sadly, there are some Christian commentators who are quick to say this wasn’t a miracle, just a coincidence. That security was so primitive, of course the doors came open. They say that the other inmates stayed in their cells, not because of the work of God in their hearts, but because they were too afraid to run or that they didn’t realize their shackles were off.

Why not marvel at the power of God? Why not see He was working out yet another grand purpose of deliverance and grace? Who ever heard of an earthquake like this?

Acts 16:27 – 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open, he drew his sword and was going to kill himself, since he thought the prisoners had escaped.

In that era, a jailer who allowed a prisoner to escape would have to take his place. We have no idea how many people were in the prison that night, but one thing is clear: He’s done. He woke up to a terrible reality. He was in a completely hopeless and desperate position, and he knew it. The natural solution was for him to end his own life. That would be preferable to what the government would do for him. And, the Greek and Roman cultures were much more amenable to suicide.

Sadly, suicide is become more commonplace in our own culture. It’s the 10th leading cause of death, according to the CDC, rising over 35% in the last 20 years. But that was before COVID. In the wake of all that’s happened, many health officials are concerned of a skyrocket in numbers.

Before we move on, let me say, first, that if someone you know and love ended their own life, that is not the unpardonable sin, as is sometimes depicted in pop culture. Don’t lose hope over that. And, second, if you, for whatever reason, find yourself considering suicide, we plead with you to refuse that impulse and reach out for help. No matter what’s going on in your life, what you’ve done, what you’re facing, God already knows and He loves you and He has sent help. We, the Christians around you, are part of that help. And just as we’ll see Paul intervene to save this jailer’s life, we want to intervene for anyone listening who might feel they can’t go on. Your situation may look desperate and hopeless, but this story proves that, in Christ, there is a new day, full of life and help and hope.

Let’s see what Paul did in verse 28.

Acts 16:28 – 28 But Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, because we’re all here!”

Paul must have received what is called a word of knowledge here. God not only revealed to him what the jailer was about to do, but also why he was about to do it and that all the other cells were still occupied.

“We’re all here.” What must have been in those songs they were singing? Surely, there were men in that prison who were facing execution, starvation, disease, torture. But there they stayed. This simple fact reminds us of a great many truths when it comes to Christianity. First: God can bring transformation to the hardest of hearts before tonight is even over. Second: even the simplest presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is enough to change a person if they will, by faith, believe. Third: praying and singing matters. They’re not just time fillers. They are powerful activities. When we pray together, when we sing together, these are mighty actions. So, let’s make it a point to fill our singing with great songs. Let’s deepen our prayer lives to not be rote or repetitive, but rich and full.

Which songs people enjoy are obviously subjective on some level, but as a church and as singing Christians, we want to be singing the kinds of songs that keep men in their cells. Songs that speak the truth about Christ and His cross. About His rule over our lives. About our bankruptcy but His generosity. That He is Lord of all. We don’t want to just sing songs that make us feel fuzzy, but songs that proclaim the greatness of our God and tell the story of what He’s doing in this world.

Now, it’s interesting, this isn’t the first jailbreak we’ve seen in Acts. In chapter 12, Peter had been hurried out, very hush hush. But here, Paul and Silas are just waiting around. Didn’t God want them to go? Apparently not. What’s the difference? Well, we know it’s because God was accomplishing a bunch of things on their way out. But for the guys themselves the difference is simply the leading of the Holy Spirit. He told them to hold and they were in tune with Him and were willing to obey.

Acts 16:29-30 – 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

We see that the jailer felt no relief that the prison was still full. No, he was terrified. He realized he needed to be rescued. He knows something very great was going on. That’s why he called them “Sirs.” It’s a term that you use for a person of supreme authority. He realized, “These guys are the ones in charge here, or at least they know the Person in charge.”

We talk about collateral damage when a mission is being accomplished. God turns it upside down. In this jailbreak there’s a bunch of collateral deliverance. Prisoners transformed. A jailer’s life saved. His family saved. What a gracious God we serve!

Acts 16:31 – 31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

That’s it. That’s the deal. Could it really be that simple? It was and it is. Sometimes it’s hard for us to not get in the way. Especially if we’re having a spiritual conversation with someone we really know and when we know what’s going on in their lives. We know about those things that are trapping them or ruining them. We know old arguments they’ve brought up. And, when they ask us, we might think, “Now’s my chance to tell them all the things they need to do make their life better or holier or whatever.” But, if we’re talking about salvation, let’s not stand in the way. It’s the power of God in a regenerated heart that accomplishes good anyway. Paul didn’t need to say, “Well, listen, you need to be less mean to your prisoners. And you’re going to probably want to make some changes. Christians take Sunday nights off.” There was an immense amount of work to be done in this man’s heart and life, but it’s God who does the work. So, what must you do to be saved? Believe. And if anyone else does the same, they’ll be saved, too.

Acts 16:32 – 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house.

There’s always more for us to learn. But, the primary message of the Gospel can be said in just a few, short words. And God’s word is for everyone, everywhere and is sufficient to rescue in any situation. It is the message of God making peace with his enemies, who are totally underserving of help or forgiveness. And yet, He has made a way. That’s a message worth getting your family out of bed for, which is what this guy did that night.

Acts 16:33 – 33 He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized.

So, here we see God is already doing a dramatic work in this man’s heart and it is changing his behavior. This same man, a few hours ago, mercilessly refused to clean their open wounds or let their doctor friend tend to them. And now, the Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he should be the one to make that right. We never need to worry about whether God is able to lead people to make changes in their lives. Of course He is. And when we try to force the changes from outside, well, then it is more of a costume than a piece of fruit growing on a branch.

I love how we see here he served them, then they served him. He washed them, they baptized him and his family. There’s an instant affection, an instant fraternity, an instant cooperation. No leftover resentment or bitterness or grudges. Just tender-kindness and selflessness, on both sides.

The truth is, the jailer’s refusal to get them medical care the night before probably changed Paul and Silas’ lives. I was doing some research on what happens when you leave wounds open for 6, 12, 18 hours. These are serious lacerations. His callousness was going to result in scars they’d carry forever. Maybe dangerous infection. But, the Apostles made no demands. They were still in pain. Still without food and rest. Yet, they put this man and his family first.

Acts 16:34 – 34 He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had come to believe in God with his entire household.

Pretty unusual meal, I’m sure Paul explained his own story of coming to Christ. They would’ve had to quickly tell the story of Jesus. Who was He? Where did He come from? Why did He come? All while wolfing some food, there in the dim light of daybreak.

We see the jailer’s rejoicing, how his heart had been filled with compassion and rightness. What a good thing that Philippi now had a Christian jailer, right? What an amazing post. Still today, prisons are hard places, filled with hard people, but they are a field ripe for harvest. Thank God He sends faithful servants into those prisons to be light there.

Acts 16:35 – 35 When daylight came, the chief magistrates sent the police to say, “Release those men.”

We aren’t sure whether they knew about the earthquake or anything that had happened that night. They seem pretty casual to me. Once the rage of the riot had worn off, their case against the missionaries looked pretty thin. So, they send the ‘rod-bearers,’ the very men who had savaged them the day before, to kick them down the road.

Acts 16:36 – 36 The jailer reported these words to Paul: “The magistrates have sent orders for you to be released. So come out now and go in peace.”

So, first of all, it seems like Paul and Silas went back to the prison. It’s possible they were staying in the house, but I’m guessing they would’ve gone back, in order to not cause deadly trouble for the jailer. Back with the rats. Back with the pools of blood they had let out the night before.

For his part, the jailer is excited. God had delivered His servants and they were free to go!

Acts 16:37 – 37 But Paul said to them, “They beat us in public without a trial, although we are Roman citizens, and threw us in jail. And now are they going to send us away secretly? Certainly not! On the contrary, let them come themselves and escort us out.”

This is like a classic Shyamalan moment. No one saw this coming. Remember how they had talked about “these Jews that are here.” How the people of Philippi acted like they were so concerned about the customs and laws of Rome. But, it’s bizarro world. Claiming they cared about the customs and laws of Rome, they broke a bunch of them. And these hated “Jews” were actually Romans.

Paul’s not being vindictive or spiteful. If all of this was just swept under the rug, there would’ve been many difficulties for the young Christians in the city. Plus, Paul was never one to miss an opportunity to confront people with their need for rescue. I think he’s taking such an opportunity here.

Acts 16:38-39 – 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. 39 So they came to appease them, and escorting them from prison, they urged them to leave town.

It’s interesting to contrast these officials with the jailer. They each had their own hopelessness revealed to them. They each were guilty of a serious offense. One fell on his knees and surrendered at the cross. The others said, “Get out of here as fast as you can.” It’s the same that happened to Jesus. It’s the same that will happen to us as we spread the Gospel. Some will be like the jailer, who begged for rescue. Others will be like these magistrates, who begged them to get lost.

Acts 16:40 – 40 After leaving the jail, they came to Lydia’s house, where they saw and encouraged the brothers and sisters, and departed.

Paul and company would go on their own schedule, thank you very much. What a story they had for their friends and the new church there in Greece. On their way out, their purpose was ministry. They didn’t try to get these guys fired or arrested. They didn’t call down hell on them. Instead, they brought joy and encouragement. Told Lydia they’d have a new family at church this week: The jailer’s. And then others after that, and others after that as God continued His glorious rescue.

He’s still doing it today. Not in half measures or fuzzy math, but with real transformative power. Don’t settle for less. Don’t stand in the way. Go with God and be a part of His magnificent doings.

Opportunity Comes Flogging (Acts 16:16-24)

Richard Branson is known for bold new ventures and snatching success from the jaws of ruin. He credits some of his achievements with his willingness to not avoid risk, but instead to say “yes” to opportunities when they come along. He once wrote: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!”

Paul and his partners were the kinds of people who were willing to face risk for the opportunity to glorify God and advance the Gospel. And, because they made decisions according to the leading of the Holy Spirit, they were able to find remarkable opportunities wherever they were. They could be in Asia or Europe or the Holy Land, they could be among many or few, in the courts of the governor or down by the river bank. No matter the circumstances, they said “yes” to God, sometimes having to figure things out as they went.

But this is one of the most wonderful parts of the book of Acts. It should make us smile to see that there is no necessary ingredient, no essential prerequisite, for ministry to happen. You’re alone on a desert road? Sounds like a great start to revival in Ethiopia. You’re stuck in a dungeon, tied to the ground? Sounds like the perfect way to inspire countless millions throughout human history.

At the same time, the Devil keeps himself involved. He was just as much an adversary to Paul as he had been from the beginning with Adam and Eve. And he’s just as much our adversary today. He works many schemes to bring opposition to our lives and the work of Christ. But, one of the great comforts shown in Acts is that what the Devil intends for opposition, God can use as opportunity.

We see that power on display as we begin a very significant story, which I already alluded to. This story will culminate in a magnificent act of God, an astonishing statement from an unbelieving jailer, and a fantastic turning of the tables. Most of us are familiar with the last half of the chapter. But to get there, well, that’s a different story. Not so magnificent. In fact, it’s sad and sorry. A tale of human trafficking, injustice, prejudice and real hardship for God’s faithful servants.

But, once again, we’ll see that no matter the situation or circumstances, you and I as Christians can be used by God and further His work, even just one life at a time.

As we begin, our brothers find themselves in the Roman colony of Philippi, which is in modern day Greece, and have been preaching the Good News of salvation to the people there.

Acts 16:16 – 16 Once, as we were on our way to prayer, a slave girl met us who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She made a large profit for her owners by fortune-telling.

I’m comforted by the setup here. Because, as I said, most of us are familiar with what’s about to unfold, both immediately and in the long night ahead. But, for all their spirituality, Paul and company still couldn’t predict what was about to happen. They walked by faith just like we’re called to walk by faith. And we see it here: They thought they were headed to prayer. In reality, they were headed to a problem. But, as usual, when they were presented with opposition or a change of plans, they weren’t derailed by it. They were able to adapt and respond in a flexible way. That’s part and parcel with the Christian life. Some efforts require flexibility. There are no gymnasts who aren’t flexible, right?

In spiritual matters, we cannot predict what the day holds. Whether it’s prayer or problem, harvest or hostility. We can be confident that there will be temptation and opposition and resistance of some form or another, but we don’t need to be feared by that or paralyzed by it. Because our God is greater than all of those things and He can turn all of those things into opportunities to accomplish eternal good.

But, the reality is, sometimes things don’t go as planned. That’s ok. Keep moving, keep trusting the Lord.

Let’s take a look at this girl. In Luke’s description of her, it’s obvious to everyone around her that she was possessed by some other worldly spirit. We know it was a demon. The pagans around her thought it was the “python” spirit. That has to do with their worship of Apollo and some of his mythology.

Since she was such a lucrative business for her masters, it seems that she was actually successful (at least sometimes) in telling the future. What are we to make of that? In the Bible we see that demonic spirits have pretty significant power, some which fall outside of our limited boundaries of space and time. For example: The demons in the Gospels could take one look at Jesus, who was by all accounts just another guy in the crowd, and they immediately knew He was the Holy One of God. They knew who He was, they knew what He was about. The Bible teaches that Satan and his demons can influence the minds of human beings. Of course, they are not all-powerful or omni-presence or all-knowing. Only God is. But, it seems that, either through limited revelation or by super-intelligence, this demon was able to at least somewhat accurately tell fortunes. So, while we don’t live in a particularly occult culture, demon possession still happens and it’s not all fake.

Setting aside from the supernatural aspect, this poor girl is a good picture of the enslavement of sin. People don’t realize that sin is a destructive tyrant. That it consumes and makes sport of people trapped under its power. Look at this girl: On the one hand, she seems to have fantastic ability. Bankable skills. “Hey honey, let’s go get some life advice from that one girl.” “Which one?” “You know, the one enslaved to those guys downtown.” If she could tell the future, why can’t she escape and become her own boss?

From the Christian perspective, we want to remember how desperately trapped people are. Sin does to unbelievers what we see happening to this girl. Maybe not outright demon possession, but they’re still captive. Still being slowly exploited to death with no hope unless someone rescues them. We want to be a part of liberating people like this.

Acts 16:17-18a – 17 As she followed Paul and us she cried out, “These men, who are proclaiming to you a way of salvation, are the servants of the Most High God.” 18 She did this for many days.

When you can’t beat them, join them! Whether it was in the synagogues in the Gospels or here at the prayer meeting, we learn that Satan has no problem going to church. He’s got a lot of strategies and is willing to do whatever he can to tear down the Lord’s work.

Now, back with Paul and company. Not only do you not want to be endorsed by demons, imagine the impact this situation might have on the new converts there in Philippi. “Wait a minute…I thought you’ve been telling us how we need to turn from paganism and live a different life? But if there’s no disagreement from python girl here, maybe we don’t need to be so un-pagan after all.” Or some might think, “Oh, ok. You’ve been talking to us about the filling of the Holy Spirit. Is that the same as how the python spirit takes hold of this girl and makes her say and do weird things? Is that the filling I should be expecting?” Lot of problems here.

We note that this kept happening, day after day. Which means that Paul and the guys were showing a great deal of patience and grace. Based on what we know of these python priestesses in that area, she was probably doing weird and wild things. But, they were long-suffering, like their Lord, they didn’t throw her out or fight her off. Why didn’t they just exorcise her on the first day?

This is one of the many passages which expose the fact that Godly miracles or miraculous gifts are not powers that Christians can wield at will. It’s not like Superman’s laser vision. Miracles were and are special outpourings that happen according to God’s will and timing and purpose, not ours. This is a big problem when you look at modern “faith-healers.” I was on the website for a prominent faith healer the other day. All his events have been cancelled due to COVID…but you can go back and look at his previous schedule. And there, throughout 2019, you could see how on this date he was going to be in a certain city for a “healing service.” And then, a few weeks later he was going to be in another city for a “miracles service.” But that’s not how it works in the New Testament. If anything that individual is behaving more like the girl and her wicked masters than the apostles.

Acts 16:18b – Paul was greatly annoyed. Turning to the spirit, he said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out right away. 

She kept disrupting and distracting and causing a scene. One source gives it this way: Paul was “thoroughly worn out with annoyance.” And so, under God’s leading and power, he casts the demon out.

This is an example to us of a few principles. First, we see here an example of “be angry and do not sin.” Paul was upset, rightly upset, but his response wasn’t ungodly. He didn’t sin. He would later be the one to say “Be angry and do not sin” to the Ephesians, so it’s good to see him living it out here.

But a second principle we can take to heart is this: While grace is the way, the direction we’re pointed in, the method we use, the lifeblood of ministry, that doesn’t mean that we always show grace at the expense of everything and everyone else. There came a point where enough grace had been poured out in this situation and it was time for the disruption to stop. In this case, putting a stop to the disruption meant exorcising a demon. And it was very simple and matter of fact. No holy water. No crucifix. Just faith and truth and the authority of Jesus Christ.

But, as we live out the Christian life and live out our callings there are times when grace needs to give way for the sake of others. Two practical examples: First, in parenting. If you’re a Christian parent, you’re called to train up your kids and love them and teach them about the Lord and to do so with the kind of grace that God shows us. Lots and lots of grace. But, at some point, a tantrum has to be dealt with.

Or, let’s think about it on the church level. In the church, we believe in the importance of the reading and preaching of God’s word. If there’s someone causing a disturbance, whether innocently or not, on and on, over and over, we’re to show grace and long-suffering, but at some point that needs to end so as not to damage the rest of the people in attendance.

Acts 16:19 – 19 When her owners realized that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.

We think of demon possession as particularly dark and evil and horrifying, and it is, no doubt about that, but think of how wicked these men were. They had enslaved some poor girl, subjected her to torments unspeakable, exploited her suffering for their own personal gain and now, seeing that she was free of that hell on earth, their instant desire is violent revenge.

Sin is a vile poison that turns men into monsters. We need to recognize that and be wary of it and call sin what it is.

There are some pursuits in this life that enrich people through the exploitation of others. For example, you’ll hear it said that pornography has no victims. That’s absolutely not true. It has many victims, the viewer included, but as an industry it is built off of exploitation. We don’t want to have anything to do with an industry like that.

At the same time, there are other industries that are in a grey area when it comes to exploitation. There are hard issues when it comes to things like sweatshops or child labor, those sorts of things. As Christians, we should seek the Lord and be tender to His leading and ask Him to show us what our liberties are and what they aren’t. We want to make sure our hearts aren’t becoming anything like these men in verse 19. We don’t want to have any similarity to them.

Why weren’t Luke and Timothy dragged through the streets as well? We have no idea.

Acts 16:20-21 – 20 Bringing them before the chief magistrates, they said, “These men are seriously disturbing our city. They are Jews 21 and are promoting customs that are not legal for us as Romans to adopt or practice.”

We know this was really about money, but these guys couldn’t claim that. The magistrates would’ve had to have said, “Well, get a new enslaved python girl.” So they start with a lie: “The city is seriously disturbed! There’s an uproar!” That wasn’t true. But what about their second charge, that the Christians were promoting illegal customs?

Well, in Rome, it was illegal to introduce new gods or religions. One reference states: “The Romans would indeed allow foreigners to worship their own god, but not unless it were done secretly, so that the worship of foreign gods would not interfere with the allowed worship of the Romans.”

But, naturally, this was not a rule that the Christians had any interest in following. They weren’t revolutionaries in the political sense, but their affiliation to Christ and His law superseded all others. That needs to be true of us. God certainly does not call us to overthrow our governments, but if you’re a Christian, then you have a King. His name is Jesus. After Him there are leaders and rulers, established by God, that have certain amounts of authority in this world. As a Christian, God’s word is your law. After that, there are laws of the land. If they conflict with God’s law, they are not to be followed. As a Christian, your life is pledged to Jesus and His will. After that you may be affiliated in citizenship or fraternity in some group here on the earth. But our relation to our Savior King is first, foremost and final when it comes to our rule of life.

That doesn’t mean we are supposed to renounce our American citizenship. Paul didn’t renounce his Roman citizenship. He used it in some cases. But Paul never walked around thinking, “I’m a Roman.” He thought, “I’m a servant of Jesus Christ.” And so, yes, they were promoting customs that were unlawful. Unlawful for Romans, but not for Christians.

God has given us truths and laws and customs and a way of life. These are not only to be lived privately, but shared and preached publicly. And if the world around us rises in opposition, we need not fear because God is with us and He has overcome the world.

These human traffickers close with the epithet: “They are Jews.” There has been anti-semitism as long as there have been descendants of Abraham. In context, we know that Emperor Claudius had issued a decree to throw all the Jews out of Rome. So, there was a high tide of prejudice throughout the empire.

One more note before we move on: We see a lot of shouting from these guys, from the demon possessed girl. Let’s not be people who are angrily shouting at others, either literally or digitally. The Christian is meant to be a peacemaker. Meek, kind, generous, patient, slow to anger.

Acts 16:22 – 22 The crowd joined in the attack against them, and the chief magistrates stripped off their clothes and ordered them to be beaten with rods.

This was a horrible and humiliating thing. Stripped naked, these two men were beaten without mercy. Rome had no boundary like the Jews had. They wouldn’t flog you more than 39 times. The Romans would. Paul, it seems, felt that (of his many sufferings) this was one of the particularly bad ones. Describing it later on in his letter to the Thessalonians, he said it was shameful and outrageous.

Again, let’s imagine what a new convert to the faith might have thought. “Wait…this is what Jesus allows to happen to apostles?” But we know these people were rooted and grounded in real truth and therefore suffering like this would neither surprise them nor drive them from the faith. We want to have our faith rooted in the truth of God’s revelation. Not in styles or personalities or trends. Truth. That’s what leads to a robust, storm-ready faith.

When we see Christians and Churches losing court cases in the era of COVID, as we have been recently, we can think back to this scene and remember that injustice is nothing new. And our hope has never been in the courts anyway.

Acts 16:23-24 – 23 After they had severely flogged them, they threw them in jail, ordering the jailer to guard them carefully. 24 Receiving such an order, he put them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks.

Dr. Luke saw what they suffered and said, “This was severe. They’re in bad shape.” And, indeed they were. When believers around us are suffering, resist the urge to dismiss it or make light of it. A lot of suffering is incredibly severe. Weep with those who weep.

Luke and Timothy weren’t allowed to help out. They weren’t even allowed to wash their wounds. Instead, Paul and Silas were swiftly dragged into a dungeon. There’s a similar prison that can be seen in Rome. It’s described this way: “[The cell is] damp and cold, from which the light was excluded, and where the chains rusted on the prisoners.”

The Devil, from his vile throne, was probably pretty pleased with himself. His plan to infiltrate hadn’t quite worked, but though he lost possession of one pawn, it seems he had taken out a few knights. No more teaching or preaching for them. Not even anymore standing and walking. They’re stuck in the dark.

Of course, we know that his opposition was going to be shaped into one of history’s greatest opportunities for the light of the Gospel to shine in and change the world.

These things were possible because God was using people who lived with high standards of grace, humility, meekness, truth and flexibility. No one chooses flogging, but if it comes, we can still trust our Lord who loves us and can use us in any circumstance. Let’s say “yes” to Him today, tomorrow and in every opportunity we find ourselves in.

Four Tickets To Philippi (Acts 16:6-15)

In most fantasy movies, the heroes find themselves on some sort of quest. Usually it’s to deliver their realm from the powers of darkness. The travelers know the end goal, but aren’t always sure about how they’ll get there. They certainly don’t know all of the twists and turns they’ll encounter. But, knowing that they must go, they hit the road, covering as much ground as they can between each new obstacle. In the 1988 classic, Willow, before the team leaves the comforts of home on their adventure they meet with a sorcerer, hoping to get some guidance through his divination. He declares, “I will consult the bones!” And he throws out some supposedly magic bones which should tell them what to do. Quietly, the sorcerer turns to Willow and says, “The bones tell me nothing.” But, the quest must continue. There’s work to be done, lives to save, movie tickets to sell.

From reading God’s Book we know that the Christian life is a journey. It’s a quest we’re on. It’s part of a global rescue mission. We don’t have to move blindly. We’re given constant support in the forms of Scripture and the indwelling Holy Spirit, the example of those who have gone before us, assistance from our spiritual family. But, that doesn’t mean we can anticipate each leg of the trip, each turn ahead or what roadblocks we might face. In fact, often we find ourselves wondering what God is up to, or whether He’s directing us at all. Are we making progress? Am I making the right decisions in life and in my service to the Lord?

Though so much has been supplied for us, the way is not always clear. That’s to be expected, because it’s a life of faith after all. We can take comfort from a passage like the one before us tonight. Where even an apostle finds himself not sure of what God is going to do next or of what God wants him to do next.

Along the way, we also get a front row seat to providence. Providence is the way God brings about His specific desires for the earth and the people in it. In this set of verses, we see its power and peculiarity as God accomplishes what He wants.

Tonight, in one of these displays of God’s providential dealings, we find that the things He wants are often not the things we’d think of, left on our own, which is why, as Christians, we must continue forward, making ourselves available to His maneuvering, but commit to being led by the Holy Spirit in the spiritual work we set out on.

We begin in verse 6, with Paul, Silas and Timothy heading west from Syria, through Gentile territory.

Acts 16:6-7 – 6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia; they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.

Paul tried to go south, God said “No.” Then they tried to go north. God said “No” again. What an amazing thing to read: “God, we want to go preach the Gospel in Asia or Bithynia.” And the Lord said, “No. You are forbidden to do that.” Why would God block someone from doing a good thing?

We love traits like entrepreneurship, innovation and initiative. And, sometimes, in the Christian life we tend to think, “As long as my motivation is good and my plan is for a Godly goal, then I should do this thing I want to do. I’ve got a passion for this kind of ministry and so I should do it.”

But Acts 16 boldly counters that idea and instead shows us that there are some good things, some Godly things that God does not want you to do right now. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t maybe want someone else to do them. But, for your life, God has a particular timing in a particular set of tasks that have been prepared beforehand for you to walk in, not only so that you can grow in your relationship with your Savior, but also so you can bring Him great glory and so He can work great things through you. It is His plan that we’re to be putting into motion, not our own. When God’s people are out of sync with that, the result is never good.

This isn’t something specific to Paul. We remember how David had it in his heart to build a permanent house for the Lord. “I’m going to build a temple!” And even though other believers around him thought it was a great idea, the Lord didn’t. God said, “No. That’s not your job to do.”

So, Paul is out on this trip, has a goal in mind, but each time he tries to pivot he’s blocked. The fact that God didn’t just give Paul a specific leading, the way He had to Philip back in chapter 8, gives us something to think about. Even Apostles, missionaries, writers of Scripture, leaders in the church – no matter the caliber of Christian – we all must walk by faith. There’s no magical level of ‘enlightenment’ that unlocks power or understanding the way that is sometimes portrayed in movies or is suggested in religions like Buddhism or Scientology. The fact of the matter is that Paul the Apostle did not know where to go next. He only knew that the Spirit was vetoing his ideas, but he was obedient enough to allow his ideas to be vetoed. That’s an important aspect of this story. We know that God has a plan. We know He is working it out providentially. We know that He has given us a free will and we’re able to do things like further God’s work, hasten His coming or quench the Spirit and tear things down. We also know that God’s ways are not our ways. Putting it altogether we want to be the kind of people who are regularly stirring up God’s gifts in our lives and looking for opportunities to do the Lord’s work. We should be asking God to put burdens on our hearts for specific people or areas of service, but, in the end, we must be people who are submitted to leading. If God says go, we should go and if God says no we should obey.

Since we know the rest of the tale, we can see that God was providentially working out a special plan. But, Paul didn’t know it. In the moment, the Lord kept saying to him, “No. No. No.” Some scholars try to suggest that the reason why God said “no” was because, once things happened in Philippi, there would be more exposure to the Gospel in Asia Minor. God, they say, was just moving pieces around the board in order to get the greatest number of conversions. But that’s just more human reasoning. The truth is: We cannot predict providence. But we can participate in it.

Acts 16:8 – 8 Passing by Mysia they went down to Troas.

The team keeps moving west (the Spirit won’t let them go anywhere else), but now they’ve run into the sea. The Lord is still keeping them in the dark, day after day. I’m sure with each movement Paul and company felt the way we often feel when making decisions: “Is this the right way to go? I want to serve the Lord, but it seems like I’m not getting a clear direction.” In such a situation, I find it helpful to notice that Paul doesn’t give up and head home. He’s still made it his business to be about the Lord’s business. He keeps inching forward as the Lord allows. And he’s willing to wait without complaint.

Finally, after who knows how many days of waiting and wondering, a signal flare is seen in the night sky.

Acts 16:9 – 9 During the night Paul had a vision in which a Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!”

Macedonia was in Greece. Of course, Paul wasn’t unwilling to head to Europe, it just hadn’t been part of his plan. But now he’s had a dream that seemed to be giving the direction they needed.

Acts 16:10 – 10 After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Recently I saw a video of a service at a prominent church up in northern California, where some of the leaders (who tell their people they are apostles) said they had a prophetic vision in which they were carrying out a “prophetic act” that would be “very, very historic.” And, because of this vision, they decided to carry out the act, which was to bring a wizard’s staff on stage and copy the scene from The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf stands against the Balrog deep in the mines of Moria and declares “You shall not pass.” A little strange, if you ask me.

Let’s notice a few things about Paul’s vision and their response: First of all, though they acted quickly, we can see that they did discuss and evaluate the content of what Paul had seen. It says they “concluded that God had called [them] to preach.” Second, we know they had been carefully waiting on the Lord, listening for direction, seeking His will. Asking God what He wanted them to do, not trying to find whatever was trendy or culturally popular or something that would make a good video or a good headline.

Notice this also: The Macedonian man said, “Come over here and help us.” In response, they made plans to go and preach the Gospel to them.

The Gospel helps in all the most significant ways. That’s not to say we don’t need to be a part of compassion ministries but, on this trip, they wouldn’t be establishing any soup kitchens or building any houses. The help the Macedonians needed was salvation.

But, notice this also: Obviously God had a specific work in mind, yet He still only gave a general vision. He shows them the region, but not the town, not the person or situation they’d encounter.

It’s true that sometimes God gives detailed instructions. We think of Philip: “Go down this road and then hang out.” Then, “go join that chariot.” And we thank God for that kind of specific leading. But often the course of our life will not have those sorts of spiritual bullet points. Instead, we are to walk by faith, operate in grace, and (as we’re going) wait for God to guide.

Something important happens in verse 10: Dr. Luke shows up in the story! “We immediately made efforts…concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel.”

We don’t know much about Luke, other than that he was a physician and the writer of both this book and the Gospel. He would be a faithful and longtime companion of Paul. And, as a man who was constantly being beaten and afflicted with health issues, I’m sure it was very helpful to have a doctor on the team. Whether the fellows all knew each other from Antioch or not, we don’t know. But it’s clear that God was working out His providence to get these guys working together. And that’s a partnership we still benefit from today.

It doesn’t seem like Paul had planned to bring a physician on the road with him. But God, it seems, was thinking, “Oh, you’re going to need a doctor. And I’ve got one prepared and positioned in Troas who can not only tend your many wounds, but is also one of the finest historians around. And he’s a gifted evangelist.”

Before setting sail in verse 11 one more thing to consider: It says, “We made efforts to set out for Macedonia.” These weren’t the kind of guys who just “let go and let God.” They weren’t the kind of guys who said, “Well, I have a vision for ministry and now it’s someone else’s job to carry it out.” That happens sometimes in the church. They put their hands to the plow and, once the felt God’s leading, did what they could to move forward in it themselves.

Acts 16:11 – 11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, the next day to Neapolis,

The language indicates that the wind was with them, carrying they swiftly from Asia to Europe. In fact, it will take them more than twice as long to make this trip on the way back. “Ok! The Lord is leading. He’s showed us the way. He’s built up the team. He’s put a booster on our sails!” That makes the arrival in verses 12 and 13 all the more startling.

Acts 16:12-13 – 12 and from there to Philippi, a Roman colony and a leading city of the district of Macedonia. We stayed in that city for several days. 13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate by the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and spoke to the women gathered there.

So, all this build up but then nothing happens. What’s going on? They get there, there’s no synagogue, meaning there weren’t even 10 believing Jewish men in the city. They hang around for a few days and it seems there’s nothing to do. Where’s the ‘man’ from the vision? Where’s the work? I thought we were about to strike oil here?

In Willow, the team goes through a major effort to get to the castle at Tir Asleen. If they can just get there, everything will be right as rain. They finally arrive to discover the castle defeated and deserted. Quite a let down. And so the quest continued.

Paul and the guys finally get to the weekend and head out to the river where some Jews might be meeting. Now, what must’ve seemed in the moment like a letdown we know was God’s providence. He had a particular plan for Philippi, and it was going to happen on Saturday. And it wasn’t going to happen in a dramatic way in the city square, but through a casual conversation by the riverbank. Language scholars point out that the term used for “spoke to the women” isn’t the one you’d use for preaching or lecture, but for friendly conversation.

This shows us another aspect of how to participate in providence. Don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how ministry should go. We wouldn’t have predicted that a heavenly vision would connect to such an ordinary interaction. But that was God’s plan. But if Paul had said, “No, we’re gonna go talk to the governor.” Or, “We’re gonna stay in the plaza until a bunch of people show up.” Well, then they would’ve missed out on God’s plan for a specific lady and her family, who we meet in verse 14.

Acts 16:14 – 14 A God-fearing woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying.

You’ve got to smile when you see God doing things. He tells Paul he’s not allowed to preach in Asia Minor, because He wants Paul to go to Greece so he can talk to…a woman from Asia Minor! Lydia was from Thyatira but had set up shop in Philippi. In looking at her conversion we can notice a few things. First, look at what God will do in His effort to reach one lost lamb. Of course, others would be saved in this visit. But that day God had brought all these different elements together so that one woman could hear the Gospel and be saved. Then through her, others. Then through them, others.

Let’s also notice the process of her conversion. This is important. There are some Christian traditions or systems of theology that say that God’s grace is irresistible. That He has predetermined who will be saved and who will not and there’s nothing that you can do about it, other than be forced into salvation. On the other hand, it is heretical to say that salvation is of man’s initiative. That man goes to God of his own accord and says, “I realized on my own I need salvation, will You save me?” And then God says, “Well, let’s see what I can do for you.”

So what do we see here? We see the Biblical process of salvation. You have a woman, Lydia, a hell-doomed sinner. We don’t know her whole story, but at some point she recognized that God must exist. Whether through the testimony of creation or exposure to Scripture, she responded to whatever revelation she had and became a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who followed the God of Israel.

God, in His providence, orchestrated an innumerable series of events so that He could get a preacher of the Gospel in front of her. And then, through what we call prevenient grace, God opened her heart, He freed her will, so that once she heard the Gospel she was able to respond to it, one way or another. Notice, God did not “outfit her heart with belief.” God didn’t put belief in her heart, He opened her heart so that she was able to respond. You see, the work of salvation is all God’s. It’s His initiative, not ours. But, God does not force His grace on anyone. He invites us and frees our wills so that we are free to choose. And, in this case, Lydia made the choice to believe on Jesus Christ and she was saved. She accepted the invitation and received the free gift of salvation.

What if she had chosen otherwise? We’ll see examples of that later in Acts. People like Felix who had the same kinds of conversations with Paul, felt the draw of God who was knocking at the door of their hearts, but then chose to shut Him out, to their own hurt.

God is so gracious that He gives us a genuinely free will to choose. And He is so powerful that He can accomplish His will even when people refuse Him. When His servants are in line with what He wants, when we’re submitted to Him and committed to being led and to making progress, then we see these wonderful things happening where the right person is at the right place at the right time for an eternal difference to be made.

Acts 16:15 – 15 After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

Lydia is a great saleslady and we see she had a heart for hospitality. In her case, she wasn’t directed by God to leave her business or renounce her work. Instead, she’d serve the church and other Christians with what God had given her. From what we can tell, she would continue as a seller of purple. Matthew Henry once wrote: “Religion does not call us from our business in the world, but directs us in it.” And now, she too, is part of the active providence of God. Now, because people were committed to doing God’s work, but were also willing to be led in what He wanted, you not only had a small team of missionaries, you had a permanent home base in this new city.

We could not have strategized this. We could not have predicted what God wanted Paul to do. Luckily, when it comes to living out the Christian life and being a part of providence, we don’t have to predict it. Instead, we participate in it by being led by God the Holy Spirit. Allowing Him to have His way. And therefore making ourselves available for His grand and gracious purposes.

Rookie Of The Year (Acts 16:1-5)

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign he was asked how he would run his administration with regard to staff. What would be his criteria in choosing individuals to join him in office? The answer started: “Track record, great competence, love of what they’re doing…references. We have to get the best people…and if we don’t, we’ll be in trouble.” He would echo that statement many times on the campaign trail.

Now, several years down the line, critics of the President often use his answer, changing it to say, “I only hire the best people,” and poke fun at him due to not only the high turnover rate but also the often public disagreements that spill onto Twitter. In the end, in many cases, competence and references weren’t quite enough to keep the job that was offered to them.

That’s not meant to be a political statement, simply an observation. These jobs, of course, demand incredible amounts of sustained intensity from the people. The pressure is extreme and undoubtedly takes a toll no matter how competent a person is or how much they love the work. That’s just a reality of these positions.

In the opening of Acts 16 Paul is on what we call his second missionary journey, which he starts by going back through some of the towns he had evangelized in his first missionary journey. These were not easy places to go. They were places where he had encountered deadly opposition. But, Paul wasn’t afraid and this was the job – to be used by God to strengthen the churches. While revisiting the cities of Lystra and Derbe, Paul is going to bring a young man named Timothy onto his team. And Timothy would become much more than an assistant or partner to Paul, he’d become like a son to him. Later in life he would say that there was no one more like-minded with him than Timothy, his dearly loved son in the faith. We can understand why Paul had such an affection for Timothy. As we follow his story through the Bible, we find he’s one of the most remarkable characters of the New Testament. A man of great faith and great faithfulness. Great endurance and humility and grace. He had a great track record, a great deal of competence, great references, a love for the work and the people he’d encounter in it.

But, as we’re introduced to him here, we’re going to see something that surprises us. We’re going to see Paul, the warrior of salvation by grace through faith and not of works, say to Timothy, “I’d like you to come with us on this trip to preach the Good News of grace, but first I need you to become a bit more Jewish. I need you to go through the rite of circumcision, and then we can go into the Gentile world and tell people they don’t need to be circumcised in order to be saved.”

So what’s going on here? And what does it mean for us as people who also want to be a part of God’s team that goes into the world preaching the message of Jesus?

Let’s explore the what and why in these verses, starting in verse 1.

Acts 16:1a – Paul went on to Derbe and Lystra…

Just to keep us all on the same page: It was in the city of Lystra where Paul had worked a miracle, been mistaken for the god Hermes. Then people came from some other towns where Paul had taught that you are justified by belief and not through the Law of Moses and they stoned Paul to death. It seems that one of the people who witnessed this happen was young Timothy. He and some of the other new believers then gathered around Paul’s body and saw God raise him to life again.

Acts 16:1b – where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a believing Jewish woman, but his father was a Greek.

We’re not sure how old Timothy is at this point, maybe around 20 years old, maybe a little less. We know that 12 (or so) years later when Paul writes First Timothy he’s still referred to as young.

We’re given some family information here, that Timothy’s mother (Eunice) was a Jew who had been born again. In Second Timothy we’ll be told that Eunice’s mother, Lois was also a believer. They were a family with sincere faith, who searched the Scriptures and taught Timothy to do the same.

Whether Timothy’s father was a Christian or what the Jews would call a “God-fearer,” we don’t know. We just know that he wasn’t Jewish by nationality, he was a Gentile. And, while Timothy was raised in the Scriptures from a young age, he had not been raised as a Jewish child, as far as rites and rituals go. Beyond this, we can only make guesses about Timothy’s dad. Some paint him as a pagan, others as a proselyte. It seems from the context of what comes up in a moment that he was, at least in the general area, a man of some sort of prominence, known throughout multiple cities.

Acts 16:2 – 2 The brothers and sisters at Lystra and Iconium spoke highly of him.

They spoke highly of Timothy, not his dad. So, Paul gets to town and is revisiting friends he made before and they can’t wait to talk to him about this young man. “Do you remember that kid who was there when you were stoned? Man has he turned out to be a fine young Christian.” Really, this is more than just, “He’s a great kid.” Christians from two churches in different towns are commending him to Paul, who was in need of another team member. And when we compile all the little bits of things we know about Timothy from references to him in letters later in the New Testament, what we find was that not only was he a good, upstanding young man, but that prophecies had been given concerning him and his service to the Lord. We know that he would receive spiritual gifting through the laying on of Paul’s hands. We know that he had great leadership skills because he was able to step into difficult ministries in places like Corinth and Ephesus and help guide the churches there in truth. We know he had a strong backbone. He could watch Paul be brutally murdered but then when he was asked to go with him onto the field, he didn’t flinch. He wasn’t only well-respected in his little cul-de-sac, but already in multiple cities.

He was a shoo-in for rookie of the year, when it came to the spiritual draft. But, we never see him parading or indulging himself in selfish pursuits or trying to make a name for himself. His faith was sincere and his desire was to glorify God with his life, not glorify himself. Paul noticed. And the Holy Spirit noticed. And God would do great things through this life.

This is an encouragement to all of you younger listeners. You can glorify God in your youth. You can serve God in your youth. We try to create space for that here at Calvary. Sometimes we could probably do more, but we believe that God can use young men and women the way he used Timothy. And if you’re there just thinking that life feels like the same thing over and over, just going to school, doing your chores, the same routine, remind yourself of this truth: You exist to glorify God and to be used by Him for His eternal purposes. Because that’s true, make your life ready the way Timothy did, by learning the Scriptures, learning to be faithful, learning to love others and choosing God’s way instead of any other.

So, here’s Timothy, rookie of the year, ready to go. Paul’s ready to draft him. There’s just one thing…

Acts 16:3 – 3 Paul wanted Timothy to go with him; so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek.

I remember when I was lifeguarding years ago, there was another guy about my age who was trying to get into the coast guard. He told me that he had a meeting with his recruiter, went in ready to go, but because he had an ingrown toe-nail, they said, “We can’t take you until that’s cleared up.” You with a military background know there are many conditions that can keep you out of service.

Now, let me read verse 4 and then we’ll circle back to what’s going on here.

Acts 16:4 – 4 As they traveled through the towns, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem for the people to observe.

On first glance it doesn’t make sense that verse 3 is right next to verse 4. “We’re going to go tell people that circumcision is not a requirement, but before we do that, you have to be circumcised, otherwise you can’t come!”

The issue isn’t terribly complicated, we’re given Paul’s justification in verse 3. In the immediate region, Timothy’s dad was a well-known figure. When Paul and Silas and Timothy went into synagogues in these places, it would be a big ingrown-toenail to have an uncircumcised member of the team. A lot of the Jews in those cities wouldn’t even be interested in hearing their message because of it. So, in order to remove that potential and probable barrier, Paul said, “Let’s just bypass it.” And, frankly, Paul faced a lot of obstacles, day in and day out, so if he was able to get rid of one, I’m sure he was glad to.

While the reasoning isn’t complicated, it does raise a lot implications for us. It’s easy for me to think, “Well, I’m not half-Jewish, I’m not Timothy, I’m more like Titus.” Paul would explain to the Galatians that Titus, who was a Gentile, was not compelled to be circumcised.

But, what about this Timothy thing? What can it teach us? Because, if it was me, I would’ve just said, “Well, why don’t I just meet you when you get to a city where they don’t know my dad?” This team was going to end up in Philippi and Thessalonica. No one knew Timothy there. And, after all, it wasn’t their business whether he was circumcised or not, right? And, wouldn’t it be Paul, telling Timothy of all people, “We know that the law is not meant for a righteous person.” So what gives?

All that is true. And Paul would never say that Timothy (or anyone else) would have to be circumcised or follow the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. The Bible could not be clearer: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. No works, no merit, no rituals, no payments can be made to purchase for yourself a ticket into heaven.

Paul’s decision to have Timothy circumcised wasn’t about salvation, it was about mission. He would do what was necessary to remove obstacles to delivering people the Gospel. Even when it was inconvenient or painful or, in some cases, dangerous, this was what was necessary to accomplish the mission. And it wasn’t that Paul just forced this on others. We know what kind of man he was. He, himself, lived by this code. He said, “When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. Even though I’m not subject to the law, I lived under it when I was around them so that I could bring them to Christ.”

I know most of you here, this evening to be kind and decent people. When you’re driving in your car, maybe headed somewhere important or maybe not important, maybe just somewhere you want to go, and an ambulance comes up behind you, lights and sirens on, what do you do? You pull over. You set yourself aside in an effort to save life. That’s the idea.

Sadly, some departments are reporting more incidents where people are not pulling over for emergency vehicles.

But we understand the need. I may be on my way somewhere, but when a siren goes off, we’re potentially talking life and death. So compassion trumps my convenience. And when we’re talking about God’s rescue plan, we are expected to lay down our own lives, to step down from our own comfort or convenience or rights, the way Christ did, as we try to save people who are headed toward an eternity in hell.

Timothy had a lot of great spiritual skills. He was set up to be a great pastor and teacher and leader in the early church. But all those skills wouldn’t have mattered much if he held onto his own comfort and convenience and refused to put himself on the altar for the Lord’s glory.

In Paul’s two letters to him, which we have in the New Testament, the apostle talks a lot about avoiding meaningless arguments and debates. Get past those endless bickerings and into something deeper.

Once Timothy was a pastor, Paul would say to him: “You’re called to serve God. You’re called to do the work of an evangelist and I want you to set an example for others.” An example in what? Well, many things, but some that connect back to this first choice in Acts 16 are to: To endure all things for the elect that they may obtain salvation. To pursue gentleness in his conduct. To not quarrel, which the servant of the Lord must not do, but to instead fight the good fight and “compete according to the rules.”

Here in our text, Paul saw something in Timothy. He saw his potential. He saw the calling God had placed on his life. He imagined all the things the Lord would do through him, great things. But there was this thing that might slow him down or hold him back from full effectiveness. Something that might keep him from moving about freely on the field.

In the first Cars movie, The King comes up to Lightning McQueen and says, “You got more talent in one lug-nut than a lot of cars has got on their whole body…but you’re stupid.” He tries to tell Lightning that he needs to learn humility and how to be a team player. Unfortunately, Lightning has to learn the hard way.

Timothy didn’t. He was ready to walk the talk. He lived obedience, even when obedience was inconvenient for painful. There was no way that he was going to hold onto some liberty if it would be a barrier between their message and the lost.

Now, how might this example translate to us? We, too, are called to do the work of an evangelist. We, too, are lucky enough to have been drafted into the King’s eternal work. Circumcision isn’t an issue in our time or culture. But it is still our duty to concern ourselves with the fate of the lost and do what we can to reach out to them. That’s the proper conduct of a Christian. To make it our business to clear the way so that help can arrive through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be like our Lord, who stepped down from heaven into the backwoods ruin of earth and live a life of radical, loving compassion so that people could be saved from their sins.

We can take a cue from Timothy and this strange start to his missions work and find ways to avoid meaningless arguments with those we’re trying to minister to. That certainly means not starting them, but it also might mean cutting something away that might be an easily removed obstacle. Maybe that Facebook post needs to be deleted. Maybe that article of clothing that is meant to be inflammatory isn’t the best attire for preaching a Savior of compassion and grace.

Men like Paul and Timothy show us that this Christian life is a real and personal faith. It’s meant to be thoughtful and active, not only outwardly active, but inwardly as well.

If we follow Timothy through the New Testament we find that he was often the guy sent to tackle the difficult assignments. At one point, he’s sent to pastor in Corinth – a church with a lot of problems to overcome. It seems he was also sent to minister for a time to the church in Ephesus. A difficult city and a difficult ministry. Good reputation, a fine heritage and impressive references are good to have, but it’s humility, obedience, and being willing to die to self that makes a person useful to God in hard situations like those. It’s that kind of Christianity that results in a healthy church. Dr. Luke would agree. Look at verse 5.

Acts 16:5 – 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Why? Because of the Holy Spirit, of course, but it was the Holy Spirit working through people who took their Christianity seriously and who believed that it was their duty and privilege to obey and be a part of the rescue effort here on the earth. And, often times, that meant pulling over to the side so the ambulance could get through. Laying down rights or conveniences so that the Gospel might have a little less resistance in the ears of people who didn’t even know they needed to be saved. This life of grace and compassion, truth and purpose was winsome to people because it spoke volumes of Christ’s love and ability to save.