Gospel Opposition, Witness, and Diversity (Acts 16:16-40)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Gospel Opposition, Witness, and Diversity
If you lived in Philippi in the middle of the first century – and you witnessed these events – it would be quite the experience. Extremes of hostility and peace, extremes of social status that Paul and Silas minister to - a slave girl, a roman prison guard, a wealthy woman. You’d experience a demon being cast out, a mob stirred up, hymns in the night, an earthquake, and lives transformed.
It’s all there - the climax and resolution, the antagonists and protagonists, blood and bondage and devils. Fraud, magistrates, prisons, characters that change before our very eyes. It would be like a Shakespeare play - except you’d be witnessing real life events.
And as it was all unfolding before your eyes, you would want to know – What gave these men perseverance to endure a public beating? What drove them that they sang while the lacerations on their backs oozed and their feet were locked in wooden stocks? What power is so great that a demon itself cannot help but acknowledge it over and over? What promise is so amazing that a prison guard who’s seen it all, who was about to kill himself falls to his knees – a changed man… he and his family. And just what united these people from all walks of life and backgrounds?
Those would be your questions. Because it all would seem unreal and implausible. But yet it wasn’t. Something was at work.
And I would answer, it all comes back to one thing. Behind everything in these verses – the peace, the unity, the power over the demonic forces – behind everything is the Gospel of Jesus.
What is this Gospel, you ask? Well, as the apostle Paul himself wrote in Romans chapter 1. The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to those who believe.” The Gospel centers on the ministry of Christ on the cross, and the empty tomb. It’s the saving power of God for salvation. Through the cross, not only is sin dealt with, but Satan’s fate is sealed (he and all the spiritual forces of evil), and they will be defeated. It’s the same Gospel that not only saves but also gives hope in times of trouble – like what Paul and Silas faced. Strength to endure when attacked. But not a stoic endurance but peace and joy in the midst of it all. And it’s the same Gospel that brings together not only people from all nations and languages, but also from all walks of life, social standing, experiences, educations, and situations. It’s this Gospel that is at work here in Acts 16 from beginning to end. And it’s the same Gospel that can save you, sustain you, and change you. Nothing else can or will no matter what the promises.
If you’ll look on the back of the bulletin you’ll see a brief outline. (1) Gospel power and opposition, (2) Gospel witness and call, and (3) Gospel promise and diversity.
Gospel Power and Opposition (Acts 16:16-24, 35-40)
If you were here last week, you’ll remember that we ended with Lydia coming to faith. She was a seller of expensive fabric - a well to do businesswoman - and she graciously welcomed Paul, Silas, and the other into her home. It’s even possible that Lydia’s home was where the first believers gathered. We get a little sense of that down in verse 40.
Well, shortly after Lydia came to faith, Paul and his traveling partners soon experienced opposition. We’ve seen that common theme in each city. This time, it began with a slave girl. She was exploited not only by her slave owners, but also by an evil spirit that possessed her. And when she saw Paul and Silas, she began crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
And we say, “wait a second, that’s absolutely true!” They are servants of the one true God… and they are proclaiming the only way of salvation. “What in the world is this demon possessed young girl doing?” Well, some have said that she was sarcastically mocking them for what they thought was true… Others have suggested that she was really saying that there are multiple ways to salvation – like her own demonic divinations. But I don’t buy either analysis. Rather, if we look at the Gospel accounts… the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, it’s actually the demons who first recognize Jesus. The demons are the ones see Jesus for who he is – the son of God. Now, they were not calling out in with a tone of reverence or worship… no, rather with a resentful tone of acknowledgement and fear – knowing Jesus’ power.
That’s what I believe is happening here. This evil spirit within this girl – recognized exactly who Paul and Silas were – servants of God proclaiming salvation. This demon knew the Gospel power they were proclaiming. It hated it, hated God, hated Jesus, hated anyone who proclaimed this truth. And therefore it disdainfully taunted them over and over and over. And if you read verse 18, you’d get the sense that Paul was irritated by it – it says he was “greatly annoyed” in the English. The Greek word includes a sense of being troubled or pained – and I think here, Paul was both annoyed by the demon but also burdened for this girl. This spirit of evil that was exploiting her.
And so Paul turned to her. And by the same Gospel power that this demon acknowledged. He cast it out. Notice Paul’s words “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Not only is the Gospel the power of God for salvation to those who believe, but it’s the power of God over the spiritual forces of darkness.
Well, that set off a chain reaction. Outrage and anger. The slave owners of this girl flipped out. It’s painful to even think about what other abuses may have been happening. When Paul cast this demon out, they lost their income – their depraved livelihood. So they grabbed Paul and Silas… dragged them to the public square; twisted the truth about their activities; stirred up anger among all the people; and attacked them. And furthermore, convinced the magistrates – the ruling Roman authorities – to have them publicly beaten. They tore off Paul and Silas’ clothes – probably down to their waists. Beat them with rods. Tearing open their flesh, bruising their muscles and bones. So much for Roman civility and orderliness.
The somber reality is that the Gospel is hated. Jesus called Satan the father of lies. Not only do the demonic forces loathe the truth, but the world hates the truth. In its ungodliness - its sin, it suppresses and rejects the Gospel. The apostle Peter wrote, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” He then said, “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you”
We’re experiencing growing hostility to the Gospel of Jesus all around us. Hatred of Biblical morality. Hatred of the mere idea of truth. Hatred of the very idea of sin and forgiveness… and the need for redemption… Hatred that Christianity teaches that salvation is only found in one name - Jesus. This opposition to the Gospel will not stop. And just like in Philippi, the opposition has and will stir up dissent and has and will use the governing authority against the Gospel and its truth.
Persecution may come in the workplace… you may be passed up for promotions or job opportunities. It may come in the pubic square as you stand for the truth… you may be censored for your words in some way. I may be censored for preaching this Gospel. You may lose benefits, may be called names or slandered.
But take heart. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”
The same Gospel that cast out the evil spirit… the same Gospel that the world and the devil oppose, is the same Gospel that gives you peace.
Gospel Witness and Call (Acts 16:25-31,33)
We’re on to point 2 now. Gospel witness and call.
As they were tortured, perhaps Paul and Silas recalled Jesus words about persecution. Perhaps they had the hope of heaven in mind. Or maybe Paul remembered back to Stephen’s martyrdom – he was there before his conversion. Whatever came to mind, one thing’s for sure: the same Gospel that saved them is the same Gospel that sustained them.
And this all happened in public view – their torture, their imprisonment. And how they responded to it all.
Their lives testified to the Gospel within. The people of Philippi were watching. Many would be asking, what gave them strength to endure? Where does their peace come from?
And I think one of the most amazing testimonies is verse 25. Paul and Silas were not only put in prison, but the inner chamber. Their feet were locked in painful stocks – these contraptions that clamped on to their feet. Talk about uncomfortable. They couldn’t turn over. Think of their physical state – gashes and bruises. Every movement came with pain.
But they were praying and singing. Rejoicing together with words and hymns and likely Psalms. Praying and singing to their Lord and Savior. And the “prisoners were listening to them.” …that’s exactly what the end of verse 25 says. It was midnight, utterly dark, but no one was sleeping. Their minds fixated on Paul and Silas’ prayers and songs… as their lives witnessed to the power of the Gospel within them.
But in the middle of the peace and tranquility – the whole prison began to shake. This earthquake was so violent that the door burst open, their chains fell off, the stocks opened… for all the prisoners. And when the chief jailer awoke – fear overcame him. He knew that he would be sentenced to death for allowing the prisoners to escape. That was the Roman way. But just as he was about to kill himself – which would have been seen as honorable – accepting his punishment– Paul cried out “don’t harm yourself, we are all here.” Did you notice that? Verse 28. Not only did Paul and Silas remained in the inner prison cell – but all the prisoners remained. Whatever Paul and Silas had – they wanted.
And not only that, but the Philippian jailer wanted what they had. He rushed in – after calling for the torches to light the room. He fell to his knees – trembling with fear. Still shaken by the prospect of death – but yet, all the prisoners were there. Why didn’t they leave? When Peter was in prison a few chapters ago, an angel led him out. We can presume they had a sense to stay – perhaps to be a Gospel witness or to continue ministering to the other prisoners and guards.
Again, their lives and actions testified to the Gospel’s work in them. The jailer brought them out. He was so overwhelmed by their witness, that the first thing he wanted to know – “what must I do to be saved?” And here is where the Gospel call comes into play. You see, it’s not enough to just live out the Gospel in our actions – Gospel witness also requires a Gospel call… words that testify and call people to believe by faith in Christ. They answered the Jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” And the jailer believed. And he washed their wounds. Verse 33. Talk about a witness of his new faith in Christ. It was still the middle of the night – yet he took them to his home, washed away all the blood, cleansed the lacerations, gave them food and rejoiced.
Yes, our Gospel witness is critical – but testifying to the Gospel of grace with words is necessary. The Holy Spirit uses our witness to draw people to want to know. It attests to the hope within us – demonstrates that what we believe affects all of our lives. But it’s our Gospel words that call people to faith… that God uses to bring people to him.
Living out our lives in response to the Gospel is hard. It’s difficult to “turn the other cheek” as Jesus said – meaning when you are persecuted and slandered, to not retaliate. But instead to remind yourself of the hope and eternal promises in Christ. Remind yourself that our battle is not against flesh and blood but spiritual forces… to remind yourself of how in your affliction you share in Christ’s affliction.
When you grasp that Gospel hope and peace in Christ and live it out… your life will be a witness to the Gospel. And then the Gospel testimony of your words… will be aligned with the Gospel testimony of your life.
A quick side note before getting to the last point. These verses are not saying that we shouldn’t stand up for ourselves at certain times… even appeal to the laws of the land when necessary. In the last few verses, Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship. He’ll do that again later in Acts. They were in a Roman city, after all – there were laws that governed them – and Paul appealed to those laws – maybe as a warning to the magistrates. But what I’d like to know is why didn’t Paul mention his Roman citizenship the day before? That would have spared them the public beating. However, because Paul didn’t… God used their witness through the unjust punishment, their witness in the prison, and their Gospel words to call an entire household to himself.
Gospel Promise and Diversity (Acts 16:15, 18, 31-34)
That brings us to the next Gospel truths in these verses…. Gospel Promise and Gospel Diversity.
These two themes are related and they cut across these verses. What I mean is that if we take a step back from the story, we’ll see God revealing truths about his promises and the makeup of his kingdom.
For one, you may have noticed that both with Lydia and with the Philippian jailer their households were involved. In fact, we saw this before in Acts 10. Cornelius, the Roman centurion and his whole household, which came to faith in Christ and were baptized. Households coming to faith is a theme in Acts. In each case, the head of the household came to faith and then the Gospel promise came to his or her entire house. And in each case, the people in their household were baptized. We’re not told the makeup of each household, but it likely young and old, family and servants. And it teaches us that the Gospel promise is a family promise. It’s s generational promise. The apostle Peter in Acts 2 preached and said this: “the promise is for you and your children…” That’s not saying that each and every person in a household comes to faith in Christ. No, but what it is saying is that the promise of the Gospel benefits everyone in the household. All the rich blessings of being in the covenant family, which includes the instruction of the Word, hearing the Gospel promise of faith in Christ, and the participation in the church body including worship. And the sign of that household promise and covenant benefits is baptism. Yes, baptism testifies to faith in Christ, but it also symbolizes the inclusion of being in the church – being part of the covenant family of God as a participant in a household of faith. The promise of Christ, for you and your children, young and old, to all in the households of faith.
But there’s another Gospel theme in these verses… a related one that really this whole chapter testifies to. And it would be perhaps the most radical Gospel truth in the eyes of the first century audience. As we’ve gone through Acts, we’ve seen the Gospel expansion… the Gospel going out to Africa, Syria, Asia, Greece. But we get to chapter 16, here, and we see another layer of Gospel expansion. Not only is the Gospel for every tribe, tongue, and nation, but the Gospel is for every one… in every tribe, tongue, and nation. Servants, masters, men, women, children, widows, prisoners, free, orphans, the rich, the poor. The Gospel is for everyone. No matter who you are – no matter your station and position in life, no matter how you got there.
And this radical culture message was exemplified ironically through the apostle Paul. If you remember, before his Gospel conversion to Christ, he was a Jewish Pharisee -an empty, religious zealot – a hollow law follower without knowing the giver of the law. Each day, Paul, as a pharisees would pray this: “Blessed art thou, O God, for not making me a Gentile, slave, or woman.” In their daily liturgy, these Rabbis, including Paul himself (known as Saul of Tarsus at that time) prayed this prayer. Yet we get to Acts 16 and who do we find the Gospel reaching? A gentile, a slave girl, and a woman. In fact, all of them are Gentiles (non Jews), two of them women, and a Roman jailer. The slave girl was also freed from her demonic oppression, through Christ – and presumably now part of the household of faith. And who do we find leading the effort? The apostle Paul, utterly transformed in his life, seeing and knowing that the Gospel call is for everyone. As he wrote in his letter to the Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This is the life changing Gospel of Christ. And it’s for you. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you’ve done, where you live, what you do, who you know, how much you have or don’t have. The Gospel is for you. Jesus, the eternal son of God, died for you. He took on your guilt and shame. Bore your sin on the cross. And gave you eternal victory when he rose from the grave. And the question of the Philippian jailer is the question you should ask… “what must I do to be saved?” “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Will you believe?
This is the only way of salvation, and it’s offered by the Most High God.
And it’s this Gospel, in all of its power and authority, that defeats the evil and demonic forces at work despite all their opposition to it.
It’s this same Gospel that gives us the strength to bear witness in whatever trials, and persecution, and display of hatred that comes. Witnessing to its eternal peace.
And it’s the same Gospel call and promise to households, young and old, servants and family… and the same Gospel that calls everyone from anywhere, from any background, from any situation to believe in the saving work of Christ. The same Gospel call for you.