A Lot More Here than Meets the Eye

a closer look at Acts chapter 16
by Michael Fischer

This is a different kind of message than the ones I usually preach. It's more of a Bible lesson than a sermon. I hope you don't object to Bible lessons. This chapter is familiar to most of you, since it has the story of Paul being let out of jail by the earthquake -- it's a story our kids have heard in Sunday school, and most of us have heard it a few times, too. But this chapter of Scripture is so loaded with challenge and encouragement that I'd like to dig into it a little deeper than usual.

Acts chapter 16 is about the apostle Paul's second missionary journey. He and Silas have just set off when the chapter starts, and it starts off with a bang. Verse 1: "Then came he to Derbe and Lystra." Who remembers what happened to Paul the last time he was in Lystra? First, they thought he was one of the Greek pagan gods because he healed a lame man, and they wanted to sacrifice a bull to him. Then some Jews from the nearby towns stirred up the crowd, and they stoned Paul, dragged him out of town, and left him for dead. He recovered from that, although he looked like a mess for a few weeks. But Lystra was probably very low on Paul's list of towns he wanted to visit. And yet here he is in Lystra again. Why?

It says, back a few verses in chapter 15, verse 36, that Paul's goal was to visit all the churches he'd started on his first trip, and see how they were doing. In spite of the uproar and the stoning, Paul had managed to start a church in Lystra. So, like it or not, he was going to see how they were doing there. God doesn't always ask us to do what we're comfortable with. He often asks us to do things that are the last thing on earth we'd ever want to do. And then He gives us the strength to do those things. That way, when wonderful things happen, nobody can point to us and say, "Look what he did! Look what she did!" All they can say is, "Look what God did!"

So there's Paul in Lystra. And how is the church doing there? It must have been doing pretty well, because there was at least one disciple there who was growing strong in the Lord. His name was Timothy, and all the other believers spoke well of him, not just in his home town of Lystra, but also in Iconium, the next town over. Paul sensed that this young man was ready for some serious missionary work. But there was a problem. Timothy's mother was a believing Jew, but his father was a Greek, and apparently not a believer. Timothy's father might have been one of the men who tried to offer a sacrifice to Paul. And Timothy apparently had a non-Jewish upbringing, even though he had a Jewish mother. That would have been a big stumbling-block to any Jews whom Paul tried to preach to. So Paul fixed the situation, and made Timothy acceptable to the Jews. He circumcised him. I don't want to be gross about this, but you need to see what this involved.

My first thought on reading this was, "Timothy really went through a lot to go on this missions trip." They didn't have any Novocaine or anything. Uh-uh. But my second thought was, "Paul went through a lot to get Timothy to go on this trip, too." Can you imagine taking a knife to a close friend? Knowing that he would feel every moment of pain? I don't know if I could do that if it wasn't a matter of life or death.

When my wife Eileen and I went through this passage in our personal devotions, she asked me a good question. "How would the Jews know if Timothy was circumcised or not?" Well, because they knew about his father, they would assume that he wasn't. And the Jews were so hung up on this circumcision thing that they violated people's privacy to find out who was and who wasn't. We see this in Galatians 2:3-4 --

"But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised; 4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage."
They actually sent men in among the believers, pretending to be Christians, using any means they could think of to see whether they were circumcised or not! Paul wouldn't circumcise a Gentile like Titus, because he'd just spent the previous chapter of Acts arguing against the Judaizers who insisted that circumcision was necessary for salvation. But Timothy, being half-Jewish, was a special case. Paul didn't circumcise him for salvation, but as an aspect of his own convictions, which he later spelled out in I Cor 9:19-22:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. 20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. 22 To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
Evidently Timothy felt the same way, or he wouldn't have gone along with it. The point I'm trying to make is this: how much are you willing to give up, how much are you willing to go through, for the Gospel? We have an example here of going through a lot, just for the sake of not offending some over-religious unbelievers. We can read missionary stories and learn about what some of those men and women suffered for God's sake. So how come we cringe at the thought of being mocked and made fun of because we're serious about Jesus? Compared to what many Christians have been through, the price we have to pay for our faith is small indeed. Let's keep this Biblical example in mind the next time we're tempted to yield to the fear of man.

Okay, now Paul is traveling with Silas, who was with him from the start of the trip, and with Timothy, who has joined them. And something strange happens. The Holy Spirit doesn't let them go into certain places to preach the Gospel. In verse 6, they can't go into Asia. In verse 7, they can't go into Bythinia. This must have been a real puzzle to Paul and his friends. Why would God not want the Asians and the Bythinians to hear about Jesus?

I can't prove this conclusively, but I think Paul answers the question in Romans 15:20-21 --

Yea, so have I strived to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build upon another man's foundation: 21 But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand.
The Holy Spirit probably wasn't letting Paul into those areas because somebody else was already ministering there. It could have been Peter, or one of the other apostles, or Epaphras, or any number of brothers whose names we don't know. There's no good in piling all the Christian workers into one place if that means another place will be neglected. God was making sure the seed of the Gospel was spread far and wide, not concentrated into one little area.

The application for this doesn't apply to most of us. We have to minister in the area where we live; we don't have many options. But if God ever calls any of you to become a missionary, and you aren't sure where you should go to serve Him, remember this example from the Bible. We don't really need more missionaries to Belgium, for instance. There are a lot of lost souls there, and a lot of spiritual darkness. But the Gospel is known in Belgium. You can find a Gospel-preaching church there, you can buy a Bible in the languages they speak. But there are still places on this earth where no one has ever heard the name of Jesus.

One of the most heartbreaking true stories I've ever heard in my life is the story of a tribe of people who live deep in the mountains of New Guinea, just north of Australia. Somehow they had heard of what some missionaries from New Tribes Mission were doing in other tribal villages. So they repeatedly sent messengers on a three-day walk through jungle, mountains, steep cliffs, rivers, and the wildest terrain imaginable, to the nearest missionary, to deliver this message: "Please send someone to teach us God's talk." And every time, they had to return empty. The mission was short-handed; there was no one they could send.

We don't need more preachers and missionaries tramping the same old paths, gleaning the same old fields one more time, in the hopes of finding one soul that the others might have missed. There are fields that are ripe unto harvest, if you're willing to travel to get to those fields. Do we need an invitation? They've given us one! "Please send someone to teach us God's talk." They're asking for missionaries -- can God make it any clearer what He wants us to do? If we can't go ourselves, we ought to at least support the ones who can. I can't speak for you, but in good conscience, I can't help send a missionary to France, or Nova Scotia, or the Bahamas while people who don't know about Jesus, and who are asking to know about Him, are going totally unreached. I'll get down off my soap box on that issue for now.

So Paul and his friends are at Troas, trying to figure out where they should go next. Apparently Luke, who wrote this book of Acts, joins them in Troas. Up to verse 8, when they got to Troas, Luke wrote "they went, they had gone." In verse 10, he writes, "we endeavored," so now Luke was one of them.

They sailed to Macedonia, which is southern Greece, in response to a dream Paul had. He saw a man from Macedonia telling him, "Come over into Macedonia, and help us." You know the hymn we sing all the time, "We have heard the Macedonian call today, send the light, send the light." This is the Macedonian call. This is where that came from. Paul heard it, and away they went, leaving the continent of Asia and taking the Gospel into Europe for the first time.

Philippi wasn't like the other cities Paul had visited before. It wasn't an Asian city. It was founded by Greeks, and very heavily influenced by the Romans. It was on a major highway between Rome and Asia, and it must have had a very different "feel" than the Asian cities Paul was used to. We tend to think of Paul as this experienced traveller who fit in just fine wherever he went. But he was only human. He must have had some culture-shock sometime. And he almost certainly found this Roman city a little overwhelming. Why do I say this? Because, when Paul entered a city for the first time, where did he always go first? The local synagogue. But where did he go first in Philippi? Down by the river, looking for a place of prayer. Apparently, Philippi didn't even have a synagogue. So Paul was kind of off his stride from the word "go."

The first convert in Macedonia is a woman named Lydia. The Bible says she was a seller of purple. She bought and sold cloth that had been dyed purple. As you may know, purple was a very rare and expensive color in that day and age. It came from a kind of seashell that lived on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, and it was so rare that it used to be reserved for kings and royalty. So, to buy and sell that kind of cloth takes money. Lydia was not a poor woman. She probably had a good business going, she was probably well-regarded in the community and in her neighborhood. But, like many wealthy people, she realized somewhere along the way that money and success couldn't buy peace of mind and heart. When Paul told her about Jesus, she was wide open, and so were the members of her household. And she talked Paul into using her house as his base of operations while he was in the city. That house was probably the first church in Europe.

That first woman, Lydia, was the good news for Paul. Now came the bad news, and it was another woman. A slave girl possessed by a demon. She was owned by some people who used that evil spirit to tell people's fortunes. Owned by men, AND possessed by Satan -- can you imagine a worse situation? This girl didn't have the freedom to do anything at all of her own free will. Nothing. Every moment of her time and every ounce of her energy were claimed both by men and by the enemy of all men.

She saw Paul and his friends walking around the city and shouted out, "These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation." Why did she do this? Why would Satan use one of his people as an advertizement for God and God's people? That would be like Saddam Hussein putting up billboards saying, "The Americans are here to set Iraq free and get rid of me." It doesn't make sense.

I told you how this girl had no choice in anything she did. I don't think that spirit in her had any choice, either. You may recall that, when Jesus walked the earth, evil spirits would cry out and call him the holy one of God, and He wouldn't allow them to speak? Even the father of lies has to tell the truth when he's confronted by the power of God. A strong man who's in great pain will have to admit, "It hurts." And Satan and his forces, when they're face to face with God or with one of His faithful servants, have to admit, "It's God." This girl wasn't testifying to God's love and grace. The spirit in her was screaming out in pain and anger because Paul and friends were there to mess up Satan's kingdom. That's why Paul was grieved, like it says in verse 18. And it didn't happen just once. It says in verse 17 that she followed Paul around, like a moth to the flame, shouting. She probably made it hard for Paul to talk to anyone else.

The part I don't understand is why he let this go on for many days. I can only make a guess here, but Paul may have been reluctant to make waves in this new, strange city. He may have known that, if he got involved, it would cause trouble. But Paul never could stay away from trouble if it meant advancing God's kingdom. So, when he couldn't stand the slave girl's screaming any longer, he turned and spoke, and at the name of Jesus, that spirit took off and didn't come back.

Suddenly the whole situation has changed. Suddenly this slave girl isn't a gold mine to her owners; she's just a scared little teen-ager who never learned any useful skills, and isn't worth a thing to them anymore. Suddenly Paul isn't just an oddly-dressed traveller; he's a threat to the status quo. He upset our apple cart! The gravy train left without us! Somebody's gonna pay! We'll teach this Jew to stick his nose in our legitimate business! They grabbed Paul and Silas; why they didn't grab Luke and Timothy is anyone's guess. And they dragged them into the marketplace. That's where the magistrates, the judges, were. And that was the best place to get a mob together.

The magistrates held a hearing. To do things legally, if you're going to punish someone, you need charges, you need a trial, you need a verdict, and you need a sentence. How did these magistrates do?

First, the charges. What were the charges against Paul and Silas? In verses 20 and 21, they're charged with exceedingly troubling the city, and teaching unlawful customs. Troubling the city? They exceedingly troubled two slave owners, that's all. Teaching unlawful customs? They knew Paul and Silas were Jews, so they assumed they were teaching the Jewish law. They had no idea what they were teaching.

Okay, those were the charges. Next, we need a trial. There was none. Okay, now we need a verdict. There was none. The magistrates went straight from the charges to the sentencing. We know the multitude was rising up together against Paul and Silas; maybe the magistrates were more worried about the crowd than they were about the truth. Remember a certain Roman governor in Jerusalem who had that same problem?

So now we come to the sentence. "Rip their clothes off them, and beat them!" In 2Cor 11:25, Paul said he had been beaten with rods three times, and this was probably one of them. I haven't been able to find out what kind of rods were used, whether they were rods like a bamboo stick or rods like a baseball bat, but whatever they were, it was a serious punishment. When you got the whip, they counted how many lashes you got, but Luke couldn't even count how many times Paul and Silas got hit. He just says they laid many stripes on them. They were probably beaten close to senseless.

But that's not enough for these magistrates. Now that these troublemakers have been beaten black and blue from head to toe, with some wounds open and bleeding, now we really need to show 'em who's boss! They send them to jail. They tell the jailer to guard them well. That's all they tell him. They have no official court records to give him; they don't say how long these two will be in jail. "Guard them," is all they say. So he does.

Roman jails were not nice places. A modern medium-security prison would seem like paradise to a Roman convict. They didn't have bars in the windows, because they didn't have windows. No ventilation, no light except the lanterns or torches carried by the guards. Sanitation was nonexistent. Rats were common. And the inner cell, where they put Paul and Silas, would have been even worse. But even that wasn't enough. This jailer was going to guard these criminals well! So, once they were in the inner cell, he locks their feet in the stocks. In case you don't know, that's two heavy wooden beams bolted together, with holes for your ankles. You can't roll over, you can't bend your knees, you can't move anywhere. You just sit there, straight-legged, getting muscle cramps from your lower back to your toes, and you can't do a thing about it. That was Paul and Silas' reward for casting a demon out of a girl. And because there was no real sentence passed against them, they had no idea how long they were going to be there. A day? A week? Months? Years? No way of knowing. So there they sit.

Now we get to the part that everybody knows about, the miraculous earthquake. That certainly was a miracle, wasn't it? Actually, it was seven miracles right in a row.

The first miracle is in verse 25:

And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
That phrase "heard them" means they were listening to them. It's no miracle that Paul and Silas were awake at midnight -- they'd been beaten severely, they were in a very uncomfortable place, they couldn't move because they were in the stocks, they probably had rats crawling on their legs... it would have been a miracle if they had fallen asleep! But they were wide awake. They couldn't see anything, because they were in the inner cell (no windows) and there were no lights there. There were no magazines to read, no prison library, no TV, no weight room to work out in, not even a shower. All they could do was talk. And they couldn't talk about football, because it hadn't been invented yet. They had a choice between complaining about their situation, or being thankful in spite of their situation, so they prayed and sang praises.

The miracle is that a jail full of hardened criminals wasn't yelling at them to shut up, or cursing them, or threatening to kill them in the morning. They were listening. Those jailbirds were giving Paul a better hearing than some of us give our own preachers. The magistrates wanted to stop Paul from preaching, and all they did was give him a captive audience!

Miracle #2 is the one we all know about, the earthquake at midnight. It was definitely a supernatural earthquake. Not a stone in that jail was cracked or dislodged. But all the doors sprang open, and all the stocks and manacles and handcuffs popped open. Earthquakes don't do that. Unless they're guided by the hand of God, that is.

What was the point of this earthquake? Was it to set Paul and Silas free? No, because they didn't budge. This earthquake was a sign to someone. Someone very nearby. Someone who was ripe for the Gospel.

In verse 27, the jailer wakes up (I'm sure it was the earthquake that woke him). He sees the open jail doors, and thinks all his prisoners have flown the coop. And Roman law said that, if you were responsible for guarding someone and that someone escaped, it was your life for his life. The jailer thinks it's all over for him, and he draws his sword and is about to fall on it.

Verse 28 has miracles 3 and 4:

"But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here."
Miracle #3 is that none of the prisoners ran for it. They were all still there, in a jail with open doors. Why didn't they run? Scripture doesn't say, but we can make a really good guess. If they had escaped, the jailer would have killed himself, and his soul would have gone to Hell, when he was just a heartbeat away from getting saved. I think God held those prisoners in that jail.

Miracle #4 is that Paul yelled to the jailer. How did Paul know that the jailer was about to kill himself? Paul was in the inner cell, no windows, no lights. Paul couldn't see him. Paul couldn't hear him. How did Paul know? The only rational explanation is that the Holy Spirit told Paul what was about to happen outside, and why. Paul let out a yell to save a life, and he wound up saving some souls as well.

Miracle #5 happens in verse 29:

"Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,"
This poor jailer has just had the scare of his life. He's been awakened by an earthquake, he sees all his jail doors standing wide open, he's come within a hair of ending his own life, and now he's realizing that there's something beyond strange about this whole situation. Did he call on his Roman gods? Did he sit down and try to puzzle out what was going on? No, he somehow, supernaturally, knew exactly who was responsible for all this, and he knew that, out of a jail full of men, these two prisoners were somehow involved. All of a sudden, he wasn't treating them like convicts. He fell down before them; that's respect and awe. And that brings us to miracle #6, in verse 30:
"And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
We have no record of what the jailer knew about Paul and Silas. They had no official prison record, because they were never convicted for anything. All the jailer knew was that they'd been in court, that they'd been beaten with rods, and that he'd been ordered to keep them safely. If you were a prison guard, what would you think? You'd probably think these guys were dangerous, notorious criminals. You wouldn't think they were traveling Gospel preachers, would you? But, when all this weird stuff has broken loose, and the jailer gets his wits about him, what does he think? Does he try to stuff those two dangerous criminals back in jail and lock the doors again? Does he worry about all the other prisoners, standing there looking at him through their open cell doors? The one thought uppermost in his mind is that he needs to be saved, and that those two dangerous criminals know how, and that they're willing to tell him.

Where did the idea of salvation come from? The jailer didn't hear Paul and Silas praying and praising God; it says in verse 27 that he was asleep. This was the miracle -- that the jailer saw the sign God sent him, the open jail still full of prisoners, and he recognized the hand of God when he saw it, and he came under conviction right then and there.

So he asks Paul and Silas the most important question anyone can ever ask. "What must I do to be saved?" They give him a straight answer, the Gospel in one verse: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house." Apparently the earthquake and the shouting had awakened the entire household, however many that was. And Paul and Silas had themselves an evangelistic meeting right there in front of the jail in the dead of night.

And that was miracle #7, the greatest miracle of all -- that a sinner can cry out to God for mercy in the name of Jesus, and receive all the mercy there ever was. That wonderful message hasn't changed; it's the same for us as it was for that jailer and his family. Verse 33 says they were all baptized, and verse 34 says they all believed. No one else can believe for you. Baptism is still something that you should do after you've put your trust in Christ. And, then as now, becoming a Christian should cause a change in your life. We see this in the jailer, who was ordered to guard Paul and Silas safely. Before he was saved, that meant feet in the stocks in the inner cell. How is he guarding them now? He bathes their wounds, invites them into his house, and feeds them at his own table. That's a change. And why did it happen? Because that jailer had something to rejoice about. Paul and Silas got out of jail, but it's the jailer and his family and his servants who really got set free.

In the morning, the serjeants come with a message from the magistrates: "Let those men go." Do you think the magistrates had a change of heart? No. They never knew the facts, so they never cared one way or the other. They'd had their fun, they'd sent Paul and Silas a clear message, and now it was time to get those troublemakers out of town with as little fuss as possible. Paul had other ideas.

He lodged a formal complaint. "They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily." Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, and that counted for a lot back then. You know how zealously the ACLU protects the civil rights of criminals, perverts, and atheists? That's nothing compared to how the Roman government protected its citizens. Paul's civil rights had been violated, and he had every right to complain. And that complaint scared the magistrates to death. They'd played so fast and loose with the law, they hadn't even tried to find out if Paul was a Roman citizen or not. They could go to jail for what they'd done. All of a sudden, Paul had power over them. What would he do to them?

Paul could have demanded restitution, he could have taken the magistrates to court, he had all kinds of options. All he wanted was that the magistrates admit they were wrong. He wanted them to escort him and his friends out of the city. You can just see them falling all over themselves to make sure he didn't get mad at them for anything else. "And... and... and we apologize for that little misunderstanding (it was all that one's fault, you know), and... and we hope you've enjoyed your stay in our fair city..." And Paul just looks at the wounds and bruises he'd gotten from being beaten with rods, and he says, "Right."

So Paul and his friends return to Lydia's house, comfort the brethren, and move on to the next city. That brings this chapter to the Bible to a close.

So what was the outcome of it all? What was the final score? Let's look at each of the people in this chapter.

Paul and Silas got a beating and a sleepless night, and they got the satisfaction of knowing that it wasn't pointless, that it was all part of God's perfect plan, and they got a church started in spite of it all.

The slave girl was set free from spirit possession, but we don't know what else happened to her. You'd think she would have turned to God, but we just don't know.

The slave girl's owners probably sold her, since she couldn't tell fortunes anymore. They never cared a bit for the Gospel, so their encounter with the apostles did them no good at all. It's kind of scary to think of them at the great white throne judgment, when they try to say, "Nobody told us!" And God will respond, "I arranged for you to meet two of My chosen apostles, and all you did was have them beaten up and thrown in jail."

The magistrates were in the same position. They were probably a lot more cautious after that when a perp was brought before them, but they never even tried to find out what kind of men they had met in the marketplace that day. They pronounced a cruel, unjust sentence on innocent men, not realizing that they themselves were under God's sentence of eternal death. They could have had that sentence pardoned, but they sent the apostles away instead. They, too, will have no excuses at their judgment.

The jailer and his family, and Lydia and her family, were the real winners. They had no idea what God had in store for them as they went about their business in Philippi. And their time with Paul, learning more about their new faith, was very brief. But even though the apostles couldn't spend much time with those new believers, their foundations went down to the solid rock, and they became the core of one of the Godliest churches there ever was. The proof of this is Paul's epistle to the Philippians. Of all the churches Paul wrote to, Philippi is one of the very few that he didn't have to rebuke or correct. All he had for them was praise.

So what's the bottom line for us? You've heard some challenges today, and you've heard some encouragement, and maybe you've learned a few things about this chapter that you didn't know before. What does God want to do with what you've heard today? God knows. You listen to him. If He's telling you to make some change in your life, don't be like the slave owners, who worried more about their material well-being and their comfort than obeying God. Be like the jailer, who had one moment to make a very important decision, and make the right choice.

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