To the End of the Earth: To the End of the Earth (38): Prison Time

Sermon by Derek Thomas on April 1, 2007

Acts 16:16-40

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

April 1, 2007


Acts 16:16-40

To the Ends of
the Earth
Prison Time

Dr. Derek W. H.
Thomas

We come tonight again to the sixteenth chapter. We began
to look at this chapter together last Sunday evening. Luke is giving us here
cameo portraits. I think Luke, as a historian, just relished in describing
certain events and certain characters, and the details of certain stories, and I
think you can detect that particularly in this chapter.

What we have in this chapter are stories–three
different stories–of three quite different people, all of whom come to a saving
knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We saw last week the story of Lydia, the
business woman from Thyatira; a fairly prosperous business woman, we think, with
possibly homes in Thyatira and here in Philippi, and some evidence perhaps to
say that she does business eventually in the great city of Rome itself. You
remember how Paul and Silas and Timothy and Luke have made their way to this
great city of Philippi, and there is no synagogue there, and on the Sabbath Day
they make their way to what is euphemistically called the place of prayer.
It’s a location by a river. The river is estimated to be about a mile and a
quarter or so from the city itself, and there a group of women are gathered
together. And it’s on this occasion that Paul begins to expound the Scriptures,
to preach Jesus and Him crucified. And Luke tells us this woman Lydia, this
prosperous business woman, is converted.

But Luke hasn’t finished the story, and tonight we
want to continue into other cameo portraits of the young (probably teenaged)
slave girl, and of course the Philippian jailer. Well, let’s pick up the reading
in Acts 16, and beginning at the sixteenth verse. Before we read the passage
together, let’s look to God in prayer.

Father, once again we bow before You. We
acknowledge that we are in need of being taught and instructed, and our eyes to
be opened and our hearts to be enlarged, and our affections drawn after You. We
thank You for the Scriptures, for the holy word of God. We thank You for this
book of Acts especially, and now as we come to the familiar and much-loved story
of the conversion particularly of the Philippian jailer, we pray once again make
this word fresh to us. Write it upon our hearts. Cause us to fall in love with
the Christ of this passage and the gospel of this passage, and the grace of the
passage. And all of this we ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God’s holy word:

“It happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave
girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much
profit by fortunetelling. Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out,
saying, ‘These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming
to you the way of salvation.’ She continued doing this for many days. But Paul
was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the
name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!’ And it came out at that very moment.

“But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they
seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the
authorities, and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said,
‘These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, and are proclaiming
customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.’
And the crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore
their robes off them, and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. When
they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding
the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw
them into the innermost prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks. But about
midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the
prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so
that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the
doors were opened, and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke
and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was bout to kill himself,
supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice,
saying, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!’ And he called for lights
and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas, and
after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they
said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your
household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all were in his
house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and
immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into
his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God
with his whole household.

“Now when day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen,
saying, ‘Release those men.’ And the jailer reported these words to Paul,
saying, ‘The chief magistrates have sent to release you. Therefore come out now
and go in peace.’ But Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us in public without
trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they
sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us
out.’ The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates. They were
afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to
them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the
city. They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they
saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.”

Amen. May the Lord add His blessing.

In 1736, Jonathan Edwards wrote a very important book
still in print and still much loved and read today. It is called A Narrative
of Surprising Conversions
. And in many ways that’s what Luke is giving us
here in the sixteenth chapter: a narrative, a portrait gallery, if you like, of
surprising conversions. Men and women — one man and two women from very
different social backgrounds: a prosperous business woman from Thyatira, a
seller of purple goods, expensive cloth and goods that only those with some
means would be able to afford; and then a slave girl, a teenage girl. Luke
spares us, I think, some of the details of what her life would have been like as
a slave girl, and one that almost, you get the impression, led an existence of
something like some circus beast being taken from one part of the city to
another, and a crowd would gather and ogle at her. And then a man who had seen
almost everything, I imagine; seen the worst of humanity; seen certainly people
at their worst; seen men and perhaps women too, thieves and robbers and
murderers, and perhaps worse, and had seen them in their worst condition, and
seen men and women in social degradation; a hardened man, perhaps. Try speaking
the gospel to grave diggers, and I think you’ll know what I mean. He had seen it
all and there was nothing new to him to shock him, but something came that night
that shocked him to the very core of his being.

We’ve already looked at the first portrait, and we
move on down this gallery to look at the two other pictures that Luke paints for
us.

The slave girl–it’s a week later, I think.
Paul and his companions are again meeting in the place of prayer…at least
they’re on their way to the place of prayer on the next Sabbath, and they’re
followed by this young girl, a slave girl who has a spirit of divination
(literally in the Greek a python spirit, and those of you who know your
Greek mythology can now wax eloquent as to what python represents here.
You will remember that the god Zeus had two twin sons, Apollo and Artemis, and
Apollo was said to have an oracle at Delphi. And it is also said that Apollo
manifested himself by means of a snake or a python that guarded the oracle at
Delphi, and some of this mythology has crept over into Philippi, and there are
those who think that when this girl begins to speak and prophesy she makes these
utterances at the behest of the Satan. She is in double bondage, do you see. She
is a slave girl who owns nothing of herself, but she is also in bondage to an
evil spirit. And for several days she follows the Apostle Paul and his
companions and utters these words: “These men are servants of the Most High God
and have come to tell us the way of salvation.”

A couple of questions arise as we examine this
portrait. The first is why does an evil spirit utter something that is true?

Because indeed they were servants of the Most High, and indeed they had come to
tell the way of salvation. And the Puritan William Bates put it, I think, in a
very meaningful and insightful way: that the devil will tell you a hundred
things that are true in order that he might tell you the hundred-and-first thing
that isn’t true, and weave his way of cunning and evil into the machinations of
your heart and soul.

But perhaps a more interesting question still is
why did Paul tolerate her for so long?
For several days apparently,
until–well, in our text it says in verse 18 that he was “greatly annoyed.” And
one gets the impression from the words that Luke actually employs here that he
was both irritated and troubled about her at the same time; troubled that such a
young girl would be caught in such a vice and grip of Satan, but irritated, too.
Yes, even the Apostle Paul could get irritated! He’d had enough of this. At
first perhaps he tolerated it. Was it perhaps because Paul wasn’t sure what to
make of her? Was it at first because she was in some capacity at least giving
him some publicity in the city of Philippi? Because he truly was on behalf of
the Most High God telling the way of salvation. But after a while I think it
just got on his nerves, you might say. And perhaps the thought entered into the
mind of the Apostle Paul that what appeared to be true may not quite have been
true; that the very expression the Most High God could be interpreted in
more than one way: that He was one of several gods, and that he had come to
declare the way of salvation…the way among many other ways, perhaps. And it was
time for Paul to exorcise this evil spirit, and in the name of Jesus Christ, he
speaks to the spirit and says, “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”
and the spirit left her that very hour.

Now Luke has a little play on words. It doesn’t come
across in our English translations, but Luke says the spirit left her, and the
means of making profit left them. It’s exactly the same word, and he puts them
back to back as though he’s having a little play on words here. The spirit left
her, and the means of making profit left them. And of course this provides the
segue into the second portrait, because it’s the commotion now as a result of
this exorcism that gets Paul and Silas imprisoned in the city of Philippi. These
owners of this slave girl drag Paul and Silas, and perhaps the others too, into
the marketplace, and they’re brought before the magistrates and they’re brought
before what a loose translation renders as the police or the lictors.
These are the men who walked about the city with rods and gave out summary
justice, painful justice. And Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten, and maybe
this is one of the beatings that Paul refers to in his Second Epistle to the
Corinthians when he refers to the 39 lashes. Maybe this is one of those
incidents.

There’s a lesson here, before we move into the
segue. The same grace that saved a prosperous woman of great social standing,
the same grace was needed to save this young slave girl of absolutely no social
standing whatsoever.
You have one woman of high degree and eminence in
society, and you have another at the very dregs of society; but it’s the same
grace that is operative in both of the lives of these women to bring them out of
the bondage of sin and Satan and into the arms and embrace of Jesus Christ.

And that leads now to the segue to the third
portrait, and it’s of course the famous portrait of the Philippian jailer.

He’s given orders to guard– and really guard–Paul and Silas and he has
them put in the innermost cell, and their feet are put in the stocks. And then
something extraordinary and perhaps quite unexpected: at midnight there is the
sound of singing and praying, and the psalms of David from memory, no doubt, are
being sung. (I would love to know what the tunes were! Wouldn’t that be an
extraordinary thing?) And do you note how Luke records that even the rest of the
prisoners were listening to them? This is Paul, who writes in Romans 5, “we
rejoice in tribulations also.” We don’t just tolerate them, we don’t just grit
our teeth, we don’t just address them with stoic reserve. “We rejoice in
tribulations” because Paul knew that it was through tribulations that God time
and again draws His people closer to Himself. Paul understood that this period
of tribulation and the bleeding wounds on his back and that of Silas was an
indicator that God in His extraordinary providence was working something for the
good of His people.

“His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flower.”

And then there’s an earthquake in a region of the
world that to this day is given to earthquakes. And in the course of this
earthquake, the foundations of the prison are shaken and the doors…the locks on
the doors somehow are released, and the bolts perhaps that held them to the
floor or the wall are released. And the jailer thinks the worst, and attempts
even to take his life, because if the prisoners have been released, the Roman
form of punishment for the jailer would be to have that penalty of those
prisoners now inflicted upon himself. And Paul exclaims from within the prison,
“We’re all here!” And the jailer calls for lights, and comes to where Paul and
Silas are, and trembling and wrought upon now by the Spirit of God, shaken in
his soul indeed, cries out, “Sirs! What must I do to be saved?”

Now my friends, there is no more important
question in all the world than that one
. Of all the things that are on your
mind, of all the questions, of all the things that you are thinking about that
you need to do tomorrow…that “To Do” list…and some of you are good at “To Do”
lists, and it’s long and it’s complicated…and the things that you were supposed
to have done months ago, and they are a burden and a concern to you. But my
friends, they pale into insignificance in comparison to this question: “What
must I do to be saved?”

He asks the way of salvation. He’s not asking how he
will be released from Roman retribution. After all, none of the prisoners have
escaped. No, this is a spiritual question. It’s the profoundest question of all,
and Paul’s answer…Paul and Silas, as they respond to this question, give a clear
and straightforward response to this question: “Believe on the Lord Jesus
Christ, and you will be saved, and your household.” The way of salvation, the
way of rescue from sin, the way out of bondage to Satan is by believing in the
Lord Jesus Christ.

“Upon a life I did not live,

Upon a death I did not die,

Another’s death, Another’s life,

I stake my whole eternity.”

Do you notice what Paul doesn’t say in answer to
the question “What must I do to be saved?”
Paul doesn’t say, “Be baptized.”
Now, he is baptized, but that wasn’t the answer to his question. There are some
who think that when the jailer took him to his home, his adjacent house, and fed
Paul and Silas that they participated in the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think that
myself, but that’s what some commentators say. But that wasn’t Paul’s response —
“Take the Lord’s Supper and you will be saved.” Paul’s answer was not “Associate
yourself with the covenant community and receive the boundary markers,” because
that too is not the way of salvation. The way of salvation is “Believe on the
Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
” It’s faith, and it’s faith alone,
in Christ alone. It’s “Forsaking all, I take Him.” Faith! I abandon myself.
That’s what faith is. It’s an abandonment of any hope that lies within
myself…that there is nothing that I can do, there is no work that I can
accomplish, there are no motives that I can fulfill. It’s all of the grace of
God, and the only thing that I can do and the only thing that this jailer can do
is cast himself utterly and unreservedly and completely into the arms of Jesus
Christ, who says to him, “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and are heavy
laden, and I will give you rest.”

Yes, we exercise faith. God doesn’t believe for
us. It is my faith. It was the Philippian jailer’s faith, but that faith itself
was a God-given gift of the Holy Spirit. God was at work in the soul of this
man.

“I sought the Lord, and
afterwards I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him,
seeking Me.

It was not I that found, O Savior
true;

No, I was found of Thee.”

And providence, you see…an earthquake. As in the case
of Lydia, it was the exposition of Scripture, in the case of the slave girl it
was an exorcism of an evil spirit. In the case of this Philippian jailer, it was
an earthquake that brought him to a realization of His mortality and needs, and
that at a moment’s notice he could be brought into the presence of his maker and
creator, and he cries out, “What must I do to be saved?”

Now there are evidences of a true work of
conversion here: the kindness that he shows Paul and Silas.
He had shown no
kindness beforehand, you notice. Now he bathes their wounds and shows them
kindness. And he’s baptized, he and his household. There and then! Later in the
church, of course, in the first century, there would be a period of examination
before baptisms would take place, but there is no church here in Philippi, and
Paul and Silas the next day are going to leave the city. If he was going to be
baptized it was going to be then or perhaps never, and so Paul, perceiving the
true mark of conversion, has him baptized, and he takes the name of Christ and
owns the name of Christ, and becomes a soldier of Jesus Christ, and bears now
that mark, that testimony of faith and adoption, and the forgiveness of sins and
the hope of glory. That’s what baptism testifies to–that God the Holy Spirit had
wrought a work in the heart for this man.

And then he takes Paul and Silas to his adjacent home
and feeds him. He feeds him. And then, presumably–Luke doesn’t tell us, but
presumably Paul and Silas went back to the prison again, because the next
morning when the lictors come and announce that these men are now to be
released, Paul then drops his bombshell that having been beaten publicly they
are not going to be released secretly, because they are Romans. And though law
has been broken here, now what do you think Paul is up to? And I rather think
that Paul is thinking not so much of himself, not so much of his honor as a
Roman citizen, because at the end of the day I don’t think Paul could care less
about his Roman citizenship, in comparison to his citizenship which is in
heaven.

No, Paul is thinking about this little fledgling
community in Philippi, and he is trying to do something that will ensure that
these young fledgling Christians in Philippi are not maltreated once Paul and
Silas are gone. And he puts the fear of God in them and demands–and here you’ve
got this astonishing scene of these magistrates, these high and mighty
magistrates who have beaten Paul and Silas so their backs are a bloody shred,
and now here they are and they’re pleading and begging with Paul and Silas to
leave the city, lest there be some kind of civil riot, and the mob–the
‘rent-a-mob’ mentality arise again.

And you notice one more mark of the true nature of
the Philippian jailer’s conversion, that we read that he rejoiced greatly

(vs. 34):

“He brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly,
having believed in God with his whole household.”

There was joy, joy unspeakable and full of glory, the joy
that only those who know their sin is forgiven can relate — the joy of knowing
that we have peace with God, the joy of knowing that we are in union and
communion with Jesus Christ, who is risen from the dead, the joy of knowing that
if we die we go immediately into the presence of God, the joy that reasons that
whatever providence, whatever circumstance befalls us–as we heard in a song this
evening– that we are kept in the shadow of the Almighty, and we are kept by the
power of God.

Three cameo portraits of a prosperous woman and a
young slave girl, and a man of the world in the Philippian jailer, and all three
of them from different social backgrounds…different characters and different
temperaments…and all three of them are brought to a saving knowledge of Christ
by the same way: by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

I was reading the other day the biography of Lord
Kenneth Clark. Some of you will recall Kenneth Clark from a very popular TV
series called Civilization, and one of those coffee books you know came
out as a result of it…and it may be sitting on your coffee table. He said during
the making of that show, that series of programs that he made about Western
civilization, that he experienced something quite extraordinary when he was
filming in a church, and he spoke about being “irradiated with heavenly joy.”
And then he says the thought came to him that if he told his family this, they
would think that he was quite mad. And he says, “I was too deeply imbedded in
the world to change the course of my life.” And as far as I know, he died in
unbelief, as he had lived.

My friends, this Philippian jailer said to himself it
was now or never. He wanted to know the answer to the question, “What must I do
to be saved?” And hearing that all that he had to do was to stretch out empty
hands and embrace Christ as He is offered in the gospel, freely to sinners like
you and me, he laid hold of Christ by the Spirit, and God granted him the joy of
knowing that his sins were forgiven. It is the most important question in all
the world. It’s the question, and you, and you, and you, and me…we all of us
have to ask that question: “What must I do to be saved?” And the answer, my
friend, is believe in Jesus Christ with all your heart and all your soul, and
you will be saved, you and your household.

Let’s pray together.

Father in heaven, we thank You for the gospel, for
free and sovereign grace, for an assurance that trusting in Christ, in Christ
alone, in Christ’s death and expiation and propitiatory work, forsaking all, I
take Him. We thank You for the joy that comes to those who do just that; the joy
of forgiveness; the joy that now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet
appear what we shall be. Lord, I pray this evening for anyone in this building
who has yet to ask that question. Holy Spirit, grant them no rest. Surround them
with those earth-shaking providences that force them to exclaim, “What must I do
to be saved?” and may they hear those sweet notes: “Believe on the Lord Jesus
Christ, and you will be saved.” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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