Acts 17:5-9: Backlash.
Acts 17:1-4: Progress.
“When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.” NIV UK
Thessalonica was the capital of the province of Macedonia (see 16:9, 10). Today this city is called Salonika, and it is still one of the main cities in northern Greece. Although, as we shall see, Paul had to get out of town fast, a healthy church was planted as a result of his ministry, and it was to this newly established congregation that Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Verses 1-9 here provide important background information for when you read those two epistles.
Note two points from today’s reading:
There are good habits to form (2): ‘’As his custom was…’’ It is a good discipline to regularly attend public worship, whether you feel like it or not. Paul’s habit, when he turned up in a new town, was to head for the synagogue and start communicating with Jews first (Romans 1:16).
There are good reasons to believe (2,3). Dale Rhoton wrote a book entitled ‘The logic of faith’. Paul, as a converted Jew, knew that there were excellent Biblical reasons to believe in Jesus as Messiah. He had ‘seen the light’ and he was red-hot keen to spread that light around. Don’t you wish you could have heard just one of those synagogue sermons? Each one, I imagine, would be a master class in how to present the case for Christ to Jewish people. Whether we are talking to Jews or Gentiles, the truth is that there are very good reasons to believe, and we need to make sure we are ready to give answers to any who may pump us for more information.
Well, there was a great response, not just among the Jews, but also from the Gentile community (4) Among those ‘’Greeks’’ were Aristarchus and Secundus, who are mentioned in Acts 20:4. There was a big breakthrough, but ‘revival’ on such a scale does not come without a price tag. A storm was brewing.
Acts 16:35-40: The secret of J.O.Y.
“35 When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” 36 The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” 38 The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39 They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.”NIV
The letter to the church in Philippi has been called ‘the epistle of joy’. Its key words gather around the themes of joy and rejoicing. This is the case even though it was written from prison. It’s been said that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is really ‘happenness’ because it’s determined by what happens to you, whereas joy remains a constant in all things. It is rooted in a person’s relationship with God, who does not change even if everything else does. It’s also been pointed out that the secret of J.O.Y is ‘JESUS first, OTHERS second, and YOURSELF last.’ Today’s reading reveals just how much Paul and Silas put others before themselves. After all that had happened to them, you could understand it if these preachers had got out of town as fast as possible, now they had the opportunity (39); shake off the dust and run. But their thoughts were very much with the fledgling church they were going to leave behind (40).
This probably explains why Paul and Silas didn’t stand on their citizen’s rights in (23), but did so in (37) The previous day they didn’t try to avoid suffering for Christ. They weren’t cowards. But, probably, by demanding an open apology from the magistrates the next day, they were hoping that there would be greater respect for Christ’s gospel and His messengers, and therefore for the new Christian congregation in town. (According to Roman law it was illegal to beat a Roman citizen. So the magistrates came to realise that they had made a huge mistake. They were afraid of being severely punished themselves). It seems to me that Paul and Silas played their hand wisely, and are a good example here of the principle stated by Jesus: ‘’…be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves’’ (Matthew 10:16).
We know, by the way, from the letter to the Philippians, that the church in Philippi thrived, and became a strong missionary supporting church (Philippians 4:10, 14-16), giving help to Paul in his work.
PRAYER: Lord, help me to be someone who always puts others before myself. The truth is, I’m hit and miss at this. You know it Lord, and so do I, so it’s no use pretending otherwise. Particularly when I feel hurt, I want to curl into a self-protective little ball. It’s a weakness dear Lord, and I’m asking for your help ‘to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds…’ I can’t succeed without you. I’m shamed by Paul and Silas’ concern for the good of the church, and I need for you to grow my heart. I’m crying out, ‘Help!’
Acts 16:25-34: A spiritual quake
“25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’ 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31 They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.’ 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole household.”NIV UK
F.B.Meyer brings out a contrast between the experiences of Lydia and the Philippian jailer. He points out that when the business woman heard God’s Word her heart was opened like a flower in the sunlight. But the jailer’s experience was volcanic, convulsive, stormy and shattering. No two conversion stories will be exactly the same, but what matters is that people should come to know Jesus, by whatever route they may arrive. God knows how best to deal with each individual. For the jailer, the foundations of his whole life were shaken. What was happening to the structure of the jailhouse was nothing compared to what was taking place in his heart. There was ‘a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.’ That his conversion was real is evidenced not only in his baptism (33), but also in the joy that filled his heart (34) over this new and radical turn of events, and in the kindness he showed to Paul and Silas (33a, 34a). The fruit of the new life in Christ began to grow immediately. It was lovely in appearance, and delicious to the taste.
It’s not surprising that the jailer would think that everyone had made a run for it. It was a logical conclusion to reach. With the darkness of the prison, he probably couldn’t see clearly. He no doubt feared the death penalty (see 12:18,19).So Paul had to reassure him that no one had escaped. Perhaps the fact that no one did is a miracle within a miracle!
Acts 16:26: ‘’Suddenly’’
“26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.” NIV g
I love the story of the negro preacher who had his own take on this story. He said the Lord was so enjoying the music made by Paul and Silas that He started to stomp His feet. That foot-tapping in heaven reverberated on earth, causing the prison to shake!
It was one of those ‘’Suddenly’’ moments. There had been another on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2). I’m sure that Paul and Silas didn’t pray just because they were in prison. It was their habit to pray. But after many ordinary days of faithful prayer, there can come the ‘’Suddenly’’ day, the ‘’Suddenly’’ moment. When God moves in power, big things can happen swiftly and dramatically; major problems are solved. God’s presence was manifested (see also 4:31). Someone observed that the jailer wasn’t about to become a convert to the ‘God is dead’ movement!
The ‘’chains’’ would have been securely attached to the walls and floors of the prison cell. Nevertheless, God caused them to come apart. It shouldn’t have been happening, naturally speaking, but God’s power made it happen. It is still true today that by God’s power prisoners of sin are supernaturally released. Hoe well Charles Wesley expressed it in a great hymn:
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night,
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee..’
Acts 16:25: Prison ministry
“25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” NIV UK
‘’…and the other prisoners were listening.’’
As you go about your life today, you will be surrounded by ‘prisoners’. What will they hear from your lips?
Will they hear words of grace, words of healing, words of life, words of release?
Will they find themselves listening to…
‘’The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He weakens me morning by morning, weakens my ear to listen like one being instructed’’ (Isaiah 50:4).
Will some people receive the words of loving rebuke that you, deep down, know you should speak, and that they, in their deepest hearts, know they should hear? Or will fear dam up the stream from your mouth? (Some prisoners have grown comfortable in their cells. They like the sense of familiarity. There are those who will require strong words to point them in the direction of the now open prison door, and challenge them regarding what they will do about it).
Most of all, will they know that they are listening to someone who loves God; whose heart overflows – bursts its banks – with floods of song and prayer, whatever the circumstances? Will they know they are hearing a worshipper?
‘’Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few’’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
Perhaps most of us are guilty of saying too much and listening too little – to God, and to others. It doesn’t take a lot of words to bless someone else. They just need to be words which come ultimately from God, via your lips.
PRAYER: ‘’May these words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer’’ (Psalm 19:14)
Acts 16:25: Songs in the night.
“25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” NIV UK
‘’I remembered my songs in the night’’ (Psalm 77:6).
As we know, Paul and Silas were in a dark place:
They had been treated unjustly;
They were held in the most secure area of the prison;
They were placed in stocks in such a way as to cause great discomfort;
Their bodies must have been raw from the severe beating (23 – we know from verse 33 that their wounds needed washing).
Make no mistake, these men were in pain. It was ‘’midnight’’ (25) in more ways than one. Yet what were Paul and Silas doing? They ‘’were praying and singing hymns to God’’. They were shining a bright light into that dark place.
Wherever we are, and whatever we are facing, there are eyes on us and ears listening in. Do we believe what we say we believe? They want to know. Will we act consistently with our deepest convictions? We are being assessed. None of us wants to face trials. It’s counter-intuitive to want to suffer. In times of difficulty, though, we have opportunities to glorify God.
I have just recently begun to read the biography of Ron Dunn. He was an exceptionally gifted communicator from the South of the United States. Here in the United Kingdom he preached at Keswick and Filey. He wrote a number of books: ‘Don’t just stand there, pray something’ is a notable example. However, Ron suffered immensely, in a variety of ways, in what turned out to be a relatively short life. What I see in the biography is that so many people were deeply affected not just by what he taught, but by the way he lived what he taught – even in the very worst of times. He sang in the night.
PRAYER: Lord, I recognise that we who say we love you are always being watched. I pray that people will see Christ in me
Acts 16:16-24: Vested Interests.
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her. 19 When her owners realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practise.’ 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.NIV UK
In 2 Corinthians 11:25 Paul states that three times he was ‘’beaten with rods’’. This was one of those occasions. The suffering of Paul and Silas, like Christ’s, was unjust. If we are faithful to Jesus we cannot expect less. The church is engaged in a very real battle with invisible, evil powers, and there are days when this seems more evident than others, like the one recorded here. Regularly it is when we go ‘’to the place of prayer’’ that we encounter the enemy, because he hates it. It’s a lethal weapon to be used against him. In today’s story the girl was controlled by an evil spirit. But as powerful as these beings are, the Lord Jesus is very much superior. When the command to leave came ‘’in the name of Jesus Christ’’ (18a), this demon did not take long to pack his bags. He was off, and she was free! However, when vested economic interests are challenged by the gospel, you can expect a big stink to be made, and that’s what happened here (19ff). F.B. Meyer comments that whereas worldly people care most about their money, what moves the hearts of believers is the captive state of people who are lost; those enslaved by the devil. We know that people matter way more than things. It’s been pointed out that to a large extent the accusation was true (20, 21). By preaching Christ in a Roman colony like Philippi, they were in fact breaking the law of the Roman Empire. According to Roman law, it was illegal for anyone to preach a strange or foreign religion among Roman citizens. But Paul and Silas were not even given a proper examination at law. On the basis of the crowds’ outcry against them the magistrates assumed they must be guilty as charged, and had them beaten. If Jesus was hated by the world, we will be too. We must not be surprised if we find ourselves unfairly treated.
Well, this is not the end of the story, thank God, but we leave our heroes in dire straits (24). In Roman prisons these stocks were placed so that the prisoner’s feet would be spread widely apart, causing intense discomfort. They were held in the most secure part of the prison, and they were in pain. What did they do next? What would you do next?
Humanly speaking, there was no hope of escape for Paul and Silas. However, we are not speaking in merely human terms.
Acts 16:11-15: God’s business.