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“God at Work”

Acts 16:11-40
Bob DeGray
February 20, 2005

Key Sentence

Those who pursue the work of God rejoice to see God at work.


I. God opens the heart (Acts 16:11-15)
II. God cures the spirit (Acts 16:16-23)
III. God frees the prisoners (Acts 16:24-40)


        When Gail and I moved to Texas in 1981, we quickly got involved in a small group led by Paul and Sandra Christiansen. One thing I remember from that group was that Paul would write down our prayer requests in a journal every week, and periodically he would flip back and note with us the various ways that prayers were answered and that God was at work. That was a very faith building experience. This week I’ve been looking for testimonies of God at work among us. One of the places I looked was the prayer page of past bulletins. It’s a pretty encouraging exercise. For example, I noted right away that as late as September last year we were praying for Robin and Debbie Rushing to get visas for the move to Slovakia. And they did. Now we’re within a few weeks of the actual move, and God is still answering prayers. Just last weekend God miraculously provided Robin and Debbie not one but two rare books that give information they wanted to take with them to Slovakia. Both the books were in the same, closed, bookstore - and yet they were able to find and buy them. As Robin said “Astronomical odds against that. No coincidence.” Seeing God at work this way is a joy.

        In Acts 16:11-40, God is at work in the city of Philippi: in people’s hearts, in spiritual warfare, and in physical rescue. Paul and his companions weren’t there on their own: God was with them in every situation. And that’s true for us as well: the details are different, but we see too that those who pursue the work of God rejoice to see God at work. Those who pursue the work of God rejoice to see God at work.

I. God opens the heart (Acts 16:11-15)

        We begin with God at work in the heart in the conversion of a woman named Lydia. Acts 16:11-15 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. 15When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. "If you consider me a believer in the Lord," she said, "come and stay at my house." And she persuaded us.

        Luke is now traveling with Paul, Silas, and Timothy, and he gives a first hand account of the voyage. Their boat went from Troas first to Samothrace, a rocky island in the Aegean sea, with a single mountain peak rising to over 5000 feet. The next day they went on to Neapolis on the Macedonian mainland. They made good time on this journey: 150 miles in two days. Acts 20 tells us that the return trip took five days.

        From Neapolis they walked ten miles inland to Philippi, on the famous Ignatian highway that spanned Macedonia. The paving stones and curbs of that road are still found in many places in Greece today. Philippi was given its name by Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, in the fourth century b.c. About two centuries later it became part of the Roman Empire, and at the end of the first century b.c. it was made a Roman colony, settled by Roman veterans. It was the leading city of one of the four districts of Macedonia, and a center of culture, religion and commerce.

        On the first Sabbath in Philippi, Paul went, as was his custom, to the synagogue to share Christ with the Jewish inhabitants of the city. But it took a minimum of ten adult male Jews to form a synagogue - and apparently Phillipi fell short, So instead of a synagogue there was simply ‘a place to pray’, and those who prayed were mostly women. At least one of those was a Gentile, a woman named Lydia who came from Thyatira. This was a well known city back on the other side of the Aegean in modern Turkey. Lydia was a business woman, a dealer in purple cloth made from the dye for which her home was famous. She was also a worshiper, a gentile who believed in the Jewish God and followed Jewish ways, though not herself a Jew.

        The end of verse 14 says that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message. This was God at work: he opened her mind, prepared her will, and shaped her emotions to respond to the good news. Notice the partnership: Paul speaks, God works. If Paul had decided this tiny group of seekers wasn’t worth it, Lydia wouldn’t have had the chance to respond to the good news. Yet it was God who did the work of salvation. Whenever someone comes to faith it is because God has been at work preparing the heart, opening the heart, allowing that person to look to Jesus and to trust him. This whole scene reminds me of Charles Spurgeon’s conversion. As a fifteen year old, he was under deep conviction - he knew he was a sinner, but he couldn’t grasp the way of escape. Then one Sunday, because of a heavy snow storm, he couldn’t get to the church his mother had recommended. He turned into a side street where a Primitive Methodist church met in a little chapel. Very few made it to church that snowy day, and the minister didn’t arrive, but one of the deacons, an unlearned faithful man, took it on himself to preach on Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is no other.” That text, that look unto me, emphasized over and over by that simple preacher, was the means God used to save Spurgeon. But it wouldn’t have happened if it were not for this deacon who was faithful to preach to a tiny group of people and a troubled teen on at snowy Sunday. And Lydia’s conversion wouldn’t have happened without faithful Paul working for God, who was himself at work.
        Next, Lydia was baptized. Some time must have passed, because Lydia seems to have sent for her whole household, and Paul had the opportunity to share with them before they joined Lydia in her new faith and in the symbol of that faith, baptism.

        So God is at work. He is at work whenever we see a heart hungry for the Good News about Jesus, whether a child’s heart at Awana, or our neighbors heart in a moment of need. Joanna Rask sent me several examples of God at work, including one from the early years of their marriage as they witnessed to Doug’s sister Donna. Joanna’s mom witnessed to her too. Joanna says “Donna used to ask us question after question, and Doug and I had answers so she would go on and on. When my mother witnessed, she just said, "Oh, I don't know how to answer that: you'll have to ask Doug and Joanna. The really important question, Donna, is what will happen to you when you die? Where will you spend eternity?” That question really bugged her, and God used it to bring her to belief. Like Lydia, God opened her heart.

II. God cures the spirit (Acts 16:16-23)

        The second example of God at work is in the spiritual realm. Acts 16:16-23 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17This girl 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." 18She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around 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. 19When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20They brought them before the magistrates and said, "These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." 22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.

        Luke tells us two things about this slave girl who confronted Paul and his friends. First, she had a spirit by which she predicted the future. Literally she had a python spirit. The reference is to the mythical snake which guarded the temple of Apollo and the oracle at Delphi. Apollo was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire ‘pythonesses’, his female devotees, with clairvoyance. Luke recognizes this as possession by an evil spirit. The second thing he tells us is that as a slave, the girl was exploited by her owners, for whom she made a lot of money by fortune telling.

        So this girl began screaming “These men are servants of the Most High God”, a term for the Supreme Being applied by Jews to Yahweh and by Greeks to Zeus - “they are telling you the way of salvation.” Since salvation was a popular topic of discussion in Greek culture, it’s not surprising that the girl chose this phrase to express what was being offered. It also wasn’t unusual for a spirit to recognize God’s messengers - Luke documents the same thing during the public ministry of Jesus. But why should a demon engage in evangelism? Perhaps the ulterior motive was to discredit the Gospel by associating it in people’s minds with the mythical and demonic.

        This hindrance continued for many days until finally Paul was provoked to action. He was troubled Luke says, deeply disturbed. The verb can be used for petty anger, but here it shows that Paul was both grieved by the girl’s condition and indignant because of the danger of this unwanted association. His distress led him to turn around and command the evil spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, which it immediately did. Though Luke does not describe her conversion, the fact that her deliverance took place between the conversion of Lydia and that of the jailer leads us to infer that she too became a member of the Philippian church.

        So God is at work again. Here his action is one that we cannot attribute to any human power or ability. True, Paul did tell the evil spirit to leave - but he did it in the name of Jesus. He was relying on Jesus, not himself. This attitude of dependence is most commonly expressed in prayer. That’s why we say in our vision statement that we depend on God in prayer. Prayer is really the weapon of our spiritual warfare: prayer in the name of Jesus which relies on the power of Jesus defeats the enemies’ schemes.

        Let me give you an example from the ministry of Jozef Abrman. Last November he wrote us about a young man named Andrew, saying “This summer he came to the conclusion that he wanted to reject Buddhism and accept Christ. He understood that he was a sinner in need of God's mercy and grace. He wanted to pray and give his life to Christ. Together, we went on our knees. He repented of his sin, rejected the false doctrines and asked the Lord Jesus to come into his life. His attitude and behavior changed visibly. Every time we would meet afterwards he asked me to pray with him. Last night, he asked me to write you this e_mail. He told me, "Jozef, please write to all your friends in America to pray for me. I can not stand this depression any more. Do you promise you will write to them?" I said yes. My dear friends, among the people whom we have led to the Lord in Slovakia, we never had a person who suffers from depression like Andrew. Please pray with us fervently for his deliverance.”

        Later Jozef wrote a second e-mail saying “Andrew's change has been truly remarkable since you started to pray for him last week! Tonight, Andrew asked me to thank you from his deepest heart for praying for him. He is truly amazed to see how Christians care for each other even though they may not know the person for whom they are praying personally. What a testimony! Thank you! The truth is that I have not seen Andrew so changed and doing so well ever since I got to know him in the summer of 2003. Tonight he said “Jozef, thank you for bringing me the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for bringing me to the community of believers. I never knew that real Christians existed in this world. I just want to live for Jesus completely from now on. Since your friends started to pray for me, my life is different." Victory in spiritual issues happens because God is at work, often in answer to our prayers.

        But even answered prayers have consequences. When the owners of this slave girl realized their source of income had been compromised, they naturally blamed it on Paul and Silas. They seized them, dragged them to the marketplace and brought them before the magistrates - Luke uses a word which accurately reflects the judicial structure of a Roman colony. Their accusation was clever. First it appealed to anti-Semitism - these men are Jews. Second, they are disturbing the peace - since those in authority always want to keep trouble from brewing, that’s a clever charge. Further they promote a religion we Romans aren’t allowed to practice. Romans citizens were officially forbidden to practice any religion except the state religion.

        So these slave owners couch their charges in ways that would appeal to the bureaucratic, proud Roman mind. And both the crowd and the officials go along with them, so that Paul and Silas are first flogged and then thrown in prison. The flogging was severe: it’s probably one of three Paul mentions later in reviewing his sufferings. And the instructions to the jailer were clear - keep these fellows very secure. Despite God being at work in freeing this young girl from the demon that possessed her, there was significant trouble. Just because God is at work doesn’t mean it will be easy for us: frequently God’s work draws us into deep waters and distress.

III. God frees the prisoners (Acts 16:24-40)

        But even these things are an opportunity for God to show his power. Let me read the rest of the passage, Acts 16:24-40: Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose. 27The 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. 28But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" 29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household." 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The 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 family.

        35When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: "Release those men." 36The jailer told Paul, "The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace." 37But 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 they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out."

         38The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia's house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left.

        The jailer took his instructions seriously - in many cases these ancient jailers were subject to the death penalty for loss of prisoners. So he locked them in the inner cell and chained them up. They should have been in agony, chained to a wall with lacerated backs and aching limbs. But Paul and Silas were not groaning - they were praising. Paul’s own theology taught him that believers can rejoice even in suffering because “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5. Still, you can believe all that without being able to live it in the darkest moments of life. Paul and Silas put that truth to work. Confident in God, they were able to praise from prison. And responding to that praise, God worked.

        Suddenly the prison’s foundations were shaken by a violent earthquake that threw open the doors and released the prisoner’s chains. Obviously this was no normal earthquake - it was a God-quake - a demonstration of God’s power intended not just to release the prisoners, but to release the jailer from this bondage to sin. God doesn’t do this power stuff just to be showy - he always has a purpose to touch men’s hearts and make a difference in their lives. Convicted of sin, the jailer fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked what he had to do to be saved. And the missionaries gave him the straight answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” That’s the Gospel in a nutshell: salvation by faith in Jesus. But notice that Paul and Silas don’t stop there: they go on to speak the word of the Lord to him and his house hold, opening up the way of salvation more fully. And the jailer responded. First, he washed their wounds. Then he and all his family were baptized. Finally, they welcomed Paul and Silas into their home, and fed and cared for them. And Luke says they were filled with joy. Paul and Silas doubtless experienced that joy as well. Those who persevere in doing God’s work have the joy of seeing God at work.

        Early the next morning, the rulers sent their officers to the jailer with orders to release Paul and Silas. These magistrates had probably experienced the earthquake and received word of its result and had decided that Paul and Silas were not a good prospect for a long term prison sentence. But Paul wouldn't let them get away with releasing them so quietly. He claimed for himself and Silas their rights as Roman citizens, and told the officers that the magistrates would have to come publically if they wanted to release them. I think it was probably the earthquake, rather than the citizenship issues, that influenced these magistrates to do what Paul wanted. At the same time, no doubt for the sake of public order, they asked Paul and Silas to leave the city. And that’s what they did, first returning to Lydia's house, where they probably met with and encouraged the believers before saying good-bye.

        So what have we seen? God at work? He’s the one who prepares and changes hearts so that people can trust Christ. But we have a part in that: it is to share the good news. He is the one who has the power in the spiritual realm to win victories. But we have a part in that: to pray. And he is the one who has power in the physical realm to set prisoners free, and in the spiritual realm to do the same for the prisoners of sin. But we have a part in that: to praise, to trust that even when from a human viewpoint everything has gone wrong, God is still at work. And like Paul and Silas, when we do have a God-worked opportunity we need to share the ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ’ that makes all the difference for prisoners of sin.

        God is at work. I want to close today by asking Don Sederdahl to come up and share his testimony of how God was at work in his life when he was saved.