Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Opportunities open" (Acts 16:16-34)

1.     Preface

God can open opportunities through which faith can be shared and people can respond.
What might help such opportunities occur? How have you seen such opportunities open?

2.     Historical Incident

Paul and Silas find themselves in prison. They were there because they had been accused of causing a disturbance, something the control-freak Romans didn’t like. Paul had exorcised, from a certain girl, some form of ‘demonic spirit’ that had her involved in “fortune-telling”. She was doing this for money … money that went to those who ‘owned her’ (she was referred to as a “slave girl”). So Paul had no doubt cost this slave girl’s “owners” quite a bit of money. And they were furious, and were not going to take this lying down. They wanted to get the crowd on side to force the Roman authorities to take the strongest possible action against Paul; beware people who are separated from their money. They callously fed into the anti-Jewish sentiment that existed in Philippi, as well as the Roman objection to alternative religions (refer verses 20-21). Opposition built, and the Roman magistrates acted without any trial. Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten with rods – what was described as a “severe flogging” (v.23). Then they were thrown into maximum security prison. Their feet were fastened into wooden stocks with chains that would have connected to the wall (minimising movement). Such was the treatment of prisoners at the time, there would have been no reason to provide any point of relief at all … in the cause of making escape impossible.

So naturally Paul and Silas cursed in outrage, groaned in pain, and bitterly complained. No … it seems they didn’t at all (v.25)! Paul and Silas, it is reported, were “praying and singing hymns to God”. Remarkable! This was a totally unjust imprisonment, not to mention the degrading and inhuman cruelty that preceded it. If they had been given a chance to defend themselves, it would have been revealed that Paul and Silas were actually Roman citizens, and thus should never have been treated like this. And all Paul had basically done was intervene for someone was being badly exploited. They could have been praying for their release, and that would have been fair enough, but the context, and just the feel of this passage, suggest to me, that they were simply worshipping God.

This would have included trusting God for the outcome of this imprisonment. It might have seemed untimely, but perhaps there was some reason behind it. Their prayers I reckon were more likely to be selfless, hoping that God could bring some good out of this difficult situation. This seems to be confirmed by the actions Paul and Silas took later in staying put and not escaping; which also leads us to sense that there was some level of expectation in them that God would indeed do something. Certainly God’s answer was most to do with the opportunity to witness to faith. Singing hymns, as they were, would have provided a visible positive take on what was seemingly a bad situation.

What do you also notice in verse 25?? There were others prisoners also locked up here; and as Paul and Silas worshipped God, they were “listening to them”. And obviously they were impressed – maybe, blown-away, gobsmacked … for later they did not flee when they had the chance either! And I think that, on the basis of what follows, the prison guard was listening too! When we are worshipping (in the sense of living out our spiritual lives with sincerity and integrity), people are likely listening and observing.

Then there was what is described as an “earthquake”, but may have just been a strong earth tremor that often beset this area. Either way, it was enough to shake up the prison, open up the doors, and break chains away from walls. Certainly mass escape became both possible and likely!! When the shaking stopped, the prison guard … the “jailor” … immediately thought the worst (read verse 27). He might have already been feeling the heavy responsibility of his situation, and knew well the Roman custom – that he would suffer an extreme penalty if he failed in his job. He was on the edge, himself shaken, in an extreme emotional state, and prepared to take drastic action.

Quite often human beings have to reach the brink, before they think about the most important questions in life!

Lo and behold … Paul, Silas and other prisoners were all still there! The “jailor” heard Paul remarkably call out, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here”. How did Paul know, people ask, there in the dark, that the “jailor” was ready to take such drastic action? Some say that there just must have been some semblance of light for Paul to see by. But don’t you think this is one of those moments where God speaks to our spirit about something we would otherwise be unaware of. This is like when we get that clear thought that we should contact someone or go somewhere. And it is not until we ring or arrive that we find out why – that in fact is was crucial.

Now put yourself in the jailor’s shoes. Given high responsibility, seemingly failed (although it wasn’t really in his control), prepared to end his own life … only to find that his prisoners, who surely in any normal circumstances would have been long-gone out the door, were still right there. A situation, that has seriously gone pear-shaped, still bears the possibility of survival. Yet how? This is like life that starts to expire under severe difficulty, yet there comes the possibility of rescue. This all happens in the context of the “jailor” having heard Paul and Silas spend all night worshipping God, despite their sense of injustice, extreme discomfort, possibly enduring significant suffering.

The “jailor” fell down trembling before Paul and Silas in relief, respect (and possibly in hope). Was the answer to life’s central problems to be found through these guys? The singing, the praying, the earthquake, the prisoners non-escape, the calmness of these men (Paul & Silas) – all together this was quite unusual … were these servants of God? Paul and Silas had not been worried about ‘saving’ themselves … they seemed to have a higher agenda. The “jailor” took Paul and Silas outside, perhaps indicating that he felt that they shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place … these two men surely couldn’t have hurt anybody or caused any real concern!

The “jailor” asks respectfully (in verse 30), “What must I do to be saved”? The “earthquake” didn’t kill him, and he was already spared the wrath of his employers – what was he asking? All his needs, which centred in his spiritual needs, must have suddenly been exposed. Paul had “saved’ that girl the previous day from her demon-possessed servitude. Was this his moment – had all this been orchestrated to his benefit. This “jailor” man wanted to be whole – he wanted ‘salvation’!

God had created an opportunity though which Paul and Silas could bear witness to their faith to a man on the edge. A question was asked, and we hear the direct and clear answer (refer verse 31). For most people in that day, and in this day, such a statement would need to be expanded on and explained. Who is Jesus? Religious sounding concepts would have to be broken down to real personal experiences. How does salvation work in everyday life? This is what Paul and Silas were able to do, so that this “jailor” could easily understand (v.32). Here I quote from I. Howard Marshall (emphasis added):

            We may note … that it is not enough simply to face people with gospel proof-texts; there is normally need for careful instruction adapted to their particular situation, and for personal pastoral care, if the task of evangelism is to be successful and lasting in its effects.

We note with awe the salvation of this man’s “whole household”. We would perhaps interpret this to mean that the impact on the “jailor” was so great and so complete, that naturally this would pass into a positive response from all his family members. And in these times a person’s household was broader than we might think now. It included any slaves, friends or associates that often frequented this home. This jailor’s new faith spread deeply into the local community. And we immediately see evidence of a new discipleship in this “jailor” – first washing the wounds of Paul and Silas (showing the mercy of Christ), and then being baptised (confirming absolute faith in Christ). Then followed hospitality in his [nearby] home (exhibiting the welcome of Christ), and what seems to be a bit of a worship service (participating in the community of Christ where there was corporate joy in knowing God).

3.     Contemporary Learnings

(a)  Worshipful Attitude – in good times and in bad times

Salvation shows itself to be real in all circumstances. Joy in the Lord in the midst of suffering reveals the power of true salvation. As the prophet Isaiah put it, our “gloom [shall] be like the noonday” (58:10d). This is our witness to the one true God who alone is the way of salvation.

People are listening to our 24/7 worship. When having coffee and conversation are we talking positively (not running people down); are we generally thinking expectantly and hopefully (not being overly negative and allowing things to appear wholly hopeless)?!?

(b) Caring Spirit – in prayer and action

When the opportunity came, Paul and Silas gave high attention to the possibility of someone having his needs met and coming to know Jesus. What Paul and Silas managed to achieve here, summed up the four aspects of witnessing we looked at last week – desiring (example), discerning (why the earth tremor?), inviting (“believe in the Lord Jesus”), and demonstrating (non-escape & biblical explanation).

(c)  Clear Testimony – both in the basics and in personal tones

They went to the jailor’s home – into his zone, and spent time discussing what it means to follow Jesus.

4.     Today’s Opportunity

The “jailor” and his household responded heartily to the example of faith put forward by Paul and Silas. When the path of salvation through Jesus was explained in ways that could be readily understood, they committed, and were baptised. They then immediately started on the road of discipleship (including ministries of care, hospitality and worship).

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