The Music of the Gospel (Acts 16)

Arpeggio.  Decrescendo.  Fermata.

For some of you, these words must sound like some sort of European shopping list.  But if you read music, each word means something very specific.

The gospel works like this.  To those outside, the language of the church must sound alien—maybe even intimidating.  It would be the same as handing someone a page of sheet music.  If they can’t read music, the page must seem like a foreign set of symbols.  Even if they read music, they may catch only a sense of the composition—something only made complete by hearing it out loud.   We would call that “mission.”  To be on mission means to live out the gospel in every facet of life, so that those who don’t speak our language can hear the gospel “out loud” in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Yesterday, we learned how Paul’s church-planting efforts led to the conversion of a woman named Lydia.  Now, we return to his church-planting efforts in Philippi to understand some of the cultural background of Paul’s journey.

THE GOSPEL OUT LOUD

For some, like Lydia, Christianity becomes attractive through rational conversation.  But there are many others who need an experience to hang their faith on.  Listen to the amazing story of what happened with Paul and Silas:

As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.  17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”  18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.  (Acts 16:16-18)

If you’re reading this story in the original Greek, you notice the text says that the girl was afflicted with “a spirit, namely a python.”  A snake???  In his commentary on Acts, Bruce Longnecker notes that this image had a lot of cultural baggage:

“The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to  the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo Geography 9.3.12). Later the word python came to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke—even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly (cf. Plutarch  De Defectu Oraculorum 9.414).” (Longnecker, Acts… p. 462)

In other words, there are many people who try to manage their lives by trying to order the world around them through spirituality.  Here, the slave girl seems to be the possession of some sort of evil spirit.  But it gets worse.  Even after Paul heals her through Christ’s power, we see that her bondage persists:

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.  20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.  21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”  22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.  23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.  24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:19-24)

She’s not merely enslaved by an evil spirit; she’s also enslaved by a culture that takes advantage of her for profit.  There’s a lesson here.  Christianity will always be attractive to some—like Lydia—but offensive to others.  And when the gospel challenges the prevailing songs of self-satisfaction that come from “personal spirituality,” well, then you have a recipe for ridicule, disbelief—even persecution.  So when this happened to Paul and Silas, they were placed in prison.

TESTIMONY FROM A JAIL CELL

What happened next stretches past our wildest belief:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them,  26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.  27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.  30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.  35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.”  36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.”  37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”  38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens.  39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.  40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:25-40)

The only thing more staggering than the earthquake was the fact that Paul and Silas didn’t use it as an opportunity for escape.  Jailers were often older, retired military servicemen.  They had one job: to keep the prisoners in jail.  If they failed?  They could expect death—or worse, torture at the hands of the Roman officials.  So the jailer saw suicide as preferable to facing his superiors.  Paul’s choice to remain saved the man’s life.

Together they went to the man’s household—where the entire family heard the gospel.   “Believe in Jesus,” Paul says, “and your whole house will be saved.”  What does he mean?  Surely he’s not saying that if the jailer believes, the rest of his family can be “grandfathered in.”  No; I think what Paul is saying is that the belief in Jesus is what saves—regardless of whether you personally witnessed such a miracle.  Sure, the jailer witnessed something powerful.  But ultimately it was faith in Jesus that brought him deliverance, and the same became true of his family.

The point?  Most of us will never spend time in a Roman prison.  But all of us have opportunities to live out the gospel in front of others.  In that sense, we are all missionaries to the various parts of our culture, and to a world that longs to hear the gospel’s beautiful melody in a world full of static and noise.

THE CHURCH IN PHILIPPI

All of which brings us to the church in Philippi.  Paul opens his letter with a customary greeting:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:  2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:1-2)

By this time, Paul is surely in prison in Rome.  In our next posts, we’ll look at the way Paul leaned on this fledgling church for support—and cautioned them about the rough days ahead.

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