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Unexpected Salvation

Date: May. 11, 2014

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Acts 16:16-40

Key Verse: Acts 16:29-30

“The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”

Can you believe that we celebrated Easter three weeks ago? That’s amazing. It seems like just the other day to me, but that might be because I gave the Easter sermon. I bring up Easter because our theme for 2014 was Uncommon. The thought behind Uncommon was that Jesus, Christian life, and the salvation that Jesus brings is not something that is common. It is weird, extraordinary and without equal. Jesus died so that we could have life; Jesus gave us an uncommon salvation. The funny thing is that the uncommon salvation that Jesus brings is many times an unexpected salvation as well. It happened with Paul. Paul was once Saul, the greatest enemy of Christianity. He sought out believers and had them thrown into prison no matter where they were, but one day Jesus came to him and saved him, too. Paul was on the way to Damascus to arrest Christians, but became a Christian before he arrived. Plus, after he arrived, Paul began to prove that Jesus is the Christ. Talk about unexpected. I can tell you from personal experience that the salvation that Jesus brings can be very unexpected. I was among the crowd for the least likely to accept salvation. I wasn’t one of those go-wild, willy-nilly sinners. I was a so-called “good boy.” I never drank or never smoked, and I was polite to others. I had no trouble whatsoever in school. I graduated in four years with two bachelor’s degrees and a minor with high honors. From the outside, I didn’t look like I needed salvation. I looked great, but inside there was a lot of turmoil. I was asked to study the Bible a number of times, but each time I refused. It wasn’t time. When I started to study the Bible with someone, I was there every week without fail, but no one could tell why. I didn’t know why I kept coming back and my Bible teacher couldn’t understand why I kept showing up for more than two years. He actually hoped that one day I would not show up. It was like teaching the Bible to a statue. You would never be able to tell if I understood what was being taught. I was pretty emotionless. What an unlikely candidate for salvation! Who saves a statue? Yet, here I am, saved by the blood of Christ. I didn’t expect it and I don’t think anyone else did either. Sometimes, that’s how it happens. Salvation comes when we least expect it to those we least expect, and we see it today in a passage that has more twists and turns than a pretzel.

Let’s get into the passage, “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.” (16) Paul and Silas were still in Philippi, where they met Lydia. At the start of this passage, Paul was heading back to the place where he met Lydia, by the river. Remember, there was no place of worship in Philippi that would be suitable for Paul and Silas to visit. They always went to the Jews first to proclaim the gospel, but Philippi had no synagogue, so the river was a place where people went to pray. In order to continue to preach the gospel, Paul went back to where he found Lydia. More people may have been ready to accept what they had to say. When they reach the place of prayer, they met a female slave. This wasn’t an ordinary slave, but one who was possessed by a spirit that allowed her to predict the future.

As the verse says, this earned her owners a great deal of money. The literal translation of the spirit she has is a “python spirit”. Now, the python was the symbol of the Delphic oracle and represented the god Apollo, who was believed to render predictions of future events. In this way, anyone that predicted the future would be considered to be led by the python. Greeks and Romans held divination and fortune telling in high regard. No commander would set out on a military campaign without consulting an oracle. In the same way, no emperor would make an important decree without seeing how it would turn out. That’s not that far off from what we would do. If you go around the city, there are tons of places where you can get your fortune told. If you knew that someone was legit in their ability to predict the future, wouldn’t you try to consult them on large decisions? “What would happen if I went to school A or school B? What would happen if I married that one person? If I order that burrito, will I pay for it later? Will the Cubs ever win a World Series?” Of course we would ask. It is in our nature to want to know about the unknown. If you look on online, there are people clamoring to know what the next Star Wars movie is about. And just think if you could find out what the winning Powerball numbers are. Wouldn’t you pay for that if you knew the person you were talking to  This girl was in high demand by high profile people. This would make her owners very wealthy. They used her for their own gain and now she came into contact with Paul and Silas.

When the girl met Paul and Silas, she couldn’t help but speak. “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.’ She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed 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.” (17-18) The girl kept following Paul and the others around Philippi, shouting that Paul served the Most High God and were telling people how to be saved. It sounds free advertising. They didn’t have to go out and tell people what they were going to do. They had a little megaphone doing it for them. You think that it would be a great opportunity for them, but instead, after a number of days, Paul became very annoyed.

To us, it may have seemed like free advertising, but this was going on for days. I doubt Paul really had much of a chance to speak with her shouting around them. It would be hard for him to get his message out with all the shouting that was going on. Plus, this seems very similar to times where demon possessed people were telling people that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus silenced them before they could really say anything. The demon’s proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God would have undermined his mission. People had preconceptions about what the Messiah would do, but Jesus wanted to show the people who he really was and let them come to the right conclusion. It might be for a similar reason, here, that Paul became annoyed with the girl. Her presence and words may have made it difficult for him to share the truth about Jesus because her words carried preconceived notions with them. The girl says that Paul is working for the Most High God, and while this phrase refers to God in Middle East, to Greeks, “Most High God” refers to Zeus, and Zeus, too is considered as one who saves. With the girl shouting, there may have been confusion as to which God she referred to, and that would not be helping Paul’s cause. So, he ordered the spirit to leave the girl and it did.

Here comes the first twist in the story. After casting out the spirit, the people were so thankful for what Paul did that they threw him a parade. The slave was set free, no longer bound by predicting the future. It was marvelous. Ok. Not really. It was kind of the opposite, actually. “When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.” (19) The owners had lost their source of income, and boy were they upset! They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them to the marketplace to face the authorities. There were no parades for them; it was a citizen’s arrest. I really don’t think that Paul and Silas expected to be arrested for casting out a spirit. It sort of reminds me of an event that happened to Jesus. Jesus cast out a bunch of demons from a man, and he allowed them to go into a herd of pigs. After the demons entered the pigs, they ran into the water and drowned, some two thousand pigs. The people of the region were not happy with the loss of income. That was a lot of expensive livestock that died and one man being set free was not worth it to the people. The same holds here. The men valued the slave girl because she could give them so much money. They didn’t really care about her wellbeing; they only cared about what she could do for them.

That sort of thought is commonplace today. In many walks of life, people seem to care about what a person can do, rather than the person. The extreme example is slavery. In Nigeria, two hundred girls were abducted by an organization called Boko Haram. The leader of Boko Haram sent a message to the public saying that he was going to sell the girls for just $12. He didn’t care about the girls at all, only what they could do for him. It’s made international news, and just last week, Boko Haram attacked a group of people who were searching for the girls in order to rescue them. It is a tragic view on life, but it pervades other cultures, too. We tend to like people based on what they do. We like people because they are nice or helpful or smart or even good-looking. Because we gain some benefit, we like the person. If that person were to leave, we become sad because their value to us is gone, much like the slave girl’s owners in the passage.

However, there is another way. We can simply just care about a person regardless of what they do. We see this most often in family. For those of you with children, you know very well that you love your children, not because of what they can do, but because they are your children. I don’t love my son Lucas because of what he does. He’s seven and a half months old. He doesn’t do much, but get into trouble. Yet, I love him because he is my son. The same holds for my daughter Ella, who can be so frustrating at times and my wife Viola. I love them. Someone may ask me why I love them, but I struggle to find a reason. It might sound a little cold, but my love for them is deeper that what they do for me. I love them because they are mine, and that is how God loves us. If we love others because of what they do for us, then when they do something that we don’t like, we came become upset even to the point where we don’t like the person anymore. Conversely, when we love the person, no matter what they do, we still love them. Again because God loves us because we are his, his love is not removed because we do something that goes against him. God loves us even in our sins, because he loves us.

The girl’s owners only cared about their stream of income. “They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.’” (20-21) The men’s charges had nothing to so with the loss of income, but were directed in trying to produce a conviction. The first charge was that the men were Jews. There weren’t many Jews living in Philippi, as evidenced by the lack of a synagogue, but the people were prejudiced toward Jews. The second charge is ambiguous; they were throwing the city into an uproar. The magistrates were responsible for law and order in the city. This charge, however nebulous, would get their attention. The third charge had more substance. The men said that Paul and Silas were “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The men were playing on the people’s distrust of Jews to get what they want.

Their charges were baseless, but the crowd joined them in attacking Paul and Silas and the magistrates ordered that Paul and Silas be stripped and beaten with rods. They were then, thrown into prison and the magistrates told the jailer to guard them carefully. So beaten and bloodies, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, into the innermost cell with their feet in stocks. They were tossed in the maximum-security wing of the prison and had their feet bound so that they could not move. It was a dismal prospect. The innermost cell had no windows and the only light would be torches and lamps burning throughout the day. It is a place that you would not want to go to.

Here comes the next twist. Paul and Silas could have been wondering what had happened. They had cast out a spirit and were now sitting in maximum security with they backs bloodied. They could have questioned what they were doing, but instead they sang. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” (25) It was midnight, a time when most people are sleeping, especially in that day, but Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns. I’m not sure if they couldn’t sleep because of their wounds, but the point is that in such a dark time, Paul and Silas were praying and sleeping. It’s amazing. They were in a dismal situation, but they were at peace enough to pray and sing. On top of all that, the other prisoners were listening to them pray and sing. Even though Paul and Silas were in the location of the prison that was usually reserved for the heaviest offenders and the greatest flight risk, they had the greatest peace.

If that twist wasn’t enough, here comes another one. While Paul and Silas were praying and singing, there was an earthquake. “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.” (26) Who would expect a midnight earthquake that causes all of the prison doors to open and everyone’s chains to come loose? That’s a twist and a half. Earlier in Acts, you might remember that Peter and the apostles were in prison a couple of times, but the Spirit of God let them out. An angel led Peter to safety. Is it the same here? Did God come to Paul’s rescue to deliver them from the hands of the people?

If he did, I’m not sure that Paul got the memo. “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. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’” (27-28) In yet another twist, nobody tried to escape. When the jailer woke up after the earthquake, he saw that the prison doors were opened and he feared the worst. He was responsible for each of the prisoners. If any of them escaped from his prison, he would be the one punished with imprisonment or death. To avoid the punishment, he drew his sword and wanted to kill himself, but Paul spoke up from his cell, “We’re all here!” Here is another twist. Not only did everybody stay in his cell, but also Paul had compassion on his jailer. He could have harbored resentment towards his captor, but instead he cared about him and didn’t want him to die needlessly.

But the twists just keep on coming. “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” (29-30) The jailer, the man who was in charge of the jail fell trembling before the prisoners Paul and Silas and he asked them, “What must I do to be saved?” This is a surprising question that seems to come out of nowhere. The jailer, too, must have been listening to Paul and Silas, but didn’t put much stock in it until the earthquake. His reality was shaken and his life was almost forfeit. The jailer must have realized the fruitlessness of his life and he sincerely wanted to know what he needed to do to be saved.

“They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.’” (31) Paul and Silas’ answer is also surprising. They told the jailer to believe in Jesus and he would be saved. The jailer asked, “What must I do?” and they said believe. This is another example of God’s great love. God loves people; he doesn’t love what they can do for him. Honestly, people can’t do anything but make a mess of situations, especially when compared to an almighty God. God doesn’t ask us to do anything to be saved, but to believe in what he has already done. That’s wonderful. All the other religions in the world have a list of do’s and don’ts that people have to follow in order to be saved. It really is a case of their deity caring more about what the people can do and not really caring about the people. You have to climb a ladder to get to the top, and those at top are hurling things down trying to prevent others from coming up. But Jesus is different. We heard it three weeks ago. The salvation that Jesus brings is different that the one presented by others. In Jesus’ salvation, he did all the work. The cost of our sins was his life. With Jesus, our sins are still punished, but it is Jesus that takes the punishment as the perfect sacrifice. He died so that we could live, and he didn’t stay dead. Jesus rose from the dead and conquered the power of sin…that is death. With Jesus’ death and resurrection we are reunited with our creator and we are saved from eternal death. God loves us because we are his children, and he would do anything to make sure that we know what he has done for us.

That is precisely what has happened in this passage. If you look at all the twists and turns in this passage, you see that it led Paul and Silas to this one jailer. God had such a heart for this jailer and his family that he sent Paul and Silas to him. How else would Paul reach the jailer except by being imprisoned? The long, strange road was to save one man and bring him to God. God loved the jailer, not for what he could do, but just because God did. I doubt that it is very different in our own lives. I don’t think that we even know what the path of our own salvation completely looks like.  There are probably more twists and turns that got somebody to share the gospel message with us than we realize. There was probably one day that someone randomly had to change their routine and they ended up meeting you and they were able to share the good news with you. They had no real reason to be where they were, but there they were and there you were.

Likewise, our lives are not lived in straight lines. There are all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, like the President showing up in Chicago and shutting down Lake Shore Drive, making everybody late. But those twists and turns aren’t necessarily random. Those turns may be leading you to someone because God loves them and he needs to intervene in your life because you would never meet him otherwise. There are a lot of twists and turns in this passage to get Paul and Silas to the jailer and a few more to prepare his heart to hear the message. Don’t overlook what is going on around you. Every step you take leads you somewhere and that somewhere maybe a place where you find a person that need Jesus dearly, like the jailer.

The story doesn’t really end here. Paul and Silas share the gospel with the jailer and his family and they believe. The jailer proceeds to clean their wounds and in turn, the jailer and his household were baptized. Each of them had accepted the message of salvation. Then, “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.” (34) The jailer took the prisoners out of the jail and brought them to his house, which evidently was not that far away. The jailer gave them food to eat and was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God. It was an amazing result. The man was so thankful and generous, much like Lydia was in the last passage. The church had expanded to include these two households as probably pillars of the nascent Philippian church.

The next morning, the magistrates ordered the Paul and Silas be released. When word came to Paul, he was not impressed. “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.’” (37) Paul was upset at how he was treated. This seems to be at odds with how we think a Christian should behave. Jesus had that turn-the-other-cheek policy, but this looks like a force-their-hand-and-make-them-pay policy. Apparently, the magistrates realized that Paul and Silas didn’t do anything wrong and had them set free, but Paul wanted the magistrates to publicly show their innocence. This was probably because the church in Philippi was young and they and the rest of the people in the city needed the assurance that the Christian leaders were blameless. This would put the church in a better standing in the city, letting people know that Christians are in fact upright citizens.

This whole episode was to grow the church in Philippi by saving the jailer and his entire household.  Paul and Silas had the most circuitous route to get to that point, but in many ways, that is how God works. He doesn’t require people to meet him on his terms, but he goes and sends others to where people are to save them. It is really hard for a person in need of salvation to get to a place first before they can be saved. If a person is drowning in Lake Michigan, you don’t first tell him to swim closer to shore so you can help. You have to go out into the lake and meet them where they are drowning in order to save them. In the same way, in order to reach someone in need of salvation, we have to go to where they are and give them the news that they need to hear. That path to them is not going to be a straight line. Honestly, we might not even know where the destination is. We might not know who we are supposed to meet, but our lives in Christ are leading us to people who need the gospel. Let’s sit back, enjoy the ride, trust God, and talk when we meet someone.

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Amos 6:1-14

Key Verse: 6:8b

The Lord GOD has sworn by himself, declares the LORD, the God of hosts:

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