[Text: Acts 16:16-40]
One of the reasons we pay attention to the different biblical genres that we’re reading is to avoid the error of taking history for marching orders. A great deal of the Bible comes to us as narrative, and it’s meant more to teach us about God and his world than to teach us to do anything. But this doesn’t mean we can’t go away from a narrative text with something to chew on that might just guide our steps in the future. Acts 16, a literary window into an eventful little stretch of time in the Roman colony of Philippi, gives us a few such take-aways.
You remember the story, how it starts with a persistent demon-possessed slave girl who seems to have a bead on exactly what Paul and company are up to – “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!” True enough, this, but not such welcome advertising when it happens day after day. Her tenacity eventually annoys even the patient Apostle, leading him to cast out the soothsaying demon. This act in turn causes an economic crisis for the girl’s owners, an imprisonment for Paul and Silas, and a post-seismic salvation opportunity for a desperate jailer.
It’s a dramatic, entertaining, and even moving tale in itself, and as historical instruction it’s sufficiently satisfying. But we need not stop just with learning about the people, place, and time involved. Because we’re dealing with God’s plans and actions, and because we have Luke’s inspired behind-the-scenes perspective, we can carry away from this narrative some things to keep in mind for our role today in Christ’s ongoing story. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
We learn that the spirit world is real, and apparently it knows about the Spirit’s work.
While encounters with prescient demons are probably not going to be the norm for Christians in a first-world context, missionaries in non-Western settings often report spirit activity that resembles the accounts we have from the Gospels and Acts. This is a reminder to remember the reality of the spirit world, and Christ’s dominion over both its faithful and its malevolent inhabitants.
We learn that some of God’s people will be called on to pray, sing, and preach while suffering.
Again, something that is not the typical experience of North American believers; but it’s always a possibility, so it should not surprise us if it happens to happen. We can remember, too, that somewhere in the world many brothers and sisters are presently suffering imprisonment as a result of their faithful words and actions for Jesus.
We learn that sometimes it’s appropriate to let mistaken justice run its course, while at other times it’s right to demand due process and public exoneration.
(See especially Acts 16:35-39 for this part.) There are examples of both tactics in this narrative, and I use the word “tactics” deliberately – I believe that Paul chose to submit to unjust imprisonment at first, perhaps to see what God was up to with this new development; but when the evangelistic opportunity had been accomplished in this case, he then chose to call attention to the lack of due process and public apology that should have been afforded to Roman citizens.* Instinct, flexibility, humility, and strategy were all at play in his choices, giving us a model for our own potential interactions with hostile authorities, if not a precise playbook.
We learn that the privileges of the world’s systems of power (e.g., Roman citizenship) may be used in the service of the gospel, including for the protection of the messengers of the gospel.
In other words, if you have rights guaranteed by the law of the land you’re living in, it’s okay to appeal to them in order to protect yourself and your Kingdom work. Remember Paul’s model above, though, and realize that this is not necessarily the path we can or should always take; it’s just fair to do so.
We learn that conversion happens through words. Events may precipitate a crisis, though, which conversion resolves.
The earthquake didn’t convert the jailer, nor did his fear of his superiors’ reprisal for his failure to secure the prisoners from escape. He was still ignorant of the plan of salvation when he fell on his knees before Paul and Silas. What changed the man was not the crisis, but the explanation given to him. Our faith is word-based, so thinking hard about how to arrange those words for particular audiences is a faithful and fruitful exercise for every believer.
Paul’s example warned the jailer about what discipleship might involve, and yet the man was still interested. We learn from this that the evidence of bearing up under hardship is in itself a testimony to our conviction that our words about Jesus are true.
Think of this when you are faced with your own heartaches and hard times. The grace that carries you through them is teaching others about the sincerity of your faith, even when you’re not aware of it. Your willingness to submit to the Valleys as coming from God’s hand, while still contained within His love, also models for them the heart-orientation that they will need if they venture down the same path themselves.
*Note the plural, by the way. This means that Silas was able to claim citizenship, too.
Biblical quotation from the ESV.
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