Theology at Midnight

Acts 16:25

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).

You discover your theology at midnight.

Until then, it’s all theoretical. When midnight comes, you discover the difference between theory and reality. I used to think that I learned my theology during the four years I spent at seminary. But that’s not quite true. For one thing, I already knew what I believed before I went to seminary. Those four years of systematic theology, Greek, Hebrew, Bible exposition, church history and world missions gave me depth and breadth and perspective. I suppose looking back, I would say that in seminary I learned how much I didn’t know, and I was given the tools to learn more when I was out on my own.

When midnight comes, you discover the difference between theory and reality.

When I graduated from seminary I felt like most graduates do–that I could answer any question that came my way. Back then I had very definite opinions about everything, including many areas where my knowledge was actually quite shallow. I say that with a smile because it’s good for young people to think they can conquer the world. Where would we be without some young bucks to challenge the status quo, to make us feel uncomfortable, and to push the envelope? I like it when I meet young folks with big dreams about what they want to do for God. In this fragile, unpredictable world, we need the fire of optimism that cries out, “Let’s take that city for God!” So God bless the young men and women who believe that all things-yes, all things!-are possible, and who have no time or patience for those who ask questions or say, “Perhaps we should think about that for awhile.”

Not an Easy Road

Paul seems to have been that sort of man. Perhaps it was inevitable that a man who had been zealous against Christ before his conversion would be equally zealous for Christ afterward. Armed with nothing more than the gospel of Jesus, he spearheaded the Christian movement through Turkey into Greece and on to Rome, the capital of the Empire and the greatest city in the world. He was, it seems, a force of nature. A man possessed by one great idea ("this one thing I do"), he proceeded to preach Christ wherever his name had not been preached so that those who had never heard might come to saving faith.

But it wasn’t an easy road. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 he enumerates some of his hardships:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

When he mentions being in prison frequently, he perhaps did so with a bit of a wry smile because it was while he and Silas were in prison in Philippi that God worked a wonderful miracle on his behalf.  The story as told in Acts 16 goes like this. After casting an evil spirit out of a slave girl, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison for what we today would probably call disrupting the peace. The two men were beaten, thrown in jail, put under close guard, and placed in the inner cell with their feet bound in stocks.

It was not a pleasant situation.

So what do you do when you have been arrested, beaten, imprisoned, placed under guard, with your feet bound in stocks, for nothing more than preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?

If you are Paul and Silas and it’s midnight, you start praying and singing hymns of praise to God. Acts 16:25 says that the other prisoners were listening to them. No doubt these two strangers looked like a mess after being severely beaten. The fact that they were in stocks and under close guard told the other prisoners that Paul and Silas were not ordinary criminals. So I ask again, what do you do at midnight?

Go where you’re sent,
Stay where you’re put,
Give what you’ve got.

The answer is, it all depends on your theology, which you generally don’t discover until midnight. At that point you can’t walk over to your library to pull out some book on theology, and you can’t rifle through that big stack of notes from your Greek class to see what it says to do when you’ve been arrested. You don’t have access to a computer so you can’t send an email or update Facebook or Twitter your friends.

In that lonely moment, you discover your theology. You find out what’s real and what’s purely theoretical.

Recently I read a short story about Major Ian Thomas, founder of Torchbearers International, that mentioned a saying that was fundamental to his understanding of the Christian life:

Go where you’re sent,
Stay where you’re put,
Give what you’ve got.

The wisdom of that advice struck me, and as I meditated upon it, I began to consider what great biblical principles it represents. It throws light on the darkness of that prison cell in Philippi where Paul and Silas were singing and praying at midnight.

I. Go Where You’re Sent.

If you consider that statement by itself, it may seem to have mainly a geographic component. Abraham was called by God to go to a land that he would later receive as an inheritance (Genesis 12:1-3). So he went out from Ur of the Chaldees by faith, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8). For him the “where” was definitely a location, one particular place. He was always on the way to the Promised Land. If we examine Paul’s case, we can see that God definitely called him from Turkey to Greece (Acts 16:9-10), and when he crossed the Aegean Sea, he ended up at Philippi and began to preach the gospel, winning men and women to Christ, and proceeding to establish a church in that city. Paul’s one great calling was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “where” depended wholly on the Lord. That’s why he wasn’t thrown for a loop when he ended up in jail, notwithstanding the very great physical ordeal of enduring a beating by the authorities. While we don’t need to sensationalize that, we shouldn’t downplay it either. When Paul years later told Timothy to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), he knew what he was talking about.

If you believe in the sovereignty of God, then you know that nothing can happen to you by accident.

There was nothing easy about being accused of disturbing the peace, being publicly disgraced, derided, maligned and vilified. Nor was it pleasant to be beaten or thrown in prison alongside men who were truly criminals. Certainly having your legs in stocks not only meant you could hardly move, it also meant you would have great difficulty lying down.  So what do you do in that situation?

It all depends on your theology. If you don’t believe in the sovereignty of God, then you’ll probably be bitter and angry and very discouraged. If you don’t believe in a God who numbers the hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30), then you may think that something terrible has happened to you. But if you believe in the sovereignty of God, then you know that nothing can happen to you by accident. In that case, your reaction is likely to be quite different.

You pray and sing hymns at midnight.

We find the key to the phrase “Go where you are sent” in the word “sent.” It means that in every situation of life, Higher Hands are at work, leading you on from where you are at this moment to where you are supposed to be next. Many times those Higher Hands will seem to lead you in ways that make no sense, and you may not see any purpose in the things happening to you.

Several weeks ago I received an email from my friend Andy McQuitty, senior pastor of Irving Bible Church in Irving, Texas. When I call Andy my friend, that doesn’t quite do justice to the situation. Back in the 80s, he we served together at Northeast Bible Church in Garland, Texas. Often I would go back to his office and we would kibbutz together, dreaming about new ideas for the church. Because we lived in the same subdivision and had young children, we became very close. I can still remember when he came into my office and said he felt called to move to the other side of Dallas and take the pastorate of a small church that had fallen on hard times. That was in the fall of 1987. In the years since then, under the good hand of God, Andy has led Irving Bible Church through many building programs, a major relocation, and in the process it has become a mighty powerhouse for the Lord, attracting thousands of people every Sunday.

I say that simply to mention that Andy and his wife Alice are dear friends of ours. The email came out of the blue with some bad news. Following a routine physical exam Andy was diagnosed with colon cancer. That led to surgery which led to a pathology report revealing that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, which means it might be elsewhere in his body. Not good news at any time, but especially when you are only 53 years old.

You don’t learn your theology at midnight. You discover it.

So what do you say to that? How does the godly man respond to such a turn of events? The answer is, it all depends on your theology. Remember, you don’t learn your theology at midnight. You discover it. You find out what you really believe. Here are some quotes from two emails he sent to his congregation after the news broke.

After discussing his medical situation, he put it in this context:

I’m not looking forward to all this and truly wish it wasn’t on my plate, but it is what the Lord has teed up for me and I’m at peace with that. After all these years shepherding other people through these situations, it’s my turn now! Alice and my family are confident and trusting and a huge bulwark of strength for me, and I think the Lord has much to teach me in these days. So we go forward.

My doctors are very hopeful that we will have a very good outcome to this surgery and that the procedure itself will be curative. Ah, but that’s where the Great Physician comes in. We’re just putting it all in His hands.

The Lord is my Shepherd, and yours too. . . we shall not want!

And certainly he is praying for healing and trusting that that is what the Lord has in mind. But there is always a deeper reality when you face something like colon cancer:

God truly is the strength of my heart. I kind of look at this fight with cancer in the same way I look at riding motorcycles. If God is finished with me, nothing can save me. If He’s not finished with me, nothing can touch me. Just so you know, I’ve given Him all kinds of reasons not to be finished with me and I think I made an adequate case. We’ll see.

Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns.
Andy is bearing witness to his faith in Almighty God.

That’s the true meaning of “Go where you are sent.” You go even though it probably wasn’t in your plan, and you go singing and praying and testifying to the goodness of the Lord.

II. Stay Where You’re Put.

That just means that you go and serve the Lord wherever you happen to be, even though it may not have been your first choice. That’s why Paul and Silas were singing at midnight. They knew that God had sent them to the jail to bear witness for their faith. As Paul and Silas sang and the prisoners listened, they had no idea of the earthquake that was about to set them free (vv. 26-28). Nor did they know that soon they would lead the Philippian jailer and his whole family to the Lord (vv. 29-34). That was all hidden to them. As far as they knew, they would stay in prison a few days or a few weeks or a few months, and then they would go on trial. After that, no one could say what might happen.

You are where you are because God wants you there, and that when he wants you somewhere else, you’ll be somewhere else. 

My point is, Paul and Silas weren’t praying and singing in prospect of some great miracle. They simply bore witness to the goodness of the Lord in a most difficult situation.

That’s God’s call to you and me too. “Stay where you’re put” doesn’t mean passively accepting all the bad circumstances of life, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to change things if you can. But it does mean that you believe down deep in your soul that you are where you are because God wants you there, and that when he wants you somewhere else, you’ll be somewhere else.

III. Give What You’ve Got.

Evidently Paul and Silas weren’t trying to be quiet in the jail. Evidently they prayed and sang loud enough that a crowd of prisoners listened to them, amazed that two men in stocks, having been beaten and roughed up, no doubt a sight to behold, would seem so cheerful and full of faith.

In jail!
At midnight!

How could this be? They discovered their theology and it carried them through the darkness of the night.

When Andy McQuitty got the further news of lymph node involvement in his colon cancer, he wrote at some length about a Hebrew word that pops up often in the Old Testament, especially when God calls someone to a special task. The word is hinnainee (hin-nay’-nee), which means “Here I am.”

Here I am.
Ready to serve.
What do you want me to do?
What may I do for you?

It’s what a servant says to the master.
It’s what little boy says to his father.
It’s what believers say to the Lord God.

Hinnainee. Here I am.

Abraham said it in Genesis 22:1.
Jacob said it in Genesis 31:11
Moses said it in Exodus 3:4.
Isaiah said it in Isaiah 6:8.

Some of God’s best work gets done in prisons. 

Andy goes on to quote E. Stanley Ott who offers this insight:

“In every case, the person whom God called simply replied with the Hebrew word hinnainee (hin-nay’-nee), the word of the servant - which means “here I am"  - available - ready to serve - what may I do for you?”

When God calls, we can always find excuses to make: “Not me, Lord.” “Go ask someone else.” “I’m busy.” “I’m happy right where I am.” For all of us, the issue is not our personal desires but our response when the call comes. In the truly tough stuff of life, we rarely get a choice in advance, which is probably a good idea because if we did, we would be sorely tempted to run the other direction. But it is in moments like this that we discover our theology.

I’m not surprised that Paul and Silas sang in prison. Some of God’s best work gets done in prisons.

John Bunyan went to prison for preaching the gospel and wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to prison in World War II and died testifying to God’s grace.
Chuck Colson went to prison and God gave him the vision for Prison Fellowship.

I wonder what Paul and Silas prayed at midnight? I wonder if it was something like what Paul wrote several years later in 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17.

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

When Eugene Peterson gave us his version in The Message, he started back in verse 15 and came up with this:

So, friends, take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high. Keep a tight grip on what you were taught, whether in personal conversation or by our letter. May Jesus himself and God our Father, who reached out in love and surprised you with gifts of unending help and confidence, put a fresh heart in you, invigorate your work, enliven your speech.

I like that. “Take a firm stand, feet on the ground and head high.” We all need that, don’t we?  And at midnight we’ve got to keep a tight grip on what we know to be true.  If it’s true in the bright sunlight of noon, it’s just as true at midnight. So perhaps they prayed for courage and a “fresh heart” and to be made strong so they could bear witness to the Lord.

At midnight we’ve got to keep a tight grip on what we know to be true. 

John Piper said, “The universe exists so that we may live in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is more precious than life.” That truth does not answer all our questions, but it does provide the framework for an answer that will prove true and strong in the worst moments of life. When tragedy strikes, when life caves in, when your plans are dashed on the jagged rocks of reality, when you find yourself in a place you never wanted to be, that’s when you discover what you really believe. As long as things are going good, you don’t really know what you believe. It’s all theoretical. You discover your theology at midnight.

Anyone can sing “Shout to the Lord” when life is good, you’ve got money in the bank, your marriage is strong, your kids are doing well, you’re happy in your job, you love your church, and all is right with the world. If with Paul and Silas you can sing praise to God at midnight in jail, then what you’ve got is real.

Not only will you discover what you believe in times of trouble, that’s also when the world discovers what you believe.

Either Jesus is more precious than life or he isn’t.

Either God is enough or he isn’t.
Either Jesus is more precious than life or he isn’t.

The truth comes out, always. And in those moments, when you rest your weary soul on the God of the universe, when you cry out to Jesus and discover that he really is there after all, then you discover he was there all along, everything he said turns out to be true, and the people who watch you know that you really believe what you say you believe. And having seen the difference that Jesus makes in the worst moments of life, that’s when they want what you have.

Lord, you are so good. Your mercies endure forever. We thank you that you know what you are doing in every situation. We are glad about that because many times we are clueless. We rest our weary souls on you, the Rock of Our Salvation.

Give us confidence to believe that the God who started a good work in us will bring it to completion, and even today is bringing it to completion. Grant us grace to say “Here I am” when you call us to bear witness at midnight.  Help us to stand fast, never moved, trusting in you, now and forevermore, until the day comes when we see Jesus face to face. Amen.

2009-08-09-Theology-at-Midnight

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