Personalizing God’s Purposes
September 21, 2003 | Brian Bill
Steven Curtis Chapman has a song called, “More to This Life” that sums up how many people are living today:
Today I watched in silence as people passed me by,
And I strained to see if there was something hidden in their eyes;
But they all looked back at me as if to say
Life just goes on.
But there’s more to this life than living and dying,
More than just trying to make it through the day;
More to this life, more than these eyes alone can see,
And there’s more than this life alone can be.
As we continue to focus on the factor of faith in the Book of Acts, we come to Acts 16, an action-filled chapter. We’re going to see here that God uses some unusual means to bring three very different people to Himself. These three individuals discovered that there’s more to life than just living and dying.
This passage has application to those of us who are wondering how God can use us to help others put their faith in Christ. These verses also speak directly to those of you who have yet to personalize God’s purposes for your life by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins.
It’s my prayer that each of us, no matter where we’re at in our spiritual journey, will apply God’s Word today. Charles Spurgeon tells of a man who went to church to listen to the singing, but didn’t want to hear the preaching. As soon as the pastor began speaking, the man put his fingers in his ears. But after a while, a bug landed on his face, and so he had to take one finger out of his ear to brush it off. Just as he did, the pastor said, “He that has ears, let him hear.” The man listened and was converted to Christ.
In the first part of chapter 16, Paul and his team are traveling from town to town to chat with the churches he started. As a result, verse 5 tells us that the believers “were strengthened in the faith and grew in numbers.” That reminds me of the comment Rick Warren made about the size of his church: “As long as there is one person in driving distance of our church who doesn’t know the Lord, we want to grow…we need to stay focused on reaching one more for Jesus.”
Friends, God has a place in mind for us to propagate His purposes, and He will alter our circumstances and put us in situations in order for His message to get out to the people He has already prepared to hear it. In verse 6, we see that the Holy Spirit kept Paul and his companions from going into Asia. In verse 7, the Spirit prohibited them from entering another area. In verse 9, God gave Paul a vision of a man from Macedonia who begged, “Come over to Macedonia to help us.” After seeing this vision, they got ready “at once” to leave. Their quick obedience brought the gospel to the continent of Europe, and it came one person at a time…like it always does.
It’s important to be sensitive to the Lord’s leading. Albert McMakin was a 24-year-old farmer who came to faith in Christ in 1934. He was so full of enthusiasm that he filled a truck with people so he could take them to a meeting to hear about Jesus. He felt strongly about bringing another young man who was more interested in the young ladies than he was in spiritual matters. He eventually got him to come when he promised him that he could drive the truck. When they arrived, his guest decided to go in to the meeting and was “spellbound.” He went back again and again until one night he went forward and gave his life to Jesus Christ. Since then, this young truck driver has spoken to at least 250 million people about Christ and has been a spiritual advisor to the last nine U.S. Presidents. You and I know him as Billy Graham.
Aren’t you glad Albert McMakin was obedient? In a similar way, Paul and his companions were prompted to communicate with some individuals that they probably wouldn’t have chosen on their own. Let me introduce you to them.
- A religious woman
- A rejected girl
- A regular guy
You probably know some religious people who don’t know Jesus; chances are good that you can think of a person who has felt rejected by people and is stuck in sin; and my guess is that know a bunch of regular people who are just going through life. They work hard and pay their taxes. God wants to get a message to these three types of people but He first prepares messengers, just like you, and just like me, to send their way.
Are you on a religious treadmill today, just trying to perform for God?
Perhaps you see a little bit of yourself in these three people…Are you on a religious treadmill today, just trying to perform for God? Do you feel like you’ve been rejected, that people have used you and now you don’t know where to turn? Or, as a regular kind of guy, are you just going through the motions as you take care of your responsibilities, but aren’t really interested in spiritual matters?
A Religious Woman (13-16)
Let’s look first at the religious woman. Philippi was a colony of Rome even though it was separated geographically from Italy. Paul and his team arrived in this town expecting to find the man who had appeared in the vision. Verse 13 tells us that on the Sabbath, they went outside the city in order to find a place of prayer. As we learned last week, we see again how prayer permeates everything that happens in the Book of Acts.
According to Jewish law, a synagogue could only be established if there were ten men who could commit to the congregation. But since Philippi did not have a quorum of committed men, a group of women met near a river for prayer. By the way, the Bible is filled with examples of women who were greatly used by God – Deborah, Hannah, Esther, Ruth, Mary, Priscilla, just to name a few. In that culture women were treated as property or second-class citizens but Christianity elevated women to a higher status. Paul declares this strongly in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It was important to be near water because they would ritually wash their hands before prayer. These women gathered to recite Scripture, to read from the Law and the Prophets, to discuss what they read, and to pray. If possible, they would listen to a traveling teacher give an exposition or exhortation. We see this in the last half of verse 13: “We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.”
Verse 14 introduces us to “a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God.” Lydia was from a town that was famous for making purple dyes and was probably in charge of a branch office in Philippi. Purple was the color of royalty and these cloths were in high demand because they were status symbols. It would be like an Armani suit or Tommy Hilfiger clothes today. While she was no doubt a successful businesswoman, she was also a “worshiper of God.” This meant that she was a Gentile who had not fully converted to Judaism but she was sincerely seeking spiritual truth. She was religious but not yet redeemed. She was praying but had not yet discovered God’s purposes for her life.
As she was listening to the words of these messengers, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” I love the relationship here between God’s work and human responsibility. It was God who opened her heart, but He did so as she listened to His Word. Paul and his partners were faithful in following the Father as they searched for seekers of God, and Lydia was one who was seeking spiritual truth. God made all this happen, and yet He chose to utilize messengers who would communicate His message so that a religious woman could become a member of His family.
God is sovereignly at work behind the scenes, even when we’re not aware of it. Think with me about how God put Lydia and Paul together. She was from Thyatira, in western Turkey and God brought her to Philippi. Paul tried to go to Turkey but was prevented from doing so and was led to Philippi. God orchestrated an encounter by a river so that Lydia could hear the message from Paul and get saved.
God is the ultimate evangelist, isn’t He? Several years later, when Paul wrote to the church that Lydia helped launch, he stated very clearly in Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Our responsibility is to simply share the Word of God whenever we have the opportunity. It’s God’s job to open hearts. And He will purposely position you and I to be with people who are searching for purpose in their lives. Do you know any “religious” people? Tell them that God is more interested in a relationship than He is in us being religious. There are people all around us who are searching for God and they’re not finding Him in religious ritual. Speak to them. Serve them. Intercede for them.
After Lydia’s conversion, verse 15 tells us that she and the members of her household were “baptized.” We’ll focus on baptism next Sunday but let me point out that Lydia demonstrated the reality of her conversion in two ways. Because the Lord opened her heart to believe, she publicly identified herself as a believer through baptism and then she opened up her home for hospitality when she said, “come and stay at my house.” Luke adds that she “persuaded” them to use her house as home base so she could provide rest and refreshment to the traveling team. Hospitality was a strategic ministry back then and it remains so today. Can you think of a way that you can open your home to people? Perhaps the Lord is tugging at your heart to be a “Host Home Volunteer.”
Friend, have you been trying to live a “religious” life but you’re not sure if you have a relationship with Jesus? Listen to the Lord, and when He opens your heart, respond to Him.
A Rejected Girl (16-18)
After helping a religious woman begin a relationship with Jesus, Paul and his team go to the place of prayer again and providentially run into a “slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future.” This could have happened a week or so later. This young girl was one of more than 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, and was controlled by a spirit of Satan. The Greek term is that she had a “Python spirit.” This referred to a demon that enabled someone to predict the future. We would say that she was a psychic or a medium. This girl was rejected for who she really was and, as Ray Stedman says, she was exploited by a group of unscrupulous owners.
This girl started to get under Paul’s skin because she kept following them around as she shouted: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” While this statement was true, it was beginning to distract Paul from his mission. Likewise, Satan will do anything to sidetrack us from what we’ve been called to do. Verse 18 tells us that she kept this up for many days, “Finally Paul became so troubled 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.” Notice that Paul appealed not to his strength, but to the authority of Jesus Christ. He was irked but he relied on the power of Christ to do something that would both glorify God and help the poor girl.
While God orchestrated this encounter, it’s also no accident that Satan goes on the attack after we experience spiritual victory. Lydia and her household are now established in their faith and so Satan looks for a way to trip up the team. The evil one does this today as well. When things go well, watch out! 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Sometimes Satan will use an outright attack against believers, which is about to happen to Paul and Silas. But his most dangerous strategy is not aggression, but alignment with truth. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “… Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” We need to be on our guard so that we don’t let Satan have a foothold in our lives, or in this church. 2 Corinthians 2:11 challenges us to not let the evil one outwit us: “For we are not unaware of his schemes.” The devil was trying to derail the proclamation of God’s purposes by appearing to be in line with the truth as he attempted to form an alliance and thus gain a position to subvert the message.
Paul got irritated with this demon. In fact, the Greek word means that he was deeply troubled and so he commanded the evil spirit to leave. Jesus did a similar thing when He encountered the forces of darkness. He didn’t tolerate anything spoken by the evil one for two reasons. One, he didn’t want anyone coming to Him with mixed motives and second, He knew that any truth spoken by a demon would eventually be sprinkled with error. As a result, He had no tolerance for anything they said. An example of this is found in Mark 1:24 when a man who had an evil spirit shouted out to Jesus, “I know who you are-the Holy One of God!” Jesus replied sternly in verse 25: “Be quiet! Come out of him!”
While we don’t know with certainty whether this girl was converted, we do know that she was released from bondage. Unfortunately, once her powers of prediction were gone, her owners immediately rejected her. She didn’t matter to them at all. Now that she was used up, they didn’t have any use for her. Do you feel that way this morning? Have people taken advantage of you? Do you feel rejected because you can’t perform up to others’ expectations? If that describes you, allow Jesus to release you from that rejection. You don’t have to stay in bondage to your past. Jesus put it this way in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Will you turn to Him in faith right now?
Brothers and sisters, as we look around, there are people who are religious like Lydia and there are others who just feel rejected like this girl. They need someone to love them just the way they are and they need a place to belong that is safe and secure. Will you tell them the Good News? They may look tough on the outside, they may swear and cuss and act in ways that make you mad but they are not your enemy. Satan is our adversary and he’s holding people hostage today. Don’t be surprised when lost people act like lost people. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
A Regular Guy (19-34)
When Satan realized that he couldn’t align himself with Paul, he then went into attack mode as he awakened some serious opposition. Through some extraordinary circumstances, Paul is about to have some contact with an ordinary kind of guy. The religious woman needed a relationship with Jesus; the rejected girl need to be released from bondage; and this regular guy simply needed to be redeemed. Let’s look at how this happened.
When the owners of this slave girl realized that their source of income had dried up they went ballistic. They got everyone else riled up and went straight to the magistrates who ordered Paul and Silas to be stripped, which would have been very humiliating. Verse 23 tells us that Paul and Silas were “severely flogged.” This was one of the times Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25 when he writes that he had: “…been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.” Jewish Law set the limit of lashes at no more than 40, but since this was done at the hands of the Roman authorities, this severe flogging likely involved way more than 40. This barbaric torture would have left their backs bloody and raw.
The magistrates were so wound up that they ordered Paul and Silas to be thrown into prison, with a special command for the jailer to guard them carefully. Commentators suggest that this jailer was likely a retired soldier who had settled in the Roman colony. If this is correct, he was used to following orders, so he even went beyond what was dictated. We see this in verse 24: “Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” This inner cell was like a dungeon and was normally reserved for the worst of criminals. The jailer, not one to be moved by human suffering, next had their feet fastened to stocks. These stocks held their legs so tightly that it was impossible for them to stand. In fact, they were probably forced to lay on rough stone, with their bleeding backs rubbing against gravel and sharp protrusions.
This looked like the end of their witness in Philippi, but God had other plans. I want you to notice what Paul and Silas do next. Instead of screaming obscenities like the other prisoners probably were, or complaining or calling on God to judge their enemies, verse 25 reads, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” This is unbelievable! The word here for “praying” refers to praising, not asking. And the Greek tense is continuous, meaning that they kept on doing this. If you’ve ever been in pain, or have struggled with sickness, or have had any other kind of excruciating experience, you know how hard it is to sleep at night. Some of you can give testimony to how the Lord has helped you to pray and praise during deep darkness. Job experienced this in Job 35:10 when he refers to God giving him “songs in the night.”
They determined to give glory to God because they trusted that He was in control of their situation. They no doubt remembered that since their Master was first scourged and then crucified, they too would face persecution. Perhaps the words of Jesus were echoing in their minds: “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you” (Matthew 10:17) and, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
The question is not really, “Why did they sing?” but, “What else could they do but sing?” When Paul and Silas prayed and praised, the other prisoners listened in. This literally means, “to listen intently.” They couldn’t believe that these men could be praising God in the midst of their pain. Friends, the world watches when we suffer. It’s at these times that our faith is often noticed for the first time.
As if this alone doesn’t get their attention, verse 26 says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.” This was a concert that brought the house down! As we learned last week, earthquakes were often associated with “theophanies,” which were visible manifestations of the presence of God. We see this in Matthew 28:2, when Jesus was raised from the dead: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
The jailer then woke up and when he saw what happened, was ready to kill himself. He knew that he could be punished severely, and maybe even executed by the authorities for letting the prisoners escape so he decided to take his life. In verse 28, Paul shouts out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” When the lights were turned on, the jailer fell trembling before Paul and Silas, realizing for the first time that he was a prisoner when he asked the most important question of life in verse 30: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
The Ultimate Question
Friends, the most important question in life is not, “How can I get a better job” or, “How can I deal with my marriage,” or, “How bad are the Packers going to beat the Bears?” The ultimate question of life is this: “What must I do to be saved?” The word “what” suggests that this is the ultimate question and the word “must” implies that it’s the most urgent question because apart from Jesus Christ, whether you are religious, rejected, or a regular kind of person, you are lost. The Philippian jailer was in the dark until the lights went on in the prison and he was just a breath away from eternity when he almost killed himself.
The little word “I” makes it clear that this question must be answered personally. “What must I do to be saved?” And the word “do” reveals that this regular guy believed, like many do today, that he had to do something in order to be saved. The most important, urgent and personal question of all time has a very simple answer that has nothing to do with “doing” and everything to do with “believing.” Look at verse 31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” I really like how the Amplified Bible captures the meaning of this verse: “Believe in and on the Lord Jesus Christ – that is, give yourself up to Him, take yourself out of your own keeping and entrust yourself into His keeping, and you will be saved.”
To believe is to do more than just give intellectual agreement, it’s more than just emotional assent, it must also involve the will, where the decision is made about whether we will allow the Lord to lead our life.
WORKS DON’T WORK!
Salvation is not a do-it-yourself kit. If you want to go to heaven, the first step is to stop trying to earn your way there. “Stop trying” and “start trusting” if you want to be saved. Write it in big letters. When it comes to saving your soul, WORKS DON’T WORK! BEING GOOD IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
If God doesn’t want our “works,” what does he want from us? He wants us to trust Him. That’s all. In the New Testament, faith, trust, and belief all come from the same general root word meaning “to lean wholly upon,” as when you lie down on a bed, resting your whole weight upon it. Commitment refers to the action part of faith. True saving faith always ends in personalizing God’s purposes.
I want you to notice that once you rely fully upon Jesus Christ you will be saved. It’s not a “maybe” or a “hope so.” It’s a done deal, and it’s done instantly the moment you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I think of the words to the Steven Curtis Chapman song: “I strained to see if there was something hidden in their eyes; but they all looked back at me as if to say life just goes on.”
My guess is that this room is filled with the same kinds of people this morning. The answer you are looking for is the same as it was almost 2,000 years ago: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Are you ready to do that right now? If so, please pray this prayer with me.
“Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. I admit that I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I now know there is more to this life than the way I’ve been living. I don’t want just go through the religious motions any more, I don’t want to feel rejected, and I recognize that being a regular-kind-of person isn’t good enough. I repent of my sins by changing my mind about the way I’ve been living. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. By faith I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for bearing my sins and giving me the gift of eternal life. I believe your words are true. I accept you into my heart. Be my Savior and Lord. I surrender to your leadership in my life. Make me into the person you want me to be. Amen.”