[The following essay is based partly on sermon notes from an exposition of Acts 16 by Pastor Guy Grey]
"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." Acts 16:25
If God has made you a follower of Christ, you have been granted to be part of God's overarching purpose for creation - a purpose that is greater than yourself and your own personal plans.
How do these life goals sound in comparison?
1) I am a follower of Christ and my highest calling is to live for myself?
2) I am a follower of Christ and my greatest purpose is the fulfillment of my greatest ambitions?
We intuitively know right away as Christians that these later two statement are not quite right. Actually far from the mark, Yet we sometimes forget who we are and subtly fall into living in ways that are contrary to our status as God's free and forgiven children, those He is qualified to share in the eternal inheritance with the glorified Saints.
In the midst of our sufferings, Christians of this age often miss some of the best opportunities to show forth the excellencies of Christ when we respond to it by grumbling and complaining about our circumstances ... we sometimes forget that whatever happens to us is within God's perfect plan and often the way we respond in trying circumstances gives us one of the best possible opportunities to give testimony of our Lord. In giving witness to the gospel, Paul declares that you should not be "frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have." (Philippians 1:28-29)
The Life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus was just the beginning. The continuing work of Jesus in the early church is chronicled in the Book of Acts. The entire premise of that book is that Jesus is continuing to apply the work He accomplished through the Church, of which He is head. Jesus has more that he has to do and he calls us to be be part of his ministry and sends his Spirit to make this happen. He moves us to action, to care to serve and to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. And since we are called to God's eternal purpose, a cause greater than ourselves, we are to keep going, to persevere, whatever the circumstances God places us in. We are to press in to know Him.
Acts 16 gives us a clue as to how God wants us to keep going as we serve and make Jesus known to the world. On one of his missionary journeys Paul is traveling about encouraging the churches and going to new places not yet reached by the gospel. The Spirit blocks him from going one way and opens another way up. Even if God's guidance seems confusing, painful or incomplete, he keeps trusting, serving and pressing in to Jesus. Why? Because God knows what He is doing. He is at work even when we cannot see it.
God has a plan that is often different than ours. Consider that Paul on his travels through Philippi he encountered two different women (Lydia and a fortune teller) with whom he shared the gospel and, in the later case, cast out a demon. There could not be a greater contrast between these two women. One was a successful business women and the other was a slave girl, owned like a piece of property by someone else, exploited for what she could earn for them, captive to Satan, demon possessed. The gospel is for both of them, which points to the fact that it is for everyone without distinction. As a result Paul was thrown into prison which is most likely, not what he expected to happen.
When he set the slave woman free from the bondage of the demon he was cast into prison because the owners' source of income was lost. Starting at verse 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. 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."
So Paul receives a vision from God to come to Philippi and he meets Lydia and sets a slave girl free, which is great, but then he is beaten and cast into prison, which I don't think Paul was expecting, at least many of us would not expect God to use this method as a mean to bless and further His message. In fact many might be tempted to give up at this point. But, in following God's direct guidance and leading, entrusting themselves to His service, this was indeed the will of God. It was their trust in Christ that got them into prison and that is both amazing and, perhaps, counter-intuitive.
What should this tell us about our lives? Even if the results of our efforts are not exactly what you expected, we need to keep going, keep trusting in Christ. Many of us know what it is to set off on a course for the Lord to do great things, but then run into situations which are the opposite of what we expected to happen. Usually bad thing on the face of it. And often when God doesn't meet our expectations of how we thought he would act, we doubt and tell ourselves that God is not with us, not a work in us, that he cannot use us, or doesn't care. We expect this thing, but got something else. But Acts 16 gives us a good reason not to have that response... in fact a motive to be even more faithful to God's call. This is even true when our expectations end in disappointment and don't turn out in our time and our way.
The most amazing text of all was when they went into prison - "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." Acts 16:25 At the point of their greatest personal hardship and pain, Paul and Silas sang praises to God at midnight in the confines of a prison with a torture chamber. They worshipped God and the prisoners were listening. That is powerful ... powerful in a supernatural way by which others will take notice. God had led them into prison. It was the plan of God that they be beaten. They trusted God and they were thrown into prison and their feet were fastened into the stocks. Many, not seeing the results at this point might be tempted to say, "were done ... look where following God has got us. I don't want to do this anymore." But they knew they were called to a higher purpose than themselves ... so they called out to God and worshipped him. And the prisoners were listening to them. Brothers and sisters, by the grace of God, this is what we need to do even if things get really bad, we need to persevere in the cause of Christ. This is what the world and our friends need to see. This is indeed our witness for Christ. What it means to suffer for the gospel. The people around us live in the same hard world we do. The gospel is not designed so that we would escape the suffering of this life.it is designed so that we might have a joy and a faith that sees us through the suffering of this life.
Some have a personal evangelism plan like this "Here is a poster of Hawaii and I want to be in it. Then I am going to call out to all my friends from the poster and say I am following Jesus and this is what I get." And my friends say "Yeah I want to be in that poster. That is so cool." That's my strategy God, what's the matter... and God says, "no". How does he say "no". Lots of ways.IN contrast, here is God's strategy. You live in the same broken world as all your friends and all the people around you, but, by the grace of God, you have faith in Christ that makes your experience different than theirs. It is not that we don't have pain or sorrow, but that we have hope and we have a joy in Jesus that is greater than those things that make us suffer so we continue to worship and praise Him. And the prisoners and captives are listening to us. Living for Christ will seldom be easy but is worth it.
What about us? You may say you don't want to sign up for hardship ... but you already did. You live in this broken world - a world that is very difficult to live in. Everybody suffers pain even those who live in developed countries. There is always something on the horizon in life.. So the Christian is not someone who denies difficulty but in the midst of the difficulty, by the grace of God, says I am going to persevere and even find a joy that makes me sing and worship Jesus by faith even in the midst of difficulty. That is the power of the gospel and the prisoners are listening, people are watching. And God shines the light of Jesus through us, amazing things happen.
"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." Acts 16:25-34
God is working. We know that it is God alone who opens hearts to the gospel, that we would believe its words and message, yet God has chosen to use means to bring this about - He does not do this in a void but through those people He has redeemed in Christ. Although God has saved us and delivered us from sins' captivity and released us from its prison, God has put us back among the prison population, so to speak,with the only key that can unlock the door to set the prisoners free. Will those prisoners be likely to believe we are already free if we love the sin and bondage that first imprisoned us, or if we are gloomy or complaining about our circumstances? Or will God more likely use our witness if we a singing hymns with joy in the midst of our otherwise seemingly hopeless circumstances? That is supernatural and perhaps the greatest apologetic of all.
"...our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." - 2 Corinthians 4:17