Supreme Lessons from Acts 16

Introduction: I don’t want to be drawn tonight into discussing last week’s Supreme Court decision, but it serves as a good introduction to our Bible study tonight. There’s a chilling article in Time Magazine right now about the impact of last week’s Supreme Court decision on the church in America. The article said that the ground under our feet has shifted tectonically and that’s it’s hard to overstate the challenges this is going to present to churches and to Christians. Justices Roberts and Scalia, in their dissenting opinion, went so far as to call this decision a “threat to democracy,” and specifically warned those who are biblical Christians that the decision will leave us vulnerable to all kinds of challenges. As ominous as that sounds, that’s exactly where Paul found himself in Acts 16; so let’s study this to see what lessons we can learn for our own perilous days. I want to go through this chapter and make seven suggestions for how to respond in times like this.

1. Our Present Endeavors Will Raise Up A Future Generation for Christ

Verses 1-2: Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.

In Acts 16, the Apostle Paul began his second missionary journey by visiting again some of the churches he had established on his first trip. On his first trip, he had come to the towns of Derbe and Lystra; and evidently a young fellow come to Christ. Now, on his second visit to the area, Paul was able to see how his past efforts had created future leadership for the church in the person of Timothy. Paul later called Timothy his “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), which would indicate that Timothy came to Christ during Paul’s first visit. We don’t know his exact age, but I see him as being thirteen or fourteen when he became a Christian, and now he’s perhaps sixteen or seventeen. He could have been a little older, but he’s described as a “disciple.” His mother and grandmother were also saved; but Timothy’s father was either dead or a non-Christian. Timothy turned out to be one the stellar heroes of the New Testament.

Verse 3: Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Now, this may sound confusing because in the prior chapter, Acts 15, at the Jerusalem Counsel, Paul had railed against those who were trying to compel others to be circumcised. But this was different. This wasn’t a matter of salvation but of missionary strategy. Timothy had been saved by grace through faith. But now he was going to need to go into Jewish synagogues and evangelize the Jews. Up this point, everyone knew that Timothy was a non-Jew because of his father. That would have created uproar in the synagogues as they sought to evangelize the Jews. So that’s the reason for this decision. Notice that verse 3 says “…because of the Jews.”

Verse 4-5: As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

2. We Must Be Sensitive to the Leading of the Holy Spirit

Verse 6: Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.

This is through the area of Galatia. All this time, Paul was intending to make an eastward turn, apparently to go more deeply into the interior of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and perhaps from there into Asia proper. If you look at a map, if you’re in Turkey and go due eastward, you cut through the tip of Iran and over into Central Asia. If you keep going you get to China. If you go in a northward direction, you get to Russia. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit prevented Paul from turning eastward. The text simply says that the Holy Sprit kept them from doing so. It could be that the circumstances blocked the way. Or it could have been that there was no inner peace; that the Holy Spirit just put a strong hesitation into Paul’s heart. Or it could have been, in Paul’s case, that the Holy Spirit gave him a revelation or spoke “No” to him. At any rate, the Lord has ways of closing doors for us. In Paul’s case, the doors kept closing all along the line.

Verse 7: When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

In this passage we have a very interesting reference to the Trinity.

  • Verse 6 says that the Holy Spirit would not let them turn eastward.
  • Verse 7 says that the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.
  • In verse 10, we’re going to read that God (the Father) called them westward.

One of the most interesting series of sermons I’ve ever prepared for was on the subject of the Trinity. I was astounded and thrilled at how, throughout the Bible, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit conspire and cooperate to accomplish things on our behalf and through us. If we had time, I could show you many examples in the Bible. I think that it’s interesting here that the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Spirit of Jesus.” Do you remember in John 10 that Jesus said, “I am the Father are One”? Well, here in Acts 16, we learn that Jesus and the Spirit are One. This explains so much. When we say, for example, that someone has asked Jesus to come into their heart, that may not be technically true. Jesus, having taken on flesh at the incarnation, is the God-Man, and He cannot inhabit someone else in a literal sense. But the Holy Spirit can, and the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. So by His Spirit, Jesus lives within us.

There is One God who eternally exists in Three Persons, and our God is Three yet One, and One yet Three. It’s inexplicable to our human minds, but then, after all, God is infinite. And a God small enough to be apprehended and comprehended would not be big enough to be worshipped.

But at the least, verse 7 explains to us what Jesus meant when He said, “Lo, I am with you always” and when He said, “Where two or three of you are gathered in My name, there am I in your midst.” He dwells within us and among us by His Spirit. So in some way, the Spirit and the Son prohibited Paul and Silas and Timothy from targeting Asia. In the same way, sometimes the Holy Spirit puts impressions in our own minds and hearts, and He speaks to us from the Scriptures. We have to be sensitive to Him.

Verse 8: So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 

Troas was an ancient Greek city situated on the Aegean Sea at the northern tip of Turkey. The ruins of ancient Troas have been excavated, and visitors here (I’ve not been but would love to see it) can trace the parameters of the ancient walls, see the ruins of the aqueduct, the bathhouse and gymnasium, and even the remains of a large stadium.

3. The Missionary Call is Alive and Well

Verse 9: During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 

This is the famous “Macedonian Call.” Macedonia is the northern region of Greece. This is the call that took the Gospel by the hand of Paul into Europe instead of into Asia. And it’s very interesting the way this has worked out. I know if you’ve heard of the “Back to Jerusalem” movement, but it’s the theory and practice of the westward movement of the Gospel. First, the eastern Mediterranean region was evangelized, then Europe and North Africa, then the Gospel leaped over the Atlantic to America; and from America back to Asia; and westward across Asia and, finally, back to Jerusalem, which will come to Christ at the moment of the Second Coming. All of this was launched here with the Macedonian call.

Verse 10: After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them.

Now, there is something very important to notice about this verse, and that’s the pronoun “we.” This indicated that for the first time Dr. Luke was with them. He apparently came into Paul’s life in Troas.

  • Verse 8: “They went down to Troas.”
  • Verse 9: Paul had the vision of “a man of Macedonia.”
  • Verse 10: “We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia.”

We don’t know any more than that. Did Paul arrive in Troas sick? Was his illness one of the reasons they had been unable to embark on the rigorous journey eastward? Did Paul lead Luke to Christ, or was Luke already a believer? I wish we knew. Luke is very modest in talking about himself, and we detect his presence in the book of Acts only by noticing the “we” passages as they occur, starting here.

Verse 11-12: From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of the district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

We now have a party of four: Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke. They passed through a lot of cities without engaging in prolonged evangelistic endeavors; Paul was strategic. He wanted to make the biggest impact in the biggest places in the shortest amount of time. And that’s what he did in Philippi.

4. God Will Lead Us To People Among the Pagans Whose Hearts Are Prepared for Him

Verse 13: On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.

Paul’s normal practice as we’ve seen thus far was to enter a city and go to the Jewish synagogue; but there were apparently too few Jews in Philippi to form a synagogue, so they few Jews there had found a quiet spot along the river.

Verse 14: One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

Purple cloth was a very expensive commodity in those days. Purple was especially connected with royalty since most people could never afford a fabric or garment dyed in purple. When verse 14 says, “She was a worshipper of God,” that puts her in the same category as Cornelius, whom we met in Acts 10. He was described as devout and God-fearing and a man of prayer even though he wasn’t yet a Christian. Lydia is described in similar language here. Lydia and Cornelius responded to the light they had, and the Lord sent them more light. As she listened to Paul preach the Gospel, the Lord opener her heart to respond. And notice that phrase, “The Lord opened her heart to respond.” Paul could present the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit also had to open her heart to respond. Paul couldn’t have forced her into the Kingdom. He couldn’t have won her unless the Lord was also working within her. Our work for the Lord is clearly a partnership, with Him being the chief partner in the firm.

Verse 15: When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

She also evidently lived in a very large home with accommodations for the four men, probably with servants or employees. It’s interesting to study the Bible for strong, godly businesswomen – like the woman in Proverbs 31, the women in Luke 8 who supported Jesus, and Lydia here in Acts 18. Now, beginning with verse 16, the scene changes and another woman shows up, one that’s at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Lydia.

5. Things Might Get Rough

Verse 16: 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.

Last Sunday morning I spoke about the unseen presence of the evil one in our culture. The apostle John said in 1 John 5, the whole world is under the control of the evil one. Sometimes this is in the form of demon possession, and here was a woman who had some ability to foresee the future and so she was enslaved by her owners as a fortune-teller.

Now, this brings up an interesting question. Are there people who can tell the future? Are there people who are demon-possessed and given the ability to foretell the future? And, beyond that, is Satan able to know the future? Well, Satan is not omniscient. He does not know the future, but he is very wise, very intelligent, intuitive in his evil, and he knows very well what the Bible says about the future and he knows what he himself is going to do in the future. So he can make some very informed guesses about the future. That’s why I would encourage you to never go to a fortune-teller, never play with an Ouija board, never fool around with horoscopes. We know who holds tomorrow, and it’s best to stay far removed from everything collected with Satanism and the occult.

Verses 17-19: She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men were servants of the Most High God, who were 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. 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.

Verses 20-21: 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.”

This is what is happening in our culture now. These are the same accusations thrown at Christian today. We throw people into an uproar by preaching truths that oppose the politically correct thinking of the secularists. It’s rough being a Christian in times like this. Look at what happened.

Verses 22-24: The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates order them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into the prison, and the mailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Paul and Silas must have been in extreme pain, and it took some time to work through the pain and the anger and the frustration at what had happened to them. It would probably have taken me weeks, or months, or years. But for Paul and Silas, it only took a few hours. Look at what they were doing by midnight.

6. The World Can’t Beat Prayer and Hymns from Our Hearts

Verse 25: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.

I wonder what they prayed. Was it the Lord’s Prayer or was it a prayer they composed on the spot? I wonder what they sung? Was it an Old Testament Psalm or was it one of the newer Christian choruses that were becoming popular? Prayer and singing can overcome anything. It’s the Christian’s best response to pain and persecution. And it presents a witness to the world. Notice that the other prisoners were listening to them.

Verse 26: 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.

This is the third time in the book of Acts that Christians were miraculously delivered from prison. The first time was with the whole apostolic band in Acts 5. The second was when Peter was delivered by an angel in Acts 12.

Verses 27-28: The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he through the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

Paul had no intention of running away from an evangelistic opportunity.

7. Our Enemies Need Jesus

Verses 29-31: 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?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

This is one of the simplest statements of salvation in the Bible. Here was the man who had imprisoned Paul, but now he was needing Paul to set Him free from his sins.

Verse 32-33: Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the mailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.

The jailer bathed the wounds of the missionaries with water and washed away their dried blood; and then the missionaries baptized the jailer in water, representing that his sins were washed away by the blood of Christ.

Verse 34: The mailer 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.

Over and over in the book of Acts, we’re told of how the Gospel brought joy to people.

8. Whenever Possible We Should Stand Up for Our Civil Rights

Verses 35-37: When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” But 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.”

Paul had self-respect. He know that as a Roman citizen he could lodge a complaint that would probably have the magistrates removed from their position and maybe affect the standing of the whole town. He pressed his rights and demanded respect.

Verses 38-40: The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.

Conclusion: Here in Acts 16 we have a group of Christians who were led by the Spirit and were assertive about sharing their faith in a pagan world. They were vilified for doing good. They were seized, whipped, and imprisoned by an intolerant mob. But their spirits were unsinkable and at the darkest point of the night, the midnight hour, they were praying and singing songs of praise to God. The magistrates could take the skin off their back, but they could not take the song from their heart. The devil could beat them physically, but he could not beat them spiritually. He could not beat the faith and love and joy out of their hearts. And so a church was planted, which became one of the strongest churches of the first century and which later gave us a priceless gift—the epistle of the Philippians. The world may throw us down but it can’t keep us down, for we know Him who was and who is and who is to come; and in Him we are more than conquerors.