POWER ENCOUNTERS (Acts 16:16-40)
5 powers which yield to God’s supreme power:
– all yield to God’s supreme power and accomplish His purposes for His glory.
Read Acts 16:16-40
The narrative can be broken down into 3 sections – what happened leading up to Paul’s imprisonment, what happened during his imprisonment and what happened after. Or the narrative can be broken into its characters -The servant girl, the rich businessmen, the Roman guard, the Jewish authorities, each of which had a different response to the gospel and represented some hindrance to the progress of the gospel.
The gospel overcomes them all, and by God’s grace Paul and Silas overcome them all. So I’ve entitled this message “Power Encounters” because this narrative highlights the power of God to overcome every obstacle that stands in the way of His servants as they seek to be His witnesses. I think that’s the main purpose of this narrative in its biblical context.
How much Christians need to understand and believe the message of this text – that our God is in heaven and He does all that He pleases (Ps115:3). He is in control over every detail of our lives, every force of evil, every physical and spiritual power, every judicial counsel, every gospel conversation, every false accusation…. every obstacle we face is merely another opportunity for God to demonstrate His supreme, comprehensive power and control over all things.
You and I, we are weak. We face financial loss and sickness and people falsely accusing us and injustice and spiritual attack and frailty and pollical corruption – and we can’t do a thing about it. We go through life feeling so weak, so helpless, so overwhelmed by all these things that are out of our control and we worry and fear and stress and become downcast and hopeless because from a human standpoint – the obstacles are insurmountable.
So, 5 powers which yield to God’s supreme power:
Demonic Power, financial power, physical power, spiritual blindness and political power – all yield to God’s supreme power and accomplish His purposes for His glory.
1: demonic power (16:16-18)
Spiritual forces in Roman worldview
Modern Western culture tends to overlook the influence and impact of spiritual powers and supernatural forces, but in most other cultures they play a significant role.
Ancient Greek and Roman culture placed a premium on understanding the spiritual powers at work and gaining their favour. As one writer explains,
“No commander would set out on a major military campaign nor would any emperor make an important decree without first consulting an oracle to see how things might turn out.” (Polhill, NAC, 351).
The outcome of a battle, or a decision, or plan was seen to depend as much on these supernatural spiritual forces, as it depended on careful planning and wise strategy. One’s life and well-being was, to a large extent, dependant upon the favour of the gods and your ability to gain insight into, and navigate these powerful spiritual forces which were at work in every event and detail of life.
Spiritual forces in biblical worldview
Here, the biblical worldview is represented, which is that such powers do, in fact, exist and they have some measure of supernatural insight into the spiritual realm – but God rules them all.
· Here this demon gives this girl some insight the true identity of Paul and Silas, as servants of the most high who are proclaiming the way of salvation.
· But the text is clear on the true origin of these powers – they come from evil spirits. The text says in ESV she had a “spirit of divination.” The Greek text says literally, “a spirit of python.” As one commentator explains,
“The python was the symbol of the famous Delphic oracle and represented the (Greek) god Apollo, who was believed to render predictions of future events.” (Polhill, NAC, 351)
So behind this girl’s ability and insight lies pagan idolatry and behind that pagan idolatry lies demonic spirits.
Paul’s Authority over demons
There’s a specific purpose for this narrative in its own context and its definitely not to provide a manual or model for dealing with spiritual warfare.
As I’ve mentioned before, Acts is part of a 2 volume series – Luke-Acts. In Luke’s gospel he, records all that Jesus began to do and teach and as Acts 1:1 indicates, Acts records all that He continued to do and teach. Luke’s inspired purpose is to give Gentiles confidence in the gospel they had heard through Paul’s missionary journeys.
· So he shows how this gospel went out from Jerusalem to the ends of the world by Jesus’ explicit command and promise, by the power of the Spirit, through the witness of Christ’s appointed Apostles.
· He goes to great effort to connect the ministry and teaching of Paul to that of Peter, to that of Jesus – to show that it’s one and the same ministry, carried out by the same Holy Spirit power, proclaiming the same message resulting in the same salvation.
o So Peter heals a man born lame in Acts 3 – Paul heals a man born lame in Acts 14.
o Peter performs shadow healings in Acts 5 – Paul in Acts 19
o Peter confronts a magician in Acts 8 – Paul in Acts 13
o Peter raises a dead person in Acts 9 – Paul in Acts 20
o Peter has vision to preach the gospel to Gentiles in Acts 10 – Paul in Acts 16
o Peter addressed by an angel in Acts 12 – Paul in Acts 27
o Peter is miraculously rescued from prison in Acts 12 – Paul in Acts 16
So Luke’s inspired historical account highlights those events which affirm and undergird Apostolic authority – from Jesus to Peter to Paul. This was necessary because Paul’s apostleship was attacked and questioned in the Gentile world.
This is such a big issue in Africa and in charismatic circles that I’m going to take a whole sermon just to unpack this portion and relate it to a theology of demonology and spiritual warfare, but this morning I first want us to see this text in its context, within the flow of the narrative as a whole.
Summary – Jesus has authority
Whatever your specific theology about spiritual warfare – what is clear from this text is that demons exist and they can be a hinderance in a believers life and ministry. We can and should expect opposition, but we have nothing to fear, Jesus has power over every spiritual force and evil.
Col 2:15 says that through the death and resurrection of Christ God has “disarmed the rulers and authorities (every spiritual force and power of evil) and put them to open shame, triumphing over them through (Christ).”
Jesus has authority over spiritual power, financial power.
2: FINANCIAL power (19-24)
The text says she was “fortune-telling” and it goes on to say that her telling was making a fortune. VS 16 says it brought her owners much gain.
Vs 19 says, “When her owners say that their hope of gain was gone,” the text says literally “had gone out” and the text uses exactly the same verb form as vs 18. The Spirit had “gone out” and with it their financial income had “gone out.”
What was a great gain for this girl and for the gospel, was a great loss for her owners. They are not rejoicing that their servant is now free from being tormented by Satan, they are angry that their investment has gone bad.
God control’s our income – money control’s people
God has sovereign control over our material wealth – He can supply and He can take away just like that. Do we believe that, or do we believe that our diligent labour, or impressive business plans can secure our income?
God controls our money, but money can control us. For money, people have done the most horrendous things.
· It was for 20 pieces of silver that Judas betrayed Jesus.
· In Acts 8 Simon tried to buy Apostolic power, “Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” but Peter says, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:19-20)
· Paul could say in 1 Tim 6:10 that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” which has lead some astray from the faith and caused them much grief.
These men trump up charges and have Paul and Silas arrested and put in prison.
· Rightly speaking this is not the market place as vs 19 says, but the “Agora” where public business was conducted. As was Roman custom, the magistrates are summoned and formal charges are brought against Paul and Silas.
· Notice how they appeal to racial prejudice “Jews” advocating customs against us Romans (20).
· Political/ judicial rights (21) Disturbing the peace
· Religious/ cultural scruples (21) – advocating customs not lawful to accept or practice
So these are serious charges punishable under Roman law. It’s not clear what they wanted to gain, except maybe revenge. Maybe they were afraid of other implications for their business if this gospel continued to take root. Certainly in Ephesus in Acts 19 the major motive for getting Paul arrested was that the preaching of the gospel was impacting their trade in idols.
Think about, even in our modern day, how much trade is really just a trade in sin and idolatry. If people were delivered from their love of sin, their materialism, their pride, their addictions, their sloth – how many trades would go out of business?
These men don’t even consider the gospel because of the controlling power of money over their lives. Their trade in sin has literally blinded them from the gospel.
Are we trading in sin, or are we entrusting God to have authority and control over our trading?
3: Physical Power (25-29)
· Paul and Silas receive a severe flogging, the first of several which Paul was to receive.
· They are put into prison and ordered to be kept under careful guard
· So they are put into the inner prison and confined in stocks.
Talk about someone exerting physical power or restraint over you – you can’t even move. This was a task for Houdini….
Amazing that in this context, after being ill treated, false accused and physically confined – what do we find them doing in vs 25? Singing God’s praises – they clearly understood that God is in control over all these things.
Notice the contrast in these accounts – these businessmen in anger trying to take control in sinful ways, and Paul and Silas in faith, trusting God and surrendering control to Him. That’s what giving thanks in every situation does – it reminds us who is in control and builds our faith and helps us surrender control to God.
And in this instance God intervenes. The earthquake could have happened to occur at just the right time, but God controls all events, even the so called natural events. In this instance, not only were the prison doors opened, but all the chains on the prisoners were loosed, so this seems to be a supernatural intervention designed specifically to release their physical restraints.
But Paul and Silas were so surrendered to God and His will that it was never the physical restraints which held them there. They must have understood that God had a divine appointment for them there because when they had every opportunity to run, they stay and preach.
Application: Are we surrendering by faith or yielding to anger?
Again, we could ask ourselves, are we surrendering to God’s providence by faith, or yielding to anger and sinful methods for getting our own way?
Do we see everything that God brings into our lives as ordained by God for His glory and our good, or are we constantly fighting with God and others rather than serving Him in the midst of the realities He has placed us?
Realize that God didn’t put Paul in prison for His physical good, or as catalyst to improve conditions in Roman prisons – but to preach the gospel of the surpassing glory of Christ.
God has supreme power over all powers - demonic power, financial power, physical power
4: Spiritual Power (30-34)
This morning, this Roman guard went to work as normal. He had no idea that God had appointed a day to demonstrate His power and open His eyes to see His glory in Christ.
An unusual turn of events
We have become so accustomed to hearing this story, that we don’t stop to think how unusual it is. One would think that such a supernatural demonstration of God’s power was designed to free God’s servants so that they could continue to preach the gospel. We would expect the narrative to talk about how they escaped and left for the next city….but that’s not how the story goes. This miraculous intervention is not designed to free Paul and Silas, because they stay in prison – its designed to free this man from the chains of unbelief and sin.
Again, the irony here – the ones in physical chains are truly free and the one with physical power over them, is himself bound in the chords of sin.
· In vs 27 he is about to kill himself because the penalty for losing a prisoner was death. He probably decided it was better to have it over with quickly than try to explain something which couldn’t be explained.
· Here is a man steeped in Pagan idolatry, one of the very instruments which was being used to persecute Christians. Here is the man who had put the shackles on Paul and Silas and yet God was all along, intending to set him free.
· I can’t help but think of the thief on the cross next to Jesus – by God’s providence seeing and receiving Jesus in the last moments of his life.
· As the servant girl had been saying in vs 17, “These men are proclaiming the way of salvation” – here the man understands that He needs salvation and they know the way.
What an amazing message in vs 31 “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Stop trusting in yourself, your sacrifices, your rituals, your own goodness or physical power or intellectual ability. Stop trusting that you know better and entrust yourself to Jesus Christ.
This is the simple message of the gospel – the most powerful message in all the world. Paul could say in Rom 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for the Jew first, but also for the Gentile.” The gospel is the power of God to convert even the most hardened sinner, from the most unlikely idolatrous background, in an instance.
Not infant baptism
Again, this text is here to give us warrant to practice infant baptism. In context of this narrative, this account is demonstrating the power of God and the gospel. The whole household is saved here, not because the faith of the father is sufficient for the household, or because we should always expect whole families to always turn to the Lord. It is showing us that indeed God had an appointment with this man and His family. God had directed Paul away from other ministry opportunities and brought him here, to this man, to this jail, at this hour – in order to save him and his household.
God bared His arm, showed His power and His grace and prepared this man’s heart to understand and believe.
Note vs 32 – the text is not recording all the events in detail. It skips a whole lot of events and suddenly Paul is preaching to this man’s household. But notice what this implies, the term household has adults in mind, those who could hear and understand the message which was preached and it was because they believed the Word of the gospel that they were then baptized.
There is no talk here of infants or babies being baptized, or anyone being saved by any means, other than hearing and believing the gospel – and yet this text is used by Covenant theologians to justify infant baptism. Clearly they are reading their theology into the text rather than getting it out of the text.
Evidences of salvation
Luke often highlights the signs or evidences that accompany true salvation.
· Vs 33, he washed their wounds. These enemies had become friends. The one who had power and authority over them, now becomes as their servant and washes their wounds.
· Vs 33, he was baptized along with the other believers in his household
· Vs 34 he and his household demonstrate hospitality, Christian love by bringing them into their home and feeding them.
· And they all have joy – the joy of salvation is greater than any happiness that the world or sin has to offer.
This man’s conversion is immediately evident to all… vs 33 “that same hour” and was baptized “at once.” This is true conversion, it brings about an inner transformation, a supernatural change of heart – doubt is replaced with faith, pride with humility, fear with joy, hatred with love, enmity with peace. All of these supernatural transformations could be seen that very night. The good works that followed were an outworking of the power of God which had transformed this man’s heart and life.
Application: Do we believe the power of the gospel?
I think, many of us Christians have forgotten the importance and power of the gospel. We are looking for physical deliverance, material comfort, easy sailing – and we are blind to the fact that God is wanting to demonstrate His power in the midst of overwhelming odds.
His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). He has put this powerful message in weak jars of clay – to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Cor 4:7)
demonic power, material power, physical power, spiritual power. Finally….
5: Political Power (35-40)
We are not sure why the magistrates changed their mind, but they sent their offices to release Paul and Silas. In Greek, the “rhabdouchoi” meaning literally “rod-bearers.” They sent the very men who were responsible for having Paul and Silas beaten, with the message you may go….
But Paul would have none of this subversion of justice. The magistrates had beaten 2 Roman citizens without a proper trial. The irony here is that Paul and Silas were innocent of any real crime and the magistrates were actually guilty of a very real and serious crime. Rome protected the rights of its citizens. The magistrates could lose their positions, the municipality could be deprived of its rights as a Roman colony. Paul and Silas have a real case against them, so they request that the Magistrates come and release them personally.
For the 4th time – the irony in this text is dripping - those who seemed to have political power and influence are now in danger of losing that power and those who seemed to have no rights and privileges are actually the ones who have political and judicial power….
God is in complete control over who’s in charge, who has rights and privileges and He’s even in control when those rights and privileges are subverted. He uses this turn of events to silence the Magistrates and establish Christian witness in this vital gentile city.
Paul isn’t worried about his personal rights and freedoms. He was a slave of Christ and this was about using His rights as a Roman citizen to further the cause of Christ. The point needed to be made that these Magistrates had acted unjustly, and were walking on thin ice, as it were. They would think twice before responding to trumped up charges again and they would have to be careful about telling Paul and Silas what they could or could not do, lest this incidence be used against them.
That’s why Paul did what he did, not to vindicate his own honour, but to establish political freedom in this area so the gospel could be preached without hindrance, and God had given him the perfect platform to do that.
When we look at this account from God’s perspective we see a whole lot that we can’t see if we put ourselves at the centre and make personal comfort the lens by which we interpret everything that’s going on.
Personally, we see spiritual oppression and the rich and powerful subverting justice; we see unbelief, and persecution and physical weakness and imprisonment, and plans going all wrong and political leaders opposing the gospel….. Does that describe the kinds of things you are seeing in your life and in our country?...
But when we see this narrative from God’s perspective – we see liberation from demonic possession, we see freedom from sin, we see blind eyes being opened, and faith and inexplicable joy and reconciliation and unity and Christian love and service and the church being built up and its witness being established.
Our God is in the heavens, He does all that He pleases (Ps 115:3)
Are you merely seeing what man is doing or are you seeing what God is doing?....
Are you merely seeing man’s power, and money’s power and Satan’s power and nature’s power and political power – which is messing up your plans and making your life more difficult? Or are you seeing God’s power over every other power, God’s plans being worked out in the midst of your plans being messed up?
If our lives are merely to serve us and our purposes – then things may be going very wrong. But if our lives are to serve God and His glory – then we can know with certainty that whatever else is happening – that much is certainly being accomplished.
Our job in any and every circumstance is simply to consider how best to put God’s glory on display.