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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Where’s Wally? - Let’s Take a Luke + Who’s Really in Prison?


"They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’” Acts 16:31

Last time Paul split from his dear friend Barnabas, and then wasn’t able to travel where he had planned to, in part due to illness, we think. Nothing was going to plan – except it was. Paul’s plans weren’t coming to pass but God’s plans were. God had determined that Paul should now go on a new mission for Christ, with a like-minded man called Silas. And then he had quickly given him a new BFF or, at the very least, a new friend-for-life called Timothy. And although he had, at that moment in time, prevented Paul from preaching about Jesus in the Roman provinces of Asia and Bithynia his plan wasn’t that Paul should stop altogether. The Lord wanted Paul to proceed in a different order – to go somewhere else first. Paul, for the first time, is going to take the message about Jesus to Europe. Verse 9 tells us why - Paul had a vivid dream of ‘a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’’

So – this dream - does this kind of thing still happen? Well, sometimes we may be led of the Lord in a particular way that we feel very definite about. But we still have to proceed in faith. In fact, that is the way we should always proceed as Christians. Whether we feel clear or unclear about future aspects of life, we must go forward in faith. And the wording of verse 10 is really instructive. Paul doesn’t just wake everyone up at 5am and tell his friends, ‘I’ve had a dream, cancel the omelettes, we’re off to the Euro-Zone. There was evidently a discussion about whether this vision was for real, because they reach a conclusion together. May we be the same. However, defined and obvious a future path in life may seem, let us prayerfully consider and conclude and then proceed – always in faith.

Verse 10 also introduces us to a new character. And people may be thinking, ‘Well, I can’t see anyone. Is this ‘Where’s Wally?!’ – No. This Acts account was written by a man named Luke. At this very point, when Luke describes Paul and his friends he changes his usual word of choice, which was ‘they’, and uses the word ‘we’ – ‘we got ready at once to leave…’ It appears that Luke has joined this group, and the Acts story, for the very first time in Troas. Luke reverts to ‘they’ at the end of this chapter. He evidently stays in Philippi when Paul moves on again. He then re-appears in Acts 20 onwards. But, his name (Luke) is never seen in Acts. We only know he has appeared when he switches from ‘they’ to ‘we’ to describe Paul & Co. We only know he’s been there from these little clues that he leaves around the place - Luke is the Bible’s own Banksy!

Luke is significant though. Paul evidently had health issues. The Lord supplied him with Luke – another BFF – this time it’s Best (F)Physician forever – because Luke was a doctor (see Colossians 4 14). Paul was given yet another friend and helper with a valuable gift. Paul would have benefitted greatly. Luke is then used of God to gather and record this Acts account of early church life. I trust that it isn’t just the apostle who has benefitted greatly from Luke, but us too!

Paul and ‘we’ get to Philiippi which is described as ‘a Roman colony’ in verse 12. It was a place of distinct Roman influence plus distinctly less Jewish presence than other cities which Paul has already visited. There is no synagogue. Jewish tradition says that there cannot be a synagogue without a ‘minyan’ which is a minimum of ten Jewish adult (over 13’s) males. That tradition says they have to be males. 9 males and 1000 females wouldn’t be enough! Actually, here in Philippi, there isn’t even one man at this gathering – verse 13 has only ‘the women who had gathered there.’ But why where they gathered there? Why did Paul and company go ‘to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer’? Because this was another Jewish tradition. Where there was no official building, the Jews use the riverside as a place of prayer. If you were a Jew arriving in a strange city for the first time and found no official presence, you would still know where to look come Saturday morning.

This is illustrated in Psalm 137, written about the Israelite, Old Testament experience while captives in Babylon. There would have been a minyan there as most of the surviving population had been taken captive. But it seems that they weren’t allowed anything official in that place. So, they did the next best thing! Psalm 137 starts with, ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat…’ It is a song of loss and grief. Because of the Israelites sin – their continual breaking of the rules which God had given them to obey, he had allowed them to be taken into captivity, as he had promised them that he would. Now they were filled with regret. They were separated from God’s promised land in that place of exile and they were separated from God himself. Such was their grief, they could no longer ‘sing the songs of the Lord’ in that ‘foreign land’. Their ‘harps’ were ‘hung’ from the trees - ‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Jerusalem (Zion)’.

Compare the scene in Philippi. In verse 13, Paul goes ‘to the river’ where ‘we sat down and began to speak’. In Babylon, the theme was separation from God through sin. In Philippi, that day’s theme was restored relationship with God through Jesus. What a contrast?! What an effect?! Hearts weren’t closed off. Hearts were opened. Lydia is introduced to us in this beautiful scene. Who was she? ‘She was from the city of Thyatira’, which was in the Roman province of Asia. ‘She was a dealer in purple cloth’. This was not just any old job. Lydia would have been wealthy.

Proper purple dye was so hard to come by in Roman times. It came with a premium price, apparently worth more, weight for weight, than gold. Roman Senators had their togas trimmed with purple. It was a status symbol, a bit like a Ferrari now. Having purple trimmed clothing told people that you had made it. Lydia traded in an expensive commodity and would have reaped the benefits. ‘She was a worshipper of God’. We’ve come across that phrase before in Acts. It simply means that though she was a Gentile, or non-Jew, she had embraced the God of Israel as the one true and living God, and so worshipped him. But she still needed saving. She had a nice religious existence and a very comfortable life but without Jesus she was lost.

But, that day in Philippi, the lost was found. She ‘respond(s) to Paul’s message’ in verse 14. Why? ‘The Lord opened her heart’. Others in her household also come to faith. They are all baptised. Lydia is just a newly planted tree in God’s garden, but the fruits of the Spirit are instantly seen. Lydia is such an example to us. Perhaps you are like me when you read this account and beg the Lord to open your heart like he opened Lydia’s. By comparison, I feel that mine has been opened a bit like a door left slightly ajar, where the light struggles to get through into the next room. With Lydia, it seems like the door was opened with dynamite! Her money, her home, her life are instantly turned over to Christ and his mission. The Bible gives her only one sentence. With wisdom and grace she compels the Paul group to accept her as their host. ‘If you don’t allow this then you don’t consider me a Christian’, is in effect what she says in verse 15. ‘And she persuaded us’, as well she might!

What an awesome illustration of Christ’s all-embracing kingdom. There couldn’t be an official Jewish meeting place in Philippi according to their tradition. There weren’t enough men and women just didn’t count. You had to be of the correct ethnicity or you didn’t count. Here, as Paul says in Galatians 3 26-28, ‘in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. How fantastic - the first recorded convert in Europe turns out to be a person from Asia! This one woman was God’s starting point. Her household was enough to begin a proper church. Her ethnic background and sex were irrelevant. A heart opened to Jesus was all that counted now.

And then we have another woman introduced. She is at the other end of the social scale – a slave – someone with no rights. She was the property of others – their possession. And this slave was doubly possessed - also possessed by a spirit that ‘predicted the future’. Rather than trying to get her help, her owners just exploited what she had for their own gain. She was trapped. What could set her free? Verse 18 tells us – ‘the name of Jesus Christ’. The record of her life ends there. We are told no more. But it is undoubted that her existence had been transformed by that contact with Jesus through his servant Paul. It is one more example from God’s catalogue of how Jesus did not come to add burden to people’s lives, but to set them free.

The events that follow introduce us to the jailor of Philippi. Paul and Silas meet him because of the fallout of that freeing miracle. How interesting is the accusation? That slave’s owners claim the moral high ground. ‘We are doing this out of love for Roman society. We are concerned for the wider interest of our community’ ,in effect, what they argue. The reality is that their only interest is self-interest. The freeing power of Jesus has cost them their status. How often do we see this approach? People claim to be serving either God, or the greater good, when they are simply serving themselves.

Paul and Silas aren’t wearing togas trimmed with purple. They don’t appear to have any status. We don’t have to look far to see this attitude today. They are viewed as immigrants - outsiders – people who have a strange look and even stranger ways. They are viewed as less human and are consequently treated less humanly. ‘The crowd’ here, are like crowds everywhere. People will claim that it is virtue, and the intent to protect culture and a good way of life, that motivates them to see outsiders nakedly exposed, and downtrodden, and trapped with nowhere to go.

This is where we meet the jailor. These men who are battered and bruised don’t receive medical attention and are not fed. They aren’t just put into the darkest, dingiest, most secure unit, but are unnecessarily held in stocks. Then the jailor sleeps like a baby. He is a cruel and hard-hearted man. His tough life experience has made him immune to the suffering of others. He is out of touch and out of reach. Except he isn’t out of God’s reach.

Oh, the irony of the jail that night. One man who appears to be free and has authority and power over others, proves to be imprisoned and powerless. Two men who appear imprisoned and hopeless prove that they have abundant hope and are truly free. Paul would later write a letter to the church now just forming in Philippi. He tells them (Philippians 4 12-13), ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength’. P & S were given strength in that situation that night. They were ‘treated outrageously’ (1 Thessalonians 2 2). I would have spent the night bemoaning that fact. They could have spent the time in criticism of others but they chose instead to praise their God. As someone wisely commented, and I agree, if the Lord had seen fit to put me, instead of Silas, in that cell, Paul would have been singing solo! What an example?! Even though their earthly circumstances were desperate, their hope and hearts were in heaven.

What a contrast again with Psalm 137. Those Jews in Babylon, because of their desperate circumstances - the consequence of sin – they couldn’t make music. That Old Covenant relationship with God had been broken and they felt painfully separated from him and from the life which they held so dear. Look at P & S, though. They were in New Covenant relationship with God through Christ. Paul talks about it in Romans 8 31-39, Paul mentions some really desperate life circumstances and asks what exactly will now be able to break our God relationship as believers. And his conclusion is nothing. Nothing… ‘not anything… in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’. They were separated from life’s comforts but the Lord stood by them and gave them strength. And so, they sang. What a witness? How easy it is to say we trust in the Lord when things are easy. It’s much harder when they’re not.

And this leads to the supernatural happening where all the prisoners are freed from their chains. How many escape? None. Paul says, in verse 28, ‘We are all here’. Why hadn’t the others run off? Because they (v.25) ‘were listening’. They heard – they knew - that this event was linked to the God of these two men and so they did what these two men did and stayed. It saved the jailor’s life. There was often a ghastly forfeit for a Roman jailor whose prisoners broke free. This jailor knew it and decided to seize the initiative by seizing his sword. But Paul stops him with good news, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here’. Then he receives the really good news. His hard heart was not too hard for the Lord. He is now a broken man. These two prisoners radiated a safety and security that he had never experienced. He realised that life had been lying to him. He was the imprisoned one. These men had a freedom beyond his wildest dreams. He wants some of that. Why wouldn’t he? ‘Sirs’, he says. Now they’ve got status. Now he sees their riches. He thinks, ‘What must I do to have what they have?’ He asks, ‘What must I do to be saved?’

He needs the gospel simply explained. Ten words is all it takes. ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’. So he does - so he is! His heart and life are transformed. He takes the men to his home and now he ‘washed their wounds’ and ‘set a meal before them’. Others in his household follow his example and follow Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

Verse 25 had P & S singing at midnight. Verse 35 has ‘daylight’ arriving. In between those times the light of Jesus has shone through that night. People have believed and have already been baptised. The church in Philippi is growing apace, and once P & S are released properly, and with quite the apology, they go, in verse 40, to the assembly now gathered in Lydia’s house, ‘where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them’ in their newly found faith in Christ.

That church would prove vitally important to Paul’s ongoing mission. That church had a heart opened like Lydia’s. Paul wrote to them and said, in Philippians 4 15-16, ‘as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; or even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need’.

We might ask the question of why Paul was originally prevented by the ‘Spirit of Jesus’ from going to places that he would later be allowed to visit. Why was he sent to Philippi first? Perhaps, it was to gain this means of funding for his further missionary work. Paul couldn’t have known it at the time. But God did. He always sees the bigger picture.

Acts 16 is a wonderful example of how two men, as human as we are, managed to see the bigger picture that night in a prison cell in a strange city. If they had acted out of self-interest, they would have fled that jail when their chains fell off. They had every right to – legally and morally… but not Christ-ly. Like their Lord and master they acted out of love for others - others who had been so unloving to them. Their faithfulness and their Christ-ness were richly rewarded.

Paul uses this self-sacrificial - Jesus - principle when he writes in Romans 15 1-6, about church life. He wants them to have ‘the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had’. He says, ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’. Then Paul says this, ‘for everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope’.

May that be true of Acts 16, to us, today.


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