The Gospel for Diverse People
What types of people is Christianity really for? In this passage we see there really is no “Christian type”. The gospel is good news for 3 people in particular in this passage who could hardly be more different from one another.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
There’s an old saying attributed to Socrates dating from the 3rd century B.C. where Socrates expressed thanks for having been born human and not a brute, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian. In Judaism there is record of an analogous prayer that surfaces as early as A.D. 200, in which the one praying thanks God that He did not make him a woman, a slave, or a Gentile. Some orthodox Jewish men still pray it today. Many Jews of course find such a prayer highly offensive, as I imagine many of you do as well, but such a sentiment would have been common in the ancient world, which makes the passage in Acts at which we are looking all the more astounding. The passage focuses on the interactions of Paul and his team with three individuals in the city of Philippi: Lydia, a slave girl, and a Philippian jailer. You see who they are? You guessed it: A woman, a slave, and a Gentile, and in each case, we’re going to see that the Christian gospel is good news for them. There is no “Christian type.” The gospel is good news for diverse people; let’s look at each.
Our passage begins in verse 11 with some details of Paul and his team’s travel. They’ve just seen a vision of a man in Macedonia asking them to come over and help them, and they concluded from that that God had called them to preach the gospel to the Macedonians. They stop at the island of Samothrace, then arrive at the first town in Macedonia you can reach from where they were sailing: Neapolis, but they don’t really spend time in Neapolis. They go right from Neapolis to Philippi, which Luke goes out of his way to describe here as a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. Now remember, the man who appeared to Paul in a vision was a Macedonian, not necessarily a Philippian, and he just said, “come over here and help us”; he didn’t tell Paul where to go. So why’s Paul go to Philippi? Because if you want to reach a region, like Macedonia, you go to the leading city of the region, which in this case is Philippi.
Once there, as was their custom, they find the local synagogue, or at least the closest thing to it, which in this case was apparently a place of prayer. The fact that they speak exclusively to women there likely indicates that there was no synagogue in Philippi, since a synagogue required at least 10 Jewish men to start. Nonetheless, they speak to the women who came together, and one of them in particular, Lydia, pays attention to what they say and is converted, signified by her baptism in verse 15.
This is actually surprising on some level considering Lydia’s profile. We’re told she was from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, and a worshiper of God. That she was from the city of Thyatira and a seller of purple goods means she was upper class and involved in a prestigious trade. That she was a worshiper of God means that though she wasn’t born Jewish, she worshiped the Jewish God. If she were in Philadelphia, she’d live in Rittenhouse Square and own a boutique on Walnut St. She’d have insurance to cover the looting. She’d identify as part of a prominent faith community, maybe a wealthy synagogue or one of the mainline churches in Center City that meet in one of the historic church buildings. She might even be the patron of a charitable foundation.
She’s a good, wealthy, religious person, and yet she paid attention to this gospel message Paul proclaimed and was converted. Why? Verse 14 tells us: The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Do you know if that if you’re a Christian today it’s because God specifically sought you and opened your heart? Despite all appearances to the contrary, He knew Lydia didn’t have that which she needed most, and He opened her heart to listen to the message Paul proclaimed and receive it with faith. Do you believe God could do that in the lives of those you know who seem to have it all together? I don’t care how wealthy or religious the person to whom you’re reaching out seems; they have problems. And if the Lord opens their heart to pay attention to the gospel, they’ll listen to whoever is preaching it, no matter how poor you are, no matter how insignificant our world may tell you you are in comparison to them.
Though the gospel is good news for the poor and throughout the Bible and history Christianity has always been the favorite religion of the poor and outcast, it is also good news for this wealthy woman. It doesn’t condemn her for her wealth, but it does transform her wealth. Notice in verse 15 after she was baptized, her household was baptized as well, and then she urged Paul and his team to stay at her house. Earlier in Acts we saw Christians selling their property and possessions, taking the proceeds, giving them to the church pastors, and the pastors distributing them to the poor in the church as they had need. Here we see another option: Lydia doesn’t sell her house, but she does repurpose it. She uses it to house preachers of the word so the preaching of the gospel could continue. In the last verse of this passage we even get indication that a church is meeting in her home. Her home became an instrument for ministry.
Some of you in the church are rich. On a global and historical scale in fact, many of us are. I’m not saying that to shame you; there’s a place in God’s kingdom for you with Lydia too. But how are you going to use your wealth to seek first God’s kingdom? One way to which every Christian is called is to give some away to the church, the poor, the cause of justice, and so forth, so that you live below the standard of living you could afford if you kept it all. Some of you may even give a lot or all of it away like the Christians earlier in Acts did, so that you live far below the standard of living you could afford if you kept it all. Or, you could, like Lydia, use it to buy a big house that you can afford and many others can’t, and then use that big house to host Citygroups, show hospitality to, promote justice among, and share the gospel with neighbors other Christians might never meet, house fellow church members who have fallen on hard times, and so forth. Wealth and religion can’t save anyone, but if God opens your heart to pay attention to the gospel, if God uses you to open another’s, He can also use wealth for His glory. The gospel is good news for this wealthy woman Lydia, and then we see it’s also good news for a slave girl.
A slave girl
We meet this slave girl in verse 16, and her particular trade was fortune-telling by divination, in other words by accessing the spiritual realm. Through her spiritual practice she could even rightly proclaim the identity of Paul and his team as servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation. The Bible, with most of the world and human history, affirms throughout the reality of the spirit realm, and even today in the city you can still keep a fortune-telling shop open. This girl however is not only engaged in such practices, she’s held in them by her owners, as verse 19 describes them. In Philadelphia today we don’t generally have this kind of slavery, but there are still women tragically enslaved in the sex trade.
However, in verse 18 we see Paul speaking to the spirit in her and telling the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And in that very hour, the spirit came out. There is a real spirit realm, but over that spirit realm Jesus Christ is Lord, so that in His name the spirits of that realm must flee. Now we don’t read in this passage anything specifically about this slave girl’s conversion; it may have happened, but we don’t know. Nonetheless, the presence of Paul and his team in her city was good news for her. She was released from her oppression in the name of Jesus Christ.
Our mission as the church is to preach the gospel; that’s why Paul and his team were in Philippi. But their presence there also meant the powers of the kingdom of God were present there, and that should be good news for the oppressed, even if not all the oppressed are converted. I say “should be” because the church has at times in her history failed in this and has instead even served as an instrument of oppression, but from the beginning it was not so. Though Christians often sinfully supported the slave trade, it was also Christians who were the first to call for and successfully abolish it. Some of you in this church, because of your Christian faith, felt compelled to peacefully protest recently here in Philadelphia on behalf of your oppressed black brothers and sisters. I’ve seen some evidence online that George Floyd was a Christian, but even if he wasn’t, the presence of Christians in an area should lead to a concern for what happened to him never happening again. There is power in the name of Jesus to push back against the forces of darkness.
That forces of darkness also push back though, and we see that next. In verse 19 the owners saw their hope of gain was gone now that the slave girl had been freed of the divining spirit, so they go after Paul and Silas. They trump up charges against them and have them thrown in prison. It would be nice to think since the gospel is good news and has benefits for the oppressed that everyone will like it, but what about the oppressors? They should be out of work. White supremacists should really hate Christians, and you better be ready for that if you advocate for the racially oppressed. The chauvinistic will oppose you if you advocate for the rights of women, pimps if you fight to free women from the sex trade, and so forth. The gospel is good news for the slave, the oppressed, and even for the wealthy woman Lydia as we already saw, but it’s bad news for any who use their wealth to oppress, who hold on to their power and money at the expense of the glory of God and the good of their neighbor. And finally, it’s good news for the Gentile, the Philippian jailer.
The Philippian jailer
So they get thrown in jail and the first thing we find them doing in verse 25 is praying and singing hymns to God at midnight. There’s a word there for those of you who have been on the receiving end of injustice. In the movie Just Mercy, the first scene shows the main character, lawyer Bryan Stevenson, visiting a man on death row. After they exceeded the time limit for Bryan’s visit, a cop comes in and treats this death row prisoner roughly, but while they were taking him away, the man began singing a hymn to God. Stevenson still says today that moment changed him. This God, the true God, is a God you can sing to from prison, after you’ve been beaten just because the people beating you saw you as a threat to their wealth and power. In the letter to the Philippians, the letter Paul wrote to this church being planted in this story, he said this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4). You mean like always? Yes, always. Like even after you’ve been beaten and thrown in prison by power-hungry and greedy men? Yes, even then. How? Sing. Sing true things about God. Need a place to start? Look at the Psalms. They are the songs of the often-oppressed people of God. They don’t gloss over the oppression, but they bring it before God and find hope in Him through it.
But then God brings an earthquake, loosening their chains, probably because they were chained to the ground. Then we meet the Philippian jailer. As a Philippian he was no doubt a Gentile, a non-Jew, and as a jailer he was more of a working-class type, may have even been ex-military. In Philadelphia terms this might be your Philly police officer. Many of us have not had very positive feelings toward police officers recently, often with good reason, but the gospel is good news for them too, just as it is for us. The Philippian jailer prides himself on being tough and getting the job done, so when he realizes the prisoners may have escaped, what’s he do? Verse 27: He draws his sword and tries to kill himself. His sense of self was so built on doing his job well that when he thought he’d failed he didn’t want to live. There is even precedent for guards being put to death if prisoners escape under their care, but he doesn’t want to face the shame of a public execution. He feels like he can’t live another day.
Now to some of you that sounds crazy, but many of you get it. I know a few of you who have struggled with suicidal ideation. And I know many more who have put so much stock in being able to view yourself as a success, in people around you calling you a success, that a failure like this would not only sadden you, it would crush you. But the story didn’t end there for the Philippian jailer, and it doesn’t have to end there for you either. Because Paul and Silas stayed. The doors were open, and they didn’t walk out them. They were free to go, they saw their enemy about to kill himself, and instead of letting him do so and walking out, they stayed for the sake of his salvation. Isn’t that the kind of followers Jesus makes? Isn’t He the one who saw us dead in our trespasses and sins, and who not only didn’t leave us, but specifically came for us, and was willingly beaten, imprisoned, and executed in our place on false charges, so that we who were His enemies could come into His home and eat with Him?
The Philippian jailer thought there was no hope for him, but notice the change just Paul and Silas’ willingness to stay caused. He asks them in verse 31, “What must I do to be saved?” Before he thought there was no possibility of salvation, but now he realizes: There is a God who fights for these guys, and I’m their enemies, but they stayed for me. Might there be salvation for a sinner like me? Indeed, there is: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household. Because of what Jesus did the enemies of God can become the friends of God. I extend this same promise to you today, whoever you are: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household. Much like Lydia, the Philippian jailer believers and brings them to his home, where they speak the word to his entire house, and the entire house believes and is baptized. His story ends in verse 34 with his entire household rejoicing that he believed in God.
Isn’t that good news? Not only was the Philippian jailer saved; his whole household was. God loves to do that. He often delights to not only save one member of a household, but to then use that member of the household to save the rest, and the result is not just a transformed individual, but a transformed family. In my time at Citylight Center City I’ve had the privilege of seeing God save men whose marriages were on the brink of disaster, and I know those men today. They’re walking with Jesus, loving their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, raising children now in the discipline and instruction of Christ. Those families were headed for disaster, and now the whole household rejoices that dad believed in God. The gospel is good news not only for the Gentile, but for his household. It’s good news for the woman, the slave, and the Gentile, three people in this passage who couldn’t have been more different from one another. And whoever you are, if you will turn and believe, it is good news for you too. May the Lord open your heart today. Take this good news out to whoever God has you around, whether they be rich or poor, black or white, weak or strong, the gospel is good news, and any who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.