February 6, 2005

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Trust that God is at Work in Every Situation
Acts 16:16-34

You can hardly read the newspaper or listen to the news these days without hearing the word “freedom.” We celebrate our freedom as Americans, and our leaders assure us that they are promoting freedom throughout the world. But when you look at people all around you, how many of them are truly “free”? How many of us are truly free? We seem obligated to do this or driven to do that. We are plagued by fear, overwhelmed by our responsibilities, and slaves to our appetites. Our lives often appear, even to a casual onlooker, to be spiraling out of control. How many of us are truly free?

The word freedom, I suppose, would not be the first word to come to our minds when reading the story of Paul and Silas here in Acts 16:16-34. And if it was, we would most likely be thinking of their eventual release from a Philippian jail. They were in prison, but were then released. They are free, we might conclude. But one can hardly sit with this text for even a short period of time without recognizing that Paul and Silas are free in a far deeper sense of the term. They are truly free, even while in prison, because of their profound faith in Christ. Paul and Silas have learned what we all need to learn: the love of Christ compels us and the Holy Spirit empowers us to trust—to trust!—that God is as work in every situation.

As a brief recap, Paul and Silas, along with other associates, continue their ministry in the city of Philippi. Luke informs us that three specific and remarkably diverse individuals accepted their message there and chose to follow Jesus. Lydia was an up-and-outer—a wealthy and generally religious person. An unnamed slave-girl was a down-an-outer—a social outcast who was mere fodder for her money-driven owners. And the local jailer fell somewhere in between. People of all shapes and sizes, Luke assures us, are again coming to Christ.

The conversion of the slave-girl, however, caused Paul and Silas far more trouble than they might have originally expected. With her conversion came her “freedom” from the very demonic activity that had made her a money-making spectacle in Philippi’s social circus. Her owners, who had capitalized handsomely on her side-show behavior, were now incensed at Paul and Silas. Suddenly, they arouse a mob, and our apostolic heroes quickly find themselves in a situation as hopeless as those experienced by certain Old Testament characters: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery furnace, and Daniel and his den of ravishing lions. Look how Luke describes the scene. Paul and Silas are seized and dragged into the marketplace before the civil authorities. They are then stripped of their clothing and beaten with rods. Finally, they are placed in prison. Note, however, just how specific Luke’s description is. Paul and Silas are positioned in the innermost cell, their feet in stocks, and they are under the constant supervision of the jailer (vv. 23-24). They are completely restricted. But they are free.

I’m struck, for one thing, by their reaction to this nasty predicament. About midnight, Luke informs us, Paul and Silas were praying and singing together, and everyone in the prison sat listening (v. 25). There is no sense of panic, no trace of urgency, no self-glorifying attempts to be heroic. And remember that these are people who know what it means to act with a sense of urgency—they traveled and preached with alarming urgency, and they took their ministry seriously. But now, when faced with such a difficult situation in which their very lives are at risk, they simply pray and sing together. Paul and Silas are, as I’ve said, free.

I don’t know that any of us here this morning have ever been in a situation similar to Paul and Silas. But most of us know what it is like to be in a sticky predicament. Some of those we bring on ourselves through sinful choices—those are a different matter altogether. But at times, we simply feel overwhelmed by our circumstances, even when we are doing precisely what God asks of us. We have weighty decisions to make, difficult people to face, sizeable responsibilities to bear. It feels as though we are in prison and our feet are in stocks. At times like that, we need to catch our breath. Pray together. Sing songs to God. Resist the temptation to force the situation. Look at Paul and Silas. They are in prison, but they are free.

But their freedom goes even beyond their sense of calmness during calamity. As Paul and Silas continue praying and singing, the prison itself shakes, its door spring open, and the chains on all of the prisoners fall to the floor! What might you expect to happen next? What would surely happen next were such an odd thing to occur at the Camp Hill Prison?!? The prisoners would surely run to “freedom,” and the local residents would bar their doors! That is certainly what the jailer here in Philippi assumed. Knowing full well the fate of a jailer who allows a prisoner to escape, the jailer seizes his sword and prepares to thrust it through his mid-section.

“Stop,” Paul shouts. “We’re still here!” “We’re still here.” Why didn’t they run away? Why didn’t they seize the opportunity and run to “freedom”? Because they were already free in a far deeper sense of the term, and the freedom that they had in Christ had apparently led them to recognize that fleeing the jail was not what they were to do on at least this occasion. They were discerning. Attentive. In touch with God. Aware of the fact that he is working in every situation, and that sometimes he works in ways contrary to what might at first glance appear reasonable.

I was in my third year of graduate school when the college first invited me to consider joining the faculty. After considerable prayer and conversation, I declined the invitation. I’ll never forget how most of my friends at the university responded. They told me that I was crazy! “With the shortage of teaching positions out there,” they reasoned, “how can you turn down such an offer?!?” “If the door is there, go through it!” Only one of my friends sang a different tune. He affirmed my decision and commented, “You never go into our Lord’s service with a sense of desperation, but with a sense of discernment.”

I don’t know for sure just how Paul and Silas knew to stay put when every natural impulse would certainly have shouted otherwise. They knew God. They listened to his spirit. They didn’t believe that an open door always meant that they should go through. They were, remember, free. Free to listen. Free to wait. Free to trust.

And look what happened. Had they fled the prison when the opportunity presented itself, we would have ended up with some liberated prisoners and a dead jailer. Because they waited, we end up with some liberated prisoners, a live jailer, and an entire household coming to faith in Christ (v. 33). Had Paul and Silas fled, they might have been free in a limited sense, but because they waited, the jailer and his family come to experience the lasting freedom that Paul and Silas have known all along.

Freedom. Trusting that God is at work in every situation. In our lives as individuals. In our life together as a church. When predicaments arise, we can catch our breath and resist the temptation to force the circumstances. We don’t have to panic and jump through every hoop or walk through every door. We can listen. Discern. Trust that God is working through and on behalf of his people. What perspective to carry all of us through life. That, in my mind, sounds like genuine freedom.