This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here.
The book of Acts reveals many reasons for Christianity’s tremendous growth. It came of age in a unique historical moment. It was embraced and spread by dedicated people. It offers hope as no other movement can. But the primary reason for the church’s growth—one of the main themes in Acts—is God’s sovereign grace.
God had been closing doors against the missionary team of Paul, Silas, and Timothy. But, having led them across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia, he again energized their work and made it fruitful. Only Jesus can awaken spiritually dull hearts, loosen Satan’s grip on sinners, and give us powerful testimonies that can catch the attention of a needy world. Be encouraged by the sustained presentation in Acts 16:11–40 of the beauty of sovereign grace.
A Powerful Awakening
Apparently, there were few pious Jews in Philippi. Still, the missionaries met a group of God-fearing women gathered for prayer on the Sabbath. One of the women, Lydia, was a prosperous entrepreneur who worshipped God but didn’t know Jesus. Lydia was in the right place to hear the truth that could set her free. But she had a problem: “This people’s heart has grown dull … their eyes they have closed” to the hope of healing (Isa. 6:10; Acts 28:27). And Lydia was materially prosperous; she had ample economic and intellectual means to deny her need for grace (see Rev. 3:17). But “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). God saves sinners by shining “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6; cf. Eph. 1:18).
By sovereign grace, Lydia became a disciple of Jesus. When she was baptized, so were the people she oversaw. Her dependents had become sanctified by her faith; they were holy in that they were connected to a believer who would disciple them (1 Cor. 7:14).
As the missionaries returned to Lydia’s place of prayer, God again displayed his sovereign grace.
A Powerful Exorcism
Luke tells of a demon-possessed girl trafficked for her fortune-telling. The demon, attuned to spiritual things, publicly identified Paul and Silas as God’s servants. True enough. But grieved by the girl’s double enslavement and unwilling to have an evil spirit herald Jesus’s name (Luke 4:34–35) Paul exorcised the demon “that very hour” (Acts 16:18)
Demons must submit to God’s power. Still, the girl’s owners resisted. They seized the missionaries and dragged them before the local magistrates who gave orders to beat them. The charge was that these ethnic and religious minorities were disturbing the city by advocating foreign customs, a weighty argument in a Roman colony. And the accusation is intriguing. Christianity cannot nicely harmonize with religious syncretism. Serious Christians must violate the spirit of the age. And with a firm trust in God, we should be prepared to take our lumps for showing Jesus’s superiority.
But the men masked their true motive for abusing Paul and Silas. They realized that “their hope of gain was gone” (Acts 16:19). To some people, wealth is more important than salvation. Greed can drive us away from God as we seek meaning in what we can acquire and the temporary power that wealth can wield. Scripture condemns “enslavers” (1 Tim. 1:10). These men became enslavers because of greed.
So, Paul and Silas were severely beaten and thrown into prison. There, we witness another display of God’s sovereign grace.
A Powerful Testimony
In prison, the men prayed and sang to God—a sure sign of God’s work in them! Were they singing lament psalms or imprecations (see Acts 2:23–31)? We don’t know. But, importantly, they were communicating Godward in their trial. As the missionaries worshiped, a great earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. God miraculously opened the doors and unfasted everyone’s bonds. So that Paul and Silas could escape? No. So that they could respond to his providence with faithfulness.
Because of their powerful testimony, Paul and Silas gained the opportunity to evangelize the jailor who had no explanation for what was happening. His address is shocking; he called the despised prisoners “Sirs.” “It was the supreme term of respect … he was conscious of the fact that he was in the presence of superiors.”[i] Here’s his question: “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is God’s promise also to us today: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). He did believe. He was saved. And his works immediately proved it—he began to live like Jesus in whose name he had been baptized.
The next day, the magistrates urged Paul and Silas to leave quietly. Paul refused. He didn’t want revenge. He wanted the Philippian church’s safety. The magistrates apologized. They admitted that being a Christian didn’t warrant legal punishment. After encouraging Lydia and the brothers, the missionaries departed.
Jewish men of Paul’s day thanked God for not making them gentiles, women, or slaves. In this chapter God saved a suicidal gentile, an affluent woman, and an oppressed slave girl, even as he had saved Paul, a model Jew. Don’t give up on yourself; don’t give up on others. No kind of person is beyond the reach of God’s sovereign grace.
[i] G. Campbell Morgan, The Acts of the Apostles, 393.