The Word of God Is Not Bound
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 16:25–16:40
Singing through Grief
Sometimes we sing with near laughter over the Lord’s goodness. Other times we sing through pain and grief. Maybe that’s you today. Lots transpired this week. Some grieve the loss of a brother to death. Some grieve relational difficulties—in your marriage, with your children, with a friend. Some grieve the pain their beloved keeps suffering—“Why won’t it lift?!” Some grieve the actions by particular leaders. We grieve how their words have defiled the gospel and lied to women. We grieve how confused the church seems to be in the public square.
Yet we’re all here, singing, praying. Why? Because our God is worthy; he’s our only hope. As I prepared, I was amazed by the hope offered in the words of Acts 16. The message is so fitting to what some of you suffer right now. Would you go there with me? Acts 16:25. If you’re using a pew Bible, you can find that on page 925.
We’re following Paul’s second missionary journey. They’re in Philippi. Christ saves Lydia, a seller of purple. Christ delivers a slave girl from a demon. The people don’t like it. They want their money and the demon more than Christ. So they beat Jesus’ messengers and put them in prison. We pick it up there in verse 25…
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. 35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They’ve beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
I want to develop four truths from this passage, and then tease them out a bit for our lives. They are truths that will help us endure and, I pray, will embolden us to give ourselves more fully to the Lord’s work.
1. The Lord is trustworthy & worthy of praise in our sufferings.
Truth number one: the Lord is trustworthy and worthy of praise in our sufferings. Verse 25, “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…” Remember what these men endured. The crowd dragged them into the streets, verse 19. They misrepresented them, verse 20. They stripped their clothes off and beat them with rods, verse 22. They imprisoned them, putting their feet in the stocks, verse 24. Shamed, half-naked, bruised, uncomfortable.
Yet we find them praying. They express their dependence on God through prayer. They trust him to work in their suffering. We find them singing. They find God worthy of their praise and adoration. Prison didn’t interrupt their worship. Injustice didn’t interrupt their songs. Pain didn’t silence their prayers or their hymns.
That’s convicting, on the one hand. Our prayers and songs to God often fluctuate with how comfortable we are. But these men pray and sing in the face of great suffering. It even becomes a remarkable testimony to the other prisoners. On the other hand, their prayers and songs in suffering give us hope. They point us to the God who is trustworthy to sustain his people. They point us to the God who is strong to preserve your joy through suffering. They’re a portrait of God’s sustaining grace through suffering.
They illustrate the life Paul describes in Philippians 4:4-8, “Rejoice in the Lord always [he’s writing that from prison]. Again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That doesn’t mean we pretend pain isn’t there. This isn’t a mental escape from reality. The Bible is filled with the cries of suffering saints, and constant reminders that God knows our frailty. Jesus knows humanity truly and sympathizes with us in our weakness. We’re not pretending pain isn’t real. We’re seeing the suffering for what it is and then turning to the only Father able to satisfy, sustain, and save.
Some of us need this reminder: God is worthy of our praise in suffering. He’s worthy of thanksgiving in everything. It’s very tempting to feel entitled to a life of complaining and bitterness when you suffer. It’s very easy to grow angry and resentful toward others, even towards God, in suffering. But look here, and remember this: through it all nothing of God’s goodness and holiness and worth changes when we suffer. He remains King. He remains worthy of our adoration.
If there was ever a cry of suffering, it’s that of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” But David then goes on to say, “Yet you are holy…” That Psalm also became the cry of Jesus. But God proved himself holy by raising Jesus from the dead and making him King. Paul and Silas know this. They have resurrection hope. God will vindicate them together with Christ. So in their suffering, they pray and they sing hymns to God. They know this light momentary affliction is preparing an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).
Others of us need the other reminder: God is trustworthy in our suffering. Whatever suffering you encounter for righteousness’ sake, God’s grace will sustain you. You may look at this and say, “I could never do what Paul and Silas did here! I could never sing like that in prison.” You’re right! Because you’re not in prison. But if, for the gospel’s sake, you were imprisoned, rest assured that God’s grace will help you sing and pray. Why? Because we see it here and we see it everywhere in the Bible.
Christ will be with us. God is trustworthy to sustain our joy and to act on our behalf, whatever suffering we might endure for Christ’s sake. Whatever you’re suffering right now for Christ, seek him in prayers and sing him praises. He’s trustworthy; he’s there for you. He’s worthy.
2. The Lord’s purpose to spread his word & save his people is unstoppable.
Truth number two: the Lord’s purpose to spread his word and save his people is unstoppable. It’s a common theme in Acts: the kingdom of the risen Christ advances by his unstoppable word. That theme couldn’t be clearer than in this jail scene. The irony is that the crowd of people lock them in prison as a way to stop the gospel, as a way to minimize the gospel’s impact. Then the gospel starts saving people in the prison! It starts impacting the other prisoners in verse 25.
Not only that, but God creates a series of events that lead to the jailer’s conversion along with his whole household. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.” That squares with 12:19—Herod orders the death penalty for some guards after Peter’s escape. Same would come for this jailer. Suicide is his answer.
“But,” verse 28, “Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we’re all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you’ll be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” Do you see it? The world can’t control the spread of the gospel.
The world can’t control the spread of the gospel, because the world can’t control the risen Christ. If Christ wants to save somebody, he’ll ensure they hear the gospel and believe. The jailor asks the most important question anyone could ask: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). The apostles then point him to the Lord Jesus: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you’ll be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Saved from what? In Acts 2:21, being saved has to do with escaping God’s future judgment. We’ve broken God’s law. We deserve his punishment. But in love, God offers up his Son to save us from that punishment. The punishment we deserved, fell on Jesus instead. In Acts 2:40, being saved has to do with being delivered from a “crooked generation.” The crooked generation opposes God. Their moral framework is out of whack with God’s law. We need rescue from our crookedness. That takes place when we believe in Jesus truly. He puts his Spirit in us and we become new.
In Acts 13, being saved has to do with the forgiveness of sins, being rescued from death, and then gaining the fullness of joy in God’s presence (Acts 13:33-39). In 13:47, being saved has to do with those sitting in the darkness of their depravity gaining the light of Christ’s revelation. Saved from wrath. Saved from the crooked world. Saved from sin and death. Saved from moral depravity.
However limited the jailer’s question is, he’s getting more than he could ever dream of in the free offer of Jesus Christ. And that offer stands true for anybody in this room asking the same question: “What must I do to be saved?” The answer isn’t, “Well, you gotta work for it. Try hard. Do better.” No. It’s, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” All the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection will be applied to you. Don’t just ascribe to it mentally. Trust the person of Jesus himself; take him at his word such that he becomes everything; and you will be saved.
The crowd thought they could stop the gospel by putting these men in prison. Instead, the gospel proves unstoppable. It saves the jailer and his entire household. God’s purpose prevails. It’s like Paul says in Philippians 1:12-14. He’s in prison again. The church hurts for him. But he encourages them this way: “I want you to know…that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
Listen, the world will do everything it can to stop the gospel from spreading. Satan will do everything he can to stop the gospel from spreading. Circumstances will cause you to doubt whether the gospel will keep spreading. You felt doubt this week? You read the news headlines. You see your Facebook page littered—too much darkness; too much illness; too much baloney; too much sin in the church; too much persecution—what’s going to happen to the gospel?! I feel that!
But what a sweet reminder here: nothing and nobody can stop the gospel from spreading. The Lord’s purpose will prevail; his people will be saved; he will get the glory; our joy will be full! He’ll send angels; he’ll cause earthquakes; he’ll use the prison; the folly of men won’t stand in his way; he’ll give all the grace it takes to spread his fame! Therefore, let’s double down in the Lord’s work.
That’s what Paul concludes in 2 Timothy 2:8-10. He says, I am suffering for the gospel, “bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
Why does Paul endure everything—think public humiliation, beatings with rods, feet in the stocks; we can add to that all the hardships within the churches? Why? Because God’s word isn’t bound. Chains don’t contain the gospel.
That’s a summary of what happens in Acts 16. Chains bind Paul and Silas, but the word of God isn’t bound. Therefore, they endure everything for the sake of the elect. Therefore, we too can endure everything to save the elect.
I love the story of Josef Tson, a pastor in communist Romania. Some investigators arrested him for preaching. After daily threats of death were leveled against Mr. Tson, he responds like this: “Sir, let me explain how I see this issue. Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. Here is how it works. You know that my sermons on tape have spread all over the country. If you kill me, those sermons will be sprinkled with my blood. Everyone will know I died for my preaching. And everyone who has a tape will pick it up and say, ‘I’d better listen again to what this man preached, because he really meant it: he sealed it with his life.’ So, sir, my sermons will speak ten times louder than before. I will actually rejoice in this supreme victory if you kill me.”
What do you do with a man like that—if you kill him, Christ’s name is magnified through his blood. If you don’t kill him, Christ’s name is magnified through his preaching? Apparently, Mr. Tson found out another officer had said, “We know that Mr. Tson would love to be a martyr, but we are not that foolish to fulfill his wish.”
But listen to how Mr. Tson even responded to that: “I stopped to consider the meaning of that statement. I remembered how for many years, I had been afraid of dying. I had kept a low profile. Because I wanted badly to live, I had wasted my life in inactivity. But now that I had placed my life on the altar and decided I was ready to die for the gospel, they were telling me they would not kill me! I could go wherever I wanted in the country and preach whatever I wanted, knowing I was safe. As long as I tried to save my life, I was losing it. Now that I was willing to lose it, I found it.”
Beloved, the word of God is not bound. Therefore, give your life to spreading it, until all of God’s elect obtain salvation.
3. The Lord’s word powerfully transforms sinners of all kinds.
Truth number three: the Lord’s word powerfully transforms sinners of all kinds. Not only has the gospel spread to a Roman colony from Jerusalem. But within this colony we find the gospel transforming sinners of all kinds. Lydia is a competent business woman—religious too. Then there’s the slave girl. She’s both possessed by a demon and exploited by her owners. Then we have this jailer.
Talk about a culture with systemic injustice! They lock up two innocent men to protect their money and their customs! The jailer is part of that system. He participates in it. He’s the same guy that had their feet secured in the stocks. He’s also somebody enslaved to the fear of man. He can’t stand the thought of facing his superiors; so he attempts suicide. But observe how the gospel transforms him.
Verse 33, “He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”
The hardened jailer who put their feet in the stocks now shows compassion by washing their wounds. He identifies himself publicly with Jesus through baptism. He shows hospitality. He takes Paul and Silas into his home and feeds them. Just like Lydia, this jailer identifies with Jesus by taking care of Jesus’ messengers—“whoever receives you receives me,” Jesus says. He also becomes a man filled with joy. As elsewhere in Acts, the gospel produces joy in people’s lives; he’s joyful to know God.
Beloved, do you believe the gospel can transform people like this? It transformed you. It transformed me. We heard some testimonies at the men’s retreat this weekend. But if we went around the room and each of you shared your background, and how the Lord saved you, I imagine it would sound a lot like Acts 16 does here. Powerful transformation comes to sinners of all kinds through the gospel.
So let me encourage you not to put limitations on the kinds of people you choose to minister to. Don’t form judgments about what kinds of people the gospel will transform and what kinds are beyond its power. Don’t choose what kinds of people you want in this church and what kinds you don’t. That’s folly and it’s anti-Christ. Christ is free to save whomever he pleases. The church in Philippi began with a savvy, religious business woman, an oppressed slave girl, and an unjust, pagan jailer—but they all had one thing in common: Christ. He delivers. He transforms.
In what ways are you underestimating the gospel’s power? In what ways are you underestimating the gospel’s power by the people you choose not to share with? Have you underestimated the gospel’s power in your neighborhood? Have you underestimated the gospel’s power in the life of a family member? Have you underestimated the gospel’s power to transform lives in White Settlement and Benbrook and Chapel Creek and South LVT? Be faithful to speak the gospel with sinners of all kinds, and not just the kinds you prefer in your pride.
4. The Lord exposes the world’s folly when his people patiently endure evil & pursue their enemies’ good in the gospel.
Truth number four: the Lord exposes the world’s folly when his people patiently endure evil and pursue their enemies’ good in the gospel.
Verse 35, “But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.’ But Paul said to them, ‘They’ve beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.’ The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.”
Paul and Silas are Roman citizens. With that came certain rights. One was the right to a fair trial. No court had condemned them. Due process was never offered. They never deserved mistreatment. Moreover, their innocence stands out further in that when the opportunity for escape comes, they stay. They submit. They patiently endure evil.
So let me ask a question: in all of this, who are the better Roman citizens? The crowd? Or Paul and Silas? That’s a question Luke wants you to answer. That’s a question Luke wants the most excellent Theophilus to answer. He wants the influential people in high places to notice something unique about Christianity.
Look back at verse 20. Paul and Silas were originally accused of disturbing the city. The crowd said they were advocating customs not lawful for them to accept as Romans. But in reality, the only discord being brought to their civilization was the discord caused by their own greedy desires. The people’s greed and idolatry not only stirred things up; it led them to punish innocent men. It’s crazy! They jettison their own laws and customs out of fear of losing their own laws and customs; and all because a couple of business guys want their money.
By contrast, Paul and Silas deliver a woman from her oppression. They remain generally subject to the governing authorities. They suffer injustice, but they do so with great patience. They remain in the jail without escaping even when given the opportunity. They abide by the rules, so to speak. On top of that, they don’t rush off, taking advantage of the system. They stay for the jailer’s sake. They stop him from suicide. They preach Christ to him. Battered and bruised, they then teach his household. They pursue their enemies’ good in the gospel. So who’re the better citizens? It’s Paul and Silas.
That’s why Paul gets the magistrates to apologize and escort them out publicly. God vindicated them and exposed the folly of the crowd. The crowd needs to know that if there’s anything breaking down civilization, it’s their own sin and not the message of Christ. Moreover, the city needs to know that Christianity didn’t oppose Roman citizenship; it actually improved it.
The gospel leads people to rescue the oppressed. The gospel leads people to act with patience when wronged. It leads people to act with integrity even when opportunity arises to buck the system. It even leads people to love their enemies and do them good.
Beloved, you will be a better citizen for this land insofar as your first commitment and primary identity is with the kingdom of Christ. Paul and Silas are Roman citizens. But that’s not the citizenship they identify with most. They even wait to disclose that information. Their Roman citizenship is useful at times, but it’s not their primary identity. They identify first with Christ and his kingdom. They choose first to suffer for the sake of the gospel.
People who know you at work; people who live next door; people who read your Facebook page—if we asked them—which would they say is your primary identity? Christ or capitalism? Not that those things are mutually exclusive, but what’s primary? Would they say you’re more Christian than republican, or more republican than Christian? Or democrat, or libertarian? That’s not our Christian worldview won’t shape our political convictions; they must. But where’s your primary identity?
Do they see the character that we see in these brothers here? Would they say of you, “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone respond more patiently when wronged than that man; I’ve never seen anyone pursue their enemies’ good so often than that woman”? If that’s not what they’d say, then perhaps we’ve forgotten Christ in some ways. Because when we look at these men, that’s who we see in them: Christ.
Christ patiently endured evil when wronged. Christ pursued his enemies’ good in the gospel. He embodied the good news for his enemies. While we were still enemies, Christ died for us. When we were hostile toward him, he served us. He gladly submitted himself to the will of his Father to save us.
But even more, God raised him from the dead to live in us. Christ is alive. By his Spirit, we are being made into his image. When people look at our lives, they should see Christ. They should experience attitudes that reflect Christ. They should see a people who gladly rescue the oppressed and patiently endure evil. They should see a people not shaped by violent revolt and vitriolic retaliation, but a people shaped by the cross.
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). When we actually live this way, God will expose the world’s folly. The world will have to say, “It’s our own sin and idolatry destroying us; Christ is the only answer.” Let’s give them every reason to draw that conclusion by the way we patiently endure evil and pursue our enemies’ good in the gospel.