Monday, October 6, 2008

This week's sermon: The Key to Freedom

Acts 16:16-40.
The slave girl who was trapped in bondage to demon possession and her owners were gaining a profit from her spiritual bondage. She had the ability to tell fortunes because of her demon possession, and as a result of this she knows that Paul and Silas are there to tell people about Jesus. She follows them around for several days, shouting to the crowds, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” Nowhere in scripture does it say that fortune-telling doesn’t work. Sometimes it does, and that is the worst kind. In order to gain knowledge of what is happening in the spiritual realm, people expose themselves to demonic oppression, or even possession as in this case.

The slave girl knew that they were servants of the Most High God because the demon inside her knew. I don’t know why she followed them for several days announcing this information to the crowds. I can’t think of any reason why the demon that was possessing her would want to do this. The only reason I can think of for her to follow these men, shouting their allegiance to God and their purpose in telling people how to be saved was because even in her place of bondage, she knew they could help her. Luke tells us she followed them until Paul got so bothered, that he turned and cast the demon out of her. He was tormented by the fact that she was in such bondage that even though she obviously knew the truth, she was unable to ask them for help. Paul turns around and casts out the demon without being asked. And by doing so, he makes her owners and many other people angry.

A mob drags Peter and Silas to the marketplace where they are thrown before the magistrates. The authorities have them whipped and jailed with no trial, no chance for them to give a defense. It is understandable when you know the situation they were in. Remember last week we talked about how Philippi was a Roman colony. Well, in Rome at that time, their pantheon of gods had grown so large that they did not want any other gods added to it. They made a law forbidding the introduction of any new god. The Jews were already seen as suspicious people because they didn’t participate in the worship of many gods, but only one God. So bringing these men in to the authorities and saying that they were Jews, they were already on the watch list. Then saying that they were introducing new religious customs that were not acceptable under Roman law, the deal was sealed. According to the laws of the times, if they were guilty of the charges, they received their just penalty.

They were handed over to the jailor, who added to their discomfort by throwing them in the inner jail—no windows or fresh air, and putting their feet in stocks. So what was the response of Paul and Silas? Did they respond like typical prisoners, banging on the bars, yelling obscenities, begging for legal representation, or demanding their rights? Did they react with anger, hopelessness, sadness, despair? No. They sat in their chains reciting psalms and singing hymns. One commentator said he thought they probably recited Paschal or Passover hymns that come from Psalm 113-118. I don’t know if these were the songs they were singing in the middle of the night, but it sure would have been awesome to hear, “Tremble, O earth at the presence of the Lord!” and then to feel the earth shake! Paul and Silas had freedom that night, before their chains were broken. They were already free in the Lord. The chains falling off and their freedom the next day were just a bonus.

As they praised the Lord, and all their jail-mates listened, the ground shook, and their chains fell off, and their doors opened. And no one moved. The poor jailor was about to commit suicide rather than face death at the hands of the authorities when they found out that all the prisoners had escaped on his watch. I don’t know how Paul knew that the man had a sword out and was going to do himself in, but somehow he did, and he yelled from his cell that they were all in their places. No one had left. In my mind, I can’t decide which is the greater miracle—the chains and the doors, or that somehow without being told, the prisoners all stayed in their places.

Whichever is the greater miracle it is the last one that makes the jailor sit up and pay attention. When he knows that the prisoners are still there, he also knows that his life has been saved, and having already heard all about the girl who was yelling that these men came to tell people the way of salvation, he throws himself at their feet and asks how he can be saved. The answer that Paul gives him may have been one of the greatest shocks of his life. As a pagan who had made sacrifices to the multitude of pagan gods that the Romans followed, I imagine that this jailor was shocked to hear that the gift of eternal life was free. All that was required of him, and anyone else who wants that life, was belief. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” Not only was this offer for the jailor, but all in his household who would believe as well.

The jailor’s family gathered around to hear the gospel message and after the jailor had cleaned their wounds with water, each believing member of the jailor’s household was baptized symbolizing the cleaning that had happened in their hearts. Now Paul and Silas were no longer treated as prisoners, but like members of the family as food was laid out for a midnight meal. The jailor’s heart was filled with joy, because he had come to believe in God, and so had his whole family.

There are three stories of deliverance in this chapter. So often, when we hear the Sunday school lesson, the emphasis is on the miraculous release from jail. We see God at work bringing both physical and spiritual freedom in this chapter, but this morning I believe the more important liberations are spiritual. The slave girl was released from her demon-possession, and was no longer exploited in that way, but she was still a slave. Paul and Silas had already been released from the bondage of despair after their imprisonment and flogging, even before their chains fell off. Yes, Paul and Silas were released from their chains, but even if they hadn’t, they would have been ok, because they knew in their hearts that the power of God giving them eternal life was greater than any earthly punishment. The jailor was given new life, he and his whole family, although he was still the jailor and dependent on the Roman government for his survival.

Sometimes God grants us physical freedom, but at all times, it is more important for us to receive spiritual release from bondage. Because of our new life in Christ, we may not be able to change every unpleasant or difficult circumstance, but we can live and walk through those circumstances with victory. We can and should ask God to help us in our circumstances, but whatever his plan for our deliverance, you can be sure that we can praise the God who gives us victory in all our life situations through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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