This book, the Bible, has often been referred to as “God’s Love Letter” to you and to me, and I consider this a very apt description, for in this Book, we find the record of God’s loving actions toward us.
One of the most famous verses is John 3:16, and that Verse begins this way:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…
That little word “so” is interesting in that Verse in John 3:16; very encouraging. There are two possible meanings for that little word “so.” The first meaning might be “for God so ‘dearly’ loved the world, God ‘so intensely’, ‘so deeply’, ‘so thoroughly’, ‘so passionately’, ‘so immeasurably’ loved the world that He gave us His only Son, Jesus.” This, quite frankly, is how I have always understood this Verse growing up, and I am happy, certainly to affirm, that God’s love for me is infinite in its measure; that God does so deeply love us, that God’s love does not come in small measures, just little bits at a time, but “His love is forever, and ever. Amen.”
But, what I think John 3:16, is teaching us through that little word so, is something different from that. The second meaning that is possible, behind that little word “so,” is that “for God so, in this way, in this manner, loved the world.” In other words, John is saying, “This is how God loved the world. He did something to show us His love. He gave us His only Son. That is to say that God demonstrates His love; His love is demonstrable. He proves His love through His actions to us.”
The knowledge of God’s love thrills my soul and I think how tragic it is that so many people in this world, and even in the church, do not know God loves them. They are like Mrs. Saint-Meyers; the love note is written just for them, but it is never received.
Today, we open our Bibles to this fantastic story in Acts 16, and I encourage you to open your Bibles here. I believe the theme is “God Sovereignly loves you and He Sovereignly loves me and He demonstrates His love.” His love is not just packaged up in His heart, but His love is made known through His actions. His love reaches us in our distress. We can trust Him, even in the difficult, tough places of our life.
In the story, we are going to look at three specific demonstrations, ways that God reveals, shows, proves that He loves us.
The first demonstration, and if you are taking notes, there are some notes for you in your bulletin to be helpful, God Sovereign love reaches those oppressed by evil. Look at Verse 16,
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future.
He is talking about Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke when he uses the little word “we.” “We” were going to the place of prayer. Here are these four guys, and perhaps some others were in the team, and they were all going to this place of prayer in Philippi, remember that is where they are, and remember, as they entered Philippi, they looked for a place of prayer and they found one down by the river, and, there weren’t any men there, just some women gathered together in prayer.
Just an aside, the example of Paul and this team preaches to us the priority of corporate prayer.
And, on their way to this meeting place, this slave girl meets up with them, and the text tells us that she
…had a spirit…
That English translation is not entirely complete. It literally would say she had a “spirit of pythona (Greek).” Often that is not translated because we don’t understand what pythona is, but we do know that pythona is a word that refers to a snake. We get our English word “python” from it. And, not far from Philippi is a temple to the god Apollo, and one of the stories about Apollo is that he considered the python, the snake, as a sacred animal and that he would often speak to people through the python, through the snake. And so, here we find this girl, in Philippi, very close to this temple of Apollo that sort of had a cult, religious, ritual and understanding of god surrounding this snake, python, and here this girl, Paul describes here, as having a “spirit of pythona,” “spirit of the snake,” and it indicates to us that this little girl was somehow connected to this demonic cult surrounding the temple of Apollo and that she had been, indeed, demonized by the spirits that surrounded that cult; that she a demonic spirit inhabiting her.
And, the text goes on to tell us that, after it describes that she had a spirit, it says,
…by which she predicted the future.
so, this demonic spirit gave her certain super-natural powers; powers of clairvoyance, powers to predict the future, and it goes on to tell us in Verse 16, that
She earned a great deal of money for her owners by (her) fortune-telling.
As I read this story of this girl, my heart breaks for her as I think of her impoverished life. She is a slave-girl, first of all. She does not own herself, but she is owned by another. There is no indication of a presence of a mom or dad in this young girl’s life. It seems that they are entirely absent, so she is growing up without a mom or dad to tuck her into bed at night, to tell her that they love her, to provide for her. She, somewhere along the life, gets connected to this cult of the temple of Apollo and through her involvement with this cult, she is captured by a demonic spirit. As she is captured by this demonic spirit, she now processes these powers, powers that are able to be used by others to make money, and so, certain greedy men latch onto her, and she is used all through her young life for nothing more than to make money for people who didn’t care about her; used and abused, alone in this world, without being loved.
Now, Verse 17,
This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
It is the demon speaking through this girl, now, and this demon refers to God as “the Most High God.” Now, in Scripture, there are literally, hundreds, hundreds of names that are given to God to describe Him, and yet, the one that this demon uses is “the Most High God.” I believe that is significant. It is significant because if we would look back in Isaiah 14 (Verse 14), a chapter that describes the rebellion of Satan at the beginning of time, against God, and Satan’s thoughts as he is rebelling, and one of the things that Isaiah records, behind the thoughts of Satan, himself, is Satan considering to himself,
I will make myself like the Most High.
“Like the Most High,” that is the title that Satan uses for God. That is interesting, because it tells us why Satan is drawn to being like God.
When the title, “Most High God” is used, it refers to His power, His Sovereignty, His authority, and the reason why Satan wishes to be like God, and all of the demonic forces after him, and all that are connected to the “evil one,” is not because they want to be like God in His love. “I want to be like Jehovah Jirah!” That is not what Satan said. What Satan said was, “I want to be like the Most High; all powerful, sovereign and in control of everything.” You see, Satan does not covet God’s mercy; he does not covet God’s Grace; he does not even covet God’s wisdom. He would choose to be a fool if he had a choice today. But, he covets God’s power and the demonic force that is found inside this girl reflects Satan’s attitude as well, in that, he desired God’s raw power and he uses the name for the Most High God because he is jealous of God’s power. He covets this power.
Please understand this demon that controlled this little girl had no thoughts of mercy upon her or compassion for her. This demon possessing the girl had no concern for her, no love for her; only interested in powerfully dominating her. That is the interest of Satan; the interest of the world that Satan rules over.
What is true of this demon that inhabits this girl is also true of the people around her. They, also, are only interested in raw power. This power came through money and they saw in this little girl, not a girl, a person of worth and value, but a girl as a piece of machinery making them money. Her clients, those who came to her to find out “what would the future hold,” also, only saw her as a piece of machinery to give them information that they needed to help them in life. How tragic that no one around this girl truly, genuinely loved her. Exploited and oppressed, that was her life.
So, Verse 18,
She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled…
and, that word troubled literally means “indignant.” He became so indignant
…that he turned around and said to the spirit…
and, it is noteworthy that he says this to the spirit. He doesn’t say this to the girl. He is not indignant at the girl. He is not annoyed by the girl. He is annoyed by the spirit that had dominated this girl’s life; ruined, corrupted her being, “…and he said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her?” At that moment…” indicating the absolute power of the Most High, through Jesus Christ, to conquer the powers and forces of darkness,
At that moment the spirit left her.
This girl was marvelously delivered. She was saved.
I believe that this story teaches us that God’s Sovereign love reaches those oppressed by evil. God’s love cannot be hindered because it is Sovereign and God’s love is pure and complete in its pursuit of us.
There are two applications that I want to draw from this story of this little girl. First of all is that only the True God, the God of the Bible, loves us sovereignly and unconditionally. No other gods love us. No matter how much we pursue other gods in life, they never love us. You see, the world of other gods, the world in which Satan has created to deceive the hearts and minds of other people who walk about in this world, is a world that is completely devoid of love. No matter how much loyalty, no matter how much commitment, no matter how much affection, no matter how much investment a person makes in their worship or in their commitment to other gods, these other gods never return love, never, ever, ever.
And yet, we have a God who loves us in spite of our walking away from Him, in spite of our rebellion. This is the God of the Bible. This is the one, true God, and it is vital to remember this or we will be tempted to turn to other gods to provide for us what we need for a joyful life.
Sometimes these other gods are in the form of other cults, of false religions. Sometimes these gods are more subtle; the god’s of materialism, the god’s of pleasure, the god’s of power, the god’s of prestige and popularity, and we invest our lives chasing after these other gods thinking that, “Then we will be loved. Then we will be complete. Then we will have what we need.”
But, please understand this is the one dominating Truth of the Scripture that only the God of the Bible, only He, is the source of life. Do you want life? Do you want joy? If you do, then with a passion, you will pursue the God who loves you Sovereignly and completely and unconditionally because He is the only place we will ever find such life. To be sure, these other gods allure us. They promise us love. They promise us life. They promise us joy, but there is no life in anyone else. Either, life is found in God and not in anything else, or it is found in everything else and not in God.
This story teaches that God’s Sovereign love reaches the oppressed. It reaches those who are oppressed evil, whether it is demonic forces or whether it is other people.
The second application – God uses His people to reveal His love to the oppressed.
We are not told how this slave girl was lured into the dark world of demonic possession. I imagine, at first, it was very subtle, very innocent. Perhaps, she wanted to have her future told and she went over to someone else who could tell her future and she became enamored with that, and enamored with the power behind that. You see, the people around us are going to be deceived by the false gods of this world; gods that offer no life, no hope, no love what-so-ever, and God has called us to be truth-tellers; to be the one’s standing like Paul and his friends on the street corner proclaiming the Truth that there is a God who genuinely love unconditionally, sovereignly, and that God is Jesus Christ.
God’s servant, Paul, introduced this precious girl to God’s love. No one else did.
There are some people in this world about whom it is easy to look past, to look over, to avert our eyes, because it makes us uncomfortable how oppressed they are. Perhaps they are oppressed by a demonic spirit and in their walking lives, they are kind of scary to us; really unclean, really on this ragged edge and in a world we are unfamiliar with, thankfully, unfamiliar with. It is easy for us to want to distance ourselves, but these are the people that God tells us to run to, to tell about the love of Jesus Christ; to be on the cutting edge. As Christians we are not to be merely in a “safe corner” telling “safe people” about the love of Jesus Christ, but we have to be out there among the oppressed; those oppressed by demonic spirits, those oppressed by other people, revealing the love, the Sovereign love of Jesus Christ. That is what Paul did and that is what God calls us to do.
Sometimes those who have been abused by other people in life, whether those people are in their childhood, perhaps it is their mom or dad, or lack thereof, perhaps it is in a marriage, perhaps it is in a friendship, they often wonder in their life, “Does anyone really care? Does anyone really love me?” And, we have to ask, how will they know, how will they really know unless we tell them, you see.
The second demonstration of God’s Sovereign love is God’s Sovereign love reaches those oppressed by evil; but also, God’s Sovereign love reaches those suffering in difficulty.
Look at Verse 19,
When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
This is interesting because this is a rather remarkable event that just took place. This girl who had been demonized suddenly was set free and her whole life, her whole demeanor, was changed, and yet, those who were closest to her, they had no praise for God, they had no joy in this girl’s happiness, they didn’t even have any interest in Paul’s message, wondering what strange power is it that is more powerful than the spirits who were inside this girl. They had no curiosity. Why, because they loved money. That is it.
Do you realize that a love for money blinds us to the Truth about God? Whether we are an unbeliever, or, yes, it can even happen to a believer, the love for money blinds us to the Truth about God so don’t pursue it, we don’t know it, we don’t ever grab hold of it.
Paul would write to Timothy (1Timothy 6:9),
(Those) who want to get rich fall into temptation (a snare) and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and into destruction.”
Paul’s preaching had reached the hearts of these slave owners. It reached them, but the problem was their hearts were in their pocketbooks. So, their hearts were not where their hearts were supposed to be, and so, even while they heard the Gospel, they heard the Truth, it didn’t affect them. It had no positive impact upon their life.
May it be a warning to us that we would rid ourselves of the love of money so that we might receive the Truth of God in all its fullness and its joy and its power at work in our lives.
In Verses 20 through 24, we read,
They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews…”
they are using the race card there,
The crowds joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged…
One commentator notes, “The evangelists backs were reduced to a sticky, swollen mass of lacerated skin and dried blood.” You kind of get a picture of what is happening to these guys here, Paul and Silas. So they beat them severely. They put them into “the inner prison,” the smelliest, darkest part of the prison, and then they put “their feet in stocks” which was horribly uncomfortable, especially after a beating. They couldn’t move around at all and so your muscles would begin to cramp up and unable to find any comfort what-so-ever physically, and it is so important for us, as we observe this story, as well as so many in The Book of Acts, to hold onto this fact: that the work of the Gospel always, always, always invites hostility. It always does. It always has. It always will, and especially when people start being changed by it; especially when the work of the Gospel is making an affect upon a culture. That is when we should most expect for hostility to take place. We should expect an icy reception from the world when we do God’s work. The community will not always be in favor of us. In fact, it will often reject and ridicule, and hate us for proclaiming this Gospel message.
And yet, what did Paul and Silas do when they were beaten so severely? If they were like many, average believers, they, perhaps, would have said, “Hey, we started on this journey. It has gotten way to tough for us. Let’s go home.” They could have, perhaps, been angry at God and said, “God, why did you let this happen? How could you let this happen to us,” and then go into some dark corner and sulk for awhile because things got rough and hard and painful and difficult and they suffered for the cause of the Gospel. Perhaps, they might have said, “You know, God wants me to be happy. I’m not happy sitting here in stocks. Let me find a place where I can be happy.”
I am so thankful Paul and Silas did not do that, though. They could have done all those things. Instead, what did they do? Well, let’s read about it.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
Wow! You know, when I heard this story as a child, I was always captured by Paul and Silas in Sunday school, and sometimes, even on the Plan-o-Graphs they would show in Sunday school, they had the picture of these guys sitting in stocks with these glowing faces, and the idea was that there was some party atmosphere in the prison cell that evening. It was all festive and the songs always had a peppy tune, but, you know, I don’t think that is the way it was at all.
These were real men, in real prison, with real stripes on their backs, real blood, real pain, and I believe what they said to themselves in the midst of the darkness of the moment, darkness, both physically in their pain and emotionally, and perhaps, spiritually, they looked at each other and they said, “You know, we need to remember God’s Sovereign love for us; that God’s Sovereign reaches us right here in prison, and we have to remember that. That is our hope. That is our strength.” So, they began to pray, and as they prayed, they began to sing, and I don’t think it was with a happy tune, but it was with a tune of depth and conviction. They began to sing of God’s love and they open up their hearts to God’s love and His love became a healing balm, even there in prison.
Our joy in this life does not depend upon our changeable circumstances, but upon the unchangeable nature of God’s love for us. That is the reason Paul would write in Philippians 4:4. Where is Paul? He is in Philippi. Who does he write to? The Philippians and he says what?
Rejoice in the Lord always. And, again I will say rejoice.
Paul is not writing from a seminary classroom as he is sitting in an air conditioned office on his Stratolounger. He is writing with thoughts about being in prison, beaten, wounds on his back, open and bleeding, in stocks, wondering whether he will ever get out of this stinky, dark cell, and yet, he says,
Rejoice in the Lord always. And, again I will say rejoice.
When we suffer difficulty and painful trial in life, in suffering, the great temptation we face is this, to ask the question, “Does God really care? Does God see me? Does God love me? Is He there? Has He deserted me?”
One application that I would draw from this section of the story – when we find ourselves beaten up and locked in a prison, we must open up our hearts to God’s love. We must be wary of shutting out God’s love. It is possible for us to remain in a dark cell, and remain in darkness, sadness, and despair, because we have shut God’s love out. How do we shut God’s love out? By complaining. By lashing out in anger. By caving into despair, “Woe is me. There is nothing that can be done. I am just going to sit and wallow in my pain and my sorrow in the darkness.”
So, what are we to do? In faith, we must look to God. We say, “Well, how do we do that?” By rejoicing in His love. Sing a hymn. Pray. Call out to God. Let Him know of your needs. Read the precious promises packaged for us in the Scripture. God’s love will reach you in the midst of your most painful circumstances.
I just want to give a word about singing.
The issue of singing is not the issue of the quality of one’s voice. The issue of the quality of one’s voice is the issue if you are in a choir, to a certain degree, right? That is why many of us are not in the choir because there is an issue of one’s voice when you are singing in a choir, but the issue of the quality of one’s voice is not an issue when you are in a dungeon. No one cares whether the singing is on key. That is not what the other prisoners observed; “Wow, he has a great baritone voice! What a great tenor!” They weren’t observing how the melodies were meshing together between Paul and Silas.
What were they observing?
They were observing that these two men, in the midst of the darkness and in the midst of pain were singing praises to God; recognizes His love, opening up their hearts.
I like the newer chorus that says, “I’m trading my sorrows, I’m trading my shame, I’m trading my sickness for the joy of the Lord.”
How do we do that? We do that by opening up our hearts to praising God, even when we don’t feel like it. Why do we do it? Because we need it. We need to trust in God. We need the God who is there in the midst of the darkness. We need to be reminded that God loves me here and that God’s love reaches me here, and I am not abandoned. I am not orphaned, and singing helps us focus on these joyful realities of who God is and what He has done.
I believe, just as an aside, we need songs with meat on the bones. Do you know what I am talking about? There are some choruses that are fine to sing in terms of just some light, little thoughts, but, you know those aren’t the songs I would turn to in my dark hours. What do I turn to? I turn to those songs with meat on the bones that tell me something about God; tell me something about who He is, and something about what He has done for me, and something about what He has promised, you see.
God’s Sovereign love reaches those oppressed by evil. It reaches those suffering in difficulty, and finally, God’s Sovereign love reaches those drifting in life.
Verses 26 and 27, we read, about midnight they were praying, and
Suddenly there was…a violent earthquake…the foundations of the prison were shaken…every(one)’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up…he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword…(he) was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.
At this point, when we are introduced to this jailer, the jailer is just sort of drifting along in life. He is sort of “going with the flow.” He’s got a good job. He is a respectable man in the community; an honest man, a hardworking man. He has got a great family; good health, good benefits; everything just going down the stream of life just swimmingly. He certainly didn’t appear to have any spiritual concern what-so-ever. He was not seeking after God in the least, but, even here, to this one who is just sort of drifting along in life, God’s love reaches him, and what an encouragement that is us, both in our evangelism, but also, in our lives. God reaches us, even when we are thoughtless of Him.
The jailer woke up. He woke up physically, but he also woke up spiritually. He recognized he had no relational connection to the love of God what-so-ever. He planned to kill himself. He knew that a jailer who lost a prisoner would be executed; sort of death before dishonor. He would rather die right there than be dishonored through the shame of a trial, and he is about to kill himself and Paul shouts out, “Wait!
We are all here!”
And now, this jailer had heard about this demonically possessed who was liberated in the name of Jesus Christ through the Apostle Paul. He had followed the trials and the beatings and the floggings, and undoubtedly had heard a good measure of the singing that had taken place by Paul and Silas in the midst of prison, and now all of it came to a head. There was this crisis that God brought him to; a crisis that came about as a result of God’s Sovereign love for him, to change his life forever, and his family, forever to bring joy to him, and he suddenly realized, “You know, I need a Savior. I didn’t ever think about it before, but suddenly I am aware, ‘I need a Savior.’ Suddenly, I am aware, that though I lived a righteous life according to other people’s standards, it is a life that is still condemned by God. I need a Savior.”
And he calls out, and the first question he asks Paul is (Verse 30),
“…what must I do to be saved?”
He used the same word the little demonic girl used when she says “they are telling us the way to salvation.” He understood that he didn’t need just physical salvation, but he needed spiritual salvation; “What must I do to be saved?”
Beloved, this is the key question in all of life. Do you know the answer? Do you know for yourself? Can you answer it for another person?
Paul and Silas, in their answer, didn’t say, “Whew! Boy, that’s a good one! You know, it is a long process.”
That is not what Paul and Silas said. They didn’t give a lecture on theology. They didn’t talk about “good works.” They didn’t talk about the church. They didn’t say, “Hey, just believe in something! Do you believe in Apollo? Just believe and be sincere about it.”
What did they say? Here is what they said; it is so simple, so brief, but so powerfully, forcefully said. They said,
“Believe in the Lord Jesus (Christ), and you will be saved…”
Simple, and yet, so few are aware that the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets forth before us faith as the only necessary and saving response for salvation – faith in Jesus Christ.
Newsweek magazine, just a week ago, had an article on religious thoughts among people in the United States. One of the questions they asked is, “Can a good person, who does not share your religious beliefs, attain salvation or go to Heaven?” “Can a good person, who has different beliefs about God, about salvation, still attain Heaven?” Evangelical Protestants, not talking just about the common man in the street, but Evangelical Protestants said, sixty-eight percent of them said, “Yes!” Sixty-eight percent of people in churches that are Evangelical Protestants, that is how we would describe Bethany Baptist Church, said, “Yes, people who do not share my belief in Jesus Christ, can be saved and can go to Heaven.”
Beloved, this is a tragedy for the church to have lost the Gospel, and the Gospel is this, it is simple, it is defined, “Believe in Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
Our Family Pastor, Daniel, was at a youth leader’s network. Sitting next to his was a young lady who had just come into town. She was appointed as a leader of one of the Evangelical high school campus ministries. I won’t say which one. Daniel asked her, “Have you found a church yet?” She said, “No, I’m still looking. I am Roman Catholic, and so, I am still looking there.” He said, “Well, do you find that the Catholic Church teaches you something different than what your organization does?” She said, “No, not really at all.” He then asked her, “Well, tell me, what do you believe about how you can get to Heaven?” She said, “I try to love God. I try to love other people, and I try to do good works.” Daniel asked her, “Now, this is not different from what the organization that you are a part of believes?” “No, not that I am aware.”
Paul’s answer to this question is straight forward. It is complete. It is succinct. It is clear, and yet, it is fuzzy everywhere in our culture and it indicates that we, as a church, have stopped teaching this – “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”
What does it mean to believe?
Believing, Spurgeon says, “Is relying upon; it is trusting. It is not mere ascent to a dogma or the acknowledgement of a fact of the past. It is trust; trust in that Christ died upon the Cross, that through His merit He can remove the guilt and the punishment for our sin, and also, by the power of His Eternal Spirit, He can cleanse us from the dominion and the habit of sin. This is the faith that saves.”
Perhaps, one of the best pictures that I can give you of what it means to believe, and I ask you, “Have you believed?” Are you able to answer to another person who asks the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is that of a little boy in a burning house, and the little boy tries to get out the hallway and the hallway is blocked by fire. He tries to get out the (doorway) and suddenly, the doorway, bursts into flames. He goes over to the window, and there in the window, he is in the third story of this big house and he is looking down, and he realizes he will fall to his death, and he calls out, “Help! Help!” and there below is this great big fireman, and he says, “Jump, young man. I will catch you. Jump!” The little boy has an option, and the little boy looks and he can either let go of that window and fall freely into the arms of that fireman, or he can stay there, where he will die.
The act of faith is not just in simple looking down and believing that the fireman can catch him. The act of faith is not even just simply looking down and realizing, “I need to be saved by another person.” The act of faith is jumping out of the window and saying, “You know, if the fireman doesn’t catch me, I don’t have a ‘Plan B’. I am going to die. I am trusting myself wholly to Jesus Christ. That is it; nothing else. I believe that Jesus Christ is strong enough, He is able enough, He is sufficient enough to catch me, to deliver me, to save me, and I trust in Him.”
Beloved, will you trust in the Living Savior who loves you?
God’s Sovereign love reaches us. It reaches us when we are oppressed by evil around us. It reaches us when we are just sort of drifting along in life. And, it reaches us in the dark places. May God help us to deliver this great message to our world.