God uses some unusual means to bring people to salvation. Charles Spurgeon tells of a man who once went to a chapel to listen to the singing, but he didn’t want to hear the preaching. So as soon as the pastor began speaking, the man put his fingers in his ears. But after a while, an insect landed on his face, and so he had to take one finger out of his ear to brush it off. Just as he did, the pastor said, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.” The man listened, and God met him at that point to his soul’s conversion (Spurgeon’s Sermons [Baker], 1:306).
A missionary to Africa many years ago told of a woman who came to every service, accompanied by her dog. She would sit on the outside, next to the aisle. At the end of the service, when the pastor gave the invitation to come forward for prayer, she would go forward, and the dog would come along beside her.
The woman’s husband was a hard, abusive man. In fact, he beat her so severely because of her Christian lifestyle that she died. There must not have been any law enforcement in that part of Africa then, because the man was not arrested. So he was left alone with the dog. He began to notice that every Wednesday evening about 7 p.m. the dog would disappear for about two hours. Also, every Sunday morning, the dog would leave about 9 and return about noon. Sunday evening, again the dog would leave for a couple of hours and then return.
The man’s curiosity was so aroused that he decided to follow the dog. He followed it to the church and he took a seat in the back to watch. The dog sat down near the aisle, in his usual place. After the service, he watched the dog go forward and take his place at the altar, where his wife had prayed. The man was so touched in his spirit that he, too, went forward and gave his life to Christ. So God used a dog to lead a hardened sinner to repentance!
We may not have any stories quite like that here today, but if we went around the room, we would hear some very different ways that God worked to bring each of us to salvation. Our text shows us three very different people who had different encounters with God. We cannot be sure that the second person, the slave girl, actually got saved, since the text does not say. But we can hope that she was saved, since God delivered her from demonic forces. But these three encounters with God teach us that …
God providentially works to draw very different people to Himself through the same gospel.
These three encounters may seem insignificant, but actually they were the beginning of a movement that changed world history. I’m sure that the Roman Emperor, Claudius, would have shrugged his shoulders in apathy if he had learned that a little Jewish man named Paul had set foot on European soil to tell people about Jesus Christ. Claudius had more important matters to attend to than this! And yet this was the beginning of Christianity in Europe, and its influence there changed the world. These three encounters should encourage us to be faithful to share our faith as we see how God uses the gospel to save different people.
God’s providence refers to the fact that He is sovereignly working behind the scenes, even when we are not aware of it, to work all things after the counsel of His will. In other words, nothing happens by chance, even though it may seem to us to be by chance. Certainly the salvation of a soul, whom God has predestined to salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5), is not left to chance!
Take the case of Lydia. She was from Thyatira, in western Turkey. The town was noted, among other commercial ventures, for its trade in expensive purple cloth. Emperors and Roman senators, as well as the wealthy, wore purple garments as a status symbol. Lydia, who was probably a widow, had moved from Thyatira to Philippi to do business there. The term translated “a worshiper of God” (16:14; see 10:2; 13:16, 26, 50) means that she was a Gentile who had come to believe in the God of the Jews, although she was not yet a full proselyte to Judaism.
You may recall that Paul would have preached in Lydia’s home region, but the Holy Spirit forbade him at that time (16:6). Then he wanted to go into Bithynia, but again the Spirit said no. Finally, through the vision of the Macedonian man calling for help, Paul and the missionary team went to Europe. Luke reports that they ran a straight course, which means that the wind was favorable, and got to their destination in two days (later it would take five going the other direction, 20:6). Surely, God was with them now! They landed at the port city of Neapolis, walked the ten miles to Philippi, and no doubt wondered when God would introduce them to this Macedonian man who was ready to receive Christ.
They stayed in Philippi for some days, but no Macedonian man materialized. On the Sabbath, Paul said, “Let’s find out where the Jews gather for worship.” Philippi lacked the ten Jewish men in a town that it took to form a synagogue. As the missionary team wandered down by the river, they came upon a small group of women praying. Paul and his team sat down and explained the gospel to this small group of women. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart, along with the hearts of those in her household, to respond to the gospel (16:14), and they got saved.
So the Lord brought Lydia from western Turkey to Philippi and Paul from wanting to go into western Turkey to Philippi, and brought them together here so that she could get saved! If you had asked Paul if his intention was to start a church with a group of women, I’m sure he would have said, “No way!” But it was God’s way to begin the church in Europe. The Macedonian man turned out to be an Asian woman!
Then God orchestrated another “coincidence.” As the team was going to this place of prayer, probably to give further teaching to these new believers, a slave girl with a spirit of divination met them. The Greek term is that she had a “Python spirit.” This referred to the legendary snake that guarded the Delphic Oracle in central Greece. Apollo supposedly killed this snake, and the snake’s spirit dwelled in the priestess there. So a “Python spirit” referred to a spirit that enabled someone to predict the future. This slave girl was being used by her owners for fortune-telling, much to the fortunes of the owners!
This girl kept following after the missionaries, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). As this continued for many days, Paul became greatly annoyed, so he commanded the spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, and it did so instantly. Luke does not tell us if this girl got saved, but we can hope that since her owners had no further use for her, the church would have taken her in and that she did meet the Lord Jesus.
Luke is interested in the story because it shows how the Lord got Paul and Silas to their next divine appointment, with the Philippian jailer and an entire jailhouse full of prisoners. Again, he does not tell us if any of the prisoners trusted in Christ, although it is not unreasonable to assume that some did. But the jailer and his entire household believed in the gospel and got saved. Advocates of infant baptism use the story of the jailer to argue that surely there were some infants among the household that got baptized. But the story does not say any such thing, and it specifically states that those who got baptized had believed in God (16:34). You have to assume infant baptism and read it into this text to find it there, because it simply is not there!
Notice how different these three individuals were. Lydia was a respectable businesswoman with religious convictions. She had a home large enough to offer lodging to the four missionaries, and so she must have been fairly well-to-do. The slave girl was a piece of property to be used and discarded by her masters. Rather than seeking after God, she was actively serving Satan. The jailer was a hardened military man. He could take prisoners with their backs bleeding, throw them into the prison, fasten their feet into the stocks (which were not designed for personal comfort!), lock the door, and go get a good night’s rest, except for being awakened by an earthquake.
Also notice how different the circumstances were in which these three people encountered the Lord. God had already worked in Lydia’s heart to make her a seeker after Him and so she was in a prayer meeting. The slave girl was on the streets, with absolutely no knowledge of the one true God. The jailer was saved in connection with doing his job. He was suddenly awakened by this powerful earthquake, and when he saw the prison door opened, he was ready to fall on his sword and die, since he would be tortured and executed if any of the prisoners had escaped. Out of this extreme crisis, he met the Lord.
Isn’t it interesting that the Lord picked these three very different types of people to form the nucleus of the infant church in Philippi? Lydia didn’t start a seeker church for Yuppie businesspeople. The slave girl didn’t join the hippie church for former street people. And the jailer didn’t join the military chapel. They all had to learn to accept and love each other in the same church in Philippi. The Lord works through His providence to draw very different people from different backgrounds to Himself, and He wants them to learn to love one another as a testimony to the world of His saving grace. And even though these three people were very different, it was the same gospel that saved them all.
God providentially orchestrated the circumstances that led to the salvation of these people, but His messengers had to faithfully deliver the message. Some will say, “If salvation is totally of the Lord, then He will save whom He is going to save, and we don’t have to do anything.” That is a perversion of Scripture! God’s normal means of saving people is to use His servants to proclaim “the way of salvation” (16:17) to those He intends to save.
Paul and his team were probably looking for men to preach to. It would have been counter to Paul’s pharisaic background to teach women about spiritual matters. But if he had been operating on that basis, he would have missed this opportunity to explain the gospel to this small group of women by the river. And yet this was how God intended to start the church in Europe.
The lesson for us is not to despise any person as unimportant in God’s sight. We can easily think, “This person is not a ‘key’ person. It would be a waste of my time to share with him (or her).” Not so! “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).
Paul and Silas bore witness not only by their proclaiming the gospel verbally, but also by their example. Their rights had been violated, their backs were ripped open by the rods that beat them, and they were thrown into the stocks in prison. But rather than complain, they sang hymns and prayed (16:25). If their focus had been on their own well-being, as soon as the prison doors flew open they would have said, “All right! We’re out of here!” Or when they saw the jailer about to fall on his sword, they would have said, “Go for it! It serves you right, you barbarian!” But their focus was not on themselves. It was on glorifying God and seeing other people, no matter how undeserving, experience God’s saving grace.
Don’t miss the application: If you ever are treated unfairly, you are probably being given a major opportunity for witness. If you rejoice in the Lord and keep your focus on the salvation of those who are mistreating you, your life and words can lead them to the Savior. If your focus is on yourself and getting your rights or getting revenge, you will miss the opportunity.
Sometimes Satan will use outright aggression against the Lord’s people, such as unjust beatings and imprisonment. But his more dangerous strategy, because it is more subtle, is not aggression, but alignment. “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (16:17). Those were perfectly true words! Why would Paul get irritated? If the girl had been shouting out a half-truth, I can see why Paul would be upset. But why was he upset with her shouting out the truth?
As Paul put it (2 Cor. 2:11), he didn’t want any advantage taken of him by Satan, because he was not ignorant of his schemes. One of Satan’s subtle strategies is to align himself with the truth. He is doing it in our day through the Mormon Church declaring itself to be just another evangelical denomination. When they say, “We are one with you; we believe just as you do. We’re Christians, too,” the world wrongly thinks that their message is no different than the gospel. When Protestants publicly confirm that they are one with Roman Catholics, the world mistakenly thinks that both groups are just different flavors of Christianity. You can take your pick in accordance with your preferences. But the truth is, the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church both proclaim different ways of salvation than the gospel.
Paul’s gospel always centered on Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). The Christ he preached is the Christ revealed in the Old Testament and the Gospels. Note that he explained the way of salvation, both to Lydia and her group, and to the Philippian jailer and his household (16:14, 32). People need adequate understanding in order to believe. They must know who Jesus is and what He claimed. The Jesus Christ that Paul proclaimed is clearly eternal God in human flesh, who came to bear on the cross the just penalty that God requires for our sins. He taught that we are justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). He plainly stated, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).
There are some in evangelical circles who say that since salvation is by faith alone, that to tell people that they must accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord, is to mix faith and works. But Paul told the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (16:31). When he adds, “you and your household,” he means that the same promise applied to his household: If they would believe in the Lord Jesus, they, too, would be saved. There is no such thing as group salvation based on someone else’s faith. But you can’t come to Jesus as Savior and make His Lordship an optional package to consider later. You must trust in Him as Savior and submit your life to Him as Lord. Of course you grow in both faith and obedience as you mature as a Christian. The initial evidence that these converts submitted to Jesus as Savior and Lord is seen in their obedience through baptism and in the good deeds that followed their faith (16:15, 33, 34).
We’ve seen that God works providentially to draw very different people to Himself. He does it through the same gospel message, proclaimed by His servants.
Even though Lydia was a religious woman who feared God, she was not converted. She did not have it in herself to believe in the gospel. Rather, “God opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (16:14). Many, if not all, in her household also believed, since they confessed their faith in baptism (16:15). The jailer and his family also believed and were baptized (16:33-34). That is always the order in the Book of Acts: belief first, then baptism as a public confession of faith. The New Testament is clear that if we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, it is not because we were so brilliant as to make that decision. It is because God graciously opened our hearts to respond. Saving faith is the gift of God (Acts 11:18; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29).
There were some in this story who could have met God, but they missed Him. The owners of the slave girl missed God because of their greed and anger toward Paul for taking away the source of their income (16:19). They also lied to the city magistrates, trumping up false charges about Paul and Silas. The city magistrates could have listened to Paul’s defense, which surely would have included the gospel. But they missed their opportunity to meet God, because as good politicians, they wanted to keep their constituency happy. The crowd in Philippi missed meeting God because they swallowed the accusations of the slave owners without hearing Paul’s message and thinking carefully about it. Probably some anti-Semitic prejudice inclined them to reject Paul and his gospel.
Those who reject Jesus Christ cannot blame God for not opening their hearts to the gospel. They are responsible for their own sin. God does not owe them salvation. If they perish, they perish because they are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality, for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Eph. 4:18, 19).
I once knew a man who was living as an immoral, drug-using hippie in one of the canyons leading to the beach northwest of Los Angeles. One morning a pastor and his wife prayed that God would direct their day and perhaps lead them to someone who needed to hear about the Savior. As this pastor was driving down this canyon, his muffler fell off his car right in front of this hippie’s shack. He went up to the door to ask if he could use the phone, and through this contact, he led this man to Jesus Christ.
Is God behind bugs that land on someone’s nose, and dogs that go to church, and mufflers that fall off cars at precisely the right place along the road? Is He providentially behind your being here today and hearing this message about your need for salvation? I think so!
The question is, how will you respond? In your hardness of heart, will you cling to your greed and sin and respond in anger to the message, as the slave owners in the story did? Or, will you join Lydia and the jailer and their households by responding in faith and giving glory to God for opening your heart to the good news, that Jesus Christ will save every sinner who believes in Him?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation