We Americans have a thing about standing up for our rights. If our rights are violated, we don’t take it sitting down. We will protest, we may sue, we’ll write to our congressman, take courses in assertiveness training, or whatever it takes to get our rights. We don’t do well when we are wronged.
The fact is, most of us as Americans have never experienced any serious violation of our religious rights. We do not know firsthand the true meaning of the word “persecution.” Perhaps some of you may have felt ostracized at work or have been passed over for a promotion because you are a Christian. Maybe your mate or a family member treats you with contempt because of your Christian convictions. But few of us know the kind of persecution experienced by those in former or present communist countries, or those in strongly Muslim countries They could more effectively preach from the story in our text than I can.
As Roman citizens, Paul and Silas had a right to a trial before any punishment. Romans were exempt from public beatings. And yet the two missionaries were falsely accused, beaten, and thrown into the inner prison, with their feet locked into the stocks, without any semblance of a trial. Their rights had been violated. If anyone had a right to be angry, they did. If it had been America, they would have sued and had the magistrates removed from office. Their response teaches us how to be right when we are wronged.
When you are wronged, entrust your soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.
I am using the wording of 1 Peter 4:19, which is one of two times in the New Testament God is called the Creator (Rom. 1:25 is the other). The term emphasizes His omnipotence and sovereignty. We see His mighty power here in the earthquake that rocked this prison. Either the quake or God’s miraculous power loosed all of the prisoners’ chains. And yet the same mighty power that sent the quake could have prevented the beating and imprisonment in the first place, but did not. So the first lesson is:
As Peter tells his persecuted readers, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). Don’t be surprised! Just because God is the omnipotent Creator does not mean that He will spare you from intense trials. It is false teaching that Christians are exempt from the common trials that come upon the entire human race: sickness, poverty, tragedies, and death. And, in addition to these common trials, we can expect even more trials because we are Christians.
Note some of the ways that Paul and Silas were mistreated. First, there were the false accusations. The real reason for the anger of the slave girl’s owners was that they had just been deprived of their source of income (16:19). But they didn’t mention that when they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities. Rather, they accused them of throwing the city into confusion and of proclaiming customs that were not lawful for Romans to accept or observe (16:20-21). Those charges were simply not true. At some time you will be falsely accused.
Further, there was racial prejudice behind these false charges. The phrase, “being Jews,” was no doubt said with a slur. The Roman emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. The incident in Philippi took place probably in the fall of A.D. 50, and so anti-Jewish sentiment was running high. The Jewish religion was tolerated, but Jews were prohibited from proselytizing Romans. Many of you have experienced or will experience prejudice simply because of your racial background.
Also, Paul and Silas’ legal rights were violated. They were assumed guilty without a hearing or trial. They were not given an opportunity to defend themselves. They were physically attacked in an inhumane way. And, they were then locked into the stocks, which was a painful torture in and of itself, let alone when your back was ripped open from a beating. While in this country at this time, such physical torture from government authorities is rare, you may face times when your legal rights are violated.
Increasingly, our religious rights are being violated in the interest of so-called “neutrality.” Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that nude dancing was entitled to considerable legal protection as “expressive behavior,” but they struck down student elections permitting speech that might be used for prayer prior to high school football games. This led Theodore Olson, a leading critic of the Supreme Court, to suggest that the students should dance nude before their football games, since the court prefers naked dancing to prayer as a form of expression (Kathleen Parker, The Washington Times [9/11/00], p. A12)!
Whatever form it takes, you should not be surprised when you are treated wrongly. God does not give Christians an exemption, even when they are in the middle of doing His will and pursuing His kingdom and righteousness. As you know, a missionary wife and her baby were recently shot to death and the pilot of their plane was badly wounded when a Peruvian air force plane opened fire on them. That couple was in Peru to serve Jesus Christ. They were in, not out, of God’s will. Paul and Silas did not sit in jail lamenting, “Maybe we missed the signals! Maybe God didn’t mean for us to come to Macedonia. Are we out of the will of God?” Being in the will of God is not a guarantee of protection from trials.
Peter warns those going through suffering to be on the alert, since the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us in such times (1 Pet. 5:8). In times of trial, Satan tempts us to think things like, “If God exists and if He is good, why didn’t He protect you from this extreme situation?” As Peter goes on to show, and as Paul and Silas here exemplify, the solution is to resist the devil by being firm in our faith in the Almighty God. Our trials do not mean that He does not exist or that He is not loving and good. He has a greater purpose that we often do not understand. Our responsibility in such difficult times is to trust and obey Him.
Paul and Silas show us four aspects of a right response to wrong treatment.
Paul and Silas, their rights having been violated and their backs torn open, their feet in the stocks and locked in the dark inner prison, were praying and singing hymns of praise to God at midnight (16:25)! That convicts me of my lack of joy and my grumbling over the minor irritations in my life!
As John Piper rightly states, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Thus if we want to glorify God, which is the highest goal for the Christian, we must focus on finding joy in Him. Scripture commands us, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4). “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together…. O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:3, 8). “Praise the Lord” is not a nice suggestion; it’s a command! Although I have not verified it, I have heard that the most frequent command in the entire Bible is, “Sing!” And you can’t rightly obey the command to praise God and sing for joy unless your heart is full of joy in Him.
Paul and Silas would not have been rejoicing in the Lord in the dungeon at midnight under these awful circumstances if it had not been a regular part of their everyday lives. They had a daily habit of mentally focusing on how great and wonderful God is, and on the many blessings that He daily heaps on His children. The greatest blessing is His gift of salvation by His free grace. Thus Paul could say that the life he now lived in the flesh, he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for him (Gal. 2:20). As you know, when he later wrote to this Philippian church from a prison cell in Rome, the major theme of that letter was joy in the Lord in spite of our circumstances. “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
I wish that Paul had said, “Rejoice in the Lord as a general rule.” But, always? Come on, Paul, get realistic! He also wrote to the Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:14). All things? I could handle, “Try not to grumble too much.” “Rejoice always;… In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18). Always? In everything? The man must not have lived in the same world I live in! O, but he did! He was a man who had learned to focus on the Lord and His abundant grace in every situation, and so he was filled with joy in the Lord in every situation, even in severe trials.
He wrote, “We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). He told the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Col. 1:24). Was he a masochist, or what?
No, in this he was simply obeying the words of Jesus, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (Matt. 5:11-12). Or, as James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2-3). Peter echoes this: “But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:13). It’s not enough just to grit your teeth and endure trials; God wants us to rejoice in them!
We need to keep in mind that Paul and Silas did not know the end of this story when they began singing at midnight in the dungeon. For all they knew, they would be executed the next day, or left to die a slow death in prison. Their singing was not based on their knowledge of a happy outcome. It was based on their knowledge of a good and sovereign God. While in this instance, His will was to send a powerful earthquake and free them, it doesn’t always work out that way. Many of God’s faithful saints have died for their faith, but like John Hus, who was betrayed and burned at the stake, they die singing.
A cheerful, joyous spirit does not depend on having wonderful, trouble-free circumstances. It depends on daily cultivating joy in the Lord. As G. Campbell Morgan observes, “He did not sing because he was to be let out of prison. He sang because prison did not matter” (The Westminster Pulpit [Baker], 9:314-315). The only way that prison and mistreatment and a raw back do not matter is when the delight of God matters more. As George Muller put it, the chief business of every day is first of all to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257).
I emphasize this first point because it is foundational to everything else. So many professing Christians are grumbling, discontented people. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, they think that they would be happier back in slavery in Egypt than to be with God and His provision in the wilderness. Cultivating joy in the Lord every day is not optional. It is mandatory for all who know His salvation.
Paul and Silas were not singing so that they could be good witnesses in this difficult situation. They were singing because their hearts were full of praise toward God and the joy of His salvation. But the overflow of their worship was witness. That’s how it always should be. The world should see (or hear) our joy in the Lord from the dungeon and ask, “What’s with these people, anyway?” Then we tell them. Our lives back up the reality of the message.
Luke notes that “the prisoners were listening to them” (16:25). They always are, of course! Those who are prisoners in Satan’s domain of darkness are always listening to and watching the Lord’s people, especially in times of trial. If Paul and Silas had been having a pity party because their rights had been violated and they had been treated wrongly when they were just trying to serve the Lord, they would have been depressed and complaining. They would have missed this great opportunity for witness.
As I mentioned last week, any time that your rights have been violated and you have been mistreated, you are probably looking at a wonderful opportunity for bearing witness of Christ. Years ago, in the former Soviet Union, a criminal who later got saved and became a church leader, wrote about his experience in prison:
Among the general despair, while prisoners like myself were cursing ourselves, the camp, the authorities; while we opened up our veins or our stomachs, or hanged ourselves; the Christians (often with sentences of 20 to 25 years) did not despair. One could see Christ reflected in their faces. Their pure, upright life, deep faith and devotion to God, their gentleness and their wonderful manliness, became a shining example of life for thousands (in Christianity Today [6/21/74]).
Not many of us will ever go through what Christians in communist prisons had to endure. But we will be treated wrongly, at work and at home. With Paul, we should aim at doing all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), because the prisoners will be listening. Focus on joy in the Lord and don’t forget your witness.
I have a hunch that if most of us had gone through what Paul and Silas suffered, if we were praying at midnight it would be, “God, get me out of here!” I can’t prove it, but I also have a hunch that Paul and Silas were not praying that way. If they had been praying that way, as soon as God sent the powerful earthquake, they would have said, “All right! We’re out of here!” And they would have run for their lives.
I think that if they were offering any petitions mixed in with their praise, it would have been, “Lord, use this situation for the greater furtherance of the gospel.” Paul and Silas knew that God could have prevented them from being beaten and thrown in prison in the first place, but He did not do so. They trusted that He had another purpose in mind, and so He did, namely, the conversion of the jailer and his family. As Paul later wrote to the Philippians, his aim was that with all boldness, Christ would even now, as always, be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20). Paul trusted God to work for His purpose and glory, whether Paul got delivered or whether he died in the process.
The real issue, when you’re treated wrongly, is, Do you trust in a sovereign, omnipotent God who could have prevented this situation if He had so willed? If you do, then the next issue is to pray, “Lord, use this difficult situation for Your glory to further Your purpose.” Whenever Paul wrote as a prisoner, he never said, “Paul, a prisoner of that scoundrel Caesar who has unjustly put me in prison!” No, it was always, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” He trusted in the sovereign and all-powerful God, who easily could overrule Caesar if He so chose.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Does trusting God mean that we should never stand up for our rights? Do we just lay down as doormats and take whatever happens passively?” That leads to the last point:
We don’t know why, but for some reason the next morning the magistrates sent to the jailer and told him to release Paul and Silas. Maybe they thought that the beating and night in prison would send these guys packing, never to return. But at this point, Paul says, “No way! They have violated our rights as Roman citizens. We demand that they personally come and bring us out” (16:37). Why did Paul do that?
There were at least two reasons. First, Paul was concerned for justice for all people, and what these magistrates had done was grossly unjust. He knew that by making them come and personally apologize and escort them out of prison, word would spread through the community of what had happened. It would be a very long time before these officials would beat a man without a trial. Paul’s action helped hold these men accountable to carry out justice for others who would be accused of some crime. The next time, they would follow the Roman law!
Second, Paul was concerned about the future of the church and the gospel in Philippi. By making these officials realize that they had committed a serious offense against Roman citizens, Paul insured that they would not trouble the Christians in Philippi. Also, if he wanted to come back again, he knew that they would not prevent him. So he stood on his rights in order to protect the church and the cause of Christ in that city.
In line with that, Paul’s action showed the entire city, which would have heard about this incident, the spirit of Jesus Christ. By rights, Paul could have had their heads if he had taken his case to a higher authority. But he let their wrong go unpunished and by his actions showed that Christians are not out for personal vengeance. The spirit of Christ is to forgive those who sin against us, while at the same time holding them accountable to change their behavior.
This one incident does not exhaust the biblical teaching on when to stand up for your rights and when to let them go. Some wrongly teach that we should never defend ourselves, either legally or against aggressive attacks against our character or person. But Paul wrote Second Corinthians to defend his character and his apostolic ministry. All I can say here is, when you are treated wrongly, your response should be motivated by the furtherance of God’s glory and the gospel, and by the administration of God’s justice through law and government, which He has appointed for the well being of society. It is wrong to act out of personal vengeance, greed, or other selfish motives.
The main application of this story for me is to work on having joy in the Lord in every situation. Everything else flows from that. If I radiate His joy because I have entrusted my soul to Him, the faithful Creator, then even when I’m wrongly treated, He will be glorified and others will be drawn to the Savior.
The late Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, spent 14 years in prison for preaching the gospel, three in solitary confinement in a dark cell. His captors smashed four of his vertebrae and either cut or burned 18 holes in his body, but they could not defeat him. He testified, “Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy every night.” During this time he asked a fellow prisoner, whom he had led to Christ before they were both arrested, “Have you any resentment against me that I brought you to Christ?” The man responded, “I have no words to express my thankfulness that you brought me to the wonderful Savior. I would never have it another way.” (In “Our Daily Bread” [2/85].)
May God enable us all, when we are mistreated, to imitate these men of God in entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation