Where the gospel is proclaimed, God brings eternal deliverance to persons, families, churches, cities and cultures through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, therefore rejoice in the spread of God’s kingdom and the all-encompassing deliverance He brings.
Introduction – Charles Wesley, the beloved 18th century hymn writer, was not always a joyful Christian. He testified that before his conversion to Christ he was a religiously-minded, yet fearful and jealous young man. In his sophomore year in college he helped found the “Holy Club” in which all members solemnly promised to systematically pursue righteousness. Charles and his fellow club members were so relentlessly methodical in their labors to be holy that their fellow students derisively nicknamed them “methodists”. But Charles found no joy at all in his Christian works. He knew his heart was still in bondage to sin, and none of his good works brought him any sense of deliverance. He feared the punishment his sins deserved, and he was jealous of the believers he saw who found true joy in their love for Christ. In essence, Charles Wesley was on a quest to find deliverance.
This passage in Acts tells a story of the power Christ brings to deliver both Christians and unbelievers from all forms of bondage (physical, emotional, spiritual). The subject of deliverance makes us feel good. But don’t get too comfortable—this story may open your eyes to what deliverance entails! Deliverance can be costly, scary and risky for those who witness it and for those who experience it because it threatens the status quo and confronts us with the reality of our sin problem that separates us from God.
I. Portraits of Deliverance
The preceding context of the passage is Paul and Silas bringing the gospel to a new city (Philippi) where a Jewish synagogue does not exist. This is not a hindrance for God to call his elect to salvation, for God is the one who opens hearts to the gospel and calls those appointed to salvation into his kingdom. The preceding context narrates how God delivered a woman named Lydia into salvation (Acts 16:11-15). The account of her conversion is the 1st portrait in Philippi of a life changed by God.
A. Physical and Spiritual: slave-girl (vv. 16-18)
The account of the demon possessed slave-girl whom Christ physically and spiritually delivered is the 2nd portrait in Philippi of a life changed by God. Like the demonic activity that Jesus encountered during his public ministry, the demon possessed slave-girl spoke brazenly (mockingly?) of the gospel message Paul proclaimed. Its purpose was likely to discredit the gospel of God by associating it with the demonic. Like Jesus, Paul did not permit demons to proclaim the gospel of salvation. The gospel is to be proclaimed by believers, not opponents (Mt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Taking into account similar stories of Jesus exorcising demons from people who after being delivered became disciples, we assume that the slave-girl also became a disciple.
B. Physical and Emotional: Paul and Silas (vv. 25-26, 33a, 34a)
Although their persecutors tried to dishearten and discourage the gospel preachers, they were no match for the Spirit living in Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas rejoiced that they were counted worthy of persecution and disgrace for the sake of Christ (cf. Acts 4:24-30; 5:41). Despite their chains and pains, the presence of God means their hearts are free! They are emotionally delivered from despair. Then God delivered them physically with an earthquake that broke their chains. Later, Paul and Silas received kindness from the jailer when he received them into his home, washed their wounds, and served them food from his own table.
C. Physical, Emotional and Spiritual: the jailer and his household (vv. 27-34)
The account of the Philippian jailer is the 3rd portrait of a life changed by God. Shaken by the earthquake and his own near-suicide attempt, the jailer responded to Paul and Silas by repenting and believing the gospel. God delivered him physically from suicide, emotionally from his fear of the death penalty (the legal requirement if a prisoner escaped), and spiritually from the guilt of sin. His experience of joy in his newfound faith and eternal life, and his thankful response to his spiritual benefactors is a pattern of others’ dramatic conversion experiences.
II. Different Responses to Deliverance
A. Jealousy: slave-girl’s owners (vv. 19-21)
An example of the gospel threatening commercial interests (cf. Acts 19:25-27). The power of Christ and the deliverance the fortune-telling slave-girl received were worthless in the eyes of the slave owners because they loved money above all else. This is certainly the case today as well. Try standing in front of a commercial business and sharing the gospel with passersby and discover what happens!
They were jealous of her deliverance because they preferred her services. They understood the gospel declares the lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of life—physical, emotional, spiritual, commercial, public, private, civic, familial, religious. Greed motivated by jealousy drove them to persecute righteous men who confronted them with Christ’s deliverance of his people. Jealousy is still a common response to Christ. Non-Christians may be jealous whenever Christians or the Church prosper (especially when they perceive the prosperity as a threat to their own prosperity). They sometimes are jealous for equal treatment when the name of Jesus is favorably mentioned in the media, or when a Christian is invited to pray at a public ceremony. They may be jealous of God’s blessing and resent being “on the outside.” Religious people often response with jealousy too when they prefer a Jesus who doesn’t upset the status quo. They want God’s favor for themselves, but begin to squirm when Jesus blesses people who “don’t deserve it” or when God works in ways that they don’t approve.
B. Fear: city magistrates (vv. 22-23, 35-39)
In the first century Christianity was vying for legal approval as the true fulfillment of Judaism (which was an approved religion). But opponents charged Christians with practicing and advocating unlawful customs (it was illegal for Jews to proselytize Roman citizens). Roman civic religion and customs were tightly intertwined and considered the law of the land. Paul’s exorcism disturbed the religious customs (divination, fortune-telling, soothsaying) and the peace of the city, thus threatening the city officials. So the magistrates made every effort to maintain peace and order by imprisoning Paul and Silas. So they treated the apostles like common criminals—beating them and confining them to a maximum-security prison cell. When the magistrates learned they had illegally punished Roman citizens, they feared that their jobs and Philippi’s “Roman colony” status were in jeopardy.
All kinds of people still response to Christ with fear. Those who believe Jesus will preside on Judgment Day get testy whenever the gospel crosses their path. Non-religious people are afraid that right-wing Christian zealots may eventually get their way and transform the U.S. into a puritanical theocracy. People normally tolerant of the message of Jesus and the Church begin to fear when Christians step off the “reservation “and into the real world. They fear being confronted with Jesus Christ and the reality of their own sin, preferring to label Jesus and his followers intolerant. Even Christians sometimes response to Jesus with fear. C.S. Lewis understood this when he created the Narnian Christ-figure “Aslan”—a lion who is not safe but is good. The Jesus of the Bible is not “safe” either. He is to be feared, but not like the Philippian magistrates, rather with reverent, awe-inspired worship and obedience.
C. Joy: Paul and Silas (vv. 25, 40), the jailer and his household (v. 34)
Regardless of circumstances, rejoicing is the consistent response of those who believe the gospel (cf. Acts 8:39). The jailer and his household testify to this. The Greek word for “rejoice” (agalliáō) means to be “exceedingly joyful, overjoyed, unspeakably joyful.” It is a word that seems to not be used in secular Greek literature. The peculiar joy that Christians find in their salvation is incomprehensible to unbelievers. Joy proceeds from faith; both are a gift of God. Martin Luther struggled mightily against the righteousness of God that he understood as the perfect standard by which he would be judged. But when God finally opened his eyes to understand and believe the gospel of grace, he rejoiced in his deliverance. “I extolled my sweetest word [the righteousness of God] with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’ Thus that place in Paul [Romans 1:16-17] was for me truly the gate of paradise.”
Rejoicing while suffering persecution is a recurring theme in Acts. Paul and Silas rejoiced by praising God in prayer and song in very difficult circumstances. Upon release, Paul and Silas met with Lydia and the other Philippian believers encourage them to joyfully endure the fallout and disgrace that they may encounter as a result of their missionary work in the city. Paul’s and Silas’s stripes bore witness to their love for their spiritual children. The new believers must have learned that they too may be called upon to suffer for Christ, and to do so with joy.
III. The Purpose of All Deliverance
A. Not primarily for temporal or earthly benefits (vv. 26-28, 35-36)
Paul and Silas did not view the earthquake as a means of escape, but rather of gospel witness and an opportunity to prove their righteous character as Christ’s ambassadors. Later, Paul also had God’s purposes in mind when he was allowed to leave prison. He did not want the temporal or earthly benefits of deliverance unless it would clearly give God glory. This is universally true for all kinds of deliverance God brings to people (whether political, from danger, hardship, sorrow, oppression, etc).
Remember the animated movie “The Prince of Egypt”? It really is a wonderful movie about the Hebrew exodus from Egypt led by Moses, the “prince” of Egypt. But it drives me nuts every time I watch it because the story has a fatal flaw. It presents the exodus, divinely orchestrated by the Lord, as a means to political liberation alone. The climax of the movie comes when Moses’ Midianite wife Zipporah congratulates him on a job well done (“Your people are no longer slaves. They are free!”). That is where the movie basically ends. There is no portrayal of Israel’s deliverance from slavery as a picture of God delivering them from the bondage of sin, nothing about how the Lord saved them so they might worship Him as their Deliverer, nothing that points to the true reason for their deliverance.
B. To point to Christ who delivers us from our sin (vv. 29-34)
The apostles seized on the opportunity of their deliverance to point the jailer to Christ who delivers from sin. All deliverance finds its meaning in Christ the Deliverer because deliverance from sin is the ultimate deliverance (Lk 4:16-20; cf. Isa 61:1-4; 1 Cor 10:1-11). Every single person needs Christ’s sacrifice and forgiveness to deliver them from the wrath of God due to us for our sin.
C. To silence opposition to gospel proclamation (vv. 37-40)
Paul was not exercising his rights as a Roman citizen to rub it in the faces of the magistrates. Luke was concerned to show that Christian faith is compatible with Roman citizenship. Paul wanted to remove any public disrepute from the gospel message in Philippi. This has direct application to our culture today, for many unbelievers in America argue that Christianity and American pluralistic society are incompatible. They argue that Christians are intolerant and that belief in Jesus Christ and his exclusive truth claims is hostile to maintaining a peaceful society. Paul encountered the same objection in the Roman world. He wanted to protect the Philippian Christians from suffering similar persecution. Thus only a public apology was sufficient for Paul to leave the prison. One writer said, “Paul was asking for the injustice he and Silas suffered to be symbolically righted. It was a way of publicly taking their actions off the record and showing the apostles’ innocence, a major public statement.”
Conclusion– God eventually grabbed hold of Charles Wesley to deliver him from his fear, jealousy, and misguided religiosity. When Christ finally opened Wesley’s eyes to the gospel of grace—that true deliverance comes only by faith in Jesus Christ and his free sacrifice for our sins—at last he rejoiced with a heart set free to love God. Soon after, he began composing a hymn about his experience of spiritual deliverance. Many believe that hymn is “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain.” As Wesley, Luther, and every born-again believer can testify, the deliverance Christ brings produces lasting joy. Where the gospel is proclaimed, God brings eternal deliverance to persons, families, churches, cities and cultures through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, therefore rejoice in the spread of God’s kingdom and the all-encompassing deliverance He brings.