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Acts

The Midnight View

Acts  16:16-40

Most of us spend our days in a rush. We seldom have the chance to stop and consider things from an eternal perspective. It is a pity, for in so doing we may prepare ourselves for what God can do with us. Paul and Silas evidently had a different view, as we shall see here at Philippi:

(Acts 16:16-40 NIV) 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. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. {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." {18} She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" At that moment the spirit left her. {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. {20} They brought them before the magistrates and said, "These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar {21} by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." {22} The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. {23} After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. {24} Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. {25} About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. {26} Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose. {27} The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. {28} But Paul shouted, "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" {29} The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. {30} He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" {31} They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household." {32} Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. {33} At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. {34} The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family. {35} When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: "Release those men." {36} The jailer told Paul, "The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace." {37} But Paul said to the officers: "They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out." {38} The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. {39} They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. {40} After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia's house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left.

The High Calling

Little noticed in this passage, and seldom commented upon today, is an interesting name of God - the phrase "Most High God." It is almost always worth taking the time to examine the titles of God, for they teach us much. This title is quite unusual:

·         In the New Testament, it is used - exclusively - by the demons. It is the name by which the demons doomed to hell refer to God Almighty.

·         Excluding a few references in the Psalms, it occurs twice in the Old Testament. One such is in Daniel - where it is the name by which God reveals himself to Nebuchadnezzar.

·         The other - where it is rendered "God Most High" is with Melchizedek![1]

It is, in short, the name by which God reveals himself to the powers of this world. And it is with the powers of this world, and the suffering they cause, that we must deal.

Why did the demon speak this way?

It might seem, at first glance, that it would have been more damaging for the demon to have pronounced these men to be some sort of horror. But we must remember that Satan cannot divide his kingdom, and that he is the father of all liars.

·         One very good reason to proclaim Paul and Silas this way is to enhance the credibility of the demon. Satan may even resort to telling the truth - if it will make it easier to pass a lie later on.

·         Another reason is quite simple: terror. One thing is quite clear about these demons - they are terrified of the living God.

·         A third reason is this: it may be that Satan wished to tempt Paul into an alliance with this demon possessed girl, and thus compromise his witness.

Why Christ - and Christians - reject such alliances

It might seem convenient at first to have your worst enemy testify on your behalf. But surely we should be wary about that!

·         Remember that those who dabble in the occult and magic are in it for one reason: personal gain. They want to manipulate the things of the spirit for their personal benefit. If you will, it is spiritual greed. If only for the sake of those who could be saved, we should reject such an alliance.

·         It may be clear to us that there is evil and light. But it is not clear to the world, and it is our duty to make it clear. We must not let error so intermingle with truth that the world cannot separate them.

·         Finally - if you need anything more - it is an alliance with Satan himself. Ride the horse if you must, but never ride the tiger. For when you wish to dismount, the tiger will still be hungry.

It is interesting here that the demon referred to has a name - "python" - in the Greek. Perhaps it is just a coincidence (the translators do not so render the word literally in any major translation) but we should beware the python squeezing out the truth.

How Paul deals with the situation

Paul's conduct here is an example for us.

·         He refuses to become entangled with the demon; he rejects the testimony of the Father of Lies.

·         Eventually, however, he becomes so troubled - the Greek can also be translated "grieved" - that he must do something.

·         Even at that, you can see the patience with which he has approached the problem.

Ultimately, however, the miraculous escalates the warfare! Satan, confronted with the power of God, reacts. (Those of us who pray for the ability to do miracles might well study this passage and ask if we really wanted it that much.)

The power of this world

You might think that the girl's owners would be impressed with the miracle. It is not so - the dollar is mightier than the miraculous in their minds. Look at the effect this has!

·         They have thrown away - practically without thinking - eternal life and salvation after they have lost the revenue from the girl!

·         So bad is their condition that they must resort to lies to stir the mob. Emotions have ruled over sense - but is it not the way of the world that anger should triumph over sense?

Suffering for the Name

Christians often wonder - and ask their teachers - why God permits suffering in this world. The problem is not a trivial one. This teacher begs your indulgence that he might answer a simpler one: how God uses suffering.

·         Our Lord himself, Jesus Christ, suffered. He suffered for our sake; producing our eternal salvation. Is it too much to ask that we suffer in return?

·         God frequently uses suffering to shape an instrument to a task. Tribulation creates patient endurance (perseverance).[2]

The Christian's reaction to suffering

"That's all well for Jesus," you might reply, "but I'm the one being asked to suffer now." True enough. Well, then, you may as well learn to suffer in the proper style:

·         Do not yield to the temptation to react in Satan's way. Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.[3]

·         Do not, if possible, suffer alone. Even Job had comforters of a sort. We are all one body, and we should suffer together.[4] Paul had Silas.

·         Do not compromise.[5] Satan will certainly offer you relief from suffering (or what appears like it) in return for joining him.

·         Remember our hope in Jesus Christ. Even if you die from this suffering, you will rise again.

One of the wisest of Christians put it this way:

VERY soon your life here will end; consider, then, what may be in store for you elsewhere. Today we live; tomorrow we die and are quickly forgotten. Oh, the dullness and hardness of a heart which looks only to the present instead of preparing for that which is to come!

Therefore, in every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day; how do you know you will have a tomorrow?

What good is it to live a long life when we amend that life so little? Indeed, a long life does not always benefit us, but on the contrary, frequently adds to our guilt. Would that in this world we had lived well throughout one single day. Many count up the years they have spent in religion but find their lives made little holier. If it is so terrifying to die, it is nevertheless possible that to live longer is more dangerous. Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day.

If you have ever seen a man die, remember that you, too, must go the same way. In the morning consider that you may not live till evening, and when evening comes do not dare to promise yourself the dawn. Be always ready, therefore, and so live that death will never take you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly, for in the unexpected hour the Son of God will come. When that last moment arrives you will begin to have a quite different opinion of the life that is now entirely past and you will regret very much that you were so careless and remiss.

How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death. Perfect contempt of the world, a lively desire to advance in virtue, a love for discipline, the works of penance, readiness to obey, self-denial, and the endurance of every hardship for the love of Christ, these will give a man great expectations of a happy death.[6]

Paul's example

We can readily see these things in Paul's example. Not just in his midnight song; witness his kindness to the jailer:

·         By his silence he could have let the man kill himself - and then went on his way, escaping. Rather, he denies himself that exit, and saves the man's life.

·         In front of the magistrates the next day - when things are going all Paul's way - he makes no accusation, and thus spares the man from punishment.

In this, Paul turns down the weapons of evil, and triumphs over them using the weapons of righteousness.

Triumph Through Suffering

Who's really winning here?

Does it not strike you as odd that Paul and Silas are "singing in the midnight hour?" Just who is victorious here?

·         The jailer is commanded to put them in "the inner cell" - the safest place. Then he fastens them in hand and foot. The greater the restraint, the greater the miracle.

·         The prisoners' reaction? They have been counted worthy to suffer, and great things are happening for God's kingdom. They sing praise to him!

·         The jailer shows us that he has seen this attitude. When the earthquake hits, and then he finds no one missing, his feeling is not relief - but awe.

·         Then God turns an enemy to a friend. The jailer is not saved and then dismissed; the jailer is "saved to serve." Not only does he wash their wounds, but he serves them a meal.

Paul, leaving in triumph

There are some points of style for those who would wish to use righteousness to triumph over evil.

·         Paul makes no point of his trial or Roman citizenship - until after the punishment has been delivered. He turns suffering to triumph in this way.

Many years ago, while taking my MBA, I took a course in business law. There were ten students in the course. The professor announced that he would give one "A", two "B's", three "C's" and four "D's." (Evidently his way of weeding out the unfit.) As it happened, I got the "A."[7] As a "C" or "D" meant dropping out of the school for most of these students (who were in their first semester) I felt this arbitrary and unfair. I took the matter to the Dean of the college, who took appropriate action. The reason he took me seriously was this: I had put up with this course, endured it and triumphed - and I was complaining on behalf of the others. The same thing likely happened here. Can you imagine how the authorities felt? They weren't really impressed with the miraculous - but they did not want to get into trouble. Paul took that and no doubt put the fledgling church in good graces with the authorities.

·         Ever courteous, Paul does not simply leave. He stops at Lydia's first. This is to reassure her, and the brethren, of his safety, and to provide his blessing as he goes.

Lessons for Us

All well and good, teacher, but what shall we do?

The midnight view

We must learn to cultivate the "midnight view." Paul and Silas, in jail at midnight, were singing praises to God. Why? Let's look at it from their point of view:

·         The enemy is in a panic - he has resorted to mob violence and emotions. When cooler heads prevail, how great their advantage will be!

·         As the miracle shows, God is clearly on the march in this town. That alone is cause for rejoicing.

·         In particular, they have been accounted worthy to suffer for the Name. It is an honor, and they receive it like a Medal of Honor winner.

The world would call their situation bleak. God shows them the edge of triumph.

The power of paradox

In all things, God shows us the power of paradox. That which we think certain, he calls a vapor. That which we think weak, he uses to overwhelm us.

·         We see here the model of grace. The bound (Paul and Silas), are the channels of grace to the unbound (the jailer), and so release the true bonds of sin from this man and his family.

·         In this we see that God's weakness and foolishness are stronger than anything man can devise. This has not changed since.

·         In our suffering it is important that we see an occasion that God might be exalted. If we humble ourselves and lift him up, he will exalt us. It is a paradox.

The matter is one of point of view. Twilla Paris once sang of "forever eyes" - the eyes through which one sees eternity. The plight of Paul and Silas is either miserable or wonderful - depending upon which eyes you use.


[1] Genesis 14:18-22

[2] Romans 5:4

[3] 1 Peter 3:9

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:26

[5] Job 36:21

[6] Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ, I-23

[7] This is the entire extent of my accomplishments in the field of law.

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