Acts 16 shows an extraordinary example of God’s sovereignty reigning over the power of men. Yet it is easy to misconstrue that sovereignty in this story. As Paul and Silas cast out a demon from a fortune-teller, her owners realize that their cash cow is now gone and hand the miracle-workers over to the authorities. Of all the things the two followers of The Way had been arrested for – rebuking Jewish customs, refusing to stop preaching about Christ, healing the lame – casting out demons was the most absurd. However, they find themselves in jail after enduring severe beatings and excessive mocking.
As readers, we are pleading with God at this point in the story to step in and save the disciples – and, amazingly He follows our wishes. God breaks the chains and bends the bars within the jail and sets the disciples free. He even brings the jailer to faith through the process!
This story satisfies all our deep longings for God to intervene in the world when He sees His people wrongly persecuted, but it does not mean that He will always intervene. In today’s world – where Christians have been victims of genocide in the Middle East and parts of Africa– we desperately want to see God save His people before they walk the plank of martyrdom. But often nothing happens. Christians in China, North Korea, and Syria have been dying in multitudes for decades and we hear naught of jails being ripped open under the power of an earthquake.
Has God left us to fight our own battles? Will He continue to be silent in the slaughter of thousands under ISIL? How can we reconcile the God of Paul and Silas with the world we currently see?
First, it is imperative that we understand that Paul and Silas did not expect to be miraculously saved from their circumstances. They endured floggings and persecution and were ready to face death in order to continue preaching The Way. Paul explicitly states this motto in Philippians 1:21, when saying, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” They knew that God had the power to intervene, but also knew that God’s larger plan for redemption might require their bodies’ sacrifices (as it later did).
God reserves the right to save His people in the face of death, yet He shows us through Christ that even His own son is not spared in the plan for the redemption of mankind. If we believe as firmly in the message of salvation as Paul and Silas did, we ought to be willing to go to the same ends to spread such a message.
Second, our equation of human suffering and God’s sovereignty is skewed. So called “health and wealth” gospels have not helped this equation, as they push us to model God’s covenant with Israel– follow God’s laws→be blessed; reject God’s laws→be cursed. If we follow God, so it goes, we will experience great blessings on Earth in the form of financial gain, family, and friendship.
This passage, in isolation, might even support some of those teachings, but the whole story (of Paul and Silas) ends in martyrdom. In fact, eleven of the twelve disciples were murdered for their preaching of Christ’s salvation. A true rendering of Scripture reveals that God’s people often suffer explicitly for their support of Him; they felt blessed to share in the persecution that killed their Savior, not spurned that God refused to save them from death.
Lastly, let us not forget that we do worship a “God who comes through,” as John Eldredge puts it. He saved us once and for all from the power of death – though not from the actuality of it – through the death of His only begotten son. This saving power, born solely of grace, rushes over us in all moments because of one great moment where God refused to save His son. Let us remember that Christ’s sacrifice bought us eternity and therefore eschew the messages of comfort and wealth so often associated with “cultural Christianity.” The message requires sacrifice; we should revel in that.
Over the next week, two guest authors consider our modern world in light of Acts 16:16-40 in Missio on Justice:
- On Wednesday, Stanton Coman considers fighting against injustice in A Broken System
- On Friday, Baylee Molloy considers an active faith in Getting to the Root
Will Thompson is a graduate of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.