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Sovereign Good

Once again this morning we find ourselves in Acts chapter 16! We’ve been working through the book of Acts over the last several months – typically working through about one chapter per Sunday, but despite my best intentions, chapter 16 is just taking us a bit longer to get through! For the last two Sundays we’ve only managed to cover a grand total of 10 verses.

But I guess that’s not a bad thing! There have been some great lessons for us to learn in these first few verses of Paul’s second missionary journey.

Now just to give you a quick recap of what we’ve talked about so far, Paul & Silas began this second missionary journey primarily to check up on the churches that Paul had planted on his first missionary journey. He wanted to make sure that they were growing in their faith and becoming Godly, mature followers of Jesus Christ. He wanted to make sure that they were the kind of disciples who would go on to make more disciples!

And that’s just what he found. When he arrived back in Lystra – the town where, in his first missionary journey, he had been stoned and left for dead – he found a young disciple named Timothy who had indeed been greatly growing in his faith and in fact, was the kind of companion that Paul wanted to bring along on his journeys. And so Paul invited Timothy to come along, and from that point on, Timothy (who would eventually become a key leader in the early church) traveled with Paul and Silas, and together they strengthen and encouraged all the churches in that area.

Well, after all the churches were visited and that phase of their missionary journey was done, they determined to go to some new cities and preach the Word of God where they had never been before – places that had never heard the Gospel!

And so they headed first towards the province of Asia – however, we’re told in Acts 16:6, that God stopped them from preaching there. So they headed north to the province of Bithynia – but once again, God stopped them from going there!

And I suppose this must have been a bit confusing for Paul & Silas and Timothy – after all, why would God stop them from preaching the Gospel to these people who had never heard the Good News?

Well, of course, God had a purpose and plan (as He always does) and he made that clear to Paul in a vision. In this vision, Paul saw a man from Macedonia in Northern Greece calling out to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”

And so, they concluded that God was calling them to preach to the people of Macedonia!

Now just as a little bit of a side note: one thing that I didn’t mention last week is that right at verse 10 – we see that Luke, the author of the book of Acts, joins Paul, Silas, and Timothy and  travels with them to the city of Philippi. 

It’s not specifically stated in these verses, so it’s fairly easy to miss. But you might have noticed that the pronouns change after verse 8. In verse 8 Luke writes:

8 So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas.

Acts 16:8

…referring to Paul, Silas, and Timothy – “they” went on through…. But then in verse 10, he writes: 

So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there. Acts 16:10

“They” has now become “we” & “us” –  and that will continue throughout this chapter, until “they” leave the city of Philippi at the beginning of chapter 17.

So it seems that Luke had joined this missionary team in Troas and will continue with them until they leave Philippi. Some people speculate that when Paul & Silas and Timothy left Philippi,  Luke stayed behind to be the pastor of the new planted church – at least for a while – until he again rejoins Paul near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey some years later.

However, at this point in the story, Philippi doesn’t even have a church yet, so before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at our passage this morning.

Our passage today is in Acts chapter 16, and we’re going to start at verse 11. It begins like this:

11 We boarded a boat at Troas and sailed straight across to the island of Samothrace, and the next day we landed at Neapolis. 12 From there we reached Philippi, a major city of that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. And we stayed there several days.

13 On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. 

Acts 16:11-13

Now there are some interesting things we learn about the city of Philippi in these few verses.

First of all, we see that Philippi was a significant city in Macedonia. Other historic writers say it would have been a city of about 10,000 people or so… – So not massive, but certainly more than a small rural town. We also learn that it is a Roman Colony. That means there would have been a significant Roman influence and Roman loyalties in this city. And that information is fairly helpful for us in understanding the rest of the chapter.

At this point in history – Jews were not looked upon very favourably by the Romans. In fact, the emperor Claudius had recently expelled all the Jews from Rome – we’ll actually read about that when we get to Acts chapter 18 because Aquila and Priscilla were some of those Jews who were kicked out of Italy.

And so this could be part of the reason why Paul went down to the river where he thought people may be praying – instead of going to the synagogue as was his custom. You’ll remember that Paul’s heart and passion was for the Jews first – and then for the Gentiles – and so because of that, anytime he went to a new city, he would always go to the local synagogue first to preach the Gospel there before going on to preach throughout the city. But it would appear that there was no synagogue in Philippi. You had to have at least ten Jewish men to start up a synagogue – so it would appear that even in this city of about 10,000 people – there may not have been even 10 Jewish men. (Which of course, would make sense if there was a strong sense of animosity towards the Jews at this time!) However, there were at least a few women (who may not have been Jewish) but they worshipped the God of the Jews. It says in verse 13 & 14….

13 On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. 14 One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God.

Acts 16:13-14

When Luke describes Lydia as one “who worshiped God” – this means she was a Gentile who had somehow come to believe in and worship the God of the Jews – even though she herself was not Jewish. And it’s interesting that Lydia was from Thyatira. Thyatira was a town famous for it’s manufacturing of expensive, purple cloth (of which Lydia was a merchant.) But what’s most interesting is that it was located in western Turkey – right in the area where God had earlier not allowed Paul to go and preach the Gospel!

Which I think is just another great reminder of the incredible sovereignty of God! God was putting all the right people in all the right places so that His good will could be done! He took Lydia from Thyatira and brought her to Philippi – then he prevented Paul and Silas from going to Thyatira and brought them to Philippi too!

And then, even more specifically, God brought them both down to the river on that Sabbath morning so that Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke – could share with her all about Jesus – how he died on a cross and rose again from the dead – so that she could have her sins forgiven and have eternal life.

And God does that sort of thing all the time! He is constantly arranging our circumstances to get us to where we need to be so that we cross paths with whom we need to cross paths with – so that God can accomplish His good will!

I was reminded of that just this week. On Monday night at about 1:30am, my sewer alarm went off. Our septic tank wasn’t emptying like it was supposed to and the sewage had gotten high enough to set off the alarm – which is never a good thing! So the next morning we tried to figure out what the problem was and we arranged to have a steam truck come and try to unblock our sewer lines because we suspected they had frozen.

Now of course, I’m not very excited about all this happening! First of all, I was awakened in the middle of the night by this septic alarm. Secondly, I have to go through the hassle of trying to figure out and fix the problem with the septic system. And now, I’ve got this steam truck coming, which is going to cost me a pretty good chunk of change! So over all, I wasn’t not pleased that all this was happening!

I was so wrapped up in my own inconveniences, that I almost missed God’s sovereign hand at work. Thankfully, I was reminded by my daughter later that night that God might have a particular purpose in this whole sewer issue.

And I’m sure that he did, because the guy that came to steam out my sewer lines asked me what I did for a living, and when he found out that I was a pastor, he was quite eager to share some of his beliefs – which he described as being 70% hindu, and 30% buddhist.

Well, we worked on that sewer line for several hours over the next two days. And during that time, both Heather’s dad and I had a chance to share a little bit of a Christian world view with him. And while I don’t think he made a decision to follow Christ at this time, I’m sure that God had plan and a purpose for his being at my house this week! Perhaps there was something in our conversations that will stick with him and God might use that to one day change His life! I don’t know – but God does! God always has a plan and purpose for everything that happens in our lives.

And we certainly see that in the case of Lydia. Verse 14 continues:

As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. 15 She and her household were baptized, and she asked us to be her guests. “If you agree that I am a true believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my home.” And she urged us until we agreed.

Acts 16:145b-15

What a tremendous day for Lydia and her household! They believed the saving message of Jesus Christ, put their faith in Him, and were baptized as a sign of their new life in Christ! But that certainly wasn’t the end of God’s plan and purpose for Paul & Silas being in Philippi at this time!

As we read through the rest of this chapter, we see that God had some more divine appointments for them. The next one happens in verse 16.

16 One day as we were going down to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit that enabled her to tell the future. She earned a lot of money for her masters by telling fortunes. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved.”

18 This went on day after day until Paul got so exasperated that he turned and said to the demon within her, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And instantly it left her.

Acts 16:16-18

What a tremendous day for this young slave girl! She had been enslaved by this demon – perhaps for years already – being taken advantage of by her owners – and on this day, she found freedom through Jesus Christ.

Was that a coincidence? Did this come about by random happen-chance? Of course not! This was a divinely arranged plan by God the Father! Even though I imagine that demon probably thought he was hindering God’s work – He was attempting to create a distraction to keep people from hearing or paying attention to Paul’s message – but yet, God used this demon’s attempt to do evil and He turned it around for good!

And not just a little bit of good. The good that God caused through this was not just limited to this slave girl being freed from her oppression (as wonderful as that was), but look what happens next in verse 19.

19 Her masters’ hopes of wealth were now shattered, so they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the authorities at the marketplace. 20 “The whole city is in an uproar because of these Jews!” they shouted to the city officials. 21 “They are teaching customs that are illegal for us Romans to practice.”

22 A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. 23 They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. 24 So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.

Acts 16:24

Now hold on a second. Where’s the good in that? This doesn’t sound very good at all. Paul and Silas are stripped and severely beaten with rods and then thrown in the dungeon. I thought we were talking about God bringing about good, but this sounds pretty bad! In fact, I’d even say this was evil! 

But yet, that’s the amazing thing: Many times, what others intend for evil, God has plans to use for good. The story of Joseph is a prime example of that!

As a young man Joseph was hated by his brothers – so much so that one day, they sold him as slave and he was taken away into a foreign country! And that was pretty awful, but things got even worse for him. Before long he was falsely accused by his master’s wife and he was thrown into prison! So here he is, a slave in prison in some foreign land – far away from his family. There certainly didn’t seem to be very much good in that situation, was there?

But yet, you know the rest of the story… God was with Joseph and through some miraculous events, God brought Joseph to be the second in command over of all of Egypt and in the end, he was able to save the lives of thousands of people – including his entire family!

And I love the perspective Joseph has on all of this. I don’t know if he saw this as a young man as he went through all those hard times, but many years later, he says to his brothers (In Genesis 50:20)…

20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. Genesis 50:20

Isn’t that amazing? In hindsight, Joseph could see how God had been at work all along! And God continues to do that all the time – even for us today! The things that people or even Satan intend for evil – things that are intended to harm us – God intends for good! 

And that’s exactly what we see in our passage today! While Paul and Silas being beaten and thrown in prison was not so good in itself, God had a plan to bring something wonderful out of it all! It says in verse 25….

25 Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. 26 Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! 27 The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. 28 But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”

29 The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he 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, along with everyone in your household.” 32 And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. 33 Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. 34 He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.

Acts 16:25-34

What an amazing story! What Satan had intended for evil – God turned it all around and used for good! A man and his entire household were saved from an eternity away from God – and instead they received the joy and hope and peace of knowing Christ as their Saviour!

Now, when Paul & Silas were being beaten with those rods – did they know what God was going to do? No, they did not.

As they sat in the darkness of that dungeon – with their feet clasped in irons – did they know that God was about to bring salvation to an entire family? No, they didn’t know that!

But yet, they trusted that God was going to do something good through their difficult and painful situation!

I think perhaps that’s why they could be praying and signing hymns in the middle of the night – with aching backs and in the darkness of that dingy dungeon – because they knew that God works all things together for good for those who love him!

Actually, Paul would later write Romans 8:28:

28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. 

Romans 8:28

Paul had experienced that first-hand! He had seen God do it over and over again! 

When you think about the entire chain of events in this chapter – you really get a clear sense of how God leads and guides – and even uses things that are intended to harm us – so that His will will be done!

We began this chapter with Paul & Silas not being allowed to preach in the province of Asia and Bithynia – God closed those doors so that they could come to Macedonia. In Macedonia, God arranged for Lydia to meet with them down by the river so that she and her entire household could hear the Gospel message and be saved!

Then, as Satan tried to hinder the message of Paul & Silas through this slave girl, God used that as an opportunity to free this girl from her oppression – and to set in motion the events that would bring salvation to the jailer and his whole household!

God used every situation to bring about his will and much good was accomplished!

But of course, from Paul & Silas’ perspective, this was not always an easy or enjoyable journey. They faced roadblocks in their ministry, they had to deal with demonic distractions, they endured significant physical pain and suffering – but yet it seems that somehow through it all, they rejoiced because they knew God was at work – using every situation to bring about His will!

And so that’s the encouragement that I would leave you with today. 

Maybe you’re in a difficult or painful part of your journey right now. Maybe its a relatively small inconvenience like a frozen sewer pipe – or perhaps it’s a much more significant issue like a strained or broken relationship. There are all kinds of things that come into our lives that hurt us, that discourage us, that threaten to destroy us! 

We’re told in 1 Peter 5:8 that Satan is like a roaring lion – always looking for someone to devour! He is the enemy of our souls and he uses all kinds of people, events or circumstances to distract, discourage, or destroy us! His intentions are always to harm us!

But thankfully, he is no match for our God! Anytime Satan throws something at us to distract, discourage, or destroy – God can take that situation and can use it for good! It’s amazing how He does it!

That’s what he did with Joseph, that what he did with Paul & Silas on multiple occasions, and that’s what God will do for you as well.

Now that doesn’t mean that God will always spare you from being beaten with rods or thrown into prison. There might be a lot of rotten stuff in this life that we have to endure. But we can know that God hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us – and He hasn’t allowed us to suffer for no reason. But rather, we can know that God is using our situation to bring about something good.

We may not see that good right away like Paul & Silas did – seeing entire households come to know Christ. We might not even see it years later like Joseph did – having saved his family from starvation.

But as people who love God, we can know for sure that God’s good will will be done through us, because God has promised in His Word that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Our job is just to trust Him – to follow His leading, and to invite His will to be done through us.

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