You never know the influence you may have on another person. You never know the impact you may make based on how you live your life. You never know who is watching and how your decisions may be affecting someone else. But we know this. Think for a moment about how many people have indirectly affected your life because of things they said or did. Think about who you may have modeled your life after. Think about how other people’s actions caused you to change how you would live your life. What we see in the book of Acts are Christians making big impacts in the lives of others. Acts 16 wants us to see the power of closed doors and open hearts.
Closing Doors (16:1-10)
Paul, Silas, and his traveling companions begin to go back to the cities that Paul preached in during the first trip to see how those Christians are doing and to encourage them in the faith. In Lystra they meet a man named Timothy who the Christians there spoke highly about. So Timothy is brought along with them as they go about strengthening the churches (16:5). But in verses 6-10 I want us to see that twice the Lord directs Paul and his companions to not preach the gospel in certain areas but to go to other areas. Notice in verse 6 that they were prevented from preaching the gospel in Asia. Be aware that this is not the Asia that we think of but Asia in the first century was the region that we call Turkey today. Sometimes we call this area Asia Minor to help keep from having confusion over the naming. So they are prevented from preaching Asia. Then in verse 7 they are prevented from preaching in Bithynia. Rather they are told to go to Macedonia and preach the gospel to them (16:9-10).
We can read this and wonder why they were not to take the gospel to these areas yet. We know from other scriptures that the gospel did go to those areas later. We will even have seven churches in Asia by the time we read the book of Revelation. But for now, Paul and his companions are directed to go elsewhere. What I want us to see is that God closing doors is not a bad thing. Being turned to go in another direction is not something that we need to resist. We can have in our minds that there is a particular direction that we need to go. But God can close that door and send us another direction. While we may not understand why the door closes, it might just be the best thing for us. If we believe that God is going to accomplish his will and purposes, then we are going to accept doors that close in front of us. We are going to accept when we need to change directions and go another way. Sometimes we can think all closed doors are bad. But I am sure you can think back in your life where a door closed and now you are glad that the door was closed. You can see how God directed you a different direction and that turned out to be for the better. Faith accepts closed doors and understands that God can be leading us in a different direction in our lives.
Opening Hearts (16:11-15)
Rather than resisting God’s closed doors, Paul and his companions go to the Macedonian area and enter the city of Philippi. Philippi was a leading city in Macedonia and a Roman colony. As such, we do not see Paul and his companions going into the synagogue which was their custom when they brought the gospel into a new city. It seems that a synagogue did not exist because there were not enough Jewish people in the city to have one. Instead, on the Sabbath they go to the river where they expect to find people praying. They find a group of women who had come together for prayer. Verse 14 gives a beautiful picture of God’s work. The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention to what Paul taught.
This is an important way to see what is happening through the gospel. The teaching of God’s word is the way God opens hearts. Lydia is listening, her heart is opened, and she receives what Paul says. Lydia and her household are baptized in response to the proclaimed word. This is the power of the gospel. God is opening hearts. As we are sitting here looking at and listening to God’s word, God is working on all of our hearts. God is at work to open your hearts to receive what the Lord says. This is what we should mean when we speak about the Holy Spirit working through the word of God. God is opening hearts because his word is alive and powerful and working on you.
When we see that the power of opening hearts comes from the word of God and no other place, then this puts an important emphasis on spending time in God’s word and listening to God’s word. We have Bible studies because it is through the word of God that he will open hearts. This is why preaching must never be about stories, humor, or fluffy devotional concepts. The preaching of the word must be the opening of the scriptures and the reading of the text because this is the way God will open hearts. If I just tell great stories, make a bunch of jokes, and talk generally about God’s love and grace, you might like me and like my message, but those things will not open your hearts and build your faith. The exposition of God’s word opens hearts. This is what the prophet Ezekiel said God would do.
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. (Ezekiel 36:26–29 ESV)
God would put new hearts in us and remove our hearts of stone and cause us to walk in his ways as God works through the gospel to open the hearts of the hearers.
Handling Opposition (16:16-40)
While in Philippi we read that a slave girl has a spirit in her that allows her to predict the future. But she is following Paul and crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” This becomes an annoyance after a few days since a demon telling people what you are doing is not really the best endorsement. So Paul casts the spirit out of her. However, her slave owners become enraged because they see their means for making money has been taken from them. They seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They charge Paul and Silas with disturbing the city and advocating customs that are unlawful for Romans to accept or practice. So the crowd joins in attack them. The orders are given to tear off their clothes and beat them with rods. After being severely beaten, Paul and Silas are put into prison, into the inner cell with their feet fastened in stocks.
Now I want us to stop and think about what has just happened. God specifically closed the doors to other areas for preaching the gospel but did open the door to go to Macedonia. Look at the outcome. Paul and Silas were seized, dragged, attacked, clothes torn, beaten, and imprisoned. But we have seen this many times. Going through difficulty does not mean you went the wrong direction. It is through many hardships that we will enter the kingdom of God. In fact, this is not a surprising outcome. The gospel message does not match the culture and we cannot change that. The gospel is contrary to the culture. This does not mean that we act like a bunch of contrary people. But we understand that when we talk about Jesus, it is going to be resisted by the culture, not accepted. It will be rejected to such a degree that we could be imprisoned and beaten for proclaiming it. But how we handle opposition is everything. Look at what happens next.
In verse 25 we read that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God and the prisoners were listening. Paul and Silas are not complaining. Paul and Silas are not depressed. Paul and Silas are not wanting to quit or give up. They are singing and praying. A great earthquake happens and the doors are opened and the bonds were opened. But they do not escape. They tell the jailer that they are all still in the prison. No one is escaping. No one is going to be a fugitive. But notice what happens in verses 29-30. The jailer runs in and asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. Now think about this for a minute. Where did this question come from? I want us to see that whatever Paul and Silas were saying in the prison, singing in the prison, and praying in the prison caused the jailer to want to participate. The jailer wants to be saved because of how Paul and Silas have handled their adversity as well as from what they are praying, singing, and saying.
Friends, how we handle opposition and suffering says so much to the world. We have a great evangelism tool in our very bodies regarding what we do when we suffer. What Paul and Silas do brings the jailer to want to know how to be saved. What they said brought the jailer to want to know how to be saved. We must understand that if our actions can discredit the gospel, then our actions can also bolster the beauty of the gospel.
Please think about how Jesus did this repeatedly during his difficulties. Think about how Jesus spoke to Pilate. Jesus does not disrespect Pilate. Jesus did not disrespect the process. Jesus did not decry the Roman Empire, the Roman emperor, or the Roman occupation in Judea. Jesus does not rally his people to fight or overthrow the system. Remember that Jesus even said that if his kingdom was of this world, then his followers would be fighting. But that is not the way. Jesus had Peter put his sword away. In fact, Jesus had such a discussion with Pilate that Pilate is even looking to release him (cf. John 19:12).
Think about Jesus on the cross. What is Jesus saying to those who are walking by, to the Jewish leaders, and to those crucified with him? Is Jesus complaining? Is Jesus angry or depressed? Is Jesus decrying the system? How Jesus dies causes a centurion to confess that Jesus truly was the Son of God. We need to see that how we handle suffering and persecution is a means for winning people to listen to the gospel. God opens hearts through the gospel and we are giving people the opportunity to listen by how we act, especially during hard times.
This continues to be Paul’s concern in the rest of the narrative. The jailer and his family are baptized and they feed Paul and Silas (16:34). The next day the authorities declare that Paul and Silas can be released. But Paul refuses to quietly leave the prison. He demands that the authorities come to the prison and escort them out. Now why does Paul do this? Is Paul just making a stink? Is Paul being vengeful? No, what Paul is trying to do is reverse public opinion. Paul and Silas have been publicly declared as lawbreakers, beaten as if they are troublemakers who broke Roman law, and imprisoned as criminals. They do not want to leave the city with the people thinking that any of those charges were true. The authorities needed to come and bring them out so that the crowds would see that they had done nothing wrong. This is a way to publish their innocence so that the gospel can continue in this city. We must be concerned that our actions and words do not discredit the gospel. We can handle adversity in a way so that people will want to hear the gospel and be saved. God can open hearts even while there is opposition. God can open hearts even during difficult times if we will let him by not closing the door on the opportunity by our words or actions. God can use your faithfulness in the face of suffering for the rescue of others.
Let us never underestimate the power of the gospel. It is the power for opening hearts. Faith only comes by hearing the word of Christ. Let us also never underestimate the power we hold to make people want to listen or not listen to the gospel message. Are we living in a way to make the gospel beautiful? Or are we living in a way that makes people blaspheme God? Are we causing doors to be closed or are we helping to open hearts?
Let us conclude with the question that the jailer asks. “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer is very simple. You need to believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. This does not mean that you believe that Jesus existed. It means that you believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came to save the world and you are ready to repent and follow him. Belief always means that you will change based on what you now believe. The jailer washes the wounds of Paul and Silas and he along with his household are baptized.