What do you do when things go wrong, when your best attempt to obey God ends up in a mess? Where do you turn when depression weakens you like a disease? When youre attacked by the very people who should protect you, when people totally misunderstand what you say and the situation explodes into a crisis? How do you find peace when temptation rises like a fever until you submit? How do you prepare yourself for that dreaded meeting or phone call or doctors appointment? How do you live with the sorrow of watching a beloved family member or friend continue to rebel against all they know is right and destroy one relationship after another? How do you cope with getting older, watching your body age and your memory fail? How do you respond? Do you collapse in self-pity and try to comfort yourself with things you know are destructive? Do you get angry at God for failing to protect you? Do you blame yourself for being so stupid and fall into self-loathing? Because we all face these kinds of pressures, which is why we all need to learn how to respond when they come. Left to ourselves we tend to react badly, and our bad responses become habits and those habits enslave us and drag us down.
In todays lesson we are allowed to observe Paul and Silas at a terribly low point in their lives. Everything seemed to have gone wrong, and they ended up trapped in a spiritual atmosphere that was about as close to hell as you can find on planet earth: chained in darkness, surrounded by filth and disease, held fast in a place of torture and despair, a place full of the demonic. Yet these two missionaries didnt give in to despair, they didnt rail against God or curse their captors. Instead, they deliberately, aggressively, tactically set about to transform the spiritual environment of that horrid place. They went to war, and they won
what had been meant for evil turned out for the glory of God. And Luke has revealed enough of the details to allow us to discover how they did this. He said that in that inner jail the prisoners were listening to them intently, and you and I need to do the same. Paul and Silas are showing us how to find victory when were under attack, when were in bondage, and how to turn oppressors into brothers or sisters. Frankly, theres no more important life lesson in the Bible.
What happened? (Ac 16:16-32)
The spiritual comes first
The physical world has been created by the spiritual world. The spiritual world initiates, and the physical world responds. To change things in the physical world you start with the spiritual world. To not understand this order, is to be hopelessly defeated from the beginning. The person who does not understand this is always dealing with effects, not the cause. But Paul, of course, was not confused. He understood what comes first. Listen:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood (people, the physical world), but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (Eph 6:12, 13)
He wrote those words when he was a prisoner in Rome, and he went on to tell believers to pray at all times. In other words he was teaching them how to win the earthly battle, by fighting the spiritual battle first. In a letter to the church in Corinth he wrote this: For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses
(2 Co 10:3, 4)
Now lets watch Paul and Silas fight a spiritual battle using spiritual weapons.
A tactical decision
These two apostles knew exactly what they were doing. They recognized the terrible danger they were in, especially the danger of despair. If they lost heart they were doomed. If they allowed self-pity or anger to grip them they would be broken. So they made the decision to fight. They refused to be victims and instead went on the attack.
they fought despair
they worshiped until Gods Spirit filled the entire inner jail
they refused to doubt their guidance
they refused to question Gods wisdom or power
they refused to allow the desire for revenge to grip them, and chose instead to love their enemies
And they did this by praying in a particular way. Luke says they prayed by singing or reciting hymns to God.
Praying with hymns (v.25)
In his letter to the Romans (Ro 8:26) Paul tells us bluntly we dont know how to pray. He means none of us do. Left to our own thoughts we will all pray wrong things. He doesnt say this to shame us, but to alert us to an important fact. Theres nothing wrong with just talking freely with God. He loves it. But there are moments when I need to pray effectively. I need help now, and in those situations if I just pray my heart Ill probably pray a powerless prayer, even though it may be totally sincere. In those moments, we need the Holy Spirit to help us pray according to the will of God (Ro 8:27), because when we pray that way He who searches the hearts (God the Father) hears our prayers. Remember what the apostle John said:
This is the confidence which we have before Him that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (1Jn 5:14, 15)
So, how do I do this? How do I bring my prayers into alignment with Gods will? One way is by praying in the Spirit (praying in tongues). In that form of prayer we dont know what were saying, but the Spirit guides us to say what we ought to say, and the Father hears us. But another way to be sure were praying Gods will is to pray the Word, to pray the prayers and promises of the Bible as if they were our own words. And thats what Paul and Silas were doing that night.
We dont know which hymns they were singing or reciting from memory, but we can take a good guess. Elsewhere when were told Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26), its almost certain they sang from the Hallel (a portion of the Passover Seder), and those are a specific set of psalms (Ps 113-118). Every Jew at that time, and certainly these two rabbis, had these verses memorized. Listen to one, and youll hear the words of faith they spoke into the darkness of that moment:
Its almost certain they would have sung early Christian hymns too. We arent sure if any of these are recorded in Scripture, but we do know our forefathers and mothers sang a lot.
Why did they choose these psalms (or ones like them) in that moment? They were doing the very thing Paul tells us to do when despair wants to grip us. They were:
speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (odes), singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father. (Eph 5:19,20)
Bringing an earthquake
And as they did this, their own hearts were encouraged, their faith was strengthened, all fear evaporated, and the Lord who inhabits the praises of His people (Ps 22:3) filled the entire inner jail, lifting despair off the listening prisoners, and washing over them with His love. The horrible demonic powers that haunt such places were driven out until that place felt like a wonderful church service. In fact, the spiritual realm was so shaken the earth itself responded with a massive earthquake. But the earthquake wasnt the cause, it was the effect of what had already taken place in the Spirit.
Into this scene of glory the newly awakened jailer stumbled, and the power in that room hit him like a ton of bricks, until he started to tremble violently. Then, to be loved and showered with grace after he had been so cruel, broke all his resistance. He was simply overwhelmed, and fell on his face before them.
When Paul says the weapons of our warfare are powerful
he means it. He had seen them bring earthquakes, and they still can. When we are under attack, when despair wants to smother us, we can do exactly what they did, and it will work for us just as well. We need never be victims or prisoners. We can always be victors
if we will fight with Gods weapons. We can transform the atmosphere of our home and our community. We can drive back depression, fear, anger, lust, greed, and loneliness until our hearts are peaceful and strong. God has given us the resources. We have His Word full of promises and prayers.
Isnt this the very lesson Jesus was trying to teach His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when He said, Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mt 26:41)
And then, as He hung on the cross He did this for Himself. He started hymning to God from Psalm 22. He said, My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? (Mt 27:46). But that was only the first verse. Lets hear more. (Ps. 22:1-22). Heres what He was praying in order to fight against the darkness that was trying to crush Him. He was saying yes, this was prophesied, but so is my resurrection! And remember, He got an earthquake too! (Mt 27:50-53). Now its our turn.
1) Have you memorized any prayers or promises? Would you either quote or read one to us?
2) Have you ever had God transform a situation by His presence? Tell us about it.