SERMON ON ACTS 16:6-15
In Acts chapter 1, Jesus said “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” What happened in the 2000 years since then?
Notice how a lot of the video centred on Europe. And then from Europe the gospel went, especially from the 19th century onwards – to Africa, Asia, South America. It’s very common for people to think of Christianity as a European religion. And yet for the first thousand years there were more Christians East of Jerusalem than West. And certainly today Europe is decidedly POST-Christian. In our own denomination, the Anglican Communion, the average Anglican is a Nigerian woman who lives on $2 a day. Christianity has never belonged to Europe. And yet, notice how on the map, Europe is marked as Christian.
This is the effect of Christendom. Ever since Constantine supposedly converted in 312AD, the Roman Empire became Christian. Now it’s a very big theological question whether an empire can be Christian. Certainly we want queens and kings, and presidents and prime ministers everywhere to become Christians. Certainly we want whole populations to trust Jesus. Certainly there is no better foundation for any set of laws than the word of God. But still, the question of whether an empire can be Christian is hotly disputed. And so Christendom – having a state religion imposed from above – has been, to put it mildly, a mixed blessing.
We take it for granted that Europe has a Christian heritage. We speak of England being a Christian country, but what does that mean? Especially when the first church planted in Europe is there in our reading – verses 13-16 speak of a conversation leading to persuasion from the heart leading to a household of faith being established. That’s the first church plant in Europe. And it happened the way all conversion happens in the New Testament – through persuasion not through power. By faith not by political or military might. It’s a conversion of the heart not an imposition by the State. That’s actually how Europe was reached initially.
By the year 312, when Constantine converted, Christianity was a vibrant, church-based, grass-roots movement that soaring while the Roman Empire was flagging. Christianity was producing the great thinkers and culture shapers. Most importantly churches were thriving throughout the Roman Empire – living out the way of Jesus and showing the watching world the wisdom of God in the gospel of Christ. Of course Constantine would turn to Christians and say, “You seem to know what’s what – what should we do?” And who can blame the Christians of the 4th century for saying “Alright let’s tell you how to run an empire – we know how God’s kingdom works.” And off they went.
Today of course we have had century upon century of Christendom in which – for better and for worse – the state has legislated a Christian way of life for the population at large. And the population at large has considered itself Christian whether or not they have had a Lydia experience for themselves and are persuaded in their hearts.
But the collapse of Christendom means Europe is in a funny position. And this helps you understand what it’s like to be a Christian in Britain today. As Christians we have gotten used to a state of affairs that is completely unnatural. The people of the book of Acts lived under governments that were entirely non-Christian. And they never even contemplated lobbying their MP for more Christian legislation on the statute books. They didn’t have an MP. They simply prayed for the Emporer and their governors, preached the gospel and got on with the life of the church.
Throughout Christendom though, the church got used to legislating Christian morality and even belief for the population at large. NOW we don’t have that power. NOW the world does not believe our gospel. Now the world look at our definitions of human rights, our definitions of tolerance, our definitions of freedom, our definitions of marriage and our definitions of life – what it is, when it begins, why it’s worth living – the world looks at all that and finds it unbelievable. The world doesn’t believe the gospel that makes sense of all those positions. And so the world is saying “Christians, we’re not going to play by your rules, you don’t have a privileged position at the tables of power any more. We’re going to define those things differently.”
And if the world doesn’t believe our gospel any more, why SHOULD they believe our definitions of freedom, of tolerance, of rights, of marriage, of life? And who’s fault is it if the church hasn’t been persuasive on these issues? Surely it’s OUR FAULT and we should focus our sadness at these political developments on our own spiritual failures. We have failed to be the witnesses that Jesus called us to be. We have failed a world that wants to choose another path. We need to repent and we need to get back to Acts to have a reality check.
Because in Acts 16 we will encounter a Europe that is going to become ever more familiar to us. The Europe of Acts 16 is a place where the church is a small movement of hearts and homes against a backdrop of world powers that are indifferent to the church at best, hostile at worst. That’s the Europe of Acts 16, it is becoming the Europe of today.
But the great news is that Jesus’ marching orders remain the same, His Spirit’s power remains the same and this gospel pattern for reaching Europe remains the same. As it was in the beginning, it is now and shall be forever – the power of Christ’s mission is unstoppable. And if we really want to see this continent reached for Christ again then here is the model… three Hs… By the Spirit, we herald to hearts and homes.
BY THE SPIRIT… WE HERALD TO HEARTS AND HOMES…
6: Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7: When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
Firstly… BY THE SPIRIT…
In some ways our passage tonight could be characterized as about open and shut doors.
Here are the first shut doors we encounter. [MAP]. First the door to Asia is shut. Then in verse 7 the door to Bithynia is shut.
It turns out that those doors are RIGHT to be shut. The Spirit Himself has shut them, in order to shepherd the apostles in the right directions. Those doors are meant to be shut. But later in our passage we’ll see that there are doors that aren’t meant to be shut at all. Lydia’s heart is shut and needs opening. Her whole household needs opening up as well.
That’s interesting – in verses 6-10 there are two doors shut and they’re meant to be. The doors to Asia and Bithynia. In verses 11-15 there are two FAR MORE IMPORTANT doors that are shut – the doors of our heart and our home. And God opens them.
But as we think of the doors of Asia and Bithynia being shut it’s a shock isn’t it about who has shut them.
The Spirit *stops* them from preaching the word. That seems quite surprising. I thought the Spirit was into gospel preaching. He is. He is the very breath that carries the gospel word. He is the power behind all proclamation but He shuts these doors. Why? Because there are better opportunities.
Notice how sensitive Paul is to the Spirit’s work in His life. He doesn’t say “events conspired against us.” “We couldn’t get the right visas.” “The authorities opposed us.” It was the Holy Spirit.
Can we discern the Spirit’s operation in our lives? Discerning flesh from Spirit is the fundamental issue of wise living.
It’s easy to see God’s hand in the open doors. Can you see God’s hand in the closed doors too?
Emma winning a prize to go to the zoo…
Can you see God’s hand in the closed doors. Not… can you understand the reasons for the closed doors. But can you rest in the fact that ultimately the door was closed not by circumstances but by the Spirit?
How will we discern the Spirit? He’s the Spirit of holiness. And He’s the Spirit OF JESUS. He’s the Spirit of self-giving, the Spirit of peace-making, the Spirit of burden-bearing for others, the Spirit of gospel-spreading. The opposite of the Spirit is, of course, the flesh. And in the Bible, the flesh operates according to a philosophy of self-serving, me-first, keep-myself-to-myself. The battle between the Spirit and the flesh is the battle of whether to live according to your first birth or your second. Whether to look like Adam or Jesus. And Paul looks at a situation like this closed door and concludes he’s not meant to bash it down and carry on regardless. He can see the Spirit of Jesus at work guiding a different way. The vast majority of walking in the Spirit is THAT. It’s knowing that God is active in all our lives and discerning between the flesh (what comes natural) and the Spirit (what is Jesus-like). This is what Paul means by keeping in step with the Spirit. Walking in the Spirit is the very everyday business of Christian discernment. But VERY occasionally the Spirit might choose to do something like this…
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Walking by the Spirit is mostly about everyday Christian discernment. But God sometimes works through visions. At least He did for the apostles. Notice that Paul and the apostles were not waiting around for a vision. They were pushing on doors. First in Asia, then in Bithynia. They didn’t lie back waiting for visions. They had their marching orders from the risen Christ: “You will be my witnesses.” Off they go. The vision helped at this juncture though.
What do we think of visions? It happens in 9:12 (Ananias is given a vision about Paul); 18:9 (the Lord speaks to Paul and tells him to stay in Corinth); 22:17 (the Lord tells Paul to get out of Jerusalem).
I met a man once who used to be an imam in a Ugandan mosque. As he was leading Friday prayers he heard the voice of Jesus say I am Jesus, follow me and he knew he needed to leave the mosque. He resisted that voice and kept on praying. One week later the same voice said the same thing: I am Jesus, follow me. This time he followed. He abandoned the Friday prayers, went to the local church pastor and said I must follow Jesus from now on. He was baptised, had to flee the country immediately and now he lives in Britain. Do you think visions happen? They happen alright. MANY Muslims have come to Christ through dreams. Jesus appears to them and calls them out. Now in those cases, the people in question are led to other Christians, who can tell them the gospel and bring them into the life of church. These visions never do away with the need for human preachers. As we see here in Acts the vision serves the gospel mission, it doesn’t replace it.
So VERY OCCASIONALLY there are visions from the Spirit – it’s a rare occurrence, even in the Bible. But it might happen to us. Yet we must be aware that quite often visions come not from the Spirit but from the flesh.
I remember being with my, then girlfriend, in a restaurant. I very much wanted to marry her and sought a supernatural confirmation from God. So I remember praying “God,IMF she’s the one, give her a vision of our wedding say right now.” Instantly she smiled. I said “Why are you smiling?” She said “It’s nothing.” I said “Were you thinking about our wedding day?” She said “How did you know?” I told her. Freaky right? But this wasn’t Emma. This was a girl who in a matter of weeks would actually dump me, dump Jesus and leave the country, it would have been dreadful to marry her. So what’s going on?
Looking back, I’m pretty sure we’d just been talking about something that had a good chance of making her think about getting married. And I’m pretty sue I just piggy-backed on that hunch and shot up a rapid prayer. And: PRESTO – a vision. But it was a vision from the flesh not the Spirit.
Walking by the Spirit is not about having lots of visions, it’s about discernment. Notice how the discernment happens here in the passage. The whole missionary team talk about what the vision means and together they conclude what God is up to. Notice also that the vision of a Man of Macedonia is about the Mission of Jesus going forwards. It’s not about whether Paul will get that job he’s applying for or whether he’s going to be lucky in love. That’s a horoscope and it has nothing to do with what the Spirit is up to.
Sometimes visions happen – rarely, even in the Bible – but the real spiritual issue is not having visions but discerning flesh from Spirit and doing so together with others, under God’s word and in the service of God’s mission.
Because that’s the amazing thing about this vision… This vision beckons Paul over to Macedonia to extend the mission into the dark continent of Europe. This is about fulfilling the marching orders of Jesus from Acts 1:8 – You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the very ends of the earth. This vision serves the mission – the mission is what God is all about.
From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
Nothing about “God told us to stay in Philippi.” The great majority of Acts is NOT Jesus showing up in visions. He’s already given His marching orders.
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.
To the Jew first (13:14, 46; 14:1).
It takes 10 men to form a synagogue. Philippi can’t rustle up 10 men. But…
We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia,
She’s from Asia, where Paul has just been prevented from going. The Lord tracks her down across an ocean!
a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
She’s rich, well-traveled, she has a large household, as we learn. She’s even religious – she’s a worshipper of God. That’s a technical term to describe Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed in the God of Israel and wanted to join in with as much as they could in the worship of Israel. So she’s a well to-do, successful, even religious woman.
But her heart is closed. TRAGIC. Unimaginably tragic. (Mission to poor countries show photographs of poverty and we give. But the poverty of a closed heart is unseen – it is no less tragic).
We’d say that all the right doors were open to her wouldn’t we? All the doors we bang on, she had stepped through, but there was one door that was closed shut in her. The door of her heart.
She needed the Lord to open her heart through this message.
BY THE SPIRIT: WE HERALD
Here’s something amazing – can God show up to people and give them a message without a human messenger? Is that possible? We’ve just seen God do that! But God doesn’t want his message the gospel to spread like that. He is active in this world – His two hands interacting with us constantly – but that activity is directed towards this gospel going out to the ends of the earth.
WHAT MESSAGE? Acts sermons… All the experience of Israel was leading up to Christ – killed, then raised.
They killed Him because we are all sinners – even you Lydia.
God raised Him because He is Lord of all – even Lord of you Lydia.
So repent and be baptised, come in on this new life, this new community, this new future…
This HERALDING reached the HEART.
BY THE SPIRIT WE HERALD TO THE HEART
The heart – the preaching in Acts is often said to “cut to the heart.” 2:37; 5:33.
Not anti intellectual, even in Acts 8:22, it speaks of the thought of our hearts.
Acts 28:27 – the heart is the problem.
It’s the well-spring of life. Proverbs 4:23
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
Thomas Cranmer: What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies
Notice it’s the Lord who does it and notice He does it through the Word.
But notice also, the heart is not about internal, warm fuzzy feelings. Belief has practical, social, family ramifications…
When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16:6-15)
Faith is not just about hearts, it’s about households.
Ever since Noah, the pattern has been for the household to take refuge together with the chief believer. Genesis 17 writes this pattern into the structures of the people of God. Abraham believes and his whole household is circumcised – from 8 day old boys upwards. For 2000 years that was the pattern – new believers came in on the covenant sign, circumcision, and their household came under that sign too. Children in the household were meant to grow up under the covenant sign.
In the New Testament, not a single word is said to overturn that teaching about households. On the contrary in places like here with Lydia and at the end of the chapter with the jailer – the pattern is reinforced. New believers get the covenant sign – now it’s baptism in the NT – but so do their household. And the whole household is now meant to grow up under that covenant sign.
Obviously members of Lydia’s household would be expected to grow up into the reality of their baptism, just as I pray little Ruby will will grow up into the reality of her baptism. But that’s how it’s been for 4000 years. OT households grew up with the outward circumcision but were called to have “a circumcision of the heart.” In just this way, Christian households grow up under the sign of baptism and are called to know the true “baptism of the heart”.
But it’s the household together. You see that’s the other open door that happens for Lydia. God doesn’t just open her heart, He opens her home. It’s not that Lydia has a private spiritual experience and keeps it to herself. Instantly, faith involves her in community. And it involves her community in God’s community. Now, all of a sudden her house becomes the base of what looks like Philippi’s first church. Certainly the last verse of the chapter describes her house as the meeting place of the brothers and sisters.
The gospel turns us inside-out. There we are pursuing achievements in the world, the Lord comes right to the heart and home. This is the revolution that overturned Europe first time around. And now we’ll have to re-evangelise Europe. How will we do it? Well in a sense, it won’t be us at all. It will be the Spirit and the Son shutting and opening doors. But they refuse to work without us. As we go on the mission of Jesus, sensitive to the Spirit of Jesus and speaking the message of Jesus, God does His inside-out work, through hearts and then households to whole continents. Christendom has collapsed, but the mission of Jesus has always been something else… BY THE SPIRIT: WE HERALD TO HEARTS AND HOMES – THAT’S the power to change the world.