So, you’re reading the Bible through in a year? Or, like a few people I’ve known, you read it through every year for the umpteenth time.
Fine. But after you have done it two or three times, that’s probably enough. I have a suggestion for what you will want to do next.
Reading the entire Bible in a year is like seeing Europe in a week: You will notice a lot of things you don’t see from ground level, but it’s no way to get to know a country.
After a few flyovers–two days in Genesis and one day in Romans, for instance–you will want to land the plane and get out and make yourself at home in Ephesians or Second Timothy. Move in with the locals and live with them a few weeks.
Don’t miss the point of that. Stay in one book of the Bible for weeks. Months even, reading it again and again. Slowly, thoughtfully. No rush. You’re not going anywhere. This one book will be your focus for the rest of your Christian life.
Moving in and living there is the only way to learn a country. It’s the only way to really learn a book of the Bible.
I’d like to direct you to something in Acts 16, just to make the point.
Now, you know Acts 16 as part of Paul’s second missionary journey (which encompasses Acts chapters16, 17, 18). You remember how he and Silas had trouble bringing the gospel into Asia and were given the vision of a Macedonian man calling for help (16:9). They met the businesswoman Lydia on the riverbank in Philippi and started a church in her house. And you remember how Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for preaching, and that the jailer came in asking “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is one of the most best-known lines for witnessing to the unsaved: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (16:31).
We know these things because they stand out in the chapter. Pastors have preached these points repeatedly over the years.
It’s a great chapter, to be sure, but it deserves closer inspection and much more attention than we have given it.
By slowing down and taking in the action of each verse before moving on, we see much more drama in the story. Let me emphasize: What follows is certainly not exhaustive, but illustrates that there is so much more drama in this story than we get in our quick flyovers. Only by slowly reading the text and savoring each line, every word, do we see that so much more was happening than we had thought at first.)
WHAT PUT PAUL AND SILAS IN THE JAILHOUSE. (Acts 16:16-24)
All they were doing was blessing people, helping them come to Christ and straighten out their lives. They were healing the hurting. The worldly crowd wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this. And when they cast the demon from a young woman who was being used and abused by her “owners,” that was more than they could take. Those men, the slave-owners, seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities.
The “authorities” (whoever they were) accompanied them to the magistrates and slandered Paul and Silas as “Jews who are throwing the city into an uproar by pushing illegal customs for us Romans to accept.” (We note they begin with “These men, being Jews,” indicating the historic anti-Semitism so typical of the devil’s crowd.)
By then a mob had gathered to do what mobs love doing: harass the unfortunate and undefended. The magistrates, sensing public opinion would allow this, ordered Paul and Silas stripped and beaten, then thrown into prison. The jailer, sternly warned to guard them carefully, locked the two missionaries into an inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. They were as secure as it was possible to make them. And tonight, the jailer decided to remain at his post rather than trust an assistant. Good thing he did.
Paul and Silas were miserable. Their backs were open wounds, untreated from the beatings. Their feet were locked into stocks, leaving them in the most uncomfortable position. No sleep that night. And on the morrow, more trouble with the magistrates.
What would you have done?
WHAT PAUL AND SILAS DID THAT STRANGE NIGHT (Acts 16:25-34)
Along about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.
What? Are you serious?
Most of us would have been complaining: “God, where are you? We were just trying to do your will. All we’ve been doing is blessing these people, and look how they’ve treated us. Where are you, Lord? Why have you abandoned us?”
Not these two.
So much for the prosperity gospel. So much for ‘name it and claim it.’ These two believers knew all about the promises of Matthew 10:16 and following. They knew that the Lord does not mind putting His disciples in jeopardy in order to get the Word to people who have no intention of attending your revival meeting.
Do you suppose at some point that night Paul turned to his friend and said, “You know, Silas, I just feel like singing”?
Not hardly. But how he felt had nothing to do with anything.
We would do well to learn that. Rescuing our spiritual lives from bondage to our feelings would be a major step forward for many.
Sometimes we sing because the alternative is to cry. The Psalmist said, “I am in pain and distress…. I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hoofs” (Psalm 69:29-31). Don’t rush past that: I am in pain, so I will sing.
Not everyone can pull that off. Try it sometime. (smiley-face here)
“And the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).
They’re always listening. The world is watching and listening and taking notes on how believers handle the pain and misfortunes of this life. We need to understand that, because this is why the Lord sometimes allows His children to be mistreated. We are bearing a witness to a watching world.
And it’s why we must not falter, why we must get this right.
So, yes, the prisoners were listening to their praise and worship. And someone else was eavesdropping.
The jailer was listening too. We know this because of what he did later.
Sometime during the night, the faithful Lord–the One who never deserts the faithful–sent an angel with a jail-sized earthquake. The building was rattled, walls were busted, and chains were broken. The jailer, suddenly awakened, saw the doors hanging off their hinges and chains sprawled across the floors, and knew he had an empty jail. This was a disaster! So, saving the magistrates the trouble, he was about to fall on his sword. That’s when Paul called out, “Hey buddy! Don’t hurt yourself. Everyone is here. No one has left.” (Acts 16:28)
That was just one more bizarre thing in this night of amazing occurrences to this jailer. He called for a torch (which tells us he had assistants in the building), then rushed in and fell before Paul and Silas. “I want what you have! What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer was the same one you and I quote today when asked that question: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, both you and your household.”
The jailer believed and was saved.
Then, he did the most amazing thing, something that would have gotten him executed a few hours earlier.
He took them out of the prison and down to his house.
He woke up his wife and mother-in-law (okay, just my assumption here). While one bathed the backs of the two preachers and put salve on them, the other cooked breakfast. All the while, the missionaries are telling them about Jesus.
The entire party went down to the same river where Paul had met Lydia a few days earlier and Paul and Silas baptized them.
Then, they came back to the house for a feast.
And then, something else strange happened.
They went back to prison.
THE NEXT MORNING (Acts 16:35-40)
The next morning early, the magistrates sent word to the jailer to let the men go. The jailer, now a brother in Christ, was glad to deliver the news. “Go in peace,” he told them.
“Not so fast,” Paul said. Turning to the officers who had come from the magistrates, he said, “Go back and give your bosses this message: You beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens. Then you threw us into this prison without bringing charges. And now you want us to go quietly? I don’t think so.”
Paul said, “Tell the magistrates they’ll have to come and apologize to us personally before we’ll let them release us. Then, we will allow them to escort us out of the prison.”
When the magistrates heard that news–these men were Roman citizens!–they panicked. Rome demanded that the citizens of this empire be treated according to Roman law. Citizens had rights others did not.
The magistrates could be in big trouble and knew it.
They hurried down to the prison and apologized to the missionaries. They begged them to please leave and not cause any further trouble.
Paul could have insisted on his rights and put the screws to these cowards. However, he agreed to allow them to escort him and Silas out of town. Their presence would also protect them from any random mob action left over from the evening before.
But before leaving town, they made a side trip.
“They went to Lydia’s home.” This was where the fledgling church was meeting. No doubt Paul had two things in mind: One, he wanted to say his good-byes and issue the kind of charge he frequently gave to young churches (see Acts 14:21-23). “There, they met with the brethren and encouraged them.”
And two, Paul wanted the church to know about the jailer and his household. Someone would need to seek out these new believers and invite them to this little gathering.
“Then they left.”
It’s a great chapter, a wonderful story. But only by camping out on it do we see the various movements and appreciate the scenes.
Enjoy the Scriptures. There is nothing else in the world like them.