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Amnesty

A brief sermon on Acts 16.16-34 on the occasion of July 4 celebrations


by Tim Gallant

Dear friends, brothers and sisters,

This story brings a lot of interesting and important issues before us. Issues of ultimate reality, issues that deal with politics and suffering. And matters of how we ourselves stand in relation to "the big picture."

In these few verses, God announces who is really in charge. The gospel - the good news - challenges the established order of things. God shows that His power is greater than man's. And through His apostle, He brings amnesty - salvation.

1. This world has an established order. Established things are often very comfortable. We like their predictability. We like the familiarity.

And Paul and Silas sweep into Philippi and upset the apple cart. In a world of incantations and soothsaying, they have the nerve to say without soothing, to cast out the demon of this servant girl.

And that affects the world. It affects people where they often have their biggest idols - their pocketbooks.

The gospel, you see, is not about some invisible spirituality that doesn't affect anyone else, as if it were simply there to make me feel good.

The gospel changes the world. It changes the world of this young servant girl; and it changes the world of her owners, and they are angry. We read in verse 19, "when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities."

And we've heard what happens. They pit what Paul and Silas are doing over against the established order in Philippi. What Paul and Silas teach is "not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe."

The authorities are enraged, and so is everyone else. "Justice" is served in the form of a violent beating and throwing them into the deepest prison, with their feet in the stocks.

The gospel challenges the established order. And when I say, it "challenges," that challenge entails that those in the establishment take offense. In the world of the first-century Roman empire, it means that Caesar and those who speak for him are not happy. It means that those whose way of life is entrenched in the empire, like these men who are making their fortunes off the misfortune of this demon-possessed servant girl - the gospel doesn't make them happy either.

This is the Fourth of July weekend - a time when we celebrate the Independence and freedom of our nation. There is nothing wrong with that. What we have in this nation is a gift, that we can worship freely and openly. We ought to be profoundly thankful for it.

But we need to be able to separate the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God in our minds. This is always the case. And it is increasingly crucial as we watch our nation slouch further and further and further away from the Bible. We can expect that if we are faithful to the gospel of Paul and Silas - the gospel of Jesus Christ - people are going to be offended. The gospel sets things right. And that means that those who have a stake in things not being set right are going to be upset. The gospel challenges the established order.

2. But the gospel does not only challenge; it does not only introduce conflict. The gospel is the good news of God's triumph, of His power, and that power is greater than the established order it is challenging. We can see this superiority in a couple of ways in our passage.

We can see it in the subjective faith of Paul and Silas. Here they are in prison. In a prison in Philippi, a Roman colony - a city that is perhaps "more Roman than Rome." And there, in that prison, their backs are broken open with wounds from being beaten with rods.

Doesn't it look like Caesar is Lord, as he himself proclaims? Doesn't it look like the established order has won, as it almost always seems to do?

But what are Paul and Silas doing? According to verse 25, "at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them."

What do they know that the authorities do not?

They know that Jesus is Lord. They know who is on the throne.

And they are vindicated in that confidence, because God sends a great earthquake that shakes the prison so dramatically that everything comes loose; all the prisoners' chains fall off.

God is not just more powerful than the Philippian jailer; He is more powerful than the mighty Roman empire; in fact, He is Lord of "nature," and it obeys Him.

If you're like me, I suspect that there are times that you are frustrated by your circumstances. There are times that you feel someone has done you an injustice. There are times when you feel trapped in some way or other.

You need to know that Jesus is Lord. You need to know that the power of the gospel is greater than every power that belongs to this earth. God will do what is right.

3. But if you do not belong to His kingdom, what then? If you do not submit to Jesus as Lord, what then?

That is precisely the terror of the Philippian jailer. First, he wakes up and sees what the earthquake has done, and his only thought is his honour in the eyes of the established order. And so he is going to do himself in.

But when Paul calls out and says, "Do yourself no harm; we are all here," the jailer recognizes this isn't just some freak of nature; he recognizes that what is at work here is something bigger than the gods he has been serving. There is a power and authority that challenges the power and authority which he has been serving. He sees the writing on the wall.

And so he rushes in to that inner cell trembling. And verse 30 says, "And he brought them out and said, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'"

It is probably not possible for us to hear that question the way the jailer intended it. The jailer had never heard Billy Graham. The jailer did not live in a Christian culture that used "salvation" as a buzzword. No, "salvation" was a word that belonged to the empire. It wasn't a private word about one's inner life. It was the language that described the peace and security that the great emperors brought. In fact, at least one of the emperors liked to style himself "our Lord and Saviour."

This is not to say that "salvation" was not a "religious" term. Rather, the living emperors were called "sons of the gods," and were thought to become gods upon death. The servant girl in verse 17 had been crying out, "These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation." So the point is not that salvation has nothing to do with God or with faith. The point, rather, is that salvation is political language; it is empire language, and it comes into the space occupied by Caesar.

So when the jailer trembles before Paul and Silas and asks, "What must I do to be saved?" he is recognizing the authority greater than Rome's. He knows that when kingdoms come into conflict, there is a winner and there is a loser. And having just imprisoned the emissaries of this King Jesus, he is terrified. "What must I do to be saved?" "How can I be spared from the judgment that the King greater than Caesar is sure to bring? How can I 'get on board?'"

There is so much wrapped up in this question. It is first of all a plea for amnesty. If two countries are at war, and someone from the country losing the battle wants to jump ship, they plead for amnesty: "What must I do to be saved? What must I do to switch sides; what must I do to cease being your enemy?"

That, then, is where forgiveness comes in. The jailer is saying: "I've been serving another power, and I have been rebelling against the power of King Jesus. How can I escape the consequences, the judgment, for that?"

And what is the answer? How is the jailer granted this amnesty?

"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (verse 31). Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words: confess that, not Caesar, but Jesus the Messiah of Israel, is the Lord - the Master.

It seems like an absurd proposition, and it is mocked to this day. "What? Believe that some Jewish teacher who managed to get himself hung on a Roman cross - is King of the world? Come on!"

But the resurrection of Jesus that Paul and Silas preached was Jesus' vindication as Lord of the world, and it is that resurrection power that has swept into Philippi; and it is that resurrection power that has swept the world in the two thousand years since. Jesus is Lord. Not the Pentagon, not the Supreme Court. And not Almighty Dollar. Jesus is Lord.

And when you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, what is the result? "You will be saved, you and your household." King Jesus grants amnesty to you and yours. He takes you from being citizens of a kingdom at war with Him, and makes you and your family citizens in His own kingdom - the winning kingdom, the kingdom of justice and peace that is in the process of making things right, of doing what Greece and Rome and the great empires of the world could never do.

Whatever kingdom it is that you are serving - whether it is some manmade ideal, whether it is the United States of America, whether it is your own bank account or your own pleasure: Jesus is Lord, and all of these things are going to come into His judgment. It is time to seek amnesty. Believe on Jesus Christ as the Ruler of all, and you will be saved, both you and yours.

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