32/97 28.9.97 Scripture: Acts 16:11-34
LAST year Beverley and I attended the World Convention of Churches of Christ, held in Calgary, Canada. There I delivered the prestigious Jessie Bader Lectures on Evangelism. In 1980, my distinguished predecessor, Sir Alan Walker, delivered the lectures at an earlier convention in Hawaii.
One feature of such a world convention is meeting old and new friends from among the thousands of people present from the 158 countries where Churches of Christ are found. We expected to meet many old friends among the 200 Australians who travelled to Calgary, but what we did not expect to find were so many old friends from our teenage years. Here were many of the people we had looked up to as our youth club and youth camp leaders. Most of them are ten years older than us and have now just retired and travelled together to the World Convention. Many of them had been our mentors when Beverley and I were regarded as up and coming youth leaders. We spent much time together over meals and in supper after the programs had concluded just taking up where we had left over thirty five years earlier.
Time had separated us because of our work, but we still felt united in one spirit because of our mutual commitment to Jesus Christ. I noticed several things in particular: We were all still happily married to our partners of our youth. We all looked back on a rich life of serving others. We were all actively involved in a local church. We all had rich lives following Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. We had all been converted to Christ and life was wonderful.
There are many remarkable stories of lives being changed, converted and enriched in the Bible. At Pentecost, 3000 were converted. Not long afterwards, the number of men who now believed Jesus had reached 5000. Large numbers were converted in Samaria. Simon the Sorcerer asked for prayer. The treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia was baptised, and Saul of Tarsus was converted.
People came to the Lord in Lydda and Joppa, Cornelius the Roman became a Christian. Greeks entered the church, the Governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, joined them. As well, there were Gentiles in Antioch and young Timothy in Ephesus. In the passage of Scripture before us, we read of three more conversions and each is different. Dr Luke, who has now joined Paul and Silas writes: "From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days." You can visit the places where those conversions occurred: to the river where Paul baptised Lydia; to the arena where there was a riot over a slave girl; and to the ruins of the gaol in which Paul was a prisoner. I have visited all three sites. The three conversions took place over a couple of days and were quite dis-similar.
1. DISTINCTIVE CONVERSIONS
First, there was Lydia. She was a business woman and highly cultured. She came from Turkey, but was in Philippi, engaged in dyeing and selling the expensive cloth that was prized by rich Romans and members of the Senate. The dye was manufactured from the murex shell-fish. The shell was drilled and a small gland extracted. When crushed this gland produced a purple dye. Millions of shells litter the Mediterranean today.
Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman with a profitable trade. A God-fearing woman, she met with other women every Sabbath beside the river, for prayer. "On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. `If you consider me a believer in the Lord,' she said, `come and stay at my house.'" Here was the conversion of a good, intelligent woman of culture and business success.
Afterwards a different conversion involved a demented and deranged Greek slave. She told fortunes and a couple of men used her in a side-show to gain money from those who listened to the weird things she would tell as their fortunes.
The men exploited this wretched slave girl. "Once," wrote Luke, "when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, `These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.'" For once, the demented girl was right. She knew the nature of ministry. "She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, `In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!' At that moment the spirit left her."
In the rumpus that followed, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison. "When the owners of the slave girl realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, `These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.' The crowd joined in the attack. `The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the gaoler was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.'"
There the third remarkable conversion occurred. A man, not an upper-class person like Lydia, nor a slave, but a middle-class Roman Public servant, the Governor of the prison. Usually, this meant a retired Centurion. His staff included some police called "lictors", from which comes the phrase, "I'll give you a good licking." The lictor carried over his shoulder a large bundle of rods with an axe. This symbol of the lictor's office, could easily be undone to give you a good licking then and there!
Paul and Silas received a good licking, then thrown into prison. Despite the fact that their backs were beaten 39 times with the rods, and their skin was lacerated, they were forced to sit upright all night with their legs in stocks, with both ankles crammed together in one hole. Then follows some of the most remarkable verses in Scripture.
"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." Despite their pain, Paul and Silas were praying and singing! How could these men be defeated who were so confident of the presence of God! They defied their predicament. Then came an earthquake, common to Macedonia. "Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose. The gaoler woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, `Don't harm yourself! We are all here!'"
The Order of Justinian declared any Roman public servant in charge of a prison who allowed prisoners to escape, had to forfeit his own life. So he took his short sword, 15 inches long and placed it under the fifth bottom rib and was about to simply fall on it. "But Paul shouted, `Don't harm yourself! We are all here!' `The gaoler called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, `Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' They replied, `Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household.' Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house."
2. DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS
Look closely at these three people who were converted. They were of three nationalities. Lydia was Asian, the girl Greek, the man Roman. They came from three socio-economic classes. Lydia was upper-class, the gaoler middle-class, and the slave girl was from the lowest class.
The conversions came in three different circumstances. Lydia's came quietly alongside the river as she prayed. The slave girl was in the midst of a busy street in the middle of arguments and confrontation. The gaoler was in a prison at midnight during an earthquake. There were three different times: one was early in the morning, one was in the afternoon, the third at midnight. There were three different effects: Lydia opened her house in hospitality, the slave girl changed her job, her masters, and her habits, and the gaoler washed the wounds of his prisoners.
Although these conversions are different from one another, God is in the people-changing business. This is God's work: to change people, to take us as we are and make us what He intended. We do not have to stay the way we are. God can help us become what He wants us to be.
Usually, people only change for the worse, they do not change for the better. But God can change us for the better. He took a good woman like Lydia and made her a better woman. He took a poor lost slave girl and gave her a new hope and purpose. He took a gaoler, full of cynicism and cruelty, and changed him into a man of compassion. It always starts with God. The initiative is with God, but the response of faith and commitment is ours.
3. ESSENTIAL RESPONSES
There must be a response of personal belief. You must respond to what God has been doing. The gaoler asked a question "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas answered, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household."
Next there must be a response of open commitment. This is seen in a commitment in words and in the act of baptism. "At that hour of the night the gaoler took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptised."
These responses lead to changed lives. We saw the change in Lydia and in the slave girl. Now we see it in the gaoler, in caring for the men who had been punished so severely. "The gaoler brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God--he and his whole family."
These are three beautiful experiences out of the history of the early church. Three separate conversions, from different backgrounds, but similar in the essential responses to the influence of God's Spirit.
The Spirit is certainly moving in your life. Perhaps you have felt Him working quietly from within while you are beside some stream of devotion, or in some city street among those who are put down or exploited, or perhaps at midnight in the throes of some physical or spiritual convulsion. The Holy Spirit is surely seeking a response. Your response needs to be in a statement of personal belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, and in an open commitment seen in your act of baptism. Your conversion is complete.
Nothing is more wonderful than to find your life changed for the better. The years may go by but from the time of conversion your life will only grow better, with more confidence in the presence and goodness of God.
Send an e-mail to Gordon Moyes
Return to TRA home page