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God’s Sovereignty & Saving Power in the Midst of Setbacks & Opposition

October 15, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 16:11–23

God’s Sovereignty & Saving Power in the Midst of Setbacks & Opposition – Acts 16:11–23


Will the gospel of Jesus Christ advance without difficulty? No. In fact, we can expect uncertainties & difficulties, hindrances & setbacks, delays & roadblocks; and we can also expect direct and indirect opposition and persecution. That’s what we see in the next leg of the second missionary journey in Acts.

Having received instruction from the Spirit (through a dream vision to Paul) to head for Macedonia for gospel proclamation there, Paul & Silas, along with Timothy & Luke, obediently depart to begin the first missionary work in Macedonia. 

Acts 16:11–24 ESV

11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Here’s where we’re going to go today from the example of these missionaries in Philippi, with the reality of the uncertainties and setbacks with new people in new places, with facing very real spiritual opposition and personal persecution. —> We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to open hearts to receive the gospel. We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to deliver from the forces of evil. We trust in God’s saving power to protect us from harm or sustain us through suffering and injustice.

In new places and with new people…

We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to open hearts to receive the gospel. (vv. 11-15)

What starts out as smooth sailing is soon met with setbacks in Philippi. But here Lydia receives the gospel and becomes not only hostess to the missionaries, but will be an important hostess and patron of the church in this city.

The voyage is literally smooth, [map] as they must have had favorable winds to make it to the island of Samothrace in a single day (stopping overnight due to the dangers of sailing in the dark), and then on to the port city of Neapolis in a single day. They do not stay there, but journey (8-10 miles) immediately to Philippi, the first city where they settle in to proclaim God’s good news through Jesus Christ (“We remained in this city some days.” v. 12b) 

Philippi was a leading city of that district of Macedonia (which was divided into four districts). Thessalonica was the actual capital city of Macedonia, to which they will travel soon enough. Significant to the context of what takes place here, Philippi was a Roman colony (which it had been since BC 31), meaning not only that it had a very Roman flavor and influence, but it was a free city, self-governing and independent of being under the rule of provincial leadership/government.

Just as a healthy reminder that this historical theology deals with real people and real places and real events, in a forthright and accurate manner: [map] “Archaeological remains from Paul’s day testify to the presence of a theater, a large forum (beneath the later 2nd-century-a.d. forum), shops, and two city gates (designated Krenides to the west and Neapolis to the east).” (Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2276.)

According to calculations by Eckhardt Schnabel, “Paul’s mission in Philippi probably took place from August to October in AD 49.” (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Expanded Digital Edition., Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 672.) - That would be 1,974 years ago. The things in the Bible are not moral fables; they are historical events that are continually confirmed as accurate by other literature and archeological finds.

The first setback in Philippi is a more minor one: where to begin gospel proclamation. Their normal practice is to start with Jews and Jewish proselytes, those who fear God and gather regularly in the synagogue, but there does not appear to be an active synagogue in Philippi. (Apparently, “a minimum of ten Jewish men was necessary to constitute a regular synagogue” -Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ac 16:13.) There may not have been a practicing Jewish contingent of even this size.

But, in places where there was no formal synagogue, Paul & Co. knew to look for a place of prayer near water “outside the gate to the riverside.” (probably the Gangites on the west side) (“ritual washing of hands before prayer seems to have been standard in Diaspora Judaism, and excavations show the importance of water to synagogues” -Keener, Ibid.)

On the Sabbath day, they find a group of women who are faithful to gather and pray. (Notice that men are conspicuously absent.)

One of these women, Lydia by name, becomes the first new believer in Philippi. We hear nothing of a husband, but Lydia appears to be well-off and successfully running her own business of selling purple goods (purple was a more rare dye, extracted by harder means, and therefore such purple goods were more high-end and costly). The place she comes from was known for it, Thyatira, from the region of Lydia. Thus her name to those in Philippi may come from this connection. Lydia is also called a “worshiper of God,” which would likely mean she is a God-fearer (from among the Gentiles) and not a Jew. The other ladies present may have been the same.

What should catch our attention is the way her conversion is described: “The Lord opened her heart.” Paul faithfully and obediently preached the gospel, but it was the Lord who gave Lydia the ability to truly hear with the ears of faith. “[John] Stott observes that, ‘although the message was Paul’s, the saving initiative was God’s. Paul’s preaching was not effective in itself; the Lord worked through it. And the Lord’s work was not in itself direct; he chose to work through Paul’s preaching. It is always the same.’” (David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 461.)

Why can we courageously approach new people with the gospel? Why can we confidently proclaim Jesus in new places?

Because we trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to open hearts to receive the gospel.

Lydia demonstrates the validity of her faith, and that of her household, through baptism. Her household likely would have included servants as well as any family members in her care. She further desired to open her home to host these men, and they agreed. We’ll see later that this too is significant because her home becomes the meeting place for the new church in Philippi (v. 40).

Although things began in Philippi with this gospel success, in the next two sections, we observe the missionaries encountering opposition in the form of demonic spiritual activity, and in human greed and self-interest, leading to them suffering physical harm and injustice.

We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to deliver from the forces of evil. (vv. 16-18)

At a subsequent opportunity to go out to that place of prayer by the waters edge, what begins to take place in vv. 16-18 is that a demon-possessed girl continues harassing the missionaries. Even though what she says about them is accurate (“These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”), Paul would not want the gospel of Jesus they proclaim to be associated with this this spirit of divination that is not from God.

This spirit of divination is literally in the text a “spirit of a pythoness.” Darrell Bock explains: “Python” is a reference to the soothsaying divinity, originally conceived of as a snake or dragon that inhabited Delphi, which was originally known as Pythia. […] Priestesses at Delphi were called Πυθίαι (Pythiai). This spirit was said to direct women by overpowering them and allowing them to foretell the future—soothsaying (μαντευομένη, manteuomenē), as here.” (Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 535.)

We are to understand that this powerful evil spirit within her was saying things to people beyond normal human knowledge (predicting the future). Now she was a slave, so her owners were exploiting this demon possession for financial gain.

As the evil spirit in her keeps repeating the activity of following the missionaries and crying out about who they are, Paul becomes increasingly disturbed/troubled by this. When he has had enough, he commands the in the name of Jesus to come out of her. And that is precisely what happens.

Why do we not need to live in constant fear of the deceptive forces of evil?

We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power, and we trust in him to help us distinguish between what is from him and what is not.

This scenario only reinforces our understanding of the underhanded and deceptive schemes that the devil uses. What the demon says is true, but then these believers would become associated with the occult.

Because of the devil’s deceptive scheming, we must be discerning, our theme from the text last week. Especially as it concerns spiritual deception, we can readily understand Spurgeon’s much-quoted statement on discernment: “Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right.”

As we continue, this subtle spiritual opposition now becomes direct confrontation and persecution.

We trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power to protect us from harm or sustain us through suffering and injustice. (vv. 19-23)

Although the missionaries have done this slave girl a kindness by freeing her from demonic oppression, her owners do not see it that way. Their concern is not for the girl but for their loss of income (v. 19).

So they seize Paul and Silas and drag them to the agora, the marketplace, the center of town life. There they can bring their accusation before the rulers, the authorities in the city. We learn in v. 20 that these leaders are the magistrates, who are two appointed officials, standard for a Roman colony.

Paul and Silas are falsely accused as Jews of inciting public upheaval, and secondly of teaching people customs that are not lawful for Romans to accept or practice. Obviously they do not intend public disturbance, but these men are calling it that because they’re angry about their lost income. Paul also would not have considered himself to be teaching some weird, unsanctioned religion, but Jesus as the true fulfillment of the Jewish faith, which was a known and accepted faith in the Roman empire. What’s makes this even more obvious is that “The Most High God” referenced by the demon-possessed girl was known to be the God of the Hebrews. So the point is that they are falsely accused.

(Apparently Timothy and Luke escape this treatment either because they are not the leading voices or because they are not predominantly Jewish). But as the crowd gets drawn into the frenzy, the magistrates decide to disrobe Paul & Silas and have them beaten with rods. (The magistrates had men with them called lictors, who would have carried these rods in bundles to do their bidding.) Although corporal punishment was accepted as a means of warning and deterring citizens, and even as a means to secure evidence (get information out of people), this was a miscarriage of justice because there was clearly no opportunity for a real hearing of witnesses, certainly none in defense of these missionaries.

So they suffer injustice and public shame and physical harm… for proclaiming the gospel, and for freeing a slave girl from satanic bondage. And then they are imprisoned, not knowing what the outcome will be. Of course, what happens next serves to demonstrate again that God has saving power not only over our physical situations but saving power over the hearts of men.

Why don’t we have to fear injustice against us or even physical harm from persecutors?

Nothing can happen to us that God has not ordained. And God has power to deliver us or sustain us in suffering. AND we know that God is not mocked, and that in the end no injustice will go unanswered before him. AND we know that this life is not all that there is; they can hurt and even kill this body, but we are now and will be forevermore in Christ.


The author of this theological history clearly believes that he and we ought to follow the Apostolic example here of trusting in God’s sovereignty and saving power.

It is God who opens hearts to receive the gospel. Can you have courage to speak the truth in love concerning the gospel to people you do not yet really know? Or, what perhaps takes even more courage, to people who do know you? Yes, God opens hearts to receive the gospel. 

Even opposition, whether human or spiritual, is no match for our God. We trust that he can deliver us, and we trust that he knows and does only what is best, even if we should suffer injustice and physical harm. Because God has saved us and made us his own, we trust him completely.

And it is God who has ultimate power and authority over all forces of evil. There is real evil in this world... bound up in the hearts of men, and real Satanic/demonic forces behind much of what is deliberately deceptive evil, to lead people further away from God. But Christ has already proven that God is victorious over evil. By his sacrificial death and resurrection power, Jesus has defeated the stronghold of sin, has defeated the schemes of Satan, and has defeated death itself. These evils are not permanent, and do not have the final say. God has already spoken the final word through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our comfort and confidence is in Him. We are His. Him we proclaim.



Further Discussion:

  • - When struggling with difficult situations and people (that impact you spiritually, physically, & emotionally), what other Scriptures reinforce your trust in God’s sovereignty and saving power?
  • - Talk honestly with others about the answers to the three questions above. How do you pray specifically in each of these types of scenarios?
  • - In what other ways can you relate to the experiences of the characters in this section of Acts 16? Explain how God himself is the sufficient answer to each issue.

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