It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ. People from different backgrounds, with different stories. Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely!
One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe. We are thankful they did! Their first stop was Philippi.
In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God. In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.
The first person we read about is Lydia. She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth). Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river. (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.) We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord. It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!
In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach. The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God. What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!
The second person we read about is the slave girl. This girl must have had a horrible life. She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers. The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul. Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit. We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.
Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias. So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage. Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee. And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church. What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!
The third person we read about is the jailer. This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony. He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible. This man would be hard to reach. Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.
Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas. They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob. They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods. Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it. Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up. Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about. And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task. But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail. They were all still there, after all. And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!
If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power? Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas? God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night. Why? Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god. Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love.
As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion. They chose to stay in that cell. Their suffering was somehow voluntary. That blew the circuits of his hard old heart. Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!
We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ. The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer. Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are! Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple. And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.
There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible. But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s. He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts. If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.