Welcome to week 7 of our series, “How it started / How it’s going,” looking at the story of the early church in the book of Acts.
So far we’ve seen how God’s Holy Spirit was planted within followers of Jesus, and how now God’s restoring presence was flowing out of them and transforming lives.
Including the life of a man named Saul, a violent, judgmental Pharisee who goes on to become one of the leaders in the Church - the Apostle Paul.
The second half of the book of Acts follows Paul on what are traditionally called his “missionary journeys,” where he travels all over the Roman Empire planting churches and teaching anyone who will listen about Jesus.
There are so many little moments and stories we could dig into, but today I want us to just touch on one of them. Paul’s first visit to the city of Philippi. Because in many ways it encapsulates the high and low points of all these journeys for Paul.
And, importantly for us, it gives us a glimpse at what it means to listen to the voice of God’s Holy Spirit and follow him where he sends us.
So please turn to
We’re picking up in the middle of what’s called Paul’s second missionary journey. Paul and his companion, Silas, are traveling through what is today Western Turkey.
Next Paul and Silas traveled through the area of Phrygia and Galatia, because the Holy Spirit had prevented them from preaching the word in the province of Asia at that time. Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. So instead, they went on through Mysia to the seaport of Troas.
That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there.
Here we get a glimpse into an important aspect of Paul’s missionary journeys: the fact that he and his companions weren’t out to execute some master church planting strategy. Instead, they allowed God’s Spirit to guide them at every step.
For example, in verses 6 & 7, the Spirit “prevents” Paul from going to the province of Asia and Bithynia. We have no idea what this means.
Was it some kind of opposition? A bad feeling? A prophecy? Did their donkey keep tripping over rocks every time they turned in that direction? We don’t know.
All we know is that the Spirit closed the door to where they thought they were going and pointed them in a different direction.
What’s interesting is that God’s Spirit calls Paul to cross the Aegean Sea and head over into Macedonia through a vision. He communicates that way sometimes.
But notice something in verse 10. “We concluded that God was calling us to preach in Macedonia.” In other words, this was a communal decision. Paul didn’t just take a leap in the dark because of a dream he had.
He and his companions spent time in prayer, they used spiritual discernment like my dad talked about last week, and then they decided that God was calling them to go.
File this away: God’s Spirit may speak to us in many different ways - a word, a vision, maybe even a tripping donkey… but we hear his voice most clearly when we discern it in community.
Oh, and one other small detail. Do you see how it says “we” now instead of “they?” Most likely this is because Luke himself (the author of Acts) actually joined Paul for a bit at this point. He was with them when they arrived at the Roman colony of Philippi.
Let’s read what happens next.
On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. She and her household were baptized, and she asked us to be her guests. “If you agree that I am a true believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my home.” And she urged us until we agreed.
I so wish I could have been flies on the wall in Lydia’s house. This wealthy gentile woman (probably a widow) was now hosting the very first church on the European continent in her home.
What did they talk about? How did they spend their time?
All we know is that the Church in Philippi was really special to Paul, and even though he didn’t spend a ton of time there, he absolutely loved these new brothers and sisters in Jesus. Years later, in a letter he wrote to them, Paul said,
It is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart.
He didn’t say that in any of his other letters! The Spirit had led Paul to Philippi, and now he was surrounded by some of the dearest friends he would ever have as the message of Jesus began to grow.
Unfortunately, things didn’t stay rosy forever. At one point while he was in Philippi, Paul commanded an evil spirit to leave a young slave girl he encountered.
The only problem… She was a big moneymaker for her masters, because the spirit allowed her to predict the future. They’d hire her out as a fortuneteller. Now that the spirit was gone, they weren’t happy about this loss of income, so they reported Paul and Silas to the authorities. Things go south quickly.
A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So the jailer put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.
Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off! The jailer woke up to see the prison doors wide open. He assumed the prisoners had escaped, so he drew his sword to kill himself. But Paul shouted to him, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights and ran to the dungeon and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he 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, along with everyone in your household.” And they shared the word of the Lord with him and with all who lived in his household. Even at that hour of the night, the jailer cared for them and washed their wounds. Then he and everyone in his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he and his entire household rejoiced because they all believed in God.
I love this plot twist. The same jailer who put Paul and Silas in chains is suddenly bathing their wounds. This man who was once obeying the city authorities without question, is now submitting his life to Jesus and being baptized.
Just like with Paul’s own story, this man who was once standing in the way of God’s messengers, was now joining in their mission.
And I can just imagine the next time all the Christians were gathering at Lydia’s house, this jailer showed up with his family. “Hi, I’m Keith. The jailer.”
The Church in Philippi had grown. Not even beatings and jail could prevent Paul’s gospel message from transforming lives. That’s what happens when you walk in Step with the Spirit.
The next morning, the city officials have to come release Paul and Silas because they reveal they are actually Roman citizens, and their imprisonment was technically illegal. It’s a whole scene.
Even though they are freed, the officials plead with them to leave the city.
And so, after one final visit at Lydia’s house, the Spirit leads Paul and Silas on to the next chapter in their journey…
Now, I know we just flew through that story. And there are dozens more just like it in the rest of Acts. So, like I said, this is just a small glimpse at the crazy ups and downs Paul experienced on his missionary journeys. But I think it’s telling.
Think about it. In these few verses we see the gospel triumphing in the Jewish meeting place. It triumphs in the Gentile city. It triumphs in a place of complete Roman power. It overcomes natural and supernatural powers, and brings both men and women into the family of God.
Not only does this story show us how resilient and unstoppable the message of Jesus is, but it gives us insight into what it means to be led by the Spirit of God to bring that gospel message.
If you think about how Paul was led by the Spirit, what you see in this story is that:
Paul set aside his own agenda and went wherever the Spirit sent him. Macedonia? Sure. Philippi? Sure. Jail? Sure.
He responded in faithfulness whatever his circumstances. That’s what led to the good news of Jesus taking root in Philippi. In other words,
Paul jumped in where the Spirit was moving. He didn’t ask the Spirit to bless where he was moving.
This is important for us to understand, because we - as Grace Church and as individuals - we still have the Spirit within us. The same Spirit guiding Paul.
And if we want to see this world healed in Jesus’ name, we’d better learn how to follow his voice.
To that end, I want to give you three reminders about following the Spirit – about jumping in where he’s moving - that come right out of this story.
My encouragement is for us to put these ideas into practice. If we do, I believe we’ll be able to experience some of the same wonder and awe that was driving these early Christ-followers.
First, a simple reminder but an important one:
Pay attention. The Spirit is speaking.
This is one of the most important things we can learn as Christ-followers, especially today. We live in a time of constant distraction, which makes it really, really hard to hear the voice of God.
But Scripture makes it clear that if we intend to follow Jesus, it isn’t an episodic thing. We don’t just dip our toes into faith in Jesus every now and then.
No! It’s whole life surrender. It’s a lifetime of allowing our Creator to shape us daily into who he has called us to be.
Paul understood this. In his letter to the church in Galatia, he said,
Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.
Every part. Our jobs, our families, our free time, our relationships, our plans…
God’s Spirit is speaking to transform all of it. Are we paying attention to what he’s saying?
I mean, think about Paul’s journey to Philippi. I’m sure he had grand plans for bringing the gospel to the province of Asia and Bithynia. But look at verse 6 and 7. The Spirit closed those doors and he paid attention to that. He didn’t try to force it.
He paid attention to his vision of the man from Macedonia. Together with his team – again, in community – they discerned that was the Spirit speaking to them through it. So they got on a boat. They paid attention.
Paul followed the Spirit’s leading to tell Lydia about Jesus. He listened to God’s heart to free this slave girl. He even stayed put in jail when his shackles fell off! Because the Spirit was speaking and he was paying attention.
In each of these moments, his attitude was clear: “not my will, but your will be done… God, speak. I’m going to go where you send me.”
That was Paul’s attitude. Is it yours?
Are you paying attention to the Spirit’s voice? Are you listening? Are you asking God who he wants you to be? Where he wants you to go?
Or are all of your prayers asking God to give you what you want?
I’m telling you. If we want this world to change, we’ve got to jump in where the Spirit is moving. And we can only do that if we pay attention to his voice. He’s always speaking. Are we listening?
So. Pay attention. Number 2:
Buckle up. The Spirit doesn’t always work the way we expect.
Part of what it means to jump in where the Spirit is moving is that he may take us some pretty unexpected places.
Again, think about Paul in Philippi. Sharing the gospel with Lydia? That seems like a pretty good plan. She was wealthy, influential… a great place to start.
But being beaten un and thrown in a dark dungeon? Not so much. “Uh, God? What are you up to?”
Now we know the whole story. We know that Paul’s imprisonment led to the salvation of the jailer’s whole household. But think about Paul’s mentality in that moment as he’s being shackled to the wall.
He didn’t know what was going to happen. It would have been easy to assume that God’s plan for Philippi had gone off course.
But Paul didn’t put up a fight screaming about his rights as a Roman citizen.
He also didn’t despair. No! In verse 25 it says Paul and Silas were calmly praying and singing hymns while chained to the wall. That’s not something desperate people do.
They trusted that God knew what he was doing. They were buckled up for the Spirit to work in ways they couldn’t imagine. And guess what. That’s exactly what happened. God did the unexpected. And they were ready for it.
Are you ready for it?
Because as you are paying attention to the Spirit and jumping in where he’s moving, buckle up. The outcome may not always look like success right away. It may not look like victory and winning. That’s not what it means to follow the Spirit.
Do you trust God enough to take you in a direction that feels like failure to the world?
Because look. If you are walking in step with the Spirit and your life is surrendered to Jesus and his plans for you, God will accomplish more through you for his kingdom purposes than you could ever dream.
But buckle up. You might not see the whole picture right away.
So. Pay attention. Buckle up. And finally,
Take comfort. The Spirit is always moving.
As I mentioned before, the church in Philippi had a really special place in Paul’s heart. It must have been so hard to leave these new friends behind. Verse 40 tells us they didn’t just leave town after the whole jail incident, they went back to Lydia’s house to encourage them and say goodbye.
I can imagine how this felt. When I first spent time with our partner ministry Mission to Ukraine, I found myself unexpectedly bonded to my brothers and sisters in Christ there. I was only there for two and a half weeks that first visit, but we were all weeping when I was saying goodbye.
I bet that’s what happened with Paul.
It would have been so easy in the days afterwards for Paul to despair at the loss of these friends, or to doubt and wonder if he should have done things differently so he could have stayed.
I mean, these were brand new believers. Did he do enough to establish the church there? What if they needed him?
But Paul kept going. Because the Spirit was calling him forward, and he trusted in the fact that the Spirit is always moving. The Church in Philippi was in God’s hands; not Paul’s. He took comfort in that fact.
Many years later, after visiting Philippi one other time, he wrote this to them:
Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.
“I am certain God will continue his work.”
I know some of you are really struggling with things that are out of your hands. Maybe it’s a child who is drifting from the faith. Maybe it’s a parent being sucked into conspiracy theories online. Maybe it’s a friend caught in a self-destructive spiral.
If you’re feeling despair about the situation and you don’t know what to do, take comfort. The Spirit is always working. Even in things that are out of your hands.
You can be certain, as Paul was, that God will continue his work, no matter what your circumstances may be.
Pay attention. Buckle up. And take comfort.
The Spirit is always moving. I say we learn how to jump in and join him.