What Happens When I’m Mistreated?
Summary: Paul and Silas were not looking for conflict but when it came, their Christ-centered response brought salvation and encouragement to many.
I find it absolutely stunning how God is directing our studies on Sunday morning, how the events we see in Scripture line up so well with the things we experience in life.
Last week, we had the option to return for worship in person, and it was a divisive issue – some people were excited to come, others felt like they should stay home. We all agree on the importance of church and worship, but we have different thoughts on where and how we should be doing that right now.
And then our study of Scripture had us in Acts 15 where two Christians leaders had a difference of opinion and we were able to consider how they handled it.
Well, this week our nation has been rocked by peaceful protests as well as chaotic riots in response to the brutal treatment and death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. And this week in Scripture we find Paul and Silas unjustly accused, brutally mistreated, and wrongfully imprisoned.
So let me warn you up front – at some point in this sermon, I may disappoint you. You may think I went too far, or you may think I should have said more. I want to encourage you though, don’t listen to see whether I’m on your team or not, we should not be coming to church to see if “they” think what I think. We should be coming to church to see what God thinks and that’s going to challenge us at times. It’s going to stretch us at times, because chances are really good that Jesus doesn’t fit very well on your team. It’s supposed to be the other way around – we’re supposed to be on His team.
So I’m going to do my best to look at Scripture with you, and offer some thoughts on what this might mean for all of us today when we are facing big issues, complex, thick and thorny issues, and they’re divisive issues, so there are forces at work, right now, seeking to exploit them – to drive us even farther apart than we already are.
But I need to confess something before we start: I know the Scripture, I stand upon it, I know what it says, but I don’t have a complete understanding of all these issues or their history, especially when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity, my thoughts are not shaped by a particular ideology or perspective – my thoughts on identity are shaped by my own identity, as a pastor.
You see, although I don’t understand the full history of racial tension in the United States or the merits of claims of systemic racism, what I do understand is this: there are people in our church who love Jesus and love the Bible, they gather to worship with us, serve with us, this is their church and they love it, but they are devastated by issues related to the color of their skin that I have not, and still do not, fully understand. I don’t know what it feels like to be a black man or woman in this nation, but I’m starting to understand, just barely, that it means a whole lot more than I ever realized.
And because of my ignorance, I’m probably going to say something the wrong way at times, I’m not going to make the perfect connections at times, for that, I ask for your patience and forgiveness.
And for anyone who might say, why is he making a big deal out of this, why is he talking so much about it, are we becoming an activist church? I say no. This isn’t about activism, it isn’t really even about politics for me, it’s about people.
It’s about trying to understand the people that God has brought to worship with us and to push past everyone’s happy Sunday face and get to the real struggles, issues, and feelings they live with daily. That’s not just a racial issue, it’s for all of us – the city we live in teaches us to put on our perfect, polite, DC face and pretend like we’ve got everything under control, when sometimes, we don’t.
And we have to find ways to admit that. We have to find ways to be open and real with each other, to help and encourage one another, to point one another to Christ. Because, what we all really want in life is to be seen, heard, and if possible, understood or at least acknowledged and I’m not sure the busy pace of this city lets us do that well. But we need to try.
I’m not going to understand all of your issues, and you’re not going to understand all of mine, we’re not going have all the answers for each other. But we can point one another to Jesus, who does. We can encourage one another in the faith. And we can care.
We can ask each other – how are you doing, what are you struggling with, and let people respond honestly, and not think less of anyone for it.
So, with all that said, with my inadequacies confessed, let’s turn to Scripture and see what we can learn about responding to mistreatment by others.
When we jump in, Paul and Silas are in Philippi, near the coast of modern Greece, they’ve come to share the story of Jesus, who He is and what He is done. Lydia, a successful businesswoman, just became a Christian and has opened up her home for use in ministry.
Acts 16:16 Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. 17 This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” 18 And this she did for many days.
But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour.
The girl was possessed by a spirit and would predict the future.
That sounds strange to us, but in Greek and Roman culture people who could tell the future, were extremely important, they were called oracles and they were consulted before making all kinds of decisions from personal issues in daily life to strategic decisions like whether or not to wage war on behalf of the empire.
Obviously, if you had someone who could do this, you could make a great deal of money charging others for the chance to ask their questions.
Well, this girl apparently became a nuisance to Paul and Silas, following them around announcing that they were declaring the way of salvation through the “Most High God” which was confusing, because that term meant different things to different people. The Jews referred to YHWH as the “Most High God,” but the Greeks and Romans used the same term to refer to Zeus. So, whose salvation is she announcing?
Now, I don’t want to be super weird or mystical here, but the Bible is pretty clear, from front to back, that there really are spiritual forces at work in the world. In fact, years after these events, Paul will write to Timothy with guidance on how to best pastor the church and he’ll tell him to be on guard against deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1).
So, what might this unseen world look like today? We can’t say with certainty, but is it possible that some of the evil we see in the world is demonically directed and encouraged? I have no problem believing it is, because that’s the world I see in Scripture and I don’t understand where or how all these things just went away because we have iPhones and wi-fi now.
But, I also see throughout Scripture that God is greater than any other spirit or demon, and here He gives Paul the power to cast one out. But then how did her owners respond?
19 But 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.
They were only interested in her so long as she brought them a profit. What does this say about the way we treat others? Has the passage of time changed much of this? Her masters used her, as a slave, for their own profit and then turned on the men who threatened that profit. This is what real people, ordinary people, can be like if we are not constrained by the great commandment to love God and love others.
20 And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; 21 and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.”
The owners of the girl grab Paul and Silas and rush them to the central marketplace which included a raised platform area where the two magistrates of the town sat and governed. Here they incite a crowd and throw charges against Paul and Silas that have nothing to do with reality. They make no mention of the girl, or the exorcism, or the fact that their little commercial enterprise has been destroyed – instead they throw out these false charges and the crowd goes along with it all and a lynch mob starts to form.
22 Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. 23 And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
So, an angry mob forms and begins to riot until the magistrates, the rulers of the city, take control of the situation and order punishment on the spot. They have Paul and Silas stripped down and beaten publicly.
We aren’t sure how many times they were beaten but we can be certain they received serious injuries and had definite wounds. According to one commentator, “[their backs were] reduced to a sticky, swollen mass of lacerated skin and dried blood.” And then their legs were put in stocks so they couldn’t lie down without laying on their wounds. According to 2 Cor 11:25 Paul went through this three times in his life in addition to all kinds of other hardships.
And keep this in perspective – less than an hour ago, Paul and Silas were on their way to prayer. They weren’t looking for trouble. They weren’t looking for conflict. They didn’t know they would wind up in custody and covered with blood. But now, here they are, sitting in jail, their backs are a bleeding, stinging mess, their feet are in the stocks, they have suffered injustice at the hands of the government which should exist for the good of the people, and what do they do? They sing praise to God:
25 But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
Friends, sometimes life brings injustice your way. Sometimes life brings pain your way. It can come from many different sources, and it can take many different forms. It can be a brief, overwhelming, stabbing, moment of pain or it can be a persistent, plaguing, smoldering kind of pain that is always there, just under the surface of your life, something you endure daily. It can take many forms, but pain does, and pain will come into your life.
When it does, you have a couple of choices of how to respond.
You can lash out in anger. You can hit back. And I think that’s some of what we see when protests turn violent. There is no doubt that protests draw some truly malicious people who see this as an opportunity to break some windows and steal some stuff – a protest provides cover for the criminal actions they already conceived in their heart. But what about all the others?
There is talk of professional agitators and people from “out of town” who come stir up protests. That may be true, but don’t stop there. Don’t write everything off because of that. Ask yourself – if this is actually happening, what are these professional agitators able to stir? The answer is, they’re stirring the very real pain of otherwise normal people, weaponizing it, shaping it, and encouraging normal, good, people to lash out. Because that is an ordinary reaction to pain.
We’ve had a string of babies born during this pandemic and several of them endured complications requiring a longer stay than any mom or dad hopes for. When you first learn something might be wrong with your child, there is a sense of fear and concern, but as a day or two goes by and things seem to be going well, the child seems to be improving, you’re looking forward to that discharge and the doctor tells you “we’d like to keep him for another night, just to make sure,” your pain can quickly become anger and frustration.
Our oldest started off life with a trip to the ICU and when the doctor told me in the hall that they wanted to keep him a little longer, and it had already been several days, I just about lost it. I’m not a criminal, I’m not a doctor-hater, I don’t thrive on conflict. But I was in pain and my first response was a sense of rage directed at the man making the decision – I had been pushed to a breaking point by all the other events leading up to that moment. Do you see how otherwise ‘good’ people can be provoked by a string of disappointments?
Pain can also produce withdrawal; instead of lashing out, you pull in. All the explosive power of anger is directed inward and pulls you into a dark cave of pain, frustration, and despair – everything is going wrong and there’s no way to fix it. There are seasons and moments of life when you feel like you’re being dragged into a dark cave and if you don’t fight it, you will go in – not because you want to, not because you said, “oh look a cave of depression and despair, let’s go exploring!” but because you were pulled in. You saw it happening, felt it, and did not or could not fight it.
So, pain can make us lash out, it can make us turn into ourselves and our thoughts and emotions, but there is a third option – the one taken by Paul and Barnabas – to look up with praise and prayer, dragging our pain into the presence of God.
So let’s talk about that: how can you drag your pain into the presence of God? And the answer is, through prayer and praise.
In prayer you lay things out – this is what’s happening God, this is how I feel about it, this is what I wish You would do. And then in praise I remember the truth of what He is like, what He has done in the past and what He has promised for the future. I remind myself that everything I knew was true about God in the light, when times were good, is still true right now when my situation seems dark, because God does not change.
And church, this is one reason why it is so important for us to be together: sometimes I need to see you worship. Sometimes I need to see you rejoicing in the truth because I’m being pulled into that cave of darkness. I need to be reminded, by watching you, of what it’s like outside the cave. When you sing, when you worship, when you engage on Sunday morning or any other time we gather, you testify to struggling Christians and a wondering world, that YES, this is real, and good, even when it’s hard.
And people need to see that. There are times when you’ll need to see it yourself. The people around Paul and Barnabas saw it, and it caught their attention as we’ll see in a moment, but first, there’s yet another crisis.
26 Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken (Earthquakes were actually common in the area, ancient historical sources tell us about several, so this isn’t an unheard-of event); and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.
27 And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
According to Roman Law, a jailer was responsible for the security of his prisoners and could pay for their escape with his own life.
29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
After seeing what these men have been through and seeing how they responded to it, the jailer is stirred.
Let me say this as clearly as possible: their reaction to an unjust, unwanted, situation led others to Christ.
God took their mistreatment and redeemed it, took the injustice they experienced and turned it around as a weapon against the system of oppression and breathed new life into dead souls bringing salvation to the jailor and his family. It’s the ultimate act of spiritual sabotage, it’s the ultimate counter-strike on the soul.
The man asks: what must I do to be saved?
It’s a beautiful question. And look at the simple answer: Believe in the Lord Jesus. Lord because He is master, submit to His authority. And Lord Jesus because we’re talking about this very specific person born in Bethlehem, crucified on Calvary – believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.
The answer is short but sweet and very, very true. Nothing else is added to the gospel. This is all we need in order to be cleansed and made whole. It just doesn’t seem right on the one hand, but nothing else would work, only God can save us.
The jailer understood this and he and his entire family surrendered their lives to Jesus. And then he did something absolutely incredible – he washed the wounds of Paul and Silas.
And here is where I have been stuck this week, trying to see and understand more of this in my mind – if I had a time machine, this is a moment I want to go to. Because this is a picture of gospel-soaked, grace-saturated, real and true, reconciliation in so many directions all at once. There is so much happening I just want to sit and stare at it for hours.
Paul and Silas were wrongfully seized, beaten, and jailed. They’ve got a grievance against the government, but also against God – how could You let this happen to us, we were on our way to pray?
But now, they’re baptizing a whole family of new believers who were brought to faith by Paul and Silas enduring this mistreatment. They have wounds, real wounds, inflamed, swollen, perhaps with the early stage of infection setting in, dried blood, broken skin, and now a man directly affiliated with the institution responsible for those wounds is humbly washing the wounds and feeding the men a meal at his own table. God has redeemed their suffering and used it for an eternal good – which sounds a lot like what happened with Jesus.
And then you have this hardened man, hardened in part by the things he’s seen, the men he’s met, the crimes he’s learned of. Those involved in law enforcement, investigation, prosecution, and incarceration can become jaded because they’ve seen the worst of humanity and it affects them.
It’s hard to ask someone to be on the lookout for criminals, insurgents, or terrorists all day long and then not be suspicious of people too. It’s hard to take someone who knows what kind of evil human beings are capable of, because they’ve seen it, investigated it, responded to it, and then tell them to believe the best about everyone. It’s not entirely fair to use someone as a hammer against the evils of the world and then blame them for being so hardened.
My wife is a nurse, but the bulk of her career has been spent in ICU settings, she’s used to seeing the worst-case scenarios. That’s good in some ways, she sees and suspects things others would not. But it’s bad in others, because critical is her normal. She suspects the worst because it’s what she’s used to seeing. Her narrow focus on ICU patients, which is good, rolls over into how to she sees all patients.
Now, think about how that same process might affect your view of people if you spend all day chasing or guarding bad guys and girls, would it be easy to grow calloused and cold? Absolutely.
And yet, the grace of the gospel just bored a hole right through the callouses on the heart of the Philippian jailer and he asks the men he has imprisoned to wash him with water too. He washes their physical wounds and they symbolically wash away his sins.
My friends, this is real reconciliation. Not forced. Not legislated. Not mandated. Genuine. Durable. Real. Because it happened first in the hearts of people surrendered to God.
And then, justice comes too.
35 And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.”
36 So the keeper of the prison reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace.”
37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.”
So, you need to know that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. And citizenship came with rights. You could be beaten, but not without a trial. And the penalty for falsely claiming citizenship was death. So, this deprivation of justice was bad for the magistrates, they could lose their position, and it was even possible for the entire colony to lose it’s official status. Rome took citizenship seriously, and two citizens have just been mistreated.
38 And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. 39 Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.
Now, this is important – Paul and Silas leave on their own terms. They leverage their suffering, they leverage their mistreatment, to provide a sort of shelter for the other new Christians in town. If the magistrates cause any problems for the Christians, they can bring up the way the magistrates mistreated Roman citizens. Once again, God is redeeming the mistreatment, injustice, and pain Paul and Silas endured.
There’s a lot to think about here, and I told you in the beginning, I don’t have all the answers about exactly what this means for our current cultural moment, but I can point you to the One who does. He’s the same God that Paul and Silas turned to when they had been mistreated and suffered a brutal injustice, the one they prayed to and praised. He’s the One who renewed a jailer’s cold and calloused heart and brought life to an entire family. He’s the One who suffered so much mistreatment and brutal injustice at the hands of the authorities for us. He is the One who will bring ultimate and eternal justice for all. His name is Jesus Christ and He is Lord.
We are going to celebrate His death, burial, and resurrection now with communion.