What can we learn from Acts 16 about the sufficiency and supremacy of the gospel?
Acts 16 marks the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey. After delivering the letter from the Jerusalem Council to the believers in Antioch, Paul decides to revisit those places where he had previously set up churches. Along with Silas he sets out to deliver the letter and encourage those churches. After recruiting Timothy to his mission and having been directed by the Holy Spirit to Philippi in Macedonia, Luke tells the story three very different people and the power of the gospel to unite them.
As apostle to the gentiles, Paul was fervent in his mission to spread the gospel and determined that nothing hinder the advance of the gospel. Having come to Derbe and Lystra, Paul learned of a young disciple named Timothy, who was “well spoken of by the brothers” (Acts 16v12, ESV) and desired that he accompany him on his mission. Paul was aware that bearers of the gospel must back up their proclamation with their reputation. Gault writes “in seeking to communicate the Gospel it is essential to ensure that our conduct is consistent with the faith we profess.” (“Communicating the Gospel”, John Gault) Paul identified in Timothy someone who would not to undermine the message.
Before their journey begins, Paul takes Timothy to be circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16v3, ESV). Bock says that “an uncircumcised son of a Jewish mother was regarded in Judaism as an apostate Jew, a violator of the covenant.” (Bock, Acts p523) Paul knew this would be a stumbling block to the Jews hearing and reception of the gospel. He recognised and taught that circumcision was of no value and indeed to accept circumcision was to make void the gospel. Indeed, he had just come from the Jerusalem council discussing this very topic! However, Paul attached no salvific or spiritual significance to the rite. Rather, this was Paul putting into practice what he taught in 1 Corinthians 9: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews… I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9v20,23, ESV) Paul was passionate that nothing would get in the way of the gospel.
Having travelled to various churches, the Holy Spirit eventually gave Paul a vision of a Macedonian man, urging him to come to help them. Paul concluded this was God’s call to go to Macedonia to preach the gospel. Verse 10 tells us that “immediately we [Paul and his companions] sought to go into Macedonia”. As important as the letter from the Jerusalem council was for the churches, Paul’s immediate priority was to follow God’s call to preach the gospel.
Paul’s missionary priority is also seen on his arrival in the city of Philippi. As was his custom, Paul first seeks out the Jews. On the first Sabbath day, having apparently determined there was no synagogue in the city, Paul goes to a supposed place of prayer. Paul actively seeks out the opportunity to share the gospel. He takes the initiative to engage those in need of the gospel.
The Supremacy of the Gospel
Acts 16:11-34 narrates Paul’s encounters with three very different people. Stott suggests that although the missionaries probably stayed in Philippi for several weeks, and there were likely many more converts, Luke selects these three accounts to “demonstrate how God breaks down the dividing barriers and can unite in Christ people of very different kinds.” (Stott, The Message of Acts, location 4677)
Lydia was from Thyatira, in Asia Minor, a place known for its fine cloths. Evidently, she had come to Philippi as a business woman selling purple cloth and seems to have been well-off, having her own house (Acts 16v15). She was also a “worshiper of God” (Acts 16v14, ESV), a phrase which “often describes former polytheists who become worshippers of the God of Israel, adopt monotheism, and attend the synagogue but do not keep the entire law”. (Bock, Acts, p534)
Compare Lydia with the slave girl described in the second encounter. Not a free-woman but a slave. Not a business woman making money but possessing nothing and being used by slave-owners for their personal gain. Not a God-fearer but having a “spirit of divination” (Acts 16v16, ESV). Although the girl’s conversion is not made explicit, Stott says “the fact that her deliverance took place between the conversions of Lydia and the gaoler leads readers to infer that she too became a member of the Philippian church.” (Stott, The Message of Acts, location 4757)
The final episode Luke relates is with the Philippian jailor. Most likely a Roman, he would have been a polytheist. Stott suggests that he was also socially between the two women, stating: “although he had a responsible post in the local prison, he was still only a subordinate official in government service. One might say that he belonged to the respectable middle class.” (Stott, The Message of Acts, location 4852) Moreover, as a Roman jailer, he would be considered as an enemy of the Jews and Christians.
The Pharisees prayed every morning “Thank you, God, that I am not gentile, a woman, or a slave”. In Acts 16 all three reviled classes are mentioned as the first converts in Europe, demonstrating the all-embracing scope of the gospel and its power to unite all peoples into one body, the church. God is not a respecter of persons. As Paul writes to the Galatians “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal 3:28, ESV) Further, Paul tells us in Romans 1 he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”. (Rom 1:16, ESV) The supremacy of the Gospel overcomes all social, national and religious barriers.
The Sufficiency of the Gospel
We also see in Acts 16 the sufficiency of the gospel message to convert sinners. As “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20, ESV), our primary goal is to simply and clearly explain the gospel and leave the results up to God.
Consider how Paul approached Lydia. After seeking out the group of worshippers at the place of prayer, Paul simply “sat down and spoke to the women who had come together” (Acts 16v13, ESV). God then “opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention” (Acts 16v14, ESV) That Lydia was converted is shown by her consequent baptism. Here, perfectly displayed, is God’s sovereignty to save and man’s responsibility to sow the Word.
As already noted, nothing is explicitly said about the conversion of the slave girl. Paul commands the spirit to leave her “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 16v18, ESV) This is an eminently visible manifestation of the same power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to overcome the “spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV)
Although it took an earthquake and his own fear of death to awaken his need for salvation, the Philippian jailer still needed the same gospel. After asking what he must do to be saved, Paul and Silas respond, “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16v31, ESV) After giving him a short, simple and straight answer, “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” (Acts 16v32, ESV) Again, baptism follows conversion. As with Lydia, the simple, spoken, word of the Gospel was sufficient to save the jailer and his family.
“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17, ESV) The church in Philippi was built on gospel conversations. Motyer says that “of about ninety-seven verbs used in the New Testament for communicating God’s truth - preaching in the broadest sense of the word – at least fifty-six are declarative” (Motyer, Preaching, loc.1149) Those verbs, such as herald, proclaim, teach, speak and chat, highlight the importance of our task to clearly articulate the gospel. We can then rest in God’s sovereignty, knowing that ultimately “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8, ESV)
In Acts 16 we see the power of the gospel, not only to justify, but to sanctify; Lydia shred her house with the missionaries; the jailer, likewise, opened his home to them, washed their wounds and provided a meal. The Philippian church would become a source of great joy to Paul and partnered with him in the gospel through their encouragement, prayers and offerings. It serves as a prime example of the supremacy and sufficiency of the gospel to save, sanctify and unite people from all walks of life.