When’s the last time you found yourself in a dead end? You’re trying to move forward, but it seems that every door is now closed to you, no opportunity has presented itself. You try pushing on one door and it won’t budge. So you try another. And another. You call out to God, “just show me what to do already”. Your issue isn’t obedience - you’ll do whatever it is God’s leads you to - its just that right now you’re stuck. But if you’re in that place long enough, and enough doors close, you might even begin to doubt as to whether you’re even pursuing the right things in the first place. Have you been there?
We find the apostle Paul at that point about halfway through Acts chapter 16. Picking up in the story, for we kind of jumped around a little in the last series, in Acts 13 Barnabas and Paul set out from Antioch on the first missionary journey, during which they preached the gospel and established churches in the region that we know today as southern Turkey, or what was then known as the regions of Galatia, Cilicia and Pamphylia. The mission was a great success, as many Jews, but especially many Gentiles came to the Lord, causing no small debate among the predominantly Jewish churches back in Judea. Upon Paul and Barnabas’ return to Antioch they were sent to a council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, in which the Gentile question was settled once and for all time - that Gentiles are considered fellow members of the household of God and need not convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Paul then revisited the churches he and Barnabas had established, further strengthening the churches and informing them of the result of the Jerusalem council. Timothy joins Paul and Silas in Lystra and they continue to go through Galatia and Phygia, likely pausing at the Antioch church, the furthest West Paul had made it on his first journey. Now let’s pause there a second with Paul and Silas and Timothy, and try to consider their plans moving forward. Directly in front of them, continuing on the very highway is the province of Asia in Western Turkey, with its crown jewel of Ephesus, one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. This region was highly populated and very wealthy, if the gospel could take root there, the mission would be well set up for the lands beyond. It is settled. Asia it is, the westward expansion of the gospel will continue.
Only it doesn’t.
Acts 16:6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.
There are a lot of shut doors in those three verses. They try to go to Asia as planned, and they are forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word of the Lord there. What does that mean? We can’t conclusively know in what way they were forbidden to speak in Asia, but I’d say the best clue lies in the instructions that Jesus gave on numerous occasions to his disciples when he sent them out on mission. In Luke 9 and again in Luke 10 Jesus instructs his disciples to go from town to town, and if you receive a welcome in the town, to stay there and preach the word, but if you cannot find a welcome in the town, to shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against the town, and move on. If that is the case, than this shutting off of Asia was not just the shutting of one door, but the shutting of hundreds of doors in dozens of towns. Have anyone of you been in sales? The hardest thing in sales is when you hit a point in which you can’t face one more rejection, but you have to because if you don’t risk rejection you’ll never make the sale. In any case, it soon becomes clear to Paul that the Holy Spirit has shut them out of Asia for the time being, so they turn toward the north, to Bithynia, and there they face the same rejection. So now they are wedged between two closed doors (which are really hundreds of closed doors) and they continue to travel northeast, fruitlessly until they reach Traos, literally the end of the line. It’s a credit to them that they didn’t give up before then. They kept moving even when all the doors were closed. They kept their trajectory until they heard a word from the Lord, but now they were stopped at the port of Troas. Have you ever been there? Every door has been closed and you don't know what to do? Sometimes God leads you to a direction in which he closes every door, to get you to the next place of direction. Troas is not the end of this journey, its the beginning of a new journey.
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
After all the hundreds of shut doors, God opens a new field. Macedonia, or as we call it today, Greece. I don’t think Paul thought he was ready for Greece. Everything in this chapter suggests that he thought that he was supposed to finish the work in Turkey before moving on, but God had other plans, and now in Troas, the last city in Turkey, God gives the new call, and there is one thing Troas has, and that is ships and a direct line to Macedonia. God doesn’t give the call until he gets them to a place they can move. Now, isn’t that frustrating? Why didn’t God just give them the vision when they were in Antioch? Why put them through all the frustration and doubt of having every other door closed? Its one of the big questions I want to speak with God about when I’m in his kingdom. I said it a few weeks ago, when this building opened just days before a wedding and funeral: “God comes through in the clutch.” but wouldn’t it be nice if he just had a big first period and we got out to an early lead. I have observed in my life that sometimes God uses the closed doors to move us to where he can show us the next steps. The closed doors pushed Paul to Troas, and it might be that through the closed doors, God is leading you to a call you’ve never considered.
Acts 16:11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and 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.
But here is the main point: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” After God closes all the doors, here now he opens Lydia’s heaart. What a relief and what an encouragement to this missionary team that had faced discouragement after discouragement, and closed doors after closed door. And Lydia shows just the sort of hospitality the Jesus has told his missionaries to depend upon, she opens her home to the missionaries, feeding and housing them. This meant so much to the missionaries that later Paul would write to them and say:
Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you 5 because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
We see this same hospitality in the second conversion story in Philippi, a jailor that Paul leads to the Lord through amazing circumstances, this time of God literally opening doors, and this story is a bit longer and starts in verse 16:
Acts 16:16 As we were going to the place of prayer,
apparently not only Lydia, but most of the women from the riverside prayer group were interested in the gospel
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.”
This girl apparently was correct enough in her fortune telling that she was quite profitable. Now you might think that it was a good thing that this girl who was known as the city as a fortune teller was shouting these things, almost like a walking billboard for Paul. It seems that the spirit within her was constrained to speak truth, but spoke the truth in the most annoying way possible so that the word could not get out.
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.
Acts 16:19 But 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.”
Notice the latent anti-semitism in this charge. Literally the phrase uni verse 20 says, “these men are disturbing the city, being Jews.” As in, what would we expect from them. Notice it is only Paul and Silas who are so treated; Luke, who is now travelling with the team and Timothy are let off, likely because they are both considered Gentile. We now understand why the women were praying at the river. In order to have a synagogue established a city must have at least 10 Jewish men, The Jewish population in Philippi is so small that it doesn’t even have a synagogue. This is a Roman city. Now think through what this means for Paul as a cross-cultural missionary. He’s convinced that God has opened this door up and commanded him to go to the Greeks, but when he gets to the Greeks, in the first city he’s arrested “being a Jew”. Upon hearing he’s a Jew and the charge made against Paul,
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.
This is terribly harsh treatment. Before even getting a word in to defend themselves, they are attacked, beaten, stripped, and imprisoned. Welcome to Greece, Paul. In Asia, all the doors were figuratively closed to you. Now the door of your cell is strikingly literal. But they are about to open.
Acts 16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them
Singing! When all the doors close around you, do you sing? And look at the testimony -
26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.
There are three amazing things here. First, the miracle of the earthquake - and yes this is not coincidence, it is miraculous, because not only are the doors of every cell opened, but the bonds of everyman’s hands were unfastened. This is divine intervention.
But the spotlight does of this chapter does not immediately concern itself with the newly freed prisoners, but on the jailer, who wakes up sees the doors open and immediately realizes that he is going to be executed for having let all the prisoners escape, and thus, likely to save his family the dishonour of his execution, he is in the process of killing himself, when the second amazing thing happens, he hears a voice, that he must have assumed came from God himself: Do not harm yourself! For we are all here.” Astounded he calls for lights (so we see that he is not the only one present) and there he sees the most amazing thing of all - Paul and Silas (and all the rest of the prisoners) have not taken the opportunity as a sign that they should leave, but they have stayed. Now the jailer cannot understand this, not only why would they sing when they’ve been beaten and locked up, but not only why would they stay when he would have fled, but why would they save him their captor? Why would they care if he lived or died? And why are the rest of the prisoners still there? Why do they stay and listen to these Jews? So this jailer wants to know - how can I be what you are. How can I have what you have?
30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And 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 wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
And so again Paul uses the opportunity to preach the simple message of the gospel to the Jailor, summed up in the very understandable command: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And the Jailer believes, and his household believes with him, and he does the third amazing thing, this Jailor who was about to kill himself for fear that prisoners would escape, now brings the prisoners into his own house (which was likely above the jail) and fed and washed them - the same sort of hospitality that Lydia had shown them. What an amazing night. God had opened the door of the prison in order to open the jailers heart. Yet before morning, we find that Paul is returned to the prison. Why? This is weird, right?
Why didn’t Paul take the doors of the prison opening as a sign from the Lord that he should escape? Wouldn’t you? your in prison, praying and singing, and suddenly a earthquake hits and it opens your door and your chains fall off - wouldn’t you take it as a sign of your freedom? I mean, earlier in the book of Acts something similar happened with Peter, when an angel led him out of prison. And maybe that was simply it, there was no angel this time. But I still wonder, why didn’t he leave. I probably would have. We get a good understanding in the final scene:
Acts 16:35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
I want to suggest to you that Paul knew exactly what he was doing when he stayed inside that cell. He knew that he had wrongfully been imprisoned and had been illegally beaten and mistreated. They had thought he was simply a Jew - they had no idea that Paul was a Roman citizen. And Paul was not going to let them off the hook quietly. Now perhaps Paul had an overriding sense of justice and wanted to see the magistrates grovel, but I don’t think that’s enough to keep Paul in his cell when the earthquake hits. I believe that Paul was thinking of the brothers and sisters in the city - you see that don’t you? It’s the first and only thing on his mind when he is released, see Lydia and encourage the brothers. If he had fled, I can imagine the town leaders would have cracked down even harder. He would have put the church in danger. If he had fled, definitely the jailer would have been killed, for sure, and maybe the others would have been looked at as accomplices. If Paul had fled he may have put the rest of his mission in Macedonia in peril, as the Roman authorities would have likely pursued him from town to town.
That’s what I believe keep Paul in that cell even when the doors were so powerfully opened by God, because he was not concerned for his own freedom, he was concerned for the testimony of the Lord Jesus, the building up of the churches, and the ongoing mission.