A Summons to Believe, Acts 16:25-34


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Acts 16:25-34

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v.25 With lacerated backs and in great pain, perhaps unable to sleep, Paul and Silas encouraged themselves by singing hymns to God. As Tertullian beautifully put it, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” [To the Martyrs, 2] And that little remark that others were listening to them – an eye witness touch, I think – suggests something about the way they sang.

v.27 He would have been executed as a matter of course had his prisoners escaped.

v.30 The Lord was at work in his heart. As was said of Lydia earlier in this same chapter, the Lord opened his heart to respond to Paul’s message.

v.31 Note, as so often in the Bible, the promise that faith and salvation is appointed to run in family lines.

I chose this text to read this morning because it is a particularly beautiful and arresting example of an entirely typical phenomenon we encounter, first in the New Testament and then throughout the history of the church ever since. Here is a man who was going about his business. He had no plan to change his religion. He had no expectation of an earthquake in his life. He woke up and then went to sleep that day as he always had before. He was a very minor official in a Greco-Roman town, a jailer. He was, no doubt, an entirely typical product of that culture, a pagan among pagans. He probably had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, but if he had, his information would have been scanty and almost certainly incorrect. In his case there was an earthquake with what perhaps was a genuinely miraculous element attached: the unfastening of every prisoner’s shackles. But though more dramatic, what happened to the jailer happened to multitudes of others without any earthquake. He realized in a moment of stunning recognition that what Paul was telling him was true and truth that unlocked the secrets of life.

We are studying the “gospel,” the “good news” in this series of Sunday morning sermons. As I was examining the biblical data, it struck me that before we consider the substance or content of the good news we need to pay careful attention to the fact that everywhere in the Bible the good news is something men and women, boys and girls, are summoned to believe. Familiar as we are with the place of faith in Christianity, we take this as a matter of course, but we should not. In fact, one of the principal uniquenesses of our faith is found just here: in its summons that we believe the good news.

Now, think carefully about this. It is absolutely true that every religion and every philosophy of life requires faith. Even the atheist who bases his understanding of reality on the theory of evolution – that random mutation explains everything about human existence, that human beings are biological accidents, amazingly adapted matter and nothing more – must believe that the theory adequately explains the origin of human life and its nature: intelligence, creativity, speech, consciousness, morality, love, and all the rest. He certainly can’t prove that it does. There is no QED in the life sciences as there is in geometry.

One of the gigantic intellectual deceptions of modern western thought is what has come to be called the fact/value distinction, that is, the claim that knowledge, on the one hand, and ethics or values or beliefs on the other are two different things and result from two different modes of thought or intellectual activity. Facts are one thing; a person can know facts. But beliefs or values are opinions only, perhaps only feelings. This understanding of what knowledge consists of is now commonplace in elite culture and the academy, but is it true?

The first problem with this fact/value distinction is that it is mere bombast. Who says there is such a distinction and who has proved it to be so? The fact is what one man calls a fact – apart from the most insignificant of mathematical demonstrations – is someone else’s opinion and vice versa. We should by now be long past thinking that man’s intellectual conclusions are purely objective, uninfluenced by a host of considerations that shape his or her perceptions of reality. Scientists continually dispute one another’s judgments, often ferociously, as do politicians, pundits, and, for that matter, theologians. All claim simply to be following the evidence, but, as we know only too well, they come to quite different conclusions! There is no knowledge without faith, there can be no real understanding without assumptions being made!

Christians rightly claim not only that they believe that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God and the savior of the world, but that they know it to be so! Faith is not a different thing from knowledge, it is a kind of knowledge, and, in many ways it is the presupposition of all knowledge. Like any human thinking it may, to be sure, be corrupted by misunderstanding or ignorance or a defiant skepticism. Man’s faith, like man’s so-called knowledge, may be incomplete or entirely false, but in its nature the knowledge of faith can be just as certain as the knowledge of the periodic table. This isn’t simply our claim; this is a universal fact of human experience! It is also the inexorable logic of the situation. Jesus Christ either rose from the dead or he did not. If he did, those who believe that he did have real knowledge!

In a different but fundamentally similar way, the Buddhist must believe that the Buddha hit on the nature of human existence and the true solution to the human predicament; the Muslim must likewise believe that the Koran provides true wisdom regarding God and man, that its teaching conforms to reality and accurately describes the path that God expects all human beings to follow. In that sense the atheist and the most devout believer occupy the same ground, precisely the same ground. Everyone must believe because very little of any consequence, almost nothing that is of real importance to human beings’ understanding of life and the meaning of life can be discovered in the lab or even by the most sophisticated computation. As I said, everyone believes his or her religion or philosophy, his or her account of ultimate reality. That hardly means that it isn’t true; it hardly means that it is true; it only means that faith is inevitably required. Everyone is and must be a believer about virtually everything that really matters to that person.

So, in this sense the good news is not unique as a summons to faith. But the faith that the Bible summons us to is in fact something quite unique. It is very different from the faith of the Muslim, Buddhist, or atheistic materialist. It is faith of an altogether different kind than that expected of the adherents of other religions or other philosophies of human life. Why is it so different? Why is it unique? It is different because of the nature of the good news itself. This news begs for another kind of faith!

I. First, the faith to which the gospel summons human beings is a faith in history, a faith in an account of events that occurred in a certain time and place, events that were witnessed by large numbers of people.

The summons of the good news is not a summons to believe some teaching, to follow some philosopher, or to extrapolate the meaning of life from some biological theory. The summons is to believe that certain things happened, extraordinary things, and that those who were eyewitnesses of those events and gave us a record of them were trustworthy. If you think about it, this is faith of a very different kind.

In the book of Acts we are given short summaries of what the earliest preachers of the good news actually said in their addresses to the congregations gathered in synagogues, to crowds assembled in the streets or public squares, or to individuals, whether outdoors or in. Even here, it seems very likely that Paul said more than simply “We’re still here, don’t worry!” We read that the jailer fell down before Paul and Silas, but surely Paul said something at that point. He explained what had happened and why. He took the opportunity to give the jailer the good news! Luke doesn’t tell us what he said, but given Luke’s general approach in Acts we assume that Paul told the man about Jesus Christ, about who he is and what he had done and it was to that explanation that the jailer was responding when he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul would never have replied to that question as he did – “Believe in the Lord Jesus…” – if the jailer had never heard of Jesus and had no idea who he is!

Elsewhere in Acts the proclamation of the good news is briefly summarized in a wide variety of ways, but always to the same effect. Sometimes it is simply that Jesus is Lord! In other places what they preached, we are told, was “in Jesus, the resurrection of the dead” or, more simply “the resurrection,” Still elsewhere it is that Jesus is the Messiah, or that he is the way of salvation (16:17). In still other places we read that they were persuading people “about the kingdom of God,” or that they preached “Jesus,” or that their message was “repentance toward God and faith in Jesus our Lord Jesus Christ,” or that they bore witness to “the facts about [Jesus]” (23:11).

And, of course, we have a few specimens that are more complete outlines – though still just outlines – of what was typically included in a presentation of the good news, such as Peter gives us in the house of Cornelius in Acts 10 or that we have from Paul in Pisidian Antioch in chapter 13, or to the Athenian philosophers in chapter 17, or his defenses before Governor Felix in chapter 24 or King Agrippa in chapter 26. Very clearly their sermons were adjusted to the audience. They didn’t preach to Jews, with their background in the OT and their expectation of the Messiah, in the same way they preached to Gentiles who knew little or nothing about Jewish history or theology. But, the fundamental message was the same. If we combine all of these summaries, the briefest with the most complete, we find that the earliest Christian preachers were primarily concerned to acquaint people with the person and the work of Jesus Christ, who he is, and what he did to deliver people from both the guilt and the power of their sins.

What is remarkable about these heralds of the good news is that they were unabashed, unashamed of the remarkable claims that they were making. They did not hesitate to appeal to what they regarded as unassailable facts. Whether Peter on the Day of Pentecost, boldly proclaiming that the Jews were well aware of the miraculous deeds of the Lord and that his resurrection from the dead was an accomplished fact, or Paul reminding Agrippa that the events of which he had been speaking were well known to him because they were not done in a corner – that is, they were events that transpired in public – the gospel heralds led with their chin. They invited investigation, the examination of their claims. They rooted their proclamation in history, they spoke of who and what and when and how before they explained why. They dated the events they were describing by relating them to persons and events which would have been known to the citizens of that time and place. In short, what they proclaimed was history, history in the ordinary sense of the word: theirs was an account of what had happened in their own lifetime and, in most respects, before their very eyes! They unabashedly admitted that they were as bowled over by what they had witnessed as everyone else. They had no expectation that such things would happen, but happen they did!

It is clear from their preaching that they knew very well the religious ethos of their times. They knew they were preaching a message that was utterly counter-intuitive for both the Jews and the Gentile inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world. But they had seen what they had seen and heard what they had heard. As the Gospel writers themselves, these earliest preachers of the good news claim to have been eyewitnesses of the events about which they were speaking, remarkable as they were. It was no doubt their evident conviction that was so persuasive to many who heard them. The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t an idea to them; it wasn’t a new philosophy of life, it was something they had witnessed with their own eyes! Eyewitness testimony was the essential feature of the original proclamation of the good news!

I want this to be clear in your mind: there is nothing like this in the other religions or philosophies of life. Nothing! The foundation of this message is history – history witnessed at the time and reported immediately thereafter – nothing less, remarkable events that changed the world. Only a Christian, as Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, could cheerfully admit that if a certain thing – in this case the resurrection of Jesus Christ – had not in fact happened, the Christian faith would be entirely disproved. Paul and the other original heralds of the good news were unapologetic that their claim to have discovered the meaning of life rested entirely, absolutely on the truth of the account they were giving of events that had occurred in the waning years of the first century B.C. and the first third of the following century.

We are not being asked to believe in the wisdom of some ancient philosopher. We are not being taught the religion that was invented in the fervid mind of some long ago sage or teacher. We are being asked to credit an account by people who claimed to have witnessed the person and the events of which they spoke and whose entire manner and message begs that their claims be taken seriously, considered, and investigated. In Islam it is a sin to investigate the claims of the Koran to see if they are in fact true, but it is a virtue to investigate the claims of the Christian faith, to test them, to seek to confirm them or to disprove them, if they can be disproved!

This historical foundation of the good news makes the faith to which we are summoned a very different, a very much more intellectually responsible, a very much more intellectually serious, and, may I say, a much more fully human, even worldly confidence and credit.

II. In the second place, the good news requires faith in a person.

There is a sense in which Islam requires faith in the veracity of Mohammed, Hinduism in the authority of the Vedas, Buddhism requires faith in the wisdom of Buddha and modern atheism requires faith in Immanuel Kant or Charles Darwin. Buddha’s teaching of the way of resignation and detachment, Hinduism’s monistic philosophy of being, Mohammed’s teaching of the five ways, Darwin’s assertion that life is a gigantic accident, this is what must be believed. But the faith the good news requires is not like that at all. In those cases, faith is simply confidence in their teaching. The faith is in what was taught, their philosophies or their theories. The same convictions, philosophies, or theories might just as well have been taught, and, in fact sometimes were taught by someone else. If the philosophy, religion, or theory had been taught by someone else, it would not matter, it is the teaching that counts.

But not so with the good news. The good news is the person, Jesus Christ. The good news is not a message about a system of thought or ethics, about a religion, or about a theory of the origin of life. The good news is that the living God who made heaven and earth entered the world as Jesus Christ, a full and complete human being, and did stupendous things to rescue us from our bondage to sin and death.

Jesus was a teacher, to be sure. And his teaching is important. But it is only important because of who he is and what he did. The early Christian creeds don’t even mention that Jesus was a teacher. They pass over his teaching entirely.

“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. And the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.”

The incarnation of the Son of God, the cross, the resurrection: this is the substance of the good news and the core of the Christian faith. This is fundamental to the entire conception of the Christian faith: that the good news is not the proclamation of the things that you must do, how you must think, or by what standards you must live. The good news is a proclamation of what someone else did for you.

Christians must never be confused on this point. It is both the fundamental uniqueness of our faith and its tremendous power! There is nothing remotely like this in any other religion or philosophy of life. We proclaim God’s entrance into the world as a man, a man of perfect goodness, who lived a sinless life, and went willing to the cruelest of deaths in order to atone for our sins, in order to pay the penalty our sins deserved in our place and for our sakes. Having died, as a human being, he then rose to new and everlasting life having conquered sin and death on our behalf. He then offered the world his own everlasting life. That is the good news! Everything else in our Christian faith is detail; important detail, to be sure, but not the substance of our faith. The substance is Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, and the savior of the world, the God/Man who was in this world in space and time and is coming again in the same space and time.

Or, to put it another way, our faith is personal in a way that no other human faith is or can be. We are being summoned to credit a person, to trust our future to the love, the power, and the accomplishment of another person. A remarkable person to be sure; an utterly unique person, but a person. We are being summoned to follow that person and to acknowledge that he is the Lord, the King of Kings. Buddha never said, Mohammed never dared to say, Charles Darwin never thought to say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to God except by me,” but Jesus did. It is upon that extraordinary fact that our entire understanding of life rests as Christians. No one ever fell to the ground before Buddha, or Mohammed or Charles Darwin and cried out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” or “My Lord and my God!” as Peter and Thomas did.

After laying eyes on the risen Christ, Thomas went as far east as India, where the boast was that there were 330 million deities in the pantheon, a number that was continually increasing. But Thomas, who had seen what he had seen, and heard what he had heard, proclaimed the one, living and true God and Jesus both as that living God and as the way, the truth, and the life. The church he founded and bears his name still exists in India today.

People ask, they often ask, how can a person who lived so long ago be of any relevance to me now some 2,000 years later? How can the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus be good news this long thereafter? But, of course, the answer to that question is found precisely here. We are not talking about some ancient individual; we are talking about the living Jesus Christ who is as alive today as he was when walking the roads of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. We are talking about God himself, the only God, who became also a man and who remains both God and man. He is as much the savior of the world today as he was when he hung on the cross and came out of the tomb. He lives today as he lived then – both God and man – and continues today the great work of salvation that he began those long years ago and that he will complete in due time.

This is the good news: Jesus Christ the Son of God who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. The good news is not the announcement of some new philosophy or system or religion. It is the proclamation of the personal history of Jesus Christ, in which history we may find not only the meaning of life but the way to eternal life, his kind of life, human life, the life of both soul and body, perfect life, the life of love, stretching before us through unending years.

No other faith is like this faith. No other message is like the good news in not only inviting us to believe it, but commending that faith in so many different ways, and in perfectly understandable ways. We are always studying history. We are always examining claims. We are always judging the credibility of witnesses. We are always assessing the consistency of testimony. And we always pay attention to serious people who were actually there! All the more if those people give us reason upon reason to think that they are honest, well-intentioned men and women. God will have to open our minds and hearts, stubborn as we can be in our unbelief, but that the claims are credible and that the message is not only wonderful but perfectly suited to reality and to human life as we know it, are reasons for us not only to believe with confidence but to rejoice in this knowledge!

Here is Malcolm Muggeridge, a late convert to Christianity, who lived a long life thinking about himself and his life as most people in our world do today, as the Philippian jailor thought about life and as most people in his world thought about it.

“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets: that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue: that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame, even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions: that’s pleasure. And it might happen, once in a while, that something I might have said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time: that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you, and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.” [Jesus Rediscovered, 77]

Only a Christian would only say such a thing. And only a Christian could say such a thing with absolute confidence that he or she was speaking the truth!