Travels With Paul: Led by God to Take the Gospel to Europe
Paul and Silas went to prison. What happened next was a hinge point in world history.
By Ken M.
One of the great missionary accounts in the New Testament comes from Paul’s second missionary journey described in Acts 16. There we find Paul and Silas, Timothy, and apparently Luke trying to preach the gospel in various parts of what we know as Asia Minor. But the Spirit of Jesus will not allow them to do so (16:7-10). Finally, at Troas, a Macedonian man appears to Paul in a vision begging him to “come over and help us.” In obedience to God’s call, they cross the sea near or at the Dardanelles and make their way to Philippi.
You probably remember the story. Paul and Silas find a gathering of Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. Among them is Lydia, and she believes the message. Sometime later they encounter and heal a demon-possessed fortune-teller and make her handlers very angry. Paul and Silas are subsequently arrested, beaten severely with rods and thrown into jail and stocks. While they sing hymns at midnight, God shows up with a violent earthquake that opens the prison doors and breaks all the chains. After rescuing the jailer from taking his own life, they preach the gospel to him. He and his family believe.
Paul’s Surprising Defense
And that brings us to the ending of the story as related beginning in verse 35. Told they’re free to go, Paul refuses to go quietly and sends a message to the ruling magistrates. “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now send us away secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”
Terrified that they have abused Roman citizens, the magistrates come and apologize before they personally take the men out and ask them to leave the city. Paul’s reaction to his release is puzzling. Most of us would probably have welcomed the opportunity to seize our freedom and make a hasty exit. But not Paul. Instead, he insists on a personal visit by the magistrates. It would be easy to conclude that he has just had enough—that he’s going to assert his rights here and stand on the side of justice. Is he saying, “You can’t treat us like that and get away with it!”?
That kind of motive however would seem out of character for Paul. From what we know of him from Scripture, we need to look for a different motive here.
Paul Honors and Serves the Church
I think the motive is Paul’s desire to protect the church—to get it off to a good start in a hostile environment. As one writer says, “Paul scares the rulers into respecting the church.” In Paul’s mind, his citizenship is a tool, an asset if you will. And true to form, Paul seeks to use all he is and all he possesses to further the kingdom by laying a strong foundation for the church in Philippi.
So what’s the importance of all this? While there are probably several good lessons here, let’s focus on just one: We never know how our simple acts of full surrender and obedience might be used by a God who is infinitely wise and completely sovereign.
Far-Reaching Consequences for the Church in Europe
Although Paul’s little missionary band was not in Philippi for long, what happened while they were there was something of a hinge point in the advance of the gospel. The planting of the church in Philippi and Paul’s actions to assure its respectability in the eyes of the rulers represent the successful entrance of the gospel into Europe.
Centuries later Islam sweeps across much of the world. The church in many parts of Asia and Africa is largely wiped out. But in Europe, something has taken root there, and the church survives and spreads. In fact, when the gospel comes to America, it comes from Europe. In the same way, the gospel extends from Europe to many ends-of-the-earth places. Many of us can trace our access to the gospel to those efforts.
It’s certainly not likely that Paul and his friends could see any of that. But God had “pushed” them towards Europe. They stepped out in obedience, laying the foundation for a strong, respected church in an important European city at great personal cost.
Perhaps the lesson is that we never know what might result when we surrender all our plans and resources to God, not resisting His direction, but allowing Him to “push” us toward His will and the building of His kingdom.
We just never know what amazing things might happen!
- This wasn’t the only time God used prison to expand Paul’s ministry and change the world. Read more in Travels With Paul: On Mission in an Uncertain World.
- Browse more stories about Pioneers in Europe.
- Read another article Ken wrote on church planting: defining the task.
Ken has been with Pioneers since 1983. He and his wife served as church-planting missionaries in Africa and Southeast Asia for a total of 14 years.
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