A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 16:6-17:15. d). The unifying power of the gospel.
It would be hard to image a more disparate group than the business woman, the slave girl and the gaoler. Racially, socially and psychologically they were worlds apart. Yet all three were changed by the same gospel and were welcomed into the same church.
Take their different *national* origins first. Philippi was a very cosmopolitan city, having been Greek before it was Roman, and sitting astride the great east-west *Via Egnatia*. Lydia was an Asiatic, not perhaps in our sense of the word, but in the sense that she came from Asia Minor. She was an immigrant in Philippi, not a native. The slave girl was presumably Greek and a resident. She could have been a foreigner, since slaves were imported from everywhere, but there is nothing in the story to indicate this. The gaoler was probably like most gaolers at that time a retired soldier or army veteran, and, like all officials in the legal administration of a Roman colony, he was doubtless a Roman himself. Each of the three had been brought up in a different national culture. True, they were already united politically by the Roman Empire, but now in Jesus Christ they found a deeper unity still.
Or take their different *social* backgrounds. Lydia is likely to have been a wealthy woman, who had made her money in what we jocularly call ‘the rag trade’. She certainly had a large enough house to accommodate the four missionaries in addition to her own household (15). The slave girl came from the opposite end of the social spectrum. You could not sink much lower in public estimation than to be a female slave. She owned nothing, not even herself. She had no possessions, rights, liberty or life of her own. Even the money she earned by fortune-telling went straight into her masters’ pockets. Then the gaoler was socially half-way between the two women. 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. Yet these three were foundation members of the Philippian church, admitted into it on the same terms with no distinction. The head of a Jewish household would use the same prayer every morning, giving thanks that God had not made him a Gentile, a woman or a slave. But here were representatives of these three despised categories redeemed and united in Christ. For truly, as Paul had recently written to the Galatians: ‘There is nether Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal. 3:28).
Thirdly, consider their different *personal* needs. Lydia could be said to have had an intellectual need. At least the point Luke makes about her is that, as she ‘kept listening’ (14, literally), the Lord opened her heart, meaning really her mind, to attend to what Paul was saying, just as he had opened the minds of the disciples to understand the Scriptures (Lk. 24:45). Perhaps she was first a disenchanted oriental, and was then attracted to Judaism. But still she was not satisfied. The slave girl had a psychological need. True, she had an evil spirit which needed to be exorcised, but being possessed, then as now, can have terrible psychological consequences. She had lost her identity, her individuality, as a human being. If socially she belonged as a slave to her masters, psychologically she belonged to the spirit which controlled her. She was in double bondage. But in finding Christ (for I think Luke means us to understand that she was converted as well as delivered), she found herself. She became an integrated person again. As for the gaoler, we could say that his need was moral. At least, we know that his conscience had been to some degree aroused, since he cried out to know how to be saved. The needs of human beings do not change much with the changing years, but Jesus Christ can meet them and fulfil our aspirations.
It is wonderful to observe in Philippi both the universal appeal of the gospel (that it could reach such a wide diversity of people) and its unifying effect (that it could bind them together in God’s family). Of course the gospel also divides a community, because some reject it, but it unifies those who accept it. It is touching to see that Luke ends his Philippian narrative with a reference to ‘the brothers’( 40). The wealthy business woman, the exploited slave girl and the rough Roman gaoler had been brought into a brotherly or sisterly relationship with each other and with the rest of the church’s members. True, they experienced some tensions, and in his later Letter to the Philippians Paul had to exhort them to ‘stand firm in one spirit’, and to be ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose’ (Phil. 1:27: 2:2). Nevertheless they all belonged to the one fellowship of Christ. We too, who live in an era of social disintegration, need to exhibit the unifying power of the gospel.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.