The gospel, the power of God

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel?of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16, NKJV).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation. One compelling way to understand and experience what this means is revealed in a series of events that took place in Philippi during the visit of Paul and Silas in their second missionary journey (Acts 16:12-34).

The apostle and his new traveling companion met with a group of people, mainly women, outside the city for Sabbath worship. A merchant woman named Lydia was there. She came from Asia and probably was not Jewish. She sold a line of products for wealthy people and likely circulated in that niche of society. She listened to Paul and Silas, believed in Jesus, was baptized, and then invited Paul and Silas to stay in her home.

On another day as they went for prayer, a slave girl, possessed by a spirit, caused confusion regarding the work of Paul and Silas. At Paul’s command, the evil spirit came out of her. The slave girl’s fortune-telling had earned her masters a lot of money. Now their economic prospects were threatened. Though driven by greed, they cloaked their self-interest in the garb of concern for public safety. They had Paul and Silas dragged before the authorities on the pretext of their creating unrest and unlawful behavior in the city.

Paul and Silas were stripped and beaten, then imprisoned in maximum security. But out of those events of “shame” and unwarranted cruelty, inspiration chronicles a series of almost unbelievable events that illustrate the power of God (Acts 16:22-34). The earthquake was the starter, but our interest here is in the human behaviors that unfold in the story and illustrate the power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel: The power to respond to bear adversity

The first thing to note is that Paul and Silas sang praise songs in jail in the middle of the night. Beaten, bruised, bloodied – victims of injustice, in physical discomfort and a harsh environment – they broke forth in songs of praise. Joyful singing is not the typical sound of prison life. One might expect shouts of cursing, moans of pain, cries for revenge, foul language of self-justification – but certainly not songs of praise. No wonder all the prisoners were listening!

These two prisoners were different. The power of God shaped their response to adversity. It is not that the singing changed their circumstances. Instead, it provided the context. Their bodies still ached. Every movement was accompanied by pain. They were captives to darkness, discomfort, discouragement, and defeat. They were on a mission for God, and now their journey was in jeopardy. And so they sang songs of praise. What a reaction to setbacks and obstacles!

How do we act when our plans and dreams are destroyed, when trials confront us at every turn, when we find ourselves in the dark prison of uncontrollable circumstances? Paul affirms that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12, NIV). We recognize inevitable and incidental setbacks and disappointments in life and learn to adjust to these as simply the realities of life. But what about the difficulties that come into our lives when we are on a mission for God? How does the power of God reveal itself in us when it seems that God is ignoring our situation, when good intentions are thwarted by the evil designs of others?

James Montgomery Boice was a nationally-recognized pastor of a large church in Philadelphia. On May 7, 2000, he announced to his congregation that he was rapidly dying of an aggressive cancer that was unresponsive to treatment.

Boice then asked his congregation: “Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to perform miracles – and He certainly can – is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place.… Above all, I would say pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say, ‘Where in all of history has God most glorified Himself?’ the answer is that He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have…and yet that’s where God is most glorified.”

Eight weeks later, they buried Boice. But his congregation was moved by those words to see a new context for their own lives – whatever happens, may God be glorified. This is not a natural human response to adversity. It is supernatural.

The gospel: The power to move beyond self-interest

There is another unexpected element in Paul and Silas’ jail story. Upon learning the effects of the earthquake, the jailor prepared to take his life. He assumed that the prisoners had escaped and realized that he would be held accountable regardless of the circumstances. He reasoned that to take his own life was a more dignified exit than public humiliation and execution.

But Paul interrupted him, “‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here’” (Acts 16:28, NKJV). He then assured him, consoled him, proclaimed the gospel to him, befriended him, and baptized him – all in the space of a few hours.

It would not be unnatural for prisoners to find some pleasure in the plight of their captor. After all, the jailor was the impersonal agent of the corrupt system that led to their confinement. Anything that would remove him as an obstacle to their freedom would be welcomed. Whether the jailor committed suicide or was hanged mattered not. His removal, by whatever means, symbolized the overthrow of the system.

What is not expected is that Paul and Silas would have compassion on the jailer – this accomplice to their unjust imprisonment. The power of God in their lives enabled them to move beyond the boundaries of self-interest and self-orientation, even to the point where they could be actively concerned about the welfare of their presumed enemy. That is not natural. It is supernatural.

C. S. Lewis wrote about the “weight of glory” that rests on the shoulders of every human being. He said that if we looked at our neighbors, our competitors, our enemies, and realized the weight of glory that rests on all of them, the weight of glory that embraces them as candidates for eternal life, we would see them differently. And we ourselves would find emancipation from a narrow focus of self-interest.

The gospel: The power to celebrate oneness in Jesus

This leads us to yet another unexpected discovery regarding the power of God. We have already noted that the wealthy Asian merchant, Lydia, was baptized. The jailer, a Roman citizen and likely retired Roman soldier, was also baptized. Some commentators suggest that the placement of the story of the slave girl implies that she also must have become a believer.

If we accept these baptisms, a very unnatural development is seen in Philippi. An Asian businesswoman, a Greek slave, a Roman civil servant. Three people with very different ethnic, economic, educational, and experiential backgrounds became brothers and sisters in the church at Philippi.

Such an experience was true also in Antioch where Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, old and young, male and female, wise and otherwise, under the power of the gospel broke through the silos of natural human affinities and became a family of faith. Brothers and sisters from widely differing pasts were now united in a common future. And the society of the day had no word to describe this phenomenon – so they called them “Christians” (see Acts 11:25, 26).

We sometimes hear the idea that the way to grow the church is to create congregations on the basis of natural human affinities. Maybe that is true. Statistical evidence seems to support this as a way of increasing church membership.

Even if we accept that line of thought and action, we must never forget that the remarkable thing about the early church was not its size, but its spirit. The witness of the early church was powered by what happened in human relationships – not its membership, but its worship and fellowship. The power of the gospel brought people together from all the separate pieces of society. It formed them into a new community of praise to God and love for one another.

The next time you sit in your church, look around for the evidence of the supernatural – for those who praise God in the midst of their adversity, for those who have moved beyond the boundaries of self-interest and self-orientation, for those from all walks of life who have broken through the silos of natural human affinities to celebrate the oneness of all who are claimed by Jesus Christ. The witness of the early church was powered by what happened in human relationships – not its membership, but its worship and fellowship.

Lowell C. Cooper (M.Div., Andrews University, M.P.H., Loma Linda University) is a general vice-president for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This text is based on a devotional presentation at the General Conference world headquarters. E-mail: cooperl@gc.adventist.org.