Worship can be used for evangelism, and praise is possible even when circumstances seem to dictate otherwise. Using the example of Paul and Silas in Acts 16 singing and praying in jail, Alistair Begg casts a vision for a worshipping and witnessing community of God’s people. If our worship and praise are grounded in the truth of God and are focused on God, we can continue in them no matter what our future holds.
As I think about this miniseries in which we’ve engaged, and think about the congregation which is ours as a church family, and think about the responsibilities and opportunities that we face, and try and say, as best I know how, what it is that we long for and pray for as a church family, I think that it is safe to say that more than anything else, we long together to be both a worshipping and a witnessing community of God’s people. We want to be those whose hearts are so touched by the power of the Spirit of God that when we open our lips, we declare his praise, and to be a people who are so in touch with the Son of God that when we go about our daily routine, it will be customary for us and not unusual for us to speak concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, to the extent that it is strange for us to worship and unusual for us to witness, we are living outwith the pale of God’s intention for his people; and a Spirit-filled community, those who are alive to the power of God, are going to be those who, at least in measure, are making progress in the matter of witness and in the matter of worship.
And it is for that reason that I wanted to draw your attention to the Acts 16:25. It just slips into the middle of the narrative here. It is there without much introduction and much follow upon: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” The context, of course, in which this incident emerges is described for us here by Luke. We saw part of it this morning in our reading. In fact, you have the encounter of three individuals, in the space of a few verses, who are impacted by the power of God’s Word. First of all, in the life of a businesswoman by the name of Lydia, who as we saw this morning was someone who had been attending the place of worship, who had been listening to the word as it was proclaimed, and who in the course of that routine environment discovered that her heart was opened to the truth of God’s Word and her life was changed. Then we go on to read, in the opening verses of the section that follows, of their journey to the place of prayer once again, and this time met by a slave girl—an anonymous slave girl—and she is delivered from the spirit that possesses her; and Luke does not tell us that she is at the same time converted and baptized, but I suppose each of us in reading this hopes desperately that that’s the case. And so you have added to the number, not only a businesswoman who is identified by name, but an anonymous slave girl who was being used and abused by those who were her owners. And then, of course, in the section that we did not read that follows the course of our reading this evening, you have the story of the conversion of a Roman jailer. And John Stott points out quite helpfully that in relationship to these individuals, they were disparate from one another—racially, socially, and psychologically worlds apart—and yet they were changed by the same gospel, and they were welcomed into the same church. I love that, and I find that my spirit responds to it, and it is along the lines of something of what I was referring to this morning when I was saying that if our church is to take seriously the opportunities and responsibilities of our day, then our target audience is not some select group of individuals with whom we have peculiar relationships by dint of status or background or color or ethnicity or whatever it might be, but that the word of the gospel impacts the lives of very different people, just as we see in these three incidents before us.
Now, the context that, of course, gives rise to the arrival of these individuals in the jail is the fact that when Paul exorcised the spirit that possessed this young girl, he also exorcised the source of her owners’ income. And as a result of doing so, the encouragement of the conversion of Lydia and the dramatic transformation in the life of this girl is then more than balanced out by all that follows from that point. And you will notice that they are seized in verse 19; they are dragged into the marketplace, the Agora; they are then put face-to-face with the authorities; they bring out the magistrates; and they seek very skillfully to disguise what their real concern was. What was it that made these men angry? It was the fact that their profit base had been completely dismantled, that up to this point, they had been making a killing as a result of this girl being able to tell the future. Now, Paul has put paid to all of that. They are ticked, and so they come to the magistrates, and they come very skillfully, with the accusation that these men were causing a riot and they were introducing an alien religion.
Now, the fact was that neither Paul nor Silas were seeking to do either. They were not inducing a riot, nor were they actually introducing something that was alien. The word of the gospel had begun to permeate the Roman culture. However, the charges were significant enough for the magistrates to come, to assemble in the place, and for them to hear the case. I don’t think there’s any question in verse 20 and 21 that they are seeking to cash in on an inherent anti-Semitism, which would be part of the Roman mind, and also to stir up the notion of racial pride. Why do I say that? Because you will notice the sentence that begins at the end of verse 20: “These men are Jews …” and then notice, “unlawful for us Romans.” “These guys are Jews, and this is not the kind of thing that we Romans want to have to deal with, is it magistrates?” All the time disguising what it was that really concerned them.
As a result of having brought them to this place, they are then given a severe flogging. They are thrown into prison. The jailer is commanded to guard them carefully and, in order that he might do as good a job as he can possibly do, we’re told that he put them in the inner cell and he fastened their feet in the stocks. And he must have said, “Well, that will be them for the night. They’re not going anywhere now.” And, of course, he didn’t realize what was about to take place that night, and that the wonder of God’s dealings from heaven had to do not only with this amazing disruption that was about to take place in the jail, but had to do with the amazing transformation which was about to take place in the life of the jailer.
Now, having received what would have been a dreadful beating, I think this may be one of the occasions that Paul refers to later on when he says that on three separate occasions, he was flogged dreadfully. The idea of them having a little bit of a reprimand and being sent to some cozy establishment may appeal to us because of what we find them doing; but when we look at the record carefully, we discover that there is no reason for us to believe anything other than the fact that they were treated most despitefully and that they were imprisoned quite dreadfully. And then, Luke tells us, at about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and other prisoners were listening to them. Well, it’s hardly a surprise, is it, that they were listening to them? If you think about the fact of what these prisoners were used to experiencing when others were added to the company, it certainly didn’t have to do with hymn singing. If you imagine the kind of curses and oaths and expletives that would emerge from the people as they were dragged forcibly into containment, and all of the things that the prisoners were used to doing—even when you see contemporary pictures of prison life, you realize the brutality and inhumanity of it all. You have fixed in your minds, some of you, the noise of them taking those metal cups and rattling them on the bars and making noises as the people are brought in and finally incarcerated along with them. There’s no sense of them saying, “Oh hello, Silas. How are you? Welcome to the jail in Philippi. We’ve been having a wonderful time here, and I hope you’re going to enjoy yourself as well. Where are they putting you? Oh, a nice spot. I was there once.” Nothing of that at all. And therefore every expectation that what they would experience would just be the curses and groanings as these individuals responded to their bleeding backs and to the stress and strain of the previous evening. And so they listened, because Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.
Loved ones, I don’t know if it has completely dawned upon this congregation, the phenomenal evangelistic potential of when we are at worship. This idea that somehow or another we would want to dumb down our expressions of praise or to marginalize them or to accommodate them to friends and neighbors who would walk in from our communities, finds no origin in the thinking and praying and dreaming of the leadership here at Parkside. There is not one iota of my being that is concerned to somehow accommodate what we do here in our worship to the average Chagrin Valley-ite, so that in coming in they may say, “Oh, this is very familiar, and this is very comfortable.” Rather, it is the longing of my heart that God will so move upon those who are genuinely his own in this place that we, then, in praying and in praising God, will cause those who are still prisoners to the evil one to listen to what is taking place, because they have no explanation as to why it is that we should be as we are. Now, I don’t want to be unkind to you in any way, but I do want to exhort you and I do want to tell you this—and what I tell you, I tell myself. If you think, as a congregation, that we have come close to approximating to reality of that which the Bible conveys—which some of us have experienced and which others of us long for—then my dear friends, you have missed the boat completely. For example, in the preparation for worship in this place, we are still a long way away from the people of God coming with a spirit of expectancy for meeting with the living God and coming with a genuine desire for an encounter with him that sets aside every other marginal notion and preoccupation—in the recognition of the fact that for me to worship God is an act of selflessness. It is an act of God-centeredness. It is an act whereby the “me” in it all is lost sight of in the encounter with God, who is worthy to be praised. And do not misunderstand for a moment: this may be expressed in a beautiful silence, it may be expressed in a worshipful song, it may be expressed in myriad ways; but when you’ve experienced it, you know you have. And as I sat at the commencement of this evening, as we had played for us, “Before your throne we justifiably bow, Lord Jesus Christ, because you give us royal robes we don’t deserve,” but I didn’t hear you singing. Oh, I heard one voice behind me singing. You say, “Well, we don’t sing unless we’re told to sing.” Why not? Don’t you feel like singing? And if not, don’t you think you should? When the people of God are stirred by the Spirit of God to give expression of worship to God, then those who do not understand will first learn to listen and then, please God, will be converted. And then, as a result of being converted, they are then added to the worshipping throng, and then the process goes all over again as the people say, “What is this that’s taking place? Why do you sing as you sing? Why do you do as you do?” “Because Jesus is alive and he is Savior.” “Well, I never knew that.” “Well, may I introduce him to you?” “Yes, you may.” “Then here we go. Now join your voice with ours.” Unless, of course, we came to attend upon a performance.
Paul and Silas could have done a number of things when they hit the jail floor, couldn’t they? They could have spent the evening preparing a statement on civil rights as Roman citizens. “What we need to do, Silas, is get a piece of parchment here, if we can. Let’s get on to this immediately. This is a violation of our civil rights. Let’s take care of this.” Or they could have sat in sullen silence, doubting that the hand of God was on them for good. Or they might have talked about the cruel way in which the jailer had thrown them into the prison and had clamped their feet so unmercifully into the stocks. They might have even brought solace to one another by seeking to say, “You know what? When we get out of here, we’ll get going again. When we get out, we’ll get on.” But actually their reaction to their circumstances is very different from any of these and that’s the challenge, at least to me. At midnight they were “praying and singing.” The phrase actually is in the imperfect tense. It doesn’t mean that they sang the Doxology and went off to sleep; the tense is that they were continually singing. They were singing. Why? Because they recognized that God was even in their incarceration, that God had given them the ability to speak as they’d spoken to Lydia, that God had given them the ability to see the exorcism of the slave girl, and that God, as a result of that, had tolerated them to be put into this position. So God was still God in the jail in the same way as he was out of the jail. And so they said, “Well, let’s just praise him.”
I say to you again, I’m not sure we understand the tremendous evangelistic potential of a worshipping congregation. “And the prisoners were listening to them.” I don’t expect the pagans to sing in our worship services. If I was a pagan, I wouldn’t sing, not unless I liked the tune or something. What do I have to sing about? “In royal robes I don’t deserve …” I don’t know about “royal,” I don’t know about “robes,” and I don’t know about “deserve nothing.” So when I look out on the morning congregation, I expect to see people standing there, just staring in front of them. I see teenage boys, bored out of their minds, just looking around, chewing gum. I see men slightly comatosed, leaning over on their side; if they could lie down on the pew, I think they would. I understand that. Dead people don’t sing. But loved ones, I cannot believe it when I see some of you. Oh, I’m going to put a video camera out here some Sunday. I’m going to send somebody out just to shoot through the congregation the way they do at the ball game, and all of a sudden your face is going to be up on that screen. And you wouldn’t be going like this: “Hey, hey, hey, you know. Hey, we’re on. We’re on.” You’ll be putting your head down in shame, “Goodness gracious, look at us. Look at us.” As I looked out this morning, there were a couple of ladies; I said, “I’ll bring her up, and I’ll bring her up. I’ll put her right up here beside me.” What a face! What a smile! What a sense of involvement in what’s going on, and what a contrast to the average. You think you’re good at singing? You’re quite good, but you’re not very good, and “very good” is spiritual. “Quite good” has to do with notes and tunes and melodies and a sense of “Let’s give it a go.” But “very good” has to do with the anointing of the Spirit of God on the lives of his people, and I say to you again, there is spiritual geography here, loved ones, into which those of you who are serious may endeavor to go as a catalyst to those around you, who are prepared to say, “And I worship you, Almighty God. You are worthy of my praise.”
You take the lady in Mark’s gospel, when she comes with the alabaster jar of ointment, and she cracks it, and the people say, “What a dumb thing to do. Do you realize what that was worth? Do you realize what she could have done with that?” Of course she understood what she could have done with it. A lady had that in her dowry for one of two reasons: either to use on the night of her marriage or to use in anointing for her burial. Do you think that she simply went through her cupboards and said, “You know, maybe I can take something along here to see Jesus tonight. I’ve got some Pond’s® Cold Cream or I’ve got something, you know, some old thing that I got from Bed Bath & Beyond, or whatever it is. There’s got to be something in here I can use, you know. What does it matter, after all? Just give him whatever I’ve got.” No! She said, “This is what I will take, and this is what I will break.” And as a result of taking it and breaking it, there was such a transformation.
One of the reasons, loved ones, that our worship is as ineffective as it is, is because there is no purposeful taking, and there is no meaningful breaking. [MOU1] And again, I’m not talking about a style; don’t hang that one there. I’m not talking about it being effervescent. I’m not talking about it being silent. I’m not talking about it being any way. I don’t even know how it’s supposed to be, but I do know the difference because I’ve been there, and some of you have too. And you cannot produce this; only God can do it. It has to do with his reviving power. It has to do with the stimulus of his Spirit. It has to do with intangible and unquantifiable things for which the people of God legitimately ought to long. And these fellows, not in a worship encounter but in the most awful circumstances, give us an example of that to which we’re referring.
Well, if we try and think it out as we’ve done before, we arrive at the same point. I’ve said this to you, and I confirm it for you, that genuine Christian praise is first of all theological. In other words, it’s grounded in the truth of God. That Paul and Silas recognized that God was as much in control when Lydia was converted as he was when they were beaten with rods, and therefore the focus of their praise remains the same. That’s why I’ve gone increasingly sour on declaratory songs, because so often they do not give expression to the reality of how I’m feeling. How I’m feeling may be completely out of touch with anything that has to do with worship at all. And so when somebody gives me a declaratory song that I’m supposed to sing and then makes me sing it half a dozen times till it finally, you know, “gets to me,” it’s a baneful experience for me. Why? Because true praise is theological. It is when the truth of God’s Word stimulates the mind of God’s child that the heart of the servant is then released in worship. If it’s not that, then we’re no different from Hindus or from Buddhists or from New Age gatherings, as they seek simply to say the same thing over and over and over again until, finally, they create some other kind of consciousness. If you’ve got to sing a song five times before you’re there, it’s a lousy song.
It’s not only theological, but it is intellectual. Not that it requires a certain IQ, but, as I say to you, the implications of what I understand about God is what warms my heart. That, you see, is what makes it different from the events of this afternoon at these football stadiums. You often hear people say, “Well, if they can do that out there, why can’t we do that in here?” We’re not talking about doing that in here, because they go up and down. The ball’s down this end of the field, “Whoa-ho!” The ball’s down this end of the field, “Hmm, hmm.” “Well, hey hey!” “Hmm, hmm.” So the emotion of giving voice to praise is grounded in theology and is stirred in the mechanism of our minds and is engaged in as a result of the act of our wills. Some of our absence of singing is just plain disobedience. Some of the absence of our giving voice to that which God is due is an expression of our indolence. And explain it away, any attempt that we may make upon it, the Spirit of God puts his finger upon our lives and says, ”You know, isn’t it interesting that you are able to overflow on this topic, you’re able to gush on this theme, you’re able to keep people stationary for thirty minutes at a pop, as long as you have the opportunity to address this issue; but when it comes to the issue of the praise and worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, suddenly it’s just not there.”
Paul and Silas were praising God, I don’t believe, because they felt like it. Do you? They got their backs torn open. They got their posteriors put into an unfortunate position. They got their feet manacled into the stocks. Do you think they looked at one another and said, “Well, how do you feel, Paul? Feel like a little praise time?” Paul said, “I feel as bad as I have ever felt in all my life.” Silas says, “Well, you know, is God still God, Paul?” “Yes, he is.” “Is he still worthy of our praise, Paul?” “Yes, he is.” “Didn’t you write to one of the churches and tell them that they ought to be thankful in all circumstances?” “Yes, I did.” “Well, don’t you think then, that irrespective of how we’re feeling, we ought to give ourselves wholeheartedly to worshipping him?” Paul said, “Yeah, okay.” And so Silas gives the note, and the two of them launch into it, “and the other prisoners were listening to them.”
Let me wrap this, and then we can sing together a little. It’s clear, is it not, that not only does praise have an evangelistic impact, but praise also has an impact on our relationships with one another. Or, if you like, our relationships with one another also have an impact on our praise. In other words, it is not possible to praise God and sulk at the same time. But now someone says, “Oh, yes it is, I’ve done it.” Well, no. You and I may have participated in an event whereby there was melody and lyric that had to do with devotion to God, but in actual fact we were drawing near with our lips while our hearts were far from him. You see, praise and irritation cannot coexist. And the harmony of the people of God will be discovered by those who are not part of the people of God, not least of all in the sense of fervent unity that is expressed when God’s people worship. Also, you and I, in approaching the challenge and opportunity of praise, need to recognize the fact that it affects us personally as well; that through our pain and through our tears and through the journeys of our lives, we are recognizing that God is the God who even brings into our experience adversities, just as he did with Paul and Silas; and therefore he’s teaching us in order that we might praise him even when the circumstances seem counter to our praise. The idea that praise will always change my circumstances isn’t true, but it will change my heart, and that’s what needs changed.
Now, I may be being a little unkind to you tonight, saying you should see your faces, as if all your faces are gloomy; and you say, “Well, you should see your face, frankly,” and that’s a valid response. I accept that freely. But there are wonderful pictures from up here that you don’t get to see. The pictures from today, I have one clearly, the African American lady seven rows back, she’s etched on the computer program of today. An attorney over here, standing with his arm around his newly-turned-teenage boy with his arm around his shoulder as they sang together. These are priceless things. These are special views that I get. I called a little girl last night. She’s eight. She wrote to me this week. She wrote to me last week, actually, and she gave me a letter which I put inside my pocket and never took out till yesterday—because I hadn’t worn the jacket again—but when I took it out yesterday and read it, I had to phone her immediately, because she wrote me a note emerging from last Sunday to say that she was sorry that she was such a distraction to me in worship, and that she didn’t mean to keep leaning on her mom, and she was going to try and worship with her mum and dad in big church like a big girl, because that would be right to do. So I couldn’t wait to call her. And we talked for a while, and I told her that there was nobody drove his mother nuts in worship more than me. That I wrung the watch off my mother’s wrist saying, “How long? How long? How many more minutes? Do you think he’s finishing now? Is he going to stop? Can we go home? Can we go home immediately?” And I said, “and furthermore, I never even saw you. And if I had seen you, I would have been more happy that you were there than that you were having a hard time being there, ’cause I love the fact you’re here. And I don’t expect you to get it all, and I don’t expect you to understand it all, but I love the fact that your mum and dad have brought you and have embraced you so that, as you hear them praise God, you may come to praise him too.”
Now, loved ones, let us then remember that all of praise focuses on God and not me. For most of us, the problem lies with introspection, with self-pity, and with embarrassment. “Oh, what will others think?” Well, so what, what others think? Unless what we’re doing is a violation of the Bible, unless what we’re doing is immoral, unless somehow or another we’re just drawing attention to ourselves or seeking to do something that is disruptive, who cares what others think? Don’t you care what God thinks? You imagine the lady after she smashed the thing, going down the street? “Boy,” people are going, “Whoa, what is that stuff? Where did you get that? Nordstrom’s? What is that? Mmm, that smells good.” And then four or five other people come down the same street. The people are going, “Hmm, you know, you just smell like the lady that was down here fifteen minutes ago. Where have you been? What happened?” “Well, the lady came, and in an act of self-sacrifice, she broke that which was most precious to her, and the fragrance permeated the room and lingered on the lives of all concerned.”
Will you pray to that end for us as a congregation? Will you pray that there will be an anointing on the worship of God’s people when we gather? And that there will be that similar accompanying sense of the Spirit of God when we walk out into our communities, so that it will be supernaturally natural for us, one, to tell him that we love him when we’re here, and, two, to tell others that they might know him when we leave.
Father, out of all of these words, I pray that we might hear your voice, that those of us who have ears to hear might hear what the Spirit says to the churches, that you will stir us up as we think along these lines and make us a worshipping, witnessing community to the praise of your glory. We pray that our evening offering may be, in some measure, an expression of our desire to offer our lives to you. We hear the words of the prophet saying, “Through Jesus, let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” So then grant that, both in our silences and in our songs, there may be that accompanying, undergirding sense of your presence. For we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.
 John Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 2003), 116 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 11:25 (paraphrased).
 Jarrod Cooper, “King of Kings, Majesty,” (1998) (paraphrased).
 Mark 14 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 13:15 (paraphrased).
[MOU1]One of the reasons … that our worship is as ineffective as it is, is because there is no purposeful taking, and there is no meaningful breaking.