...nothing but the truth...
Week 19, Day 3 …nothing but the truth.
Acts 16. 16-34
“While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘ These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ ” Acts 16: 17
The entire text for this week is given below. You may want to read through it a time or two before proceeding.
In response to a dream, Paul sails across the Aegean Sea and takes his first step into Macedonia, just north of Greece. He’s in Europe now; still the Roman Empire, of course, but this is not native territory for Paul. It must have felt strange—ominous even, for them to be taking their gospel message into a new world so far from home.
They arrive in Philippi and spend several days wandering the streets, talking to anyone who would engage in conversation (see Acts 16: 11-15). There wasn’t a large Jewish presence in Philippi. So Paul’s message of a Jewish Messiah fulfilling the promises of the God of Israel in a tiny, conquered province hundreds of miles to the west would likely have sounded exotic to Philippian ears.
And as if that wasn’t hard enough, Paul’s work is further complicated by a little fortune-telling slave girl tagging along day after day, loudly co-opting their message. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” she shouts.
In an off handed way, this young woman illustrates a problem deeply embedded in all talk about God—that when we talk about God it is likely that we are, at one and the same time, speaking truth and speaking falsehood.
“Most High God”, you see, was a title given to the God of Israel. Paul would have recognized this. However, it was also the title given by the Greeks to their chief god Zeus and by the Romans to the emperor Caesar Augustus. Paul would have recognized that, as well. So it wasn’t clear—was she telling the truth? Was she lying? Was she, under the influence of her “spirit of divination”, working to subvert Paul’s message and confuse the people he was trying reach? Or was the Spirit of Paul’s God simply using the means at hand (the fortune-telling slave girl) to aid in proclaiming the gospel?
Any one, but not all of these, is possible. How can you tell which is right?
When you speak of God, how do you know if you are telling the truth, or telling the truth as you understand it, or telling the “truth” as you were given it as a child but haven’t thought about since? Suppose you were able to speak the truth. How can you know if your words are being correctly understood or are being misinterpreted by a person for whom the word “God” means something very different than it does to you?
And this question for good measure—Can you tell the truth about God in a conversation where the purpose of the conversation is to intellectually or theologically vanquish (that is, thoroughly shut up) your conversation partner?
These are interesting and important questions. People who follow Jesus want, above all, to tell the truth about God. Our hearts break when we fail. The truth is, though, telling the truth is not easy.
So perhaps the truer truth is this: in all our conversations about God, and especially in our proclamations, there is ample room, and need, for humility.
Prayer: There is truth undeniable in the love showered on our world by your generous hand, Gracious God. Teach us this language of love so we may, with all our lives, be always telling your truth. Amen.
Acts 16. 16-34
16 One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped.
28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ 31They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
35 When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let those men go.’ 36And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.’ 37But Paul replied, ‘They have beaten us in public, un-condemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.’
38The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; 39so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.