When we think of outbreaks and pandemics our minds immediately think of those that have been impacted by COVID-19. If we look in the past, we see outbreaks of cholera, the Bubonic plague, SARS, HIV/Aids, Ebola, and others. Greg Stier in his book Outbreak: Creating a Contagious Youth Ministry Through Viral Evangelism, argues that viruses are among some of the strongest and deadly forces on the Earth. They spread easily, are difficult to contain, and can overwhelm a person’s life and the region they live in. Stier challenges the reader to consider the connection of the spread of the gospel with a virus outbreak, only this time it is bringing life rather than disease and death. The enemy has done everything they could to “contain” the gospel, but the gospel is still spreading today. If you are a follower of Christ, you have been “infected” with the gospel. Now you are a carrier of the gospel on a mission to “infect” other souls. As we look in the book of Acts, we see major “viral outbreaks” of the gospel. The enemy did everything to thwart the gospel, but it continued to spread around the world. God can spread the gospel despite some of the fiercest opposition the world has to offer, and has a history of doing so.
As we study the book of Philippians, I am reminded that God sometimes uses trials to grow the church. That was certainly the case for Paul and Silas in Philippi. There are three central characters in Acts 16 that were reached with the gospel during their ministry. The first mentioned in Acts 16:11-15 was a wealthy woman by the name of Lydia who owned a purple textiles business. Lydia’s home became somewhat of a “home base” for the missionaries. The second was a demon possessed slave girl that was used to help business owners make predictions for financial gain in Acts 16:16-19. Even the girl with the unclean spirit identified and harassed Paul and Silas as “Servants of the Most High God”, and guessed their purpose of evangelism. Paul having enough of the demonic harassment ordered the demon to come out in the authority of Jesus Christ. The girl having been set free, lost her ability to fortune tell that came through demonic control, and it angered the slave masters that profited off her. The angered masters took Paul and Silas before the magistrates to be thrown unjustly in prison. Due to Paul being a Roman citizen and having certain rights, this was unlawful of the magistrates.
Paul and Silas were stripped and publicly beaten before all. They were thrown into prison. What would you do in Paul’s shoes? Would you be angry at the setbacks or humiliation? Would you get angry at God? Would you try to fight against the unlawful government that placed you in prison thus violating your rights? What happens next is remarkable. “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). After being beaten and thrown in jail, they decided to worship the Lord. Even while the missionaries sat in prison, God had a plan for this situation. We often focus on the beginning of the verse and not the end. While it is remarkable the men were able to worship during this difficult trial, there was a reason for their suffering. At the end of the verse we see that “the prisoners were listening to them”. The world was watching these brothers as they suffered. I’m sure many of the prisoners committed offenses and were there for just reasons. These prisoners were watching these men imprisoned for unjust reasons and they were worshiping with unshakable joy. What a testimony to the lost! As we go through trials, we must be reminded that the world is watching. What is our testimony? Is our testimony unshakable joy in Jesus Christ or one of defeat?
Finally, we get to the last character in the story, and it was highly unlikely person the Lord saved, the jailer. The prison was shattered in a devastating earthquake, and Paul and Silas had the opportunity to escape (Acts 16:26). Due to customs, if a jailer lost a prisoner it would be a great dishonor and they were often executed or committed suicide. Paul and Silas owed nothing to this jailer and could have escaped. They decided to stay, and stayed the jailer from killing himself (Acts 16:27-34). The jailer surrendered to Christ, and we know that the gospel continued to spread in Philippi despite everything seemingly stacked against our missionaries, but God had a plan to use all of those setbacks for His glory. As we face the uncertain times in the future, let us be reminded and encouraged that God can use any trial to spread the gospel. We are being watched by the world right now. What will our testimony be? Did we serve and care for people in the love and grace of Jesus Christ? Did we share the gospel with those around us? Did we worship the Lord with unshakable joy? Let us endeavor to ensure that we have a positive answer for each of those questions.