A couple of years or so back, Renault ran an advertising campaign on the style of a documentary which attempted to establish a link between the number of Renault Meganes in a town and the amount of joy experienced by people in the community!
Can a car change a town?
A much more significant question is whether the gospel can change a town and it is one that, in a sense, is explored by the book of Acts. Luke’s 28 chapters, detailing the rapid expansion of the gospel over a 30 year period, during which time it spreads from a handful of people in Jerusalem until it reaches Rome, is an account of what happens when the gospel comes to town.
At the start, Jesus had given his disciples their marching orders: witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and on to the ends of the earth (the story is still being written – we are Acts 29). As the story unfolds, we find the gospel making its way to Samaria, Caesarea, Antioch, Athens and Rome and other places.
Places like Philippi.
The Philippi story is significant because it marks the arrival of the gospel in mainland Europe: here the first European church take root. Interestingly, in telling the story of Philippi, Luke zeros in on the stories of three individuals.
- A religious woman called Lydia. In the absence of a synagogue in the city (the Jewish population must have been ver small), Paul and his colleagues discover a place of prayer by the river. Here they meet several women, including Lydia: ‘a worshipper of God.’ Not only was she religious, she was also a successful businesswoman. It’s not always the case that people who are successful or people who are religious are open to the gospel. However the Lord opened Lydia’s heart and she was baptised as the first European Christian.
- A demonised slave. The second story highlights the plight of someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from Lydia. This demonised girl had an ability to tell fortunes. Her life was controlled by men who saw her as an opportunity to make money. She was doubly a slave – once to her exploiters and once to the demon who controlled her. In the name of Jesus she was set free. That was good news for her but unwelcome news for her pimps who could see that their source of income had gone. Their anger led Paul and Silas to be thrown into prison where they met the third character.
- A jail-keeper. He may have been a former Roman soldier and while his training and experience had equipped him to handle the clientele of the prison, he had probably not been over-educated in ‘the milk of human kindness’ (as FF Bruce points out). He had no concern for the physical condition of the newly arrived prisoners or for the justice of their cause. His job was to keep them from getting away. That they didn’t escape was no real credit to the jail-keeper. Roman jail-keepers are no real match when an earthquake opens the doors and loosens everyone’s chains. In fact the earthquake brought this man to his knees. And brought him to Jesus.
- When the gospel comes to town, it touches and transforms the lives of individuals. But when it really makes an impact, it challenges some of the economic structures. Here it was a particular manifestation of the slave trade. In Ephesus it was an economy built on the manufacture of idols.
- When the gospel comes to town, it does not respect social barriers. It is for the rich as well as the poor. It is for the religious and the secular. It is fascinating to notice that these stories present a woman, a slave and a Gentile. It is known that in the ancient world a Jewish man might thank God that he was not a slave, a Gentile or a woman (there was a similar Greek version). And fascinating that Paul wrote to the Galatian church that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free and no male and female. The gospel cuts across distinctions of race, class and gender.