The Kingdom of God – its nature and power and purpose – is, and has almost always been, a very misunderstood doctrine. In Jesus’ day, under the awful leadership of the Pharisees and Sadducees, many Israelites associated God’s Kingdom with political liberty and economic prosperity so that many were looking for a Messiah whose primary job was to free them and their land from Roman rule. Many today still think of the Kingdom of God in purely earthly terms. This view is seen very crassly in the “Evangelical Right’s” determination to enforce Biblical morality and make America a “Christian” nation again through the power of legislation and law. But this view can also be found in subtle ways in otherwise faithful churches when the emphasis shifts from God and his Word to strategies, numbers, money, influence, personalities or buildings. All efforts to define or describe God’s Kingdom in visible, measurable terms are bound to be misleading because Jesus said: the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21) Christ is risen and he is ruling the universe for the good of his church, but his rule today is largely invisible because he rules in our hearts by his Word. That being said, we can see the fruits, the results of our Risen Savior’s work. Today we get to see an example of God growing his kingdom and his power to direct the mission, to open hearts to believe and respond.
We meet the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey. He has just finished visiting the congregations he established on his first journey and having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia is looking for new, untouched fields in which to sow the seed of the Gospel. Little did Paul realize, but God was about to use him to expand his kingdom to a brand new continent: during the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia (part of modern-day Greece) standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia.
Founded by Philip of Macedon (best known as the father of Alexander the Great) Philippi was a major trading center and enjoyed the privileges of being a Roman colony – meaning that its inhabitants possessed the rights of Roman citizens; they were represented in the Roman government, they lived under Roman law, and enjoyed the protection of the Roman military. Paul and his companions, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (Acts 15:40; 16:3, 10) stayed there for several days. God had commanded Paul to go first to the Jews (Acts 13:46) and so Paul’s custom was to find the local synagogue and start his evangelical work there. But, lacking the 10 male Jews necessary to form a synagogue, there was none in Philippi.  So on the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. Why would Paul expect to find believing Jews near a river on the Sabbath? Basic logic. The ceremonial washings prescribed in the OT required lots of water, and so faithful believers regularly gathered near water.  While there weren’t enough male Jews to form a synagogue, there were faithful women. And Paul took this opportunity to preach the Gospel of Christ to them. (Hardly the portrait of a male chauvinist that Paul is often made out to be today.)
How did this all happen? How did Paul happen to be on a riverbank on the Sabbath talking to a group of women about Jesus? How had the Gospel come – for the very first time – to the continent of Europe, a revolutionary event which not only brought Christianity to Italy, Germany, and Britain, but eventually to America and through the centuries to our ears and hearts? Luke is clear: it wasn’t their brilliant planning or strategizing – Paul and his companions had not planned to come to Philippi, it all happened by God’s power and direction. This is also a concrete example of the doctrine of election. Lydia, and the other women there who received and believed the good news of Christ had been chosen by God to believe and be saved before the creation of the world (Romans 8:29-30) – and God followed through by sending them a former Christian-killing Pharisee (Acts 8:1) to preach the Gospel to create saving faith in their hearts. Paul may have been the instrument, but God was clearly directing the mission.
God is still the one responsible for building and directing the work in his kingdom – and he still does it in what may seem like unlikely or coincidental ways. While God’s hand in our lives may not be as obvious as a vision in the night – it is no less true that God is guiding every step of our lives. You are alive because God knit you together in your mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13) You live in America – not Iran or North Korea – because God determined that this was where he wanted you to live. (Acts 17:26) You heard and believed the Gospel because God chose you to believe and be saved before the creation of the world. (Ephesians 1:4-5) You went to the schools you went to, met your spouse, own the home you own, and have the job you have – all because God planned and directed it down to the smallest detail. Christians sometimes torture themselves, wondering if they’ve made the right decisions regarding those or other important things – and so the first thing this story teaches us is to trust that even though many things are out of our control – God is in control and if he doesn’t want something to happen, it won’t.
As you look to the past – I pray that you can see God’s hand in your life and that the Spirit would bless you with the faith to trust that the same will be true tomorrow and next year. We can’t say much with certainty about the future, but our Savior’s resurrection proves that God’s will is always done. And as God puts you exactly where he wants you exactly when he wants – there’s one thing you can be sure of: he’s put you there to bear fruit. This does not mean that we all have to be Paul. We are NOT all missionaries like he was. Most pastors today are not even missionaries in the same sense that Paul was. If you work in an office setting – for example – God does not expect you to preach about sin and grace to every customer or client you deal with. But he does, nonetheless give you the grace and strength to bear fruits, results of your faith – through which he can open hearts to inquire about the Gospel. He may do it through your diligent work ethic, through your refusal to participate in office gossip and politics, through your distinctly Christian worldview, through the activities you allow your child to participate in (and those you don’t), even through your brilliant observation that school shootings and sexual assault are not the result of guns or gender inequality – but the result of sinful hearts that are always evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5) Those may not seem like earth-shaking “kingdom-growing” events – but then again, neither was Paul sitting down with a small group of women next to a river. Just like Paul, we may be uncertain about many things in life – but we can be certain that God is directing things and he is growing his kingdom in our own hearts and in this world.
That’s the broad sketch. Now let’s get to some specifics. How does God get his mission accomplished? One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. By all indications, Lydia was a proselyte – a Greek convert to Judaism. She had heard and believed the Old Testament Scriptures – along with its promises of a Savior. But she hadn’t yet heard that the promised Savior had come. Her faith was incomplete. And how did God remedy that situation? Paul spoke about Jesus and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
Again, Luke makes it very clear that it was not Paul’s savvy, strategy, or skill that created faith in Lydia’s heart – but the power of the Holy Spirit working through the simple Gospel message. Paul’s confidence – and our confidence – is not in ourselves but in the Word. As he later wrote to the Romans: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17) It’s always been important, but especially in these days of misguided ideas of God’s kingdom and church growth, to understand that the only instrument God uses to grow his kingdom is the Word. The Kingdom of God isn’t built by beautiful buildings, powerful preachers (which Paul himself admits he was not (2 Corinthians 10:10)), emotional, professionally produced worship services, awesome children’s programs, clever marketing strategies or campaigns to feed the hungry and house the homeless.
God builds his kingdom with the Gospel. And if that doesn’t seem like a powerful or efficient tool, just consider it. God’s one and only Son left his place in heaven to become one of us. For thirty-three years he lived in this world, dealt with danger and temptation and betrayal – and through it all he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus was wrongfully accused, charged and sentenced to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, and three days later he rose again. But the real power of that message is what it means for us. God now credits Jesus’ perfect, righteous, flawless life to our account. Every last one of our sins from the last week, last year, and last decade have been washed away in the flood of Jesus’ precious blood. Through faith in Jesus we receive forgiveness, the assurance that our lives are in God’s hands now, and the guarantee of life eternal. Churches and kingdoms and movements have risen and fallen, but this message has survived and thrived despite persecution and corruption and the every one of Satan’s attacks for thousands of years. This is the message of salvation that God uses to build his kingdom in human hearts like ours. This is the message that opens hearts to believe and changes lives forever.
And, whenever God has opened a heart to believe in Christ, he also opens that heart to respond to his grace. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. Now, it might be tempting to focus on Lydia’s hospitality as her primary response to the Gospel. It’s not. The first and primary fruit of her faith was her desire to be baptized. Paul may have echoed Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) Lydia wanted to enter God’s kingdom. She wanted to be baptized. She wanted to receive all the gifts God had promised through that precious sacrament. And she didn’t just want those blessings for herself, she wanted them for her entire household.
When we think of our fruits of faith I think we typically think first of the offerings, the time, the energy, the effort we give for God and his Church. And while those are fruits of faith, they are not the first or most important fruit. The most important fruit – the fruit without which Jesus says there will be no other fruit – is a desire to remain in Jesus (John 15:4) by hearing and receiving the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Think of it this way: unbelievers can donate their money and time to worthy causes, they can be kind and compassionate and responsible and hospitable – often to a greater degree than many believers. But only believers want to be baptized and have their children baptized, want to receive the Lord’s Supper, and want to make it a daily and weekly priority to spend time in God’s Word. And we see in the example of Lydia that if that fruit is present – then other fruit will come. Practically speaking, if we remain in Jesus and he remains in us through the Word, then we won’t have to worry about having enough money to pay the bills, volunteers to clean the church or cut the grass, or finding leaders who are dedicated to serving in God’s kingdom – Jesus promises that those will come as naturally and inevitably as an apple tree produces apples (Luke 6:43-45) – and all according to his direction. That’s how God established his kingdom 2000 years ago by bringing Paul to Europe to a woman named Lydia who believed and responded to the Gospel message (later, the Philippian church that began in Lydia’s household became one of Paul’s primary supporters (Philippians 4:10-20)) – that’s how God continues to grow his kingdom today.
Many people are depressed and distressed about the state of the Christian church in America. We aren’t. God is growing his kingdom, he’s saving more people each and every day. He chooses the direction, he opens hearts to believe and respond through the power of his Gospel. We are sure of this because Christ is risen. And so our prayer is not one of desperation or despair, but of confidence: Lord, let your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
 Kistemaker, Acts, p. 589