“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).

You discover your theology at midnight.

Until then, it’s all theoretical. When midnight comes, you discover the difference between theory and reality. I used to think that I learned my theology during the four years I spent at seminary. But that’s not quite true. For one thing, I already knew what I believed before I went to seminary. Those four years of systematic theology, Greek, Hebrew, Bible exposition, church history and world missions gave me depth and breadth and perspective. I suppose looking back, I would say that in seminary I learned how much I didn’t know, and I was given the tools to learn more when I was out on my own.

When I graduated from seminary I felt like most graduates do–that I could answer any question that came my way. Back then I had very definite opinions about everything, including many areas where my knowledge was actually quite shallow. I say that with a smile because it’s good for young people to think they can conquer the world. Where would we be without some young bucks to challenge the status quo, to make us feel uncomfortable, and to push the envelope? I like it when I meet young folks with big dreams about what they want to do for God. In this fragile, unpredictable world, we need the fire of optimism that cries out, “Let’s take that city for God!” So God bless the young men and women who believe that all things-yes, all things!-are possible, and who have no time or patience for those who ask questions or say, “Perhaps we should think about that for awhile.”

Not an Easy Road

Paul seems to have been that sort of man. Perhaps it was inevitable that a man who had been zealous against Christ before his conversion would be equally zealous for Christ afterward. Armed with nothing more than the gospel of Jesus, he spearheaded the Christian movement through Turkey into Greece and on to Rome, the capital of the Empire and the greatest city in the world. He was, it seems, a force of nature. A man possessed by one great idea ("this one thing I do"), he proceeded to preach Christ wherever his name had not been preached so that those who had never heard might come to saving faith.

But it wasn’t an easy road. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 he enumerates some of his hardships:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

When he mentions being in prison frequently, he perhaps did so with a bit of a wry smile because it was while he and Silas were in prison in Philippi that God worked a wonderful miracle on his behalf.  The story as told in Acts 16 goes like this. After casting an evil spirit out of a slave girl, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison for what we today would probably call disrupting the peace. The two men were beaten, thrown in jail, put under close guard, and placed in the inner cell with their feet bound in stocks.

It was not a pleasant situation.

So what do you do when you have been arrested, beaten, imprisoned, placed under guard, with your feet bound in stocks, for nothing more than preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ?

If you are Paul and Silas and it’s midnight, you start praying and singing hymns of praise to God. Acts 16:25 says that the other prisoners were listening to them. No doubt these two strangers looked like a mess after being severely beaten. The fact that they were in stocks and under close guard told the other prisoners that Paul and Silas were not ordinary criminals. So I ask again, what do you do at midnight?

The answer is, it all depends on your theology, which you generally don’t discover until midnight. At that point you can’t walk over to your library to pull out some book on theology, and you can’t rifle through that big stack of notes from your Greek class to see what it says to do when you’ve been arrested. You don’t have access to a computer so you can’t send an email or update Facebook or Twitter your friends.

In that lonely moment, you discover your theology. You find out what’s real and what’s purely theoretical.

Recently I read a short story about Major Ian Thomas, founder of Torchbearers International, that mentioned a saying that was fundamental to his understanding of the Christian life:

Go where you’re sent,
Stay where you’re put,
Give what you’ve got.

The wisdom of that advice struck me, and as I meditated upon it, I began to consider what great biblical principles it represents. It throws light on the darkness of that prison cell in Philippi where Paul and Silas were singing and praying at midnight.

You can read the rest of the message online.

You can reach the author at ray@keepbelieving.com. Click here to sign up for the free weekly email sermon.