"Prisoners Set a Jailer Free"
June 27, 2010 Acts 16:16-34
HOW SAFE IS "SAFE"?
Praise God, summer is officially here - long sunny days, opportunities to be outside, and the sound of sports. In baseball, one of the most welcome signs an umpire can make as a runner crosses the plate is both arms straight out - 'Safe!' Or if soccer's your game, what do you want your team's goalie to make a lot of? Saves. Watching the FIFA World Cup from South Africa, some of the saves the goalies make can be quite dramatic!
In life as in sports, being 'safe' is very important. Much money has been spent and many extra police brought in to provide security for the current G8 and G20 summits here in Ontario. We do up our seat-belts, strap in our baby-seats, put on our bicycle helmets, arrange travel medical insurance, and stash extra income away in RRSPs all in an effort to feel safe and secure. Yet circumstances remind us how fragile life is. This past Wednesday much of Ontario and Quebec experienced the sudden shocks of an earthquake, reminding us we're never absolutely safe, physically speaking. We as a family actually have a personal connection to this earthquake: last August we spent a week at a cabin in Quebec and were canoing on Lake Echo, the epicentre of this week's quake! That's a bit too close for comfort.
In today's passage from the book of Acts, Paul and Silas show us that, however insecure this life may be, believers in Christ can be secure knowing God despite the worst that happens. These prisoners 'free' a jailer from threats that could destroy him. It takes a jailer - who ought to know a thing or two about security - it takes a jailer to show the blessing that flows from being 'saved' eternally.
THE STRONGHOLD OF PHILIPPI
Our story takes place in Philippi, a leading city at the eastern edge of Macedonia, the first area in Europe Paul and Silas enter on their second missionary journey. Philippi was a stronghold in many respects not unlike the 'strongholds' characterizing our society today. The city straddled a major trade route: it was very strategic, any movement that 'caught on' here could spread quickly throughout the whole empire. It was a prominent city of the gold-producing region of Macedonia. Yes, I said gold! Wealth is a stronghold of Canadian culture today - we trust in our RRSPs and property and other investments for security.
It had a proud history. It was a Roman colony, settled mainly by retired soldiers who had been given land in the vicinity in reward for their faithful service to Caesar. There's another type of stronghold: we trust in military might for security. Having some RCMP and OPP around can help you feel safe.
As Roman citizens, the residents of Philippi enjoyed distinct rights as if they lived in Rome the capital itself. The NIV Study Bible notes, "They pride themselves on being Romans, dressed like Romans and often spoke Latin." They looked to codified law to maintain social order. Nationalistic pride - another stronghold. This cultural satellite relished the Roman way of living, complete with communal baths, a forum, theatre, and library. The comforts and level of morality of our North American way of life can be a stronghold - we excuse or justify our behaviour saying 'the neighbours are doing it so I shouldn't feel guilty about it'.
Interestingly, there were not enough Jewish men in the city to maintain a synagogue: 10 was the number required. Couple that with the charges against Paul and Silas and we can surmise a certain degree of anti-Semitism: prejudice in being Roman and detesting others. Prejudice is another major stronghold.
THE TORMENT: DOWNWARD STEPS TO THE DUNGEON
Now here come Paul and Silas. How will the Christian gospel fare in this no-man's land of pagan power and pride? In Acts 16:16 we read of them being met by a slave girl possessed by a demon or python-spirit by which she predicted the future. For many days she provided some free unsolicited advertising for the missionaries, following them shouting (v17), "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." All very true, but it wore on Paul day after day, and he really did not want his message linked to promotion by demonic agents! So one day he turned and addressed the spirit: "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" (18) And, given the authority Jesus has over everything in heaven and earth, the evil spirit had to go. Just like back in Mark 5(7ff) when Jesus cast the "Legion" of demons out of a man who similarly had shouted at Him that He was "Jesus, Son of the Most High God!"
But Paul's righteous, freeing deed backfired. V16 tells us the slave girl "earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling." Several people were on the bandwagon, depending on this poor troubled child for their livelihood. For them, this was a cash cow, they like being on a payroll from the underworld. All that suddenly stopped when Paul exorcized the demon: the girl was healthy and normal again, so, v19, her owners "realized that their hope of making money was gone." Did they get upset! How would we react if our income was suddenly affected - perhaps by a company downsizing, or relocating, or a health condition that interferes? Is money a stronghold for us?
I was talking this week with a man who has gone through 2 job changes in the past few years. When his long-time employer laid him off, he was thankful to find a job after searching with another company. But then he lost that job after just 3 months! He wondered why God had led him to it just to take it away again. But now, looking back, he acknowledges his current job is much better than the previous one. But he didn't know that - couldn't have known that - at that time. The Lord was leading Him to find security in Him rather than an earthly employer.
The slave girl's owners are perhaps a bit today like the evil people who profit from the child sex slave trade. There's big money in it, but what damnable business, to get rich from the repeated and perpetual abuse of children! When their business vanishes, the slave girl's owners go ballistic. From v19 through the 5 following verses I count 8 steps in the degradation, abuse, and harsh belittlement of Paul and Silas: they seized them; dragged them into the market to face the authorities; v22 the crowd joined in the attack against the apostles; the magistrates ordered Paul and Silas stripped - how humiliating; they also ordered them beaten (it was unlawful to beat a Roman citizen, but Paul and Silas wouldn't be heard over the roar of the crowd if they did protest. V23 they were SEVERELY flogged; Roman law did not limit the punishment to 39 lashes as Jewish law did. Beaten with rods, like a pile of wheat might be flailed, but this mound yielded blood not grain. Sixth, they were 'thrown' into prison. When the jailer was warned especially to guard them carefully, he relegated them to the safest, most secure corner he could think of: 'the hole', v24 the 'inner cell' - no light, no air flow once the door slammed shut, dank and musty, smelly and filthy, probably never cleaned out after the previous inhabitants. Chucked in there with open bleeding wounds - how's that for risk of infection? And the final indignity, the jailer 'fastened their feet in the stocks'. These stocks weren't just for security: legs were spread wide before the feet were clamped so it was also an instrument of torture. Meanwhile your bodily needs just carry on. The ultimate in humiliation, shame, and degradation.
Is that where some of you are? Do you feel trapped, locked in to a painful situation? Have you lost hope? Does it seem like no one cares, you've been forgotten and abandoned? Do your circumstances seem insurmountable, as if there's no escape? Jesus is there beside you; He who hung on a cross understands all about our human torture, derision, and abandonment.
See what Paul and Silas get for challenging the strongholds of Philippi? How Christian principles clash with contemporary culture's values? Freeing the girl spiritually meant challenging the money stronghold. Look closely at the charges they face in v20: "These men are Jews (prejudice), and are throwing our city into an uproar (challenging our accepted ways and status quo) by advocating customs (vs our way of life, our culture, our Hollywood pleasurable lifestyle) unlawful (and we are Roman citizens, protected by the law-wall) for US ROMANS (nationalism, prejudice - we're not like them) to accept or practice." The violent reaction, the crowd of military retirees joining in the attack against these despised Jews, reminds me of Canada's former Airborne regiment with such hostility attacking pesky Somalian petty thieves. Somewhere along the line, sane men stopped reasoning, it became an animal gut-level deadly reaction.
Trusting in Jesus as your supreme authority flies in the face of all sorts of idols or strongholds people otherwise look to to give them significance or pleasure or power. They won't appreciate the way your faith critiques their paganism. Are you ready, like the apostles, to endure abuse for the sake of your Lord? Is your lifestyle truly counter-cultural for Christ, or are you 'fitting in' a little too cozily?
AN ALMIGHTY BASS ACCOMPANIMENT: ALREADY FREE
Beaten within an inch of their life - bleeding - sore - naked and bruised - head pounding - dragged through the streets, chucked into a dismal dark hole, legs stretched painfully as if to tear them - you'd say Paul and Silas had reason to be upset, even to grumble at God a bit! But what do we find them doing? V25, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them." Amazing! How could they possibly be doing that, being so positive, even singing praise to God? It would seem they had every right to be locked up in bitterness because everybody was picking on them for a good deed done to a slave girl. But they were already free on the inside. As she'd admitted, they were "servants of the Most High God", so if He'd allowed this to happen, He must have a plan. They didn't focus on their immediate surroundings (as if they could, in pitch darkness!); they looked beyond with the eyes of faith, they saw the big picture. As the writer to the Hebrews observed, they were like Moses who "persevered because he saw Him who is invisible." (Heb 11:27) They were looking to Jesus; as it says, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Heb 12:2-3)
Small wonder the other prisoners were listening to them; how often do inmates hear songs of praise echoing from The Hole?
Paul was practising what he later wrote to the church there at Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!...Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Php 4:4,6f) Who was guarding Paul that night? Not just the jailer. As Paul prayed and sang, presenting his need, 'the peace of God' was guarding his heart and mind in Christ (literally, garrisoning, to protect by a military guard). That's the most safe and secure place to be in all the world. Their joy was genuine, and it was catching others' notice.
Suddenly their a cappella tenor was joined by a booming accompaniment. The very earth itself groaned aloud, bellering in a violent earthquake, shaking the prison foundations, pulling the door hinges out of the rock-hewn walls, and everybody's chains came loose. Jesus is Mighty King over all the strongholds this world can devise! God's power proved that by busting the governor-sealed tomb on Easter morning. Prejudice and human pride and greed and enslavement, and every other evil that binds, must bow before the Sovereign Lord.
The sleeping jailer woke and, realizing his life would be forfeit if the prisoners had escaped, prepared to do himself in. Here is a point of delightful irony in Scripture: it would be hilarious if it weren't so serious! He thinks they've fled, but really they're all still there. Can't you just see the look on his face when Paul cries out, "Don't harm yourself - we are all here"? (HUH?!) Fooled you! These aren't your ordinary prisoners.
Isn't that the urgency of the gospel today? People in our time are throwing their lives away, doing themselves in - if sometimes more slowly - yet their salvation is right within grasp through the good news of Jesus. This week in a waiting room I was passing the time by watching a broadcast of "Dr Phil" titled "Moms Who Drink". He was attempting to show a mother who had a 13-year-old daughter the danger she was putting herself and her girl in by her endless drinking. He had a coffin wheeled in on stage, had her touch it, hold it, and said, "There's your future." Then he had a second coffin wheeled in, a child's coffin, representing what could happen to her if the mom drove drunk and they had a fatal accident. He made her put her hand on it too and said, "There's your daughter's future; you're putting her there." Tough medicine but it was getting the point across of the damage that awaited them both unless she quit her habitual drinking.
Romans 6:23 says, "The wages of sin is death." People all over are killing themselves by wrong choices - not as dramatically as the jailer with dagger drawn, but as surely. And Dr Phil was just talking about the end of this life, not what awaits sinners in eternity. Are we ready with Paul to cry out, "Don't harm yourself!" There's no need - Jesus can save you!
BELIEF'S BENEFITS - MERCY, CONNECTION, JOY
When the relieved jailer called for lights and rushed in to see these very strange 'prisoners' who were yet so 'free' and in charge of a situation. Falling trembling before them, he begged to know, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" That's simple, they answered - "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household." And so it happened. After Paul and Silas (v32) "spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house", he and all his family were baptized.
Instead of suicide, we can observe three wonderful benefits that befell our friend the jailer. First, mercy: v33 he washed their wounds, and v34, he set a meal before them. Being saved from the prison of our own sin opens our hearts to see (maybe for the first time) and respond to the needs of others - genuinely caring for them, whereas before we were absorbed in our own pain and bitterness.
Second, a real benefit is connection: he and his family were baptized, joined in faith as a family or household unit, and joined to God in spirit. At Jesus' baptism the Spirit of God descended visibly like a dove (Mt 3:16). As Paul wrote in Romans 8(15f), "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children." A sense of connectedness with God Himself.
A third benefit of believing in Jesus is joy. Luke notes in v34, "The jailer...was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family." What a change! From absolute despair - being ready to throw his life away - to being filled with joy.
Don't settle for trusting in lesser forms of security that last only for a short time in this world. Hold out for what's far better - the joy and peace of believing in the Lord Jesus and being saved for eternity. When you're beaten, He can heal you; when you're unlawfully accused, He'll defend you; from any dungeon or demon, He can deliver you. Let's pray.