Acts: The Chain Breaker
As we return to our journey through Acts, we find Paul and Silas imprisoned in the city of Philippi. Their crime? Paul cast out an evil spirit from a slave girl in the name of Jesus Christ, which cost her owners some money because she could no longer function as a fortune-teller. Let’s pick up the story there beginning with Acts 16:25, and we’ll read through to the end of the chapter. Please stand and let us read the Word of God together aloud.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer[a] called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
Remember that Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned without a trial. The description of what happened that we read about last week was nothing short of a mob scene instigated by the owners of a slave girl who were furious that their income stream had been compromised. The crowds were whipped up into a lynch mob, the magistrates got swept up as well and completely ignored standard legal procedures…it was a dark, highly emotionally charged slugfest…it was a nightmare.
Now, as we zoom into the prison cell where Paul and Silas are confined…their feet bound by wooden stocks…their wrists chained to fetters on the walls of the prison…bodies beaten black and blue from the clubbing they had received earlier in the day…here’s what we find in vs. 25, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”
Many of us have read or heard this story many times, so we are not surprised by this information…but we should be. Don’t let your familiarity with this story rob you of its profound irony. People who have been unjustly accused, arrested, beaten, and imprisoned are not likely to be found singing and praying at midnight! Something here is weird, unexpected, and begging an explanation…why are they singing hymns? Who are they praying to? How is it that they are not moaning and crying and shouting for justice?
Do you recognize what Paul and Silas are doing at midnight in this prison? They are having a worship service, right! They are having church…and they are not alone. Luke records that the prisoners are leaning in…they are listening to every word. Can you picture that scene in your imagination? Can you see Paul and Silas, there in the dark, dusty cell, bodies broken and bleeding, chained and shackled, and yet they are worshipping God?
Why are they worshipping God? Here’s why: because several weeks ago God had given them a vision to bring the Gospel to the people in Macedonia, and in a very short time they had already seen a woman named Lydia come to the Lord and open her house to them, and they had seen a Pythonic spirit cast out of a poor slave girl through the mighty name of Jesus Christ! God was on the move in Macedonia…the Gospel was spreading…and so there was great reason to sing and pray and worship God…even in the prison cell.
Paul and Silas demonstrate here that the mission to make Christ known is what matters most…the mission matters more than their comfort. The mission matters more than their personal entitlement to justice and due process. Seeing people set free in the name of Jesus Christ is sufficient for their souls…so they will give thanks and worship God…even if therit worship service must take place in a Macedonian jail cell.
In addition to the prisoners, there is Another who hears their prayers and receives their worship…it is the Lord of all creation…and in response to their worship, He moves with power.
Look at vs. 26, “…and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were open, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”
Earthquakes were common in ancient Macedonia, but this earthquake is no ordinary occurrence. God demonstrates His power not only in rocking the foundations of the prison, but also in breaking the chains that held the prisoners captive, such that every prisoner is immediately unchained.
The imagery here is all we have to work with, but it is powerful to behold. God, the Great Chain Breaker, sees the injustice that has come upon His servants, Paul and Silas. He does not prevent the injustice from taking place, but He sees it. And when His servants pray and sing hymns of praise in the midst of that injustice, God moves with power, and in so doing, not only are Paul and Silas set free, but so are those who have been part of their worship service! Can there be any doubt at this moment that God is FOR Paul and Silas, that God is with Paul and Silas, and that God is against those who have unjustly beat and imprisoned His servants?
Clearly that is exactly the way the jailer is interpreting this moment. Now, we first met this jailer last week in vss. 23 and 24. Remember that he had received orders from the Magistrates there in Philippi to keep the prisoners safely. So the jailer put them into the inner prison…the most secure cell…and he fastened their feet in the stocks…extra insurance that the prisoners would not escape under his watch.
But now, in the middle of the night, the jailer rushes into the inner prison only to discover amidst the rubble and the dust that the doors of the cells are open. The jailer assumes all the prisoners have escaped, and he panics. He knows that according to Roman law, if a prisoner escapes under his watch, the magistrates will have him executed. No doubt the jailer is also thinking that the God who just sent an earthquake and freed the prisoners will also come after him for his role in locking the prisoners into those cells. Consequently, Luke writes that the jailer pulls out his sword and is just about to kill himself when Paul notices the situation and intervenes. Look at vs. 28, “But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’”
Here again is another moment of mystery and irony. If the doors were opened and the chains broken through the powerful earthquake, why would the prisoners still be in their cells? Luke doesn’t address that question…we are simply left to wonder.
If you read the story carefully, it actually sounds as though the jailer slept through the earthquake! It sounds as though the earthquake happened, the doors flew open and the chains were broken, and then later, when the jailer wakes up, he discovers what has taken place.
So why were the prisoners still in their cells? Why didn’t they flee? I don’t know…but somehow I suspect it’s because Paul and Silas influenced them to stay. Remember, prior to the earthquake, Paul and Silas had a captive audience. Their singing and praying had drawn in all the prisoners, perhaps to such a degree that Paul and Silas became default leaders in that place. Paul surely knows that if the prisoners run out of the prison that night and are recaptured later, they will be beaten or even executed for their attempted jailbreak. Paul also knows that by fleeing the prison, those in Philippi will assume that he and Silas were guilty of some criminal activity and think of them as escaped convicts. So perhaps, for those reasons, Paul and Silas choose to stay, and perhaps their decision influences the other prisoners to do the same. “But didn’t God send the earthquake so that Paul and Silas could escape?” you ask. We don’t know that. Unlike Peter when he was imprisoned…Paul and Silas have not heard from an angel or from the Lord that they are to leave the prison. So ironically, even though they are freed by God’s powerful earthquake, they exercise their freedom by choosing to stay…they choose the hard place. They choose to continue their ministry among the prisoners.
This is actually a beautiful picture of Christian ministry. It’s one thing to minister in an environment where everyone loves you and it’s comfortable. It’s quite another thing when God leads you to minister in an environment where there is pain, injustice, discomfort, and confinement. What is most ironic, however, is when Jesus-followers stay in the hard places, even when God has freed them to walk out the door and never look back. When Christians behave in such a way…like Paul and Silas…when they choose to stay and minister in the hard places…those whom they influence will be blown away, and those people will come asking questions with an openness to the Gospel.
Let’s pick up the story in vs. 29, “And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Why does the jailer fall on his knees before Paul and Silas? He is not worshipping them, but he is clearly submitting to their authority, right? Why? I think it’s clear that the jailer is associating the earthquake with an angry God. The God of Paul and Silas is angry that His servants have been unjustly arrested, beaten, and imprisoned, and now that Paul and Silas have been set free, the jailer is terrified that the angry God is coming after him.
So he asks a very practical, very serious question: “What must I do to be saved?” Saved from what? Saved from the wrath of an angry God. Saved from the justice that is most surely coming for people guilty of injustice, right?
Think of just how accurate this question actually is for all of us this morning. If God is a God of justice…if God is a God that allows injustice to take place, but He sees it, and at some point will exact his judgment through mighty displays of power (like earthquakes, floods, cosmic destruction…all the things we see associated with the end of the world and the second coming of Christ)…and if those people guilty of injustice are to be sentenced and suffer the consequence of their injustice…the absolutely correct question to be asking is that of this Macedonian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?”
Now…what would be the answer to that question for any other religion on the planet? In almost every other religion throughout history, the answer would essentially include two components: make a sacrifice to appease the angry god; and 2) do good deeds…do more good deeds then bad deeds and hope that you can do enough good to offset the bad that you’ve done.
But now listen to how Paul and Silas respond to that question in vs. 31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Nowhere else in the world, nowhere else in the history of religions, has the answer to the human dilemma come down to placing your faith in what ANOTHER accomplished on your behalf. That answer is unique to Christianity, and here’s why: because Jesus Christ was the sacrifice that satisfies the justice requirements of a holy and righteous God, and because the “RIGHTNESS” of Jesus…His goodness…is imputed, placed upon, laid over all those who believe and call upon His name for the forgiveness of sins. You do understand that no other religion has this answer…no other religion has an alternative “Jesus” that accomplishes what Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection?
There is only one Name that saves…there is only One who was in his very nature God but humbled himself, taking on human likeness, becoming as a slave, One who became obedient even unto death on a cross…so that we might be saved through His blood sacrificed in our place. There is only One who has been given a name that is above all names, so that at His name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess on earth and in heaven and even in the pit of Hell that HE is LORD…and that name is the name of Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we all must be saved…there is only the name of Jesus.
This is what Paul and Silas are now sharing with the Macedonian jailer. Luke writes in vs. 32, “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” The Gospel is proclaimed, and here is what Luke reports as the outcome, beginning with vs. 33, “And he (the jailer) took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”
Now notice what happens to the relationships in this story. Because of the power of the gospel, prisoners are set free; those once accused and despised become teachers and friends; those once feared become care-givers and hosts; and an unbelieving household comes to the faith because of the leadership of the father and husband in their home. Oh, and by the way, all of these tendencies remain true to this day.
Through the power of the Gospel, those who were once at enmity can be immediately transformed into the dearest of friends…who has seen that happen in your lifetime?
Because of the gospel, people who were once imprisoned and shackled are set free…who can give a testimony about that?
Because of the power of the Gospel, fathers who take a knee before Jesus will often influence the entire family to surrender their lives to Christ…how many know that is true?
How many of you know that when Jesus enters into our hearts, we are compelled to care for people we don’t even know…we are compelled to entertain strangers and to set a table for those we once hated and despised? Indeed, what we see happen here in Acts 16 has been repeated countless times over the past 2000 years, and this is still the business of our God as we engage in the proclamation of the Gospel. The love of God in Jesus Christ, through the power of His Holy Spirit, changes lives, changes relationships, changes cultures…and always in a way that brings glory to God, and not to us. That was true in the first century, and it is true in the 21st century.
Our story ends with some humor and irony. Look at vss. 35-40 35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
According to Luke, it would appear that the magistrates in Philippi, after a good night’s rest, realized that it might be best to send Paul and Silas on their way instead of moving ahead with a trial. After all, they had not broken any laws…things just got out of hand with the crowd…so its probably best to sweep this under the carpet and pretend it never happened. Thus the magistrates send the police down to the jail with orders to release the prisoners. Paul’s new best friend, the converted jailer, is happy to bring the good news of their release and he wishes Paul and Silas to go in peace. But Paul is not ready to play ball with these crooked magistrates. If he and Silas quietly slip out of town, it will be as though there was an admission of guilt. Even worse, the magistrates will feel empowered to beat and unjustly arrest Christians in Philippi with no sense of accountability. So Paul pushes back, and for the first time, reveals to the police that he and Silas are Roman citizens. As many of you know, Roman law protected Romans citizens from being falsely accused and beaten without the due process of a trial. When the police report back to the magistrates and inform them that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, the magistrates are horrified, and we can’t help but chuckle when we imagine their red faces and very concerned looks for Paul and Silas that morning. After making an awkward apology, the magistrates beg Paul and Silas to move on, and after a quick visit with Lydia, the mission team sets out for their next destination, the city of Thessalonica.
We’ll pick up the story here next week, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts that we can glean from this story, and then I want to give you a challenge.
First, remember that no matter where you are and no matter how bad things might seem, God is sovereign, and He is quite capable of accomplishing His purposes in your situation. Look for the opportunities where you are rather than complaining about where you are not.
Secondly, the secret to unlocking the power of God into your current circumstances is worship. God does not typically move at the request of a complaining heart…but God does move powerfully when His people humble themselves and worship with singing and prayers. I know it seems ironic, but when you are suffering and feeling confined…when you feel as though you have been treated unjustly…remember Paul and Silas in that cold, dark prison cell with their feet in the stocks. If they can sing and pray and worship God in those conditions, you can worship God in your circumstances as well.
Third, let your “target audience” be whoever God places on your path on any given day. In other words, don’t look past the people that are right next to you in order to make plans to minister to those who are not. When Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, the inmates were the mission field, and so were the jailers. Keep that in mind when you find yourself confined to a hospital bed or when your flight gets cancelled or when you suddenly find yourself sitting at home because you’ve lost your job. I cannot tell you how many times God has shown me that the people he wants me to minister to are the ones sitting next to me in the place I did not choose to go and the place I could not wait to leave! God’s plans are better than our plans, and we rarely end up where we are by accident.
Finally my challenge: when someone asks the question, “What must I do to be saved?”…or any derivative of that question like, “What the heck is going on in this world?” or “I feel depressed all the time and I don’t even know if I want to keep living” or “I feel so ashamed of what I’ve done…I don’t see how anyone could love me,”…whenever anyone says such things, tell them about Jesus…tell them about the One who sets people free, tell them about the Chain Breaker, tell them about the One who died for us that we might be saved and healed and made whole. Tell them about our Savior and our King, and then show them hospitality. Bind up their wounds and feed them a meal. Show them authentic friendship and do it more than once. Show them…and tell them. Tell them, and show them.