Genesis 32:22-32, Acts 16:16-34
June 23, 2013
I have always loved this story from Acts 16! Paul and Silas were in jail in the city of Philippi. (From which, of course, we get the name of the book Philippians.) And we have to start by saying that jails in those days were not very pleasant places to be. They had no TV’s, no internet, no libraries, no gymnasiums, no health care, and no free access to the legal system. And not only were the boys in jail, their feet were in stocks. Now that’s “stocks” not “socks!” They probably didn’t even have socks in those days! But stocks they had! And stocks were wooden devices that locked the feet and kept them and the person completely immobile!
So the boys were in this jail, and they weren’t moving! And it wasn’t their first time in jail, either. They had already “seen more than their share of striped sunlight!” (Thats twice I used that phrase this week!) They had been jailed a couple of times already, and so had the rest of the Apostles.
So they’re in this jail, and what are they doing? This is great! They’re praying and singing! Amazing! Talk about being able to praise God in all circumstances! Could we have done the same? And what does that say about how we often react in much lesser circumstances?! And remember, these guys didn’t know what was going to happen to them. We do! But they didn’t! And still they’re singing! In addition, Luke is careful to tell us that the other prisoners were listening. And we can only imagine what they were thinking! Maybe it influenced them! I think that’s entirely possible!
Well, all of a sudden, there’s this earthquake, and locks on their cell doors and their stocks are broken. Its a jail break! And when the jailor realized this, we’re told he was about to take his own life. That’s because, as a Roman jailor, if he had allowed his prisoners to escape, he would have been put to death! That was the law. It was harsh, but it was great incentive for a jailor to keep the prisoners from escaping! That was like the soldiers at Jesus tomb. They were ordered to guard the Roman seal on the tomb. And if that seal were to be broken, they would have been executed. Roman law was strict, but it worked!
Well, in this case, it looked like the prisoners had escaped. But wait! They hadn’t! And just as the jailor was about to kill himself, they yelled out, “Wait! We’re all still in here!” Now, I don’t know if that meant all the prisoners were still in there, or whether it was just Paul and Silas. Luke is a bit fuzzy about that point. But he does seem to say that all the prisoners were still there! Which makes me wonder if Paul and Silas really had influenced them that much. That’s an interesting thought! But for now, lets just focus on Paul and Silas. That seems to be the point of this story. The jail was opened, but they stayed. So at this point, we might say that it looked like this was a pretty bad escape! They seemed to have missed the one important thing in a jail break! They forgot to leave!!
Well, there seems to be a couple of reasons for that. First – and we don’t want to miss this – they didn’t leave because they knew that they had been imprisoned unjustly. They had been thrown in jail against the Roman law! They were Roman citizens! That fact is stated a number of times! And we know from this story that they had been beaten and imprisoned without a trial. And they knew the law! They knew that somebody was going to be in trouble here! In fact, near the end of this story the officials tried to release them “quietly.” But Paul and Silas didn’t go for that. Instead, they insisted on having the people who put them in prison come and take them out, which they did. And they gave them a public apology! Again, Roman law was strict, but it worked!
Well, the other reason they didn’t leave is the one that really makes this story what it is! Paul and Silas stayed in the jail because they had compassion for the Philippian Jailor! His is the prominent story here. They saved his life! And after they showed him they were still in prison, and thereby demonstrated their compassion for him, he responded by asking them about their faith – the faith they had showed by praying and singing, and the faith they had showed by staying in that jail when the sensible thing would have been to escape! And that’s what’s so cool about this!
This story clearly illustrates the old clich, which is also very true in matters of faith, that “actions speak louder than words.” There’s no question here that this man responded to their compassion, in a life or death situation. He was blown away by the concern Paul and Silas had for him, and he was deeply moved!
As you think of this story, let me ask you this. Are there ever times when you’ve done this kind of thing? Are there ever times that you’ve made this kind of self-sacrifice for someone else that compeled them to respond like this? And I suppose the sixty-four thousand dollar question is, have you ever missed an opportunity to show this kind of compassion – compassion that might have made a difference for someone?
Last week we talked about the tendency we have to be in our own little world. We talked about how we tend to want to be the “masters of our own destiny.” We said how it’s hard to break out of that world and to reach out to others, much less to do so in this kind of a self-sacrificial way. And so, it is truly an amazing thought Jesus gave us when he said, “Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down his life for another.” That self-sacrifice has forever been the benchmark for the greatest degree of love! And it also tells us that our actions toward others are more important than we can ever know. (And conversely, our inaction can be just as powerful, cant it?)
One of the things I’ve heard, again, for years, (along with “How do I discover the will of God for me?”) is the reluctance people have to talk about their faith with others. And the greatest reluctance comes from the fear that they “don’t know what to say.” Either they “don’t know enough” to speak in an effective way, or they don’t even know how to start such a conversation. And believe me, those things are not easy! If you look at the speeches of Paul in the book of Acts, you’ll see how he was able to speak to different groups of people in different ways. And you know there is a gift to that! And not everybody has that gift! But if you think about it, it’s not always crucial that we do!
Let me offer two pieces of advice here. First, you don’t have to say everything! You don’t have to be the one to convince people. Even Paul recognized that the one who plants the seed of faith is not always the one who waters it and who cultivates it. God uses different people for all those things. So we can trust that God will use us in this way, even though we may not see the end result. And so, do speak, but don’t worry.
Don’t worry about what you know or don’t know. Speak of what’s important to you. In fact, keep it in the first person. Keep it to the “I.” That’s what people want to know, anyway. They dont wan’t to know what you know. They want to know what it means to you. That’s the point of advertising. It isn’t so much that a celebrity tells you something is a great product. It’s that the celebrity uses that product! That’s whats compelling to us!
So don’t worry that you can’t say it all. And the second piece of advice is this. Don’t worry so much that you even have to say anything. You might not need to tell about your faith at all. Sometimes it’s more important that you simply show your faith! That’s what Paul and Silas did here. And look what happened! If we live our faith, people will know! If the other prisoners actually did stay with Paul and Silas after the earthquake, why? Again, did the actions of our boys have that kind of influence on them?
If our faith is important to us, if it’s fulfilling in our lives and makes a difference to us, if it brings us peace no matter what, people will know! So don’t be afraid to show that! But even more importantly, don’t be afraid to know that! Take stock of what you believe and what it means in your life. Do that every day! The way that plays out in your everyday life will be more valuable than all the words you can say about your faith!
So think this week about this “bad escape.” Think about how it effected this jailor. Think about how the compassion of Paul and Silas saved this man and his whole household. Know that that compassion and selfless love is available to you, and through you, to others.
Eternal God, your love for us is amazing, and your grace is beyond our comprehension! Help us to realize that every day! Help us to know it despite what the circumstances of our lives might be. May the people around us know of the love you have for them by the love we have for them. This we pray in Jesus name, Amen!