Acts 16:16-24, 25-40
September 2, 2007
This is the beginning of Paul’s Second Missionary journey. He has a lot ahead of him! Opposition, joy, victory, defeat, personal growth… and eventually, martyrdom. But along that journey – those journeys, I should say – he will become one of the greatest teachers ever of the Christian faith.
We have two stories today. The first is kind of the set up. Paul is now traveling with Silas – and probably Luke, too. Because if you notice, the pronoun at the beginning of the chapter is “he.” “He came to Derbe, and to Lystra.” “He did such and such.” In verse 10 it changes. “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia…” Then it’s “We did this.” “We went there.” And that’s how it goes for a while.
Paul and his “entourage” travel much farther this time. They start by land, traveling through the length of Asia Minor, stopping off at Antioch of Pisidia. You may remember that from a few weeks ago. This time he’s heading for Macedonia. That was a Roman province that encompassed most of northern Greece. The city he goes to was the city of Philippi, from which we get the New Testament book Philippians. That was the place where Paul would found his most beloved Church.
Philippi was the center of the province of Macedonia, and as such was a very Roman place. In fact, from what we know of it, the city of Philippi was founded as a place of retirement for veteran Roman soldiers. And it was a great place! It was located right on an arm of the Aegean Sea. If you were taking a cruise of the Greek Isles, Philippi would be one of those picturesque places you’d want to visit.
While they were in Philippi, they meet this little slave girl who we are told had “a spirit of divination.” Now for those of you who are not up on the “Harry Potter world,” divination meant “telling fortunes” or “telling the future.” This girl was doing that kind of thing, and she was making lots of money for the men who owned her. Well, this girl starts to follow Paul and Silas, telling everyone around them what was actually true, that they were “servants of the Most High God, who proclaim the way of salvation.” This seems to annoy Paul. Maybe he just didn’t want the added attention from the “wrong source.” At any rate, we see a little more of his “humanness” here, which I think is great! So at one point he turns around and confronts the girl and casts the spirit out of her.
This did not go well for Paul. Sometimes letting our annoyances “get to us” and acting on them, can cause us more problems! In this case, the slave girl’s owners saw their source of income go “out the window.” And they got angry! They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates – the city officials. One commentary suggests that these magistrates were the retired army generals. The men accused Paul and Silas of “disturbing the city by advocating customs that were unlawful for Romans to practice.” But that wasn’t it, was it! They had ruined their business! So, the magistrates ordered them stripped and “beaten with rods.” Which they did. Then they threw them into prison. And that’s the first part of this story.
The next part is about what happened to them while they were in prison! And the first thing I want you to notice is this. When they threw them into prison, they “charged the jailor to keep them safely.” That was important! In the Roman world, things were very strict and harsh. If a Roman guard was charged with keeping prisoners, and the prisoners escaped, the guard would be executed. That was the law. And it was good incentive for them doing their duty!
This jailor knew the consequences if he didn’t “keep them safely.” So look what he did. “Having received this charge he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in stocks.” He was taking no chances. Perhaps he had heard the story of what happened when Peter was imprisoned early in Acts!
Whatever the reason, the jailor imprisoned Paul and Silas the most secure way he knew. But of course, it was not to be. In verse 25 it says that about midnight, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” They were in prison, with their feet in stocks, singing! And the other prisoners were listening to them. We can only imagine what they were thinking. And then suddenly, there was a great earthquake and all the doors were opened and everyone’s fetters were unfastened. And by the way, that would seem to indicate that everybody in that prison was freed – not just Paul and Silas!
This then became the second “jailbreak” recorded in the book of Acts. And it was very interesting! Because Paul and Silas knew the fate of this jailor, and they had compassion on him. So even though the chains were off and the doors were open, they didn’t leave! And sure enough, when the jailor awoke and saw the prison doors open, he was ready to save the magistrates the trouble of an execution. He pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself, when Paul cried out, “Wait!” “We’re all still here!”
The jailor is overwhelmed by this. He saw in these men a great courage, even in that terrible place. I’m sure he saw their wounds and their bruises – they didn’t just walk in off of the street with clean clothes and washed faces! He knew some of what they went through, and yet they were praying and singing, with their feet in the stocks. And he wanted that strength and peace and courage himself! He brought them out and said, “Men, what must I do to be saved?”
Do people see that peace and courage and strength in us? Do people want what we have in our lives? Peter would write later, “Always be ready to give answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that lies within you.” Do people see that in us? By the way we live our lives, can people tell who it is we worship, and what a difference that makes in our lives?
I used to like to ask people, “Can anyone you meet tell you are a Christian without you saying so?” “Can they tell just by driving by your house?” And I would add to that by asking, not only can they tell you’re a Christian, but having seen so, is it something that is compelling enough that they would want it too? Everything we do, everything we say, can have an impact on our “witness.” As one person said, “you could be the only Jesus another person ever sees.” If that’s’ true, what will you say about your faith by the way you live your life.
I know that’s not an easy thought. I’d love to tell you that I always do really good in living my faith in “witness” to others. But it wouldn’t be true. I sometimes let annoyances get to me, just like you do. And when that happens, what kind of Jesus do people see? The faith people see in us can be positive or negative, can’t it? One Christian writer once said that “the biggest problem with the witness of the Christian faith in this world is Christians themselves.” We need always to be aware of that witness. Even when we are not speaking of our faith to someone – we are speaking of our faith!
I know that’s a hard challenge. But if we are all constantly reminded of this, then we will grow in our witness. If we are willing, then God can change us. And God can use us. Paul would later write that we are being changed from one degree of glory to the next. When we come to faith, we aren’t changed in an instant, once and forever. We are constantly being changed – no matter how young or old we are! We are constantly growing in our faith!
In this story, Paul and Silas had a great impact in their “witness.” And I have to ask this question. “Who is this salvation story about?” Is it about Paul and Silas being saved from prison? Was it about them being rescued to continue the great job they were called to do – to spread the message? We might think so, taking in the whole picture of what was happening in the book of Acts. But all of a sudden it was about those immediately involved. All of a sudden, it was about this one Philippian Jailor.
Isn’t that great? We never know whose life we are going to be impacting, do we? Sometimes we have a broad picture of the work God has for us. Sometimes we have a grand vision, but we miss seeing the person right next to us. It’s easy to do that. Jesus would remind us that we should always keep in mind “the least of these.” We should always be looking at the people right around us.
Think about the people with whom you have crossed paths lately. How have they seen your “witness to the faith?” Have they seen the love of Christ in you? Have they witnessed “the hope that lies within you?” Consider that, and then look to the future, and be intentional about the way you interact with people! We live in a world where people say “I can’t help who I am.” “I can’t help the way I react to people.” Well, we can help it, if we choose to do so! We can be intentional about growing in our ability to impact people positively for the faith.
I challenge you today to think about your life as a “missionary journey” – like Paul’s. It is the challenge of every Christian to have that “mission,” to be a witness to the love of God. We are changed into the likeness of Christ. Let us live our lives as he would live them.
That is not to say we shouldn’t be part of this world. On the contrary. We are to be part of what goes on around us. Paul did that, too. The end of this chapter, he invoked his Roman citizenship as his defense in the way he was being treated. And that was important. As a Roman citizen, it was unlawful for him to be punished the way he was with no trial. We are to interact with the world around us, to be a part of things. We are to enjoy life in this world God created.
So as we live our lives in this world, let those we interact with see the life of faith within us. Let us be intentional about that. Let us choose to be that positive, compelling witness to the love of God.
Eternal God you have loved us with an everlasting love. Let that love so fill us that it would overflow to the world around us. Give us the strength we need to choose to live our lives for you, in everything we do, and in everything we say, to everyone we meet. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.