Psalm 16, Acts 16:25-40
July 26, 2009
I think of all the stories in the book of Acts, besides Pentecost, this is the one I remember most. I don’t know why, but when I think of all that happened in the early Church, the story that comes to mind most readily is this story of Paul and Silas in prison, singing! I don’t know why, but it does! And I think this has some very important things to say about our lives, and about those tough times we all go through at one time or another.
At this point in Acts, Paul and Silas had been traveling through Asia Minor, preaching the word, and establishing some new churches. Now they had crossed over the Aegean Sea into what is today the northern part of the country of Greece, which the Romans called Macedonia. There Paul and Silas came to the city of Philippi. Now the one big characteristic of Philippi was that it was definitely a Roman city. Some historians believe it was established as a place of retirement for Roman military officers. And so Roman Law was the predominant system of government, and the basis for all of Philippian society. It was there that Paul established the first Christian Church in Europe.
Now besides that, we also know that the Philippian Church was one of Paul’s most beloved congregations. If you read the New Testament book by that name you will find there some of the most cordial and loving words Paul ever wrote. And of course that letter and those words were probably written from prison while Paul was in Rome awaiting his trial, and it was very near to the end of his life.
So here in our story from Acts, we have a passage about Paul being, guess where? That’s right. He’s in prison. And I have to start by pointing out that in those days a prison was not a pleasant place to be. They were nothing like our modern day prisons. There were no libraries. There were no gymnasiums. There were no exercise yards. There was no dining hall or food service. And of course, there was no cable television! (How barbaric!!!)
So it was no picnic for Paul and Silas in prison. But there’s more to this story. Because Paul and Silas had already suffered public humiliation and a painful punishment. They had been stripped and beaten with rods! And all the while a hostile crowd had joined in attacking and abusing them. Then it says, “they were thrown in prison.” And my guess is that the word “thrown” is not all that far from the reality of what happened!
So there they were, in prison, still sore from their painful beating. And yet, they were singing! Can we even imagine what that was like? Can we even begin to picture ourselves singing and praising God under those kinds of circumstances? How about when we go through some of the tough times in our own lives? Well, that’s what they did. They were singing and praying and praising God. And I want you to see what the result of that was. I want you to see what it did for them, and for those around them!
First of all, it says “and the other prisoners were listening.” That’s important. The Apostle’s “attitude of praise” at that point was doing something very important for them. It was helping them deal with a bad situation. It was changing their attitude. But it was also having a effect on others. And as hard as it may sound, I want to tell you that praising God, letting our faith affect us in all circumstances, does change us. And it does change the world around us! That’s something worth thinking about when things aren’t going so well.
I love this next part. There’s an earthquake. And it is very apparent that this is a supernatural earthquake. In other words, it’s an event caused by God. And yes, there were earthquakes in that part of the world. But in this case Luke tells us that the results of this earthquake were that the doors of the prison were opened, and chains of all the prisoners were released. That’s too specific to be coincidence! Got was releasing those prisoners! But! Paul and Silas didn’t leave! And you have to think, what’s wrong with this jailbreak when the prisoners stay in jail?! If God let ‘em go, why did they stay?!?
Well, we find out there’s a reason. Paul and Silas stay in that prison. And I’m not sure, but maybe the other prisoners do too. But at any rate, Paul and Silas stay, and they do so for the sake of the Jailor. Luke makes it very clear that the Jailor was given orders to “keep the prisoners safely.” What that meant was he was to make sure they didn’t get out! So, when it says that “all the doors were opened, and everyone’s fetters were unfastened,” what we know from that is that, not only were they in jail, but they were chained, as well!
This jailor knew his job! He also knew the law. He knew, that if he were “officially charged” with “keeping the prisoners,” and they escaped, his life was forfeit! He would be executed. Roman Law was very specific and it was harsh, but it tended to get the job done. Even an act of God, like this earthquake, was no excuse for the Jailor failing at his duty! So, when he saw that the doors were all opened, he knew that his life was forfeit, and so he prepared to take his own life first.
But Paul and Silas stopped him. They cried out, “Wait! We’re still in here! Don’t harm yourself!” Do you see how this is happening then? God set it up so they could leave, and so that they could stay and reach out to this man with what was an act of amazing compassion. And it changed his life! Look what he did! The Jailor fell to his knees and asked them what he must do to have what they had. He wanted that peace, and strength, and compassion he saw in them. And so they told him. Then he took them out of prison, (so they did escape – eventually!) and he took them to his own home. There he fed them and cared for them. And all of that was illegal! That jailor was going to lose his job over this! And probably his life! But none of that mattered! His life was changed!
I love this story because it shows the amazing compassion Paul and Silas had even for this man who had imprisoned them! I would even venture to use a word here that I used a few weeks ago – just for effect. I would use the word “radical.” What Paul and Silas showed here was “radical compassion.” I think you’ll have to agree! And I also think you’ll have to agree that this story shows how having that amazing level of compassion was life changing. I’m sure it affected those who gave it. It certainly affected those who received it! It changed forever this jailor and all of his household! And I would ask, what about our acts of compassion? Do they have an affect on others?
By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase “Random Acts of Kindness.” Well, maybe we can coin a similar phrase today. Maybe we can take for our new phrase “Radical Acts of Compassion.” That sounds great, doesn’t it? “Radical Acts of Compassion.” That also sounds hard. And that’s because it is hard. Compassion certainly doesn’t happen all by itself! We must choose compassion. And sometimes the greater the act of compassion, the harder it is to choose it. The natural tendency of “us humans” is to look to the needs of the self. In order to choose compassion, sometimes we must set those tendencies aside and look to the needs of others first! And that’s hard! Sometimes we must resolve to do so! And I would challenge us to think about that.
So, I’ll leave you today with that memory that’s so vivid for me, the memory of Paul and Silas singing in prison. I’ll leave you with the image of them praising God in that terrible place. I’ll leave you to think about what that did for themselves, for their fellow prisoners, and for this jailor. And I’ll let that be a challenge for you to think about your own “Radical Acts of Compassion.” And as I do, I will remind you of the greatest act of radical compassion, God giving his son for us.
As that gift has changed us, may we grow in our ability to praise God, no matter what the circumstances of our lives! It will make a difference!
Eternal God, you have redeemed us through your amazing love. You have brought us back to a relationship with you through your love which is beyond our comprehension. We ask that you will fill us with your spirit in ways we least expect. Change us through the joy you give as we live our lives in our fellowship with you. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.