In the 1979 movie, “Escape from Alcatraz”, Clint Eastwood and his prison pals painstakingly dug their way of the island prison with spoons.
Paul and SIlas walked out of a Philippi prison after singing worship songs interrupted by a precisely timed and placed earthquake.
They had been on their way to the Jewish prayer-place. A slave girl and her owners started following. Her evil-spirit-induced cries irritated Paul. Unable to endure any more, he turned and demanded the demon out. Good for the girl, not so much for her owners. With their income-source gone, they (taking a page from Americans), dragged Paul and Silas to court. The Roman magistrates found the Jewish wanderers guilty of teaching anti-Roman customs and ordered them beaten with rods and locked up in prison.
Upon receiving this order, the jailer threw them into the inner cell and fastened their feet between heavy blocks of wood. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other
prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:24,25, TEV).
The retired-soldier-jailer didn’t know it, but his life would change forever that night. It started with midnight hymn-singing. The other prisoners listened; the jailer fell asleep.
Suddenly there was a violent earthquake, which shook the prison to its foundations. At once all the doors opened, and the chains fell off all the prisoners. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he thought that the prisoners had escaped; so he pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself,
But Paul shouted at the top of his
voice, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called
for a light, rushed in, and fell trembling at the feet of Paul and
Silas (Acts 16:26-29, TEV).
Curious the way the Lord works miracles. He could have silently opened the cell; Paul and Silas could have tiptoed past the sleeping jailer (see Peter’s “jail break” in Acts 12). But he chose to save the old sleeping soldier. So he orchestrated a “jail quake”.
Now comes the most significant part of this event . . .
Then he led them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your family.” Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in the house. At that very hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; and he and all his family were baptized at once. Then he took Paul and Silas up into his house and gave them some food to eat. He and his family were filled with joy, because they now believed in God (Acts 16: 30-34), TEV).
Had the jailer heard the slave girl’s cries (“These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!” —Acts 16:17)? Did he mean, “How can I be saved from punishment by my superiors?” Whatever he meant, Paul and Silas knew what they meant. The door (both of the cell and the jailer’s heart) was open.
Paul and Silas tell the word of the Lord. It seems the jail was a dungeon underneath the jailer’s house. He takes Paul and Silas there to wash their wounds. They baptize the jailer and his whole believing family. Now the house, rocked by the “jail quake” rocks with the joy of faith in God. This, it appears, was the Lord’s aim all along. The jailer didn’t just happen to hear the Lord’s word and believe; he and his family were the Lord’s target from the start. (No, I don’t know why.)
The next morning the Roman authorities sent police officers with the order, “Let those men go.” So the jailer told Paul, “The officials have sent an order for you and Silas to be released. You may leave, then, and go in peace. But Paul said to the police officers, “We were not found guilty of any crime, yet they whipped us in public – and we are Roman citizens! Then they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? Not at all! The Roman officials themselves must come here and let us out.” The police officers reported these words to the Roman officials; and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were afraid. So they went and apologized to them; then they led them out of the prison and asked them to leave the city. Paul and Silas left the prison and went to Lydia’s house. There they met the believers, spoke words of encouragement to them, and left (Acts 16:36-40, TEV).
Apparently the Roman magistrates thought one night in jail would teach these Jewish trouble-makers. Just release them; they’ll never come back here. But when the jailer relayed the officers’ order, Paul and Silas were of no mind to simply move on. Why? Either they were demanding justice or not allowing these magistrates to lay any legal groundwork for future injustice. Consequently these self-important authorities were compelled to openly apologize and politely ask the missionaries to leave. After encouraging the new believers, they did—triumphantly, though not without scars.
* * * * *
The Book of Acts records the advance of the Gospel. Acts 1:8 may stand as its theme statement . . .
But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
If so, then Acts 14:22 should be arguably nailed to it . . .
“We must pass through many troubles to enter the Kingdom of God,” they taught.
The Gospel will advance, the empowered apostles will bear witness to the risen Lord, but normally in the face of opposition. No triumphalism here! Not in Philippi. Not anywhere.
Triumphalism, as defined by Dr. Sam Storms, is “belief that the overt and consummate victories that we will experience only in the age to come are available to us now.” How easy to watch these four missionaries march out of Philippi as conquering heroes who cast out a demon, escaped prison, converted a Gentile family and compelled the arrogant Roman magistrates to almost grovel at their feet! How normal to think this is the “normal Christian life”, and we should expect a similar triumph in the next town! (All the while conveniently forgetting the beating, the stocks, the hours in the cell and the nearly absolute authority of the magistrates.)
Typically we teach this story in Sunday school, while ignoring James being martyred by the sword (Acts 12:2). We much prefer Hebrews 11:32-35a . . .
There isn’t enough time for me to speak of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Through faith they fought whole countries and won. They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak, but became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners. Through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life . . .
to Hebrews 11:35b-39a, TEV . . .
Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture in order to be raised to a better life. Some were mocked and whipped, and others were put in chains and taken off to prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were killed by the sword. They went around clothed in skins of sheep or goats – poor, persecuted, and mistreated. The world was not good enough for them! They wandered like refugees in the deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground. What a record all of these have won by their faith!
Of course. I do too! But the same commendable faith in the same Lord is found in both. The Lord delivers Paul in Philippi, but eventually he’ll let him die a martyr. Turn off the preacher who deceives us with his “ya gotta have big faith” talk! Stop deluding yourself into thinking that the Christian who really believes and is really committed enjoys the triumphs of the age to come now without defeat and humiliation and pain.
We must be biblical Christians, holding on to faith no matter what (and trusting the Spirit to gift us with faith when we cannot). And, let’s do it waiting with expectant hope for that great “jail quake” yet to come . . .
“I will once more shake not only the earth
but heaven as well.” The words “once more”
plainly show that the created things will be
shaken and removed, so that the things
that cannot be shaken will remain.
Let us be thankful, then,
because we receive a kingdom
that cannot be shaken.
Let us be grateful and worship God
in a way that will please him,
with reverence and awe;
because our God is indeed a destroying fire
(Hebrews 12:26-29, TEV)