Quite unintentionally, my husband and I have been reading about Paul quite a bit this month. Recently, I read through Acts 16. The story of Paul and Silas in prison is found there. I must confess, for years, I thought this was the story of Paul and Silas being delivered from prison by an earthquake. After looking carefully, I don’t think that’s quite the point of the story.
This story takes place Philippi, which is a Roman colony. The city of Philippi was located in Macedonia. As such, Philippi enjoyed elevated legal status. The beating of Roman citizens was prohibited and could have resulted in Philippi’s loss of their elevated status.
The story begins in Acts 16:16, where Paul and his companions are headed to the house of prayer. Along the way, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl because it had been harassing them. But the slave’s owners were upset because they had had been exploiting her condition. They made money from her telling fortunes. When the demon was gone she could no longer tell fortunes so they reported Paul and Silas.
The city officials seized them and beat them with rods. This is one of the three beatings with rods Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 11:25. They were then thrown into prison. The jail keeper was warned that they should not escape, so he put them in the dungeon with their feet in stocks.
Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God and suddenly there was an earthquake. The prison doors were opened and the chains were broken. The jailer, who had fallen asleep, woke to see the doors open. He supposed that the prisoners under his care had escaped and took his sword to kill himself. Paul lets him know that no one has escaped and the jail keeper asks what he needs to do to be saved. So Paul preaches to him. The jailer then takes care of Paul and Silas. He and his family are saved that day.
Heavy on the Drama
As a writer, I love this story. It’s heavy on the drama and the emotional stakes are really high. Paul had just freed a young girl from demonic oppression. We cheer for her newfound freedom and we marvel at the power of Jesus.
So the city falls to its knees in repentance, right? Not quite. Local officials seize Paul and Silas and they beat them — with rods. And after beating them, the officials throw them in jail. Paul woke up that morning with the intention of spreading the gospel. He was headed to the house of prayer when the whole thing went down, after all. By nightfall, Paul was bleeding in jail. Not a good day, if you ask me.
It’s important to note that Paul was doing exactly what God called him to do. Paul walked a hard road. He made a lot of enemies and he endured great suffering. Paul’s life illustrates a very important lesson: following God’s plan and walking out your calling do not exempt you from trouble. In Paul’s case, walking out his calling was the primary cause of his suffering. Following God’s plan does not mean that things will be easy. Or pleasant.
This is an important point to make because I feel that we too often try to entice non-Christians with the lie that they just need to find and follow God’s plan and life will “work.” We tell them that God’s plan is better than theirs. I think this creates an unrealistic expectation and sets people up to be blindsided by the reality that following God’s plan could be absolutely miserable.
In this case, Paul and Silas were severely beaten —with rods— and then imprisoned. I have to be honest. That would have been it for me. Good thing God wasn’t counting on me to plant churches in the first century. There wouldn’t be any.
But Paul and Silas have a very curious response to being beaten and imprisoned — in my opinion, anyway. They are praying and singing hymns to God. They transformed the prison cell into a church and begun to have service.
God Broke the Chains When His Children Called on Him
Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in prison. The prisoners were listening. The jailer may have been listening, himself, before he fell asleep. But they sang and prayed in the midst of a very dark situation.
God responded in a very dramatic fashion. There was suddenly an earthquake that left the prison doors open and the prison chains broken. It wasn’t Paul and Silas’ deliverance, but it was a very dramatic response from God.
It’s Not That Simple
Reading this story this week I learned something new. I never realized that Paul and Silas went to the jailer’s home and he apparently took them back to prison after cleaning them up (v 35-40). Paul and Silas were back in jail when the order to release them came.
The way I’ve heard this preached in the past emphasized the earthquake and the chains falling off, as if that is the moment of Paul and Silas’ deliverance. It wasn’t.
It’s possible that the officials felt the earthquake (wherever they were) and decided to free Paul and Silas because of it. It could have been something else entirely. They may have been planning to release them the next day all along. The text doesn’t tell us so we cannot know.
What the text does tell us, however, is that Paul and Silas didn’t walk out of prison once the chains were broken and the doors were opened. To say that the earthquake was their means of deliverance isn’t really accurate.
What we can accurately say is that prayer and praise are powerful. We can see that all over scripture. Were Paul and Silas delivered because of their prayers and praise? Quite possibly, but it wasn’t quite that simple.
I want to focus for a moment on the jailer. That day probably stared just like any other. During the first century, Roman jailers were known for their cruelty and malice. We can only imagine what he had been up to before Paul and Silas arrived. He showed up to work his shift and had been given orders to make sure Paul and Silas didn’t escape. He fell asleep, only to be awakened by an earthquake. He saw the prison doors open and he paniced.
This was a real crisis. He was responsible for any escaped prisoners and the prison doors were standing open. He was so distraught that he drew his crowd to kill himself. Thankfully, Paul stopped him.
But that was the end or one crisis and the beginning of another. Yes, the prisoners were all present and accounted for, but the jailer then realized the real crisis: he was faced with the undeniable power of a God he didn’t know. He fell trembling before Paul and Silas. This was no small matter. The jailer was utterly vulnerable and wholly aware of his need. He asked Paul how to be saved. Paul’s message was simple: Believe in Jesus. Paul preached the gospel to him and his family and there were saved.
So, who was delivered that night? Not Paul and Silas. They went back to prison only to be released a few hours later. It was the Philippian jailer and his family who were delivered the that night. It is not to be missed that Paul and Silas were delivered from prison. God did intervene on their behalf. Just not that night.
Of course, I’ve read this story before. I’ve heard it preached many times. But as I read it last week I saw things I hadn’t seen before. It was really about what I thought it was about. It’s not as simple. It leaves me with as many questions as I have answers.
Of course, it would have been a cooler story had Paul and Silas strolled out of the prison after the earthquake. It would have tied things up nicely. Paul and Silas are in jail, there’s an earthquake, and then they’re free. But that’s not the way it happens. As it has happened so many times in scripture and in my own life, deliverance didn’t come in the expected manner or on the preferred timeline. In this story, it did come though.
So I walk away from the story with two very broad ideas. First, following God’s plan can be miserable. At times, at least. I know this firsthand. It can be stressful. It can be dangerous. And as in so many cases, it can be deadly. No wonder Jesus says people have to hate their own lives to follow him.
The second is slightly more comforting: God has a plan of each of us and God will employ extraordinary measures to see it accomplished. Paul and Silas wound up in jail, but God’s plan was for them to preach Jesus, so he had them released. Paul meets a lot more trouble in the coming chapters, but you can also see God working despite the trouble.
May God work on your behalf as well.