Prison Songs In The Night
Key Verse 16:34
“The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God— he and his whole family.”
We saw in last passage how Paul was so eager to pioneer Asia. It was on his heart to go there and share the treasure of the gospel with that province; and I suppose his companions Silas and Luke and whoever else might have accompanied him went along with Paul’s decision since he was the driving force of all missionary journeys. There was no one like him with a passion to pioneer new places and to plant new churches where Christ was not heard of. But whatever his plans might have been for Asia, God had other plans for Paul and this missionary company. So he closed up every route to Asia until they were going in circles not knowing where to go. Finally one night, perhaps when Paul was utterly frustrated from repeated failure to go to Asia, especially knowing that it was the Lord himself who was behind this hindrance (16:6-7), he has an unusual vision of a Macedonian begging him for help. It was the Lord’s way of pulling on the strings of Paul’s great big shepherd heart to make an about turn in the direction of his pioneering and head the opposite way towards Europe. And so he and his companions discuss the matter together and realize it was God’s will that God had called them to preach the gospel in places Paul had not considered before. So they head for Philippi and there, they find a small group of worshipers by the river, evangelize a woman called Lydia who becomes the ancestress of faith of the European continent. A beautiful church emerges from that first river service and a great work of God begins to flourish in Philippi.
But as the story always goes, whenever and wherever the Lord works, the devil also works to discourage and to plant doubt and fear and whatever else he can do tear down what the Lord and his people have worked so hard to plant and to establish. A very interesting story is told here in verses 16-18. We don’t know how long Paul and his companions were working to build the church in Philippi before this incident here happened. But it may have happened on a Sunday, the day of worship, since they were on their way to the place of prayer. And suddenly a girl described as “A slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future” begins to follow them shouting. She was clearly possessed by a demon whom Paul eventually cast out of her setting her free from this bondage and cleansing her from this filthy stain on her soul. There are many things Luke doesn’t go into details about, and I think we shouldn’t either. But this girl followed them not only once but for many days before Paul was so troubled as to cast the demon out. Perhaps it was by her own choice that the demon was there prompting Paul not to interfere at first until the demon became a hindrance to the work of God. What the girl was shouting at them wasn’t improper or evil. In fact it was exactly what Paul and the missionary team were doing. They were indeed servants of the Most High God, and they were indeed telling people the way of salvation. Why be troubled at a message of truth? Perhaps when the truth comes from lips that speak only lies, even truth may be mistaken for a lie, and for that reason Paul found it necessary to silence that tongue and cast that demon out. Anyway, in all truth, only God Almighty knows and holds the future in his hands. Only he is sovereign and no one else. This so called clairvoyant demon must have been a trickster of sorts who didn’t actually predict the future but who saw what others couldn’t see and made a lot of money for herself and her owners. It was a lucrative business in a superstitious and greedy society, a lot like the demon world of gambling and loan-sharking and stock-brokering of our world.
Look at verses 19-24. needless to say, it didn’t go well for Paul and Silas who really meant well especially for the girl, and then of course also for all the countless people who would have continued to be swindled by these pseudo predictions. I don’t know if the girl was happy now that she’s free of her demon. Some people feel empty if they feel that they have lost their connection to the spirit world. The business of fortune telling, and psychic readings, ESP, Alien abductions, alien encounters, magical creatures, covens and good witches and bad witches and good warlocks and evil warlocks and haunted houses, and haunted places and other dimensions and much much more are so popular in books, in TV series and movies and such, and all because people are desperate for a connection with the spirit world. So if the girl had lost her demon, she may have felt bereft and lonely. But as it is with the people of today, they want a connection with the spirit world, but they want nothing to do with God who created them, nor with the way back to him, which is through Christ on the cross, in faith, in humility of heart, in repentance, with tears, pleading with the Lord of the spirits of mankind to take me back to yourself, to take back home to you, that I may love you and worship you and obey you and thank you and honor and glorify you. We don’t know about the girl. But we know that the owners made a stink in the marketplace before the authorities and accused the missionaries of being lawless trouble making Jews. Actually the only thing these missionaries did was to liberate a girl from slavery and to shut down an illegal business! But without a trial, they were sentenced to a severe flogging, and thrown into prison. And the jailer was ordered to guard them carefully, so he puts them in the inner cell and clasps their feet in the stocks lest they decide to suddenly grow wings and fly off.
And here is where our story really begins now. How would you imagine Paul and Silas are feeling by now? Should they be bitter and angry at the unfair sentencing and punishment? Should they call for justice and recompense? Look at verse 25. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” It doesn’t seem that they were in a complaining mood, nor were they sulking. And here’s the glory of the gospel as it works in the hearts of the faithful and raises them to higher levels. What these two were doing were praying and singing hymns. Two things they were doing that defied human reasoning and became the foundation of everything that transpired from here on. The events that follow are simple, but they are not easy to understand. But we can understand them better if we meditate on what these two men were doing as a result of their suffering.
They were praying and singing hymns to God. Perhaps in this case these two things were one and the same. But however they may have prayed and sang, their singing prayers, or their prayerful songs were their most powerful weapons to wield in times of distress. Surely they are the most powerful weapons for the servant of God! It’s actually easy to sing when things are going well. But it’s impossible to sing when one is in pain. Most of the Negro spirituals we have on record are a legacy inherited from our spiritual ancestors who created them in their most painful hours of anguished struggle. They didn’t sing them in the sunshine of their lives of luxury and plenty. Rather they composed them and sang them in the midnight of their miserable slavery. They were the fruits of their pain and suffering, grounded in their hopes and faith in the Lord. And they sang them to the Lord in thanksgiving prayers and praises as did Paul and Silas in that dank and miserable prison cell, chained by their feet to the wall, in the darkness of the night. And let me tell you, they were a powerful weapon for the soul in distress. Most Christians don’t believe this; most don’t accept it— don’t even bother to experience this truth when they’re in distress, because they don’t believe they’re a powerful weapon. They would rather complain and seethe in anger and bitterness of soul. But these songs in the night are a powerful weapon to deliver the soul from the anguish that can weigh down and destroy that soul. Paul and Silas didn’t lament their situation. They didn’t curse their captors. They didn’t flaunt their Roman privileges. They sang praises to God. That in itself is salvation because it gives dignity to the soul. A soul that praises God in its pain is dignified because it says “I am not defeated. You can’t defeat me. I look to God for strength. He is my witness.” Indeed, a song in the night is a powerful weapon.
And so look at verses 26-30. Read them. What happened that night? An earthquake that shook the prison and threw all the chains loose and freed all the prisoners. And when the jailer saw this, he drew his own sword to kill himself, because he thought they had all escaped, Paul stopped him from harming himself. What then did the jailer say? Look again at verses 29-30. “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
“What must I do to be saved?” It was the foremost question on his heart! It was the first thought on his mind and the first words out of his mouth! Unbelievers, skeptics and idol worshippers have their own pride to protect even when their lives are facing danger. In the book of Revelation when the plagues are released on the human race for their wickedness, their greatest error is that although they know these plagues are sent by God to chastise them, they still refuse to repent and acknowledge the God of glory. Why? They have their pride to protect even when their pride will cause them to lose everything, even the salvation of God their only hope. Yet we see here a jailer, hardened and made proud by his rough trade, he puts aside his pride and in humility he utters these most important words that were first on his heart and mind in this disaster. “What must I do to be saved?”
Why was the problem of salvation on his heart? What else does a person have on their heart when he or she finally realize what the bible has been saying all along: “for man is destined to die once and after that to face the judgment.” (Hebrews 2:27) it’s a pity how many people never realize that after death we must all face God’s judgment. The jailer must have heard much of what Paul was accused of. He must have heard much of what Paul and Silas’s singing praise and thanksgiving to God. He must have heard whatever conversation these shepherds had with the other prisoners. Maybe none of it mattered at the time. But the events that followed either awakened in him or put in his heart the fear of God which is the spark that ignited faith in all that he heard about the Lord. God shook the jail with an earthquake. Everyone’s chains were loosened. Then Paul showed respect for his life by keeping the prisoners from escaping. Whatever else he might have believed before, he now had the fear of God in his heart. And so he longed for salvation. He didn’t want to face God’s terrible judgment.
Here’s Something else to think about. How would you have answered that question for him? If you’re a vindictive and unforgiving Christian who’s been hurt by this jailer because he tightened the chains and refused to give you water to drink, you might say: “it depends! Are you willing to make amends with those you’ve hurt and then lay your sins at the cross of Christ?” Or if you were a legalistic Christian who’s disgusted with this jailer’s excessive wine drinking, you might say: “Repent and get rid of your wine and then come plead your case before the cross of Christ for mercy.” Or if you were a zealous Christian you might say: “Let’s study the bible and pray and go to church together first, then we’ll see how things go for a while.” But Paul wasn’t any of these. So how did Paul answer him? Read verse 31. “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.’” Paul was a man of God’s grace and truth! He told him the truth about the way of salvation; and he showed him the way grace, that is, he showed him the way of faith. Simply he told him to put his faith in Christ Jesus and to believe in the Lord Jesus. It’s what the apostles in the book of Acts have been saying all along. (2:38-39; 4:12; 8:12, 37; 10:10-43; 13:38-39) It’s the truth of God. Salvation comes to those who believe in the Lord Jesus.
Paul didn’t only show the way of salvation to the jailer, but he also laid on him a very noble burden as well. In relation to salvation he tells him that in faith he and his household would be saved. The way that Paul tells him these words is very interesting. On one hand it sounds like a promise that if he himself believed, he and his entire household will be saved. Although we know that no one can be saved by another person’s faith, that one can only be saved by one’s own faith in the Lord Jesus and in his saving work in one’s own life, there’s every reason to still embrace this as a sure promise as well– a promise that one’s whole family and household would be saved through that person’s faith. God doesn’t give us empty nor misleading words. Your faith is your treasure and at the same time your faith is your influence which affects your whole world around you, especially your home and household. When you hold God to his promise regarding the salvation of your household, and pray on faith, your influence slowly permeates throughout your whole household until the fruit of salvation is born in hearts that believe.
When Paul said you and your household will be saved he also meant that when the jailer puts his faith in Christ Jesus, his whole household would have the opportunity to receive the gospel message as well and in turn enter into God’s blessing. And that’s exactly what happened. Look at verse 32. The jailer brought them to his household and Paul and Silas have them the gospel message of which they believed. Then what happened? It’s then what happened that is most interesting and even captivating and worthy of our attention. Luke tells us that that very night several things of note took place.
First, the jailer washed their wounds. Anyone who tells you that a person can become a Christian without a fundamental even drastic change on the inside is a liar or doesn’t know the Christian faith nor Christ. Christ— when we receive him— changes us. The new birth is a changing process, a new birth, where a likeness of Christ, no matter how small a seed it is— still is there and visible. A person believes in Christ, receives his mercy and forgiveness, is born again and is deeply changed. The jailer once was a hardened man. He had to be in order to cope with the misery of minding a prison. He couldn’t care less who was wounded who was not. But like a gentle mother he now bent down to wash and clean Paul and Silas wounds. He was no longer the jailer and they the prisoners. They were now his dear brothers who suffered unbearably. He was now like the son of man who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. There are many selfish Christians who need to take a good hard look at themselves and wonder why they resist inner change so much– why they’re not sacrificial– why they don’t readily serve. And if they’re not resisting change, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with their faith.
Second, after the missionaries’ wounds were cleaned, they were all baptized. Look at verse 33 again. This too is a tremendous testimony to the change that takes place in a person’s life through faith in Christ Jesus. I don’t know what kind of family this jailer had, perhaps they were ordinary people like all other people on the block. But certainly the jailer himself wasn’t an ordinary man. He was a hardened jailer, a man dedicated to serving both emperor and empire. And oh yes, there’s appearances as well! Appearances in a job like his make all the difference in the world. Any sign of weakness or softness of heart on his part would immediately be noticed and cost him more than he’s willing to lose. But we see him being baptized. And baptism wasn’t a cheap thrill, nor a boost to the ego of the arrogant, as it might be the foolish young wanabe Christians of today. Baptism was real. A true union with Christ in his death and resurrection. It required a commitment, a public declaration of allegiance and fealty to a crucified Lord, an open confession that I now submit to the Christ and am devoted to his works of humility in love and in faith and in hope, and in service to his kingdom. The jailer may have been risking his life and family in baptism. But he’s unashamed of what he’s doing because he’s a changed man in Christ. After all, as the Lord Jesus said: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38)
Third, the jailer showed them Christian hospitality. Look at verse 34. This is the second time that the jailer brings these missionaries to his home. The first time he brought them home was when they served him and his family with the gospel message and they believed. (32) The second time he brought them home, it was to serve them. He wanted to show them hospitality by setting before them food to eat because they were weakened by their suffering. We don’t know what kind of means this man and his family had, or if he could even have afforded feeding them. But it didn’t matter. What mattered is the fruit of his heart and inner change. He served them out of his own means and in his own home. Christian hospitality is one of the most overlooked and least practiced Christian virtues and gifts among the Lord’s people in our day. People, especially Christians value their privacy. They don’t want their secrets exposed. They don’t want their messy home lives revealed. Even Christians rather invite their own kind to other places rather than to their own homes for fear of violating their own privacy. In the process the house church and the sanctity of the Christian home and the family example have become rare and extinct in our generation. Young growing disciples don’t much know what a Christian home looks like, nor do they know what Christian hospitality is. What the jailer did was unthinkable. He brought strangers, even convicts to his house in the name of Jesus and put food before them. He acted out the natural Christian hospitality that is intimate to every home that confesses that Christ is at its center.
Fourth, the jailer expressed joy. Look at verse 34. “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God–he and his whole family.” The jailer bore the marks of a transformed man in Christ in every way we look at him. But by far the greatest mark of his transformation is his inner joy in the Lord and in the salvation he received in the Lord through his faith. Another mark of his transformation is his deep gratitude in his salvation as well. He was filled with joy. He had no idea what would happen to him the next day. He could lose his job or he could lose his life. His family may be on the street. But he was filled with joy. And no one can take that joy away from him. Some wonder how to describe or define this joy. It cannot be described nor defined, but we can say that it is a joy that’s grounded in one’s faith in Christ. As long as one’s faith in Christ is solid and immovable, that joy cannot be touched, even if one’s world is falling apart all around. So was the jailer’s joy, deep and strong filling his whole heart and life, and all because he had come to believe in God— mind you— not Christ— but God! He and his whole family. He was full of immovable joy because once he was a none believer, believing either lies or false gods or myths or whatever else the devil does to warp and twist people’s minds to drain them of the last bit of joy they have in life. But this man suddenly came to understand that God exists and he had provided a way of salvation through his Son the Christ, and has forgiven him and his family and counted them a part of his own family making them special. God exists and he loves God and God loves him and his family. That is the epitome of joy. The jailer is a brilliant man spiritually. There are some who are spiritually dull. Are you brilliant or dull?
Look at the end of this passage, verses 35-40. Why do you think Paul gave the magistrates a hard time regarding his and Silas’ citizenship, and their own abuse and mishandling of their Roman citizen rights? Most probably to divert the attention and any would be small investigations into anything that happened the night before that might draw the slightest attention to the jailer and his family. This way the attention and the finger of accusation and fault seems to be pointing only towards the higher authorities who now would want nothing but to cover the whole thing up and appease Paul and Silas and keep them quiet and happy. Paul was thinking about the jailer even now when he made a big stink about his citizenship. May God really help us to learn how to grow in the faith and shepherd heart of our ancestors who paved the way before us as missionaries, as Bible teachers, as Shepherds, as gospel workers, and raised disciples who were transformed in every way by the gospel they received. Amen.