Acts (Part 24) - From Philippi's Jail to Thessalonica
At midnight, in the pitch-black interior of the jailhouse, Paul and Silas sat praying and singing. No shouts rang out from any angry, hardened prisoners wanting silence in which to sleep. The Bible tells us that they all were listening. A rumble began, and the prison house foundations started shaking. An earthquake shook the cells, flinging the doors wide open. To lose a prisoner might mean death for the guard. To lose them all would surely seal his fate. The jailer rushed to the cells but in the dark could not see what was happening. He may have heard shouts. He may have seen the nearer cell doors open. He knew of the earthquake, but he also knew that it would be no excuse before the governor. So he called out for his sword. But on drawing it from its scabbard, he heard a voice raised above the rest, “Wait! Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”
The jailer hesitated. Then he called for light. And by torch, he walked the hall of cells finding all the doors open, but all the prisoners still there. As he reached the interior where Paul and Silas yet remained, he was overcome. He knew Paul had some connection with the gods—that’s why he was put in jail. He heard their singing and praying. And then this miraculous earthquake that had flung open all the doors and the even more miraculous fact that no prisoner had run out…it was all too much—too impossible—too overwhelming. On his knees he asked this spiritual man Paul, “What must I do to be saved? What can I do to be rescued from this act of the gods?” And Paul directs the man’s thoughts away from the Greek and Roman gods and myths, telling him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” It was no instantaneous conversion. The simple statement could hardly have been understood by the man. Jesus? Who? But Paul doesn’t leave him in the dark. We go on to read that Paul and Silas are able to present the whole story, explaining all about who Jesus was and what he did. And then the greatest miracle of the evening occurs. This man and his whole family believe. This Gentile Roman Philippian, isolated in the low-paying, low status work of jail guard, sitting there in the dark of night becomes one with the family of the living God, and the reigning King Jesus becomes his Savior, his Friend, and his Lord.
That picture of the depths of human existence transformed into brother and family member with all those redeemed by Christ was not wasted on Paul…or Luke as he wrote the story. The jailer—the new brother—washed the wounds of Paul and Silas. And in that washing Paul recognized the exact activity that he had preached metaphorically to the man only minutes earlier. Christ had washed the jailer’s wounds—the sin that stained his soul. Probably excited by the picture connection, Paul called for more water and baptized the man and his family, who had received the washing by Christ. Then Luke takes us immediately to a meal—the breaking of bread—and we see the man and his family rejoicing in their position within God’s family—the clear picture of unity all Christians commemorate in the Lord’s Supper. Salvation, baptism, communion—a complete display of Christian victory is shown here with the Philippian jailer and his family.
There had been no real charge against Paul and Silas. The magistrates had thrown them in prison merely to keep the angry crowd under control. With the crowd having returned to their homes and the morning calm, the magistrates send word that Paul and Silas may be released. But Paul was not satisfied. He tells the messenger that his public beating and public imprisonment without conviction of any crime was unjust. That would hardly have raised an eyebrow with the magistrates. But then Paul drops the hammer. The magistrates ordered this injustice on Roman citizens.
When word got back to the magistrates that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were fearful because it was unlawful to treat Roman citizens in such a way. They raced to the prison, apologized profusely and urged Paul and Silas to leave the city so that trouble with the crowds would not occur again.
The question is—why did Paul insist on the apology? Why didn’t Paul just walk out when told he was free? Was Paul merely acting obstinate and arrogantly obnoxious? I don’t think so. Paul’s concern was for those new Christians who had seen and heard that Paul and Silas had been beaten and cast into prison. On his first missionary journey, Paul had returned to those cities from which he had been thrown out and in which he had been stoned because he wanted to encourage the new Christians who may have been troubled at his mistreatment and may have been shaken somewhat in their faith. Here again Paul did something that turned the doubts and fears of the new Christians into confidence and victory. He left the jail with apologies from the city officials. He goes straight to Lydia’s house—the meeting place of the new Christians—and encourages them all by relating to them the events of God’s sovereign control and rescue. Only then does he continue on, heading now for Thessalonica.
Thessalonica had a synagogue. So according to custom, that is where Paul headed. He reasoned with the Jews and Gentiles converted to Judaism for three Sabbaths, attempting to show them how the old covenant was fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah. I’m sure that in those days between the Sabbaths Paul talked with others, but he also spent his time working. In I Thessalonians 1:9 Paul tells the Thessalonians, “For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” From Acts 18:3 we learn that Paul was a tentmaker. Although elsewhere Paul tells us that those who preach the gospel ought to be supported for that, he apparently thought that either the Thessalonian Christians could not have afforded it or it would have created an obstacle to his message had he not taken steps to pay for his daily needs.
Here as everywhere, several people came to Christ. Luke mentions in verse 4 that some Jews and many Greeks as well as “not a few” leading or influential women came to Christ. With a statement like this, we should pause to consider what Luke’s intent was. Was he merely telling his readers that people came to Christ? He probably means more than simply that. If it were merely to tell of people coming to Christ, he would have included the non-leading women in the number. But Luke’s point is to state that influential people were coming to Christ. That is Paul’s purpose on these journeys. Notice that he does not head for the small cities. He passed through Neapolis on his way to Philippi. Acts 17:1 tells us he passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia on his way to the capital city of Thessalonica. Although surely Paul spoke to everyone he met along the way about Christ, his mission was to establish churches whose influence would spread the gospel through the region. And so, he heads for influential cities, and Luke records the influential people that came to Christ so that the spread of the gospel would continue.
We would do well to take note of how the gospel is delivered by Paul for the sake of our own witness. He does not stand on a street corner hoping someone may hear. He does not waste his effort with those who refuse to hear. He does not plead and twist emotions so that people simply become fearful of hell and profess Christ merely to guarantee a selfish concern for their own safety. He preaches Jesus as the crucified and risen Savior and Lord.
Often it seems that in our earnestness to see people saved, we disregard the fact that our Sovereign God works intricately with the entire world. It is God who orchestrates events and impacts according to his complete knowledge of everyone’s character, desires, and even idiosyncrasies. And he works through his revelatory enlightenment so that those who will respond affirmatively hear his Word at the right time and according to the right influence. We sometimes forget that it is God who opens hearts and minds to understanding. We need not browbeat, threaten, or do anything that actually creates the reverse effect of building obstacles and barriers, making the unsaved more resistant to even listening to the gospel.
We must remember that every person alive holds the image of God. Although it was marred in the fall, that image remains, including a consciousness of morality. Moral goodness is recognized by everyone as something good. But the struggle within the hearts of the unsaved, pictured so well by Paul in Romans 7, is because they simply cannot hang on to what they know to be good and right and desirable. The law of sin (tendency toward rebellion resulting in death) dwells in the unsaved so that although they desire what is good, the sin within them rises, and they end frustrated and unsatisfied. Recognizing that desire within everyone is the thought we must keep in mind as we share the gospel of Christ. We are placing before them the way of satisfaction. That’s our witness. We should not mix it with manipulative mind and emotional games. Our witness is the presentation of the gospel in its truth, goodness, and beauty.