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May 21, 2017

Sermon Acts 16:25-34 . . .“People to meet in heaven:  a Philippian jailer”

“People to meet in heaven:  a Philippian jailer”

Acts 16:25-34

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Ever heard of ADX Florence?  I hope you haven’t.  It’s a federal supermax prison, located about a hundred miles south of Denver, Colorado.  It’s the home of the most violent and dangerous prisoners in the United States, and is listed at the very top of the top ten prisons in the United States.

The government didn’t want to build it.  It’s just than none of our other prisons were secure enough.  Some inmates were found to be too dangerous, too high-profile and too great a national security risk for even a maximum-security prison.

And trust me—you don’t want to go there.  Inmates spend twenty-three hours a day locked in their cells and are escorted by a minimum of three officers for their five hours of private recreation each week.

Each cell has a desk, a stool and a bed, made of stainless steel or poured concrete.  If you’re good, you might even get a TV.

Who’s there?  Zacarias Moussaoui is there.  He’s an Al-Qaeda operative who helped to plan the September 11th attacks.  Eyad Ismoil is there too, and will be until August of 2204 (that’s 187 years from now, by the way).  The “Shoe Bomber,” Richard Reid is there, and so is Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bomber, Theodore Kacynski, the “Unibomber” and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bomber.

Those who visit tell of its “astonishing and eerie quiet.”  As Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cheri Nolan once said:  “Once you’re inside, you really can’t tell where you are—what’s north, south, east or west.  It’s an interesting kind of set up.”  And she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Prisons are never a place any of us would like to be.  But it’s there that we find, of all people, the apostle Paul.

Please turn in your Bible to page 1177 as I read the words of our text.  I’ll start at chapter 16, verse 16:  “As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.  She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’  And this she kept doing for many days.  Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’  And it came out that very hour.”

Paul is now on the second of his three missionary journeys.  He’s already visited Syria and Cilicia, Derbe and Lystra.  Soon he’ll visit Corinth, Ephesus and Athens, Greece.

And notice, he’s not alone.  As it says in verse 16, “As we were going to the place of prayer…”

Who’s “we”?  It’s a doctor named Luke, (the one who wrote the book of Acts), a fellow disciple named Silas, and a soon-to-be pastor named Timothy.

And now they’re in Philippi.  As it says in verse 12, it was “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.”

And that’s important.  You see, Philippi wasn’t a Jewish town with a Jewish synagogue.  They had no place to worship there.  That’s why they met down by the river instead.

And while they were there, as it says in verse 16, they were “met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination.”

Now if I could say, “spirit of divination,” really isn’t the best translation, because it’s not what the original says.  Actually, the text says, “She had a spirit of Pythona.”

Now that might not mean much to us, which is why most every translation wrote, “spirit of divination.”  But if you want to know the truth, when it says “she had a spirit of Pythona,” it meant she was a priestess, an oracle, a voice of the god Apollo.

And that’s a big deal.  At least, it was to the people of Philippi.  Notice what it says in verse 16:  “…she brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.”

So you see, men kept this poor, demon-possessed, slave girl high on drugs, then used her to tell the future and to “speak” for their god Apollo.

But even though the girl was possessed, she began to follow Luke and Silas, Timothy and Paul around.  Even more, as she followed them, she couldn’t help but shout:  “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”

At first, it was amusing.  Before long, it became annoying.  That’s why Paul finally stopped in his tracks, turned around and said, “Whoever you are, whatever you are, causing this bizarre behavior in the mind and heart of this poor little girl, in the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her and go away.”

And in that moment, the girl stopped shouting, and became quiet.  A smile came over her face.  The demon was gone.

The only problem was, now that the demon was gone, her owners’ profits were gone too.

Now look at verse 19:  “But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers.  And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.  They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.’”

In other words, they said, “These men aren’t Macedonians like the rest of us.  They’re Jews—outsiders, agitators.  And they’re disturbing our peace.”

What next?  Verse 22:  “The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.”  And verse 23:  “And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.”

Now before we go any further, let me give you a quick lesson on Roman prisons.  Historians tell us that each prison had three divisions.  The first was called, “communiora,” a sort of minimum security prison, with lots of light and fresh air.  The second was called, “interiora.”  That part was shut off by iron locks and bars.

Now the third, the “tullainium,” had the highest security of all.  It was the inner prison, maximum security, where the condemned waited to die.  Their hands were bound in chains and their feet fastened in stocks.  They weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

And let’s not forget what it said in verse 22:  they “beat them with rods,” and verse 23, “And when they had inflicted many blows.”

Imagine how sore, bleeding and hurting poor Paul and Silas must have been!

Now let me ask—what would you do if you were stripped, beaten with rods, then had your hands and feet chained and locked in stocks?  Call your lawyer?  Beg for mercy?  Paul was, after all, a Roman citizen!

Look at verse 25:  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”

Now we don’t know the prayers they prayed or the songs they sang, but we can guess.  Since the book of Psalms was the Old Testament hymnbook, maybe they sang songs like Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in time of trouble,” or Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear…of whom shall I be afraid?” or Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

And while they were praying and signing hymns to God, what happened?  Verse 25:  “The prisoners were listening to them.”  And, you can bet, the jailer was listening too.

That’s when, all of a sudden, the earth began to shake.  Verse 26 says, “There was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken.”  Even more, it says, “Immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”

That’s why, in verse 27, when the jailer woke up and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  He was, after all, the jailer.  His prisoners were his responsibility.  He was as good as dead anyway.

Verse 28:  “But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’  And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas.”

Now before I tell you what happened next, what this man is about to ask is the one question, the most important question, that every man, woman and child, of all places and all time, must ask someday, sometime before they die.

And notice, in his moment of deep despair, with a sword in his hand, staring death in the face, he didn’t look to Apollo or to some demon-possessed slave girl or to any other of his multitude of Roman gods.  Instead, terrified, shaken and afraid, he asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

And what did they say?  If Paul and Silas were Muslim, they would have said, “Pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, visit Mecca on a pilgrimage, and fast during Ramadan.  Then, if your good deeds outweigh your bad, and if Allah chooses, you can be saved.”  And if they were Hindu, they would have said, “Make puja sacrifices, and bathe in the Ganges River.  Then you will be reincarnated into a higher state of life.  And after a series of lifetimes of good works, you may be saved.”

But that’s not what they said at all.  Instead, they said, in verse 31:  “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Is it any surprise?  It shouldn’t be.  That’s the way it always was.

When men’s hearts were so full of sin that God had no choice but to destroy the earth with a flood, Noah and his family found refuge on the ark.

As the people of Israel prepared to leave Egypt, they spread blood on the doorposts of their home.

When snakes poisoned them in the wilderness, Moses raised a bronze serpent on a pole and said, “Look and live.”

And when God chose to redeem us, to buy us back from sin and Satan, He sent His only Son.

As Paul wrote to the Ephesians:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  And he wrote to Titus:  “He saved us, not by works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy…we become heirs of eternal life.”

Then what?  Just as soon as the jailer believed, he put his faith into action.  Verse 33:  “And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.  Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them.  And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

Harry Lauder was a Scottish comedian and singer in the early 1900s.  Winston Churchill once called him, “Scotland’s greatest ambassador ever!”  In his day, he was the highest-paid performer in the world.

But in World War I, in the trenches of France, his only son, John, was killed.  And in his despair, Harry Lauder said, “In my sorrow, I had three choices.  First, I could turn to drink and drown my sorrow in debauchery and dissipation.  Second, I could take my life and hide my sorrow in the grave.  Or third, I could turn to God.”

Then the great, world-renowned, world-loved entertainer said, “And I, I turned to God.”

I don’t know how the gospel first found you.  Maybe it happened when you were in high school or college.  Maybe it happened as an infant, when water was first poured on your head.

But no matter how it first found you, it’s still finding you today—at worship, at the Lord’s Supper, in Bible study, in your devotions at home.

And sometimes, just like the Philippian jailer, it catches you by surprise.  Sometimes it shakes your foundation and shatters the chains of your heart.  Sometimes it washes your wounds and gives you light.  And because it does, no matter where you go, by the rich, undeserved mercy of God, you go in peace.

One more thing.  It’s true that this was Paul’s first visit to Philippi.  And in the years to come, he would visit some three times more.

But best of all, he would write a letter just a few years before he died.  

And in his letter to the Philippians, he wrote:  “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy.”  And he wrote:  “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the words of a hymn:  “What must I do! O weary, trembling soul, just turn today to Jesus; He will receive, forgive and make you whole—Christ alone can save you.” 


Dear Father, by Your rich grace and mercy, You once called a jailer in Philippi to believe in You.  So call us by that same mercy, that we too may follow You.  This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen


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