“God’s anonymous: the Philippian jailer”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Isn’t it amazing how even the least likely person can become a Christian?
Take rock legend Alice Cooper, for example. Though his father and grandfather were pastors, (and even his father-in-law!), he never made time for “religion” himself. But back in 1983, things changed, for that’s when his struggle with alcohol was at its worst. After his wife Sheryl threatened to divorce him and after he began to recover in the hospital, he suddenly became a very changed man. Later he said, “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your motel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.” And he said, “I was one thing at one time, and I’m something new. I’m a new creature now. Don’t judge Alice by what he used to be. Praise God for what I am now.”
Or how about George Foreman? As a two-time world heavyweight champion, not to mention an Olympic gold medalist, he was one of the most feared boxers of all time.
Then came that day in March of 1977 in San Juan, Puerto Rico and his match against Jimmy Young. While some might say it was simply the result of heat exhaustion, George would tell you it was a lot more than that. It was a near-death experience!
He said he felt as if he was suddenly in a frightening place of nothingness and despair when he had no choice but to reach out to God. And God saved him. And from that moment on, what he called the greatest moment of his life, he would never be the same. Today, he even pastors a church in Houston, what he calls, “The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Or how about one more. How about former supermodel Niki Taylor?
Back in the 90s, she was one of the most famous names and faces in the world of fashion. After appearing on the covers of Allure, Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire, People magazine called her one of the world’s most beautiful people.
But in April of 2001, when her boyfriend lost control of his car and crashed into a utility pole, she suffered internal injuries and would remain in a coma for six weeks. But after enduring fifty-six operations to repair head trauma, a collapsed lung, as well as significant liver and spinal damage, she became a Christian. When asked, “Why is your spirit so vibrant inside?” she answered, “It’s my faith in Jesus Christ.”
So it was in the words of our text from the book of Acts chapter 16. I’ll start at verse 25: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 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. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And he spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (Acts 16:25-32).
The book of Acts chapter 16 takes us on the second of Paul’s three missionary journeys. By this time, he had already visited places like Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. Now he would come to a town called Philippi, population 10,000.
But of all the places that Paul would visit, Philippi was different. It wasn’t just a city, it was a Roman colony, a place where you lived like Romans, dressed like Romans, ate like Romans and obeyed Roman law. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that, even though you were in Philippi, you were actually living in the city of Rome.
And while he was there, as it says in verse 16, a demon-possessed slave girl started to follow him and his fellow evangelist, Silas, around. And as she did, she said, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
Now it would have been one thing had she said it once or twice or even three times, but she wouldn’t stop! Verse 18 says, “And this she kept doing for many days.”
So what would you do if you were the apostle Paul? The Bible says, “Greatly annoyed, he turned to her and said, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18).
Which is good news! At least you’d think. But you see, she was a slave girl. And when you’re a slave girl, it means someone owns you and is probably making money off of you. So as you can imagine, all of a sudden, somewhere there’s an owner who’s going to be really upset!
Which is exactly what happened! Verse 19 says: “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.”
But that’s not all. Verse 20 says, “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.’”
And if all that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly a crowd began to attack them and even beat them with rods. Then the Bible says, “When they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely” (Acts 16:23).
Now all this is very strange. Neither Paul nor Silas had done anything wrong. All they did was cast out a demon. How do you try that in court?! Obviously, their imprisonment was in clear violation of Rome’s own law.
But not only were they thrown into prison, the Bible says they were in the inner prison.
What’s that mean? Historians tell us that Roman prisons had three compartments, three places to keep their prisoners. The first part was called the “Communiora,” where there was light and fresh air. The second was called the “Interiora,” which was secured with iron bars and doors. But the third part was called the “Tullianum,” the inner prison, the absolute worst place of all, specially designed to strip the prisoner of any hope or dignity--think cold, dark, filthy-dirty, rotten, rat-infested, poorly ventilated and underground.
And not only were Paul and Silas thrown into that inner prison, their feet were fastened in stocks.
So what would you do if you were sitting in the coldest, darkest and most rat-infested prison of all? The Bible says in verse 25, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
Now I don’t know what they were singing, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”! Instead, it was more likely, “Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” or “The Old Rugged Cross” or “How Great Thou Art.” Whatever it was, in spite of being beaten with rods, thrown into the inner prison and having their feet fastened in stocks, they were praying and singing hymns to God.
Then what? The Bible says, “And the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).
And that’s important! You see, whether we realize it or not, the world is listening to us. And it wants to know that, even when we’re at our absolute worst, when we’re as down and out as you can go, God is our hope and our place of refuge.
But that’s when, all of a sudden, in the middle of their hymns and prayers, the earth began to shake and the ground began to rumble. And as even the foundations of the prison were shaking all around them, the doors opened wide and chains fell limp on the ground. And just as soon as the jailer woke up and saw what was happening, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, assuming that all the prisoners had escaped.
Let’s stop there for just a moment.
It’s been said that, sooner or later, everyone who doesn’t know Jesus reduces his, or her, life down to some little box. For some people, it’s money. For others, it might be popularity. For some, it might be a promotion. For others, it’s athletics or alcohol or a new car. And whatever that box is, they put everything in that box. And if that box ever goes, well, that’s the end.
This Philippian jailer had a box too, and his box was prestige and status. But when his world suddenly came crashing down all around him, all he had left was his name as a jailer, commissioned by Rome. And as the ground shook, the doors flew open and chains fell to the ground, he found that his little box had completely fallen apart.
So what did he have left? Really nothing at all. And the only thing left to do was to kill himself.
How far do you think his sword was from his stomach when Paul stopped him? Was it three inches? Maybe less? And how many seconds was he from his very last breath?
Yet there he stood on the brink of eternity, a lost soul standing on the edge between life and death.
Isn’t it amazing how God will often use the absolute worst of circumstances to bring people to Himself? It took a thief dying beside Him to put his trust in Him. It took one man being blind, and another being paralyzed. It took a woman caught in the act of adultery. It took a prodigal son to lose everything he had. Now here it took a jailer almost losing his life.
Yet it was in that moment, that moment of moments, that Paul cried out with a loud voice. And trembling with fear, that jailer fell down before him and asked the question, the greatest question, the most important question of all time: “What must I do to be saved? That’s a good question! In fact, you could travel anywhere in the world and find answers of every kind.
Islam thinks it has the answer. Pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, visit Mecca on a pilgrimage and fast during Ramadan. Then perhaps your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds, and if Allah wills, you may be saved.
Hinduism thinks it has the answer. Offer a puja sacrifice and bathe in the Ganges River. Then perhaps you’ll be reincarnated into a higher state of life where, after a series of lifetimes of good works, you may be saved.
But that’s not what the apostle Paul said at all! Instead, when the jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul gave the simplest and absolute best answer of all. He said, ”Believe!” “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
It was April of 1912, and thirty-nine year-old Pastor John Harper was taking a trip across the Atlantic, along with his niece and daughter, to preach at the famed Moody Church in downtown Chicago. He had already preached there several times, and now he hoped to preach once more. But the ship on which he was traveling was the Titanic.
And just as soon as it hit that iceberg, Harper managed to get his niece and daughter safely onto a lifeboat. But as the minutes ticked by, and all of the lifeboats were gone, 1,521 people were left onboard, including Harper.
With every passing minute, the deck became steeper as the boat plunged beneath the icy water. Finally, the ship broke in two, hurtling the remaining passengers into the Atlantic.
Yet even through that horrific tragedy, God was at work.
You see, John Harper wasn’t afraid to die. He knew he was about to come face-to-face with his Maker. And he wanted others to know their Lord and Savior too.
So as death tightened its grip on him, he yelled to a man in the darkness, “Are you saved?”
“No,” answered the man, “I’m not.”
Harper called back, “Then believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you’ll be saved.”
For a few minutes, the men drifted apart in the darkness, until the current brought them together again. Weak, exhausted and freezing to death, Harper yelled once more, “Are you saved?”
Again, the man answered, “No, I’m not.”
So Harper again said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you’ll be saved.” And with that, he slipped into his watery grave.
Four hours later, when the Carpathia finally came to the rescue, it was George Henry Cavell who said he was John Harper’s last convert.
Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? I hope you do, for He alone is your life and your salvation.
Sometimes, dear Father, You work through the absolute worst of times and circumstances to bring us to You. Keep us strong in faith that we may constantly rest on You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen