Have you had one of those days where things are going so well, and all of a sudden, something happens and your life is turned upside-down? Maybe it is when the boss walks in, says “We’re letting you go, please turn in your key and company credit card, and collect your things.” Maybe it is a close friend who says, “I’m moving away.” Maybe it is a bad report from the doctor.
As we learned in the previous post on Acts 16, Paul & Silas and their missionary friends journey to the city of Philippi, and things are going wonderfully. Read verses 16-24, because things are about to take a turn for the worst.
The apostles, we read, encounter a slave girl who had a spirit enabling her to predict the future. Scholars tell us that she was essentially a fortune-teller, and her owners profited greatly off of her ability.
She decides to follow the apostles and their friends, shouting that they are servants of God, and that they have the message of how to be saved. Imagine that scene! That had to be super awkward for Paul and Silas. They wanted everyone to become followers of Jesus, so did they try to gently ask her to stop? Or were they glad she was telling the truth. Did they view this as help or a hindrance? Did they discuss among themselves what they should do? Did she cause a commotion? It’s a strange situation.
After a few days of this, Paul clearly views this as a hindrance, and he turns to the slave girl and commands the spirit to leave her. Immediately the spirit is gone. The power of light over the power of darkness! She was free! Good news, right? Wrong.
Now that her abilities were gone, her masters could no longer profit from her. They are angry! Her owners take drastic action, essentially performing a citizen’s arrest on Paul and Silas, accusing them of unlawfulness before the local magistrates. Paul and Silas are stripped and beaten with a severe flogging, and thrown in jail, with their feet in stocks. This is awful, awful stuff.
When I envision Paul and Silas in that prison, I think of images from Sunday school lessons that I heard as a child. I have those images in my mind, and usually Paul and Silas are sitting on the floor, feet in stocks, but they don’t have any wounds. In verse 23, we read that they took a severe flogging. This is similar to what Jesus received before his crucifixion. We need to see Paul and Silas with blood all over them, hurting badly, probably in pain every move they make.
Paul and Silas are in a really bad predicament, but in verse 25, we read something astounding: they are praying and singing to God.
Come on. Really? Singing at that moment? Think about it. Falsely accused, beaten to a pulp, thrown in prison, feet in stocks, and why? Because they are serving the Lord! But they are still praying and singing to him?
When I have the smallest medical problem, I can start to think that my life is ending. That might sound dramatic, and I suppose it is to a degree, but I have to admit that can really allow my thoughts to get out of control. Near the beginning of quarantine, I started having a cough, and my mind went down a dark path. I thought, I must have Covid-19, and this is the end of. Then I heard the reports about younger people, including people who were physically active, getting Covid and dying fast. And my mind and emotions spiral. Have you ever experienced that?
Yet here are Paul and Silas, in the middle of their pain, in prison having been beaten badly, and they are praying and singing hymns! When you read that word, “hymns,” it is not referring to a particular genre of songs, as if they had hymn books. In fact the original language doesn’t tell us what genre they were singing at all. This phrase is better translated simply “they were singing.”
So what kinds of songs were Paul and Silas were they singing? We don’t’ know. Might have been psalms. It is possible that they were singing psalms of lament, crying out to God to rescue them. Or maybe they were singing psalms of praise. They might have been singing new songs that the Christians had created. The biblical scholars who study the text of the New Testament find a number of passages that are possibly lyrics from some of these early songs.
Speculate with me a bit here: since Paul and Silas are in Philippi, wouldn’t it be cool if they were singing a song that Paul writes about in his later letter to the Philippian church? Is there such a song in the letter to the Philippians? There almost certainly is: Philippians 2:5-11. A song about Jesus and the victory of Jesus! When Paul and Silas are stuck in prison, perhaps they were singing about the victory of Jesus! Interestingly to me at least, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions rejoicing a lot! Eight times, in fact; more than any of his other letters, including the famous Philippians 4:4, where he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!”
And get this…guess where Paul was when he wrote the letter to the Philippians? In chains again. He says so in Philippians 1:13-14, which took place years later in a different city, and was likely house arrest and not prison. But he was still in chains.
Isn’t that interesting? Paul’s interaction with the Philippian Christians potentially involves a lot of rejoicing while in chains. Perhaps in the prison that night in Philippi, and certainly later in his letter, Paul is almost certainly teaching by his example and by his writing that it is possible to rejoice in the midst of suffering.
In the next few posts we’ll talk more about how it is possible to rejoice in the midst of suffering, but first, something unexpected happens to Paul and Silas, and we’ll find out what that is in the next post!