Have you ever lost hope? You might know the feeling, either from something in real life when disaster has struck, or maybe you had one of those vivid nightmares that seem totally real, and you wake up, sweating, heart racing, so thankful it was just a dream. The loss of hope can cause us to despair. But it is possible to have hope, even when it seems all is lost.
We see this in numerous ways in the next section of Acts 16. The apostles have been beaten and thrown in jail, then something unexpected happens. If you have a Bible, please read Acts 16 verse 26.
An earthquake breaks the apostles out of jail! Amazing. Simply amazing.
Except that one person there didn’t think it was so amazing. Now read verses 27-28. The jailer does not think this is amazing. If you’re the jailer, when the earthquake hits, and you see the prison doors open, you’re thinking one thing: “My life is over.” Why? In fact, the jailer is so distraught, he draws his sword to take his own life at this moment. Clearly he is thinking that the open doors of the prison mean that the prisoners have escaped. You and I might respond to him, “Wait a minute, buddy, this was no fault of your own. This was, in contemporary insurance lingo, an act of God. No one’s going to hold you to that. I mean, how could you have done anything to prepare for, or avert, an earthquake? Calm down, man.”
If we are thinking that way, we aren’t understanding the expectations of that culture. In the Roman system, if a jailer or guard lost a prisoner, that jailer or guard’s life would be demanded in his place. So rather than go through the indignity of being killed, the jailer apparently thinks he is just going to get it over with. It is hard, maybe, to put ourselves in his shoes, but that is how emotional he is, assuming that all is lost.
But all is not lost. In fact, nothing was lost. So Paul quickly calls out, telling the jailer, “Don’t harm yourself!,” because all the prisoners are still in there. When I read Paul saying that in verse 28, I think, “Really? Not a single prisoner took off?” I don’t know what is more amazing: that Paul and Silas were praying and singing while in suffering, or that an earthquake blew open the doors of the prison and loosed their chains, or that none of the prisoners fled the scene.
Why did the prisoners stay put? We don’t know. Some people have speculated that Paul and Silas made sure all the prisoners remained. The text doesn’t say that though.
As you can imagine, the jailer is dumbfounded, incredulous, and quite happy. See for yourselves by reading verses 29-34. The situation shook him to the core, and falling before the Apostles, he asks them what he needs to do to be saved. Saved? What did he mean by that?
Look at verse 17 again. Remember the slave girl possessed by the Spirit? She kept yelling out that these men, Paul and Silas, were servants of the Most High God who can tell people the way to be saved. That is exactly what Paul and Silas were doing, day after day, in Philippi. My guess is that word had gotten around about the message that Paul and Silas were preaching, the message of good news in Jesus, of what being saved meant. The way Luke tells the story, it seems likely that the jailer lived near enough to the prison that he could have heard as Paul and Silas were praying and singing, after being beaten, after being thrown in chains. Did their choice to pray and sing in the midst of difficulty make an impact on the jailer, if he heard them? It seems to me it must have. I can imagine the jailer thinking, “Clearly these Jesus people are different. They get treated so miserably, and yet they pray and sing?” The other prisoners hearing them were probably thinking, “Either these guys are off their rockers, or Jesus makes a major impact on the lives of people.”
And then the earthquake wrecked the jail, and the prisoners stay put. Imagine going from the horrible certainty of thinking that your life is over, to the hard-to-believe surprise that your life is actually not over, because all of the prisoners are still there! That’s what the jailer is experiencing, and his conclusion is that the apostles have the true story about life. These guys are different from anything he has previously encountered. Whatever this Jesus and salvation is that they are talking about, he wants to know more. He wants what they have. So he asks for salvation, and the apostles share the gospel to him and his whole house.
The jailer washes their wounds from the beating. Then he and his whole family are baptized, immediately. With a new joy in his heart, he invites the apostles into his house for a meal. It is an astounding turn of events.
The story concludes with even more good news, and we’ll learn about that in the next post.
For now, I wonder if you know the hope of salvation in Jesus? What the jailer in this story found, you can have too. Comment below if you’d like to learn more!