Philippi – The Ugly (turned to beauty!)

In our last post, we left Paul and Silas rotting in the dungeon of a Roman prison in Philippi.  Thankfully, God acts faster than I write blog posts!  In this week’s post, we see how God often uses what appear to us to be dire circumstances to accomplish His work.  It sure looked like this was the end for Paul and Silas.

Many years later John Bunyan, writing from his own prison cell, described in Pilgrim’s Progress a time when Christian was imprisoned in Doubting Castle by Giant Despair.  Ultimately Great-Heart slew Giant Despair and released him.  There are other instances in Pilgrim’s Progress where Bunyan deals with terrors and defeats, such as the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Death.  Bunyan, like Paul, was familiar with prison and religious persecution from the leading theologians of his day.  If you have never read Pilgrim’s Progress or anything about John Bunyan and what induced him to write it, I strongly recommend you do so.  It is a priceless and timeless encouragement to those who follow Christ in a world that is set against them.

Acts 16:25-40

v. 25 “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them;”  (the Greek literally says “praying and hymning to God”)  We don’t know for certain how long they had been imprisoned, but we can make a guess based on what Luke has told us.  The demon was cast out of the slave-girl that morning, since it happened as they were “going to the place of prayer” (v16).  The ensuing dragging before the magistrates, the riot, the beating and the imprisonment probably took a span of four hours or so.  It’s conceivable that they were secured in the stocks by noon.  If so, they would have been imprisoned for about twelve hours by midnight.  What conversations took place between Paul and Silas over those twelve hours?  We don’t know, but we do know that by midnight they were mentally and spiritually in God’s presence.  The prison, usually filled with moans and groans, was riveted upon a very unusual sound — praise songs!  Paul and Silas were doing what Paul would later write to the church in Ephesus.  ”… speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father…” (Ephesians 5:19-20).  After all, what is a little jail time and a beating to men who have already suffered worse and seen God miraculously step in and turn the situation to good?

v. 26 “And suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”  This is, of course, a part of the world where earthquakes are still frequent today.  What is interesting is that the building was sufficiently shaken to spring all of the locks (including those that secured the prisoners’ chains), but not collapse the building or cause any injury!  From God’s perspective it must have been just enough of a jiggle to spring the locks — but it was a possibility that was completely “outside the box” for the designers, builders and keepers of the prison.

v. 27-28 “And when the jailer had been roused out of sleep and had seen the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.  But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!’”  In Paul’s day under Roman authority, the consequences of failure for those who kept prisoners for the State were dire!  It was the death penalty, but we don’t know by what means.  Conybeare and Howson also point out that suicide had a long-standing place of honor in Philippi, for both Cassius and Titinius had ended their lives there.  The jailer, realizing the full weight of what had happened, chose a more convenient means of death than what Roman justice would mete out.  But wait!  A loud voice calls out from the depths of the prison.  ”Stop!  We’re all here!”  At this point we also need to stop — and take inventory.  Where was the jailer?  Outside the prison.  Where was Paul?  In the deepest part of the prison.  Was it daytime or nighttime?  Nighttime, and completely dark inside and outside the prison.  Could Paul see the jailer and what he was about to do?  How did he know?  Surely the Holy Spirit must have enlightened him.  The second arresting oddity (no pun intended) is the fact that none of the prisoners chose to leave in the confusion following the earthquake!  Why?  What was different about this situation than any other natural disaster that would have seen them scattering like cockroaches?  We’re only guessing here, of course, but I suspect they had become somewhat mesmerized by Paul and Silas’ singing, were taken completely by surprise by the earthquake, and once it subsided were completely amazed that they were not buried beneath a collapsed building.  Luke tells us that the jailer brought Paul and Silas out, but says nothing about the remaining prisoners.  They would have been “re-secured”, and continue to server their sentence.  What induced them to remain?  Conybeare and Howson attribute it to a commanding quality of leadership in Paul which he exercised on many occasions, one of his many “gifts of the Spirit” in his role as an Apostle.  In any case, the lack of a single escapee is nearly as miraculous as “just enough” earthquake to spring the locks but otherwise do no harm, and Paul’s ability to “see” what the jailer was about to do to himself.

v. 29-30  ”And he called for lights and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”  Now this statement is the climax of all that we have surmised above!  In the jailer’s mind, all of the events of the past few moments — perhaps half an hour — combined to generate this singular realization.  He needed to be saved, and wanted desperately to know how!  The word “saved” in the Greek is “sowthow”, from the same root as the words for savior and salvation.  Did he realize what he needed to be saved from?  Was this a question of eternal salvation or merely a question of rescue from Roman authorities?  The next verses will answer this question for us.  But remember that he had been on the brink of taking his own life, which no doubt “flashed before his eyes.”  He was in a state of mind to consider the meaning and outcome of life in toto.

Before leaving these two verses, we should also note that the word “Sirs” lacks the impact of the original Greek, where the word is the plural form of kurios.  This is a title of respect that is more often translated “lord”.  (Indeed, when Paul uses the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ”, it is Kurios with a capital K!)  Implied in the use of this word is an attitude of submission to authority that is not present in our modern-day use of “Sir”.

v. 31-34  ”And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, you and your household.’  And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in  his house.  And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.  And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with all his household.”  Please note carefully the order of events described here: (1) Paul and Silas explained how to be saved by faith.  (2) The jailer “took them and washed their wounds.” (3) The jailer and his household were baptized.  (4) Then the jailer took them into his house and fed them.  The implication is that the jailer’s household had come with him to the prison where they heard the Gospel and believed, then the jailer took them to where water was available for washing their wounds, but not to his house.   Luke records that the jailer and his household immediately were baptized.  We can only take this to mean that the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds and the baptism occurred in the same time frame and at the same location.  Then they all went to the jailer’s household to eat and rejoice.

Two details are important to note here.  The first concerns their baptism.  Luke does not specifically say they were baptized in water.  It is possible that Luke refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit (which we contend is the only baptism for believers today), but the immediate association with the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds makes it certain that this is not the case.  As an interesting aside, the baptisms recorded so far were by immersion or nearly so, requiring enough water to stand in.  Had the baptism (and the washing of Paul and Silas’ wounds) taken place inside the jailer’s house, they would have to have been baptized out of a wash-basin — perhaps (tongue-in-cheek) the first example of baptism by sprinkling!  In any case, once again Luke is the consummate historian who can be trusted to get the order of events exactly right.

The second detail is in the content of Paul’s reply to the jailer’s plea about how to be saved. Compare v31 carefully to Acts 2:38.  Let’s list the differences between these two passages.

  • Who is speaking?
  • Who is being spoken to?
  • The speaker in Acts 2:38 specifies what two reqirements: R______ (of what?) and be B____________
  • The speaker in Acts 16:31 specifies what single requirement: B____________
  • What event took place immediately before the start of this journey?

Paul would write to the Galatian Church about another meeting with the leaders in Jerusalem, reminding them of the historic context of that meeting — that he had been given the “gospel to the uncircumcised” while Peter had been given the “gospel to the circumcision.”  (Galatians 2:7-10)  The only requirement was that the gentiles “remember the poor.”  Nothing is said about repentance or baptism.  (It’s important to remember what the Jews were to repent about! Gentile believers had no such hand in the trials and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.)  For any number of reasons between these two passages, I believe that the requirements for salvation were changing away from the Jerusalem Church and it’s role in the Millennial Kingdom.  This  brings us back to the issue of baptism.  In the case of the Philippian jailer and his household — gentiles — the baptism is described here as an eventuality, not a requirement.  At the very least, it is illustrative of the difference between the Kingdom program of the Jerusalem Church under Peter and the church of today under Paul’s Gospel to the Gentiles as of this point in Luke’s narrative.

vv 35-40  ”Now when the day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, ‘Release those men.’  And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, ‘The chief magistrates have sent to release you.  Now therefore, come out and go in peace.’  But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly?  No, indeed!  But let them come themselves and bring us out.”  And the policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates.  And they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city.  And they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.”

Paul indeed has the last word in Philippi.  Interestingly, he includes Silas as being a Roman citizen like himself.  The scriptures do not tell us this in so many words, this is the sole passage on which Silas’ citizenship is based.  Consequently Bible scholars say that Silas was “probably” a Roman citizen, just to be on the safe side.  And I think it is appropriate in this case.

Why didn’t Paul or Silas say so when they appeared before the chief magistrates initially?  Luke gives us no hint, he just faithfully records the events as they transpired.  Perhaps if they had done so, there would have been entangling consequences that would have prevented their moving on in ministry to other regions.  Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.  Paul’s later experience in Jerusalem when he did choose to “appeal unto Caesar” certainly bears this out.

The events of the previous night ended with Luke’s description of eating and rejoicing in the jailer’s house, but this passage has them going “out of the prison and enter[ing] the house of Lydia.”  (The jailer’s request after receiving the policemen to “come out” suggests that they were already back in the prison before daybreak.)  In any case, whether before or after the policemen arrived with orders for their release, they had willingly returned to the jail — no doubt to drive the point home with the chief magistrates and make the circumstances easier on the jailer.

Conybeare and Howson note also their apparently leisurely departure from Philippi.  They certainly had the upper hand legally for the moment, and took advantage of it.  Leaving the jail, they returned to their original lodging in the house of Lydia.  They took time to greet and encourage fellow believers — and then departed on their own sweet time.

Many years later Paul would write to them from a prison in Rome.  Who among them could not see the immediate parallels to his imprisonment in Philippi?  ”Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard and to everyone else…  most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear…  For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain… Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you, or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents — which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.  For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.”  (Philippians 1:12-30 excerpts)  Paul and Silas’ shameful treatment by the Philippian chief magistrates was a portent of destruction for them (they begged Paul and Silas profusely to leave Philippi because they were afraid of their own destruction at the hands of the Roman government for having done this to Roman citizens), and at the same time set an indelible example for how to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” when suffering persecution.  Surely Paul’s expression “conflict which you saw in me” is a direct reference to the passage we have studied in this post.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly — turned to beauty in Philippi!  Next post… Thessalonica and Berea.

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