The Philippian Jailer: Acts 16

It’s easy to read Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi and not connect it to the people to whom he wrote. The words are so lovely. The scope of the theology is extraordinary and the depth of his emotion and attachment to them has inspired millions of people for thousands of years. Other than 1 Corinthians 13 there is likely no passage that surpasses Philippians 2 in describing the character and qualities of Christian love. These must have been unusual people to have stirred such feelings in Paul and caused him to be writing them from a Roman prison a long twelve years after he first met them.

They were unusual – probably the most unusual mix of people in the New Testament. We’ll not go into all of them this morning in detail but it’s worth a quick glance at two of them and then spend time on the third.

First, there was Lydia. She led a discussion and prayer group by the river on Sunday’s. Think of it as a Bible Study Fellowship led by a successful business woman for her family and employees.

Second, there was a young woman possessed by a demon that enabled her to tell the future. She was not a total charlatan. She could actually tell the truth but in a way that was a huge distraction for Paul’s work. After several days of her following Paul and crying out to people he was here to tell people about how to be saved, he ruined her career and her owners hopes of making money by driving the demon out of her. Think of it as someone from the psychic hotline following you around until you’ve had more than you can stand – even if she is telling the truth.

Third, there is the jailer into whose care Paul and his friends are put after they are stripped and flogged for throwing the city into an uproar and threatening their customs and practices. That’s where I would like to focus this morning.

Acts 16:22-34:

”The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household. When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”

Let’s look at a few things about this story.

First, there are two kinds of self-sacrifice. The jailer’s is suicide because he has failed miserably in his duty. Jails were not like we have today. They were a family business and it’s likely the jail was actually a part of his house. There was an assumption that failure came at the expense of your life – and perhaps even that of your entire household. There were no second chances. For the jailer, his work was his whole life and if he failed he might as well be dead.

You may remember the story of Ahithophel, David’s dearest friend, most trusted counselor and the one who betrayed him. When David’s rebellious son, Absalom, chose to disregard his advice he knew he had nothing left in life so he went home, put his house in order, and hanged himself.

There are many people for whom their work is their life and failure is fatal. They cannot face the shame of it or the loss of social standing and esteem. There is nothing underneath to prop them up and they run away, self-destruct over time or kill themselves. What the jailer was experiencing is not uncommon for many people. Failure in work or career means some kind of sacrifice is required.

There are two kinds of emptiness in Scripture and this is one of them. It’s the emptying of people who are full of themselves – their own ambitions – and have become worthless.

I have been reading Thomas Merton’s “No Man Is An Island” for the last two weeks and there is a passage toward the end of the book that is a disturbing description of a man full of himself and yet completely empty. He is empty of God.

“Maddened by his own insufficiency, the proud man shamelessly seizes upon satisfactions and possessions that are not due him, that can never satisfy him, and that he will never really need. Because he has never learned to distinguish what is really his, he desperately seeks to possess what can never belong to him.

In reality the proud man has no respect for himself because he has never had an opportunity to find out if there is anything in him worthy of respect. Convinced that he is despicable, and desperately hoping to keep other men from finding it out, he seizes upon everything that belongs to them and hides himself behind it. The mere fact that a thing belongs to someone else makes it seem worthy of desire. But because he secretly hates everything that is his own, as soon as each new thing becomes his own it loses its value and becomes hateful to him. He must fill his solitude with more and more loot, more and more rapine, seizing things not because he wants them, but because he cannot stand the sight of what he has already obtained.

These, then, are the ones who isolate themselves above the mass of other men because they have never learned to love either themselves or other men. They hate others because they hate themselves, and their love of others is merely an expression of this solitary hatred.

Having no true solitude and, therefore, no spiritual energy of his own, he desperately needs other men. But he needs them in order to consume them, as if in consuming them he could fill the void in his own spirit and make himself the person he feels he ought to be.

When the Lord, in His justice, wills to manifest and punish the sins of a society that ignores the natural law, He allows it to fall into the hands of men like this. The proud solitary is the ideal dictator, turning the whole world from peace to war, carrying out the work of destruction, opening the mouths of ruin from city to city, that these may declare the emptiness and degradation of men without God.”

The other self-sacrifice is Paul’s as he describes it in Philippans 1:20: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul had nothing to lose in that his life was no longer his own. He had settled that years ago and whatever success or failure he experienced was in the hands of God.

Sometimes there are angels that come to release you, sometimes there are earthquakes that break your chains and sometimes there is just a series of prisons, beatings and suffering. It was all the same to Paul.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul describes how Christ emptied himself by taking on the very nature of a servant. He turned loose of who he had every right to be and made himself empty of the glory that was his. That is the emptiness of true humility. It is not worthlessness or self-degradation. It is self-sacrifice for something greater than life.

Second, there was the command to place Paul and Silas not just in prison but in the most secure part – what the writer calls the inner cell or a prison within a prison. I’ve often thought about how we have those same places in our own lives. There are things we lock away in the inner cell where it is hidden. But, what do we do when that which is locked up so securely gets loose and the things we feared the most actually happen? What happens when that prisoner breaks free in an earthquake?

For some, it destroys them or their careers. The hidden past or the secret life suddenly emerges and wrecks them. How many more illustrations do we need of career destroying behavior than we have seen in the last several weeks? You may have followed the story of Josh Duggar, the star of the show “19 Kids and Counting” and director of a program for the Family Research Council. He admitted to molesting five of his siblings when he was a teen-ager. Jimmy Swaggert was one of the most influential preachers in this country until his other life was discovered. Or, Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, admitted to affairs with men and women in his church. These are what I would call personal earthquakes. They are invisible fault lines in a personality that suddenly snap and destroy the foundations of their lives.

For others, it is not so much a personal fault line as it is what we read in Job 3:25: “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” Instead of an earthquake these are the hurricanes that strike us. They are not internal but external. They don’t shatter our foundations but they blow everything else away. For many, they are just as destructive but for a few they are a turning point.

Some of you have met Todd Hendricks, my dear friend from Philadelphia. I was just with him in Haiti this week and we were talking about the hurricane that hit his life six years ago.

“My brother and I started to build some apartments as investments and soon found ourselves on the INC. 500 list of the fastest growing companies in America three years in a row. By 2005, we delivered over 600 homes a year and were approaching the $200 million mark in annual revenues. From our start in 1992 through 2005 we averaged 54.4% return on equity annually. We were pretty amazing… everything we touched turned to gold and lots of people were interested in our secrets to success. I think even God was impressed- we were giving millions of dollars a year to charity, seeing employees and others coming to faith, and I was serving on 17 non-profit boards.

Fast forward to April 2009…

On April 20th, we temporarily ceased operations. I don’t have time to tell the whole story, but the bottom line is that we had burned through $150 million of negative cash flow over the several years proceeding and were unable to liquidate any of our land holdings. We tried to find someone to step in with cash and save the company, but 10 days later we filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for our primary construction companies.

Within hours of temporarily ceasing operations, we had helicopters hovering over our corporate offices, newspaper and TV crews at our home and offices. We had to paper over all our first floor office windows as people were throwing their bodies against the glass, trying to get in. The TV cameras were in our flower beds and peering through our windows into our home. We sent our son Austin away for two weeks out of concern for his safety. We finally made it into the Wall Street Journal- not the way I was expecting, but rather we were credited with forcing one of our regional banks to be acquired because of their exposure to THP. Three of our primary banks have since been forced to be acquired because of their exposure to real estate.”

The hurricane blew away what was above ground – but not his foundation. Today, he is rebuilding the business but with a different perspective.

“I have revisited the spiritual journey of my youth. Why, when I was a teenager, could I say that I wanted to lay ALL on the alter without having to have the sky falling in? Why do I want to “take over God’s work” as I get older? Why has my money, my success, my plans, and my talents replaced my desperation for God? I want to be able to “be desperate for God” without needing to have the sky fall in or chaos in my life. I want to keep the passion of my youthful commitments to Christ alive. I hope I learn to do this when my life is fun, safe, and predictable. But if not, I want God to do whatever it takes to keep me wanting him badly. I want to refresh the commitments of my youth.”

We’ve heard many times what C.S. Lewis said in “The Problem of Pain”. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain.”

I believe the earthquake in Philippi was not to release Paul and Silas but to shake the very foundations of the jailer’s life. Paul was already free. It was the jailer himself who was in chains.

With what questions do we come to the Lord when those things we have guarded with our lives get loose or the hurricane hits? Those questions become the basis of a new life if we will let them.

“Sir, how do I face my wife and kids?”
“Sir, how can I ever trust anyone again after this betrayal?”
“Sir, how can I get through this?”
“Sir, is there a place I can hide?”

I think we have partly over spiritualized the jailer’s question. He was not just asking a theological question but the most practical and urgent question in the world. As Dr. Johnson said, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.” You could even say his question was self-serving. How can I live through this and not have to kill myself and my family? How can I survive? But Paul answers the question below the obvious, the question that is deeply buried in the fear of all of us who are keeping something prisoner. How can I be as free as you are? How can I rebuild a life shaken by an earthquake?

But it’s not just the jailer who is saved, is it? It is God’s plan to save him and his whole household. We see this a number of times in the New Testament. Acts 11:14 tells us that the centurion Cornelius and his whole household were saved and baptized. In Acts 16:15 Lydia and her household were saved and baptized. In Acts 18:8 Crispus and entire household were saved and baptized. Finally, in 1 Corinthians 1:16 Paul reports that the whole household of Stephanas was baptized and saved. I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of covenant theology here but I do think we have far overdone the importance of individualism in our approach. In Scripture, it is the family and the household that is the basic unit of society – not the individual. We have abandoned that in favor of the supremacy of the individual. While we may not understand it, I think it’s fair to ask the question, “Is God interested in saving as many as possible or as few?” Do rescue workers on a sinking trip try to save groups or only individuals? Both, and as many as they can. The whole family was responsible for the prisoner and the whole family was saved. “The whole family was filled with joy, because they had come to believe in God.”

Finally, I love thinking about that first Sunday worship service in Philippi. Its very existence flies in the face of everything we believe about church planting. All of our strategies tell us that churches are made up of people who look alike. Who are of similar ethnicity and economic levels. Who share tastes and backgrounds. Not here in Philippi. It’s a small congregation of two households and an out of work fortune teller. But it is not just them and their families. The word for household – oikos – also means a circle of influence and relationships. What a wonderful diversity must have been there. Imagine who Lydia brought. Her business and Bible study friends and employees sitting with the young girls friends off the street. And the jailer? Who do the jailers know? They know criminals or other jailers. Imagine taking a picture of the founders of that church that morning! That is why Paul loved them and that is why he said, “I thank my God every time I remember you.” How could he forget them? How could anyone do anything but marvel at the odds of that collection of differences creating a church that would, as Paul said, “become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”

I know how he feels when I look around this room each week. A motley crew. A quilt of different characters. A mixture of backgrounds and tastes. But, as Paul would describe you – stars in the universe.

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