Shaken to the Foundations - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Acts 16:29-31


Shaken to the Foundations


Acts 16:1-34


Acts 16:29-31 "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."

It had all begun so well!

God had led them to Europe, they were sure of it. Door after door had been closed to them but then, that night, Paul had received such a clear vision. "Come over and help us" was the cry of the Macedonian man in his vision; could anything be clearer than that?

And so Paul and Silas and a handful of others had set sail for Europe and 2 or 3 days later arrived on the continent of Europe at Neapolis. From there it had been just a short 11-12 mile journey and they were in Philippi.

It didn’t take them long to find some spiritually minded people either. When the Sabbath came, a few days later, Paul and the others went to the riverside where they expected to find a place where folk would gather together in order to pray. And that is exactly what they found. A group of women had gathered there and the gospel was shared with them. One of the women, Lydia, was soundly converted because, as she listened to Paul, the Lord opened her heart.

The work had begun and Lydia was baptised. She immediately demonstrated the reality of her new found faith by insisting that these Christian missionaries accept the hospitality of her home in the city.

Things were going well.

An Apparent Turn for the Worse
Then, one day when they were on the way to that place of prayer again, a servant girl met them. She was no ordinary servant girl however but one who was possessed by a spirit that enabled her to predict the future. Her owners knew all about their servant’s fortune-telling skills and were quick to turn them into a money-making venture.

This account concerns an incident that took place nearly 2,000 years ago but how little men and women have changed during that period. We’re interested in finding out how about the future and we lend the whole venture a certain credibility by even having university courses dedicated to it. The University of Kent offers, for example, an MA in the Cultural Study of Cosmology and Divination! And of course we still find fortune-tellers plying their trade for money today – though they often prefer to refer to themselves as clairvoyants. There is one such who lives less than ½ mile from where we are meeting right now. She describes herself as "the clairvoyant medium who means business" and to judge by the cost of tickets to her events she’s not wrong. The good book has got it right: there is nothing new under the sun.

Well that servant girl took it into her head to follow the missionaries around and declare to anyone who would listen that these were:

"servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." v.17

This went on and on and Paul became annoyed. Not all publicity was good publicity and Paul saw this girl’s behaviour as utterly unacceptable – after all what do light and darkness have in common? Speaking in Jesus’ name he spoke to the girl and commanded the spirit that possessed her to depart. That very same hour the spirit left his victim – she was free.

But her freedom spelled economic loss for her owners because her fortune-telling powers had gone too. They were unhappy about it and reacted with violence. They drummed up some false charges, they stirred up a section of the population and, in short, made life difficult for Paul and Silas.

That happens today too. A street preacher proclaims the gospel and his message is twisted and misrepresented by some deeply offended and dishonest individual and before you know it that street preacher is arrested. Justice isn’t the issue however much some might like to pretend it is.

Justice wasn’t uppermost in the thoughts of the authorities in Philippi either. They made no attempt to get to the bottom of the matter but instead quickly acted to appease those who were the real culprits for the unrest. Paul and Silas were taken, stripped, beaten and then thrown into the local prison to cool off. From what happens later it seems as though the authorities thought that Paul and Silas would be happy simply to slip away into a self-imposed exile when they were given the chance. How wrong they would be on that score!

The evangelistic mission that had got off to such a good start seemed to have hit the buffers in a big way. I wonder whether Paul and Silas were tempted to think that they had got things wrong, that they had made a mistake in coming to Europe. After all a roman prison was no 5 star hotel!

In the Roman world, imprisonment was rarely a long-term punishment. Most prisoners were held for as long as it took to organise their execution. Those who were held awaiting trial were often encouraged to go into voluntary exile. Conditions of imprisonment were closely linked to the status of the prisoner. Rich Romans would be kept under house arrest but non-Roman citizens, even those of high status, were often harshly treated. Paul and Silas weren’t treated like rich Romans; they weren’t even treated as poor Romans. After their unwarranted beating they were chained in a dark, common holding cell in Philippi. It was smelly and dirty and dark. Their wounds hadn’t been treated, their clothes were in rags and their feet were in stocks.

Suddenly, everything seemed to have gone horribly wrong? Had God forgotten them? Was he able to do anything for them?

Songs in the Night
Paul and Silas were Christian men with a robust Christian faith and although their circumstances didn’t look at all favourable their confidence was not in those circumstances but in their God who rules over all and he had a plan. Paul and Silas might not have known quite what God was doing but whatever it was he could be trusted.

I don’t think anyone would have been surprised that Paul and Silas prayed while they were in prison – men and women will often cry out to a god for help when they are in over their heads – but what really is astonishing is that they should be singing songs of praise in the middle of the night. They weren’t whispering quietly either for the whole prison could hear them.

The Christian faith that Paul Silas lived out in that prison cell in Philippi has been proven again and again in the experience of countless men and women down through the ages. It is a faith that works in our sin befuddled, dark world. It is a faith that teaches men and women that they can be content in whatever circumstances they may find themselves for God is with them and Jesus their Lord will not abandon them.

There are times when we know what God is about and there are other times when we may not have the foggiest idea of his plans but whether we see clearly or no further than the end of our nose God continues to work his purposes out as year succeeds to year.

And this situation in Philippi was not out of his control, not one little bit. In fact God had set his sights on saving an unlikely character. There was a retired army veteran living in Philippi and his job? Well he was the prison governor. There’s no indication that he was a particularly nice character – he hadn’t done anything for his latest prisoners when they arrived except chain them up. But God had chosen him!

And as Paul and Silas prayed and sang something unusual happened – unusual things often happen when men and women pray and praise the Living God – an earthquake shook the place. It was an unusual earthquake. It didn’t destroy any lives but it opened all the doors of the prison and released all the chains of the prisoners.

That earthquake did one more thing too – it scared the prison governor rigid!

Seeing the doors of his prison standing open he jumped to the very reasonable conclusion that his prisoners had all legged it. Who could blame him? Would you want to stay on death’s row in such a place?

It didn’t take the jailer long to draw his conclusions: with the prisoners gone so had all hope for him vanished too. He would be held responsible for those prisoners and would have to answer for it with his life. He knew all too well the horrors that awaited him and he took the decision to put an end to his life there and then.

Suicide is a desperate place to come to. To see suicide as the best exit strategy means that every other avenue of hope has been shut off. Suicide is the option when it seems that there is no other way forward.

Around 6,000 people commit suicide each year in the UK and many, many more are caught up in self-harm.

Is there any hope?

Yes, there most certainly is and it is to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The jailer was in a dark place but God was at work!

It was shortly after midnight, there were no lights in the prison but somehow Paul knew the jailer was about to kill himself. Maybe through the open door he saw the jailor silhouetted against the night sky – I don’t know. I do know that Paul did cry out and spoke to the jailer about his most urgent preoccupation, his prisoners:

v.28 "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here."

And that is something else that is in itself extraordinary. Why were they still there? Why hadn’t the other prisoners escaped while they had the chance? Were they somehow aware that they were in the presence of the One true Living God? We have no way of knowing but we do know that the jailer was still frightened out of his wits.

He called for lights, rushed into the prison, and trembling with fear, fell at the feet of Paul and Silas – there must have been something special about these men something different – and yes of course there was: they had been with Jesus.

Earlier in the day the jailer had hardly given them a second thought but now – how things had changed, how his own thinking had changed!

The jailer was now in great fear and well aware of his great need. He saw himself as lost but he knew that these men weren’t and surely they could help him. Wasn’t that the word that that strange servant girl had been spreading about town? What had she said?

v.17 "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation."

So he brought them out of that holding cell deep in the heart of the prison and then cried out as he had never cried before. He went directly to the point:

v.30 "Sirs, What must I do to be saved?"

He hadn’t spoken to them respectfully when he had consigned them to the inner prison but now God was at work in his life and he was beginning to see everything in a different light. That is what happens when God draws a man or a woman to himself – things change, attitudes change, assessments of personal need change.

Has this happened to you? Have you allowed such changes to lead you to call out in a way that is similar to that old prison governor?

"What must I do to be saved?"

Do you see how God was at work in transforming the life of that jailer? There was just a handful of people in the whole of Europe who knew at that moment of history how to answer his question and God had so ordered things that two of them were in his prison!

Our God is marvellous. Even a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without it being part of our Father’s will and here a whole sequence of events including an earthquake is brought together so that one man and his family might hear the good news of Jesus Christ and respond to it. If the quake had happened the day before of the day after the jailer would not have been saved but our God is a God who works all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom.8:28).

Glorious Safety
The jailer knew himself to be lost but had no idea what to do about it.

Paul and Silas on the other hand did know and Paul wasted no time in telling the jailer that he didn’t have to do anything for in fact everything had already been done by Jesus as he would go on to explain in more detail. But for the moment he must bring hope to a desperate man and so Paul tells him:

v.32 "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."

What a wonderful word it was! Not only could the jailer be safe and sound but his entire household as well!

v.32 "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."

This man had no religious background nor he had not undergone a long period of preparation to bring him to this point but still Paul raced to give him the answer he wanted and the hope he needed. It was a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ and Paul needed to be succinct because the jailer was scared and worried. With these simple words Paul was able to bring peace to this distressed man and then having gone with the jailer to his home he was able to continue with Silas to explain to him just what all this meant.

Do you think there is any evidence that the jailer did what Paul and Silas told? Do you think he did believe? I do because he immediately bore the fruits of a changed life. Earlier in the day he hadn’t bothered to arrange for these prisoners’ wounds to be treated but now still in the middle of the night, not bothering to wait for morning, he sets to the task of washing their wounds himself! It won’t be long either before he is baptised along with his household as they respond to the apostles’ message with faith and trust in Jesus. Then, in his own house he serves them with something to eat.

What a night it was for that jailer. And he and his entire household went on their way rejoicing!

How easy it would have been for Paul and Silas to feel sorry for themselves languishing painfully in that prison cell. Didn’t they have reason to feel a bit dissatisfied with the God who had called them there? Why did he allow them such a good start only to allow them to be beaten up and thrown in a horrible prison?

But these two men didn’t react like that at all. Instead they showed that they were prayerful men, men intent on giving glory to God.

How, I wonder, do we match up in our own situations? Are we characterised by prayer and praise? If not we maybe need to take stock and make some alterations.

Disgruntled and grumpy believers are a poor advertisement for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and they are unlikely to have an answer ready at their fingertips when asked to explain their faith.

How wonderfully well prepared Paul and Silas were being well able to speak the word of the Lord to the jailer.

May the Lord lead us to those who are looking for a way out of their lostness and may we be ready and willing to say:

"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."

May we be able to then go further and explain what that means.

And may God be pleased to bless his word and to give the increase.


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