August 6, 2017 “Jailer Goes Free” – Acts 16:16-40
“Jailer Goes Free”
August 6, 2017 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
This past May, Lane County voters overwhelmingly approved a 5-year extension to a jail levy, a property tax to maintain our county jail spaces. It was first passed in 2013 and allows a tax of up to 55 cents per thousand dollars of property value in order to keep offenders in jail rather than releasing them before their sentences are up. What that boils down to is that, if you own a $200,000 home, for the next five years at least you are locked into paying up to $110 per year to keep people locked up. If you’re a renter, then you are still paying that tax through your landlord. One might ask who is paying the penalty here.
The Roman empire in Paul’s time spent less on their jails. As still happens in many undeveloped countries, families and friends of prisoners had to provide food and bedding and any other comforts prisoners might have received.
As I mentioned last week, years ago our family stood in the ruins of Philippi and peered down into a dingy crypt which is popularly identified as the jail. That dark hole was in reality most likely a water cistern, but we can be sure the real thing, wherever it was located, was not much cheerier.
Even today, with clean beds and regular meals, jail is a terribly unpleasant place to be. It was certainly worse in ancient Philippi, where prisoners were beaten, locked in stocks and not fed very often. Yet not long after their arrival and the beginning of a church in the home of Lydia, Paul and Silas found themselves in that grim situation: locked in the inner cell of the town jail.
You remember Lydia. She was a textile merchant from Thyatira in Asia Minor and first a convert to Judaism. Paul and his companions found her praying with a group of women by a river outside the city. When she received the message of Jesus she became the first Christian convert in Europe. Being a woman of some means, Lydia immediately opened her home and housed the missionaries for the duration of their stay in Philippi.
The next Christian convert we meet in Philippi could not be more different from Lydia. From the well-to-do educated free woman with her own business, the scene changes to a poor deranged slave-girl with “a spirit of divination.” In Greek, Luke says in verse 16 that she had a “python” spirit, a snake spirit.
In Greek mythology, the god Apollo killed a great serpent named Python by a spring in Delphi, a small town built into the side of a mountain. Out of that spring came vapors which would drive a woman “oracle,” into a kind of hallucinatory trance. She was called the Pythian priestess, after the python slain by Apollo.
People came from all over Greece to hear the oracle’s drug-induced ravings. They believed she predicted the future and could guide them to fortune and long life. But like today’s lottery operators those who actually made a fortune were the keepers of Delphi’s oracle. On our visit to Greece we walked up the ancient street of Delphi and viewed great marble storehouses built by Athens, Thebes, Corinth and other cities of Greece to house offerings brought to the oracle for her prophecies. We saw hung in the museum tattered, glittering fragments of a life-size statue of a bull once covered completely in silver and gold. The python spirit of Delphi was a huge money-maker.
The lesser python spirit in the slave-girl was also making money. Her owners used her as the first century equivalent of a psychic shop. Philippian citizens paid big sums to have their fortunes told. The girl’s owners got rich off her trances and predictions.
Ironically, the spirit which held the girl discerned the truth about Paul and his friends. In the grip of the demon she followed them around like an insane groupie, constantly shouting in verse 17, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.!” As true as that was, it was very distracting as Paul tried to talk about Jesus with people. Finally, we’re told in verse 18, Paul stopped, turned around and commanded the spirit to leave her, in the name of Jesus. And the spirit left.
Jesus saved her. The girl was free. But Paul and Silas would not be for long. Luke plays with words in verses 18 and 19 saying that when the spirit had “left” the girl, her owners realized their means for making money had “left” them—same word. So they grabbed the offenders and hauled them before local authorities, accusing them of practicing an illegal religion.
Technically, the charge was true. Practicing religions were to be officially sanctioned by the Roman government. In reality, the law was hardly ever enforced, except in cases where it was judged that practitioners of a religion were a nuisance. The loss of profit was a nuisance. But there was no serious investigation of the charges. Magistrates carried a bundle of rods wrapped around the handle of an axe, symbolizing power to execute and power to inflict corporal punishment. The rods were taken out, Paul and Silas stripped bare, and a severe beating administered in verse 22.
The magistrates then incarcerated Paul and Silas and ordered the jailer to take extra precautions. Their feet were placed in the stocks. Roman stocks were designed to spread a man’s legs wide so he would soon be in agony.
But verse 25 tells us that in the middle of the night, about the time they should have been overcome with pain and despair, Paul and Silas did the unthinkable. They prayed and sang. Despite confinement, their hearts were free to celebrate and praise Jesus. The other prisoners listened to them with rapt attention, amazed that anyone could sing in that dark dismal hole. That is when the miracle happened.
You may explain it according to natural causes if you wish, but the earthquake in verse 26, which shook the prison doors open without harming anyone was hardly a coincidence. Free in their hearts, Paul and Silas were now physically free. Even the chains and the stocks fell off as we will sign about in a few minutes ago. It could have been another first century “great escape” like Peter’s release from prison in chapter 12.
But when the jailer woke up and saw the doors open he was shaken. He believed his life was over. He was responsible for the jail with his own person. The Roman penalty for a soldier who lost a prisoner was to receive the same punishments the prisoners would have received. At the very least, he would be locked in the stocks like Paul and Silas, humiliated. If any of his prisoners had been awaiting execution, then he would lose his own head.
So the jailer drew out his sword, stood it point up on the floor and prepared to throw himself on it. It didn’t matter whether he went to prison or died, his life would now be worthless. He might as well end it right there. He had no options, no place to run to. His freedom was destroyed. Verses 27 and 28 shows us the jailer was bending over the sword, mustering courage to plunge it into his stomach when he heard a shout, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And they were. No prisoners ran away.
God had not shaken the jail to free Paul and Silas from bars and chains. He had a greater goal for this miracle. He was about to free a man and his family from their sins and bring them to faith in Christ.
The jailer was stunned. Here were men who could have run but chose not to. They, he realized, were more free than he was. Maybe he had heard them praying and singing in the night. Maybe their courage impressed him. But when he called for a light and rushed in, verse 30 tells us that all he asked was, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Paul and Silas told the jailer that salvation comes through faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” So the jailer believed. So did his family. He brought the disciples out and washed the wounds of their beating. The disciples baptized the jailer and his family. Chrysostom’s commentary on verse 33 is that, “the jailer washed the evangelists’ wounds and then was himself washed of his sins.” I would add that as the apostles were freed from their chains, the one who jailed them was freed from his sins. Verse 34 says that instead of despair, joy came that day to the Philippian jailer.
From the Philippian jailer we learn that we may not be as free as we think we are. It doesn’t matter so much which side of iron bars you are on. It doesn’t matter if you are the jailer or the jailed if you are free in Christ. Liberty of the body is a great blessing. But liberty of the soul is the best freedom.
At the end of his book, The Body, Chuck Colson tells the story of Rusty Woomer, a prisoner on death row. He was facing execution for a crime spree which ended in the kidnapping, rape and murder of a convenience store clerk. Rusty’s history is interlaced with the story of a Christian named Bob McAlister. When McAlister first encountered the condemned man Rusty was sitting dazed and stupid on the floor of a filthy cell filled with trash and pornography as cockroaches crawled around him and over him.
All McAlister could think of to say to Woomer was “Rusty, just say the name ‘Jesus.’ Call on Jesus.” So Rusty said the name. He said, “Jesus.” When Bob saw Rusty again three days later, the cell had been scrubbed clean. The cockroaches and trash were gone. It was an amazing transformation, but the change in the man was even more amazing. There in prison he began to discover a freedom he never had before. In the next few years Rusty became a diligent student of the Bible and a humble disciple of Jesus Christ.
Rusty confessed his crimes. He wrote moving apologies to the families of his victims. When his execution grew near, he did not despair. He accepted it and looked forward to a new life in heaven. At one point Bob interviewed him on video tape so that he could speak to some of the people he knew on the outside. To one woman who had been a partner in his previous life of crime he said, “You are out on the streets. But I’m the one that’s free. I’m behind bars, but I can lay down at night and sleep. You can’t.”
After the usual delays and stays of execution, Rusty was put to death on April 26, 1991. When asked if he would like to make a final statement, he said, “I’m sorry. I claim Jesus Christ as my savior. My only wish is that everyone in the world could feel the love I have felt from Him.” The switch was thrown and Rusty was completely and entirely free.
Just a few years ago I read Bob Ekblad’s wonderful book, Reading the Bible with the Damned. It tells story after story of what happened as the author led Bible studies with prisoners in northwestern Washington. He learned as much as the inmates did as he learned to listen to the words of Scripture with the ears of the incarcerated.
God does great things in jail cells. William Tyndale wrote his English translation of the Bible while in prison. John Bunyan created Pilgrim’s Progress telling stories to his fellow prisoners in the Bedford jail. Dietrich Bonhoeffer encouraged the dissenting church in Nazi Germany with Letters and Papers from Prison. And Martin Luther King Jr. built up the civil rights movement with his letter from the Birmingham jail. Paul did much of his own writing while incarcerated, including the most encouraging epistle of all, a letter back to this same city of Philippi, writing in chapter 1 verse 7 “for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.”
Not all prisons consist of walls and physical spaces you cannot leave. I cannot know all that binds each of you. It may be an addiction, or a job you wish you could leave. You may feel trapped by an illness or by a relationship that is proving difficult. Maybe school seems like jail to you. I don’t know. Perhaps you are caught in depression or some other mental or emotional illness. You could be in bondage to your debts. Or there might be some old sin you cannot escape, which pulls you back no matter how hard you try to leave it behind. Whatever they are, those jails are not unbreakable. Even while in chains, you can be free.
Paul and Silas sang out to Jesus in their prison and He came to them. The jailer only asked how to find salvation and Jesus came to him. Rusty Woomer just said “Jesus,” and He came to him. Even if your call for help only amounts to a spiritual tapping on the wall or a text message in the dark, there is a Lord who hears, who reads even the shortest plea for help, and who responds. It is as simple as Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” It is as rich and complex as that as well, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” saved from every soul prison in which you find yourself. Christ will come and begin the work of making you the free person He means you to be.
As we come to the Lord’s Table now, we remember our sins and confess our failures. I invite you to believe in and call out to Jesus once again. He knows where you are confined. He knows what chains are around you. He knows the walls you cannot pass through. He knows every bit of pain both in mind and body that you desire to escape. And He can make you free. Believe in Jesus, learn to trust Him day by day, and you will find freedom, freedom even while the captivities of earth remain.
Jesus Christ was a prisoner Himself. He gave Himself up to ropes and nails and was pinned to the Cross, then confined in death to a grave. Yet God the Father set Him free, raised Him up alive, broke Him out of the grave, just so that Jesus could set you free. That’s what Jesus came for. Call out now and accept His freedom. He will come. He will make you free.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj