Acts 16:25-40 (AD 48-49)
The Romans were firm believers in…extreme motivation. For those in the prison service, this meant if prisoners escaped, it was the jailer got executed. It’s why, in verse 27, the jailer was about to kill himself rather than face the wrath of his employers.
It never surprised me, then, that Paul and Silas didn’t make their escape when the earthquake hit, because even though their imprisonment was unjust, they didn’t want to be part of the reason someone was killed. But what did surprise me, is how they persuaded an entire jail full of people to stay there with them. After all, at least some of the guys in prison must have been self-interested and not particularly nice!
Verse 25 gives us an introduction to how that happened: “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them”. The two missionaries at this point didn’t evangelise directly. But they behaved in an obvious, unapologetic and joyfully Christian way. It was compelling. There’s a case to be made here about the value of more simple, Biblical and meaningful songs in churches. The kinds of songs people can easily remember, that point to Jesus and the need for God.
As for the jailer, God had been working at him for a while. He knew something about sin and salvation – enough to wonder whether perhaps he needed it. The generous attitude of Paul and Silas in particular, and their influence or authority among the other prisoners, may have clinched it for him. When he found out that to trust in Jesus for forgiveness brought salvation, he invited the two missionaries to speak to his family (v.32), and all of them became Christians and were baptised immediately…well, right after the jailer bandaged up their injuries! (One can only imagine the gratitude of the jailer’s wife and children who feared for the jailer’s life.)
We don’t know whether any of the other prisoners, struck by Paul and Silas’ words, also came to faith. But they were given an amazing opportunity that was taken by the jailer and his family.
As Christians, our behaviour should set us apart. Not just because of generally moral behaviour but also because we love to do Christian-type things. Do we embrace church attendance as an opportunity to be with our church family? Do we make time to talk about God, read the Bible and pray with our biological family? Do Biblical matters crop up in our everyday conversation?
Footnote 1: Many Christians understand part of this section slightly differently, believing that the children were not necessarily repentant, but were baptised into the community of believers due to the faith of their parents. Denominations such as Presbyterianism believe that baptism of the children of Christians is the modern-day equivalent of circumcision, demonstrating membership of a virtual community of Christian families. Others – particularly Baptists – take from these verses that the children were repentant in their own right, baptised on that basis, and that we should only baptise professing Christians.
Footnote 2: The demand from Paul for a public trial was neither arrogant not entitled. As a Roman citizen, the treatment he had received was illegal. In a society where shame played a significant role, it was important for Paul’s reputation – and by extension the reputation of his message and of the Christian churches – that Paul be publicly exonerated from the anti-Semitic accusations of usurping Roman customs and laws (see v.21).