In Acts 16:25, Luke places us, his readers, in the darkness of the midnight hour, in the “inner” prison in Philippi, with Paul and Silas, fastened in the stocks. Their crime was the intolerable one of disturbing the peace of the city and advocating customs “good Romans” don’t tolerate. In reality, though, they were in prison because of their role in the deliverance of a slave girl from an unholy spirit and, more proximately, her abusive owners. This Cosette-figure, this Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this Ophelia of Acts 16 has been liberated from the tyrannical exploitation of greedy men, and the serpent bites back. Luke pulls no punches: Paul and Silas are in prison, beaten and bleeding, because these abusers lost “much gain,” and their “hope” of further gain, was now gone (vv. 16, 19). Touch the enemy’s pocket and all pretense of patience ends.
While we are there, in the darkness with these two servants of Christ, we are confronted by yet another marker in Acts of the kingdom that has come in Jesus of Nazareth, the kingdom which is in so many ways manifestly not of this world, the kingdom to which Paul and Silas belong as eager slaves. It is the kingdom which, in its unflinching though largely hidden reality, alone explains the mysterious zeal of these two bleeding men. The marker of its presence is in the form not of a sight but of a sound. Amid the clanging of the stocks and the sighs and groans of prisoners, we hear the distinct notes of that most unexpected, most counter-cultural and revolutionary phenomenon of resurrection life in a fallen world: a song and a prayer. Songs and prayers to God, songs and prayers which cut through the darkness and push it back, which transform the suffocating despair of the absence of light and hope into a paradoxical cloak of comfort and a cross gladly borne. These are likely the regular, daily psalms and prayers in which the earliest Christians were typically engaged, as Acts itself bears witness. Luke’s words suggest they had been singing and praying regularly, frequently, and in the hearing of all around them. They would be known as the singing and praying ones. The darkness of the inner prison would not dislodge these servants of the King of the faithful practices and rhythms of the people of God. Where do they think they are? Tertullian once said of this scene: “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.”
Of course, we should pause to remember how easily that sentiment can be misunderstood. It does not mean that a real Christian feels no pain, no sorrow, no loss, but it does mean at least that the Christian does not know only pain, or final sorrow, or end in loss. Instead, as so often in Acts, once again a time of hardship or crisis provokes prayer from the saints (see 1:4; 4:23-31; 6:4; 7;60; 9:11). But this doesn’t make sense in terms of life as we think we know it. We shouldn’t hear song and prayer here. And yet it’s strangely familiar. In the scene of Paul and Silas in the midnight darkness of the inner prison, the reader is drawn back to an older scene of three men mysteriously alive and whole though in a fiery oven (Daniel 3:24).
It is here, in that very darkness, that we encounter the double quaking. First, the ground quakes; then, the jailer’s heart quakes.
Earthquakes are still common in this region. But clearly this is no ordinary earthquake. This one is providentially timed to move the stone from the entrance of this tomb-like prison. The doors open and the fetters break free from the walls. Morning of a sort has come in the deepest darkness, and with a shout. As in Exodus and the Psalms, the quaking is the arrival of God in judgment and vindication, upturning the unjust, dark world.
The jailer is roused from his sleep. He has been derelict in duty, and he sees the doors open. He knows the urgency of his instructions: put these men in prison, no, wait, in the “inner” prison. And he assumes these prisoners have done what prisoners with free legs and open doors do: escape. The penalty for his negligence would be death, so he quickly decides to end his life himself rather than come under the disgraceful sword of the state. He fears his superiors, or does he fear the gods of these singing, praying prisoners?
Presumably Paul can see him through the darkness and the rubble, because Luke tells us he calls out to the jailer. Stop! He assures him, in terms reminiscent of Daniel to anxious King Darius in the lions’ den the morning after, “It’s okay. I’m here.” It is well; we are all here. The prisoners have not fled; there is no need for the jailer to panic and end his life. Paul and Silas have stayed, and persuaded the other prisoners to stay too. Of course, at other times Paul will indeed flee when he is in danger; but sometimes the circumstances call for one to stay put and trust the Father’s care.
When the jailer steps over the rubble and squints his eyes to see through the dust and debris, sure enough, they are all there. And he is overcome. In a flash he has moved from death to life. His life has been spared by this most mysterious act of these strange men. He falls at their feet, collapses in humility and reverence, undone, folded over himself in gratitude and awe. The second quake.
“What must I do to be saved?” he asks, as he brings them out of the cell, perhaps to his guard station or quarters, where he had been sleeping. He’s never asked a question so earnestly. And so Paul, capturing the sweetness of the simplicity of the Gospel in just a few, mercifully brief words: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Believe, that is, in a person, not just an idea. A person who is, not merely who was. Believe in one who lives, and saves Gentile prison guards. Believe, and you will be (future) saved from the greater quaking to come, both you and your house, because you – the Gentile prison guard – belong by faith to Abraham’s house. You will be his seed by faith, and so your house will come within the sphere of sancta.
The jailer asks, then, to share in their deliverance, and he is given the Deliverer himself. In v. 32, we read that this simple Gospel is appropriately explained to him, as it always must be. Luke reminds us, then, that “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” or the “sinner’s prayer” is not a Christian “open sesame” or magic formula. And as the jailer takes water to wash the wounds of their beatings, they take that same water and wash away his sins in baptism.
But linger a moment longer. This story isn’t over. The next scene should not be missed. If we have listened well to the book of Acts, this next scene is both predictable and yet remarkable: the jailer, we read, takes Paul and Silas to his home to feed them – hospitality – and with household and hospitality grace all around, there is rejoicing (v. 34). In other words, while it is still the middle of the night (perhaps 2 a.m. by now), the jailer is now also hymning in the darkness, bringing the extended scene full circle to where it began with Paul and Silas hymning in the darkness.
And yet, don’t rush away. Linger only one moment more. We know what the Gospel is in Acts 16 – believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But do we see what the Gospel does? If we miss this, we miss the point. It is reconciliation erupting from another world, another order.
As one has put it, “joy loses track of time.” And so it has here, deep in the night. Here, at a table of new fellowship, the metal bonds of prison fetters have given way ironically to the tighter, stronger bonds of Christian familial fellowship. Here, at this table in this man’s home, the relationship of the jailer to his prisoners is simply no more. It doesn’t exist. It has vanished. In its place, all of a sudden it seems, is the relationship of brotherhood. He represented and enforced the powers of this present evil age, the forces of opposition, but he has been upturned. Enemies are brought together; the separated are now one; the faith, waters, and bread of the Gospel are reconciling the world in the microcosm of a Gentile jailer’s home.
The Gospel and reconciliation go hand in hand. Yes, the Gospel divides: Christ is the Cornerstone who is also the stone of stumbling; Christ is the odor of life to some and the odor of death to others. But the Gospel also unites. This is why we are so “foolish” to keep turning the cheek, the first cheek and then again the second. We simply don’t know: the striker may, in divine grace and mercy, become our brother. Saul may become Paul.
It is also why we are willing, even joyfully, to be bruised and beaten for the saints, and for Christ, by enemies in any form. It is not weakness but strength, the strength of these new bonds, these unbreakable bonds forged by the quaking rather than loosened by them, forged by God in Christ by the Spirit, who makes even enemies into brothers. It’s what the Gospel does.