During their second missionary journey, Paul and his fellow missionaries attempted to go into several areas in order to preach the Gospel but were prevented by the Spirit each time (Acts 16:5-8). Finally, Paul received a vision in which a man of Macedonia “…prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (9). Paul accepted this vision as a calling from the Lord and “immediately” headed toward Macedonia (10). The missionaries were probably conditioned to think differently, but if I would have been accompanying these men, I would have had visions of grandeur as I headed toward Macedonia. I can visualize thinking to myself: “This is going to be great! If the Lord specifically wants us to go this way, the people must be eager for the truth in Macedonia.” Paul and his companions entered into Macedonia by way of Philippi, which is described by Luke as “the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony,” and stayed there several days (12). On the Sabbath they did not go to the synagogue to teach, because there was no synagogue in Philippi; instead, they went to the riverside were they engaged in conversation with some women, such as Lydia, who were interested in the Word of God (13-14). Lydia and her household were soon baptized into Christ for the remission of sins and were added to the church (Act 16:15; 2:38, 41, 47). So far so good, but the circumstances for these missionaries would drastically change.
Despite living in accordance with God’s Will, Paul and Silas were “unfairly” punished. As they preached the truth a demon possessed woman followed them for many days declaring this truth, “These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation” (17a). The words were true, but the source was unfit to declare them (16-18; 1 Cor. 9:27). Finally Paul, by the authority of Jesus Christ, cast the demon out of the woman. As soon as the demon “came out” (root word, exerchomai) of her, the master’s gains “was gone” (same word, exerchomai). Her masters were unhappy to see their “cash cow” no longer able to produce and acted quickly against Paul and Silas. They “caught” them and led them by force to the market place (agora) to face the rulers of the city (19). The agora was the place of commerce and also where the magisterial offices and courts were located. In Roman colonies such a Philippi, the Magistrates were authoritative, able to render judgment on the unruly. Interestingly, the masters did not accuse Paul and Silas on the basis of what they had done; instead they levied an argument based on “race prejudice coupled with religious animosity” (Lenski 668). Paul and Silas, “being Jews,” were upsetting the masters, “being Romans.” The emperor Claudius had recently expelled Jews from Rome, and among the populous the Jews were not any more accepted (18:2). The multitude then “rose up together against them” and the Magistrates “rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.” Unlike the Jews who restricted their scourging to forty strikes save one (39), the Romans did not adhere to any such limitations. All Luke records is that Paul and Silas received “many stripes” before being “thrust into the inner prison” (24). Lenski wrote,
All that Luke is able to say is that “they put many blows upon them,” for no one kept count. We calmly read these words as we do those others: ‘Pilate took and scourged Jesus.’ But they are filled with excruciating pain and horrible disgrace. (671)
The “inner prison” was likely the tullianium or dungeon, which provided little air or light for its occupants (Reese 586). Their feet were then placed into “stocks” which “…were both a fetter and an instrument of torture, for the feet were locked wide apart and held in that painful position” (Lenski 672). If I would have had visions of grandeur upon receiving the Macedonian call, how would I have felt about God and the mission at this moment? Paul and Silas laid on their backs or stomachs naked in the dark, legs spread in a torturous position, as lacerations on their backs tried to heal. For what purpose? Seemingly without purpose, except for the contrived purpose of punishment which had been levied upon them because of false accusations (16:38). How would they respond?
Paul and Silas, having received unfair punishment, had an unusual response. The unfortunate response of some Christians who face undue challenges, physical or otherwise, is to question God’s providential care. One might say “How could God allow this to happen to me, this is the thanks I get!” Paul and Silas did the exact opposite. Instead they “doubled down” on their faith in God and at midnight “…prayed, and sang praises unto God…” (25a). Lenski wrote, “The jailor had forgotten to fetter their lips, their hearts he could not fetter” (673). When you are troubled by something in your life, maybe something that keeps you awake at night, what is your “knee-jerk” response? What does your heart tell you to do? Paul and Silas prayed and sang songs of praise to God. Roper rightly wrote:
Anyone can sing God’s praises when things are going well; it takes faith to sing praises to God when everything is going wrong. Faith in God is key. God remains the same. If He is worthy of our praise when everything seems to be right in our lives, He is also worthy of praise when everything seems to be going wrong. (Acts 15-28, pg. 72)
Christian sufferers must resolve in their hearts to have the attitude of the Psalmist who wrote, “Yet the LORD will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.” We make choices daily about how difficulties in life are going to affect us. One might say, “It doesn’t matter, I will respond how I feel like it!” True, you can respond however you like, but there is every indication from Scripture that it, “does matter.” It matters for your own physical and spiritual wellbeing but also for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of those closest to you. Obviously, I am not trying to make you feel bad about feeling bad. I believe that God permits us to lament, hears our laments (Psalm 139:7ff; Hebrews 5:7), and cares deeply about the ills that challenge us (Psalm 56:8-13). I am suggesting that we cannot stay in a state of spiritual unrest – we must desire to improve and must do our best to exhibit the qualities of a faithful Christian (*these topics will be addressed fully in future posts).
Paul and Silas were unfairly punished, responded in an unusual way, and, as a result, they had an unprecedented influence on those who were around them. Luke recorded that as Paul and Silas prayed and sang songs of praise to God, “the prisoners heard them.” The word translated “heard” is unusual and means to “listen eagerly” (Reese 586). What caused the prisoners to listen to their words as opposed to the words of others? Reese surmised that the prisoners were listening, “…because this was different, greatly different, from what sounds they usually heard echoing through the halls and rooms of this prison! Instead of wild curses and foul jests, these men are hearing what amounts to a sermon in song as Paul and Silas call to God” (586-587). Paul and Silas had the ears of the prisoners, because they responded to suffering differently than the typical person. All the cursing, swearing, and blaming God would not have raised an eyebrow or turned an ear within those prison walls. It appears that Paul and Silas may have had more than just the ears of the prisoners but also the jailor’s. When the earthquake came, loosed the prisoners from their chains, and opened the doors of their cells, the jailor reached for his knife to commit suicide. Before he could end it all, he heard the voice of Paul, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (28). He then asked Paul and Silas an important question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” It has been suggested that the jailor could only ask this question because he had heard the prayers and songs of praise uttered by Paul and Silas that night. How else could he have known anything about salvation? Even if he had learned portions of the Gospel message prior to meeting Paul and Silas, he certainly knew who to approach to ask the most important question of his life. He did not go to the other prisoners, did he? No, he went to the men who had a relationship with God and displayed their faith in God even in perilous times. Christian sufferers, we need to be those persons for our friends, family, and strangers. They are watching and listening, what are they seeing? What are they hearing? Hopefully they see and hear a resolve to serve the Almighty God in the face of intense suffering. Ultimately, the jailor believed and was baptized for the remission of his sins according to the same pattern found in Acts 2:38 on the Day of Pentecost (33-34). What a moment of grandeur in such an unusual place during unusual circumstances.
Friends, life is not always fair. Sometimes good people suffer great mental and physical anguish even when they have dedicated themselves fully to God. Sometimes our visions of grandeur in life don’t become a reality. When we face “unjust” persecution or suffering we need to have a unique response – one that the world isn’t used to seeing and hearing. We need to “dig in our heels” and resolve to remain faithful, praying and singing songs of praise to God. If we do that, we just might gain the ears of those around us and positively influence them. Yet I Trust.
Consider this Gospel song, Follow Me by Ira Stanphill when life seems unfair:
I traveled down a lonely road And no one seemed to care;
The burden on my weary back Had bowed me to despair,
I oft complained to Jesus How folks were treating me,
And then I heard Him say so tenderly,
“My feet were also weary, Upon the Calv’ry road;
The cross became so heavy, I fell beneath the load,
Be faithful weary pilgrim, The morning I can see,
Just lift your cross and follow close to me.”
“I work so hard for Jesus” I often boast and say,
“I’ve sacrificed a lot of things To walk the narrow way,
I gave up fame and fortune, I’m worth a lot to Thee,”
And then I hear Him gently say to me.
“I left the throne of glory And counted it but loss,
My hands were nailed in anger Upon a cruel cross,
But now we’ll make the journey With your hand safe in mine,
So lift your cross and follow close to me.
Oh, Jesus if I die upon A foreign field some day,
‘Twould be no more than love demands No less could I repay,
“No greater love hath mortal man Than for a friend to die”
These are the words He gently spoke to me,
“If just a cup of water I place within your hand
Then just a cup of water Is all that I demand,”
But if by death to living They can thy glory see,
I’ll take my cross and follow close to thee.