Untold Stories – The Failure of the Jailer

We find a great story about faith in Acts 16:16-40. While Paul is on his 2nd missionary journey, accompanied by a small group of people (Luke, Timothy, and Silas), he begins ministry in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia (modern day Greece, near the border with Bulgaria). While they are trying to preach, a disturbed woman keeps following them around saying: “These men are servants of the Most High God, and are telling you the way to be saved.” It isn’t that what she is saying is bad, or even that she was being malicious, but Paul eventually hears and sees enough of her to tell she is being tormented spiritually and needs to be set free. So, he prays for her and whatever was attacking her is forced to leave. Little does he know that he has just angered this slave girl’s owners, because without her demonic delusions, she wasn’t going to make them any money as a fortune teller. Angry, they stir up a riot and seek to get Paul and his companions thrown in prison. Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten severely, and thrown into prison without an investigation being done. They are put in the inner cell and in stocks like the most dangerous of criminals. This is where they meet our character, the Philippian Jailer. This man’s encounter with Paul and Silas has him on an emotional roller coaster! Imagine with me the story from his perspective.

At first, the Philippian Jailer is curious. These men are to be put in the inner cell and restrained with stocks fastened around their feet. The jailer had to assume he was dealing with the worst kind of criminals…but these men didn’t seem the type. When he investigated, their crimes made him more curious than suspicious. If the rumors were to be believed, these men were treated very unjustly. It seemed as if their only “crime” was to free a young girl from a wicked spiritual oppression…something that angered the exploiting slavers (who are the worst sort of people imaginable). Paul and his companion were beaten and thrown into prison on some trumped up accusations. This was not a minor inconvenience. This was a very brutal and dangerous game to play with two men that might be innocent. The jailer knew that better than anyone. Their behavior was even more intriguing: instead of complaining and protesting, they were praying and singing hymns to God. You can imagine the normal kind of men the jailer would see. Everyone claiming they are innocent, that they arrested the wrong man. “I didn’t do anything!” “I’m innocent!” He isn’t hearing such arguments from these men. These men were unlike anything he had ever witnessed before. Even though they were in prison, they enjoyed a freedom this jailer had never known. In stocks, bound with chains, beaten and accused of a crime they did not commit, they still have an inner peace and joy. They are singing out their praise to God! Something about this just cannot be ignored. This is what often happens when someone witnesses true beauty – Christ on display in the life of one that Echoes Him.

Next, the Jailer is terrified. About midnight, an earthquake rattles the jail. This is not just a tremor, but a tooth-rattling, bone-jarring, foundation-shaking quake. That alone would be enough to put ice in your veins. But then, he remembers his charge. The jailer rushes to the cells, hoping beyond hope to find the walls intact and the prisoners secured. He knows the consequences for failing in his duty. Roman law commanded that a jailer that loses his charge must endure the same punishment due to the prisoners. If even one prisoner has escaped, He would be killed. When he finds the doors to the prison wide open and extensive damage all around, his heart sank. He slumps to the floor, devastated. His fear has turned totally sour, now the bitter taste of despair fills his mouth. Hopeless, he thinks about the only option that remains: to save his family the shame of a humiliating trial and a brutal execution, he would simply kill himself. Drawing his sword and searching for enough strength to finish this dark deed, he is startled by the sound of a voice in the darkness. A sharp directive rings out in the dusty silence: “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer moved into the cell to discover that though their bonds were loosed and the door to the prison was wide open, all the prisoners remained where they were. Nothing in his history could have prepared this man for the shock and surprise of this moment. He has just glimpsed a different kind of humanity, a new way of life. Given the chance to flee, they stay only to protect the life of the jailer. Not only do they stay, but that have compelled or restrained the other prisoners as well. All are accounted for, and this jailer’s life is saved. What sort of men are these? There is a sharp contrast between the exploiting slave owners, selfishly taking advantage of someone else and Paul and the prisoners, selflessly staying where they are to protect another.

Finally, the Jailer is compelled to faith and rejoices! The jailer started curious, but when he finally sees a demonstration of the life of Christ he is compelled! He has come face to face with his own death, and that allows him to see for the first time that he has never really lived. When he sees the LIFE evident in Paul and Silas, the way they worship in adversity and the way they think of others at their own cost, he cannot ignore it. He wants this life for himself. The jailer walks into the dark cell and falls at the feet of Paul and Silas. “What must I do to be saved?” This jailor has to have seen so many people in his time of service demonstrating the ugliest of humanity. Now he has witnessed the beauty of the Gospel in their behavior and in their countenance, so he responds to the Gospel in faith. The Jailer now tastes the joy that he was so attracted to in Paul and Silas! With rejoicing, he and his household are baptized that very night.

History is full of stories of “earthquakes,” things that shake the reality of the way we have always done it, the way we have always believed. These things cause us to question our standing before God and turn introspectively on our own hearts. In one sense, the jailer did die that day in the shaken prison; he started a new life. He responds quickly and decisively. His whole household hears the Gospel and responds in baptism. What is awesome is to see his faith reveal itself in immediate action: he dresses and cares for the wounds of Paul and Silas. The torture that they were put through in scourging has a dramatic effect on the body, and the compassion of the jailer was certainly appreciated. As they sat there enjoying a meal with a new Brother in Christ, Paul and Silas were likely thinking that every bruise and wound, both from the staff of the torturer and the stocks of the prison were a small price to pay for such a gift.

Reflections to talk about with your teenager:

*What do you think about the story of the Philippian Jailer? What in the story do you find interesting, shocking, or surprising?
*What was it about Paul and Silas that made them so interesting? Specifically, how do you think they were different?
*Can you think of a modern example of someone showing exceptional hope and joy, like Paul and Silas singing hymns of praise while in prison?
*Do you think that those that claim to Echo Christ today are as intriguing to outsiders? What should make followers of Jesus remarkable? What do you think they are actually known for?
*It took coming face to face with his own death for the jailer to recognize he has never really lived. Why do you think it sometimes takes extreme situations to get our attention?

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Untold Stories – The Widow of Zarephath

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There are remarkable stories in the Bible.  One of the dangers of having this book around for a couple thousand years to study and read and explore is that we forget how to approach it.  We think we have heard it before, so it gets dismissed like a re-run of a familiar tv show.  When you think you know the story, why revisit it? When you have seen a movie already, why re-watch it? This is how I feel about many things, but there are certain films that are meant to be experienced over and over again.  The danger with our familiarity with a story is that we might be missing something great because of our assumptions.  We can “check out.”  These stories lose their tension and they lose their ability to teach us something, because we assume we already know what is going to happen.  In this series, we are going to look at familiar stories from unfamiliar points of view.  Some of these stories might actually not be familiar to you.  If that is the case, enjoy entering them for the first time.  If they are familiar to you, enjoy re-entering them from a different perspective.

1 Kings 17:7-24 – Let’s circle around the story and see what we notice.  This story is often told with a focus on Elijah, the powerful miracle worker and prophet.  What if we looked instead at the widow? Her story is a very different.  The earth was dry and cracked.  She is hungry and thirsty again.  Worse than that, she is watching her son – the only family she has left and her only hope for a better future – waste away from malnutrition.  The dry, dusty, heat of the desert drought wasn’t nearly as miserable as the cries of her son’s thirst and hunger.  Watching him suffer hurt her far more than her parched throat and hunger pains.  In her destitution, she had finally come to the end.  Too many hungry days and nights, too little for too long had taken its toll.  She had given up hope and was preparing to die.  It is at this moment a prophet from a neighboring country shows up asking for charity.  At first glance, it seems this woman is simply being asked for a drink of water and a snack.  But is he actually asking for so much more?

The first question this story asks is: who is God? First, get the big picture.  Elijah the prophet is in the midst of a power struggle on a national level with a woman named Jezebel.  Jezebel has married the king of Israel, and she is leading the nation away from God to worship an idol named BA’AL from her home country.  Elijah is the agent of Yahweh, the One True God and is struggling for the hearts of the people.  BA’AL is the supposed god of life, rain, fertility, and prosperity.  He is depicted as a bull or a man riding on a bull carrying thunder and lightning in his hands.  He is the storm god.  To make the point that BA’AL is a powerless nothing, Elijah claims that it will not rain until Elijah allows it.  He is calling BA’AL and his priests out directly.  Elijah causes this widow and everyone to ask again: Who is provider? Who is the sustainer? Who is the giver of life? The text notes that this widow is from Zarephath.  Zarephath is the heart of BA’AL country.  Elijah is on BA’AL’s turf, asking for provision from a widow during the drought that Elijah caused to show that BA’AL is powerless to stop it.  This is ironic on so many levels!

The next question this story asks is: who are you? For Elijah to ask for support from a widow is almost hilarious.  She is a widow! She is among the poorest and most desolate classes of people.  This would be like someone from a high rise law firm in a suit asking a homeless person to buy them lunch.  It might not be that big of a request if she was asked to give Elijah any leftovers after she fed herself and her son.  But he doesn’t ask that.  It is unbelievable what he asks – he must have seemed like a con man! Feed him first! This is a very bold request, especially since it was Elijah himself that initiated this drought.  For Elijah to expect such charity from a destitute widow in the midst of a famine almost seems cruel.  God has maneuvered this woman into a place where her character is being tested.  Elijah (and God) are asking her to be human despite the desperation of her situation.  What makes this story so dramatic is to remember the “apocalyptic” setting.  Actually, there has been a severe drought for the past three years and the land is in panic.  This is a time of crisis, when what would otherwise be a simple request turns into a dramatic sacrifice.  A cup of water is worth more than gold in the drought-stricken desert.  People do messed up things when there is no power, no food, and no water; or when their safety is threatened.  Your trust in material things, wealth, security, and comfort are revealed when those things are taken away or threatened.  God is asking her to rise above that.  This story shows us something about her character: for though she has nothing, when Elijah asks for a drink her instinct is to help him.  This woman has nothing, just a handful of flour in a jar – yet she is still thinking about the needs of others.  How can it be possible for you and I to have so much and yet be so ungenerous? Maybe the courageous choice of a destitute widow can teach us a better way?

The last question, and the most important, is: what is the point? The story doesn’t stop with the miracle of provision.  It continues, with her son dying.  We don’t know why he died.  Maybe the food was just too late and he was already too weak and ill.  You can imagine this woman’s anger toward God.  First she loses her husband.  Then this whack job prophet demands her last meal.  The miraculous provision had her hoping for a better future; things were starting to look up…but then this! Why? That is the question she was asking, and the one we should ask as well.  What is God up to here? This woman learned a valuable lesson, maybe the most important lesson ever.  I think that God used the miracle of the flour and the oil to prepare her for the much bigger miracle for her son.  She learns that God is the sustainer and the provider and the restorer of life! The issue here is one of surrender.  She is being asked to surrender her last handful of flour to God.  I think this is the struggle of so many of us every day.  At first blush, this seems almost cruel.  Why would God demand such a sacrifice? We can understand why she is reluctant to give it up; it is all she has.  It is very literally her last meal, her life, her final breath.  We don’t like this talk of surrender; it makes us uneasy.  How fervently we cling to our last handful of flour! We cling to our lives, even if it seems like a little.  The truth of the Gospel is that we cannot experience the life of Christ without first surrendering the life we have to Him.  Jesus said whoever loses his life will find it and whoever tries to keep his life will lose it.  We must surrender! But the other truth, the one we sometimes miss, is that God only wants something from us because He has something better for us.  We cling to our last handful of flour like it is so spectacular, but in reality it is meager.  We act like it is worth protecting, but in truth, if we surrendered it we would discover something gloriously incomparable in return.  We have to surrender our lack to receive His abundance.  It is not cruel of God to ask for surrender, it is mercy.  That handful of flour isn’t life; it is a sign of how close we are to death.  The little I have, in my own hands, will never be enough.  The little I have, surrendered to God, will miraculously be more than enough! We are trading what we cannot keep for something we could never hope to gain! We are trading for something that we truly need.  We can’t receive the abundant provision of God while we hang on to our lack.  God is getting her to a place where she can trust the true source of provision and LIFE instead of her own inability.

Thoughts to ponder:

*Imagine yourself in the situation of the widow of Zarephath.  Do you think you would make the same choice? Why or why not?

*This woman had to surrender her last handful of flour to receive something better from God.  What might God be asking you to surrender?

*What risk might God be asking you to take?