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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