In reading of Paul and Silas in jail recently (from Acts 16), I was drawn to pay attention to part of the story happening in the background. The narrative we often celebrate are Paul and Silas, in chains and imprisoned right after being stripped/beaten/flogged. In the midst of singing hymns to God (v. 25), a violent earthquake shakes the foundations so that all the doors are opened and chains unfastened. What a miracle! The jailer enters the scene assuming the worst, and is thankful to discover Paul and Silas and the others are all still there! He’s drawn to Jesus, becomes a believer, and his entire family is baptized as they enter this new community of “The Way”. The story continues forward after that.
But looking back over those moments there’s a story within, we often overlook. There in that prison were other prisoners, even though we’re not sure their number or the crimes they committed. We can assume there are some in the prison who deserve to be there. Yet when the earthquake happens and the chains and doors are unfastened – everyone remains. Why might that be?
For that answer, we look back to verse 25, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”
I remember sitting in the waiting area of a doctor’s office on our honeymoon (we both had tonsillitis, yuck). As I waited for Sarah, I met an older man and we began to talk. He had served the country in combat, and was telling me a story of his escape from a POW camp in Germany. I didn’t know him that well, but I was riveted. I would have listened for hours.
I imagine the fellow prisoners surrounding Paul and Silas, seeing them beaten and suffering. I imagine their countenance as they entered the prison – genuinely thankful for new witnesses to share the good news with. The compassion they may have looked upon the other inmates with, even through swollen eyes. The whispers of “Have you heard??…” as rumors swirled about all the things these followers of Jesus had seen and experienced. Stories were shared, no doubt: Paul’s vision of Jesus, and work with so many churches. Silas’ prophetic words for those in the prison. The conversion of the local woman, Lydia. The other prisoners would have been transformed in hearing about Jesus, and in listening to the worship being offered in such a low place of pain and suffering. It’s a testimony to the the Holy Spirit we believe is active in these moments.
I believe the other prisoners were transformed by the witness of Paul and Silas, in ways that made them so aware of freedom in Christ, the chains and doors being unfastened seemed to make little difference to their present condition. They had already been set free in Jesus.
We’re reminded by all of these things – to be those who are willing to share our stories of God working in our lives. Speak of the hope and the peace you have, even as one who is looking honestly at our world; as one who has wounds from being hurt by it. Those around you today may have chains of bondage you’re completely unaware of, and you are able to offer freedom simply by sharing the living presence and Love of Jesus in Your words.
We’re also reminded – the story of who becomes transformed by our words may never be shared. Our world often celebrates the most compelling (or most profitable) narratives, but leaves many to be known only by those who live them. That doesn’t make such stories less important to the Kingdom. Every one of those prisoners who came to know Jesus is just as precious to God as the jailer, or Paul and Silas themselves. In fact, in the stories written down or passed on to their families and loved ones – the fact that they remained in prison that night instead of escaping -offered powerful testimony that revealed the absolute freedom Jesus offers.
Maybe that’s the message you need today also – even more than other aspects of the story. You need reminded of the Freedom we have when we come and submit all of our identity, our story, our shame, our hurts, and our joys to Jesus. It’s a freedom that transcends the momentary/temporal experiences we face. The peace of full submission to His Loving Freedom is so much more powerful than the temptation to run when we see an open door.
May we be challenged by all of this today in healthy ways. In a world that counts pageviews, book deals, and followers/subscribers, may we humbly and gladly submit our stories to being “His” story, revealing and responding to Love wherever and however we can. May we relate to all others today understanding that in life there are no “major/minor characters”, as all have become part of His redemptive narrative of Love.