Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 29, 2022
Acts 16:16-34 Commentary
It was certainly an interesting day!
In this story we get a little occult, an exorcism, some political intrigue, an earthquake, and in the end the exuberant joy of the gospel!
Your average Lord’s day it was not.
As Luke narrates it for us in Acts 16, Paul and Silas’ experiences in the city of Philippi that day contained more excitement than most of us manage to pack into a whole year. In fact, there’s so much happening so fast here that the narrative comes off a bit ragged. There are lots of unanswered questions. But maybe that’s because Luke is in a hurry to deliver what ends up being one of the Bible’s best examples of the truth that the greatest gift in the universe, salvation, is free, free, free! (Try not to think of the recent Turbo Tax commercials that say “free, free, free” over and over—but that is the idea!)
We begin by meeting a slave girl with a peculiar knack for predicting the future. She was possessed by what the original Greek describes as a “python spirit,” although most Bible translations leave out the “python” part. As near as commentators can figure, this pythian spirit was probably associated with the Greek god Apollo and specifically with the oracle at Delphi.
In short, this girl supposedly had an inside-track with Apollo and so could read palms and tea leaves, deal Tarot cards and so tell the future. She was a psychic, the kind of person you can now see on those loopy TV commercials advertising a 900-number you can call to speak with someone who will tell you your life. Of course, the small print on the bottom of those same ads says that this service is “For Entertainment Only,” but there’s always enough gullible people around to take it seriously.
That’s what this hapless girl’s owners banked on, too. They had a tidy little business going, traveling around with a portable booth and crystal ball. They’d set up this little psychic kiosk and then unfurl their hand-painted banner: “Fortunes Told: 1 Denarius.” One day this girl began to attract even more attention than usual by following Paul and Silas around and shouting out something about a most high god and a way to salvation. Her handlers didn’t mind this at first–the more attention, the better for their bank account.
Near as we can tell, Paul and Silas largely ignored her for a few days. But finally it got rather tiresome and so Paul cast the spirit out of her as much to shut her up as to help her out. Oddly, Luke gives us no clue as to what happened to this girl. There’s no evidence she became a believer. The only reaction recorded is from her owners who discover that their psychic’s divine antennae have been snapped off. Suddenly they had a cash flow problem and so haul Paul and Silas before the Philippian Chamber of Commerce.
The case against Paul and Silas looks to have been open and shut–then as now religion is not supposed to interfere with the economy! So in the blink of an eye Paul and Silas are hauled off, whipped mercilessly, and then tossed into jail. In verse 24 the jailer locks Paul and Silas into irons and stocks in what was likely a very brutal procedure, resulting in an awful posture in which the apostles were forced to spend the night.
They probably were not able to sleep but instead of moaning and complaining, Paul and Silas sing. They give glory to God and to Jesus in so striking a fashion it appears to have shut down the conversation throughout the whole prison. All the other prisoners were listening, not talking; listening, not cussing; listening, not telling dirty jokes.
The only one not listening is the jailer, who is asleep at the switch. It took an earthquake to wake him up and by the time he was able to find his lantern, he discovered to his horror that the prisoners were, to a man, gone. Knowing full well what his punishment would be—and it would not be that they would dock his pay—he thought he’d save the warden the trouble of killing him later by killing himself right then and there.
Paul is kind enough to stop the man, pointing out that as a matter of fact no one had escaped and so the jailer did not need to fear any punishment from his boss.
Has that ever struck you as amazing? We assume, although the text does not tell us directly, that it was God himself who orchestrated the earthquake and the unlocking of all those leg-irons and chains. And we assume that God did this so that Paul and Silas could go free. We assume, in short, that God is looking out only for his own followers–for the good guys.
But not true. The purpose of this quasi-jailbreak was not to save Paul but the jailer! When Paul points out that all the prisoners were still there, the implication is that for the sake of this hapless jailer, Paul would as a matter of fact prevent anyone from escaping if that’s what it would take to keep this jailer from losing his job if not his very life! The earthquake didn’t happen for Paul and Silas’ sake. It was all for the jailer!
And it works! The jailer’s first question is, “What do I have to do to get saved?” Why did he ask that? Why didn’t he just order everyone back to their cells instead? Why didn’t he ask, “Why haven’t you all run away?” Of all the questions he could have asked, this immediate inquiry about salvation seems odd.
Yet there was just something about Paul’s kind compassion that made this jailer realize he was in the presence of someone who knew what life is all about. Paul was so stable, so calm, so obviously at peace with the universe. In the light of that, this jailer suddenly saw his own life with a clarity he’d never before known.
He wanted to know what he had to do, which is what everyone wants to know. How do I have to live, where do I have to send my money, what do I need to avoid and what do I need to try in order to get in good with God? Most people approach salvation the same way they approach their health: there’s got to be a winning formula out there somewhere. So they ask their doctor, “What do I have to do to be healthy?” And the doctor obliges: you need to exercise every day, give up smoking, monitor your cholesterol, get plenty of fruit and fiber into your diet. That’s the drill, and very few folks are surprised to hear it. Very few people assume that good health will just happen. You have to do something.
People come to ministers the same way. “What do I have to do to go to heaven? How can I get right with my Maker?” And some ministers are only too happy to take on the role of a spiritual physician, a religious Dr. Phil. So they dole out advice like, “Follow the Ten Commandments, pray every day, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t swear. Go to church twice every Sunday, give your tithe cheerfully to the General Fund” and so forth. And so eventually many people think that getting to heaven is a matter of toting up moral merit points. People ask, “What must I do?” and the church all-too-often answers by handing out a long list of Do’s and an equally long list of Don’ts. If you fit this bill like the rest of us, then you might just get in. And most people are not surprised to hear it. They assume salvation will not just happen. You have to do something.
That’s wrong, of course.
What must you do to be saved? Nothing. The “doing” part was Jesus’ contribution to salvation. All that’s left for us is to believe that he really pulled it off on our behalf. “What do I have to do” the jailer pleaded. “Nothing,” Paul essentially replied. “Just believe that Jesus did it all for you and you’re set for life–eternal life.” Then, to remind the jailer and everyone that grace is always on the lavish side, Paul throws in, “You and your whole household will be saved.” That little extra flourish points to the fact that salvation comes from the outside as a done deal. It will catch up this jailer and as a matter of fact everybody associated with him before they get a chance to do anything.
The jailer takes the apostles at their word and believes. The apostles then baptize him and his family in a midnight bath that ends up filling the whole house with joy and holy laughter. Because as it turned out it was not the apostles who had been prisoners that night, it had been this jailer. That’s why the story concludes with a wonderful irony in verse 36.
While they are all gathered around the jailer’s kitchen table munching on bagels and gravlax for breakfast the next morning a telegram arrives from Chamber of Commerce. It says the jailer can release Paul and Silas. But everyone knows that not only are Paul and Silas already free, they had been free all along! You have to imagine that this communique elicited still more laughter!
The power of Jesus and of his gospel is what sets prisoners free from the real bondage of this sinful world. It’s also a power that the magistrates and authorities of this world cannot touch. They can’t touch it in part because they can’t understand it. In a tit-for-tat world which is all about earnings and success a grace that is so utterly free doesn’t compute. But that’s the gospel for you–it’s downright other-worldly. Yet it breaks into our world with wonderful regularity, just like it did one dark night for a certain Philippian jailer.
We never do find out the name of this man. We never find out whatever became of him. The only thing we do know is that as baptized persons, he and his family are with the Lord now. And we know something else, too: we know that this man’s story is your story and my story and every Christian’s story. We know that how he got saved is how we all got saved–by a grace that paid no attention to our deserving; a grace that wiped out all our sins past, present, and future; a grace that should be as startling for us as it was for this jailer.
By God’s grace the Holy Spirit helps believers learn about God’s creation designs and what it means to live happily within them. That takes time, of course–a lifetime even. Perhaps it’s rather like a marriage. It takes a matter of seconds to speak your vows and so get married. It takes the rest of your life to find out what that means and to really live it. But the amazing thing is that when you get to your 50th wedding anniversary, you are no more married then than you were in the first minute that passed after you made your vows half-a-century earlier.
So with grace: it only takes a moment to roll over us but it is so powerful that nothing in the later life of living for God can add to it or ever accomplish more than what grace did the moment when we first believed.
Perhaps that’s why in Acts 16 Paul does not interrupt things with lessons on morality. He just let the joy of grace set the tone. Because it would be just that joy’s continuation that would lead to a life that imitated Christ and so glorified God. Joy leads the way. There are few greater tragedies in the life of faith than allowing a nervous, fearful, finger-biting, and narrow moralism to replace the joy of grace. This story reminds us that in all we do for God’s kingdom, joy and a delirious gratitude for grace is not only where we must begin, it’s where we must end, and so it’s what fills up everything in between, too.
In this story God arranges an earthquake in order to reach the heart of just one man–a man who, having just recently roughed up two of God’s dearest servants, could not have seemed a less likely candidate for the love of God. But we’re all unlikely candidates for that love. Give thanks to God in Jesus Christ that it comes to us anyway. Give thanks with great joy, and let that joy lead you home.
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