The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity September 5, 2004
16, 507, 346, 496
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
In the name of our Rescuer, Jesus Christ, dear fellow redeemed:
Almost everyone enjoys a good rescue story. Reader’s Digest has a monthly feature which many times has retold the story of heroic rescues. There are rescue shows on television, and dramatic death-defying rescues are regularly woven into the plots of action movies.
Stories of rescue are made into entertainment for those of us sitting in our favorite chair at home or in a movie theater. However, for those who are either accomplishing the real-life rescues or who are being rescued, it is not entertainment. It is life and death!
This morning, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will explore a dramatic rescue in the pages of Holy Scripture. I invite your attention as we discuss GOD’S MIRACULOUS MIDNIGHT RESCUE IN PHILIPPI. I. It was a rescue that needed imprisonment II. It was a rescue that used the Gospel III. It was a rescue that changed an outlook.
As we hear about the rescue that took place in Philippi, there is no doubt whatsoever that it was God’s rescue. Paul, had come to Philippi and other cities in the area because he had received a vision from the Lord. In a dream Paul heard a man crying: “Come over to Macedonia and help us—Rescue us!” (Acts 16:9).
When Paul and his companions arrived in Philippi, their preaching was successful in Lydia’s household. Next, Paul cast out a demon from a slave girl, but because that took profit away from her owners they stirred up the people against Paul and Silas. In the end, Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned. If at this point you had never heard this story but knew that I was telling you a rescue story you might conclude, “Ah! Now I know how this story ends! God is going to rescue Paul and Silas from prison!”
God had indeed rescued apostles from prison in the past. Earlier in the history of the New Testament church, some of the apostles were arrested and put in prison. That night, God sent an angel who opened the prison doors and told the apostles to return to the temple and preach the Gospel (Acts 5:17ff). Would God send an angel this time too and dramatically rescue Paul and Silas from Philippi’s prison? No. At the end of this story, Paul and Silas are still in prison. This time, God’s rescue needed imprisonment rather than freedom!
Years later, when Paul was again in prison, he would write to the Christians in Philippi telling them how his imprisonment was a blessed thing because God was again rescuing people as a result of it. “I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me (imprisonment) have actually turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14).
God’s use of imprisonment to accomplish His rescue reminds us that things aren’t always what they seem. Is it a rescue story when Paul and Silas remain imprisoned even after the chains broke and the doors opened? Yes! If we narrowly focus on Paul and Silas’ earthly condition then there wasn’t a rescue that night because they remained prisoners. But, God’s intended rescue went far beyond whether or not Paul and Silas were in prison or free.
We need to remember that God’s rescue plans are far grander than our plans and our expectations. We might cry out, “God rescue me!” and it would appear as if He doesn’t do anything to help us out of trouble. We shouldn’t be so quick to suppose that is true. God may very well be working a rescue that needs someone like you to be in a difficult situation!
The question needs to be asked, “Why exactly was imprisonment needed for God’s rescue?” The answer is that God had people in the prison to whom He wanted to bring the Gospel. In order to do this, He needed to send His missionaries to the prison because those in the prison would not come to them. God wanted to the Gospel to be brought to the jailer, his household, and the rest of the prisoners. “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” [v.25]
As Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns, the prisoners were listening attentively with interest. Paul and Silas were praying and singing out of devotion to God and offering their pleas for help, but at the same time they were preaching a sermon to the other prisoners. We’re not told what kind of lasting spiritual effect this midnight church service had on the other prisoners, but we do know that the Gospel was heard. We also know that when Paul cried out to the jailer he said, “…we are all here.” [v. 28b] Not one prisoner was gone! Some suggest that the prisoners were terror stricken by the earthquake and couldn’t leave the prison because of fear. No, that doesn’t explain it. They had been listening to Paul and Silas and had heard the Gospel, and moved by the things they heard, they remained in prison even when they had a chance to escape. However, God’s primary focus in this account is on the specific rescue of the jailer. “[The jailer] called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” [vv.29-30]
It is easy to understand why the jailer was trembling when he came to Paul and Silas. The jailer had been startled awake by the earthquake. He had a rush of panic when he saw that the doors were open. He panicked because if a Roman jailer allowed just one prisoner to escape he was executed. The jailer had been at the brink of taking his own life, but then was amazed to learn that not one of the prisoners had escaped! Finally, a prisoner called out to him in order to spare his life! Had all of that happened to any of us we would be trembling too!
It’s likely the jailer had also heard the hymns and prayers. He would have known the circumstances surrounding Paul and Silas’ arrest. When all of these other things happened he was stricken with fear but knew where to turn. He fell down before Paul and Silas and said, “What must I do to be saved?” [v.30]
The jailer felt the condemnation of God’s law and the knowledge that he was a frail human being under its curse. He felt the fear that every sinner needs to feel in order to appreciate the salvation Christ brings through the Gospel. Feeling the fear and having the questions, the jailer searched for a way of salvation. The crowd who heard Peter’s sermon on Pentecost asked the same question after they had been “cut to the heart.” They “said to Peter and the rest of the disciples, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).
The jailer was not looking for something that he could do in a self-righteous effort to save himself. Rather his question was: “Now what? What do I do? My life’s a mess, how can I face God?!” The answer to the jailer’s question was not a list of “do this…don’t do that.” The answer to the jailer’s fearful plea was simply: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” [v.31] What Paul said to the jailer he says to all: The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son has come and fulfilled every demand the Law makes upon you. He has died on the cross and endured the eternal punishment every one of your sins deserves. The truth of the Gospel announces the salvation which God has given us through Jesus, and that same Gospel message creates the faith to believe it. Following the initial answer, Paul and Silas proclaimed the Gospel in more detail to the jailer and his household. “They spoke the Word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” [v.32]
We know that the Gospel took root in the hearts of the jailer and his household because of what happened next. “[The jailer] took [Paul and Silas] that same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.” [v.33] After hearing the Gospel, the jailer showed fruits of faith by serving Paul and Silas and also by desiring the blessing of Baptism for himself and his family.
In this passage, God uses a “play on words.” The New Testament word translated “baptize” means “to wash.” Literally, the passage states, “…he…washed their stripes, and immediately he and all his family were washed.” The jailer ministered to the physical needs of Paul and Silas by washing their wounds. Paul and Silas ministered to the spiritual needs of their host by using the Gospel in word and baptism for the spiritual washing and blessing of the whole family.
This is God’s amazing midnight rescue in Philippi. An unbeliever was made into a believer! And not just one was converted but a whole household! That night God rescued many from the power of sin and death. The power for this dramatic rescue is in the Word of God—the Gospel of our salvation.
By this example Paul and Silas teach us to make use of the Gospel to chase away our fears, to shore up our uncertainties, and to comfort our sorrows, But there’s more…by using the Gospel for ourselves we may very well have opportunity to share the Gospel with others and thereby play a role in one of God’s rescue plans.
Paul and Silas had an outlook on life that reflects the salvation they possessed as children of God. There is no other way to explain hymn singing in prison. It is the same outlook that is reflected in Paul’s later words from prison, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
After the rescue, the jailer shared this same outlook, though he had not started with it. His changed outlook was effected by his conversion to faith in Christ. When Paul and Silas first came to prison the jailer did not wash their wounds—he was a jailer and they were just prisoners. Later on, he washed their wounds—his was now an outlook that sought to serve his Savior realizing that (as Jesus said), “…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).
The jailer had been willing to take his own life. He felt a hopelessness and doom that seemed to make his life worthless. He learned that there is so much more and his outlook changed. It is a change in outlook that applies to our own society’s epidemic of suicide and the desire for suicide—both assisted and self-inflicted. An outlook that cannot see past the pain and suffering of this world, that cannot see beyond “me,” and that cannot see Christ will despair and feel hopelessness. An outlook that features Christ and His salvation provides an answer and solution.
The full extent of the jailer’s change in outlook is realized in how he ended the night which was once so filled with darkness and fear. “Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.” [v.34] He experienced the joy of salvation and because of that the whole world (and the world to come) took on a new appearance.
We too share in the joy of salvation and that changes our outlook as well. Ours is an outlook that is heavenly minded and heavenly guided. Ours is an outlook that is optimistically centered in Christ with no room for real pessimism. Yes, we face the reality that the world is evil and it won’t change, sin will always remain, but we’re talking about God’s great rescue from sin…not God’s giving up in despair! Our outlook is one that sees sins forgiven, it sees life in place of death, and it looks forward to a life of perfection together with God Himself that will never end.
THANKS BE TO GOD
FOR HIS GREAT RESCUE! Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.