Summary: A jailer's life was transformed through an encounter with Paul and Silas who remained faithful to Christ even while in a Philippian prison.
We are all familiar with the concept of “jailhouse transformations,” that phenomenon associated with a prisoner whose life is “miraculously” transformed, but only after they get to prison. We recall the “jailhouse” transformation of the likes of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and we’re skeptical, and perhaps, rightly so. But, we also hear the story of Charles Colson, who was special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 – 1973. The former Nixon aide was sentenced to prison in 1974 for his involvement in Watergate. Many observers, including those at Newsweek and Time, dismissed his conversion as nothing more than an attempt at an early release from prison. But soon after his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based organization dedicated to serving prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. We just never know what God will do when a person is in a crisis. Such is the scene we read in today’s scripture, except it’s not a prisoner who is transformed, but rather the jailer. It is an unlikely turn of events when we think about “jailhouse transformations.”
We need the backstory to today’s scripture before we begin. As Luke records the events of Paul’s second missionary journey in the Book of Acts, we find Paul and Silas in the city of Philippi, and they are in prison. That’s interesting when you consider that Philippi was Paul’s favorite church. It was to the church at Philippi that Paul would write, “every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God” (Philippians 1:3), and “it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart” (1:7). Yet, Paul, in Philippi, is in prison. What landed Paul and Silas in prison? It’s communion Sunday, so you get the Reader’s Digest version.
Paul and Silas were in Philippi preaching. They had met Lydia and some others along a riverbank, and they had converted to Christ. Paul continued preaching, and one day they encountered a servant girl who had a spirit that allowed her to tell the future. Some local men had exploited that young lady for their own monetary gain. This young lady started following Paul and Silas around shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved” (16: 17). Paul didn’t respond for the longest, but day after day that begins to wear on a fellow. After several days of this young lady following and shouting, Paul became exasperated and cast the spirit out of the girl.
Well, that got into the pocketbook of the girl’s handlers. Apparently, these men weren’t too concerned with Paul and Silas until their preaching impacted their bottom line. Just goes to show that the first transformation any of us need is in our pocketbook. These men brought Paul and Silas up on charges before the city’s authorities saying, “They’re teaching things that are illegal for Romans to practice.” The city authorities had them beaten and thrown into prison. To make sure they didn’t escape, they were placed in the inner dungeon and placed in stocks, which were basically a torture device designed to limit a person’s capacity to move. I would say Paul and Silas were in a crisis.
The passage today begins, “Around midnight…” The crisis gets worse. Around midnight, an earthquake hits the city (not really unusual for the city of Philippi) that shakes the prison to its foundations. Luke records (he remembers because he was there with them) the doors of the prison were opened and the stocks broke loose. Enter the jailer, who now has his own crisis to deal with. He’s awakened by the earthquake to find the prison in shambles, and he knows without a doubt that his prisoners have all escaped. His immediate reaction is to contemplate suicide. After all, custom dictated that if a guard allowed a prisoner to escape, the punishment that was due the prisoner was given to the guard instead. The guard thought it better to die with dignity than to bear the indignity of the authorities parading him before the whole town to be put to death. But Paul intervened, and said, “Stop! Don’t kill yourself. We’re all here.” The jailer called for a light, went into the dungeon, fell at Paul and Silas’s feet and proclaimed, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and all your household.” Luke says that “even at that hour,” the guard’s life was transformed, and he cared for the prisoner’s wounds, showed them hospitality and the home was filled with joy. This double crisis became the vehicle whereby God would transform a Philippian jailer and his entire family. Quite a stunning jailhouse transformation!