God's Miraculous Midnight Rescue in Philippi
Lord God, thank You for Your great rescue of us sinners—undeserving though we be. Thank You for equipping us to have a Gospel centered Vacation Bible School last week. Work in the hearts of all the children so that their love for You grows and remains firm throughout their lives. Be with each one of us today as we worship—come to us and bless us. Amen.
Jacob was running for his life! He was leaving his father and mother behind while fleeing an angry brother and going to a strange place to find relatives he didn’t know. There was much to lead Jacob to fear. God chased away fear by promising to protect Jacob and bring him safely back to Canaan. God Who has rescued us from sin also protects us from danger.
God sent Paul a vision of a Macedonian man saying, “Come and help us.” Paul and his fellow missionaries’ first stop in Macedonia was Philippi, where they preached the Gospel with success. Paul’s cleansing of a demon-possessed girl led to his and Silas’ imprisonment, but even that was part of God’s plan of rescue in Philippi.
Text: Acts 16:25-34
But 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 Christ Jesus who is our Rescuer, dear fellow-redeemed:
Almost everyone enjoys a good “rescue” story. Reader’s Digest has a monthly feature called “Drama in Real Life” 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 movie.
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 past week in Vacation Bible School, teachers and students spent time considering “GOD’S GREAT RESCUE.” If someone wanted to hear about great and dramatic real-life rescues, the Bible is the place to turn:
Noah and his family were rescued from a world-destroying flood.
Lot and his daughters were spared from the fire and brimstone that rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah.
Moses and Children of Israel were delivered from an approaching army of Egyptians by walking through a parted Red Sea.
Daniel was thrown to the lions and survived without so much as a scratch.
The three men in the fiery furnace were rescued from certain death and did not even smell of smoke when they came out of the furnace.
Jesus’ disciples on the sea of Galilee feared for their lives in a tremendous storm, but were rescued when Jesus said,
“Peace! Be still.”
Other examples could be given and each one is as dramatic as the one before—all true, all recorded in Scripture for our learning.
Each day’s lesson in Vacation Bible School explored one of the ways God rescued His people of the past and how He still provides rescue for each of us, His present-day children. The many ways by which God provides rescue for His people all tie into that one great rescue from sin and death which He accomplished for us through Christ.
This morning with the Spirit’s guidance we are going to explore further one example of God’s great rescue. It is GOD’S MIRACULOUS MIDNIGHT RESCUE IN PHILIPPI. I. A rescue that needed (of all things!)imprisonment II. A rescue that used the Gospel III. 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—He even used human weaknesses to accomplish goal.
Paul and Barnabas had been called by God and sent out by the Church to be missionaries to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2-3). While Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem for a counsel with the apostles and elders, the Jerusalem congregation chose two men to accompany Paul and Barnabas to Anitoch and to help with the work there (Acts 15:22ff). These two men were Judas and Silas.
After the work in Antioch had continued for a time, Judas returned to Jerusalem to report to the brethren there and Silas remained in Antioch. Then Paul and Barnabas decided it would be beneficial to revisit the congregations they had established in their earlier missionary journey. However, Paul and Barnabas could not agree on whether to take John Mark along with them. Their disagreement became so great that they had to go their separate ways. Barnabas and Mark went to begin their journey in Cyprus, and Silas accompanied Paul and began their journey through Syria. Luke also traveled with Paul and Silas and Timothy joined them along the way (Acts 15:36ff). It was human sinfulness and weakness that led to the division between Paul and Barnabas, but God used that to bring Paul and Silas to Philippi to accomplish His rescue there.
It was this group of Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke who (cf: New Testament reading) tried to enter different areas with the Gospel but each time were turned away by the Spirit. Then after coming to Troas, God sent the vision of Macedonian man pleading with those compelling words: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!—RESCUE US!!” God had guided them to Troas, a coastal town before sending the vision so they were able to leave immediately for Macedonia.
When the missionary group arrived in Philippi, their preaching was successful in Lydia’s household. Next, Paul cast out the demon from the 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. Early in the growth of the New Testament church, some of the apostles were arrested and put in prison. That night, God send an angel who opened the prison doors and told the apostles to return to the temple and preach the Gospel. The next morning the apostles were in the temple preaching (Acts 5:17ff).
On another occasion, after King Herod had seen how much it pleased the people to have James executed, he had Peter imprisoned with plans to execute him as well. That night, an angel came and led Peter safely out of the prison. So, 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…not freedom!
When God sent an angel to rescue the apostles, God’s rescue plan needed the apostles to proclaim the Gospel to the people in the temple, so God set them free. When Peter was imprisoned, God still had much for Peter to accomplish as an apostle and so He set him free. When Paul and Silas were in prison, God left them there (for a time) because God had a dramatic rescue to accomplish in prison through Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas needed to be in prison in order for God’s rescue plan to be done.
The morning after the rescue in the prison, the magistrates sent word that the jailer should quietly release Paul and Silas. They, however, invoked their Roman citizenship and declared that as Roman citizens they were wrongly beaten in public and imprisoned and they should also be publicly released. The magistrates then came to the prison and released them asking them to leave the city (Acts 16:35ff). God didn’t want Paul and Silas imprisoned for a long time because they had other work to do too. God used the imprisonment as a tool and had it last just long enough to accomplish the rescue.
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 (being imprisoned) 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. 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 just US and what WE SEE. 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 something that wouldn’t otherwise seem to fit—like NEEDING IMPRISONMENT to accomplish a RESCUE!
Something seemingly so out of place as imprisonment was a vital part of God’s rescue plan in Philippi. Paul and Silas were humbly endured whatever God willed so that His greater rescue might be accomplished through them—we have every reason to follow their example and do likewise.
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.
The most obvious individuals to whom God brought the saving words of the Gospel that night are the jailer and his household, but He also brought the Word to the prisoners. “Why needed?” God had people to whom He wanted the Gospel to come and to do that, Paul and Silas needed to be in prison. PEOPLE…not just the Jailer, his household, and 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 listeningattentively…with interest. Now imagine yourself in prison and one day two new prisoners were added and all they could do in the middle of the night was pray and sing songs! Wouldn’t you suppose the other prisoners would grow angry with the two “new guys” who were making such a ruckus? We might expect it, but it didn’t happen…they LISTENED! Paul and Silas were praying and singing out of devotion to God and their pleas for help, and 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!! You mean that out of all the prisoners there was not even a single one who escaped when the doors opened?? No…not one!! 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.
Based on God’s promise in Isaiah that His Word will not return to Him void but will accomplish what He pleases (cf: Isaiah 55:10f), together with the knowledge that the Gospel was heard in those prison cells that night, we can be certain that Paul and Silas’ words were not without effect and were useful in God’s desire to rescue the other prisoners.
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 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, then he had the sheer amazement to learn that not one of the prisoners had escaped, and finally a prisoner called out to him in order to spare his life! Had all of that happened to any of us it is most certain we would be trembling too!
The jailer had certainly 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?”
The jailer felt the fear of God’s law and the knowledge that he was a frail human being under its condemnation. 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 self-righteousness in an effort to save himself. Rather his question was: “Now what?…What do I do…my life’s a mess, I know I sin where can I turn for help??!”
The answer to the jailer’s question was not a list of “do this & that…DON’T do that.” The answer was not a list of conditions and escape clauses for a contract that would depend upon the jailer. The answer to the jailer’s fearful plea was simply: “Believe! On the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” [v.31] O, sinner do you feel your sin? Do you need salvation? 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. He is risen again to give you life. All of this He has done for YOUR salvation, YOU are free from sin, YOU have life—This is ALL TRUE!! BELIEVE IT!!! And be SAVED!!
The news of salvation which would bring forgiveness and life to the jailer was not limited to just him, but was also for his household and indeed ALL sinners. Through the work of Christ there is salvation to all who believe—to the jailer, his household, and every believing sinner (cf: v. 31, John 3:16, etc.).
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. After the initial answer, Paul and Silas proclaimed the Gospel in more detail to lead 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 thereby rescuing him from their sin and eternal death 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 rich spiritual blessings of baptism for himself and his family—the forgiveness of sins and washing of regeneration.
In this passage, God uses a sort of “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 was equipped to minister to the physical needs of Paul and Silas and he did by washing their wounds. Paul and Silas were equipped to minister to the spiritual needs of their host and they did by using the Gospel in word and baptism for the spiritual washing and blessing of the whole family.
This midnight ministry of the Gospel and its blessed results, demonstrates the truth which Paul would write the Romans, “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).
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.
Paul and Silas give us a good example. In the Broadway musical, “The King and I” the mother tells her son that when he was afraid to “whistle a happy tune” so no one would know that he was afraid. In another musical, “The Sound of Music” the children are encouraged to sing about their “Favorite Things” when they are afraid. Paul and Silas did both of these things, but with the addition that they weren’t merely covering fear and their prayers and songs explained WHY they were NOT afraid.
The example which Paul and Silas give us is 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…because as we use the Gospel to do this for ourselves we may very well have opportunity (as they did) to share the Gospel with others and thereby play a role in one of God’s rescue plans.
Paul explained to the Corinthians that one of the reasons God allows tribulation to come is so that He can comfort us with the Gospel and then we in turn can use the Gospel to comfort (and rescue) others. “[He] comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
We too can use the Gospel, and present the Gospel in what would appear to be indirect, insignificant ways…but never doubt its power because it is the tool of rescue.
Paul and Silas had an outlook toward life that reflects the salvation they knew 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).
In the end, after the rescue, the jailer shared in this same outlook, though he had not started with it. His was a changed outlook 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, they were prisoners. Later, 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 other. An outlook that cannot see past the pain and suffering of this world, that cannot see beyond “me,” and 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 jailers 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.
The jailer went about his work as a jailer the next morning, but it was with a whole new perspective. Now he too had something to offer. He too could share the Gospel with prisoners. God’s Great Rescue accomplished the jailer’s rescue, but it also equipped him to bring the tool of rescue to many other lost souls who were in great need.
We too share in the JOY OF SALVATION and that changes our outlook as well. Ours is an outlook that is heavenly minded…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 RESCUEFROM SIN…not God’s GIVING UP that wrings its hands 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.
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt