So, you’re reading the Bible through in a year? Or, like a few people I’ve known, you read it through every year for the umpteenth time.
Fine. But after you have done it two or three times, that’s enough. Don’t ever do it again.
Just my suggestion.
Reading the entire Bible in a year is like seeing Europe in a week: You will notice a lot of things you don’t see from ground level, but it’s no way to get to know a country.
After a few flyovers–two days in Genesis and one day in Romans, for instance–land the plane and get out and make yourself at home in Ephesians or Second Timothy. Move in with the locals and live with them a few weeks.
That’s the only way to learn a country. It’s the only way to really learn a book of the Bible.
Acts 16 will help us make the point.
Now, you know Acts 16 as part of Paul’s second missionary journey (which encompasses Acts 16-18). You remember how he and Silas had trouble bringing the gospel into Asia and were given the vision of a Macedonian man calling for help (16:9). You know how they met Lydia on the riverbank in Philippi and started a church in her house. And you remember how Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for preaching, and that the jailer came in asking “What must I do to be saved?” The answer is one of the most best-known lines for witnessing to the unsaved: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (16:31).
We know these things because they stand out in the chapter. Pastors have preached these points repeatedly over the years.
It’s a great chapter, to be sure, but it deserves closer inspection and much more attention than we have given it.
By slowing down and taking in the action of each verse before moving on, we see much more drama in the story. (Explanation: What follows is certainly not exhaustive, but is meant to illustrate that there is so much more drama in this story than we get in our flyovers. Only by slowing reading the text and savoring each line do we begin to see that much more was happening than we had thought at first.)
WHAT PUT PAUL AND SILAS IN THE JAILHOUSE. (Acts 16:16-24)
All they were doing was good. They were blessing people, helping them come to Christ and straighten out their lives, and healing the hurting. When they cast the demon from a young woman who was being used and abused by her “owners,” that was more than the locals could take. Those men went to the authorities to complain.
The “authorities” (whoever they were) accompanied them to the magistrates and slandered Paul and Silas as “Jews who are throwing the city into an uproar by pushing illegal customs for us Romans to accept.”
By then a mob had gathered to do what mobs love doing: harass the unfortunate and undefended. The magistrates, sensing public opinion would allow this, ordered Paul and Silas stripped and beaten, then thrown into prison. The jailer, sternly warned to guard them carefully, locked the two missionaries into an inner cell and fastened their feet in stocks. They were as secure as it was possible to make them. And tonight, the jailer decided to remain at his post rather than trust an assistant. Good thing he did.
Paul and Silas had to have been miserable.
WHAT PAUL AND SILAS DID THAT STRANGE NIGHT (Acts 16:25-34)
“Along about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
What? Are you serious?
Most of us would have been complaining: “God, where are you? We were just trying to do your will. All we’ve been doing is blessing these people, and look how they’ve treated us. Where are you, Lord? Why have you abandoned us?”
Not these two. (So much for the prosperity gospel. So much for ‘name it and claim it.’ These two knew Matthew 10:17ff’s promises. They knew that the Lord does not mind putting His disciples in jeopardy in order to get the word to people who have no intention of attending your revival meeting.)
Thinking about their praying and singing in the prison that night, do you suppose Paul said, “You know, Silas, I just feel like singing”?
Sometimes you sing because you choose not to cry. The Psalmist said, “I am in pain and distress…. I will praise God’s name in song and glorify Him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hoofs” (Psalm 69:29-31).
“And the prisoners were listening to them.” They’re always listening. They’re watching and listening to see how we are handling the pain and misfortunes of this life. That’s why the Lord will not hesitate to allow His children to be mistreated. And it’s why we must not falter. (See Luke 6:27ff)
The jailer was listening too. The reason we know that is what he did later.
Sometime during the night, the faithful Lord–the One who has not deserted His faithful workers who are looking to Him–sent an angel with a jail-sized earthquake. The building was rattled, walls were broken, and chains were broken. The jailer awakened, looked down the corridor and saw all the doors off their hinges and chains laying everywhere, and knew he had an empty jail. Just before he fell on his sword, Paul called out, “Hey buddy! Don’t hurt yourself. Everyone is here. No one has left.”
That was just one more strange thing in this night of amazing happenings to this jailer. He called for lights (which tells us he had assistants in the building), then came in and fell before the two prisoners. “Tell me how to get what you have! What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer was the same one you and I quote today when asked the same question: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, both you and your household.”
Then, the jailer did the most amazing thing, something that would have gotten him executed a few hours earlier.
He took them out of the prison and down to his house.
He woke up his wife and mother-in-law (okay, just my assumption here). While one bathed the backs of the two preachers and put salve on them, the other cooked breakfast. All the while, the missionaries are telling them about Jesus.
The entire party went down to the same river where Paul had met Lydia a few days earlier and Paul and Silas baptized them.
Then, they came back to the house for a feast.
And then, something else strange happened.
They went back to prison. (It’s not stated in so many words, but made necessary by what happened the following morning.)
THE NEXT MORNING (Acts 16:35-40)
The next morning early, the magistrates sent word to the jailer to let the men go. The jailer, now a brother in Christ, was glad to deliver the news. “Go in peace,” he told them.
“Not so fast,” Paul said. Turning to the officers who had come from the magistrates, he said, “Go back and tell your bosses this message: You beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens. Then you threw us into this prison without bringing charges. And now you want us to go quietly? I don’t think so.”
Paul said, “Tell the magistrates they’ll have to come and apologize to us personally before we’ll let them release us. Then, we will allow them to escort us out of the prison.”
When the magistrates heard they were Roman citizens, they panicked. Rome demanded that throughout the Empire their citizens be treated according to Roman law. Citizens had rights others did not.
The magistrates could be in big trouble and knew it.
They hurried down to the prison and apologized to the missionaries. They begged them to please leave and not cause any further trouble.
Paul could have insisted on his rights and put the screws to these lackeys. However, he agreed to allow these officials to escort him and Silas out of town. Their presence would also protect them from any random mob action left over from the evening before.
But before leaving town, they made a side trip.
“They went to Lydia’s home.” This was where the fledgling church was meeting. No doubt Paul had two things in mind: One, he wanted to say his good-byes and issue the kind of charge he frequently gave to young churches (see Acts 14:21-23). “There, they met with the brethren and encouraged them.”
And two, Paul wanted the church to know about the jailer and his household. Someone would need to seek out these new believers and invite them to this little gathering.
“Then they left.”
It’s a great chapter, a wonderful story. But only by camping out on it do we see the various movements and appreciate the scenes.
Enjoy the Scriptures. There is nothing else in the world like them.