Jailhouse Rock

  Acts 16:16-34

Long before “Jailhouse Rock” became a hit for Elvis Presley, the jailhouse in Philippi was rocked not once, but twice. It was rocked once when Paul and Silas sang hymns while in chains, and it was rocked a second time in a different way by God. Before we talk about that, though, let’s start at the beginning.

Last week we met Saul of Tarsus, who was knocked down on the road to Damascus by the Risen Christ. Saul was totally changed by the encounter. He who had been a persecutor of the church, became one of its greatest leaders.

After his conversion, Saul underwent a long period of preparation by God, before being sent out as the first missionary to the Gentile world. His partner was Barnabas. Together they carried the gospel of Jesus Christ into the region that we know today as southwest Turkey. In chapter 15 of Acts, Saul, now known as Paul, plays a pivotal role in the council in Jerusalem, in which Gentile believers were recognized as equal members of the church with Jewish believers.

After returning from Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas propose to revisit the churches they had established, but a disagreement breaks out between the two old friends. Barnabas wanted to take his nephew, John Mark, along but Paul opposed this. John Mark had accompanied them at the beginning of their first journey but had left them to return home. Paul had considered this desertion, Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance. The disagreement led to Paul and Barnabas splitting up. Barnabas took John Mark and went to Cyprus. Paul took Silas and went to Asia Minor.

Paul and Silas retrace the route of the First Journey as far as Derbe and Lystra. There they find a young believer by the name of Timothy. Timothy was of mixed race; his mother was Jewish, and his father was a Gentile. Timothy joins the missionary band and they travel on to Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia.

There the missionaries face a bit of confusion about where to go next. First, they attempt to turn west toward the province of Asia but are prevented from doing so by the Holy Spirit (16:6). Next, they would turn eastward toward Bithynia but “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (16:7). We have no idea how the Spirit of Jesus made this clear to them, but the travelers are left with only one direction to go.

They end up in Troas on the shores of the Aegean Sea. And there they meet Luke, a Gentile and a physician, who joins them. We know he joins them because verse 10 says, “We got ready at once to leave for Macedonia”. Luke, the author, is now including himself in the group. They head for Macedonia because, during the night, Paul had had a vision of a man from Macedonia “standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (vs. 9). And so, the gospel comes in the fulness of time to the continent of Europe.

Philippi was the capital city of Macedonia. Usually, when Paul came to a new city, we would go to the Jewish synagogue first, but Philippi apparently had no synagogue, probably because there were not the requisite number of adult males (ten), but there was an informal gathering of Jewish worshippers who met by the river.

There Paul meets Lydia, a woman who had a business selling purple cloth. Purple cloth was a luxury item, which could be afforded only by the very rich, so Lydia may not have been rich, but she was at least comfortable. She becomes a follower of Jesus and then invites Paul and his fellows to use her house as a base of operations for the mission in Philippi.

16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).


Our focus passage begins as Paul and his companions are going to the place of prayer by the river. They are met by a young slave girl who had was possessed by a spirit which allowed her to foretell the future. Literally, the Greek says she was possessed by a “python spirit.” The python was associated with the Greek god Apollo and was thought to possess the priestesses of the Oracle at Delphi.

The girl follows Paul and the others around shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (vs. 15). Even though she is providing them with free advertising, Paul finally becomes annoyed and casts the spirit out of her.

Luke records, “When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities” (vs. 19). The old saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That is certainly true here. Paul and Silas had done a good thing—released a girl from bondage to an evil spirit—they had also released her from exploitation. But, predictably, those who had been exploiting her react by having Paul and Silas dragged into court.

The authorities have them beaten—faces—and throw them into prison. It’s there where things really begin to get crazy. The jailhouse gets rocked, not once but twice—once when Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns and a second time when God sends an earthquake.

Reading this story made me think about the ways we respond to bad circumstances. Paul and Silas were in bad circumstances. All they were doing was serving the Lord, trying to spread the gospel of grace—and now they’ve been tortured and thrown into prison. They could have become angry. They could have lashed out at God. “Why me, God? All I was doing was trying to tell people about you.” But, they didn’t. What did they do?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (vs. 25).

It reminds me of another biblical character who also found himself in bad circumstances. Job.

I’m sure you remember the story. Job chapter one tells how the “sons of God” presented themselves before God, and Satan presents himself. God asks him what he’s been doing and Satan answers, “[R]oaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” And Satan replies that Job only serves God because of all the stuff God has given him. Then Satan essentially dares God to take all Job’s stuff away and see how fast Job would curse him to his face.

So, God gives Satan authority to take everything away from Job. In quick succession he loses his servants, his sheep, his camels and finally, his children. Can you imagine? How would you respond if you lost everything and the people you love most were taken from you? How did Job respond?

20At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." 22In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing (Job 1:20-22).

When bad circumstance arise, we can choose to . . .

Worship God in Bad Circumstances (vs. 25)

Life is hard. Bad things happen. Bad circumstances arise. No one is exempt. “God doesn’t play favorites.” I don’t know why. I wish I could tell you that if you serve God, he’ll give you a pass—bad things won’t happen to you. I wish I could promise the big house, the Rolls Royce and the big bank account, but that’s not the way it works.

Bad things happen – We try our best—we want to please God and suddenly the rug is pulled out and we start to wonder, “What is the point in serving God, if this is the result?” What makes it worse is when we see people who, apparently, have no fear of God prospering.

Life isn’t fair. The question is—How to we respond? There are only two options: Either we worship God as Job and Paul and Silas did or we walk away. A lot of people walk away from faith when times get hard. “I don’t need this. I don’t understand.” An we allow our fear and our doubt overwhelm our faith.

Can you say, “No matter what happens – You are still God and I will worship you—no matter what.”

James tells us that it is in trials that our faith is proved true.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds (James 1:2)

More than just, “Grit your teeth and hang on” it’s “consider it pure joy” when trials come into your life. God can bring you through. When you think you can’t go any further and yet you hold on—that’s God holding you together.

We can worship God in Bad Circumstances and we can . . .

Witness to Christ in Unlikely Situations (vss. 26-34)

26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

Things start to get crazy about now. Paul and Silas rock the jailhouse by praying and singing hymns, and then God rocks the jailhouse with an earthquake. All the doors fly open, all the prisoners’ chains come loose, and the poor jailer is about to commit suicide. He was responsible for the prisoners. When he saw that all the doors had come open, he was sure that they had done what prisoners do when confronted by open doors—run away. He knew what the Romans would do to him when they found the prison empty in the morning, so he decided to kill himself first.

But Paul stops him, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” Isn’t that amazing? I think it’s amazing that the prisoners didn’t try to escape. I don’t know what Paul had done to convince them to stay, but they all remain. “What must I do to be saved?” the jailer asks them and they go on to tell him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (vs. 31). This becomes an unlikely opportunity to for Paul and Silas to witness for Christ.

What was it that moved the jailer to ask the question? The earthquake? I don’t think so. It was the behavior of Paul and Silas. They could have escaped and gone back to their people and continued their ministry and forgotten about the jailer, but they didn’t, they remained and used this unlikely situation to witness for Jesus.

When God does something extraordinary in our lives—when he brings us through some trial—we have the opportunity to tell others what he has done for us. God uses the circumstances in our lives to show what he can do in their lives

People see how we respond to bad circumstances in our lives. They know we are Christians. They know because we tell them. They know we go to church. They are watching to see how we handle bad circumstances. When we handle a situation with perseverance, and maturity people notice. How did you do that? Then we must be ready with the answer. “I was able to come through it because God helped me.”

We need a new perspective. We need to see every circumstance as an opportunity to either worship or witness. This is hard. When life is hard these are the last two things we want to do. But this is what we are called to do.

God has a higher purpose in our trials. James has told us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Now, he will tell us why:

because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:3-4).

It’s not about us—it’s about what God is doing in our lives. Every circumstance is an opportunity to worship or witness. Like Paul and Silas—they rocked the jailhouse because they did both. God can rock the jailhouses in our lives when we take the opportunities to worship and witness that he provides us in the circumstance of our lives—both bad and good.