Commentary on Acts 16:16-34
In Jesus’ first sermon, according to Luke, he reads from Isaiah announcing that he has been sent in part to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18).
While surely that phrase means more than escape from prison, in Acts the Lukan author includes three prison escape miracles in which Jesus does indeed set captives free. In Acts 5:17-21, the apostles are arrested for performing healings in the temple, but the angel of the Lord opens the prison doors and sends them back to the temple to preach “the whole message about this life.” In Acts 12:1-11, Herod arrests Peter after killing James, but the angel of the Lord causes the chains to fall off Peter’s wrists and leads him out of the prison even though he had been sleeping between two guards.
And, then finally, there is Acts 16:16-34 concerning Paul and Silas in prison. In this story, however, there is a twist. As with the other two, Paul and Silas are arrested unjustly (verses 19-24). Even more than the other two, they are locked up securely, in the innermost cell of the jail and with their feet locked in stocks (verses 23-24). And as with the other two, those things keeping them locked up are miraculously disabled — in this case an earthquake opens all the prison doors and releases all the chains on prisoners while Paul and Silas are singing hymns (verses 25-26).
But unlike the other two scenes, there is actually no escape. When the jailor finds the doors all opened, he moves to commit suicide to avoid the shame and punishment that will come from having failed his duty, but Paul quickly shows him that no prisoner has left. Indeed in the scene that follows our reading, Paul and Silas even refuse to leave the jail quietly when they are set free the next morning because they assert their rights as Roman citizens (Acts 16:35-39; this theme of Paul’s citizenship shows up again numerous times in chapters 19-22).
Just because no prisoner escapes, however, does not mean that there is no captive who is set free. The irony here is that it is the jailer who is set free! Upon seeing the miracle of the prison being opened and yet seeing that the prisoners had not left, the jailer asks the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
This question echoes back to the story of Pentecost in which Peter says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Acts 2:21) and when his sermon is finished, the people ask, “What must we do?” leading to their baptism (Acts 2:37-38). Similarly here, Paul answers, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30). And after he washed the wound of Paul and Silas, he and his whole household were in turn washed in the waters of baptism. The man who had imprisoned Paul and Silas now hosted them in his own home for a feast while his household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God (verse 34). A man who knew not God and who was about to take his life had been set free and was now a member of body of Christ!
Preachers will do well to focus on Paul and Silas in a sermon on this passage, but not in the sense of lifting them up as ones rescued by God. Instead, Luke here offers them as a model for the readers for how we can serve God’s will and how God can use us as vessels of divine grace even when we are in dire straits.
Often, Christians think of stewardship and service in terms of giving and working out of our abundance. This is a proper perspective, but only when we understand abundance properly. We should not think of our abundance in materialistic or prosperity terms. Instead, we Christians have an abundance of God’s grace, filling our lives with meaning and purpose even in times when it seems everything is against us.
The ways we experience being imprisoned in contemporary life are many and varied. They are physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. They are real and can be very powerful. But they do not have the ultimate word over our lives. That word is reserved for the God to whom we pray and of whom we sing in good times and bad, the God revealed to us not only in the resurrection but also in the cross of Jesus Christ. And the word that God speaks is like an earthquake reminding us of our baptismal vocation that includes loving both our neighbors and our enemies, even those who would keep us captive.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of freedom,
Paul and Silas worshiped you, even when they were flogged and imprisoned. Transform our hearts so that we may also rejoice in you at all times and in all situations. Amen.
Blest are they, William Beckstrand