I’m amazed at how God grabs our attention. At LifePoint I recently taught through Acts 16 (Paul and company in Philippi). Here we find three encounters with God, yet God working in three very different ways.
Lydia (16:11-15) was a God-fearing gentile. The text says that God opened her heart, and Lydia listened to Paul. Given the context, it’s fair to assume that Lydia was familiar with the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). It’s likely, then, that Paul reasoned with Lydia and the other women from scripture, and pointed to its fulfillment in Jesus.
The slave girl (16:16-20), on the other hand, didn’t have much room for reason or scripture in her life. Her masters did not afford her such freedoms; she simply had an encounter of the power of the God – and was freed from her spiritual oppression.
And the jailor (16:21-34), it seems, wasn’t moved by reason or even an encounter with the miraculous. The jailor encountered God through an act of compassion. Yes, he heard Paul and Silas praying and singing (16:25). Yes, he felt the power of an earthquake (16:26). But neither of these experiences, it would seem, opened his heart to God. In fact, after the earthquake, the jailor was ready to take his own life (16:27).
It was an act of mercy and compassion that reached into the jailor’s heart.
The jailor saw the power and impact of the gospel in the compassion extended to him by Paul and Silas. And let me shade this point just a bit. In verses 23-24, after Paul and Silas had been beaten, they were sent to the jailor for safekeeping (the word “safely” (ESV) doesn’t refer to safety, but to security – in other words, “don’t let them escape”). So Luke (the author of Acts) tells us that the jailor “put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in stocks.” Don’t lose the punch of this: many scholars think that this is referring to an ancient form of torture. The prisons’ legs would be spread far apart and lock them into place. Over time, the muscles would begin to cramp, and fail. It was a slow, persistent – but nonetheless excruciating – form of torture.
And here’s the miracle of a heart transformed: in midst of prison (and I would suggest even torture), Paul and Silas are worshipping God (praying, singing; v. 25) and when they are given a chance to escape (at the expense of the jailor’s life, who would be executed and was already beginning to take matters into his own hands)… Paul and Silas have compassion on their torturer. They stay in their cells rather than flee for their lives. Paul and Silas trade their own freedom for the life of their tormentor!
It wasn’t the earthquake that changed the jailor’s heart. The jailor was moved by a practical display of the compassion. The jailor encountered God through the an act of grace. As Paul and Silas had experienced grace, so they extended grace!
This story punches me right in the gut. It forces me to ask some tough questions:
Who might encounter God through my act of forgiveness and compassion?
How might God use my forgiveness to point someone to His?
Who do I need to show mercy – even at great personal cost – that they might experience a foretaste of God’s great grace?
**For more on this passage, I highly recommend Tim Keller’s message on Acts 16: “A Woman, A Slave, and a Gentile.” Find it here.