Back in 2012, a lifeguard named Tomas Lopez was on duty at a beach in Florida when someone rushed over to his post and said that a man had gone out too far and was drowning. Without hesitation, Lopez swam out and pulled the man to shore with the help of some other beachgoers. There, they gave the man CPR until paramedics arrived and he ended up surviving.
Rather than being heralded as a hero, however, Lopez was fired from his position. His company informed him that the drowning man was “out of the protected area” and said that anyone who swam there did so at their own risk. In other words, the dying man was not in Lopez’s jurisdiction. Two other lifeguards were also fired for saying that they would have done the exact same thing.
Penalized for doing good. Punished for helping another person. That was certainly something the apostle Paul could relate with. He too had been treated badly for doing good and would have known exactly how Lopez felt in that moment. Paul once helped someone get their life back by freeing them from a demon, yet he was severely persecuted for doing so. The incident is found in Acts 16.
“As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, ‘These men are servants of the Most-High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.’ And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:16-18).
Paul and his friends (Silas, Timothy, and Luke) were in the city of Philippi working with a new congregation when a demon-possessed slave girl started following them around day after day. She kept shouting that they were servants of the Most-High God, who proclaim the way of salvation. Though what the girl said was true, it is probably not a good idea to have a demon endorsing your work. That would kind of be like having a staggering drunk with a bottle in his hand shouting, “These guys can make you sober.” Therefore, Paul finally let out a shout of his own. He turned around and said to the demon, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her,” and the spirit left her that very hour.
Think about the good that Paul just did for this girl. She was being held captive inside her own body by a demon. Her innocence and independence had been seized by an evil spirit. And now she got her life back. The nightmare she had been enduring for a long time was finally over. You would think this should be reason to rejoice, right? However, that wasn’t the case at all. Her masters were not celebrating, they were furious. That is because they were exploiting the girl’s problem for profit. They were making a lot money off her demon possession. All her greedy masters could think about was dollar signs disappearing. And as they say, “No good deed goes unpunished!”
“But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers” (Acts 16:19).
The love of money has a way of making people crazy. It can cause otherwise normal people to do things that are totally irrational (and almost insane), like chug an entire bottle of hot sauce or go streaking through the mall. I saw where people have sold advertising space on their bodies. For the right price, they’ll let you tattoo your website on a prominent part of their body, like their forehead or bald spot or bicep, for all to see. That’s how crazy the love of money can make people. A man named Mike Merrill went even further than that and sold “his life” to shareholders, who now get to make all his decisions for him — what he eats, who he dates, what kind of music he listens to in the car. They have literally bought the rights to his life!
The love of money had blinded this girl’s masters so badly that they could not see the good being done. It kept them from seeing that a person had been set free; liberated from the unspeakable horrors of demon-possession. All they could see was dollar signs going down the drain. One writer said, “It was almost as if the evil spirit, having been cast out of the slave girl, had entered into her owners and turned them into furious, raving beasts.” They seized Paul and Silas, dragging them into the marketplace to stand trial.
There is a sense of irony here. Before his conversion, Paul had been “dragging” off others to stand trial (Acts 8:3), but now he was the one being dragged off to stand trial. Why Timothy and Luke were not arrested with Paul and Silas is not stated.
They were taken to the marketplace. That was basically the city square. It was the social center of town where business of all sorts was conducted. — It was where the sick was treated, the unemployed waited for work, and the magistrates heard court cases. — This was the charge leveled against them:
“These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21).
Rather than stating their real reason for the complaint, the girl’s masters came up with a charge that would arouse strong emotions among all the magistrates and any onlookers. It was sure to get everybody there fired up! First, they appealed to the people’s prejudice — “these men are Jews.” Anti-Jewish sentiment was high in Philippi and really throughout the whole Roman Empire. They were tolerated, but not very well-liked. Second, they appealed to the prime objective of Roman law — “they are disturbing our city.” More than anything else, the Romans wanted to keep the peace. They wanted to maintain order and have civil obedience at all costs; and they had very little patience for anyone making waves. And then finally, they appealed to civic pride — “they advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” This evoked the response they were hoping for. The fickle crowd rose up in a frenzy and demanded justice!
The magistrates immediately stripped Paul and Silas and had them beaten with rods. These rods were thick as a man’s thumb and would have left their backs bloody and bruised. Whereas the Jews were limited in the number of whippings they could administer, the Romans had no such restrictions. A prisoner could be beaten for as long and hard as the officials wanted. All the text says is they received “many” blows. — Was it 40? 60? 100?
This form of punishment was so brutal that Roman citizens were supposed to be exempt from it, and there are recorded cases of people dying from the beating. One writer said, “It was an experience not soon forgotten.”
Then the two missionaries were placed in “maximum security” in the local jail. This would have been a damp, dirty dungeon with little or no lighting infested with rodents. There was probably a musty smell in the air and blood stains on the floor. It would have been a terrible place to be.
If that were not bad enough, the text says their feet were fastened in stocks. This was a cruel move on the part of the jailer, for those stocks were not just to hold you in place; they were a form of torture. A prisoner’s legs were spread far apart and then locked tight. This left him in an awkward, uncomfortable position with no way to move or stretch out. You can imagine the cramping that must have set in as the hours slowly passed by.
If I were in their spot, I think I’d be having a pity party. I’d probably be thinking to myself, “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” — Here they were being punished for doing good; for helping somebody. They had been convicted on trumped up charges, brutally beaten in public, thrown into the inner-most part of the prison, and had their feet fastened in stocks. — If that were me, I’d be singing the blues. These two men weren’t singing the blues, however, they were singing praises!
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and 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 bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:25-26).
There have been some pretty remarkable “coincidences” over the years. Some are almost too creepy to even believe, but they’re true. For instance, in 1974, a man died when his moped was hit by a taxi in Bermuda. One year later, his twin brother was riding that same moped when he was struck and killed by the same taxi, driven by the same person, and carrying the same passenger. Isn’t that creepy?
In 1950, a church exploded in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska. The blast demolished the building, shattered windows in nearby houses, and forced a local radio station off the air. Choir practice was supposed to begin at 7:20 that night, five minutes before the explosion occurred. Yet none of the 15 members were injured because all of them were running late. That’s creepy!
Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both assassinated while in office. Both men were shot in the back of the head, on the Friday before a major holiday, while sitting beside their wives (neither of whom were injured). Moreover, they were both in the presence of another couple and each time the man with them was also wounded.
Lincoln and Kennedy were both succeeded by vice-presidents named “Johnson,” who were both born in the year “08.” Andrew Johnson was born in 1808 and Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908. Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and fled to a warehouse, while Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and fled to a theatre. Both assassins were detained by officers named “Baker.” And finally, both assassins used 3 names (John Wilkes Booth / Lee Harvey Oswald) and each had 15 letters total in their name.
Those are certainly creepy coincidences. Almost too creepy to even believe. But what happened in the Philippian jail that night was no coincidence, it was providence. It was the deliberate work of God through natural means and circumstance to accomplish a purpose.
The earthquake was so powerful that it unlocked every single cell and unloosed every single chain holding the prisoners, and yet the roof didn’t collapse, the walls didn’t crumble, and there wasn’t the slightest injury to anyone. Do you see what I mean? This was God’s doing!
When the jailer awoke and saw the cells opened, he assumed everyone had escaped and was about to kill himself. That may seem drastic to us, but under Roman law he was as good as dead anyway. Jailers were held personally responsible for their prisoners. If they escaped, you were executed. And in that society, it was considered more honorable to take your own life than to let someone else take it. Just as he raised the sword, however, he was spared by a voice in the dark.
“But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved’” (Acts 16:28-29)?
The jailer, who had probably already heard Paul and Silas witnessing in the jail, seems to have interpreted the earthquake as an act of God; and it compelled him to ask the most important question that anyone could ask — “What must I do to be saved?”
The missionaries told the jailer to believe in the Lord Jesus and then started sharing stories about their wonderful Savior. — They probably recited how He was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, how He confounded the wise and healed the sick, how He was betrayed by a friend and crucified on a cross, and how He triumphantly conquered the grave on that third day. — And in that very hour, the jailer and his family were baptized in water for the forgiveness of their sins. They did exactly what Jesus had said to do in Mark 16:16 — “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
The earthquake was not designed to deliver the prisoners, it was designed to deliver the jailer. That was the reason God made the “jailhouse rock!”