Change: The Roman Jailer

Change: The Roman Jailer
A Message on Acts 16:25-34
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
Sept. 5, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Acts 16:25-34 (NRSV)

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34 He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

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As we continue our sermon series on “Change,” today, we will explore a man who is not named but who has a HUGE life change after an encounter with Paul and Silas: the Roman jailer, also known as the Philippian jailer.

Here’s the situation: Paul and some of the disciples are traveling around and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Their travels bring them to the region of Macedonia and specifically to the city of Philippi. Once there they meet a slave girl that was a fortune teller, and Paul orders the spirit allowing her to tell fortunes to come out of her, and it does.

Well the owners of this girl aren’t very happy about it. They had been using her to make money, and now their source of income was gone. So these bad guys seize Paul and Silas and take them before the officials and convince them that Paul and Silas are causing trouble. So the officials have Paul and Silas beaten severely with rods. After that the two apostles are thrown into prison and the jailer is ordered to “keep them securely.” The jailer, taking no chances, puts them in the innermost cell of the prison and secures their feet in stocks.

It’s here where we pick up the story today. Now I don’t know about you, but if I had just been beaten severely with sticks and then had my feet placed in stocks in a 1st century prison I would not have been a happy camper. But Paul and Silas were! They were singing hymns and praising God!

It’s important to remember what prisons were like then. When we see them portrayed in movies it’s usually a stone structure that has some fresh hay or straw on the floor. I think that’s a visually nice image but is not accurate of the reality of 1st Century prisons.

We have to remember that there was very limited running water in that day. They didn’t let the prisoners go to a nice, clean restroom with those machines that blow air on your hands to dry them. No. Prisons were dirty, stinky, nasty places to be. We would be appalled.

The person who was in charge of the jail didn’t have an easy job. The responsibility of those prisoners rested on his shoulders. If one of the prisoners got sick and died, well that wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But if one or more of the prisoners escaped, boy oh boy would the jailer be in trouble. He would become a prisoner himself if he wasn’t beaten and killed outright. It was brutal, but that’s the way it was.

Now we need to appreciate the irony in this scripture. Remember that prior to meeting the risen Christ Paul was a pharisee (a Jewish religious leader) who hunted down and persecuted those who followed Jesus Christ. And he was good at it, too. Paul was all about getting Christians arrested and thrown in prison, or even killed. (Remember, he held the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death.)

Then, after experiencing Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul changes from hunting down Christians to being one. He becomes one of the leaders of those who follow Jesus Christ. And what happens when he does that? He gets beaten, arrested, and thrown in jail, receiving the same treatment that he used to dish out to others. Ironic, huh?

Now let’s focus on the Roman jailer. The Romans were the occupying force in the Holy Land in the First Century. They were the big dogs of that area of the world primarily because of their army. They had the most superior fighting force of the time, and they weren’t shy about flexing those military muscles if people got out of hand and started trouble.

Theologically the Romans were like the Greeks in that they were polytheists, believing in multiple gods instead of just one god. The Greeks developed their system of Gods about 1,000 years before the Romans, but the peer pressure got to the Romans and they developed their own gods.

For example: The Greeks had the god Zeus while the Romans had the god Jupiter. The Greeks had Poseidon while the Romans countered with Neptune. (Note: All the planets in our solar system, with the exception of earth, were named after Roman Gods. So if you are ever on a game show and get asked to name Roman gods just start naming the planets.)

The Roman jailer, being Roman, would in all probability have had this polytheistic (multiple gods) view.

And he would have been a company man as well. Probably a member of the Roman military, he wouldn’t have been a high ranking officer but instead was appointed to be a jailer and in charge of prisoners. Some scholars believe that retired Roman soldiers often served as jail guards.

It wouldn’t have been a very glamorous job. Earlier we talked about the living conditions in the jails and how yucky that environment must have been. The jails didn’t have individual rooms for the prisoners, but several large open rooms with chains and stocks used to restrain the prisoners. The jailer would have been responsible for feeding the prisoners, making sure they had water, and protecting them from not only each other but angry mobs who wanted to take justice in their own hands.

He would have lived right next door or even in a part of the same building. (Not exactly a great place for the wife and kids, huh?)

And he would have been large and in charge of the facility. If a prisoner made him mad he could beat them or deny them food and water. He could move that prisoner to the inner part of the jail, which was the worst and most secure part, into more brutal conditions. He had power over the prisoners, and he probably wasn’t afraid to use it. He was in charge. The prisoners were not.

But then the earthquake happens and the prisoners are set free.

First of all, an earthquake in itself is a very scary thing. In the first century they were often viewed as God (or the gods) punishing humans for some they did wrong. The earth moves, buildings collapse, and it seems the world is ending. (Watch some videos on YouTube of earthquakes if you want to see what it looks like.)

This earthquake happened at night a little after midnight. With the darkness and the dust created by earthquakes the jailer thought all the prisoners had their shackles broken and had skedaddled. That was bad news for the jailer. Like VERY bad news. He knew that those in authority above him would hold him responsible for the prisoners’ escape and that the punishment would be horribly brutal.

Not only that, but as a Roman soldier it was about pride as well. He had let down the emperor and the only “honorable” thing to do was to take his own life. (Note: It is never an honorable thing to take your own life. If you are considering that please get help or call me so I can get you help. Seriously.)

The Roman jailer was desperate and thought that was the only solution to the problem. For him, life was no longer going to be worth living.

But before he could carry out his plan something happened. Paul called out to him and told him not to do it, that all the prisoners were still there.

Then something miraculous happens: the jailer wants to become a follower of Christ. He talks to Paul and Silas, takes them into his house and doctors the wounds on their back, and then he and his whole family are baptized and become followers of Jesus Christ.

This scripture is one of several that we as United Methodists point to in support of why we do infant baptisms. The jailer and his whole family were baptized. It doesn’t say “the adult members of his family.” No. It says, “he and his entire family.” Entire means everybody. And if you take the time to research the Greek word that is used it indeed means everybody: men, women, and children.

We don’t know what happens to the jailer after he becomes a follower of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But we know his life was changed completely and dramatically.

Prior to his conversion he was a loyal subject to his military superiors and the emperor. After Paul and Silas got through with him his loyalty switched to Jesus Christ and following him. He probably lost his job. He probably suffered from public ostracism for his choice and the chances of him being jailed for his belief are very high.

There are several things this scripture teaches us that we can apply to our lives today. The first is to not repay evil with evil. Can you imagine being severely beaten and then shackled by your feet in a dirty, nasty prison, and then having the opportunity for revenge against your oppressors and not taking it, but instead showing love and compassion?

It boggles the mind. Yet that is what Paul and Silas did. And that is what we should do as well. Now I know it doesn’t make sense. Psychologically we think that revenge will be sweet and make us feel better, but that is a lie. We won’t feel better. Responding to being wronged with love instead of revenge is much, much harder, but it is the right, and Christian, thing to do.

1 Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.”

Another thing it teaches us is that nobody is beyond the reach of the gospel. That’s just how powerful the Good News is. Think of a person that you very strongly dislike. You can’t stand them. They are mean, self-centered, egotistical, and all those other things that you detest.

Now think about sharing the Good News with them. Yeah, it doesn’t feel right, does it? And yet God calls us to those uncomfortable and very difficult places, not because he can’t do it himself, but because in doing so we will be humbled ourselves and our faith will grow.

If Paul and Silas can extend that grace to the Roman jailer, then we can extend grace even to those people we can’t stand. When you find that difficult to do, remember that God, through Jesus, did the difficult thing of extending that grace to us sinners who also don’t deserve it.

And yet another thing this scripture can teach us is that sometimes when change seems bad it can actually be good. The Roman jailer was so full of despair he was going to take his own life because of the change he experienced, and yet that change turned out to be a good thing, perhaps not so much in terms of worldly standards such as power over others or occupation, but in terms of his soul and a relationship with Jesus Christ.

So when major changes happen in our lives, and there is a lot of change happening right now in our world, don’t despair but look for God in the change. No matter how much our lives change, Jesus is there for us. That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every month. Not only is it to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made out of love for us, but it also reminds us that that grace and love never changes. And as it says in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

So my challenge to you today is to remember the Roman jailer when faced with change. Never repay evil with evil. Remember that no one is beyond the reach of the Gospel. And remember that when things look bleak and bad, having a relationship with Jesus Christ can turn things around and turn sorrow into joy.

“…what must I do to be saved?”

“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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