"Paul Goes to Jail," Pastor Kinsey
“Slave Girl gets Freed! Apostle Paul goes to Jail!” That might be one of the Headlines from the exciting day the young Evangelist and his partner Silas have in the city of Philippi! It certainly wasn’t how any of them imagined their day would go when it began. But then, God moves in mysterious ways! Which is exactly what Luke sets out to prove to us, over and over again, in his book, The Acts of the Apostles!
For Paul and Silas, their day began, no doubt, on the sunny side! They were warmly welcomed by Lydia, and the other women worshippers, Paul and Silas had met at the “place of prayer” by the riverside upon reaching Philippi.
After a dreary trip through the NW territory of present day Turkey, traveling a number of weeks by foot, for over 300 miles, without making a connection to any new believers that whole time, Paul, Silas, and Timothy are ‘puzzled and weary.’ (N.T. Wright, Paul pg 174) But just when they hit this seeming dead-end, Paul has a dream that night, in which the Spirit invites them to cross the sea into northern Greece, and their fortune changes.
Of all the women worshipers, it was Lydia, listening eagerly to Paul’s teaching, who responds. There is no formal Jewish synagogue in Philippi, but this outdoor ‘place of prayer’ is similar, especially for those times. Except that, in this case, it’s been formed for, and by women – formed by women who were both Jews, and the Gentile believers wanting to worship with them. Lydia, as her name indicates, was a seller of purple clothe, an unmarried business women and Roman citizen. At that time there had been a new production process in purple cloth-making. The old process made purple dye from shellfish, a difficult and expensive proposition, giving purple clothe its valuable and royal connotations, as it was sold to, and wore only by, the rich and those in authority. But it’s likely that Lydia was in on the new manufacturing process which was recently developed in the city she came from, Thyatira, a new plant-based dye, that was all the rage, and made Lydia independently well-off.
So, when Lydia heard Paul’s preaching on how God had anointed and raised up Jesus as the Messiah, she was smitten! Lydia was baptized on the spot, and proceeded to invite Paul and Silas to her house to stay as her guests.
This, is where the Spirit had directed Paul to! Paul’s mission flourished in Philippi, and throughout northern Greece, built thru this bond of common ministry and friendship; a most unorthodox ‘church planting’ with a woman as its leader. And Paul’s letter to the Philippians would later illuminate how much Paul loved the congregation he started there, the assembly that Lydia had embraced and nourished, and to Paul’s pleasant surprise, the only congregation to take up an offering for Paul when he was imprisoned again, in Ephesus.
We’re not sure how many weeks Paul may have stayed there in Philippi developing this relationship. The only other incident that Luke reports is this topsy-turvy, in and out of prison experience Paul and Silas have – freeing the slave-girl, which puts him in prison, and ultimately, baptizing yet another family in Philippi.
The slave-girl who taunts Paul is actually doubly oppressed. She is possessed by “a spirit of divination,” as Luke calls it, but she is also in bondage to “her owners,” that had been using her to make “a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”
The evil spirit that possessed her was drawn to the power of the divine in the Apostle Paul, and the girl kept yelling out that ‘these men are slaves of the Most High God!’ which described a budding movement of Romans moving away from polytheism. And so, she was on the right track, as Paul and Silas, were truly representatives, of the One God. And Paul often described himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus.”
Yet the way she did it was provoking. Paul was very much annoyed, Luke says, and her clairvoyant persistence was no doubt, very obtrusive on the ministry Paul was embarked on in the public square. Everyone would have noticed how out of the ordinary it was, how possessed-like. So finally Paul turns to her and does the only thing he knows how. In the very tradition of Jesus and many other healers, Paul addresses the evil spirit in her directly, saying, “Out! In the name of Jesus Christ, get out of her! And it was gone, just like that,” says Luke. (trans. The Message)
I’d like to think that Paul was planning to address the little girl, once she was freed from her possession, to offer her a new home, a new community, and baptism into Christ’s church there at Philippi. But he hadn’t calculated that the owners were so ticked-off at losing their means of income, that they dragged Paul and Silas into the market place before the authorities, accused them of disturbing the peace of the city and advocating unlawful customs, so that the whole crowd joined in in attacking them. Without allowing a word in their defense, Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten and thrown into prison. Another parallel to the Passion story of Jesus.
Much is made of the responsibility of the jailer to keep them secured in the prison. He puts them in the innermost cell, and also clamped leg-irons on them. He doesn’t want them even thinking of escaping – because then, his life would be on the line, and the crowds might be after him!
But for all the mistreatment Paul and Silas receive, they are a picture of forgiveness and hope. ‘About midnight,’ Luke recounts, they were praying and singing a robust hymn to God – which perplexed the other prisoners – when a well-timed earthquake – God moving in a mysterious way – rattled the prison foundations so severely that it loosened all their chains and opened the doors!
Of course, if it were you or I, we would have taken the opportunity to escape. And that was exactly the fear the jailer had, who pulled out his sword with the intention of ending his life, ‘figuring he was as good as dead anyway.’ But Paul, again reaching out, as his faith had taught him, cried out to the Jailer to reassure him that all was well, and no one had escaped – please, he says: don’t harm yourself!
The Spirit had shook and taken hold of the Jailer, in that moment, in a new way. When he relit the lights and went in to check on Paul and Silas, ‘he fell down trembling before them,’ feeling the power of the change in his life. The jailer brought them outside – perhaps as a sign of their freedom, as well as his! – and asked them what he must do to be saved?
Now, we have a hard time understanding the richness of the Greek word ‘saved.’ It was not a one-dimensional word about Christian salvation, as seen thru our Protestant lens, though of course that is a part of it. Paul used the same word when being saved from drowning when he was shipwrecked. And it was in common use by the Romans in at least 3 ways, to describe i) a rescue from war, ii) a rescue from the social upheaval of the nations, conquered and having to live under Rome’s new order, and iii) sometimes a rescue from destitution, the poverty most people endured, but was lessened by Roman progress in aqueducts, roads and trade.
When Paul offered the jailer and his family the gift of salvation in baptism, he meant they would be saved by, and born into, a new life of forgiveness and forgiving, by being joined to the Philippian community that was being formed in celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. And ultimately, Paul believed the Jailer and his family were dying and rising into the promise of the salvation of the whole world, and all of creation, that God was starting now, and would be bringing into fullness.
I believe Paul wanted that salvation for the slave-girl too. But unfortunately, we don’t know what happened to her exactly. Paul saved her from a life of exploitation by her owners. And we know God saved Paul and Silas from prison, who rescued and freed the Jailer and his family too.
But we also know that salvation is not complete until all are rescued and freed. As Fannie Lou Hamer declared, that fierce Mississippi civil rights leader: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
So let us follow the example of Paul and Silas, who prayed and sang hymns in the face of great opposition, as a sign of their fearlessness to stand up and share the Good News of Christ’s liberating salvation for all, in all its unorthodox and amazingly boundary-crossing ways!