I’ve been in an earthquake myself. It was the great Dudley earthquake of 2002, and it measured 4.7 on the Richter Scale. The epicentre was about half a mile from my parent’s house, so obviously it was a dramatic experience, to feel the ground shaken like that. It could have been worse though, some people had slates fall off their roof.
As far as my life goes, the Dudley earthquake wasn’t a big deal. I wouldn’t say that was true of the earthquake experienced by Paul and Silas in Acts 16, but here’s the thing – the earthquake is less important than we sometimes think when we read this story.
Some background – when Paul and Silas are arrested, it’s partly because of their Jewish background. There had always been a tension between Judaism and the Roman Empire, and Philippi, where all this took place, was very, very Roman. Paul and Silas are the victims of a degree of anti-Semitism here. However, they both have Roman citizenship, and it was totally illegal to imprison Roman citizens without trial, to the extent that somewhere like Philippi could end up in real trouble if they broke this law. We see this the morning after, when they’re released with an apology.
So it’s really the story of a miscarriage of justice, but in the middle of it there’s another story, the story of an earthquake that breaks the chains of the prisoners, releasing them from the stocks in which they’d been held. And yet Paul, Silas and their fellow prisoners don’t take the opportunity to escape. Why not?
What if it’s about more than the earthquake?
What if it’s about something else instead?
What if the earthquake wasn’t so much about Paul’s freedom as it was about freedom for the jailer?
After all, he’s the person here with the most to lose. Paul and Silas can get themselves released the second they mention their Roman citizenship, but the jailer? Well, if any prisoners escape, he’s responsible. And that means he could get executed. That’s why he’s about to fall on his own sword – in his mind it’s the honourable way out. Paul and Silas are spiritually free even though they’re chained up; the jailer is chained by duty, expectations and fear. We never learn the guy’s name, but God loves him enough to make sure he hears the gospel in a particularly spectacular way.
And don’t forget the other prisoners. They’ve spent the night hearing prayer and worship. Maybe some of their spiritual chains were broken too.
And that’s the church’s job, one of them at least – to help God break some chains, even for those we think don’t deserve it – after all, the other prisoners were probably guilty. Paul and Silas’s actions in the prison, even the earthquake, are acts of grace. The power of Paul’s witness and the love of God liberated those around them, and I’m not even sure that Paul expected it to happen, because God brings liberation to the least expected people at the least expected times. That was Paul’s story, and now it’s the story of the jailer.
That’s why the work of our churches is so important. When we’re following what God wants us to do, we’re not only knowingly building his kingdom – through our services and our ministries and our relationships – but we’re also involved in a story and a mission that we don’t know the ending of, that is going on throughout the world. We’re joined with believers throughout the world in a beautiful, networked kingdom, and we don’t know or see the half of what God is doing.
But when we catch glimpses of it, it’s amazing.