Theme: The Earthquake that Opened the Door to Life
1) A Life of Freedom and Service
2) A Re-focused Value of Life
3) Life Eternal in Jesus
People are always looking for a sign from God. Many times, this leads them to undervalue the Word of God and to read into things that happen in their lives. It’s entirely within the realm of God’s power to communicate directly through signs, but it should never overshadow the clear words He has already recorded in the Bible. Jesus said that “a wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign (Matthew 16:4).” Sign-seekers can quickly become wicked and adulterous because they replace the Word of God with their own particular experiences and supposed visions. There’s also a certain amount of pride in believing that God would communicate directly with you through a vision and not with someone else. God has certainly shown signs in times past, but in this age He speaks through the Bible. That’s because we live in the age of fulfillment through Jesus Christ. No other work needs to be accomplished. Everything for our salvation has been recorded in Scripture.
Even though we have the clear words of the Bible, it’s amazing that so many people today are looking for and claiming to have seen signs from God. Now, there are plenty of times when God protects us in life or when He works through something outside of His Word in order to lead or teach us. That can certainly happen and often it does without us even recognizing it. As the author of all creation and as an all-powerful deity, God is always working ‘behind the scenes’ we might say. But, these occasions are different than receiving a divine sign that appears to be the voice of God speaking directly to someone. Without Scripture to be our guide, that voice could just as easily be Satan’s to lead us astray.
But the thing about signs, especially miraculous ones, is that they are spectacular and they make us feel special. Reading the same words of Scripture over and over again can become mundane. It’s only natural to want something more fantastic from God. If we share such an opinion let us be aware of falling into wickedness and spiritual adultery as Jesus warned.
We speak of signs today because we have one in our text. And that is the interesting thing about Scripture. When you follow Scripture and trust the words that are recorded, the signs given to believers of long ago become signs in our lives too. We may not witness them directly in the present, but they serve to teach us just as they taught the original witnesses. Our text comes from the early Church, and is found in Acts 16:24-35:
Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 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 chains were loosed. 27 And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. 28 But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here." 29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" 31 So they said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household. 35 And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, "Let those men go."
The sign from God in this section is the earthquake. This sign could be understood as sort of a hybrid between the two that we previously described. God was working behind the scenes in a way but He also had a strong message that would be revealed through this earthquake. Of course, that message only came to fruition in the words and actions of Christ’s disciples present that evening. When we think of earthquakes, we aren’t typically overcome with feelings of hope and joy. Earthquakes are scary and disastrous. They lead to destruction and ruin. Yet, this earthquake was different. Instead of bringing death, it brought life. Just as the doors of that ancient prison in Philippi were open, so also this earthquake continues to burst open a number of doors to life with God. The first door led to a life of freedom and service.
Now, think about this event from Paul and Silas’ perspective. If you were chained up all night in a dark, dank prison cell; far away from the comforts of home and surrounded by strangers of questionable character; what would be the first thing you would do if the chains were broken and the doors were opened? You would run to freedom, wouldn’t you? Of course, any sane person would. Yet, Paul and Silas stayed where they were and it wasn’t because they were crazy.
They stayed because they trusted God. Even though the door to life and freedom had been opened, Paul and Silas recognized the Lord’s hand in this activity. And they also knew that there were more important things than saving their own skins. Paul and Silas were not gluttons for punishment. The evening before they were wrongfully imprisoned and beaten for exposing some of the local peoples’ abuse of a demon-possessed girl. The girl’s masters made a profit on her ability to tell people their fortunes. They kept her in this state of awful demon possession in order to turn a profit. Paul and Silas exposed this disgusting practice and exorcised the demon from the girl. And what did they get in return? Beatings and a prison cell. You can be sure they didn’t enjoy it so why didn’t they get out as soon as they could? The answer is they didn’t stay for themselves, but in order to continue serving God. And they had an amazing opportunity before them. God had opened a door, not only to freedom, but also to service.
When Paul and Silas chose to stay put and not walk through the door to freedom, the Lord opened up another door for them. This was the door to a re-focused value of life. As I’m sure you remember from Sunday School lessons on this story, the Roman punishment for allowing prisoners to escape was death. The jailer figured he’d get things over quickly and was about to end his life before Paul spoke up and said, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
The jailer’s response is the basic question that all people must answer. But, what exactly did he mean? Based on the context of the situation it would seem that he was thinking of physical deliverance from the Roman authorities, not salvation in Christ. But, Paul would capitalize on the opportunity to deliver the direct Gospel salvation. We can be sure that as Paul and Silas accompanied the man to his home, ate at his table, met his family, and baptized them all; the difference between physical and spiritual life was explained.
The jailer’s attitude and question summarize the struggle that mankind suffers from because of sin. First, there is an over-emphasis on this present life. The jailer figured this was it. In his mind there was no purpose in continuing to live. He probably believed in the multitude of Roman gods and goddesses that offered no answers for life after death. As a result, he came to the conclusion that the value of his life was nothing anymore, and so he decided to end it. The same conclusion is always met when life on this earth is emphasized over life in Christ. The end of the process will always lead to despair because of sin.
The analysis could be done in our lives. How much pain and toil could we spare ourselves by emphasizing Christ’s life over ours? How much more would we value life today, and life in Christ, by “seeking those things which are above” as Christ instructed? Treasures in heaven over treasures of the earth. Likewise, when faced with the doors of personal freedom or opportunity to serve God, which is the one you choose? Would you exert more effort and energy in order to restore a fellow brother or sister in a “spirit of gentleness” or would you take the easy way out? Is the work of the Lord at church or home a priority or a chore? Does your understanding of personal freedom involve acts of service to God and fellow believer? Sometimes God opens doors before us that are difficult and even troublesome to walk through. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of His will for us.
The second point about the jailer’s example is this. He did not know Christ, so he naturally looked to himself. The way he phrased his question is not coincidence, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He knew there was something unique about Paul and Silas, but all he could do was speculate. He asked them in sincerity, but at this point in his life he knew nothing more than what he could accomplish by himself. Truly, the jailer must have been confounded; seeing the hope and peace that Paul and Silas had; while torn in his own heart about what would happen.
Paul’s answer marks a pivotal moment in both this text and in the history of Christendom. It doesn’t get any simpler, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Countless abuses have occurred in the name of Christ and the Church by disregarding these simple words. Some would say, “Choose the Lord Jesus as your Savior or prove yourself to be born again in His name.” Others say “Work for the Lord Jesus Christ and show that you’re worthy.” Still some say, “Help yourself and God will help you.” And still, some are so sick of the pious ads that they give up asking and assume Christ is no different than any other god.
No abuse can rob us of the simple truth: Believe in Jesus Christ.
What followed should not be missed either. After this reply we’re told that Paul and Silas went to the man’s house, preached to Him from the Word of God, and baptized him and his family. What started that evening through a miraculous sign, was completed and sealed through the simple expressions of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament. There was nothing mysterious or mystical about these things. Paul and Silas weren’t magic men. They followed the clear command given by Jesus at the Great Commission, as they always had; “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all thing I have commanded them.”
God can show us things, open opportunities, or wake us up through signs. But, when it comes to answering that all-important question, “What must I do to be saved?”, He doesn’t mess around. He keeps it simple and straightforward through the Gospel promise of forgiveness. Would we want it to be any different? The door to heaven and eternal life is so simple that even a little child can enter it; as they do through baptism. We have no reason to doubt that there were children of such a nature in the jailer’s house that evening who received this precious gift.
That door to life eternal, through the spoken and sacramental word, is wide open to all. We may not think that to be the case, since Jesus Himself called it the “narrow way.” But, it’s not the promises of God that make it narrow, rather it’s the limitations we put upon ourselves through the sinful flesh. We, too, like the jailer are tempted to run from our problems or to de-value the new life of faith in Christ. We are tempted like Paul and Silas to walk only through the easy doors of life that suit us the best. And most dangerous of all, we are tempted to approach every problem by first asking, “What must I do?” instead of by humbly confessing, “Lord, I believe, let Thy will be done.”
For everyone involved that evening, the earthquake was a wake-up call. A call to freedom and service. A call to value life once again. But, only through Jesus was it also a call to eternal life. Amen.