Continuing the back story to Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers at Philippi.
“But at midnight …,” Luke continues, and what follows is not what we would have expected, “… Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (v. 25). The Greek word for “pray” here is proseuchomai, turning toward (pros) God in prayer (about which, see The Towardness of Prayer). They were pressing into God, in intense prayer and praise and fellowship.
You can tell what is going on in a person’s heart by listening to the words that come out of their mouth, especially in pressure situations. I’m sure you will agree that Paul and Silas were under intense pressure, but it only pressed them deeper into God and they threw themselves into worship. Luke adds, “And the prisoners were listening to them.” They did not just hear, they were listening, intently. They had great interest in what Paul and Silas were praying and singing, perhaps wondering how they even had the presence of mind and peace of heart to be able to do that.
Suddenly, there was a great earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. It may have been a natural event but the timing was supernatural. All the doors sprang open and the prisoners were all loosed from their chains (v. 26). John Chrysostom, in one of his ancient homilies on the book Acts, commented on this scene. “This let us also do, and we shall open for ourselves — not a prison, but — heaven. If we pray, we shall be able even to open heaven” (NPNF, First Series, Vol. 11, Homily 36).
The prison warden (a.k.a., the Philippians Jailer) woke up and saw all the doors hanging wide open, and he supposed that the prisoners had all fled. It seemed to him to be the worst night of his life, for he was responsible to see that the prisoners received their due punishments and, failing that, he would be punished in their place. With all the prisoners escaped, his future did not look at all bright, so he drew out his sword and was just about to kill himself (v. 27). But Paul called out to him just in time and said, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here” (v. 28).
Now, it would be easy at this point to go on and talk about Paul’s encounter with the Philippian Jailer and what happened from there. That was my original intention in this section (and that I will do in the next section). But something in Luke’s report caught my eye and I think it deserves a little bit of our attention.
As miraculous as the timing of the earthquake was that shook them all free, here is something I think might be an even greater miracle: None of the prisoners left. The doors were open, the chains were off — and nobody bolted. “We are all here,” Paul said. Amazing.
Why did they not leave when they had the chance? I think it was because of all they had just witnessed. They heard Paul and Silas, in stocks and deep in prison, singing and praising King Jesus and the power of God — and it preached to them. Then they saw the miraculous power of God shake open the cell doors and break them free from all their chains. Now, instead of running, they wanted to see what God would do next, and I don’t think they were disappointed.
We don’t know what happened after this. Again, Luke does not say and Church history appears to be silent. But it is no real stretch to suppose that some of them became followers of King Jesus, and perhaps when (or if) they were released, they joined together with the others at Philippi who came to know and rejoice in the Lord.
- Suppose you had been in that prison that night, what would you think if you heard Paul and Silas loudly singing and praising God?
- When the earthquake happened, opening the doors and loosing the chains, would you have connected it to what Paul and Silas were singing about?
- If you the chance to run at that moment, would you have fled? Why or why not?
Paul’s Letters to the Jesus Believers at Philippi
Bite-Size Studies Through the Book of Philippians
by Jeff Doles
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