The Philippian Jailer
A Story of Paul
No one really knew what had happened. The two Jews were being dragged through the streets toward the Agora, the place where the Duumviri, dispensers of justice and custodians of law and order, administered the duties of their office. Alert for any opportunity of creating a tumult, especially against the hated Jews, all the riff-raff of Philippi followed hard behind. Something to do with a slave girl, someone had said. By means of magical arts these Jews had deprived her of her gift of prophecy and now her masters were laying a complaint at court. Should be worth seeing, this affair! Philippi was a Roman military centre; much of the population was descended from Roman soldiers settled here after a disastrous battle fought near by between Imperial and Republican forces during the civil war half a century earlier. The duumviri themselves were ex-military men who had assumed without any authority the Roman military title Praetor. This is why Luke used the equivalent Greek term strategos, rendered in the AV "magistrates" ‑ and they could be relied on to see that these interfering Jews were taught a good sharp lesson for their pains. So the yelling mob surged on, crowding round the aggrieved complainants and their prisoners, as the aediles, in the forecourt of the buildings, listened impassively to the story.
Paul and Silas were probably taken by surprise at this sudden outburst of animosity. Paul may have performed this act of healing in a sudden inspiration of pity for the unfortunate girl who for so many days past had been calling after him as he moved about the city. "These men are the servants of the Most High God, which show to us the way of salvation." He had so far experienced no opposition to his message. The citizens of Philippi either listened to him or ignored him but they did not oppose him. The few Jews who were resident in the city appeared to appreciate his ministry and there had been no opposition from that direction either. It seemed almost as if here, at last, he had found a place where he could preach Christ undisturbed. His healing of the lame man at Lystra had evoked the unrestrained admiration of the people there so that he even had to restrain them from worshipping him as a god. He probably expected now that his dispossessing of the demoniac spirit from this girl would at the very least create increased interest in his message and the Lord by whose power he had performed this act. He under-estimated the measure of the forces against him. It was almost as if the evil spirit, having been cast out of the slave girl, had entered into her owners and turned them into furious, raving beasts. Almost before they realised what was happening, the two apostles found themselves arraigned before the bar of Roman justice. The aediles ‑ rendered 'rulers' in Acts 16.19 were a kind of civil police, responsible for the maintenance of order in temples, public buildings, streets and open spaces, and for the apprehension of offenders against the law. The duumviri ‑ "magistrates" of 16. 20 ‑ always two in number, corresponded roughly to our own Justices of the Peace with rather more authority than Britain's local magistrates usually enjoy, more like that of a Criminal Court Judge at the County Assizes. In accordance with Roman custom, the proceedings were held in public, probably in the open air, with the unruly crowd pressing close on all sides and only with difficulty held back by the attendant guards. In the normal case a Roman trial was conducted with dignity and some semblance of justice; the presiding judge would enquire the nature of the charge and the complainant was then free to state his case. The impression one gets here is that the aggrieved slave owners poured out their story before the usual opening formalities could be gone through, and it is significant that the charge they brought bore no relation whatever to the incident which inspired it. The reason is not difficult to discern. It was no crime under Roman law to exorcise a demon or to heal a mentally sick person. The accused men had not deprived the owners of possession of the slave ; they had committed no violent act nor disturbed public law and order. They had, in fact, done nothing of which they could justly be accused before the court. The complainants, however, felt that they would have the sympathy of their rulers, for Philippi did not like Jews; with malevolent insolence they trumped up a charge which, if sustained, would bring the accused within the reach of the law. The charge was that of preaching and making converts to an illegal religion. "These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, and teach customs which are not lawful for us to observe, neither to receive, being Romans". It should be noticed that Judaism was a tolerated religion, not illegal, and Christianity at this early time was considered by Rome as the same thing as Judaism; no difference was recognised and it was not the alleged teaching of either Christ or Moses which was the charge. Illegal religions were mainly certain Eastern philosophies which Rome refused to tolerate and the Apostles certainly had not been preaching those. The charge was false. Had Paul and Silas been given any opportunity of defending themselves they could easily have refuted the accusation ‑ but they were not given the opportunity. The words had hardly been spoken before the mob was yelling itself hoarse and the magistrates, with a callous disregard for justice, were conscious only that here was an opportunity to show their contempt and hatred for anything Jewish. To satisfy the citizens there was an exhibition of sadistic cruelty, and they commanded that the prisoners be summarily flogged.
Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. A law known as the Lex Porcia, dating from 247 BC, exempted all Romans citizens from the punishment of scourging, and in at least one notable case in Roman history a judge who flouted that law was himself very severely dealt with. It is obvious that in the tumult and haste of the proceedings and their inability to make any defence, the Apostles had no opportunity to state their claim to citizenship, or if they did, their plea was ignored. With all the brutality invariably associated with such occasions, the lictors stripped them of their clothes. They were tied to the public whipping posts and beaten unmercifully with rods, until the gloating crowd was somewhat appeased and the half-fainting victims were dragged away to the city prison. They were handed over to the jailer, evidently to be incarcerated for an unspecified period and not improbably with the intention that in the secrecy of the prison they would be put to death and their bodies flung into the river.
The jailer, charged to keep his prisoners safely, put them in the stocks ‑ xylon, a structure similar to the mediaeval British stocks, having holes for head, hands and feet. In this case they seem to have been secured by the feet only and left for the night in a cramped and painful position on the hard and probably foul floor of the prison, bleeding and in agony from the flogging to which they had been subjected.
And they sang! They sang psalms and hymns of praise to God! They praised God and they prayed! In all that searing pain, in stress of body cruelly bruised and torn by the rods, and the aching agony of cramped and fettered limbs, their spirits soared above their circumstances and surroundings. Their voices rose upon the night air in that prison, "and the prisoners heard them". Other men, perhaps women too, were incarcerated in that evil place, in just as much physical torment perhaps, possessed by terrors and fears for the future, and they heard the singing of those two men whose spirits were so much greater than their suffering bodies. The prisoners listened.
What did they sing? It must have been something from the psalms of David, words from that glorious treasury of faith and confidence. "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" "In God have l put my trust, I will not be afraid what man can do unto me". Strange words, the other prisoners must have thought, to be heard in a prison like this. Closely secured, injured and helpless, probably appointed to death; what God was He that could possibly deliver these men from this prison and from the power of Rome? Now listen to them! "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle". Who is this Lord of whom they sing and to whom they pray? How can He possibly break down this prison and command these gates and doors to open? "In my distress I called upon the Lord and cried unto my God; He heard my voice out of his temple and my cry came before him. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of the hills moved and were shaken ..." The triumphant voices reached a pinnacle of strength. It was as if the very walls themselves were vibrating in unison with those heaven-ascending tones, as if the very doors were rattling against their bolts and bars in the endeavour to open before that God to whom these men were offering worship. But what was this? These walls were vibrating; these doors were shaking loose. The other prisoners must have strained at their bonds in terror as the grim walls shuddered and cracked, as the floor heaved and the doors groaned open, the iron staples securing their chains came out of the walls and first one and then another found himself free. The earthquake which was shaking Philippi made of no avail all the restraints of that prison, and its occupants huddled together in one group, terrified, but free.
The jailer, asleep in his own apartment, wakened suddenly as the room rocked about him. Governor of a fairly important city prison, he was probably an old army man of wide experience and recognised the happening for what it was. An earthquake was no new thing to him. But when his professional look took in the fact that all the dungeon doors stood open his attitude underwent a quick change. Open doors meant escaped prisoners; by now they were probably well away making good use of this sudden turn of fortune. Rome had only one treatment for jailers who lost their prisoners ‑ death. The reason for the escape was of no interest to the superior powers. This jailer knew better than to expect mercy and he determined to anticipate the inevitable. He drew his sword with the intention of ending his life by his own hand. Paul must have seen the impulsive action and cried out at once to save the man. "Do yourself no harm; for we are all here". Why the other prisoners had not made good their escape does not readily appear. It may have been fear of the earthquake; it may have been the impression produced by singing of the Apostles and some superstitious idea that perhaps they would be safer in the company of these who evidently had the gods on their side. There is not much doubt that the jailer quickly connected the inexplicable releasing of the prisoners' bonds and the earthquake which had effected that release with some greater power than that of Nature. This was no ordinary earthquake, he must have reasoned. In a swift revulsion of feeling he abandoned the whole of his Roman arrogance and prostrated himself before Paul and Silas with the trenchant question which has been asked ‑ and answered ‑ so many times in the world's history; "What must I do to be saved?"
To that question there was ‑ and is ‑ only one possible answer. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved". But let no one think that merely academic assent to the truth of Christ's coming, the rightness of His message, and the fact of His death on behalf of fallen man, is all that is intended. Salvation is a word that is often used very loosely, as though it merely indicates the receipt of a ticket entitling one to entrance into Heaven when life on earth shall end. Or perhaps offers the bestowal of an abiding peace and confidence during this life which removes all worry and apprehension because Christ has become Master and Leader. There is much more to salvation than this. Fallen man is deprived of life, the true life which is God-given and can only be the portion of those who are in union with God; without that life man is out of tune with God's creation and must eventually lose his place in that creation. And the life God gives can only come to man through Christ, who is the channel of life. The jailer must needs be joined in living union with Christ before he can receive salvation, and this is what Paul meant by believing on him. So it came about that "they spoke to him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house." It says much for the sincerity and eagerness of this Philippian jailer that in the short space of a few hours (the earthquake was at midnight and by daylight the prison had official visitors) he was able to receive enough of the word of the Lord intelligently to make a complete consecration of himself to God and be baptised in symbol of his being thus "dead with Christ". It is even more surprising to find that all his household shared with him in this new-found faith and in this baptism. The story reads as though everything happened on the spur of the moment, but such conversions are rarely like that. It is much more likely that this Philippian jailer ‑ Roman or Greek, we know not ‑ and his family had been disturbed in mind for a great while past, longing and searching for something better than they had. It has to be admitted that the treatment of Paul and Silas when admitted to the prison does not appear easily reconcilable with a man in whom such sentiments and yearnings for better things were struggling for expression. But in darkness he saw a great light (Isa. 9.2), and that the earthquake and its strange consequences revealed in a flash to this unbelieving man the truth to which hitherto he had been completely blind. Even so great is the power of God in Christ's redeeming love when the one concerned is ready to respond.
The earthquake may have been responsible for another effect also. The magistrates who had so summarily condemned the Apostles on the previous day were now in somewhat chastened mood. They sent the lictors ('sergeants' in 16.35) to the prison with instructions for immediate release of the two prisoners. Whether they felt uneasy at their irregular handling of the matter or superstitiously connected the earthquake with their action and feared the wrath of the gods, does not appear, but they evidently hoped to wash their hands of the whole affair by permitting the Apostles to depart unhindered. The jailer, doubtless overjoyed, passed the news to Paul expecting him to accept the dismissal with alacrity. But not so Paul. He intended the illegality of the case to be openly admitted in the sight of all men. "They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans (Roman citizens) and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out secretly? Nay, verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out".
The lictors' message created considerable consternation when it was transmitted to the magistrates. The possibility that the two Jews they had treated so viciously might be entitled to the honour of Roman citizenship ‑ a privilege not often accorded to Jews ‑ had not occurred to them. And now "they feared, when they heard that they were Romans". In the expressive jargon of today, they were scared stiff, and with good reason. Paul and Silas had only to lay a complaint before the Pro-Consul, the supreme Governor of the Senatorial Province of Macedonia, in which territory Philippi lay, and the two offending officials would find themselves in serious trouble with attached penalties too terrible to contemplate. It is an incidental fact that the Emperor Claudius, who was the ruler of the Roman Empire at the time of this incident, was a stickler for the proprieties in the administration of the law. Any Roman holding an official position of any kind had to be more than usually careful in discharging the duties of his office. All in all, the two would-be dictators of Philippi felt they were had a problem that could be resolved in only one way. Most humiliating it would be, for without doubt the citizens of Philippi would learn of the circumstances and their pomp and dignity would inevitably suffer. Better that, they must certainly have reasoned, than an appearance before the Pro-Consul with no excuse for their conduct. So the two officials came to Paul and Silas and humbly begged them graciously to accept freedom, and depart as speedily as they would from Philippi.
They did not go at once. There was an assembly at the house of Lydia, the first convert, and there, doubtless, they counselled and exhorted the infant Church to steadfastness and Christian growth. Then they departed. At least Paul and Silas did. It seems that Luke remained at Philippi, and rejoined Paul only when the latter came again to Philippi several years later (between Acts 16.19 and 20.5 ‑ the "we" gives place to "they" in the narrative indicating that the writer, Luke, was not with them). It might well be that much of the building up of this Philippian church, that afterwards came to mean so much to the Apostle of the Gentiles, was due to the quiet labours of the "beloved physician".
The name of the converted jailer is not given. Without much doubt he joined himself to the newly-formed church and was found in fellowship with Lydia and the other converts. What eventually happened to him we do not know but he could hardly have remained in the prison service. Perhaps he devoted his time to setting free prisoners from the greater bondage, leading men and women out of the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of God's dear Son. Meanwhile the two stout-hearted fellow labourers, Paul and Silas, were stepping out steadily on the road which led southwards to Thessalonica.