16One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. 17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” 18She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews 21and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” 22The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. 34He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
The Acts narrative comes in three scenes or pieces:
- The exorcism of the slave girl (verses 16-18)
- The hostility of her owners and the mob violence (verses 19-24)
- the imprisonment and freeing of Paul and Silas. (verses 25 to 34)
Perhaps easiest to talk about this if we deal with the scenes in order.
#1–So, first verses 16-18. There is this girl who has a gift of fortune telling. She is someone who has a natural gift in whatever religion she is (not Christianity nor Judaism)—she’s being exploited by her owners, who charge each time for having your fortune told, palm read.
And verse 17 says this: —17While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Catch the irony, here? This slave girl is accusing the Christians of being enslaved by their faith.
Christianity, contrary to other religions 2000 years ago, was exclusive; not pluralist, in terms of worship of God—first commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Other religions allowed you to believe in as many (or as few) gods as you wished. In Christianity and Judaism, this was not so.
Our God known to us in Jesus Christ does not allow us to worship all sorts of ways, shapes and sizes. Instead, God the Father places specific boundary that makes Christians, Christian.
Paul gets a little annoyed with the slave girl following them around—shouting, interrupting, so Paul does a healing, an exorcism. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”—In the name of Jesus Christ, who after his ascension into heaven, has power over heaven and earth. And she is saved from her exploitation. She is saved from being used by others.
#2—The second scene is from verse 19-24. The greedy exploiters are not used to being told that their commodity has run dry; that their slave-girl can no longer earn them a living. There is money to be made in exploitation; be it the drug dealer down the street or the bankers selling investments they know are worthless. There is no money to be made in genuine, honest relationship. To put it another way, there’s no money to be made in forgiveness or in humility or in prayer in a quiet room.
Magistrates and the crowd realize how dangerous to their way of life this message of Paul and Silas is. What if everyone starts acting like they are free in Jesus Christ? The slave no longer comes to do the work that he is owned to do. The women stop doing so- called ‘women’s work’ and instead work for their own well-being, health and salvation.
#3—The third scene is from verse 25 to the end. Now the symbolic chains have become real. Note that the chains are physical. Paul and Silas are criminals but they are still, in their minds, free. They prayed, sang hymns, And the other prisoners are listening to them. Then comes an earthquake, the miraculous intervention of God.
Even in the moment of the miracle, when you might expect folks to run out of jail and never look back, Paul and Silas stick around to baptize the jailer and his household. The telling of the gospel is that important.
All the fixtures of control are destroyed by the freedom offered us in Jesus Christ! Anywhere you are chained, Jesus offers you freedom.
- Maybe your chains are some guilt about your past . . . Jesus sets you free from guilt.
- Perhaps your chains are worry, about job, about family, about future . . . Jesus sets you free from worry.
- Perhaps your chains are—like the magistrates and the political leaders in the story—your own successes; they haven’t led to the fulfillment you had hoped for, Jesus you free from that too.
- Or your chains are other peoples’ opinions about you—you’re too young, too old, too provincial, too stupid to do this or that . .. . Jesus breaks those chains. And every chain.
In 1990, then Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas was watching television as Nelson Mandela was freed from his 27 year imprisonment in South Africa. Clinton was impressed by the way Mandela made a dignified exit from the prison that had been his torture for those many years. As Mandela walked down the dusty road to freedom, Clinton wondered what Mandela could possibly be thinking as he tasted freedom for the first time in so long, wondered whether he was angry in this moment of emancipation. Many years later, now-President Clinton had a Summit meeting with South Africa’s now-President Nelson Mandela. Clinton asked him, ‘I’ve heard you are a forgiving, gentle man. I heard that you invited your jailers to your inauguration. But tell me the truth: That day you exited the jail, weren’t you really angry all over again?’
And Mandela answered, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I had not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me imprisoned.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’
Into the midst of any of the “chains” of our culture, Jesus comes, or more accurately, according to Acts, Jesus’ disciples (Paul and Silas) come to preach an alternative “way of salvation” (verse 17). The new way of health and safety and security exposes all the old ways as frauds.
Freedom is found in forgiveness, not hatred.
In peace, not strife
In prayer, not knowledge
In Jesus, not mob rule
This is what Christianity is all about. Acknowleding the Ascended Jesus, as Lord over every aspect of life, so that we can live life freely and fully.
Today, we are free. We gather together—just like Paul and Silas in jail!—to pray prayers with one another. And sing songs! Watch as our chains fall link after link after link, dissipating into dust!