An act of God

Different parts of the world are subject to different kinds of natural disasters, which insurance companies sometimes call “acts of God.” In some places, it’s flood; in others, tornadoes, hurricanes, or tsunamis.

In Southern California and around the Pacific Rim, it’s earthquakes.

Year after year, experts continue to warn Californians about “the big one.” Sooner or later, they say, there’s bound to be a massive quake along the San Andreas fault, which runs nearly the length of the state. Indeed, the U. S. Geological Survey recently predicted that the San Francisco Bay Area (where I grew up!) will probably be hit by a major quake before 2030.

Yikes.

If you’ve never been in one, even smaller earthquakes can be terrifying. There’s just something unsettling (literally!) about the solid ground beneath your feet turning to Jell-O. It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed by raw power.

And sometimes, it truly is an act of God.

In Philippi, the apostle Paul had cast a spirit out of a slave girl, robbing her of the prophetic powers that had made her owners rich. Outraged, they dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates, playing on the crowd’s bigotry against Jews. Without so much as the pretense of due process, the magistrates had Paul and Silas beaten and tossed into prison.

Business as usual in the Roman Empire. The message is, We have the power, and don’t you forget it.

Then, in the dead of night, this happened:

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. All at once there was such a violent earthquake that it shook the prison’s foundations. The doors flew open and everyone’s chains came loose. 

Acts 16:25-26, CEB

Paul and Silas were locked away in the deepest, darkest cell of the prison. They’d been severely beaten, then chained, with their feet fastened securely and painfully in stocks as a nagging reminder of what happened to people who defied the empire.

But they weren’t moaning in pain. They were singing praise choruses (“Jesus loves me, this I know…”). Small wonder the other prisoners listened. They must have been asking themselves, Who are these guys? How can they possibly be singing? Where do they get the strength?

Then, as if in answer, the ground began to shake violently. Cell doors flew open. Chains broke free of the wall. Luke doesn’t tell us how Paul and Silas reacted to all this. But I’d bet the other prisoners were wondering if they were going to die right then and there.

The jailer had been asleep; the commotion snapped him awake. He couldn’t see into the darkened cells. But he could see that the prison doors were open, and assumed the prisoners had escaped while he slept. That wouldn’t go well with his superiors. Rather than suffer the shameful and possibly lethal consequences, he decided to kill himself and drew his sword.

The jailer couldn’t see the prisoners, but they could see him, perhaps illuminated by torchlight. Paul knew what the jailer was about to do, and he knew why. “Don’t harm yourself!” he shouted. “We’re all here” (Acts 16:28).

Hearing Paul’s cry, the jailer stopped. He called for lights and rushed into Paul and Silas’ cell. There they sat. They could have escaped, but didn’t. None of the prisoners had escaped. Some commentators suggest that Paul and Silas may have convinced the other prisoners to stay — but I think it more likely that the others were simply frozen in fear.

But Paul had saved the jailer’s life.

The earthquake, the inexplicable compassionate of Paul… The jailer knew he was in the presence of a power he didn’t understand, a power greater than any he had known. Even Rome.

He fell before Paul and Silas, trembling. I imagine him fumbling wordlessly with any remaining fetters. He brought the two men outside, and asked them a question, the question: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30, NRSV).

The man, of course, was not a Jew, much less a Christian; the word “saved” would have meant something very different to him than it would have to Paul or to us. He wasn’t asking, “How can I get into heaven?” or “What must I do to have eternal life?” But he knew he needed something — something to rescue him out of his predicament, something that might make him right with whatever power, whatever god, Paul and Silas represented.

We’ll see more of the story shortly. For now, it’s worth noting how this story differs from the one in Acts 12. There, Peter was freed from prison by an angel who quietly loosed his chains and led him past the unseeing guards and out into the street. Peter thought it was all a dream. But when he came to, he realized that God had rescued him from the clutches of Herod and his other Jewish enemies.

Why the difference? Why not a similar, quieter escape for Paul and Silas?

It matters, I think, that in Acts 16, the enemy is Rome. On the one hand, an earth-shaking act of God is an appropriate counterpoint to the imperial arrogance by which the magistrates thought to teach Paul and Silas a lesson.

On the other hand, in the context of the growing mission to the Gentiles, the jailer himself is the object of God’s grace and mercy. A stealth escape that left the jailer snoring and unaware would have resulted in his severe punishment or execution, not his salvation.

“Acts of God.” Sometimes, it’s the power to shake a building to its foundations. But as we will see, it is also the power to save.

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