Surprised by joy

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Have you ever felt at wit’s end, overwhelmed by your circumstances? Trapped, cornered, no way out? You don’t have the power or resources to get out of the mess by yourself; you need a miraculous rescue.

It’s in such desperate straits that many people find God.

That, I believe, is how we must read the story of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. The English translation of his question to Paul and Silas — “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (vs. 30, NRSV) — sounds like something asked politely while chatting over a cup of tea.

But that’s hardly the context. This man, like the jail around him, has been shaken to the core. He stands at an emotional and spiritual precipice, crying out to be rescued from a fate he doesn’t even understand.

And with that as invitation, Paul and Silas preach the gospel to him and his entire household.

The jailer’s home must have been close by, perhaps even on an upper floor of the jail — in which case those in his household would have felt the earthquake that rocked the foundations of the jail and run outside in terror. Paul and Silas had an audience. “Believe on the Lord Jesus,” they told them (Acts 16:31) — and they did. Luke writes:

At the same hour of the night [the jailer] took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He 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.

Acts 16:33-34

We know little about the man himself. He seems to have been conscientious about his duties (Acts 16:24), and possibly a man of honor, given that he was ready to take his own life for what he supposed was his dereliction of duty (vs. 27). He didn’t know who or what had caused the earthquake; he had no idea why Paul and Silas didn’t use the opportunity to escape. But he trembled in terror (vs. 29), sensing the presence of something more powerful than he had ever known.

What to do? Instead of running from that mysterious and terrifying power, instead of cowering from it, he reached out to be saved.

And unexpectedly, joy came to him and his entire household.

The group was gathered outside. There may have been a fountain at which the jailer washed Paul and Silas’ wounds; they, in turn, used the fountain to baptize the jailer and his household. Then he invited them into his home: a Gentile, a Roman, welcoming Jews as honored guests. His salvation, in other words, was not merely a private spiritual matter, a resolution of internal conflict; it was necessarily and organically expressed in outward acts of compassion and hospitality.

Could the jailer or anyone in his family have anticipated such a turn of events? Not likely; Luke gives us no reason to believe that the man had any prior knowledge of Jesus or even the God of Israel. But no matter. That’s what the mission to the Gentiles was all about: bringing salvation, hope, and joy even to those who hadn’t a clue about who God was or what God was doing.

And for us who have a clue: may we see beyond our desperation to the God who meets those who cry out to him, who reach out to be rescued.