Reflection on Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi
Acts 16 v 6-40
This is a reflection on Paul and Silas’ time in Philippi through the eyes of Silas a while afterwards. I have taken a certain amount of licence in imagining Silas’ background and how he came to faith.
“I had seen Jesus when he came to Jerusalem, and heard him preaching. What he said certainly seemed to upset the Pharisees and the ruling council; in fact, at times, he seemed to go out of his way to condemn them and to wind them up! But what he said struck a real chord with me. I had learned Greek as a child and had studied the Torah under some of the most eminent scholars, so I was totally familiar with the references that Jesus made to the Scriptures. I had thought long and hard about these Scriptures and argued with the best of the teachers, that there must be a deeper meaning in them, and suddenly what Jesus said opened up that deeper meaning for me. I went to the twelve men who seemed to be his closest friends and had discussions with them, and listened more to what Jesus said when he taught the crowds. Seeing the way that he healed people, and hearing what he said led me to believe that he was the Son of God, the Messiah come to us. I told the disciples that was the conclusion I had come to.
I had followed Jesus on that fateful day, heard about the mockery of a trial that took place, and then witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion from a distance. I hoped that wasn’t the end of everything then, but at the back of my mind I remembered Jesus saying that he would rise again on the third day. I heard about the resurrection from people talking about it and talked to the disciples about it. They told me that they had seen the risen Lord Jesus on more than one occasion, and that cemented my belief that he was indeed the Messiah. I continued to stay where Peter and the others were and heard all about the coming of the Holy Spirit. When Peter started talking to the crowds after that, I asked him to baptise me straight away. When he did so, I felt overwhelmed by a new power within me that I knew was indeed the Holy Spirit. After that all I wanted to do was to talk to other people about my faith in Jesus, and what it could mean for them. As more people believed in what Peter and the others were preaching, a group formed and I became a part of a sort of leadership group in Jerusalem around Peter and John and the other disciples, and started to teach others regularly about the faith.
When it was reported that the Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus and been baptised, had also been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, there were of course many heated discussions about whether they should be made to become Jews and accept all of the Jewish customs and our way of life. After a great deal of discussion and a sort of Council meeting of the leaders and elders in Jerusalem, a decision was reached that Barsabbas and I should go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch, taking a letter from the leaders in Jerusalem, to the Gentile Christians. We should explain to them in person that there were only a few things required of them, as set out in the letter we carried, and not a complete conversion to Judaism. After a time spent with the believers in Antioch explaining the contents of the letter and encouraging them, Paul asked me to accompany him on his journey to strengthen the believers in the places he had previously visited and to visit new places and preach the gospel.
It didn’t occur to me at the time that this would land me in jail with him, although I suppose I knew that Christians were not really accepted by the Romans and were probably feared by them if the truth be known. So I sat there in that dirty, dark, smelly prison, chained hand and foot, with my feet through the stocks just for good measure, as if we could somehow escape the chains, and get out of the inner cell into which we had been thrown! Of course, every move hurt anyway, after the flogging we had received at the hands of the Romans. And both Paul and I are Roman citizens and should not have been subjected to that under Roman law – not that anyone had stopped to ask us!
It had seemed as if everything was going so well in Philippi. On the Sabbath, we had met with the women who were gathered by the river. Paul spoke to them about the love of the Lord Jesus and how he had died to set them free from their sins. I believe that the Lord had prepared Lydia’s heart to receive the message, as she already worshipped God and just needed to hear about Jesus. She responded to the message, along with her whole household and they were all baptised. She then persuaded us to go and stay at her house. This was a bold move for us, with her being a Gentile. I thought that this was a good start to our ministry in Philippi and that all would go swimmingly after this. But Jesus had said to his disciples during his time on earth, that taking his message to people would never be easy and they should be prepared to suffer for their faith in him, so I suppose I should have considered myself forewarned.
While staying with Lydia, we went out daily to the place of prayer, to preach the word about Jesus. A slave girl followed us, calling out that we were “servants of the Most High God telling people the way to be saved”. Of course that is exactly what we were doing, but she followed us every day and kept calling out the same thing, which became really annoying, to say the least. She was a fortune-teller and made her owners a great deal of money from doing it. But Paul got really fed up with her and one day turned around in exasperation and told the evil spirit, in the name of Jesus, to come out of her.
You would think that she would be glad to be free of the evil spirit, but of course, her owners thought otherwise, as she no longer told fortunes, and they had lost an easy source of money, so they dragged us into the market place in front of the authorities who gathered there. This, naturally, attracted a crowd, especially when they trumped up charges against us of “advocating unlawful practices”. The crowd of course didn’t really know what was going on and turned against us, I suppose in much the same way that the crowd in Jerusalem had turned against Jesus. It only takes a few rabble-rousers to stir up a crowd, and they will end up saying anything they are told. Human nature being what it is, nobody seemed concerned about the truth of any of the accusations against us.
The magistrates didn’t really know what to do with us, so to please the slave girl’s owners and the crowd, they ordered us to be stripped and beaten and thrown into the most secure part of the jail, to ensure we didn’t escape. There were other prisoners in the jail and Paul and I talked about what had happened to us, and that it was because we were telling people about Jesus that we were there. Paul would use any opportunity to talk to people about Jesus, and you could say we had a captive audience! We couldn’t really sleep because of the wounds on our backs from the flogging and the hard, rough wall against which we were chained, so the thing to do to try to forget about our pain was to talk about Jesus. In doing that, it was amazing that we could put aside the pain. I felt it was just such a privilege to be able to speak to people about the love that Jesus had for them, and to tell them about the peace in our hearts that Jesus could give us, even in our current circumstances. The other prisoners actually listened to us and I think they even forgot about their own pains too for a bit.
We were so filled with the Holy Spirit as we were talking about Jesus’ love, that we couldn’t help but start singing Psalms that praised the name of God. Amazingly the other prisoners stopped complaining about being kept awake by our singing, and listened to us. We started to pray to the Lord that he would open their hearts to our message, and as we did so there was an almighty shaking and a roar, and a violent earthquake struck. This cracked the walls of the prison and made everyone’s chains come loose. We were so dumbfounded by this, that we had no thought of escape, and neither did the other prisoners. Of course the jailer rushed in and saw all the chains free from the wall and instantly drew his sword to kill himself, as he knew what the penalty for him would be if he had lost all the prisoners. Paul shouted to him not to harm himself, as everyone was still there.
The jailer called for lights to verify what Paul had said. I think he must have heard some of what Paul and I had been saying to the other prisoners. He certainly would have heard us singing, as we were not exactly singing quietly so I expect everyone in the prison probably heard us singing! But I guess he must have dozed off and been woken up by the earthquake. When he saw that everyone was still there, he fell at our feet and asked us what it was he had to do to be saved. Well this was too good an opportunity to miss – we told him about the love of the Lord Jesus for him, and how he had died to save us from our sins, and not only that, but he had been raised from the dead by God. We told him that he just had to believe what we told him and acknowledge his sins before God, and accept that Jesus was his Saviour. The other prisoners heard what we said to him and we prayed that it would awaken their hearts to turn to God. I think that God kept them from escaping, so that his power and mercy could be shown.
The jailer took us from the jail and into his house, even though by this time it must have been well past midnight. After he had bathed our wounds, he invited us to tell the rest of his household about Jesus, which we did. At that hour of the night, he insisted that we baptise him and all in his household who had believed. It was plain to us from his words and actions that God had worked in the jailer’s heart and brought about his salvation and that of his household, so we were happy to baptise them. We could see the transformation in them, just by looking at their faces. We were given a meal, but then had to be taken back to what was left of the jail, so that we were there in the morning when the magistrates ordered our release. You can imagine their horror when Paul announced that they had publicly flogged Roman citizens! Paul insisted that the magistrates didn’t just release us quietly, but that they came themselves to escort us from the jail. By this he hoped to protect the Christians in Philippi, by making the magistrates and others in authority realise that Christians could not be treated as we had been. They did indeed come to escort us out of the prison into which we had been thrown without even a proper trial, and admitted that they had been wrong in doing so. They did, however, want to get rid of us quickly from their city, so asked us to go away from there. We prayed that because the Lord had led us there, he would continue the work we started and that others would come to know Jesus by the witness of those who had already accepted him.
You know I realise now that God works in some very strange ways to get his message to people. Who would have thought that two people being thrown into jail in Philippi would have resulted in the forming of a church there, led by a Roman jailer and a woman merchant.
Just when I thought everything was as bad as it could get, and that because we were imprisoned, we would never be able to get the message of Jesus to the people of Philippi, God made a way of getting that message out in a spectacular way. It was a miracle that the earthquake came at just the right time, and that no one was killed by any of the falling stones of the jail, or indeed that none of the other prisoners made a run for it at that time. The word that we had spoken to them about Jesus made them free in a totally different way.
I realise looking back now that sometimes we have to go through what not only seem like bad times, but actually are difficult at the time. God doesn’t make us suffer, but allows us to suffer sometimes, because he uses that suffering to make us see his greatness and his goodness and ultimately his love and mercy. Sometimes this is for our own good, but sometimes it is for the good of others. Certainly other people were brought to know of God’s love for them by our being thrown into prison.
I know that however dire my circumstances are, God is always there with me and that the way that I react to them is a witness to my faith in God. I just pray that whatever circumstances I go through, I will never let God down by my actions or reactions, and that I will always trust him to bring me through them. I pray that I will continue to count it a privilege to suffer for the God who sent his only Son Jesus to suffer and die for my sins.
Reflection by Mary Magdalene after the resurrection
After the events of the last few days, I just needed time to reflect on all that had happened, indeed not only in the last few days, but in the last three years. I can hardly believe the difference that Jesus has made in my life.
Before I met Jesus, I was actually lonely and desperately seeking a meaning to my life. I was not hard up, so I had tried all sorts of things I thought would make me happy – all the so-called “good things in life”. I had plenty of nice clothes, went to parties where there was lovely food, lots of wine and men falling over themselves to please me and woo me. I suppose you could say that I had lived a life of decadence, caring only for my own pleasure, and I didn’t see anything wrong in it. It was like there was some demon inside me always urging me on to push at the boundaries of what was acceptable. I just couldn’t help myself, especially when I had drunk rather too much wine. And let’s face it, I didn’t really think I wanted to stop; I was having a good time, or so I thought.
Then one day I heard someone talking about a man called Jesus; a carpenter from Nazareth. He seemed to be some kind of itinerant prophet, a bit like that John the Baptizer who people had been talking about. I heard that he lived wild in the wilderness and was dressed in camel hair. He had called out to people to repent of their sins and come and be baptised.
I suppose I was just curious to see what this Jesus was like; it would be something different to do. I thought it would be just a fad, a passing phase, like so many things in my life. To find him, people said, you only had to look for where there was a crowd, and you could reckon he would be in the middle of it, talking to them.
So, I followed the crowd, and heard people talking about Jesus healing sick people, casting out evil spirits and restoring sight to blind people. It sounded amazing. When I eventually got near enough to hear what he was saying, the first thing I heard him say was “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Really? I thought. Since when did being meek ever get anyone anywhere? If you wanted anything you had to push to get it. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled; blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” he went on.
This seemed a strange sort of teaching to me. After all, the top religious people, the Pharisees, Sadducees and priests were the least meek people I could think of. They were self-righteous alright. But this man Jesus seemed to be turning all the usual teaching upside down. I didn’t know what to make of it. While I was thinking all this, I hadn’t realised that I had actually come right near to Jesus. As he looked at me, he seemed to look right into my heart and see all the demons that tormented me and urged me on to living the way that I did. And he seemed to sense in me a longing to be different, to be rid of those demons, that I didn’t even know that I had. He laid his hand on my head and told my demons to leave me, and in that moment, I experienced a deep feeling of peace that completely overwhelmed me. I knew immediately that something extraordinary had happened to me and that I didn’t want to go back to the way I had been living.
Without really thinking about what I was doing, I found myself wanting to follow him, and hear more of the things he was teaching. The more I heard of what Jesus taught, the more I realised how shallow and useless my life had been. There were a few other women in the crowd who seemed to be fairly close to him and the twelve men that appeared to be his closest disciples. I talked to them, and they told me more of the things that he taught, and about the many people he had healed. I stayed with them that night, and somehow it seemed a natural thing to follow where Jesus went the next day. I gradually slipped into a routine with the other women of finding places to buy food, and somewhere to stay each night, if it was possible, and we weren’t in the middle of nowhere! Eventually, I seemed to be accepted by these women and even by the disciples, and I had the means to help them.
Some of the things that Jesus taught were rather hard to accept. He referred to the teaching to ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’, and went on to say that we should love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us. Was he really telling us that we should love the Samaritans, or the Romans? That was really hard to swallow – the thought of loving our age-old enemies.
A lot of the things he said seemed to be directed at the Pharisees. He said that they kept the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. He didn’t seem to care how much what he said upset them. One day particularly, he had seemed bent on stirring up the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” he said. Well if that wasn’t asking for trouble! Telling them that they were full of greed and self-indulgence! He ended up by calling them a brood of vipers, and told them they wouldn’t escape being condemned to hell. You could see how angry he had made them all. They muttered to one another and strode about in their anger. They obviously wanted to find a way to stop him preaching and get rid of him. But I never would have believed the way that it eventually came about.
Of course, the one sure way that Jesus upset the Pharisees, was because people said that he was the Son of God. This was absolute blasphemy to them. I had heard the disciples talking about the time way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he went to see John the Baptist, and asked to be baptised by him. When John eventually consented to baptise Jesus, they told me, they had seen a dove coming out of the clouds to rest on Jesus, and heard a voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
The disciples had many discussions about this and also about the times when Jesus had come to people who were possessed by evil spirits; the spirits had cried out, “What do you want with me, Jesus Son of the most high God?” Jesus had cast out the evil spirits, and the people had been restored to their right minds. The disciples had obviously concluded from all this that Jesus was the Son of God, and therefore the Messiah.
What upset the disciples most was that Jesus kept talking of a time when he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the chief priests and others; that he would be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter had said vehemently to Jesus that this should never happen to Him. Jesus had told Peter that by saying that, he was being used by Satan to be a stumbling block to him. Of course, this really upset Peter and the disciples. And it upset all of us too. We just could not think that anything like that would happen to Jesus, but Jesus kept insisting that it would. He kept repeating that on the third day he would rise from the dead. I don’t think that any of us thought that all this would happen literally. I guess maybe we thought he was speaking figuratively like he often did.
And then of course it really did happen. We women couldn’t go everywhere that Jesus was taken after he was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, and had to rely on what people were saying, to know what was happening. But we heard about the mockery of a trial that was held, and that the High Priest had asked Jesus outright if he was the Messiah, the Son of God. And that Jesus had replied, “Yes, it is as you say.” Well of course that was blasphemy to all the religious authorities, and they had got really steamed up at this. It seemed that Jesus had more or less signed his own death warrant with that reply.
I stood with Jesus’ mother Mary and the other women while the soldiers flogged Jesus. We followed as he was taken out to be crucified and I stood with them at the foot of the cross as the life drained out of him. It seemed impossible to me that his ministry could end in this cruel way, and that the crowds of people who had followed him could suddenly turn against him and shout for him to be crucified. It was so unnecessary. Surely, I thought, he could have avoided it and not come to Jerusalem and stirred people up. When the disciples had tried to dissuade him from coming to Jerusalem, he had said that he must – he had to do his Father’s will. We just wept.
We wanted to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial, but with the Sabbath coming, there was no time, so we followed Joseph, when he asked for and was given Jesus’ body to bury. He laid the body in his own tomb and rolled a big stone over the entrance. We watched, so that we knew where to come after the Sabbath to do things properly.
So after the Sabbath, I went to the tomb with Salome and Jesus’ mother Mary to anoint Jesus’ body. It wasn’t right that His body hadn’t been prepared properly. Of course, it was only natural that his mother would want to do the right thing for her son. How her heart must have been breaking. We tried to comfort her, but we were so upset ourselves, we weren’t much consolation to her.
We were all crying so much that it was only when we got right to the tomb that we realised that the big stone in front of it had been rolled away. We ran back to tell Peter and the other disciples, who had been hiding away in fear, that the stone had been rolled away and that someone must have taken Jesus’ body away. Peter and John ran to the tomb and looked in and then went back to where they had been staying without saying anything.
I sat a little way away from the tomb, still crying. Then I looked quickly into the tomb and to my surprise saw two men dressed in white, who looked like angels. They asked me why I was crying. Wasn’t it obvious? Someone had taken away the body of my Lord. I turned away from them and saw a man standing by me, who through my tears, I took to be the gardener. He too asked me why I was crying. Why didn’t everybody realise why I was so upset? I asked him to tell me where he had taken Jesus’ body.
It was just that one word that He said to me – “Mary.” In that moment, I knew that I was talking to Jesus. My tears instantly turned to joy. I wanted to hold onto him for ever and never let anyone take him away again, but he told me that he had not yet ascended to his Father and I should go and tell the disciples that I had seen him.
I ran back to the disciples with such a lightness in my heart. I remembered that Jesus had kept insisting that he would be raised from the dead on the third day. This had now been proved to me as true, and I knew that if the statement of Jesus that he would rise on the third day was true, fantastic and impossible as it might seem to be, then everything that Jesus said had to be true.
The trouble was that I had never really thought that he was going to die. Like the disciples, that thought was too terrible for me to contemplate. But he had said that he was going back to the One who sent him, and at other times had said that he was “the way, the truth and the life” and that no one could come to the Father except through him. He said that he would go to the Father to prepare a place for all those who believed in Him, so that they would have eternal life. And I knew that I was included in that.
So much of the teaching that I had heard now made sense to me. The only way for Jesus to defeat death, was by dying himself. He had said that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that all who believed in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And that was the way that he had to go to accomplish this. How slow-witted we had all been. It was so hard for us to understand the things that Jesus had taught us, but now they started to make sense. Hadn’t we been there when he had said, before he raised Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Of course, I now realised, in order to be raised to life, it was logical that he had to die first. And that was what he had been trying to tell us all for so long.
What overwhelmed me most was that I realised that I was the first person to see the risen Jesus – me, a woman, who had lived a not very good life, but who loved him dearly because of what he had done in freeing me from my demons, and how he had changed my life. I did fleetingly wonder why it hadn’t been his mother Mary who had seen Him first. Of course, it was hard for the disciples to believe me, a mere woman, when I told them that I had seen Jesus. I think they were even slower than I was in realising the significance of all the things that Jesus had taught us. When they later saw Him for themselves, however, they too believed.
But now we who are followers of Jesus, and have committed our lives to Him, have the job of telling the world about Jesus. It’s not going to be easy, because if people rejected Jesus and killed him, they aren’t going to be easy on us either. He told us that we would be persecuted, but he also told us that he would be with us all the way. I just hope that I have faith enough to depend on Jesus like he said we should and not fail him when the going gets tough. He told us that he had overcome the world. Well he had conquered death now, and he told us that if we believed in Him, we would have eternal life with him, and I firmly believe that this is true. I know that this is the message that Jesus wants us to take to the world.