Today, a lovely rendition of the Selah song, "I Bless Your Name" sent me back to Scripture, to the book of Acts, chapter 16. The scene, during the early days of the church, is one where Christians were under intense persecution--particularly those Christians on the front lines of ministry who were working in the strength of the Holy Spirit to push back the gates of hell and set spiritual prisoners free.
It wasn't a pretty scene. In fact two prominent leaders, Paul and Silas had been beaten with rods, thrown into a primitive jail and bound tightly, with their feet confined to stocks.
Now, let me stop and say that most of us in the free world aren't subjected to these extremes of suffering or persecution for the cause of Christ (although some have suffered the loss of prestige, a voice in popular culture, even possibly a job or a loved one--simply because they claim the name of Christ). But, even most of us who are exhausted, overworked, underappreciated caregivers aren't in as dire a position as Paul and Silas were that night.
And so, we pick up the story at midnight ... the darkest hour, the farthest from daylight--the time when the problems of the day grow disproportionately large and loom like overwhelming shadows in the gloom ... and so at midnight, let's let the Word take us into the scene:
About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them ... (v. 25, HCSB)
Two things strike me here. For the first observation, let's look at the end of the verse--the other prisoners were paying attention to what was going on in Paul's cell. There were others, in chains. While there might have been other believers chained up for the cause of Christ, it's more likely those other prisoners were guilty of crimes against Rome that from a human perspective deserved severe punishment. And these worldly guys, I picture them rough and seething with anger--vile and smelly from their sinful ways and their grungy cells--these guys are hushed and listening to what Paul and Silas are saying and doing down the cell block.
And what are they doing? That's the amazing second observation. The situation is hopeless, right? God let them be captured by heathens and abused. They're really gonna let Him have a piece of their minds, right?
They're praying and singing hymns. What? Oh, come on. Nobody could be that spiritual. Praising God and worshipping Him from that smelly, stinky, vile cell? Their only crime doing His work?
But that's what people attuned to God's higher purposes do. They praise Him and bless His name even when they don't understand the extreme circumstances He's allowing to unfold in their lives.
The end of the story is that while they're praising and praying, God shakes the earth to the foundation of the jail, and everything changes. Prison doors shake open--can you imagine the force of that quake?
Anyway, the doors shake open--all of them, the ones confining the guilty and the ones confining God's servants--and the chains shackeling everyone in the prison come undone. Doesn't seem like just a run-of-the-mill earthquake could do that. Kinda gives you a new appreciation for the power of the hand of God.
Paul and Silas and the other prisoners were all loosed--at the moment when God's praises were ringing out in the abject darkness.
Rather than escaping (that's what I'd have done--I'd have high-tailed it out of there and allowed myself to fade back into the midnight darkness under cover of the chaos that would certainly follow), Paul and Silas stayed around.
Acts 16:29-34 (HCSB) Then the jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the message of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house. He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized. He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had believed God with his entire household.
Because they stayed rather than running, they both saved the jailer's life and led him (and his household) to faith in Christ. The jailer who'd abused them became their brother in Christ, because they didn't bail out and save themselves. And the night they began in chains, ended in a baptismal service--with a whole household professing faith in Christ.
God orchestrated a tremendously trying set of circumstances, and He used the faithfulness of His servants despite their own suffering to move the kingdom of heaven forward--and to storm the gates of the spiritual prison holding onto the many souls who came to faith as a result.
I suppose this passage indicts me so powerfully today because I'm much more of a complainer than a praiser. I get it that the prisoners were still up at midnight--frequently I'm up at midnight and beyond, too. But usually, I'm up worrying. I might pray when my midnight circumstances (though much more cushy then Paul and Silas') seem out of control--but my prayer would likely come off more like a two-year-old's whining than a mature believer's prayer of faith and worship of the Almighty.
Yet, this passage has issued a challenge for me today. Perhaps you'll hold me accountable, so that the next time I'm awake and in trouble at the midnight hour, I'm going to make an effort to be praising instead of whining. And, while an earthquake-sized change in my circumstances might sound appealing, even if it doesn't come, I'll praise Him just the same.
May this passage of the Word challenge and encourage you today, as well.
Blessings and prayers,
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