What did Paul and Silas do in the prison? If they were like many normal Christians, they would have been saying, “We should never have started out on this journey. It is just too hard to bring the Gospel to Europe.” If they had been more theological, they might have said, “I suppose these people are just not among the elect. As soon as we can, we had better get out of here and go somewhere God is going to bless.” If they were like many of our contemporaries, they would have said, “God wants us to be happy, and we’re not happy here sitting in these stocks. Let’s find a place where we can be happy.” They did not say any of those things. Instead, they spent the night hours praying and singing praises to God.
As Paul and Silas sang and praised God, the other prisoners who might have been complaining beforehand became quiet, just as the believing thief who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus did. In the quietness, as they listened, they began to learn something about the God who had sent Paul and Silas.
It is interesting that later when Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, his dominant note was rejoicing. Paul said to these Christians, some of whom had perhaps even been in the prison that evening, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
When the earthquake came and the chains fell off the prisoners so that Paul and the others could have escaped if they had wished to do so, the jailer, who had been awakened by the earthquake, rushed toward the prison, thinking that the prisoners were all gone. He was ready to kill himself because he was a Roman jailer and knew that the penalty for a Roman soldier who allowed a prisoner to escape was death. This was not true with Jewish guards, but it was true of Romans. Therefore, a Roman guard even under the severest enemy attack would not leave his post. If he did, he would be executed.
We have a reflection of the same thing later when Paul was being taken to Rome. When the soldiers were unwilling to release the prisoners—thinking that if the ship floundered, some of them might get to shore and escape, and knowing that their own lives would be forfeited—Paul said, “I guarantee that we will all make it to shore, and we will all be there.” The Roman officer trusted Paul and did not follow the normal procedure. Instead he instructed the soldiers to spare the prisoners (cf. Acts 27:42-43).
Someone has commented on the Philippian jailer’s near suicide by saying, “It shows what a violent type of person he was.” I do not think that was it at all. I think he was rightfully afraid and was about to do what, under the circumstances and by the Roman military code, was the proper action.
Paul shouted out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here” (v. 28).
The jailer replied with what is the most urgent and pressing of questions: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30).