Worship in a Jail Cell

Bible Reading: Acts 16:16-34

Acts 16:30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved?”

It was his job.  The authorities would bring to him the criminals, he would lock them up.  He had dealt with many prisoners over the course of his career, but never before any quite like Paul and Silas.  Their crime?  They had upset the local economy when they exorcised a demon from a fortune teller.  Her masters had profited much from her fortune telling.  When they saw that their hope of profit-making from her fortune-telling was gone, they dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace and to the chief magistrates.  Their indictment against them?  “They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:21).  The magistrates ordered them to be beaten and thrown into jail.

The jailer threw them into the “inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:24).  It was undoubtedly a cold, dark, and inhospitable place.  They had, in that setting, no earthly reason to rejoice, but that is exactly what they did.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).  Their feet might have been tethered, but their hearts had long ago been set free to worship.  The jailer had never witnessed anything like that before.  Paul and Silas were men of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and utterly devoted to the task of sharing the gospel.  “The prisoners were listening to them” as they sang (Acts 16:25).  Paul and Silas had an attentive audience.  People are attentive to our response to difficult circumstances.  We are sometimes prone to grumble, but the Fount of Blessing can tune our hearts to sing His grace.  Praise amidst problems bears an alluring melody. 

God wanted Paul and Silas freed, so He caused a great earthquake.  The earthquake shook the foundations of the jailhouse, the prison doors were opened, and their chains were unfastened.  They were set free.  The jailer was roused out of his sleep.  Supposing his prisoners to be gone, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  The penalty for losing one’s prisoners was quite severe (Acts 12:19).  Paul realized what was happening and intervened.  He cried out with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28).  The jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas (Acts 16:29).  “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked (Acts 16:30).  It is important at this point to remember what has just transpired.  The jailer had locked them up.  He had fastened their feet with stocks.  He was trembling with fear—what would the authorities do to him?  What might these men do to him?  He had treated them harshly – as prisoners.  He feared retribution.  Had they been common prisoners, he might have had reason to fear.  But they were no ordinary prisoners—they cared more for their message than they did for themselves.   They said to the Jailer, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’” (Acts 16:31).  And he believed, along with his whole household (Acts 16:33).

Paul and Silas had come to Philippi to proclaim the truth about Jesus.  Their efforts bore fruit in the salvation of Lydia and the fortune-teller.  Then God shook the jailhouse and left standing was the beginnings of a church.  The gospel had come to Philippi in dramatic fashion.  And the city would no longer be left without the light of the gospel shining in its darkness.  How diverse the makings of the newly birthed church: a businesswoman and her household, a slave-girl fortune-teller, and the jailer and his household!  Whether or not they had been previously acquainted, they were henceforth Spirit borne into a common union with Christ and a common bond in the Spirit.  God would add to their number.  And ten years later Paul would send them a letter—the book of Philippians.


In loving kindness Jesus came
My soul in mercy to reclaim,
And from the depths of sin and shame
Through grace He lifted me.

From sinking sand He lifted me,
With tender hand He lifted me,
From shades of night to plains of light,
O praise His name, He lifted me!

He called me long before I heard,
Before my sinful heart was stirred,
But when I took Him at His word,
Forgiven He lifted me. [Refrain]

Author: looking2jesus13

Having served as pastor at Lewis and Clark Bible Church, in Astoria, Oregon, for almost three decades, my wife’s cancer diagnosis led to my retirement and subsequent move to Heppner to be near our two grandchildren. I divide my time between caring for Laura and working as a part time hospice chaplain and spending time with family and spoiling my chocolate lab.

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