“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” Acts 16:25 (ESV)
Previously, we saw that for Paul, Silas, Peter and the other apostles in the New Testament, suffering is not something to lament over, but rather to rejoice in, and that the reason for this response is found in a dynamic relationship with the Living God. Their lives are one of many evidences in Scripture that the deepest, most fulfilling, most real experience this world has to offer is actually not of this world at all, but rather beyond it, and that true joy and meaning are found only in when our spirit enters into communion with the Spirit of God. We saw that because of this, any circumstance, “good” or “bad”, that brings us into communion with Him is one to be rejoiced in, and that this understanding of reality produces the kind of instinctive joy that we see in the lives of these men of God.
There is another thing in this passage, though, that particularly stood out to me. It is the little phrase at the end, “and the prisoners were listening to them”.
Picture for a moment, the setting of this passage…
This story does not take place in a climate-controlled, well-lit, moderately sanitary cell in an American county jail. This is a first-century Roman prison. Picture one or two sputtering torches fighting to stay lit under dripping ceilings, bolted to mildewed walls blotched with red stains from the untreated wounds of former prisoners. Think of the smell of an untended room with no running water, waste bucket in the corner, unwashed bodies now sweating in the heat of the day, now chilled in the drafty air of the night. Hear the skittering feet of rats, the constant drip of poorly diverted rainwater from a flat roof, the moans and fragmented ramblings of broken men, delirious from sleeplessness and malnutrition, and the occasional scream from a nearby interrogation going badly.
This is what midnight looks like in a first-century prison in Rome… not just dark to the eyes, but dark to the soul.
Now picture that night again from the perspective of one of the other prisoners.
You know what night is like in the prison. You know the sounds, the smells, the way people behave. You’ve seen it yourself, night after night. Tonight though… well, tonight something is different. The new inmates have only been here a few hours, but already you’ve noticed they aren’t like the others. They don’t have the same bitter eyes and snarling insults.
Then, all of a sudden in the middle of the night, they start to sing. Not only that, but these aren’t the usual songs of protest or vengeance you’d expect to hear from prisoners, not even songs about the hope of getting free someday. No, these are songs of praise to God, right now! They aren’t angry. They aren’t bitter. They aren’t plotting and scheming their escape or revenge. In a dark, putrid cell, with bleeding backs and bruised ribs… they are singing songs of joy.
Think of the questions that must have sprouted in the minds of the other prisoners; questions about these men, their stories, and the God they sing to. Even more, think of the opportunity for these men of God to share the reason for their joy and bear witness to the reality of the power of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.
This is what happens when God’s power works in us to see every circumstance as a path to communion: not only do we have joy in our own hearts, but those around us will begin to notice and wonder why.
For the Christ-follower, one of the truest evidences of a faithful life is that it is not lived in secret, but in the open, where others can see a difference and know that “this Jesus stuff” actually works. Anybody can parrot the sound bites and say the lines of the Christian faith, but when midnight comes and we respond with joy, people notice, and that is the greatest witness of all.