Acts 16:25 – 40
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains were shaken. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Men, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all of his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and the whole family was filled with joy, because they had come to believe in God.
When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”
But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, they went to Lydia’s (Acts 16:13 – 15) house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left.
This story contains several parts: the imprisonment, Paul and Silas praying and singing, the earthquake, the doors opening and chains falling off, the jailer drawing his sword, Paul beseeching him to not harm himself, the jailer requesting salvation, his and his family’s conversion and baptism, the meal at his house, the magistrates trying to release them quietly from prison, Paul’s insistence on being escorted out, re-uniting with Lydia and the other Christians in Philippi. Which scene to illustrate?
The artist selected the hing-scene, in which Paul shows the jailer that they are free from their chains and imprisonment, but have not fled.
We see the stone wall and grated window of the prison. Chains lay unused, with a slight crack from the earthquake at the window’s edge. Paul, Silas, and the others stand at the open archway. The jailer kneels, his keys unnecessary to open the prison lay on the ground. He looks up at Paul. Are his hands uplifted in astonishment, relief, submission, or supplication for salvation? Good art leaves room for personal interpretations.
Though not directly referenced in this fresco, the story contains a key concept, which will later propel Paul to Rome, “We are Roman citizens”. Christianity is about freedom from sin and freedom to do good. The story is about the prison doors flying open and their chains falling off, as when we are freed from that which binds us. Yet, they did not flee the prison, just as we do not flee the evils of the human condition. We are just no longer bound by them.
But, what about that concept of being Roman citizens? Why was this important to the writer and early church audience? Why would Jame Madison have been all over this idea when he compiled the Bill of Rights to compliment the USA Constitution? The leaders of the colonies revolution against British oppression loved Rome for its governing. To be a Roman citizen was to be free and to have rights.
Granted the Roman Republic and Empire had social stratification. The patrician class ruled though governement offices. The middle class merchants conducted business. The labor class build cities, worked the farms, and filled the military ranks. But, Roman society also had a system where by someone could progress through the social strata. This also included allowing slaves to become free-men.
Paul was born a Roman citizen, as well as a Jew. He had rights that other Jews, who lived in protectorate-states did not. Socially, below those protectorate state people (there were many others in addition to the Jews in Judea), were slaves.
Slaves were mostly people who were captured as the Roman Empire expanded through military conquest. However, unlike our (USA) hideous history of enslaving African people for life (including buying and selling), Roman slaves were able to own property, accumulate wealth, and eventually purchase their freedom. Many of the labor class began as slaves, progressed to freed-men who had shops and skills, and then became merchants, and possibly even military and judicial leaders (more on that later).
What Rome exemplified was that slavery was temporary. Freedom was achievable. Thus, when Paul, Silas, et al were imprisoned, then freed they, demanded to be respected as Roman Citizens. They did not flee the imprisonment, but went to witness to the jailer and his family, then returned to the prison until they would be honored as citizens to be escorted into the city.
Salvation is not the short-line to heaven, escaping the human condition of this world. It is the freedom to return to the world to do good. The earth shakes. The doors fly open. The chains fall off. We are free, but we do not run. We remain here to minister to those who do not know that they too can be free. This is what Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Ben Franklin, et al understood Rome to be about.