Live long enough and the consequences of sin will introduce you to suffering. Cancer, war, accidents, shame, and humiliation each have their way of crushing our souls. Regardless of religious affiliation, in the face of trials, we all ask on some level “what is the purpose of life”?
When we experience pain or the inability to answer a loved one “why,” we may wonder what the point of the pain is. In God’s Word, he reveals a divine purpose by weaving joy and tragedy together and the nature of his orchestration is to draw us back to him through Christ1.
The book of Acts consistently invites us into narratives of trial which develops our theology of hard. Trials typically press us to respond by trusting in ourselves or trusting in the Lord. While that may look differently for different people, one leads to devastation when we fail, and the other leads to peace which is found outside of ourselves
In Acts 16, we see this subtle dichotomy with the Roman Jailer. Verses 27-29 recount a swift moment where the weight of this response is on display and the result is a beautiful representation of the gospel2.
As we read chapter 16, we can ask how God is using every detail to save his people, and from this perspective, we’ll see how the grace of God is his means to bring about an eternal purpose–his glory. In Christ, our life’s purpose is unified with God’s so that he is exalted in everything.
Earlier in the chapter, Roman men are furious when their means of wealth are seized at the hands of Paul3. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an event like this.
The gospel message is offensive because it confronts pride. In this particular instance, pride manifested itself in wealth and exploitation. To the Roman men, money, and status were of high priority. If this wasn’t already clear, it became clear when they chose lies and brutality as retaliation4.
This entire scene drips with familiarity to Joseph. Overcome with pride and jealousy, Joseph’s brothers stooped to deceit, putting Joseph in harm’s way. Genesis 50:20 speaks to this with profound beauty: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
The pride of man brought sin into the world and hung Jesus on the cross. Luckily, it is for this reason Jesus came.
Unwarranted retaliation placed Paul and Silas in prison. But not just that–the inner prison, with their feet in chains, and backs bleeding from undeserved flogging. They had every reason from our limited minds to cry in agony, shake their fists at God, and wipe their hands of mission.
The posture we see, however, is one of divine peace. Luke records that they were praying and singing hymns to God5. They were worshiping their good Father despite all the worldly reasons not to. All the prisoners and guards were listening.
The way of Christ is upside down in this fallen world. Pride put Paul and Silas in prison and pride would have demanded they be let out. Instead, humility was their anthem and it brought them peace. Suffering was worth the triumph of the gospel and it is this very abnormal, Christian response that God uses to soften hearts.
After a period of worship, the Lord sees fit to intervene. Sending an earthquake the doors were opened and chains were unlocked. It was the Jailer’s sole responsibility to secure the prisoners. If a jailer failed at his job it would result in death.
In a single moment, this Jailer was ushered into a trial that elicited devastation. Desperate to secure his dignity he draws his sword to end his own life. A patient reader of the text will notice that the Lord’s miraculous earthquake didn’t reach the heart of the Jailer, but the call of Paul did.
It didn’t make sense. From the Jailer’s standpoint, why wouldn’t the prisoners run free? The loving call from the men who were beaten and chained was powerful enough to pivot the Jailer, and he had to know why.
The Lord weaved these tragedies, miracles, and joys together to save his people and sanctify them. The stage for this work was the gospel and this event shows how the gospel is the source of true peace during trial. As Paul and Silas worshiped the Lord in their suffering, the Jailer wanted to do the same in his.
We may not always know why something tragic happens from a present perspective, but from an eternal perspective, we can trust that God is using it. As we are lifting our swords in defeat, Jesus calls out our name. In Jesus, there is perfect hope, peace, comfort, and life. Our circumstances, questions, and devastation do not surprise, thwart, or deplete the God of all power and all grace.
As recipients of the gospel, we are to call out boldly with compassion and earnestness to those still on the other side. Like Paul, may we see our fellow image-bearers as worthy of the gospel, even our enemies, and offer them life in Christ.