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Acts 16:16–40

person holding torch in building interior
Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash

The first thing I see in this text is it is a fairy tale—that’s true. You can see this as soon as it is stated that the prison guard was to keep the prison secure. You immediately know what is going to happen after you read that verse—The prisoners are somehow going to escape! And what makes it even more exciting is that they do so by an absolute miracle and remain in the prison to accomplish by God’s grace another. In fact, the lesson of it all is that by these sudden turns of events on the way to a happy ending we see the possibility of something great. The possibility is that the civil government can publicly repent. And we see that very thing happen right here in this true fairy story, if you will. So, the term I have used in the title is loaded with that very matter. Eucatastrophe is a term coined by the late John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (JRR Tolkien). It is made up of two Greek words, Eu—meaning good; and Catastrophe—meaning a turn or overturning. So, we have a “good [over]turn on the way to a happy ending” I.e. a Eucatastrophe! One writer calls this episode “a nest of improbablities” (Haencher as quoted by Stott). But these improbabilities are solved and conquered by miracle.

In regards to the general outline of the text it is as follows: the background to the main conflict (vv.16–18); the great conflict (vv.19–24); the conquering (vv.25–40) both spiritually (vv.25–34) and socially/magisterially (vv. 35–40). In regards to the message that civil governmental eucatastrophe is possible and even probable, we learn several things.

First, we learn to take great heart when Satan pretends the truth (vv.16–18). The slave girl is portrayed as having the spirit of a serpent. Yet, she speaks the truth; and the question must be asked as to why Satan would do such a thing to malign the truth and secondly if it will be successful. The answer to the first part of the question is that Satan seeks to darken the truth by whatever means he can. If he cannot darken the truth by being contrary to it, he will pretend to be mockingly for it. So, we see here not a woman speaking the truth in love, but speaking the truth in lies. This is because Satan has been from his rebellion one who masquerades himself as an angel of light. But his evil character makes truth even a weapon against the truth. The second part of the question is answered with denouncement in regards to the success of the serpent. He is put to a stop as the apostle commands. The Word of God is this powerful against lies. Though the devil may speak the truth in lies, he will not succeed. Calvin says it this way, “let Satan do what he can, and let the false prophets seek to darken the truth so much as they are able, we need not be afraid lest the Spirit of wisdom and discretion [discernment] forsake us, who ruleth [i.e. quelleth] Satan at his pleasure, and maketh us triumph over him by the the faith of his Word” (Commentary p.110). So, Satan plays the flatterer but fails; and we ought to take great heart that one little Word will fell him, that Word above all earthly powers!

Second, we learn to take great heed when Satan plays the tragedy (vv.19–24). The true reason for the conflict that ensues is the loss of revenue from this slave girl. Nevertheless, the owners drag Paul and Silas before the rulers, the magistrates and state that they are “Jews” stressing their antisemitism, and play on their pretend care for the city of Rome and its laws and order. It is no excuse to the crowd who joins in, but this is often the case that the crowd joins in something rather than uncover the truth of it. The judgment appears to be quickly (and if not quickly, thoughtlessly) rendered and cruel. They tear the clothes off them and beat them publicly. Having done so in such haste they locked them in prison and then the key verses of v.23–24 enters speaking of keeping them safely in the prison and the emphasis on how secure they are were kept. The point here being that there is great insecurity for those who think they have control when they have done great wrong. No matter how secure they may make their crime against God’s people, there is a God who is over them. Again Calvin said this, “But to what end tend all these things, save only that they may rob the Word of God of all authority? They make boast of man’s decrees, but in the mean season they leave no place at all for the laws of God…Therefore in this matter we must take great heed, that men being brought under the authority of God alone do prevail, and that he make all things which in the world are excellent [including Roman laws] subject to him” (commentary p.114). The argument of or from any other authority than the Word of God is insufficient to bind the great heart of Christian men; and at the same time those under the Word of God do prevail on earth not just in heaven; for God does promise to shake both (Hebrews 12). Let every man take heed then to God’s law over man’s laws. However excellent man’s laws are, God’s laws are over them, and he sees that his people ultimately prevail. Take heed to God’s law both magistrate and crowds. Take heed to God’s law dear believers when Satan plays the tragedy for you shall soon prevail by what Lewis calls the deep magic (the moral law) and the deeper magic (the gospel).

Third, take great hope when people come to their senses both spiritually and socially. Great hope should be taken on the basis that the jailer who failed in his task to keep the prisoners and lost hope at the sight of it, was given in this incident the greatest hope! He thought all to be lost when that place shook. And think of it, that God shook the place in answer to their prayers that were first full of praise in a prison. It is almost like Paul and Silas could see beyond this world to the next, no matter how dark the world appeared. The language of possibility—no not just possibility—but probability was in their eyes as they were put in an impossible situation. They are there in the grave with Christ if you will, dead, buried, descended and no hope whatsoever, but yet they take great hope in their God. And as a result (not meritoriously) they are not merely freed (though that would be enough to rejoice) but what is more—they also bring another to be freed eternally! The man is added to the church with Lydia’s family, whom they visit on the way out. But there is more, a second stage is that the magistrates also have a change of mind. They come to their senses and wish the matter to be now quietly dealt with. However, Paul rightly demands a public repentance of the magistrates (Which he successfully obtains)! He argues on the basis of the laws of Rome and him as a citizen. Some readers have questioned why he did not sooner speak of it, but the matter happened so quickly it seems. Here he may speak of it and demand it. Why does he do so? He certainly does not do it for his own sake, but for ours who read now. Luke records this incident for us to take great heart that civil magisterial repentance is not only possible but probable. It is not possible in a world of untrue fairy tales, but it is in a world of true ones, in a world of eucatastrophes! And God made such a world in which we live.

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