Did you know that when the good news of Jesus first reached the continent of what we now know as Europe, those who preached it spent a night in jail for their efforts?
The incident is recorded in Acts 16. A slave girl in Philippi, who earned her owners a lot of money by soothsaying, was converted to the Christian faith under the preaching of Paul and Silas.
Her conversion to Christ brought an abrupt end to her involvement in the black arts and a consequent financial loss to her owners. Her aggrieved owners engineered a mock trial for Paul and Silas before the city magistrates.
The magistrates turned a blind eye to the mob violence against Paul and Silas, beat them with rods and delivered them to the jailer, who ‘put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks’ (Acts 16:24).
So picture Paul and Silas. There they were, battered and bruised, and wallowing in a dark, dirty, depressing dungeon. How would you expect them to react to their plight? The way of God with them, when they were doing his will and work, seemed on the surface most painful and perplexing.
Remarkably, however, Luke records they did not utter even a murmur of complaint. Quite the opposite! There, in prison, they offered to God prison praise.
A peal of doxology went up and out from those pained bodies, in those terrible conditions, in the prison at Philippi. ‘But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25).
So what a witness this is to God’s saving and sustaining grace! Paul and Silas obviously had a joy which this world cannot give, and which the adverse circumstances of this life could not take away from them.
H. A. Ironside comments: ‘Those dear men, afflicted, miserable, unable to sleep, could not move without anguish; yet, as they lay in that dungeon, their hearts went out to God, presenting their case before him and, assured he heard, they lifted up their hearts in glad thanksgiving for his grace’.
Some years after his release from jail in Philippi, Paul wrote a letter to the church located in that city. The letter to the Philippians was written during another spell in jail for the long suffering apostle — this time he found himself in a cell in Rome.
In Philippians 4:4, Paul exhorted the Philippian believers, amongst whom, no doubt, was the Philippian jailer and perhaps some of Paul’s fellow inmates from the jail in Philippi, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’.
Joy is a duty enjoined on all Christians. Christians are exhorted to be joyful, and Christians have every reason to rejoice. When Paul wrote this exhortation, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, his readers would know that he practised what he preached.
They would have known of Paul’s time in the jail in their city, along with his midnight joy and praise there — a joy completely contrary to his circumstances and surroundings.
All this begs the question, ‘What was the secret of Paul’s indestructible joy?’
The answer is on the surface of the exhortation he gave: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. Our God is ‘the Lord’, the absolute master, ruler and orderer of all things. The assurance of his total control — and absolute sovereignty over all that is — is ultimately our only true comfort, solace and joy. Our God reigns!
On dark days and sunny days; in days of ease and days of stress; on happy days and sad days; in sickness and in health, God is on the throne and cannot be overthrown. He alone is King.
He is sovereign and has the sovereign right to exercise his sovereignty as his wisdom, love and power sees fit. ‘The Lord has established his throne in the heavens and his kingdom rules over all’ (Psalm 103:19).
Secondly, Paul was able to ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ because he knew himself to be a recipient of God’s saving grace. And the deep conviction that we are actually loved by God is an inner source of joy and strength, which rises above adverse circumstances. ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10).
Are we really loved by God? Yes! Romans 5:8 tells us that, ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’. God sent his Son to be our Saviour. He procured salvation on Calvary’s cross.
And God has also sent his Holy Spirit to apply the work of Christ’s redemption personally to our hearts and souls. Romans 8:31 ff. is rhetorical when it asks, ‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?’
John Calvin allegedly ended every conversation with the words, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ He too then knew the secret of Christian joy.
So are we also able to offer ‘prison praise’? We might not be in a physical jail like Paul and Silas, but we can all feel trapped at times — trapped by our handicaps and limitations, trapped by our ailments and weaknesses, trapped by adverse circumstances, discouraged by little fruit for our labours, trapped by matters we are unable to change.
But, amidst all these, we are enjoined, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. If God does not immediately release us from our prison, he will most certainly give us grace to sing our prison praise!
He is on the throne. He is all wise and all loving. He is working out his eternal will for the blessing of his people and the glory of his name. Rejoice that he cannot be hindered or frustrated. Rejoice that he is a God of grace.
After all, he is the God who ‘so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).