I am not usually an advocate of worship services where the congregational lighting is very dim. In a dark congregational worship area, it is easy for individuals to feel they are worshiping alone. Singing in worship services is a corporate activity; something brothers and sisters in Christ do together.
Although not a normal congregational gathering, a spontaneous worship service occurred in a Philippian jail in Acts 16. Here we see Paul and Silas praying and singing in the dark at midnight. The overarching emphasis of this passage demonstrates how the Gospel message is unstoppable even when the messengers are imprisoned. In the midst of this great truth we see another principle that speaks of the hope and trust these men placed in God when faced with trial and jail.
In that dark prison they held an informal worship service.
Paul and Silas were in Philippi for several days sharing the gospel story. They were troubled by a certain slave girl who, on a number of occasions, called out to the crowd saying that Paul and Silas were servants of God proclaiming salvation. This slave girl was a fortuneteller and through her fortune telling she provided income for her owner. One day Paul commanded the evil spirit working in this slave girl to come out and immediately she lost her ability to fortune tell. As a result, the slave owner stirred up a great commotion which eventually led to Paul and Silas being brought before the magistrates in Philippi. They were accused, stripped, beaten with rods and put into the inner prison with their feet fastened in stocks.
Acts 16 says that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison was shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.” And they said believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:25-31).
The Lord was in the midst of all this and used this seemingly difficult and possibly deadly event to do something miraculous – bring the jailer and his household to faith in Christ.
I have often wondered what my response would be if placed in a similar position as Paul and Silas in this dark jail. Would I be praying and singing hymns to God? I think there are several implications that we can glean from this passage.
1. Christians have a reason to sing no matter the circumstances. Despite the conditions in which we find ourselves, our worst problem in life has been solved – we were dead in our sins but have been brought to new life in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-9). For the believer there is always the hope we have in Christ. Despite being in stocks in a dark prison Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns.
2. When we sing it reminds us of the greatness of our God and the wonder of the Gospel. Worshiping in the midst of life’s difficult times encourages us and keeps our focus on Christ.
3. We sing with eternity in view despite the outward circumstances of our lives. In this life we may have family conflicts, health issues, job stress or the sorrow of the loss of a loved one. These may seem like real chains but we need to be reminded that in Christ we are freed from the chains of sin and death. In John 16:33 Jesus says “in this world we will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” We need to keep our eyes on Christ.
4. Our worship is a witness to a lost world showing the salvation and hope we have in Christ. In Acts 16:25 we observe the other prisoners listening to Paul and Silas praying and singing. It also seems that the jailer knew enough about what Paul and Silas were sharing that he immediately asked them how he could be saved.
5. Worship is especially appropriate in difficult situations. Our worries and anxieties need to give way to worship. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts (Colossians 3:15-16).
These verses give us a wonderful picture of believers who trusted God’s sovereignty in their lives so much that they could worship in a dark prison at midnight. As Christians, we are not promised that an earthquake will occur and break our chains freeing us from all difficulties, but we are promised that Christ will never leave us or forsake us (John 14:18, Romans 8:31-38). This assurance should cause us to keep our focus on Christ and worship Him in the midst of trials. Lord, let us worship like Paul and Silas. Amen.
Dr. Greg Brewton is a professor and chair of the Department of Biblical Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.