“The multitude rose up together against them. The magistrates tore their clothes off and commanded them to be beaten with rods. When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were open and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison awakened from sleep, seeing the prison doors open and supposing the prisoners fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. And Paul called with a loud voice, “Do yourself no harm. We are all here.” - Acts 16:22
In 1986 Beni and I went to Israel and Italy with some people from our church. One of the places we visited was a hole in the ground that contained a dungeon. It’s the actual prison where the apostle Paul spent time. Scratch your picture of prison and think hole in the ground. It’s wet, musty, cold and damp. Men were literally dumped down there. From within this hole, the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians, a book marked with a theme that is the most unusual ever to be written by someone in prison: joy. In Chapter 4:4, you see these words: “Rejoice always. Again, I say, rejoice!”
In the Acts 16 passage, Paul’s joy was to receive the most unusual test. Now if I’m in prison, there’s an earthquake, the chains fall off my arms and legs and the door flings open, I’m saying, “Jehovah Jireh—God has provided for me again.” I’m out of there as fast as you can imagine because it’s obvious it’s the will of God. “Praise God! My worship worked again. It shook that thing.”
But not Paul. He’s worshiping God, and the earthquake comes that is so powerful it knocks chains off of wrists and feet and knocks them to the ground. The doors fling open and Paul senses, “I wasn’t a prisoner when I was put in here. And those doors opening don’t make me more free. I smell harvest. I smell some fish that are about to be caught. And since my primary goal in life is to catch fish, I’m going to stay in the most unusual fishing hole I’ve ever been in. Uh, sir, about to kill yourself? You’ll notice that we’re all here.” That was enough of a witness. The guard had to know the same Jesus. He surrendered immediately to Christ, and his entire family got saved. There is something endearing and fruitful about supernatural joy.
There are a number of examples of joy throughout Scripture, but to me, this is one of the most unique and remarkable illustrations.
Several years ago, I felt impressed to work on three verses of the Bible, to see if I could take six months and learn how to do them: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I purposed to meditate and practice those three commands because they are all inclusive.
I would quote them and think about them as I was going about my day. “Rejoice always.” I purpose to choose joy and express it in every situation. Some situations are easier than others. And then “pray without ceasing”; I have to stay in communion with the Lord constantly. And then “In everything give thanks.” That’s really demanding because that means everything. There’s no room for error here. Do these three things all the time. Be always thankful and always joyful, and pray always about everything.
People come to me and say, “I just need to know God’s will for my life.”
I tell them, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks. For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
“Yeah, but I need to know whether to take this job or whether I should live in Portland or I should live in San Jose.” It makes very little difference if you rejoice always, pray without ceasing and in everything give thanks.
“Yeah, but I don’t know what to do for my occupation.” Pump gas or be a doctor; it doesn’t matter, but rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks. This is the will of God. All that other stuff is trivial by comparison. It’s win-win. Just rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and in everything give thanks.