Jailhouse Religion

Religion

This sermon was preached at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Cherry Log, Georgia on April 21, 2013 by Pastor Paul Mims.

Acts 16:19-34
Have you ever been in a prison? I have been in the Federal Prison in Atlanta and preached to a most eager audience who wanted to hear a word from the Lord. I have been in the State Prison in South Carolina and ministered to the inmates of whom some told me that they had learned what it meant to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. It is an awesome feeling when those doors close behind you. I can only imagine what the men and women felt hearing that sound and knowing that years would be spent behind those bars.

Our text today picks up where we left off last Sunday. You remember that Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Dr. Luke are in Philippi. They have been led of the Holy Spirit to enter Europe and establish a foundation for the Gospel of Christ there. They begin by attending a prayer meeting down by the riverside. A group of women who are seeking after God invites them to present the claims of Christ to them. A woman named Lydia responds with all of her heart and becomes the first convert in Europe. She invites the missionary team to stay at her house.

As they go again to the worship service by the riverside a young woman who had a demonic spirit which enabled her to tell fortunes and predict the future followed them shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Paul was troubled by this and turned around and spoke to the spirit and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her.” At that moment the spirit left her, and her owners to which she was enslaved lost their way of making money. They were enraged and seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They enraged the crowd by saying, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” Mob rule followed. They were stripped, flogged, and cast into prison. The story is divided into two parts:

I. THOSE WHO HAVE JAILHOUSE RELIGION. (vv.25-28)
The jailor was commanded to guard them carefully. So he placed them into the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. This is a perfect situation where they could be mad with God for allowing such a disgraceful thing to happen to them. They could have said, Lord, we have sacrificed much to serve you. We thought that we were following your leadership to come here. Why have you allowed such to come about?” Or, they could have railed against the mean people of the city, the users of the young girl, the magistrates, the rough Roman soldiers who stripped the clothes off their backs and beat them so that their backs were now bleeding and so painful that they could hardly lean against the wall. They could have thought what they might have been doing if they had never started on this venture. But none of these thoughts were in their minds.

What were they thinking about? What were they doing? It was midnight. They were not able to sleep. There was such a strong presence of the Lord with them. These men who had adequate faith to face a jailhouse situation were praying and communing with the Lord who was present with them. How blessed it must have been. Our Lord, who promised to be with them always was there in the person of His Holy Spirit, warming their hearts, and putting spiritual steel in their innermost beings. Then, they started singing. The melody of their faith wafted throughout the prison. This duet of this victorious moment must have delighted the corridors of heaven. The angels must have thought, “We wish we could sing like that.” The Mighty God who heard their song, could have thought, “That is what I can do in the lives of redeemed men.”

The answer to their prayers, to honor their faith – heaven responded with only something that God can do. Suddenly, there was an earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. The cell doors were opened. Everybody’s chains came loose.

Sometimes we get locked up into situations that are similar. The only answer is in faith to trust our Lord through the midst of it. Are you facing something just now that is calling on the deep fibers of your being to measure to it?

The little chorus that says, “Got any rivers that seem to be un-crossable? Got any mountains you cannot tunnel through? God specializes in things that seem impossible. He knows a thousand ways to make a way for you.” The second part of the story tells about:

II. THOSE WHO GET JAILHOUSE RELIGION. (vv.27-34)

“I spend quite a few days in prison every year,” says James Spence.
“No, I’m not on a work-release program. I go into prisons because I choose to.
Back in the mid- nineties, I was invited to do a chalk-art presentation at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas. To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on the idea. But early-on in my chalk art ministry I promised God that as long as he kept me in chalk and paper, I’d draw wherever he opened a door. But I never imagined that he would open a door into a prison.

I’m so squeaky clean that after 40 years of driving I’ve only had one ticket. I had no idea of what to expect behind the walls of a medium security prison unit, and quite frankly the prospect of being in one room with a couple of hundred convicts scared me to death. But I had made that promise to God.
And so I went. And my life was changed forever.

When I went in, I expected to find a couple of hundred angry men just daring me to bless them. What I found were men who were hurting, who were hungry, and who simply wanted someone to care about them.

Two things changed my perspective on prison ministry. First, I didn’t see “prisoners” or “inmates”. I saw men. People just like me. And I realized, perhaps for the first time, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Those men were in prison because of bad choices they had made and bad things that they had done. I could just as easily have made some of those choices, and it’s only by God’s mercy that I didn’t.
Second, I saw that God’s grace was sufficient to change the minds and hearts of even hardened criminals. When those men sang during the worship time, I saw a deep hunger and passion reflected on their faces that I rarely see in churches.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of those men (and women) have deep, serious issues to deal with before God.
But they know that God loves them and that he is a God of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
And they love him.

Some people talk about “jailhouse” religion, and say that these men and women are phonies, that they are just professing faith to somehow weasel into a better position with the parole board. They’re putting on a mask, so to speak, so that people will think better of them.

Granted, some inmates are like that. But to tell you the truth, I believe that the faith of many of these men and women is stronger and more genuine than what I’ve seen in a lot of churches.
You see, their sins are out in the open. In the churches, we prefer to keep ours hidden behind masks of self-righteousness.

Inmates aren’t the only ones who can practice “jailhouse” religion.

I read this report of prison ministry in Louisiana. “The testimony of transformation in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana is a story worth telling. Prisoners, some serving life sentences, have come to faith in Christ. Our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary started a seminary within the walls to train prisoners who felt a call to ministry. Graduation exercises are held inside the prison, where many prisoners have become ministers and servants. Their lives have been so transformed and their ministry so powerful that they are willing to sacrifice trusteeships or privileges earned through good behavior at Angola to transfer to other Louisiana prisons to serve as inmate-missionaries.”

You have a part in seeing people come to Christ in 172 prisons in Georgia and across the nation because our church gives to the Cooperative Program. Baptists operate a continuing education program for prisoners that enable them to be better qualified for a job when they are released.

We had Charles Colson to speak at a special meeting in Norfolk. It was my privilege visit with him about his ministry. The book Born Again details his conversion. You remember that he was special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973 and was sentenced to prison in 1974 for his involvement in Watergate. Newsweek and Time Magazines, dismissed his conversion as nothing more than an attempt at an early release from prison. But soon after his release he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based organization dedicated to serving prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. It is interesting to note that he died one year ago today, April 21, 2012. He had been active in prison ministry since 1976. He went on to receive the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993 and donated the money from the prize, worth more than $1 million, as he did all speaking fees and royalties, to further the work of Prison Fellowship.

The earthquake woke the jailor up. When he saw that the prison doors were opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself. This was the law – that if a jailor allowed his prisoners to escape he would have to pay with his own life. Knowing how brutal the Roman punishment would be, this man had already decided that if any of his prisoners escaped he would not submit to that kind of death. The worse had happened. He had wondered if he could do it. Now he had no choice. Just before he was ready to plunge his sword into himself, Paul saw what was happening and shouted out, “Don’t do it! We are all here.”

The crisis passed. But it jolted him to think about what he had heard earlier in the evening. Paul’s witness to him – the songs – the prayers – the spirit of these men – the inner strength they demonstrated – all of which was something that he didn’t have and he wanted it. He goes into the inner cell where Paul and Silas were and gets on his knees at their feet and asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He had already been saved from Roman justice. Now he wanted to be saved from Divine justice. He asked the question of the ages. It is one that every human being must ask.

The answer was short and simple. “Believe” – trust with all your heart. Place your eternal destiny in his hands. Accept the cleansing power of his blood on the cross to forgive all of your sins “…on the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is no other savior. Just like the prayer I prayed with David Paskiet last week, “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I want to be saved. I now open my heart and invite you to be my Lord and Savior as you forgive all of my sins. I now become your disciple and I believe that when life is over you will give me a home in heaven. With all my heart I believe.” It is as life shaking, eternity determining, spiritually transforming, and simple as that.

Evidently, the jailor’s family came to the prison concerned that their husband and father would be held responsible if the prisoner’s escaped because of the earthquake. Can you picture the scene? He says to his family, “Come in here and meet these two men. I want them to tell you what they told me. I have just been saved in two ways – from Roman justice and from Divine justice. I want all of you to know the Savior, Jesus whom they serve.” The way of Salvation was presented, accepted, believed and the whole family was accepted into the Kingdom of God. The jailor tended to the wounds of Paul and Silas and invited them to his house for a meal after they were released. The whole family was baptized and became members of the church at Philippi.

I heard of a prisoner who was sentenced to die in the electric chair. He was pardoned by the governor, but he would not accept it. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The ruling was that a pardon is not a pardon until it is accepted. He did not accept it and went to his death.

It is such a blessed thing when the whole family is saved. Is everyone in your family saved? Are you the only one in your family who is not saved? You can come out of the jailhouse of darkness and sin into the glorious freedom and light of the good news of Salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.

PRAISE BE TO HIS NAME!

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