For the past two Sundays, my pastor had preached on the Living Word; that is, the Word, which like love, is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The two sermons moved me so I was fully convicted to the point of repentance, and I prayed…... “Lord, is your Word alive within my heart? Do I present your Word in such a way that the hearers can see it’s alive in me?”
The sermons also took me back, back to a time when I was first saved. It also took me back to this story, which I wrote at least fifteen years ago, if not more. Based on the conversion of the Philippian Jailer in the Book of Acts (16), it is my written example of the Word as it came alive to me…
The Book of 1 John, verse 1:9 tells us that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But, though God forgives us, we need to be aware of what the prophet Ezekiel told the Nation of Israel, in Ezekiel 36:26 - “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh,” and in v.31 of chapter 36, “Then ye shall remember your own evil ways, and your doings that were not good, and shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and for your abominations.” These same truths apply also to all who would become a part of the family of God - to all those whom the Lord Jesus has renewed…………………..
For twenty years Hank Anderson had been a guard at the Downsville Prison Compound in a little town just outside of San Francisco, California. The facility was made up of twenty-five buildings; each containing two cells. Each cell could house two inmates. Designed for the hardened criminal, the place was built to make escape virtually impossible. It was to this compound that the two men, Harold Sanders and David Lawrence were brought.
Many years have passed since that fateful day. Hank Anderson is now an older man of eighty-five, though his memory is as sharp as ever. Eleanor, his beloved wife of forty years, has long since gone to be with the Lord. Now Hank spends a lot of his time in retrospect - reflecting, remembering. Some times the memories cause him to shudder. Some times they make him close his eyes in shame, as if closing his eyes might erase whatever atrocity surfaces to remind him of what he used to be.
At other times, the memories bring with them indescribable peace - the peace the Apostle Paul referred to in Philippians 4:7 when he wrote about, “peace that passes all understanding.” When these times of reflection are upon him, invariably the names of two men come to mind - the two men who had the greatest influence on his life; those to whom he put the same question the Philippian jailer had asked Paul and Silas in the Book of Acts, chapter 16, in a similar situation, “What must I do to be saved?”
Hank’s shift was almost over. The day had been quiet and uneventful, but just as Hank was preparing to leave the compound, the police brought in two light brown-skinned Negro men. One policeman said to Hank,
“Lock these men up and make sure they’re guarded at all times.” “And,” he added, “These orders are from the top.”
The backs of the men were raw; blood flowed freely from open cuts. Their upper and lower arms had already taken on a greenish hue. But, the horrible physical condition of these men had no real effect on Hank; for sometimes it fell on him to mete out punishment to a belligerent or insolent prisoner. When it did, the result was just as bad.
Standing well over six feet and weighing at least 300 pounds, Hank Anderson was a big bear of a man. His face deeply scarred, with a large bulbous nose that looked as if it might have broken any number of times, gave him a monstrous appearance. Hank’s eyes, however, belied his ugly looks; for beneath thick, jet-black eyebrows and long, silky, equally black lashes, peered the deepest dark-brown soft and penetrating eyes. Hank’s eyes were his only visible attribute.
It was a short walk from the jail to the small wood-frame house where Hank and his wife Eleanor lived, and he had been home only a few minutes when there came a knock at the door. Victor, another guard, was there to see him. Hank let him in asking,
“What’s going on Victor? Something happened that couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”
“It’s about those two prisoners brought in this afternoon. Orders are to keep them heavily guarded. I’m a little nervous about them - seeing no one seems to know what they’re in here for. Do you know what the charges are against them?”
“I was just getting off when they were brought in for lockup. I didn’t have time to learn anything about them. Has anything happened since I got off?”
“All I heard is that they’d robbed and almost killed a young woman; but, wait until tomorrow, maybe we can learn more about what’s going on.”
“Okay,” Victor said, “I’ll go on back to the pound.”
Victor’s visit aroused Hank’s curiosity so that the first thing he did the next morning was search through the arrest reports. Strangely, he could find nothing on the two prisoners. This made him wonder even more.
The housing lots were built in a lower part of the compound, which the inmates had named the “tombs.” Hank made his way into the tombs stopping directly in front of Lot II. Walking down the steps he thought he’d heard singing, but nothing had prepared him for what he witnessed in the cell.
The wrists of the two men were encircled with iron bracelets about two inches wide and chained to a pole extending from the cell floor. In addition, two inch rings connected to a ten-inch chain, and then to the cell-wall, adorned their necks. Dried blood was caked at the corner of one of the men’s eyes; while the other’s nose was so swollen, it looked like a balloon; yet, the men were, singing and praying.
Hank was totally confused! This scene made no sense! Beaten to within an inch of their lives, their very fate yet hanging in the air - and they were singing! The words of the song rang out loud and clear.
“I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day…..” Over and over they mouthed the words. Shaking his head, Hank slowly backed away from the cell. The prisoners, though, never once glanced his way.
Wednesday night Bible study over, Harold Sanders and David Lawrence left the church. Harold said, “How about if we stop and have a cup of coffee or something?”
“Sure,” came the reply, “sounds good to me.”
As the two walked towards the restaurant, a sharp scream suddenly pierced the night followed by a plea of, “Help me! Somebody, please help me!” The men stopped dead in their tracks listening to see if they could determine where the cries were coming from. The cries stopped, and they started walking again, but they’d only gone a few steps, when they heard, “Oh no!” This time their ears did catch where the sound was coming from, and without a word they took off. Their only thought - someone needed their help.
Oblivious to running feet behind them, the two ran straight to the site, where on the ground lay a young woman. A slight moan escaped her lips. Immediately Harold knelt beside the woman and took her wrist to check her pulse. David got down on the other side, took his handkerchief and wiped her face. Seeing she was still alive, though barely, David said, “We should get….” He never finished his sentence; for suddenly a mob of angry people were upon them.
One spoke from the crowd, “Just what do you niggers think you’re doing?” Ignoring the expletive, Harold said. “This woman needs help. She’s been beaten, and it looks like she’s been stabbed too.” David, eyeing a knife lying near on the ground, said,
“Yes, she has been stabbed, and this may be the knife.”
As he spoke, suddenly someone grabbed him from behind pulling him roughly away from the woman. Several others helped push him back against a brick wall, and they began to beat and kick him; someone even spit on him.
A police car drove up, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Only then were Harold and David able to get a look at the woman’s face - only then, did they see that the woman was white!
The police radioed for an ambulance, and within a very few minutes it was racing away with the barely breathing woman. The anger of the crowd swelled. They encircled the two men and began pummeling them in the face and on the head. At one point, Harold tried to say something but was cut off by a fist in his mouth.
Taking their time, the police officers finally broke through the crowd and forced them back. The faces of the two men were bloody. David’s eye had begun to swell. Still no one bothered to ask them any questions. The police handcuffed the men, loaded them into the car, and headed for the police station. The angry mob followed.
At the station, ignoring all orders to leave, the mob hurled rocks, cursed, and called the innocent young men terrible names. Finally, to get their attention, one of the officers shot his gun into the air. Only then did the crowd start to disperse.
When the men were finally brought before the judge, he said simply, “Take them to the compound, but first, take them down into the tombs and beat the tar out of them; and, don’t let them get away!”
Hank couldn’t get his mind off what he’d seen in the cell. Several times during the day he would stop whatever he was doing, and just stare into space. Now, with the end of his shift approaching, Hank felt a need to return to Lot II.
Only this time there were three men in the cell. At first, before he was close enough, Hank thought the third person was a guard, but a closer look shocked his senses! The third person was a guard alright, but he wasn’t guarding. He was on his knees, face pointed upward in the same direction as the two prisoners. The guard’s hands were clasped together in front of his chest, and he had the same expression on his face as did the prisoners! Hank just couldn’t make himself believe what he was seeing! Again, shaking his head, he backed away from the cell.
His thoughts were in turmoil as Hank hurriedly walked home. He was exhausted both mentally and physically. Hank’s wife, Eleanor, sensed he was disturbed about something, but she asked no questions. Instead, she greeted him as usual, “Hi hon,” she said, taking his cap and coat.
Hank, expressionless, grunted, “Evening.”
“Come on, I’ll fix you a glass of wine, and you can relax while I get dinner on the table.”
Eleanor brought Hank the wine. He laid his head back on his chair, closed his eyes and tried to sort out his thoughts. Allowing his mind to wander, Hank hoped it might land on an idea, a suggestion, anything that would put him at ease. His thoughts turned to Victor and how he had said he was “concerned about those two prisoners.” Hank was concerned too! And, for some reason, he was also afraid!
During dinner, Eleanor tried to make conversation, but Hank just couldn’t get involved; he was too tense! In bed he slept fitfully, tossing and turning most of the night, finally falling asleep just before dawn. On waking, Hank dragged himself out of bed, pushed himself to get ready for work, and left for the compound.
Having worked in the night’s man’s place, Victor went with Hank on his rounds. Lot 12 was now occupied, and Victor led Hank to pass it first.
Hank checked to make sure the cell lock was secure, and he was prepared to go on, but Victor’s actions made him stop and stare! His mouth formed the letter O, as he watched Victor reach his hands through the cell bars and pat the inmates reassuringly on their shoulders. He almost lost his balance when he heard Victor say, “God be with you.” “What God?” Hank asked himself aloud.
Then, forcing himself to look closer at the two men, Hank saw to his surprise that their faces held the same expression he’d seen on the faces of the others. “What is happening here? Who are these men?” Hank, with hands lifted, asked the air. If Victor heard him, he never acknowledged it. With a smile on his face, Victor pulled his hands from between the cell bars and led Hank on to Lot II.
But nothing could have prepared Hank for what he would see and what Victor would do when they got to the next cell - Lot II! Here were two prison guards on their knees - hands clasped together, touching their chins. Their eyes were shining, and all four faces look upward! Each had a peaceful glow about him. And, as soon as Hank and Victor were directly in front of the cell, Victor knelt and closed his eyes too!
This was too much for Hank, and again, he could not accept what he was seeing! Never! He had been working here for twenty years! His heart was beating fast! He touched his chest. He began to perspire - big drops of water dropped from his face onto his arms.
Hank looked at the faces of the men - there was so much contentment there! “But, how could this be?” Hank spoke again to the air. He was so confused! He didn’t know what to do! He wanted to leave, to get away from the sight before him, but for some reason he couldn’t move. His feet seemed to be stuck! Struggling for control, he was finally able to move, and backing out of the cell, Hank ran, as fast as he could, leaving Victor there on his knees.
Hank spoke to no one about what had happened. He stole glances at the other guards thinking they too looked strange, but then decided that perhaps it was his imagination. He wanted to question them but was afraid - afraid of what they might tell him. So he remained silent. For the rest of the shift Hank stayed deliberately distanced himself from the other men. When the end of the day finally came, he hurriedly left the compound.
Hank hadn’t discussed any of the strange goings on with his wife, but tonight was different. Tonight he had a need to include her - to tell her about the strange happenings at the compound, but he didn’t know how to begin.
Several times he attempted to say something but would stop, unable to get it out. Then it came to him. So, speaking, he hoped, as calmly as he could, he asked, “Eleanor, do you know anything about the ’Living God,” as they call him?
An odd look came on Eleanor’s face, and she asked innocently, “What on earth are you talking about?”
Hank didn’t trust her innocence, but he had to talk - to verbalize, hoping that in hearing himself speak about the things he’d seen, he might be able to make some sense of it. So he told her, beginning with Victor’s visit and today’s happenings. He finished with, “What bothers me is that everyone who comes in contact with these two men begin to act just like them!”
Hank had hardly finished his last sentence when there was a knock on the door. A young man was there with a note. He took it and read, “Please come back to the compound and be prepared to stay for a while. Victor has taken ill and had to go home.” A.A.
Hank recognized the handwriting as Antonio’s, the chief guard. At the same time he wondered if it might not be a trick to get him back to the compound. He asked Eleanor, “What do you think I should do? Do you think it might be a trick?”
“No, I don’t think it’s a trick - go on back. You might find answers to some of the things puzzling you.”
Hank took Eleanor’s advice and went back to the compound. Sure enough, Antonio was there waiting for him. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I’d stay here with you for a while, but my wife has planned for company. If you don’t get relieved by midnight, send for me, and I’ll come back.”
Once Antonio was gone, Hank got out the ledger books and worked on them for a while. He felt himself getting tired, laid his head down on the desk and fell sound asleep. When he woke up, he saw that it was exactly twelve midnight. He heard sounds and opened the door of the little office to see what it was. It was singing. Hank cried aloud,
“No! Not again!”
Walking out into the compound toward the buildings, he stopped just a few feet away. For a few minutes he just stood listening - trying to pinpoint exactly which cell the singing was coming from - knowing all the time - but hoping with all his heart that he was wrong - that the sounds weren’t coming from Lot II.
Suddenly Hank realized he was hearing more than singing noises! A loud rumbling noise exploded through the singing. It seemed that the very ground he stood on moved, and looking down at the ground, he saw that, in fact, it was moving! There was a big tear right in the center of the earth. Hank started to run. He ran straight, straight ahead, but as he moved, he looked from side to side, and he could see that the door of each lot was open.
Hank kept running; his feet, moving as if they had a mind of their own. The faster he ran, the bigger the tear in the earth got - forcing Hank to run on into a dead-end - the opened door of Lot II. Miraculously, the tear stopped.
Peering into the small space, Hank saw the two men, Harold and David on their knees, surrounded by prisoners from other lots - their cell doors having been opened, and chains that once bound them, having been miraculously unlocked. Some, with faces turned upward, hands raised high over their heads, eyes shining, mouthed voiceless prayers; while others sang and prayed aloud with heads bowed low in humble submission to their God.
“What is this?” Hank asked the air aloud. In an environment of anger and evil, here were men praying, crying, smiling and singing. Here were convicted criminals, or those waiting to be convicted, now docile, peaceful. Never in all of his days would Hank have even dreamed something like this could or would happen in the Philippian jail. How could it? There was no answer to Hank’s questions - at least not for now. He wouldn’t understand anyway. But, the answer was on the way. Hank would soon know what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote about the “peace that passeth all understanding.”
In awe, Hank watched as still prisoners from other lots came to stand at the door of Lot II. He felt himself starting to shake. Hank was afraid - more afraid than he had ever been in his life! But, there was something else, something he couldn’t explain.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the letter Paul wrote to the Philippians, 1:12 “But I would ye should understand brethren, that the things which happened unto me have turned out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and all other places. And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”
Hank’s fear, though, got the best of him. He pulled the gun from inside his belt, where he had pushed it before coming into the compound, and put it to his head. His orders had been to guard the prisoners with his very life! And, here they were - all free; free to do whatever they wanted to do. Still holding the gun close to his head, Hank looked up and into the eyes of Harold. Turning sideways he looked at David; then, into the eyes of some of the other prisoners and the guards that were with them.
In the eyes of these men Hank saw not only peace and contentment - he saw something else - something that pulled at the very core of his being! Hank saw love, and kindness, and yes, he saw understanding too!
Harold held his hand out to him, and Hank, meek as a lamb, placed the revolver into the open hand. David took Hank’s other hand. Suddenly Hank knew he wanted what these men and their converts had. He wanted peace, and contentment, and love!
Hank heard himself asking, “What must I do to be saved?” In those few moments Hank discovered that he was lost. He needed a savior. He heard Harold answer him - tell him what he must do.
Harold could feel the fear that had enveloped Hank. He could feel Hank’s desperation. And, knowing God’s desire is the “broken and contrite heart,” he said to Hank, as the Apostle Paul had so long ago told the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you and your house will be saved,” (Acts 16:31).
That was the day Hank Anderson became a Christian - that was the day he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. But, that’s not all, knowing his responsibility to all his household, he took the two men home with him as did the jailer in the Book of Acts, “He brought them into his house and set a meal before them, and he rejoiced with all his house when he believed in God,” (Acts 16:34)
William Barclay, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, writes, “When we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior - when we repent of our sins, a change occurs. We become new creatures. This change becomes apparent in the things we do, or better said, our works.”
“The Jailer immediately proceeded to try and make amends for the ill treatment the two men had been subjected to. First, he brought them to his house and washed the welts upon their backs. He allowed them to bathe, and gave them his very own clothes to wear.”
Hank Anderson, too, took his new found friends home with him. He, too, immediately proceeded to try and make amends for the ill treatment the two men had received both at his hands and others. He allowed them to bathe, and gave his very own clothes for them to wear. He then made it his business to find the person(s) who actually committed the crime these men had been so wrongly accused of.
In this same commentary, William Barclay also wrote:
“A man’s Christianity will make him kind, and the change in a man’s heart will definitely bring about a change in his deeds.”
What of the other prisoners? Our God is an orderly God, so it would seem only natural that these men would, obediently, go back into their cells and take their punishment for the crimes they had committed. The difference being, of course, that now there would no longer be a need for the chains and shackles.