Acts16v25to40: THE PHILIPPIAN JAILER
(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)
The jailer's question is central to the account of Paul and Silas's night in prison. It is the most important question that any man or woman can ask. It is a tragedy that more people in my country don't ask the question with the same urgency as the Philippian jailer. We need to examine why the jailer asked the question, what he meant by it, how Paul answered it and what the response was.
(B) What led up to the question.
We cannot discount entirely the pronouncement of the medium: "These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you the way to be saved." v17. The jailer knew the circumstances that led to the imprisonment of Paul and Silas. They were the obvious ones to ask about the way of salvation.
The jailer heard Paul and Silas praying and singing. He may have fallen asleep as he listened to them. He had been commanded to guard them carefully. v23. So, perhaps, the security conscious jailer slept in the prison block close to the cell of the two missionaries.
The situation of Paul and Silas was not good. Their backs were sore, their wounds undressed and the cell full of flies. They were faint from hunger and loss of blood. Their future was uncertain. But still the gospel preachers were able to sing!
Prayer and song are very therapeutic in times of trouble. One afternoon I visited my old friend Will White in Pilgrims Homes, Great Finborough. I could hear an old man singing in the next room. I cannot honestly report that the singing was very tuneful but I noted the tremendous enthusiasm with which he sang:
It obviously did him the power of good.
An earthquake woke the jailer. There can be very few experiences more traumatic than to be awoken by a severe earthquake. Death is near. It is painfully obvious that life is finite. It is possible to assess the shortcomings of your life in a remarkably short time when the grim reaper stands at the door.
The jailer was in a state of panic. He could see by the dim light of a smouldering lamp fixed to the corridor wall that the cell doors had swung open but he could not see into the cells. They remained in darkness. The jailer thought that the prisoners had all escaped. He visualised the consequences - interrogation, beating, disgrace and a humiliating death. With a cry of despair he drew his sword intending to commit suicide only to be stopped by Paul's merciful intervention: "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" v28.
Paul had not been overwhelmed by circumstances. The earthquake had not numbed him with fear. He had no abject terror of death. Paul had his wits about him. He heard the jailer's cry, heard the sword being drawn - perhaps, he saw the shadow of it cast by the dim lamplight upon the prison wall and spoke out in mercy to save the man's life.
All the events detailed above prepared the jailer for conversion. I do not believe anyone is saved without prior preparation. The apostle himself was prepared for his experience on the road to Damascus by the martyr's death of Stephen. Paul resisted the goading of his conscience for weeks before the voice from heaven accosted him. I can remember on a Sunday morning preaching a sermon that led to the conversion of two women in the congregation. One of those women had been discussing Christianity with her husband for weeks. He had been converted earlier and had been talking to his wife about his experience. Pauline was prepared for the message I gave. Satan knew it, too, because he greatly hindered me in the production of that particular address.
(C) What did the jailer mean by the question.
The jailer had been saved - from the earthquake, disgrace and death. His life was safe. So what could he mean by asking, "What must I do to be saved?" v30.
One of the expositors in The Pulpit Commentary on Acts wrote that he needed saving from the penal consequences of sin and moral power of his sinfulness.
The penal consequence of sin is death. There are three kinds of death that result from sin. Sinners are dead to God. There is no real communion between God and us. He has withdrawn and no longer walks with us in the cool of the day. All men physically die. Our old bodies will not last forever. Finally, for those who remain God's enemies at heart there is ultimately the destruction of both body and soul.
Our fallen natures continually drag us down. We have little power to withstand the inclination to sin when it is strong upon us. We scarcely live a day of our lives without falling short of the standards we set ourselves let along the standards that God sets.
It is very doubtful that the Philippian jailer thought along these lines exactly - nor do most people who are converted! The jailer just knew that he needed saving from the way he was. He compared himself with Paul and Silas and he was disgusted with the life he led. He hadn't the fortitude, inner joy, peace or consideration for others that Paul exhibited. The jailer feared death. He had no sort of relationship with God. He had no hope of life beyond the grave because he had no assurance that God was interested him let alone loved him. The jailer was lost and he knew it.
We should not underestimate the power of a good example. I can recall going to visit a woman in hospital who was riddled with cancer. She was dying but she was at peace. She did not complain and nor was she frightened. Kath's concern was all for her husband and how he would cope without her.
Most people become Christians because they want to be saved from what they are. They long to change and they cry out to Jesus to change them. They are like the football hooligan in Sweden who as he watched his mates kick to the ground a rival supporter finally cried out in disgust, "Jesus change me." The man who made that prayer hardly knew anything about Jesus but what he knew was enough. His cry gave Jesus the opportunity to come into his life and to save him.
(D) What was Paul's answer to the question.
There are certain things Paul didn't do:
(b) Point him to a system of belief. Paul didn't tell the jailer that if he believed a certain set of doctrines, adopted a particular church view, joined a religious organisation or accepted the authority of a church hierarchy he would be saved.
(c) Lead him through a process. Paul did not read the jailer a passage from the Bible, pray on his behalf or get him to sign a decision card.
(d) Hesitate. The apostle wasn't lost for words. He wasn't uncertain how to answer the jailer's request. Paul wasn't embarrassed to be asked such a question. He didn't say, "Well it is a bit complicated. We will need several hours to explore that question."
Paul and Silas replied to the jailer's question as one: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household." v31. Paul did not point the jailer to Jesus' saving work but to Jesus himself. This is because in the first instance the human heart must submit to Jesus. A sinner has to answer, "I will," to that command of Paul and Silas. Saving faith involves submitting, surrendering and yielding to Jesus. The rebel has to shoulder arms and say to the Saviour, "I give in. Please rescue me."
Paul's conversion experience involved submission. He asked only two questions of the bright light from heaven: "Who are you Lord?" and "What shall I do, Lord?" Acts22v8and10. Paul yielded to the Living Lord and in yielding was dramatically changed.
After the jailer believed then Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. v33. I expect the two evangelists told the jailer, his family and slaves about the saving work of Jesus in which they must trust - his death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation. They may, too, have introduced some of the saving words of Jesus which must be obeyed. Jesus expects fruit from his followers. Both faith and works are equally important. We cannot be saved without trusting and obeying. God forgives our sins in Jesus' name because Jesus made sacrifice for sin. He made a peace offering on our behalf to reconcile us to God. The genuine believer expresses gratitude and devotion to Jesus through good works.
(E) What was the sequel to the jailer's question?
The jailer listened as Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to him. This was the first priority. Paul did not say, "Once we have cleaned up a bit and had something to eat we'll explain to you the way of salvation." No, sore of back and bloody though they were, the most urgent matter was to show this inquirer clearly how Jesus saves.
There was, however, something for the jailer to do before he was baptised. He needed to right the wrong done to Paul and Silas. The jailer had treated them with supreme indifference when they were brought into prison. He did not provide them with so much as a bowl of water with which to bath their wounds. The jailer showed them no compassion.
Repentance is an important part of the conversion process. It was appropriate that the jailer repented of his callowness and demonstrated this to Paul and Silas before he was baptised. So he personally washed the wounds of the two missionaries. This act of contrition was as much symbolic of his new life in Christ as his subsequent baptism.
The jailer and all his family were baptised in the middle of the night. They may have gone to a Roman bathhouse for the ceremony. In spite of their weak condition Paul and Silas were eager to baptise the believers as soon as possible. There was no delay; the jailer and his household were baptised and accepted into fellowship with other believers within a few hours of conversion. In Baptist churches things are very different today. There are converts who put off baptism for years. Some never get baptised. It is important otherwise Jesus would never have commanded his followers to go into all the world baptising disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Mt28v19. Satan knows how important believer's baptism is and that is why he has done his utmost to distort the practice of the church from the intention of the Master.
Finally Paul and Silas got an early breakfast. They ate it with the jailer and his family. What an occasion that must have been. The jailer was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God - he and his whole family. v34.
So many of us long for that with all our hearts - to be filled with joy because our whole family believe in Jesus.
I sometimes have my doubts. I cannot always see God in Creation or History or Providence. But I do believe in Jesus.
I have just finished reading the life of Joseph Stalin. He terrorised, conditioned and misinformed the Russian people into idolising him. In the late 1930s, after a demonic reign of terror, Stalin experienced the adulation of the masses. He isn't idolised now! He is discredited, despised and disgraced.
Jesus has never been discredited. His reputation remains intact after 2000 years. None of the mud has stuck! No-one has succeeded in undermining the power of that life so full of grace and truth.
There is no better answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved," than to say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved."