The Work in Philippi: Part 11 of 14
by John Lowe
28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.
The jailer’s prisoners had not escaped; and when Paul looked up in the open doorway and saw what he was about to do, he shouted for him to stop, assuring him that they were all still in their cells. The jailer was stopped in the very act of committing suicide. A hard-hearted person seeking vengeance would have let the cruel jailer kill himself, but Paul was not that kind of a man (see Matthew 5:10-12, 43-48). It was the jailer who was the prisoner, not Paul; and Paul not only saved the man’s life, but pointed him to eternal life in Christ. At this point, the reader would have expected the story of Paul and Silas’s escape. It was not to be so. The miraculous release did not lead to their escape but to the far more significant event of the jailer’s conversion.
This was a miracle in three parts: (1) Paul and Silas rejoicing in suffering; (2) then every door opened, every chain was undone, every prisoner released by an earthquake; (3) but more than that, every single prisoner restrained from running away.
29 Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,
Calling for lamps or torches, the jailer rushed in and fell at the feet of Paul and Silas, overcome by awe and gratitude. It may have been a gesture of worship, but Paul did not object, as he did at Lystra (14:15). Paul had saved his life, and Paul’s God, who had reduced in an instant all his efforts at prison security, was obviously a person to be respected. Conviction of the Holy Spirit and yearning filled his soul. A greater miracle than the shaking of the prison had taken place; he was shaken himself and ready to be saved.
It was true! Some power greater than any he had ever known had kept each prisoner riveted, spellbound, and in his cell. Whatever the explanation, it was connected with Paul and Silas. There was something about those men. Perhaps the jailer already knew something of the real reason for their arrest, and had heard something of their mission and message around town. Perhaps they had responded with a kind word to his threats and rough treatment when he locked them up. Or perhaps he had heard them singing before he went to bed. All he knew was that his narrow escape from death was, in some way, related to these men.
30 And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
The man was by now thoroughly under conviction. He had been brought into contact with a quality of life superior to anything he had known. His first reaction was to bring Paul and Silas out where he could get a better look at them. His second reaction was to ask them how he could be saved. A sense of his own personal sinfulness must have weighed upon him. He knew only too well that, had the positions been reversed, he would have made good his escape and encouraged the other prisoners to do the same.
Death had stared him in the face. The whole life of a drowning man is said to pass before him in the seconds before he dies. I experienced this myself as a teenager. Maybe something like that happened to the jailer; and now he was afraid to meet God in his sins. In any case, in a blinding moment of truth, he knew he was lost and that he needed to be saved. If anyone could tell him how to be saved it was these two men. “Sirs,” he said, and there was a new respect and awe in his voice, “What must I do to be saved?”
It has often been argued that his question (“What must I do to be saved?”) was intended in the secular sense of the word “salvation,” that he was asking how his life could be spared. But his life had already been spared. No one had escaped. More likely he asked about his salvation in the full religious sense; otherwise, why did he fall down in supplication before Paul and Silas, or why did Paul provide a spiritual answer? Luke does not tell us that the jailer had previous knowledge about Paul’s message of salvation. Perhaps he had heard the servant girl’s proclamation that Paul spoke of the way of salvation (v. 17). Perhaps he had heard Paul’s preaching or reports of his preaching but had not fully understood. Perhaps he had fallen asleep to the sound of Paul and Silas’s hymns to God. Perhaps the jailer gained this information about the apostle when the officials delivered the prisoners to the prison. In any case, he was able to piece enough together to know that they proclaimed a way of salvation. Now he was ready for understanding. The miracle of the earthquake and the prisoners who wouldn’t flee seized his attention and prepared his heart to receive Paul’s message.
31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
His question is a classic expression that has lived through the centuries and must be asked by everyone who comes to faith—“What must I do to be saved?” A man must know he is lost before he can be saved. It is premature to tell a man how to be saved until first, he can say from his heart, “I truly deserve to go to hell.” The only people in the New Testament who were ever told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ were convicted sinners.
“Do?” Why all the doing has already been done. Done by Jesus in his immaculate life and atoning death. “Believe!” that was the word now. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” It is as simple as that. This was the gospel reduced to its elementary terms. Believe: not in a creed but in the Christ, not in a statement of faith, not in baptism, not in good works, not in a sacrament or ritual—but in the Lord Jesus Christ, in that glorious living, dynamic person who is alive forevermore and is mighty to save. Believe in a Master—the Lord; in a Man—Jesus; in the Messiah—Christ. Lord, that enthrones Him in the will; Jesus, that enthrones him in the heart; Christ, that enthrones him in the intellect. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” We find similar words spoken to Cornelius by an angel in Acts 11:14—“Who shall tell you words, whereby you and all your house shall be saved.”
The answer of the missionaries presumes that this man had heard of the Lord Jesus Christ. That would not be surprising. Philippi was not that big a town, and the preaching of Paul and Silas had made quite a stir. Barely waiting, it seems, to digest the news of salvation full and free, the jailer brought his prisoners into his house. His first thought had been for his own soul; his second thought was for his family. His wife. His children. They would be thinking the worst, thinking that he was already dead. They knew the stern Roman code—if just one prisoner had escaped, the jailer’s life would be forfeited. He must hurry home, and the two men must come with him. His family must hear the news; they, too, must be saved. Thousands of such thoughts flashed through his mind as he conducted Paul and Silas to his stricken home.
32 And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.
At some point, the jailer’s household entered the scene. Luke did not specify when. Perhaps the mention of the household triggered the jailer’s awareness that Paul and Silas were about to share something his whole family should hear. In any event, all were present, and now was the time for Paul and Silas to share the words of the Lord, and to expand upon the bear statement “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” And so they did. What a wonderful story they told to that awestruck household of the jailer. Here Luke made explicit what was implied in the Lydia story: the whole household heard the gospel proclaimed. There was no “proxy” faith; his faith couldn’t save anyone but him. The whole family came to faith in God (v. 34). Coming from a pagan background as they did, their newfound faith had a double dimension—faith in Jesus as Savior and faith in God as the one true God.
The whole family drank in these wonderful words of life, and their hearts were opened to the gospel. Paul and Silas surely reckoned the sufferings they had endured not worthy to be compared with the glory that followed—of seeing the Holy Spirit bring this whole family to Christ.