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Philippian Jailor

Acts 16:25-31

08/28/94 and 02/08/04

by Tony Grant


I now invite you to turn to the book of Acts, chapter 16, and follow along as I read verses 25-31.  Hear what the Spirit says to us.


25  And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.

26  And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one's bands were loosed.

27  And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.

28  But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.

29  Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas,

30  And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

31  And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

Amen.  The word of God.  Thanks be to God.




Paul and Silas were in the clink, in the slammer.  They had come to the Greek city of Philippi to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.  Then, Paul had freed a girl from slavery to the occult, so that her masters could no longer make money from her soothsaying and fortunetelling, so these same masters brought charges against Paul and Silas, saying that they were trying to upset the laws and customs of the city. 

And they were, of course.  Paul and Silas preached the gospel, and that is what the gospel always does.  It changes people so that they are no longer content with foolish customs and ugly superstitions.  Verses 23-24 tell us how the two missionaries were scourged, and cast into prison, and the jailor was strictly charged with keeping them there.  Basically, the city magistrates told the jailor, if you do not deliver them up when the time comes, you serve their sentence.  So the Jailor—we do not know his name by the way; He is always just the jailor—he made certain of their captivity.  He chained them to the walls in the deepest dungeon that he had.

Thus, in v25, we find Paul and Silas in jail, in chains, with stripes of the whip on their backs, and what are they doing?  They are praying and singing praises to God.  Our first question then is how can they possibly be doing that under those circumstances?  Most people would be sullen and discouraged, not Paul and Silas.  Paul and Silas were committed to doing God’s will—which in this case was to preach the gospel—and if that brought them to jail, they were content to be in jail.  They had that peace of mind that comes of knowing that they were serving God, and thus they were willing and eager to praise God, no matter what the circumstances.

Also, there is a psychological principle here.  When things go bad for us, it does not help much to dwell upon how bad things are and to get all depressed and down about how awful our situation is.  We should try instead the remedy of Paul and Silas.  We should pray and sing praises to God.  At the very least it will lift up our spirits, and, who knows, it might cause an earthquake in our lives.

That is what happened at Philippi.  An earthquake struck.  It broke down the walls that were holding the chains of the prisoners and broke open the prison doors.

The Jailor rushed into the prison, and seeing the destruction assumed that the prisoners had escaped.  Rather than face the shame of having to serve their sentence, he drew his sword, intending to fall upon it and kill himself.  But Paul and Silas cried out to the man in v28, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.”  That demonstrated to the jailor that Paul and Silas were not like other men.  Other prisoners, with crimes on their consciences, would have escaped, given the chance.  Paul and Silas did not.  So the jailor called for torches, and went into the dungeon and fell down before Paul and Silas and thanked them for saving his life.  Perhaps it was that salvation that led him to think of the salvation of his soul.

In v30, his question seems almost to come from nowhere.  “What must I do to be saved?”  We wonder why he would ask that question.  He knew that Paul and Silas were special prisoners.  We can surmise that he had found out to some extent why they were special.  Probably he had learned something about the message the two missionaries had proclaimed in the city the previous day, and now that they have saved his life, he wonders if they can save his soul.  And so he asks, What must I do to be saved?

Paul and Silas answered immediately: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved"(16:31).  That is God's plan of salvation, the only plan of salvation, faith in Jesus Christ.  But this faith is not a simple concept.  It implies many things.  For example, it implies that we realize some things about ourselves.

That Philippian jailor went trembling into the presence of Paul and Silas because he realized that he was in the presence of holy men of god, and that he was not holy.  He realized that he was a lost sinner with no hope at all of approaching God, and because he realized that he was lost, there was hope for him.

Let me use an illustration that I have used before.  This has become a Grant family legend.  During the summer of 1988, I went backpacking in the Shining Rock Wilderness Area.  I went with my two sons and my brother and his son.  And we got lost.  We had a trail map, but we soon learned that it was inaccurate.  We kept coming across paths that were not on the map.  The trail we were on crossed a creek and according to the map it was not supposed to cross a creek.  However, we figured that if we went in a northeasterly direction, we would still arrive at our destination, which was a rock-capped mountain known as Shining Rock, the mountain that gives its name to the whole wilderness area.  When we crossed the creek, we found a fairly good path in the direction that we wanted to go, and so we assumed that a new trail had been constructed and that we could follow it to our destination.  You know about that word “assume” don't you?  The trail, we found out later made a gradual turn to the northwest.  You might say, Why did you not notice the turn?  Had we been out West, where you can see a long way, we probably would have, but in our eastern woodlands, with big trees and thick foliage, visibility is usually limited to about twenty yards. and all hiking trails are laid out like so many coiled snakes up and down mountainsides.  So we did not notice.  We stubbornly followed that trail all day in the wrong direction.  We thought we were getting closer to our destination.  In fact, we were getting farther away. 

We had some indications that things were not right, but we refused to be deterred by facts that did not fit our preconceived notion of where we were.  According to the trail map, it was four miles to Shining Rock Mountain.  After we hiked six hours and saw no sign of Shining Rock, we should have realized that something was wrong, but we knew that the map was inaccurate , and we thought that the new trail was just longer than the old.  I supposed that we should have known that it could not possibly be that much longer, but it is hard to estimate distance on the trail.

One last coincidence totally befuddled us.  We made camp at a spot where a creek ran north and walking out into the creek and looking due south we could see a road dimly visible on a mountainside several miles away.  On our map, there was a spot about half a mile short of Shining Rock Mountain where a creek ran north and to the south was a small dirt road.  So, we assumed that was where we were and that in the morning we would reach the end of the trail.  Of course, there was another place on the map where a creek ran north and a road was visible to the south, but that was a good eight miles away to the northwest, and we knew that we could not be there.  Imagine our shock then the next morning when we hiked two miles up a mountain and reached not Shining Rock Mountain, but the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We knew the parkway could not be there. It was ten miles away, but it was there, and finally our blissful ignorance was shattered.  We knew we were lost.  Thank God for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  If it had not been for the Parkway, we would probably have hiked all the way to Tennessee.  We realized when we got to the Parkway that we were a good ten miles from where we should have been.  And the only way to get back to where we should have been was to shoulder our packs and walk, which we did, but here is the point: we were lost.  We were going in the wrong direction, getting more and more lost, and there was nothing we could do about it.  There was not one blessed thing we could do about it, until we realized we were lost.

The same is true of our relationship to God.  The question is; "What must I do to be saved?"  The first step in answering that question is to realize that we are lost, that we are the guilty sinners who have damned ourselves by our sins.  Isaiah 53:6, "All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way."  Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."  The scriptural teaching is that our heart is wrong, and our lives are going the wrong way.  We can only be saved when we realize our lostness, and despair of ourselves and cast ourselves entirely upon the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ on the cross.

When it comes to the matter of salvation, we must give up on ourselves and our doings.  We recognize that nothing we can do will make us worthy of salvation.  If we could keep the law of God perfectly, we would be pleasing to the holy God, but we do not do keep God’s laws, we do not perfectly obey God; thus, none of us is acceptable to God, and nothing we do can justify us in God’s sight.  We can join a church, but church membership does not save us.  We can be baptized, but baptism does not save us.  We can live a good moral life and be a good citizen, but living a good moral life and being a good citizen does not save us.  Titus 3:5, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, according to his mercy he saved us., by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Spirit."  So, we do not depend upon what we do for our salvation.  We depend upon the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

According to the scriptures, the penalty for sin must be paid in blood.  Heb. 9:22 "Without the shedding of blood is no remission."  Under the Old Testament covenant, every lamb, every bullock, every heifer, every goat, every turtledove, every pigeon that was offered on the altar of sacrifice was a shadow of the one true sacrifice that was to come.  Jesus of Nazareth was the one true sacrifice.  He was the innocent who shed his blood his blood on the cross for my sins.  I Peter 1:18-19  "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot."

Thus, we see that Peter says exactly what Paul and Silas said in Acts 16:31.  If we would be saved, we must believe on Jesus, no qualifications, no additions.  But, you might ask, does not the Bible says that there is something more to salvation than simply believing on Christ?  Doesn't it say, for example, that we should repent of our sins.  Of course, it does.  Jesus said in Luke 13:3, "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."  Repentance then is part of God's plan of salvation, or put it another way, repentance is part of believing in Jesus, for only those who repent truly believe on Jesus.  The problem is that many people do not understand what repentance means.  They suppose that it means a certain period of time spent in weeping and mourning over past sins.  Thus, in old time revival meetings, in some churches at least, they had "the mourner's bench," and thousands of people were taught that they could not be saved, that God would not forgive their sins, unless they came to "the mourner's bench" and sorrowed over their sins.

Now it is true that if we love Jesus, we will have a broken and penitent heart over our sins against him.  When we believe on Jesus, we become aware of how much we have been serving the devil, and we are ashamed of what we have done.  But notice this: However much shame and sorrow we might feel, shame and sorrow do not save us.  Paul and Silas did not tell the Philippian jailor, "You shall be saved by being ashamed and sorry about your sins."

In ancient Greek, repentance means literally “to have a change of heart.”  It means that we are going one way and living one way and we do an about face and go the other way.  That is also what believing in Jesus Christ means.  It means that we are going one way and living one way and Jesus comes into our lives, and so changes us that we turn around and follow him.  Hence we do not speak of repentance of sins as something separate from believing in Jesus.  It is not that we repent and then we believe and then we are saved.  Rather it is that because we believe, we are ashamed of the way that we have been living and we begin to live in Jesus’ way.

To repent does not mean that we spend a lot of time in morbid meditation upon our past sins.  That is just more sin worship and self-worship.  If we spend all our time thinking about our sins, then we worship our sins and ourselves.  That is not the gospel.  The gospel is that I trust Jesus to take care of my sins.

Let us return for a moment to my ill-fated backpacking expedition.  I had a compass on that expedition.  I believed that this compass was accurate, but I put it in my pocket, and mostly left it there, and made little use of it on the hike.  So, even though I believed in the accuracy of my compass in a general and theoretical way, that belief did me no good because I made no practical, personal use of it.  The same is true of Jesus.  We may believe in Jesus in a general way.  We may believe, for example, that it would be a good thing if everybody believed in Jesus, but if we do not apply that belief personally it has no value for me.

This is what James is talking about when he says in 2:19 of his letter that it is nice that you believe in God, but that is not enough, because even the devil believes in God.  The devil knows that there is a God.  The devil is not an atheist.  The devil knows that there is a savior.  He knows, but his knowledge does not save him, because he makes no personal application of it.  In the same way, people can say, “I believe in Jesus “and yet they are not saved.  Many people attending church on this sabbath make some kind of general profession of Christ, and they are no more saved than the devil.  Because to believe on Jesus is not to make a general statement about Jesus, it is to personally apply the gospel to my life, to personally commit my life to Christ.

Let us conclude then.  The question of the Philippian jailor is plain enough: “What must I do to be saved?”  The answer is plain enough: Believe on Jesus Christ.  Is that your answer to that question?  Have you received Jesus as your personal savior?  If not, we need to talk about it, because this is the single most important decision that you will ever make.  Amen.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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