Hoyt H. Houchen
We take up the conversion of the jailor which is recorded in the 16th chapter of the books of Acts, beginning with verse 16. This conversion, like the rest, has caused much discussion in the religious world.
Paul and Silas had been in the city of Philippi a number of days preaching. As they were going to the place of prayer, they were met by a maid who had a spirit of divination. She followed after them and cried out saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim unto you the way of salvation.” The spirit of divination was an evil spirit and while we know little about such spirits, they were quite prevalent during the personal ministry of Christ and during the early stage of the church after its establishment. These spirits sometimes spoke truth as was true of the one in Capernaum that we read about in Mark 1:24 and who cried out saying, “What have we to do with thee, Jesus thou Nazarene?” Neither Jesus nor the apostles wanted any recognition from evil spirits, and Paul and Silas did not want the testimony of this spirit which cried out to them. Paul, being sore troubled, said to the spirit, “I charge thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And it came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18).
The 19th verse tells us that “when the masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, they laid hold on Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the market-place before the rulers.” These rulers brought false charges against Paul and Silas, not knowing that they were Roman citizens, and accused them of setting forth customs which it was not lawful for Romans to receive or observe. After they were beaten with rods and many stripes were laid upon them, they were cast into prison and the jailor was charged to keep them safely. Here we have a scene in the jail at Philippi, two Gospel preachers who had been falsely accused and who had been cast into the inner prison, and whose feet were made fast in the stocks. In that cell of a Roman colony in far away Europe, the scene was not that of two men who were cursing society and heaping self-pity upon themselves, but rather two servants of God who were “praying and singing hymns unto God” (Acts 16:25). What a contrast that these two proclaimers of God’s word were communing with God by prayer and song, and what must the thoughts have been of the other prisoners who were listening to these foreigners!
Then suddenly something took place. Verse 26 reads, “and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison-house were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened: and every one’s bands were loosed.” Reading on, verse 27, “And the jailor, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.” The penalty of death was to be inflicted upon the guards who would allow their prisoners to escape; hence this act of suicide was about to be committed by the jailor. Verse 28, “But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.” This statement of Paul’s revived the jailer’s hopes and it motivated him to inquire about his salvation. Now let us notice his request that is stated in verse 29. “And he called for lights and sprang in, and trembling for fear, fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, Sirs what must I do to be saved?”
The question, what must I do to be saved?, is one of the greatest questions ever asked. It is a question that concerns the soul and its destiny. Nothing else matters; but if our soul is lost, only to spend eternity in hell, we have lost everything and gained nothing. This question implies three things: (1) conviction of guilt. The man realized that he was unsaved and that is why he asked what to do to be saved. He knew that he stood separated from God and the hope of eternal life. (2) The jailer’s question implies a sense of danger. There was the danger of his losing his soul. How dangerous it is for people today to be so engaged in the daily affairs of home, business, and pleasure that they give no thought as to where their souls will spend eternity. There is danger in self-satisfaction and indifference to the great truths that are revealed in God’s holy word. (3) The question of the jailor implies a desire for instruction. He was seeking the truth and his inquiring mind led him to ask the question that he did. It was not what must I feel, but what must I do? The very nature of the question teaches that there is something for man to do in salvation. God does his part. He has and is doing all that he can for man but man also has something to do in order to be saved. The idea that salvation is wholly by the grace of God is foreign to the teaching of the Bible.
But what was the answer to the jailer’s question? They replied in verse 31, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.” They did not say, “Believe only.” There is a vast difference between believe and believe only. But we learn from the next verse what it was that made it possible for him to believe. Verse 32 reads, “And they spake the word of the Lord unto him, with all that were in his house.” The jailor, then, could not believe until he heard the word of the Lord preached. Paul said in Romans 10:17, “So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” What then is the order so far? First, they commanded the jailor to believe. But he had not heard the gospel so that he could believe, therefore, they preached it—the word of the Lord. The word of the Lord included the commands of the Lord, the things necessary in order for people to be saved. That Paul and Silas preached repentance is evident from verse 33 where it is said that the jailor “took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes.” But that is not all that the jailor did. He was baptized. Baptism, along with the other conditions of salvation, was preached to him. No better example of saving faith can be found than here. Luke who records the case says in verse 34, “And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God.” Yes, when he did the word of the Lord, he truly believed in God. He exercised active, childlike, trusting, saving, faith. It was the kind of faith that takes God at His word and does what He says to do, doing it without question or argument.
It has been supposed by some sectarian groups that because the jailor and his “house” believed, that infants were included as subjects of baptism. However, the very fact that they believed is sufficient proof that those who composed the houses of both Lydia and the jailor were old enough to believe; therefore they could not have been infants. Believers are subjects of baptism (Mark 16:16). Infants cannot believe, therefore, they are not subjects of baptism.
The example of the jailer and his house is another case of simple gospel obedience. There is no difficulty in understanding the will of the Lord, but sometimes it takes help to misunderstand it. As was true of all other examples in the book of Acts, the circumstances revolving about the jailor were different, but the conditions of pardon were exactly the same. We have seen that God did not tell one person to do one thing and somebody else to do something differently. God has but one way and all men must follow that way in order to be saved.
When the Gospel was preached to those souls in Philippi, they heard, they believed, they repented, and they were baptized. Rejoicing was the result that always follows baptism. Open-mindedness and a sincere desire to be saved will lead us to obey the Lord without quibble or question.