Checkmate (Part IV) – Acts 16:29-34

by Roger McCay
12 July 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 16:29-34
Link to Audio Version

Back in February, we had our first Inquirer’s class here at MPC since I’ve been here. It was an interesting experience and quite enjoyable. This was also the first Inquirer’s class I’d ever taught or even attended, as I grew up in the PCA. My route in the PCA was through the usual communicant’s class when I was twelve back in 1983. So, there was never a need. Then, with all my time in the Army … I’d never had to teach one before.

When it became evident we needed to have one here, I got busy gathering resources to use. I found some legacy materials here at the church, which had a decent format going through the membership vows. So, I incorporated them into the lesson plan I was building along with a bunch of other helpful resources I’d either written or collected over the years. For the legacy materials, I ran over them briefly in my initial planning, but didn’t dig deep into them. I saved the in-depth prep for the week prior to each class.

In preparation for week two (when we were going to look at vows 1-3 for church membership, having to do with questions of salvation), I came across a shocking statement in the legacy materials. The statement was this: “You become a Christian only after you have taken the following steps: … Step 1” … and so forth. There were three steps given, each beginning with “You must”—“You must do this …. You must do that ….” Ugggh! Coming across these supposed imperative actions you must take in order to become a Christian, my mouth hit the floor. I could not believe this was something found in a PCA church’s legacy Inquirer’s class materials.

Anyway, it became a fun intellectual exercise in the class (well, I thought it was fun), to tell the class to mark out this and that statement as we went along; and then to explain to them why it was wrong and what the truth actually is according to the Scriptures. Ironically, I think this method enhanced the learning in the class. I’ve even considered leaving the erroneous statements in the material (in some way, at least), as a teaching strategy. Correcting wrong data with the reasons why it is wrong seemed quite effective.

Which is kind of what is going on with the question of the Philippian jailer. His question, “What must I do to be saved?” illustrates an awkwardly common misunderstanding. There is a tendency to assume that to be saved we must do salvific deeds. This is true for various reasons with various people. Yet, for whatever reason, at its core, such a notion of the need for salvific deeds to be saved is anti-gospel, reducing the Way to merely just another common religion.

In our passage today, Paul and Silas get to explain a bit of the elements of faith to the Philippian jailer and his household. This is the 7th move (6th if you don’t count Paul’s silence as a move) in this particular battle against the evil one, which we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, in Acts 16:16-40.

  1. After casting out the demon Python, Satan’s minions dragged Paul & Silas to the marketplace, unjustly accusing them.
  2. Paul’s move was to remain silent as to his and Silas’ Roman citizenship.
  3. Satan’s minions then beat and unjustly imprisoned Paul and Silas.
  4. Paul and Silas followed that by singing and praying while locked up.
  5. God then, as a part of Move Prime, sent a targeted earthquake, opening the prison doors and releasing them from their chains and stocks—which vindicated the missionaries’ words and actions as righteous before God.
  6. Despite the open doors, Paul and Silas chose to stay put (instead of escaping), and to call out to keep the jailer from killing himself (in the mistaken notion that the prisoners had escaped). This act of the missionaries was a sincere act of self-giving love, in the form of loving their enemy, which brings us to the jailer’s response.

Verses 29-30:

29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Who was this jailer? We’re not given his name. Some think this was for his protection, due to his government position, but we don’t know. Luke certainly would have known his name, and it seems a deliberate exclusion. Yet, as he was the jailer, it’s not like leaving his name out would give him anonymity in Philippi. Why give Lydia’s name and not the jailer’s? As it is, the Lord saw to it that we don’t know it. And that’s okay.

The jailer was quite a different figure than Lydia and the slave girl. He was a pagan, Roman official; Lydia was a wealthy, God-fearing, Asian immigrant; and the girl was a demon-possessed, Greek slave. He was probably ex-military, due to the nature of Philippi as a Roman colony settled by retired military. The position of jailer would have been a solid job to carry him on into retirement. Hence, he was like many retired military folks today, who move into DA civilian or contractor jobs for the government. Also, like our military today, the Roman Army allowed retirement after 20 years. So, he was probably in his 40’s or early 50’s. He would have had guards and others under him for operations in the jail (those to whom he called to bring lights in v. 29). He was the guy in charge, a warden. He was a family man, earning a good wage. He had a household, which would have included servants or slaves. Considering the nature of his job, he was probably a rough individual. He was hard and brutal, as we witness in the way he treated Paul and Silas. He was a man of deeds, who had worked hard to get where he was. Service in the Roman military was not a soft life whatsoever, nor was that of a jailer. He was a man of honor, as he was willing to kill himself in the honorable way, if his prisoners escaped him.

So, here was this jailer, and the apostle Paul had just saved his life in an act of self-giving love in the form of loving his enemy in concrete action. Yet, such was counter to everything he knew (culturally and situationally). He knew these men would have seen him as an enemy. He had given them no reason to love him.

He had been brutal to them, having them dragged into the inner prison, which was dark, dank, and miserable. He had ignored their wounds, even though they were beaten with rods, with their skin torn and bloody, their bodies bruised and broken, even, perhaps, broken bones. In that condition, he had them put naked into the innermost part of the prison; put into stocks, which were a form of torture in themselves. The stocks would have forced their legs apart at an awkward angle. They were wooden with slots for their ankles and a bar to slide through the wood over their ankles to keep them locked in place. Paul and Silas would have been unable to get comfortable, being in constant distress, even if they had only been put in stocks with no beating. They would have been unable to do anything but lie back, either on the floor or up against the wall. With their wounds, neither position was a good option. They may also have been chained up with heavy chains (though, chains are not mentioned specifically, unless they are included in the term bonds in v. 26). They were surrounded by prisoners of all sorts in the impenetrable dark. The smell would have been horrible. Plus, there was the constant inherent danger typical in prison, if the other prisoners were not likewise restricted and separated. Over time, Paul and Silas’ torment would have gradually gotten worse and worse without any further action by the jailer. They were conditions to drive men mad.

The jailer knew all this, and he knew that they knew it did not have to be that way. What was the magistrates command? Was it make sure they were as miserable and tortured as he could possibly make them? No. The command was to keep them safely (Acts 16:23). His sadism was on display. He had declared himself as Paul and Silas’ enemy, and this was clear to him and to them. He would have expected nothing but hatred from them. He was fully enslaved by the evil one, and he was a useful minion (Eph. 6:11-12; 2 Tim. 2:26).

Yet, here we see this man running into the prison and falling down trembling in fear before Paul and Silas, bringing them out of the prison and pleading with them to tell him “What must I do to be saved?” He had already been saved from death by their actions, so he wasn’t asking about that. He went to the heart of the spiritual question.

To say this is a remarkable turn of events is an understatement. This is supernatural! This was a direct work of the Spirit of God on this man’s heart. The message Paul and Silas had given him was not one of nice words like he’d given Lydia, or a command for a demon to begone in Jesus’ name like the slave-girl. Here, the gospel message was given in actions. He saw Christ Jesus in their actions.

For, was not our Lord unjustly accused, unjustly beaten and tortured, unjustly mocked, unjustly convicted, unjustly condemned by the crowds and the rulers of the land? He was stripped down and crucified on a wooden cross, made a curse before all. Yet, what did he say? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus was the ultimate example of self-giving love, loving his enemies (which includes you and I by the way). Jesus forgave his enemies despite their having shown nothing but hatred for him. The centurion at the cross saw it, saying, “Surely, this was the Son of God,” having witnessed the way he died.

Here we see a jailer seeing that same love in the missionaries, and he saw the Son of God in them. The Spirit of God opened his eyes to this reality, and it overwhelmed him. It was something he had never seen before in all his years. Whatever it was these holy men, these sages who prayed and sang joyous songs to their God in the midst of their misery … Whatever it was they were proclaiming—that salvation the oracle had said they were proclaiming as servants of the Most-High God (and, notice how Paul and Silas turned the enemy’s scheme with the oracle on its head)… Whatever and whoever it was Paul and Silas were proclaiming, based on their actions and the Spirit of God working in him, the jailer knew it was real, and he desperately needed it. The Spirit had already done a work on his heart, as seen by his actions and his question. He already believed. Now, he now needed the Truth—the object of his belief.  “What must I do to be saved?”

Verses 31-32:

31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.

Here we see another move in that cosmic chess game with evil. Paul’s move in the battle was, in self-giving love towards his former enemy, to answer him with the gospel message of Jesus, and demonstrably forgive him in what followed. Paul and Silas forgave him, and the jailer knew it by what they did.

Consider the jailer’s question. Was it the right question? “What must I do …?” No. Not really, but it was in the right direction. Rather than try to correct him and elaborate or whatever. Paul used a different tact. What Paul did here, was to answer the right question.

What Paul actually answered was, perhaps, the question, “How can I be saved?” Which, if you think about it, is the right question on multiple levels. How can I, a horrible sinner, be saved? I don’t deserve it. I’ve shown myself your enemy and an enemy of your God. How can I actually be saved, in what way? How can I be saved, is it even possible? The jailer’s actual question could have led to an answer of, “You become a Christian only after you have taken the following steps: … Step 1” … and so forth.” Yet, that is always the wrong answer. Paul, however, knew the right question, which the jailer was ill-equipped to formulate, having no background whatsoever in Christian doctrine, or even Jewish doctrine, for that matter. So, Paul wisely did not bother correcting the question. He simply answered the right question (a good technique to put in your rucksack, by the way). “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” This was counter to what the jailer was expecting. The pagan religions he would have known would have given him a litany of hoops to jump through. But no. Paul told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.”

It’s such a simple answer, packed with meaning, but Paul and Silas didn’t leave him hanging. They took the time to explain to the jailer and his household what it meant, afterwards. I doubt they got too deep in theology, but they unpacked it for them, answering questions, filling in their lack of knowledge. They explained repentance and forgiveness, Christ’s work on the cross, teaching them what it means to follow Jesus. Remember, these folks had no knowledge whatsoever of the Bible or the faith. It seems unlikely they had any idea of who Jesus is; nor what it means to believe in Jesus; nor what salvation actually means in the Christian sense. Yet, that’s the beauty of Paul’s initial answer. You don’t have to understand all that in order to believe and be saved. This is because faith is not a work.

When someone gives you a gift, you possess it before you even unwrap it. The jailer’s belief was a reception of the gift of salvation that the Holy Spirit had already worked upon his heart by God’s grace, making him born again and able to even hear the message and believe. He and his household were enabled to believe in Jesus. They were saved.

It’s like what Jesus was saying in John 3:14:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Remember what Jesus was referring to? It’s in Numbers 12. God smote the rebellious Israelites by sending fiery serpents among them, killing many of them and leaving many others poisoned and dying. So, you have all these Israelites who were sick and dying, due to God’s judgment on them and their sin. The people then repented, and Moses prayed for them. God’s answer was to have Moses make a fiery serpent, which he made out of bronze, and set it upon a pole. Anyone bit by a snake only had to look at the serpent on the pole, and they were saved. All they had to do was look. That’s it. Moses lifted up the serpent; they looked, and through the look they were saved by God’s grace. This, of course, pointed to Jesus, as he told Nicodemus in John 3. He was lifted up on the cross. Whoever looks to him and believes is saved. Eternal life is theirs. The jailer looked upon Jesus, not knowing who he was, trusting in him anyway, and was saved. He just now needed the details for discipleship. It’s beautiful!

Which leads me to address a common, awkward, misunderstanding of the Christian faith, one even found in Christian circles (something I’m sure Paul steered the jailer and his people away from in his follow-up teaching). This error leads to the assumption, even unconsciously, that we must do salvific deeds of faith to be saved—like steps 1-3. Remember? This error (and in some cases, heresy), can come from a misreading of the Bible.

Sometimes, folks get certain adjectives confused, leading them to think that salvation is “by faith.” What does the Bible actually say? Turn over to Eph. 2:8-9.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

“For by grace you have been saved … through faith”—not saved “by faith,” but saved “through faith.”[1] If Eph. 2:8 said “saved by faith,” then it would mean faith is the cause or basis of salvation. Faith would then be a salvific deed—a work, which would contradict the rest of v. 8 and v. 9. No. “Saved through faith” denotes that faith is the given means of receiving God’s gift of grace (grace in the form of salvation in Jesus Christ). Grace, salvation, and faith are all a gift. [In v.8b, the “this” is referring to the totality of salvation]. Thus, we are not saved “by faith.” We are saved by Jesus Christ. So, remember not to switch the two adjectives.

And, please don’t confuse what I’ve said with justification. While we are not saved by faith we are justified by faith—salvation and justification are not the same thing (Gal. 2:16; Rom 9:30). Justification is just one of the many facets of the diamond that is salvation.

It’s all so simple. Like Paul told the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Just don’t mistake belief (faith in Jesus; trust in Jesus) for a salvific work.

What a comforting reality—the simplicity of it. Whether in just regular life, or in situations where death is eminent—the gospel message is simple. In whatever situation (coffee with your neighbor, after a car-wreck holding a dying person on the side of the road, or on a battlefield), you can tell that person about Jesus. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” By God’s grace, and the power of his Spirit, that is enough. For the one who dies immediately after, only God knows if they hear and believe. But, they may have! For the other, take a little more time and fill them in on the details, which will bolster their faith and help them along as disciples of Christ.

Verses 33-34:

33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

What an amazingly remarkable transformation. The jailer is like one in 2 Cor. 2:17:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

That’s what we’ve got right here with the jailer, a new creation. He was moved by the Lord from the enemy’s camp (as a minion of the evil one), to the Lord’s camp (as a disciple of Christ). It was true belief, and he had the marks to show it.

Tim Keller zeros in on three of these marks: “First, real gospel faith makes you compassionate…. Secondly, gospel faith makes you committed to both ministry and community.”[2] And “thirdly, real gospel faith gives you joy.”[3]

The jailor went from a sadistically brutal man, to a man who washes the wounds of prisoners. He showed compassion, where before, he was calloused and cruel. He also didn’t keep the gospel to himself. He gathered together his whole family and his household to hear the Word of God. He was baptized, he and his whole household; baptism is “the way of identifying publicly with the Christian faith and with the Christian community” at large.[4] This brought him into the fold of the church, as he was a true believer and a brother in Christ. He then quickly went about ministering to the Paul and Silas, ensuring they were clothed (which, while not mentioned, is logically assumed). He laid food before them, and they shared a meal together. They then rejoiced in the Lord well into the morning, as one family of faith, children of the Living and True God.

Right there, as a result of the Lord’s work and the self-giving love of Paul and Silas, a miracle occurred, and the angels rejoiced in heaven (Luke 15:10). Christian community was now in a place where there was no humanly conceivable way it ever could have been. Fellowship, sharing meals together in the Lord, the ministry of the Word, prayer, and rejoicing, maybe even Paul and Silas showing them how to rejoice in the Lord in song (Acts 2:42).

In a way, everything that Paul and Silas had done  (following the Lord in self-giving, lovingly, ethically, enduring, wise, and innocent obedience); then the Lord’s action of Move Prime, everything led to this. It is the culmination of the whole episode in Philippi—the jailer’s conversion. The victory was the Lord’s, and the enemy was getting crushed in this battle.

But, as we see, the enemy had one more move to make – not giving up yet – which we’ll look at (Lord willing), next week.

At the end of our evening services, as we study through various OT books, I like to ask the questions: Where are we in this? and Where is Jesus in this? Those of ya’ll who are regulars, you know what I mean. So, in this case, where or who are we? Paul and/or Silas, or the jailer?

I suppose it really depends. In a way, we are the jailer, needing forgiveness brought about by the self-giving love, self-sacrifice, and love from our enemy—the Lord Jesus and his people. We were all enemies with Christ, at one time, yet he died for us. He forgives us although we don’t deserve it. In another way, we are also the jailer, saved by grace through faith in Christ, and part of the community of Christ, needing discipling. Further, in a way, we are Paul and Silas, following Christ, working as Christ’s ambassadors, as the body of Christ in the world. In obedience to Christ, people come to know Christ through us, as they see Christ in us through concrete actions of self-giving love. At least that’s what we’re called to be—“You are the light of the world,” remember?

Let our lives be defined by that self-giving love. Let us love and forgive our enemies. Let us pray for revival. Let us share the gospel with that simple message of “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Let us make and equip disciples through faithful proclamation and sound teaching. And let us rejoice, as the Lord triumphs over the evil one until the end. Because victory is in Jesus, Christians must persevere in enduring faithfulness to his will.


[1] Chariti (χάριτί) is a dative of cause translated as “by grace.” Cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 167-168. Wallace explains: “Occasionally it is best to translate the dative of cause with “by “ or “on the basis of.” In Eph 2:8, for example (τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως), τῇ χάριτί is the cause of our salvation (and διὰ πίστεως expresses the means). However, it would be better to translate it as “by grace” or “on the basis of grace” instead of “because of grace,” since this last phrase might be construed as indicating only God’s motive, but not the basis of our salvation.”

[2] Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2012-2013 (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013), sermon preached 28 April 2013 on Acts 16:20-40 titled, “How the Gospel Changes Lives—Part 2.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.