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.