A Jailer and His Conversion

By Dennis C. Abernathy

It is good for us to study the cases of conversion in the Acts of the Apostles. Not only will it help us dispel many false and peculiar notions, but it will show us the way God has outlined for us to be saved. In this article, we wish to explore the conversion of a man who by occupation was a jailor. The basic text will be Acts 16:16-34 but let us begin with verse 9 and see the beginning of the account.

We find Paul and Silas on their second missionary journey; while at Troas, a vision appeared to Paul in the night. In this vision, Paul saw a “man of Macedonia”. This man pleaded with Paul to “come over into Macedonia, and help us.” From that vision, they “assuredly gathered that the Lord had called them for to preach the gospel unto them” (v. 10). Those people needed help (just as people today need help). Paul and Silas realized what they needed, just as we realize what people need today – the Gospel (Rom. 1:16)!

In verse 11, we see them leaving Troas and coming to the city of Philippi, a Roman colony and capital or chief city of Macedonia (v. 12). In verses 13-15, we read of the conversion of Lydia and her household. Paul and Silas were certainly doing nothing out of the way, exciting the people, or in any way disturbing the peace of the city.

They continued in the city and to worship with those by the riverside. One day, they were on their way to the place of prayer when they met an “unfortunate damsel” (v. 16). She was possessed with a demon. We might say she was in double-bondage; in bondage to the demon as well as her masters (those who were using her for gain). They were making merchandise of her misfortune. (Ah! but what the love of money will make one do!) This damsel began to follow them and to give testimony concerning them. What she said was true and she continued to do it for many days. It may be that she said it in a sarcastic way, in a way to stir up prejudice, or in order to make gain for her masters, but whatever, Paul stood it as long as he could. He was “grieved” or “greatly annoyed.” By the authority of Christ he cast out the evil spirit. This was in perfect harmony with the promise to the apostles in Mark 16:17. Paul was not going to be in alliance with demons. God did not need that kind of testimony (read Luke 4:41).

This upset the damsel’s masters to no end. They saw that their gain was gone; now they would seek revenge, so they dragged them to the marketplace before the rulers. There, they accused them falsely (they never stated the matter of casting out the demon) by stating that they were preaching a new religion (which was forbidden by Roman law). Do you believe these greedy men were concerned about the Roman law and religion? Certainly not! They had lost their source of income and were trying to discredit Paul and Silas any way they could. So they gave a very patriotic speech in which they became pious and loyal! What a farce! They gave Paul and Silas no opportunity to make a defense, of that, Paul later complained (v. 37). They then tore off their clothes and had them beaten with rods. We do not know how much they were beaten; it just says “many blows or stripes.” Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:25, “Thrice was I beaten with rods.”

After they had beaten them, they threw them into prison, yea, even into the “inner prison.” Not only did they throw them into this dungeon, but they put them in the stocks as well. They were treated as the worst of criminals, and all unjustly. Now just picture in your mind, if you will, the plight of Paul and Silas. They are in stocks in this Roman dungeon, with their backs beaten, bruised, and bleeding, simply for doing the Lord’s will.

But they now take their case to a higher court. They go to God. It was about midnight when they began “praying and singing hymns of praise to God” (v. 25). This was quite an unusual sound to be heard in a heathen prison. Paul and Silas were “rejoicing in their sufferings for the Master.” They were not cast down or depressed and complaining. They knew they could pray and sing praise unto God anytime and anywhere. Verse 25 tells us “and the prisoners were listening to them.” Think of the impression made upon their minds. In such a condition, they could still have such a faith in God! But, my dear friend and good reader, not only did the prisoners hear, but God Almighty and His Son, for whom they were suffering, in like manner heard them.

In verse 26, God’s vindication and a great earthquake is recorded. It shook the prison to its very foundations. The chains and stocks were thrown off, the doors thrown open. All of this awoke the jailor, and he thought the prisoners had all escaped, so he was going to take his own life. He was in charge of them and Roman law held him responsible with his life. Paul saw what the jailor was about to do, and loudly cried out to him, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here” (v. 28). The jailor then came in before them trembling. His attitude toward Paul, Silas, and God, had changed. No longer are they treated as the worst of criminals, but he brought them out of the dungeon and referred to them as “sirs”. He then asked them a very profound question. “What must I do to be saved?” He was concerned about the salvation of his soul from divine condemnation. He was not referring to being saved from the earthquake – it had already passed. He was not concerned about being saved from the Roman penalty – all the prisoners were there. He was not concerned about being saved from the wrath of the Roman gods – he certainly would not have inquired of Paul and Silas for information about them.

This is a very personal question. It is a question you and I must ask. What must I do? Not what must God do! Not what must Christ do! Not what must the Holy Spirit do! No, they have already done their parts (made salvation possible). Neither, was it “What must I feel?”

We now turn our attention to the answer given to this trembling jailor. “And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). They started with this man where they found him. He was a pagan; he knew nothing of the Lord. No doubt, the same was true of him as was with the man in John 9:36, “He answered and said, And who is He, Lord,. that I may believe in him?” So next they “spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house” (v. 32). This was done in order that he might believe on the Lord (Rom. 10:17). It is clearly implied in (v. 33) that he had repented. Then, in verse 33, we read that he and his household were baptized. They did not wait for a “baptismal service” a month later; it was perforrhed that “very hour of the night.” This was done somewhere between the time he brought them out of the prison and into his house. Somewhere along that route they found water and he baptized them (v. 30, 33-34).

Some use this account (v. 31) to teach “salvation by faith only.” But it does not so teach, except in the vain imaginations of men. Paul told the jailor to believe on the Lord and he should be saved, but of course he meant for him to believe with the completed faith; hence, he baptized him the same hour of the night; then, and not till then; is it said that the “jailor rejoiced, beliveing in God with all his house.” Also, Paul, you remember, is emphatic in teaching that men are “made free from sin” when they have “obeyed from the heart” the form of doctrine (Rom. 6). And Peter, as well, said that we “purify our souls” in “obeying the truth” (1 Pet. 1:22). Hence, we see neither of them ever taught that a man is saved by faith before obedience; but countrariwise, one must do as the Lord taught (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5).

Paul could now more fully realize the call of the man from Macedonia. Also, he could see the wisdom of God. His experience just related agreed with his further instruction. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

Truth Magazine XXIV: 39, pp. 632-633
October 2, 1980