By Larry Ray Hafley
QUESTION: From Kentucky: “Was the jailer in Philippi asking for physical or spiritual salvation?”
REPLY: The Context: Acts 16:9-40
Paul met with success in Philippi. He also faced great opposition and persecution. “We. . . suffered. . . and were shamefully entreated at Philippi” (1 Thess. 2:2). Public attention was called to the efforts of Paul and his company. This came about as a result of the spirit which Paul cast out of “a certain damsel.” The uproar which followed was broadcast throughout the city as Acts 16:19-24 necessarily implies. (See words like, “trouble our city” and “the multitude.”) The jailer was not unaware of the work of Paul. He knew who Paul was. Even the possessed damsel knew and had cried for “many days,” “saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation.” The jailer, therefore, could not have been ignorant of the nature of Paul’s work. Though he assuredly did not know the truth, he knew Paul and Silas were preachers of God and of some kind of spiritual salvation.
The jailer was commanded “to keep them safely.” The men who “do exceedingly trouble our city,” are not to escape! The jailer, “having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.” At midnight, the jailer was aroused and awakened from his sleep by “a great earthquake.” “Seeing the prison doors open, he drew. out his sword and would have killed himself, supposing te prisoners had been fled. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm; for we are all here. Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
If we eliminate physical salvation, we shall establish spiritual salvation. Physical salvation cannot be what the jailer was requesting.
First, the reason for killing himself was already past. The prisoners had not escaped. When Paul cried, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here,” that removed the threat to his physical life. It was the jailer’s life for the escaped prisoners, but none of them had fled. “Knowing that death was the penalty for allowing prisoners to escape, he was about to act upon the Roman code of honor, which required a man to die
by his own hand if necessary to escape that of an enemy or an executioner. It is not likely that he rushed to this desperate resort without some outcries which indicated his purpose, and which were caught by the quick ear of Paul, whose loud voice snatched him back, in the very nick of time, from the brink of eternity:
“As soon as the jailer could collect his senses he remembered that the speaker who had called to him had been preaching salvation in the name of the God of Israel, and he instantly perceived that the earthquake, the opening of the doors, and the unlocking of the fetters were connected with him, and were the work of his God. Seizing this thought, and glancing into the black eternity from which he had just been rescued, his own salvation, rather than the security of his prisoners, at once absorbed his thoughts. At sunset, when coldly thrusting the apostles into the dungeon, he cared nothing for them, or for the salvation which he knew they had been preaching; for then he was in the midst of life and health, and all went well with him; but at midnight, when he had been within an inch of death, a change as sudden as the earthquake passes over him, and he falls trembling at the feet of his prisoners.” (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary On Acts Of Apostles, Pp. 101, 102.)
Second, the answer given by Paul and Silas is absurd if physical deliverance is the object of the jailer’s inquiry. “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” What does believing on Christ have to do with his physical life in this situation? Why include his family, his “house?” They were in no physical danger. “But,” someone objects, “Paul and Silas misunderstood the question,” How do you know? The jailer did not correct them. Are you better able to tell what the jailer was asking than Paul and Silas were?
What is to be gained by the unfounded assumption and assertion that the jailer was asking about physical salvation? We conclude that the jailer was asking a question parallel to that ask by those in Acts 2:37. The jailer wanted to know what to do to be saved from his sins, from the wrath of God which is to come upon the ungodly. This is clearly shown by the context of Acts 16.
(Now, will someone ask if the Jews on Pentecost were asking for work, for employment, when they implored, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”)
Truth Magazine, XVIII:47, p. 2
October 3, 1974