The Conversion Of The Philippian Jailer

By Mike Willis

The book of Acts records several cases of conversion which show us what is necessary for a man to do in order to be saved. We can conclude that, since God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), whatever was necessary for those first century persons to do for salvation is exactly what is necessary for us to do in order to be saved. Hence, the records of conversions in the New Testament are intended to demonstrate to us what is essential for a man to do in order to be saved.

Historical Background

The circumstances which brought Paul to Philippi are revealed to us in the book of Acts. After the conference in Jerusalem regarding whether or not a man had to be circumcised in order to be saved, Paul and Barnabas decided to visit those churches which they had established on their first journey in order to confirm them in the faith. When a dissension arose regarding whether to take John Mark with them on this trip, Barnabas and Paul separated. Paul took Silas and journeyed overland to Derbe, Lystra and Iconium. In Lystra, Timothy joined Paul and Silas as a co-worker. The Holy Spirit would not allow them to preach in Asia and Bithynia; consequently, they moved further west until they came to Troas. At Troas, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over into Macedonia and help u$” (Acts 16:9). Concluding that the Lord had called them to preach in Macedonia, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (he joined the group in Troas) departed for Philippi.

Arriving in Philippi, they located the place where Jewish women were meeting on the Sabbath to worship God. Paul spoke to the women, resulting in the conversion of Lydia and her household. Paul and his group resided with her and continued to work in Philippi.

A Miracle and Trouble

While working in Philippi, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination began following Paul and Silas for several days and said, “These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Like Jesus, who refused to accept praise from demon possessed individuals, Paul cast the evil, spirit out of the woman.

The woman had been used by her masters for gain because her spirit of divination enabled her to predict the future. When the masters saw that they had lost their source of income because of the miracle of Paul (indeed, to them money was more important than the woman), they created a disturbance and brought Paul and Silas before the city officials. They charged these two evangelists with disturbing the city and teaching customs which were unlawful for Romans to observe. The city magistrates had Paul and Silas beaten and cast into prison, charging the jailer of the city to keep them safely.

Though they had been beaten and placed in stocks (an instrument for torture), Paul and Silas’ spirits were not broken. At midnight, these two godly men lifted their voices in prayer and in singing hymns of devotion to God. The prisoners heard them as also did God. God responded by sending an earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison, caused the prison doors to open, and loosed the bands which held the prisoners. The jailer was awakened by the earthquake and ran outside to be sure that none of his prisoners escaped. When he saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword in order to commit suicide, assuming that the prisoners had escaped.

(One should notice the contrast between the religion of the pagans and that of Christ. The Christians who had been beaten and cast into prison where they were further tortured patiently endured this persecution. During their suffering, they lifted their voices to worship and praise God. The pagan, on the other hand, saw the prison doors opened and concluded that the prisoners had escaped. Knowing that he was responsible for these prisoners with his life, he decided that it was more expedient to commit suicide than to be put to death by his superiors. His pagan religion gave him no reason to wan! to live any longer. Christianity gave its disciples reason to praise God in the face of problems; paganism left men ready to commit suicide in the face of their problems. The reason that we are seeing such a rapid increase in suicide today is because paganism is becoming more prevalent.)

Paul saw him about to destroy himself and shouted, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (Acts 16:28). The jailer called for a light and came in trembling before Paul and Silas and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul responded, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Though some want to stop reading at this verse, let us continue with the text, “And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house” (Acts 16:32-34).

Answering Life’s Most Important Question

Without a doubt, the most important question in life is, “What must I do to be saved?” The answer which we give to that question will influence our eternal destiny. Hence, let us be sure that we see the proper answer to the question before us.

There are some that would have us to believe that there is nothing that man can do to influence his eternal destiny. Indeed, they teach that God predetermined who would be saved and who would be lost prior to the foundation of the world. Then, He sent His Son to die on Calvary solely for those whom He predestined to salvation. Man is saved if God chose Him for salvation, regardless of how he might live and regardless of his beliefs. He is saved unconditionally because God chose to save him. It appears to me that if this were true Paul could not have answered the question “What must I do to be saved?” as he did. His reply should not have been, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” Rather, it should have been: “There is nothing that you can do to be saved. You cannot be saved unless God has chosen you for salvation before the foundations of the world were laid. If He has chosen to save you, you will be saved regardless of what you do; if you were not chosen for salvation, what you might try to do to influence your eternal destiny is not going to influence it in the least. Hence, there is nothing that you can do to be saved.” Hence, the answer which Primitive Baptists and other Calvinists give to the question is unacceptable to those who want to obey the Scriptures.

Others try to limit man’s response for salvation to “faith only.” They are the ones who quote Acts 16:31 out of its context to leave the impression that all that was necessary for the jailer to do to be saved was to believe in Jesus Christ. The answer which Paul gave to this jailer must be understood in its context. When this man asked what he had to do to be saved, he was an unbeliever. The first thing that an unbeliever must do to be saved is to become a believer. Hence, Paul’s answer was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus . . . .” the next thing that the text states is that Paul spake unto him the word of the Lord. This man could not become a believer before he heard the word of the Lord. He had to hear the word of the Lord and believe it before he could be saved.

However, notice that the jailer changed his mind toward Paul and the gospel. Prior to Paul preaching to him, the jailer was persuaded that Paul and Silas were troubling the city and teaching customs which Romans could not observe. Consequently, when he received the prisoners into his charge (after they had already been beaten), he placed them in stocks to torture them. After he had heard the word of the Lord preached, he took them and washed their stripes. This denotes a change in his conviction about the gospel and these preachers.

The text relates that the jailer was baptized “the same hour of the night” (Acts 16:33). Why was this man baptized in the middle of the night? Why did Paul go to so much trouble to baptize this man immediately? If he had been like the Baptists whom I have seen, he would have told the man that he was saved the moment he accepted Jesus as his personal Saviour and that at some convenient time the church would have a baptismal service at which time he would be baptized. Though the church was already planted in Philippi and services would have been conducted after that night, Paul baptized him in the middle of the night. Why?

The only reasonable explanation of why Paul baptized this man in the middle of the night is that it had something to do with his eternal salvation. The question which was asked pertained to eternal salvation; it was, “What must I do to be saved?” The reply was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus ….” When the jailer returned from having been baptized, the Scriptures relate that he rejoiced, “believing in God with all his house” (16:34). His response to the gospel in baptism was understood as what was necessary to make him a believer, one who is a child of God.

That this explanation is true is seen from the other statements in Scripture regarding the purpose of Bible baptism in water. Study them in their context for yourself:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mk. 16:16).

Then Peter said unto them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:38).

And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away they sins, calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16).

The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:21).

These Scriptures harmonize with what I have stated regarding the conversion of the jailer. He was baptized the same hour of the night in order to be saved, to have his sins washed away.


We conclude that an individual must believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, repent of his sins, and -be buried with Christ in baptism in order to have. his sins washed away and be saved. This is exactly what the jailer did that night when Paul preached to him. That is exactly what every other individual did who has been saved by the grace of God following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

My friend, have you faced this most important question in life: “What must I do to be saved?” If you have not, I beseech you to face it now. Life is too short and eternity is too long, heaven is too great and hell is too horrible for you to slip from this life into that eternal world unprepared. If you are unsaved, you need to believe in Jesus Christ, repent of your sins, and be immersed in water in order to be saved. Is there any better time to respond to heaven’s offer of grace than today?

Truth Magazine XXIII: 13, pp. 211-213
March 29, 1979