The word of the day is “saved.” There may be times, God forbid, when we face desperate circumstances. In these trials, we might be tempted to do irrational things that harm ourselves and others. In our reading of Acts 16:16-34, we find that the jailor at Philippi is terribly distraught when he thinks his prisoners have escaped. Luke, the historian of Acts, writes, “And the keeper of the prison awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself” (OSB vs. 27). But his salvation from this horrible fate led to his deliverance from a destiny even worse. So he was saved twice: once from physical death and the second time from spiritual judgment.
We learn from our study that we can be physically alive but spiritually dead. The example of the Philippian jailor demonstrates how we who were dead in trespasses and sins have been made alive together with Christ by baptism and faith. Thus, we have been transferred from the sphere of death to the realm of eternal life.
An Exorcism Gets Paul and Silas in Trouble
In today’s narrative, we find that Paul and Silas have crossed over into Europe. On the continent, their exorcism of a slave girl gets them into trouble with the pagans. Note that they are beaten not because of the opposition of the Jews but because of the hostility of the Gentiles (vs. 20).
Bruised and battered, the apostles are thrown into prison. After such abuse, we might think that they would succumb to bitterness. But, instead, they spend the night praying and singing hymns while their fellow prisoners listen to them.
Everything Is Shaken Up
Then at midnight, “a great earthquake” shakes up the prison (vs. 26). Miraculously, the prison doors open, and their chains fall off the prisoners. The jailor is roused from sleep and draws his sword to kill himself. He knows that if his prisoners have escaped, he will be subject to torture and death. For instance, when King Herod learned that Peter had been freed from prison, he executed the guards (Acts 12:19).
But Paul calls out that no one has fled. Thus, the jailor is saved from disgrace, brutal punishment, and death. His reaction shows he is grateful for his rescue. But it is still surprising. He falls at the apostles’ feet and cries, “What must I do to be saved?” (vs. 30).
The Jailor’s Question
The jailor’s question is the same desperate plea of the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:37). But unlike the masses gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost, the jailor has heard no sermon. He has witnessed no miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And the apostles had not charged him with any sin or wrongdoing.
He was saved from a cruel death. Why should he ask about the way to another kind of salvation? A possible answer is the same as the probable reason that the prisoners did not flee though loosed from their bondage. Luke tells us that the prisoners had overheard the songs and prayers of Paul and Silas. With them, the jailor might have heard the apostles’ witness to their faith (see the OSB comment on 16:30).
Besides overhearing the songs and prayers of the apostles, the jailor may have learned that a demon-possessed girl had kept yelling, “These men are servants of the Most High God who proclaim to us the way of salvation” (vs. 16). Had the jailor been told of this proclamation? Was it part of the charges against Paul and Silas?
We do not have the answers to these questions. But the jailor knew enough of the faith of Paul and Silas to ask the question, “What must I do to be saved?” The Greek term means principally to be rescued from danger (Strong’s #4982, 245). But what kind of peril did the jailor have in mind? Remember that Paul is in the land of pagans who know nothing of the promise of a Messiah who would save the People of God. So what did Paul preach to the idol-worshippers–and the jailor?
What Paul May Have Preached to Pagans
We get a clue of the preaching of the apostles from Paul’s sermon to the philosophers in Athens. Paul, of course, taught that the pagans should turn away from the idols they were making (Acts 19:23-27). But He also proclaimed, “God has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness” (OSB 17:31). The divinely appointed Judge would be the Lord Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead (Acts 17:31). Therefore, the apostle called on the pagans to repent just as he had for the Jews.
Whatever the jailor thought, Paul’s answer to his question of salvation was to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and our household” (OSB vs. 31). Paul and Silas went on to preached the Word of God to the jailor and his whole household. In response to the Gospel, the jailor washed the apostles of their stripes and by baptism Paul and Silas washed the jailor and his family of their sins.
We see in our study that the jailor is saved twice. First, Paul dissuades him from suffering a physical death by suicide. And then Paul convinces him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and so be delivered from spiritual death.
The jailor’s example demonstrates that we can be physically alive but spiritually dead. In Colossians, Paul says, “And you being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He had made alive together with him” (OSB Colossians 2:13). The Greek term for dead comes from the lifeless image of a corpse (Strong’s #3498, 171). Thus, spiritual death is like the condition of a dead body. It is unresponsive to the Spirit. It can neither hear the truth of God nor do His will.
Spiritual Death and Spiritual Life
Spiritual death is therefore, spiritual paralysis. Those who are in this state of lifelessness are “dead in trespasses and the ‘uncircumcision’ of their hearts” (OSB Colossians 2:13). Their sins hold them fast to the ways of the devil. They are bound to the inevitable judgment of God. And their souls remain forever outside the circle of God’s favor.
Those who are spiritually dead are alien to God and strangers to His grace. They may have physical life, but their destiny is only the judgment of God and exclusion from the joy and blessings of His Presence.
But those who are buried with Christ in baptism are raised with Him. He makes them “alive together with Him” (Colossians 2:13). They were once dead in their sins. Now they are dead to their trespasses. Moreover, they are dead to the requirements of the Mosaic Law that were held against them (OSB Colossians 2:13-14).
The Lord said in John’s Gospel, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life” (KJV John 5:24). Thus, those who believe in Christ are already transferred from the sphere of spiritual death into the realm of eternal life. As those alive in Christ, they are not subject to God’s condemnation but abide in Him and live in His grace.
In conclusion, let us thank God for our release from spiritual death by baptism and by belief in the work of God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead (Colossians 2:12). And let us consider ourselves “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (OSB Romans 6:11).