The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” (Acts 16:29-31)
Roman jailers were Soldiers with a special MOS. It was a safe assignment—unless your prisoner escaped. A jailer who lost a prisoner lost his life. Knowing this adds clarity and urgency to the situation at Philippi.
When Paul and Silas drove a demon out of a slave girl who had been telling the future, her owners lost a source of money. Angered, they dragged the apostles before the court with the charge, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20,21).
A mob gathered to demand action. The court ordered the apostles to be stripped, beaten, then thrown into jail with feet chained in stocks. The jailer made certain they could not escape. Imagine his fright when a midnight earthquake threw the cell doors open and unlocked the chains. Fright turned to despair. He drew his sword to kill himself.
A shout stopped him: “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” That came from Paul, his prisoner. The jailer recognized all this was the work of God. He begged for life: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He received a simple answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus…” It wasn’t a command. It was an invitation.
Some folks think the Bible is only all about commands. “Thou shalt! Thou shalt not!” Some believe the message is: “If you want to get on God’s good side, do what he says!” Such people feel they will then be rewarded—not with a ribbon or a medal, but with blessings during earthly life and a placed reserved for them in heaven.
It’s an empty hope. They don’t realize that none of us can pass divine inspection. Our best attempts fall far short of the perfection that Command demands. The best that we can do? We hear what that’s worth: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags. We all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind, our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
The Bible seems to spell out our death sentence. So why would someone sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so?” We sing it because it is true. The Bible carries the lightning strikes of God’s Law. But it also brings the soft breeze of his Gospel. He does not want to punish us. Listen: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11)
But how can shriveled leaves do anything? How can they turn to God? God makes that possible. He promised, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17).
The Holy Spirit infuses life into shriveled lives. He points to Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He announces that Jesus obeyed the Law of God perfectly. His perfect obedience was then credited to our account. He was punished in our place. We are declared innocent. The Holy Spirit creates the power for us to believe it. We call it saving faith. Like that Roman Soldier, we face death without it. Like that Soldier, we are offered life. “Believe in the Lord Jesus!”
It’s not an order.
It is a life-saving invitation.
We pray: Holy Spirit source of faith and life, we thank you for allowing us to know that our salvation has been won and is offered to us full and free. Stay with us as we walk through our earthly life. Preserve us in the saving faith. Amen.
Written by Pastor Paul Ziemer
WELS National Civilian Chaplain and Liaison to the Military