A Jailer is Set Free

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A Jailer is Set Free – Acts 16:25-34

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Illustration - Charlemagne Forces Baptism

History buffs may recall a king named Charlemagne, who was king of the Franks in the latter 8th century until his death in 814 AD. During his life he expanded the Frankish kingdoms into an empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. At Mass, on Christmas Day in 800 AD, when Charlemagne knelt at the altar to pray in Saint Peter's Basilica, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans. While this event was remarkable, Charlemagne performed some horrible acts. He campaigned against one group called the Saxons and forced them to convert to Christianity. Charlemagne even decreed the death penalty for all Saxons who failed to be baptized. During the Massacre of Verden, he allegedly ordered the execution of 4,500 Saxons who had been caught practicing their native paganism after converting to Christianity. Aside from all that Charlemagne accomplished in uniting Europe, it was deplorable to force those he conquered to become Christians. Thousands of Saxons were made to profess a faith in Christ, but naturally it did them little good for they did not know what they were pledging and they had no desire to accept it. One cannot be forced into salvation. One must realize his/her spiritual need and willingly accept salvation.[1]

Our passage this morning is about one such person who did realize his spiritual need and sought an answer for it.



The Question

Our passage occurs in the city of Philippi which is between modern day Greece and Turkey. The area round Philippi often experiences earthquakes and tremors, but the one we read earlier happened at just the right time. The prison doors probably were locked by bars that flew up and the doors opened. Everyone’s chains came loose. The chains may have been attached to the walls and wrenched loose by the violence of the quake.[2] However it happened, we know from the text that the doors of the prison were opened and everyone’s bonds were loosened. The prisoners were freed! This was a serious situation. The jailer thought that the prisoners had escaped. And why wouldn’t he believe this. Who would want to remain in prison when an escape is available? Would any one of us be surprised to hear that the prisoners at the Franklin Correctional Center had escaped if something similar had happened? We would probably expect that to happen.

And so did the Philippian jailer. He thought a real prison escape had happened. Supposing that the prisoners had already escaped, he drew his sword to kill himself, preferring death by his own hand than by Roman justice. This is because, during Roman times, jailers and guards were personally responsible for their prisoners and in some instances were executed for allowing them to escape.[3]

You may recall Peter’s escape from prison, when an angel rescued him…

Acts 12:18-19 18…[Luke phrase] there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the [guards] and ordered that they should be put to death.

But in the Philippian jail, the prisoners had not escaped. Perhaps this is just as miraculous as the earthquake itself, that the prisoners remained in the prison. Why would they do that?

  • Perhaps it was Paul and Silas’ singing.
  • Perhaps the prisoners saw something in Paul and Silas that they admired.
    • It may have been strange to them for prisoners to sing in prison
  • Perhaps the prisoners had accepted Jesus as their savior.
    • They may have not been imprisoned…in the spiritual sense.

We don’t know…but the fact is, they all remained in the prison when an escape was present.

Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” There was no need for the jailer to fear death…at least not from the Roman authorities.

When he heard this, the jailer rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Imagine the jailer falling down at their feet, as if in reverence or fear. This is the same word used in…

Mark 3:11 11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw [Jesus], they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

Well, I am not suggesting the jailer saw Paul as the Son of God, but he did recognize a need in his life. We know this by the question he asks them. He asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?”

Who would want to remain in prison when an escape is available?

The question he asked was no ordinary question. It was important. It had great significance. And it was a question that demanded an answer.

But what does the word “saved” mean?

I know most if not all of us know what the word “saved” means, but it is one of those words that has several meanings throughout Scripture. It is also one of those words which people outside of the Church, or those new to the faith, may not understand.

Is it the same as saying, “I have saved some money?”

Or, is it the same as saying, “I have saved some leftovers in the fridge?”

No and No!

The word “saved” can mean to preserve from harm, to rescue; or to deliver.

Acts 27:20  “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, [Luke phrase] and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

In relation to a threatening situation, it can mean to bring out safely.

John 12:27 (The Son Must Be Lifted Up) Jesus said, 27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?”

In relation to sickness and disease, it can mean to heal, to cure, or to restore to health.

Matthew 9:21-22 (The woman with the issue of blood) 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.

In all three instances of the words “made well”, it is the same word we get “saved”.

However, there is a fourth meaning. In relation to spiritual dangers and threat of eternal death, it means to rescue from sin.[4]

Ephesians 2:8-9 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

It has been often argued that the Phillipian jailer’s question (“What must I do to be saved?”) was intended in the secular sense of the word “salvation,” that he was asking how his life should be spared. But his life had already been spared. None of the prisoners had escaped. There was no danger any more. More likely he asked about his salvation in the full spiritual sense...to be rescued from sin.[5]

This was truly an important question, and the jailer believed Paul and Silas knew the answer. The answer to the most important question anyone could ask…What must I do to be saved?

Again I ask, who would want to remain in prison when an escape is available?

But, why would the jailer believe that Paul and Silas could provide that answer? What led him to ask them this important question?

Perhaps he had heard what Paul and Silas were preaching? The jailer may have heard the slave girl proclaiming that Paul and Silas knew the “way of salvation”.

Acts 16:16-18 (Paul and Silas in Prison) 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days…

Luke tells us that Paul was “greatly annoyed” by this, and turned to the girl and commanded the spirit to come out of her…and it left her!

Perhaps the Philippian jailer believed he must know this “way of salvation”, and from Paul and Silas, as divinely sent to him, he intended to learn it. He may have known the circumstance by which they were imprisoned.

Acts 16:20-21 20 When [the owners of the slave girl] had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”

So Paul and Silas were imprisoned after proclaiming the “way of salvation”.

Perhaps the jailer had fallen asleep to the sound of Paul and Silas’s hymns to God. Remember, though they were imprisoned for preaching God’s Word, they were singing to God. Maybe their singing prepared the jailer’s heart for what was to come.

And remember the question. The jailer did not ask, "What must I do to join the Church?" He did not ask, "What must I do to be a good person?" He did not ask, "What must I do to be religious?" He asked, “What he must do to be saved?”

Whatever the reasons, the jailer believed he needed salvation and he believed Paul and Silas knew the answer.

It is the same need we all have – the need for salvation. I think the jailer realized he was a sinner. He realized that he, like all of us, are imprisoned by our sins, and unless we are rescued from our sins, we will remain in that prison.

Again I ask, who would want to remain in prison when an escape is available?



The Answer

Well, what was the answer? The jailer asked a question that demanded an answer.

And Paul and Silas said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...”

There is belief in someone, and a subsequent promise of salvation.

But what does this word “believe” mean?

In our teenage Sunday School class, we have been discussing beliefs and how we can know what we believe. We stated that a belief is having confidence that something is true. You believe in something because you are confident that it is true.

You may believe that your car will crank when you turn the ignition key.

You may believe a chair will support you when you sit in it.

And you may even believe that when you go nillo in a Spades game, you will win…and then again, you may not! (That last one was for Luke!)

Somewhat related to belief, is faith.

Faith is belief without evidence…meaning you don’t have the proof.

The Bible states that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)

However, the value of one’s faith is NOT in the belief, but in the object of one’s faith.

I can believe that a golden calf will save me (Paganism)

I can believe that I can save myself (Humanism)

I can belief that Jesus can save me (Christianity)

The Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” DO? Why all the doing has been done. It has all been DONE by Jesus in his atoning death. The jailer was not told to go and do something in order to be saved, but to believe in Him who had already provided salvation.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31)

The object of his belief should be Jesus who alone can save him.
This is surprisingly simple.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. This simple answer stands apart from all of the other religions in the world, which offer complex plans of how a person can work his way into heaven.

The truth is, believing in Jesus Christ is not a matter of human effort, but rather of us ceasing from our efforts and relying on God alone.

Remember, our scripture reading earlier from John 6:29…

Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

  1. Belief in Jesus denies salvation by works
  2. Belief in Jesus discredits salvation by character
  3. Belief in Jesus declares salvation by trust

You believe (put your trust in) Jesus, who has already done the work required to free you from your prison of sin.

Believe not in a creed…

Believe not in baptism…

Believe not in good works…

Believe not in church traditions…

But, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Nothing more and nothing less.[6]

The Baptism

Well, what happened next for our Philippian jailer?

Acts 16:32-33 32 And [Paul and Silas] spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Once a person recognizes they are a sinner and are in need of a Savior, they repent (turn away) from their sins, and believe (place their trust) in Christ…then they are baptized.

Early Christians called baptism a “sacramentum,” which is the Latin word for the Roman soldier’s oath of absolute devotion and obedience to his general.[7]

In this sense, the Christian would be baptized as an oath of commitment to Jesus and a sign of his faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

However, baptism is viewed differently by groups within the Church. Many Christians believe that baptism somehow washes away one’s sin and magically conveys God’s grace upon a person. It is because of this belief, that some think that infants should be baptized.

The belief in infant baptism originated fairly early in the Church. Early Church fathers such Origen and Augustine believed infant baptism was appropriate.[8] Some Christians find support in infant baptism through the passages that speak of one’s whole household being baptized…like our passage about the Philippian jailer.

Verse 33 says, “…he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”

Recall, Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and all who were in the house.” The jailer’s household heard the Gospel. Since they were baptized, it is reasonable to assume they accepted the message and placed their trust in Jesus.

How many of us would like our whole family to be saved?

Consider this, there are many places in the Bible which belief precedes salvation, and repentance precedes baptism.

Isaiah 45:22 22 “Turn to [God] and be saved, all the ends of the earth!

Acts 2:38 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…”

Mark 16:16  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

Repentance is necessary for salvation and this precedes baptism.

  • The jailer and his family heard the Gospel.
  • They all believed in Jesus Christ
  • They all were baptized.
  • And then they all rejoiced!

I love baptisms!

The last verse in our passage is interesting. It doesn’t say “they rejoiced that they had believed in God”, but it says “they rejoiced that he had believed in God.”

The family rejoiced that the jailer had believed in God. We should not mistake the words here as saying the jailer’s faith was sufficient for his entire household. Rather, in the same way in which the jailer was saved, his belief in Jesus, his family was also saved. And they all were baptized.

Something else to note is the word “believed” in this last verse is in the perfect tense. You may ask why that is important. The emphasis of the perfect tense is not on the past action (the belief he had) so much as that belief resulted in his present condition, meaning his salvation.[9]

Remember, the answer to his question was to believe in the Lord Jesus and he will be saved. His salvation resulted from his belief in the Savior.


Blessed assurance.

So, how do we respond to this?

Consider this, our sin imprisons us. However, God has provided the means by which we can escape that prison.

Who would want to remain in prison when an escape is available?

The escape is simple, all we have to do is accept it:

  1. Realize that we all need a Savior. No one is perfect and no one is without sin.
  2. Understand that we cannot work our way into heaven. We cannot be good enough.
  3. Repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus as our Savior.
  4. Show our commitment and obedience to Jesus through baptism. Baptism is the symbol of our being born into a new life in Christ.
  5. Remember our baptism as a sign of our belief in Jesus, and assurance of salvation.

This is good news. Thanks be to God!


[1]Tan, P. L. (1996, c1979). Encyclopedia of 7700 illustrations: A treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers. See also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlemagne.

[2]Polhill, J. B. (2001, c1992). Vol. 26: Acts (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (355). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.


[4]Friberg, T., Friberg, B., & Miller, N. F. (2000). Vol. 4: Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Baker's Greek New Testament library (372). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

[5]Polhill, J. B. (2001, c1992). Vol. 26: Acts (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (355). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[6] http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=121410&Page=2

[7]Tan, P. L. (1996, c1979). Encyclopedia of 7700 illustrations : A treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers. Garland TX: Bible Communications.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Heiser, M. S. (2005; 2005). Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology (perfect). Logos Bible Software.

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