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The Jailer’s Conversion

This seventh detailed record of conversion is found immediately following that of the story of Lydia. To take all in order and context you should probably take the time to read the sixteenth chapter of Acts in its entirety. But in these notes, and in an attempt to be concise and to spend less time on incidentals, I will commence with the narrative from verse sixteen.

Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.”

Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

The details of the healing set the stage for the rest of the story. Notice that although the recorder (thought to be the physician Luke) is an eyewitness to the casting out of the spirit from the woman, the ensuing trial of the two preachers and their sentencing, he does not end up in jail with Paul and Silas. It is also useful to note the harsh treatment for their having done a good deed (although one with adverse economic consequence for the woman’s masters).

To continue:

But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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 chains were loosed. 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.

But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.

Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

This is pretty straightforward stuff, and it really requires no comment. But in the interest of instruction and in hopes of dispelling some of the false notions others have introduced into discussions of this lesson we will mention some of the obvious things.

It has been said that this is the equivalent of the conversion of a spiritual novice, of one who knew nothing and had no background in religion. But the text says nothing about the man’s background, his convictions or of his demeanor toward either God or man. Therefore the record does not lend any credence to this theory through the given details. To speak with facts, we simply do not know what the man’s previous religious attitude was or that of his family. We only know the outcome of his situation stemming from his inquiry and his response to the things taught.

Some others find infant baptism in here somewhere. In the last two centuries, several teachers have produced volumes on the meaning and intent of the word “household” having found both infants and children within. But nothing is said of a jailer’s wife or whether he was even married. Nothing is said of the number of jailer babies or of any adolescents. For that matter nothing is said of how many adults were included or whether they were comprised of parents or wife’s relatives, or if it was just Uncle Fred and Aunt Mary. The folks who see these things must have picked up a very small rock and they must have stared long at it or gently peered underneath to come up with all of that.

In reality we do know that without a doubt all of those present were adults, because the text states, “all his family were baptized” and then that “all his household” had believed.

As the scriptures never say a word anywhere about infants or children believing and being baptized, and as the notion that infants can “believe” in anything, other than the gaze from their mothers eyes and the care they receive in their arms, is ludicrous. Certainly Christ, the apostles, and the disciples and prophets only ever dealt with adults concerning salvation. That is what is found in the records. Therefore, it is easily deduced and necessarily concluded that the “all” in the jailer’s household must have been adults. That is what is implied through the written record. How many is all?

We know that the jailer had responded to the actions of Paul and Silas by observing the events following the earthquake. Of his previous disposition we know nothing. The prisoners had been listening to the songs of hope and praise, but we do not know if the jailer himself heard any of that. But while on the singing, do you suppose Paul and Silas made sounds like the proverbial cat with his tail under the rocker, or like two screech owls? Or do you suppose that it must have been pleasing not only to God, but also to the ears of men? So much then for the notion that the song service is unimportant, and that it is not important what the singing sounds like. As a final thought in this vein, there is no evidence anyone was accompanying them either on kazoo or by banging on a tin plate with a spoon.

Have you ever wondered why the other prisoners were content to remain there once their bonds were released? Would you hang around the jailhouse if not compelled? Would you have remained in the gaol when the opportunity had presented itself for you to be elsewhere? They probably didn’t hang around because of the good accommodations, or due to the pleasant personality of the two prophets, even though they had been listening to them singing and teaching. It certainly then wasn’t because they had nowhere else that they might go.

That the stocks were loosed and the prisoners remained is not a miracle because there is no indication of an angel’s presence or of the Holy Spirit restricting them in anyway. There is no suspension of any physical or natural law so there was no miracle, although the earthquake likely was the immediate hand of God at work. Yet the others remained in response to something, and here we can only speculate. Perhaps they were awed by the presence of the working of God. Perhaps they recognized the presence of salvation also? Perhaps there was evidence of interest but not of its fullness? There is simply no way to know.

While the prisoners had been listening to the singing, it says nothing of the jailer having done so (he was apparently somewhere adjacent, as the record says he was awakened during the earthquake). Or perhaps all heard and the preachers had stopped by midnight from their praise to get some sleep. We cannot know.

How is it that the jailer was so moved to respond then to Paul’s words, if he was the spiritual idiot that many suggest? Once stopped in his attempt to take his life, the jailer trembling asked the most important question ever pondered by man: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Was he asking how to be saved with just the evening’s knowledge? Either he had to have known something or he reacted strictly out of deference to the apostle and his companion’s actions following that earthquake, in their response to the broken chains and open door. However it hit him, he did not hesitate. Whether through prior knowledge, by hearing the “songs in the night” drift through the air, or simply through the things that transpired after midnight, he somehow quickly associated and ordered the facts, concluding that the things he had witnessed were extraordinary and not the commonplace. He apparently had no problem sorting any of it out. He immediately acted. It would take many of us weeks to have gotten a fix on things. How many of us have viewed salvation as an immediate need?

The answer given him was really not any different here that when it had been previously asked in slightly different form in Acts chapter 2 and in chapter 8.

In answer to this question we know what the jailer was told to do. And we have sometime ago covered the answer when this was asked by the multitude on Pentecost and by the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. We know that the jailer and his family were told what they should do, just as with the rest. They then heard the teaching of Christ and the gospel of salvation. They responded to the conditions that had already been set for all entrants and which we have seen clear evidence to previously. And we know that they did as they all had been bidden. They followed the instructions and the instructions were identical. This is exactly the outcome when the multitude had asked, “Men and brethren what shall we do?” and when Paul had asked, “Lord what would you have me to do?” The answer and its particulars were the same then and surely it is the same now.

We note again that the record states that in response to their being taught and stemming from their belief, that they were all baptized to meet the initiating condition. And for one last time, exactly how many is “all?”