Essay / Misc.

Q and A with the Philippian Jailer: Acts 16:22-40

A sermon I preached at my home church, Grace Evangelical Free Church of La Mirada, on Sunday May 14, 2006.

(I started the sermon by taking out a camera and snapping pictures of the congregation left, right, and center, then pointing the camera up at the ceiling and getting a shot of that)

Thanks for bearing with me here. I don’t get to preach all that often, so I just wanted to get a little snapshot to remember you by.

But also, have you ever noticed that whenever you point a camera at something, the thing you’re pointing the camera at suddenly becomes much more interesting to everybody else? When I first pointed the camera at this side of the room, most of you were turning your heads and craning your necks to see what in the world was going on over there that was so important I had to take a picture of it. Couldn’t this have waited until the sermon was over? “What in the world is going on over there that he needs a picture of it right now?”

Pointing is powerful. You can try this yourself: find the least interesting object around, something totally nondescript and ordinary — no offense — and point a camera at it. Everybody who walks by will turn their heads to see what you’re looking at. You don’t even have to have film in the camera; the pointing’s the thing.

In fact, you don’t even need a camera. You could simply use digital equipment: your finger (thank you for the sacrificial laughter). If you like practical jokes, you can go to a crowded place, get a few friends together and all stare at the sky and point. You will draw a crowd. Now, if they don’t find anything worth looking at, they’ll turn their attention back to you and decide that you are yourself a rather interesting specimen, at least an eccentric type of individual, a camera-pointing oddity. But when normal folks stare up into the sky, it’s because there’s something unusual there, something worth seeing: a blimp, a balloon, a butterfly, a banner behind an airplane advertising a new movie, other things that start with B.

It’s no surprise that you can draw attention to something by pointing to it. Pointing is powerful; there is so much power in pointing that is not polite to point. But when you see something that other people should see, the best and most immediate testimony you can give is to point.

You don’t even have to know what it is you’re pointing to, because all your finger says is, quite elegantly and eloquently, “Looky there.” Of course the people you’re with have to understand what pointing means, because in itself, holding out your finger could just mean, “Looky here, I’ve got a finger.” If you’ve ever tried to communicate with an untrained dog, you know what I mean. You point to something, and the dog stares hard at your finger. The paradox is that the harder you work at pointing, the more interesting your finger becomes. No, don’t looky here, looky there, there! Index finger: indicare, to point! Bad dog! Bad dog! [stop pointing, wag finger at dog]

The book of Acts is all about this phenomenon. Not dogs staring at fingers; that’s actually a very minor topic in the Acts of the Apostles, hardly mentioned at all. But Acts is all about pointing, or in Luke’s terms, testifying, bearing witness. These are great New Testament words: witness, testify, testimony. I am rephrasing this set of words as “point” in order to get around our tendency to hear them as churchy words, bits of Christianese whose meaning has gone dormant. Acts is all about pointing. At the very beginning, Jesus tells his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (1:8) You will be witnesses: you will testify, you will see something great, you will come to understand it, and you will point others to what you have seen. Here in Jerusalem, and out to the ends of the earth.

With Acts chapter 16, Paul and Silas (and Luke, apparently, based on the “we” passages that are beginning to occur) continue that mission of being witnesses to the ends of the earth, and they sail over to Macedonia and bring the gospel to that godless continent, that stronghold of paganism, crying out in need of missionaries: Europe. Here we get to see the first Christian church in Europe, a house church in Lydia’s home in Philippi. Last Sunday Andrew told us the whole story of Paul’s work in Philippi, but today I want to pick up on the story of the jailer. Look with me at Acts chapter 16, verses 22-40.

22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

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.

35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.

Do you hear the pointing going on in this story? There’s pointing going on all over the place here. Of course there are Paul and Silas pointing out the way of salvation: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. We will come back to that. But before that there’s some bigger pointing. There’s a miracle, an earthquake, and not just any earthquake: an earthquake that shakes hard enough to open all the doors, and take the chains and stocks off of the prisoners, but not bring the building down. How hard do you have to shake a building to produce exactly the right amount of force to set everybody free but not bring the house down? God knows. This is a special kind of earthquake, and it’s precision engineered to bring about God’s purposes.

When that kind of thing happens, and it happens a lot in Acts, it doesn’t just happen for its own sake. It happens to send a signal. Signs and wonders are pointers and shocks: signs point something out, wonders shock you to attention. Miracles mean something, they’re not just for standing around and gawking at. They point. They mean. They signify.

If God cures your disease, it’s not just about your health, it means something beyond that. If God delivers you from a desperate situation, that deliverance is about something bigger than just your own deliverance. This is true of blessings of any kind: Psalm 67 says

1 May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you!

And it is especially true of blessings that take the form of miracles. A miracle is never an end in itself. If it were, it would make you crazy… in fact, people who think of miracles as ends in themselves do get a little crazy. And people who never expect miracles forget what miracles point to. Both are bad.

For example, put yourself in the stocks with Paul and Silas, and try to figure out why God delivered them at midnight. If God’s main agenda was to keep his witnesses from harm, he could have intervened considerably before this, say before the beatings. “We suffered and were shamefully treated in Philippi,” Paul would later tell the Thessalonians. On the other hand, God knows everything and therefore knows that Paul and Silas are in no long term trouble; the magistrates are coming first thing in the morning to turn them loose. Paul and Silas could easily spend one night in prison —Paul did things like this many times— especially since they seem to have been through the worst of it already. If the system was already working to bring them freedom on schedule, why should God miraculously deliver them a few hours ahead of schedule? And if then, why not earlier? It’s enough to make you crazy. But that’s what comes of thinking about miracles as ends in themselves, as being limited solely to what they accomplish. The main thing in the miracle is that it’s a sign and a wonder, a pointer and a shock.

But obviously the central testimony of the passage is the witnessing that Paul and Silas do to the Philippian jailer: What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus. That’s witnessing that we recognize: pointing out to an inquirer the way of salvation. And what an inquirer the Philippian jailer is. Where did this Philippian jailer — I’m tired of calling him that, let’s call him Phil — come up with a question that good? The question “what must I do to be saved” is really altogether too good for this rough character.

Consider Phil. Possibly a veteran of the Roman army, his job is to keep people locked up. He has a lot of authority and freedom about how he handles his prisoners, but when the magistrates show up and demand to see one of them, he must produce the prisoner. His career, his reputation, and maybe even his life, are on the line. When he gets Paul and Silas, they are fresh from a beating. He puts them in the inner prison, in stocks, and then crawls into his own bed and sleeps like a baby. It apparently doesn’t even occur to him to get them cleaned up, or dress their wounds, or anything else. In they go, and it’s fine with Phil. But in the middle of the night he comes up with the perfect evangelistic question: “What must I do to be saved?”

How would you like it if next time you’re having a conversation with a friend about spiritual things, they ask you this question; “What must I do to be saved?” Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, we get questions like “why are Christians so insensitive?” “Why do Christians want to impose their own morality on everybody?” “Why do Christians think everybody but them is going to hell?”

There are good questions and there are bad questions. With good questions, you’re home free: all the categories are in place, all the presuppositions are right, and half the work is done for you before you even start to answer. You can imagine what Paul is thinking when Phil asks him this one: here’s a slow pitch right over the plate; I’m knocking this one into the bleachers. But then there are bad questions. Yes, there is such a thing as a bad question. I know they don’t always tell you that in school, but they’re lying. A good question is in touch with reality, and asks about how to understand that reality better, or how to behave in light of it. A bad question is not in touch with reality, but is so wide of the mark that it can never hit the target on that trajectory. You can still give a bad question a good answer, but it takes a lot more work.

For example, alert Christians are about to be deluged with bad questions in the next few weeks, because the DaVinci Code movie is about to be released. This movie, if it’s anything like the book, is a bad question generator. Here are a few:

-Why did the early church choose these four gospels out of the 80 gospels they had to pick from?
-Why did the emperor Constantine have Jesus declared to be God by a close vote in the year 325 when he had been considered merely human up until then?
-Why is the church covering up the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and their children?
-Why do Christians hate women, sexuality, and the human body, and where can I sign up for an alternative religion?

It’s okay for us to admit that these are very, very bad questions. All the facts are wrong, everything in the DaVinci Code hinges on the unproven, and usually on the conveniently unprovable.

But when your friend or neighbor or co-worker asks you one of these questions, it’s not polite for you to tell them, “That is a bad question. Instead, try asking a good question: What Must I Do To Be Saved?” If you want to communicate with actual people, you have to respect the actual questions they’re actually asking, especially if they feel committed to or identified with those questions.

That doesn’t mean you have to respect the DaVinci Code, because its main ideas really are hopelessly silly. But be alert: sometimes when your friend asks you if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, what they’re really asking is, “are you narrow-minded, or are you open to being exposed to other points of view?” You may have one syllable to get on the right side of that question. And it is possible to start with bad questions and work your way to good ones. Are the 4 gospels reliable? Do we know what Jesus taught his first disciples? Did anybody before the year 325 write anything that indicated they believed in the divinity of Jesus? Are any of these other gospels remotely trustworthy? In the storm of bad questions that is blowing our way this week, it’s worth your time to understand the issues at stake in the DaVinci Code, to love your neighbors enough to stick with them in a conversation, and to get them to good questions.

And it’s worth reflecting on this fact: We get the questions we deserve. Here’s an illustration to show what I mean. Sometime before the year 150, somebody named Diognetus wrote a letter to a Christian friend, asking him some questions. We don’t have that letter of inquiry, but we do have the reply: Diognetus’ friend wrote:

I see that you are sincerely eager to learn about the religion of the Christians. You have asked me very clear and careful questions about it. What god do they trust? How does their worship of this god help them all disregard the world and despise death, taking martyrdom itself lightly? Why do they sneer at the so-called ‘gods’ of the pagans? What is the nature of this love they have for each other? And finally, why is it that this new race, or new way of life, has come into being in our time and not earlier?

Wouldn’t it be great if our culture was asking questions like that of us as Christians? What God do we trust? How does worshiping that God make us able to persevere? Why are we unaffected by the gods of the world? And how is it possible that Christians are so loving towards each other? Those are good, great questions. What kind of life would our church have to be living to provoke questions like that from our surrounding culture? We get the questions we deserve, and a storm of bad questions is partly — partly— a judgement on us. If we lived a life that was a clearer witness to Jesus Christ, we’d get better questions.

So what was it about Paul and Silas that made a man like Phil come up with the question, “What must I do to be saved?”

Was it their reputation? The girl possessed by the python spirit had been shouting all over town that they brought news of “the way of salvation.” Maybe their reputation preceded them.

Was it their behavior? In the short amount of time before Phil had them locked up, did he have time to observe that these guys didn’t act like normal prisoners? They weren’t even praying for release so much as praising God (16:25) and singing hymns.

Had Paul started sharing the gospel with him already? It’s possible; Luke doesn’t have to tell us everything in every story. Maybe the jailer already had received some teaching from Paul and Silas before heading for bed, putting on his Philippian jammies and brushing his Philippian teeth.

Or maybe was it the hymns that made him ask such a good question? What were they singing? Was there already a Christian collection of hymns by this time, or were they just singing the Psalms they had known from childhood, but winking every time the word “messiah” came up? Here are some verses from Psalm 107 that would have been meaningful for them to sing:

1Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
10 Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
14 He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of men!
16 For he shatters the doors of bronze
and cuts in two the bars of iron.

Phil was asleep for most of the hymn sing —the only person asleep in the whole prison—so he couldn’t have heard much of it. But maybe Paul and Silas had been humming all the way to their cell. Maybe everybody in the whole cell block was dancing to the jailhouse rock. But somewhere in the combination of reputation, behavior, background knowledge, and praise, Phil picked up enough understanding to ask: “What must I do to be saved?”

On the other hand, just how good a question is it, especially when you consider the source? It’s entirely possible —in fact, many scholars consider it pretty likely—that the Philippian Jailer meant something like “now what?” or just “help!” He may have been a superstitious sort of man, who decided that whatever god these guys served, that god was now angry over their imprisonment, and had the power to shake the prison down. Maybe “what must I do to be saved” is just a way of saying, “tell your god not to kill me!” The more you think about what Phil was thinking when he said these words, the less it sounds like a good question.

There’s just not enough information in the question to know for sure if it’s a good one or a bad one on the lips of the Philppian jailer. It could mean so many things. In preparing this sermon, I’ve been telling the story to my kids over and over. To review, I asked my 3 year old daughter yesterday, “Phoebe, what must I do to be saved?” She looked right at me and answered clearly: “Stop, drop, and roll.” That’s good advice too, but it turns out that context is everything, and the context here is not promising.

There’s no doubt that Paul gave Phil more than he bargained for. The answer was better than the question, infinitely better. In fact, the more you look at Phil’s question, the more you wonder: did Phil know enough to get saved? This is a handful of words exchanged here. Was he a Christian? How much did he know?

Well, how much did you know? Most of us come to Christ with a pretty small amount of understanding. Many believers get into this simply because they want to miss hell and hit heaven, and they’re offended if you suggest that there’s more to it than that. I heard a preacher on the radio last week saying that when he was a child, he gave his life to Jesus when a blind evangelist came to his church preaching from Revelation in his Braille King James Bible. According to the sermon, Jesus was coming soon to make some people fly through the clouds, leaving everybody else to get mark of the beast tattoos and burn in a lake of fire. Given the choice between fly or fry, this little boy chose the clouds over the bad tattoo and torture. He really didn’t have much more in his mind at the time. Young Martin Luther, walking in a bad storm, was knocked to the ground by a sudden lightning strike. Thinking the jaws of hell were opening to swallow him, he cried out, “Saint Anne, save me! I will become a monk!” The mature Luther looked back on this with some skepticism. What was he doing talking to Jesus’ grandma? And what was with that attempt to cut a deal for deliverance? All very questionable, theologically. But God apparently took it, and moved into Luther’s life to begin a reform project. And he kept reforming until a lot more people got reformed as well.

God answers better questions than we ask: that is practically a definition of grace. God answers better questions than we ask. We roll a badly-formed, half-articulate, self-serving question at him, and he hits it back to us transformed into something we didn’t know enough to ask. He sees your deeds, and He knows your needs even before you ask. Our God answers prayers: He answers prayers we didn’t know how to pray. The Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, the Son lives forever and brings our requests into the presence of the Father. If we pay close enough attention to our life in the Spirit, we can overhear our own talking with God.

A lot of my students at Biola, and church members in my grace group, remember giving their lives to Jesus and trusting him for salvation when they were three years old. Three years old! Can you please specify for me the doctrinal content of a three year old’s mind? And yet there it is, conversion to Christ followed by growth. God is so merciful and patient with us in our partial understandings, and even in our bad ideas.

The Philippian jailer may have had a whole head full of confusion and foolishness on his mind when he had this question on his lips. Maybe when he said, “what must I do to be saved,” he meant “is there anybody the earthquake god wants me to kill?” or “what set of good deeds do I have to carry out to make myself acceptable to the god who can crush me?” or “what’s the work I have to be doing to be in god’s favor?”

Paul ignores it all. His answer is fitted to every inquirer: believe in the Lord Jesus. Have faith in the Lord Jesus. Is that all?

Don’t listen to people who tell you that you are the one in control of your relationship with God, and that all God can do is wait anxiously for you to take the initiative. Don’t ask a nonsense question like “How can I get myself in the position to be predestinated?” The initiative is absolutely on God’s side. In Acts 2, the Lord adds to the church as many as it pleases him to add. In Acts 16 the Lord opens Lydia’s heart to believe. In Acts 18:27, the converts believe “through grace.” God is sovereign over salvation. Anything else is a twisted Arminian lie.

Don’t listen to people who tell you that you are not responsible for your response to God’s initiative.
Don’t ask a nonsense question like “If God wants me in heaven, why doesn’t he cause me to choose him and make me love him and move me to follow him?” It makes all the difference in the world how you respond. When the offer of the gospel goes out, it is in earnest. Anything else is a twisted Calvinist lie.

What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved. Is that all? It doesn’t sound like very much at all. Well, remember what we said about bad questions? May I gently suggest that “Is that all” is a bad question? And the only answer to it is yes and no.

Is that all? Yes, faith is all. The only condition is no condition. Put yourself in Christ’s hands, and await further instructions. He has big plans for you. Believe in the Lord Jesus, that is all.

Is that all? No, there is more to this than a panicked cry for salvation and the order to believe. In the instant that you and Jesus Christ come to these terms, you are in for it. You are taken out of yourself and placed into Christ.

Paul knows that salvation is a deep thing, a well from which we draw water all our lives. Paul knows that the things of the gospel are the deep things of God. This is Paul we’re talking about, who wrote Ephesians, Ephesians with that first chapter that spells out the fulllness of salvation so elaborately and effusively: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…”

With all that in his head and on his heart, how could Paul keep things simple enough to tell the Philippian jailer “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved?”

What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.

God chose us in Christ
before the ground of the world was laid
to be holy and blameless before him;
for adoption as children of God
to the praise of his glorious grace

What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.

Redeemed through the blood of the beloved son,
the forgiveness of sins,
according to the riches of his grace
which he poured out on us in abundance;
In all wisdom and insight
he made us know the mystery of his will
according to his own counsel,
to the praise of his glory

What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.

when you believed, you were sealed in Christ
with the promised Holy Spirit,
who is the down payment on what we will inherit
when God redeems his own possession
to the praise of his glory.

What must I do to be saved? Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.

How can something so vast and profound be communicated so simply and quickly?

Because it’s as simple as pointing.

I can point to the infinite sky, and it doesn’t make my finger any bigger. I can tell you about the almighty God, and it doesn’t make my telling almighty. When we testify about who God is and what he’s done, our words are weak, but our God is great. And if we do our job of pointing, people will turn their heads.

Our little salvations, our little testimonies, are not the point. They are miracles of grace, but they are not miracles for their own sake, any more than any miracle is for its own sake. They signify. They mean. They point, because they are not their own point, but have a point. The point is our great God, who is good and does good. The point is to leverage our little testimonies to direct peoples’ attention toward that great God, that God who is love, that Father who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and put the Holy Spirit of adoption into our hearts. The point is to sing his praises in the inner prison, and to know that he can bring us out into glorious freedom to testify to his power as deliverer.

The point is to see all we can of God, and to tell it as well as we can, to as many as we can.

The point is to point.

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