Rev. Hanko is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
Little did Paul and Silas realize that God had brought them into this prison under close guard and in chains for the very purpose that there they should meet “a man of Macedonia” who would pray them, “Come over and help us.”
Still less did this jailer know that these men had been sent to him by the living God to bring a radical change in his life. Nor did he realize that the happenings of this night would have a lasting effect upon his household and his future generations.
The prison keeper was charged to keep these men in double security. He knew that they “exceedingly troubled the city and taught unlawful customs” for Romans to observe. He had heard or heard about the cry, “These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation,” but it had made no great impression on him at the time.
He had placed them behind locked doors, in the innermost prison, where they lay in an uncomfortable position with their legs in shackles and their raw, bloody backs pressed against the hard, cold, musty prison wall.
Under those circumstances sleep was out of the question. Paul and Silas were deeply aware that they were bearing the reproaches of their Lord and Master, who had suffered far more for their sakes than they now bore, so that from their hearts they could still pray and sing praises to God. Their songs were surely unfamiliar sounds in the ears of the other prisoners.
About midnight the jailer was suddenly awakened out of his sleep by the powerful hand of the Almighty, who alone is God. He experienced a rumbling, a trembling and shaking of the earth. No, this was no ordinary earthquake, as frightening as that can be. It was of a unique character, for it was centered in and shook the entire prison. Amazingly, and that immediately shocked the jailer, this most unusual, localized disturbance in the earth caused the prison doors to burst open and the stocks and chains that held the prisoners to fall away, so that they were free and, if they wished, they had plenty of opportunity to get up and walk out.
The prison keeper’s first reaction was quite natural. He feared his prisoners had escaped, even those who were placed in double security. Nothing could stop them. A power greater than that of any man had been displayed. And the prison keeper will be held responsible. The authorities would surely kill him for failing in his duty of keeping in custody all the prisoners, but especially the two prominent men concerning whom he had received special orders to keep them secure.
But then a different fear suddenly gripped him, a fear which was far worse than the fear of death. He was confronted by the God whom Paul preached. His whole life passed in review before him and he realized that he was imprisoned in sin, bound in the shackles of guilt, condemned to the everlasting death of hell.
A second wonder had taken place, even greater and more marvelous than the first. Scripture speaks of this as “being born again,” not of flesh and blood, but by the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. You may have experienced this amazing change in your own life. More likely, it took place even before you were born. In any case, we become new creatures in Christ, born from above, born with the life of our risen Lord in our hearts. We have become members of the family of God, sons and daughters in God’s house, heirs of eternal life.
This radical change in our lives is so amazing that our fathers speak of it as “a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable, not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead” (Canons III/IV, 12).
The jailer experienced another wonder: God’s amazing work of conversion, whereby both the heart and the mind of the jailer underwent a radical change. He was taken from death into life, from darkness into the light, changed from a servant of Satan to a servant of the living God, turned from sin unto a godly walk. Now deeply aware of the guilt of his sin that condemned him before the tribunal of the only true God, he cries out, as it were, “O God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”
That is what drove him out to Paul and Silas, to fall down at their feet and to plead: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.”
Broken, humbled to the dust
By Thy wrath and judgment just,
Let my contrite heart rejoice
And in gladness hear Thy voice;
From my sins O hide Thy face,
Blot them out in boundless grace.
The answer of Paul and Silas is as amazing and significant now as it was then: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved!”
What? No self-mutilation, no sacrifice of a son or a daughter, no costly oblation, as was the practice among the heathen? No promise of remuneration or a life of service? No, none of that! Simply: Believe. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet, what is required of the jailer is the humanly impossible. How strange such an answer would have sounded in pagan ears, not taught of God: Believe on a man who preached and taught among His own people, Israel. A man who was rejected by them, even committed to the bitter, shameful, accursed death of the cross! A man who is said to have done the unheard of, the humanly impossible: to have atoned for the sin of others, risen from the dead, and gone into glory to bestow His work of grace upon us from heaven!
The prison keeper was a man who had undergone the wonder of regeneration and had become a new creature in Christ. Old things were passed away, all had been made new. The bond of faith was laid between Christ and him through which all the blessings of salvation are bestowed upon him. He is now enabled to embrace God as the only true and living God. He knows that this one and only God is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the God of all grace who breaks the shackles of sin and opens the prison door of death. In Him alone is all our salvation. He is the covenant God, who teaches us to say in awe and reverence: My God! My heavenly Father! My Refuge and my Strength.” “He (God) produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also” (Canons III/IV, 14).
No, the jailer’s faith was not fully developed. It was still in its initial stage, like a beautiful rose bud that is ready to burst into bloom, or like a shimmering speck of diamond that exposes an unexplored diamond mine.
All concern about the magistrate now fades from his mind. He has but one desire, which he gratefully fulfills. He takes Paul and Silas out of their prison cell and into his home. There he carefully and with deep concern washes their wounds and freely pours balm upon them. He believes. His trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ whom Paul and Silas preach. He trusts in Him with body and soul, for time and eternity. He is ready to surrender himself completely to the true and living God, and he experiences a peace he had never before known. He experiences a peace that is beyond human comprehension.
This is not the end of the wonders of that night. Holy baptism was administered to a formerly pagan family by the servants of God.
When Paul said, “And thou shalt be saved,” he had added the assurance: “and thy house.” How could he say that about a pagan family? Was he not a bit hasty? Should he not have waited until true faith was evident also in the wife, in the children, or in the servants? But this assurance of Paul is based upon the Word of God, for the promise (I will establish my covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee … to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee) is to the believer “and to his children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
A new covenant line has sprung into life. New branches appear on the vine of which Christ is the root. A new line of generations has been added to the family of God here on earth. Here are newly revealed members of the body of Christ, new members of the one, holy, universal church of God. Here are prospective members of the church at Philippi.
The jailer has confessed before Paul and Silas that he believes that although he and his household were conceived and born in sin, yet they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore as members of His church ought to be baptized. He acknowledges the truth of Paul’s preaching and instruction and promises to see his household instructed and brought up in that doctrine.
God gathers into His church in sovereign mercy most unexpected and unworthy persons—like the jailer, like you and me! O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! How wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown!