THE SUPREME QUESTION — THE PHILIPPIAN JAILER
Adapted from a Sermon by Clovis G. Chappell
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Act 16:30-31
"What must I do to be saved?" That question was asked by a startled jailer. He was in the middle of strange and bewildering events. He had just seen wonderful things. He was being shaken by unfamiliar terrors. From these terrors he instinctively seeks a remedy and so he asked this infinitely wise question: "What must I do to be saved?"
But this jailer is not the only man that has ever asked that question. He is not the first man that asked it. This is a universal question. Men of all times and of all places have asked and sought an answer to this question. The cultured Greeks tried to answer it by building altars to many gods. It was in an effort to answer this question that uncivilized heathens practiced their cruel religious ceremonies and abominable sacrifices. This was their way of asking the supreme question: "What must I do to be saved?"
This was a dramatic moment in this jailer's life. It was a moment big with blessing. Look at the picture. Two strange preachers have come to this Roman city of Philippi. Their preaching has brought them into conflict with the authorities. They are brought before the magistrates. Their clothing is torn from them and they are severely beaten.
It seems that this would have been shame enough and pain enough, but it was not. They were then turned over to a callous and cruel Roman jailer with the order that he should keep them securely. So, he threw them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks. The place must have been stank terribly and been cold and dark. Their backs were torn and bleeding. And this was their reward for seeking to bring to men the unsearchable riches of Christ.
Now things looked pretty grim for these two. But they did not lose heart. First, they prayed. We can imagine they prayed secretly and then they prayed aloud. And those people in prison heard the voice of prayer for possibly the first time in their lives. Now, real prayer always makes things different. It brings us a consciousness of God. And so, as these men prayed, their hearts grew warm and full of joy until, before long, prayer gives place to praise and they begin to sing.
Have you ever wondered what these people sang that night? It might have been the Twenty-third Psalm. Or they might have sung, " I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad." (Ps 34:2) Or the Thirty-seventh Psalm would have sounded well in the darkness of that hideous dungeon,--"Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb." (Ps 37:1) But perhaps the most likely of all is the Forty-sixth: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea." (Ps 46:1)
Whatever they sang it was wonderful singing. We can imagine the angels opened the windows, as it were, when they heard it. And it must have made the very heart of our Lord glad. What a surprise it was to those in that gloomy old prison. They had heard the walls ring with groans and cries. They had heard bitter swearings in the night, but songs with the inflection of an irrepressible joy in them--they had never heard anything like that before.
Now as the melody rang through the gloomy cells something else happened. The old building seemed to be shaking with the very power of the music. An earthquake was on and God took this petty prison in His hand and shook it as child might shake a toy, and all its doors were thrown open and the shackles were shaken from the feet of those that were bound. And the old jailer is shaken out of his complacency and out of his bed and a great terror grips him.
We can imagine him as he picks himself up and looks around in a panic. The doors are open. He is sure that the prisoners are gone. He knows that he will have to pay with his life. He will not face the shame of it. He will inflict justice upon himself. He draws his sword and prepares to take his own life, but Paul's eyes were upon him, and knowing what he was about to do, he shouts to him, "We are all here, Jailer. Do not harm yourself." (v.28)
There is love in that cry, tenderness in it, longing in it that the jailer could not understand. Neither could he fail to feel the power of it. It touches him deeply. He is gripped by another terror, the terror that has come through the presence of these strange men who have brought the things of eternity to seem real to him. And urged on by that new terror he rushes to these men with bleeding backs and tattered garments and throws himself at their feet with this great question in his heart and on his lips, "Sirs, what must I to do be saved?"
Now, it is plain that this jailer was a heathen, one that no one would ever accuse of being a great theologian. We do not know how learned he was. We do not know whether he could read or write or not. We do not know whether he was widely traveled or not. He may have never been beyond the precincts of his own city. But what we do know is this, that he asked the biggest question that ever fell from human lips. There can be no greater. It was the greatest for him. It is the greatest for you. It is the greatest for me. "What must I do to be saved?" There is no question quite so big as that.
And I am wondering now if it is a big question to you. Remember, it is not: What must I do to be decent? It is not: What must I do to be respectable? These things are all right, but they are not the ultimate question. It is not: What must I do to get rich or be successful? Millions of us are asking that question as if it were the one question of eternal importance. But you know that it is not. The supreme question is: "What must I do to be saved?"
What is implied in this question when it is asked intelligently? There is implied first of all that there is an absolute difference between being saved and lost. There is implied in it that there are two classes of people, not the cultured and the uncultured, not the learned and the unlearned. They are the saved and the lost. They are those that have life and those that do not have life.
It is true that we live in a time when such dogmatic divisions are not emphasized or are even rejected. But I call your attention to the fact that they are the divisions that are made in the New Testament. They are the divisions that Jesus made. He puts people into two classes, and only two. There were two gates, one was broad and the other narrow. There were two foundations on which a man might build, one was of sand and the other of rock. And notice that He did not divide men into the perfect and the imperfect, but into those that had life and those that did not have it. And it was He that said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life." (John 3:36) So, this question, if it means anything, means that there is such a thing as being saved and there is such a thing as being lost. This fact is recognized throughout the entire Bible.
This question implies, in the second place, a consciousness of being lost. "What must I do to be saved?" When this man asked that question there were many things about which he was uncertain. He was uncertain as to how he was to get out of his darkness. He was uncertain as to how he was to be saved, but of one thing he was sure--he was dead sure that he was lost. He did not try to dodge that fact. He did not shut his eyes to it. He did not try in any way to deny it.
And, if you are here without God I hope you will not deny it. For if you have not taken Jesus Christ as your personal Savior you are lost. Then the best thing you can do, the first step to be taken in the direction of getting saved, is to realize your lostness. A man will not go to the doctor unless he believes himself to be sick. He will not try to learn unless he realizes his ignorance. Neither will he turn to God for salvation unless he realizes that he is lost. It is a truly good day for a man when he gets a clear view of himself. It is a great day when he has a glimpse of himself as God sees him. It is a great hour when, conscious of his guilt, he bows himself in the presence of Him who alone can save and says, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." (Lk 18:13)
This question implies, in the third place, not only that the man is lost who asked it, but that there is a possibility of his being saved. "What must I do to be saved?"--and here was a man conscious of being lost, conscious of being scarred by sin and stained and guilty, yet he believes, and he is right in believing, that salvation is possible for him. He believes that even he can be completely saved. There is such a thing as salvation and it is possible for me, even me, to lay hold of it.
And you too must realize that. Otherwise it will do you no good to realize the fact that you are a sinner. It is not enough to know that you are lost. You must also believe that you may be saved. It is not enough to realize that you are weak: you must believe that is possible for you to be strong. You must believe that even an unstable Simon can be made into a rock. You must believe in the power of God to remake men, otherwise for you the question is only a question of dark despair.
This question implies, in the fourth place, a willingness to be saved. "What must I do to be saved?" This man is not asking this question to gather material for a future argument. He is no quibbler. He is no trifler. He is not even asking it because he is intellectually curious. He is not simply asking in order that he may know the conditions of salvation. He is asking with the earnest purpose in his heart to meet those conditions.
This question implies, in the fifth place, that while salvation is a possibility for you, you must do something in order to obtain it. "What must I do to be saved?" What sort of an answer would you expect to a question like that? What did the apostle say? Did he say, "Do nothing. Leave it alone. Forget it. Just drift along and all will be well in the end?" That is what many of us are doing. No, not at all, he said nothing of the kind. He told this man to do something. And this man knew, as you and I know, that if we are ever to be saved we have got to do something in order to get saved.
I say every one of us knows that, and yet too few of us act as if it were really true. We seem to think that salvation is something that we are going to stumble upon by accident. We seem to think it is something that we are going to receive with absolutely no effort on our own part. We act as if we thought it might be slipped into our pockets while we sleep or dropped into our coffins when we die. Ask the question intelligently, from the heart,--"What must I do to be saved?" Then you will realize that you must do something.
This question implies, in the first place, that the conditions of salvation are not optional, that it is not up to you and it is not up to me to decide just what we will do in order to be saved. You can accept salvation or you can refuse it. You can meet the conditions or you can refuse to meet them. But one thing you cannot do. You cannot decide on the terms upon which you will surrender. If you are saved at all you must surrender unconditionally.
So, the question is, "What must I do to be saved?" It is not, “What is the practical thing or what is the respectable thing or what is the popular thing to do in order to find salvation.” The conditions are not of your choosing and they are not of mine. God has made them and you and I dare not change them. Therefore, if you are ever to be saved, there is not something simply that you ought to do, but there is something that you absolutely must do.
Last of all, this question implies that salvation is an individual matter. "What must I do?" It is not a question of what must God do. He has made full provision for the salvation of the whole world. It is not what must the Church do. It is not what must the preacher do. It is not what must this person that is beside me and this person that is behind me or in front of me do. The question comes to my own heart--"What must I do?"
"What must I do to be saved?" You must do something, but there are many things that we are doing that will not save us. If you expect to be saved, in the first place, do not depend on your own goodness. "All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment." (Is 64:6) Do not count on your own decency. No man was ever saved that way. I challenge you to find one single one. Some people may say or think that they are good enough without Jesus Christ. But they are not saved. A person who says that, virtually tells Christ that He came for nothing and that the Cross was a wasted tragedy so far as he himself is personally concerned.
Neither will you be saved trusting in the other person's badness. I know what many say to themselves as they hear such a sermon. They say to themselves one of the oldest lies that was ever told. They say, "I would be a Christian but there are so many hypocrites in the Church." How many people give that as a reason, but it is no reason at all. And there has never been one person saved by it. Consider this: the shortcomings and the sins of my brother are mighty poor things to depend on for my own personal salvation.
Again, you will not be saved by seeking an easy way. You will never win by catering to your own pride and cowardice. To be held back by the fear of man, by the thought of “what will such and such think of me?” is a sure way to perish. Nobody ever found salvation by catering to his own cowardice and pride and seeking an easy way.
"What must I do to be saved?" There is an answer to this question. It is an answer that is absolutely dependable. There is nothing in all the world of which I am more sure than I am of the correctness of the answer to this question. I am as sure of it as I am of my own existence. I am as sure of it as I am of the fact of God.
I wonder if you are interested to know the answer. Remember that it is the answer to your ultimate question. It is the answer to the most important question that was ever asked. It is the most important that you will ever be called to act upon in this world. Does the prospect of an cause your heart to beat faster? Does it shake you out of your sleep into keen interest? It ought to if it does not. For the answer that I give is not the answer of a mere speculator or dreamer. It is the answer of inspiration and it is an answer whose truth has been tested by the personal experience of a great crowd of witnesses. "What must I do to be saved?" Answer: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."
What is it to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? It is to believe that Jesus Christ can do what He claims to do and what He has promised to do and to depend on Him to do it. The jailer had this faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He depended upon Him then and there for salvation.
And what happened? He was saved. That very moment Christ came into the man's heart and he became a new creation. He became possessed of a new joy. He became possessed of a new tenderness.
Did you notice what he did? He took water and washed the wounds of the preachers. Paul and Silas were bleeding when they came to the prison but the jailer did not care. But now that he had found Christ he has already started to be a partaker of the divine nature. A new love has come to him. He has become tender where he was cruel before. Even so does the power of Jesus Christ make men over.
Now, the question is: do you want to be saved? If you do, you can be. It's the surest thing in all the world. It is as sure as the fact that day follows night. It is more sure than the fact that if you sow wheat you will reap it, that if you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ you shall be saved.
Believe in him now and, by your own experience, you will know and understand this blessed fact.