9th Sunday After Pentecost July 29, 2012


The Jailor Who Escaped from Prison

Acts 16:29-31

Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 23:16-29
Matthew 12:46-50


226, 318, 377, 46

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Then [the jailer] 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.”

In the name of Jesus Christ—who came “…to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house(Isaiah 42:7)—dear fellow-redeemed:

On April 1, 1997, an interesting event took place at the Terrebonne County Prison in southern Louisiana. This new, state-of-the-art facility had suffered several technical problems since its construction. On this particular day, things really went haywire. About the middle of the afternoon, the computerized security system failed. In a massive malfunction every single door in the prison simultaneously clicked open. Later, the sheriff said that at that moment all of the prisoners in the jail could have walked right out the front door had they chosen to do so. Surprisingly and fortunately, none of them left. The prisoners, evidently stunned and confused by all the open doors, stayed in their cells.

It may be that none of us has ever physically been an inmate in a prison. I do know that every human being is, by nature, an inmate in a spiritual prison of his own creation. It’s the prison of sin. Like the Terrebonne County jail, this too is a prison where at one historic point in time all the doors simultaneously clicked open. The day they were opened was Good Friday, and the person who opened them was Jesus Christ.

Today we will look at one man who finally, after a long struggle, realized that the door of his prison cell was open. He asked a single question and the answer he received enabled him to walk out to freedom. Interestingly, the man himself was a jailer by profession. Join me today as we consider: THE JAILOR WHO ESCAPED FROM PRISON I. He asked an unanswerable question and II. He received an unquestionable answer!


Paul and Silas were visiting the city of Philippi in Macedonia. They’d found themselves in trouble, you may recall, after casting an evil spirit of divination out of a young slave girl in that city. When she could no longer divine the future, her owners saw that they had lost a lot of money. They were angry and began a riot until finally, Paul and Silas were seized by the city magistrates. In a public humiliation that you and I can scarcely imagine, the apostles were stripped to the waist and beaten unmercifully. Then they were cast into prison.

What were prisons like in the first century A.D.? Not much like the prisons we know. Prisons of that era were most often caves carved out of stony hillsides. Especially in the inner prison, where Paul and Silas were kept, all was darkness and filth. There was no air to breathe, and to their severe wounds was added the additional torture of having their arms and legs fastened in painful wooden stocks. The chief jailer, or warden of the prison, was given a special charge to watch carefully over these important prisoners. His career and perhaps his very life depended on keeping Paul and Silas and their fellow prisoners locked securely away.

As midnight tolled, despite their injuries, Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God. We don’t know the specific subject of their prayers. One writer pointed out that they were almost certainly not praying for an earthquake! But God knows best how to carry out His purposes and an earthquake was His answer.

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.’ (Acts 16:26-28).

No prisoners had escaped! The jailer would not, as the Roman custom was, have to pay for the escape of his prisoners with his life. The danger was past, and the physical crisis was over. But there was a spiritual crisis brewing in the heart of the jailer. Perhaps he had heard the power of Paul’s preaching. Maybe he was acquainted with the miracle of the girl’s healing. He had just witnessed the miracle of the earthquake. He felt his sins terribly and that consciousness of sin led him to ask an unanswerable question, “Sirs, what must I DO to be saved?[v.30]

Why unanswerable? Because the question itself contains a false premise. There is nothing we can do to be saved! Nevertheless, this is the first solution we sinful human beings always jump at when confronted with our own sin. We want to do something to soothe our conscience, to make up if possible for at least part of the sins we’ve committed. But as the great reformer, Martin Luther, found out five centuries ago, doing good works as a solution for sin is like drinking sea water as a solution for thirst. It doesn’t do you any good, in fact, it makes things worse. Good works cannot provide an answer for the question of sin. The Bible clearly says that “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight(Romans 3:20). “What must I do to be saved?” is a question to which the Bible gives no answer, because no answer is possible.

Now, if that jailer had gone to the Pharisees, they would have had an answer for him. “Here are the things you must do in order to be saved. You must keep the Sabbath, you must refrain from certain foods, you must keep all our various religious ordinances without transgression…” The list would continue on and on. Sad to say, the same thing is true about religious leaders in our day and age. Many of them try to provide an answer for that unanswerable question. To the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the Roman Catholic Church responds, “To the merit of Christ you must add your own good works.” To the question, “What must I do to be saved?” many Reformed churches say that you must take the first step and “make a decision for Christ” and invite Him to come into your heart. To the question, “What must I do to be saved?” the charismatics reply you must feel strong emotions in your heart, and you must do faith healing and speak in tongues.

The jailor asked an unanswerable question. The same question has been asked countless times since then, and no one has ever received an answer because there isn’t one. Asking “what must I do to be saved?” is a little like asking “Which train do I take to get to Hawaii?” You can’t get to Hawaii by train, and you can’t get to Heaven by doing good deeds. There’s nothing a person can do to be saved! Praise be to our gracious God, this fact does not mean salvation is out of reach. This doesn’t mean that the power of sin can’t be defeated. Paul reveals that to the problem of sin, God has provided an unquestionable answer!


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.’[vv.30-31]

When Jesus Christ gave up His life on the cross of Calvary, He earned forgiveness of sins and eternal life for that jailer, for you, for me, and for every human being. He made for us a way to escape the prison of sin. Christ has taken away the Devil’s power so that now Satan’s only remaining hope lies in deception. His only hope lies in convincing you that the bars are still up, that the spiritual earthquake wrought by Christ never happened. The truth is otherwise. The truth is, Jesus has blown the doors off the prison of sin! It’s a mighty earthquake! Every barrier that separated you from the holy God has been crushed and crumbled by the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

What a relief! Really, that’s the only way to describe it—what a blessed relief it is to know that your Savior has released you from this prison for good!

Some friends told me once about a man they hired to do odd jobs around their house in Steilacoom, WA. They didn’t know much about him until one day when they saw him gazing across the waters of Puget Sound toward the state penitentiary on McNeil Island. After a moment he sighed, “I’ve never seen it from this direction before!” It turns out that he had recently been released from the prison on McNeil island. In his voice and in his expression was the joy of knowing that he was finally free and that he need never go back to that prison again.

What joy and satisfaction there is for us in knowing that our Savior has released us once and for all from the prison of our sin and that we need never go back there again! The letter to the Hebrews assures us, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God(Hebrews 10:11-12).

You and I are just like the jailor who escaped from prison. Surely, there is great joy in receiving the unquestionable answer to sin that our God has given us. Surely, there is great joy for us in having escaped from the prison of sin. But wouldn’t there be something wrong with us if we could gaze back at that prison of sin and not want to help those who are still held there in captivity there? Indeed, that is the Great Commission we have received from our Savior: Go and teach all nations to bring them the unquestionable answer for sin that God has provided. We are to wake people up to the fact that the doors are open, that Christ has removed the bars of their sin. We have the blessed task of telling them that by faith in Jesus they are free to walk out of the prison. The Apostle Paul says, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation(2 Corinthians 5:19).

What wonderful jobs we have as Christians! To a world that is turning from God, surrendering to sin on every hand, committing spiritual suicide—to this world you and I are sent to call out, like Paul, “Do yourself no harm!” We are sent like Paul and Silas to desperate sinners with an urgent message: “You may think all is lost, but it is not! Be of good cheer! You can yet be saved! Arise! The master calls for you!”

What an example for us to see how the apostles witnessed their faith to the other prisoners. Let’s just go back to that passage for a moment. “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them(Acts 16:25). It’s interesting that the Greek word used means that they “listened with appreciation.” They savored the hymn singing of Paul and Silas as some of us might savor an orchestra concert. How many people heard them singing that night? We don’t know. What did the apostles’ worship that night mean to the other prisoners when they heard it? We don’t know. It may have meant a great deal. It may have meant eternal life for some of them. There may well have been malefactors in that prison similar to the thief on the cross next to Jesus—only hours from death, steeped in sin, and searching for a Savior. If so, then the Apostles may well have sung them into paradise!

How many “prisoners” are listening to you? How many prisoners of sin lie within your sphere of Christian influence? How many of your friends, relatives, neighbors are within earshot of your Christian confession? The answer is, you don’t know! You don’t know how many people may be listening in as you speak of your faith around the break table at your place of work. You don’t know how many of your relatives, who seem able to so blithely able to ignore your Christian witness most times, may not all of a sudden be listening very closely to the good news about a Savior as it comes from your lips. For some of these people, your witness may be the only Gospel they ever hear. Peter says, “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear(1 Peter 3:15).

I wonder if you were struck by the final clause in that sentence: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house![v.31] What does that mean? We know that no one can believe for somebody else. To be saved a person must have received faith in Jesus Christ into his own heart. But my friends, don’t underestimate the power of one pious believer in a family setting. Just as one brightly-shining lamp lights up a whole room, so one devout Christian is often able to shine the light of God’s love into the lives of all his family members. Parents have a tremendous privilege and responsibility in sharing the Gospel of Christ with their children and with other relatives too—perhaps you’re thinking of someone right now. What a blessing if you were actually able to lead to the light of salvation a family member who was previously in darkness. It is often said that many an unbelieving husband or wife was won for Christ by the godly lifestyle and fervent prayers of a Christian spouse. Paul is preaching family religion to the jailer. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved, and your house,” meaning his wife, his children, his servants—all the members of his household would be saved through the Gospel.

Notice, too, the means God used to bring this new family into His kingdom. Paul didn’t wave a magic wand and make faith come into their hearts. No, he used the means that God has ordained for the salvation of mankind. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God(Romans 10:17). It was the Gospel in Word and Sacrament which enabled this jailer to escape from the prison of sin. “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” And after hearing the Word of God, “immediately, he and all his family were baptized(Acts 16:32,33). The Gospel in Word and Sacrament is the means to a glorious end: eternal life in Heaven with God!

“You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.” Can you tell me whose slogan that is? It happens to be the trademark of the Radio Shack company. And it’s kind of true. If you have a question, say, about how to hook up two DVRs and a home theater to the same television, at Radio Shack they’re likely to have the answer for you. They cater to a few confused tinkerers like me. But when it comes to the main issues of life: “How can I escape the prison of my own sin? How can I reach eternal life?” we’ve all got questions! Every human being has (or should have) those questions, and God has the answers. Specifically, our God gives us the one, final, unquestionable answer to sin: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your household![v.31] Amen.

—Pastor Paul G. Naumann

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