But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing
hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening, when suddenly a great
earthquake shook the prison's foundations; and that was how all the doors
opened and all the fetters unfastened. The jailor woke and seeing the prison doors
open, drew his sword for he was about to kill himself. After all, he thought,
that all the prisoners had escaped. Paul cried out loudly, "Do not harm
yourself; we are all here." The jailor called for lights, and rushed in
trembling with fear falling down before Paul and Silas. Bringing them out he
said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" And they replied,
"Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your
household." That's how they came to speak the word of the Lord to him and
to all his house. He took them that same hour of the night, and washed their
wounds. With all his family he was baptized then and there. He brought them up
into his house, and set food before them; rejoicing with his household that he
had believed in God. But when it was day, the magistrates sent their police,
saying, "Let those men go." The jailor reported these words to Paul,
saying, "The magistrates have sent to let you go; therefore you can now
come out and go in peace." But Paul said to them, "They have beaten
us publicly, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens, throwing us into prison.
Do they want to dispose of us in secret? No way! Let them come here and take us
out." Those police reported these words back to the magistrates, and when
they heard they were Roman citizens they were alarmed. So that is how they came
and apologized. They took them out and then asked them to leave the city. So
they went out of the prison, and visited Lydia; and when they had seen the
brethren, they exhorted them and departed.
This story is often used to discuss the process of becoming a Christian. "What must I do to be saved?" asked the jailor when Paul had shouted to him to put away his sword. He thought all his prisoners had escaped in the earthquake. A fate worse than death awaited him. How could he explain an empty prison to the city's judges? But his prison was not empty. Paul and Silas saw to it that all the prisoners remained where they were. There was to be no jail break-out. And when the jailor saw that Paul and Silas had kept the group together he realised he was in their debt, and engaged Paul and Silas in earnest conversation.
"What must I do to be saved?" What did the jailor mean by "saved"? What did Paul and Silas mean by their answer? Did they mean the same thing? What's going on here? What is Luke trying to tell us by recounting this exchange?
For the jailor, his life had been saved by Paul and Silas at a crucial moment. He had been asleep, waking to find the cells doors open, the prisoners' fetters unlocked. And so the jailor and his family saw Paul and Silas as instruments of the Almighty's protection. These two had brought the news of Jesus. In proclaiming the Gospel, Paul respected the jailor's work as an honoured profession in God's Kingdom. It was an important contribution to establish justice in public life, even if the city's officials did not always act justly.
"What must I do to be saved?" The answer of Paul and Silas was that belief in Jesus Christ opens the door to the God-given fullness in our life and in our death. Since God's Kingdom establishes justice, it was consistent with his message that Paul required the judges to come to the prison and apologise. Such openness by the city's rulers would safeguard the jailor's position with a measure of public and legal recognition. At the same time the small church was also protected.