Teachable Moments

by Barry Newton
Have you ever known a person who, regardless of the discussion, somehow manages to get back to his or her favorite subject? In my opinion, Acts 16 reveals just such a situation.
To set the background, recall how Luke recorded in Acts 12:19 that Herod killed the soldiers who had allowed Peter to escape. Under Roman law, a guard whose prisoner escaped would pay for it with the penalty due the prisoner. Peter was waiting his death.
In Acts 16, after the Philippian jailer was wakened by a powerful earthquake, we can only imagine the horror gripping his stomach to discover the prison doors standing open and chains laying loosely upon the ground. How many prisoners had been incarcerated? What range of punishments were they to receive? Who among his prisoners were awaiting death? His life was ruined.
In a stoic move, he resolved to save himself from the disgrace, pain and penalties he must bear. He drew his sword to kill himself.
Then amazing words pierced his ears. “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here.”
As the jailer stumbled into his dark prison, greatly outnumbered by prisoners now turned free, I think his mind was racing over how to save his own skin when he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Was this man, who moments earlier stood prepared to kill himself, focused on his spiritual life? I doubt it.
Normally, Paul and Silas sought ways to speak about Jesus. But what could be simpler than answering the jailer’s physical question with a spiritual answer? “Believe in Jesus and you’ll be saved.” The jailer wanted to know more. They taught him. His whole household responded by being baptized. Then this newly-saved jailer “was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God.” (Acts 16:34)
How good are we at taking everyday conversations and using them as springboards to talk about our God whom we serve? Paul and Silas did it. We can too. God’s word bears fruit when his people share it.

3 Replies to “Teachable Moments”

  1. FWIW, I think you are wrong about the jailer being worried about saving his physical life. You are reading too much into the passage and thereby getting too little. It smacks of over-educated over-analysis. The plain message of this passage? The jailer had seen Paul and Silas’s demeanor and for hours had heard their joyful singing in spite of their circumstances. Then, when they made no attempt to escape after the doors flew open and they showed concern for their persecutor, the hard heart of the jailer was broken by the life and spirit demonstrated by the two Christians. He was willing to kill himself, so death itself was clearly not his main concern — as you would make it. He recognized the great emptiness in his life and was desperate to fill it. He saw the new life demonstrated by the apostles and wanted to have the same kind of life and joy himself. That is clearly what he meant by “What must I do to be saved?” It is clearly what Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intended to communicate by including this account. Your interpretation cheapens the message and seeks to make the preservation of physical life the main motivation of the jailer when it is clear from the passage that he was seeking something higher.

  2. Mike, thanks for your feedback. The exchange of dialogue serves to sharpen our thinking.
    In my perspective, both scenarios exalt God, whether it be the jailer heard the gospel proclaimed and chose to respond [my suggestion] or saw Christian lives in action and desired to follow Christ but needed some more instruction [your suggestion]. As far as I can determine, neither cheapens the message of Acts nor the gospel.
    My article’s point is to encourage Christians to be like Jesus (who could take a woman’s concern to draw water from a well – John 4) or Paul (who could take a jailer’s desire to save his own skin) to appropriate the secular concerns of others as a springboard for speaking about spiritual matters.
    It seems to me the plain message about what the jailer experienced is limited to: The jailer received two men who had been severely flogged. He was ordered to keep them under secure guard. He placed them within his high security detention. Later, awakened by an earthquake he saw the jail doors open. As he prepared to kill himself, he heard a voice from within the jail saying, “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here.” Beyond these details lies conjecture. Some more probable, others less.
    As I look at both the immediate and greater contexts, the clues within it suggest to me my article is highly probable and I might dare to say “on target.” Some of these clues include: Like Jesus in John 4, Paul also used topics or objects at hand in order to transition to the gospel message (Acts 17). While the jailer may have known he was holding religious prisoners, nothing in the text indicates this, much less that he associated them with Jesus or that he even knew of the salvation Jesus provides. Paul and Silas’ two-step teaching method (“believe in Lord and you’ll be saved” then “spoke the word of the Lord”) would seem to indicate they introduced him to his need for Jesus and then explained the message.

  3. The following quote eloquently puts it thus: “Luke’s condensed version does not explain how the pagan jailer knew to ask for salvation or what content he put in the word. He may have meant deliverance from punishment if any of the prisoners escaped (deliverance from illness or danger was a common use of the word ‘saved’), but if so, Paul and Silas quickly moved the subject to a different level.” Everett Ferguson, “Baptism in the Early Church” (Eerdmans: 2009): 179-180.

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