Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 11, 2009

Sermon on Acts 16:25-34


1. Don’t “do,” just believe in the Lord Jesus
2. Don’t “do,” just receive Jesus’ baptismal blessings

Text: Acts 16:25-34


I’ve never had it as bad as Paul and Silas did.  The worst things that have happened to me in my attempt to be a faithful pastor are a Christmas Day phone call saying that I ruined someone’s Christmas, skeptical questions after the service from people who didn’t agree with something in the sermon, and a graduate student who told me that if everyone in the world held religious beliefs like mine, there would be nothing but war, violence, and bloodshed.  At the time, those comments disturbed me.  Now I just roll my eyes and think to myself, “Whatever.”  I know that it could be worse, even in America, but full-scale persecution is not a cross that Bible-believing pastors have to bear at this particular time and place in history.

I’ve never had it as bad as Paul and Silas did.  But if I did, I seriously doubt that I would react the way that they did.  In the Second Lesson for today, the apostle Paul and his missionary associate Silas found themselves behind bars for faithfully carrying out their work.  They were in the city of Philippi.  There wasn’t a great starting point for Paul and Silas when they arrived; a synagogue didn’t exist, suggesting a very small Jewish population in the city.  But they did find a convert and support from at least one family, and so they stuck around for a while.

Problems ensued in Philippi because Paul and Silas found themselves being trailed by a fortune-telling, demon-possessed slave girl for several days.  You can read about the whole situation in Acts chapter 16, in the verses prior to today’s Second Lesson.  This girl followed Paul and Silas all over the place, sarcastically announcing that they were servants of God, and distracting Paul and Silas from their important work.  Finally, Paul said that enough is enough.  Acts 16:18 says, “Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’  At that moment the spirit left her.”

Good news, right?  Maybe not.  The girl’s owners, men who had exploited her demon-possession and made money from her fortune-telling capabilities, weren’t so thrilled that their easy income was gone.  If they had lived today, maybe they would have asked for a bailout.  But they lived back then, and what they really wanted was revenge — at any cost.  They hauled Paul and Silas before the city officials, trumped up false charges against them (where have we heard this before?!), had them publicly beaten and then thrown in prison-all for freeing an exploited little girl from the demon that had possessed her and made her life miserable.


That’s where today’s Second Lesson picks up.  After a brutal beating, Paul and Silas are behind bars.  In fact, it’s worse than that.  The verse before our reading says, “Upon receiving [the] orders, [the jailer] put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” Ancient jailers and governments weren’t too concerned about humane treatment for prisoners.  The stocks mentioned were in the middle of the jail cell.  They had more than one set of holes, so a jailer could spread a prisoner’s feet wide apart and leave him like that with no support; this would cause a lot of pain and cramping for the prisoner.  Not exactly dignified accommodations!

So what do Paul and Silas do as they lay bound and imprisoned?  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” Somehow, I don’t think that if I were in their situation, I would react that way.  But there they are, bound, bloodied, bruised and beaten, and praying and praising God in the hearing of the prisoners and jail guards.

That’s when the earthquake hit.  Our reading mentions that the quake was so great that the prison’s foundations shook.  This was not one of those light, rolling quakes.  This was one that made you dive underneath your table or head for a doorway.  This was one great enough to jar open the prison doors, open up the stocks, and free the prisoner’s chains from the walls.

The jailer rushes in.  Scholars believe that he lived with his family in a house attached to or next to the jail.  And as he arrives, he finds open prison cells.  For an ancient Roman jailer, that wasn’t good news.  If prisoners escaped under a jailer’s watch, he received the prisoner’s punishment.  For this man, that would have meant a death sentence.  And so he figures that taking his own life is a better option than the Romans taking his life.  “When he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.” This guy had to be scared!  Think about it!  He’s got a wife and kids at home next door.  They’re scared by the quake like anyone else and the kids are probably crying.  And the jailer thinks that taking his life at that moment is preferable to getting caught with escaped prisoners!  This guy is scared out of his mind!

I’m sure the jailer couldn’t see deep into the cell in the dark night.  But Paul’s eyes, adjusted to the deep darkness of the inner cell, could see the jailer and what he was about to do.  “Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!'” Really?  Think about it.  These Jesus-preachers are arrested and beaten and they don’t fuss.  They pray and sing in the prison cell.  They have a chance to escape, but they stay put.  What is the jailer to think?  He knows what they’re all about.  Is there something to these guys?  Is there something to what they’ve been saying?  They have just saved his life two times over, and at the expense of their own freedom — once by not escaping, and again by calling out to him before he tried to commit suicide.

The jailer is scared out of his mind, but he suspects there is something to these men.  They know something he doesn’t know and that he needs to find out real fast.  “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas.  He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'” There is the $64,000.00 question!

So what does Paul tell them?  Does he turn into the sleazy self-interest only preacher and say, “If you do nice things for traveling preachers like set us free from prison, you will be saved!”  Does he make the message relevant and practical and say, “Follow these five tips for being a better jailer, or observe these eight steps to the victorious life and you will be saved.”  No, none of that.  Paul says it so simply, so matter-of-factly.  “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your whole household.”

What is your earthquake?  What has been the event in your life that made you feel like the jailer and wonder about your status before God?  It doesn’t take an earthquake or a personal near-death experience to get you thinking about those things.  It could be a family fight that drives you back to God and to church, but leaves you with guilt because you know you should have never left God and church behind to begin with.  It could be the hospitalization of a friend.  It could be the death of a loved one.  It could be as simple as a story on the evening news.  But sooner or later, something triggers the thought that you are not in a right relationship with God.

You know what?  You’re not.  You and I in our natural condition are not in a right relationship with God.  If we were, we would take worship seriously every week.  We would take his Word and commandments seriously every day and every moment, apart from our poor excuses and self-made exemptions.  If we were in a right relationship with God, no “earthquake event” could ever be able to prick our conscience and drive us to our knees asking ourselves, “What must I do to be saved?”

You know what the answer is?  It’s not giving money to the sleazy television evangelist.  It’s not following the five steps to better behavior or the eight steps to the victorious life.  The answer Paul gave the jailer is the answer Paul gives you.  Don’t do anything, just believe in the Lord Jesus.  Believe that the Lord Jesus who was baptized for you in Jordan’s river took up your sins at his baptism.  Believe that the One who took up your sins at his baptism carried them all the way to the cross.  Believe that the One who carried your sins to the cross paid the full and complete penalty for them by his death.  Believe that the One who paid the penalty for your sins also rose from the dead in victory.  Believe that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead proves that your guilt is gone and your sins are forgiven and your home is in heaven eternally.  Don’t do, just believe!


But is it really that simple?  It doesn’t seem like it should be.  But that’s what Paul told the jailer!  And the jailer was certainly stunned — not just by the circumstances, but now by the message.  The earthquake pricked the conscience of this man who otherwise appeared so cold, this man who had no problem torturing the prisoners under his watch.  And look — what does he now do?  Does he say, “Oh, thanks, I’m glad I have a free ride to heaven.  Now back in you fellows go!”  No!  He is so grateful that he has Paul speak the Word of God to his whole family.  He is so grateful that he washes the bloodied backs of his prisoners.  He is so grateful that he feeds them a meal in the middle of the night, which was no small task in a pre-microwave world!

And yet the highlight of the night is not the jailer’s response, but the furthering grace of God.  Verse 33: “At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.” He and his family are so awestruck by the message they have heard and come to believe that they are baptized immediately.  And that baptism is followed with this: “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God-he and his whole family.” Notice that our reading does not say that “he was filled with joy because his whole family made their outward sign of commitment toward God.”  Baptism is not doing something for God, but receiving the blessings of God-certainly a reason to be “filled with joy.” Baptism isn’t us doing something for God, but God doing something for us.  Baptism connects us to the One who was baptized for us in the Jordan River in today’s Gospel (Mark 1:4-11).

God knows.  God knows that just as we often run away from him into sin, we can just as often stay away from him because of guilt.  You can wonder and worry if God will accept you with your checkered past.  You know you better than anyone else.  You know the actions you’d prefer to erase.  You know the words you wish you could take back.  You know the punishment that God should rightly meet out.  And God knows it, too.

And so God gives you even more than his Word’s gospel promises.  He gives you a visible sign of commitment — not your commitment to him, but his commitment to you.  He gives you tangible proof — proof that your guilt is gone and your sins are cleansed.  He gives you a seal and certificate that you have personally received everything Christ did for you from his birth to his baptism, his death, and his resurrection.  And so when your guilty conscience makes you wonder, “What must I do to be saved?” you know the answer: Don’t do anything, just receive Jesus’ baptismal blessings.


Decades ago, when the Betty Crocker Company first sold cake mixes, they developed a mix that only required someone to add water to the mix.  Apparently, it bombed.  No one bought this easy-to-use mix.  So the company did some market research, and found out that people didn’t buy the cake mix because it seemed too easy.  They wanted to feel like they had to play their part to make the cake “a success.”  So, with this research in hand, Betty Crocker changed the formula to require that an egg had to be added in addition to the water.  And wouldn’t you know it — it was a huge success!

Sometimes people want to think that our relationship with God works like the second Betty Crocker cake mix.  God does most of the work, but we have to do our part and then we know we’re right with him.  Doing our part certainly is a natural way of thinking, and it certainly makes people feel like they’ve accomplished something.  Just ask the Betty Crocker Company!  But God, who knows both our sins and our doubts, knows better than we do.  When you wonder, “What must I do to be saved?” then remember: Don’t do anything, just believe in the Lord Jesus; don’t do anything, just receive Jesus’ baptismal blessings.  It is that simple!  And we can’t hear that enough!  Amen.



  1. As I read the story, I would also add that not only did Paul & Silas not escape; all of the prisoners stayed put when their cells were opened. Perhaps they too were affected at what Paul & Silas were doing.


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