The Supreme Question—the Philippian Jailer*

Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell

“What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

That question was asked by a startled jailer. He was in the middle of strange and perplexing happenings. He had seen wonderful sights. He was being shaken by unfamiliar terrors. For these terrors he sought relief. And so, he asked this infinitely wise question: “What must I do to be saved?”

But this jailer is not the only man who 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 climes have asked and sought an answer to this question. The cultured Greeks tried to answer it by building altars to many gods. Then realizing that they had missed it, they sought further by building an altar to “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). It was in an effort to answer this question that children were once sacrificed to the fire god, Moloch. And it is the struggle to answer the same question that causes the Indian mother today to cast her baby into the Ganges and to come home with empty arms and with an empty heart.

I heard a missionary from the heart of Africa say some years ago that he used to live among the savage tribes of the far interior. They were people of the lowest type. They wore no shred of clothing. But in their wild and barbarous religious dances they would swing round and round till they frothed at the mouth and fell down rigid. It was their way, said the missionary, 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, Paul and Silas, have come to this Roman city of Philippi. Their preaching, with signs following, has brought them into conflict with the authorities. They are drawn before the magistrates. Their clothing is torn from them and they are severely beaten.

This should 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 fast. So he threw them into the inner dungeon and made their feet fast in the stocks. The place was foul and cold and dark. Their backs were lacerated and bleeding. And this wag, their reward for seeking to bring to men “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).

Now it was dark enough for these two. But they did not lose heart. First, they prayed (Acts 16:25). I 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 heart grew warm and joyous till, by and by, prayer gave place to praise, and they began to sing.

I have wondered what these two missionary evangelists might have sung 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 shall make her boast in the Lord. The humble shall hear of it and be glad” (Psalm 34:1, 2). Or the Thirty-seventh Psalm would have sounded well in the darkness of that hideous dungeon—”Fret not yourself because of evil doers, neither be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb” (37:1, 2). But I think the most likely of all is the Forty-sixth Psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, will we not fear though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the middle of the sea” (46:1, 2).

Whatever they sang, it was great singing. I think the angels opened the windows when they heard it. I think it 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 shrieks. They had heard bitter oaths in the night, but songs with the lilt 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 a dicer might shake his dice box; and all its doors were thrown open, and the fetters were shaken from the feet of those that were bound. And the old jailer was shaken out of his complacency and out of his bed and a great terror gripped him.

I can see him as he picks himself up and looks about him in dismay. 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 on himself. He draws his sword and prepares to thrust it through him; but Paul’s eyes are on him, and, knowing his purpose, he shouts at him, “Do yourself no harm. We are all here” (Acts 16:28).

There is love in that cry, tenderness in it, longing in it that the jailer could not understand. Neither could he fail to realize the might 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 so that they are real to him. And urged on by that new terror, he rushes to these men of 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 do to be saved?”

Now, I am aware of the fact that this jailer was a heathen, and I am not accusing him at all of being a great theologian. I do not know how learned he was. I do not know whether he could read or write or not. I do not know whether he was widely traveled or not. He may have never been beyond the precincts of his own city. But what I 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 supreme. It is not: What must I do to get rich? Millions of us are asking that question as if it were the one question of eternal importance. But you know that it is not. It is not: What must I do to be beautiful? Some of us are asking that question too, and some of us, I am sorry to say, are missing the answer to it very much. But that is not the big question. 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 a difference between being saved and being 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, but the saved and the lost: those who have life and those who do not.

I am aware that we of today do not like such dogmatic divisions. 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 put folk into two classes, and only two. There were two gates: one was broad and the other narrow (Matthew 7:13, 14). There were two foundations on which a man might build: one was of sand and the other of rock (7:24-27). Mark you, Jesus did not divide men into perfect and imperfect, but into those who had life and those who did not. And it was He who said, “He who has the Son has life, and he who has not the Son has not life” (1 John 5:12; 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. That 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 this 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—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 send for the physician unless he believes himself 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. Oh, it is a good day for a man when he gets a square look at 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” (Luke 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 sin-scarred and stained and guilty, yet he believed, and he was right in believing, that salvation was possible for him. He believed that even he could be saved “to the uttermost” (Hebrews 7:25). There is such a thing as salvation, and it is possible for me, even me, to “lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:12, 19).

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 yourself 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 a fluctuating Simon can be made into a rock (cf John 1:42). You must believe in the power of God to remake men, otherwise for you the question is only a question of black despair.

This question implies, in the fourth place, a willingness to be saved. “What must I do to be saved?” This man was not asking this question to gather material for a future argument. He was no speculator. He was no trifler. He was not even asking it because he was intellectually curious. He was not simply asking that he may know the conditions of salvation. He was 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 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. Let the matter alone. Forget it. Drift”? That is what many of us are doing. No, sir, 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 saved, we have to do something to be saved.

Everyone of us knows that, and yet too few of us act as if it were true. We seem to think that salvation is something that we are going to stumble on by accident. We seem to think it is something that we are going to receive with no effort on our part. We act as if we thought it might be slipped into our pocket while we sleep or dropped into our coffin when we die. Ask the question intelligently, Heart—“What must I do to be saved?” Then you will realize that you must do something.

This question implies, moreover, that the conditions of salvation are not optional, that it is not up to you and it is not up to me to decide what we will do 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 of 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 expedient thing? or, What is the respectable thing? or, What is the popular thing to do 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 saved, there is not something simply that you ought to do; but there is something that you must do.

Last, this question implies that salvation is an individual matter. “What must I do?” It is not a question of, What must God do? God has made provision for the salvation of the world to everyone who receives Him (cf John 3:16, 17). It is not, What must the Church do? It is not, What must the preacher do? It is not, What must this man beside me, 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 your righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Do not count on your own decency. No man was ever saved that way. I challenge you to find one single one.

I was holding a meeting some years ago, and I met a young fellow who told me he was good enough without Jesus Christ. Of course, he was not saved. A man who says that virtually tells Christ that He has misunderstood his case altogether and that Calvary was a wasted tragedy so far as he himself is personally concerned.

Neither will you be saved trusting in the other man’s badness. I know what some of you are saying to yourselves as I preach. You are telling yourselves one of the oldest lies that was ever told. You are saying, “I would be a Christian but there are so many hypocrites in the church.” How many men give that as a reason, but it is no man’s reason. And I never knew one man to be saved by it. Believe me, 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.

I was conducting a revival in a Texas city some years ago. At the close of one of the services, a young lady came forward to shake hands with the preacher. As she did so, she said, “I am going to become a Christian.” I congratulated her on her decision; but she answered, “Oh, I do not mean right now. I mean I am going to be soon.”

“You see,” she continued, “it is like this: I am going in a few days to visit some of my relatives that live way back in the country. There is going to be a revival nearby. It will be easy for me to make the decision there because nobody knows me. But here it is different. Everybody knows me here, and I simply haven’t the courage to come out and take an open stand for Jesus Christ.” She went into the country as she planned, but she was not saved. Of course, not. 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 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 supreme 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 on in this world. Does the prospect of an answer quicken your heartbeat? Does it shake you out of your lethargy into intense 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 countless millions. “What must I do to be saved?” Answer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

What is it to believe on 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. Dwight L Moody tells us how he was in his cellar one day when he looked up and saw his little girl making an effort to see him. She could not because it was dark in the cellar. “Jump,” said Mr Moody, “Daddy will catch you.” And instantly the little girl jumped. Now, that was faith. That was believing in her father. So the jailer believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. He depended on 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 stripes 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 begun to be a partaker of the divine nature. A new love had come to him. He had become tender where before he was cruel. Even so does the power of Jesus Christ make men over.

Now, this question: 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 night follows day. It is more sure than the fact that if you sow wheat, you will reap it. If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved. Test the matter now, and you will know the blessed fact in your own experience.

“Jesus Christ … loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood”
(Revelation 1:5).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Seacoast of Greece

*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 11. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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