and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Acts 16:30 NASB
Saved – Virtually every evangelical believer knows this passage. The Roman jailer is ready to kill himself because an earthquake has opened the prison doors and he assumes that all the prisoners have escaped. But Paul shouts out, “We are all here.” The jailer is dumbfounded. Why would these men stay when they could have been free? Nonplussed, he brings Paul and Silas out of prison and asks the fateful question. We naturally think that this is a question of spiritual significance. We interpret his inquiry as if he were just given a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws. We expect him to recite the sinner’s prayer and shout, “Hallelujah, Jesus forgives me.” But I think we are overlooking the actual context of this story – and the implications that go with it.
First, the Greek verb used in the jailer’s question is sozo. It does not mean spiritual salvation. It is not about getting to heaven, being forgiven or applying the blood of the Lamb. It is a straightforward request to be delivered from danger. In its typical use in Greek, this word is about being made safe, being rescued or being preserved from some immediate threat to life and limb. I doubt that the jailer had any thought at all about his eternal soul. He was worried about one paramount thing – the imminent threat of punishment that would result from his failure to keep the prison locked up.
In this regard, it’s important to notice that the jailer asks, “What must I do?” not “What must I believe?” The text uses the verb poieo, “to act, to perform.” From his perspective, some action must be taken to avoid punishment. He has to take steps. He just doesn’t understand what those steps are. When we read this verse as if it is a request for theological understanding or spiritual direction, we import our evangelical interpretation into the passage. As far as I can see, no such thought crosses this man’s mind.
But that doesn’t mean Paul doesn’t take advantage of the ambiguity in his question. Does Paul convert the question about immediate safety into a question about eternal destiny? We would like to think so, but I am not so sure. Paul’s answer is once again an action statement. Paul doesn’t tell this distraught man to believe as we understand believe. Paul is not saying that he needs to recite the sinner’s prayer and everything will be fine. For Paul, believing is not a cognitive affirmation. It is a complete shift of paradigm to a new way of living. To believe is to do something, not just think something. This is precisely what the jailer is asking. “What should I do?” Paul answers, “Become an active follower of the King.” Change your life, not just your thoughts.
Oh, and by the way, changing the jailer’s life does not remove the threat of punishment. It simply re-prioritizes the consequences. The world happens. The question is not escaping the consequences but rather learning how to deal with them differently.
Paul may convert the jailer’s naïve question into an opportunity to speak about the good news, but that doesn’t mean Paul offers this man his version of the Four Spiritual Laws. Life probably will not improve for the jailer. God’s wonderful plan most likely includes accepting some very harsh realities. But if Paul is right, everything changes even if the consequences stay the same. Maybe that’s why Paul can include the entire household in the offer of rescue.
What did you expect when you asked to be rescued? Did God use your naivety to draw you in? Did you think salvation meant escape? Or did you realize that deliverance changed the perspective of the outcome, not necessarily the actual events?
Topical Index: saved, sozo, Acts 16:30