When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” (Acts 16:27-28)
The drama in these two verses from the book of Acts is both delightful and deeply puzzling. Jailers in the ancient world had a very different work arrangement from their counter-parts today. No one responsible for human incarceration is going to willingly let prisoners come and go as they want. But in the ancient world a Jailer who failed did not just lose his job, but would also lose his life.
The Philippian Jailer in Acts 16 awoke from sleep by the shaking of a violent earthquake. He rushed down to check the status of his prison to find the place dark, the guards gone, and the doors wide opened. He knew in that moment that he was staring his own death in the face. But St. Paul caught sight of the Jailer’s desperation and stopped him just before he could end his own life. Paul’s words were, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
Let’s think for a moment about what was going on. Did you hear what Paul said? “We are all here.” All the prisoners were still in the prison; not just Paul and Silas. The doors were wide open, the guards had fled, and yet all the prisoners were still in the prison. How could that possibly be? The answer lies in the nature of the Christian Gospel. Focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ completely rearranges human priorities.
To see how this worked out in the Philippian Jail we must back up a few verses. Verse 25 reads, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” The prisoners were listening to them… Paul and Silas had been through the wringer that day. They had been dragged before the local authorities, stripped, and beaten for a simple kindness to a mentally sick child. Then they were thrown in the deepest, darkest prison and placed in wooden stocks. How could it get any worse than that? But their response was to pray to God and to sing hymns of praise. They were focused on the Gospel. They knew that the salvation Jesus offered was far more wonderful than even the atrocious treatment they had received. And their joy in God, which must have seemed crazy at first to the other prisoners, soon became fascinating. It spoke to them in a way that ionized in the moment the earth quaked, the doors fell open, and their shackles disintegrated around them. For in that moment, the prisoners knew that true freedom was in Christ. Their breakout came in the witness from Paul and Barnabas, not escape through the open prison door.
Because of this the Jailer found the Gospel focus in a totally open prison still filled with his charges. The prisoners saved their jailer as brothers in Christ. This brings us to the essential meaning of this text which indeed focuses the Gospel for us. Nowhere else in scripture is the truth of the Gospel expressed with the clarity if finds in Paul’s response to the Philippian jailer’s crucial question:
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31)