In Acts 16:30 a jailer asks this rather desperate question after an earthquake frees all the prisoners he’d been told to “guard carefully” in verse 23. He was so frightened that “he drew his sword and was about to kill himself” (verse 27), but Paul yelled out, “Don’t harm yourself (for) we are all here” (verse 28).
Despite the fact that none of this was the jailer’s fault and none of the prisoners had run off, the jailer knows this is a death sentence for him. Paul and Silas had already been “stripped, beaten and severely flogged” (verses 22-23) for throwing the city of Philippi into an uproar, which could have brought the wrath of Rome crashing down on them. So Paul and Silas had been charged with being a serious threat to security, and because of it been locked in foot stocks in a maximum security inner cell with no chance of escape.
No wonder the jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” – because what could he do? He’d be treated like a sentry who fell asleep allowing the enemy to sneak through. Or the servant who forgot to check if the king’s drink was poisoned. He was a dead man for sure, and so were the rest of his family.
So why ask “What must I do?” – when his first reaction was to pull out his sword to kill himself, knowing there was nothing he could do to save himself. What prompted him to ask at all, then, “What must I do to be saved” when there was no “must do” he could do to save himself, and he knew it?
Was all this orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, therefore, to get the point across that there is nothing any of us can do, or must do, to be saved? Because here’s a memorable story about a man who realizes he’s facing a death sentence and there is nothing he can do to prevent it.
And that, to Paul, was the perfect starting point for getting his message across, that there IS a way “to be saved” for people who recognize they’re dead in the water because of what they’ve been or done. And what was that way? It was the same way Paul had been telling people wherever he went. It was the great news, that despite what people had been or done in their lives, “believing in the Lord Jesus,” verse 31, guaranteed their salvation, and in the jailer’s case, the salvation of his doomed family too.
From Scripture Paul then explained all this to the jailer and “to all the others in his house” (verse 32). So this was clearly what Scripture said, and going through it time and time again with people finally got Paul to write it down in Ephesians 2.
And it all starts with where the jailer was at, with the recognition that we’re all “dead in our transgressions and sins,“ Ephesians 2:1. Like the jailer, we all faced a death sentence because of what we’d been or done in our lives – or, as Paul phrased it in verses 2 and 3 – because of the way we “used to live, following the ways of this world.…gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.” And because of it we brought the “wrath of God” crashing down on us (verse 3), just like the wrath of Rome would come crashing down on the jailer.
“But,” verse 4 – and this is what Paul so wanted people to understand – it’s “because of God’s great love for us” that, verse 5, he “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” So, saving us from our death sentence had already been done before we even knew we were dead, to get the point across that it’s “by grace you have been saved.” We have no worries about what “we must do to be saved,” therefore, when what needed to be done to save us was done by God through Jesus (verse 7). And to hammer that point home, Paul adds that all of this is “God’s gift” to us, verse 8, and we contribute nothing (verses 9 and 10).
When the jailer got Paul’s point, he and his “whole family” were “filled with joy, because they had come to believe” it, Acts 16:34. No more wondering what they must do to be saved; just believing what God had already done to save them through Jesus. And a salvation that far exceeded escaping a physical death too. This was salvation from a forever death, that the jailer didn’t even know existed, and wouldn’t have known if the Holy Spirit hadn’t allowed – or caused – Acts 16 to happen.
And we now have an answer to “What must we do to be saved” too.