How do you put the Gospel into simple words? It is both a historical account and an eternal proclamation- something that has changed the lives of those heaven-bound, being also the words of condemnation for those who fail to believe it. The Gospel has the power to make you stand before God without sin, and also has the power to cast you from His presence forever. So how have men put it into not only that which is understandable, but that which is described as “simple” and “profound” within the same sentence? And yet Paul and Silas do just that with a single sentence, and that with authority (and results!). We see this account in one of the least likely (or desirable) circumstances, that being an unjust sentencing to a jail in Philippi.
Paul and Silas had just arrived in Philippi and met a woman named Lydia, who believed the words of the Gospel they had been proclaiming since Paul’s conversion. By all accounts, things were going quite well. And so Paul and Silas continued doing what they had been, and one day they decided to take a break and go to a place of prayer they knew about. And while they were going there a woman met them, who continued to yell around them “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation!” She was not a normal follower of Paul (or any disciple of Christ) up to this point, and she was not one who had been converted to the Gospel she was mimicking either. Instead, she was a slave to men who used her for profit. She was a slave who used primarily for the purpose of fortune-telling, and apparently brought her masters a great deal of money, and perhaps the reason is that she was very good at it. The words she says to those around Paul and Silas were not false words, and based on what we see in this brief account, she was not educated in the things of God. So how did she yell out such accurate words, and yet at the same time with a sense of mocking, and at the very least, for the purpose of turning away the followers of these men? She was essentially possessed, and that by a demon (or “spirit”) of divination. It was not uncommon nor untrue that demons knew of the Gospel. When Jesus had cast demons during His earthly ministry, they would not come out silently, but would yell out things like “What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Mat. 8:29) They knew of the coming doom that would befall them in the End, and so they were not ignorant of at least some aspects of the Gospel.
And so here we have this demon-possessed woman following them around, and for a matter of many days. Paul, having finally had his fill of her words, stopped in his steps, turned around and loudly responded “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it did. And instantly. Now put this picture in your mind: Paul and Silas are standing there, presumably with some people around watching, and it had been known that this woman was following them for quite some time. It was probably evident that Paul had enough of it, judging by his response, and so he turns and says these things to her. When the demon was cast out, it was apparently quite evident, since this woman was outwardly distinguishable by her vocation (fortune-telling through this demon), and it was now gone instantly from her. What she was actually like without this super-natural aspect in her life we are not told, but what we are told is that there were other, very important people there watching this- her masters.
Paul and Silas were immediately dragged before the local court (the local “police”) for the purpose of dealing retribution to these men who had taken away their means of great profit. And as the Jews had done with Jesus, these men began stirring up the crowds around the place of judgment, and made up accusations just to carry out what they deemed “justice” for the act of inconveniencing their business pursuits. And were quickly beaten and thrown into the local prison. Now take something very important into account: these men were citizens of Rome. Now Philippi was a Roman colony, meaning that they had a form of Roman-ness in their system of government, and desperately wanted to imitate Rome however they could, so as to be a full part of Rome. This meant that they took the laws of Rome very seriously. Paul and Silas were Roman citizens (in all actuality, not merely in profession), and it was illegal to have been beaten and thrown into the prison the way they had just been. And they (Paul and Silas) knew it. Nevertheless, they took this punishment without resistance, and were now sitting in jail unjustly. But instead of lamenting their circumstances, or fighting for their rights, they looked up and began to sing praises to the God for which they were suffering these things. In the middle of the night, however, there was a massive earthquake that shuck the ground. This supernatural earthquake loosened their chains and freed them from their restraints, and a nearby wall broke opened. The jailer, who was apparently sleeping, awoke to the commotion, didn’t even take the time to investigate, but instead drew his sword. He understood that there were quite a few prisoners, and surely all of them would have heard the same thing he did (the wall opening). He also knew that if his authorities looked into the matter, they would find that he was sleeping, and the prisoners he was given charge over had escaped, he would have been put to death. So he looked at his blade with one thing he mind- he would thrust it into himself, ending what would be inevitable. So he lifted the blade, and just before he struck himself, he heard something he did not expect. “Do not harm yourself!” He immediately dropped his sword in disbelief. “We are all still here!” said the voice. The jailer, in nothing but pure desperation, ran into the room and fell before the man who had said these things. He could not understand it. All this opportunity for escape, and none of the prisoners did. And he knew that these two men, Paul and Silas, were the ones who had been singing in the night. So he said to them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Now think about this circumstance. What an opportunity for the Gospel, and yet what a complicated matter it was. Because Paul and Silas had been so unjustly beaten and imprisoned, all because they cast a demon out of slave-girl, they were thrown into the prison of one man who so clearly needed the Gospel. What would they tell him? How would they explain the Good News to one so determined that he would die? What do these men tell the Philippian in response to his desperate inquiry?
“Believe the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your entire house.”
While we are told that he would take them with him to his house and would have the word of the Lord preached to them, we are not told what Paul and Silas said. Instead, we are given these simple words, “Believe the Lord Jesus.” To understand the gravity of these words, let’s look and see what the Lord Jesus actually said…
One of the first things Jesus said in public were the words “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” This statement is one that carries with it a great deal of meaning, because of all that it implies. But for the Gentile, the meaning is very clear: the end of all things is coming, and soon. This is something that ought to resonate with us in our modern era very clearly, because of what it states so accurately.
Humanity is obsessed with their own destruction. They cannot stop thinking about it. They build walls to prevent it, they have nightmares about it, they tell stories of it. In our day they make movies about it all the time. It astounds me how many people genuinely believe that the “zombie apocalypse” is coming, and there are many who are actively preparing for it, building bunkers and gathering supplies for what they deem unavoidable. There are others who evidence this fear in different ways- politics, war, religion. They all connect in one area, and that is the belief that there is a coming doom for the unrighteous. Their definition of “unrighteous” varies significantly, but nevertheless they all believe that evil will be judged. And this is something that is built into each of us. We all know that the world we see around us is not eternal, despite the frantic efforts of some to convince us otherwise. Yet we all know that it cannot possibly last.
And so Jesus adds to this thought in the minds of listeners, clarifying what kind of signs show the coming destruction of this present creation. He tells them that they will hear of “wars and rumors of wars,” and that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes.” And surely we see all of these things amplified all the more by our seemingly unlimited access to news about current events via newspapers, television, computers and even our phones. The more we have this access to the happenings in the world, the clearer it becomes that this world has dove into the pit of doom that it cannot escape. “But,” Jesus said, “these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”
I had the honor of witnessing the process of labor, and let me tell you right now, it is an unforgettable experience. And one of the parts that is clear is that it is a growing experience, and by that I mean, it builds over time. At first there are the initial, questionable signs. The question about whether or not the “baby is coming!” goes back and forth. Because it is so faint, the sign. But as time progresses, the signs become clearer and clearer. And as they build, so does the expectation that something big is coming. And like the birth pangs of a woman in labor, which point to the coming birth of a life into the world in which we live, so too the “birth pangs” of the End are at first faint, and grow clearer and clearer as time goes on. One of the signs mentioned by Jesus is something unmistakable. “…most people’s love will grow cold.” What does this look like? Well Paul, who we started with, clarifies this to his disciple Timothy. He met Timothy right before heading to Philippi where he would have this Gospel experience, and he took Timothy “under his wing” as it were. And he wrote to Timothy to warn him of what was coming in the End. He said this to Timothy:
“…in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, money, and will be boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power…” (1 Tim. 3:1-5)
He clarifies what Jesus meant with an exhaustive list of the attributes of the people who lived then, and especially who will live in the final days of this present world. They are, to sum it all up, arrogant, particularly against the God Who Timothy served. And this is important to note, because Paul would later be killed for this Gospel which he suffered for. He later adds to this warning in his second letter by telling Timothy to “preach the Word,” even when it wasn’t popular or publicly accepted, not for the sake of monetary gain, but because the time was and is coming when men will no longer “endure sound doctrine,” meaning they disregard certain truth for vague encouragements. They want their “ears tickled,” being told only want they want to hear, “gathering to themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires.” This attitude is a sign not only of struggle for Timothy, but especially for those who will live even closer to the End. And that is because the world knows that the judgment is inevitable. Like the demons, they acknowledge that their sin must be condemned, because it is contrary to the purpose for which humanity was made (to serve God). And no matter how far people run from that truth, they will eventually find that they’ve only been running to it, adding (as it were) to the very condemnation they tried so hard to disprove. No matter how comfortable they may be in this world, judgment will come. The “Rich Man” in Luke 16:19-31 had to face this, being a man who died surrounded by family and friends, having wealth and happiness that people covet to this day. Despite this wealth of comfort (and possibly even contentment) to his final breath, it would be his last breath of happiness, as he instantly awoke to the torment of Hades. God, because He is a just God, can and must judge the sinners of the world (see Mal. 4:1 and John 3:3).
And so Jesus says the world “Repent!” because judgment is coming. And what is even more profound to realize is the fact that the very One who tells the world to repent- the very One through whom this salvation comes- is the One who will judge the sinners of the world with unequivocal wrath. And so with such a clear and devastating picture of God’s coming judgment on the world, and the urgency with which the Lord proclaims this warning, how could we possibly provide a simple answer to these things? With such a clear and graphic depiction of what is inevitable, how could the sinner of the world ever be freed from this? And as the Philippian jailer, one might wonder if it is best to die now, instead of prolonging what we cannot avoid?
So the Philippian jailer falls down before the two followers of Jesus, the coming Judge, and asks the question that is both simple and yet so vital, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
What is Paul’s response? “Believe the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” This cannot be as simple as it appears, can it? Ah, but it is, if you understand what this simple phrase meant to the jailer. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 that “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But that begs the question, “How could something so expansive as the eternal judgment and doom of sinners be answered with such simplicity?”
First, understand what Jesus did. He did not do most of the work, He did all of it. He did not do with wrong intention or motivation, nor did He lack the proper mindset. He was, by all standards, perfection itself, keeping every word of the Law, while fulfilling its intended purpose. While were dead under the weight of the Law, being utterly separated from its perfection, or like the Jews, unable to keep it consistently (Rom. 2:12), Jesus kept it both outwardly and inwardly, doing what it commanded, avoiding what it condemned, and all with a pure and undefiled heart before God the Father. And in the midst of this, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom to those around Him, being an example especially to His disciples.
We then see that the answer is not “within” ourselves, but is instead clearly and certainly outside of ourselves. It is found in the One who told us that He alone was the “way, the truth and the life,” and that apart from Him “no man can come to the Father.” Because no dead man can revive himself, nor does he even know that he needs to be revived. While Jesus hung on the cross which we soon celebrate, He was mocked and spit upon by Jew and Gentile, and yet He did not revile in return, but instead responded by saying to the Father “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He saw that they were indeed dead in their sin, thinking themselves righteous or else hopeless before God. And so we see that Jesus put on us His clothes of righteousness, and placed upon Himself our clothes of condemnation- standing in our stead in front of the firing line, being nailed to the cross that had our name on it, bearing upon Himself the full brunt of the wrath of God the Father. Never look within yourself to find the answer, since you will only find further evidence of your condemnation. Instead, look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of your faith.” (Heb. 12:2)
This is what Paul is telling the Philippian jailer who was about to end it all. “Don’t believe yourself or the world, believe the Lord Jesus.” To put it plainly, “Take Him at His word!” He said “It is finished” as He completed the work of our redemption, and He alone provides the means of justification before God. So listen to Him, and believe what He said. Do not pray to be saved, since no work of ourselves can save us. No amount of good intentions within us in the midst of any prayer is enough to save us. Instead, pray with the acknowledgement that you believe you are saved, through Christ, not yourself. Believe that He already saved, not through works of yourself or any other man, but instead through Himself. The only way to be saved from the coming Judge is through the One who bore the judgment already. And that only comes through faith- believing Jesus, and taking Him at His word.
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:1-10