Issue #641 -------
December 11, 2014
All the scholastic scaffolding falls, as a
ruined edifice, before a single word: faith.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
We are all, most likely, quite familiar with the account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer as told by Luke in Acts 16:25-34. We have undoubtedly heard countless sermons about how this man "obeyed the gospel," thus becoming the "poster child" for immediate immersion unto salvation. I have to wonder, however, if perhaps we have been guilty in our faith-heritage of a misplaced emphasis when recounting this powerful conversion narrative! In our quest to "prove" baptism in water as the precise point of pardon -- the split-second of salvation -- I fear we may have overlooked and/or devalued the main truth conveyed by this conversion account. Please don't misunderstand or misrepresent what I am saying here (as some most certainly will). I am not saying that being baptized in water is an unnecessary or even optional act. I am not saying it is unimportant, or that it is "something nice to do if/when you get around to it" (as some claim I teach). It is a command; thus, we are obliged to obey. It is not the necessity or importance of this act I question, but the understanding of some within "our tribe" as to its ultimate purpose and significance. When this act is perceived to be sacramental in nature, it becomes the focus of every narrative, for it is said to be the point of God's acceptance. Indeed, some have become so obsessed with this dogma that they even insist belief (faith), at least for this jailer, follows baptism (which ridiculous doctrine I addressed in Reflections #503 -- "The Belief After Baptism Doctrine: Sectarian Sacramentalism & the Philippian Jailer"). Such are truly "doctrines of the deluded," and they are direct assaults upon the gospel of God's grace. Sadly, some have virtually made an idol of immersion. Thus, it behooves us to take another look at the conversion of this jailer, and to do so without our sectarian spectacles firmly fixed to our heads.
To set the scene, Paul is in the midst of his second missionary journey. He and his traveling companions left Troas and sailed to Samothrace and then Neapolis. "From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia, and we stayed there several days" (Acts 16:11-12). The next verse tells us that on the Sabbath they went down to the river and began speaking to the women who were gathered there. This led to the conversion of Lydia (vs. 14-15), whose home became a gathering place for the saints in this city (vs. 40). Paul and his group later encountered "a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future," thus "earning a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling" (vs. 16). I have dealt with this girl, and the spirit which possessed her, in my article "Snake Eggs and Spider Webs: Isaiah's Puzzling Prophecy and the Pythian Prophetess of Philippi" (Reflections #589). For many days this girl followed Paul around, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved" (vs. 17). Paul finally had enough, and he cast out the spirit from this girl, which, understandably, greatly troubled her owners (as they saw their profits immediately disappear). They dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace where the crowds began attacking them. "The magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten, and after they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks" (vs. 22-24). The scene is now set for this jailer's earth-shattering (literally) and life-changing night.
"About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. 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.' And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas" (Acts 16:25-29, ESV). The officials had previously made it very clear to this jailer that these were special prisoners, and that they were to be guarded carefully (vs. 23); which orders he took quite seriously (vs. 24). In the dark of the night, and in the confusion following the earthquake, the jailer assumed that all the prisoners had fled, and even though he was not personally responsible for the circumstances that led to this situation, he undoubtedly felt he would be held to blame, and that this could cost him his life. Fearing what might come at the hands of his superiors, which might prove to be very harsh and painful, he determined to end his life right then and there. He was spared this fate, however, when Paul called out and assured him that no prisoner has escaped; all were still present. Finding a torch, the jailer came trembling before Paul and Silas, falling at their feet. This was turning out to be a far different night than he had anticipated; one which started out so peacefully that he had actually fallen asleep.
The narrative takes a sudden turn, however, in verse 30, for the jailer asks this question of Paul and Silas: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Some have suggested he merely wanted to know what to do in order to be saved from punishment (possibly execution) at the hands of his superiors. This seems unlikely, though, as he had already been informed prior to the asking of this question that all the prisoners were still there and accounted for. He had lost none of them, and would certainly not be held accountable for the earthquake. Indeed, he might have received praise for maintaining custody of these prisoners under very difficult circumstances. Most scholars feel his question went much deeper: that he recognized in these events the hand of some deity, and that these two special prisoners may well be the representatives of this deity. After all, he most likely was aware of the events that led to their arrest and imprisonment: casting out a demon from a girl who had been shouting in the city, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved" (vs. 17). If this was true, as it now seemed to be, he wanted to know about this salvation from this Most High God.
The answer of Paul and Silas to this question (vs. 31 indicates it came from both of them) was, "Believe in the name of the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved -- you and your household." This is almost exactly what Peter told Cornelius and his household: "Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name" (Acts 10:43). In fact, Peter later told the leaders assembled at the Jerusalem Conference that the Lord "purified their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9), and that "it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are" (Acts 15:11). Seems we have heard this before, haven't we?! "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:8). What must this jailer do to be saved? Believe. "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:18). Paul told the Ephesian elders (as was noted in my last issue of Reflections) that the "gospel of God's grace" which he faithfully preached to both Jew and Greek was that men must "turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21).
The answer of Paul and Silas to the jailer could not have been simpler. They didn't roll out a long list of rules and regulations governing a "worship service," nor did they go into an hours long lecture on theology. They lifted up Jesus and simply said, "BELIEVE!" Yes, they told him who this Jesus was/is, and what He had done for this man, but the "Good News" is not about "laying down law," it is about "lifting up love" -- specifically: God's love for man, which was evidenced in the gift of His Son, and the love of the Son in laying down His life for those lambs who are lost. Thus, after telling this jailer to believe, they told him about the ONE in whom he was to place his faith and trust for salvation, just as Philip told the eunuch "the good news about Jesus" (Acts 8:35). And just as the eunuch went on his way "rejoicing" (Acts 8:39), so was this Philippian jailer "filled with joy because he had come to believe in God -- he and his whole family" (Acts 16:34). Paul told the Romans, "This is the word of faith we are proclaiming: that if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:8-9). Again, the message to the jailer was not complex; he was told to believe! "This was a simple, a plain, and an effectual direction" [Albert Barnes (1798-1870), Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), a century earlier, stated the same truth: "Here is the sum of the whole gospel, the covenant of grace in a few words: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. It is the gospel that is to be preached to every creature" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].
"What Paul and Silas gave the Philippian jailer was the same Christ-centered gospel that had been proclaimed since Pentecost: 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 465]. "The brevity, simplicity, and directness of this reply are, in the circumstances, singularly beautiful. Enough at that moment to have his faith directed simply to the Savior, with the assurance that this would bring to his soul the needed and sought salvation" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1112]. H. Leo Boles, one of the leaders in our own movement, and certainly one many consider to be rather conservative, stated, "The answer is brief, simple, plain, and accurate; not only could he be saved through faith in Christ, but, in fact, everyone could be saved on the same terms of the gospel" [A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 265]. "The answer of Paul will always be the reply of the Christian teacher. The earnest seeker after salvation must be directed to a Divine Savior, in whom he can 'believe.' For us to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is to accept Him for all that He offers to be to us: to accept Him (1) as the Savior in whom we trust for Divine mercy, (2) as the Friend to whom we give our heart, and (3) as the Lord to whom we dedicate our life" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18: Acts, part 2, p. 39].
Was the Philippian jailer baptized? Yes, he was. So also was his household. So also was Lydia, and her household. So also was Cornelius, and his household. I am not even remotely suggesting, as some have charged, that baptism in water is an act "we can take or leave; that it isn't important." But neither do I teach -- and, indeed, I refuse to teach -- that one who is truly repentant and turns to God, who has faith in Jesus, and who confesses Him as Lord, is as "damned as a donkey" until he gets to the water! Our baptism in water is an act of faith. It is a testimony of faith in He Who Saves!! It is a participatory reenactment by a believer of the gracious act of our Redeemer who experienced death, burial and resurrection for us. It is a testimony for our benefit, and for the benefit of those around us; it is not for the benefit of God, who already knew our heart. We are saved by grace through faith, but we show that faith in many different ways throughout our walk with Him through life (one of which is baptism in water). It is not optional, as He has asked us to do it. Thus, we, who believe, comply. Do we do it to be accepted by Him? No. We do it because we are accepted by Him. Our hearts have changed, and that change is reflected in our subsequent attitudes and actions.
I think it is fascinating to note what the Philippian jailer did first when he came to that point of faith in Jesus, and it is probably not what you have been told from the pulpit. For example, H. Leo Boles wrote in his commentary, "It is worthy of note that there was no delay in his being baptized" [A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 266]. That is what we've often been told ... but it is not true!! In point of fact: there was a delay. An intentional delay. There was a duty he considered to be higher than getting to the nearest pool of water. This "jailer did not delay for a moment his first Christian duty: Matthew 25:36" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 352]. The jailer showed forth the love of Jesus by taking Paul and Silas and washing their wounds!! In Matt. 25:36, Jesus declares to those He accepts at judgment, "I needed clothes and you clothed Me; I was sick and you looked after Me; I was in prison and you came to visit Me." What did this jailer believe was a greater tribute to His Lord Jesus than getting himself to the water? That's right -- getting these two men (Paul and Silas) to the water to minister to their physical needs in love! I can just hear the legalists and sacramentalists crying, "But what if the jailer were to die suddenly while washing the wounds of Paul and Silas, and before he could 'wash away his sins' in a baptistery? Wouldn't he go straight to hell?" I suppose so, IF you think like these people think. If Paul and Silas thought that way, surely they would have said, "Hey, forget our wounds, we can deal with those later. You have a foot in the fires of hell; we need to get you to some water ... and QUICKLY." Would they have "risked this man's eternal salvation" by allowing him to "waste time" washing their wounds?! I have yet to hear the legalists and sacramentalists deal rationally with this point. However, if you have the heart of the Master, you are more focused on love than law! Service over sacrament! The heart of the jailer had been touched by the Spirit of God; he had turned in faith to Jesus, and his faith is expressed in Christ-like deeds of kindness and brotherly love.
"Genuine faith in Christ will always be accompanied with benevolence and humanity, and every fruit that such dispositions can produce" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 5, p. 819]. "Faith works in the jailer's heart by love. His thankfulness to Christ is shown by attentions of thoughtful kindness to His servants. The stern keeper of the stocks is transformed by the magic of love into the physician and the host. The jailer has become a 'prisoner of Jesus Christ'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, Acts: part 2, p. 43]. Albert Barnes sums it up this way: "We have here a remarkable instance of the effect of religion in producing humanity and tenderness. This same man, a few hours before, had thrust them into the inner prison, and made them fast in the stocks. He evidently had then no concern about their stripes or their wounds. But no sooner was he converted than one of his first acts was an act of humanity. He saw them suffering; he pitied them, and he hastened to minister to them and to heal their wounds. ... Often one of the most striking changes that occurs in conversion is seen in the disposition to be kind and humane to the suffering" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Yes, this jailer had come to possess a strong faith in Christ, and he chose as the first evidentiary act of that faith to show forth the love of Christ. Had he died suddenly while washing the wounds of Paul and Silas, and before he himself was placed in the water, I have no doubt that our Father would welcome this child of His into His loving embrace. Thank God for His gospel of grace!! Brethren, let us renew our efforts to stand up boldly against those who would tarnish and diminish this gospel by their preaching of a "different gospel." They need to be stopped, and I will not cease my efforts to do just that! I hope and pray this fresh look at this account in Acts 16 will open a few eyes!!
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Al, your article titled "The Gospel Paul Preached" (Reflections #640) is the best message I have ever heard from a Church of Christ minister!! You surely have earned a special place in God's heart for preaching the truth, rather than the Church of Christ version of the gospel. Keep up the good work. You are a true Christian in my book, and I would still be going to the Church of Christ if you were my minister. I had to quit that denomination, however, because the preachers were preaching their sect's "gospel" instead of Jesus' gospel. Thank you so much for your courage, faith, understanding of truth, and for giving your best in every lesson you teach!
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
For most of my life within the Churches of Christ I have witnessed a long line of ministers lovingly pointing in the direction of the baptistery at the invitation, urging the candidate to look upon the baptistery as the vehicle that will transport them from an unsaved to a saved state. If only these men had a better understanding of God's Word and God's Grace! I would encourage all who are searching for answers to develop a habit of reading through and studying the entire Bible each and every year. If they would begin doing this in 2015, it might surprise them how much they would learn about God and what He really requires of us in order to be pleasing in His sight.
From a Minister in Tennessee:
"The Gospel Paul Preached" is a good one. Keep up the great work. It takes time and patience to break the chains of tradition and to bring down the walls of sectarian arrogance. I know! I once was on the other side of that wall, and I preached that slavery to others as though it were the gospel.
From a Reader in North Carolina:
"The Gospel Paul Preached" is pure gold!! God bless you!
From an Author in Texas:
Thanks, dear brother, for another excellent article ("The Gospel Paul Preached"). It is awfully hard for the works-oriented folk to ever accept the idea of free salvation. Keep up the good work.
From a Reader in Georgia:
Al, I just read "The Gospel Paul Preached." This message is so important for people to see, and you did an excellent job of putting the highlighter on this passage of Scripture spoken by Paul but recorded by Luke. THIS is the gospel!! Turning from a life of meaningless self-indulgence to an abundant life in Him offered to us freely and accepted by faith. Wow! It is beyond curious why Pharisees, both ancient and modern, wish to complicate the simplicity of the Gospel of God's Grace with rules, regulation and dogma. Keep it up, brother. Oh, I'm really enjoying your book on baptism -- "Immersed By One Spirit: Rethinking the Purpose and Place of Baptism in NT Theology and Practice." It has now become my "ready reference guide" in trying to stomp out the ignorance that allows for such twisting of Scripture by some to satisfy their tradition.
From a Reader in California:
I just wanted to tell you that your Reflections article on "The Gospel Paul Preached" was great! It is always a blessing to be reminded just how simple the gospel truly is, even if we already know. We often confuse the things around the gospel with the gospel itself. Over time we so easily tend to add a little here and a little there. The pure simplicity of the gospel message is amazing!
From an Author in California:
When the distinction between the gospel and doctrine, and our responses to the gospel, are blurred, confused and misunderstood, all kinds of errors arise, especially relative to grace and fellowship. I'm thankful to Carl Ketcherside and Leroy Garrett for insight into this distinction many years ago when I myself was steeped in legalism.
I concur completely with this dear brother whom I have known for quite some time, and whose writings I thoroughly enjoy. Yes, there is tremendous confusion generated when people fail to perceive the distinction between "gospel" and "doctrine." I have been seeking to point out this distinction for many, many years in my ministry, and even wrote one of my early Reflections on this very matter: Reflections #117 ("The Gospel-Doctrine Debate: Are they the Same or Separate?"). -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in Arkansas:
I loved your article on "The Gospel Paul Preached." However, I had always assumed that the reason baptism is not mentioned in the text (Acts 20:17-38) is because Paul is addressing those who are already Christians (the elders from Ephesus). Isn't it the case that baptism is not mentioned simply because these men he was speaking to had already been baptized? It seems like the work of edification is the work Paul was doing. Could you shed some light on this? Thank you for your great work, brother.
It is true that the apostle Paul is addressing himself to a specific audience in the Acts 20 passage (specifically: to the elders from Ephesus). It is also true that aspects of what he says have reference to his work of edification among the saints in Ephesus during his previous ministry among them. There is also strong admonition and warning to these men to be on guard, for wolves will be coming in among them. However, Paul is also bringing to their remembrance his work among those who had yet to come to belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul says, "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21), this is not a message designed for believers or their spiritual leaders, but rather for unbelievers. Paul wasn't telling the saints in Ephesus, or their elders, to turn to God in repentance and have faith in Jesus. This was the message to those who had NOT yet done this. Paul was talking here about his work of evangelism, and was identifying (by way of reminder to these elders, who would be continuing to share that message to the lost of their city) the particulars of that "Gospel of God's Grace" (vs. 24). If we assume baptism was left out because Paul was speaking to elders, then why would repentance and faith and grace be mentioned? Wouldn't they also be left out, and for the same reason? The reality is: Paul's message to these men had several levels of focus, one of which was a review of his gospel which he preached to those who needed salvation. That message of God's grace was: turn to God and believe on His Son. That, declares Paul, is the message he preached to the lost, both Jew and Greek, and thus this "gospel of God's grace" should be the message they preached as well, as they went back to Ephesus and continued sharing the good news of salvation by grace through faith (a message reinforced in the statement found in Ephesians 2:8-9: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast"). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
Al, I have read and studied a lot of your articles on baptism. I start seeing things your way, and then some scripture comes to mind. Would you explain 1 Peter 3:20-21 on this subject? I am very appreciative of you sharing your studies with us. I am a member of the Church of Christ, so you know where I am coming from!! Thank you so much. Your sister in Christ.
I shared with this reader my following in-depth studies of this passage: Reflections #217 ("Salvation by Immersion: Reflective Analysis of 1 Peter 3:21"), Reflections #497 ("Critical Question on 1 Peter 3:21: Pondering the True Meaning of the 'Pledge' of a Good Conscience as it Relates to Baptism"), and Reflections #613 ("The Filth of the Flesh: Pondering a Petrine Phrase"). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
I am a new subscriber to your Reflections and have read much of your information on your web site. I find it all very encouraging and refreshing. I have not yet read everything you have published, but I am in the process of doing so: reading a little almost every day. Currently, I am not attending a Church of Christ (except on occasional visits), nor do I get into much correspondence with that particular group nowadays. I was brought up in their strict fundamentalism from my youth up, and was active in this group (I was even a part-time pulpit minister for some 13 years). I know Church of Christ doctrine very well, and can probably give the "standard answers" to every single issue anyone can raise. However, I have learned so much from people like you: men who have devoted their lives to the spreading of simple truth. It is easy to get entrenched in our dogma, and sometimes we have to "unlearn" before we can be taught. That can be so difficult. I ended up clearing the board, so to speak, and starting all over again with a different perspective and attitude. That was a very humbling experience for me, since I had been proud to be "sound in the faith" and a "defender of the truth" (as I then understood it). The primary tool I use today is plain old common sense. If an illiterate 1st century peasant could understand the gospel of love, then certainly I, or anyone else today, can do the same without first having to digest a truckload of theology. It took me some 35 years to learn this basic principle, but I am happier and more at peace today than I was waving my party banner! May God continue to bless your efforts, brother!
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