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Lesson 42: The Urgent Question (Acts 16:25-34)

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A four-year-old boy was outdoors when a bee starting buzzing around a table nearby. He became very upset, and his mother tried to calm him. “Nathan, that bee is more afraid of you than you are of him,” she said. “Look how much bigger you are. Besides, if that bee stings you, his stinger will fall out and he will die.”

Nathan considered this for a moment and then asked, “Does the bee know that?” (Reader’s Digest [6/93], p. 20.)

Sometimes we get stung in life because we don’t stop to ask the important questions. We are so focused on things that we think are important that we fail to consider the really urgent and important matters. In our text, the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas the most important and urgent question that anyone can possibly ask: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

That may not strike you as a very urgent question. You may think that the most urgent question you can answer is, “How can I get a boyfriend (or girlfriend)?” Or, “How can I get a job?” Or, “How can I deal with my difficult marriage?” Or, “How can I communicate with my rebellious teenager?” While these may be important questions, none are nearly as urgent as the question, “What must I do to be saved?”

1. The most urgent question in the world is: How can I be saved?

This was not an academic question for this jailer. He had just been awakened by a powerful earthquake. If that’s ever happened to you, you know that it’s a pretty good adrenaline rush! Then, when he rushed to the prison, he confirmed his worst nightmare—the doors were open. He assumed the worst, that all the prisoners had escaped. Instant death would be better to him than the torture that the authorities would inflict before they killed him. So he was ready to fall on his sword, when he heard a voice from inside calling, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!”

He couldn’t believe his own ears! Calling for lights, he entered the prison and saw that it was true. Overwhelmed with all that had happened, he fell down before Paul and Silas. We don’t know what words were exchanged at this point. Probably, as with Peter and Cornelius (10:26), Paul and Silas said, “Stand up; we too are just men.” Perhaps then Paul explained that the living God, whom he served, was behind the earthquake and the prisoners not leaving. These events had made the jailer see that he must come to terms with the God proclaimed by Paul and Silas. He knew that the servant girl had been shouting all over town that these men were bond-servants of the Most High God and were proclaiming the way of salvation (16:17). So after he brought them out of prison, he asked this urgent question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

A. It is an urgent question because apart from Jesus Christ, all are lost.

“Lost” is a frightening word. I don’t know if you’ve ever been lost, but it can be a harrowing experience. One time when our oldest daughter, Christa, was seven, we were standing in line at the Dumbo ride at Disneyland. Marla was holding on to one of the younger children, and I had the other. Suddenly we realized that Christa was gone. We quickly searched in the sea of people, and could not find her. This was during a time when rumors were circulating about Southeast Asian gangs who would kidnap kids, sell them into the Asian sex industry, and you’d never see them again. For about ten scary minutes that seemed like ten hours, we frantically searched for our lost daughter, until a security guard told us that they had found her in a shop about 100 yards away.

Even more frightening than being lost at Disneyland is to be spiritually lost, separated from God. Ironically, probably like our lost daughter, many lost people don’t even realize that they are lost! They’re going through life pursuing all of the things that make life enjoyable, but they’re oblivious to the impending reality of eternity and the fact that they will stand before the Judge of all the earth. But whether they feel it or not, it is a fact. The Bible declares, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); and, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means, eternal separation from God.

The Philippian jailer was in the dark until lights could be brought to see into the prison. Darkness is another biblical picture of being alienated from God. People who are lost and are in the dark need help! They can’t see where they’re going and they don’t know the way even if they could see. God must make a person aware of his desperate condition so that he will cry out for help: “What must I do to be saved?”

B. It is an urgent question because we all are just a breath away from eternity.

We all just hang on to life by a thread. A few weeks ago, a professional football player suited up and went out for his afternoon workout with the team. Before dinner that evening, he was dead from heatstroke. If you had eaten breakfast with him that day, you would have thought, “This guy is on top of the world!” He was making mega-bucks as a pro football player. He was in great physical condition. He had a wife and child. Millions of young men in this country would have traded places with him in an instant. But he was a corpse before the day was over!

We’re all so frail, and yet we think that we’re invincible, especially when we’re young. But we’re not! Not one of us is guaranteed of being alive tomorrow morning. Novelist John Grisham said that when he was in law school, he got a call from one of his best friends in college. They got together for lunch, and the friend told Grisham that he had terminal cancer. Grisham was stunned. He asked, “What do you do when you realize that you are about to die?”

The friend replied, “It’s real simple. You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else.” That friend’s death at age 25 left a lasting impression on Grisham (Christianity Today [10/3/ 94], p. 16).

DeWitt Talmage (20 Centuries of Great Preaching [Word], 5:311) points out that for the jailer, this was an immediate question that demanded an immediate answer:

You can see by the torch the jailor [sic] holds in his hand the startled and anxious look. He had no time to prepare himself in especial apparel, no time to comb his hair, no time to fix himself up. He must have that question answered before the earthquake has stopped rocking, or never perhaps have it answered at all. Is that the way you propound the question of your salvation, or do you drawl it out as much as to say: “Any time without fifteen years I would like to have it answered”? Do you know that thousands of souls have been ruined because they did not ask the question in time? If the door of the lost world could be opened, and … they could utter only one word of warning, that word would come sounding up like the howl of the everlasting storm: “Now!”

It is an urgent question because apart from Jesus Christ, all are lost, and because we all are just a breath away from eternity.

C. It is an urgent question because nothing else will matter when we stand before the righteous Judge of the earth.

Money matters a great deal to most of us, and we spend our lives trying to get enough to live comfortably. But you can pile up a fortune as large as that of Bill Gates, but it won’t get you in the door of heaven. You can work out and eat healthy meals to make your body fit, and you might (or might not) extend your life for a few years. But it won’t do you a bit of good when you stand before the Righteous Judge. You can devote your life to piling up good deeds, but they all will be consumed in the burning heat of the holy presence of Almighty God. You can enjoy the love of a family that cares for you deeply, but even that will not matter when you stand before God. The only thing that will matter on that soon-coming day will be, “Are you saved?” Are you reconciled to God?

D. It is an urgent question because it must be answered personally.

The jailer asked it personally, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul answered as it pertained both to him and to his entire household: If he would believe in Jesus Christ, he would be saved. The same thing applied to his household: If each of them believed, each one would be saved. Thankfully, we read that each member of his household did believe in Christ that night (16:34), because there is no group plan of salvation. Each of us has sinned; each of us needs to be saved personally. Coming from a Christian home won’t do. Attending a Christian church won’t cut it. It is incumbent on each person, and therefore urgent, to answer this crucial question.

E. It is an urgent question with a very simple answer.

Thankfully, even though it is a profound question, it is one for which even young children can understand the answer. Paul didn’t say, “You’ll need to enroll in my seminary course in advanced theology, and by the end of the semester, if you study hard, you will discover the answer.” He didn’t haul out a list of 20 steps, with the promise that if he worked hard at following them, by the end of his life he would be saved. Rather, Paul answered the jailer in a simple sentence, and then, because this was all so new to him, Paul sat down with the entire household and explained things more thoroughly (16:32).

2. The biblical answer to, “How can I be saved?” is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.”

That simple answer stands apart from all of the religions in the world. They all offer complex plans of how a person can work his way into heaven. His answer even stands apart from many claiming to be Christian, who say, “Get baptized, receive the sacrament of communion, give money to the church, and do good works and you may get in.” Many pastors in our day who claim to be Christians would say, “What is all this talk about being saved? There is nothing to be saved from! God loves everyone; He would never condemn anyone. Just try to be a good person, and you have nothing to fear.” But Paul’s simple answer stands apart: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.” Paul’s answer and the results that we see in the jailer and his family imply four things:

A. Salvation is God’s doing, not our doing.

The verb, “you shall be saved,” is passive, meaning that the subject is acted upon. No one can save himself by any amount of effort or sincerity. No one can pile up enough good deeds to tip the scale in his favor. Paul didn’t tell the jailer that he would have to keep the Ten Commandments and reform his life before he could be saved. We can’t save ourselves. But God will save everyone who believes in the Lord Jesus.

The numerous biblical pictures of people who are apart from God show us how impossible it is to save ourselves. We are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1-3). We are spiritually blind (2 Cor. 4:4). We have natural minds that cannot perceive spiritual truth apart from God’s Spirit revealing it to us (1 Cor. 2:14). We are enslaved to sin, unable to free ourselves unless the Son of God frees us (John 8:34-36) We have spiritual leprosy and only Jesus can cleanse us. God alone can save a person from his sins.

This is great news! If salvation depended on us, then the best among us might have some hope of saving themselves, but the worst among us wouldn’t have a chance. But since salvation depends on Almighty God, not on weak man, and since God has sent His Son to be the Savior of sinners (not of pretty good people), there is hope for everyone! Many are clearly too lost for any human approach to save them. But none are too lost for God’s mighty arm to save them.

B. Salvation is a matter of believing, not doing.

The jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul did not answer with something to do, but rather with someone to believe in. Believing is not a matter of human effort, but rather of ceasing from our efforts and relying on God alone. As Paul wrote (Rom. 4:4-5), “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Saving faith, then, is a matter of ceasing from my own efforts to save myself, and trusting in Jesus Christ to save me.

What does it mean to believe in the Lord Jesus? Next month, Marla and I hope to fly to Europe where we will minister to some missionaries. We could drive down to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix and inspect the planes. We could watch the crews servicing them. We could ask to see the maintenance records, to make sure that the planes have been regularly serviced. We could watch the crew put fuel in the tanks. We could interview the pilots and make sure that they know what they are doing. We could watch other planes take off and land safely. And we could stand there and tell you that we believe these airplanes could safely fly us to Europe, but that would not get us to Europe. To get to Europe, we’ve got to commit our lives to those planes.

Believing in the Lord Jesus for salvation is like that. Intellectual assent is necessary, but not sufficient. You must commit your eternal destiny to the Lord Jesus as your only hope. You must rely on Him to bridge the chasm between you as a sinner and God as absolutely holy.

Saving faith relies on Jesus Christ alone. Can you imagine me getting on board and then going up and knocking on the pilot’s door and saying, “Move over! I’d like to help you fly this baby to Europe”? I don’t think he would appreciate my offer! I would be questioning the pilot’s ability! All I need to do is get on board and let him do it all. That will get me to my destination. Trusting in Jesus Christ is all that we need to do to be saved.

When we do that, it is not a matter of maybe you’ll be saved, but “you shall be saved.” It’s a done deal, and it is done instantly. Even though the jailer had no religious background, even though he had never darkened the door of a church or read a Bible, he believed and was saved that very hour. Salvation is a matter of believing, not of doing. But, our faith must be in the proper object:

C. Salvation centers on the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul did not say, “Just believe and you shall be saved.” He did not say, “Believe in a Higher Power, however you conceive him to be, and you shall be saved.” He said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.” (Some manuscripts add “Christ,” but it is probably not in the original.) Since the jailer and his family had almost no knowledge about Jesus, Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord” to them in more detail (16:32). “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word concerning Christ” (Rom. 10:17, NASB margin). Paul probably gave them a quick course on key Old Testament prophecies about Messiah, and how Jesus fulfilled them. He probably told them about the life and ministry of Jesus. He probably explained that as Lord, Jesus is God, but also, He is man. No doubt Paul explained Jesus’ death on the cross as the substitute for sinners, and His bodily resurrection from the dead.

Faith is only as good as its object. I could have great faith in a defective airplane, but my faith would only plunge me to my death if it led me to get on board. There are millions of people who believe in a Jesus of their own understanding, rather than in the Jesus of the Bible. Their Jesus is not fully God, and He did not shed His blood to satisfy God’s wrath in the place of sinners. To believe unto salvation, a person must have some basic understanding of who Jesus is and what He did when He died on the cross. You don’t have to be a theologian, but you do need to have some basic knowledge. That knowledge comes from God’s Word.

There is such a thing as faith that does not save. The demons believe in God, but they aren’t saved (James 2:19). How can a person know if he truly believes?

D. True salvation always results in changed lives.

If a person claims to believe in Christ as Savior, but his life is no different, his claim is suspect. While no one is perfectly sanctified in this life, everyone who has believed in the Lord Jesus will be different. Salvation is not just a human decision; it is God’s imparting new life and changing our hearts, so that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17).

We see several changes in the jailer and his household. First, they were all baptized after they believed (16:33-34). Paul had explained to them that baptism is the outward confession of our faith in Christ. We’ve wrongly replaced baptism with walking the aisle in our day. Baptism is the way to confess that you have trusted in Christ. It is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ, showing that He has cleansed you from sin and that you are identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection. It signifies a break from your former life of sin, and a commitment to follow Jesus as your Lord.

Not only were they baptized, they immediately began ministering to Paul and Silas, washing their wounds and setting food before them. Before he was saved, the jailer could throw these wounded men into prison, lock their feet in the stocks, and go to bed without any concern. But now, he humbly served them in these practical ways. Salvation always reorients a person so that rather than living for himself only, he begins to be sensitive to the needs of others. His attitudes and deeds begin to change out of gratitude to the Lord for His gift of salvation.

Also, the entire family rejoiced greatly because of their new faith in God (16:34). Salvation affects our emotions. A short time before this jailer was suicidal. Now, he’s overflowing with joy in the Lord. No doubt the entire family was terrified by the earthquake. Now they were singing praises along with Paul and Silas, even if there were strong aftershocks. True salvation changes us from the inside out, affecting every area of our lives. Thus,

The most urgent question in the world is:

How can I be saved?

The biblical answer is:
Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.


Is that the most urgent matter in your life today? After the capture of Syracuse during the Second Punic War, the Greek mathematician Archimedes was absorbed in working on a math problem. He had drawn some diagrams in the sand, and he was so absorbed in solving the problem, that when a Roman soldier intruded, Archimedes offended the soldier by merely remarking, “Do not disturb my diagrams.” The soldier ran him through with his sword.

Like Archimedes, we can easily become focused on some present problems and ignore the most urgent matter of eternity. It is only when you are ready to die that you are ready to live properly. The most urgent question in the world is, “How can I be saved?” The biblical answer is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we impress on lost people the urgency of salvation?
  2. Why does God not take into account good works when a person stands before Him? How do you explain Rom. 2:9-10?
  3. How much does a person need to know to be saved? Can a person be saved without believing in the deity of Jesus?
  4. Is saving faith a work? Why/why not? Give biblical support.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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