Trauma, Drama, and Conversion: The Curious Case of the Philipian Jailer

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

-Acts 16:30b

[Read acts 16:25-34]

Trauma

I know of a man who makes light of and denies the valdity of the dramatic conversion stories of individuals. His argument? “Well, a lot of people have those kinds of experiences. Trauma causes people to reflect, to seek a ‘higher purpose.’ But that doesn’t mean that that person’s conversion was real.” Now, I expect this from an unbeliever who is mistaken, not knowing the power of God nor the Scriptures, for it clearly shows a lack of faith in God’s Sovereignty over all things, and a total ignorance of the Word of God. God has used, and still uses traumatic experiences to lead men to believe the Gospel. This is evident from the curious case of the Philipian jailer, a man whose experience led him to desire to kill himself before he was led to ask about the Gospel. He was a man whose life was completely shaken by the Lord for the purpose of bringing him to faith. This traumatic experience of living through an earthquake, attempting to kill himself, and being shown, what I think is, kindness by prisoners who could have escaped but, instead, stayed where they were and told the man not to kill himself – these things led this man to ask them a simple question:

“What must I do to be saved?” (v.30b)

To which they the simple answer:

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” (v. 31)

God had ordained the traumatic experiences of this man for the express purposes of (i.)showing Paul and Silas His faithfulness, (ii.)showing this man his need for salvation, and (iii.)using Paul and Silas to deliver the Gospel to this man. Was this jailer’s experience just a bunch of balogne? No. God ordained to bring this man to ruin, to see the end of himself, to see the futility of life itself, to see the mercy of God (shown through Paul and Silas, I believe), and to present him with the free gift of eternal life. God is Sovereign, using even the most destructive events to bring about His purposes.

Drama and Conversion

The drama is threefold: (i.)there is an earthquake, (ii.)an attempted suicide, and (iii.)the conversion and changed life of the jailer and his family. This story is not the retelling of a man who gradually reformed his external conduct until he found right standing with Paul and Silas, who then conferred upon him the right to be called a Christian. Not at all. Rather, the story is the dramatic retelling of how the Almighty God of all creation reached down into a foul, sinful, filthy prison and sought out a man whom no one would have guessed was going to come to faith in Christ. Was this jailer a worthy candidate? No. Did he pass some initiation tests to prove the validity of his faith? No. Was he scrutinized by Paul and Silas for expressing faith in Christ? No.

He was brought to faith by God alone, and Paul and Silas, being true men of God, knew that very well. And knowing this, they rejoiced with him and his family (cf. v. 34). Who is the man who denies the validity of a conversion story that stems from another man’s traumatic experience? He is here rebuked by the Holy Spirit. Who is the man who undermines the validity of another’s dramatic conversion? He is here, again, rebuked by the Holy Spirit. Who is the man who would dare subject to scrutiny those who belong to the One True and Living God because they don’t meet his expectations? Let him be rebuked again by the Holy Spirit. Who is he that accuses, condemns, and lies to God’s elect? He is anathema.

The story of the Philipian jailer is powerful, showing us that God uses trauma to bring His children to Himself. It is powerful in showing us that Christ alone can turn a jailer into a servant of prisoners (cf. 33 & 34). It is powerful in rebuking us for interrogating the simple faith profession of those who have come to know the Lord Jesus by some traumatic event that He had ordained for them, for Paul and Silas knew of no such terrorizing of the saints of God. No, rather, the text tells us that “he rejoiced” and doesn’t make even a light mention of Paul and Silas saying: “Sir, ’tis too early in thine faith to know whether or no thou belongest to God’s elect. Examine thyself.” We would do well to love those who have come to simple, saving faith in Christ Jesus. We should rejoice in their conversion – after all, isn’t that what the angels and God Himself do? (cf. Luke 15 – all of it!).

Paul and Silas: How to Deal with The Traumatized Who Ask About the Gospel

If there is one thing that this passage teaches us who already believe, it is that we are called to be gentle with those whom the Lord has allowed to experience trauma. Paul and Silas did not mock the man who desired to kill himself, they did not belittle him because, well, it’s his own fault for being such a vile sinner that he wanted to kill himself – they didn’t even rebuke him for wanting to kill himself. And they could have, since it is sin, after all, and it was their job to preach “the whole counsel of God.” No. They gently exhorted him not to harm himself. They saw the distress that the jailer was experiencing, and they did what the Lord Jesus would do: They lovingly counseled the man to not kill himself. Were they sinning by not addressing how sinful his suicidal attempt was? The legalist would say yes. God the Holy Spirit says: No. The man was shown mercy. And, I think it could be argued that, it was this act of kindness that led the man to fall before Paul and Silas and see that he needed to be saved not just from an earthquake, or from a Roman execution for losing prisoners while he was on watch, or even himself – but from God’s judgment.

Who is he that scrutinizes the traumatized before he preaches the Gospel to them? Let him be rebuked. Who is he that lets the lost harm and destroy themselves, who does not show mercy to those who are without any hope in the world, because they don’t show a deep enough repentance? Let him be accursed. The Holy Spirit here shows us something profound: Mercy triumphs over judgment. A true minister of the Gospel will show mercy to the lost.

Washing Stripes/Baptism

I think the parallel in v.33 is beautiful:

“And he took them the same hour and washed their stripes.”

And…

“And immediately he and all his family were baptized.”

The jailer washed their wounds; Paul and Silas (symbolically) washed away his past, his sin, his rebellion against God. And they did this on the spot. There was not a three year period of interrogation antecedent to his baptism. Nor was there a test of his worthiness to be a Christian involved here. No. He heard and believed the Gospel, and he was saved. And as a saved man, he was baptized in accordance with the Lord’s ordinance. And being baptized, he rejoiced with his family and the two servants of God. Should we not do the same? God forgive us if we don’t.

Application?

“Be merciful, just as your Father in heaven in merciful,” showing mercy to those who are traumatized, victims of the sins of others and their own, who, in total despair, turn to you and ask you: “What must I do to be saved?” And give them the Gospel. Do not say in your hearts, “They are not ready, because they have not felt the full sting of the Law, yet!” Preach the Gospel. Do not keep the word of God’s amazing grace from them because you have not deemed them worthy. PREACH THE GOSPEL.

This is our occupation. Paul and Silas could have left the man to his own sinful desires (i.e. suicide), but they lovingly told him to not do what he was compelled to do by his own sinful assessment of this traumatic event in his life.

If you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ, then preach the Gospel. Show mercy to those who deserve no mercy. Show kindness to those who have abused you. Preach the Gospel to those whom you would never consider “worthy candidates” for salvation (whatever that carnal, ungodly nonsensical quote is meant to convey – remember, no one is “worthy”).

If you claim to be a Christian, and yet there is not a scintilla of mercy in your interactions with the lost and wounded who come to you for the Gospel, you are yet lost in your sins and transgressions. And you cannot show grace to others because you have not been the recipient of God’s grace.

Paul and Silas could show mercy, for they knew the mercy of God firsthand. They could show love to this man, because they had known the love of God for them in Christ. They could preach the Gospel to the lost, because they knew just how powerful God is and how beautiful the feet are of those who preach the good news of the forgiveness of sins by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

Amen!

-hiram

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3 thoughts on “Trauma, Drama, and Conversion: The Curious Case of the Philipian Jailer

  1. Heather says:

    If you claim to be a Christian, and yet there is not a scintilla of mercy in your interactions with the lost and wounded who come to you for the Gospel, you are yet lost in your sins and transgressions. And you cannot show grace to others because you have not been the recipient of God’s grace.

    Oh, wow. I remember getting hit with this reality after claiming the title “Christian” for well over 20 years. No humility, no compassion, no love for the lost and/or hurting believers = no relationship with Christ.

    Like

  2. mari says:

    This brought me to tears. I never thought anyone could articulate or even acknowledge that there are some traumatic paths which lead one to salvation; it certainly was the case for me. It’s amazing to stumble upon your writing, because it was just last night I was in the Book of Acts, reading about this jailer.. Praise God, and thank you for writing this.

    Like

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