Apostle Paul Life, Teaching & Theology

Paul & the Philippian Jailer: An Earthquake demolishes a meaningless Life, shakes the whole existence and creates the foundations of the Christian Faith

And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

"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. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed."

-Acts 16:23-40

What was the logic of the Apostles imprisonment?

Almost before they realized what was happening, the two apostles found themselves arraigned before the bar of Roman justice. The plain fact was that Paul released a python girl from the evil spirit. It was no crime under Roman law to exorcise a demon or to heal a mentally sick person. They had, in fact, done nothing of which they could justly be accused before the court. It was almost as if the evil spirit, having been cast out of the slave girl, had entered into her owners and turned them into furious, raving beasts. The complainants, however, felt that they would have the sympathy of their rulers (aediles rendered 'rulers' were a kind of civil police, responsible for the maintenance of order in temples, public buildings, streets and open spaces, and for the apprehension of offenders against the law), for Philippi did not like Jews; The real charge was that of preaching and making converts to an illegal religion. It should be noticed that Judaism was a tolerated religion, not illegal, and Christianity at this early time was considered by Rome as the same thing as Judaism.

Especially, Roman prisons had three compartments. One was called "Communiora" which had light and fresh air. The second was called "Interiora". This was shut off by strong iron bars and locks. Paul and Silas were in the "Tullainium" which is a dungeon where people were placed to die. This was top security. Their feet were placed in stocks which were a heavy piece of wood with holes similar to the mediaeval British stocks into which the prisoner's feet were placed and stretched in such a way as to cause constant agonizing pain. Despite all this pain Paul and Silas praised God and prayed! Their spirits soared above their circumstances and surroundings. Their voices rose upon the night air in that prison, "and the prisoners were listening to them".

Pauls Jail in Philippi
The Jail of Apostle Paul in Philippi, Greece

But who was the Philippian jailer?

Little is known about the identity of the jailer by the Scriptures. Many Bible scholars believe that the Jailer was a retired veteran Roman soldier. The city of Philippi was a major city that had been chartered as a "Roman Colonial City". Old soldiers sought retirement in these cities. The position of Jailer was most suitable for a veteran who had commanded in combat and proved his ability with men and a fit soldier would have been the likely choice of the Roman officials. More likely, this was an appointed position.

An earthquake was no new thing to him. But when his professional look took in the fact that the entire dungeon doors open his attitude underwent a quick change. Open doors meant escaped prisoners and Rome had only one treatment for jailers who lost their prisoners death. The reason for the escape was of no interest to the superior powers. This jailer knew better than to expect mercy and he determined to anticipate the inevitable. He drew his sword with the intention of ending his life by his own hand. Paul must have seen the impulsive action and cried out at once to save the man: "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here".

Why the other prisoners had not took advantage of the sudden luck of escape, is something under question

It may have been fear of the earthquake; it may have been the impression produced by singing of the Apostles and some superstitious idea that perhaps they would be safer in the company of these who evidently had the gods on their side. There is not much doubt that the jailer quickly connected the inexplicable releasing of the prisoners' bonds and the earthquake which had effected that release with some greater power than that of Nature. He felt that this was no ordinary earthquake. The earthquake symbolized the divine shake of the true faith. The experience of the earthquake opened the jailer’s eyes to see his personal need of salvation. The jailer received not only a physical shock but a spiritual and emotional one, a shock in his conscience. He was brought to the point where the foundations of his life, like those of the prison he guarded, were shaken by God.

The great question that the jailer asked “What must I do to be saved?” is the core essence of the story.

It is the most important question that any man or woman can ask. What did the jailer mean by this statement? As a heathen Roman, he no doubt had been exposed to Greek/Roman mythology his entire life. Christianity had been introduced into Macedonia only days earlier when Paul arrived in Philippi. So it is unlikely that he possessed more than a cursory understanding of the Christian notion of salvation from sin. But events occurred in those days leading up to his conversion that may account for the jailer’s question. “Believe in the Lord Jesus” was simply a broad, sweeping statement intended to redirect the jailer’s then-present religious attachment to the pagan gods of Greek/Roman mythology toward the true object of belief—Christ. It was a way to reorient the jailer’s thinking in the direction of Jesus, as contrasted with his own pagan notions.

In a swift revulsion of feeling he abandoned the whole of his Roman arrogance and prostrated himself before Paul and Silas. Very often God uses such circumstances to speak to our hearts and to awaken us to the realization that we need to be saved. It has been often said, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”. This man was seeking salvation and the answer Paul and Silas gave was clear and direct.

The jailer believed and in that moment he became a new man in Christ. His life was transformed. His first act was to wash and tend the wounds of the prisoners, whom he had cruelly mistreated and who had repaid him by telling him God’s great plan of salvation.

Paul Silas Jailer Philippi
Left: Paul and Silas are Whipped in Philippi. Right: Conversion of the Jailer. Frescoes from the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, Italy

Why Paul baptized the jailer in the middle of the night? And what this act could tell us about the mystery of baptism in general?

As we look at the conversion of the jailer we will see how he was also required to be baptized. Paul’s and Luca’s "stripes" were the wounds that he had previously inflicted upon them when they were mercilessly whipped and imprisoned earlier. Bathing their wounds was a demonstration of the fact he was sorrowful for what he had done to them, and did what he could to make it right. Repentance involves more that simply sorrow. Biblical repentance an important part of the conversion process. It was appropriate that the jailer repented of his callowness and demonstrated this to Paul and Silas before he was baptized. This act of contrition was as much symbolic of his new life in Christ as his subsequent baptism.

Then, in spite of their weak condition, Paul and Silas were eager to baptize the believers as soon as possible. There was no delay; the jailer and his household were baptized and accepted into fellowship with other believers within a few hours of conversion.

The only reasonable explanation of why Paul baptized this man in the middle of the night is that it had something to do with his eternal salvation. The question of the jailer was a catalyst, as he expressed his deeply will to find the real God and be connected with the one church. When the jailer returned from having been baptized, the Scriptures relate that he rejoiced, "believing in God with all his house". His response to the gospel in baptism was understood as what was necessary to make him a believer, one who is a child of God. The implication is that baptism is more crucial and more urgent than many today think.

We can certainly draw the conclusion though, that the baptism is necessary to salvation. The process of the Philippian jailer’s conversion culminated with his baptism in water—bringing his faith to a completed result. Luke was careful to refrain from labeling the jailer as a “believer” until all of the prerequisites to salvation had been completed, thereby bringing his faith to its finished state.


Dana, H.E. and Julius Mantey (1927), A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto, Canada: Macmillan, 1957 reprint).

Knowling, R.J. (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament: The Acts of the Apostles, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Ramsay, William (1897), St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1962 reprint).

Summers, Ray (1950), Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman).