The Repentant Jailer
My last entry was on Paul and Silas being freed from prison and not walking away. There was one part of the story I left out: the salvation of the jailer.
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. (Acts 16:27-34 ESV)
So many times we hear abuse victims are to forgive their abusers and seek reconciliation. Jeff C and Barbara are quick to caution that repentance is rare for an abuser and abusers are experts at saying what needs to be heard for them to continue in their abuse. So what about the jailer in the above account? Was he a true repentant abuser?
First I would note that while he was responsible for some of the abuse the Paul and Silas received, he was not an abuser in the sense of having a sense of entitlement, power, and control. He was doing his job, and in this case his job was abusive because he was incarcerating an innocent man. That being said, “just doing my job” was probably was not of great comfort to Paul and Silas, and we see in the account where Peter was released from prison that God allowed the guards to be put to death.
So what was different about this jailer? It appears to me that here is a man who took responsibility for his failures and truly sought God in repentance. When he believed that Paul and Silas had left, he did what Roman code called for: he sought to take his own life. Note that this is no cry for help or tool to control others. In this case suicide was an acceptance of responsibility, fully expected of someone in his position. He could have made excuses, plead his case, and tried to get out of his fate. Surely his superiors would recognize that an earthquake is no usual event and have mercy? But he does not do this. He does not demand that he be shown mercy, nor does he threaten Paul and demand rescue once he finds out Paul is still alive. This man is not a man who feels entitled; he feels responsible.
And in his responsibility, he wants to gain salvation. He demands nothing from Paul and Silas or God, but he does want to know the truth and submits to it once it is given, demonstrated by having his whole family baptized. This is a picture of true repentance and a man who really sought God. And God was faithful to this man’s heart by not allowing him to be executed in ignorance like Peter’s guards, but instead redeemed and delivered him both from sin and his present calamity.
Was this whole account engineered on this jailer’s behalf? God is certainly that big and that merciful, and bless Paul for being sensitive to the Spirit in seeing the repentance in this man. Paul could have walked away justly, but he did not. We must note, though, that Paul showed mercy not to a man who begged, pleaded, threatened, and manipulated to get it, but a man who owned his fate and threw himself at the feet of God.
To bring this full circle back to my previous entry, in Acts we see Paul endure great cost to himself over and over again in order to preach the Gospel to repentant hearts. This jailer is an example of a willing heart, the kind of person for whom Paul was willing to put his life on the line. Can you imagine if Paul and Silas had just left and told the story to the other Christians when they got to a safe place: “Well, there was a jailer who wanted to know about salvation, but clearly God provided for our escape so we booked it out of there!” Not very characteristic of Paul, is it?
I believe as Christians we are called to suffer at times for the sake of the Gospel and to do it with joy, but this is completely different from suffering for a person who seeks to manipulate and control and will feign repentance in order to continue the abuse. I hope that by looking at a picture of what real repentance looks like we can have a better picture of what false repentance looks like as well.