THE PHILIPITAN GAOLER.
Sirs, what must I do to be saved?
Acts xvi. 30.
Second Sunday after Christmas, 1S79.
IT was a strange question to come from such a person. Of all employments and positions in life, the office of a gaoler in S. Paul's time would seem to hold out the least promise to a Christian preacher. The Christian preacher looks for some impressibility in his hearers. If he cannot reckon on high spiritual insight, he will at least approach his audience through their sympathies and affections. He will knock at the door of their humanity; and in this way he will obtain an entrance for his divine message. But what can he hope for here? Humanity has no place in a gaoler's language. Humanity is excluded by his very functions as a gaoler. A gaoler lives in hourly intercourse with criminals. He sees human nature in its most brutal and degraded forms. He becomes familiarised with crime. He gets to regard vice, as the rule, not the exception, in mankind. He ceases to believe in human virtue, at least in its higher and nobler types. He sinks into a hard cynicism. Has he not had too wide an experience to put any faith in the illusions of philanthropists and preachers? Virtue is a mere pretence, and repentance is an elaborate hypocrisy.
And he becomes hardened also in another way. Whatever feelings of compassion he may have naturally, he is forced to thrust them aside. If he were too gentle, or too sensitive, or too merciful, he would be unfit for his trade. He must steel his heart to the inroads of pity. He must ply his task in a stern, relentless, mechanical way. To lock those chains, to bar that door, to shut out the face of heaven, perhaps for ever, on this victim, to drag out that other halfblinded once more into the light of day, only that he may lay his head on the block or stretch his limbs on the cross—this is the cruel routine of his daily life. What room is there here for sympathy, for love, for tenderness, for any of those humane emotions on which the Christian preacher reckons as his most powerful allies?
The gaoler at Philippi is introduced to us first, performing his gaoler's task. Here are two new prisoners to be looked after. They are far more dangerous than the ordinary run of prisoners. They are disturbers of the public peace; they are. revolutionary agents; they are foreign emissaries; they would subvert the social and political institutions of the place. 'These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city.' 'They teach customs which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.' Accordingly they have been scourged first, and they have been cast into prison afterwards. Special injunctions are given to the gaoler. The prisoners must on no account be allowed to escape. He is not wanting on his part. He obeys his orders to the letter, and beyond the letter. He thrusts them into the inner dungeon, a dark underground vault, as would appear from the sequel. He is not content with this. He has made their feet fast in the stocks. Even the slight liberty of movement, which heavy chains would have allowed them, is rendered impossible. He has not suffered himself to be betrayed into any weakness. He has performed his grim task with relentless rigour. He has done his gaoler's work in a true gaoler's spirit. What hope more hopeless, than the conversion of such a man as this? The poor itinerant divining girl—half impostor, half demoniac— was a far more promising subject than he. It was not in a heart like this, that any profound spiritual emotions could be looked for. It was not on lips like his, that we should expect the question to arise, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'
But the man, though a gaoler, was a man still. He had his human emotions, his human fears, aye and—as the sequel shows—his human compassions also, which his grim trade had been powerless to crush out. We must not imagine that, when he asked the question, he asked it with any very distinct conception of its bearing. He spoke of saving himself. What did he mean by this? His soul was convulsed by a tumult of conflicting passions. Only the moment before he would have done the very reverse of saving himself; he would have committed suicide. The first instantaneous terror was past. His prisoners were safe. His own life was safe—safe from his own murderous hand, and safe from the displeasure of his masters. But a vague, bewildering awe had seized him. He was in imminent peril, he knew not whence and how. Hence his imploring cry, 'What must I do to be saved?' And God took him at his word. God accepted his confused yearning; God heard his inarticulate utterance. He asked for salvation. And God taught him salvation; God gave him salvation, a gift far higher, far nobler, far more beneficent, than it had entered into his heart to conceive.
It is instructive to observe the instrumentality, which laid the gaoler prostrate at the Apostle's feet. This instrumentality is two-fold, partly external and partly moral. There is the physical catastrophe, and there is the spiritual influence.
I. There is the physical catastrophe. Suddenly, we are told, there was a great earthquake. The prison was shaken to its foundations. The doors flew open. The fetters were loosed. It is so that God works not uncommonly in His regenerative processes. Through the avenue of the senses He forces His way to the spirit. It may be that the Lord Himself is not in the great and strong wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but the fire and the earthquake and the strong wind are His precursors, are His pioneers. They are as the voice of one crying in the wilderness of the man's heart, 'Prepare ye the way.' They arrest the eye and the ear; they overawe and subdue the spirit; they hold the man spell-bound; and in the supervening silence the still small voice is heard.
So it was here. Shaking the foundations of the prison, this earthquake had shaken the foundations of this man's self-sufficiency too. Opening the doors of the cells, it had opened the doors of his spiritual capacity also. Shaking off the chains of the prisoners, it had shaken off the fetters of obdurate routine from his heart likewise. Awakening him out of his bodily slumbers, it had awakened him at the same time from the torpor of his spiritual apathy. And so agitated and bewildered—his whole moral nature reeling and staggering with the shock—he flings himself at the Apostle's feet.
2. But this was not sufficient. The physical shock might arrest, but it could not instruct. It might overawe, but it could not inspire. The rumbling and the crash of the earthquake is not the only voice which breaks the midnight silence. There is the voice of prayer and praise, borne aloft to the Throne of Grace from those subterranean dungeons. We may well imagine that this voice also, so strange, so unearthly, so unlike the gibes and the curses and the blasphemies which were wont to issue from the prisoners' cells, had arrested the gaoler's ear; that they had suggested hopes and fears, which he could but vaguely understand; that they held out to him a new ideal of life, at which he blindly clutched; that, mingling with his dreams, they had moulded his awakening thoughts; and thus insensibly they had shaped the cry which rose to his lips, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?'
This is a type of God's dealing with our own hearts. It may be that during the year, which has just run out its course, God has spoken to one and another in this congregation with this two-fold voice. Some unwonted catastrophe has convulsed our lives. The sudden bereavement has stunned our senses. The crash of our fortunes has stricken us down. The failure of our plans in life has crushed us in its ruin. The hairbreadth escape from some ghastly accident, or the unexpected recovery from some deadly sickness, has awed us in the retrospect. Here is the earthquake, which has awakened us from our slumbers, which has subdued and terrified us, which has sent us trembling and staggering to the Apostle's feet. And meanwhile for us, as for the Philippian gaoler, the voice of the earthquake has been supplemented by the voice of prayer and praise. The fresh memory, it may be, of some dear companionship, severed by death, has borne our spirits upward on its wings. The present blessing of some hallowed friendship has purified and elevated our thoughts. The stimulating example of some heroic, saintly life, whose record is enshrined in history, has nerved and inspired us. The reading of the Bible, or the services of the Church, or perchance the voice of the preacher has struck some chord which has vibrated through our spiritual being. In one way or another the voice of prayer and praise has found its way to our heart of hearts—in the midnight silence, amidst the crash of the earthquake and the trembling of the prison cells; and in our awe, in our bewilderment, in our vague
unsatisfied, tumultuous yearning, we have uttered the imploring cry, 'What must I do to be saved—to be saved from hardness, to be saved from sin, to be saved from self, to shake off this torpor of death, to awake to God and to life?'
Since we met in church last Sunday, another year has drawn to a close—a year eventful in many ways, a year of striking inventions, of appalling catastrophes, of desolating famines, of vast political disintegrations and reconstructions, of wars and rumours of wars. And Death, our stern monitor, has enforced his solemn lessons with more than his wonted emphasis. His strict impartiality has rarely received more impressive illustrations than in the twelve months past. Here he has mowed down the obscure and unknown in countless multitudes at a single stroke: there he has lopped off one by one with fatal precision of aim the heads that towered above the rest. In his wholesale sacrifices he has shown his wonted indifference to circumstances and to means. He slew his thousands in battle here in Europe, and his tens of thousands by famine there in Asia. He plunged a whole cargo of human victims without a moment's notice in the midst of their holiday making, here at our very doors in a river grave; and within a few days he smothered another heavy freight of sufferers, surprised while plying their daily toil there in a distant colliery deep under ground, summoning earth and fire as his executioners in this case, as in the other he had impressed water to do his behest. And in singling out his conspicuous victims too he has dealt with an even hand. He began the year by striking down in rapid succession the two sovereigns who represented, as no other men could represent, not to their own country only, but to the whole civilised and thinking world, the two seemingly antagonistic principles whose reconciliation must be the great work of the coming age—the religious inheritance of the past, and the political aspirations of the future. At the beckoning of his stern hand the two rival potentates of the Vatican and the Quirinal, who for long years had dwelt apart, though inmates of the same city, each in his palace fortress—the one frowning on the other, stubborn and irreconcilable— were brought together in the silent, lowly chambers of the grave. And his year's work, which he thus inaugurated, he has carried out in the same impartial spirit. He has laid his grip on the crowned king, but he has not spared the discrowned king. He has summoned this royal lady in widowed age, and that other a bride of yesterday, and that other again a matron in her prime, the mother of a youthful family. This—the latest of his royal victims, the mourned of two great nations—he has reserved, as it were, to crown with a peculiar solemnity the warnings of the year at its close; for this latest loss appeals to the heart of our common humanity, recalling, as it does, not some intellectual movement or world-wide political aspiration, not any partial or narrow interest, but the silent, unobtrusive, homely duties of the woman, of the daughter, of the sister, of the wife, of the mother, of the nurse. And we too, it may be, in our own circles, in our own homes, have felt the chill presence of death. There is a vacant chair by our fireside; there is a vacant place in our hearts. If we are men, there is a painful memory of the past. If we are Christians, there is a joyful hope for the future. But the present is a blank void, a darkness only the more dark because it is visible, an aching pain which we bear as best we may. The wife, the parent, the child, the brother, the friend that was more than a brother, is gone. The ruthless reaper has put in the sickle. He has gathered in the ripe grain. 'The harvest'—the harvest of our affections—' is past; the summer'—our summer of life—' is ended. And we'— are we saved?
'What must I do to be saved?' This is no wornout, obsolete question. It is as real now, as it was eighteen centuries ago; as pertinent here in the heart of Christendom, as it was there amidst the surroundings of paganism; as vital to you and to me—to us baptized Christians—as it was to that poor, bewildered, terror-stricken, heathen gaoler in that far-off Roman colony.
But it matters much—it matters everything—in what sense we ask the question. What do we mean by this saying? From what evil do we desire to be rescued?
There are three distinct senses, in which this question may be asked.
First of all; we may ask it with reference to our temporal affairs. What shall I do to save myself from the impending ruin of my fortunes? To save myself from this threatened forfeiture of my good name? To save myself from the vengeance of the law, which my carelessness or my dishonesty is bringing upon me? To save myself from the social entanglements, which my profligacy and my selfishness have woven about me? To the question, so asked, the text furnishes no answer. Of salvation in this sense it has nothing to say.
Or secondly; we may ask it of our eternal welfare, and yet not ask it in the best way. Our motive may be sheer terror—nothing else. The dread hereafter absorbs our thoughts wholly. Of God's Fatherly love outraged and wounded, of the Temple of the Holy Spirit sullied and profaned, of Christ's transcendent sacrifice despised and set at nought—of these we reck nothing. But the worm that dieth not, the fire that is not quenched—this is the terrible apprehension, which haunts our dreams, and dogs our steps in our waking hours. In short, it is not the wrongdoing itself, but the punishment of the wrongdoing which troubles us. Salvation to us is not salvation from sin, but salvation from the consequences of sin.
Thirdly and lastly. Would we ask the question, as it should be asked? Would we ask it in such a way, that it will receive its full and effective answer? Then our petition will run thus. What must I do, that I may be delivered from this my sin? What must I do, that I may cleanse myself from this impurity, which sullies my soul? What must I do, that I may rid me of this untruthfulness, this dishonesty, this insincerity, which mars my life? What must I do, that I may expel this avarice, which cramps my heart? What must I do, that I may shake off this lethargy, which numbs my spirit? What must I do, that I may cast out this demon of worldliness, of self, which shuts out Thee and Thy presence, O God? For Thou, Lord, and Thou only, art salvation, Thou only art heaven, Thou only art eternal life.
And to the question so asked the answer is still the same to us, as it was to this heathen gaoler eighteen centuries ago; 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.' Believe on Him, S. P. S. 16
not as a traditional heirloom, not as a formal creed, not as a sentimental aspiration, but believe with that direct, personal, living faith, with that practical trust and confidence, which will draw you to Him, as the truest of friends, for advice, for consolation, for strength, for renewal, in all your sorrows and in all your trials.
And, above all, believe that He has power to save you from your sins. What were the terms of the angelic message, of which the season reminds us? 'Thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people'—not from the wrath to come, not from the fire that is not quenched, not from future retribution in any form (though this also He shall do), but first and chiefest—'from their sins.' Yes; it is this actual weight of sin, under which at this moment you are staggering, that He undertakes to remove. It is a present strength, a present cleansing, a present renewal, a present salvation, that He promises to you. This faith—the highest form of faith—will indeed remove mountains. 'I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.' 'Only believe,' and thou shalt be saved. 'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.'