The jailer in the Macedonian city of Philippi had had a stressful day. First there was the noisy trial of a couple of religious activists who had calmed a spirit-possessed slave girl by invoking the unfamiliar name Jesus. Then the activists were dragged to the jail. “Guard these men carefully!” the authorities warned the jailer.
So, he’d hustled the two men into the maximum security ward and locked their ankles into stocks. Then he’d stayed awake for hours, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t bellow profanities all night and annoy other prisoners who were trying to sleep.
But instead, the two men, whose names were Paul and Silas, began to sing—not bawdy tavern ditties but soothing hymns about this Man “Jesus,” who seemed to have been both man and God. Between songs the two prisoners would pray aloud to Jesus’ Father, who was also God. And the rest of the prisoners listened in absolute silence.
The jailer stayed warily alert for a while. He had never gotten a good night’s sleep since he’d been hired at this job. That’s because the authorities held him responsible for the prisoners, and if one of them escaped, the jailer would be punished, maybe even executed. Now, listening to the songs and prayers—and sensing the calm of the other prisoners—he grew drowsy and fell asleep.
Then the earthquake hit.
This story is told in the sixteenth chapter of Acts, and it’s one of the book’s most dramatic stories. It also contains one of the Bible’s shortest yet clearest statements about what it really means to believe in Jesus. Here’s the rest of the story, quoting directly from Acts 16:
“Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’
“The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ ” (Acts 16:26–30).
Now watch carefully. Here’s the sentence that holds the keys to a full-fledged belief in Jesus as Savior: “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household’ ” (verse 31).
That’s it? Can salvation really be that simple? Yes, it can—but only if we slow down and look at this reassuring sentence word by word. Let’s take it from the top:
Believe. Believe is a powerful word in the New Testament. It’s the Greek word pisteuo, and almost every time it’s used, it means far more than “this is true.” Instead, it means “belief plus action.” For example, Acts 2:44, 45 says that the first Christians not only “believed” that Jesus was the Son of God but also gathered together and even sold their possessions and had everything in common. That’s belief in action!
In Acts 4:32, belief brought Christian unity. “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” And notice what happened: “A great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Believing and turning—that’s faith plus follow-through.
So when Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer to “believe,” they weren’t merely suggesting that he nod his head in agreement. They were also telling him that he needed to act on his beliefs.
Now let’s examine what Paul and Silas tell us belief in Jesus actually involves.
Believe in (on). The word some recent translations use is in. The Greek word is epi, and its basic meaning is “on” or “upon.” When the two apostles told the jailer to believe on Jesus, they meant more than simply believing that Jesus exists. Your epidermis is the top layer of your skin. An epitaph is something written on a monument or gravestone.
Believing on something is like putting all your weight on it. People who step cautiously out onto the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass-bottomed bridge projecting out over nothing, must believe on the fact that it can hold more than 800 people who each weigh 200 pounds.
So when the jailer heard that he must believe on Jesus, he understood that he could safely depend on the Savior for everything—including eternal life itself.
Believe on the Lord. In New Testament Greek, the word lord (kurios) can mean “master,” “owner,” or even “sir”—in other words, someone who deserves respect and often is in authority. Your master gets to tell you what to do, and you have to follow through and do it.
But kurios is used more than 600 times in the New Testament, and if anyone has the right to tell us what to do, it’s Jesus. In fact, in Luke 6:46 He asked His hearers, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
So when Paul and Silas told the jailer to believe on Jesus, they meant that he should believe on the One who has the right to tell him how to live his life. Bible-believing Christians understand that salvation isn’t simply stopping at a devotional drive-through for a quick bite of spiritual nourishment, and then going on with their lives as usual. Instead, salvation is turning around and going in Jesus’ direction with your whole life.
Believe on the Lord Jesus. The word Jesus means “Savior.” In Matthew 1:21, the angel Gabriel told Joseph about Mary’s upcoming pregnancy: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is more than a wise Teacher—He’s the One who died so that those who accept Him will have eternal life.
Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The word Christ is the Greek word for “Messiah.” Both words mean “the anointed one.” Becoming the Messiah wasn’t a last-minute, emergency decision on Jesus’ part. Many details about the Messiah’s arrival, ministry, and even death were predicted hundreds of years in advance. So, when I believe in Jesus as the Messiah, I am accepting the fact that all of heaven is lovingly interested in me.
Now back to the Philippian jailer’s story for a crucially important follow-up fact. Paul and Silas tell him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). Salvation is an individual matter, but some cultures even today accept Christ as a group. If Dad or Mom becomes a Christian, the children often follow their example.
And here’s the follow-up fact: Before Paul and Silas baptized this household, there was one thing they needed to do: “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (verse 32). They were simply following Jesus’ command. Just before He ascended to heaven, He told His followers, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20, emphasis added).
It makes sense that baptism follows careful instruction about who our Lord Jesus is and how He wants us to live our lives—instruction concerning the wonderful truths about how to really believe in Jesus!