By Mike Lii
It is one of the most iconic moments in Super Bowl history and probably the most famous example of an athlete celebrating his victory too early. In 1993, during Super Bowl XXVII, Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys scooped up a fumble by Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Frank Reich, then proceeded to run the football back for an apparent touchdown. About 10 yards from the goal line, Lett celebrated the impending touchdown by slowing down, trying to dance, and extending his arm with the football in his right hand.
Unbeknownst to Lett, the Bills’ wide receiver Don Beebe was in hot pursuit. Just before Lett reached the goal line for the touchdown, Beebe caught up and swatted the ball out of his hands. Instead of getting a touchdown and seven points for his team, Lett lost the ball because he celebrated too early.
There should be no doubt that when Lett began celebrating, he thought his touchdown was assured. He wouldn’t have begun celebrating had he thought there was a possibility of someone catching him from behind. Celebrations occur when a person believes victory is guaranteed. People don’t begin celebrating when they believe victory is in doubt.
It is sometimes argued that the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:25-34 didn’t know his salvation was eternally secure because the passage doesn’t explicitly state that salvation can never be lost. Proponents of this view say that the Philippian jailer didn’t have assurance of his eternal destiny.
However, let us examine Acts 16:25-34 to see if the Philippian jailer’s behavior makes sense if he doesn’t know that he is eternally secure. Paul and Silas have been unjustly imprisoned for their ministry in Philippi. While in prison, they continue to minister:
But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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 chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself (Acts 16:25-27).
What is the jailer’s state of mind at this time? He believes he has lost all the prisoners under his care. If this is true, he will be held responsible and be punished by his Roman superiors. Whatever the punishment may be, the jailer considers the pain inflicted by the Roman authorities to be worse than the pain he would suffer from killing himself with his own sword. Fortunately, the Apostle Paul intervenes: “But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do yourself no harm, for we are all here’” (Acts 16:28).
The jailer now has no reason to kill himself because Paul has reassured him that no prisoners have escaped. Although the jailer no longer fears torture and execution from the Roman authorities, he is still not at peace, having come within mere moments of dying: “Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” (Acts 16:29-30).
The consequences of death and one’s eternal destiny are on the jailer’s mind. After coming so close to death, he wants to know what will happen after he dies. In Paul and Silas’ prayers and hymns–which the Philippian jailer may have overheard before falling asleep–there would surely have been references to eternal life and one’s destiny after death. It’s quite natural that the jailer would ask the men, “What must I do to be saved?”
Their response is one of the most famous evangelistic verses in Scripture: “So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household’” (Acts 16:31). What is their answer to the question about one’s eternal destiny or the solution to death? “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”
Now, some say that because Paul’s and Silas’ response doesn’t specifically communicate eternal security by attaching eternal, everlasting or some similar qualifier to the word saved, the Philippian jailer must have been using saved in some unspecified sense that would not include salvation’s being eternal, everlasting, forever, guaranteed, and irrevocable. They argue that the jailer could have understood that his salvation was not eternal because he would have needed to persevere in good works to keep his salvation, and that failure to persevere in good works would result in his losing salvation.
Others will argue that the jailer knew he was saved for the time being but was ignorant–or had not even considered–whether he was saved forever with a salvation that was guaranteed, irrevocable, and could not be lost. If the jailer was asked whether he was “once saved always saved,” these will argue that he would have responded that he did not know. But does this understanding make sense, given the jailer’s subsequent behavior?
Then 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 stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household (Acts 16:32-34, emphasis added).
Consider these questions: Would the jailer have rejoiced if he thought his salvation still depended upon his persevering in good works, or if he believed his salvation could be lost if he failed to persevere? Would the jailer have rejoiced if he was ignorant or unsure of the fact that his salvation was forever, that it was guaranteed, and that it could never be lost? Human beings do not rejoice over uncertain victories or unknown gifts. The jailer must have understood and believed that the salvation he received was forever guaranteed, irrevocable, and eternally secure. Otherwise, there was no reason for him to rejoice.
Like Leon Lett and his touchdown celebration, the jailer began to celebrate and rejoice over his salvation. They both celebrated because they were certain of what they believed they would receive–for Lett, a touchdown, and for the jailer, a salvation that could never be lost. Neither had doubts about what they were going to receive, so they both began to rejoice and celebrate. Unfortunately, in Lett’s case, the celebration was premature because his belief in a certain touchdown proved erroneous.
Thankfully, in the jailer’s case and for all of us who have believed in Jesus for an irrevocable and eternally secure salvation, our rejoicing and celebrating are not premature and are not based on a falsehood. God’s Word promises only one kind of salvation–a salvation that can never be lost and that is eternally secure. A person who does not know or believe that his salvation is eternally secure does not believe what Paul and Silas told the jailer. That person is not believing what God means by saved in Acts 16:31.
Paul and Silas communicated to the jailer an eternally secure salvation. That is why the jailer rejoiced. We must give the answer Paul and Silas gave to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Salvation is guaranteed and eternally secure. Many will, like the jailer, rejoice when they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation.
Mike Lii is a finance attorney. He and his wife, Letitia, a member of the GES board, and their son, Payton, live in Dallas and serve at several Free Grace churches. Mike and Letitia also run the Zane Hodges Library online (zanehodges.org).