Acts of the Apostles: Acts Chapter 16

The second missionary journey, continued (Acts 16)

Derbe and Lystra (16:1-2)

After his pastoral visit to the churches in Syria and Cilicia, Paul travels to the city of Derbe. His first trip to this and other cities in Galatia was discussed in 14:6-21. After his activities in Derbe are completed (Luke gives no details), Paul takes the northwest road to Lystra. Again, Luke says nothing about what Paul does in the city. Luke’s main interest here is to show how Timothy becomes Paul’s associate.

Apparently Lystra is Timothy’s hometown (20:4). He is already a member of the church, as the disciples in Lystra and Iconium speak well of him. Most likely Timothy was converted as a result of Paul’s preaching on his first missionary journey. Timothy’s mother and grandmother are also Christian believers (2 Timothy 1:5). His mother, Eunice, is Jewish and has instructed Timothy in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Timothy will become the most important of Paul’s associates in his mission to the Gentiles. Luke mentions his role several times in Acts (17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4). Paul refers to Timothy as a “co-worker” (Romans 16:21). Two New Testament letters are addressed to Timothy personally. In several, he is listed as an author alongside of Paul.

Paul has a special affection for Timothy, calling him “my son whom I love” (1 Corinthians 4:17). In Paul’s mind, there is no individual quite like Timothy, whose thinking is so much like his own (Philippians 2:19-20). Timothy remains a close confidant and friend up to Paul’s death. Paul even sees him as a successor who will continue his work. He is used on a number of occasions to help with Paul’s pastoral and gospel-preaching responsibilities (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10; Philippians 2:19; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6; 1 Timothy 1:3).

At some point, Timothy is ordained to the ministry. Perhaps it is at this time in Lystra. Paul says that Timothy was given a special divine ability, and the knowledge of it came as a result of divine revelation (1 Timothy 1:18). “Do not neglect your gift,” Paul admonishes him, “which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).

His father is Greek (16:1)

Because Paul wants to add Timothy to his missionary team, he is faced with a public relations problem. Luke tells us that while Timothy’s mother was Jewish, his father was Greek, probably pagan, and perhaps now deceased. Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage. Jews will not look kindly on such a situation, because it dilutes Jewish identity (Nehemiah 13:23-27; Ezra 9:1-10).

The father, who had authority over the household, did not allow Timothy to be circumcised – but he did allow her to instruct the boy in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jews know that Timothy is not circumcised. But since his mother is Jewish, Timothy is also considered a Jew. But because he is uncircumcised, he is considered an apostate Jew.

This presents Paul with a dilemma. Circumcision is of no value in salvation (1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6). In one of his most angry moments, he tells Gentiles, “If you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2). In his more diplomatic times, he allows that “circumcision has value if you observe the law,” but he quickly notes that the real circumcision is “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:25, 29).

Timothy is circumcised (16:3)

Paul decides that in the case of Timothy, circumcision will be helpful, so he has Timothy circumcised before taking him on the journey (16:3). Paul will be preaching in synagogues, with Timothy as his helper. But Jews will not look favorably at someone regarded as an apostate sitting in their midst. Timothy is not circumcised as a condition of salvation or discipleship. It is simply a way to assure his acceptance among those Jews with whom he and Paul will work (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

“It was Timothy’s mixed parentage that made Paul decide to circumcise him before taking him along as his junior colleague. By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of a Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy.” (Bruce, 304).

Since Paul has Timothy circumcised, who technically is only a half-Jew, this takes the wind out of a later criticism that he is teaching Jews not to circumcise their children (21:21). Luke tells his readers ahead of time that such an accusation is without foundation. By circumcising Timothy, Paul is showing that he is not flouting Jewish customs nor trying to destroy Judaism. (He does the same thing by his own observance of Jewish laws.)

Deliver the decrees (16:4)

Timothy now joins Paul and Silas, and the team travels “from town to town” (16:4). Presumably, Luke is referring to villages in southern Galatia. At each church they visit, they read the letter from the Jerusalem church (16:4). In an interesting juxtaposition, in two consecutive verses, Luke shows Paul circumcising a half-Gentile and then delivering decrees saying that Gentiles do not have to be circumcised. This shows that Paul has Timothy circumcised only for expedience, and that it doesn’t conflict with the essence of the gospel.

Regarding the Jerusalem decrees, Paul never refers to them in his letters, even when dealing with practices they touch on. We may see this as odd, but it reveals his position regarding the real source of his teaching. He is in harmony with the council’s judgment, and so he reads the letter from Jerusalem containing the decrees James laid out. But Paul’s gospel depends on direct revelation from Christ, not on what Jerusalem approves. Hence, in his letters, he does not need to rely on the document for his authority.

Churches grow daily (16:5)

Paul and his team travel throughout Syria, Cilicia and Galatia (15:41; 16:4). They take stock of the churches that were raised up on the first missionary journey. Paul strengthens the believers’ convictions, organizes them where necessary, and instructs them in the basics of the faith. Luke can now conclude with another summary statement of the progress of the messianic community: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (16:5).

This is the fourth of Luke’s brief and general reports on the progress of the church (6:7; 9:31; 12:24). Besides these more sweeping progress reports, Luke also gives more specific updates regarding the church. Commentators have identified the following ones up to this point: Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 8:25, 40; 9:31; 11:24-25; 12:24; 14:21-23.

Prevented by the Holy Spirit (16:6)

Luke doesn’t say what plans Paul had for after the missionaries completed their pastoral work in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia. He gives a generalized summary of their subsequent movements: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia” (16:6).

The precise meaning of the phrase “Phrygia and Galatia” is unclear. There is a similar reference to “the region of Galatia and Phrygia” in 18:23. On that occasion Paul is traveling west, toward Ephesus (19:1). It is difficult to determine the exact boundaries of Phrygia, and its relationship to Galatia. Strabo has an extensive discussion of this region (Geography 12, 7, 1-5).

One reason for the vagueness is that the Roman provincial boundaries were superimposed on older ethnic regions. (We see a similar situation today where African national-political boundaries created by European powers cut across tribal lands.) Phrygia apparently lay partly in the province of Galatia and partly in the province of Asia. Pisidian Antioch and Iconium — two cities Paul visited — might have been in Phyrgia.

From Luke’s description, it appears the apostle Paul has been moving steadily westward, probably along the road known as Via Sebaste. The cities of Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch are all connected to this important highway. Perhaps Paul intends to follow this road to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, which stretches across the west coast of Asia Minor.

However, some dramatic occurrence interferes with his plans. Luke says the missionary team is “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (16:6). Luke doesn’t explain what the Spirit uses to keep Paul out of the province. Whatever the circumstance, Luke recognizes that it occurs under God’s direction. He takes every opportunity to show God’s involvement in the spread of the gospel, and this is another situation he uses to make clear that Paul’s work is directed by God to achieve his own purposes.

Paul’s missionary journeys display an extraordinary combination of strategic planning and keen sensitiveness to the guidance of the Spirit of God, however that guidance was conveyed — by prophetic utterance, inward prompting, or the overruling of external circumstances. (Bruce, 306)

In this case, God causes events to occur in such a way as to prevent Paul from entering the province of Asia. Perhaps political factors, weather or bandit activity are factors. Whatever it is, Paul’s original intent to travel to Ephesus is thwarted. To get around Asia, Paul and his associates travel north through the Phrygian part of the province of Galatia.

On to Bithynia (16:7)

Paul and his party kept on traveling north. “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia” (16:7-8). Paul is somewhere around the city of Dorylaeum, north of Pisidian Antioch. From Dorylaeum the missionaries could travel to such Bithynian cities as Nicaea and Nicomedia. It is natural for Paul to think that if the large province of Asia is not open to evangelism, then perhaps they should go northwest to the province of Bithynia. It is along the Black Sea coast of northwest Asia Minor, and has a number of civilized Greek cities as well as Jewish settlements.

Later, Peter writes to Christian communities in Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1). Yet later, Pliny the Younger, the province’s governor under Trajan in A.D. 110-12, complained about the many Christians in the area (Letter 10:96-97).

But Paul is also prevented from doing missionary work in Bithynia. Luke writes that “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” (16:7). This is the only time that the expression “Spirit of Jesus” occurs in Acts. Luke may be trying to tell his readers that Jesus continues to take an active role in directing the preaching of the gospel. Jesus has already made his appearance in Acts as one who mandates the apostles’ work of preaching the gospel (1:3; 7:56; 9:5). The Holy Spirit is called by his own name, or is referred to as “the Spirit of God” (Matthew 10:20), “the Spirit of Christ,” or “the Spirit of Jesus” (Romans 8:9; Galatians 4:6; Philippians 1:19; 1 Peter 1:11). But there is only one Holy Spirit, of course.

God has again intervened in the plans of the missionaries. He is directing Paul and his associates to a historic new phase of the work. But for the moment, they are unaware of what is happening to them.

Stopping at Troas (16:8)

If they can’t preach in Asia, nor in Bithynia, the missionaries can at least get to the coast of Asia Minor — and then decide what to do. Luke tells us “they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas” (16:8). (They had to go through Mysia in order to reach coastal Troas.) Mysia is a somewhat indefinite region in the northwest corner of Asia Minor. It is the land that abuts into the Aegean Sea, and its northern border is the Dardanelles (the Hellespont) (Strabo, Geography 12, 4, 5). Mysia includes the historic seaport of Troas, and the site of ancient Troy, about ten miles inland.

Troas is an important port, connecting the land masses of Europe (Macedonia) and Asia Minor as well being near the passageway between the Aegean and Black Seas. It is a regular port of call for trading vessels plying these waters, and it is an important hub for the Roman communication system.

What Paul does not yet realize is that God has boxed him in. He is in a coastal city with nowhere to go except west across the Aegean Sea to Macedonian Europe.

Man of Macedonia (16:9-10)

It is at Troas that the apostle Paul has a strange vision. During the night he sees the figure “of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (16:9). (Luke doesn’t explain how Paul knows the person he sees in his vision is from Macedonia.)

This is a pivotal event, for Paul now understands that he is being given a divine call to evangelize Macedonia. This province lies west, across the Aegean Sea from Troas, which makes this seaport the ideal place jumping-off point for the mission. A short boat ride across the Aegean will bring Paul to Philippi, a chief port of Macedonia.

“We got ready” (16:10)

It is at Troas that the first of the “we” sections of Acts appears (16:10-17). Luke writes: “After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (16:10). For the next several verses Luke unobtrusively inserts himself as the fourth member of the missionary team, including Paul, Silas and Timothy. This first “we” section ends in Philippi (16:17).

The next “we” section begins when Paul revisits Philippi after the third journey (20:5-15). (The other “we” sections are in 21:1-18 and 27:1-28:16.) It’s reasonable to conclude, then, that Luke stays at Philippi after Paul, Silas and Timothy make their way across Macedonia, and then go south into Achaia. Perhaps Luke is left there to build and organize the church.

The gospel in Macedonia
Acts 16:11-17:15

Sailing to Neapolis (16:11)

The missionary foursome (Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke) sail from Troas for the Macedonian port of Neapolis (the port city of Philippi), passing by the island of Samothrace. Like many other captains, the captain anchors his vessel overnight at the island’s port. The entire crossing of 125 to 150 miles usually takes two days. However, the ship Paul is on for his later return trip from Neapolis to Troas encounters rough seas and contrary winds. Because of this, it takes the missionary company five days to cross the Aegean on that occasion (20:5).

Philippi, a chief colony (16:12)

Neapolis (the modern Kavalla) is the port city; Philippi itself lies 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland on the Via Egnatia. This important highway runs east to Byzantium and west across the Balkan peninsula to Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic coast. Travellers reaching Dyrrhachium can then cross the Adriatic to Brundisium, on the Italian mainland. Here they can connect with another important highway, the Appian Way, which leads to Rome. Perhaps the thought crosses Paul’s mind that he might preach in cities along the Via Egnatia and eventually make his way to Rome.

There’s no indication that Paul preached at Neapolis. Luke hurries the missionaries to Philippi, which is a “Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia” (16:12).

“The Greek of this verse is confused, but the reading adopted by the Good News Bible probably represents what Luke intended, namely, that Philippi was ‘a city of the first district of Macedonia.’ It was certainly not ‘the leading city of the district of Macedonia’ (RSV) nor even of this particular subdivision (NIV). That distinction belonged to Amphipolis, and Thessalonica was the capital of the whole province.” (David J. Williams, Acts, New International Biblical Commentary, pages 280-281).

Philippi had become part of the Roman Empire in 167 B.C. After the second civil war in 42 B.C., when Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus) defeated Brutus and Cassius (assassins of Julius Caesar), many Roman army veterans were settled at Philippi, and the city became a Roman colony.

Colonies are governed by the emperor, rather than provincial officials. Roman colonies uses Roman law and have constitutions modeled on the city of Rome.

Apart from the deployment of army units throughout the Empire, the Romans strengthened their hold on the provinces by the creation of “colonies.” These were towns, strategically selected, whose inhabitants were given the rights of Roman citizenship, lived under Roman law and were governed by a Roman type of constitution; they were often used as settlements for retired soldiers of the Roman army, and thus were tantamount to garrison towns. Although these colonies presented the normal architectural features of Greek civilization…they were veritable “little Italies” transplanted overseas, with the Latin ethos and language much in evidence. (E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973], 181)

Philippi is the only city Luke names as a colony, though other cities appearing in Acts are also Roman colonies: Antioch of Pisidia (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Lystra (14:6), Troas (16:8) and Corinth (18:1). Philippi is an especially important center for Paul’s European mission. The Philippian church generously supports him financially in his work (Philippians 4:15-18; 2 Corinthians 11:9). The church there has a “partnership in the gospel from the first day” (Philippians 1:5).

On the Sabbath (16:13)

Luke begins his account of the events in Philippi with the conversion of a woman named Lydia. Paul meets Lydia on the Sabbath day when he and the other missionaries go “outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” (16:13). Luke is still signaling his presence by using the pronoun “we” (16:13, 16). The river, called the Gangites, is about a mile and a half west of the city.

Paul usually goes to a local synagogue on the Sabbath, where he can preach the gospel when he is asked to speak. But in Philippi, he goes to a river, suggesting that the city does not have a synagogue, probably because it does not have many resident Jews. Jewish law requires that at least ten male heads of households should be available for regular attendance before a synagogue is formed (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1.6). If the minimum of ten cannot be met, a place of prayer is selected for an informal Sabbath gathering in some peaceful setting, either in a building or outdoors. Those present recite the Shema, pray, read from the prophets, and discuss their readings.

If that is the situation Paul encounters at the “place of prayer” near Philippi, then possibly only women are present (16:13). As a traveling Jewish teacher, Paul is allowed to speak some words of wisdom, offer some exhortation, and deliver a blessing. This is exactly what he does (16:13).

A woman named Lydia (16:14)

One of the women listening to Paul is Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth” who was “from the city of Thyatira” (16:4). Thyatira is in the ancient kingdom of Lydia, which in Paul’s day is part of the province of Asia (Pliny, Natural History 5.10). Thyatira is renowned for its purple clothing dyes.

Some commentators suggest that since Thyatira is considered to be in the region of Lydia, Luke was speaking of the woman’s place of origin, not her real name. Some scholars propose that the real name of the “Lydian lady” is either Euodia or Syntyche of the Philippian church (Philippians 4:2). This is only a guess. We shall continue to call her “Lydia.”

Lydia may be the local representative or retailer for a guild in Thyatira, selling its wares in Macedonia. Purple dye and cloth was a luxury trade (Luke 16:19) and we can assume that Lydia is rather well-to-do. She is apparently either a single woman or widow. The fact that she owns her own home and can provide hospitality to the traveling missionaries underscores the point that she is a woman of means (16:15).

Luke calls Lydia a “worshiper of God” (16:14). Commentators suggest that the term is indefinite — she may be a pious Jew or a Gentile who worships the God of Israel as a proselyte or God-fearer.

Luke centers on Lydia as a person who is especially influenced by the gospel message. Since Luke writes some years later, perhaps Lydia is still influential in the church. Luke also identifies women as being prominent among the believers in the next three cities in which Paul preaches — Thessalonica (17:4), Berea (17:12) and Athens (17:34). (In the secular world, too, women have a more prominent role in Macedonia than in many other provinces.)

Opened her heart (16:14-15)

Luke says of Lydia that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (16:14). Luke speaks of such “openings” elsewhere in his Gospel. The disciples’ eyes (24:33), their understanding of Scripture (24:32), and their minds (24:45) are opened by Jesus after the resurrection. Luke sees conversion as God’s action on human beings, opening their understanding to the message of salvation. In this he follows Paul, who says that people cannot believe the gospel because Satan darkens their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). Their hearts have to be opened miraculously by the enlightening Spirit of God.

Lydia’s baptism seems to take place rather quickly after she responds to the message (16:15). But this is not unusual in Acts. She and her household (family, dependents and servants) become the first converts in Europe, so far as we know. After being baptized, Lydia invites the missionaries to stay at her house, which they do. She puts her Christianity to work, inviting the “strangers” to share in her goods (cf. Matthew 25:35).

Demon-possessed slave girl (16:16-18)

Lydia now disappears from Luke’s account, and the rest of the narrative dealing with Philippi centers around Paul’s imprisonment. The crisis begins when the missionaries are going to the place of prayer again. They encounter “a female slave who had a spirit” (16:16). The Greek here is pneuma pythona, or a “Pythian spirit.” Luke is describing demon possession in the common parlance.

The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo, Geography 9.3.12). Later the word pythoncame to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke — even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly. (Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 [ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981], page 462)

The demon-possessed girl keeps bothering Paul and his group “for many days” (16:18). The demon inside the girl kept shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (16:17). The demonic spirit knows that the presence and power of God is with the missionaries. The demon’s shouting is probably done in mockery, and is intended to disrupt, not enhance, the preaching of the gospel. Luke has already told us about a similar situation Jesus encountered, where a demon keeps on shouting that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34). Jesus encountered a similar situation on several occasions (Luke 4:41; 8:28; Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7).

Paul finally becomes “so annoyed” that he does what Jesus did on numerous occasions — he commands the demon to leave. Paul does it in Jesus’ name, and “at that moment the spirit left her” (16:18).

As in Peter’s confrontation with Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-110, or with Simon Magus (8:17-24), and Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus/Elymas (13:6-11), we find the Prophet doing battle with demonic forces and besting them, establishing in still another turf-war a further territorial gain for the “kingdom of God” being proclaimed by the apostles, and enacted by their power to heal and exorcise. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, volume 5 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992], 297)

Profit also left (16:19)

When Paul casts out the demon, he creates a confrontation between himself and those who have a financial stake in the demon-possessed girl. She has “earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling” (16:16). Luke has already recounted several incidents where people were interested in financial gain. The actions of Judas (1:16-21), Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) and Simon Magus (8:18-24) are all examples of greed being exposed by the truth of the gospel.

Now, in Philippi, God’s power used on behalf of the gospel has ruined a business making money from the superstitions of the ignorant. When Paul casts the demon out from the girl, she can no longer tell fortunes, and a business is wiped out. In exorcising the demon, Paul has also cast out the slave owners’ means of income. Luke points this out in a literary way by using the same Greek verb for both the “leaving” of the demon and the slave owners’ profit-making business.

Before the magistrates (16:19-20)

The owners do not take kindly to the closing down of their enterprise. They grab Paul and Silas and drag them before the local magistrates (16:19). Why are only Paul and Silas the targets of persecution? Paul is responsible for casting out the demon, and Silas is another leader of the missionary group. They are both Jews, and perhaps this makes them convenient scapegoats. (Timothy is half Gentile and Luke may be completely Gentile, and this may save them from trouble.)

This is only one of two occasions in which Luke reports Gentiles persecuting Christian missionaries. The other occurs in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). Both episodes come about because the power of the gospel threatens the vested economic interests of the persecutors. Here the owners of the slave girl drag the two missionaries before the town council and demand that the magistrates prosecute Paul and Silas (16:20-21).

“Magistrates” is the first of three different civic officials Luke mentions in this chapter. Since Philippi is a Roman colony, its government is carried on independently of the provincial administration, which is in Thessalonica. Like other colonies, Philippi’s governing administration is in the hands of two chief magistrates called duumvirs, but they prefer the honorary title of praetors. The Greek equivalent would be strategoi, and that is the word Luke uses for them.

The second group of officials that Luke mentions are the “policemen” or “officers” (Greek, rhabdouchoi) of the city who serve under the magistrates (16:35). These individuals carry out the instructions of the magistrates in such law-and-order matters as flogging criminals and administering capital punishment.

The third official mentioned in this chapter is the jailer (16:23). Jailers are often retired army veterans, and their military skills are helpful in controlling inmates and preventing prison escapes.

Unlawful customs (16:20-21)

The angry owners of the slave girl frame their accusation against Paul and Silas in political terms: “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (16:20-21). The accusers begin by appealing to anti-Semitic prejudice. Emperor Claudius had recently issued an edict expelling Jews from Rome because of the civil unrest they caused, which we shall consider later (18:2). No doubt, rumors and official notices of these disturbances reach the patriotic Roman colonies. The officials are therefore somewhat predisposed to think that Jews are troublemakers.

The specific charges the slave owners bring against Paul and Silas are made of two related parts. As plaintiffs sometimes do, they hide their real grievance, which was financial. They claim that Paul and Silas are causing a public disturbance — “throwing our city into an uproar.” This would be a timely “scare tactic” to frighten local officials who know about the problems Jews had recently caused in Rome.

Secondly, the plaintiffs claim that Paul and Silas — those vagabond Jews — are promoting illegal customs. Thus, they deftly counterpoise anti-Semitism with the town’s pride in being “Roman.” Paul and Silas are charged with disturbing the Pax Romana and advocating an illegal religion. Ironically, Paul will soon be accused of a similar charge, but this time by Jews (17:6-7).

Flogged and jailed (16:22-24)

The magistrates order Paul and Silas to be beaten with rods and thrown into the local jail (16:23). The jailer is ordered to “guard them carefully.” He places the two missionaries “in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks” (16:23-24). Luke carefully notes these details about their imprisonment — that they are locked in the stocks of an inner cell that was carefully guarded. He wants to prepare his readers for a miraculous event that will occur shortly.

This is not the only time Paul is beaten, and as Acts tells us, Paul is in prison several times. Paul later looks back on his many sufferings, including those at Philippi. He says his trials included being “in prison more frequently” and having been beaten with rods on three occasions (2 Corinthians 11:23, 25).

Here, at Philippi, Paul endures both a beating and imprisonment. It is something he doesn’t forget, and he refers to the bad experience as having “suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Escape from prison (16:25-29)

Luke now turns to describe the miraculous occurrences that happened while Paul and Silas are in prison, and the consequences that follow. He picks up the account with the imprisoned Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns at midnight (16:25). Luke doesn’t say what the two missionaries were praying about. However, since they are singing, we can assume they are expressing joy. Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus’ disciples are people who turn to prayer in times of crisis (1:14; 2:42, 47; 4:23-31; 6:4; 7:60; 9:11; 10:2, 9; 12:12; 13:2-3). Paul and Silas are like Peter and John, who after being beaten, rejoice “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:41).

Around midnight, God intervenes by shaking the prison by means of an earthquake. The prison doors fly open, the prisoners’ chains are opened, and the jailer is awakened. To his horror, he sees the prison doors standing open. Thinking the prisoners have escaped, he is about to commit suicide. (In Roman law, a guard who allows his prisoner to escape can suffer the same penalty as the prisoner would have suffered.) At this point, Luke’s readers may be concerned that the jailer will face dire consequences. Luke has already told us that when Peter escaped from prison, Herod “cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed” (12:19).

On this occasion, however, none of the prisoners escape. Paul and Silas are still in the jail. When Paul perceives that the jailer is about to kill himself, Paul shouts, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” (16:28).

One might wonder why the other prisoners, whose chains have fallen off, don’t escape through the open doors. Perhaps they are paralyzed with fear by the supernatural power that seems to be with Paul and Silas. The prisoners have been listening to the two missionaries singing to their God, and may assume that the earthquake is an answer to their prayers. But that part of the story is not pertinent to Luke’s account, and he simply doesn’t give us the details.

“What must I do to be saved?” (16:30-32)

More important, from Luke’s perspective, is that the jailer rushes into the cell and falls down before Paul and Silas, in great fear. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he cries out (16:30).

It’s not clear what the jailer’s understanding of “being saved” is. He wants to be rescued from something, but from what? Does he fear some kind of retribution from these two “magicians”? (The jailer has probably heard about the exorcism of the demon from the slave girl.) Perhaps he heard something of the gospel being preached in town. Aspects of the message of salvation may have been conveyed to the jailer in the prayers and songs of the imprisoned missionaries.

In any case, he is soon educated as to what it means to be saved. Paul answers the jailer’s question by saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household” (16:31). Of course, there is more to being saved than simply uttering the words, “I believe in Jesus.” Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” is a summary confession of the Christian faith. “Believing on the Lord” is Luke’s shorthand statement for the faith as a whole. He has already used it several times (5:14; 9:42; 11:17).

Paul summarizes the gospel to the church in Rome in the same way: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This confessional summary implies that human works do not earn salvation. Since salvation comes through Jesus Christ (4:12), one must believe in him as Savior in order to experience him as salvation.

But faith in Jesus needs to be explained. Paul does this for the jailer and his family. The two missionaries speak “the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (16:32). No doubt they explain the gospel of salvation in terms the jailer and his household can understand. They also probably discuss something of what it means to have a new life in Christ. Further instruction will come later within a church of believers organized in Philippi.

Family baptized (16:33-34)

The jailer takes Paul and Silas into his quarters and washes their wounds. Then, he and his family are baptized — as in the case of Cornelius. The jailer is then “filled with joy because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole household” (16:34). Since Luke is speaking from hindsight — and perhaps he even served as pastor for these people — he knows that their conversion is real.

The gift offered to the jailer is also offered to his whole household. The New Testament takes the unity of the family seriously, and when salvation is offered to the head of the household, it is as a matter of course made available to the rest of the family group (including dependents and servants) as well (cf. 16:15). It is, however, offered to them on the same terms: they too have to hear the Word (16:31), believe and be baptized; the jailer’s own faith does not cover them. (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980], 273)

Luke describes the conversion of the jailer in terms of believing in God. As a pagan Gentile, the jailer would be taught about the one true God. Paul has already told him that a person has to believe in Jesus to be saved. To believe in the one true God is to believe in Christ; to believe in Christ is to believe in God. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me” (John 12:44).

Luke, in passing, gives two practical examples of the jailer’s new-found faith. He tends the prisoners’ wounds and brings them into his own house and feeds them. It’s doubtful that an army veteran would have shown compassion to prisoners in his prior life. We should also note that Paul has no hesitation at eating with Gentiles, something that would be impossible for a devout Jew to do.

“We are Romans” (16:35-38)

After the meal, Paul and Silas voluntarily return to their prison cell. The next morning the magistrates send the police officers to the prison with instructions to release the two missionaries. Paul and Silas have paid the penalty for their suspected disturbance of the peace by being beaten and imprisoned overnight. Now they can be freed, and perhaps commanded to leave town.

But Paul surprises the officers by saying, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (16:37).

When the magistrates learn that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, they are alarmed (16:38). They come to the prison, escort the missionaries outside, and plead with them to leave the city peacefully. If any officials appreciate the value of Roman citizenship, it would be the magistrates of a Roman colony. The Valerian and Porcian laws, issued in bygone days, said a citizen could travel anywhere within Roman territory under the protection of Rome. It is illegal to punish or imprison a Roman citizen who appeals for a trial at Rome, rather than under local authorities.

By the time of this incident at Philippi, A.N. Sherwin-White points out, the original laws regarding the rights of the arrested had been modified. A Roman citizen might under some circumstances be chained or beaten at the orders of a Roman magistrate (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 73). However, under no circumstances can any punishment be given without a trial. This is the issue Paul brings up. He and Silas were beaten and imprisoned without first being tried (16:37).

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

We have little evidence of how this exercise of the rights of a citizen is normally made. Neither are we certain how an individual can support his claim of Roman citizenship on the spot. In the case of Paul, he is probably registered as a citizen in the provincial records of Tarsus, and a copy of the registration can be obtained, but that could take months. And we have no evidence that Paul is carrying such a document with him.

Much of our information on a Roman citizen’s rights regarding trial and appeal actually comes from the book of Acts itself. These matters are touched on in the following verses: 16:37-39; 22:25-29; 25:9-12; 26:32; 27:1; 28:16.

One might wonder why Paul and Silas don’t appeal to their Roman citizenship before they are beaten and imprisoned. Perhaps they do, but in the heat of the moment no one pays any attention to them. Cicero cites a case in which a prisoner is beaten even as he shouts that he is a Roman citizen (In Verrem 5.62). At a later time in Jerusalem, Paul will claim his citizenship rights before being beaten (22:25). But in that case he is about to be scourged, which is a more deadly form of beating than that administered by the officers’ rods.

Paul insists on a public apology from the magistrates of Philippi. It serves notice that the missionaries had been wrongly disgraced, which is not so important for Paul, but very helpful for the believers who remain in the city. They will not stand for any arbitrary bad treatment — either here or elsewhere in the empire.

“Leave the city” (16:39-40)

Paul and Silas do not leave the city immediately, even though they were requested to. This, too, makes a point with the authorities. Yes, Paul will leave, but he will not scurry out of town in fear as though he had been guilty of a crime. The missionaries return to Lydia’s home. There they meet with the believers and encourage them. After this, they leave with Timothy and travel westward toward Thessalonica. Luke may stay in Philippi. This is indicated by the fact that the “we” section ends. It does not begin again until Luke and the other missionaries sail from Philippi several years later (20:5).

During the interim, Luke may be the pastor for the small church in Philippi, which perhaps meets at Lydia’s house. The congregation presumably begins to grow in size, organization and faith. Paul later writes the church a letter, commending it for its continuing concern for him (Philippians 2:25-30; 4:10-19).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


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