Evangelism: The Disciples Encounter Prison Ministries

Acts 16:16-40

Earthquake in the prisonEarthquake in the prison,
as depicted by Sir James Thornhill

Key text: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25).

Main point: The early disciples were ready to take the message of the gospel under any circumstances to anyone who might listen, from prison inmates to law enforcement officers, for the call of salvation is universal.


There are many reasons why people might find themselves in prison. In the case of the apostle Paul and Silas, who were visiting the Roman colony of Philippi, it is for the gospel’s sake that they find themselves fettered in stocks and held in a maximum security cell. But that is not the case for the other prisoners who were with them and to whom the apostles ministered.

Most Western judicial systems are founded in part on ancient Roman law. There were both petty and notorious criminals in those times, as there are now. Society deems lawbreakers as worthy of punishment for crimes committed against the state. Among them are thieves, muggers, drug dealers and drug users, as well as arsonists, embezzlers, murders, kidnappers, child abusers and so on. On the other side of the ledger, there are law enforcement officials in charge of protecting the citizens by upholding the letter of the law and administering appropriate punishment for violators.

No one is questioning that the state needs to protect its citizens and that crimes need to be dealt with in some manner. If you have ever been the victim of a burglary, robbery, hit-and-run accident, identity theft, or had shots ring out in your neighborhood, or worse, then you personally know the seriousness of the matter. Yet, it seems like our judicial system is too soft on crime and too often releases predators only to commit another crime. Many criminals get off on technicalities, such as for violations of their rights.

Our justice system sometimes seems to favor the rich, whose lawyers can often get a more reduced sentence for their clients. However, no one wants a police state with minimal personal rights, where profiling, rousting, beatings, planting false evidence and even torture are the norm of the day. If you have ever been stopped by mistake and taken for a criminal, then you know what police rousting is and how humiliating the experience can be.

The issues of crime and punishment in this imperfect world will be continually debated and scrutinized. However, one premise that is not debatable in a biblical worldview is that there exists a higher Authority than any human government, and that before God, we are all sinners! Paul and Silas knew this well, and preached to the prisoners inside, and the prisoners were not the only ones listening. The Philippian jailer was also attentive to all that Paul and Silas were saying. This law enforcement officer had put them in the maximum security cell and placed their feet in stocks that were designed to inflict torturous pain, yet they both were singing hymns to God. What a testimony!

In Philippi, Paul and Silas shared the gospel as the only true means to make be reconciled to a good relationship with God. Only through Christ’s shed blood is true forgiveness and reconciliation found. Christ died in our place, and rose from the dead and gives new life to all who come to him by faith alone. This is what salvation is all about. In Christ we are saved from the power of sin, the condemnation of the law, and the coming Day of Judgment. Through prison ministries, Paul and Silas reached the prison inmates, the jailer and even his whole family. Praise God!

Questions for Bible study

1. Acts 16:16-24

a. Where are Paul and his followers going? Verse 16a. (See verses 10-13 and locate these places on a Bible map). Whom do they meet on the way? Verse 16. Describe four things about this person.

b. What does the girl do? Verse 17. According to her divination, who are Paul and his followers (Silas, Timothy and Luke), and what is their purpose? The two theological terms used (God and salvation) were common to both Jews and Gentiles, but their meanings differed significantly. Paul’s meaning was more radical than old covenant or pagan ideas.

c. What is Paul’s reaction to the free advertisement? Verse 18. To whom did Paul speak, and in what name is the exorcism done? With what results?

d. What is the reaction of the slave owners, and why are they so upset? Verse 19. Note: In Roman times slaves were considered property. The owners were Roman citizens now denied of their financial rights by these traveling Jews.

e. What do the owners do next, and with what charges? Verses 20-21. In the Roman Empire many religions were approved, and among them was Judaism. But Christianity was not a recognized religion as yet and therefore considered illegal.

f. Who else joined in backing the slave owners? Verse 22. What happens to Paul and Silas next? Verse 21. Do you think this was according to Roman law or mob rule?

g. What happens to Paul and Silas, and who is introduced for the first time in this passage? Verse 23. What kind of a person do you think he is, and what special cell does he use? Verse 24. Note: Since Philippi was a Roman colony where old soldiers sought retirement, it is probable that the jailer was a retired Roman soldier and as such, he was accustomed to administering cruel punishment when ordered to do so.

2. Acts 16:25-34

a. What two things are Paul and Silas doing, and at what hour? Verse 25. Who is listening to the apostles? Why?

b. What catastrophic event follows, and with what results? Verses 26-27. Describe each effect in sequence.

c. Under Roman law the jailer’s life was forfeited in place of those who escaped. See 12:19. What does Paul shout out, and why? Verse 28. What is the jailer’s reaction to Paul’s clamor? Verse 29. Why?

d. What is the key question that the jailer asks, and why do you think he brings up the subject at this point? Verse 30.

e. What answer do Paul and Silas give him? Verse 31. How did the apostles follow up their unique message? Verse 32. How would you have explained it? State the central tenets of the gospel of salvation. See 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Who else received instruction that night?

f. What does the jailer do for Paul and Silas physically? Verse 33. What do they do for the jailer and his family as symbolic of their new faith?

g. What evidence is there that confirms the jailer accepted both the messengers and message? Verse 34.

3. Acts 16:35-40

a. What news do Paul and Silas receive in the morning? Verses 35-36.

b. What surprising response does Paul give the officers? Verse 37. Why do you think that Paul and Silas did not make an issue of this at the start?

c. What is the reaction of the magistrates to the officers’ report? Verse 38. As Roman citizens, Paul and Silas had their rights violated by being denied an inquiry to the charges made, and then beaten and disgraced in public without a trial.

d. How are the magistrates humbled by Paul’s request? Verse 39. What was foremost on the apostles’ minds before leaving? Verse 40. Why?

Contemporary interaction

1. Have you ever visited someone in jail? What does that person long for, and how can you best share the gospel with him or her?

2. Were you ever in prison in the past? Can you briefly share your experience with the class? How did you come to Christ?

3. Are you a police officer? Do you share the gospel with officers and prisoners?

4. What are the cautions in doing prison ministries? What are the benefits?


Paul and Silas were apostles of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2:2, 6) and dedicated to take the gospel of salvation to prisoners, law enforcement officers and to all within their reach. Prison ministries can reach even the unreachable!

Author: Lorenzo Arroyo


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