Yet Another Helper

Acts 16:1-3

In Derbe, the last city Paul reached in his earlier missionary journey, he had "taught many" (Acts 14:21), the implication being that many had received the gospel. From Derbe he retraced the steps of his first journey in reverse order, going next to Lystra, where he found an outstanding young man by the name of Timothy. The brethren not only in Lystra but also in the neighboring city of Iconium held Timothy in high regard. It is evident that he had already taken a prominent place in the work of the church. Perhaps one factor contributing to strong faith in this young man was that he had stood among the witnesses when Paul, after being stoned and left for dead, rose again to his feet.

In the opinion of all who knew Timothy, he was ready for larger responsibility. Paul therefore decided to take him along as another helper in his missionary work.

Yet there was one serious question about Timothy's suitability as a helper. Although his mother was a Jewish Christian, his father was a Greek pagan. The writer, Luke, does not actually say that his father was an unbeliever, but his pointed reference to his mother as a believer leaves no doubt that his father was not. In his Second Epistle to Timothy, Paul says that Timothy's faith had resided first in his grandmother Lois and then in his mother Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5), but he makes no mention of his father.

Getting Practical

Good mothering in the absence of good fathering

Christian women with unsaved husbands have a hard task as they seek to rear their children for Christ. Ordinarily in matters of religion, as the father goes, so go the children, especially the boys. But the grace of God can accomplish what is humanly impossible. For encouragement, a Christian mother with an unsaved husband can look to the success of Timothy's mother. Timothy not only escaped the ruinous example of his father, but he rose to leadership in the church. He was perhaps the most outstanding young man of his generation. How did Eunice overcome the obstacles to giving her son the right training? Scripture tells us two of her tactics.

  1. She enlisted the help of other godly people, particularly the help of her own mother, Lois.
  2. Together they bathed Timothy in the Word of God from the time he was an infant (2 Tim. 3:15).

The hindrance to using Timothy in evangelistic work was not, however, his lack of a godly father. Rather, everyone knew that despite being a Jew on the maternal side of his family, he was not circumcised. Paul realized that if he ushered a man like Timothy into the ministry, some other Jews would raise a clamor.

Pondering a Question

Why would they have objected so strenuously to the use of Timothy?

Everyone knew that Paul did not require circumcision of converted gentiles. In every city that he visited, Paul read the decrees of the Jerusalem Council exempting these converts from circumcision (Acts 16:4). So, why did the use of Timothy risk more opposition than Paul already invited by announcing and supporting these decrees?

The issue in Timothy's case was not whether a converted gentile should be circumcised. The issue, rather, was whether a man with a Jewish mother should renounce his Jewishness and adopt the ways of the gentiles. Many Jews both inside and outside the church felt that for a man like Timothy to remain uncircumcised was an insult to his Jewish heritage.

To silence any possible objections to Timothy's presence on the missionary team, Paul took and circumcised him. Timothy's willingness to accept hardship for the sake of serving God was therefore put to a demanding test right at the outset of his ministry. His willingness to suffer pain in order to fend off destructive criticism is a fine illustration of a principle Paul later taught the Corinthians: "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22).

Helping New Churches

Acts 16:4-5

Now with Timothy as their helper, Paul and Silas continued their work of strengthening churches already established. Everywhere they went, they not only fortified believers with good teaching, but also enabled them to continue growing. No doubt both in their teaching and practice they emphasized soulwinning—in their practice by laboring themselves at evangelism, and in their teaching by encouraging all other believers to be witnesses also. The result was that the churches added new people daily.

Getting Practical

Church growth as a priority

Think how churches today would come out of their doldrums and begin prospering if they refused to be content with anything less than constant growth!

On a Path to Europe

Acts 16:6-12

After Lystra, the missionary team ventured onward until they had gone "throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia."

Delving Deeper

Exact route

Scholars have expended much ink in debating what Luke means by the words just quoted. Is he referring to one region or two? In other words, is he telling us that the apostles toured the portion of Phrygia visited on Paul's first missionary journey—the portion that lay within the province of Galatia rather than within the province of Asia? Or is he telling us that besides touring part or all of Phrygia, the apostles went throughout the remainder of Galatia, a large territory north of Phrygian cities evangelized in the past. As we have observed before, the population and language of north Galatia was mainly Celtic.1 For two principal reasons, most scholars today agree that the terms "Phrygia" and "Galatia" refer to the same region.2

  1. Both "Phrygia" and "Galatia" are adjectives modifying "region," a strong clue that only one region is in Luke's mind.3
  2. A digression into Celtic territory would have been a striking departure from Paul's normal missions strategy. Yes, he attached great importance to revisiting and strengthening churches already established, but when he wished to advance the gospel to unreached peoples, he gave priority to major centers of Greco-Roman civilization. He knew that through the efforts of new local churches in these centers, witness would fan out to the surrounding territory. As a next target for Paul, north Galatia would have been a strange choice, since it would have required a turn toward a cultural fringe rather than toward a cultural center.

The next cities the team must have visited to fulfill Paul's objective of revisiting all places of earlier ministry (Acts 15:36) were Iconium and Pisidian Antioch. Then, having completed phase one of this missionary journey—the consolidation of earlier victories in the war for souls— Paul was ready for phase two. Where to preach next? As he stood in Pisidian Antioch, he must have sensed that off in the distance, on a nearly direct line toward the setting sun, was the great city of Ephesus, not only a large city and an important center of Greek religion, but also a provincial capital. It was the seat of government for Asia, a large province occupying the western portion of Asia Minor. For the next sortie by gospel invaders, Ephesus must have seemed like the logical choice. But when Paul submitted his plan to the Holy Spirit, his divine counselor did not agree. The Spirit forbade Paul and his party to preach in Asia.

Evidently Paul felt that the Spirit nevertheless seemed friendly to his overall desire to carry the gospel into new territory. So, instead of moving into the heart of Asia, he together with Silas and Timothy took a course that would lead them to lands beyond. The new plan that formed in their minds was to enter Bithynia, the province along the Black Sea bordering the north coast of Asia Minor. They started by moving north-northwestward until they reached Mysia, the northernmost region in the province of Asia. With rather vague boundaries, it lay along the Aegean coast just below the Dardanelles and the western half of the Marmara Sea. The likely meaning when Paul says they "were come to Mysia" is that they proceeded north until, on their left side, they were opposite the border of this region.4 They were probably in the general vicinity of such modern cities as Eskişehir and Kütahya.5 But again, as they resolved to move forward into Bithynia, the Spirit gave them a sense of His disapproval. The only track they felt the Spirit left open was toward the west. So, they turned westward and proceeded through the heart of Mysia until they reached its principal city, Troas, on the coast of the Aegean Sea. The expression "passing by Mysia" does not mean that they went around it, for in fact they took roads through it leading to Troas. It means, rather, that they passed by Mysia in their work of evangelism.6

In traveling from Derbe to Troas, Paul and his team proved themselves sturdy men indeed. As noted earlier, the distance from Derbe to Pisidian Antioch was about 170 miles.7 Since we do not know the exact route taken, we can only estimate the distance they walked from Pisidian Antioch to Troas, but a sum of three hundred miles as the crow flies would not be much in error.8 Including the 230 miles before they reached Derbe,9 the whole journey from Syrian Antioch to Troas was a formidable hike of seven hundred miles.

Why did the Spirit block preaching in Asia and Bithynia and encourage them instead to move on to Troas? Because He was leading them out of Asia Minor altogether. He wanted the gospel to make a great leap forward to another continent, the continent of Europe. Whereas Paul and Silas wanted to scour a small corner of the world, the Spirit wanted to advance as quickly as possible to the uttermost regions.

At Troas, Paul had a vision during the night. He saw a man of Macedonia who called out, "Come over into Macedonia, and help us." The next day, Paul had no doubt that the vision came from God. Immediately, the men set sail. Embarking from Troas, they went straight to the island of Samothrace, midway between Asia and Europe, and the next day they arrived at Neapolis, a port city in the province of Macedonia.

Before leaving Asia, Paul and Silas added an important new member to their team. The "we" in verse 10 is the first time this pronoun occurs in the Book of Acts. In a humble way, calling as little attention to himself as possible, Luke is revealing when he became Paul's faithful companion. Evidently he was in Troas when the missionary team arrived, and the hand of Providence brought him under their influence, so that he very soon decided to join them as another helper. Whether he was already a Christian when he met Paul, we do not know, but it is unlikely.

Delving Deeper

Luke's conversion to Christ

Although not decisive, the evidence on balance seems to show that Luke was a gentile, not a Jew. At the end of Colossians, as Paul relays salutations from his companions, his choice of words seems to classify Luke among his gentile friends (Col. 4:7–14). It is hard to imagine how a gentile in Troas, so far west of Palestine, could have become a Christian before Paul arrived.

Perhaps the missionary team first made contact with Luke when Paul was seeking medical treatment for some lingering affliction. If true, we can suppose that while Luke treated Paul’s body, Paul treated Luke’s soul with the good news of salvation through Christ, and Luke had a heart ready to believe. He may at first have consented to join the team simply to provide further medical attention to Paul’s needs during the coming trip to Philippi, which, as the site of a renowned medical school,10 may have been Luke’s home city.11 Perhaps it was not until later that Luke accepted the Spirit’s call to full-time evangelism.

Luke coming alongside Paul just before Paul’s departure for Europe was the beginning of a long and very productive relationship. For many years at the end of Paul’s ministry, Luke would accompany Paul and serve as his helper in the work of God. The doctor was God’s perfect provision for the apostle. Because of all the abuse his body suffered (2 Cor. 11:23–28), Paul needed an attending physician.

Delving Deeper

Accuracy in details of the journey

Luke tells us that the voyage across the Aegean Sea required two days, with a stop overnight at the Island of Samothrace. Some years later, a voyage in the opposite direction took five days (Acts 20:6). In the present account, the writer gives further information explaining the difference. On the way over, they took "a straight course" to the island, presumably made possible because they had a favorable wind. On the way back, conditions of wind and weather must have made forward progress more difficult.

Exact details about matters of sailing are characteristic of the "we" sections in the Book of Acts. They serve two purposes.

  1. They reassure us that we are reading an eyewitness account. We therefore derive more confidence that what we are reading is true.
  2. By giving us facts that we can verify, they further heighten our confidence in the account’s accuracy. Here, for example, there is no doubt that Samothrace was a stopping place in transit between the two continents. Also, there is no doubt that time of passage was hugely dependent on such factors as wind. Finally, there is no doubt that under ideal conditions, the passage took only two days. The distance traversed was 125 miles.12 The speed of an ancient sailing vessel under good conditions was about seven miles per hour, easily producing eighty miles per day.13

The small town of Neapolis served as seaport for Philippi, an important city just ten miles inland.14 Therefore after disembarking, the team headed straight for Philippi, intending to make it the first outpost of gospel advance in Europe.

Delving Deeper

Accuracy in details of local government

Another point of accuracy in Luke’s account is his comment that Philippi, unlike many other cities in the region, was a Roman colony. Although it was added to the Roman Empire after the Romans subjugated Macedonia in 167 BC, it did not actually become a colony until more than a century later, as a result of the struggle for power that followed the death of Julius Caesar. At Philippi in 42 BC, the allied forces of Mark Anthony and Octavian (later, Caesar Augustus) defeated the rival forces of Brutus and Cassius. Afterward, many army veterans settled in the city, giving the Romans a permanent military presence in the region. To assure that the new settlers would retain their privileges as Roman citizens, the city was made a Roman colony. More retired soldiers arrived after Augustus overcame Anthony at the decisive Battle of Actium in 31 BC, fought on the other side of the Balkan Peninsula.15

Colonial status meant that the city was subject only to Roman law. Also, its magistrates were answerable to no authority in the region, only to Rome itself.16

Luke’s representation of Philippi as "the chief city of that part [district] of Macedonia" has provoked much discussion, because it appears to be wrong however it is understood. If it is referring to the district including Philippi that was created after the Romans conquered Macedonia and divided the whole into four districts, the capital was actually Amphipolis. If it is referring to whole Macedonia as a district, the capital was Thessalonica.17 But the flow of Luke’s thought clarifies his meaning. After calling Philippi the chief city, he attaches "a colony." For the sake of Theophilus, he is adopting the viewpoint of a Roman official. Philippi was the chief city in the region because, as a colony, it was the most important in upholding Roman interests and in affording military security.

The First Convert in Europe

Acts 16:13-15

Doubtless Paul’s intent in Philippi was to follow his usual strategy of presenting the gospel first to Jews and God-fearers. But either Luke or someone he met after coming to the city informed him that it lacked a synagogue. Jewish law did not permit formation of a synagogue unless at least ten men over households would be in regular attendance.18 Wherever no synagogue was available for gatherings, Jews keeping one venerable tradition met for worship at a place outdoors near a body of water, either a river or a sea.19 Therefore, on the next Sabbath, Paul and his helpers went searching for the open-air meeting place of local believers in the God of Israel.

Delving Still Deeper

House of prayer

Some scholars have concluded that the women's place of prayer by the river must refer to an actual synagogue.20 The word translated "prayer" is proseuche, which sometimes in Jewish usage designates a place where prayer is offered. Normally when the word bears this sense, a synagogue is in fact the intended meaning.21 But five considerations build a compelling case against finding a synagogue in Luke's account of Paul's visit to Philippi.

  1. When Luke speaks elsewhere of a synagogue, he uses the word synagoge.22
  2. If the place of prayer in Philippi was a synagogue, Luke's reference to the riverside is pointless.
  3. Proseuche is Josephus's choice to describe a place of open-air gatherings.23
  4. Archaeologists have found no evidence of a synagogue in Philippi.24
  5. Paul and his team go to the riverside on the Sabbath, presumably at the usual time for a service. Yet they meet a group of women only. Why are men absent if it is a synagogue? To suppose that this was not a regular service but a special gathering of women is implausible.25
    1. We would need evidence that Sabbath meetings restricted to women actually occurred. The Sabbath was, after all, the customary day for all Jews, both men and women, to gather.
    2. Even if the women were meeting for some reason without their menfolk, it seems more likely that the team would have come back later to evangelize the whole congregation rather than address the women alone.

Whether because they learned its whereabouts from someone in the city or because they made a good guess, Paul's team quickly found the local place of prayer. It was "out of the city by a river side." The reference is probably to the Gangites River, the closest to town, off to the west only about a mile and a half from the city center so that going back and forth fell within the limits of a Sabbath day's journey.26 There they discovered a group of women who met for prayer every Sabbath. After introducing themselves, doubtless in such a way as to assure the assembled women that they were qualified Jewish teachers, they began preaching Christ.

One named Lydia, originally from Thyatira in Asia Minor but now a resident of Philippi, listened with special interest. She already "worshipped God," words implying that she was a gentile God-fearer. But God had not only brought her out of paganism and introduced her to the revelation of Himself in the Old Testament; he had prepared her to hear even fuller truth. Therefore when she heard the gospel, she believed it gladly.

Lydia was a successful businesswoman, seller of the purple fabric which was one of the chief products of Thyatira.27 The account says only that she was a merchant dealing in this fabric,28 yet it is probable that she was also a craftswoman active in producing it.29 Selling her own output would have been a considerably more profitable business than reselling cloth imported from another province.

Delving Deeper

Lydia's occupation

Extracting purple dye from madder root and applying it to cloth was a cottage industry usually conducted by the woman of the house.30 The primary customers were wealthy people.31 So, even if Lydia lacked a husband, she was capable of financial independence, an unusual privilege for a single woman in the ancient world.

The probable reason Lydia had moved from Thyatira to Philippi was to enhance her business. There in a prosperous Roman colony, as in any place with well-to-do citizens, she could exploit a good market for purple cloth, and the demand for her product promised to be especially good where customers formerly had to pay long-distance shipping.

Lydia happens to be the name of the province where Thyatira was located. Thus, we do not know whether Lydia was the woman's birth name, or a name that the Philippians bestowed on her because this province was her original home.32

Soon after Lydia’s conversion, her household also came to Christ. Presumably among them were all who lived with her, whether relatives or servants. Since there is no mention of a husband, we surmise that she was unmarried.33 Still, if she was a widow or separated from her husband, her household may have included children. Immediately, according to the practice of the early church, she and her household were baptized.

With a heart abounding in gratefulness to the messengers of the gospel, she insisted on giving them lodgings, and at last they agreed after she "constrained" them; that is, she kept making her offer until they accepted it.34 Her ability to furnish the whole team with a place to stay suggests that she was wealthy.35 The willingness of the apostles to take up residence in a woman's house leaves no doubt that it was full of people.

In accepting the hospitality of a gentile, although surely not for the first time in their ministry, they were following the precedent set by Peter when he entered the home of Cornelius. They were in effect striking another blow in the continuing effort to demolish the wall between gentile and Jewish believers.36

An Attack of Satan

Acts 16:16-24

While the apostles lodged with Lydia, they apparently returned each day to the riverside where they first met her. Luke says that they went for prayer, but perhaps also the riverside became a regular meeting place for all who wished to hear the apostles preach.

One day a girl followed them who cried out repeatedly, "These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation." What she said was perfectly true. Her theology was impeccable. But Paul resented her words. And as she continued to raise the same commotion day after day, her behavior brought him to the point of grief. Why? Because she was possessed by a devil, a spirit of divination. That is, the evil spirit within her enabled her to tell people's fortunes.

Pondering a Question

How can an evil spirit predict what will happen in the future?

An evil spirit knows something of what his master, the devil, intends to do. Since God often allows the devil to have his way in the affairs of man, knowledge of the devil's agenda allows predictions that sometimes come true. Especially reliable is fortune-telling based on knowledge of whom the devil is seeking to exalt or destroy in pursuit of his goal to corrupt the human race. Reliable, but far from infallible. With a single word God can bring the devil's maneuverings to a dead halt. Therefore, a demonically inspired prophet is often wrong, whereas a prophet of God is always right. God instructed His people to reject any prophet who failed even once to make a correct prediction (Deut. 18:22).

Pondering a Question

Why did a demon provoke this girl to tout the apostles as men of God?

Her recommendation, from a woman known to serve the powers of darkness, was no recommendation at all, especially from the perspective of the Jews and God-fearers who were at this time the primary mission field of Paul and Silas. The demon was probably seeking to discredit Paul. Likewise, when some demons that Jesus cast out called Him the Son of God (Mark 1:24; 3:11), they were laying a groundwork for the Pharisees' charge that Jesus was in league with the devil (Mark 3:22). To sound like Paul’s ally, the girl’s demon chose words that mimicked Paul’s way of thinking.

Delving Deeper

The spirit possessing the girl

Luke describes the girl as having "a spirit of Python,"37 or "a spirit, Python."38 The Greeks, lacking a cosmology that recognized the existence of angels and demons, thought that a person with the ability to utter predictions or any other supernatural knowledge was under the control of a higher being like the one presumed to control the oracle at Delphi, the most sacred place in the Greek world. There on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus was a shrine where the mighty and noble went to hear a priestess known as the Pythoness reveal their fortunes. Her name referred to the Python, a monstrous female serpent who supposedly inhabited the caves at Delphi before she was slain by the god Apollo. Ever after, Apollo was given credit for the ability of the local priestess to see happenings in the future.39

Why she bore a name giving honor to the defeated serpent is a question that permits a good answer. The oracle at Delphi was much older than the myth speaking of Apollo's victory over the Python. Originally, the serpent was thought to be a living presence at the site who furnished mystic revelation coming not from Apollo, but from another deity, in several ancient writings identified as Themis (goddess of law and order who was an early bride of Zeus), and the priestess was considered to be the serpent's mouthpiece; hence her name, the Pythoness.40 Later, when it was believed that the serpent was dead and that Apollo presided over the shrine, the priestess retained her original name. The general belief that Apollo had taken control from someone else in the Olympic pantheon perhaps arose after a Northern tribe who worshiped him took possession of the shrine.41 The myth that told of Apollo defeating Python probably arose at the same time.

As a matter of tradition, others who resembled the Pythoness in soothsaying ability were identified in a similar fashion, as possessors of Python. Whether a Greek hearing a fortune-teller's words attributed them to Apollo, current master of Delphi, or to someone else among the gods was probably a matter of personal preference.

In his use of the phrase "a spirit of Python," Luke is, of course, not implying that the girl was controlled by a god or spirit whose words deserved to be trusted. On the contrary, one purpose of his account is to show that the girl was actually possessed by a demon. The phrase he employs may be conventional wording, but more likely it is his own wording intended to describe an evil spirit specializing in making predictions. The proof that her oracles came from a demonic source is that her deliverance from the spirit's control could only be accomplished by a man authorized to cast out demons.

Finally, Paul became so irritated with the girl that he turned around and commanded in the name of Jesus Christ that the demon depart from her. As an apostle, Paul had the authority to cast out demons (Mark 16:17). The translation, "And he came out the same hour," leaves the impression that the demon did not obey until an hour later. That is not what Luke is saying. The ancients did not reckon time to the nearest minute, but rather to the nearest hour. Thus, what Luke means is that the demon left without delay, at the very time when Paul spoke.42

The girl did not have her own business as a fortune-teller. Rather, she was a slave whose earnings went to her masters. After the demon left, her prowess in divination vanished. The change was so quick and complete that her clients immediately discovered the loss of her prowess and stopped seeking her counsel. Her income dried up, and her masters were furious.

Holding Paul responsible, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates. A subtle clue in the narrative confirms that Luke himself escaped arrest. The last time he includes himself in the story by using a first-person pronoun is in verse 17. The next reference to himself does not appear until chapter 20.

Why did the slave owners single out Paul and Silas and leave the other members of the missionary team alone? No doubt these two apostles were prominent as leaders, while the rest stood largely unnoticed in the background.

Delving Still Deeper

Titles employed

Luke refers to the magistrates as strategoi, obviously intended as a Greek translation of their official Latin title. He also uses the more general term archontas, which simply means "rulers."43 Unfortunately, from ancient sources we cannot determine with certainty what their title was. Perhaps it was duoviri, signifying "two men," which was the usual title of magistrates in a city with the status of a Roman colony. Or perhaps it was the more prestigious title praetores, claimed by some magistrates.44

But given that Luke is always impeccably precise in his use of titles, we may be sure that whatever title belonged to these magistrates in Philippi, strategoi is its correct rendering in Greek.

Standing before the magistrates in the marketplace, the men holding Paul and Silas had to state charges, a difficult task since the apostles had done nothing wrong. The best the girl’s masters could do was to make two vague accusations: first, that as Jews, the apostles were a general nuisance, and second, that they promoted customs unlawful for Roman citizens.

Both accusations were false. The apostles had pursued their work of evangelism quietly, among people who were sympathetic to their message. Moreover, the gospel demanded nothing contrary to Roman law. But the accusers succeeded in igniting within the crowd an antagonism to the apostles, and passions rose, threatening to create an ugly mob.

The citizens of a Roman colony were very proud of things Roman and very disdainful of anyone as non-Roman as a Jew. It especially nettled them that Jews, so peculiar in their dress and habits and worldview, were nevertheless convinced that they were somehow better than Romans. Antisemitism ran high in the ancient world.45

Seeing the danger of mob violence, the magistrates gave in to the demand for action. They tore off the robes of Paul and Silas and commanded them to be beaten by rods.

Here was one of at least three times in Paul’s ministry when he was subjected to this brutal punishment (2 Cor. 11:25). The beating they received was severe, amounting to "many stripes." Their flogging was not limited to forty strokes, as it would have been under Mosaic law (Deut. 25:3). Afterward, they were no doubt reduced to extreme weakness through loss of blood.

Then the magistrates cast them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them under tight security. To assure they would not escape, the jailer put them into the deepest dungeon and locked their feet in stocks.

Pondering a Question

Why did Paul refrain from immediately identifying himself as a Roman citizen?

Here is another question that has fascinated scholars. One possible explanation is that Paul was trying to protect other members of his team. If he and Silas had announced their citizenship right away, they might have escaped the rods, but mob fury might have turned against Timothy, Luke, and others associated with the new church. All these were safer when the focus remained on Paul and Silas. Paul was therefore content to let passions subside before he stood on his rights.

Another possible explanation is that Paul’s failure to defend himself before he was beaten was not by choice. On other occasions when he went before a tribunal, he did not hesitate to speak in his own defense (Acts 18:12–16; 22:30–23:10; 24:1–21; 25:6–11; 25:23–26:29). The unusual course of events in Philippi may have been that the mob dragged him before the magistrates and shouted down anything he tried to say. The scene was too furious and uproarious to let Paul say anything. Instead of quieting the mob, the magistrates let them have their way and condemned the accused men without giving them any voice.

A Great Deliverance

Acts 16:25-34

Both men must have suffered pain greater than most of us have ever known. So great was their physical distress that they could not sleep. But as the night wore on, God strengthened them both in body and spirit. At midnight, instead of moaning or crying as others might have done, they sang praises to God. Their dungeon became a sanctuary; their confinement together became a worship service; their torment became rejoicing. How could they find joy in the midst of such an ordeal? No doubt they remembered the words of Jesus, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for their's is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you" (Matt. 5: 10-12). The singing of Paul and Silas was not with feeble voice, but with marvelous strength under the circumstances, for all the other prisoners heard them.

Luke is presumably explaining why these prisoners did not attempt an escape when the coming tremor broke their fetters. Hearing the two strong voices of praise in the midst of a dark, ugly prison must have given them a sense that the singers were truly messengers of a divine being. The earthquake then freeing Paul and Silas must have seemed a vindication of their testimony. So, once released, the other prisoners reckoned that it was safer to heed the men of God by staying inside than to flee at the risk of being caught again and suffering greater punishment.

Getting Practical

The right response to persecution

Most Christians today have suffered nothing worse than mild persecution. Yet they commonly bear it with a grudging or fretful spirit. No doubt the grace of God is in proportion to need. But unless we resist His grace out of a preference for self-pity, it is always enough to lift us to the right spirit, a spirit of rejoicing. Rejoicing in the midst of persecution is our duty, as Scripture teaches both by example (Acts 5:40-41; here in Acts 16; and elsewhere) and precept (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Suddenly at midnight, the Lord dramatically delivered his two brave servants from bondage. He sent a great earthquake that rocked the foundation of the jail, opened every door, and loosened every chain. Nothing remained to prevent the escape of the prisoners, not only Paul and Silas but the rest as well. The jailer, wakened from sleep by the great shaking of the ground, came quickly and found the doors open. He naturally assumed that he was too late—that the prisoners had already taken advantage of the breakdown in security and made their escape. It therefore seemed to him that all was lost.

He knew full well that if his prisoners got away, he would be held responsible. The normal Roman punishment for failure in guarding prisoners was to suffer severe punishment, no less than death if any escapee faced the death penalty, but possibly death in any case.46 A threat of dire penalty if the jailer failed in his duty was probably implicit in the charge he received to "keep them [the prisoners] safely" (v. 23). These words may reflect a concern that because Paul could rid the girl of her Pythonic gift, he might be able to employ occult power to liberate himself and Silas. Perhaps the magistrates had heard of Jewish magicians such as those active in Cyprus47 or of Jewish exorcists such as those who would become prominent in Ephesus (Acts 19:13–17). What the jailer's overseers told him in essence was that he should take the precaution of posting an all-night watch. Later, when it seemed the prisoners had escaped, he realized how futile it would be to argue in his defense that an earthquake had opened the prison doors, for instead of stationing himself at the entrance as the magistrates desired, he had retired into the comfort of his own quarters.

He therefore resolved to kill himself. He took out his sword with the intent of falling upon it. But before he could commit suicide, a voice rang out, Paul's voice, pleading with him to do no harm to himself and assuring him that all the prisoners remained inside. The voice brought hope to the man's quaking heart. He called for a light and entered the inner prison, where he found that indeed no one was missing. With inexpressible gratitude he fell at the apostles' feet. He too must have understood that the earthquake was no coincidence, but divine intervention to free His servants. So, while filled with joy that he did not, after all, face a death penalty for shirking his duty, he was also filled with fear of the God who had just proved Himself in command of the natural world. He therefore begged to be saved. It appears that the clamor of the demon-possessed girl had at least accomplished one good thing. Everyone in Philippi, including the jailer, knew that Paul and Silas had come to show the way of salvation.48

The answer of the apostles is a classic statement of the gospel in its simplest form: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." They emphasized the need to believe on Jesus' full name, which distinguishes Him from all the Jesuses that have been invented by false religions. The Mormons, the Muslims, the liberals, the Catholics—all have their Jesus, but the figure they promote is not the real Lord Jesus Christ. They all in some measure deny that He is Lord and Christ. As Lord, He is the very God of all. As Christ, He is the sole Savior from sin.

Pondering a Question

What did the apostles mean by the phrase "and thy house"?

Some in the tradition of covenant theology use this statement to support the idea that even the unsaved children of Christian parents participate in a covenant relationship with God. Any young child with at least one believing parent does have special standing (1 Cor. 7:14). But the phrase "and thy house" is irrelevant to this issue. Its true meaning is not so subtle and so remote from the obvious. The apostles were merely explaining who could be saved by believing on Jesus. At first they said "thou." Then, by attaching the phrase "and thy house," they broadened the invitation to include the man's household. The proof that this is the right interpretation is what happened next. The apostles witnessed to his household, with the evident desire that they believe also.

The story has a happy ending. The apostles gave the message of salvation not only to the jailer, but also to his whole household, and they all received the truth gladly, becoming disciples of Christ.

Immediately, the jailer showed compassion on the apostles, his new brothers in Christ, by bringing water to wash their wounds. As soon as the apostles were able, although it was the middle of the night, they took the jailer together with his household and baptized them. A common view is that the rite was performed at a well in the courtyard,49 yet it is far more likely that they were baptized in the customary manner, by immersion, which would have required a larger body of water. Perhaps the very river that had been the hub of Christian activity was close by. If so, it was probably the place chosen.

Pondering a Question

Did the baptized members of his household include infants?

Aside from Baptists, most churches down through history have baptized infants. In the attempt to find Biblical support for this practice, known as pedobaptism, the best its advocates can do is point to a few occasions when the people who were baptized might have included infants. One text they are especially fond of citing is here in the story of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30–34).50 Luke records that after hearing the word of the Lord, the jailer "was baptized, he and all his" (v. 33). Pedobaptists argue that his family surely included some children too small to make a meaningful profession of faith. Yet in the context, "all his" stands as an abbreviation for "all his house." The writer pointedly tells us that the apostles offered salvation to "his house" only if they met the requirement to believe (v. 31). He then informs us that "his house" believed (v. 34) after "his house" heard the apostles preach (v. 32). Nothing in the account justifies viewing "his house" as a smaller group than "all his house." Luke, wanting us to see the power of the gospel on the evening of the earthquake, adds "all" to the phrase merely to reassure us that none in the household failed to believe and be baptized. Therefore, to insist that the apostles baptized some in the jailer’s house who were too young to understand and believe tramples on plain meaning.

Delving Still Deeper

How many believed

Yet some pedobaptists pursue the case further. They claim that the KJV distorts verse 34. The Greek says, according Berry’s literal translation, "[the jailer] exulted with all [his] house, having believed in God."51 Young’s literal translation differs, however, offering, "[the jailer] was glad with all the household, he having believed in God."52 From this wording, these pedobaptists infer that the whole household including children rejoiced and received baptism because one person only, the man of the house, believed.

The verb "believed" is indeed masculine singular,53 but the exclusion of others from the subject does not mean that the jailer was alone in believing. The same Greek phrase allows a slightly different punctuation: "[the jailer] was glad, with all his household he having believed in God." In other words, what Luke says is ambiguous. "With all his household" could modify either the rejoicing or the believing. The two meanings are equally possible. Wherever Scripture is genuinely ambiguous, we may assume that both meanings are inspired truth. Therefore, together with a multitude of standard translations and commentaries, we may accept the sense attributing belief to all the man’s house. This sense serves to explain why they all rejoiced. The reason is that they all followed his example and believed as well.

Although the term "house" or "household" refers to the jailer’s family,54 it does not necessarily mean that he had small children. He may have been an older man.

At last, the apostles returned to the jailer’s home and sat down for a meal. No doubt Paul and Silas had not eaten since being arrested. The meal was a joyous time, as the jailer exulted not only in his deliverance from certain death, but also in his admittance to life in Jesus Christ.

Pondering a Question

What was the social standing of the jailer?

The jailer's conduct indicates that he had broad discretionary authority, allowing him even to extend hospitality to his charges so long as they did not escape.55 Thus, he was probably not a slave owned by the city, as some scholars have maintained.56 He may have been a retired soldier.57

If he was a veteran whose self-esteem rested on an honorable career, the true motive behind his impulse to commit suicide may have been inability to accept the dishonor that would fall upon him after escape of his prisoners.

Departure from Philippi

Acts 16:35-40

On the morning after "a great earthquake" (v. 26) strikes a city, there is much turmoil, as people assess damage and look for victims. But Luke’s account gives no hint that Philippi itself suffered any effects of the earthquake that opened the jail. On the contrary, when the new day dawned, the magistrates had no problem to deal with besides the aftermath of yesterday’s near riot. The severe ground shaking that delivered the apostles was evidently confined to one small place, clear evidence that it was supernatural in character. Perhaps an angel agitated the foundations of the prison.

When the magistrates came together, they pondered what to do with Paul and Silas. Perhaps they felt that the two Jews had already undergone enough punishment to keep them from causing another disturbance. But perhaps also they were uneasy because they flogged and jailed the two men without due process. As Paul said, the apostles were "openly uncondemned." He meant that the magistrates failed to render a formal judgment based on an actual trial, weighing both prosecution and defense. What they did was simply a spur-of-the-moment attempt to placate a mob. Thus, whether from a troubled conscience or from a confidence that they had rid themselves of further trouble, they sent their sergeants to the jailer with word that he should release the apostles.

Delving Deeper

More about sergeants

The officers called "sergeants" bear the Greek title rhabdouchoi, equivalent to Latin lictorae. Here again we see Luke’s commitment to accuracy. In fact, the magistrates of a Roman colony had two assistants called lictors, which means "rod-bearers." As a sign of his office, each carried a fasces; generally, a bundle of rods with an ax hanging alongside or with the blade of an ax emerging from the top.58

Paul was not willing to pass over the injustice without protest. For the first time, he revealed that he and Silas were Roman citizens. He knew the impact this revelation would have on the magistrates of a Roman colony. Their primary obligation was to uphold Roman law, and one of its foremost demands was that Roman citizens receive just treatment.59 Paul was therefore blunt in warning the local magistrates that he was determined to stand on his rights. He complained that he and Silas were not only deprived of a fair trial, but also subjected to a beating. Roman citizens were exempt from any degrading form of punishment, such as flogging or crucifixion.60 Paul knew, as the magistrates knew, that if the governor of the province learned how the magistrates handled the case of Paul and Silas, he would view it as a serious breach of duty. Therefore, Paul refused to leave quietly, as if he were accepting the release as an act of mercy. Rather, he insisted that the magistrates come themselves and release the two apostles—a gesture equivalent to admitting that they had acted improperly.

The ultimatum was effective. When the sergeants returned with the information that the jailed men were Roman citizens, the magistrates became very afraid. So, in the hope of appeasing Paul and forestalling any complaint to their superiors, they complied immediately with Paul’s demands. They hurried to the jail, brought out the two apostles, and begged them to leave the city. Now that he had made his point, Paul was willing to go. First, however, he and Silas made a brief visit to the house of Lydia, where they met local believers and consoled them because circumstances did not allow the apostles to remain in their midst. Then with Timothy serving again as their companion, they departed from Philippi and resumed their missionary journey.

How interesting that Luke remembers the apostles as giving comfort, not as receiving comfort! They were the ones who bore nasty wounds. The incident therefore yields a glimpse of their unselfish hearts.

The absence of first-person pronouns in Luke’s further account of Paul’s first missionary journey tells us that the writer stayed behind when Paul left Philippi. Here is another circumstance suggesting that Philippi was Luke’s hometown. The reappearance of such pronouns in Acts 20:5–6 reveals that Luke joined Paul again when Paul revisited Philippi several years later, during his third missionary journey. The likely reason Luke did not continue with Paul after his first visit is that Luke was a new convert, not ready for a key role in advancement of God’s kingdom. Remaining in Philippi gave him a chance for seasoning in the arts of spiritual combat. No doubt he was a central figure in building the new church there.

Pondering a Question

Why did Paul protest the illegal action? Are we not to conduct ourselves as sheep led to the slaughter?

Not always. As a Roman citizen, Paul had a duty to uphold Roman law. A citizen of God's Kingdom does not cease to be the citizen of an earthly kingdom. Our role in a sinful world is to be a saltlike influence inhibiting the spread of corruption and so preserving the world from immediate divine judgment (Matt. 5:13). Thus, as Paul was, we must be good citizens, first by obeying the law ourselves, then also by supporting in every possible way the rule of law.

Invoking the law in my own defense is far from pure selfishness. To insist on due process protects not only me, but also every other citizen who will enter the same peril of injustice. Any move to enforce or strengthen legal safeguards is in the best interest of both myself and my neighbor.


  1. Ed Rickard, In Perils Abounding: A Commentary on the Book of Acts (n.p.: The Moorings Press, 2017), 1.31.
  2. Schnabel, 1131–1134; Rainer Riesner, Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 281–286; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 354; W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire before A.D. 170, 8th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1904), 75–89; Cilliers Breytenbach, Paulus und Barnabas in der Provinz Galatien (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 99–173; I. Howard Marshall, Acts, vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), 277–279; Longenecker, 457.
  3. Schnabel, 1132; Riesner, 285; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 353–354; Ramsay, Church, 77–78; Marshall, 277–278; Longenecker, 457.
  4. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 355; Ramsay, Church, 75.
  5. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 355.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Rickard, Perils, 1:265, 269, 278.
  8. Melvin M. Payne, ed., National Geographic Atlas of the World, 4th ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1975), 126.
  9. Rickard, Perils, 2:21.
  10. Longenecker, 460.
  11. Polhill, 160; Bock, 533.
  12. Bock, 532; Payne, 117.
  13. James Smith, The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul, 4th ed., rev. and corrected by Walter E. Smith (repr., Minneapolis, Minn.: The James Family Christian Publishers, n.d.), 215–217.
  14. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 356; Longenecker, 459; Schnabel, 1151–1152.
  15. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 356; Longenecker, 459; Bock, 533.
  16. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 356; Longenecker, 460; Bock, 533.
  17. Longenecker, 460; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 358; Bock, 533; Marshall, 283; Mish. Aboth 3.6 (TB Avoth 3.6), Sanhedrin 1:6 (TB Sanhedrin 2a–2b).
  18. Longenecker, 460; Jos. Ant. 14.10.23; Philo In Flaccum 14.
  19. Schnabel, 1153; Bock, 533.
  20. Arndt and Gingrich, 720.
  21. Schnabel, 1153.
  22. Jos. Ant. 14.10.23; William Whiston, trans., The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus (Chicago: The John C. Winston Company, n.d.), 426.
  23. Schnabel, 1153.
  24. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 358; Polhill, 161; Marshall, 283.
  25. Schnabel, 1153; Longenecker, 460; Bock, 533; Marshall, 283.
  26. Longenecker, 461; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 358-359; Polhill, 162; Homer Iliad 4.141–142; W. M. Ramsay, The Historical Geography of Asia Minor, vol. 4 of Supplementary Papers of the Royal Geographic Society (London: John Murray, 1890), 123.
  27. Arndt and Gingrich, 700; Bock, 534.
  28. Longenecker, 461; Bock, 534.
  29. Longenecker, 461.
  30. Bock, 534; Luke 16:19; 1 Macc. 10:62; Jos. Wars 6.8.3.
  31. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 358; Longenecker, 461.
  32. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 359; Marshall, 284; Bock, 535; Longenecker, 461.
  33. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 359.
  34. Polhill, 162; Schnabel, 1154.
  35. Schnabel, 1154.
  36. Berry, 489.
  37. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 360.
  38. Marjorie and C. H. B. Quennell, Everyday Things in Ancient Greece, 2nd ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1954), 182–188; Bock 535.
  39. Catherine B. Avery, ed., The New Century Classical Handbook (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1962), 956–957; H. J. Rose, "Divination (Greek)," in vol. 4 of Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912), 797; Pausanias Description of Greece 10.5.5; "Themis," Theoi Project, Web (, 1/26/18.
  40. Rose, 797.
  41. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 361; Bock, 537.
  42. Berry, 490; Bock, 537.
  43. Marshall, 286–287; Longenecker, 463–464; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 362; Bock, 537.
  44. Jerry L. Daniel, "Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic-Roman Period," Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979), 45–65; Longenecker, 463–464; Bock 580.
  45. Rickard, Perils, 1.223.
  46. Ibid., 1.239, 241.
  47. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 364; Longenecker, 465.
  48. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 365; Bock, 542; Longenecker, 465.
  49. Heinrich Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 5th ed., trans. Charles A. Hay and Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1876), 565–566; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 4.16.534.
  50. Berry, 491.
  51. Robert Young, Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: n.p., 1898.; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Guardian Press, 1976), 96.
  52. Berry, 491; The Analytical Greek Lexicon (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers; London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, Limited, n.d.), 316.
  53. Arndt and Gingrich, 560.
  54. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 365.
  55. Schnabel, 1158.
  56. William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908), 221; Longenecker, 464.
  57. Longenecker, 464; Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 366; "Fasces," Wikipedia, Web (, 1/23/18; "Lictor," Wikipedia, Web (, 1/23/18.
  58. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 357, 366–367; Longenecker, 466; Bock, 543–545; Marshall, 291; Schnabel, 925–926.
  59. Bruce, Acts, 3rd ed., 366; Bock, 544; Marshall, 291.

This page is one chapter of a larger book. Therefore, not all references are complete. You can see full citations in the bibliography.

Further Reading

Lessons on Acts 1-14 appear not only on this website, but also in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.