Acts 16:6-40

Paul and Silas continue on the second missionary journey and leave the cities of Galatia – where Paul and Barnabas proclaimed the gospel on the first trip – and head to new areas.  They cross the Aegean Sea and for the first time take the gospel to Europe.  Specifically they come to the city of Philippi where they have three different confrontations with three very different people.  In each case they use the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to minister to people’s spiritual needs and show that nothing – not wealth, spiritual forces, or safety – can stand in the way of spreading the good news.

Paul and Silas leave the areas Paul visited on the first trip and try to go into new provinces to the northwest and southwest of Galatia.  However, the Holy Spirit forbids them from preaching in Asia (does not refer to the continent as it does today – Asia is a province) to the south and in Bithynia to the north.  Because the Spirit blocks them from going north or south and going east would be back-tracking, they continue west to the coastal city of Troas.

There is no way to know what it means that the Holy Spirit/Spirit of Jesus (interchangeable terms – both refer to the third Person of the Godhead) does not permit them to minister in certain areas.  We do not know what form this direction took or how it was communicated.  We just know that it was apparently very clear where they were not to go.  It is notable that at this point they have traveled quite a distance from Galatia to Troas (over 250 miles from Pisidian Antioch – probably their last stop in Galatia – to Troas) without knowing where they are permitted to speak.  Verses 6-8 may describe a very frustrating and confusing time on the trip.  They know where they are NOT supposed to go but continue to travel without knowing what the ultimate destination is.

God leads in different ways at different times and we often see His leading more clearly by looking in the rear-view mirror rather than through the windshield.  In this case some of the mightiest men in church history travel blind because they only know where they are not supposed to go.  God chooses to guide them by closed doors (the old saying that when God shuts one door He opens another is not in the Bible) and by giving them only enough guidance to keep them traveling.  Ultimately He leads them by their faith – they do not need to know where they are going they just need to trust Him.  If this is how God leads Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke, perhaps we should not be surprised when He chooses to lead us this way too.

In Troas Paul sees a vision during the night of a man standing and appealing to him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  Because of this vision, the group – apparently including Timothy and Luke (note the use of ‘we’ in verse 10) – decides to travel to Macedonia.  They probably are very thankful for direction.  What is interesting about the vision is that the man is never identified.  Luke does not mention him again so there is no way to know if he later benefits from the missionaries coming over.

After sailing from Troas to Neapolis, the group continues overland to Philippi.  In Philippi they decide to stay for some days.  Philippi is a Roman colony.  That means it is exempt from certain forms of taxation and has a proud Roman heritage.  It was originally settled by army veterans after the Battle of Philippi when the forces of Antony and Octavian (later Augustus) defeated the forces of the assassins of Julius Caesar in 42 BC.

Philippi apparently does not have a synagogue (10 Jewish men required to have a synagogue in a city), as Paul and Silas decide to go outside the city gate to the river to find a place of prayer.  In the absence of a formal meeting place Jews often worship close to running water so it can be used for ritual bathing.  Paul and Silas find a meeting place and begin talking to the women who assemble there.  That the worship group is made up mostly of women could explain the absence of a synagogue.

A woman named Lydia (Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia) – originally from Thyatira (a city in the area where the Holy Spirit forbade the missionaries from going and a place known for its dye industry) who is a seller of purple (and likely well-off) and a gentile worshiper of God – listens to Paul and responds.  God opens her heart and she believes the gospel and is saved, along with her household (Lydia is likely a widow who has settled in Philippi).

This is another instance of God’s sovereignty in this text.  God did not allow the missionaries to preach in two different areas where they originally wanted to go.  Here He decides who responds to the gospel and who does not.  Paul and Silas are called to be faithful and to proclaim the gospel.  Where they proclaim it and who responds are outside of their control.  They faithfully fulfill their calling and God takes care of the rest.  I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth (I Cor 3:6-7).

Lydia immediately opens her house to the group.  She insists that they stay with her.  Her house apparently becomes a gathering place for the Philippian Christians as Paul and Silas later go there to encourage the brethren (vs 40).  The effect of the gospel on Lydia’s life is immediate – she wants to practice hospitality toward the ones who brought the good news.

Paul and Silas make a habit of going to the place of prayer presumably because it is an effective spot to teach others about the gospel.  As they go there day by day they are followed by a slave girl with a spirit of divination who cries out after them, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.”  This girl is used by her masters as a fortune teller and brings them much profit.

After several days of the girl following them and crying out, Paul becomes annoyed – perhaps because he does not want the gospel associated with the demonic fortune-telling – and in the name of Jesus Christ orders the demon that possesses her to come out.  Immediately the evil spirit leaves her and she no longer divines the future and no longer cries out after them.  Nothing is said in the text, but it is not too much of a stretch to assume the girl also becomes a believer.

The girl’s masters do not see the exorcism as good news.  What was a very profitable business is now gone – just like the demon.  They become very angry and have Paul and Silas dragged into the market place before the chief magistrates (two magistrates per city under Roman government).  In front of the magistrates they accuse them of trying to disturb the peace by proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans (remember that Philippi is proudly Roman).  They also introduce a racist element (note being Jews in verse 20 contrasted with being Romans in verse 21) by making sure the magistrates know Paul and Silas are Jews who are throwing our city into confusion.  They hide their real purpose – revenge for the loss of profit – by accusing the men of being threats to the Roman civic peace.

The crowd in the market place also rises against Paul and Silas.  No reason is given for this, so perhaps it is just that they are Jews.  Whatever the reason, it has its desired result as the magistrates order that Paul and Silas be stripped of their robes and beaten with rods.  After the “lictors” (the title of the servants who carry the rods and inflict the blows) beat them with many blows, they throw the two men into prison (Paul later says that he was beaten by rods on three different occasions – II Cor 11:25).

Note that there is no trial and no chance for Paul and Silas to testify on their own behalf.  Neither is there any chance for them to face their accusers and answer the charges.  They are treated as men with no rights.  They are Jews who do not deserve the protection of the state and do not deserve a trial before punishment.  They are accused and beaten with no interim step.  Paul will later refer to this event as having suffered and been mistreated in Philippi (I Thess 2:2).

The magistrates command the jailer to guard them securely.  Thus the jailer puts them into the inner prison and fastens their feet in the stocks.  The authorities may think that since Paul can cast out demons he may be able to do other supernatural things too.  As a result they do not want to take any chances with him escaping – they want both men locked up as securely as possible.

About midnight – likely after many hours of being locked in stocks in an inner cell in the darkness, and with undressed wounds from the beating – Paul and Silas are praying and singing hymns of praise to God.  They are not discouraged, or thinking of going back to Antioch, or wondering if God is still on their side, or how He could allow this to happen.  They do not question their beliefs or become bitter that this occurred while they were doing exactly what Jesus commissioned them to do.  They look at God instead of their circumstances and praise Him for who He is and (presumably) that He will not leave them.  They do what Habakkuk says to do in the midst of trials – Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation (Hab 3:18).  **

While Paul and Silas sing and the other prisoners listen (an interesting picture – the prisoners apparently do not mind the singing and praising – not the situation we would expect), a great earthquake hits the prison and causes all the doors to open and everyone’s chains to unfasten.  The earthquake is so intense that the foundations of the prison shake.

Someone, or perhaps the earthquake itself, rouses the jailer from sleep (he apparently lives on the prison grounds) and he sees that the prison is open.  He immediately draws his sword with the intent of killing himself.  Apparently the punishment he is in for if the prisoners escape is such that suicide is preferable to it.  Paul somehow sees what he is doing and cries out with a loud voice, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here!”  Paul and the other prisoners may be in the same cell, as he can confidently assert that no one has escaped.

It is amazing that Paul actually cares about the jailer.  Though he was only carrying out orders, this is the same man who locked them in stocks and put them in the innermost – and most secure – prison.  To this point he has done nothing to endear himself to the missionaries.  Yet Paul cares about his life and wants him to know that though the prison is open no one has left.  The purpose of the earthquake is not a jailbreak – the purpose is to spread the gospel.  Paul does not want freedom as much as he wants the jailer to believe.  [Since no one escapes it means the primary reason for the earthquake is the salvation of the jailer – which will result in physical care for Paul and Silas.  God sends an earthquake to save one man who likely has very little social standing or influence in the city.  God loves him enough to shake a whole building to bring him to Himself.]

Gospel-saturated believers are DIFFERENT.  Paul and Silas spend time in prison after being unjustly and severely beaten, singing hymns of praise to the God who decided they must undergo this.  They hold no grudge against the man who threw them into the prison, but instead care about his life and his eternal soul.  They do not walk out of the prison when they get the chance but instead stay around to make sure the jailer hears the gospel.  Those who walk with God are new creatures who do not walk as the world walks.

The jailer calls for lights – the innermost jail is likely pitch black – and rushes in, trembling with fear.  He knows there has been an earthquake that could have freed all the prisoners and ended his life.  He knows there is apparently an angry god who has done this and he wants to know what he needs to do to escape the god’s wrath.  He asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

Paul and Silas proclaim the gospel to him and he believes – he and his household (similar in this way to Lydia).  Everyone in his household is baptized (no way to know how or where this happens – apparently there is a water source of some kind nearby).  After believing, the jailer takes Paul and Silas and washes their wounds (perhaps using the same water source) and gives them food (the jailer is not typically responsible for feeding the prisoners – that falls to the prisoner’s family).  The gospel – just like with Lydia – has immediate effect on his actions.  He loves Paul and Silas now and ministers to them in that love.  He knows God’s love and shows that love to those around him in need (and he does this at great risk – he is certainly not permitted to open his home to prisoners).

The next morning – the earthquake, the jailer’s conversion, the baptisms, the cleaning of wounds and the meal all happened between midnight and dawn – the magistrates send their policemen to tell the jailer to release Paul and Silas (apparently a severe beating and one night in prison are enough punishment for men not convicted of a crime).  The jailer delivers the message to the men and urges them to go in peace.  Paul, however, does not respond as expected.  He tells the jailer that he and Silas are Roman citizens (claiming citizenship falsely is a capital offense – thus there is little fear of someone claiming it just to get out of punishment) – and as such they have been grossly mistreated (citizens cannot be beaten publicly nor punished without a trial).  They were publicly shamed by the magistrates so the magistrates themselves must come to the jail and bring us out.

Note that more than pride is behind Paul’s insistence on justice.  By having the magistrates come to the prison hat in hand he now restores his and Silas’ reputation and puts the officials in their debt (no way to know why Paul did not claim citizenship in the market place and thus avoid the beating – perhaps he did not have the chance in all the confusion and rush to judgment – if he actually thought ahead and did what was best for the church it is an amazing sacrificial act for the gospel).  If the ones who brought the gospel are actually Roman citizens then the followers of those citizens may be given an easier time, and if the officials fear the ramifications of what they have done to Paul and Silas then perhaps they will leave the new church alone – or at least more alone than they otherwise would have.

When the magistrates hear that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens they become very frightened.  They have now broken the law by not upholding the two citizens’ rights (in a Roman colony this would be taken VERY seriously).  They come to the prison and beg Paul and Silas to leave the city.  The sooner and quieter the two men leave, the less likely it is that the magistrates will be called to account for their actions.

Paul and Silas leave the prison and go to Lydia’s house where they encourage the brethren (the story of their imprisonment and release would certainly encourage the new believers).  They then leave the city and continue on their journey.

We know from later writings that the Philippian church supports Paul in his ongoing ministry.  As a matter of fact, it is in the letter to them that Paul makes the famous statement that he is thankful for their support but does not have to have it since he can do all things through Christ (in regard to contentment in the midst of plenty or want).  Paul thanks them for being partners with him and for sending gifts on several occasions even when no other church did (Phil 4:10-20).

Three very different people have their lives changed as a result of the gospel.  A wealthy, God-fearing woman under very friendly circumstances, a demon-possessed slave girl under very strange circumstances, and a pagan jailer under very adverse circumstances.  The three have next to nothing in common, but are now – assuming the slave girl is in fact a believer – bound together by the blood of Christ.  They are a perfect illustration of what Paul writes to the Galatians – There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

Along the same lines, nothing gets in the way of Paul and Silas fulfilling their mission to spread the gospel.  Not foreign lands and customs, not wealth, not supernatural forces, not persecution, not unjust treatment.  God does not allow them to go where they want and instead guides them to where they were not planning to go – no problem, it is for the gospel.  They cannot find a synagogue so they go to the river.  They cannot find any men so they talk to the women – all for the gospel.  They are harassed by a demon and so cast it out – a wonderful act for the sake of the slave girl who was possessed and yet the cause of intense and unjust persecution for them.  They are grossly mistreated and yet react with praise for God and compassion for one of the men who mistreated them – all for the gospel.  They have a chance to escape from the prison where they are unfairly kept but instead stay – for the sake of the gospel.  They then refuse to accept freedom from their incarceration until the city officials recognize their mistreatment – presumably for the sake of the gospel.  They live with one purpose – glorify God through spreading His good news – and that purpose surpasses EVERY circumstance and hardship and privilege and danger.  The gospel infuses everything they do – they live ON it and THROUGH it.  Is it any wonder that we must preach it to ourselves continually so we can live the same way?

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of ChristMore than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Phil 3:7-11

** Not that this is always easy to do.  It is easy to say that we should rejoice in God in the midst of trials, but sometimes it seems impossible to get our minds on anything other than the ongoing difficulties in front of us.  Thankfully the Bible speaks to this too.  David in Psalm 51 prays that God will restore to me the joy of your salvation.  This is the prayer of someone who has not been rejoicing in God and needs help doing it.  James also says – after encouraging us to rejoice in trials – But if any of you lacks wisdom (the wisdom of seeing trials as God’s way of perfecting us for His kingdom), let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).  God knows we do not always see things as we should and offers His help in adjusting our sight.  We should exult in the God of our salvation (live on the gospel) when we endure trials that He brings to us, but if we cannot we should pray for the ability to do so.  Either way we come out ahead as we run to God in the midst of life’s difficulties.

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