Acts 16: New American Commentary

  1. Revisiting Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium (16:1–5)

1He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

16:1–5 According to plan, Paul proceeded northward, this time on foot, through the Cilician gates to the cities where he and Barnabas had established churches on the first mission tour. This time they went from east to west and so reached the towns in the reverse order from their first visit—Derbe first, then Lystra, and finally Iconium. At Lystra they found a disciple by the name of Timothy. Evidently Timothy’s conversion dated back to Paul and Barnabas’s first witness in that city (cf. 14:20). Luke added that Timothy was well spoken of by the Christians in Lystra and Iconium. Derbe is not mentioned because it lay some sixty miles southeast of Lystra.5 Lystra was only twenty miles or so from Iconium, and a close relationship between the Christians of the two cities would have been natural.

Luke’s note that Timothy’s mother was Jewish and his father Greek (v. 1) is essential to understanding why Paul had Timothy circumcised (v. 3). Many scholars have argued that Paul would never have asked Timothy to be circumcised, since he objected so strenuously to that rite in Galatians (cf. 6:12f.; 5:11). That, however, is to overlook the fact that Galatians was written to Gentiles and Timothy was considered a Jew. There was no question of circumcising Gentiles. The Jerusalem Conference agreed on that. Gentiles would not be required to become Jews in order to be Christians. The converse was also true: Jews would not be required to abandon their Jewishness in order to become Christians. There is absolutely no evidence that Paul ever asked Jews to abandon circumcision as their mark of membership in God’s covenant people. According to later rabbinic law, a child born of a Jewish mother and a Greek father was considered to be Jewish. The marriage of a Jewish woman to a non-Jew was considered a nonlegal marriage; and in all instances of nonlegal marriages, the lineage of the child was reckoned through the mother.6

According to this understanding, Timothy would have been considered a Jew. His father, however, being a Greek, would not have had his son circumcised; and the local Jews were aware of this (v. 3). Thus Paul had Timothy circumcised. Paul always worked through the Jewish synagogues where possible. To have had a member of his entourage be of Jewish lineage and yet uncircumcised would have hampered his effectiveness among the Jews. It was at the very least a matter of missionary strategy to circumcise Timothy (1 Cor 9:20). It may have been much more. Paul never abandoned his own Jewish heritage. He may well have wanted Timothy to be true to his (cf. Rom 3:1f.).

In any event, Paul had no missionary companion more thoroughly involved in his subsequent work than Timothy. Paul considered him a “son” (cf. 1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2). Not only did he address two letters to him, but he also listed him as cosender in six others (2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1; Phlm 1). He considered him his “fellow worker” (Rom 16:21; cf. 1 Cor 16:10) and, indeed, as much more—“as a son with his father” in the work of the gospel (Phil 2:22).7 Now three, the missionary group continued along the way, visiting the churches “from town to town.” Luke did not specify the towns they visited, but one would assume they were Iconium and Pisidian Antioch and any other villages where there may have been a Christian community resulting from the first missionary tour. They shared the decrees from the Jerusalem Conference. All of these churches were in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia and not a part of Syro-Cilicia, to which the decrees were addressed. Perhaps they felt that these churches were involved because they were the product of the Antioch mission. Luke did not mention Paul’s promulgating them in any other cities after this, and Paul never mentioned them in his letters.8

Verse 5 concludes the narrative of Paul’s return visit to these churches of his first mission. This summary statement9 is not perfunctory, however. It underlines the importance of Paul’s concern to fortify and nurture the churches of his prior missionary efforts. He was not only concerned with planting the seed but also to see them grow and bear fruit. This led him to undertake the rigorous trip to southern Galatia through rugged terrain and mountain passes. He accomplished what he sought: the churches were strengthened. They flourished. They were more prepared than ever to carry on when he left.

  1. Called to Macedonia (16:6–10)

6Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10After 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.

16:6 Having completed their visit of the churches established on Paul’s first mission, the three now headed north, probably from Antioch in Pisidia. Somewhere along the way they determined to go to “Asia.” Just what is intended by “Asia” is uncertain. The term was used in various ways. It could refer to the Roman province of Asia, which included Lycia, portions of Phrygia, and Mysia, as well as ancient Asia. It could be used in a much narrower sense as the cities along the Aegean coast, with Philadelphia as the eastern limit. It probably is in this narrower sense that Paul determined to go to Asia, perhaps to the major city of Ephesus, where he eventually did spend the greater part of his third mission. At this point he was stopped from so doing by the Holy Spirit. The medium of the Spirit’s revelation is not given. The important point is that he was stopped. God had other plans for him at the time.

16:7 The route of the missionaries from this point is anything but clear. They obviously traveled northward because they eventually came to Mysia. The questionable point is how far eastward they traveled. To what does “the region of Phrygia and Galatia” refer?10 The most natural reading would give a consecutive travel narrative, starting from Antioch, moving into northern Phrygia, and then evidently swinging eastward into portions of northern Galatia before arriving in the northeast corner of Mysia where it bordered Bithynia. A good guess is that it was somewhere around Dorylaeum, where they were stopped in their travel plans a second time.

Their intention was to go into Bithynia, probably to witness in the populous cities along the Marmara Sea like Nicomedia, Nicea, and Byzantium. Again they were prevented, this time by “the Spirit of Jesus,” possibly a special vision of the risen Jesus but more likely a variant expression of the Holy Spirit.11 The third expression of the divine leading is indicated in terms of God’s calling (v. 10). The geographical scheme is certainly not the dominant motif in this section: the divine leading is. Father (v. 10), Son (v. 7), and Spirit (v. 6) together led Paul to the decisive new breakthrough—the mission to Macedonia, the witness on European soil.

16:8 The missionary group must have been thoroughly perplexed as they were led away from the cities of Bithynia through the wild backwoods country of Mysia over to the coast and down to Troas.12 Troas lay in the region associated with Troy, some thirty miles to the south of the ancient city. It had been founded in the fourth century b.c. by Antigonus and from the start was primarily a port city. An artificial harbor constructed there provided the main sea access to Macedonia and was a significant harbor for sea traffic to and from the Dardanelles.13 Having been given the status of a colony city by Augustus, Troas had a sizable population and would itself have been a suitable candidate for a major mission.14

16:9 But God had other plans and sent a vision to Paul, perhaps in a dream in the middle of the night. A man of Macedonia appeared to him begging him to come and witness to the Macedonians. Scholars have often speculated about whether this person might be defined more closely. Ramsay suggested he may have been Luke himself, that possibly Paul had needed a physician’s aid and consulted him in Troas. This is based on the fact that the “we” narrative first occurs in verse 10, indicating Luke’s presence.15 It is an attractive view, but ancient tradition connects Luke with Antioch, not Macedonia, and the Philippian narrative contains not the slightest inkling that he was on home territory. Somewhat more fanciful is the view that the man in the vision was that most famous of all Macedonians, Alexander the Great. Alexander had a vision of “one world”; Paul would make it a reality through the gospel.16 Luke gave us no basis for such speculations. The identity of the man as a Macedonian was all that counted.

16:10 Paul realized that this vision was God’s medium for calling him to a mission in Macedonia (v. 10). Timothy and Silas readily agreed, once Paul had shared the experience with them. Since the text states that “we got ready,” the first certain occurrence of the narrative first-person speech in Acts, the most likely assumption is that Luke joined the missionary party at this time.17 Now four shared the vision of evangelizing Macedonia.18

  1. Witnessing in Philippi (16:11–40)

The remainder of chap. 16 concerns Paul’s work in Philippi. It falls into four separate scenes. Verses 11–15 relate the group’s journey to Philippi and the conversion of a prominent woman named Lydia. Verses 16–24 deal with the healing of a possessed servant girl and its unfortunate result. Verses 25–34 tell of the conversion of the Philippian jailer. Verses 35–40 treat the final encounter of Paul the Roman citizen with the city magistrates.

(1) Founding a Church with Lydia (16:11–15)

11From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. 12From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

13On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

16:11 Verses 11–12 relate the journey from Troas to Philippi. The weather must have been good and the winds favorable because their ship sighted Samothrace the first day. Samothrace was a mountainous island with a peak rising 5,000 feet above sea level. It lay off the Thracian coast on a direct line between Troas and Neapolis, the port of Philippi. The next day they arrived at Neapolis. In Acts 20:6 the voyage from Philippi to Troas took considerably longer—five days in all.

16:12 The group would have taken the Via Egnatia the ten miles or so to Philippi. This route was the main east-west highway through Macedonia, beginning at Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic coast, traveling through Thessalonica, Amphipolis, and Philippi and terminating at Neapolis. Paul often traveled this road.

Philippi was settled from ancient times largely because of the copper and gold deposits in the region. Formerly known as Krenides, it was seized in the fourth century b.c. from the native Thracians by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Philip renamed the city for himself and enlarged the gold-mining operations. It came under Roman domination in 168 b.c. and was enlarged in 42 b.c. when Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius on the plains southwest of the city. In 31 b.c., after defeating Antony at the battle of Actium, Octavian granted the city the status of a colony.

Subsequently a number of military veterans were settled there. The Roman influence was particularly strong in Philippi as reflected in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and in the present narrative. When Macedonia had first come under Roman influence, it had been divided into four administrative districts. Although these were later dissolved into a single provincial structure with Thessalonica as capital, the distinction between the four districts seems to have persisted. This is perhaps reflected in Luke’s designating the city as “the leading city of that district of Macedonia” (v. 12).19 Actually, Amphipolis was the larger city and had been capital of the district before the provincial reorganization. Perhaps Luke reflected a local claim that Philippi was Macedonia’s “foremost city,” a claim not totally unjustified when one considers its illustrious history.

16:13 The four missionaries evidently set themselves up in the city and waited until the next Sabbath before beginning their witness. According to Paul’s usual pattern, they sought out the Jewish place of worship first. In this instance there does not seem to have been a Jewish synagogue at Philippi.20 Instead, they learned of a place of prayer outside the city gates.21 It was by a river, probably the Gangites, which lies about a mile and a quarter from the city gates. The Romans were sometimes uneasy about foreign cults. Judaism was a recognized religion; but perhaps because there was no formally constituted synagogue, the women had to meet outside the city.22 If there were no Jews present and all the women were Gentile “God-fearers” like Lydia, this may have made their gathering even more suspect in the city. In any event, the gathering of women was the closest thing to a synagogue at Philippi; and Paul took the usual posture a speaker assumed in a synagogue, sitting down, to address the women. Most likely the event took place in the open air beside the river.

16:14 Among the women gathered there, one stood out. Her name was Lydia, the same as the ancient territory in which her native city of Thyatira was located. She is described as a dealer in goods dyed purple, a likely occupation since Thyatira was indeed a center of the purple dye trade.23 Lydia’s business is not an incidental detail. It marks her as a person of means. Purple goods were expensive and often associated with royalty; thus the business was a lucrative one.24 Lydia’s invitation to the four missionaries to stay in her home in itself indicates that she had considerable substance, such as guest rooms and servants to accommodate them adequately. Of all Paul’s churches, the Philippians’ generosity stood out. They continued to send him support in his missionary endeavors elsewhere (Phil 4:15–18; cf. 2 Cor 11:8).

One is tempted to see Lydia as a principal contributor. It is surely to go too far with such speculations, however, to argue that Paul married Lydia and that she was the “loyal yokefellow” of Phil 4:3.25 Women like Lydia were particularly prominent in Paul’s missionary efforts in this portion of Acts—the women of Thessalonica (17:4) and of Berea (17:12), Damaris in Athens (17:34), and Priscilla in Corinth (18:2). Priscilla and Lydia took an active role in the ministry of their churches.26 This was in part due to the more elevated status of women in the contemporary Greek and Roman society. This was particularly true in the first century when women were given a number of legal privileges such as initiating divorce, signing legal documents, even holding honorary public titles. The prominent role of the women in Acts is perhaps due even more to the message Paul brought them: “In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28).27

Lydia was a “worshiper of God” (16:14), one of those devout Gentiles like Cornelius who believed in God but had not become a full convert to Judaism. There was an extensive Jewish community at Thyatira, and she had perhaps first come to her faith in God there. As he had with Cornelius, God responded to her faith and “opened her heart” to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ which Paul proclaimed. As always with divine grace, it was God’s Spirit moving in her heart that led to faith.

16:15 Lydia made the missionaries’ acceptance of her hospitality the test of whether they really believed she had become a believer, “Come and see for yourself if the Lord has come to rule in my life” (author’s paraphrase). It was an offer they could not refuse. But she did not merely open her home to the missionaries; she allowed it to become the gathering place for the entire Christian community (v. 40). Perhaps the wealthiest member of the Philippian church, Lydia embraced the ideal of the early church, not laying claim to what was hers but freely sharing it with her sisters and brothers in Christ (4:32).

Not only did Lydia share her goods, but she shared her faith as well. As the leader of her household, she led them to join her in commitment and baptism (16:15). This is the first time the baptism of a “household” is narrated in Acts. Another will follow shortly (v. 33). There is no evidence whatever that this included infants, and it cannot be used in support of infant baptism. Previous references to Cornelius’s household indicate that those who were baptized both heard and believed the message (10:44; 11:4, 17). Throughout Acts baptism is based on personal faith and commitment, and there is no reason to see otherwise in the household baptisms.28

(2) Healing a Possessed Servant Girl (16:16–24)

16Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

19When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

16:16 Verse 16 opens a new scene but connects with the previous one to make a continuous narrative. On one of the occasions when the four missionaries were going outside the city to the place of prayer, they were encountered by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. The Greek speaks literally of a “python spirit.” The python was the symbol of the famous Delphic oracle and represented the god Apollo, who was believed to render predictions of future events. The serpent had thus become a symbol of augury, and anyone who was seen to possess the gift of foretelling the future was described as led by the “python.” Greeks and Romans put great stock on augury and divination. No commander would set out on a major military campaign nor would an emperor make an important decree without first consulting an oracle to see how things might turn out. A slave girl with a clairvoyant gift was thus a veritable gold mine for her owners.

16:17–18 Like the demoniacs during Jesus’ ministry, the possessed girl was evidently able to see into the true nature of Paul’s preaching, particularly into the reality of the God he proclaimed (cf. Luke 4:34; Mark 1:24). She constantly followed the missionaries about, shouting that they were servants of the “Most High God” and proclaimers of “a way of salvation” (author’s translation).

None of this would have been very clear to Gentiles. The term “God most high” was a common Old Testament term for God, but the same term was equally common in the Gentile world and was particularly applied to Zeus. Neither would “way of salvation” be immediately clear to a Gentile. The Greco-Roman world was full of “saviors.” Savior/deliverer, salvation/deliverance were favorite terms. The emperor dubbed himself “savior” of the people. All of which is to show why Paul finally became irritated with the girl’s constant acclamations.

These acclamations may have been true enough, but they were open to too much misunderstanding for pagan hearers. The truth could not be so easily condensed for those from a polytheistic background. Jesus might be seen as just another savior in the bulging pantheon of Greek gods.29 So Paul, in a form reminiscent of Jesus’ exorcisms, commanded the spirit to exit the girl. The spirit did so immediately.

16:19 That was not the only thing to vanish. With the spirit the owners’ prospects for further profit also exited. Luke probably intended the wordplay. He used the same verb (exēlthen) for the demon’s coming out in v. 18 as for the money’s going in v. 19. The latter created the problem. Healing a possessed girl was one thing; but when that involved considerable economic loss, that was a wholly different matter. The scene was reminiscent of the Gerasene pigs incident (Mark 5:16–17). The profit motive was a frequent obstacle to the gospel in Acts. It was certainly the downfall of Simon Magus (8:19f.). It would lead Demetrius and his fellow Ephesian silversmiths to violently oppose Paul (19:24–28). Here the greed of the slave girl’s owners was in marked contrast to the generosity of Lydia, who shared her house with the missionaries and the Philippian Christians. One’s relationship to material goods marks a major distinction between believers and nonbelievers in Acts. (Note how “believer” and “stay at my house” are closely linked in v. 15.)

The first-person narrative stops at v. 17 and does not re-appear in Acts until Paul’s return to Philippi in 20:6.30 Some scholars have seen this as an indication that Luke remained behind to minister in Philippi and did not rejoin Paul in his travel until this return visit at the end of his third mission.31 This is placing a great deal of faith in a basically stylistic matter, assuming that Luke always took pains to distinguish his presence by the use of the first person. What does seem to be indicated in the present context is that Luke and Timothy dropped out of the picture at this point. Only Paul and Silas got the brunt of the owners’ ire and were dragged before the magistrates (v. 19).

The scene is filled with local color and very much fits what is known from elsewhere about Philippi. The apostles were dragged into the marketplace (agora). In the excavations at Philippi, this agora, or forum, has been uncovered. On its northwest side stood a raised podium with stairs on two sides. This would have been the city tribunal where civil cases were tried. The city prison was located immediately adjacent to the agora. Although these ruins date from the second century a.d., it is likely that they were built on the same sites as the agora and prison where Paul and Silas were tried and incarcerated.32

16:20–21 The officials mentioned in vv. 20, 35 correspond to the pattern of authority for Roman colonies. The “magistrates” (stratēgoi) of v. 20, who probably were the same as the “authorities” of v. 19, would be the two men (known in Latin as the duuviri) who tried civil cases and were generally responsible for maintaining law and order. The “officers” mentioned in vv. 35, 38 (rhabdouchoi) were designated lictors in Latin and were responsible to the magistrates. They were the enforcement officers. Their symbol of office was a bundle of rods with an axe protruding from the middle, tied together with a red band called the fasces. (This symbol was revived in modern times by Mussolini for his “fascist” movement.) The rods were not mere decorations but were used in scourgings. The lictors in Philippi would have used them in the beating of Paul and Silas (v. 22). In fact, the word used for “beating” (rhabdizein) means literally to beat with rods, the customary manner of Roman scourgings.

The owners of the slave girl were careful in their charges to avoid the real issue of her healing and their resulting loss of profit. Basically their charges were threefold. The first was calculated to awaken latent prejudices in the crowd: “These men are Jews.”33 The second was extremely nebulous but would have evoked the attention of the magistrates who were responsible for “law and order”: They “are throwing our city into an uproar.” The last charge seems to be the only one with any substance: They are “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans.” This is generally interpreted as illegal proselytizing for Judaism,34 but the evidence is that Jews were not forbidden to proselytize until the time of Hadrian, well into the second century.35

16:22–24 None of the charges were valid, but they had their effect. The appeal to anti-Jewish sentiments and to nationalistic Roman pride won over the crowd (v. 22). The insinuation of a threat to civil order evidently won over the magistrates (v. 23). The magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped for scourging,36 and the lictors applied their rods. This probably was one of the three instances Paul mentioned in 2 Cor 11:25 when he received the Roman punishment of a flogging with rods. Finally, they were thrown into prison and placed under the tightest security. The prison keeper placed them in the innermost cell of the prison, the dungeon, we would say. Their feet were placed in wooden stocks, which were likely fastened to the wall. Often such stocks were used as instruments of torture; they had a number of holes for the legs, which allowed for severe stretching of the torso and thus created excruciating pain. Luke did not indicate that any torture was involved this time. The entire emphasis is on the tight security in which the two were held. This makes the miracle of their subsequent deliverance all the more remarkable.

(3) Converting a Jailer’s Household (16:25–34)

25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. 27The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.

The reader of Acts is not surprised to find Paul and Silas miraculously delivered from their confinement. It had happened before: to the apostles in 5:19–26 and to Peter in 12:5–19. The present narrative perhaps has more in common with the apostles’ deliverance, since in both these instances the primary emphasis is not on the rescue as such but on the divine power manifested in bringing about their freedom, which provides a stronger base for witness. In chap. 5 the apostles did not run away but willingly returned to the Sanhedrin for their scheduled trial.

The miracle considerably strengthened their position before the Sanhedrin, however, and paved the way for Gamaliel’s counsel (5:38f.). In the present narrative the same holds true. Though freed, Paul and Silas did not attempt to escape. The miracle served not to deliver them but rather to deliver the jailer. It served as the basis for Paul and Silas’s witness to him and for his conversion. The story thus falls into two divisions, the first relating Paul and Silas’s deliverance (vv. 25–28) and the second the conversion of the jailer and his household (vv. 29–34).

The Deliverance (16:25–28)

16:25–28 It was the middle of the night. Paul and Silas were singing hymns of praise to God. In Acts, Christians are always full of hope. Peter slept peacefully the night before his trial (12:6); Paul and Silas sang. Their praise and good cheer was in itself a witness to God, and the other prisoners listened intently. The area around Philippi often experiences earthquakes and tremors, but this one happened at just the right time. The prison doors probably were locked by bars; these flew up, and the doors opened. Everyone’s chains came loose. The chains may have been attached to the walls and wrenched loose by the violence of the quake. The jailer was aroused by the earthquake and spotted the open doors.

Supposing that the prisoners had already escaped, he drew his sword to kill himself, preferring death by his own hand than by Roman justice. Jailers and guards were personally responsible for their prisoners and in some instances were executed for allowing them to escape (cf. 12:19). The jailer’s prisoners had not escaped; and when Paul looked up in the open doorway and saw what he was about to do, he shouted for him to stop, assuring him they were all still in the cell. To this point the reader would have expected the story of Paul and Silas’s escape.37 It was not to be so. The miraculous release did not lead to their escape but to the far more significant event of the jailer’s conversion.

The Witness (16:29–34)

16:29–34 Calling for lamps or torches, the jailer rushed in and fell at the feet of Paul and Silas. It may have been a gesture of worship, but Paul did not object, as at Lystra (14:15). It was certainly an expression of subservience.38 Paul had saved his life, and Paul’s God, who had reduced in an instant all his efforts at prison security, was obviously one to be respected. It has often been argued that his question (“What must I do to be saved?”) was intended in the secular sense of the word “salvation,” that he was asking how his life should be spared. But his life had already been spared. No one had escaped. More likely he asked about his salvation in the full religious sense. Perhaps he had heard the servant girl’s proclamation that Paul spoke of the way of salvation (v. 17). Perhaps he had heard Paul’s preaching or reports of his preaching but had not fully understood. Perhaps he had fallen asleep to the sound of Paul and Silas’s hymns to God. Now he was ready for understanding. The miracle of the earthquake and the prisoners who wouldn’t flee arrested his attention and prepared his heart to receive Paul’s message.

His question is a classic expression that has lived through the centuries and must be asked by everyone who comes to faith. Paul’s answer is equally classic. It cannot be put any simpler: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your whole household” (cf. 11:14).

At some point the jailer’s household entered the scene. Luke did not specify when. Perhaps the mention of the household triggered the jailer’s awareness that Paul and Silas were about to share something his whole family should hear. In any event, all were present when Paul and Silas shared the words of the Lord. Here Luke made explicit what was implicit in the Lydia story: the whole household heard the gospel proclaimed. There was no “proxy” faith. The whole family came to faith in God (v. 34). Coming from a pagan background as they did, their newfound faith had a double dimension—faith in Jesus as Savior and faith in God as the one true God.

The witness to Christ was primary and took precedence over everything else. Now the jailer became aware of the two prisoners’ suffering and bathed the wounds from their beating.

Perhaps this took place in the courtyard where the household water supply would be located. Throughout Luke’s story he focused attention on the various signs evidencing conversion (i.e., speaking in tongues, expressions of joy, and hospitality). Here the evidence of conversion is the jailer’s washing of the apostles’ wounds. There then took place an even more significant “washing,” when the jailer’s family was baptized.39 Then the jailer treated Paul and Silas in a most unusual fashion for prisoners. He took them into his house and fed them at his own table.40 They were no longer prisoners in his eyes; they were brothers in Christ.

(4) Humbling the City Magistrates (16:35–40)

35When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” 36The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”

37But Paul said to the officers: “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.”

38The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and encouraged them. Then they left.

16:35–36 Luke did not tell us why the magistrates changed their minds and decided to release the two prisoners. Perhaps they were more interested in having them outside of the city limits than keeping them in further incarceration.41 However that may be, they sent the “officers” to instruct the jailer to release them. These officers were the lictors (rhabdouchoi), the “rod-bearers,” who had earlier given Paul and Silas the flogging (v. 23). The jailer was all too glad to inform the two that they had been released and to send them off with the Christian greeting of “peace.”42

16:37 Paul, however, would not go and insisted that the magistrates come to jail in person and request their departure. He had the upper hand in the matter. He was a Roman citizen; evidently Silas was also (cf. v. 37). The magistrates had had them publicly flogged and thrown in prison, and all that without a trial. It was strictly an illegal procedure. Evidently local magistrates did have the right to mete out minor punishments like flogging of noncitizens, even without a hearing. They seem in Paul’s day to have had this authority even for offending Roman citizens—but not without a trial.43 They had scourged and imprisoned two Roman citizens with no formal condemnation, and that was beyond their authority. In this case the magistrates were unaware that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens.44 Evidently in the hubbub of the original “hearing,” the slave owners did all the talking and the crowd all the shouting; and the two missionaries were unable to communicate the fact.

16:38 The “alarm” of the magistrates was understandable (v. 38). Abuse of the rights of a Roman citizen was a serious offense. Magistrates could be removed from office for such; a municipality could have its rights reduced. For instance, the emperor could deprive Philippi of all the privileges of its colony status for such an offense.

16:39–40 The situation was ironic. Paul and Silas had been treated as criminals but were innocent. The magistrates who condemned them now found themselves genuine lawbreakers. They lost no time in getting to the jail and requesting the departure of the citizens.45 Evidently they were still concerned about all the commotion Paul and Silas had stirred up among the citizenry and requested that they leave town also. The two missionaries complied, but they were in no rush—nor did they really have to be. The magistrates would give them no trouble now. So before departing they once again visited the Christians of the city. The church had grown; Lydia, not surprisingly, made her home available as a house church (v. 40). Satisfied that all was in good order, the two missionaries left for the next city.

Paul may have seemed a bit huffy in his demand for a formal apology from the magistrates, but that is not the point. It was essential that the young Christian community have a good reputation among the authorities if its witness was to flourish. Christians broke none of the Roman laws. Luke was at pains to show this. It would continue to be a major emphasis in Acts. In this instance Paul and Silas were totally innocent of any wrongdoing. It was important that the magistrates acknowledge their innocence and set the record straight. This was why Paul made such a major point of it.

Endnotes

5 Some of the church fathers, such as Rufinius and Origen, saw Timothy as coming from Derbe. This may have come from a misreading of Acts 20:4, where Timothy is listed immediately after Gaius of Derbe.

6 Mishna Qiddushin 3:12. See S. Belkin, “The Problem of Paul’s Background,” JBL 54 (1935): 41–60. For an opposing view, which argues that the Mishnaic law was not in force in Paul’s day and that Timothy would have been considered a Gentile, see S. J. D. Cohen, “Was Timothy Jewish (Acts 16:1–3)? Patristic Exegesis, Rabbinic Law, and Matrilineal Descent,” JBL 105 (1986): 251–68. For the view that Timothy’s circumcision was actually that of Titus in Gal 2:3–5, see W. O. Walker, “The Timothy-Titus Problem Reconsidered,” ExpTim 92 (1981): 231–35.

7 For the portrait of Timothy in the Pastoral Epistles, see J. P. Alexander, “The Character of Timothy,” ExpTim 25 (1913–14): 277–85.

 

8 W. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen [1897; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987], 182–84) suggests that the rise of the Judaizing problem may have led Paul to abandon the decrees because of abuse in a legalistic direction by that group.

9 For other summaries, cf. 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31, 42.

 

10 W. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveller, 210–12) argued that the two terms should be taken as a single entity, the Phrygio-Galatian region, referring to the area of southern Galatia around Antioch. This, however, creates an overlap with 16:1–5 and allows no progress in the travel narrative. More likely Luke meant by “Galatia” the old kingdom of Galatia in the north and not the southern portions of the Roman province of Galatia which Luke had heretofore designated as Phrygia, Pamphilia, Pisidia, Lycaonia, etc. If so, Paul perhaps established at this time the churches to which he later addressed the Galatian epistle. For a full discussion see J. Polhill, “Galatia Revisited: The Life-Setting of the Epistle,” RevExp 49 (1972): 437–43. For “Phrygia” used adjectivally in support of Ramsay’s view, see C. J. Hemer, “The Adjective ‘Phrygia,’ ” JTS 27 (1976): 122–26 and “Phrygia: A Further Note,” JTS 28 (1977): 99–101.

 

11 For the Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus, cf. Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11.

 

12 W. P. Bowers suggests that they already must have had some thought of a Macedonian mission because they took the unlikely route to Troas (“Paul’s Route through Mysia: A Note on Acts xvi, 8,” JTS 30 [1979]: 507–11).

 

13 For a thorough treatment of Troas, see C. J. Hemer, “Alexandria Troas,” TB 26 (1975): 79–112.

 

14 A church may have been established at Troas as early as this first visit of Paul. Acts 20:5–12 indicates a Christian community existed there. Paul spoke of his witnessing there on a later occasion (2 Cor 2:12; cf. 2 Tim 4:13).

 

15 Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, 200–205.

 

16 W. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, DSB (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 131f.

 

17 For the significance of the “we” passages, see the discussion on authorship in the introduction. Recently V. K. Robbins has argued that the “we” is a literary device associated with sea narratives (“By Land and By Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages,” Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the SBL Seminar, ed. C. Talbert [New York: Crossroad, 1984]), 215–42. The difficulty with this is that the “we” extends into the narrative far beyond the voyage (cf. 16:17) and only occurs in three of the ten or twelve voyages in Acts. See G. Krodel, Acts, PC (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 303.

 

18 O. Glombitza points to the significance of the accusative case in v. 10 as the object of εὐαγγελίσασθαι (“Der Schritt nach Europa: Erwägungen zu Act 16, 9–15,” ZNW 53 [1962]:

77–82). It is not a matter of preaching the good news to the Macedonians (dative case) but of “evangelizing them,” bringing them into a new existence through the gospel.

19 The problem is somewhat more complicated than the NIV would indicate. The best manuscripts read “the first city of the district of Macedonia.” The Western text reads “the capital” (κεφαλή) of Macedonia. Only a couple of Latin minuscules have the reading “a leading city of the first district of Macedonia,” but this reading fits the facts best.

 

20 At least ten males were required to form a synagogue. Since only women are mentioned in the gathering outside Philippi, there were likely not sufficient Jewish males to constitute a synagogue there.

 

21 “Place of prayer” is sometimes used to designate a synagogue, and some interpreters argue that there was an actual synagogue building in this instance. Synagogues were often, but not necessarily, located close to a water supply because of their needs for the rites of purification.

22 The ruins of an arched gateway stand outside the walls of Philippi. It has been suggested that this gateway is the one mentioned in v. 13 and served as a marker for the area within which no foreign cults could be observed. See W. A. McDonald, “Archaeology and St. Paul’s Journeys in Greek Lands,” BA 3 (1940): 18–24.

 

23 E. Haenchen (The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971], 494) mentions a monument excavated at Thessalonica with which the purple dyers of that city honored a fellow tradesman from Thyatira.

 

24 There were evidently two methods for producing the expensive purple dyes. One was to extract the color from the glands of the murex shell. This is the known method employed in the extensive dye industry at Sidon. Another method still employed in the region of ancient Thyatira extracted the dye from the juice of the madder root.

 

25 Several Victorian exegetes, such as E. Renan and T. Zahn, argued just that (Haenchen, Acts, 494). “Yokefellow” is masculine gender in Phil 4:3 and probably should not be understood as the designation for a wife.

 

26 For an excellent treatment of Lydia, see R. Ryan, “Lydia, a Dealer in Purple Goods,” TBT 22 (1984): 285–89.

 

27 See W. D. Thomas, “The Place of Women in the Church at Philippi,” ExpTim 83 (1971–72): 117–20.

 

28 For the view that household baptisms included infants, see J. Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (London: SCM, 1960). For the opposing viewpoint, see G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Exeter: Paternoster, 1972), esp. 312–20.

 

29 For this view that the girl’s acclamation was open to serious misunderstanding by pagans, see P. R. Trebilco, “Paul and Silas—‘Servants of the Most High God’ (Acts 16, 16–18),” JSNT 36 (1989): 51–73.

30 See H. J. Cadbury, “ ‘We’ and ‘I’ Passages in Luke-Acts,” NTS 3 (1957): 129.

 

31 See F. F. Bruce, “St. Paul in Macedonia,” BJRL 61 (1979): 337–54.

 

32 McDonald, “Archaeology and St. Paul’s Journeys,” 20–21.

 

33 Roman satirists evidenced strong anti-Semitic tendencies in the first century. Diaspora Jews generally lived in their own enclaves; and their customs appeared narrow and superstitious to Gentiles, particularly their rite of circumcision, abstention from eating pork, and scrupulous observance of the Sabbath. See J. Polhill, “Circumcision,” MDB, 156.

 

34 For instance, Haenchen (Acts, 496, n. 5) states that it was illegal to proselytize Roman citizens and notes that this would have been particularly true in a city like Philippi with colony status.

 

35 See A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 81–82. Awareness that Jewish proselytism was not illegal in Paul’s day leads D. R. Schwartz to suggest that the circumstantial participle in v. 20 should be translated as a concessive—“although these men are Jews, they are teaching unlawful customs” (“which Jews would not do,” being implied; “The Accusation and the Accusers at Philippi [Acts 16, 20–21],” Bib 65 [1984]: 357–63).

 

36 Verse 22 reads literally, “And the magistrates, tearing off their garments, commanded rodding.” The “their” is ambiguous and could be seen as the magistrates tearing their own garments in horror at Paul and Silas’s “crime.” Since prisoners were always stripped for lashing, the present context seems more naturally to call for the stripping of Paul and Silas. See K. Lake and H. J. Cadbury, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity, vol. 5: Additional Notes (London: Macmillan, 1933), 272–73.

 

37 There are many interesting parallels between this narrative and other “rescue” stories in the ancient literature. The closest are found in the noncanonical Jewish tradition with regard to Joseph’s imprisonment (T. Jos. 8:4–5). See W. K. L. Clarke, “St. Luke and the Pseudepigrapha: Two Parallels,” JTS 15 (1913–14): 598f. There are similar elements, such as loosened bonds and doors flying open in an escape story in Euripides (Bacchae, 443–48).

 

38 Leaving nothing to the imagination, the Western text adds that the jailer resecured all the other prisoners before leading Paul and Silas out of the cell (v. 30).

 

39 Surely all those who understood and responded to Paul and Silas’s preaching—not the infants. See n. 28.

 

40 The text gives no warrant for seeing the “meal” as the Lord’s Supper, as is maintained by some commentators.

41 The Western text provides an answer, greatly expanding on verse 35f., in which the magistrates are said to have changed their minds for fear after the earthquake.

 

42 It is the customary Jewish greeting (shalom). Cf. Judg 18:6; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50; 8:48; Acts 15:33; Jas 2:16.

 

43 See Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law, 71–76.

 

44 How did one prove citizenship? We don’t know. Public records were kept, usually on small wooden diptychs which were small enough to be carried on one’s person. Evidence indicates that this was not usually done, but rather they were deposited with one’s valuables. Except for the military and merchants, society was not all that mobile; and transients like Paul and Silas were somewhat rare. One probably did not normally lie about citizenship; it was an offense punishable by death. See H. J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (New York: Harper, 1955), 68–78; Sherwin-White, Roman Law and Roman Society, 151–52.

 

45 The Western text is again quite expansive at v. 39. It has the magistrates request the two to leave in order that they might not again make such a horrible mistake and condemn citizens unjustly.

 

John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 342–358.

 


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