Acts 16:16–40 . . .
“Arrest, Praise Singing, Earthquake, Salvation”
An earthquake is an awesome experience, or at least it should be. Likely, you've witnessed the surprise, wonder, and power of an earthquake. In today's text, the Philippian jailer endured a life-changing earthquake. Although we can't fathom the Richter rating of that Philippi jail-house event, it didn't just bring the man to his knees, it caused him to fall prostrate at the feet of two of his prisoners, Paul and Silas. Both men had just been beaten as law-breakers; the jailer had placed them in maximum security with their feet secured in stocks. A lot had happened that night to have brought the jailer to the ground. What was it about Paul and Silas that was different from any of the other prisoners, commanding the jailer to make such a gesture of reverence and respect? Keep this question in mind as we review and discuss evangelization in Philippi, as per Luke's illustrious account.
Three Successive Evangelism Events in Philippi
We'll begin by putting today's prison-earthquake passage into context. Luke has woven together three separate-but-related Philippian incidents. The first is the conversion of Lydia (16:13–15). The second is an encounter with a demon-possessed slave girl, from whom Paul eventually casts out a demon (vv. 16–18). The third incident is the conversion of the Philippian jailer and his household (vv. 23–34).
The conversion of Lydia’s household and that of the jailer are the first and last conversions in this city, so far as Luke informs us. And so, these two conversions take us from start (i.e., Lydia) to finish (i.e., the jailer). In between is the story of the slave girl who's really the link, as it were, between the Lydia story and the jailer story. The slave girl first attached herself to this missionary party on their way to the place of prayer, every day from that point on, until her release from the demon who'd overpowered her. Her deliverance from demonic possession was the occasion for the unjust beating and imprisonment of Paul and Silas. But it also provided the needed “introduction” to the jailer, who'd be saved, along with his household.
Paul’s Liberating a Slave Woman Will Cost a Fortune! (16:16–24)
Without a nearby synagogue, Paul returned to the place of prayer in Philippi where he'd met and converted Lydia (detailed in Warren's summary of Acts 16:1–15). On the way to the place of prayer, a slave girl or woman confronted them. Demon-possessed, she was being exploited out of greed. The spirit that controlled her enabled her to foretell the future as a fortune teller. This woman was owned by others, producing a financial fortune for them. It may puzzle you to hear what this demonized young woman constantly shouted as she followed Paul and the others (v. 17). Her words were true, but why would she say them?
It's doubtful that this slave girl intended to say what she said, but she was unable to say anything else. All she could do was speak the truth about Paul and his colleagues and the gospel they'd come to preach. But why would Paul get annoyed and cast out the demon? Wasn’t it working in his favor by proclaiming that Paul was God’s servant who was proclaiming the way of salvation? Actually no. The problem doesn't seem to be what she said; rather, in addition to creating a distraction by chanting repetitively, Paul didn't want it to appear as if she were his "partner in the gospel." Such a collaborative effort would have given the impression that Christianity is a friend of the occult!
Paul felt no compulsion to deliver this young heckling woman. Just because she was possessed didn't obligate him to deliver her. And with her days-long heckling effort, it's clear that Paul was in no hurry to correct that situation. Eventually this young woman’s opposition became too much to bear, and Paul spoke to the spirit, not to her, commanding it, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come out of the woman. The spirit instantly obeyed.
It didn't take long, apparently, for this slave woman’s owners to realize that Paul had cost them a fortune, literally. They were greatly enraged. So they physically grabbed and dragged Paul and Silas to the city officials in the marketplace, which wasn't only a place where people sold things. In a Roman colony, it was the center of public life — everything important happened there, for everyone to see.
Their accusations were designed to play upon the anti-Jewish sentiments of the citizens of Philippi. Just as Jesus was accused of misleading the people, so as to violate Roman law, so Paul and Silas were accused of persuading people to oppose Roman law in Philippi. And as such opposition stirred up the crowds against Jesus in Jerusalem, so it persuaded the Philippian crowds to oppose Paul and his associates.
In v. 22, Luke informs us that “The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.” This was far from what we'd consider “due process of the law.” Clearly, this was a virtual riot, with the entire crowd acting out of control. Any objections to that attack would have been futile.
Enter the jailer. Paul and Silas had been beaten severely, then cast into prison. A jailer was instructed to guard them securely; he took this charge seriously and put (threw) them in an inner cell. In other words, they were in "maximum security," a.k.a. "the hole." This inner cell would be that portion of the prison that had no windows, so there'd be no light or fresh air. As such, inside it would be putrid, difficult to breathe, and in pitch darkness. Add to that the fact that the two were imprisoned while their legs and lacerated backs were bleeding. To make doubly sure they couldn't escape, their feet were put into stocks. One can only imagine the pain these two heroes of the faith endured during this incarceration. All in all, the jailer took no chances on their escaping!
Three Noteworthy Responses (vv. 25–34)
The Missionaries’ Response to Suffering (v. 25) Confined in their prison cell, Paul and Silas likely reflected on their predicament. Or was it their opportunity? Obviously, they suffered for their effective service to the Lord. They likely wondered about themselves. Think to yourself before answering these three questions: What would have been your normal response if you'd been beaten and thrown into prison because you preached the gospel? . . . Would you have prayed? . . . Would you have sung aloud to God? . . .
To help you answer the questions, realize this: The devil may be able to inflict great suffering upon you for being obedient to Jesus Christ, but he can never prevent you from praying; neither can he take away your song! It doesn’t matter what's done to you; you can always pray and sing to God. Our Father is always with us. He'll never leave or forsake us. So, as you struggle and suffer, make a hearty effort to pray and sing to Almighty God! Notice in v. 25b that the “the other prisoners were listening to them.” That’s critical! God would want his Hearty Boys to be on the inside of this prison to rescue perishing sinners within earshot. You can be sure that when we go through suffering ordeals, others are watching and listening. And when we respond in faith, worship, and praise to God, in the midst of our suffering, others sit up and take notice and find interest.
God’s "Checkmate" Response (v. 26) Have you ever played chess and you were losing badly? All of a sudden you're able to take your opponent’s Queen, then you go on to win the game and declare "Checkmate!" That’s what's happening here. The devil had been allowed to do his thing. With his next move, he got God’s men arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison. Then God moved: He answered the prayers of his men and decided to cause the earth to quake so strongly that all the prison doors opened and all the chains became unfastened, without the building collapsing and killing anyone. Now, how do you engineer an earthquake with such dynamics? You can't! But God can. So, Almighty God put his men exactly where he wanted them to be; then he brought about this supernatural earthquake, which set the next dramatic scene in this jail-house drama: "God's Conversion of a Calloused Jailer."
The Jailer's Back-to-Back Responses (v. 27–34) Scene 1: The jailer feared for his life. In vv. 27–28, the jailer discovered open prison doors and instantly assumed that everyone had escaped. A jailer's penalty for allowing a prisoner to escape would be death. So, rather than wait and endure a shameful execution, this jailer figured he'd "off" himself immediately. But for Paul, instead of escaping while he had the chance, he stayed. Why? Paul was more concerned about the jailer’s soul than with his own personal safety. Because it wasn't time for the jailer to enter eternity, Paul stayed and made the effort to bring him the truth.
Scene 2: The jailer will ask Paul a most important question (vv. 29–30). Rushing into the inner prison cell where Paul and Silas were, trembling with fear and falling down before them, the jailer asked them: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Don't be confused by his question about being "saved." He wasn't asking what he had to do to prevent his superiors from executing him. After all, no one had escaped. Further, Paul’s answer shows that he understood that this man was talking about spiritual salvation, not physical salvation.
Notice the significant change that this jailer had undergone. Previously, he'd thrown both beaten, lacerated men into the inner prison cell, fastening their feet within stocks. As Luke tells us now in v. 30, he addressed the men with respect, calling them "Sirs."
Scene 3: The jailer's deep conviction of sin leads to belief and conversion (vv. 31–34). As soon as the fear of physical death was removed after seeing that every prisoner was still present, another greater fear arose: He was fearful of standing sinfully before a holy God. The Spirit of God had brought him to the place where he knew he was sinful and lost, required one day to stand before God to be sentenced to heaven or hell. Remember: For many days, the slave girl had been declaring that Paul and Silas were God's ambassadors who proclaimed the way of salvation. No doubt the jailer knew of her testimony. He'd seen how these men had responded most kindly to his harsh, cruel treatment of them. Having experienced and survived the powerful earthquake, the jailer likely believed it to be a testimony from God to him that the Lord's two servants were being persecuted unjustly. All of this brought about his realization of being sinful, which led to a life-changing belief in the Lord, for him and his family members.
The Sequel (vv. 35–40)
When police officers arrived with their message from the magistrates, the jailer surely saw this as good news. He'd already given these two men freedom within the confines of the prison by taking them into his dwelling. Now they were free to depart. But freedom from that prison wasn't of primary importance to Paul. Now, once again, there appeared to be an “open door,” which would have granted Paul and Silas a legal release. But at what price?
Paul and Silas had been deprived of their rights as citizens of Rome. The beating they received, and their imprisonment, were illegal. The magistrates undoubtedly hoped that the two would silently slip out of town, never to be seen again. But that wasn't about to happen. Paul wasn't simply “standing up for his rights;” he was standing up for what was right, and for what was best for the gospel and the church.
Paul and Silas didn't hastily leave town. When the magistrates had made their apology, they headed to Lydia's home. They'd have needed to regroup with Timothy and Luke and to use this as an opportunity to encourage the believers in this new church.
- Q. 1 Of the missionary band, why were Paul and Silas seized while Luke and Timothy were ignored?
- Q. 2 What kind of man was the jailer before his salvation? In what ways did he express his new faith in Jesus?
- Q. 3 What are some practical steps you use to deepen your daily joy in the Lord?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 16.]
† Watch this video clip of Acts 15:22–16:34, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
Paul and Silas in Prison
16Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17She 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 annoyed 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 her owners 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 with rods. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
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 everyone’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 household 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 household.
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 sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.