Thursday, November 03, 2022

Acts 16:16-40

Acts 16:16–40 (ESV)✞: Paul and Silas in Prison, The Philippian Jailer Converted


I don’t think this is the first time this is happening—in fact, I’d meant to mention this on a previous post—but the text is now occasionally saying “we” instead of “they” (e.g. verse 16 (ESV)✞), which means that Luke is actually accompanying Paul on some of his journeys and has a firsthand view as to what’s happening.

Regardless, in this passage Paul is about to be thrown in jail for the following act:

16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

verses 16-18 (ESV)✞

This might not seem like a jail-able offence, until we consider that verse 16 called out her “owners” – that is, people are making money from this girl’s divinations. So when Paul removes the spirit from her—lowercase s “spirit,” not uppercase S “Spirit”—they are angry at Paul for taking their profits away. So they bring Paul and some others before the city’s magistrates and claim that they’re stirring up trouble, saying, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (verses 20-21 (ESV)✞). The crowd joins in on the attack—I think this is just pure mob mentality, not a crowd that had previously had anything against Paul and his companions—so the magistrates have the men stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown in jail. The jailer takes no chances, putting them into the “inner prison” and fastening their feet in stocks (verse 24 (ESV)✞). I’d always pictured this as the men’s feet being in chains, not having looked up what “stocks” are, but they’re a bit different, as this Wikipedia article points out.

And then we get to the part that I consider to be the crucial part of this event:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

verses 25-34 (ESV)✞

Funnily enough, the magistrates decide to let the men go the next morning anyway! However, Paul wants a bit of accountability:

37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city.

verses 37-39 (ESV)✞


This is an interesting passage at first glance, and a fascinating one the more I think about it!

Paul Calling for Accountability

One point that interests me is Paul holding the city officials accountable for breaking Roman law by having him thrown in prison. It’s striking because it’s not something that happens every time Paul is jailed. It seems there are times for the Christian to endure the hardships thrown at us by the world, and times for us to stand up for ourselves and assert our own rights. It’s not 100% either/or, it’s sometimes yes and sometimes no. (And sometimes partially?)

I think this takes wisdom on our part; when do we decide to stand up for our rights, and when do we recognize that we just need to suffer for God? There may be times when standing up for our rights wouldn’t actually do any good – or would do us good, but would get in the way of sharing the Gospel!

Paul’s Annoyance

It’s easy to gloss over, but this episode begins with Paul being annoyed by the slave girl! And what was she doing that was so annoying? Well, the spirit that was in her was saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (verse 17 (ESV)✞). So… she was telling the truth. The same truth Paul and his companions were probably sharing!

The story doesn’t start with the girl or one of her guardians begging for Paul to remove the unclean spirit, it begins with an unclean spirit rightly proclaiming that Paul and his companions are serving “the Most High God,” and are proclaiming the way of salvation, but doing it for so long that Paul starts to get annoyed! Whatever our thoughts on Paul (and I’m going to go out on a limb and assume they’re generally positive), to me, this story doesn’t paint him in a good light.

One question that comes to mind is why he waited so long, but I assume it was an effort to avoid the very trouble he found himself in anyway: not angering the girl’s owners. But if that’s true… might not the beating and night in prison be a message from God to Paul? “Do the right thing, regardless of what you think the consequences are, because I am in control, for good and bad” kind of a thing?

That might be a stretch, I’m not sure.

The Jailer

It feels to me like this entire series of events is orchestrated by God to save the jailer and his family. Including (and especially) the earthquake that frees the prisoners, which, as mentioned previously, would have been pointless if the goal was to get Paul out of jail because he was about to be freed anyway! No, the point seems to have been to send a message to the jailer.

And he gets it immediately. As soon as Paul tells him that the prisoners are still there he rushes in and asks them how he can be saved. However, it doesn’t happen in a void: verse 29, where the jailer asks how he can be saved, is directly related back to verse 25 in which we’re told that Paul and his companions have been praying and singing hymns to God, with the other prisoners listening. Of course the jailer would have heard too. Not that he believed—he didn’t—but had had a bunch of foundation laid. So when the power of God was revealed to him, it was a matter of him quickly connecting the dots in his mind: if this is true, then all the stuff they’ve been saying all along must also be true, so… I need to be saved!

This actually reminds me of a conversation I’d been having with my wife the day before I wrote this post about the conversion of Paul himself. As many have pointed out before me, Paul was the perfect person to do so much of the thinking (and writing) that shaped Christianity, coming from such a deep theological background in Judaism. He wasn’t just Jewish he was a Pharisee, and seems to have had a very deep knowledge of God’s Law. He already knew much of what he needed to know to understand God and His relationship with His people, so all he needed was that final push: the confrontation with Jesus Himself. And that that point it was like a light switch changed: he thought to himself, “well if that’s true, then all this other stuff must be true too,” and from there he went on to rethink everything he knew about God, Judaism, the Law, sin, and… well, theology in general!

I’m not saying that he instantly changed all of his thinking on all of Judaism, but I think there was a switch flipped that as soon as he realized Jesus was really the Messiah he also realized that things needed to fundamentally change in his understanding of God.

And now we have the New Testament, much of which was written by Paul himself.

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