Acts 16:16-40 – Paul and Silas in Prison

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Acts 16:16

  1. When Paul and his associates go to the place of prayer, they meet a girl with a spirit that is believed to be able to predict the future. Where the Bible says “divining”, it translates directly from the original Greek text as “python-ing”.
    1. In Greek mythology, the Greek god Apollo killed a large snake called Pyton. In Delphi, the site of this event, the Greeks built a temple where people could come to consult the gods by lying on the floor and letting snakes coil over them. A python thus became a symbol of the oracle at Delphi, and anyone who was thought to be able to predict the future was then often described as “led by the python”.
    1. In the Greco-Roman world, great importance was attached to oracles and to trying to predict the future. Emperors and generals always consulted soothsayers before making major decisions or going to war.
      1. In such an environment, owning a slave girl who was thought to be able to foresee the future was undeniably a good deal for the owner.

Acts 16:17

  1. In New Testament times, there was a notion that if you knew the true name or title of a spirit, you could gain power over it and control it. So it may be that this spirit of divination is trying to gain power and control over Paul’s teachings by titling him as “the servant of the Most High God”.
    1. Jesus encountered several demon-possessed people who rightly titled him, but he did not accept such a confession but instead freed the possessed from their demons (Luke 8:28, Mark 1:24, Mark 3:11, Matthew 8:29).
  2. In James 2:19 we see that even demons believe in God in a sense, but that does not automatically mean that they belong to God and are saved.
    1. Even if the spirit of divination tells the truth about God, it does not mean that the spirit comes from God and leads people on the right path to salvation.

Acts 16:18

  1. Why is Paul upset that this spirit of divination is telling the truth about God and salvation? Because the more people who listen to Paul and believe what he says, the more it confirms that the soothsayer is right, which risks reinforcing the belief in the Greek god Apollo and the oracle of Delphi. The demon did not confess that God is the Most High in order to honour God, but to associate the gospel with the demonic.
  2. Notice that the Spirit of Prophecy says “ONE way to salvation” and not “THE WAY to salvation”. Jesus is clear that he “IS the way” and that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
    1. If Paul had not reacted in this way, there would have been an obvious risk that the Greeks who believed in Paul’s teachings would have continued to believe in Apollo as well, and thus would have remained polytheists. But for anyone who wants to confess Jesus as Lord, there is no room for more than one God on the throne.
  3. Paul is not upset with the slave girl but with the demonic spirit. He addresses the spirit and commands it to come out of her in Jesus’ name.
    1. In the same way, we should relate to people who have experienced similar problems. We should not blame the person who has suffered, but rather lead them to deliverance from their troubles in Jesus’ name.

Acts 16:19

  1. The moment the spirit disappeared, so did the owners’ income opportunities. The masters of the slave girl did not care that a person had been freed from an evil spirit, but that they risked losing money.
    1. Greed often risks becoming an obstacle to salvation (Mark 5:16-17, Acts 8:19, Acts 19:24-28), while generosity is often a result of salvation (Luke 19:8-9, Acts 16:15).

Acts 16:20-22

  1. As long as the Greeks perceived that Paul’s teachings were compatible with their ancient religion, they saw no reason to stop him. But when they found that they had to leave their religion and source of income in order to be saved, it suddenly became a different matter.
  2. In the Roman Empire, Roman citizens had clear rights and could not be treated in any way, while non-citizens were often subject to the whims of the crowd. The company consisted of Paul, Silas, Luke and Timothy. Of these, Paul and Silas are singled out, presumably because they looked like Jews and so were assumed not to have Roman citizenship. Luke was Greek and Timothy was half Greek and half Jewish.
  3. The accusations against Paul are neither true nor were they illegal. Jews were allowed to proselytize until the second century. But regardless, the false accusations had an effect and led to Paul and Silas being imprisoned.

Acts 16:23-24

  1. To be beaten in this way was a punishment meant to humiliate a man in public. You were beaten as if you were a disobedient animal, and you might well die from the punishment, even if the purpose was rather to humiliate. Because it was so degrading, it was illegal to give this punishment to Roman citizens and was only considered appropriate for the lower classes of society; slaves and non-citizens.
    1. The person to be punished was stripped naked, tied to a pole and whipped on the back. In the worst cases, the whip or stick could be fitted with small sharp pieces of iron or glass, so that the skin on the back would stick to the whip and tear off when the whip was withdrawn. Such a terrible whipping could result in the back being completely destroyed so that the intestines could be seen inside the body.
    1. After the whipping, Paul and Silas were put with their feet in a log. This was done to further make it as painful and uncomfortable as possible.

Acts 16:25

  1. Paul and Silas did not let the fact that they were falsely accused or brutally beaten stop their praise to God. Though their backs were in agony, their hearts were in heaven.
    1. All people can be happy when something positive happens, but a Christian can experience inner peace and heavenly joy even in dark and negative moments. Instead of getting angry and bitter at their accusers, Paul and Silas sang praises to God.
      1. Paul writes to the church in Philippi: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything let God know your desires through supplication and prayer with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7)
      1. If we are in a dark situation overwhelmed with problems and worries, we need to pray and sing praises, because then we will be filled with God’s peace.
  2. The other prisoners in the jail listened to Paul and Silas singing praises. They had probably only heard swearing, negative talk and curses before, and were amazed that anyone could sing praise in such a dark situation.
    1. It is very special to hear the gospel from someone who is in the same situation as you, or at least has been in the past. When an addict hears about Jesus from a former addict, he is more receptive than if he hears it from someone who has never even smoked a cigarette or had a beer.
      1. The negative experiences we have in life can be a great blessing for people in the same situation. The dark experiences you are going through right now can lead to liberation and salvation for people around you at a later time.
  3. We can also be innocently accused and unfairly hit by life’s hard knocks. But that doesn’t have to automatically lead us to walk away from God or lose our faith. On the contrary, it can lead us to share God’s joy and peace with people who are in the same dark situation as us.

Acts 16:26

  1. Paul and Silas were in an area where earthquakes were not uncommon, so the earthquake may well have been entirely natural, but the timing and the loosening of everyone’s chains was a supernatural miracle of God.
  2. An interesting curiosity is that the word “saved” comes from the old word “frehalsad”, which means that a person who had a shackle around his neck had it removed. The person who was freed, saved, was thus freed from his shackles and thus saved from his former life as a slave.

Acts 16:27-28

  1. Were Paul’s fellow prisoners saved? Yes, probably because they stayed with Paul even though they had a chance to escape.
    1. It is a remarkable fact that people are often saved in large numbers in the midst of times of darkness. We are in the midst of a pandemic and cannot worship as usual. But at the same time, there are more baptisms than ever and more newcomers to our services than normal. As the darkness grows darker, the light also becomes more visible.
  2. Jailers were personally responsible for their prisoners (Acts 12:19), and the jailer, probably from personal experience, knew very well the brutal Roman methods of execution. Rather than being flogged and tortured to death, he chooses to die by his own hand.
  3. Would it have been wrong for Paul and Silas to escape from prison? No, in a way it wasn’t. God freed Peter from prison by having an angel open the doors so he could go out (Acts 12).
    1. But on this occasion, God’s purpose was not to free the prisoners, but to save the jailer.
    1. Paul trusted that God, who had now shown that he has the capacity to deliver Paul, would be able to save Paul again if he wanted to. But if Paul escapes, he misses the chance to save the jailer’s body and soul.
      1. Perhaps it was this jailer who had whipped Paul. Perhaps this led Paul to have a special heart for the jailer and to turn the other cheek and show him the forgiving love of Jesus.

Acts 16:29-32

  1. The jailer understands that Paul, by not escaping, has saved his life. Now he also asks Paul to save his eternal life.
    1. Perhaps he has heard the slave girl preach about Paul’s way to salvation, and now he feels so shaken inside that he prays for salvation.
      1. Often it is when we are at the bottom of life that we long for salvation. If we had asked for salvation at the peak of life, we might never have hit rock bottom.
  2. If you could only say one last sentence to a dying person asking how to get to heaven, what would you say? Paul’s words “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” are at the heart of the Christian faith and are sufficient for a person to be saved.
  3. The jailer asks what he should “do” to be saved, and Paul replies that he should “believe” in the Lord Jesus. It is human to think that one must do something active, to earn God’s grace. But the truth is that it is enough to believe in and put one’s trust in Jesus to be saved. Jesus has already done everything on the cross and all we have to do is receive.
  4. As if it wasn’t enough that only the jailer was saved, his family and household were also saved. But the household was not automatically saved just because the jailer believed in Jesus, Paul had to preach the “word of the Lord” to them as well.

Acts 16:33-34

  1. The jailer washes Paul’s wounds clean, and Paul washes the jailer’s soul clean. The consequence of the jailer’s repentance and salvation was that he was baptized, offered food and experienced jubilant joy. From being jailer and prisoner, they are now brothers in Christ.

Acts 16:35-36

  1. Why Paul and Silas are released is not clear. Perhaps the judges thought the punishment was enough. Perhaps the jailer had persuaded the judges to release them.

Acts 16:37

  1. As if it were not enough that Paul had been falsely accused and undeservedly punished, he was also a Roman citizen, which meant that the judges had overstepped their authority because of this.
  2. There was certainly a desire on Paul’s part to be vindicated, but the primary reason he does not agree to sweep this under the carpet is because if he is not publicly vindicated, he will continue to be regarded as a troublemaker by the townspeople and the church in Philippi will have difficulty reaching out with the gospel.

Acts 16:38-40

  1. The judges had to crawl to the cross and admit that they had treated Paul and Silas wrongly, and appeal to them to leave the city. But now that Paul and Silas are cleared, they don’t just want to slip away, they want to leave the city on their own terms. Only after they have visited the church are they ready to leave the city.
    1. The church at Philippi was undeniably a special group of people: Lydia, the jailer, the slave girl and a bunch of prisoners.
      1. Lydia’s heart was opened by the Holy Spirit when Paul preached. The jailer’s heart was converted after an earthquake. Both heard the gospel, believed in Jesus and saw their families saved.
      1. Most likely, Paul left Luke behind in Philippi so that he could stay with the church for a while and guide them further in the gospel. In verse 12 Luke writes that “in that city we stayed a few days”, but in verse 40 he writes “then they went on”.
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