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Acts 16:1-40 | Werner Bible Commentary

Acts 16:1-40

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After a stopover at Derbe, Paul and Silas traveled to Lystra. One of the disciples in the community of believers there was Timothy, a young man with a believing Jewish mother but a Greek father. (16:1)

Among the “brothers” (fellow believers) in Lystra and Iconium (the closest city to Lystra with a community of believers), Timothy enjoyed a good reputation. (16:2) Paul wanted Timothy to go with him, apparently to assist him and Silas in the work of making known the message about the Lord Jesus Christ and aiding others to become and remain his devoted disciples. It appears that at this time Paul and the elders from the congregation at Lystra laid their hands on Timothy, designating him for this special service. (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6) Aware that it was commonly known among the Jews in the general area that Timothy had a Jewish mother but a Greek father, Paul circumcised him. By thus upholding the law in the case of someone who had a Jewish heritage on his mother’s side, Paul avoided needless problems with fellow Jews who would have objected to Timothy’s remaining uncircumcised and who would have been less inclined to listen to the good news about Jesus Christ. (16:3)

As they traveled through the various cities in Asia Minor, Paul, with Silas and Timothy as his companions, would deliver the decrees that the apostles and elders in Jerusalem had decided upon. These decrees pertained to the obligation of non-Jewish believers to abstain from what had been offered to idols, from fornication, from meat of animals that had been strangled or not properly bled, and from blood. (15:23-29; 16:4; see the Notes section.) The visit of Paul, Silas and Timothy served to strengthen believers in the faith and also contributed, from day to day, to an increase in the number disciples. (16:5)

The three men passed through the region of Phrygia and Galatia in central Asia Minor. West of Galatia lay the Roman province of Asia, but the holy spirit did not permit them to proclaim the “word” or message about Jesus Christ in this province. Through the operation of God’s spirit, Paul likely was the one who received a revelation to this effect. (16:6; see the Notes section.)

Paul, Silas and Timothy took a northern route and came to the border of Mysia in northwest Asia Minor. From there, they considered going eastward to the province of Bithynia, but “the spirit of Jesus” prevented them from doing so. It may be that the “holy spirit” is here called “the spirit of Jesus” because he had received the spirit from his Father to impart to his disciples. (2:33) Again Paul, through the operation of the spirit upon him, may have received a revelation, directing that he and his companions not go to Bithynia. (16:7)

Paul, Silas and Timothy headed west to the seaport of Troas, a city in Mysia. The Greek verb indicating what they did in relation to Mysia is a form of parérchomai, which basically means to “pass by.” In other ancient writings, however, this verb sometimes appears in contexts that indicate the meaning to be “pass through.” The rendering “passing by Mysia” would have to be interpreted to mean that, although going through Mysia to reach Troas, Paul, Silas and Timothy bypassed the region from the standpoint of not declaring the message about Christ there. (16:8)

At night, while in Troas, Paul had a vision, apparently in a dream. He saw a Macedonian man, standing and entreating him with the words, “Come over to Macedonia to help us.” (16:9)

At this point, the narrative changes from “they” to “we,” suggesting that the writer of Acts (Luke) joined Paul, Silas and Timothy. The context, however, provides no indication just how Luke first became associated with the others. Based on the vision, Paul and his companions concluded that God had called them to proclaim the good news to the Macedonians. With what they considered to be clear divine direction, they decided to go to Macedonia, primarily a mountainous region in the central part of the Balkan Peninsula. On the south, Macedonia bordered Achaia (the southern part of modern Greece). (16:10; see the Notes section.)

From Troas, Paul and his companions sailed in a straight course to Samothrace, a mountainous island northwest of Troas. On the following day, they arrived at Neapolis (Nea Polis, meaning “New City”), a seaport in Macedonia that served the city of Philippi. (16:11; see http://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/samothr.html and http://bibleplaces.com/nicopolis.htm for pictures of and comments about Samothrace and Nicopolis.)

From Neapolis, Paul and his companions headed to Philippi, a Roman colony located less than ten miles (about 15 kilometers) to the northwest. They would have walked along the Roman road known as Via Egnatia (Egnatian Way). According to what appears to be the best manuscript evidence, Luke referred to Philippi as the “first of the part of Macedonia,” which may identify Philippi as a major city of Macedonia. The Greek text has been variously translated (“a leading city of the district of Macedonia” [NRSV]; “the leading city in that part of Macedonia” [NCV]; “the principal city of that district of Macedonia” [NJB]). After the defeat of the armies of Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (the conspirators in the assassination of Julius Caesar), Philippi became a Roman colony. Many retired Roman soldiers lived there and, as a Roman colony, Philippi was exempt from paying taxes. (16:12; see http://bibleplaces.com/philippi.htm for pictures of and comments about Philippi.)

Apparently no synagogue existed in Philippi and so Paul and his companions concluded that Jews and proselytes or God-fearing non-Jews might have a customary place for prayer by the river. Therefore, on the Sabbath, they, after having been in Philippi for a short time, left through the city gate and walked to the river, where they found a group of women assembled. They sat down and began to speak to the women, sharing with them the message about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 16:13)

Lydia, a woman from Thyatira, proved to be especially attentive to Paul’s words. She was a dealer in purple, either the dye or garments and fabrics dyed purple or scarlet. It is likely that the dye originating from Thyatira was derived from the madder root and not a marine mollusk, for the city was located over 40 miles (less than 70 kilometers) from the coast. Lydia appears to have been a businesswoman of some means, having a house large enough to accommodate a number of persons in addition to her own household. (16:14; see http://holylandphotos.org for pictures of and comments about Thyatira.)

As a woman who venerated or worshiped God, she could have been a proselyte, but more likely was a non-Jewish God-fearer. The reason for her attentiveness is attributed to the Lord’s opening her “heart.” In her “heart” or her inmost self, she proved to be receptive to the message Paul proclaimed and responded in faith. The Lord is either the Lord Jesus Christ or his Father. Through the proclamation of the message about him and what he accomplished by surrendering his life, Jesus Christ invites individuals to become his disciples, and God, through his Son, draws persons to himself as members of his beloved family of children. (16:14)

Lydia and her entire household got baptized. As no mention is made of a husband, she must have been either single or a widow, and the household probably included servants. After being baptized, she extended an invitation for Paul and all the others to be her guests, telling them that, if they judged her as being “faithful to the Lord,” they would enter her house and stay. The way in which she expressed her invitation made it impossible for it to be refused. Failing to accept the invitation would have meant that Paul and the others did not accept her as a beloved fellow believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Luke added, “She constrained us.” Her sincere welcome into her home simply had to be accepted. (16:15)

Apparently on another Sabbath, Paul and his companions set out for the “place of prayer” and encountered a slave girl who had a “spirit of Python.” According to Greek mythology, Python (a huge serpent or dragon) guarded the oracle at Delphi, the ancient Greek city on the south slope of Mount Parnassus. Mythology portrays the god Apollo as slaying Python. A person described as having a “spirit of Python” could be one with perceived predictive powers or a ventriloquist. The slave girl’s masters profited much from her divining. (16:16; see the Notes section.)

She followed Paul and the others, shouting, “These men are slaves of God, the Most High, who are declaring to you [‘us,’ according to other manuscripts] the way of salvation.” Non-Jews who heard her would most likely not have taken her words to apply to YHWH but may have thought they referred to Zeus, the supreme deity in the Greek pantheon. The message that Paul and the others proclaimed was the “way of salvation” (that is, deliverance from sin and the condemnation to which sin leads), but the non-Jewish populace who heard the shouts of the slave girl may have thought in terms of deliverance from the wrath of the gods. (16:17; see the Notes section.)

For considerable time (“many days”), she continued to shout out when following Paul and the others. After he could not bear this any longer, Paul turned around and directed his words to the “spirit” (the source of the paranormal manifestation), saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out from her.” That “very hour” (or immediately), the spirit left her as became evident from the loss of her predictive ability. Paul’s expressing the order “in the name of Jesus Christ” would have been as one who represented the Lord Jesus Christ and the authority vested in him. (16:18)

Seeing that they could no longer hope to profit from her, the masters of the slave girl were furious. They seized Paul and Silas, forcibly taking them to the authorities in the marketplace (agorá). The agorá functioned as the commercial center and the primary gathering place in a city, and officials handled legal matters there. (16:19) After the slave girl’s masters had dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates (plural form of strategós), they accused them of being Jews who were stirring up trouble in the city and promoting customs that were unlawful for Romans to adopt and practice. (16:20, 21)

The designation strategós often applied to a military commander or officer. In the Roman colony of Philippi, however, the highest official position was that of a strategós, a “praetor” or “chief magistrate.” The magistrates had the responsibility of maintaining order, handling finances, conducting legal proceedings, and punishing violators of the law. They did not have the authority to execute or to flog Roman citizens. Non-Jews in Philippi would have recognized Paul and Silas as Jews, for they would have been groomed and attired as prescribed in the law of Moses. The manner in which the masters of the slave girl accusingly referred to Paul and Silas as Jews suggests that the non-Jewish populace had significant prejudice and suspicion toward Jews. (16:20)

The accusers proudly distinguished themselves from the Jewish Paul and Silas, identifying themselves as “Romans.” Their claim that it was illegal for Romans to adopt and practice the customs that Paul and Silas promoted doubtless was based on Roman law. In his De legibus (II, viii, 19), Cicero (106-43 BCE) expressed the view that, besides officially recognized gods, no one was to have “new or foreign gods”; privately, they were to worship the gods they had “received from their ancestors.” (16:21)

The accusation of the slave girl’s masters stirred up the crowd in the marketplace against Paul and Silas. Faced with an angry mob, the magistrates had Paul and Silas stripped of their outer garments and subjected to a severe beating with rods. (16:22)

After having thus beaten them many times, they handed Paul and Silas over for imprisonment, charging the jailer to guard them securely. (16:23) He carried out the official order by confining them in the inner part (the most secure location) in the prison and securing their feet to “wood” (xýlon). The Greek term xýlon could refer to stocks or a stake. (16:24) Translations vary in their renderings. “When he received these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and secured their feet to a stake.” (NAB) “In view of these orders, he put them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks.” (REB) “When he heard this order, he put them far inside the jail and pinned their feet down between large blocks of wood.” (NCV) “He put them deep inside the jail and chained their feet to heavy blocks of wood.” (CEV)

“About midnight,” while Paul and Silas were “praying and singing hymns to God” loud enough for fellow prisoners to hear, a strong earthquake suddenly shook the foundations of the prison, forced all the doors open, and loosed the bonds of the prisoners (probably confining chains that came loose from the prison walls to which they had been attached). (16:25, 26)

The earthquake awoke the jailer. Seeing that the jail was open, he thought the prisoners had escaped and, therefore, was about to kill himself with his sword. To him, death at his own hand would have been preferable to the torture and execution he would face for having allowed the prisoners in his charge to escape. (16:27; see the Notes section.)

From the dark interior, Paul could see the shadowy figure of the jailer near the entrance of the prison and called out to him loudly (literally, with a “great” or “strong voice”), “Do not harm yourself, for all of us are here.” (16:28) The jailer requested “lights” (a torch) and rushed into the prison. Trembling, evidently on account of being overcome with fear, he fell to his knees before Paul and Silas. (16:29)

The jailer then led Paul and Silas out of the prison. According to Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis), he secured the other prisoners. To Paul and Silas, he directed the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” It is likely the jailer knew something about what Paul and Silas had been proclaiming. He probably regarded the earthquake and what it caused as an expression of divine anger. Because he had personally been responsible for adding to the suffering of Paul and Silas by confining them in the manner that he did, he may have felt that he also had become the object of their God’s wrath. So he may have been asking them how he could be saved from the serious consequences for his actions. (16:30)

The account itself does not reveal the specifics about the reason for the jailer’s question. Nevertheless, what had taken place in the middle of the night must have created an awareness in him that he needed to be delivered from the unfavorable state in which he found himself. (16:30)

In response to his question, they said to him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (16:31) This, though, was not the extent of the answer, for “they spoke the word of the Lord [‘of God,’ according to other manuscripts] to him” and to “all those in his house.” Paul and Silas would have explained the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ to them. They would have clarified how, through him, persons from all nations could be forgiven of their sins and saved or delivered from the condemnation to which sin leads, coming to be approved children of God. Moreover, they would have discussed repentance and the significance of baptism with them. (16:32)

In that “hour of the night,” the jailer attended to the injuries Paul and Silas had endured from the severe beating, washing the affected areas and likely also applying soothing olive oil. Immediately after he had cared for them, he and all who were part of his household got baptized, possibly in a shallow pool in the courtyard of the house. (16:33)

The jailer had Paul and Silas come into the home and set a table before them. He and his entire household were filled with joy because of their new-found belief in God. Doubtless the jailer would also have been grateful that Paul’s quick intervention had prevented him from committing suicide. (16:34)

After the night had passed, the magistrates sent “constables” (rhabdoúchoi) to tell the jailer, “Release those men.” Most manuscripts do not explain why the magistrates made the decision to release Paul and Silas from prison. The magistrates may have considered the earthquake as an omen that they had acted unjustly, for they were fully aware that they had no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Paul and Silas. Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) does have an expanded reading that would support this conclusion. When it became day, the magistrates “assembled in the marketplace. And recalling the earthquake that had occurred, they were afraid.” The Greek designation for the men whom the magistrates sent apparently refers to Roman lictors, officials who served under the direction of the magistrates and who functioned much like policemen. As a symbol of their authority, lictors carried the fasces (an ax surrounded by a bundle of wooden rods, with the ax blade projecting from the side of the tied bundle). Apparently because of their carrying the fasces, these officials were called rhabdoúchoi, meaning “rod bearers.” (16:35)

The jailer reported the words of the constables to Paul, telling him that the magistrates had sent the message that he and Silas be released. Paul and Silas had returned to the prison before the arrival of the constables, as the jailer told them to “come out,” going on their way “in peace.” Their being able to leave “in peace” may mean their departing with the jailer’s good wishes for their well-being. At the time the jailer conveyed the message of the constables to Paul, they had not departed, making it possible for Paul to speak to them directly. He told them, “They flogged us in public, uncondemned [‘innocent,’ according to Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis)], men who are Romans. They cast us into prison, and now they are secretly casting us out? No, indeed! But let them come [personally] and conduct us out.” The magistrates had failed to investigate the accusations against Paul and Silas, acting against them without proper legal proceedings and unlawfully against Roman citizens. Instead of upholding the law, they had yielded to the crowd that had been instigated against Paul and Silas by the complaints of the slave girl’s masters. (16:37)

The constables informed the magistrates about what they had been told. On hearing that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, the magistrates became alarmed. They realized that they could face serious consequences for having trampled on the rights of Roman citizens. (16:38)

As Paul had insisted upon, the magistrates personally came to the prison and “entreated” him and Silas, evidently desiring to placate them to avoid having to face adverse consequences for their illegal actions. They then brought Paul and Silas out of prison and asked them to leave the city. Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) adds that the magistrates arrived at the prison “with many friends,” acknowledging Paul and Silas to be “upright men” concerning whom they had been ignorant. As to why the magistrates requested them to leave, Codex Bezae indicates that the magistrates wanted to avoid trouble, “lest they [the crowd] assemble against us [the magistrates], crying out against you [Paul and Silas].” (16:39)

Subsequent to their release from prison, Paul and Silas went to the home of Lydia. Other believers besides members of her household appear to have assembled there, likely for mutual encouragement and to pray for Paul and Silas. It must have been a joyous reunion when the two men arrived. Paul and Silas then encouraged the “brothers” (all the fellow believers in Lydia’s home). Likely they talked about why believers could expect persecution and the resultant blessings from faithfully enduring while being sustained with divine help. (16:40; compare 14:21, 22.)

Timothy accompanied Paul and Silas when they departed from Philippi. (16:40; 17:15) Luke, however, seems to have remained there and did not again rejoin Paul (as suggested by the start of the later “we” passages) until the apostle returned to Philippi. Luke then set sail with him to Troas, where Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus and Trophimus were waiting for them. (20:4-6)

Notes:

In verse 4, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) adds that they proclaimed “the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness.”

Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) identifies the “word” (in verse 6) as being the “word of God.”

In verse 10, Codex Bezae (Cantabrigiensis) adds the detail that Paul related the vision to the others after he got up in the morning.

The comments about divination (the noun mantiké and the verb form of manteúomai in verse 16) found in Cicero's De legibus (II, xiii, 33) reveal how highly regarded it was for predicting future events. “I think that an art of divination called mantiké by the Greeks, really exists, and that a branch of it is that particular art which deals with the observation of birds and other signs — this branch belonging to our Roman science of augury. For if we admit that gods exist, and that the universe is ruled by their will, that they are mindful of the human race, and that they have the power to give us indications of future events, then I do not see any reason for denying the existence of divination. But these premises are in fact true, so that the conclusion which I desire to draw from them follows as a necessary consequence. Furthermore, the records of our Republic, as well as those of all kingdoms, nations, and races, are full of a multitude of instances of the marvellous confirmation of the predictions of augurs by subsequent events. For Polyidus and Melampus and Mopsus and Amphiaraus and Calchas and Helenus could never have attained such fame, nor could so many nations, such as the Phrygians, Lycaonians, Cilicians and, most of all, the Pisidians have retained their reputation in this art up to the present day [first century BCE], had not antiquity demonstrated its trustworthiness.” (Translated by C. W. Keyes)

The expression “Most High God” (in verse 17) would not have been foreign to polytheists. For example, Cicero (a polytheist) referred to the “supreme god” (supremo deo in De legibus, I, vii, 23).

A few manuscripts (in verse 27) identify the jailer as “the faithful Stephanas.”