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Acts 16:16-34 Biblical Commentary:
This is Paul’s Second Missionary Journey (49-52 A.D.) as recorded in Acts 15:30 – 18:21. Paul is accompanied by Silas (15:37-38), and they are later joined by young Mark (16:1). Because of the “we” passages in 16:10-16, some scholars believe that Luke (the author of this book) is also part of Paul’s party.
This missionary journey has taken Paul from Jerusalem north to Antioch of Syria and then westwards through the interior of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). A vision of a man from Macedonia (modern-day Greece) caused Paul and Silas to cross the Aegean Sea to go there (16:9-12). This introduced the Gospel to the continent of Europe for the first time (Turkey is in Asia and Greece is in Europe).
Paul and his companions found a “place of prayer” outside the city of Philippi on the sabbath (16:13). They met Lydia, a seller of purple, there, and baptized her and her family (16:11-15). Lydia, a seller of purple (and probably affluent), offered them the hospitality of her home, which they accepted (16:15).
As the story continues, the disciples are still in Philippi, where they will be for the balance of chapter 16. This chapter records Paul’s encounter with Lydia, the successful businesswoman (16:11-15) and his encounter with a slave-girl (16:16-18) —women from opposite ends of the social and economic scale. It also records the conversion of a Roman jailer and his household (16:29-34), demonstrating the ability of the Gospel to penetrate into the hearts of people from all walks of life. These three recipients of Paul’s ministry (Lydia, the slave-girl, and the Roman jailer) “epitomized all whom the Jews held in contempt—women, slaves, and Gentiles” (Williams, 280).
ACTS 16:16-18. A GIRL HAVING A SPIRIT OF DIVINATION
16It happened, as we were going to prayer, that a certain girl having a spirit of divination (Greek: pneuma pythona—a python spirit) met us, who brought her masters much gain by fortune telling (Greek: manteuomene—prophesying). 17Following Paul and us, she cried out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us a way of salvation!” 18She was doing this for many days. But Paul, becoming greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” It came out that very hour.
This story has parallels in three stories of Jesus’ exorcisms:
• The man with the unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37).
• The Gerasene demoniac (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39).
• The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21-18; Mark 7:24-30).
“It happened, as we were going to prayer” (v. 16a). This appears to be the same place of prayer where they earlier encountered Lydia (16:13). Luke does not tell us whether this is a sabbath.
“that a certain girl” (v. 16b). This is one of several “we” passages in the book of Acts (see also 16:10-15; 20:5-8, 13-15; 21:1-18; 27:1 – 28:16). Because Luke is the author of the book of Acts, many scholars have concluded that Luke has joined Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) at this point.
Lydia was both financially prosperous and socially independent. This girl is neither. Her owners dictate her every action and confiscate any money that her efforts produce.
“having a spirit of divination (pneuma pythona—a python spirit) met us“ (v. 16b). In Greek mythology, the great serpent, Python, “lived in a cave near Delphi….and guarded the oracle there” (Encarta). People believed that this oracle provided divinely inspired wisdom to humans, so Greeks associated the python with divine inspiration.
When Luke says that this girl has a pneuma pythona—a python spirit—he means that people believe that she can tap into divine powers for wisdom and guidance—that she is, in essence, a human intermediary for divine powers.
“who brought her masters much gain by fortune telling” (manteuomene—prophesying) (v. 16d). In reporting this, Luke clearly sees problems on two levels. First, the girl’s owners have enslaved her for the purpose of enriching themselves. Second, the spiritual powers to which this girl has access are demonic.
Many similar forms of slavery exist throughout the world today. Peddlers of sex and pornography often use enslaved children, male and female, for their purposes. In some cases, they kidnap the children. In others, they buy children for a small price from impoverished parents—often under false pretenses. In nations torn by civil strife, rebels often capture children and turn them into killing machines. Middle Eastern nations often import female workers whose legal contracts constitute a form of indentured servitude. Anyone who thinks that slavery ended with the American Civil War is sadly mistaken.
“Following Paul and us“ (v. 17a). This “us” represents the last “we” passage in Acts until 10:6, leaving us to wonder if Luke drops out at this point.
“These men are servants of the Most High God“ (v. 17b). This woman, who is a slave to demonic spirits and evil men, recognizes that Paul and his companions are slaves to the Most High God.
Paul would not disagree with her characterization. In his Epistle to the Romans, he introduces himself as “Paul, a servant (Greek: doulos) of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1). The Greek word doulos means bond-servant or slave. Paul says, “Don’t you know that to whom you present yourselves as servants to obedience, his servants you are whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?” (Romans 6:16). He calls us to “present your members as servants to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6:19). He says, “For he who was called in the Lord being a bondservant is the Lord’s free man. Likewise he who was called being free is Christ’s bondservant” (1 Corinthians 7:22). He explains, “For though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
“who proclaim to us a way of salvation“ (v. 17c). This is exactly what Paul and his companions have come to do.
“She was doing this for many days. But Paul, becoming greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!’ It came out that very hour”(v. 18). This girl’s witness is true, but subject to misinterpretation by people who know nothing of Paul or the God whom he represents. As Greeks, they would be inclined to equate “Most High God” with Zeus.
“I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her” (v. 18b). This is very much like Jesus’ command to the demon, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Luke 4:35).
“It came out that very hour” (v. 18c). Earlier, when Jesus exorcised the unclean spirit, the demon “came out of him, having done him no harm” (Luke 4:35)—much like the spirit leaves this slave-girl (v. 18c).
This exorcism demonstrates God’s power over demonic spirits.
ACTS 16:19-24: HER MASTERS SEIZED PAUL AND SILAS
19But when her masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace (Greek: agoran) before the rulers (Greek: archontas). 20When they had brought them to the magistrates (Greek: strategois), they said, “These men, being Jews, are agitating our city, 21and set forth customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.” 22The multitude rose up together against them, and the magistrates tore their clothes off of them, and commanded them to be beaten with rods. 23When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely, 24who, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and secured their feet in the stocks.
“But when her masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace (agoran) before the rulers“ (archontas) (v. 19). To her owners, this girl is nothing but a money machine. Seeing that Paul has wrecked their business venture, they set out to wreck Paul and Silas. Timothy and Luke seem not to be involved at this point.
“into the marketplace”(agoran) (19b). The agora was the public square in the center of the city. Merchants would have their booths there, but the agora would also be where authorities would hold public court.
“When they had brought them to the magistrates” (strategois) (v. 20a). It is the slave-girl’s owners who bring Paul and Silas before these strategois (magistrates).
Are the magistrates (strategois) of this verse the same officials as the authorities (archontas) of verse 19? We can’t be sure. The strategois could be a higher-level authority. They are probably duumvirs, a word that comes from the Roman duo (meaning two) and vir (meaning man). The duumvirs would be two men appointed by Rome to administer the civil affairs of the city.
“These men, being Jews, are agitating our city” (v. 20b). As was true when Jesus was tried, these accusers avoid honest accusation. They say nothing about Paul and Silas ruining their little business. Instead, just as Jesus’ accusers did, they concoct misleading charges to make it easier to get a guilty verdict. They accuse Paul and Silas of creating a public disturbance—a charge that city officials must take seriously —no civil official can tolerate a public disturbance.
“being Jews” (v. 20b). They also accuse Paul and Silas of being Jews, which of course is true. It is not illegal to be a Jew, but these accusers are hoping to hook into anti-Semitic sentiments among the officials and/or the crowd.
The people do not accuse Paul and Silas of being Christians, because Paul and Silas have just begun to introduce Christianity to Macedonia (Greece) and the people, for the most part, have no idea that they are Christians or what that means.
“and set forth customs which it is not lawful” (v. 21a). Paul’s accusers do not specify what customs Paul is advocating that are not lawful. If they can make a general charge like this stick, then they will find it unnecessary to defend more specific accusations. They could accuse Paul and Silas of persuading people to join a cult not recognized by the Roman government, but by this time officials do not usually prosecute people for this transgression.
“for us to accept or to observe, being Romans“ (v. 21b). In the previous verse, the accusers (the slave-girl’s owners) have identified Paul and Silas as Jews. Now they identify themselves as Romans—a status that they enjoy as citizens of Philippi, a Roman colony. Roman citizenship comes with a number of privileges, and is highly respected. By characterizing Paul and Silas as Jews and themselves as Romans, Paul’s accusers are trying to establish a bad-guy, good-guy contrast—with themselves being the good guys.
What the accusers do not know, but Paul will later reveal (v. 37) is that he and Silas are also Roman citizens.
“The multitude rose up together against them, and the magistrates tore their clothes off of them, and commanded them to be beaten with rods” (v. 22). This parallels the situation that Jesus faced, where the crowd demanded that he be punished and the authorities bowed to the demands of the crowd (Luke 23).
In this kind of situation, the magistrates should arrest the accused and schedule a trial to hear the accusations and to weigh the evidence. This procedure is designed, in part, to separate the process from mob rule and to give the accused a fair trial before impartial judges. However, these magistrates fail to observe proper procedure, and instead bow to the crowd’s demands for immediate punishment.
“and commanded them to be beaten with rods“ (v. 22b). Beating prisoners with rigid rods is an alternative to whipping them with flexible whips. Paul will later claim to have been beaten with rods three times (2 Corinthians 11:25), but we have no further record of the other two occasions.
“When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely” (v. 23). The authorities would typically imprison anyone whom they had first flogged. The note about ordering the jailer “to keep them safely” helps to set up the later scene where an earthquake sets them free.
“who, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and secured their feet in the stocks” (v. 24). The jailer, having been ordered to keep these prisoners secured, places them in the innermost cell at the heart of the prison—more than likely a dungeon. There would be no light at night, and little light during the day. There would be little provision for sanitation or ventilation, so the stench would be terrible. Beaten backs would be subject to infection. Feet fastened in stocks would add physical discomfort. Unable to shift positions, prisoners would grow more uncomfortable by the minute. It is difficult to imagine a more terrible place.
ACTS 16:25-34. SUDDENLY THERE WAS A GREAT EARTHQUAKE
25But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly 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 loosened. 27The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, “Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29He called for lights and sprang in, and, fell down trembling before Paul and Silas, 30and brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32They spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all who were in his house. 33He took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes, and was immediately baptized, he and all his household. 34He brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his household, having believed in God.
“But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (v. 25a). At midnight, the darkness would be all-encompassing. Luke gives us no information concerning the content of these prayers, but the hymn-singing makes it clear that Paul and Silas are anything but depressed, defeated prisoners. It seems likely that their prayers are prayers of praise and petitions for guidance rather than prayers for release.
“and the prisoners were listening to them” (v. 25b). Some of these prisoners have probably spent many days in this terrible place, and this would surely be the first time that they have heard anyone praying and singing hymns. The actions of Paul and Silas, therefore, constitute a powerful witness to the rest of the prisoners.
“Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken” (v. 26a). Philippi is in a seismically active area, so it would not be unusual to experience an earthquake there—although an earthquake this violent would be unusual.
“and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were loosened” (v. 26b). This is the point. Using an earthquake for his purposes, God opens the prison doors and unfastens the prisoners’ chains so that Paul and Silas are free to escape.
Luke has told us about two occasions in the past when God opened prison doors, allowing disciples to escape. In the first instance, Peter and other disciples were healing large numbers of people in the temple when the high priest had the disciples arrested and put in public prison. “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life'” (5:20).
In the second instance, Herod arrested Peter “and delivered him to four squads of four soldiers each to guard him” (12:4)—an extraordinary measure of security. However, even though Peter was bound with chains and sleeping between two soldiers, an angel freed him (12:6-11).
These stories are intended to show that even powerful men, using their utmost to stifle the Gospel, cannot defeat the people whom God has sent to proclaim the Gospel.
“The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped”
(v. 27). It might seem odd that this jailer did not examine the cells carefully before deciding to kill himself, but people under great stress often panic—and this jailer is certainly panicked. When the angel delivered Peter from prison in an earlier instance, Herod executed the guards for dereliction of duty (12:19). In this latest instance, the jailer knows that his life is forfeit if even one prisoner has escaped—and all the prison doors are open, so surely more than one prisoner has escaped.
There is another reason, too, why the jailer would contemplate suicide. Not only can he expect to be killed if a prisoner has escaped, but he will also be humiliated before his peers, who will carry out his execution. Very often, fear of humiliation is a significant factor in suicide.
“But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here“‘ (v. 28). Not only have Paul and Silas remained in prison, but the other prisoners have done the same. Perhaps God caused the prisoners to delay their escape. Perhaps Paul and Silas persuaded them to stay.
Paul understands the pressure that the jailer is under and the possibility that he will commit suicide. He calls out to reassure the jailer that all the prisoners are still present. The miracle that God has worked is not just for the deliverance of Paul and Silas, but also for the deliverance of the jailer.
“He called for lights and sprang in, and, fell down trembling before Paul and Silas” (v. 29). The jailer understands that Paul has saved his life, so he falls down before them—signaling his obeisance.
“and brought them out” (v. 30). A lesser manuscript (known as the Western text of Acts) says that the jailer secured the other prisoners before bringing Paul and Silas outside, but the better manuscripts say nothing about this.
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). The jailer’s panic and his relief on discovering that the prisoners are still present has made him receptive to guidance from Paul and Silas, whom he surely regards as his saviors in this present crisis.
The jailer’s question reminds us of the people’s response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, where they asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (2:37). The jailer’s question can be understood on two levels. He could be asking what he must do to be saved from execution by the authorities. But, as we will see in the next verse, Paul and Silas hear the jailer’s question as having to do with his eternal salvation.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (v. 31). Paul and Silas use the jailer’s question as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to him. This verse probably summarizes a longer proclamation. It is similar to Peter’s salvation formula at Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38).
“you and your household” (v. 31a). Paul and Silas make it clear to the jailer that his household can enjoy the same salvation that they are offering him.
“They spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all who were in his house” (v. 32). The proclamation of the Gospel continues, this time to the jailer and “all who were in his house”—his family and possibly servants as well.
Luke has already told us about the baptism of Cornelius and all those who were with him (10:44-48) and of Lydia and her household (16:15).
“He took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes, and was immediately baptized, he and all his household” (v. 33). The jailer demonstrates his new faith by taking care of their wounds and by being baptized. His family is also baptized, in keeping with a tradition that the head of a family can make a decision that is binding on the whole family.
Chrysostom said of this incident, “He (the jailer) washed and was washed. He washed them from their stripes, and was himself washed from his sins” (quoted in Bruce, 318).
“He brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his household, having believed in God” (v. 34). Like Lydia earlier (v. 15), these new converts extend genuine hospitality to Paul and Silas.
ACTS 16:35-40. EPILOGUE
As this story continues through the end of chapter 16, the following morning the magistrates send word to the jailer to let Paul and Silas go. When the jailer relays that information to Paul and Silas, Paul says, “They have beaten us publicly, without a trial, men who are Romans, and have cast us into prison! Do they now release us secretly? No, most certainly, but let them come themselves and bring us out” (v. 37).
This strikes fear in the heart of the magistrates, because they do not have the authority to beat and jail Roman citizens without due process of law. The magistrates come to the jail to apologize, after which they ask Paul and Silas to leave town. Paul and Silas visit Lydia’s home to encourage the believers, after which they do leave town.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Farris, Lawrence W., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Faw, Chalmer E., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Acts, (Scottdale, Pennsyvania: Herald Press, 1993)
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Hemer, C.J. in Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised, “Tarsus” (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988).
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Williams, David J., New International Biblical Commentary: Acts (Paternoster Press, 1995)
Willimon, William H., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Acts (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
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