In my last article in this series of articles on the life of Paul I described how Paul and Barnabas decided to revisit the cities which they had visited on their first missionary journey but, disagreeing over taking Mark with them, then separated from each other. Barnabas, accompanied by Mark, revisited Cyprus and Paul, accompanied by Silas, went through Syria and Cilicia and then was guided by the Holy Spirit to Troas, where he had a vision of a man of Macedonia inviting him to go there. Paul and Silas were joined at Lystra by Timothy and at Troas by Luke.
The Conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
Paul and his companions sailed from Troas to Samothrace, an island halfway between Troas and Macedonia, and the next day to Neopolis, the seaport for Philippi, the leading city (but not the capital) of the district of Macedonia. From there they went by road to Philippi, where they stayed “some days” (ESV, all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), which I’ll describe the main events of in this article.
On the Sabbath they went outside the gate to the riverside, where some women had come together for prayer. Since Paul normally visited a synagogue on his first Sabbath in a city, his attending the meeting beside the river suggests that Philippi didn’t have enough Jews for a synagogue (ten men were required). Meeting beside a river would facilitate ceremonial washing rituals. He and his companions sat down and spoke to the women.
One of the women who heard them was Lydia (or “the Lydian”), who was from Thyatira, a city in the district of Lydia in the province of Asia, and a seller of purple goods, perhaps imported from Thyratira, which was famous for its purple dyes. She was a worshipper of God and “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” The phrase indicates that it is ultimately God who draws people to Him. However it doesn’t negate the need for witnesses to share the message (Paul) and for hearers to repent and believe in Jesus Christ (Lydia).
Lydia and her household (probably relatives and servants living in her house) were baptized as a visible expression of the salvation which they had received. After her baptism, Lydia urged Paul and his companions, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” Paul and Silas’s visiting Lydia and speaking with the brothers (Acts 16:40) after their release from prison (see below) suggests that her house became the place for Christians to gather in Philippi.
The Imprisonment of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:16-24)
For many days as Paul and his companions were on their way to the place of prayer, a slave girl possessed by an evil spirit which enabled her to tell people’s fortunes followed them calling out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” This so annoyed Paul, probably because he didn’t want it to appear that she was his partner, that finally he turned and told the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” (This was consistent with the power that Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew 10:8 and Luke 10:17.) Immediately it came out of the girl.
Losing their means of profit, the slave girl’s owners seized Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates in the marketplace, which was regularly used for judicial hearings. They charged, “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.” Notice that the charge was that Paul and Silas were Jews illegally preaching their religion (Judaism) to Roman citizens, rather than that they were advocating specifically Christian teaching. Timothy and Silas’s not being arrested indicates that Paul and Silas were recognized as the leaders of the missionary group. Also Paul and Silas probably looked like Jews whereas Timothy and Luke probably didn’t (Timothy was half and Luke fully Gentile).
The crowd joined in attacking Paul and Silas; shortly before this the Jews had been expelled from Rome by Claudius (the emperor) and likely they were suffering from hostility throughout the Roman Empire. The magistrates had their clothes torn off and ordered that they be beaten with wooden rods. After Paul and Silas had been severely beaten, the magistrates had them thrown into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them safely. He had them put into the inner prison, possibly a dungeon, and their feet put into stocks.
The Conversion of the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:25-40)
About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God and the other prisoners were listening to them, there was an earthquake which shook the foundations of the prison. Immediately all the prison doors were opened and everyone’s bonds were unfastened, an example of God’s using a natural force supernaturally. Wakened by the earthquake, the jailer saw the open doors and supposed that the prisoners had escaped. Fearing that he would be held responsible for their escape and disciplined (in Roman law a guard who allowed a prisoner to escape was liable to the same penalty which the prisoner would have faced), he drew his sword in order to kill himself. Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
The jailer called for torches and, rushing in, fell trembling with fear before Paul and Silas, apparently viewing them as messengers of God. Then he brought them out of the prison and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Although he may have just wanted to know how he could escape the consequences of what had happened, more likely he wanted to know how he could be saved from the judgment of God. They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household,” and explained the gospel to him and his household. Believing, he washed their wounds and he and his family were baptized (Bible scholars disagree as to whether his family included infants), perhaps in a pool or well in the courtyard. Then he brought them into his house and fed them. He and his entire household rejoiced because they had come to believe in God.
When it was day the magistrates sent the police saying to let Paul and Silas go. Luke doesn’t say why the magistrates decided to release Paul and Silas–maybe they connected the earthquake with Paul and Silas or maybe they thought that the beating and overnight imprisonment was enough. When the jailer reported this to Paul, Paul replied, “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 down themselves and take us out.” Luke doesn’t say why Paul replied as he did–probably Paul was concerned about his and the church’s reputation and didn’t want it to present barriers to the gospel in Philippi–or indicate why Paul hadn’t protested his Roman citizenship earlier and so escaped being beaten–perhaps he did but wasn’t paid attention to in the uproar of the crowd.
The magistrates were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens because violating the protection given to citizens could result in severe penalties. Thus they came and apologized to them, took them out of prison, and probably in order to prevent any more trouble asked them to leave the city. Paul and Silas visited Lydia, saw and encouraged the believers, and left Philippi. Apparently Luke remained at Philippi until Paul’s visit there on his third missionary journey because he doesn’t use “we” again until then (in Acts 20:5). Timothy is next referred to in Acts 17:40, in connection with Berea, indicating that if he remained in Philippi when Paul and Silas left it he rejoined them in Berea.
Matthew Henry comments:
Though the beginnings here were small…they laid the foundation of a church at Philippi, which became very eminent, had its bishops and deacons, and people that were more generous to Paul than any other church, as appears by his epistle to the Philippians, ch. i. 1; iv. 25. Let not ministers be discouraged, though they see not the fruit of their labours (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Fleming H. Revell, volume 6, page 217).