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Acts 16 Commentaries

Study Guide for Acts 16 - The Second Missionary Journey Begins

A. From the city of Derbe to Troas.

  1. (Acts 16:1-5) At Derbe and Lystra.

  2. (Acts 16:6-10) God directs Paul to the region of Macedonia.

B. Paul's work in the Macedonian city of Philippi.

  1. (Acts 16:11-15) The conversion of Lydia.

  2. (Acts 16:16-18) A demon-possessed slave girl follows Paul and Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl.


4. (Acts 16:19-24) Paul and Silas are arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for delivering the slave-girl from her demonic possession.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, "These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice." 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

  1. The whole mess was instigated because her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone. The masters care nothing for the girl herself, only for their ability to exploit her demonic possession for money. They were occultic "pimps," prostituting her spiritually.

  2. They seized Paul and Silas: Paul and Silas were singled out not only because there were the leaders of the evangelistic group, but also, by their appearance, they were the most obviously Jewish. This is indicated by how they began their accusation: "These men, being Jews."

    1. Luke was a Gentile, and Timothy was only half Jewish. Paul and Silas looked Jewish, and "Anti-Jewish sentiment lay very near the surface in pagan antiquity." (Bruce)

  3. Exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe. Their charges are vague, simply accusing Paul and Silas of being troublemakers. But those vague charges were enough, because both the multitude and the magistrates were biased against Paul and Silas. They were biased because of their Jewish appearance, and because they assumed Paul and Silas were not Roman citizens.

    1. In the Roman Empire, there were two very different laws: one for citizens of the Roman Empire, and one for those who were not citizens. Roman citizens had specific civil rights which were zealously guarded. Non-citizens had no civil rights, and were subject to the whims of both the multitude and the magistrates.

    2. Since they assumed Paul and Barnabas were not Roman citizens, they were offended that these obviously Jewish men would harass Roman citizens with their strange religion of a crucified Saviour. As well, the multitude and the magistrates felt free to abuse Paul and Silas because they assumed they were not Roman citizens.

    3. "There was great indignation that Roman citizens should be molested by strolling peddlers of an outlandish religion. Such people had to be taught to know their proper place and not trouble their betters." (Bruce)

  4. When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison: After being severely beaten, Paul and Silas are imprisoned in maximum-security conditions (commanding the jailer to keep them securely ... the inner prison ... fastened their feet in the stocks).

    1. In Jewish legal tradition, there was a maximum number of blows that could be delivered when beating a person, but the Romans had no such limit. We can rest assured Paul and Silas were severely beaten. Paul would later write of his ministry: In labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. (2 Corinthians 11:23)

    2. After such a bad beating, they were put in uncomfortable conditions (fastened their feet in the stocks). "These stocks had more than two holes for legs, which could thus be forced apart in a such a way as to cause the utmost discomfort and cramping pain." (Bruce)

    3. Even in their pain, God was not far from Paul and Silas. Tertullian said, "The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven."

5. (Act 16:25-32) The conversion of the Philippian jailer.

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[a] 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.

  1. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God: Though they have been arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for doing good, Paul and Silas are filled with joy, and sing praises to God. What will it take to make us stop praising God?

    1. Anyone can be happy in pleasant circumstances, but real joy comes only from within, and is a gift available to Christians at all times.

    2. "Instead of cursing men, they blessed God." (Stott)

  2. And the prisoners were listening to them: What a strange sound it must have been to the other prisoners! Prayers and praises unto God at midnight, in the midst of a brutal prison. Those prison walls had probably never heard such a sound!

  3. Suddenly there was a great earthquake: This earthquake was clearly supernatural. This was not only because of its timing and location, but in the way that all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were loosed.

  4. The keeper of the prison ... was about to kill himself: The jailer's reaction had good reason behind it. Guards who allowed their prisoners to escape had to bear the penalty of their escaped prisoners. Knowing this, Paul called with a loud voice, saying, "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here." He assures the jailer that no one has escaped.

    1. It would have been easy for Paul and Silas to escape thinking God had instigated another miraculous jailbreak. But to them, the lives of others were more important than their own personal freedom and comfort.

    2. In not escaping, they showed tremendous discernment. The circumstances said, "escape." But love said, "Stay for the sake of this one soul." They were not guided merely by circumstances, but by what love compelled.

  5. This hardened keeper of the prison fell down trembling. This is as dramatic as it sounds. This man was more affected by the love and grace in the lives of Paul and Silas than an earthquake. This may have even been the same guard who beat them a few hours earlier!

  6. Sirs, what must I do be saved? The jailer was so impressed by Paul and Silas - by the love they showed to him, and from their ability to take joy even in misery - that he instantly wants the kind of life that Paul and Silas have.

    1. This is how God wants our lives to be: Natural magnets drawing people to Him. Our Christianity should make others want what we have with God.

  7. Paul's answer to the keeper of the prison is a classic statement of the essence of the gospel: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. This is salvation by grace alone, received by faith alone.

    1. Some have worried that Paul's invitation to salvation here is too easy, and would promote an "easy-believism" and a "cheap grace." Others refuse to preach repentance, claiming that this text says that it is not necessary.

    2. Paul never specifically called the keeper of the prison to repent because he was already repenting. We see the humble repentance of the jailer in that he fell down trembling, in the full idea of the word believe (pistis, which means to trust in, rely on, and cling to), and in the command to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ).

  8. You and your household seems to be a specific promise for that Philippian jailer. Paul was, under inspiration by the Holy Spirit, telling the keeper of the prison that his household would trust Jesus just as he did.

    1. This was a promise made specifically to the keeper of the prison. But it is a promise that the Holy Spirit may well make alive to us, helping us to trust Him for the salvation of our families.

    2. However, the jailer's household was not saved merely because he was; Paul came spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. They were all saved because they all trust the word of God and the Jesus revealed to us through the word.

6. (Act 16:33-34) The Philippian jailer ministers to Paul and Silas.

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.

  1. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes: The same jailer who had been punishing them was now ministering to Paul and Silas, caring for their wounds and he set food before them. This shows how repentant he was and how he followed the example of love shown by Paul and Silas.

  2. And immediately he and all his family were baptized: The jailer and his family saw no reason to delay baptism; they were baptized that very night, and all this began around midnight (Acts 16:25).

  3. And he rejoiced: This man was carried from suicidal fear to abounding joy in just a few minutes. All of it flowed from Paul and Silas' courageous praise to God in terrible adversity.

7. (Acts 16:35-36) Paul and Silas return to the prison, and are set free by the magistrates the next day.

8. (Acts 16:37-39) Paul and Silas reveal their Roman citizenship.

9. (Acts 16:40) Paul and Silas leave Philippi on their own terms.

Acts 16 - - Cole

We Americans have a thing about standing up for our rights. If our rights are violated, we don't take it sitting down. We will protest, we may sue, we'll write to our congressman, take courses in assertiveness training, or whatever it takes to get our rights. We don't do well when we are wronged. But the fact is, most of us as Americans have never experienced any serious violation of our religious rights. We do not know firsthand the true meaning of the word "persecution." As Roman citizens, Paul and Silas had a right to a trial before any punishment. Romans were exempt from public beatings. And yet the two missionaries were falsely accused, beaten, and thrown into the inner prison, with their feet locked into the stocks, without any semblance of a trial. Their rights had been violated. If anyone had a right to be angry, they did. If it had been America, they would have sued and had the magistrates removed from office. Their response teaches us how to be right when we are wronged. Theme: When you are wronged, entrust your soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

1. Count on it: you will be treated wrongly.

Note some of the ways that Paul and Silas were mistreated. First, there were the false accusations. The real reason for the anger of the slave girl's owners was that they had just been deprived of their source of income (16:19). But they didn't mention that when they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities. Rather, they accused them of throwing the city into confusion and of proclaiming customs that were not lawful for Romans to accept or observe (16:20-21). Those charges were simply not true. At some time you will be falsely accused.

Further, there was racial prejudice behind these false charges. The phrase, "being Jews," was no doubt said with a slur. The Roman emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49. The incident in Philippi took place probably in the fall of A.D. 50, and so anti-Jewish sentiment was running high. The Jewish religion was tolerated, but Jews were prohibited from proselytizing Romans. Many of you have experienced or will experience prejudice simply because of your racial background.

Also, Paul and Silas' legal rights were violated. They were assumed guilty without a hearing or trial. They were not given an opportunity to defend themselves. They were physically attacked in an inhumane way. And, they were then locked into the stocks, which was a painful torture in and of itself, let alone when your back was ripped open from a beating. While in this country at this time, such physical torture from government authorities is rare, you may face times when your legal rights are violated.

2. When you are treated wrongly, entrust your soul to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

Paul and Silas show us four aspects of a right response to wrong treatment.

A. When you are treated wrongly, keep your joy in the Lord uppermost.

Paul and Silas, their rights having been violated and their backs torn open, their feet in the stocks and locked in the dark inner prison, were praying and singing hymns of praise to God at midnight (16:25)! That convicts me of my lack of joy and my grumbling over the minor irritations in my life!

As John Piper rightly states, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Thus if we want to glorify God, which is the highest goal for the Christian, we must focus on finding joy in Him. Scripture commands us, "Delight yourself in the Lord" (Ps. 37:4). "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.... O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:3, 8). "Praise the Lord" is not a nice suggestion; it's a command! Although I have not verified it, I have heard that the most frequent command in the entire Bible is, "Sing!" And you can't rightly obey the command to praise God and sing for joy unless your heart is full of joy in Him.

Paul and Silas would not have been rejoicing in the Lord in the dungeon at midnight under these awful circumstances if it had not been a regular part of their everyday lives. They had a daily habit of mentally focusing on how great and wonderful God is, and on the many blessings that He daily heaps on His children. The greatest blessing is His gift of salvation by His free grace. Thus Paul could say that the life he now lived in the flesh, he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself for him (Gal. 2:20). As you know, when he later wrote to this Philippian church from a prison cell in Rome, the major theme of that letter was joy in the Lord in spite of our circumstances. "Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord" (Phil. 3:1). "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" (Phil. 4:4).

I wish that Paul had said, "Rejoice in the Lord as a general rule." But, always? Come on, Paul, get realistic! He also wrote to the Philippians, "Do all things without grumbling or disputing" (Phil. 2:14). All things? I could handle, "Try not to grumble too much." "Rejoice always;... In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:18). Always? In everything? The man must not have lived in the same world I live in! O, but he did! He was a man who had learned to focus on the Lord and His abundant grace in every situation, and so he was filled with joy in the Lord in every situation, even in severe trials.

He wrote, "We exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:3-5). He told the Colossians, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake" (Col. 1:24). Was he a masochist, or what?

No, in this he was simply obeying the words of Jesus, "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great" (Matt. 5:11-12). Or, as James wrote, "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2-3). Peter echoes this: "But to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation" (1 Pet. 4:13). It's not enough just to grit your teeth and endure trials; God wants us to rejoice in them!

We need to keep in mind that Paul and Silas did not know the end of this story when they began singing at midnight in the dungeon. For all they knew, they would be executed the next day, or left to die a slow death in prison. Their singing was not based on their knowledge of a happy outcome. It was based on their knowledge of a good and sovereign God. While in this instance, His will was to send a powerful earthquake and free them, it doesn't always work out that way. Many of God's faithful saints have died for their faith, but like John Hus, who was betrayed and burned at the stake, they die singing.

A cheerful, joyous spirit does not depend on having wonderful, trouble-free circumstances. It depends on daily cultivating joy in the Lord. As G. Campbell Morgan observes, "He did not sing because he was to be let out of prison. He sang because prison did not matter" (The Westminster Pulpit [Baker], 9:314-315). The only way that prison and mistreatment and a raw back do not matter is when the delight of God matters more. As George Muller put it, the chief business of every day is first of all to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257).

I emphasize this first point because it is foundational to everything else. So many professing Christians are grumbling, discontented people. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, they think that they would be happier back in slavery in Egypt than to be with God and His provision in the wilderness. Cultivating joy in the Lord every day is not optional. It is mandatory for all who know His salvation.

B. When you are treated wrongly, keep your witness to others in mind.

Paul and Silas were not singing so that they could be good witnesses in this difficult situation. They were singing because their hearts were full of praise toward God and the joy of His salvation. But the overflow of their worship was witness. That's how it always should be. The world should see (or hear) our joy in the Lord from the dungeon and ask, "What's with these people, anyway?" Then we tell them. Our lives back up the reality of the message.

Luke notes that "the prisoners were listening to them" (16:25). They always are, of course! Those who are prisoners in Satan's domain of darkness are always listening to and watching the Lord's people, especially in times of trial. If Paul and Silas had been having a pity party because their rights had been violated and they had been treated wrongly when they were just trying to serve the Lord, they would have been depressed and complaining. They would have missed this great opportunity for witness.

As I mentioned last week, any time that your rights have been violated and you have been mistreated, you are probably looking at a wonderful opportunity for bearing witness of Christ. Years ago, in the former Soviet Union, a criminal who later got saved and became a church leader, wrote about his experience in prison:

Among the general despair, while prisoners like myself were cursing ourselves, the camp, the authorities; while we opened up our veins or our stomachs, or hanged ourselves; the Christians (often with sentences of 20 to 25 years) did not despair. One could see Christ reflected in their faces. Their pure, upright life, deep faith and devotion to God, their gentleness and their wonderful manliness, became a shining example of life for thousands (in Christianity Today [6/21/74]).

Not many of us will ever go through what Christians in communist prisons had to endure. But we will be treated wrongly, at work and at home. With Paul, we should aim at doing all things for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), because the prisoners will be listening. Focus on joy in the Lord and don't forget your witness.

C. When you are treated wrongly, trust the sovereign, all-powerful God to work for His glory.

I have a hunch that if most of us had gone through what Paul and Silas suffered, if we were praying at midnight it would be, "God, get me out of here!" I can't prove it, but I also have a hunch that Paul and Silas were not praying that way. If they had been praying that way, as soon as God sent the powerful earthquake, they would have said, "All right! We're out of here!" And they would have run for their lives.

I think that if they were offering any petitions mixed in with their praise, it would have been, "Lord, use this situation for the greater furtherance of the gospel." Paul and Silas knew that God could have prevented them from being beaten and thrown in prison in the first place, but He did not do so. They trusted that He had another purpose in mind, and so He did, namely, the conversion of the jailer and his family. As Paul later wrote to the Philippians, his aim was that with all boldness, Christ would even now, as always, be exalted in his body, whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20). Paul trusted God to work for His purpose and glory, whether Paul got delivered or whether he died in the process.

The real issue, when you're treated wrongly, is, Do you trust in a sovereign, omnipotent God who could have prevented this situation if He had so willed? If you do, then the next issue is to pray, "Lord, use this difficult situation for Your glory to further Your purpose." Whenever Paul wrote as a prisoner, he never said, "Paul, a prisoner of that scoundrel Caesar who has unjustly put me in prison!" No, it was always, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus." He trusted in the sovereign and all-powerful God, who easily could overrule Caesar if He so chose.

Maybe you're wondering, "Does trusting God mean that we should never stand up for our rights? Do we just lay down as doormats and take whatever happens passively?" That leads to the last point:

D. When you are treated wrongly, know when and why to stand up for your rights.

We don't know why, but for some reason the next morning the magistrates sent to the jailer and told him to release Paul and Silas. Maybe they thought that the beating and night in prison would send these guys packing, never to return. But at this point, Paul says, "No way! They have violated our rights as Roman citizens. We demand that they personally come and bring us out" (16:37). Why did Paul do that?

There were at least two reasons. First, Paul was concerned for justice for all people, and what these magistrates had done was grossly unjust. He knew that by making them come and personally apologize and escort them out of prison, word would spread through the community of what had happened. It would be a very long time before these officials would beat a man without a trial. Paul's action helped hold these men accountable to carry out justice for others who would be accused of some crime. The next time, they would follow the Roman law!

Second, Paul was concerned about the future of the church and the gospel in Philippi. By making these officials realize that they had committed a serious offense against Roman citizens, Paul insured that they would not trouble the Christians in Philippi. Also, if he wanted to come back again, he knew that they would not prevent him. So he stood on his rights in order to protect the church and the cause of Christ in that city.

In line with that, Paul's action showed the entire city, which would have heard about this incident, the spirit of Jesus Christ. By rights, Paul could have had their heads if he had taken his case to a higher authority. But he let their wrong go unpunished and by his actions showed that Christians are not out for personal vengeance. The spirit of Christ is to forgive those who sin against us, while at the same time holding them accountable to change their behavior.

This one incident does not exhaust the biblical teaching on when to stand up for your rights and when to let them go. Some wrongly teach that we should never defend ourselves, either legally or against aggressive attacks against our character or person. But Paul wrote Second Corinthians to defend his character and his apostolic ministry. All I can say here is, when you are treated wrongly, your response should be motivated by the furtherance of God's glory and the gospel, and by the administration of God's justice through law and government, which He has appointed for the well being of society. It is wrong to act out of personal vengeance, greed, or other selfish motives.


The main application of this story for me is to work on having joy in the Lord in every situation. Everything else flows from that. If I radiate His joy because I have entrusted my soul to Him, the faithful Creator, then even when I'm wrongly treated, He will be glorified and others will be drawn to the Savior.

The late Romanian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, spent 14 years in prison for preaching the gospel, three in solitary confinement in a dark cell. His captors smashed four of his vertebrae and either cut or burned 18 holes in his body, but they could not defeat him. He testified, "Alone in my cell, cold, hungry, and in rags, I danced for joy every night." During this time he asked a fellow prisoner, whom he had led to Christ before they were both arrested, "Have you any resentment against me that I brought you to Christ?" The man responded, "I have no words to express my thankfulness that you brought me to the wonderful Savior. I would never have it another way." (In "Our Daily Bread" [2/85].)

May God enable us all, when we are mistreated, to imitate these men of God in entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right!