The Birth of the Church at Philippi (Acts 15:36-16:40)
When I was growing up, I had an English teacher named Clyde Riddell. Mr. Riddell had served in the army during World War II and had some very fascinating stories to tell about his part in that war. He also spoke some German. To be honest, I’m not sure how much, but he certainly had some expressions he used frequently. Incidentally, years later, while I was a student at Dallas Seminary, my summer job was teaching high school classes in a Washington State Penitentiary, which was located in my home town. Mr. Riddell was teaching there as well, so I was able to relate to him as a colleague, as well as a teacher.
One thing sticks out in my mind when I think of Clyde Riddell, something that contributed to his great skill as a teacher. Mr. Riddell could virtually change his personality in a split second. Usually, Mr. Riddell was a very jovial fellow, making jokes and taking a very lighthearted approach to teaching. But there were times when my classmates and I would get unruly, requiring Mr. Riddell to bring the class back under control. When such times occurred, Mr. Riddell’s face would suddenly darken into a frown, and that look was enough to stop bad behavior in its tracks. No one wanted to take on this “Mr. Riddell,” not even me. But when things were once again under control in the classroom, the old “Mr. Riddell” emerged, much to our relief.
I have always thought of the Apostle Paul in similar terms, except that Paul has several “faces” which are evident in his epistles. For example, there is “Paul, the theologian.” You can see Paul’s very logical reasoning in the Book of Romans, as he meticulously works his way through the doctrine of salvation. In 1 Corinthians, for example, we see “Paul, the troubleshooter.” As Paul writes to the Corinthians, he deals with questions they have asked him, and with the problems he has discerned through his communication with others. In 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, we see a very “fatherly Paul.” Here, Paul is a mentor, giving wise counsel to younger men in ministry. In Galatians, we find a very different Paul. Let’s call him “Paul, the warrior.” Here, Paul reminds me a great deal of Clyde Riddell in his “mad mode.” As we read Galatians, we see a very animated and even angry apostle, incensed by the fact that some are turning from the true gospel of salvation by grace alone and embracing another “gospel,” a gospel of works. This “other gospel” does not save, but condemns. Here is a Paul that we really don’t want to face.
How different is the Paul of Philippians! He is just the opposite of “Paul, the warrior” in Galatians. Let’s call him “Paul, the optimist.” Paul is never more upbeat, never more joyful and triumphant than he is in the Book of Philippians. This is not because of any great success or due to the lack of difficulties in his life. Indeed, many things are quite the opposite of pleasant. Paul is not writing from the penthouse of a fancy hotel; he is writing from a prison cell. Some disagree over where this prison is located, but it seems clear that Paul is waiting for his trial, and his future is uncertain. He may even face execution. Paul is therefore not free to go about preaching the gospel and establishing churches as he once did. Some are using his imprisonment as an opportunity to gain a following at his expense, as we shall see in chapter 1. There is also some kind of disagreement between two women, as we find in chapter 4. At the time of his writing, Paul has only one person whom he can trust to send to Philippi—Timothy—who will seek the Philippians’ best interests, rather than his own (2:20-21). In spite of these circumstances, Paul is jubilant, joyful, optimistic.
Many of us need a good dose of whatever it is that inspires such joy in the Apostle Paul. I don’t know why, but there are all too many saints in the church with long faces and sour spirits. There is a book, written by an unbelieving psychiatrist, entitled, Whatever Happened to Sin? The church desperately needs another book, which might be called, Whatever Happened to Joy? Actually, that book does exist. It is the Book of Philippians, the book we have chosen as our study for this series of messages. It is a book that, if taken to heart, can radically transform our outlook and sweeten up some sour saints, not to mention pointing others who have not yet met Him to Christ, the source of all true joy. Let us listen well to the words of Paul in Philippians, and seek to learn why “to live is Christ.”
The Uniqueness of Philippians
It is my conviction that every book of the Bible has a unique contribution to make to the Bible as a whole—something that no other book accomplishes or contributes. So as we commence our study of Philippians, I would ask this question: “What is the unique contribution of Philippians to the Bible as a whole?” Allow me to make some preliminary suggestions.
First, the Philippian church is the first church to be planted in Europe. We shall see in this lesson how God providentially and more directly guided Paul and those with him to Macedonia, and specifically Philippi. Here, a number were brought to faith by the preaching of the gospel. Here, the first church in Europe was planted.
Second, the church at Philippi is the only church I am aware of in the New Testament that is used as a model for other churches to follow. The Philippian church was used by Paul as an example of generosity, so as to stimulate the Corinthians to follow-through with their commitment to give to the needy saints in Judea (2 Corinthians 8:1-5; 9:1-5). Paul indicates in this letter that the Philippians were the only ones to stand behind him financially in his times of need (Philippians 4:10-19). Here is a church committed to support the proclamation of the gospel. Here is a church we would do well to imitate. While Paul is a man we should all seek to imitate individually, the Philippian church is a church we should seek to imitate corporately.
Third, Philippians is an epistle that gives us an entirely different standard for giving and fund-raising. The Apostle Paul seems to have written this epistle as a “thank you” letter in response to the gifts1 that were sent to him in his time of need. As Dr. Haddon Robinson once remarked, this epistle does not come with a tear-out contribution card and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, with the hope of getting yet another gift from the Philippians. Elsewhere we see a fair amount of instruction concerning the giving of gifts, but in this great epistle Paul gives us a unique perspective on the receiving of gifts, one that is both rare and refreshing.
Fourth, the Book of Philippians helps us to define biblical fellowship. All too often the term “fellowship” is used almost synonymously with “friendship” or some similar term. Some think that standing around at church eating refreshments and making small talk is “fellowship.” This is not the case for Paul or for the other New Testament writers. True “koinonia” or fellowship will be defined in Philippians.
Fifth, Philippians is a book that helps us get a proper perspective on unjust suffering, persecution, and even death. I have chosen Paul’s words in chapter 1, verse 21, as the title for this series: “To live is Christ.” When this is our perspective, and we now have the right perspective toward life, we will also have a proper perspective toward adversity and even death. This is why the apostle can add, “…and to die is gain.” The Book of Philippians spells out just how this expression should define our perspective. And if it does, we shall never be grouchy Christians again.
The Birth of the Church at Philippi
Part I: Divinely Guided to Philippi (Acts 15:36–16:12)
15:36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s return and visit the brothers in every town where we proclaimed the word of the Lord to see how they are doing.” 37 Barnabas wanted to bring John called Mark along with them too, 38 but Paul insisted that they should not take along this one who had left them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work. 39 They had a sharp disagreement, so that they parted company. Barnabas took along Mark and sailed away to Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and set out, commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers and sisters. 41 He passed through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
16:1 He also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2 The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek. 4 As they went through the towns, they passed on the decrees that had been decided on by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the Gentile believers to obey. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number every day.
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to, 8 so they passed through Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 A vision appeared to Paul during the night: a Macedonian man was standing there urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” 10 After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. 11 We put out to sea from Troas and sailed a straight course to Samothrace, the next day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of that district of Macedonia, a Roman colony. We stayed in this city for some days.
God seldom does things the way we would expect. Amazing as it may seem, the church at Philippi began as the result of two heated arguments. The first debate—that of Paul and Barnabas with the Judaisers—was over the gospel itself. On this issue, Paul and Barnabas stood together against those who sought to require Gentile converts to Christ to become Jewish proselytes. They insisted that Gentiles must become Christians by also becoming Jews. They demanded that Gentile converts undergo circumcision, and by this symbolic act, to place themselves under the Old Testament law. Acts 15:1-35 describes the way the apostles and the elders of the church in Jerusalem handled this debate. They concluded that Gentile converts were not to be subjected to Judaism and laid down only minimal requirements of these converts.
The second was a debate between Paul and Barnabas over their next missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). They had completed their first missionary journey some time before, and Paul felt strongly that they should now make a return visit to the churches that they had established. Barnabas agreed, but wanted to take John Mark along with them. The problem was that Mark had deserted them on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). Paul was not willing to risk yet another failure, and so he refused to take Mark along with them. Barnabas wanted to salvage this young man and his ministry and insisted on taking him along. They strongly disagreed, and the result was that Barnabas took Mark along with him and went to Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas and set out from Syria and Cilicia.
I have dealt with this matter in my exposition of the Book of Acts,2 so I will not deal with it in detail here. I will say that I believe both Paul and Barnabas were right. Barnabas was acting consistently with his gift of encouragement (see Acts 4:36), while Paul was right in refusing to take Mark along on a mission in which he was likely to fail again. While these two men strongly disagreed, their friendship endured, and the result was that there were now two missionary teams, rather than one. Barnabas had done his work well with Paul, and it was time for the two to venture out on their own. So often today, men “split” ministries in a way that creates animosity and division. I do not believe this happened with Barnabas and Paul, and later history bears this out.
What is very interesting to me is the way God providentially used the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas to prepare the way for a new and unexpected thrust of missionary activity. From what we read in Acts 15:36-41, neither Paul nor Barnabas anticipated a new missionary thrust into Europe. At most, they expected merely to return to those churches they had established on their first journey. But God had much bigger things in mind. The second missionary journey of Paul would be even more dangerous than the first, and therefore taking John Mark along would be ill advised. On the other hand, because Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus, Paul did not need to concern himself with returning there, even though it was a part of his first missionary journey. This division of labor worked out well for everyone and paved the way for a new penetration of the gospel, beyond what anyone might ask or think.
Acts 16 begins with the arrival of Paul and Silas at Derbe and Lystra in southern Galatia. It is in Lystra that Paul first encounters Timothy. This young man had a Jewish mother and a Gentile father. Paul had him circumcised so that his ministry would be more broadly accepted. It is apparent that no one was demanding that he be circumcised, as was the case with Titus (Galatians 2:3-5), or Paul would never have circumcised him. Luke makes it very clear to the reader that Timothy was already a combat-proven disciple. If Paul would not take John Mark along because of the dangers they would face, he surely would not have taken an unproven Timothy along, either. But Acts 16:2 indicates that Timothy was already one who had proven his faithfulness in ministry.
As Paul, Silas and Timothy made their way to the churches that had been previously founded, they delivered the decree of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, which greatly encouraged the saints. Had Paul and Barnabas not separated, they would likely have retraced the steps of their first missionary journey. But that would have taken them to Cyprus. Barnabas is already there with Mark, and so Paul must now decide where to go from Galatia. They could either turn south and head back to Antioch, or he could go north to Bithynia or Asia. The Holy Spirit would not allow Paul and those with him to preach either in Asia or Bithynia. They had traveled as far to the northwest as they could, to the seaport city of Troas. Where were they to go from here? It was at this point that God guided this small missionary band by means of a vision—the so-called Macedonian vision.
The vision was given to Paul in the middle of the night. A Macedonian man appealed to Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help them” (16:9). Paul immediately told the others about it. It is interesting to note the change in our text from “they” (Acts 16:6, 7) to “we” (Acts 16:10). From this, we conclude that Luke joined Paul and the others in Troas, and then remained on in Philippi when the others left (see Acts 16:40f., where we find “they” once again). The missionary party now turns northwest, taking the gospel into Europe. They sail from Troas some 60 miles or so to the island of Samothrace, and then they sail the rest of the way across the Aegean Sea to the port city of Neapolis. It is yet another ten-mile trek from Neapolis to Philippi, where the first church in Europe is soon to be founded.
Part II: Two Women and a Warden (Acts 16:13-40)
13 On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate to the side of the river, where we thought there would be a place of prayer, and we sat down and began to speak to the women who had assembled there. 14 A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying. 15 After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, “If you consider me to be a believer in the Lord, come and stay in my house.” And she persuaded us. 16 Now as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave girl met us who had a spirit that enabled her to foretell the future by supernatural means. She brought her owners a great profit by fortune-telling. 17 She followed behind Paul and us and kept crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” 18 She continued to do this for many days. But Paul became greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out of her at once. 19 But when her owners saw their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion. They are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us to accept or practice, since we are Romans.” 22 The crowd joined the attack against them, and the magistrates tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had beaten them severely, they threw them into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them securely. 24 Receiving such orders, he threw them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the rest of the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly a great earthquake occurred, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately all the doors flew open, and the bonds of all the prisoners came loose. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because he assumed the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul called out loudly, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29 Calling for lights, the jailer rushed in and fell down trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.”3 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, along with all those who were in his house. 33 At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them; and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household. 35 At daybreak the magistrates sent their police officers, saying, “Release those men.” 36 The jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent orders to release you. So come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to the police officers, “They had us beaten in public without a proper trial—even though we are Roman citizens—and they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? No way! They themselves must come and escort us out!” 38 The police officers reported these words to the magistrates. They were frightened when they heard Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, 39 and came and apologized to them. After they brought them out, they asked them repeatedly to leave the city. 40 When they came out of the prison, they entered Lydia’s house; and when they saw the brothers, they encouraged them and then departed.
We know from Acts 16:18 that Paul and those with him went about preaching for “many days.” We also know that when Paul and Silas left Philippi there were a number of “brethren” (16:40). It is safe to assume, then, that the three people whom Luke has chosen to include in his account in chapter 16 are but a sampling of the converts who came to faith due to Paul’s preaching. And a rather unlikely bunch they are. If you or I were to hand pick those whom we would like to see saved and used as the nucleus of a new church, I doubt we would select those whom God chose.4
The first convert in Philippi seems to be Lydia. This city was certainly different from those Paul had visited earlier, as there appears to be only a few Jews living there. Some have explained this by the fact that this was not really a great trading city, where we would expect to find many Jewish businessmen. It would seem from the text that the people of Philippi had a great deal of racial prejudice toward the Jews. This would well explain why so few Jews were to be found there, so few, in fact, that the city did not even have a synagogue. This may be why Paul had to seek a Jewish audience on the riverside, where he supposed there might be a place of prayer (16:13). No men seem to have been present when Paul and the rest came upon a small group of women who had gathered for prayer.
Several of the women who gathered there may have come to faith, but Luke focuses his attention on one woman—Lydia. She was a businesswoman who dealt in purple fabrics. Luke simply tells us that the Lord “opened Lydia’s heart” to respond to the gospel which Paul proclaimed (16:14). I have always regarded this statement about Lydia’s salvation as being of great significance because it indicates that the Lord is the “first cause” of salvation. It is God who opens the hearts of men, so that men may believe (see John 6:37, 44, 65). Having said this, it had not occurred to me until now that this statement is of particular significance because it is said in reference to the one person whom we might suppose to be “the most likely to believe.” Think about this for a moment. If Luke had said this about the Philippian jailer, we would have expected it. Apart from the Lord opening his heart, we know that he would not believe the message Paul preached. But Lydia was a God-fearer. I would understand her to be an Old Testament saint. We might even think that for a person like her, conversion was virtually automatic. But it is of this woman that Luke writes, “the Lord opened her heart to believe…” This is most significant to me. If God must open the heart of the one person in our text who is “most likely to believe,” then surely He must open the hearts of all who believe. And so He does: “When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
One cannot help but wonder if this woman was not baptized then and there, since they were beside the river at the time she came to faith. We are not told about her baptism, but Luke does inform us that she immediately insisted that Paul and the rest stay at her house. You and I may have some difficulty appreciating the significance of this, but I doubt that Luke did. This past year I spent several weeks in Indonesia, where I was preaching in a local church. I cannot tell you how much easier it was for me because a Christian brother put me up in his apartment. Paul was a “foreigner” in Philippi, and no doubt these folks tended to be suspicious of folks like him and his friends. Having a place to stay met a very practical need for “bed and breakfast,” and it also provided these Jewish preachers a measure of protection. By the salvation of Lydia, God had not only given them their first convert in Macedonia, He also provided them with a place to stay.
It was on one of their trips to the riverside place of prayer that a demonized young woman encountered Paul and his colleagues. In a manner similar to the way we see demons announcing the presence of our Lord in the Gospels (see Mark 1:24, 34; Luke 4:34), the fortuneteller served as the “town crier,” telling all within hearing distance who Paul and his team were. But like our Lord, Paul did not wish this kind of publicity. He endured this woman’s announcements for some time,5 but eventually he became so annoyed by her that he cast the demon out of her.
This young woman was a slave girl. She was the property of her owners. The demon that possessed her really did give her great powers, and consequently she provided a good income for her owners. Paul delivered this woman from her bondage, and she may have rejoiced, but this was not true of her owners. Their whole business had just collapsed before their very eyes. While Paul’s Jewish opponents were prompted by religious differences, these Gentiles were driven solely by economics. They had lost considerable wealth, and they were angry. They cared nothing for their slave, but only about their profits. Now, their business was gone, and they intended to make Paul pay for it, if not with his money, then with his body.
As you read through the account of the arrest, beating, and imprisonment of Paul and Silas, I want you to do so with an eye to what this tells us about the attitude of the people of Philippi towards the Jews. Paul and Silas were dragged before the civil authorities and charged with: (1) being Jewish, and (2) advocating practices which were illegal for Roman citizens (16:20-21). There is no “due process of law” here, no inquiry into the charges, no opportunity given to Paul or Silas to speak in their own defense. And, so far as we are told, no opportunity is given Paul to assert his rights as a Roman citizen. The crowds as well as the civil magistrates were willing to believe the worst.
Paul and Silas were summarily pronounced guilty and then beaten severely and cast into prison. I have been to a lot of prisons in my life (in prison ministry), and I have seen some pretty miserable places. I doubt that any of the worst prisons I have seen would compare to this Philippian prison. In prison jargon, we would say that Paul and Silas were thrown into “the hole.”6 It would be in the deepest part of the prison and behind as many gates and bars as possible. From what Luke has told us, we know that Paul and Silas were being kept in “maximum security.” Security was so high that even though Paul and Silas were deep within the prison, their feet were still placed in stocks (16:24). Their situation must have looked bleak. How could these Jewish foreigners possibly find any forum where they could protest their arrest and treatment? They certainly had no way to escape. At that moment, it must have looked as though they might spend the rest of their lives in that terrible place.
For the jailer and the long-term inmates of that prison, this night offered nothing new. It was a scene that had been played out countless times before. I am sure that they had become calloused to the cries of pain, and the curses which came from the lips of beaten and bloody felons. Everyone knew what to expect, but this night something different was in store for all. This was a night no one would ever forget.
As Paul and Silas were roughly thrown into the inner chamber of that prison and their feet were secured in stocks, no angry words came from their lips. The two new inmates began to sing. These were not songs of sorrow—“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen…”—these were songs of joy and of praise to God (16:25). I can almost see one of the older prisoners turning to a cellmate and asking, “Which God are they singing about?” The response of these two “foreigners” was so unusual that everyone in that prison must have strained to hear the words of each song.
By the way, this incident gives us a fairly good test of “good Christian music.” This is a hotly debated topic in many churches. I would like to ask you to consider the impact of this night on those prisoners if certain types of contemporary Christian songs were to have been sung by Paul and Silas. Would the prisoners have learned much about God? Would they have heard about the forgiveness of sins? Would they have come to know about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary? This would not be a bad test for any music, old or modern.
It was not just singing that these inmates heard on this occasion. There were also prayers. Were there prayers of praise? Without a doubt! Were there prayers for the salvation of those who had beaten them, and prayers for their fellow inmates? I would expect that there were. Were there prayers of petition, asking for their release? Perhaps. The other prisoners had never seen nor heard anything like this before in their lives. They listened intently, and perhaps they wondered what would come of all this. They would know before long.
Just as the songs of Paul and Silas provide us with the opportunity to ponder the value of our music, the prayers of Paul and Silas present us with an occasion to consider the content of our prayers. These inmates had “seen it all,” or so they thought, but when they witnessed the response of Paul and Silas, they listened. I wonder how the prisoners in that penitentiary would have responded if it were our prayers that were being offered up. What would they learn about God? What would they learn about the Christian’s response to suffering? What would they learn about the gospel?
I wonder if there was a growing sense of anticipation as midnight approached, and as the prayers and praises of Paul and Silas drifted throughout that prison. These inmates were about to witness an event that they would talk about for the rest of their lives. As we consider this earthquake and its aftermath, I want you to keep one thing in mind—the purpose of this earthquake was not to give Paul and Silas the chance to escape, and it was not God’s intent that any of the prisoners escape. This earthquake is about salvation coming to the house of the jailer and to others deep within that prison. The release of Paul and Silas would be a legal matter, brought about by the very magistrates who had illegally confined them.
For reasons of security, the prison would almost have to be constructed of stone. Paul and Silas are in the deepest part of that prison, so in order to release them it was necessary to “shake up” the entire prison. Having witnessed more than one earthquake, I can imagine what it would have been like to experience this event from deep within that ancient prison. What a terrifying experience this must have been. No doubt all the prisoners expected to be crushed under tons of falling stone. But as the walls moved about violently, the gates snapped loose, and every prison door popped open. Every chain that secured a prisoner to the wall or to the floor was broken loose (16:26). So far as we know, no one even suffered an injury.
It is almost certain that the jailer lived in the same building, probably upstairs. (I have a friend whose father was a sheriff for many years, and he tells me that his family lived in the jail building. I think something similar was the case in this Philippian prison.) He certainly seems to have realized that the prison doors had been opened. As he quickly surveyed the damage, he assumed the worst.
From what I know about prisons, one of two things was likely to have happened. First, the prisoners would have attempted to escape from their confinement. After all, if you were a prisoner on death row, living in horrid conditions, what would you do if all the prison doors popped open and your chains broke loose? In the middle of the night, in the cover of darkness, and in the midst of great confusion, it would have been relatively easy to make your escape. By the way, unless God divinely restricted this earthquake to one building, the entire city was severely shaken. I wonder if there was a message in this for those who had falsely accused Paul and Silas.
The second thing that happens in prisons is that the prisoners may choose to use even momentary freedom to carry out violent acts toward one another. In the prison riots that have occurred in this country, at least, prisoners have murdered and maimed fellow-prisoners, venting their pent-up hatred. Just this past week in Texas, a couple of death row inmates were able to overpower a woman guard and to hold her hostage for a few agonizing hours. The article in the newspaper said that the other death row inmates called out to the two men who held this woman hostage, urging them to injure the female guard in very cruel ways. The jailer was right to assume the worst. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a great escape. His job—and quite literally his neck—were on the line.
When the jailer rushed into the prison, he apparently saw no one and assumed the worst—that every prisoner had already fled. We know that it was dark inside that prison, because the jailer had to call for a light (16:29). In addition to not seeing any of the prisoners, the jailer must not have heard any noise, either, or he would have known that the prisoners were still inside. I think what he found was too good to be true. Every prisoner remained in their cell, even though their cell door was open and their chains had fallen loose. And every prisoner seems to have been calm and quiet. To the jailer, all this seemed to verify his conclusion that there was no one left inside the prison.
It was Paul who first broke the silence. He either saw the silhouette of the jailer, who was about to kill himself, or he was divinely informed of his intentions. Either way, Paul called out to the jailer, urging him not to harm himself, and informing him that all the prisoners were present and accounted for. I have often wondered what prompted the jailer’s next words: “What must I do to be saved?” We do not know. Perhaps Paul had already witnessed to this man. Perhaps he had overheard Paul and Silas, praying and singing in their cell. Or perhaps the other inmates were gathered about Paul in the inner part of the prison, asking him what they must do to be saved. Perhaps the jailer overheard their cries for salvation and includes himself, so that the sense of his words might be, “I hear these men asking you what they must do to be saved, and I would like to know for myself as well, what I must do to be saved, too.”
Whatever prompted the jailer’s words, Paul had a ready answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). For a one-sentence definition of the gospel, this is probably as good as it gets. But let us not suppose that this is all that the jailer was told about salvation. He may have known something from what Paul and Silas said or sung earlier in the evening. In addition, we know that he received a more thorough definition of the gospel later that night in the jailer’s home: “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, along with all those who were in his house” (Acts 16:32). The jailer and his entire household heard the good news of the gospel and came to faith in Christ. One indication of this is that they were baptized. Another is that they immediately (much like Lydia) sought to show hospitality to Paul and Silas. The jailer not only fed these two men, he also attended to their wounds. What a time of rejoicing that must have been (16:34). What a difference a day made to this man and his family.
I am sure that the jailer wondered what he would do with his prisoners, now that he had come to faith. He had no great cause for concern, for the very next day police officers arrived, sent by the magistrates who had illegally sentenced Paul and Silas. They gave the jailer orders to release Paul and Silas. The jailer was ecstatic. He was no longer required to incarcerate those who had brought the gospel to him. He could hardly wait to tell Paul that he and Silas were free to go.
I suspect that Paul’s response to the jailer’s “good news” shocked him. He might have thought that Paul and Silas would leave quickly and quietly, eager to get out of town as fast as possible. But Paul would have none of this. He was not about to let these magistrates get away with their violation of the law. Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. Their rights as Roman citizens had been violated, and these magistrates were not going to be let off so easily that they would be tempted to do so again. They would have to come personally and release them.
Luke informs us that the magistrates were shocked to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. This indicates that they had never heard Paul claim to be a Roman citizen. It tells me that they were manipulated by the slave girl’s owners, who did not give them all the facts, and who had in fact brought false charges against Paul and Silas. The magistrates had been deceived, but they had also failed to carry out their job according to the law. They were willing to assume that because these men were Jews they were also criminals. They had not listened to Paul or Silas, but only to those making accusations against them. It was a lesson they would not soon forget. And because Paul could have made things very unpleasant for them, they would certainly think twice before they harmed any members of the church in Philippi. God not only established the church in Philippi, He did so in a way that insured its safety in the days to come.
The magistrates were afraid of what Paul or Silas might do to them, since they had broken the law in the way they violated the rights of these Roman citizens. If I were Paul, I would have some pleasure in watching these magistrates “eat humble pie” (as we would say). Paul’s concern was not just with his rights, but with what was right, and also for the future of this church. The magistrates begged Paul and Silas to leave their city, which Paul did, but only after he took the time to meet with the new believers. Having encouraged these new Christians, Paul and Silas moved on to Thessalonica, where they would once again be persecuted, but this time by the Jews.
What an amazing story this is! The church having started as it did, I have to smile when I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. They knew, of course, that Paul was in prison, and that there was the chance that he might be condemned to death. I can imagine what it was like when this letter was read aloud in church. I can see Lydia sitting there in the front row, along with others of her household who came to faith through the preaching of Paul. It is possible that the young slave girl was there as well. But the one who comes to my mind is the jailer. Can’t you see him sitting there in church, beside a few of the inmates from his prison? When there is mention of Paul’s imprisonment, I can almost hear one of the inmates as he punches the jailer in the side, and with eyes rolling says, “Wow! In prison again, huh? I wonder how many of those fellows will be getting saved? Do you think God will shake them up with an earthquake, too?”
In a day when “homogeneous grouping”7 is the watchword for churches, the church at Philippi is a refreshing contrast. We see three very different people who are impacted by Paul’s ministry at Philippi: a Jewish businesswoman, a slave girl, and a jailer. I don’t know for certain that the slave girl was saved and became a member of that church, but Lydia and the jailer surely did. The unity that we see in the church at Philippi is not the result of uniformity, but is the result of becoming one in Christ. That is the kind of unity that manifests the love and power of Jesus Christ to a lost world.
The story of the birth of the church at Philippi is also a lesson to us regarding divine guidance. We should all see that it was God who divinely directed Paul and Silas and the other members of this team to Philippi. It was God who directed Paul to the riverside, where Lydia and others gathered. It was God who directed Paul to the Philippian jailer. God directed these men in a variety of ways. He directed through Paul’s disagreement with Barnabas. He directed through Paul’s desire to revisit the churches that had been planted earlier in his ministry. He directed also through the prohibition of the Holy Spirit (however that worked itself out on two occasions) and through the vision that Paul was given in Troas. He even directed through the evil actions of the slave girl’s owners and the injustice of the magistrates. God saw to it that there was a church planted in Philippi.
The account of the birth of the church at Philippi also instructs us regarding suffering. The legalistic Jews of Jesus’ day were wrong to conclude that the only reason for human suffering was sin (see John 9:1-3). Sometimes men and women suffer because they are righteous. Paul and Silas suffered because they delivered a young woman from demon possession. Innocent (and righteous) suffering may, indeed, result in the salvation of others. It was our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross of Calvary that provided for the forgiveness of sins. It may be through our suffering that others come to faith. Paul and Silas suffered, and because of this, the Philippian jailer and his household were saved.
I would like to suggest to you that the way Paul and Silas suffered played a significant role in the salvation of others, including the jailer and his family. Suppose that Paul and Silas had moaned and groaned and cursed because of their pain. I doubt that anyone would have fallen before them, asking what they must do to be saved. It was the sinless, righteous, suffering of Paul and Silas that God used to testify of His grace and saving power to all who looked on. I wonder how many would be drawn to Christ by the way we suffer?
Often, it is suffering which prompts the unsaved to come to Christ for salvation. The self-righteous scribes and Pharisees objected that it was the sinners with whom Jesus associated. They could not understand why He did not give them the attention they thought they deserved. Jesus told them that He came to heal the sick, not to heal the well. By and large, it was those who were suffering who came to Christ for mercy and grace. Their afflictions showed them that they could not heal themselves, but that they needed someone else—the Messiah—to heal them. Has your suffering shown you how helpless and needy you are? I pray that your suffering may cause you to “turn your eyes to Christ,” who alone is able to save, who has come to seek and to save those who are helpless and lost.
Luke’s account of the birth of the church at Philippi is one of the most extensive accounts of the planting of a church in all of the New Testament. It prepares us for what we are about to read and study in the Book of Philippians. As we prepare to commence this study of Philippians, my prayer is that God will use this great book to transform your perspective, so that you and I can say with the Apostle Paul, “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
3 There are those who might infer from these words that if the jailer himself believed, this would suffice not only for his salvation, but also for the salvation of his entire household. The text does not teach this. Paul makes it clear that the offer of salvation is not only for the jailer, but for his entire household. Luke then informs us that Paul explained the gospel more fully, not only to the jailer, but to his entire household (16:32). Acts 16:32-33 indicates to the reader that both the jailer and his entire household believed in God and were baptized. It was not the jailer’s faith that saved his household; each member of his household had to hear and heed the gospel message for themselves, and this they did.
4 I should say at this point that there are some who assume that the demon possessed fortune teller was saved, and this might be the case, but the text does not really tell us that she came to faith. We know for certain that Lydia and the jailer were saved.
7 In short, it is the belief that “birds of a feather stay together.” Homogeneous grouping means that a church selects a certain slice of society and caters to it. Church members feel greater unity and comfort because everyone else is pretty much like them.