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A Closer Look at Open and Closed Doors (Acts 16:11-40)

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6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this, 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 (Acts 16:6-10).1

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. 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.” 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? Absolutely not! 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.2

Introduction3

The last verses of chapter 15 and the first verses of Acts 16 describe the commencement of what we know as Paul’s “Second Missionary Journey.” Barnabas took John Mark and set out for Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas to replace Barnabas, and passed through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening these churches as they made their way to the Galatian churches founded on the “First Missionary Journey.” When Paul came to Lystra, he encountered a young disciple named Timothy, who was highly regarded by the Christians in the area. Timothy was circumcised and then taken along with Paul and Silas. They passed through the Galatian cities, delivering the decrees from the Jerusalem church leaders. The churches were strengthened and experienced continued growth.

Initially, the plan was simply to revisit the churches that had been founded on the “First Missionary Journey,” but having completed this task, Paul and his companions sought to preach the gospel in Asia, but they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 16:6). Next they sought to go into Bithynia, but the “Spirit of Jesus” would not permit this either (Acts 16:7). When they reached Troas, Paul had a vision in the night. A Macedonian man4 was urging Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). The next morning, they set sail for Macedonia.

In verses 5 and 6, we find two occasions when the Spirit of God “closed the door” on preaching the gospel in a particular place. In verses 9 and 10, we find an “open door.” I believe it will be beneficial to consider the difference between closed doors and open doors in this chapter. In addition to this, we will learn how the church at Philippi was born. This is one of the truly great churches in the New Testament, one that gave Paul great cause for rejoicing.

In our text, Luke chooses to focus on three different individuals: Lydia, the seller of purple; the demon possessed slave girl who was a fortune teller; and the Philippian jailer. I do not believe that these are the only folks with whom Paul and Silas dealt on this visit,5 but somehow these give us a flavor of what the ministry was like.

Down by the Riverside
Acts 16:11-15

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. 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.

Samothrace was little more than a mountain jutting out of the sea to a height of about 5,000 feet. There was a port there, and it may well be that they made port for the night, sailing on the next day to the Macedonian port city of Neapolis. From here, it was only a ten-mile walk to Philippi. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke would spend a number of days here before moving on.

On the Sabbath day, they went to the river because there was no synagogue in Philippi, and this is where they expected to find any Jewish worshippers. Apparently no men were present, but there were some women with whom they spoke. One of these women was named Lydia, a God-fearer from Thyatira. She listened, and God opened her heart to respond to the news that Jesus was the Promised Messiah. After she and her household were baptized, she prevailed upon these missionaries to stay in her home while they were in Philippi. And so the first Gentile convert in Macedonia is a woman.

Paul Liberates a Slave Woman, and It Costs a Fortune
Acts 16:16-24

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.

Paul seems to return to the place of prayer just as he would have the synagogue, had there been one. On the way to the place of prayer, a slave girl confronted6 them. She was demon-possessed, and the spirit that controlled her enabled her to foretell the future as a fortune teller. This woman was owned by others, and she made a fortune for them. It may be puzzling for some to hear what this demonized young woman constantly shouted as she followed Paul and the others:

“These men are servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17).

Her words were true, but why would she say them? Let us first of all remember that similar things took place during the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus:

“Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24)

I am indebted to James Montgomery Boice7 for pointing out that references to God as the “Most High God” can be found in these Old Testament texts.

18 Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (Now he was the priest of the Most High God.) 19 He blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:18-19, emphasis mine).

But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth, and vow (Genesis 14:22, emphasis mine).

“I will climb up to the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High!” (Isaiah 14:14, emphasis mine)

The words of Melchizedek in Genesis 14:19 inform Abram that the God who called him, the God whom he serves, is the sovereign Creator of both the heavens and the earth. He is God of all gods and Ruler of all rulers. The next occurrence (Genesis 14:22) indicates that Abram grasped this fact, and that he conveyed this by his own words to the king of Sodom. When Satan rebelled against God, it was his foolish attempt to assume this exalted position as God Most High. Why, then, would one of his minions introduce the preaching of the gospel by testifying to the sovereignty of his sworn enemy, the God of the universe? Let me suggest a reason.

You remember the Old Testament story about Balaam, the (false) prophet who was hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 22-25). Balaam really did want to earn the fee for doing so, but every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, he ended up blessing them (see Numbers 23:1-13). The fact was that Balaam could not curse the Israelites because God had blessed them.

I seriously doubt that this slave girl intended to say what she did, but she was unable to say anything else. All she could do was speak the truth about Paul and his colleagues and the gospel they had come to preach. The problem does not seem to be what she said, but rather the distraction she created by saying it over and over again. She became, in effect, a heckler, whose presence was annoying, to say the least.

Paul put up with her distractions for a good while. One may wonder why Paul did not act sooner. I am inclined to think that Paul was not quick to confront the powers of hell. This is not because he lacked the power (in Christ) to do so, but simply because this kind of spiritual warfare is something that he never took lightly. Unfortunately, I have heard some Christians speak lightly of Satan and his power:

8 Yet these men, as a result of their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and insult the glorious ones. 9 But even when Michael the archangel was arguing with the devil and debating with him concerning Moses’ body, he did not dare to bring a slanderous judgment, but said, “May the Lord rebuke you!“ 10 But these men do not understand the things they slander, and they are being destroyed by the very things that, like irrational animals, they instinctively comprehend (Jude 8-10).

Eventually this young woman’s opposition became too much to bear, and Paul spoke to the spirit, commanding it to come out of this woman in the name of Jesus Christ. The spirit instantly obeyed. I find it interesting to note how eager some of the commentators are to believe that this young woman, like Lydia and (soon) the jailer, came to trust in the Lord Jesus. But I see absolutely no evidence that she did trust in Jesus. We are not told that she believed, though we are clearly told that Lydia and the jailer did. We are not told that she was baptized, but we are told that Lydia and the jailer were (with their households). We are not told that she wanted to show these missionaries hospitality, as did Lydia and the jailer. This woman was delivered from demon possession, and so far as I can tell, that is all.

Apparently it did not take long for this slave woman’s owners to realize that Paul had cost them a fortune, literally. They were greatly enraged, and so they laid hold of Paul and Silas and dragged them to the city officials. Their accusations sound familiar to anyone who is familiar with the Gospels and Acts. The accusations were designed to play upon the anti-Jewish sentiments of the citizens of Philippi (no wonder there were few Jews in Philippi). As Jesus was accused of misleading the people so as to violate Roman law, so Paul and Silas were accused of persuading people to oppose Roman law in Philippi. As the opposition stirred up the crowds against Jesus in Jerusalem, so they persuaded the crowds to oppose Paul and his associates in Philippi:

1 Then the whole group of them rose up and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He replied, “You say so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” 5 But they persisted in saying, “He incites the people by teaching throughout all Judea. It started in Galilee and ended up here!” . . . 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. When I examined him before you, I did not find this man guilty of anything you accused him of doing” (Luke 23:1-5, 14).

At that moment Jesus said to the crowd, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me like you would an outlaw? Day after day I sat teaching in the temple courts, yet you did not arrest me?” (Matthew 26:55)

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed (Matthew 27:20).

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 rods8 (Acts 16:20-22).

We know that the beatings inflicted on Paul and Silas were illegal.9 In Acts 22, Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen and thereby escaped a beating.10 We must wonder why Paul endured such a beating here. He may not have had the opportunity to stop these (illegal) proceedings. His opponents were certainly not in a reasonable mood. He may have objected but was simply ignored, or his claim assumed to be false. He does not fail to claim his legal rights at the end of this chapter.

I am inclined to think that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 may apply here:

20 Let each one remain in that situation in life in which he was called. 21 Were you called as a slave? Do not worry about it. But if indeed you are able to be free, make the most of the opportunity (1 Corinthians 7:20-21).

Paul is encouraging the Corinthian Christians to be content in whatever circumstances they were called to faith in Jesus. This applies to circumcision (1 Corinthians 7:18-19), as it applies to slavery (1 Corinthians 7:20-21). One who is saved as a slave should not agonize about his (or her) condition, because they can glorify God as a Christian slave. But, if the opportunity should arise where they could purchase their freedom, then they should do so.

I think this principle applies to Paul’s beating in Philippi. If he cannot, for one reason or another, escape from the beating, then he must suffer for the sake of Christ. He can endure this patiently, rejoicing in the privilege of suffering for Christ (see 1 Peter 1:18-25; 4:12-14), which is evident by the hymns they were singing to God while in that prison (Acts 16:25). For whatever reason, the beating could not be avoided in a way that would honor Christ.

Luke informs us that “the crowd joined the attack against them, and the magistrates tore the clothes off Paul and Silas. . .” (verse 22). This was far from what we would consider “due process of the law.” This was a virtual riot, with the entire crowd out of control. Any objections would have been futile.

The jailer seems to enter the story at this point. Paul and Silas were beaten severely and then cast into prison. The jailer was instructed to guard them securely. The jailer took this charge seriously and placed (threw) them in an inner cell. In other words, they were in maximum security. When I worked in a prison, they called this “the hole.” To make doubly sure they could not escape, their feet were put in the stocks. One can only imagine the pain these two heroes of the faith endured on this occasion.

Beyond Escape
Acts 16:25-34

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.” 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.

Escape from prison is nothing new in the Book of Acts. In chapter 5, Peter and John were arrested and placed in jail. During the night, an angel of the Lord opened the prison gates and instructed the two apostles to go and preach publicly in the temple. The officers who went to retrieve the apostles to stand trial before the Sanhedrin found only an empty cell, securely locked and under guard. In chapter 12, Herod arrested Peter with the intent of executing him after the Feast of Unleavened Bread. On that final night, an angel of the Lord personally escorted Peter from the prison, while the guards slept soundly. In this instance, Peter made a brief appearance at Mary’s home, where the saints had gathered to pray, and then he escaped to a place where he would not be found. We might expect something similar here in Acts 16, but even when every door is opened and every chain is loosed, neither Paul nor Silas (nor apparently anyone else) left. Escape was made easy, but no one fled. The question is obviously, “Why not?”

Some strange things were about to take place in that prison on this particular night. Can you imagine being incarcerated in that prison and hearing the sounds of singing echo through those stone corridors? I’m sure the sounds of cursing were often heard, as badly beaten men expressed their wrath toward God and man. But these were the sounds of men rejoicing, not men singing some mournful dirge. This was not something akin to “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen . . . .” This was much more like “Amazing Grace.” Luke tells us that “the prisoners were listening” (verse 25). I’ll bet they were listening.

I can remember the time that I was sharing my faith with a group of prisoners. One of the inmates said to the other, “Ain’t that something, man? Ain’t that something?” I’ll bet that’s what some of these prisoners were saying to each other. Prisons are very noisy places, and I suspect that every word of every song was heard, not to mention the prayers these two joyfully offered up to their God.

Suddenly there is a great earthquake. I don’t think a prison cell is the safest place to be when such a thing happens. These inmates must have thought they were goners. Every door flew open, and every chain fell loose. There was nothing to keep these men in their cells. They could easily escape under cover of darkness (and in the panic of the moment).

From what I know of prisons in that day (and even some jails today), the jailer probably lived in the upstairs part of the building while the prisoners were kept in the basement (or dungeon). The jailer was probably ejected from his bed. It would have taken him only a moment to realize what had happened and to comprehend the magnitude of this crisis for him personally. Luke tells us that the jailer saw all the prison doors opened. There was no way on earth that these doors could be wide open unless the prisoners had escaped. The jailer took out his sword and prepared to take his own life.

Luke tells us that Paul called out to the jailer in a loud voice. It is possible that in the darkness of that inner prison Paul might have seen the silhouette of the jailer, about to kill himself. That would be a very human, a very believable explanation. But it is also possible that God somehow made Paul aware of the jailer’s intentions, even without seeing him. This would explain why Paul called out to the jailer in a loud voice. Hearing Paul assure him that the prisoners were all present, the jailer called for lights to be brought so that he could see the status of things inside the prison.

How could he believe what he was seeing? Everyone was there and accounted for. One could at least expect the other inmates to have fled the prison, but all were present and accounted for. Why would the pagan inmates remain behind? I think it was because they realized something really big had just happened. The words they had heard sung and prayed were no empty claims. Their words had a ring of authority, now that they had rejoiced in their afflictions, and now that God had miraculously provided “a way of escape” (see 1 Corinthians 10:13). They were as eager to know that answer to the jailer’s question as he was.

Rushing into the inner prison where Paul and Silas remained, the jailer fell down before them and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Who told him he needed to be saved? Had he heard the slave girl calling out that these men were “servants of the Most High God who are proclaiming . . . the way of salvation”? Had the jailer overheard their singing and the praying in the prison below him while he lay in his bed, listening to what was going on below? Somehow, God had prepared the heart of this jailer so that he was eager to hear what Paul and Silas had to say. Paul and Silas immediately responded with the “short version” of the gospel: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.”

It is clear that this was but a summary of the gospel, and that much more was said as they talked on into the night. In addition to Paul’s abbreviated gospel in Acts 16:31, the very next verse reads, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, along with all those who were in his house” (verse 32). No doubt Paul and Silas were explaining the gospel as the jailer washed their wounds. Then, the jailer was baptized, along with his entire household.

Verse 34 is fascinating and informative. First, we read that the jailer “rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household.” His joy, I take it, was the joy of his salvation, but also rejoicing in the fact that his household had come to share the faith with him. Luke is not telling us that the jailer’s faith was sufficient for his own salvation, and for that of his household. His faith was sufficient for his salvation, but it didn’t save others. Some are confused by the wording of the gospel as we find it in Acts 16:31:

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

The confusion may be caused by the wording of this verse in the King James Version:

And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house (Acts 16:31, KJV).

Paul and Silas are answering the jailer’s question, which is, “What must I do to be saved?” (emphasis mine). The answer goes somewhat beyond the question. Paul and Silas (“they”) reply that the jailer need only believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved. But they add that this offer of salvation by faith is also extended to his entire household. They can all be saved as each one believes in the Lord Jesus. This is clear from what follows. In verse 32, we are told that Paul and Silas proclaimed the gospel to the jailer “and” all those who were in his house. In verse 33, Luke tells us that this jailer “and” all his family were baptized. In verse 34, Luke writes that the jailer rejoiced greatly because he believed “together with” his entire household. Thus, the offer of salvation by faith was offered to all, explained to all, and received by all. The jailer’s faith saved him; the salvation of each family member came as each of them believed in the Lord Jesus.

Secondly, we are told that the jailer “brought them into his house and set food before them.” I believe this is an important detail to note. In the early chapters of Acts, we find that new believers practiced “table fellowship”:

Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts (Acts 2:46).

When Lydia came to faith, she promptly invited Paul and his colleagues to stay in her home:

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 (Acts 16:15).

Now, when the Philippian jailer comes to faith, we find Paul and Silas at his table, sharing a meal in the early hours of the morning (Acts 16:34). Sharing a common faith seems to be expressed by sharing a common meal. I wonder if observing communion isn’t related to this (see 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34). No wonder God made such a point of revoking the Old Testament food laws (see Mark 7:14-23; Acts 10-11; Galatians 2:11-16).

Freedom Offered, but Not So Quickly Accepted
Acts 16:35-40

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? Absolutely not! 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 (Acts 16:35-40).

When the police officers arrived with their message from the magistrates, the jailer surely saw this as good news. He had already given these two men freedom within the confines of the prison by taking them into his dwelling. Now they were free to go. What could be better news than this?

But freedom from that prison was not of primary importance to Paul. When the prison gates were all flung open by the earthquake and every chain loosed, Paul and Silas could have easily escaped. But that was not what God had in mind. They could have escaped, but then they would have been fugitives from justice. The church in Philippi would be subject to government oppression, and further ministry in Philippi would have been restricted. It was by remaining in the prison that God “opened the door” of the jailer’s heart.

Now, once again, there appears to be an “open door,” which would have granted Paul and Silas a legal release. But at what price? Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. They had been deprived of their rights as citizens of Rome. The beating they received, and their imprisonment, were illegal. The magistrates were undoubtedly hoping that Paul and Silas would silently slip out of town, never to be seen again. But that was not going to happen. Paul is not just “standing up for his rights;” he is standing up for what is right, and for what is best for the gospel, and for the new church.

In the future, Roman officials might feel the freedom to abuse Roman citizens who were Christians. They could beat them, and then let them go, just as they had done to Paul and Silas. The end result would be detrimental to the spread of the gospel. No. They were wrong to mistreat Roman citizens. Now they must publicly acknowledge their wrongdoing by making a public apology. This would leave Paul and Silas (and others who were Roman citizens) the right to travel freely among the churches in the empire. It would protect the church in Philippi from governmental oppression. Paul would not accept “freedom at any price.” He insisted that the officials obey the laws they were also charged to enforce. He took his beating well, but he did not tolerate injustice. I suspect that word of Paul’s actions made its way to other cities, and this may have given those officials pause. If they treated Paul and Silas illegally, they would be held responsible. Let me say it again; Paul’s “rights” are not primary here, but what is right, especially for the advance of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul and Silas did not hastily leave town either. When the magistrates had made their apology, Paul and Silas made their way to the home of Lydia. They would have needed to regroup with Timothy, and they also needed to use this as an opportunity to encourage the believers in this new church. What Paul would write to these saints at a later time was also relevant on this occasion:

12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel: 13 The whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ (Philippians 1:12-13).

Conclusion

The Gospel

Our text does a marvelous job of portraying the gospel. We are informed that the gospel begins with God. It is not we who seek God (see Romans 3:9-18), but it is God who seeks and saves us, opening our hearts to respond to the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf (Acts 16:14). Salvation is not about the works that we do; salvation is about what the Lord Jesus Christ has done on the cross of Calvary. We are saved by believing on Him, on the Lord Jesus Christ. We are sinners who deserve God’s eternal wrath (hell). God sent Jesus to earth as the Promised Messiah, fulfilling the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament. By believing on the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life, we are saved.

The Church at Philippi

Let us remember that the church which is founded here in Acts 16 is the church to which Paul has written the Book of Philippians. This is a marvelous church. They were the only church to support Paul financially after Paul departed from Macedonia (Philippians 4:10-16). They not only sent money to support Paul while he was in prison; they sent Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30). It is no wonder that the church at Philippi would stand with Paul in his imprisonment in Rome; it was Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi which God used to bring some of them to faith.

God’s Strategy

Paul’s missionary journeys reveal a divine strategy. We have come far enough in the Book of Acts to realize that there is a strategy behind Paul’s missionary journeys. Paul and his colleagues tend to visit major cities, located on major transportation routes. Paul travels are all within the Roman Empire, and he is a Roman citizen. Thus Paul’s missionary activities fall under the protection of Rome.

We know that Paul follows the practice of going “to the Jew first.”

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16).

One can (and should) understand this from a theological point of view. The gospel was to be offered first to the Jews, and then (when rejected) it should be taken to the Gentiles:

45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy, and they began to contradict what Paul was saying by reviling him. 46 Both Paul and Barnabas replied courageously, “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth (Acts 13:45-47).’”

But there is also a practical and strategic dimension to this principle of “the Jew first.” This was what made it possible to reach a large number of people and cover a broad geographical area with the gospel. The Jews had been dispersed throughout the known world, and thus Paul sought to reach them first, wherever he traveled. Wherever Paul went, he went first to the synagogue (or, when there was none, to a Jewish place of prayer). The Jews who attended the synagogue believed in one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They read and believed in the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God. Thus, they believed the messianic promises and prophecies. Paul could go to a city and, in a short period of time, demonstrate that the Promised Messiah must be rejected, crucified, and then raised from the dead. All that was necessary (as though this was not a miraculous thing – see 2 Corinthians 3 and 4) was to show that Jesus was the Promised Messiah. Jesus was the key that unlocked the entire Old Testament.

One need not start at the beginning (where Genesis starts), for the Jews believed these things. One need only go to Christ. And this made it possible for new Jewish converts to mature much more quickly than a raw pagan, whose entire theological system had to be cast aside. No wonder Paul could return so soon to churches he had planted and appoint elders (see Acts 14:23). Paul could move rather rapidly from one city to the next and leave healthy, thriving churches behind. He would revisit them, of course, and write to them. But he need not remain for great lengths of time. And when he left these churches behind, the work of evangelism among the Gentiles (and Jews) could flourish. Thus, the principle of “the Jew first” was a very strategic one, one that greatly advanced the proclamation and progress of the gospel.

About Open and Closed Doors

For the near future, our church has chosen to embrace these words from our Lord to the church at Philadelphia:

7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write the following: ‘This is the solemn pronouncement of the Holy One, the True One, who holds the key of David, who opens doors no one can shut, and shuts doors no one can open: 8 ‘I know your deeds. (Look! I have put in front of you an open door that no one can shut.) I know that you have little strength, but you have obeyed my word and have not denied my name’” (Revelation 3:7-8, emphasis mine).

We desire to recognize the open doors that God has placed before us, and to respond in such a way as to make the most of these opportunities for the preaching of the gospel to the glory of our Savior. If we are to do this, we must be able to recognize those doors that our Lord has opened. I believe that our text instructs us regarding the characteristics of “closed doors” and of “open doors.” Consider the following principles.

(1) God is the doorkeeper. He is the One who opens and closes doors. This is clearly stated in Revelation 3:7-8. It is also evident in Acts 16:6-7. It is God (perhaps through His Spirit) who informs us that a door is open or closed. As we see in our text, God may open a door for the gospel in a way that we would never expect (like getting arrested, and being beaten and imprisoned when it is against the law).

(2) An “opportunity” is not necessarily an open door. When we speak of open and closed doors, we are referring to hearts that are prepared, and thus are open to the Word of God. An open door is a door that is open to the gospel. When Paul and Silas were in prison, God caused a great earthquake which opened every door and loosed every chain (Acts 16:26). There was an opportunity for Paul and Silas to escape, but this was not the “open door” God had indicated for Macedonia. The “open door” was the occasion to stay in the prison and to proclaim the gospel to the jailer and his household (and perhaps others in prison). When the magistrates sent the officers to inform the jailer that he could release Paul and Silas, this may have looked like an “open door,” a door through which to escape. But Paul would have none of this. He and Silas stayed in the prison until the magistrates came and apologized. Paul’s concern was for the advance of the gospel and for the well-being of the church. Thus he stayed until those responsible acknowledged their failure to administrate justice.

(3) One can only know a closed door by first trying it. Have you ever had a boy or a girl come to your door and ask, “You don’t want to buy any cookies, do you?” Some Christians conclude that a door is closed before they have even tried to open it. Paul and Silas attempted to go to Asia, and then to Bithynia. They learned that God had closed the door when they tried to open it. We discern God’s direction by attempting to fulfill our calling, and thus we will know when a door is truly closed. Many Christians excuse their inaction by calling it a closed door, but they have never tried to enter it.

(4) An open door may only become evident after one has experienced some closed doors. It was not until after God had closed two doors that God revealed Macedonia as an open door. Some people are tempted to give up at the first closed door. God expects us to persevere until the open door is made known to us.

(5) Opposition is not necessarily an indication of a closed door:

1 The same thing happened in Iconium when Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a large group of both Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So they stayed there for a considerable time, speaking out courageously for the Lord, who testified to the message of his grace, granting miraculous signs and wonders to be performed through their hands (Acts 14:1-3, emphasis mine).

5 Now when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul became wholly absorbed with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6 When they opposed him and reviled him, he protested by shaking out his clothes and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless! From now on I will go to the Gentiles!“ 7 Then Paul left the synagogue and went to the house of a person named Titius Justus, a Gentile who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the president of the synagogue, believed in the Lord together with his entire household, and many of the Corinthians who heard about it believed and were baptized. 9 The Lord said to Paul by a vision in the night, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, 10 because I am with you, and no one will assault you to harm you, because I have many people in this city.“ 11 So he stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them (Acts 18:5-11).

I have heard John Piper say something like this:11 “There is no closed door for anyone who is willing to die for their faith.” I agree with what I understand Piper to be saying. Some people interpret opposition or difficulties as an indication of a closed door. Therefore, if preaching about Jesus looks dangerous, we assume that it is a closed door and we move on (to safer places and people). The Scriptures make it very clear that Christians will suffer for their faith.12 There are some doors that God has closed, perhaps to open at a later time. But let us not assume that opposition, danger, or suffering are absolute evidence that God has closed the door. The Philippian jailer and his household were an open door, but it cost Paul and Silas dearly to seize this opportunity for the gospel.

(6) Our suffering may actually open a door of opportunity for the gospel. The suffering of our Lord on the cross of Calvary certainly “opened the door of salvation.” So, too, it may be our suffering (unjust suffering, that is) that opens the door for evangelism. The suffering of Paul and Silas opened the door for evangelizing the Philippian jailer and his household. Paul could write the Philippians that his circumstances (read, sufferings) promoted the gospel (Philippians 1:12ff.). Peter says something similar:

14 But in fact, if you happen to suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. But do not be terrified of them or be shaken. 15 But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:14-15).

I often hear Christians praying that they, or their fellow believers, might be delivered from sickness, pain, and suffering. I understand. I’ve prayed the same things myself, many times. But should we not be careful when we do so? Should we not rather pray that God would be glorified, and that sinners might be drawn to faith in Jesus, whether through our sufferings or through our deliverance? Should we not ask God to give us the grace and hope we need in times of suffering, so that we will stand apart from the lost, who have no hope? When suffering unavoidably comes our way, let us look for open doors that are created by suffering in a godly way:

18 Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are perverse. 19 For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep but now you have turned back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

When suffering leads to salvation, it is an open door.

(7) Closed doors may only be closed temporarily. We have recently seen how the Holy Spirit forbade Paul and his associates from preaching the Word in Asia (Acts 16:6). Before long, Paul and Silas will come to Ephesus, where they will proclaim the Word for at least two years, impacting all Asia:

8 So Paul entered the synagogue and spoke out fearlessly for three months, addressing and convincing them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were stubborn and refused to believe, reviling the Way before the congregation, he left them and took the disciples with him, addressing them every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:8-10, emphasis mine).

Likewise, the Spirit did not permit them to enter Bithynia, but we know that God eventually did bring the gospel to these people:

1 From Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those temporarily residing abroad (in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, the province of Asia, and Bithynia) who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood. May grace and peace be yours in full measure! (1 Peter 1:1-2)

(8) An open door leads to open hearts. God had temporarily closed the door to Asia, and to Bithynia, but He opened the door in Macedonia. We are thus not surprised to read that God was opening hearts to the gospel that was proclaimed:

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 (Acts 16:13-14).

I greatly appreciate what Colin McDougall of Church of the Open Door shared with our church some time ago. He said that when his family moved from a remote area in Africa to Southern California, he concluded that his efforts should be focused on prayer. He would pray that God would open the hearts of people around him, and that He would reveal those people to him. Open hearts are an open door. We need to pray much that God would prepare the hearts of those whom we encounter, and that we would have the sensitivity to recognize these open doors and take advantage of them.

May God grant us open doors of opportunity, so that the gospel may be proclaimed and lost sinners may be saved. May God grant us the perseverance to find those open doors, and the faith to enter them, by His grace and to His glory.


1 I am citing these earlier verses in Acts 16 because they provide essential background for our lesson.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

3 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 23 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on May 7, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

4 I can’t help but wonder what this “Macedonian man” looked like. Did he look like the jailer?

5 We know that there were those in the households of both Lydia and the jailer who came to faith in Jesus as well.

6 The NET Bible, along with most other translations, renders this term “met,” but I believe this is too neutral a translation. This term often means “to oppose.” Luke uses this term twice in his Gospel (Luke 8:27; 14:31), and in both instances the encounter is hostile. This slave girl was on the attack, as I understand the text.

7 James Montgomery Boice, Acts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997), p. 279.

8 This was not the only time Paul suffered such a beating (see 2 Corinthians 11:25).

9 Acts 16:35-40; 22:22-29.

10 Acts 22:22-29.

11 I confess that I cannot cite a specific reference here.

12 See Acts 14:21-22; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 3:12.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life