Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

Acts 16:16-34

Demon-possessed slave girl (16:16-18)

Lydia now disappears from Luke’s account, and the rest of the narrative dealing with Philippi centers around Paul’s imprisonment. The crisis begins when the missionaries are going to the place of prayer again. They encounter “a female slave who had a spirit” (16:16). The Greek here is pneuma pythona, or a “Pythian spirit.” Luke is describing demon possession in the common parlance.

The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo, Geography 9.3.12). Later the word pythoncame to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke — even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly. (Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 [ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981], page 462)

The demon-possessed girl keeps bothering Paul and his group “for many days” (16:18). The demon inside the girl kept shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (16:17). The demonic spirit knows that the presence and power of God is with the missionaries. The demon’s shouting is probably done in mockery, and is intended to disrupt, not enhance, the preaching of the gospel. Luke has already told us about a similar situation Jesus encountered, where a demon keeps on shouting that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” (Luke 4:34). Jesus encountered a similar situation on several occasions (Luke 4:418:28Mark 1:243:115:7).

Paul finally becomes “so annoyed” that he does what Jesus did on numerous occasions — he commands the demon to leave. Paul does it in Jesus’ name, and “at that moment the spirit left her” (16:18).

As in Peter’s confrontation with Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-110, or with Simon Magus (8:17-24), and Paul’s encounter with Bar-Jesus/Elymas (13:6-11), we find the Prophet doing battle with demonic forces and besting them, establishing in still another turf-war a further territorial gain for the “kingdom of God” being proclaimed by the apostles, and enacted by their power to heal and exorcise. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina Series, volume 5 [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992], 297)

Profit also left (16:19)

When Paul casts out the demon, he creates a confrontation between himself and those who have a financial stake in the demon-possessed girl. She has “earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling” (16:16). Luke has already recounted several incidents where people were interested in financial gain. The actions of Judas (1:16-21), Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) and Simon Magus (8:18-24) are all examples of greed being exposed by the truth of the gospel.

Now, in Philippi, God’s power used on behalf of the gospel has ruined a business making money from the superstitions of the ignorant. When Paul casts the demon out from the girl, she can no longer tell fortunes, and a business is wiped out. In exorcising the demon, Paul has also cast out the slave owners’ means of income. Luke points this out in a literary way by using the same Greek verb for both the “leaving” of the demon and the slave owners’ profit-making business.

Before the magistrates (16:19-20)

The owners do not take kindly to the closing down of their enterprise. They grab Paul and Silas and drag them before the local magistrates (16:19). Why are only Paul and Silas the targets of persecution? Paul is responsible for casting out the demon, and Silas is another leader of the missionary group. They are both Jews, and perhaps this makes them convenient scapegoats. (Timothy is half Gentile and Luke may be completely Gentile, and this may save them from trouble.)

This is only one of two occasions in which Luke reports Gentiles persecuting Christian missionaries. The other occurs in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). Both episodes come about because the power of the gospel threatens the vested economic interests of the persecutors. Here the owners of the slave girl drag the two missionaries before the town council and demand that the magistrates prosecute Paul and Silas (16:20-21).

“Magistrates” is the first of three different civic officials Luke mentions in this chapter. Since Philippi is a Roman colony, its government is carried on independently of the provincial administration, which is in Thessalonica. Like other colonies, Philippi’s governing administration is in the hands of two chief magistrates called duumvirs, but they prefer the honorary title of praetors. The Greek equivalent would be strategoi, and that is the word Luke uses for them.

The second group of officials that Luke mentions are the “policemen” or “officers” (Greek, rhabdouchoi) of the city who serve under the magistrates (16:35). These individuals carry out the instructions of the magistrates in such law-and-order matters as flogging criminals and administering capital punishment.

The third official mentioned in this chapter is the jailer (16:23). Jailers are often retired army veterans, and their military skills are helpful in controlling inmates and preventing prison escapes.

Unlawful customs (16:20-21)

The angry owners of the slave girl frame their accusation against Paul and Silas in political terms: “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (16:20-21). The accusers begin by appealing to anti-Semitic prejudice. Emperor Claudius had recently issued an edict expelling Jews from Rome because of the civil unrest they caused, which we shall consider later (18:2). No doubt, rumors and official notices of these disturbances reach the patriotic Roman colonies. The officials are therefore somewhat predisposed to think that Jews are troublemakers.

The specific charges the slave owners bring against Paul and Silas are made of two related parts. As plaintiffs sometimes do, they hide their real grievance, which was financial. They claim that Paul and Silas are causing a public disturbance — “throwing our city into an uproar.” This would be a timely “scare tactic” to frighten local officials who know about the problems Jews had recently caused in Rome.

Secondly, the plaintiffs claim that Paul and Silas — those vagabond Jews — are promoting illegal customs. Thus, they deftly counterpoise anti-Semitism with the town’s pride in being “Roman.” Paul and Silas are charged with disturbing the Pax Romana and advocating an illegal religion. Ironically, Paul will soon be accused of a similar charge, but this time by Jews (17:6-7).

Flogged and jailed (16:22-24)

The magistrates order Paul and Silas to be beaten with rods and thrown into the local jail (16:23). The jailer is ordered to “guard them carefully.” He places the two missionaries “in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks” (16:23-24). Luke carefully notes these details about their imprisonment — that they are locked in the stocks of an inner cell that was carefully guarded. He wants to prepare his readers for a miraculous event that will occur shortly.

This is not the only time Paul is beaten, and as Acts tells us, Paul is in prison several times. Paul later looks back on his many sufferings, including those at Philippi. He says his trials included being “in prison more frequently” and having been beaten with rods on three occasions (2 Corinthians 11:2325).

Here, at Philippi, Paul endures both a beating and imprisonment. It is something he doesn’t forget, and he refers to the bad experience as having “suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi” (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Escape from prison (16:25-29)

Luke now turns to describe the miraculous occurrences that happened while Paul and Silas are in prison, and the consequences that follow. He picks up the account with the imprisoned Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns at midnight (16:25). Luke doesn’t say what the two missionaries were praying about. However, since they are singing, we can assume they are expressing joy. Luke wants his readers to know that Jesus’ disciples are people who turn to prayer in times of crisis (1:14; 2:42, 47; 4:23-31; 6:4; 7:60; 9:11; 10:2, 9; 12:12; 13:2-3). Paul and Silas are like Peter and John, who after being beaten, rejoice “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:41).

Around midnight, God intervenes by shaking the prison by means of an earthquake. The prison doors fly open, the prisoners’ chains are opened, and the jailer is awakened. To his horror, he sees the prison doors standing open. Thinking the prisoners have escaped, he is about to commit suicide. (In Roman law, a guard who allows his prisoner to escape can suffer the same penalty as the prisoner would have suffered.) At this point, Luke’s readers may be concerned that the jailer will face dire consequences. Luke has already told us that when Peter escaped from prison, Herod “cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed” (12:19).

On this occasion, however, none of the prisoners escape. Paul and Silas are still in the jail. When Paul perceives that the jailer is about to kill himself, Paul shouts, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” (16:28).

One might wonder why the other prisoners, whose chains have fallen off, don’t escape through the open doors. Perhaps they are paralyzed with fear by the supernatural power that seems to be with Paul and Silas. The prisoners have been listening to the two missionaries singing to their God, and may assume that the earthquake is an answer to their prayers. But that part of the story is not pertinent to Luke’s account, and he simply doesn’t give us the details.

“What must I do to be saved?” (16:30-32)

More important, from Luke’s perspective, is that the jailer rushes into the cell and falls down before Paul and Silas, in great fear. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he cries out (16:30).

It’s not clear what the jailer’s understanding of “being saved” is. He wants to be rescued from something, but from what? Does he fear some kind of retribution from these two “magicians”? (The jailer has probably heard about the exorcism of the demon from the slave girl.) Perhaps he heard something of the gospel being preached in town. Aspects of the message of salvation may have been conveyed to the jailer in the prayers and songs of the imprisoned missionaries.

In any case, he is soon educated as to what it means to be saved. Paul answers the jailer’s question by saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household” (16:31). Of course, there is more to being saved than simply uttering the words, “I believe in Jesus.” Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” is a summary confession of the Christian faith. “Believing on the Lord” is Luke’s shorthand statement for the faith as a whole. He has already used it several times (5:14; 9:42; 11:17).

Paul summarizes the gospel to the church in Rome in the same way: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). This confessional summary implies that human works do not earn salvation. Since salvation comes through Jesus Christ (4:12), one must believe in him as Savior in order to experience him as salvation.

But faith in Jesus needs to be explained. Paul does this for the jailer and his family. The two missionaries speak “the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (16:32). No doubt they explain the gospel of salvation in terms the jailer and his household can understand. They also probably discuss something of what it means to have a new life in Christ. Further instruction will come later within a church of believers organized in Philippi.

Family baptized (16:33-34)

The jailer takes Paul and Silas into his quarters and washes their wounds. Then, he and his family are baptized — as in the case of Cornelius. The jailer is then “filled with joy because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole household” (16:34). Since Luke is speaking from hindsight — and perhaps he even served as pastor for these people — he knows that their conversion is real.

The gift offered to the jailer is also offered to his whole household. The New Testament takes the unity of the family seriously, and when salvation is offered to the head of the household, it is as a matter of course made available to the rest of the family group (including dependents and servants) as well (cf. 16:15). It is, however, offered to them on the same terms: they too have to hear the Word (16:31), believe and be baptized; the jailer’s own faith does not cover them. (I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980], 273)

Luke describes the conversion of the jailer in terms of believing in God. As a pagan Gentile, the jailer would be taught about the one true God. Paul has already told him that a person has to believe in Jesus to be saved. To believe in the one true God is to believe in Christ; to believe in Christ is to believe in God. As Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me” (John 12:44).

Luke, in passing, gives two practical examples of the jailer’s new-found faith. He tends the prisoners’ wounds and brings them into his own house and feeds them. It’s doubtful that an army veteran would have shown compassion to prisoners in his prior life. We should also note that Paul has no hesitation at eating with Gentiles, something that would be impossible for a devout Jew to do.