Through the Bible in One Year

Day 220

Acts 16:16-40

We have seen Paul have a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him for help.  And it was this vision that led him and Silas to cross over from Asia into Europe.  And today we are going to see the first negative consequences to this bold and spirit inspired journey.  And the negative consequences were Paul and Silas being thrown jail.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”—16:16-21

This female slave is said to have had a spirit by which she prophesied.  The idea was that such people were hosting a god who spoke through them.  No doubt some were charlatans, but here it was a demonic possession.  The girl’s words were not actually support for the gospel but an attempt to hinder it.  She spoke of the Most High God, which might be a reference to Zeus, the highest god in the Greek pantheon.  Paul after many days of this hindrance, cast out the demon.  Her owners were not happy.  With the demon expelled, her owners could no longer make money.  Paul and Silas were brought before the highest officials.  In Greek cities, the marketplace or central public square was called the “agora.”  It was the place where rulers would assemble, and this lent credibility to the hearing.  The charge of unlawful customs was both false and strategic.  While new cults were illegal, Jews could practice their faiths, and Paul and Silas were both recognized as Jews.  The strategy of the charge was to appeal to xenophobia, playing on the suspicions of the Romans regarding Jews.

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.—16:22-27

Victims customarily had their robes stripped off before a beating.  The ones doing the beating were called lictors, a group of men with rods who accompanied the city officials in public processions, often beating back crowds.  Paul and Silas were jailed and placed in stocks, pieces of wood that fastened their feet and prevented mobility.  As Paul and Silas sang and prayed at midnight, an earthquake shook the prison foundations.  If prisoners escaped, the jailor would face public shame and a severe penalty.  Given the large number of possible escapees, the jailer was overwhelmed at the prospect.

But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved —you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.—16:28-34

Paul called to the fearful jailor.  The jailor’s response (trembling and failing down) suggests that he was aware he had been in close proximity to the holy God of whom Paul had spoken.  His question regarding salvation was likely due to an earlier but unreported conversation with Paul and Silas.  The events of the evening led him to seek the God who could do such things.  Paul’s response in no way suggests a household salvation in any other way than each member of the house individually receiving Christ.  Everyone in the house who believed on Jesus would be saved.

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”

But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”

The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.—16:35-40

The officials’ order for release was probably because they believed either that Paul and Silas had suffered enough or that the charges were baseless after all.  Paul’s response was heroic in asserting his rights.  It was illegal to beat Roman citizens without trial, and the officials themselves escorted Paul and Silas out.  Paul’s purpose was more than his own outrage at injustice.  He wanted to create fear in the officials to generate caution for future similar events.  Roman citizens were not to be so ill-treated; note the officials’ fear at the report.  They were so afraid that they did just as Paul demanded.  And that is where we will pick up tomorrow as we see Paul and Silas move onto their next two stops: Thessalonica and Berea.

Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:

Ezra 8:21-9:15, 1 Corinthians 5, Psalm 31:1-8 and Proverbs 21:1-2


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