Acts 16 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Witness at Philippi
"What must I do to be saved?" was the most pressing religious question of Luke's day. People believed they were in the grip of fate. All were looking for a savior, whether through traditional animistic worship, the mystery religions or the imperial cult.
Today life's basic question is "What must I do to put it all together? How can I gain control of my life and cope with seemingly uncontrollable forces around and within me?" The questions may be different, but the ultimate need is the same. Luke shows God's answer in three lives that were transformed by his power at Philippi, a Roman colony.
Paul and his team set sail northwest from Troas, making a straight line for Samothrace, a mountainous island navigational marker with its 5,577-foot Mount Fengari. About halfway on their voyage they anchor for the night on the north side of the island. They complete their 156-mile journey the next day, landing at Neapolis. Favorable winds have given them "Godspeed," for another time the voyage in the opposite direction will require five days (20:6).
The team now takes the Via Egnatia, the Roman road that stretched from Dyrrhachium and its port city Egnatia on the Adriatic to Neapolis on the Aegean. They proceed nine miles inland over some hills to Philippi, on the central Macedonia plateau.
Philippi's reputation was well deserved from the time the father of Alexander the Great, Philip II of Macedon, renamed it after himself and established it as a commercial center. It dealt in agricultural produce of the rich plain and gold and silver mined from the surrounding mountains. Philippi had been made a Roman colony so it could serve as a home for retired army veterans after the decisive battle of the second civil war (42 B.C.) and the battle of Actium (31 B.C.). Bearing witness in Philippi was the closest thing to preaching in Rome without actually being there. Theophilus and his peers would understand well the Philippians' reactions.
Following his normal "to the Jew first" strategy, Paul seeks out the synagogue on the sabbath (13:14, 46; 14:1). Local reports or his awareness of the Jewish custom of locating synagogues outside the precincts of idolatrous pagan cities but near water (for ritual purification) may lead Paul to suppose the synagogue is outside the city gate by the river (the Gangites, one and one-half miles west of the city; Josephus Jewish Antiquities 14.258; compare Mekilta Pisha 1:64-65; Finegan [1981:103-4] proposes a site outside the east gate marked by a Christian basilica dating from the first half of the fourth century).
What Paul finds, however, is a group of women gathered to worship the God of Israel, probably in the open air. Evidently the Jewish community in Philippi was so small that it did not have the requisite ten men to form a synagogue (m. Sanhedrin 1:6; Pirqe Abot 3:8). As Paul and his team sits down with them, they use the opportunity to speak of the Lord Jesus as the fulfillment of the divine promise of messianic salvation.
Lydia, a God-fearer and wealthy businesswoman--a dealer in expensive purple cloth--from Thyatira, a city in the Lycus Valley in the province of Asia, listens to what Paul is saying (compare Acts 13:50; 17:4, 17; 18:7). The Lord opened her heart to respond (prosecho, better "to pay attention to, give heed to, follow"; compare 8:6; Bauer, Gingrich and Danker 1979:714; Haenchen 1971:495) to Paul's message. Before salvation the heart--the inner life, the center of personality, the seat of spiritual and intellectual life (Sorg 1976:182-83)--is so controlled by sin that it is either slow to believe or actually antagonistic to the gospel (Lk 24:25; Acts 28:27; 7:51, 54). Only if God prepares the heart by opening it--enlightening it to understand the gospel, moving it to desire the salvation blessings (compare 24:32)--and strengthening its will to decide for and endure in the Lord (11:23) will it become the "noble and good heart" that receives salvation (Lk 8:15). What must I do to be saved? Listen to God's Word in such a way that you find him opening your heart to follow it.
Next come Lydia's public profession of her faith in baptism, together with her household (compare Acts 16:33; 18:8), and her exercise of hospitality. In ancient Greco-Roman society the household was the basic social, economic and religious unit. The typical household was large, including nuclear and extended family, slaves and economic retainers. "Roman households were united in a common religious cult (the Lares) irrespective of age or personal beliefs" (Green 1970:210). The conversion of this female head of a household, who was either single or a widow, has necessary religious and spiritual implications for the other members. And today we must be ever mindful of the strategic importance of social networks for the rapid spread of the gospel, for multi-individual household conversions can snowball into people movements (see Hulbert 1978; 1979).
Luke's picture of Lydia's practice of hospitality demonstrates once again that those who experience the saving grace of God become gracious (2:42-47; 10:48; compare Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 3:2; 1 Pet 4:9). Though Paul normally does not accept hospitality and financial support of converts as he is planting a church in their midst (2 Cor 11:7-9; 1 Thess 2:9), he makes an exception here. He permits Lydia to live out the principle of sharing material goods with those who teach the Word (1 Cor 9:11, 14; Gal 6:6). Apparently his normal hesitation is overcome when she will not take no for an answer (persuaded, actually "prevailed"; compare Phil 1:5).
As Paul continues his outreach to Jews and God-fearers, he is accosted by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future (literally, "a spirit, Python"; see note). She is twice bound, spiritually and economically, for her masters are making quite a profit by exploiting her occult powers. Yet what engages Paul with her is her spiritual opposition to his mission. Day after day she follows Paul and his team, shouting (literally, "crying out repeatedly"), "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved" (literally, "a way of salvation"). This announcement both helps and hinders the mission. To Jewish ears it rings of truth, using terminology ("Most High God," el-selyon) that they considered the Gentile way of referring to the one true God (Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; Dan 3:26; 4:32; 5:18, 21). But to polytheistic pagans, who were henotheists as opposed to monotheists, there were many "highest gods"; the title had been attached to Zeus, Isis the mother-goddess of the kingdom of Lydia in Asia, and Baal. A pagan hearer would understand the term to refer to whatever deity he or she considered supreme (Trebilco 1989:60; contrast Levinskaya 1993:125-28). And "a way of salvation"? For the pagan it was release from the powers governing the fate of humankind and the material world (Longenecker 1981:462). So though initially this declaration may seem a help to Paul as it attracts crowds and provides a good starting point for discussing the gospel with pagans, it has to be corrected each time and thus soon becomes an annoyance (compare Acts 4:2). That a demon-possessed girl is the source of this true but potentially ambiguous statement is another difficulty (compare Lk 4:34, 41; 8:28). Such Satanic tactics have not changed in two thousand years. To counter them the message of salvation must always be proclaimed in clarity and fullness, with its divine source unambiguously credited.
The exorcism occurs via direct confrontation. He turned around and said to the spirit (authoritative command), "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" The results are immediate: at that moment the spirit left (literally, "came out," compare the command). As at Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 5:16) and in Samaria (8:7), so now in a move across the sea toward the end of the earth, the advance of the gospel means the extension of the kingdom of God through a liberation of those under Satan's authority (26:18). What must I do to be saved? Experience the liberating power of the Lord Jesus Christ, who not only opens but also cleanses hearts (15:9).
This exorcism is both similar to and different from Jesus' ministry of exorcism. Christians confronting the forces of evil today can find guidance here. Persons who were certifiably demon-possessed, as indicated by their talk and action, attacked Jesus and Paul in order to hinder the preaching of the kingdom of God. Both Jesus and Paul dealt authoritatively with the demon-possessed using the simple command "Come out!" and the results were immediate (Lk 4:35; 8:29; 9:42; 11:14). There the similarities end. Jesus' authority is personal and direct. The demons fear Jesus and what he can do to them, though they still seem to taunt (Lk 8:28 and parallels). He rebukes them. Paul's authority and ours is christocentric and derived. In the name of Jesus Christ . . . come out of her (Acts 16:18; compare 19:13, 17). Exorcism must be approached today, then, with much care, humility and prayer. But there must also be bold confidence that Jesus is still bringing release to the captives (Lk 4:18).
Whenever the gospel threatens vested interests, especially economic interests, it is bound to meet opposition (compare 19:25-27). So the slave girl's handlers, far from being pleased with her liberation, can think only of their loss of revenue. They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities (compare 21:30). The four large stone steps that led up to the bema, "speaker's platform or judgment seat" where the authorities held court, at the midpoint on the north side of the marketplace forum, are still there today (Finegan 1981:102). Roman local administration of civil and criminal cases was the responsibility of the duoviri. Luke terms them strategoi (16:20), the equivalent of the honorable title praetor by which they often preferred to be called. Each was assigned two lictors, police escorts who carried the fasces et secures, the symbol of their authority, a bundle of rods bound together with thongs and often accompanied by an ax.
Paul and Silas are brought before these magistrates and charged with disturbing the peace and introducing customs unlawful for Roman citizens to accept. The handlers appeal to law-and-order nationalism, anti-Semitic prejudice and ethnic traditionalism. At the same time there is actually a kernel of truth in their words. In the Roman Republic a cult of Apollo centered on healing and prophecy, and under Augustus a magnificent temple to Apollo was erected on the Palatine. "Apollo Palatinus was in some sort the equal of Jupiter Optimus Maximus" (Rose and Robertson 1970:82). Preaching the way of salvation in the Lord Jesus, in whose name the "spirit Python," inspired by Apollo, was cast out, might certainly be viewed as advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.
The crowd rises up against the missionaries, and the magistrates seem to apply rough summary justice by having the lictors use their rods to beat them (compare 2 Cor 11:25; 1 Thess 2:2). Such punishment was certainly within the magistrates' rightful power, though it was not to be used on a Roman citizen (see below, vv. 35-40). Since prisons functioned in ancient times more as places of detention for those awaiting trial than as places of punishment, the praetors' consignment of Paul and Silas to the jailer for safekeeping is not part of the summary justice (contrast Marshall 1980:271) but precedes handing them over for trial before the proconsul (Sherwin-White 1963:82). Security seems to have been of the utmost concern, for these pagan minds must have wondered, If they can cast out a soothsaying spirit, what will prevent them from using their magical powers to escape incarceration?
So delivered into the keeping of a jailer (probably a retired military man), placed in the innermost part of the prison (archaeology has identified a probable site adjacent to the forum; Finegan 1981:105) and with feet fastened in wooden stocks (there is no indication that it was for torture, as Bruce [1988:315] contends; compare Polhill 1992:353), the missionaries are left for the night. As Christians have found throughout history, the state is often an instrument of persecution.
At midnight the missionaries follow their Lord's example, now embodied in the church and especially its leadership (Lk 6:12; 9:18; Acts 2:42; 3:1; 6:4; 9:11; compare Lk 18:1). They lift hymns of praise as they pray. This joy in the midst of undeserved suffering manifests again the power of true salvation, which is victorious whatever the circumstances (compare Acts 5:41; Phil 4:4). As a result their fellow prisoners--most if not all with a polytheistic mindset--are listening to a praise service exalting the excellencies of the one true God, whose word alone can show the way of salvation (compare Acts 16:17, 32).
The Lord "made his praise glorious" when suddenly (compare 2:2) "the rocks cried out" as the foundations of the prison were shaken by a powerful earthquake, a phenomenon common in that region. The prison doors flew open (12:10) and the chains came loose, literally "came unfastened."
Though not responsible for escapes resulting from "acts of God" (Haenchen 1971:497), the suddenly aroused jailer takes drastic personal measures. Either to expiate for the disgrace of having failed in his duty or to administer to himself, before his superiors did, the penalty for having let any escape (Code of Justinian 9.4.4), the jailer draws his short sword, a dagger, and is about to plunge it into his neck or heart when Paul calls out, Don't harm yourself! We are all here! It is interesting that other than physical healings and exorcisms, this is the first time in Acts that a temporal need of a non-Christian is met. From it we learn that the gospel must be preached within the context of concern for the whole person.
The urgency, shakenness and respect, if not worship, shown in the jailer's demeanor are matched by his question: Sirs, what must I do to be saved? The earthquake and the prisoners' willingness to remain have vindicated the message and the messengers (16:17). Temporal salvation is not the issue, since the prisoners are reported present; clearly, then, this seismic event has shaken loose from the jailer's heart the key religious question of his age (Harnack 1961:104-19). Today, too, often our personal world has to be shaken up by the onset of a life-threatening disease, a divorce, a vocational or financial reversal, before we consider the really important questions in life.
Paul's answer is the gospel in one simple command: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household. In almost every city evangelized on this second missionary journey the positive response to the gospel is described as saving faith (16:34; 17:12, 34; 18:8; compare 17:4). But it is belief in the Lord Jesus that brings salvation. Paul knows no separation between receiving Jesus as Savior and following him as Lord, as some contemporary theologians may argue (Hodges 1981; Ryrie 1989).
As with Lydia (16:15), personal salvation for the head of the household has spiritual implications for the rest of the members. It does not mean automatic salvation for all household members, for true salvation is grounded in a proper understanding of the gospel. So Paul takes time with the jailer and his household to explain to them the way of salvation. Each individual is responsible for what he or she will do with the gospel.
The care the jailer and the missionaries have for each other is captured beautifully in Chrysostom's words, "He washed and was washed, he washed them from their stripes, and was himself washed from his sins" (Homilies on Acts 36). Through baptism the missionaries confirm the jailer and his household in their faith. The jailer manifests the grace of Christ by gracious hospitality (compare 2:42, 46; 16:15; 17:5; 18:7). Those soundly converted (note the perfect participle "having believed," denoting complete action with continuing results) rejoice around the table (16:34). Filled with joy means "a state of great joy and gladness, often involving verbal expression and bodily movement, e.g., jumping, leaping, dancing" (Louw and Nida 1988:1:303; compare 2:46).
The jailer and his household are the quintessential converts. They come to faith through hearing the Word, confess that faith in baptism, experience the eschatological joy of their new vertical relationship, and live out their new life of grace through physical help and hospitality in their horizontal relationships (Krodel 1986:313). What must I do to be saved? . . . Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household.
The missionaries are still in the jailer's custody. In the morning, however, in proper administrative fashion the magistrates send word by their lictors for the jailer to release Paul and Silas. Luke gives us no motive. Joyfully, the jailer brings the news and blesses them with the farewell Go in peace.
But Paul refuses the release. Providing a peaceful environment for the fledgling church is more important to him than pursuing personal peace (compare 9:31).
Paul announces his Roman citizenship and declares that two of his fundamental rights have been violated by the previous day's proceedings (16:22-23). The Lex Valeria (509 B.C.) and the Lex Porcia (248 B.C.), reaffirmed in the Lex Julia (23 B.C.), shielded Roman citizens from humiliating punishments in public, such as beating with rods (Cicero On Behalf of Rabirius Charged with High Treason 12; Bruce 1990:366). Further, a Roman citizen was always entitled to a trial before punishment was administered. Paul demands that the magistrates come and publicly escort them from prison. This will be a public admission that the magistrates were wrong and that Christians pose no threat to Roman law.
On hearing of the Roman citizenship of these traveling Jewish preachers, the magistrates are alarmed. A Roman citizen had a status in the Empire not unlike that of a British citizen in India in the days of the British Empire. "In theory he could travel anywhere without problems, being everywhere protected by the Roman law. He was not subjected to the local law unless he consented (though such consent would be usual in business), and he could take matters into his own courts when these were sitting. He owed allegiance to Rome and Rome would protect him" (Lyall 1976:10). Further, a magistrate risked losing his office or worse, being disqualified from ever serving in governmental administration again, if he mistreated a Roman citizen (Lake and Cadbury 1979:201; compare Acts 22:22-29).
The magistrates do as Paul demands. They came and "appealed to" (not appeased) them. Escorting them out, they request that Paul and Silas leave the city. Are they uncertain that they can provide for the missionaries' safety in a situation made even more volatile by their release?
Paul and Silas accede to their request, but only after they have met with the church and encouraged it (compare Acts 15:32). Persecution will not end with Paul and Silas's departure, for that is the Christian's lot (Acts 14:22; Phil 1:27-30). Since the "we" sections of Acts stop after the Philippi episode and do not pick up again until Acts 20:5, again at Philippi, many have conjectured that Paul leaves Luke here to strengthen the church.
This concluding scene yields some valuable principles for guiding Christians in their relations with the state (Talbert 1984:70). Paul's insistence that justice be done encourages Christians to appeal to their legal rights as protection against unjust treatment by non-Christians. The fact that Paul's request was granted gives us confidence that the state can be reasonable and correct its mistakes. Paul's innocence of the charges establishes the pattern that Christians are not to be troublemakers; when we do suffer at the hands of state power, it should be as innocent victims of those with questionable motives (compare 1 Pet 4:15-16). Only by such exemplary lives can we witness with integrity and, by the Spirit's power, answer the haunting question of that age or any age: What must I do to be saved?
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