In these verses we have,
I. Orders sent for the discharge of Paul and Silas out of prison Acts 16:35, 36. 1. The magistrates that had so basely abused them the day before gave the orders; and their doing it so early, as soon as it was day, intimates that either they were sensible the terrific earthquake they felt at midnight was intended to plead the cause of their prisoners, or their consciences had smitten them for what they had done and made them very uneasy. While the persecuted were singing in the stocks, the persecutors were full of tossings to and fro upon their beds, through anguish of mind, complaining more of the lashes of their consciences than the prisoners did of the lashes on their backs, and more in haste to give them a discharge than they were to petition for one. Now God caused his servants to be pitied of those that had carried them captives, Ps. 106:46. The magistrates sent sergeants, rabdouchous—those that had the rods, the vergers, the tipstaves, the beadles, those that had been employed in beating them, that they might go and ask them forgiveness. The order was, Let those men go. It is probable that they designed further mischief to them, but God turned their hearts, and, as he had made their wrath hitherto to praise him, so the remainder thereof he did restrain, Ps. 76:10. 2. The jailer brought them the news (Acts 16:36): The magistrates have sent to let you go. Some think the jailer had betimes transmitted an account to the magistrates of what had passed in his house that night, and so had obtained this order for the discharge of his prisoners: Now therefore depart. Not that he was desirous to part with them as his guests, but as his prisoners; they shall still be welcome to his house, but he is glad they are at liberty from his stocks. God could by his grace as easily have converted the magistrates as the jailer, and have brought them to faith and baptism; but God hath chosen the poor of this world, Jas. 2:5.
II. Paul’s insisting upon the breach of privilege which the magistrates had been guilty of, Acts 16:37. Paul said to the sergeants, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison against all law and justice, and now do they thrust us out privily, and think to make us amends with this for the injury done us? Nay, verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us our, and own that they have done us wrong.” It is probable that the magistrates had some intimation that they were Romans, and were made sensible that their fury had carried them further than the law would bear them out; and that this was the reason why they gave orders for their discharge. Now observe,
1. Paul did not plead this before he was beaten, though it is probable that it might have prevented it, lest he should seem to be afraid of suffering for the truth which he had preached. Tully, in one of his orations, against Verres, tells of one Ganius, who was ordered by Verres to be beaten in Sicily, that all the while he was under the lash he cried out nothing but Civis Romanus sum—I am a citizen of Rome; Paul did not do so; he had nobler things than this to comfort himself with in his affliction.
2. He did plead it afterwards, to put an honour upon his sufferings and upon the cause he suffered for, to let the world know that the preachers of the gospel were not such despicable men as they were commonly looked upon to be, and that they merited better treatment. He did it likewise to mollify the magistrates towards the Christians at Philippi, and to gain better treatment for them, and beget in the people a better opinion of the Christian religion, when they saw that Paul had a fair advantage against their magistrates, might have brought his action against them and had them called to an account for what they had done, and yet did not take the advantage, which was very much to the honour of that worthy name by which he was called. Now here,
(1.) Paul lets them know how many ways they had run themselves into a premunire, and that he had law enough to know it. [1.] They had beaten those that were Romans; some think that Silas was a Roman citizen as well as Paul; others that this does not necessarily follow. Paul was a citizen, and Silas was his companion. Now both the lex Procia and the lex Sempronia did expressly forbid liberum corpus Romani civis, virgis aut aliis verberibus caedi—the free body of a Roman citizen to be beaten with rods or otherwise. Roman historians give instances of cities that had their charters taken from them for indignities done to Roman citizens; we shall afterwards find Paul making use of this plea, Acts 22:25, 26. To tell them they had beaten those who were the messengers of Christ and the favourites of Heaven would have had no influence upon them; but to tell them they have abused Roman citizens will put them into a fright: so common is it for people to be more afraid of Caesar’s wrath than of Christ’s. He that affronts a Roman, a gentleman, a nobleman, though ignorantly, and through mistake, thinks himself concerned to cry Peccavi—I have done wrong, and make his submission; but he that persecutes a Christian because he belongs to Christ stands to it, and thinks he may do it securely, though God hath said, He that toucheth them toucheth the apple of my eye, and Christ has warned us of the danger of offending his little ones. [2.] They had beaten them uncondemned; indicta causa—without a fair hearing, had not calmly examined what was said against them, much less enquired what they had to say for themselves. It is a universal rule of justice, Causâ cognitâ possunt multi absolvi, incognitâ nemo condemnari potest—Many may be acquitted in consequence of having had a hearing, while without a hearing no one can be condemned. Christ’s servants would not have been abused as they have been if they and their cause might but have had an impartial trial. [3.] It was an aggravation of this that they had done it openly, which, as it was so much the greater disgrace to the sufferers, so it was the bolder defiance to justice and the law. [4.] They had cast them into prison, without showing any cause of their commitment, and in an arbitrary manner, by a verbal order. [5.] They now thrust them out privily; they had not indeed the impudence to stand by what they had done, but yet had not the honesty to own themselves in a fault.
(2.) He insists upon it that they should make them an acknowledgment of their error, and give them a public discharge, to make it the more honourable, as they had done them a public disgrace, which made that the more disgraceful: “Let them come themselves, and fetch us out, and give a testimony to our innocency, and that we have done nothing worthy of stripes or of bonds.” It was not a point of honour that Paul stood thus stiffly upon, but a point of justice, and not to himself so much as to his cause: “Let them come and stop the clamours of the people, by confessing that we are not the troublers of the city.”
III. The magistrates’ submission, and the reversing of the judgment given against Paul and Silas, Acts 16:38, 39. 1. The magistrates were frightened when they were told (though it may be they knew it before) that Paul was a Roman. They feared when they heard it, lest some of his friends should inform the government of what they had done, and they should fare the worse for it. The proceedings of persecutors have often been illegal, even by the law of nations, and often inhuman, against the law of nature, but always sinful, and against God’s law. 2. They came and besought them not to take advantage of the law against them, but to overlook the illegality of what they had done and say no more of it: they brought them out of the prison, owning that they were wrongfully put into it, and desired them that they would peaceably and quietly depart out of the city. Thus Pharaoh and his servants, who had set God and Moses at defiance, came to Moses, and bowed down themselves to him, saying, Get thee out, Exod. 11:8. God can make the enemies of his people ashamed of their envy and enmity to them, Isa. 26:11. Jerusalem is sometimes made a burdensome stone to those that heave at it, which they would gladly get clear of, Zech. 12:3. Yet, if the repentance of these magistrates had been sincere, they would not have desired them to depart out of their city (as the Gadarenes desired to be rid of Christ), but would have courted their stay, and begged of them to continue in their city, to show them the way of salvation. But many are convinced that Christianity is not to be persecuted who yet are not convinced that it ought to be embraced, or at least are not persuaded to embrace it. They are compelled to do honour to Christ and his servants, to worship before their feet, and to know that he has loved them (Rev. 3:9), and yet do not go so far as to have benefit by Christ, or to come in for a share in his love.
IV. The departure of Paul and Silas from Philippi, Acts 16:40. They went out of the prison when they were legally discharged, and not till then, though they were illegally committed, and then, 1. They took leave of their friends: they went to the house of Lydia, where probably the disciples had met to pray for them, and there they saw the brethren, or visited them at their respective habitations (which was soon done, they were so few); and they comforted them, by telling them (saith an ancient Greek commentary) what God had done for them, and how he had owned them in the prison. They encouraged them to keep close to Christ, and hold fast the profession of their faith, whatever difficulties they might meet with, assuring them that all would then end well, everlastingly well. Young converts should have a great deal said to them to comfort them, for the joy of the Lord will be very much their strength. 2. They quitted the town: They departed. I wonder they should do so; for, now that they had had such an honourable discharge from their imprisonment, surely they might have gone on at least for some time in their work without danger; but I suppose they went away upon that principle of their Master’s (Mark 1:38). Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, for therefore came I forth. Paul and Silas had an extraordinary call to Philippi; and yet, when they have come thither, they see little of the fruit of their labours, and are soon driven thence. Yet they did not come in vain. Though the beginnings here were small, the latter end greatly increased; now they laid the foundation of a church at Philippi, which became very eminent, had its bishops and deacons, and people that were more generous to Paul than any other church, as appears by his epistle to the Philippians, Acts 1:1; 4:25. Let not ministers be discouraged, though they see not the fruit of their labours presently; the seed sown seems to be lost under the clods, but it shall come up again in a plentiful harvest in due time.