The section from Acts which we hear this coming Sunday (Acts 16:16–34) recounts various incidents from the time that Paul spent in Philippi (16:11–40). Last week we heard of the decision to “cross over” from Asia Minor into Macedonia (16:6–8). This week, we learn of the interaction of Paul and Silas with a slave woman and her owners, resulting in their arrest and imprisonment—and subsequent interaction with the gaoler. It’s a section of acts filled with dramatic tension and entertaining scenes, even whilst it provided illumination about the mission undertaken in the early years after Jesus.
1 The demon-possessed slave woman (16:16–18) recognises Paul and his companions as “slaves of the most high God” (16:17), just as Jesus had been identified by demon-possessed characters as “the son of the most high God” (Luke 8:28; cf. 4:41). Their message is identified as the “way of salvation” (16:17), a phrase consistent with the terms already used to describe the movement and its message. (On “salvation”, see 2:21; 5:31; on “the Way”, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/26/people-of-the-way-acts-9-easter-3c/)
The subsequent casting-out of this spirit (16:18) reinforces the perception that Paul exercises the divine power, in the manner already shown by Jesus (Luke 4:41; 8:26–33), Peter (5:16) and Philip (8:7). However, it also precipitates the ensuing drama.
2 The arrest, trial and imprisonment of Paul and Silas (16:19–24) is a scene with drama aplenty, as the owners of the slave woman protest the actions of Paul and Silas (16:19) and accuse them of “disturbing our city … advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe” (16:19–20).
The accusation against Paul and Silas (16:20–21) anticipates the later claim from the Thessalonican crowd, that they are “people who have been turning the world upside down … acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (17:6–7), and reflects the claims of the crowd in Jerusalem, that Jesus was “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah” (Luke 23:2). Social upheaval appears to have been integral to the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom!
The scene builds feverishly to the dramatic climax of their imprisonment by the local authorities, here identified as strategoi (16:20), the same term that is used on inscriptions from Philippi. Paul and Silas are placed in stocks “in the innermost cell” (16:24). This is the first imprisonment for Paul in Acts; others await him (20:23; 21:27–28). Such imprisonments are also referred to in Paul’s own letters (Phil 1:7,13–14; 2 Cor 11:23; Phlm 1,9–10,23; and see Col 4:3,10,18; 2 Tim 3:11).
In the course of this scene, a fleeting reference to Roman customs is made (16:21). The crowd believes that the Jewishness of Paul and Silas places them outside of Roman customs; that they are misguided will become evident when Paul and Silas are released (16:37–38). Until this point in the narrative, the only explicit reference to Rome has been at Pentecost (2:11). After this point, there will be no further such reference until the very end of this section (21:16), at the moment when Paul’s long journey to Rome comes into view.
In this Philippi scene, then, the Roman citizenship of Paul is established (16:37; see also 22:25–29). The opposition he encounters from this point onwards is thus to be seen in light of his Roman right of appeal to the Emperor. What is established as obvious for Luke and his readers will only become gradually apparent to Paul’s opponents in the narrative—in much the same way as the inexorable plan of God is worked out, scene by scene, in apparently disjointed ways which can eventually be seen within the overall plan of God.
3 Paul and Silas in prison (16:25–34) exhibit the typical attitude of praying (16:25; see 2:42). Suddenly “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration (see 26:4). Although there is no explicit indication of divine guidance at this point, an earthquake was widely considered to be a portent of the divine will.
In Hebrew Scriptures, Psalmist expresses the common scriptural view that God was the initiator of earthquakes: “O God, you have rejected us … you have caused the land to quake, you have torn it open” (Ps 60:1–2; see also Judg 5:4–5; 2 Sam 22:8–16; Pss 18:7–9; 29:3–9; 68:7–8; 97:4–5; 104:32; 144:5-6; Isa 13:13; 29:4-6; 64:1-3; Jer 4:24; 10:10; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10–11; Nah 1:5–6; Zeph 1:14–15; Hag 2:6–7, 20–23; Zech 14:5).
In hellenistic literature, we find a similar view often expressed. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus articulates such a view, when he lists among “the terrible portents sent from the gods” such phenomena as “flashes shooting out of the sky and outbursts of fire … the rumblings of the earth and its continual tremblings” (Rom. Ant. 10.2.3; for descriptions of such portents, see Cicero, De div. 1.33.72-49.109, De nat. deor. 2.5.13-14; Minucius Felix, Oct. 7.1-6).
Indeed, the narrative of Acts has already reported how God can sovereignly release a person from prison (as with Peter in Jerusalem, 12:6–11). Although it is not described with explicit reference to God, the earthquake in Philippi is nevertheless a clear portent of divine providence.
The melodramatic response of the gaoler (16:27) enables Paul and Silas to speak the word of the Lord (16:32), explaining that what must be done to be saved is to “believe on the Lord Jesus” (16:31). The ensuing scene replicates familiar elements: the gaoler and his household were baptised (16:33; see 2:38), he set a table (16:34; see 2:42,46; also 10:23,48), and they rejoiced (16:34; see 5:41). His conversion now makes him “one who has come to belief in God” (16:34).
The section offered by the lectionary ends at 16:34, with the conversion of “the entire household” of the gaoler; but the story needs to be read and heard through to the end of the chapter, when Paul and Silas are released from prison and are able to continue their journey (16:39–40).
4 The release of Paul and Silas (16:35–40) actually takes place, not by divine intervention, but through the invocation of Paul’s Roman citizenship (16:37-38). Roman writers documented the prohibition against flogging a Roman citizen (Livy, Hist. 10.9.4; Cicero, Pro Rabiro 4.12-13). Paul’s mention of his Roman citizenship brings the police up with a start; they immediately hand him, and Silas, over to the magistrates, who immediately apologised for their actions (16:38–39).
The name Paul may well have been the Roman name adopted by the Jew, Saul of Tarsus. But he nowhere makes this claim in his letters, nor does Luke in his orderly account. How do we assess Paul’s claim to be a Roman citizen? He makes no reference to it in his letters—but there is no need for him to have done so in those contexts. Was it historical? Could it be yet another Lukan history-like claim that we cannot corroborate from any other source?
Certainly, Paul’s claim plays a strategic role in Luke’s narrative at two points (here, and in Jerusalem, 22:25–29), as it plants the seeds for Paul’s eventual journey to Rome. This scene (as also the scene in Jerusalem) is shaped by Luke’s rhetorical purposes, to put the spotlight on Paul as a positive role model.
After an official apology (16:39), Paul and Silas leave the prison, paying a parting visit to Lydia’s home where, in typical fashion, they exhorted the community members (16:40; see 13:15). Paul’s own description of his time in Philippi notes that he “had suffered and been shamefully mistreated” (1 Thess 2:2), but his letter to the Philippian believers rejoices in the fellowship that they shared with him (Phil 1:5,7; 4:14–16).
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).