From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. – Acts 16:11-15
Have you ever been going along in life and things seemed to be going well? You had just done something amazing, with little to no work on your part. That was good. Life seemed great you were going about doing what you always do, and then, someone had to annoy you.
It wasn’t a playfully annoying thing, nor was it a hurtful or shameful act. It was simply annoying. Believe me when I say this has been going on for centuries. Even the Apostle Paul endured this type of life. More importantly he had done some pretty successful things.
Paul had been sailing from city to city for a little while now, on a journey he knew the Lord had commanded him to go on. Yes, what Paul was doing was definitively from the Lord. I think from my tone and how things are going you know things are about to get bad, right?
Now Paul had just come to the major city named Philippi. Later he would write an amazing letter to the church there, that we still read today. Here’s where it gets cool. He went to a place to pray and ended up speaking with a woman who he led to the Lord and gave eternal hope to!
But, what the Bible says in Acts 16:14 is that the woman was a worshiper of God and that the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. Immediately following her new profession of faith she and her whole family were baptized. And then she opened her home for Paul and company to stay at.
That was one of the simplest moments in all of Paul’s missionary journeys for sharing the Gospel. He was simply trying to find a place of prayer and spoke to some woman about Jesus. All this happened at a Roman colony a place called Philippi. That Roman colony information will be important to remember or understand later on.
When things are going well they do not always stay that way even when we pray.
An interesting point you may see in this text are the two starting emphasis to the two narratives that happen in Philippi. They both start with Paul and a place of prayer. The major difference is that in the opening moments of Paul’s time in Philippi, when everything went well, he was finding a place of prayer (v13) when things start to go downhill, fast, Paul was “going” to the place of prayer.
In one situation there was nothing to lose, Paul was just starting, and everything seemed to be going great. The other portion of this text shows us that even when things are established, and things are moving forward, everything can go terribly wrong, even when it is bathed in prayer.
When Paul and company were going to the place of prayer a girl followed them for days yelling about them. The girl was a slave. The girl was also had a spirit in her and with it she had the ability to tell people fortunes. Her owners produced a lot of profit from her. The girl’s “gifts” were of great value to her owners, not necessarily the girl. But, for Paul, the Bible simply states that she annoyed him, she annoyed him a lot!
She said some pretty great things about them. She had been yelling that, “these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And, she must have been a trusted informer of the truth if her owners made so much from her gift. Yet, what makes this text more confusing is that the very reason Paul was there was to proclaim salvation found in Jesus, the Most High God.
So, let’s be serious here. Paul was really annoyed that there was a possessed girl following and yelling the truth about them. And so, Paul turns and commands the spirit to come out of the girl…boom problem solved. The girl was freed from bondage to the spirit and Paul no longer had someone yelling around him as he walked through the city.
But, have you ever fixed one problem only to find out that, that fix caused another problem. He went from having a girl yelling the truth about him, to having the girl’s owners attack them and their message. The men who owned and used a girl for their gain said to the governing authorities of the Roman city that Paul and Silas, …advocate customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” – Acts 16:21
The issue didn’t end with a little bit of frustration. If Paul was annoyed by the girl these men were infuriated with Paul. Their statement against Paul and Silas resonated with the town. And so, the town that Paul and Silas had come to do good to decided to do the opposite to them.
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. – Acts 16:22-24
Paul had brought hope to a family and was able to comfortably stay as they shared the Good News of Jesus. But, the situation changed. They were now imprisoned, they had now been beaten, they had been shamed and defamed along with their message in that city.
Our circumstances do not change the message that we share.
But, the circumstances did not determine their conduct or who they were in Jesus. Jesus was still the God of universe. God had still provided them an eternity greater than today. There was still something to pray and sing about!
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. – Acts 16:25-26
Paul and Silas were free from their prison. They were enabled by the Lord to be freed from their situation! I mean that is what any sane person placed in a prison because they freed a girl of a spirit that caused her owners to become rich at her expense would do!
But, that is not how Paul and his compatriots handled the situation. You see a Roman guard that failed to keep a prisoner could be killed for it. The jailor even woke up and saw the doors open, assuming they had escaped he decided it would be better to pull his sword and kill himself than to continue. Paul yelled out to him that they were still there and had not run off.
Opportunities that benefit us now might not always benefit others for eternity.
Not many of us will go through anything like what Paul went through. We will in all likely not be beaten and thrown in a prison in chains with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nor will we probably sing Psalms and Hymns while in there.
Those doors flung open and Paul did not run. Instead he stayed and was able to share the gospel with the jailor and his whole family in the middle of the night. Paul was able to share the gospel with two households in Philippi and see numerous people come to know Jesus as he was setting out to pray. One took a lot more work and caused him a lot more pain than the other.
But, like Paul, whether it was proclaiming on the streets, the testimony of the girl yelling about and around him, or Paul’s singing and praying in the jail this jailor did something still spoken about today nearly 2,000 years later. He asked a question of Paul that we still ask today. He asked, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul replied simple, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Simple, yet transformative.
That’s what we all wish for, right? We all wish that after everything we do and go through someone would see who Christ is and seek Him too. We want our actions, not our circumstances to define who Christ is. This jailor and his whole family believes in Jesus now and has an eternity with God because someone chose to worship Christ and humbly live through their circumstances.
The good, the terrible, the uncomfortable, the inconvenient, and the painful situations should only inspire our faith more. Yes, difficult situations will cause us to strive after and trust God more when we believe in Him. Remember what James wrote as he opens his letter to the believers who had to leave all they had because they believed in Jesus:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. – James 1:2-4
Paul stayed, but it was not just Paul that stayed in his cell all the prisoners whose doors were opened stayed. The text does not say why they stayed, it only states that they had been listening to Paul and Silas as they sang to God. Your example in the more difficult moments can mean more than your consistency through the mundane. Your perseverance and trust in your present circumstance shines who Jesus is.
Not that our attitude is always perfect. It is comical that Paul was able to sing praise to God in a prison more effectively than he was while he was going to prayer because he was being followed by a young girl annoyingly yelling about his ministry.
Your perseverance and trust in your present circumstance shines who Jesus is.
Let’s take a breath and reflect on a few minor points in the situation Paul is in though. Before getting all gitty about him staying in prison unlike Peter who left when released. Firstly, “In the Roman period, as in biblical times, the law did not recognize imprisonment as a form of punishment. A man could be detained to await trial in order to make him available to the court.” But, they were not supposed to be flogged prior to the trial like Paul and Silas were, especially as Roman citizens.
The Roman citizens part is very valuable for two reasons, firstly not everyone born in the Roman Empire or even Rome were Roman citizens. It was a privilege not a right to be a citizen. Secondly, Philippi itself was much more than simply part of the Roman Empire Philippi was a Roman Colony. “It possessed a distinct civic pride inasmuch as it was a Roman colony” More than that civic pride, Philippi was meant to be “…a ‘Rome away from Rome.’” It was meant to be a place that catered to and allured Romans, not unlawfully beat them. The Magistrate had done something he would regret, and Paul knew it.
Remember how the men who owned and used a slave girl for their gain claimed that Paul and Silas: …advocate customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” – Acts 16:21
Yet, the man who governed a Roman Colony the city of Philippi, the magistrate, and the men of the city brutally attacked, defamed, and imprisoned Paul and Silas, who were Roman citizens, had themselves been acting against Roman law.
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. – Acts 16:37-38
Paul and Silas should not have been imprisoned. They should not have been publicly shamed, and they should definitely not have had their clothes ripped and been beaten publicly. Yet, these frustrating circumstances did not cause Paul to stop look toward what He is meant to do.
Yes, Paul and Silas eventually stood up for what should not have happened to them. They did boldly declare that a wrong had happened. They even made sure that an apology happened. But, just as Jesus left areas where He had freed people from spirits and caused great turmoil and fear in the area, Paul and Silas moved on from there after encouraging the believers.
Your circumstances may be amazing. That’s great praise God and share who He is with others, Paul did that here too. But, if your circumstances are unfair, your situation desperate, and your rights are degraded do not lose sight of who Jesus calls you to be! Jesus calls you to be an imitator of Him. Jesus calls you to be a light in the darkness.
Use your circumstances to amplify your representation of Christ!
Paul later wrote a letter to the Philippians and says this:
Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky – Philippians 2:14-15
What this verse asks us to do is absurdly difficult, yes, but it shows the power and worth of who God is to all who see us live it out. And, who knows, through your peace in amazingly awful circumstances and good ones you may just lead someone to change their life forever, they may get to know God for eternity!
Paul was with a jailor in a prison he had no business being in, beaten and shamed unlawfully. Mistreated and chained, Paul sang to the Lord. When you are mistreated and trapped do you see the light that you have become. When you are desperate and alone, do you know how visible you are?
Your circumstances may change, but your focus on the Lord can and should remain the same. Instead of your circumstances derailing your praise of God you can use your praise of God in your circumstances to bring others to God.
This is yet another story of a believer being imprisoned. As much as we believe in Jesus, we should probably recognize just how culturally awkward and opposite they were to us. How much would you believe in someone or something if your culture kept imprisoning and beating those who believed it even to death. Yet, it was not simply their imprisonment that left a mark. How these men persisted in their faith through their different circumstances left the greater impact.
Paul and Silas were merely going to pray when someone annoyed them, a lot. They freed a woman from a spirit which cost them a great deal of comfort. We often have things in our lives that derail the plans we had. Small or massive inconveniences have a factor to do with not just our lives, they carry the weight of another’s eternity. Live as if every moment and situation you face, both planned and forced upon you, are a factor in someone else’s eternity.
 Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).
 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Philippi,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1677.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 467.