Paul and Silas in prison. 16:16-34


Paul's second missionary journey is recorded in Acts from 15:39-18:22. The journey covers the period 49-52AD. After revisiting some of his churches in Asia Minor, Paul ends up in Troas. At Troas he sees a vision of a man from Macedonia and so he sets sail across the straits of Samothrace. He finally ends up in Philippi. While in Philippi Paul is arrested and this leads to the conversion of the Philippian jailer.

The passage

v16-18. As Paul and Silas preach in Philippi, a "Pythoness" (a person inspired to speak oracles by Apollo) reveals that the apostles are servants of the supreme being. Over a number of days she follows the missionaries, and in a trans-like state, tells all and sundry that these men know the secret way of salvation. Enough is enough, so Paul miraculously removes her powers of divination.

v19-24. Once Paul has cast out the spirit from the girl, a fairly violent reaction develops over the interference by a travelling Jew in a valid economic pursuit. The two town magistrates (Praetors) dutifully have Paul and Silas chastised for their economic interference. A beating by the Lictors and a night in the stocks is regarded a worthy means of reforming these social misfits.

v25-34. In prison, Paul and Silas are singing hymns when all of a sudden the prison is shaken by the hand of God; the prison doors are flung open and Paul and Silas find themselves freed from the stock. The prison warder, fearing the consequences, is about to take his life, when Paul shouts out from the darkness that they are still in the prison. By remaining, rather than running, the warder is opened to the gospel and so he invites the missionaries back to his home. On hearing the gospel he and his family came to put their faith in Jesus.

v35-40. In a postscript Luke tells us how the magistrates hear, with some embarrassment, that Paul and Silas are Roman citizens. Punishment without a fair hearing and punishment that is degrading, is expressly forbidden. Naturally, protecting their backs, the magistrates quickly apologize. Realizing the impossibility of protecting Paul and Silas, the magistrates ask them to leave quietly.

Just a working-class man

The Philippian jailer, on seeing the signs and hearing the good news of the kingdom, came to put his trust in Jesus. His household was also evangelized and they too believed. Touched with the power of the gospel, the jailer set out to care for Paul and Silas, offering hospitality to these travellers from afar. "He washed and was washed", said Chrysostom. "He washed them from their stripes, and he was washed of his sins."



Let's call him a working-class man - an experiential thinker; let's place him with that class of people who don't rationalize their way through an issue, but rather emote, or feel their way through it. So, here is a man of the present, an existentialist, rather than a middle-class man, an eschatological man, a man planning to better himself and his family, a man of the future. Mind you, we can't really say what type of man he is, other than he is a lost man. But let's say he is a working-class man. Of such men are most men, and few of them are in church; few of them know Jesus.

There are a number of things we can say of a working-class man. The most obvious fact is that he makes up an increasing proportion of the population in Western societies. The broad middle-class once made up the bulk of Western societies. It was a class that rapidly increased from the 1880's till the 1960's, but now it is a shrinking class. There are more rich and more poor, but fewer middle-class. Of the working-class we can say they are generally hard working, matter of fact people. Honest and generous to their own kind, and possessing a certain morality. They will care for their daughter's illegitimate child rather than aborting it. They view life as a failure because nothing works and they always stay at the bottom of the pile. Yet, they are survivors. They are disdainful of authority and can pick a fraud a mile off. They find it hard to say what they think and so tend to hug or punch as the situation warrants.

Let's say the jailer was such a man. He had obviously heard of the "spirit" being cast out of the slave girl. He heard Paul and Silas singing in the stocks. He saw the earthquake fling open the doors. But above all he saw the apostles refrain from flight. They did not act with the customary self-preservation of a prisoner with freedom offered on a plate. He saw and wanted what they had.

The hammer blow of the gospel resides in the power of the message itself. Yet, it is often the visible sign or expression of the gospel that gains a hearing. It was the gospel lived out in Paul and Silas that touched this ordinary man. The message of God's grace, alive in the apostles, prompted the question, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" No, it was most likely not the earthquake, rather it was the two apostles sitting there in jail with the doors wide open before them. That's what touched him.

To reach working-class people, not only must our message be simple and to the point, it must be a message lived out in our daily life. In the face of growing secularism, we may wonder how the Christian church can survive through this new century. Let us be reminded of the apostles who were not bewildered by the secular city. They knew full well that, as God's messengers, they could break into the bastions of darkness and release its prisoners.


How do we reach working-class people with the gospel?

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