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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Acts 16



Verse 1


(1) A certain disciple was there, named Timotheus.—We read with a special interest the first mention of the name of one who was afterwards so dear to the Apostle, his “true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2). On his probable conversion on St. Paul’s first mission in Lystra, see Notes on Acts 14:6; Acts 14:19. We have to think of him as still young; probably, as his youth is spoken of some twelve years later in 1 Timothy 4:12, not more than eighteen or twenty; but in the six years that had passed since St. Paul’s departure he had been conspicuous for his devotion and “unfeigned faith.” He had been trained to know the sacred Books of Israel from his childhood (2 Timothy 3:15); and the fact that he had obtained a good report from the brethren at Iconium as well as Lystra shows that he had been already employed in carrying on intercourse between the two churches. The way in which St. Paul writes to him, and of him, implies a constitution naturally not strong, and, in after life, weakened by a rigorous asceticism (1 Timothy 5:23), emotional even to tears (2 Timothy 1:4), naturally shrinking from hardships and responsibilities, yet facing them in the strength of Christ (1 Corinthians 16:10). The name Timotheus was not uncommon. It is found in 2 Maccabees 12:21-24, as belonging to a general defeated by Judas Maccabeus, and appears in early Christian inscriptions in the Vatican Museum. Its meaning (“one who honours God”) made it a suitable name for the child of a proselyte.

The son of a certain woman.—Literally, of a certain woman, a faithful (or believing) Jewess. The adjective is the same as that used by Lydia of herself in Acts 16:15. 2 Timothy 1:4, tells us that her name was Eunike, and her mother’s Lois. They were both devout, and had trained the child in the Law (2 Timothy 3:15); and this makes it probable that the father was a proselyte of the gate. He naturally thought it sufficient that his child should grow up under the same religious conditions as himself, and they had either thought so, or had yielded to his will.

His father was a Greek.—Literally, of a Greek father. The adjective is used, as in the New Testament generally, to express the fact that he was a heathen. (See Notes on Acts 11:20; Mark 7:26.) It seems, on the whole, probable that he was still living.

Verse 3

(3) And took and circumcised him.—The act seems at first inconsistent with St. Paul’s conduct as to Titus (Galatians 2:3), and with his general teaching as to circumcision (Galatians 5:2-6). The circumstances of the two cases were, however, different, and there were adequate reasons here for the course which he adopted. (1) The act was spontaneous, and men may rightly concede as a favour, or as a matter of expediency, what they would be justified in resisting when demanded as a matter of necessity. (2) Titus was a Greek, pure and simple (Galatians 2:3); but the mixed parentage of Timotheus, according to the received canons of Jewish law, made him inherit from the nobler side, and he was therefore by birth in the same position as an Israelite. (3) By not urging circumcision prior to baptism, or to his admission to that “breaking of bread” which was then, as afterwards, the witness of a full communion with Christ, the Apostle had shown that he did not look on it as essential to admission into the Christian Church, or continued fellowship with it, and in what he now did he was simply acting on his avowed principle of becoming to the Jews as a Jew (see Notes on Acts 18:18; 1 Corinthians 9:20), and guarding against the difficulties which he would have encountered from those whom he sought to win to Christ, had they seen, as one of the travelling company, an Israelite who was ashamed of the seal of the covenant of Abraham. The acceptance of that seal by one who had grown up to manhood without it may be noted as showing that the disciple had imbibed the spirit of his Master. It seems probable, from the youth of Timotheus, that at this period he took the place which had been before filled by Mark, and acted chiefly as an attendant, the “work of an evangelist” coming later (2 Timothy 4:5).

Verse 4

(4) They delivered them the decrees.—The number of copies which the process implies is in itself a sufficient guarantee that that which St. Luke gives is a faithful transcript. The decrees were clearly still regarded by the Gentile converts as being the charter on which they might take their stand in any dispute with the Judaisers, and doubtless helped to determine many who had previously hesitated, to seek admission into the Church.

Verse 6

(6) When they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia.—In the previous journey St. Paul, when he was at Antioch in Pisidia, was just on the border of the two provinces, but had not travelled through them, Phrygia lying to the west, and Galatia to the north-east. The former name was used with an ethnological rather than a political significance, and did not, at this period, designate a Roman province. It does not possess any special points of interest in connection with St. Paul’s work, except as including the churches of the valley of the Lycus, Colossæ, Laodicea, and Thyatira, but the latter was the scene of some of his most important labours. The province, named after the Galatæ, or Gauls, who had poured over Greece and Asia Minor in the third century B. 100, as they had done over Italy in the fourth, and to whom it had been assigned by Attalus I., King of Pergamus, had been conquered by the Romans under Manlius (the name appearing a second time in connection with a victory over the Gallic races) in B.C. 189; and under Augustus it had been constituted as a Roman province. The inhabitants spoke a Keltic dialect, like that which the people of the same race spoke in the fourth century after Christ, on the banks of the Moselle, and retained all the distinctive quickness of emotion and liability to sudden change which characterised the Keltic temperament. They had adopted the religion of the Phrygians, who had previously inhabited the region, and that religion consisted mainly in a wild orgiastic worship of the great Earth-goddess Cybele, in whose temples were found the Eunuch-priests, who thus consecrated themselves to her service. (See Note on Galatians 5:12.) The chief seat of this worship was at Pessinus. The incidental reference to this journey in Galatians 4:13-15, enables us to fill up St. Luke’s outline. St. Paul seems to have been detained in Galatia by severe illness, probably by one of the attacks of acute pain in the nerves of the eye in which many writers have seen an explanation of the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7, which led to his giving a longer time to his missionary work there than he had at first intended. In this illness the Galatians had shown themselves singularly devoted to him. They had received him “as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.” They had not shrunk from what would seem to have been repulsive in the malady from which he suffered; they would have “plucked out their own eyes,” had it been possible, and given them to replace those which were to him the cause of so much suffering. Then they thought it their highest “blessedness” to have had such a one among them. If the memory of that reception made his sorrow all the more bitter when, in after years, they fell away from their first love, it must at the time have been among the most cheering seasons of the Apostle’s life.

Were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia.—It is obviously implied in this that their own plans would have led them to turn their steps to the region from which they were thus turned. The pro-consular province of Asia, with its teeming cities, like Ephesus, Smyrna, and Sardis, its large Jewish population, its great centres of idolatrous worship, was naturally attractive to one who was seeking with all his energy a rapid expansion of the kingdom of his Lord. But in ways which we are not told, by inner promptings, or by visions of the night, or by the inspired utterances of those among their converts who had received the gift of prophecy, as afterwards in Acts 21:4, they were led on, step by step, towards the north-western coast, not seeing their way clearly as yet to the next stage of their labours. Their route through the “Galatian region” (the phrase, perhaps, indicates a wider range of country than the Roman province of that name) must have taken them through Pessinus, the great centre of the worship of Cybele, and Ancyra, famous for its goat’s-hair manufactures, and for the great historical marble tablets which Augustus had erected there.

Verse 7

(7) They assayed to go into Bithynia.—The verse describes very vividly the uncertainty produced day by day by this conflict between human plans and divine direction. Bithynia, lying to the north, had, like Pontus, a considerable Jewish population scattered along its shores, and they were inclined to take that as their next field of labour. They were led on, however, as before, westward and not northward. There is no record of any considerable halt in this stage of their journey, and they probably found few favourable openings in a district which, for great part of the way, presented only unimportant villages. The use of the archaic form “assayed” for “essayed,” or “attempted,” calls for a word of notice. (Comp. Acts 9:26.)

The Spirit suffered them not.—The better MSS. and versions give the reading, “the Spirit of Jesus,” which is of some dogmatic importance, as confirming the doctrine that the Spirit stands in the same relation to the Son as to the Father, and may therefore be spoken of either as the Spirit of God, or of Christ (Romans 8:9), or of Jesus.

Verse 8

(8) Came down to Troas.—Their travels had at last led them to the coast, and they looked out upon the waters of the Ægean. The town of Alexandria Troas, at this time reckoned as a Roman colony and a free city, recalls to our memories, without entering into vexed questions as to its identity with the site of the older Troy, the great poem which tells us the tale of Ilium. To St. Paul that poem was probably unknown, and had it been otherwise, the associations connected with it would have had no charms for him. The question which must have occupied all his thoughts was, where he was next to proclaim the glad tidings of the Christ, and of forgiveness and peace through Him. That question, we may well believe, expressed itself in prayer, and to that prayer the vision of the next verse was an answer.

Verse 9

(9) There stood a man of Macedonia.—The term is probably used in its later sense as applied to the Roman province, which included Macedonia, properly so called, Illyricum, Epirus, and Thessaly, the province of Achaia including, in like manner, the whole of Southern Greece. The vision which St. Paul looked on explained to him all the varied promptings and drawings-back of his journey. This was the door that was to be opened to him. The faith of Christ was to pass from Asia to Europe, and the cry, “Come over and help us,” was to him as a call from the whole western world. In view of this, he did not now tarry to preach at Troas. Probably, indeed, as the next verse implies, that work had been already done.

Verse 10

(10) Immediately we endeavoured . . .—The natural inference from the sudden appearance of the first person in a narrative previously in the third, is that the author became at this point an actor in the events which he records. (See Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel.) The other hypothesis, that he incorporates a narrative written by Silas or Timotheus, is not probable in itself, and would naturally have involved an earlier change in the form of the narrative. Accepting the received view, it seems to follow, as there is no mention of the conversion of the Evangelist, that St. Paul and St. Luke must have been already known to each other, probably either at Tarsus or Antioch, the fulness with which the history of the latter Church is given pointing to it as the scene of their previous intimacy. On this assumption, the narrator must have left Antioch after the Council of Jerusalem, probably after the dispute between Paul and Barnabas, and travelled through the interior of Asia Minor, in part, perhaps, in the track of St. Paul’s earlier journey; and so gathered materials for his history till he came to Troas, and there carried on his work as an evangelist. The manner in which St. Luke introduces himself (“the Lord had called us”) implies, it may be noted, that he too was a preacher of the gospel. There is no record here of any mission-work done by St. Paul; but the language in 2 Corinthians 2:12, and, yet more, the facts of Acts 20:6, imply the existence of a Christian community. We may look, accordingly, on St. Luke as the founder of the Church of Troas, and place this among the “labours in the gospel” to which St. Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 8:18. The “we endeavoured” (literally, we sought) implies an immediate inquiry as to what ship was sailing, bound for any port of Macedonia. Such a call as that which had been given in the vision admitted of no delay. It came from the Lord Jesus, as the sequel of that given in the vision in the Temple (Acts 22:17-21), and was, therefore, to be obeyed at once.

Verse 11

(11) We came with a straight course to Samothracia.—Their course lay to the north-west, and, probably, after the manner of the navigation of the time, they put into harbour each night; and the historian, with his characteristic love of geographical detail (see Introduction to St. Luke’s Gospel), notes the main facts of the voyage. The “straight course” implies that they had the wind in their favour. The current, which sets to the south after leaving the Hellespont, and to the east between Samothrace and the mainland, would, of course, be against them. In Acts 20:6, the voyage from Philippi to Troas takes five, days. The name of Samothrace points, probably, to its having been a colony from Samos. In early Greek history it had been one of the chief seats of the worship of the Pelasgic race, and, besides the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, which it had in common with the rest of Greece, was celebrated for the local cultus of the Cabiri, a name of uncertain origin, and applied to the twelve great gods.

The next day to Neapolis.—The name (=new town) was naturally common wherever Greek was spoken. It survives in two conspicuous instances—in Naples, and in Nablous as the modern name of Sychem. The town now before us was in Thrace, about twelve miles from Philippi, which was the frontier town of Macedonia. It has been identified, on adequate grounds, with the modern Kavalla, where a Roman aqueduct, columns, and Greek and Latin inscriptions remain to attest the former importance of the city. Ten or twelve miles to the west are the traces of another harbour at Eski Kavalla, which was probably the Palæopolis (= old town) that had been superseded by the new port.

Verse 12

(12) The chief city of that part of Macedonia.—More accurately, a chief (or first) city of the border-country of Macedonia. The description is not without difficulty, and has been noted by adverse critics as an instance of St. Luke’s inaccuracy. The city of Philippi, rebuilt by the father of Alexander the Great, and bearing his name in lieu of Krenides ( = the fountains), was situated on the Gangites, a tributary of the Strymon; but it was not the chief city of any one of the four sub-divisions of the Roman province of Macedonia, that rank being assigned to Amphipolis, Thessalonica, Pella, and Pelagonia. As there is no definite article in the Greek, it is possible that St. Luke simply meant to say it was a chief town of the district, the epithet Prôte ( = first) being often found on the coins of cities which were not capitals. The more probable explanation, however, is that he uses the Greek word translated “part,” in the sense of “border-land,” as in the LXX. of Ezekiel 35:7, Ruth 3:7, and that it was the first city of that frontier district, either as the most important or as being the first to which they came in the route by which they travelled. This was precisely the position of Philippi, which, together with Pella and other towns, had been garrisoned by the Romans as outposts against the neighbouring tribes of Thrace. It had been established as a colony by Augustus after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, and its full title, as seen on the coins of the city, was Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis.

A colony.—The English reader needs to be reminded that a Roman colonia differed from the modern in being essentially a military position. Portions of the conquered territory were commonly assigned to veteran soldiers, and the settlement thus formed was considered politically as an integral part of Rome, all decrees of the emperor or senate being as binding there as in the capital itself. The colonies thus formed were as the “propugnacula imperii” (Cic. de leg. Agrar. c. 27), “populi Romani quasi effigies parvæ simulacraque” (Aul. Gell. xvi. 13). Here, then, in the first European city to which St. Paul came, there was something like an earnest of his future victories. Himself a Roman citizen, he was brought into direct contact with Romans. (See Note on Acts 16:21.)

Verse 13

(13) By a river side, where prayer was wont to be made.—Better, where an oratory (i.e., a place of prayer) was established. The word, which was the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13), is used in this sense by Josephus (Vit. p. 54), (see Note on Luke 6:12), and was current among the Jews at Rome. Where they had no synagogue, and in a military station like Philippi there was not likely to be one, the Jews frequented the river-banks, which made ablutions easy, and often succeeded in getting a piece of ground assigned for that purpose outside the walls of the city. Juvenal (Sat. iii. 11-13) notes this as one of the instances of the decay of the old faith of Rome:

“The groves and streams which once were sacred ground

Are now let out td Jews.”

The local meaning is seen in another line from the same writer (Sat. iii. 296):

“Ede, ubi consistas, in quâ te quæro, proseuchâ?”

[“Say where thou dwell’st, and in what place of prayer

I am to seek thee?”]

The oratories, or proseuchæ, thus formed, were commonly circular, and without a roof. The practice continued in the time of Tertullian, who speaks of the “orationes litorales” of the Jews (ad Nat. i. 13). The river, in this instance, was the Gangites. Finding no synagogue in the city, and hearing of the oratory, the company of preachers went out to it to take their part in the Sabbath services, and to preach Christ to any Jews they might find there.

We sat down, and spake unto the women.—The fact that there were only women shows the almost entire absence of a Jewish population. Possibly, too, the decree of Claudius, expelling the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2), was enforced, as stated above, in the colonia, which was as a part of Rome, and as Jewesses would not be likely to have settled there without their husbands or brothers, it is probable that the women whom St. Paul found assembled were, like Lydia, proselytes who desired to remain faithful to their new faith, even in the absence of any settled provision for their instruction. Women thus placed would naturally welcome the presence of strangers who, probably, wore the garb of a Rabbi, and who showed when they sat down (see Note on Acts 13:14) that they were about to preach. We note that here also the narrator speaks of himself as teaching. (See Note on Acts 16:10.)

Verse 14

(14) Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira.—The city so named, now known as Ak-hissar, was in the Roman province of Asia, but came within the boundaries of the older kingdom of Lydia, and it is probable that, like so many slaves and women of the libertinæ class, she took her name from her country. Afra, Græca, Syra, are familiar examples of like names. “Lydia” occurs, it will be remembered, once and again, in Horace (Od. i. 14; iii. 9). Thyatira, one of the cities in the valley of the Lycus, was, like many other towns of Asia Minor, famous for its dyeing works, especially for purple, or crimson, which rivalled the fame of Tyre or Miletus (Strabo, xiii. 4, § 14). Inscriptions found on the spot bear witness to the existence of a guild, or corporation, of purple-sellers, with which Lydia doubtless was connected. In Revelation 1:11; Revelation 2:18, it appears as one of the seven churches to which special epistles were to be sent from their divine Head. It had been founded as a colony, in the modern sense of the term, from Macedonia, as the sequel of the conquest of the Persian monarchy by Alexander the Great, and this may in part explain Lydia’s presence at Philippi. The fact that she, and not her husband, is named as the purple-seller, is at least presumptive evidence that she was carrying on the business by herself.

Which worshipped God.—She was, i.e., a proselyte (see Note on Acts 13:10), and, as the sequel shows, one of the better type, drawn to Judaism, not by superstitious fear, or weak credulity, but by the higher ethical and spiritual teaching which it presented.

Heard.—For “heard” read was listening.

Whose heart the Lord opened.—The scene is one which might well call for the master touches of a great painter. The river flowing calmly by, the preacher sitting and talking familiarly, but earnestly, to the groups of women, one, at least, among them listening with looks and tears that told of deep emotions, and the consciousness of a new life.

That she attended.—Better, to give heed to, as in Acts 8:6, and elsewhere.

Verse 15

(15) And when she was baptized, and her household.—It does not follow from St. Luke’s condensed narrative that all this took place on the same day. The statement that “her household” were baptised has often been urged as evidence that infant baptism was the practice of the apostolic age. It must be admitted, however, that this is to read a great deal between the lines, and the utmost that can be said is that the language of the writer does not exclude infants. The practice itself rests on firmer grounds than a precarious induction from a few ambiguous passages. (See Notes on Matthew 19:13-15.) In this instance, moreover, there is no evidence that she had children, or even that she was married. The “household” may well have consisted of female slaves and freed-women whom she employed, and who made up her familia. It follows, almost as a necessary inference, that many of these also were previously proselytes. For such as these, Judaism had been a “schoolmaster,” leading them to Christ. (See Galatians 3:24.) We may think of Euodias and Syntyche, and the other women who “laboured in the gospel” (Philippians 4:2-3), as having been, probably, among them. The names of the first two occur frequently in the inscriptions of the Columbaria of this period, now in the Vatican and Lateran Museums, the Borghese Gardens, and elsewhere, as belonging to women of the slave or libertinæ class.

She besought us.—Up to this time the teachers, four in number, had been, we must believe, living in a lodging and maintaining themselves, as usual, by labour—St. Paul as a tentmaker, St. Luke, probably, as a physician. Now the large-hearted hospitality of Lydia (the offer implies a certain measure of wealth, as, indeed, did her occupation, which required a considerable capital) led her to receive them as her guests. They did not readily abandon the independent position which their former practice secured them, and only yield to the kind “constraint” to which they were exposed.

If ye have judged.—The words contain a modest, almost a pathetic, appeal to the fact that the preachers had recognised her faith by admitting her to baptism. If she was fit for that, was she unfit to be their hostess?

Verse 16

(16) As we went to prayer.—Better, perhaps, to the oratory, or place of prayer. (See Note on Acts 16:13.) It should be stated, however, that the Greek noun is used without the article, and that this is so far in favour of the Received rendering. On the other hand, we find the noun ecclesia, or church, used without the article in 1 Corinthians 14:4; 1 Corinthians 14:19; 1 Corinthians 14:35; 3 John 1:6, and it is, therefore, probable that proseucha might be used in the same way, just as we speak of “going to church, or to chapel,” without the article. This was probably on the following Sabbath, or possibly after a longer interval, when the mission of the Apostles had become known, and had caused some excitement.

A certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination.—Literally, as in the margin, a spirit of Python, or, as some MSS. give it, a Python spirit. The Python was the serpent worshipped at Delphi, as the symbol of wisdom, from whom the Pythian priestesses took their name, and from whom Apollo, as succeeding to the oracular power of the serpent, took the same adjective. The fact that St. Luke, who in his Gospel describes like phenomena as coming from daemonia, “evil spirits,” “unclean spirits,” should here use this exceptional description, seems to imply either that this was the way in which the people of Philippi spoke of the maiden, or else that he recognised in her phenomena identical with those of the priestesses of Delphi, the wild distortions, the shrill cries, the madness of an evil inspiration. After the manner of sibyls, and sorceresses, and clairvoyants of other times, the girl, whom Augustine describes as fæmina ventriloqua—the phrase probably-expressing the peculiar tones characteristic of hysteria—was looked on as having power to divine and predict (“soothsaying,” as distinct from “prophesying,” exactly expresses the force of the Greek verb), and her wild cries were caught up and received as oracles. Plutarch (de Defect. Orac., p. 737) speaks of the name Python as being applied commonly, in his time, to “ventriloquists” of this type. As she was a slave, her masters traded on her supposed inspiration, and made the girl, whom prayer and quiet might have restored to sanity, give answers to those who sought for oracular guidance in the perplexities of their lives.

Verse 17

(17) The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying.—Better, kept on crying. Assuming that the case now before us presented phenomena analogous to those of the cases of demoniac possession, we may refer to what has been said in the Excursus on that subject appended to St. Matthew’s Gospel for general views of the question. Here it will be enough to note the same symptom of a divided consciousness. We lose much of the human interest of the narrative if we merely think of a demon bearing, as in mockery, his witness to the work of Christ, in order that he might thwart that work. That continual cry spoke, we may well believe, of the girl’s mind as longing for deliverance, and peace, and calm. She sees in the preachers those whom she recognises as able to deliver her, as unlike as possible to the masters who traded on her maddened misery. And yet the thraldom in which she found herself led her to cries that simply impeded their work. We note, as characteristic, the recurrence of the name of the Most High God, which meets us from the lips of the demoniac in the Gospels. (See Note on Mark 5:7.) As the name which was often in the mouths of exorcists, it became familiar to those who were regarded as subjects for their treatment. As she seems day by day to have gone to the river-side oratory, it is probable that she also had some points of contact with the faith of those who worshipped there, and had listened there to the preaching of the Apostles. Might not she claim a share in “the way of salvation” which was proclaimed to them?

Verse 18

(18) But Paul, being grieved . . .—It is obvious that the constant repetition of these clamorous cries must have been a hindrance to the Apostle’s work, disturbing him as he talked to the other women at the proseucha. Was it not right for him to do as his Master had done with the demoniacs of Gadara (see Notes on Matthew 8:28-34), and to restore the woman to her true self, by teaching her to distinguish between her longing for deliverance and the wild passions that hindered her from attaining it? And so he spoke, and the evil spirit “came out the same hour.” Here the history ends, as far as the damsel was concerned; but we can hardly think that she was left to drift back into ignorance and unbelief. Would not such a one find shelter and comfort at the hands of the women who “laboured” with the Apostle? (Philippians 4:2.) May we not think of her gratitude as showing itself in the gifts that were sent to the Apostle, upon whom she had unwillingly brought so much suffering? (Philippians 4:15.)

Verse 19

(19) That the hope of their gains was gone.—Better, of their occupation. The word for “gains” is the same as that translated “gain” and “craft” in Acts 19:24-25. There is something like a prophetic significance in the use, at this stage, of the word which was the key to nearly all the persecutions to which the early believers were exposed. Men could tolerate varieties of worship or the speculations of philosophers: they were roused to madness by that which threatened their business. The use in the Greek of the same verb for “was gone,” as had been used in the previous verse for “come out,” gives an emphasis which the English does not reproduce. Their business and the spirit of divination “passed away” together.

Paul and Silas.—Luke and Timotheus escaped, probably, as less conspicuous.

Drew them into the marketplace.—The marketplace, or Agora, was, in all Greek cities, the centre of social life. In Philippi, as a colonia, reproducing the arrangements of Rome, it would answer to the Forum, where the magistrates habitually sat. What had taken place would naturally cause excitement and attract a crowd.

Verse 20

(20) The magistrates.—The Greek word used (Stratêgi, literally, generals—the name survived in 1750 in the Italian Stradigo, used of the prefect of Messina) is used with St. Luke’s usual accuracy, for the prætors, or duumviri, who formed the executive of the Roman colonia.

These men, being Jews.—We must remember that the decree of Claudius (see Note on Acts 18:2), banishing the Jews from Rome on account of their disturbing that city, would be known, and probably acted on, at Philippi (see Notes on Acts 16:12-13), and would give a special force to the accusation. Here, also, there is something specially characteristic of the nature of many of the early persecutions. Christians were exposed, on the one hand, to the relentless enmity of the Jews, and, on the other, they were identified by heathen rulers and mobs with the Jews, and so came in, where the latter were the objects of popular antipathy, for a two-fold measure of suffering.

Verse 21

(21) And teach customs.—The word is used as including ritual as well as social habits, and seems to have been specially used of the whole system of Jewish life. (See Notes on Acts 6:14; Acts 15:1; Acts 21:21.)

Being Romans.—The people of Philippi, as a colonia, had a right to claim the title of Roman citizens, which could not have been claimed by those who were merely inhabitants of a Greek city, such as Thessalonica or Corinth. (See Note on Acts 16:12.)

Verse 22

(22) Commanded to beat them.—The Greek verb gives the special Roman form of punishment, that of being beaten with the rods of the lictors. This, therefore, takes its place as one of the three instances to which St. Paul refers in 2 Corinthians 11:25. The question naturally occurs, why he did not, on these occasions, claim, as he did afterwards at Jerusalem (Acts 22:25), the privileges of a Roman citizen. Some have supposed that the violence of the mob rendered it impossible for his claim to be heard. Others have even questioned the truthfulness of his claim. A more natural supposition is that he would not assert in this instance a right which would only have secured exemption for himself, and left his companion to suffer the ignominious penalty of the law, and that by putting the strategi in the wrong, he sought to secure for his disciples afterwards a more tolerant treatment. As far as the first part of this hypothesis is concerned, it may, perhaps, be accepted (see, however, Note on Acts 16:37); but such of the Philippian disciples as belonged to the colonia, were already protected from outrages of this kind as Roman citizens. Others, however, of the freed-men class, were still liable to them.

Verse 23

(23) And when they had laid many stripes upon them.—The words imply a punishment of more than usual severity, such as would leave their backs lacerated and bleeding. So in 1 Thessalonians 2:2, St. Paul speaks of having been “shamefully entreated” at Philippi.

Verse 24

(24) Thrust them into the inner prison.—Those who have seen anything of the prisons of the Roman empire, as, e.g., the Mamertine dungeon at Rome itself, can picture to themselves the darkness and foulness of the den into which Paul and his friend were now thrust: the dark cavern-like cell, below the ground, the damp and reeking walls, the companionship of the vilest outcasts. And, as if this were not enough, they were fastened in the “stocks.” St. Luke uses the Greek term xylon, the same as is used sometimes for the cross (Acts 5:30; Acts 13:29). The technical Latin word was nervus. Like the English stocks, it was a wooden frame with five holes, into which head and feet and arms were thrust, and the prisoner left in an attitude of “little-ease.” Here, however, it would seem, the feet only were fastened, the rest of the body being left lying on the ground. If the Received version of Job 13:27; Job 33:11, which follows the LXX. and the Vulgate, be correct, the punishment was common at a very early period in the East. (Comp. Jeremiah 29:26.)

Verse 25

(25) And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises.—Better, praying, they Were singing hymns, the Greek expressing one act rather than two. The act was, we may believe, habitual, and they would not intermit it even in the dungeon, and fastened as they were, so that they could not kneel. The hymn may have been one of the prayer-psalms of David, or possibly one of those, of which Pliny speaks in his letters, and which may well have been in use half a century earlier, in which men offered adoration to Christ as God (Epist. x. 96). The words of Tertullian to the martyrs of his time may well be quoted: Nihil crus sentit in nervo quum animus in cælo est; Etsi corpus detinetur, omnia spiritui patent—“The leg feels not the stocks when the mind is in heaven. Though the body is held fast, all things lie open in the spirit” (ad Mart. c. 2).

And the prisoners heard them.—Better, were listening eagerly, the kind of listening which men give to a musical performance. Never before, we may be sure, had those outcasts and criminals heard such sounds in such a place. For the most part those vaults echoed only with wild curses and foul jests.

Verse 26

(26) And suddenly there was a great earth quake.—Both the region and the time were, it will be remembered, conspicuous for convulsions of this kind. Cities in Asia, such as Sardis, Apamea and Laodicea, and in Campania, suffered severely under Tiberius. (See Note on Matthew 24:7.) St. Luke apparently reads the fact not as in itself miraculous, but as leading to a display of supernatural calmness and courage on the part of the Apostles, and so to the conversion of the gaoler.

Every one’s bands were loosed.—This seems, at first, beyond the range of the usual effects of an earthquake, but the chains of the prisoners were fastened, we must remember, to rings or staples in the wall, and the effect of a great shock would be to loosen the stones and so make it easy to escape. The fact that the “foundations of the prison were shaken” agrees with what has been said above (Note on Acts 16:24), as to the dungeon into which the prisoners had been thrust.

Verse 27

(27) He drew out his sword, and would have killed himself.—We have seen in Acts 12:19 what was to be expected by a gaoler who, under any circumstances, allowed a prisoner to escape. (See also Note on Acts 27:42.) Here the man sought to anticipate his fate. Suicide was a natural resource under such conditions everywhere, but here there was a local predisposing influence. Philippi, after the great battle in which Brutus and Cassius had been defeated by Antonius, had been conspicuous for the number of those who had thus preferred death to the abandonment of the Republic and the loss of freedom. This act had been looked on as heroic (Plutarch, Brutus, c. 52), and was naturally enough contagious.

Verse 28

(28) Do thyself no harm.—Few and simple as the words are, they are eminently characteristic of the love and sympathy which burnt in St. Paul’s heart. For him the suicide which others would have admired, or, at least, have thought of without horror, would have been the most terrible of all forms of death. He could not bear the thought that even the gaoler who had thrust him into the dungeon, should so perish in his despair.

Verse 29

(29) Then he called for a light.—More accurately, ‘for lights. As St. Luke does not use, as in Acts 20:8, the word for “lamps,” it is probable that the lights were torches, and that the gaoler, with one in his hand, leapt into the darkness of the subterranean dungeon.

Verse 30

(30) Sirs, what must I do to be saved?—The use of “Sirs” differs from that of Acts 7:26 in having a Greek word, expressive of respect (that used in John 20:15), corresponding to it. We ask what the gaoler meant by the question. Was he thinking of temporal safety from the earthquake, or from punishment; or had there come upon him, in that suicidal agony, the sense of an inward misery and shame, a “horror of great darkness” from which he sought deliverance? The latter seems every way most probable. It must be remembered that the very circumstances which had brought St. Paul to the prison had pointed him out as “proclaiming the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). The witness of the demoniac girl was thus not altogether fruitless.

Verse 30-31

What must I do to be Saved?

Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they Said, Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved.—Acts 16:30-31.

The events recorded in this sixteenth chapter of the Acts are not the only ones which have given a name and a fame in the afterworld to an obscure provincial town in Macedonia. At this same Philippi, about one hundred years before the arrival there of Paul and Silas, the empire of the world had been played for and lost and won. The great battle which derives its name from this city did much to shape the after-history of the world. No one capable of judging will deny this; and yet there are names and incidents linked with Philippi which possess a far deeper interest for us, which touch us far more nearly than the conflict between the chiefs of the two selfish factions, who, quarrelling over the spoils of the world, here decided by the bloody arbitrament of the sword to which those spoils should belong. The shocks of contending hosts, the deeds which once filled the world with their fame, these have passed away. Brutus and Cassius, Antony and the young Octavius, win but a languid interest from us; while Lydia, the humble purple-seller of Thyatira, the first-fruits of the Gospel on European soil, whose heart the Lord opened here, “that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul,” and Paul and Silas singing hymns to God out of the depths of their dungeon, and that unnamed Philippian jailor with his earnest agonizing cry, “What must I do to be saved?”—their story is ever fresh and ever new; it has the same hold upon us as it had upon those who first heard it, touching, as it does, the central heart of things, the everlasting hopes and interests of men.


The Scene in the Prison

1. On some false or frivolous pretext, Paul and his fellow-labourer, Silas, were dragged before the Roman magistrates at Philippi. These, it seems, would not so much as hear them in their own defence; but with their own hands “rent off their clothes, and commanded to beat them.” Perhaps, but we cannot be sure of this, Paul, if he might have spoken, would have pleaded his Roman citizenship, as he did at Jerusalem, and so have saved himself from the last indignity of scourging. But, whether this is so or not, “when they had laid many stripes upon them” (St. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, speaks of having been “shamefully entreated at Philippi”), “they cast them into prison, charging the jailor to keep them safely.” He, careless about their sufferings, only selfishly careful to make all safe for himself in the easiest way, “having received such a charge, thrust them into the inner prison,” a dark dungeon, below the level of the ordinary prison, and, smarting and bleeding from the rods as they were, “made their feet fast in the stocks,” an instrument of punishment as painful as it was shameful, but which a great prophet of the elder covenant had made trial of before them (see Jeremiah 20:2); and so left them there to themselves; or rather, not to themselves, but to their God.

2. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises unto God.” They were praying; this was natural. The cry de profundis is the one which most readily arises; but more than this their voices were voices not of prayer only, but also of praise. They “sang praises” unto Him “who giveth songs in the night,” who had counted them worthy to suffer for His name’s sake, who had brought them in this sacrament of suffering into a closer fellowship with their Lord, the captain of the crucified, the leader and Commander in the great army of martyrs. We count it a great feat of Christian magnanimity not to murmur, to be what we call resigned: here were those who were “joyful in tribulation.” “And the prisoners,” we are told, “heard them,” or “listened to them.” Strange, indeed, must those voices of prayer and thanksgiving have sounded in that place, most unlike the voices with which those walls at other times had resounded. Curses, no doubt, were familiar enough in that dismal house of punishment and pain, but not blessings; oaths, but not prayers; wailing and gnashing of teeth, of the slave and the malefactor, not hymns of a holy gladness, of the saint and the martyr. No wonder, then, that they all listened; and presently the Lord set His seal to the prayer of His servants. “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken: and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.”

3. The earthquake which released Paul and Silas wakened the jailor, who, “seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword, and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped.” Suicide was held by the Romans to be not only lawful, but even in certain cases commendable. This unhappy man knew that he was responsible to his superiors for the safety of those committed to his charge; he knew that the magistrates would show no mercy (cf. Acts 12:19), as he had slept at his post; and so he preferred immediate death to the disgrace of public exposure and the death to which he would certainly be sentenced. But he was arrested in the very act of self-destruction by the Apostle’s voice, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.” And now a new terror took possession of him. He saw the miraculous interference which restrained the freed prisoners from escaping; he called to mind the causes which had led to the imprisonment of these Christians. Certain strange words which he had heard often of late must have recurred to his mind: “These men are the servants of the Most High God, which show unto us the way of salvation.”

4. “He sprang in, and, trembling for fear, fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” A moment’s consideration is enough to show how little foundation there is for the common assumption that the man was in a great state of anxiety about his soul. He was a heathen, and a heathen of the lowest class. No sense of sin (as we understand it) could be reasonably expected of such a man; nor, indeed, among the mass of the heathen generally. Feelings of remorse for his rough treatment of Paul and Silas no doubt mingled with his terror, but in any case it was a heathen conscience; and the self-accusations which it suggested were perhaps not so much about a wicked or a wasted life as about some superstitious rites neglected, or some idolatrous sacrifices not duly honoured, and it was in blindness and ignorance, and without anything at first which we should call concern about his soul, that he cried so piteously, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Believing Christians, it is said, can be divided into two classes. One of these classes is typified by the charcoal-burner, who, asked by a learned doctor what he believed, answered, “I believe what the Church believes.” “Yes,” said the doctor, “but what does the Church believe?” “The Church believes what I believe.” “Well, but what is it that you and the Church believe?” The charcoal-burner hesitated, but at length replied, “The Church and I believe—the same thing!” Of the other class we find an illustration in the little girl walking with her father in the country, and asking, “What is that?” “That, my dear, is a cow.” “But why, papa?” Our sympathies are with the little girl, but is there not a point where both these classes meet? And if so, it is surely faith in Christ. Since the Philippian jailor was quite able to embrace this faith, it is evident that it does not need any gifts of intellect, or even any elaborate instruction in the things of God. One of those Assyrian Christians, of whom so many have been massacred in recent years, explained to a Western traveller that he and his were very poor and very helpless, and (what was worse) very ignorant even of their own religion; but they knew who their Master was and they were ready to lay down their lives for Him. And so they have, in more instances than we can number, without hesitation.

5. The story of the Philippian jailor will never be forgotten. It will remain for ever as a witness of the power of the Holy Spirit to change a human life by turning darkness into light. The man, though a jailor, was a man still. He had his human emotions, his human fears, and—as the sequel shows—his human compassions also, which his grim trade had been powerless to crush out. When he asked the question it was not, we imagine, with any very distinct conception of its bearing. He spoke of saving. What did he mean by this? His soul was convulsed by a tumult of conflicting passions. Only the moment before he would have done the very reverse of saving himself; he would have committed suicide. The first instantaneous terror was past. His prisoners were safe. His own life was safe—safe from his own murderous hand, and safe from the displeasure of his masters. But a vague, bewildering awe had seized him. He was in imminent peril, he knew not whence and how, Hence his imploring cry, “What must I do to be saved?” And God took him at his word. God accepted his confused yearning; God heard his inarticulate utterance. He asked for salvation. And God taught him salvation; God gave him salvation, a gift far higher, far nobler, far more beneficent, than it had entered into his heart to conceive. It is instructive to observe the instrumentality which laid the jailor prostrate at the Apostle’s feet. This instrumentality is twofold, partly external and partly moral. There is the physical catastrophe, and there is the spiritual influence.

(1) There is the physical catastrophe. Suddenly, we are told, there was a great earthquake. The prison was shaken to its foundations. The doors flew open. The fetters were loosed. It is thus that God works not uncommonly in His regenerative processes. Through the avenues of the senses He forces His way to the spirit. It may be that the Lord Himself is not in the great and strong wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire; but the fire and the earthquake and the strong wind are His precursors, are His pioneers. They are as the voice of one crying in the wilderness of the man’s heart, “Prepare ye the way.” They arrest the eye and the ear; they overawe and subdue the spirit; they hold the man spellbound; and in the supervening silence the still small voice is heard. So it was here. Agitated and bewildered—his whole moral nature reeling and staggering with the shock—the jailor flung himself at the Apostle’s feet.

(2) But this was not sufficient. The physical shock might arrest, but it could not instruct. It might overawe, but it could not inspire. The rumbling and the crash of the earthquake is not the only voice which breaks the midnight silence. There is the voice of prayer and praise, borne aloft to the Throne of Grace from those subterranean dungeons. We may well imagine that this voice also, so strange, so unearthly, so unlike the gibes and the curses and the blasphemies which were wont to issue from the prisoners’ cells, had arrested the jailor’s ear; that they had suggested hopes and fears, which he could but vaguely understand; that they held out to him a new ideal of life, at which he blindly clutched; that, mingling with his dreams, they had moulded his awakening thoughts; and thus insensibly they had shaped the cry which rose to his lips, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”1 [Note: J. B. Lightfoot.]

6. The calm answer of Paul and Silas was, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved.” They were not afraid of that Gospel which they came to preach; they did not count that what God had made free, it would be prudent for man to clog with conditions. They did not say to themselves, “This wicked, this hardened jailor must not be encouraged to believe too soon in the forgiveness of sins; he must be kept at a due distance for awhile; and then some glimpses of hope may be given him, and the prospect at some future day of a full pardon.” Not so; but the rich treasure-house of God’s grace was thrown open to him at once, and he was bidden to help himself, and to make himself rich with the best gifts which were there.


The Question

“What must I do to be saved?”

1. Before we come to the words of the question we should take note that, whatever may have prompted similar questions—such as the question of the Rich Young Ruler, “What shall I do that I may have eternal life?”—this question was clearly quickened by fear. The jailor, we are told, was “trembling for fear” (Acts 16:29, R.V.); he had been alarmed by the earthquake, by the prison walls rocking and shaking, by the whole occurrences of the night. It was fear, physical fear at first, that led to the spiritual fear that was uttered in the cry, “What must I do to be saved?”

It is not necessary to say that there are many cases in which the longing for salvation has not been quickened by fear. Children who have grown up in Christian homes, and have been tenderly nurtured “in the chastening and admonition of the Lord,” breathing an atmosphere of piety from their earliest years, are often sweetly drawn to Christ by His tender love, and can hardly remember the time when they did not love Christ. On the other hand, it ought never to be forgotten that in many other cases conviction of sin, and of the need of salvation, have been the direct result of personal fear of being lost. Any minister who leaves out of his preaching “the note of fear” is not only unfaithful to the truth, but he is neglecting one of the means the Spirit of God has used in every age for the conversion of souls.1 [Note: G. S. Barrett]

2. Now come to the question itself: “What must I do to be saved?” This is no worn-out, obsolete question. It is as real now as it was nineteen centuries ago; as pertinent here in the heart of Christendom as it was there amidst the surroundings of paganism; as vital to us as it was to that poor, bewildered jailor in that far-off Roman colony. But it matters much—it matters everything—in what sense we ask the question. What do we mean by this saying? From what evil do we desire to be rescued?

i. What Salvation is not

It is well first of all to see clearly what salvation is not. Dr. M. D. Shutter has forcibly stated some common mistakes as to the meaning of this great word. From what, he asks, do you want to be saved?

(1) “Well,” you answer, “I know that I have sinned, and I feel that God is angry with the wicked and hates them. I want you to tell me how to be saved from His wrath. This is my desire.” Now, there is not and cannot be any such thing in God as you understand by wrath. It is true He has expressed His disapprobation of sin in the consequences which follow the violation of His laws in the soul, the body, the universe. But this is done in love to correct evil, to turn men aside from sin, and not in frenzy. His bolts are not hurled in vengeance, as men retaliate upon each other. He does not delight in destruction. When His laws smite us in their operation, it is to heal and not to kill. The sword falls with the glitter of lightning, but also with the glow of sunrise upon its blade. Let us be sure that we can never receive harm from God, that we can never receive mischief of any kind from God.

The ancient gods are dead.

No Roman despot sits on heaven’s throne,

Dispensing favours by his will alone;

Sends some to heaven and some to lowest hell,

In unprogressive woe or bliss to dwell;

Demands no horrid sacrifice of blood,

Nor nails his victims to the cruel wood

In others’ guilty stead.

The ancient gods are dead.

Law rules majestic in the courts above,

And has no moods, but hand in hand with love,

Sweeps thro’ the universe, and smiling sees

The spheres obedient to her vast decrees,

Proclaims all men the sons not slaves of God.

And breathes the message of His Fatherhood.

The true God is not dead.

(2) “But,” you say, “I may not have been happy in expressing myself. Perhaps I ought to say that it is the justice of God from which I desire to be saved. This may be the better word.” The justice of God? Saved from the justice of God? Why, our hope is that equal and exact justice will at last be done everywhere and to all men. Strange that we should want to be delivered from this attribute of God and its operations, unless we are consciously trying to outwit and defraud Him. The trouble is, we have inserted brutality and fiendishness into our conception of justice, and stand trembling before our own caricature. Justice renders to each his due at last—nothing more, nothing less. Justice meets out to each transgression and disobedience a fair recompense of reward—a “just” recompense. Saved from the justice of God? No, God’s justice has been the hope of the oppressed in all ages. It is the hope of those who are trodden down to-day. It will work in this world and the next, until all wrongs are righted, till that which is crooked shall have been made straight, till the hills are levelled and the valleys exalted. We sing with Whittier—

We only know that God is just,

And every wrong shall die.

We exclaim with Queen Katharine—

Heaven is above all yet; there sits a judge

That no king can corrupt.

(3) “But,” you say, “perhaps I have not said what I mean. It is the penalty of sin from which I wish to be saved.” Exactly so. You want to be assured that you will not suffer for your sins. You want to be told how the pain and anguish and disgrace attending sin may be removed. You want to know how the burden of remorse shall be lifted from your conscience. You want to know how your boat may play upon the current of Niagara above the falls, without taking a plunge over the awful precipice. But this is precisely what cannot be done. There is no salvation from the penalty of sin, in itself considered. Every evil thought, every unkind word, every unmanly deed, will bring, here or hereafter, its just and equitable penalty. This is as certain as sunlight or gravitation.

ii. What Salvation is

The salvation of Jesus Christ is a great salvation—far greater than most men have ever thought or imagined. It meant and it means a large and many-sided experience; the highest quality and order of human life, the highest character and blessedness which men individually and collectively are capable of reaching and realizing.

I do not know of anything more Singular in our English versions than the liberty so deliberately taken with our Lord’s use of this familiar word. Every reader of the Greek Testament knows that He used it quite indifferently of the blessed work of recovery whether of body or of soul. (Compare St. Luke 7:50 with Luke 8:48, where the whole formula is exactly the same.) Every one who speaks English knows that we habitually use the word “save” for any kind of rescue—from fire, from drowning, from any danger of bodily destruction, just as much as from moral and spiritual ruin and death. Yet in the Gospels the word is regularly mistranslated “made whole,” when it refers to a healing of the body. The Authorized Version, indeed, had permitted the proper word to stand in one instance, St. Luke 18:42, and even this one exception was invaluable for teaching purposes. Now, alas, even this lapse into accuracy has been obliterated by the Revised Version. It is quite true that when a person is “saved” from the misery of blindness, or the torment of disease, he may almost equally well be said to be “made whole.” But it is not a question of what our Lord might have said, but of what He did say. He did not, as a matter of fact, say, “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (which would have required a different Greek word), but “thy faith hath saved thee”; and in altering His words, the translators have given a rendering which is inaccurate; and this is so unlike the authors of the Revised Version in general that one is naturally led to suppose that it was done under the pressure of some very strong theological pre-possession. But these pre-possessions have no place in the work of translating the Scriptures.1 [Note: R. Winterbotham.]

1. Salvation is first a certain deliverance from the depression and dismay which spring from our knowledge and fear of the evil we have done; it is a certain relief from the shame which paralyses hopeful endeavour, and from the ignorant and guilty dread which makes the thought of God a burden and not an inspiration. The suffering of an awakened conscience is of all burdens the hardest to be borne. This was the Nemesis that the ancients pictured as ever pursuing the ever-flying and never-escaping criminal. This was the torment that drove Lady Macbeth mad—who, with all her ablutions, could not wash out the bloodstains from her hand. And it is the sorrow not only of those who have committed great crimes against humanity, but of every man who is haunted by lost opportunities, of every man who has fled from duties that demanded faithfulness unto death, of every man who has given his soul away in exchange for some worldly prize, of every man who has not lived up to his light, and has not been obedient to the heavenly vision when obedience was inconvenient and hard; of every man awakened to the sense of the irrevocable past and to the thought of what he might have been and might have done.

Every one reprobates the custom of throwing children into the Ganges. But does every one stop to consider why the Hindu mother commits such cruelty? She is a mother. Motherhood must have borne into her own heart somewhat of the strongest affection of earth. Because the child is hers, it must be horror to watch it die. Under other circumstances she would give her own life to save the child’s. Who knows the smothered agonies beside the Ganges—Rachels lamenting their children “because they are not,” mothers tearing their babes from their bosoms and turning homeward with aching hearts? Of the terrible paradox there is just one explanation; in the awful crime there is just one exalting truth: Those Hindu mothers are trying to answer for themselves a question which lay in their souls before their children were born: “What must I do to be saved?”2 [Note: G. C. Peck.]

2. Salvation means, then, in the second place, a certain deliverance from the depression and fear of sin; it means a sense of the forgiving mercy and help of God; it means the victory of faith and hope; but all this is only clearing the ground for the great salvation of Jesus Christ. The removal of tormenting shame, of our ignorant and guilty dread of God and fate, is only the first step in the way of the Christian salvation. There is evil in the heart and life, and from its presence and dominion we require to be delivered. We are not in real contact with the Divine order of the world until we feel that it is not penalty here or hereafter God wants to save us from—but sin. We bear and must bear the punishment of our sins. The remission of sin is not the remission of punishment. We reap what we sow. It is by this severity of discipline that God makes us see the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Justice and mercy are eternally one. Justice is beneficent and the retributive forces are redemptive. The cry to escape from the natural penalty of sin is the cry, not of the higher but of the lower nature; the cry of a man who cares more for his own personal safety and comfort than he cares for the order and will of God. The man truly awakened and enlightened wants to be delivered from the power of evil affections and evil habits, to be saved from his infirmities and sins, even though it be by fire; to be made right with God, right with men who are the children of God, and right with the whole order of things which is of God.

What must I do to be saved? What must I do, that I may be delivered from this my sin? What must I do, that I may cleanse myself from this impurity which sullies my soul? What must I do, that I may rid me of this untruthfulness, this dishonesty, this insincerity, which mars my life? What must I do, that I may expel this avarice which cramps my heart? What must I do, that I may shake off this lethargy which numbs my spirit? What must I do, that I may cast out this demon of worldliness, of self which shuts out Thee and Thy presence, O God? For Thou, Lord, and Thou only, art salvation, Thou only art heaven, Thou only art eternal life.1 [Note: J. B. Lightfoot.]

3. But, thirdly, while it is much to be delivered from perverted and corrupt affection and to have the power of evil habit broken, yet much more remains to be done to have the fulness of the blessing which the gospel of Jesus Christ calls “salvation.” Salvation is not only deliverance from sin; it is growth in all trueness and goodness of life. Christian character is not an incident, a result, a test of salvation—it is salvation. Salvation is character. The perfection of character and the work of salvation include the training of every power and affection to the standard of the perfect man; the rising up on all sides of our being and life to Him who is the head.

In his book on Darkest England General Booth continually speaks with the most unquestioning confidence of those who, under the ministry of his lieutenants, have been converted, as “soundly saved.” And the thing seems very definite in these cases, a clear and manifest passing out of darkness into light, out of drunkenness, debauchery, and crime into sobriety and industry and love and religion. When a man has drunk himself nearly into the grave, has spent as many years in prison as out of it, has been a thief, a wife-beater, only by chance not a murderer, and then turns right round, renounces drink, works honestly, makes a decent home for his wife, and wins the respect of all who know him, then there is no difficulty in understanding what “being saved” means. When a girl has forfeited all that makes girlhood beautiful, and has grown stained and sodden with drink, and then turns right round and rebuilds the temple of a woman’s sanctity, and spends all her days and years in devoted ministry among those who are now what she was then, we see quite plainly that “being saved” is a remarkably definite thing, and we dare not charge with cant the phraseology of the Christian people who have wrought this change. No man can doubt that such a revolution in the outward life is but the signal of a corresponding revolution in the inward life. Through the application of some potent spiritual energy the nerve and fibre of the soul have undergone a penetrating change. Old passions have been killed. New affections have been born. A new light has entered into the life and transformed it wonderfully, the soul has been born again, the old man has been put off, the new man which is akin to Jesus Christ has been put on.1 [Note: R. A. Armstrong.]

4. And, fourthly, salvation is not something wrought in and for ourselves alone; it means a life lived not for self, but for God and mankind—it means not only character but Service. It is in the teaching of our Lord Himself that we have His large conception of salvation. The name He gives it is the Kingdom of God. Now a kingdom is a society. About any merely private salvation that ended in one’s self Jesus Christ had very little to say but this: He that saveth himself shall lose himself. He always put God—God’s will, God’s work, and the service of God in mankind—where much religion that calls itself by His name puts self—self-interest, personal safety, comfort, peace, and final bliss. To be self-centred is in Christ’s judgment to be in a state of condemnation—to be dead, not alive.

Who standeth at the gate?—A woman old,

A widow from the husband of her love.

“O lady, stay, this wind is piercing cold,

Oh look at the keen frosty moon above;

I have no home, am hungry, feeble, poor.”—

“I’m really very sorry, but I can

Do nothing for you; there’s the clergyman.”

The lady said, and shivering closed the door.

Who standeth at the gate?—Wayworn and pale

A grey-haired man asks charity again.

“Kind lady, I have journeyed far, and fail

Through weariness; for I have begged in vain

Some shelter, and can find no lodging-place.”—

She answered: “There’s the work-house very near;

Go, for they’ll certainly receive you there”—

Then shut the door against his pleading face.

Who standeth at the gate?—A stunted child,

Her sunk eyes sharpened with precocious care.

“O lady, save me from a home defiled,

From shameful sights and sounds that taint the air

Take pity on me, teach me something good.”—

“For shame, why don’t you work instead of cry?

I keep no young impostors here, not I.”

She slammed the door, indignant where she stood.

Who standeth at the gate, and will be heard?

Arise, O woman, from thy comforts now:

Go forth again to speak the careless word,

The cruel word unjust, with hardened brow.

But who is this, that standeth not to pray

As once, but terrible to judge thy sin?

This whom thou wouldst not succour nor take in

Nor teach but leave to perish by the way.

“Thou didst it not unto the least of these.

And in them hast not done it unto Me.

Thou wast as a princess rich and at ease—

Now sit in dust and howl for poverty.

Three times I stood beseeching at thy gate,

Three times I came to bless thy soul and save:

But now I come to judge for what I gave,

And now at length thy sorrow is too late.”1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]


The Answer

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” is not a little word denoting a little thing. It is a word of wide and profound significance. It is the symbol of an infinite idea—an idea of which the whole New Testament may be said to be the expansion and Interpretation. At the beginning of the Christian life, and to the soul spending itself on questions as to personal safety and peace, it means something very simple; but its fulfilment Covers more than we think, more than the most faithful can realize in a long lifetime.

“Sirs,” cried the Philippian jailor, “what must I do to be saved?” It had been not unnatural to say, “First of all, let us out of prison. Play the man, run the risk, keep a higher law than you break, obey a holier duty than this low one, and bear the penalty. Act, do!” But instead, the evangelists begin deeper down. “Believe,” they cry. This is their appeal to the soul. Their own condition affected them not at all in comparison with the condition of this awakening spirit struggling in the dark towards duty and light and peace. Whether they were to be set at liberty was a matter of insignificance compared with the urgency that this jailor should be set at liberty to become a man and a Christian. If he once trusted himself to Christ, he would play the man, he would take all risks, he would dare everything and do anything. But he must begin at the beginning.

i. Believe

The answer says first “Believe,” and next it gives the object of belief—Believe on the Lord Jesus. What is it to believe?

1. Alter the word. Translate the verb “receive.” We are eager to do, to give. First we must learn, we must receive.

The demands of God upon the soul are first that we should accept His gift. We want to make a sacrifice for Him, and do not propose to accept His sacrifice for us. This is the commandment of God—that we receive. The first duty of that child-like spirit, which is the key to the kingdom of God is willingness to be taught. The “better part” in Christianity is to sit at the feet of Christ. Before we can give out we must drink in the very life and spirit of Christ.1 [Note: C. S. Horne.]

2. Again, believing is relying upon, or trusting. It is not a mere assent to a dogma, or the acknowledgment of a fact of the past. It is trust—trust in that Christ who died upon the Cross, that, through His merit, He can remove the guilt and punishment of sin; and also trust in that Christ who rose from the dead and is gone into heaven, that, by the power of His eternal Spirit, He can cleanse us from the dominion and habit of sin. That is the faith which saves—trust in the living Jesus, who is able to save unto the uttermost them that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.

I saw not long ago a woman who said to me, “Is it indeed true that upon trusting in Jesus I shall be saved at once?” I replied, “It is even so.” “Why,” she said, “my father, when he got religion, was nearly six years a-getting it; and they had to put him in a lunatic asylum part of the time. I thought that there was no getting saved without going through a very dreadful process.”2 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

Protracted seasons of conviction are generally owing to defective instruction. Wherever clear and faithful instructions are given to sinners, there you will generally find that convictions are deep and pungent, but short.3 [Note: C. G. Finney, Revivals of Religion, 429.]

Before his conversion Charles Wesley, then apparently near death, was visited by a poor mechanic, a Moravian, who asked him, “Mr. Wesley, do you hope to be saved?” He answered, “Yes.” “For what reason do you hope it?” was next asked. “Because I have used my endeavours to serve God.” The poor mechanic shook his head, but said no more; and Wesley tells us, “I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘Would he rob me of my endeavours?’” But that shake of the head, silent, sad, solemn, for ever shook Wesley’s confidence in his endeavours. The light dawned at last; he gave up doing, and wrote these words:—

Other refuge have I none;

Hangs my helpless soul on Thee.

He believed on the Lord Jesus, “and was saved.”1 [Note: G. S. Barrett.]

There is a word in common use in Scotland—lippen—which expresses the condition of a person who, entirely unable to Support or protect himself, commits his interests, or life, to the safe keeping of some person or object. Thus a man crossing a chasm on a plank lippens to the plank. One day Dr. Chalmers visited a poor old bed-ridden woman who was dying. He tried to make her understand the way of salvation. But, alas! it seemed all in vain. The mind he strove to enlighten had been closed so long that it appeared impossible to thrust into it a Single ray of light. At last she said, “Ah, sir! I would fain do as you bid me, but I dinna ken how. How can I trust in Christ?” “Oh, woman!” was his expressive answer, in the dialect of the district, “just lippen to Him.” “Eh, sir,” was the reply, “and is that all?” “Yes, yes,” was his gratified response; “just lippen to Him and you will never perish.”

A little girl had asked her father what faith meant, and he had told her to wait for his answer. One day he was doing something in a cellar, the entrance to which was a trap-door in a passage. The child called out to him, “May I come down to you, father?” “Yes,” he said. The little girl was going to descend, when she found that the ladder had been taken away. “I can’t get down,” she called out; “there is no ladder.” “Jump down,” her father answered, “and I will catch you.” The child hesitated; she could not see her father, and below her everything seemed dark. “But I can’t see you, father; I can’t see anything,” she said. “I can see you,” was the reply; “jump, and I shall be sure to catch you. My arms are wide open now.” The child hesitated no longer; she was sure that her father was there ready to catch her, though she could not see him. She jumped into the darkness and was safely caught.2 [Note: J. R. Gregory.]

ii. The Lord Jesus

1. The belief that saves is belief “on the Lord Jesus.” And belief on the Lord Jesus is not merely to believe that a man once lived in the world who was called Jesus. It is not merely to believe that the Bible contains a true account of all that He did and said and suffered while He was on earth, and of what He has told us to do for His sake. For it is very easy to believe all these things with the head and yet not to care about them with the heart, just as we believe a great many other things in the world: facts of history, for instance, in which we feel no interest, and which we do not think are of any concern to us. The truth is, that to believe about Christ and to believe in Christ are two very different things. The first will help only so far as it may lead to the second. To know that He is able to save is nothing, unless we are really saved; to know that He is able to wash away our sins is nothing, unless they are washed away; to know that He will help us to come to Him is nothing, unless we come; just in the same way we shall be none the better for knowing that there is a heaven, unless we enter into heaven.

Readers of George MacDonald will remember the scene where Mr. Graham, the pious schoolmaster, is sent for to see the Marquis of Lossie on his death-bed. He ventured this verse to the dying man, but it only drew from him the reply, “That’s cant.” “After thirty years’ trial of it,” said the schoolmaster, “it is to me the essence of wisdom. It has given me a peace which makes life or death all but indifferent to me, though I would choose the latter.” “What am I to believe about Him, then?” “You are to believe on Him, not about Him.” “I don’t understand.” “He is our Lord and Master, Elder Brother, King, Saviour, the Divine Man, the human God: to believe on Him is to give ourselves up to Him in obedience, to search out His will, and do it. This is the open door to bliss.”1 [Note: S. L. Wilson, Helpful Words for Daily Life, 59.]

2. In its fulness, then (for it is of a corresponding fulness with salvation), belief on the Lord Jesus involves (1) the apprehension of that Person. We know Him—not, however, in the sense of comprehending Him, but having Him before the mind as an object of apprehension. We know His name. We recognize His present existence. We cannot repose believingly in the annihilated. We know something about Him. The more we know the better. (2) Faith will include assent to what comes to our knowledge respecting the Person, the Deliverer; not merely assent of the intellect, as to the proposition that once at Nazareth lived, and at Jerusalem died, such an one called Jesus. Assent of the understanding undoubtedly, but also of the emotions—of the conscience, of the will. (3) Faith in a Deliverer, presenting Himself as able and willing to save, offering to save us, will include acceptance of that offer. A curious and somewhat striking illustration of this is to be found even in the derivation of the word “believe.” That word is kinsman to the German word glauben. And the ancestor of both words is a noun, signifying “hand.” The simple, primitive idea of believing, then, is that of accepting a promise by the striking of hands, or that of putting into, or leaving in, the hands of another some vital and commanding interest. (4) On such acceptance there follows reliance; just such reliance as the patient places on the physician, the accused on his advocate, the scholar on his teacher, the liegeman on his king. At first the reliance is, that Christ will do such and such; but with advancing experience it becomes a reliance that Christ has done, is doing, great things for us, and will yet do greater things than these. (5) But faith in the Lord Jesus is of such a nature that it demands and implies obedience to His competent direction, the co-operation of our will with His will, the unifying of our whole nature with His perfect nature, a union close, energizing—not merely life-long—existence-long.

3. How does our trust save us? Our trust does not save us, it makes a way for Christ to save us. We commit and surrender ourselves to Him to be saved in His own way. But from the office it fills, the part it acts, and the results it produces, trust evidently includes some other element. Especially it includes the element of sympathy. “Yea verily, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death; if by any means I may attain unto the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11). Not only does the Apostle value the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord above all the advantages in which as a Jew he once gloried (enumerated in verses preceding), but he is in full and heartfelt sympathy with the way in which he has been saved in Christ. “That I may … be found in him”; which was to have, not his own righteousness, which was of the law, as the ground or procuring cause of his salvation,—which would have been another way than the way of grace and faith, even the way of works,—but the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith”; that is, God’s righteousness, which had been realized for him in Christ and was manifest in Christ’s whole redeeming work.

A distinguished man once said that in early manhood he found deliverance from a guilty passion through a devoted attachment to a branch of science. The saving potency of a true and pure love for a good man or woman has never been without its witnesses. Let a man’s life be taken possession of by a great affection, and what will it not do for him?—cleanse his unclean heart, calm and chasten his hot and eager desires, bind him over to rectitude and faithfulness, and ever urge and keep him to his best. And it is just in this way Jesus Christ has been a Saviour to many in all lands and ages. The things named are not, of course, on the same level as the Christian attachment and loyalty, but they illustrate the same law—the redeeming energy of love—salvation through the quickening of a noble and commanding affection, love in the soul washing sin from the soul.1 [Note: John Hunter.]

What must I do to be Saved?


Armstrong (R. A.), Memoir and Sermons, 150.

Bacon (L. W.), The Simplicity that is in Christ, 24.

Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 122.

Book (W. H.), Columbus Tabernacle Sermons, 214.

Burrell (D. J.), The Wondrous Cross, 187.

Church (R. W.), Village Sermons, 1st Ser., 47.

Gregory (J. R.), Scripture Truths made Simple, 105.

Hare (J. C.), Parish Sermons, i. 55.

Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, iii. 35.

Holland (H. S.), Old and New, 23.

Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 44.

Hutcheson (J. T.), A View of the Atonement, 194.

Jenkins (E. E.), Sermons, 93.

Leach (C.), Sunday Afternoons with Working Men, 261.

Lightfoot (J. B.), Sermons in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 230.

Macdonnell (D. J.), Life and Work, 457.

Macpherson (W. M.), The Path of Life, 138.

Parkhurst (C. H.), The Blind Man’s Creed, 49.

Pearse (M. G.), The Gospel for the Day, 229.

Peck (G. C.), Ringing Questions, 95.

Proctor (F. B.), The Everlasting Gospel.

Quetteville (P. W. de), Short Studies in Vital Subjects, 88.

Shepherd (A.), Men in the Making, 221.

Shutter (M. D.), Justice and Mercy, 240.

Skinner (W. E.), in A Book of Lay Sermons, 261.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, vi. (1860) No. 293.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, liv. No. 3095.

Stimson (H. A.), The New Things of God, 40.

Trench (R. C.), Sermons preached in Ireland, 142.

Vaughan (C. J.), The Church of the First Days, 361.

Winterbotham (R.), Sermons, 305.

Christian World Pulpit, viii. 145 (Talmage); xvi. 280 (Robjohns); xxxix. 17, 33 (Farrar); xliii. 337 (Holland); lxiii. 168 (Hunter); lxviii. 142 (Cuyler); lxxiii. 243 (Warschauer); lxxv. 74 (Horne).

Churchman’s Pulpit (First Sunday in Lent), v. 418 (Grannis); (Sermons to the Young), xvi. 549 (Garbett).

Verse 31

(31) And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.—The plural pronoun is not without significance. St. Paul was not the only teacher. Silvanus also took part in the work of conversion. The words have naturally become, as it were, the crucial instance—standing nearly on the same level as that of the penitent robber on the cross—of the conditions of salvation. To believe in Christ, with all that this faith involved, was to obtain salvation, i.e., deliverance from sin, and not only from the penalty of sin, in this world and in the world to come. The Greek presents a contrast which is lost in the English. He had called them by the usual title of respect, Kyrii (= Sirs, or Lords); they answer that there is one Kyrios, the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can save.

Verse 32

(32) And they spake unto him the word of the Lord.—It is clear that belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, unless it were to be a mere formula, repeated as a charm, required an explanation. The very title of Christ; the acts and words that showed that Jesus was the Christ; His life, and death, and resurrection; the truths of forgiveness of sins and communion with Him, and the outward signs which He had appointed as witnesses of those truths; all this must have been included in “the word of the Lord,” which was preached to that congregation so strangely assembled, between the hours of midnight and of dawn. Even the Philippian gaoler had to be a catechumen before he was baptised.

Verse 33

(33) He . . . washed their stripes; and was baptized . . .—The two-fold washings, that which testified of the repentance of the gaoler and his kindly reverence for his prisoners, and that which they administered to him as the washing of regeneration, are placed in suggestive juxtaposition. He, too, was cleansed from wounds which were worse than those inflicted by the rods of the Roman lictors. No certain answer can be given to the question whether the baptism was by immersion or affusion. A public prison was likely enough to contain a bath or pool of some kind, where the former would be feasible. What has been said above (see Note on Acts 16:15) as to the bearing of these narratives on the question of infant baptism applies here also, with the additional fact that those who are said to have been baptised are obviously identical with those whom St. Paul addressed (the word “all” is used in each case), and must, therefore, have been of an age to receive instruction together with the gaoler himself.

Verse 34

(34) He set meat before them, and rejoiced.—Literally, set a table before them. The two sufferers may well have needed food. If the tumult had begun, as is probable, as they were going to the proseuclia for morning prayer, at the third hour of the day (9 A.M.), they had probably been fasting for nearly twenty-four hours. They were not likely to have made a meal when they were thrust into the dungeon. The “joy” of the meal reminds us of that noted as a chief feature of the social life of the disciples at Jerusalem in Acts 2:46. The new hope, succeeding to the blank despair, brought with it what we may well describe as a new “joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). The absence of the specific term of “breaking bread” excludes the idea of its having been, in the later sense of the term, an eucharistic feast; and St. Paul would probably have hesitated to admit the new convert to the Supper of the Lord without further instruction, such as we find in 1 Corinthians 10:15-17; 1 Corinthians 11:20-34; but the meal at which the teachers and the disciples, so strangely brought together, now sat down may, at any rate, be thought of as an agape or “feast of charity.” (See Note on Jude 1:12.)

Verse 35

(35) The magistrates sent the serjeants.—Literally, the rod-bearers, or lictors. They would probably be the very officers who had inflicted the stripes. We are not told what led to this sudden change of action. Possibly, as has been suggested, the earthquake had alarmed the strategi; more probably they felt that they had acted hastily in ordering the accused to be punished with no regular trial, and without even any inquiry as to their antecedents. They had an uneasy sense of having done wrong, and they wanted to wash their hands of the business as quietly as possible.

Verse 36

(36) Go in peace.—The few hours which the gaoler had spent with his new teacher had probably taught him to use the phrase in the fulness of its meaning (see Notes on Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48), and not as a mere conventional formula. He naturally looks on the offer—securing, as it did, safety for his new friend—as one that should be accepted.

Verse 37

(37) They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans.—By the Lex Porcia (B.C. 247), Roman citizens were exempted from degrading punishment, such as that of scourging. It was the heaviest of all the charges brought by Cicero against Verres, the Governor of Sicily, that he had broken this law: “Facinus est vinciri civem Romanum, scelus verberari” (Cic. in Verr. v. 57). The words civis Romanus sum acted almost like a charm in stopping the violence of provincial magistrates. St. Paul was a citizen by birth (see Note on Acts 22:28), his father having probably been wealthy enough to buy the jus civitatis, which brought with it commercial as well as personal privileges. It did not necessarily involve residence at Rome, but makes it probable that there were some points of contact with the imperial city.

There is something like a tone of irony in the “being Romans,” echoing, as it did, the very words of his accusers (Acts 16:21). He, too, could stand on his rights as a citizen. The judges had not called on the prisoners for their defence, had not even questioned them. Even if they had not been citizens the trial was a flagrant breach of justice, and St. Paul wished to make the strategi feel that it was so. Here we note that he seems to couple Silas with himself. It is possible, as the Latin form of his name, Silvanus (2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1) suggests, that he also was a citizen of Rome, but St. Paul’s mode of speech was natural enough, even on the assumption that he only could claim the privilege. We could hardly expect him to say with minute accuracy: “They have beaten us uncondemned, and I, for my part, am a Roman citizen.”

Verse 38

(38) They feared, when they heard that they were Romans.—It is clear that the strategi did not consider their ignorance of St. Paul’s citizenship a sufficient defence. They had acted illegally, and the consequence of that illegality went further than they counted on; but they could not, therefore, shake off their responsibility. They were liable to a prosecution, such as that which Cicero, for like offences, instituted against Verres. The tables were turned; the accused had become a possible accuser, and they, instead of hushing the matter up, were compelled to make something like a formal apology. We may well believe that St. Paul’s motive in insisting on this, was less the satisfaction of his own honour, than a desire to impress upon the strategi that they were not to over-ride or strain the law to gratify the passions of a mob.

Verse 40

(40) They comforted them, and departed.—Lydia’s house appears to have been the meeting-place of the brethren, as well as the lodging of the Apostle and his party. As the third person is now resumed, we may infer that St. Luke remained at Philippi, Timothy accompanying the other two. It would seem from Acts 20:2 that the Evangelist made Philippi the centre of his evangelising work for many years. Under the care of the beloved physician, the good work went on, and we may probably trace to his influence, and to Lydia’s kindness, the generous help which was sent to St. Paul once and again when he was at Thessalonica (Philippians 4:15-16), and, probably, at Corinth also (2 Corinthians 11:9). Long years afterwards he cherished a grateful memory of the men and women who had laboured with him at Philippi. Among these we may think of the Clement, of whom he thus speaks, possibly identical with the Flavius Clemens, who occupies a prominent position among the apostolic fathers, and was traditionally the third Bishop of Rome. (See, however, Note on Philippians 4:3.)


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 16:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 27th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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