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Bible Commentaries
Acts 16

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-40

Chapter 16

A SON IN THE FAITH ( Acts 16:1-5 )

16:1-5 Paul arrived at Derbe and Lystra and, look you, there was a disciple there called Timothy. He was the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was Greek. The brethren in Lystra and Iconium were witnesses to his worth. Paul wished him to go out with him and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in these places, for they all knew that his father was Greek. As they made their way through the cities they handed over to them the decisions which had been arrived at by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, that they should observe them. The churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in number every day.

It was five years since Paul had preached in Derbe and Lystra but when he returned his heart must have been gladdened for there had emerged a young man who was to be very dear to him. It was only natural that Paul should be looking for someone to take Mark's place. He was always well aware of the necessity of training a new generation for the work that lay ahead. He found just the kind of man he wanted in young Timothy. On the face of it, it is something of a problem that Paul circumcised Timothy for he had just won a battle in which circumcision had been declared unnecessary. The reason was that Timothy was a Jew and Paul had never said that circumcision was not necessary for Jews. It was the Gentiles who were freed from the ceremonies of the Jewish way of life.

In fact by accepting Timothy as a Jew, Paul showed just how emancipated he was from Jewish thought. Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage. The strict Jew would refuse to accept that as a marriage at all; in fact, if a Jewish girl married a Gentile boy or a Jewish boy married a Gentile girl, he would regard that Jewish boy or girl as dead. So much so, that sometimes a funeral was actually carried out. By accepting the child of such a marriage as a brother Jew, Paul showed how definitely he had broken down all national barriers.

Timothy was a lad with a great heritage. He had had a good mother and a good grandmother ( 2 Timothy 1:5). Often in the days to come he was to be Paul's messenger ( 1 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:2-6). He was at Rome with Paul when the apostle was in prison ( Php_1:1 ; Php_2:19 ; Colossians 1:1; Philemon 1:1). Timothy was in a very special relationship to Paul. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians ( 1 Corinthians 4:17) he called him his beloved son. When he wrote to the Philippians he said that there was no one whose mind was so much at one with his own ( Php_2:19-20 ). It seems very likely that Paul saw in Timothy his successor when he had to lay down his work. Happy indeed is the man to whom it is given to see the result of his training in one who can take up the burden when he lays it down.


16:6-10 They went through the Phrygian and Galatian territory, but they were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the word in Asia. When they had gone through Mysia they tried to go into Bithynia.; and the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do so. So they passed by Mysia and came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul. A man from Macedonia stood and urged him, "Cross over into Macedonia and help us." When he saw the vision he immediately sought to go forth into Macedonia for we reckoned that God had called us to tell the good news to them.

For a time all doors seemed shut to Paul. It must have seemed strange to him that he was barred from the Roman province of Asia by the Holy Spirit; it contained Ephesus and all the recipients of the letters to the seven churches in the book of the Revelation. Bithynia, too, was shut to him. How did the Holy Spirit send his message to Paul? It may have been by the word of a prophet; it may have been by a vision; it may have been by some inner and inescapable conviction. But there is the possibility that what kept Paul from journeying into these provinces was ill-health, the consequence of that thorn in his flesh.

What makes that quite likely is that in Acts 16:10, suddenly and without warning, there emerges a "we" passage. The story begins to be told not in the third person but in the first person. That tells us that Luke was there, an eye-witness and a companion of Paul. Why should he so suddenly emerge on the scene? Luke was a doctor. What is more likely than that he met Paul then because Paul needed his professional services, having fallen ill and so being barred from making the journeys he would like to make? If this is so, it is suggestive to reflect that Paul took even his weakness and his pain as a messenger from God.

It was the sight of a man from Macedonia which finally gave Paul his guidance. Who was this man Paul saw in the vision? Some think it was Luke himself, for Luke may have been a Macedonian. Some think the question should not be asked since dreams need no explanations like that. But there is a most attractive theory. There was one man who had succeeded in conquering the world. That was Alexander the Great. Now it would seem that the whole situation was designed to make Paul remember Alexander. The full name of Troas was Alexandrian Troas after Alexander. Just across the sea was Philippi, called after Alexander's father. Farther on was Thessalonica called after Alexander's half-sister. The district was permeated with memories of Alexander; and Alexander was the man who had said that his aim was "to marry the east to the west" and so make one world. It may well be that there came to Paul the vision of Alexander, the man who had conquered the world, and that this vision gave Paul a new impulse towards making one world for Christ.

EUROPE'S FIRST CONVERT ( Acts 16:11-15 )

16:11-15 When we had set sail from Troas we had a straight run to Samothrace. On the next day we reached Neapolis and from there we came to Philippi which is the chief city of that section of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We spent some days in this city. On the Sabbath day we went outside the gates along the riverside where we believed there was a place of prayer. We sat down and were talking with the women who met together there. A woman whose name was Lydia, who was a purple seller from the city of Thyatira, who reverenced God, listened to us. God opened her heart so that she gave heed to the things said by Paul. When she and her household had been baptized she urged us, "If you judge me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay there." And she pressed us to do so.

Neapolis--the modern Kavalla was the seaport of Philippi. Philippi had a long history. Once it had been called Crenides which means "The Springs." But Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander, had fortified it as a barrier against the Thracians and had given it his own name. At one time it had possessed famous gold mines, but by Paul's time these were worked out. Later it had been the scene of one of the most famous battles in the world, when Augustus won for himself the Roman Empire.

Philippi was a Roman colony. Roman colonies were usually strategic centres. In them Rome planted little groups of army veterans who had completed their military service. They wore the Roman dress, spoke the Roman language and used the Roman laws no matter where they were. Nowhere was there greater pride in Roman citizenship than in these outposts of Rome.

In Philippi there was no synagogue from which to start. But where the Jews were unable to have a synagogue they had a place of prayer and these places of prayer were usually by the riverside. On the Sabbath Paul and his friends took their way there and talked with the women who met in that place.

The extraordinary thing about Paul's work in Philippi is the amazing cross-section of the population that was won for Christ. Lydia came from the very top end of the social scale; she was a purple merchant. The purple dye had to be gathered drop by drop from a certain shell-fish and was so costly that to dye a pound of wool with it would take the equivalent of 150 British pounds. Lydia, wealthy woman and merchant prince that she was, was won for Christ.

Her immediate reaction was to offer the hospitality of her house to Paul and his friends. When Paul is describing the Christian character he says that the Christian should be "given to hospitality" ( Romans 12:13). When Peter is urging Christian duty upon his converts he tells them, "Practise hospitality ungrudgingly to one another" ( 1 Peter 4:9). A Christian home is one with an ever-open door.


16:16-24 When we were on our way to the place of prayer.. it happened that a certain slave-girl who had a spirit which made her able to give oracles met us. By her soothsaying she provided much gain for her owners. As she followed Paul and us she kept shouting, "These men are the slaves of the most high God and they are proclaiming the way of salvation to you." She kept doing this for many days. Paul was vexed at this and he turned and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I order you to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

When her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone they laid hands on Paul and Silas and dragged them to the city square to the magistrates. So they brought them to the chief magistrates and said, "These men, who are Jews, are disturbing the whole city and are proclaiming customs which it is not right for us who are Romans to receive." The crowd came together against them. The chief magistrates tore off their clothes and ordered them to be scourged with rods. When they had laid many blows upon them they threw them into prison with instructions to the jailer to guard them securely. When he received such an order he flung them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks.

If Lydia came from the top end of the social scale, this slave-girl came from the bottom. She was what was called a Pytho, that is, a person who could give oracles to guide men about the future. She was mad and the ancient world had a strange respect for mad people because, they said, the gods had taken away their wits in order to put the mind of the gods into them. She was probably also gifted with a natural turn for ventriloquism. She had fallen into the hands of unscrupulous men who used her misfortune for their gain. When Paul cured her of her madness, these men felt not joy at a fellow-creature's restoration to health but fury that their source of revenue was gone. They were astute men. They played on the natural anti-semitism of the mob; and they appealed to the pride in things Roman which was characteristic of a Roman colony and they succeeded in having Paul and Silas arrested. Not only were they arrested; they were put in the inner prison in the stocks. It may be that not only their feet but their hands and their necks also were held in the stocks.

The tragic thing is that Paul and Silas were arrested and maltreated for doing good. Whenever Christianity attacks vested interest trouble follows. It is characteristic of men that if their pockets are touched they are up in arms. It is every man's duty to ask himself, "Is the money I am earning worth the price? Do I earn it by serving or by exploiting my fellow men?" Often, the greatest obstacle to the crusade of Christ is the selfishness of men.


16:25-40 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately the doors were opened and everyone's bonds were loosed. When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open he drew his sword and he was going to kill himself, for he thought that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted to him, "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here." He called for a light and rushed in. He fell in terror before Paul and Silas and brought them out and said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They said, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you and your house will be saved." And they spoke the Lord's word to him together with all in his house. And that very hour he took them and washed their weals and he and his household were immediately baptized. He brought them into his house and set a meal before them and he rejoiced with all his house when he had believed in God.

When day came the chief magistrates sent their officers saying, "Let these men go." The jailer brought the message to Paul, "The chief magistrates have sent word that you are to be released. So now, go out and go your way in peace." But Paul said to them, "They beat us and they put us into prison although we never had a trial and we are Romans. And now are they going to put us out secretly? Certainly not! Let them come themselves and bring us out." The officers told the chief magistrates what Paul had said. They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. So they came and requested them and brought them out and asked them to leave the city. When they had come out of prison they visited Lydia. They saw the brethren and exhorted them and went away.

If Lydia came from the top end of the social scale and the slave-girl from the bottom, the Roman jailer was one of the sturdy middle class who made up the Roman civil service; and so in these three the whole gamut of society was complete.

Let us look first at the scene of this passage. This was a district where earthquakes were by no means uncommon. The door was locked by a wooden bar falling into two slots and the stocks were similarly fastened. The earthquake shook the bar free and the prisoners were unfettered and the door was open. The jailer was about to kill himself because Roman law said that if a prisoner escaped the jailer must suffer the penalty the prisoner would have suffered.

Let us look at the characters.

First, there is Paul. We note three things about Paul. (i) He could sing hymns when he was fast in the stocks in the inner prison at midnight. The one thing you can never take away from a Christian is God and the presence of Jesus Christ. With God there is freedom even in a prison and even at midnight there is light. (ii) He was quite willing to open the door of salvation to the jailer who had shut the door of the prison on him. There was never a grudge in Paul's nature. He could preach to the very man who had fastened him in the stocks. (iii) He could stand on his dignity. He claimed his rights as a Roman citizen. To scourge a Roman citizen was a crime punishable by death. But Paul was not standing on his dignity for his own sake but for the sake of the Christians he was leaving behind in Philippi. He wanted it to be seen that they were not without influential friends.

Second, there is the jailer. The interesting thing about the jailer is that he immediately proved his conversion by his deeds. No sooner had he turned to Christ than he washed the weals upon the prisoners' backs and set a meal before them. Unless a man's Christianity makes him kind it is not real. Unless a man's professed change of heart is guaranteed by his change of deeds it is a spurious thing.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 16". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/acts-16.html. 1956-1959.
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