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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Acts 16

Verse 1

XVI.

(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 2Ma. 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 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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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 16". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/acts-16.html. 1905.