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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Acts 16

Verses 1-4

Timothy, Paul’s New Travel Companion

After passing through Syria and Cilicia, Paul entered the cities of Derbe and Lystra in Lycaonia (Acts 14:6). In Lystra he meets a disciple named Timothy. Timothy is mentioned here for the first time. In the sequel of Acts and also in Paul’s letters we will hear a lot about him.

It seems that through Paul’s preaching he came to faith during his first missionary journey. We can conclude this from the letters Paul wrote later to Timothy. In them he calls him “[my] true child in [the] faith” (1 Timothy 1:2) and addresses him as “my beloved son” (2 Timothy 1:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17). He will become Paul’s most valued co-worker.

The marriage from which Timothy was born is forbidden by law (Deuteronomy 7:3; Nehemiah 13:25). But grace overcomes and makes him, born of an unlawful marriage, an instrument of God’s honor – his name means ‘honoring God’. His mother and also his grandmother were believing women (2 Timothy 1:5), who taught him in the Scriptures. He has known the Scriptures from an early age (2 Timothy 3:15).

Since his conversion, Timothy has grown in faith. Because of his knowledge of the holy Scriptures, he is soon able to serve with the Word. His spiritual development has been noticed by the brethren in Lystra, where he lives, but also by the brethren in Iconium, where he apparently sometimes comes to serve with the Word there as well.

When Paul comes back to Lystra and his attention undoubtedly is focused on this promising young man, he wants Timothy to travel with him. From the letters that Paul will later write to Timothy, we know that he is equipped for the service in a special way. We can discover four aspects that have played a role in this:

1. previous prophecies (1 Timothy 1:18),
2. the spiritual gift of God (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6),
3. laying on of hands by Paul (2 Timothy 1:6) and
4. laying on of hands by the joint elders (1 Timothy 4:14).

As mentioned before, the laying on of hands does not mean ordination or vocation, but making oneself one fellowship (Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3).

Then Paul is doing something that at first glance seems odd because it is something he recently opposed so much. He circumcises Timothy with his own hands. The reason follows immediately. His goal with the circumcision of Timothy is to overcome Jewish prejudices (1 Corinthians 9:20). Timothy will not be acceptable to Jews if he is not completely Jewish.

Paul stands in the freedom of the Spirit, therefore he can circumcise Timothy. He also does it without any constraint being exerted upon him. When he was forced to circumcise Titus, he did not do so (Galatians 2:3). Christian freedom fully acknowledges the law in its place, although the law has no place in that Christian freedom itself. With Titus it is about Christian doctrine, as if you cannot be saved without circumcision. That is why Titus is not circumcised.

With Timothy it is about what is useful for the work and then it is useful to circumcise him in order to have a better entrance with the Jews and to win the Jews. Thus, the circumcision of Timothy has nothing to do with his salvation, but only with his functioning among Jewish believers.

Because of his birth from a Jewish mother Timothy is Jewish. This has been stated – so it is said – from a practical point of view that it is easier to prove that a mother is a Jew than a father is a Jew. Also, a child is influenced by the mother in a much stronger way by her religion than the father could by his religion.

Nowhere did Paul call on the Jews to no longer abide by the law. Where it was useful, he submitted himself to it with a view to the gospel among the Jews. It was only in the letter to the Hebrews that he wrote about the disappearance of the age of the law and with it its importance to the Jews and called on them to leave the camp (Hebrews 13:13).

With Silas and Timothy, Paul travels through the cities to pass on everywhere in the churches what has been decided in Jerusalem concerning the necessary things to be observed by the believers from the Gentiles. There is no question of keeping the commandments of the law.

Verse 5

Strengthening and Increase of Churches

Here Luke again gives an “in-between” stand of the development of the church. The verse marks the transition between two parts of the book. The section beginning in Acts 16:6 continues to Acts 19:20 where Luke again gives such an “in-between” stand (Acts 19:20).

Now that the matter with the law has been settled, there is room for further growth. Being free from the law creates an atmosphere in which the churches can be strengthened in the faith. It is still the early days with the powerful work of the Spirit and dedicated servants. That there are daily additions to the churches also speaks of the powerful work of the Spirit. Conversions are not incidents. They do not take place every now and then, but every day people come to repentance.

Verses 6-10

Come Over ... and Help Us

Because the field of gospel service is the whole of creation, guidance is needed to know which way to go. For his first missionary journey, Paul can point to a clear commission from the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2). His second missionary journey he undertakes without such a commission, but with clear instructions.

The reason for this second missionary journey is the desire to provide aftercare in the areas where he went on his first missionary journey (Acts 15:36). There is no need for a special commission from the Spirit because this work is in accordance with the general command in Scripture that there must be care for the newly converted, the lambs of the flock. Paul is concerned for the welfare of the believers. That brings him to take action. Such action bears witness to spiritual maturity. It is the normal way of being led by the Holy Spirit, because among other things, he dwells in the believer to always be able to lead him (Romans 8:14).

On the second missionary journey, Paul travels through the Phrygian and Galatian region, where he also speaks the Word and through which churches come into being. They continue to the west, to Asia. Asia is a part of Asia Minor with Ephesus as its capital. There they are forbidden “by the Holy Spirit” from speaking the Word. Later on he will work there for several years and proclaim the gospel extensively, with Ephesus as the headquarters of his work, but it is not God’s time yet (Acts 20:31).

By speaking about the Holy Spirit, Luke seems to emphasize that Paul and his people are surrounded by unholy spirits who want to bring them to unholy acts. Those unholy acts can be the result of all kinds of good intentions, but they are not the result of the Holy Spirit. It is a warning that we should not allow ourselves to be led by ‘wishful thinking’. The Lord can lead our lives in different ways. He can lead by Scripture, circumstances, fellow believers, the Holy Spirit, sober thinking.

After having been prevented from speaking the Word in Asia, they move north and try to go via Mysia to Bithynia. That road is blocked by “the Spirit of Jesus”. The Spirit of Jesus is of course none other than the Holy Spirit. The fact that He is now called “the Spirit of Jesus” makes us think of the life of the Lord Jesus in humiliation on earth, because that is what His Name reminds us of. The Lord Jesus has been guided on earth in everything and always by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit and the Lord Jesus are so closely connected that we can speak of the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. As dependent as the Lord Jesus was on the Father, so dependent must Paul also learn to be on God. Nobody can teach him this better than the Spirit of Jesus.

We do not know how the Spirit blocked the road to Bithynia. Now that the road to Bithynia is closed, they are heading west. We see that Paul wants to travel for the Lord, but that he does not get a whole itinerary from the Lord. He has to learn to be dependent from step to step. That is how they end up in Troas.

In Troas Paul receives new marching orders in the silence of the night. For this God uses a dream (Job 33:15). The man visible to Paul in a vision can be seen as a symbolic apparition. In this man the whole of Europe looms up in the spirit of Paul. The man does not call out if they want to come to proclaim the gospel, but calls for help. There is a continent in need. An evangelist is a helper in need. He is a helper of people who are burdened by their sins to take that burden off their shoulders and offer the relief of faith.

The vision gives no further details about the journey and the goal. It is a global indication of God’s guidance. They still have to get clarity about the details. That clarity comes by talking about what has to be made up from the vision. They come to the conclusion that God has called them, and not only Paul, to preach the gospel to the Macedonians.

The writer of Acts, Luke, participates in this discussion. He joined the group unobtrusively. Until now, Luke has always written about ‘they’. From Acts 16:10 onwards he speaks about ‘us’. He becomes a participant of the company and an eyewitness to the events. The company now consists of four persons.

Verses 11-15

Conversion of Lydia

From Troas in Asia the company sailed to Samothrace, a little higher up in Asia. From there they made the crossing to Macedonia in Europe, where they landed in Neapolis. From Neapolis they go on foot to Philippi, the most important city of that part of Macedonia, twenty kilometers away.

Before there is any activity in connection with the gospel, Paul and his family spend some days in the city. In this way they can get to know the people of the city. It is important to show interest in the people first in order to be able to bring them the gospel afterwards.

Philippi is a Roman colony, i.e. an area where the citizens have the same rights as in the cities in Italy. In Philippi you can imagine yourself as if you were in Rome. It is just like in Rome. The people in Philippi live as Romans under the authority of Rome. Paul will point out in the letter he later wrote to the believers in this city that believers in the world also live in such a way. Just as the inhabitants of Philippi live as Romans in a strange environment, so believers live as citizens of heaven on earth by the standards of heaven surrounded by a world of which they are not a part (Philippians 3:20).

When they get to know the city, they will also have come to the conclusion that there was no synagogue, but there was a place of prayer. It seems that a place of prayer was common when there was no synagogue. In this really Roman city it is not obvious that there would be a synagogue. According to tradition at least ten Jews are needed for a synagogue, based on the prayer of Abraham for Sodom in which he goes to ten righteous people (Genesis 18:32).

Paul searches for the place of prayer in order to preach the gospel to the Jews here as well. When the Sabbath has come, they go to the place of which they have come to the assumption that people come to pray. When they get there, they see that women have come together. Paul and his people sit with them. In that attitude of rest they speak to the women.

In the reaction of the women and especially Lydia we see that God is already working in Philippi. In His time He brought Paul there to complete His work in hearts. That a church is also coming into being that is characterized by love and care as is shown in the letter that Paul writes to them later, Luke does not speak about that here.

Lydia is probably a Greek converted to Judaism. She no longer worships the multitude of idols of the Roman Empire, but the one God of the Jews. She comes originally from Thyatira, which was known for its dyeing of fabrics. Lydia trades in these in Philippi. While Paul speaks – so there is more a kind of conversation than a formal preaching – Lydia listens. Then the Lord opens her heart, through which she gives heed to what Paul has spoken. She takes God’s Word to heart, she accepts in faith what God says.

Here we see the two sides of the truth that we find throughout the Bible. On the one hand we see Lydia who listens, and on the other hand the Lord opens her heart so that she accepts what has been said. This is also how it goes in our lives as believers. We go to a meeting to listen to the Word and at the same time we pray that the Word will do its work in us.

After her conversion, she is baptized immediately, which indicates that Paul will also have spoken about this. Not only she is being baptized, but also her household, i.e. all those who belong to it. Salvation is an individual matter. No one is saved because someone else is a believer. Children are not saved because the parents are believers. Every person must personally repent to God and believe in the Lord Jesus.

At the same time it is God’s intention to preserve not only persons, but families. We also find this in Scripture. God already told Noah that he had to prepare an ark to save his household (Hebrews 11:7). God gives parents a great responsibility to raise their children in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). On the other hand, God’s grace is that when parents do so, He connects His promise to save the children. For this the children themselves will have to come to repentance and faith. Where people are the head of a family, they bring the whole family into the sphere of the Word of God.

When Lydia is baptized and her household, she urges Paul to stay with her for some time. In doing so, she appeals to her faithfulness to the Lord. Everything shows that she worships God. Her baptism proves that she wants to be obedient. Her hospitality proves that she has new life and wants to experience the new relationships that now exist as children of God. She will gladly have heard more about the Lord Jesus and His work.

Verses 16-18

A Spirit of Divination Exorcised

On the way to the place of prayer, Paul and his companions meet a slave-girl who possesses a Pythons spirit, through whom she practices fortune-telling. The girl is really demon-possessed, really in the power of an evil spirit, through which her identity has been lost. She is an instrument of Satan who ruthlessly exploits her. The masters of the girl earn well from her. There are plenty of people who come to consult her for payment.

When she crosses Paul’s path, the spirit of divination in her reveals itself noisily. He praises “these men” as “bond-servants of the Most High God” who proclaim a way of salvation. Here we see the deceptive tactics of Satan. He does not openly attack the gospel here in Europe, but tries to connect with the work of the gospel through deceptive support in order to mix gospel and error and thus destroy the gospel.

It is important to see that there is no article here before the word “way”. The girl does not speak about ‘the’ way, but about ‘a’ way. She is also talking about proclaiming “to you” a way and not about proclaiming “to us” the way. She does not advertise the gospel, but is out to present the gospel as one of the many ways of salvation. It is typically demonic to deny the exclusivity of the gospel. In world religions such as buddhism and islam there is room for Jesus, but only in addition to other idols.

In the Greek context, talking about them as bond-servants of the most high god also means that she says that Paul and his companions are bond-servants of Zeus. She speaks of a way of salvation, not as salvation from sins, but the salvation from certain unpleasant circumstances of life which she also proclaims as a fortune-teller. She proposes a path which should lead to the well-being of man, but which in reality ends in eternal destruction.

Paul did not act directly against the girl. He endured her crying out for many days. Then comes the moment when he can no longer bear it. It does not mean that he becomes irritated, but that tolerating it even longer would make the gospel powerless. The girl’s crying focused people’s attention on them and not on the gospel. At a certain point, Paul turns and commands the spirit in the Name of Jesus Christ to depart from her. Paul does not expel the spirit in his own strength, but with the authority of the Name of the Lord Jesus. That Name is exalted above all power and strength (Acts 3:6; Acts 3:16Acts 4:10). The spirit obeys immediately.

Unfortunately, much of the gospel preaching today is a preaching that has the approval of the world because the evangelist allows the world to unite with his preaching. ‘It is about the entrance’, it sounds as justification. That is not the way Paul works. His rejection of mixing is expensive for him, as the sequel shows.

Verses 19-24

Thrown Into Prison

If Satan cannot reach his goal with flattery, he turns into a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). His instruments are the masters of the girl. Their source of income is lost by these people. They are not at all grateful for the liberation of the girl, but extremely angry now that they see their profits evaporate. They drag Paul and Silas directly in front of the government which is represented by chief magistrates. The chief magistrates were the Roman governors, a kind of mayors.

The masters of the girl liberated by Paul accuse Paul and Silas of causing riots. This is a heavy indictment, because anything that endangers the unity and peace of the Roman Empire is severely punished. In their sheer lucidity, these people make what Paul and Silas did a political theme. They know that they have a good chance of being sentenced. They also respond to the hatred against the Jews by talking about “these people, who are Jews”.

Furthermore, they accuse Paul and Silas of proclaiming customs that go against Roman customs. (They apparently think that Luke and Timothy are less important, so they let them go.) Customs have to do with culture. They accuse them of wanting to destroy their culture with that gospel. Culture has been put in the nature of the people by God and is different for all peoples, but in the hand of Satan it can become a means to oppose the gospel. When the accusations have been made, the crowd, always looking for amusement, also stands up against Paul and Silas.

The chief magistrates consider further investigation unnecessary. Without any further form of trial, the clothes of both servants of God are torn from their bodies by the judges, who order them to be beaten with rods. Those who perform the beating do not take their task lightly and strike both preachers “with many blows”.

God allows His servants to be beaten and it is their honor not to resist. It becomes a means by which an even more shining testimony of His Word and of His servants is given. As for the body, the world is stronger than the Christian, if God allows it; but in his heart, the Christian is above circumstances if he can realize the presence of God. His presence is greater than all circumstances and can overcome everything else (1 John 5:4). One can then rejoice in suffering (Acts 5:41; Romans 5:3).

After the flogging, they are thrown into prison. The jailer is ordered to guard them carefully. He leaves nothing to chance and throws them into the inner prison. You can’t go any deeper. As if that doesn’t offer enough security, he carefully fastens their feet in the stocks as well. Escape is impossible. It seems that they are completely eliminated and the enemy has won. How discouraging it would be if they thought that this was their reception in Europe, when they clearly recognized the Lord’s guidance to go here.

Verses 25-26

Praying and Singing in Prison

But see, and above all, listen, how the evangelists reacted to all the pain and humiliation afflicted. Instead of becoming despondent or lamenting or crying out to God for vengeance over the defamation inflicted upon them, they pray and sing. Prayers and singing are powerful weapons with which great victories over the enemy are achieved (2 Chronicles 20:1-Song of Solomon :; Acts 4:23-Haggai :). They seek their strength with God and praise Him for Who He is. They do not do this softly, but understandable to all prisoners.

The prisoners do not shout at them to keep their mouths shut, but listen to them. They have never experienced and heard anything like this. The more difficult our circumstances are, the greater will be the impression our joy make on those who are watching us in our difficulties.

While Paul and Silas are praying and singing and the prisoners are listening, God suddenly makes Himself heard. He responds to the praying and singing of His servants by a sudden, great earthquake. It is a very special earthquake. It is limited to a building. The ground doesn’t tear open and all the walls keep standing. Only the doors open and the chains of all the prisoners are unfastened! An additional and possibly even greater miracle is that no one takes the opportunity to escape. They all stay where they are, nailed to the ground. Such special earthquakes are necessary in one’s life to make him realize the necessity of salvation.

Verses 27-34

Conversion of the Jailer

Because of the earthquake the jailer also woke up. When he sees that the doors are open, he can draw no other conclusion than that all the prisoners have fled. It is his job to guard them and in that, he feels he has failed. He wants to kill himself, but God intervenes and lets him proclaim salvation. When the man is about to kill himself, Paul’s voice sounds in darkness.

Paul cannot have seen that the man wants to commit suicide. It is pitch-dark and he is in the inner prison. God makes the situation clear to him. His words “we are all here” bear witness to the same. The God who unfastened the chains also prevents any prisoner from escaping. No one can resist Him and escape. Thus, all sinners in hell will be held there by God’s power for all eternity.

Paul’s words prevent the man from killing himself. That means that he believes Paul. He wants to go to Paul, but for that he needs light. He gets that and then he rushes in and falls down before Paul and Silas, trembling. We do not read that the earthquake made the jailer tremble, but we do read the voice of Paul that came to him from the pitch-dark does so. He must have experienced that as the voice of God, the God for Whom darkness is light as day (Psalms 139:12).

Grace has a crushing effect on the convinced sinner. At the same time, grace also works the demand for salvation. With this question the jailer addresses Paul and Silas, whom he now addresses with “sirs” and thus acknowledging them as his superiors. He asks for the way of salvation. Possibly he has heard of it before. He may have laughed about it then, but now in his distress he asks about it. In this way God always works in the conversion of sinners.

In the jailer’s question “what must I do to be saved?” lies the thought that he thinks he must do something for his salvation. But to be saved no one can do anything, it is even impossible to do anything about it himself. He does not get an assignment to do certain works. Paul proposes to him the only way through which someone can be saved and that is faith in the Lord Jesus.

It is about putting his trust in the Lord Jesus. He must cast his anchor in Him. That is not an achievement, but a necessity. Faith is no more an achievement than it is an achievement that someone grabs the rescue buoy that is thrown to him when he is in mortal distress.

Paul speaks not only of the salvation of the jailer, but also of the salvation of his household. Salvation means that a radical separation has come about with the world. As we have already seen with Lydia, it is the normal order that where the head of the house comes to faith, God extends the salvation also to the household members (Acts 16:15). The house where the light of the gospel is lit is no longer in the realm of the world, but in the realm where the Holy Spirit works and the Word is spoken by Him. The order in that house is His order.

After having given faith in the Lord Jesus as the core of salvation, Paul and Silas speak “the word of the Lord” to him and to all who are with him in his house. Whoever has come to faith has placed his life under the authority of the Lord. That Lord makes clear through His Word – ‘the word of the Lord’ – how He wants to be served. Paul and Silas give further instruction about this.

The jailer shows his conversion by taking Paul and Silas with him in that hour of the night. Nothing more comes of sleeping, there is no need for that at all. Here is a man who has undergone a great change internally and gives proof of that also externally. He takes his former prisoners, of whom he has now become a brother, into his house and takes care of them by washing their wounds. Immediately after the good care, he is baptized, he and all his people. In Philippi, another house started to shine after it was already lit in Lydia’s house. The jailer rejoices in the faith after having first known the sadness of his misery and having heard and accepted the gospel of his salvation.

Lydia was already a God-fearing woman (Acts 16:14), but still had to be saved, just as we saw with Cornelius (Acts 10:1-Exodus :; Acts 11:14). The jailer was an ungodly man. He also needed salvation. Good and bad people both need salvation.

Verses 35-40

Release of Paul and Silas

It seems that the chief magistrates know nothing of what happened in the night. They want Paul and Silas to be released. A beating and a night in prison is enough in their eyes to have taught these people a lesson. The jailer brings the message to Paul. If he has worried about what he had to do with Paul and Silas, the message that he can release the prisoners is a huge relief for him. He can tell them that they can go out and leave in peace.

But Paul does not agree with the proposal of the chief magistrates. He sees what it would mean if they left the city in this way. If they had been let out in secret, the suspicion would always have remained on them that they were agitators. After all, they had been beaten in public and thrown in jail, and this without trial. Everyone had seen that. That is why there had to be open justification, so that everyone would be aware that they were not agitators. The suspicion had to be removed that they had done something against the government. After all, that was the public accusation made against them on the market.

For this justification, Paul appeals to his Roman civil right. Silas, too, appears to have that civil right since Paul speaks of “us ... men who are Romans”. They did not use this civil right to prevent the brutal treatment and mistreatment. They did not want to escape the suffering for Christ. He uses his right only to remove the appearance that they had committed any crime.

Their justification is also necessary for the young church, so that it will be clear to them that Paul and Silas were mindful of what was honest. The newly-converted would not be identified with them as evildoers by the outside world, which would otherwise have been the case.

When the chief magistrates hears that they have beaten Romans and imprisoned them, they become frightened. They realize that it could cost them their lives if Paul and Silas were to bring charges against them. The chief magistrates can do nothing but respond to the demand of Paul and Silas. They escort them out of prison and ask them to leave the city. They have nothing to do with the evangelists and with them they also send away the gospel as something with which they want nothing to have to do with (cf. Matthew 8:34).

Paul and Silas do not immediately respond to the request to leave the city. When they go out of prison, they first go to Lydia to say goodbye to her. When they come to her, they find more believers there. The gospel has been accepted by more people. Possibly they are those of Acts 16:15, who belonged to ‘her household’.

It says so remarkably that they “saw the brethren”. They see believers with whom they share the new life and in whom they recognize it, they see new family members in God’s family. When they see them, they take the opportunity to encourage them, that is to say, encourage them to remain faithful to the Lord. Then they leave.

The ‘they’ who go away are Paul, Silas and Timothy. Luke stays behind in Philippi. He places no emphasis on himself. As inconspicuously as he joined Paul’s company in Acts 16:10, where he writes about ‘us’, so inconspicuously he leaves it again. We can say, that partly through his work, Philippi has become a church where love and care were abundantly present.

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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Acts 16". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/acts-16.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniƫl', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.