Commentary on Acts 16:22-34
Today we have part of one of the most dramatic events in the story of the Acts.
Paul is still in Philippi. We might wonder at the sudden attack on Paul and Silas with which today’s reading opens. It is such a change from the positive welcome they had been receiving up to this. In fact, the first part of the story and also the sequel are omitted in the reading but they are needed if we are to appreciate today’s passage fully.
One day on their way to the river for prayer, Paul had incurred the anger of the owners of a slave girl who had fortune-telling gifts. The text says literally “with a Python spirit”. The Python was the serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle at Delphi. It later came to designate a “spirit that pronounced oracles” and also a ventriloquist who, it was thought, had such a spirit in the belly.
This girl kept shouting after them calling them “slaves of the most high God, who proclaim to a you a way of salvation”. Even though what she was saying could be interpreted favourably, Paul became irritated by her pestering and exorcised the evil spirit from her. She immediately lost her psychic powers and, as a result, could no longer earn money for her masters. They were understandably not very happy about this and hauled Paul and Silas off to court. They accused them of being Jews who were disturbing the peace and breaking Roman laws. Basically they were accused of proselytising which was indeed against Roman law.
It is at this point that today’s reading takes up the story. By this time the crowds had been worked up so the magistrates sentenced Paul and his companion to a flogging with rods and had them thrown into an inner cell and had their feet put in stocks. Here they could be watched closely, could not escape or be rescued by their friends.
During the night while Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God (they rejoiced to suffer for the name of Christ), a severe earthquake (Greece is very earthquake-prone) struck. The prison building collapsed, the chains fell from the walls and the gates were thrown open.
The jailer, who was responsible with his own life for the security of his prisoners, presumed they must all have run away and was prepared to kill himself. To take his own life would remove the shame and distress and was preferable to public execution. It was then he heard Paul calling from inside: “Don’t do yourself any harm; we are all here.”
He went in to check and, on seeing Paul and Silas, fell trembling at their feet. He is beginning to realise that the people he was treating as dangerous criminals were in fact messengers of God.
In deep gratitude, the jailer asked what he should do to be saved. Perhaps he meant it in a more immediate sense vis-a-vis his superiors, who might blame him for the loss of the prisoners.
On the other hand, between the frightening earthquake and the possible escape of his prisoners, he had been close to death. He also realised he was in the presence of two very special people. All this obviously made him reflect. He very likely had heard that these men were preachers of a way of salvation. Now with the earthquake and his own near death, he wanted to know about their Way. Paul showed him where real salvation lay – by putting his faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
And so it was that he and all his household were instructed in the word of the Lord. Late in the night though it was, the jailer had Paul’s and his companion’s wounds dressed after which the new converts were baptised.
He then brought them to his own house and shared a meal with them while the whole household joyfully celebrated their conversion to belief in God. Whatever form it took, it was truly a eucharistic meal, a meal of thanksgiving for all concerned.
(Incidentally, their accusers are nowhere in sight; they were probably too much concerned with the damage the earthquake had caused in the city to be bothered with a couple of wandering preachers.)
It is at that point that the reading ends but it is not the end of the story, which needs to be heard for completeness. On the next morning, the magistrates instructed the lictors with an order that Paul and Silas be released. Lictors were the equivalent of police officers, among whose duties were the arrest and punishment of criminals. The message was passed to Paul by the jailer. He told them they were free to go and he wished them well.
However, that was not good enough for Paul. He said: “They have beaten us publicly, even though we are Roman citizens and have not been tried, and have thrown us into prison. And now they are going to release us secretly? By no means. Let them come themselves and lead us out.”
There had been a very serious miscarriage of justice and the magistrates were alarmed that they had treated two Roman citizens in this way. Roman citizenship granted special privileges with regard to criminal process. Roman law forbade under severe penalty the beating of Roman citizens. This will not be the last time that Paul will cause alarm by revealing his citizenship, which granted privileges totally unknown to the ordinary resident of Roman colonies.
The magistrates humbly came along, led Paul and Silas out of the prison and begged them to leave the city. However, Paul and Silas first went to say farewell to Lydia, their host, and to the other Christian brothers and sisters and only then left the city.
This story once again indicates how God can write straight with crooked lines. Out of what seemed catastrophe for both the evangelisers (flogging and jail) and the jailer (the earthquake and its consequences) there came out something beautiful for all of them and in the midst of it all was the love of Christ. A thriving community was left behind who would be the recipients of one of Paul’s most beautiful letters. We, too, continue to benefit from this saga.
If only we could see Jesus at the heart of everything that happens in our lives!