A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 16:19-40. c). The Roman gaoler.
The deliverance of the slave girl was too much for her owners, however, who realized that, if the evil spirit had gone out of her (*exelthen), their hope of making money was gone*, or had ‘gone out’ too (*exelthen*). The repetition of the verb is surely deliberate. As F.F. Bruce comments: ‘When Paul exorcized the spirit that possessed her, he exorcized their source of income as well.’ Their fury had some very unpleasant consequences for the missionaries, especially for Paul and Silas (vv.19-40).
Luke’s account of what happened in Philippi accurately reflects the situation in a Roman colony. The slave owners dragged Paul and Silas into the *agora*, which was not only *the market place* but the centre of the city’s public life (19). They then brought them before the *strategoi*, that is, the two *praetors* who acted as magistrates in a Roman colony. The charge was that *these men are Jews* who ‘…disturb our city and introduce…customs which it is not allowed to us Romans to adopt and practice’. The accusations of causing a riot and introducing an alien religion were serious. ‘Officially the Roman citizen may not practice any alien cult that has not received the public sanction of the state, but customarily he might do so as long as his cult did not otherwise offend against the laws and usages of Roman life, i.e. so long as it did not involve political or social crimes’ (20-21). The slave owners were very clever. They not only concealed the real reason for their anger, which was economic, but also presented their legal charge against the missionaries ‘in terms that appealed to the latent anti-Semitism of the people (“these men are Jews”) and their racial pride (“us Romans”)’ and so ‘ignited the flames of bigotry’.
The crowd then *joined in the attack against Paul and Silas*, and the praetors ordered their lictors to strip and beat them publicly (22). It was a severe flogging, perhaps the first of the three Paul later mentioned (2 Cor.11:23, 25), and it was followed by their being *thrown into prison*, with an instruction to the gaoler to keep them under close guard (23). He therefore confined them *in the inner cell and in the stocks* (24). It is wonderful that in such pain, with lacerated backs and aching limbs, Paul and Silas at *about midnight* were *praying and singing hymns to God*. Not groans but songs came from their mouths. Instead of cursing men, they blessed God. No wonder *the other prisoners were listening to them* (25).
Then suddenly the prison’s foundations were shaken by *such a violent earthquake that all the prison doors flew open*, the prisoner’s chains *came loose* (26), and the gaoler *woke up*. Seeing the prison doors open, and imagining that the inmates had escaped, he was about to commit suicide (27), because he would have been held responsible, when Paul shouted to him not to harm himself because the prisoners were all there (28). Haenchen refers to this whole episode as ‘a nest of improbabilities’, and so indeed it must appear to those who approach it with sceptical presupposition. But the eye of faith, which believes in a gracious, sovereign God, sees probabilities instead, as he works all things together for good, in this case the conversion of the gaoler and the release of the missionaries. Convicted of sin, the gaoler *fell trembling before Paul and Silas* and asked what he had to do to be saved (19-30). Perhaps he had heard of the slave girl shouting about ‘the way to be saved’, or perhaps he was simply expressing the longing of his heart. In either case the missionaries first gave him a straight answer, that he must trust personally in the Lord Jesus and he would be saved, with his household (31), and then *spoke the word of the Lord* to him and his household, opening up the way of salvation more fully (32). He not only believed but repented also. And as a token of his penitence, there and then he *washed their wounds*, and immediately afterwards *he and all his family were baptised*, perhaps in a well or fountain in the prison courtyard, or perhaps using the same bowl from which he had cleaned their wounds (33). Thus, as Chrysostom pointed out, the washing was reciprocal: ‘he washed them and was washed; those (sc. the imprisoned missionaries) he washed from their stripes, himself was washed from his sins.’ The baptised family now welcomed Paul and Silas into their home, just as Lydia had done into hers, *and set a meal before them*. And the celebratory feast was but an external expression of the inward joy which *the whole famly* experienced, *because they had come to believe in God* (34).
Early in the morning, the praetors sent their lictors to the gaoler with the order to release Paul and Silas (35), and the gaoler passed the message on to the prisoners. No doubt the authorities thought that a public flogging and a night in gaol were a sufficient punishment, and hoped that the prisoners had learned their lesson and would leave quietly. But Paul reacted differently. He claimed for himself and Silas their rights as Roman citizens. Perhaps they had done so before in the agora, and had been either not heard or not believed. But now a grave injustice had been done to them. For ‘according to the text of the *lex Julia…,* the Roman citizen might not be beaten or bound by a magistrate *adversus provocationem* or by any other person in any circumstances’, let alone untried and uncondemned. The citizen had only to say *civis Romanus sum* and he would be immune to punishment; heavy penalties were prescribed for those who violated these citizenship privileges. So Paul replied to the officers: *They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly?’*. ‘push us out on the quiet’ (JP) or ‘smuggle us out privately’ (NEB). *No! Let them come themselves to us in person and escort us out*’ (37). ‘Paul seems to have been responsible’, writes A.N. Triton, ‘for the first recorded “sit-in”. He refused to move until the authorities came and apologized… He wanted to compel the authorities to recognize and to fulfil their God-appointed task. This may have been very important for the freedom of the church he left behind.’
When the lictors reported back, the praetors *were alarmed* (38), came to the prison to apologize, and *escorted them from the prison*, as they had demanded, though at the same time, no doubt for the sake of public order, *requesting them to leave the city* (39). This Paul and Silas did, having first returned to *Lydia’s house*, in order to meet the church members, encourage them and say goodbye. *Then they left* (40), though without Luke (20:5), satisfied that they had been vindicated and that their mission had been cleared of illegality.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts: Becoming a Christian. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.