top of page
  • Writer's picturemww

Paul and Silas in Prison (plus a bit about believers' baptism) -- a study of Acts 16

A lesson about faith, trust, witness, and transformation.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 16

The passage is very flexible; here’s the outline you've been given to work with: believers can praise God in every circumstance, knowing that God uses our actions as a testimony to others. Believers should be active and responsible family leaders. When we’re saved, there’s a demonstrable change in our behavior.

He escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:30)

[You're reading what was originally a printed newsletter to supplement the weekly Bible study. I'm putting older resources online for reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

This week’s lesson is on the famous Paul and Silas in jail/Philippian jailer passage. The lesson focuses on the salvation and family aspect (which is great).

Touring Historic Jails.

If no one in your group is into local history, then this won’t work. I like to tour historic buildings, and I’ve learned that jails are particularly fascinating. We have the “Old Gaol” in Greensboro built in 1807 with 2-ft-thick granite walls. No light, no heat, no ventilation. Hinesville has a jail built in 1892. Jasper has one built in 1909. The jailer’s family lived on the first floor; the prisoners were on the second. Appling still has the old Columbia County Jail built in 1934.

The real stories would come from people who have visited New England or Europe. The old jails there move from inhuman to barbaric. Yes, we still have stocks in jailyards from the “bad old days” but they have remnants of torture chambers.

Here would be the purpose of this icebreaker—have people tell stories of touring old jails. How pleasant was the experience? How uncomfortable did they get thinking about people who were kept there (especially those falsely accused)? The jail Paul and Silas were kept in would have been awful. Nothing like the conditions people are kept today.

Big Family News.

Your leader guide offers the question, “What is the best news you have ever shared with your family?” I like that as long as you go into the family's responses. Let’s say you shared great news (about a promotion, a new baby brother, or whatever) and the response was tepid. Why would that have been? What made your family members less-than-excited? Or if the response was wonderful—why was that? In my experience, people tend to react to news based on how they think it affects them. When you bring spiritual matters into the mix, that can result in very mixed reactions. I remember when my wife and I shared news with our families about quitting our jobs and starting seminary; it was awkward.

So then here is the follow-up—have you ever let someone’s negative reaction to your great news change the way you thought about your news? There have been a couple of times when I overinflated my news in my head, and someone “pouring cold water” on it actually gave me a better perspective. But there have been times when I’ve realized that whoever I told just didn’t understand everything that went into my news. If your news is really “great”, then don’t let the fuddy-duddies bring you down.

Family Bible.

If you know of someone who has an old family Bible, invite them to bring it! Those are priceless records of great family news, things that you can treasure forever and pass down through the generations. I think it would be a good symbol of what we’re reading about this week.

This Week's Big Idea: The Second Missionary Journey

Just in case you haven’t already covered this . . . After the Jerusalem Council wrote their “verdict” about the open invitation to the Gentiles to salvation, they sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver it to Antioch. Eventually, Paul wanted to go back to all of the cities they had previously visited in their first trip (the stretch between Derbe and the other Antioch). Before they could start, Paul and Barnabas parted ways, with Paul taking Silas (and later Timothy) with him on a “detour” into Europe that was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Aside on the Disagreement between Paul and Barnabas

A lot of scholars try to make this split amicable, and I suppose it might have been, but let’s remember that it will be many years before Paul makes another reference to Barnabas or Mark. This one hurt. Here’s my best take on the matter: We know that Mark was Barnabas’s cousin. We also know that Barnabas was the leader of the first missionary journey (Paul was a new convert and former Jewish threat). Along the way, Paul started exerting more influence, and we know that Paul’s methods didn’t sit well with conservative Jews (he was “too lax” with respect to the law of Moses and Gentiles). Eventually, Mark had had enough, and he went back to Jerusalem to complain. This would have come up during the Jerusalem Council, which we all know sided with Paul. I think Paul really didn’t trust Mark. That put Barnabas in a no-win position. The only answer was to part ways.

Back to the Missionary Journey / Context of Our Passage

This is the first “official” trip into Europe. By extension, Lydia is the first known European Christian (see the sidebar). It starts in Philippi and travels all the way through Greece. Greece may not have had much political influence over Rome proper, but Greek culture and learning still dominated the empire. We will talk more about that next week. It makes sense that Paul would start in Greece—not too far away from Asia Minor, and there was so much traffic that he knew that some travelling Christians would already have gone through.

Unfortunately, we kind of skip over the initial events in Philippi. You might notice that Acts has started using “we”; most likely Luke joined them in Troas. They then travelled to Philippi, “the leading city of that district”. Philippi was not the capital, so that phrase either means it was the first city a traveler came to in Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, left a lasting impact on the region), or it was the most important city for political and economic reasons. Philippi was situated on the most important road in Greece, the Via Egnatia (which was an extension of Rome’s own Via Appia), and it was located near gold and silver mines. What made Philippi important, though, was the fact that the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), fought between the traitors Brutus and Cassius and Caesar’s loyal supporters Antony and Octavian (Augustus), resulted in many important Roman soldiers receiving land allotments in and around Philippi. After Augustus defeated Octavian to become emperor, he confirmed Philippi as a “Roman colony”, or an official outpost of Rome. It would be built to remind people of the city of Rome.

That makes Philippi a big deal not just in terms of being the gateway to Europe but also in having many longstanding political and military connections to Rome. I had a professor who tried to explain that the Letter to the Philippians was filled with military jargon in homage to the military history there. My only problem with that was the Battle of Philippi was fought 80 some odd years before Paul arrived. Cities hang on to their heritage for a long time, but their character still changes.

Anyway, back to our context! Luke introduces us to Lydia, the first convert in Europe. She will be very important to the young church. There were not enough Jews in the city to form a synagogue, so her influence would be strong. The next story is about a slave girl who was possessed by a demon and who was exploited by her owners to make money. Paul ultimately cast the demon out of her, making her owners very angry (real nice people, huh?). They were probably wealthy and powerful, so they were able to get Paul and Silas thrown into prison.

Aside: Why Just Paul and Silas in Prison?

We know that Paul had other companions. We don’t know why they just threw Paul and Silas in prison. Maybe everyone knew they were the “ringleaders”. Maybe they were by themselves at the time of the arrest. Maybe only Silas tried to intervene? We really don’t know.

In one of those “archeology-is-awesome” developments, the digs at Philippi have revealed a raised platform in the center of the old town with a jail located adjacent. City magistrates would have heard legal cases there on the platform there in full view of the citizens (where crowd noise could have an impact on the proceedings), and sentences could be immediately carried out on the platform and to the jail. Roman citizens had rights—rights to a fair trial and to limited beating. For whatever reason, Paul did not attempt to exercise those rights. Perhaps the mob was out of control? Perhaps Paul knew there was a divine plan at work?

As a curiosity, claiming Roman citizenship was a verbal thing (no identification cards). Officers would take those claims at face value . . . But that person would remain in custody until news retuned from the home city with proof (a process that could take months). If someone was found to be lying about being a citizen, really, really bad things happened to them. This is why the jailer took Paul at his word.

Bonus Aside: Lydia of Thyatira

Lydia was a “seller of purple” from Thyatira. Thyatira was in the province of Lydia, so her name may have had a double meaning. Purple dye was the most sought-after of all colors in the ancient world. It came from mollusks found in the Mediterranean. This strongly implies that Lydia was wealthy. We never hear about a husband, which further implies her independence, strong will, and great business acumen (remember that women were not thought of highly in the ancient world—she had many obstacles to overcome). She also had a house large enough to host the entire missionary team, reinforcing these conclusions.

She was a worshiper of God, but we don’t know if she were a Jew before becoming a Christian. She knew enough about God to converse with Paul on the subject.

We never hear about Lydia again. But Philippi becomes one of the most important churches in the region, implying that Lydia’s resources were instrumental in its foundation. But she could have been travelling through and not stayed long at all. We just don’t know.

Double Bonus Aside: Silas, What We Know

Silas and Silvanus are the same person in the Bible (different name spelling). He appears in Acts and a number of New Testament letters, implying that he was an important early convert. In Acts 15:22, we learn that the Jerusalem Council selected him to go with Paul and Barnabas to verify their conclusions, implying that he was known, that he was trustworthy, and that he was a respected leader.

With that, Paul also chose Silas to accompany him on his second missionary journey, implying that Silas respected Paul and accepted his understanding of the mission, meaning that Silas was also a follower and one who cared about Christ’s mission. This is important because we know from Acts 15:32 that Silas was also a gifted preacher—no scrub, this, but someone who brought a lot to Paul’s team.

From the rest of the Bible, we know that Silas was steadfast in his commitment to Jesus. He suffered with Paul in jail in Philippi (helping Paul share the gospel with the jailer and his family). Paul later called for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens (Acts 17:15) and again in Corinth (1 Thess 1:1), where Silas faithfully preached the Word of God for some time. Really importantly, Peter identifies Silas as his own secretary (it seems unlikely that these would be two different people), meaning that later in his ministry, Silas joined Peter and helped him write his letters.

Silas had a long and widespread ministry of great importance, and yet he was always a “number two”. I think we can learn a lot from his commitment and priorities.


Part 1: The Situation (Acts 16:22-24)

The crowd joined in the attack against them, and the chief magistrates stripped off their clothes and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had severely flogged them, they threw them in jail, ordering the jailer to guard them carefully. Receiving such an order, he put them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks

The word for “joined in the attack” only occurs here in the NT, so we assume it means just verbally (not physically). Magistrates in Roman towns had carte blanche to interrogate, prosecute, and judge. They were attended by bailiffs (the Greek word for this person literally means “rod-bearer”) who carried out the sentence and escorted the condemned to jail. There, the jailer took over duty. Here, the word for “carefully” means “securely”—in other words, keep the prisoner secure; we don’t care how safe he is. See the sidebar for a little more about jails.

Luke puts this story parallel with the story of the slave girl. God rescued the girl from demon possession (although we assume she was still a slave). Could God also rescue Paul and Silas from their prison?

One question for discussion: have you ever been falsely accused/condemned for something (or known someone who has)? How does that feel? How does that affect trying to endure the punishment?


Aside: Roman Jails and Stocks

Whereas Roman citizens were treated humanely and kept under “house arrest” while awaiting trial, non-citizens were not. They were put in small rooms with no windows and lots of chains. The “stocks” mentioned here were just pieces of wood; prisoners would be chained to them at uncomfortable angles so as to reduce their mobility and wear them out. Also, those stocks could easily be chained to walls. Some prisons had interior cisterns (“maximum security”) carved into whatever rock with only a small hole to climb in and out of. In other words, impossible to escape. If it were not for the text mentioning the cell door, I would have though Paul put in one of those.


Part 2: The Opportunity (Acts 16:25-28)

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the jail were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains came loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing open, he drew his sword and was going to kill himself, since he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, because we’re all here!”

Trials were heard mid-morning so the Magistrates would not have to be outside during the heat of the day. This means Paul and Silas had been in chains for at least 12 hours. Certainly no sleep given the pain of the beatings and the discomfort of the stocks! And yet they were praying and singing to God (even if they were doing it softly, prisons were so small that everyone could have heard them).

Question: does singing bring you comfort? It does me! Which songs?

Just like when Peter was in jail, God used an earthquake to free Paul. Earthquakes were common in the region, but this one had supernatural elements—not just timing, but that the chains and doors were loosened without anyone being killed. It awoke the jailer who returned to a death sentence—losing any prisoner was a capital offence for a Roman soldier. We understand why Paul and Silas stayed; we don’t know about the other prisoners (Luke never says). My guess is that they wanted to hear more from Paul too!


Part 3: The Conversion (Acts 16:29-32)

The jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. He escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved —you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house.

See below for more about this jailer. I believe he lived in the jail; he had heard enough about (and from) Paul and Silas to know what had just happened was a miracle. Terrified, he was ready to listen. His question is undefined—we don’t know what he expected to be saved from. But Paul knew how to answer it to best way possible. And what a great answer Paul gave! Note that the jailer had taken them out of their stocks and cell before asking them to help him. That is a sign of true humility, and also a great risk. (But wouldn’t it have been awkward to have a serious conversation with someone in stocks?)

If someone were to ask you how to be saved, could you answer? Take time during your class to make sure that everyone there could give some kind of answer to such a question!

See below for more about the jailer’s family.


Part 4: The Transformation (Acts 16:33-34)

He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized. He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had come to believe in God with his entire household.

The lesson wants you to emphasize that these behaviors are commensurate with a new life in Christ—proof of a radical transformation. There’s certainly no precedent of a jailer treating the prisoners this way! I wonder if that were also a risk, if the jailer could be punished for this breach of protocol. Furthermore, people walking by could probably hear what was going on, and the angry mob could return and put his whole family at risk! (Happening at midnight certainly protected him.) It didn’t matter, however, because the Magistrates had decided it not being worth keeping Paul and Silas in jail. Again, we would like Luke to have given us more details (did Lydia exert influence?), but that didn’t matter to Luke. Of course, once the news came out that Paul was a Roman citizen, his good treatment by the jailer because a blessing to the whole city. Note that Paul’s actions here imply that it was obvious the jailer had become his brother in Christ.

Here are your discussion questions: how has your family responded to when members became Christians? How big a deal have you made of it? What do you need to do to make a bigger deal about it?

The text implies that everyone in the family responded for himself/herself, but the jailer needs to be given credit for involving his entire family in this discussion. Once he had heard Paul’s response, he wanted to make sure that everyone heard it. I know Christian parents who do not want to “force” their children to come to church. They think they want their kids to come to church on their “own free will”. Well, the jailer did not give his family the option of listening to Paul. Here’s why that matters. The world we live in is actively trying to convince your children to reject Jesus. They are not letting your children make that decision on their own! So, not “forcing” your family to come to church is not accomplishing the goal you think you have—it is actively pushing your family away from Jesus. Ask your grouphow they can shape their family’s decisions while still respecting their independence and autonomy. (The leader guide mentions this too.)

Finally: what songs encourage you to share your faith, to lead your family, or to have faith in hard times?


Closing Thoughts: The Philippian Jailer and Believers' Baptism

When groups that baptize infants look to the Bible to defend their practice, they only have a few places they can even try to use. One of those few is this passage: they say that when the entire family was baptized, it included infants. Therefore, we can baptize infants.


Here’s why that conclusion is, well, unfounded. It was not uncommon for a jailer to be a retired soldier. (In smaller towns, or places without a strong military presence, slaves could be used in this function—but even then, they would have been older, someone who would be able to handle the stress of dealing with prisoners.) Soldiers retired relatively late in life. And only the very wealthy men (patrons) had children late in life because only they could afford such children.

The long and short is this—we have no reason to believe that there were any infants in the house. The children would have been older, likely even teens. And this means they would absolutely have made decisions for themselves. And that’s if there were any children present at all! In the Roman world, “family” extended to everyone who lived in or around the house. The jailer had assistants of some kind (he had to call someone to bring the lights). Assistants, slaves, people who dealt regularly with the jail, all of them would have been considered “family” to the jailer.

The most important reason to reject that view of this passage is the end of it—”he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.” The way this is worded means that they believed for themselves. Infants cannot do that. That is why we practice believers’ baptism—the Bible expects us to.


bottom of page