25. But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.
Paul and Silas are in this prison and in the stocks until midnight. This must have been very uncomfortable, for their backs would still be badly wounded from the beating they had received, and had not been cared for since in any way. They could not ease their wounded backs at all, for they were held by the stocks in one position. No doubt the pain and discomfort they felt kept them from sleeping. Thus as midnight arrives they are awake. Yet what do we find their attitude to be at this time? Were they upset, moping, or depressed about their fate? Were they angry or raging about the unfair treatment they had received? Not at all! Instead, in the midst of this pain and suffering they were enduring, their attitude was one of praise towards God. As midnight comes, we find them praying and singing hymns. What an attitude these men had! They knew that all they were doing was in service to God and His will. Therefore, nothing that happened could move them from their tranquility and trust.
The attitude that Paul and Silas had must have seemed a very odd one to the other prisoners in that Roman prison at that time. Those who were repeat offenders had probably seen many prisons and many prisoners. Yet what prisoners could they ever remember who had the kind of attitude Paul and Silas did? When did prisoners in severe pain from a beating ever respond by praying and singing? This must have made no sense to these other prisoners. They clearly could see that these two men were very different from all the other prisoners they had ever met. They must have seemed almost otherworldly to these men. And, indeed, their attitude was somewhat of an otherworldly one, for they had gotten it from God, Whose kingdom they represented.
Our attitude, like that of Paul and Silas, should be shaped by our faith in God, rather than by the circumstances we are in. Though we may not be representatives of His government on earth, as these men were, we too can and should respond to situations in ways that seem strange and bizarre to those who do not know God the way we do. It is not that we go out of our way to be odd, but if what we do because of our faith in God does not seem a little odd to those around us, then we are probably not letting our faith in God affect our behavior as much as it should. The fact that we are related to God should make a big difference in how we respond even to the worst situations in life. That is just the way things should be for a true believer!
Paul and Silas were singing hymns. The Greek here is humneo, and probably means that they were singing some of the Psalms. In those days, the original music to the Psalms had probably not been lost yet, as it has been today. Therefore, the songs these two were singing were probably some of the divine songs that God gave to Israel. Though we are not required to only sing songs that take their words directly from Scripture, it is good when we too sing our songs using the words God gave directly. This is a powerful thing, and a great way to praise our God.
26. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.
Suddenly, as Paul and Silas sing their hymns, God’s government steps in. He knows that His representatives do not deserve imprisonment, and so He reverses this sentence against them. The way He does it is by sending a great earthquake, such that the foundations of the prison are shaken. Yet this earthquake is clearly a miraculous thing, for the results of it are most unlike what we would expect from a normal earthquake. Instead of the normal carnage you would expect from an earthquake, this earthquake instead opens all the doors of the prison, and loosens the bands of all the prisoners. God thus makes His judgment about Paul and Silas clear, and His judgment is that they are innocent of wrongdoing, and should go free. Again, many prisoners might have dreamed about such a thing happening to them, but no natural phenomenon could have produced such a targeted result. This earthquake could be nothing but the intervention of the Lord Himself.
Notice that, though the earthquake targets both the prison doors and the bands of the prisoners, it does not target just Paul and Silas’ bonds. It seems that every prisoner in the prison had his bonds loosed. They listened to Paul and Silas’ words, and they were caught up in the same way in their deliverance.
27. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself.
Now the keeper of the prison awakens, probably from the noise and motion of the earthquake. To his horror, he sees the prison doors open, and the first thing he supposes is that the prisoners have fled. No other explanation made sense to him. And he knew what this would mean. As we saw in verse 23, he had received a charge from the rulers of the city to keep Paul and Silas securely. He had received this charge, which means he had acknowledged it. This meant that the responsibility for what happened to Paul and Silas was now his, until he received a new charge from the rulers. Probably he had received similar charges regarding all the prisoners who were in his prison that day.
Now the keeper knows the reception the truth would probably receive from his superiors. He could tell them that he woke up to find all the prison doors open and the prisoners fled. He could claim until he was blue in the face that he did not know how the doors got open. Yet it is unlikely that his story would get taken very seriously. Prison doors normally do not open by themselves, and this would seem like an obvious lie to his questioners. At the very least they would assume he was derelict in his duty. They might even suspect him of releasing the prisoners himself.
Now the Romans looked very poorly upon a jailer who failed in his duty. He could well be tortured in an attempt to get “the truth” out of him. Also, his family, who were living there at the prison with him, could all be charged with aiding in this crime. He did not have just his own life to fear for, but also the lives of all those he held dear.
There seemed only one path of escape open to this prison-keeper. If he was killed during the prison break, his life would be over, but his family would be spared, since he would not be found derelict or under suspicion. Thus, to save his family from death and himself from torture, the keeper determines to fall upon his own sword and kill himself.
28. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”
At this point Paul steps in, calling out with a loud voice and stopping the keeper from committing suicide. He assures the keeper that this is unnecessary, for all the prisoners are still present.
Now this seems strange as well. We can see why Paul and Silas might not flee from the prison, for they are under God’s control, and if He says stay then they would stay. Yet why should these other prisoners, who have no relationship to God that we know of, not flee the moment their bonds were loosed and they saw the prison doors open? The only answer we can make to this question is to appeal to the power of God. Somehow, He saw to it that all these prisoners stayed, and that none of them fled from the prison, though they had the opportunity. Whether He physically held them in place by His power, or whether He held them there by putting some hold on their hearts that made them want to stay and see how this strange episode turned out, we cannot say. However, they were held, and so no prisoners escaped because of this mighty act of God. Yet He certainly got the attention of the prison-keeper by doing this! And apparently his attention is what the Lord really wanted.
29. Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.
The prison keeper can probably hardly dare hope at first that Paul’s words are true. At any rate, he is stopped in his determination to kill himself. Instead, he calls for lights, for it must have been very dark in the unlit prison at midnight. Receiving lights, he runs into the prison. He finds it even as Paul had said, with all the prisoners there. This must have been a sight even more amazing to him than that of the prison doors all thrown open wide in the first place! For why would prisoners freed from their bonds ever fail to try to escape when they had the chance?
Somehow, the keeper seems to know that Paul and Silas are the ones in charge here. How he could tell that is hard to say. Certainly it was Paul’s voice that had stopped him from suicide, yet it seems unlikely that he could recognize his voice after this short a time. The voice he had heard telling him not to kill himself had come to him, as if disembodied, out of the dark prison. Yet somehow he knows that it is Paul and Silas he has to deal with. It seems that one look at the situation in the prison is enough to convince him of this. So he falls down trembling before them. A strange situation indeed, to see a prison-keeper thus prostrated before two of his prisoners! Yet strange things like this are not so unusual in the kingdom of God. His government has a way of turning things on their heads from how we know them or expect them to be.
30. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Now the keeper brings them out. Where exactly he brought them is hard to say. He brings them into his house in verse 34, so it seems they were not brought there yet in this verse. Perhaps he just brought them out of the inner prison where they were to some room in the prison where they could talk more privately. Perhaps as they talked his guards were going around securing the prison and the prisoners once again.
Though disaster has been averted, this keeper seems to know that he is far from safe. He now recognizes that Paul and Silas cannot be safely held in his prison. If the prison doors can be thrown open for them and the bonds of all the prisoners be loosed just because they are in the prison, then no amount of precautions on his part can keep them from escaping if they so wish. So he cannot hold them, yet he cannot let them go, for that would be all the same as if they had escaped. Therefore, he is at his wits’ end. It seems the only thing he can think of to do is to ask them what they would have him do. Therefore, he asks them what he must do to be saved?
Now many in setting forth this passage have concluded that this keeper was asking to hear the plan of salvation on the spot. Yet that cannot be the truth. This man just had the fright of his life, and he is still terribly frightened that his life may yet be forfeit. It could not be that he was asking about salvation. That would be like if you were thrown from the top of a skyscraper, and were hanging on to a ledge a little way down from the top. As your rescuers scrambled to throw ropes to you and pull you up, you cried out to them, “Never mind that! I want to know how I can be forgiven of my sins and get right with God!” Even if your life-and-death situation worked on you to convince you of your need to think about the things of God, it cannot be that while your life itself was still in immediate jeopardy, that you would ignore that and focus on your need for salvation from sin. You would wait for your life to be saved first, then focus on your relationship with God. So it must have been with the prison-keeper here. He cannot have been asking about his eternal salvation. He must have had salvation from his immediate danger in mind. Nothing else makes sense.
31. So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Now Paul and Silas respond to him. They promise him that if he will believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, both he will be saved, and his household. Now again, the common view is to insist that Paul and Silas were speaking of the plan of salvation, and telling this prison keeper that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the means of salvation for a sinner. In fact, this verse is a favorite one for many people to quote, although they always like to conveniently cut the last four words of it out of their quotation. Yet salvation from sin is not what the prison-keeper had asked of them, and that was not the question they answered. The keeper was not thinking about salvation from sins, and Paul and Silas do not answer him about that. Instead, they answer him about the immediate danger he was facing to his life and that of his family.
Now we must remember that the time we are reading about was not a part of the dispensation of grace that we live in today. Today, God’s works are done in secret. Yet at the time this was written about, they were living in the early stages of the government of God on earth. Moreover, Paul and Silas were not just believers, as we are today. They were the representative men in God’s government, the apostles or commissioned men whom He had sent. They had the power, as the twelve did, to bind a thing on earth and it would be bound in heaven, and to loose a thing on earth and it would be loosed in heaven, as Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 promises. Therefore, they could make a promise to this man, and God’s government would make that promise good. So they do make him a promise. If he will believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, his life will be spared, and his family’s lives as well. They will not be charged with any wrongdoing, and they will not be executed for any negligence or disloyalty. Yet if he refuses to believe, the Lord is making no promises, and this well might be the end of him and all his family.
32. Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
Now Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with this man. After all, he cannot believe in the Lord Jesus Christ if he does not know Who He is. They share the word with all who are in his house as well. This man’s house was right next to the prison, and so it is no surprise that they all had come out to see what all the excitement was at the prison. So they all are present to hear Paul and Silas’ explanation about the Lord.
The words Paul and Silas spoke to this man about the Lord Jesus Christ are not recorded for us. Yet if we have read the Bible much at all, we must know what they probably must have been. The exact message in this case is not something that the Spirit thought was important to record for us.
33. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized.
The keeper of the prison now has a very different attitude towards Paul and Silas. He takes them that same hour of the night and washes their wounds. This must have felt very good, and been a great relief to the apostles, whose stripes had not been tended since their beating. This would not only feel good, but would also help greatly in their eventual healing.
Now the prison keeper and his family are all baptized. We are not told how this was done. Many imagine a water ritual here, wherein he and his family were either immersed in water, or else had water sprinkled upon them. Yet there is not a word of water here in Acts 16. As we have discussed before, “to baptize” means “to identify.” What is important is that this man and his family are all identified at this point with the Lord Jesus Christ. Before they were identified with Rome, and he had duties to perform for Rome as their prison-keeper. Yet now he is identified with Jesus Christ, and this too binds duties upon him. Woe be to him if he does not perform these duties! Yet he has done what Paul demanded, for he has believed on the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Lord will fulfill His word given through Paul and Silas, and this man and his family will be saved from death at the hands of the Romans for this night’s activities.
34. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.
Now the jailer brings Paul and Silas into his house. There, he gives them food to eat. Yet these were not good works in the hopes of gaining favor, for this man now knows that he will receive deliverance from God. This deliverance will not just be from any wrath of his superiors, though he is guaranteed that as well by the word of Paul. This deliverance will also be from the penalty enacted for sin and death, for he now has found a Savior in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever wrongs he may have committed in the past are now forgiven through his faith in Him.
We learn that it was not the jailer alone who believed in God, but also all his household. This was quite an amazing work indeed that God had done. Through this earthquake and miracle of the opening doors and bonds at the prison, He has now brought this Gentile man along with his family and servants to faith in Himself. Therefore this miracle did far more than just reverse the undeserved imprisonment of His two servants, Paul and Silas. Yet this should not surprise us. When God’s kingdom is in the earth, it will work powerfully in every situation. Its work will not just be for the purpose of bringing about God’s will, but also will be to bring men unto faith and obedience. That is what the kingdom did here, and events like the conversion of this jailer’s household will happen multiple times over when the kingdom comes once again to see to it that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
35. And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.”
Once daylight comes, the magistrates send officers to the prison to let Paul and Silas go. It seems probable that they viewed the whole mess with them to be an unpleasant business that they would rather be done with. They well knew that what they had conducted the day before had not been a trial, and anyone who would enquire into it could learn that their actions were merely done to appeal to the sentiments of the citizens who were gathered at the place of judgment with them. They may have known the type of men the owners of the formerly-possessed girl were, and figured, or at least figured out since, that their charges could not stand up to any impartial scrutiny. Yet they had done what they had done for political expediency. Now that the night has passed and the incident will have passed out of the minds of most of the fickle people who witnessed it, they hope to send the two men they had treated so unfairly away quietly, sweeping the whole incident under the rug.
The word “sent” here is the Greek word apostello. This means that they sent these officers with their authority to have Paul and Silas removed from the prison and set free. Of course, they hope that none of the mob who were stirred up to call for their punishment the day before will hear of this. The officers are the magistrates’ attendants, and are probably the same men who would have actually administered the beating with rods to Paul and Silas the day before.
36. So the keeper of the prison reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace.”
The officers who were sent from the magistrates must have been rather surprised to find Paul and Silas were not bound securely in the prison, but rather were in the jailer’s house as honored guests. This hardly was the way they would have expected him to carry out the solemn charge he received! Yet Paul and Silas are there safe and sound, and there so there is nothing they can really complain about.
When the jailer receives this command from the officers, he is quite happy and excited to carry it out. He has learned the kind of men Paul and Silas are, and more importantly Whom they represent. He has taken them from being prisoners to being honored guests in his home. Now, he receives new orders regarding them, saying that they are to be let go. There is nothing he would rather do than release them. So he carries the message to the apostles. The magistrates have commissioned men to come and release them. Now, he advises them to depart, and go in peace.
37. But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.”
Though the jailer, an enthusiastic new believer, had advised him to depart, Paul refuses to do so. God’s messengers are to be vindicated more than this! So, he speaks directly to the officers, rather than replying to the jailer. He reviews the case for them. The magistrates had ordered them to be beaten openly, so that all had seen it. Yet, they had never been condemned of any actual wrongdoing. Moreover, they are Romans.
Now Roman citizenship was a huge privilege in the Roman Empire. There is no doubt but that Romans were really first class citizens, and everyone else had to take a second place. Romans had rights that other people simply did not have under the Roman system. One might get away with performing injustices upon a man who was a citizen of another country, but Romans were protected, and fierce wrath could come upon anyone who mistreated them in any way. If another Roman mistreated them, he could get in serious trouble. Yet if someone who wasn’t a Roman citizen mistreated them and did not give them their rights, his very life could be forfeit for daring to do so. You simply did not mess with Romans.
Now a common citizen could be beaten as a means of interrogation or punishment, even if he was not condemned. This was not just, yet a ruler could probably get away with it. Yet no Roman could ever be beaten without being properly condemned, and even if everything was perfectly in order with his trial, a group of non-Roman magistrates had better think twice before inflicting any such punishment upon him without Roman approval. Moreover, the Roman had the right to appeal to the Emperor before any such beating could be administered by any local magistrate, something which of course Paul and Silas were not allowed to do.
So these magistrates, in their haste to please the popular whims of their people, have had Paul and Silas beaten without ever giving them a chance to speak for themselves. They never gave these two a chance to reveal that they are Roman citizens. These magistrates are probably all citizens of Philippi and not of Rome, yet they had ordered Paul and Silas, two Roman citizens, to be beaten and then thrown into prison all night without care for their wounds. If Paul and Silas wish to do so, they could make sure that word of this gets back to the Roman authorities. If it does, these magistrates might well be called all the way to Rome to answer for their actions. They would not have a leg to stand on, for there are plenty of witnesses to the fact that they never gave Paul and Silas any of their rights as Romans, nor even an opportunity to answer for themselves, which even for a non-citizen was demanded by Roman law. Therefore the fact that Paul and Silas had not revealed their Roman citizenship could not help the magistrates, for they had never given them a chance to do so, which was a violation of Roman law in itself. It is the magistrates therefore, and not Paul and Silas, who are now in a very bad position.
Having done all this, Paul continues, do they expect Paul and Silas to quietly go away? If so, they had better think again! If they want Paul and Silas to leave their prison, they had better come themselves and see them out. They had not allowed these two Roman citizens to answer for themselves, so Paul says these magistrates had better come and answer for themselves if they expect Paul and Silas to go away.
38. And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans.
So the officers return to the magistrates and report the words of Paul. When they hear this, they are frightened. Well they might be! In Acts 22:29, a Roman commander is afraid when he learns that Paul is a Roman citizen. The reason he is afraid is because he had had him bound to be scourged. Even though the scourging was never carried out, just the fact that he had bound a Roman citizen in this way could be enough to get him in serious trouble. And he was a Roman commander, something these magistrates were not! Yet they had not bound just one Roman citizen but two, and then they had actually carried through beating them, and had cruelly imprisoned them afterwards. If they were ever brought to trial before Rome for this, their lives might well be forfeit.
39. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city.
The magistrates have little choice but to obey Paul’s command. He now holds all the cards, and it is for their own well-being that they must now go and plead before him. Therefore, they come to the prison and plead with them. No doubt they are most anxious that word of their misdeed never comes before the Roman authorities. So now they must plead for their lives to Paul and Silas. Quite a change from what had taken place just the day before!
At the pleading of these magistrates, Paul and Silas allow themselves to be brought out of the house of the jailer. Then, the magistrates further implore them, asking them to depart from their city. Again, they just want this whole business to be behind them. Now more than ever, for they now know that they could get in serious trouble for their unjust actions against Roman citizens!
40. So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.
So Paul and Silas leave the prison. However, they do not go straight out of the city, as the magistrates had hoped. Instead, they head from there to the house of Lydia. So these magistrates had to watch helplessly while their former prisoners go to the house of one of the leading citizens of their city! Surely this must have made them sweat once again. It could not be welcome news for them to learn that these men are not only Roman citizens, but also well-connected in Philippi itself. So they are left shamed and afraid, while Paul and Silas are vindicated.
Now in the home of Lydia, Paul and Silas see the brethren, their fellow believers among the Jews of the city. They offer them encouragement, knowing that they now must leave them in the hands of the Lord. Then, they depart, graciously following the wishes of the nervous magistrates, for their work in Philippi is completed. They have proclaimed the word there, as the Lord wanted them to do. Now, they will go elsewhere, and carry His message to other places as well.
So things completely turned around in Philippi from what they had been before. The persecutors are shamed, and the persecuted are exalted. Yet that is the way it is when God’s kingdom is in the world. It works to turn back the judgment of men. It exalts those of whom God approves, even though the world despises them. It humbles those whom God disapproves, even though the world honors them. It turns situation after situation back on its head. This is how it was during Acts, when the kingdom in part was present on the earth. And that is how it will be in the future, when the full kingdom comes in at last. This book of Acts gives us a foretaste of what things will be like when that full kingdom comes. In that day, all God’s people who are now unfairly mistreated will be exalted. In that day, all injustices will be turned around and made right. May that day come quickly!