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Acts 16

Scripture: Acts 16:1-40


  • While in Lystra, Paul picks up a new traveling companion, Timothy
  • Timothy isn’t circumcised, so despite what we learned about it’s unimportance in the previous chapter, Timothy is circumcised (more on that below)
  • Paul and co. are kept from going into to the province of Asia and Bithynia by the Holy Spirit
  • Paul has a vision that a man from Macedonia is asking them to come and help them, so they go there
  • When they get to Phillipi, they meet Lydia, a wealthy woman, who becomes a convert
  • One day they run across a slave girl who can predict the future. She harangues Paul by continually saying that he’s a servant of the Most High God
  • Annoyed by the slave girl, Paul casts out the spirit in the girl
  • The slave girl’s owners are annoyed that Paul just ruined their source of income, so they get Paul and Silas thrown into jail
  • Despite enduring a severe flogging and being locked up in stocks, Paul and Silas sing some praise songs that night in jail
  • There’s a big earthquake and all the chains fall off the prisoners and the jail doors are opened
  • Sure that all the prisoners have escaped, the jailer is ready to kill himself
  • Paul assures the jailer that no one has left the prison and the jailer becomes a believer
  • The newly converted jailer is hospitable to Paul and Silas and feeds them and washes their wounds
  • The next day, the local officials say that Paula and Silas can go free
  • Paul tells them that he’s a Roman citizen and that he should get a personal apology for what happened to them
  • Given this information, the officials are eager to appease Paul, so they come and escort him out of jail and ask him politely to leave the city and never come back
  • Paul and gang say goodbye to the church in Phillipi

Historical Context:

Fortune-Telling Slave Girl

Paul was followed by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future, which is literally translated: “a Python spirit.”

Python was one of the names of Apollo, “the Greek god of the fine arts, of music, poetry, medicine, and eloquence. The name Python is said to have been given him, because, as soon as he was born, he destroyed with arrows a serpent of that name.” (Barnes)

“The Python was a mythical serpent or dragon that guarded the temple and oracle of Apollo, located on the southern slope of Mount Parnassus to the north of the Gulf of Corinth. It was supposed to have lived at the foot of Mount Parnassus…  Later the word python came to mean a demon-possessed person through whom the Python spoke — even a ventriloquist was thought to have such a spirit living in his or her belly.” (Longenecker)

Apollo had temples all around, but most notably at Delphi where the priestess would become violently agitated during her oracles. Every priestess who served at the temple was called a Pythia. “The usual theory has been that the Pythia delivered oracles in a frenzied state induced by vapors rising from a chasm in the rock, and that she spoke gibberish which priests interpreted as the enigmatic prophecies preserved in Greek literature.” (Wikipedia)

Some commentators have pointed out “a somewhat humorous pun in Luke’s Greek at this place. He said, ‘That when the evil spirit WENT OUT, the masters saw that the hope of their gain WENT OUT.'”  (Coffman)


Philippi was a city conquered by Alexander the Great and renamed after his father, Philip II of Macedon. Later it was made into a Roman colony to serve as a home for retired army veterans. “Bearing witness in Philippi was the closest thing to preaching in Rome without actually being there.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

A decade after visiting there, Paul would write his letter to the Philippians from prison. It is notable that the church seems to be filled with women of societal influence, starting with Lydia, a seemingly wealthy and powerful widow (also, often considered by most to be the first European convert), and Evodia and Syntyche, two women who Paul considered to be former co-workers with him in spreading the gospel and now whose quarrel was disruptive to the church’s unity.

The Christians in Philippi also maintained contact with Paul by sending him aid: twice while he was in Thessalonica (Phil 4:16), once (most likely) in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:8) and once in Rome (Phil. 4:10-14).


Timothy’s father was Greek, and his mother (Eunice) was a Jewish Christian. His grandmother was also a believer (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy was likely pretty young when he joined Paul on his missionary journey because a decade later when Paul wrote his letters to Timothy he still refers to him as a young man and advises that no one should disrespect him because of his age. There is a suggestion by Paul in 1 Cor. 16 that Timothy may have been naturally reserved (“When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord…”) and that Timothy may have been subject to ill health (1 Tim. 5:23, “use a little wine for your stomach’s sake…”)

Timothy would eventually be put in charge of the church at Ephesus, and is credited as the co-author of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Paul thought very highly of him. He told the Philippians “I have no one like him,” he called him “my son whom I love,” (1 Co. 4:17) and when Paul was in prison, awaiting martyrdom, he summoned Timothy for a final farewell.

It is interesting that Paul would have Timothy get circumcised so soon after arguing successfully at the Council of Jerusalem that it was faith alone in Jesus that saved people, not following the Law. Paul strongly advocated that “circumcision is of no value” (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal. 5:6) and that if Gentiles got circumcised that “Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Gal. 5:2). Paul would say that real circumcision is “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Rom. 2:25).

So why did Paul have Timothy get circumcised?

“By Jewish law Timothy was a Jew, because he was the son of a Jewish mother, but because he was uncircumcised he was technically an apostate Jew. If Paul wished to maintain his links with the synagogue, he could not be seen to countenance apostasy.” (Bruce, 304).

Paul likely had Timothy circumcised so  that he could continue his process of witnessing to Jews first in synagogues without undue resistance, not so that Timothy could be “saved.” As he says in 1 Corinthians, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.”

Roman Citizenship

“A Roman citizen had a status in the Empire not unlike that of a British citizen in India in the days of the British Empire. In theory he could travel anywhere without problems, being everywhere protected by the Roman law. He was not subjected to the local law… and he could take matters into his own courts when these were sitting. He owed allegiance to Rome and Rome would protect him.” (IVP)

Also, a magistrate risked losing his job and damaging his political connections if he mistreated a Roman citizen. No Roman citizens were to be punished without a proper trial.


  • This is the first instance in which Luke refers to himself as being in company with Paul (“we got ready to leave”), thus it is assumed that Luke was from Troas (nearby to ancient Troy). Since the “we” sections of Acts stop after the Philippi episode and do not pick up again until Acts 20:5, again at Philippi, many have conjectured that Paul leaves Luke here to strengthen the church. (IVP)
  • the Jews often built their synagogues near water to accommodate the numerous washings before and during their religious services. It is natural that Paul should look for Jews by a river.
  • Places for prayer were erected by the Jews in the vicinity of cities and towns, and particularly where there were not Jewish families enough, or where they were forbidden by the magistrate to erect a synagogue. These “proseuchae” or places of prayer, were simple enclosures made of stones in a grove, or under a tree, where there would be a retired and convenient place for worship. (Barnes) It took ten men to constitute a synagog. The fact that Philippi had only a place of prayer was indicative of how few Jews lived there.
  • Purple was a most valuable color, obtained usually from shell-fish. It was chiefly worn by princes, and by the rich; and the traffic in it might be very profitable. (Barnes)
  • In ancient Greco-Roman society the household was the basic social, economic and religious unit. The typical household was large, including nuclear and extended family, slaves and economic retainers. “Roman households were united in a common religious cult irrespective of age or personal beliefs” (Green).
  • Jailers are often retired army veterans, and their military skills are helpful in controlling inmates and preventing prison escapes. (GCI)
  • “Care was taken among the Athenians and the Romans, that no one should introduce new religions. It was on this account that Socrates was condemned, and the Chaldeans or Jews were banished from the city.” Cicero says, ‘No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.’ The Romans would indeed allow foreigners to worship their own gods, but not unless it were done secretly, so that the worship of foreign gods would not interfere with the allowed worship of the Romans, and so that occasion for dissension and controversy might be avoided. Neither was it lawful among the Romans to recommend a new religion to the citizens, contrary to that which was confirmed and established by the public authority, and to call off the people from that. It was on this account that there was such a hatred of the Romans against the Jews. Tertullian says, that ‘there was a decree that no god should be consecrated, unless approved by the senate.'” (Coffman)
  • When Paul and Silas had their feet put in stocks, it would’ve been “necessary for them to lie on their backs; and if this, as is probable, was on the cold ground, after their severe scourging, their sufferings must have been very great. Yet in the midst of this they sang praises to God.” (Coffman)


  • How do we know when God is stopping us from going somewhere/doing something? How do we know where he wants us to go?
  • Why do you think Paul asked Timothy to be circumcised despite the fact that he was on a journey delivering the Council of Jerusalem’s decision that Gentiles need not be circumcised to be saved?
  • How did Paul and Silas keep up such a good attitude “singing praises to God” in prison despite the unfairness of the situation? What would our response be?
  • Why do you think the jailer asked “what must I do to be saved?” after seeing the prisoners still in their cells? What was it about the situation that sparked his interest in faith?




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