God’s Great Work (Acts 16:11-41)

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I suppose that one of the most encouraging verses in Scripture is Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the return of Jesus Christ.” Perhaps alongside this verse, one of the most frequently referenced verses in correspondence between believers is Philippians 1:3: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”

When Paul penned these words he was grateful for the great work that God had begun when He used him to plant the church in Philippi. He was certain that God had begun that work and that He would complete it. And as he considered the evidence of God’s grace in the lives of those church members he found himself often thanking God thank for them. We read about the beginning of God’s great work in their lives in the inspired record of Acts 16:11-40.

This passage records the founding of the church at Philippi, a local church that seemed to be especially dear to Paul’s heart. There were, I am sure, several reasons for this, but one may have been that this was the first church begun in what would open the door for the further evangelisation of the Roman Empire.

Another reason may also have to do with the first three recorded converts in this city and what might have seemed to have been an inauspicious start for what would become a church with a great missions heart.

In this study, we will consider this passage with a view to rejoicing in God’s great work of saving souls and planting churches—a great work that He continues to do today.

The Context

As we come to this point in the narrative, we do well to remember that doors had been closed in Asia Minor and Bithynia for evangelisation. But the mission was not at an end.

Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days.

(Acts 16:11-12)

Paul, while in Troas, received a vision of a man in Macedonia pleading for gospel help. The missionaries (Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke) were persuaded that this vision was of God and so they set sail across the Aegean Sea. Two days later they arrived in Neapolis. They then travelled some fifteen kilometres to Philippi. They went to Philippi, perhaps, because it was “the foremost city of that part of Macedonia.” Longnecker explains some of the historical significance of this city:

Its government was responsible directly to the emperor and not made subservient to the provincial administration. Philippi’s importance during the NT period, therefore, resulted from its agriculture, its strategic commercial location on both sea and land routes, its still functioning gold mines, and its status as a Roman colony. In addition, it had a famous school of medicine with graduates throughout the then-known world.1

Robertson noted that Octavius had made Philippi “a colony with all the privileges of Roman citizenship, such as freedom from scourging, freedom from arrest save in extreme cases, and the right of appeal to the emperor.”2

Some have conjectured that Philippi might have been Luke’s hometown given the seemingly “proud” assessment of it as “the foremost city of that part of Macedonia.” Regardless, this was clearly a strategic move on Paul’s part. As it turned out, “the city was a military colony, a miniature Rome, and in the persons who there met the apostles are mirrored the moral and spiritual needs of the ancient and modern world.”3 There is much here for our evangelistic encouragement.

The Converts

Luke names three early converts in his record, though there were clearly others who believed with them.

Lydia

In vv. 13-15 we find the record of the conversion of Lydia.

And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptised, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.

(Acts 16:13-15)

As we have seen in our study of Acts, Paul’s usual strategy was to head directly to the local synagogue whenever he visited a city. It appears in our present text that there was no synagogue in Philippi. In order to qualify for a synagogue, a city had to have at least ten faithful Jewish males. Rather than finding a synagogue, Paul found a riverside gathering of women.

The meeting place, prepared by God, was the River Gangites. On the Sabbath Day, Paul found a group of God-fearing women who gathered there to pray. Lydia evidently took some form of leadership in this group. She appears to have been what was termed a “proselyte of the gate.” That is, while she feared the God of the Jews, she had not proselytised completely to the Jewish faith.

We don’t want to miss the fact that the initial audience in Philippi was female. As Furneaux notes, “The ‘man of Macedonia’ turned out to be a group of women.”4 While Paul often takes a lot of flack for being something of a chauvinist, it is interesting that he, with Silas, Timothy and Luke, were quite comfortable evangelising women. Through the spread of the gospel, Christianity did more to abolish slavery and to liberate women than any other movement in history!

The language used here—“we sat down and spoke to the women”—suggests that each of the four missionaries sat down by the river and shared the gospel with the women present. The use of the first person plural implies that each of the four (Paul, Silas, Timothy, Luke) preached in turn, with Paul as the chief speaker.4 Luke focuses specifically on Lydia, who “heard us.” The phrase means that she intently listened, and reasoned about the things she heard.

Lydia was a “seller of purple,” which meant that she sold purple dyed cloth, which was a very valuable commodity. Thyatira was famous for this. Because of the relative scarcity of purple cloth, and because of its great popularity, she perhaps was quite wealthy. In the providence of God, her business led her to Philippi where God was conducting His kingdom business. It is interesting to note that Thyatira was in Asia Minor, the very place where Paul had been forbidden to preach the gospel! God was going to reach into there from here! Grace has its ways.

Lydia “worshipped God,” but not according to the full gospel. Like Cornelius, and like Paul himself prior to his conversion, Lydia worshipped and sought to honour the Jewish God, but she needed help to see that she could only do so through the Lord Jesus Christ. She needed the gospel of grace as well as the grace of the gospel

Graciously, “the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” As Fortner observes, “He who is the heart’s Maker is the heart’s Master.”6 This statement highlights the reality of God’s sovereign grace (cf. Ephesians 1:3-4).

Verse 15 shows us, wonderfully, that not only did she believe, but so did her household. This is evident from the fact that the entire household was baptised. We don’t know exactly what her household looked like. The household may have comprised a husband and children, or perhaps the household comprised only servants. The point is, God saved her entire household.

Conversions of groups were quite common in the early days of the church, and the church in the house had a cohesive strength because it was not merely an aggregation of individuals who happened to gather periodically in a certain house; rather, it involved many who had already been associated but now found that association deepened by the transforming power of the gospel.7

We see here several indications of saving faith in Lydia’s life. First, she shared the gospel with those with whom she was closest. Second, she publicly and covenantally identified with Christ in baptism. Third, she served those who served her the gospel. She found herself connected to the community of faith and reached out in hospitality.

Hospitality, by the way, is a biblical evidence of salvation. When God opens a person’s heart to Christ then they open their homes to Christians. As Barclay notes,

When Paul is describing the Christian character he says that the Christian should be “given to hospitality” (Romans 12:13). When Peter is urging the Christian duty upon his converts he tells them, “Use hospitality to each other and never grudge it” (1 Peter 4:9). A Christian home is a home with an ever-open door.8

Hospitality, as defined biblically, is not opening your home to your closest friends. The word, as it is used in Scripture, literally means “a lover of strangers.” Christian hospitality extends to all of God’s people, whether they are known to us or not.

The Servant Girl

The second convert in this text was the lady with the “python spirit.”

Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; “and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

(Acts 16:16-24)

In this passage we have the account of a demon possessed woman who was converted. This happened “as we went to prayer.” Presumably, this means that, as in v. 13, they were going to the place of prayer, possibly on the Sabbath. As they did so, they encountered “a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination.” The phrase “spirit of divination” literally means “a pythonic spirit.” Longnecker explains the significance of this term:

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 and to have eventually been killed by Apollo (cf. Strabo Geography 9.3.12). 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. Undoubtedly all who knew the girl regarded her as neither fraudulent nor insane but as demon possessed and able to foretell the future.9

This young woman was not in some way mentally ill. She was not insane. She was demon-possessed. And, like so many vulnerable women throughout history, she was abused by men who sought to profit through her evil behaviour. She was a tool and a toy of their depravity. As Erdman notes, “There are men today who are willing to acquire wealth by the degradation of womanhood, and who resent as impertinent intrusion every attempt to deliver their victims from the power of sin.”10

This pythonic woman followed the missionaries, declaring them to be “the servants of the Most High God.” This may sound like good theology, but the term “Most High God” was used in the ancient world to speak of the various false gods in distinction to the true Most High God. In fact, this term would have been completely acceptable to the Romans.

Of course, it was true that the missionaries were servants of the Most High God, as it was true that they proclaimed the way of salvation. What this woman said was true, but it “greatly annoyed” Paul. While she was saying the right thing, she was evidently saying it in the wrong way.

Possibly, she was saying it in a mocking way. She may have been trying and associate their message with the occult of which she was a part. She could have been speaking in the same way that demons sought to hinder Jesus’ ministry when they publicly acknowledged Him as the Son of God. Regardless, she became a nuisance and Paul became indignant with this problematic woman. Indignant, he did something about it: He saved her!

Though the text does not specifically say that she was converted to Christ, the assumption is credible that she was. The Lord exorcised her and then filled her with Himself. This was a wonderfully great and gracious work of God in the life of this sinful but abused woman.

The only hope for an evil world is the gospel. As Erdman put it, “Their nameless agonies and anguish are the real ‘Macedonian cry’ which the church or Christian lands should heed.”10

God’s grace was poured out mightily, and the result was great offence (vv. 19-24). When Paul exorcised the demon, he also exorcised the wallets of the slave girl’s masters.12 Offended, they “they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities” (v. 19).

Evidently, these enemies of the cross were strategic in how they acted. They seized Paul and Silas, not Timothy and Luke. Timothy, you will remember, was of Gentile stock on his father’s side. Luke was likewise a Gentile. Paul and Silas were Jews, and no doubt looked the part. These men, therefore, seized the Jewish missionaries and played the race card. Before the authorities, they contrasted “these being Jews” with “us being Romans.” These Jews had come into “our city”—a Gentile city—to stir things up.

But not only did they play the race card, they also played the legal, political card: “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Roman law permitted diversity of religion—as long as outsiders did not seek to proselytise Roman citizens, become a threat to the empire, or dishonour the emperor. Later, of course, emperor-worship would be a major problem for the Christians.

In mob frenzy the magistrates tore the clothes off of Paul and Silas, beat them openly and imprisoned them, putting their feet in stocks. Again, Luke and Timothy likely escaped the same fate because they were not (obviously) Jewish. Perhaps the enemies assumed that they were Roman citizens, who could not legally be beaten with rods (see vv. 35-40).

At this point, I wonder whether Paul and Silas were tempted to question their Macedonian call? Was this really a great work begun by God? Was this a mistake? Had they misread providence?  Was there really any hope for the planting of a local church in such a situation? It is little wonder, once the church was planted, that Paul was so hopeful and thankful to God for them (Philippians 1:3, 6)!

The Jailor

The scene now sifts to the third convert.

But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptised. 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.

(Acts 16:25-34)

In Philippians 4:4 Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” The record before us is a real life illustration of this exhortation. The joy expressed here by Paul and Silas was one that glowed in the dark.

This must have been quite the sight. The other prisoners had no doubt seen a lot of cell mates, but never quite like these two. They had no doubt witnessed a lot of cursing and protestations of innocence, but their two newest cell mates “were praying and singing hymns to God.” And this was no private devotion, for “the prisoners were listening to them.”

The gospel does such a great work that we can find reason to sing in the darkest of circumstances. Is our gospel conviction merely theoretical?

As Paul and Silas sang praises to God, God miraculously provided a way of deliverance. In Acts 5:17-21 God miraculously freed the imprisoned apostles, and He did so again for Peter in Acts 12. This time, however, while a way of escape was provided, neither Paul nor Barnabas took advantage of the opportunity to escape. In fact, so startling was this entire event, that even the other prisoners stayed rooted to the spot! The fact that this was clearly from God may have sobered true criminals from making an illegitimate escape.

According to Roman law, any jailer who failed to guard the prisoners under his trust was liable to the same punishment prescribed for them. Assuming that a great many of his prisoners had escaped, this guard decided to save the authorities the effort and kill himself. But Paul called out to him not to do so, assuring him that none of the prisoners had escaped.

Perhaps the jailor had heard the lady with the pythonic spirit declaring her message of salvation. Perhaps he had been made aware of the events that led to these two prisoners being placed in his care. Regardless, he immediately went to Paul and Silas and cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” Did he think that he deserved judgement from the mighty God who had sent this earthquake and released the chains?

Regardless, salvation was now on his mind, and he asked the most important question anyone could ever asked. The missionaries, no doubt in chorus, gave him a simple answer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Adding his “household” to the equation shows that the missionaries believed that God saves households!

Evidently, the jailers brought them to his home, or perhaps gathered his family together at the prison, and the missionaries preached the gospel to all of them. Evidently all of them believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and hence were saved and baptised (v. 33b).

This record, by the way, highlights the importance of the head of a household. God delights to save households, and it is up to the head of the household to expose his family to gospel preaching as much as he possibly can.

As with Lydia, we see evidence of the salvation of the jailor. First, he served those who served him the gospel. As Chrysostom said, “He washed them, and he was washed; he washed them in their stripes, he himself was washed from his sins.”13 Second, he was baptised, openly identifying with the one whom had just gotten these men beaten and imprisoned. He counted the cost and confessed. Third, he identified with other converts.

No sooner had he turned to Christ than he washed the welts upon the prisoners’ backs and set a meal before them. His Christianity issued there and then in the most practical act of kindness. Unless a man’s Christianity makes him kind it is not Christianity at all.14

Fourth, he rejoiced in the Lord. There is no doubt that this man would pay a price to follow the Lord, but he had had his biggest problem sorted out: He was saved!

The Church

If at any point in this narrative Paul and Barnabas were tempted to doubt their Macedonian call, the closing verses no doubt offered them great encouragement.

And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.” 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.” 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.” And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. 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.

(Acts 16:35-40)

By the next morning, word had evidently spread that these prisoners were more of a threat than the magistrates had initially realised. The Most High God was indeed on their side! Something significant had happened the night before and these preachers were viewed as having some significant influence.15

The magistrates sent word via messenger to Paul and Silas that they were free to go, but Paul refused to leave unless the magistrates personally instructed them to do so. He and Silas were Roman citizens and they had violated Roman law in the way that they arrested and beaten them.

You may wonder why Paul did not stand on his Roman citizenship at the original beating. I can only surmise that he did try, but that the rioters had not heard his earlier protestations. The bigger question is, why did Paul make a stand now that he was being offered freedom? I believe that it was a pastoral act on his part. If the officials recognised his rights then perhaps the church being planted there would be protected from similar persecution.

Once Paul made his case and the missionaries were released, they went to Lydia’s home, where the church met and encouraged the new believers. They, literally, “came alongside” the infant church and helped them in their faith. And then, as requested by the officials, they departed.

I do not know how long after the planting of this church that Paul wrote his inspired letter to them, but when he did he was convinced that God would build a great work there—which He did.

Applications

As we draw this study to a close, I want to briefly mention several points of application that we can draw from this text.

First, it should be noted that Philippians 1:6 is a corporate promise. We should be encouraged that what God begins He completes, and the most unlikely beginnings can often yield the most encouraging results. So persevere!

I recently ran into some people that were members of a church that God used me to plant almost twenty years ago in another part of Johannesburg. I was encouraged to learn that they are still faithful members of that church, and as I asked about some of the other early converts in that church I learned that, though they had moved away, they were faithfully serving in a likeminded church. It was a great encouragement to me as these old friends told me of how God has been gracious to that church, and has continued the work that He started there.

A second lesson here is that the early ethical and doctrinal DNA of a local church goes a long way in determining how a church progresses. We noted that there was Christian hospitality exercised here in the early days. Is it not interesting that this is noted some time later in the letter to this church? Paul thanked the Philippian church for their material support. Where did they learn this? Perhaps from Lydia and from the jailor.

We recently had a missionary family visit our church, which seeks to visit every time they have furlough. By his own testimony, the missionary feels welcomed by our church. I put that down to the fact that the founding members of our church built into the church’s DNA from the earliest stages the need to welcome those who faithfully minister God’s Word. That has persisted in our church, as such early elements usually do in a local church.

Third, the challenges that the early church faced are in many ways no different than our challenges, and the gospel remains the power of God for salvation. Erdman notes, “The city was a . . . miniature Rome, and in the persons who there met the apostles are mirrored the moral and spiritual needs of the ancient and modern world.16

God still saves the religious and morally respectable (like Lydia). God still saves those bound in sin and bound to sinners (like the slave girl). God still saves people in difficult places to reach (like the jailer).17 God still controls history and fulfils His will. If we are willing to be used, then the Lord will use us!

Fourth, the gospel has the power to do what no legislation can do: break down social, ethnic and prejudicial barriers. What Stott notes is true and deserving of quotation at length:

During this period of mission there must have been many converts. But Luke selects only three for mention, not (it seems) because they were particularly notable in themselves, but because they demonstrate how God breaks down dividing barriers and can unite in Christ people of very different kinds. . . . It would be hard to imagine a more disparate group than the business woman, the slave girl and the gaoler. Racially, socially and physiologically they were worlds apart. Yet all three were changed by the same gospel and were welcomed into the same church….The head of a Jewish household would use the same prayer every morning, giving thanks that God had not made him a Gentile, a woman or a slave. But here were representatives of these three despised categories redeemed and united in Christ.18

Again, “True, they experienced some tensions, and in his later Letter to the Philippians Paul had to exhort them to ‘stand firm in one spirit,’ and to be ‘like-minded, having the same love, being in one spirit and purpose.’ Nevertheless, they all belonged to the one fellowship of Christ. We too, who live in an era of social disintegration, need to exhibit the unifying power of the gospel.”19

Finally, let us note that God will continue to open hearts of those whom He has chosen to save, and He will do whatever is necessary to save them. “‘The marvel of God’s grace is that it will not take “No” for an answer from some men,’ said Walter Chantry. . . . Grace is not something God simply offers to sinners. It is something God performs in them!”20 Be encouraged that God’s great work in your part of the world, as in ours, may only have just begun!

May we continue to grow in Christ so that when people move from our church they will be able to say, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you! For, after all, it remains true that God not only began a great work here but that He will continue a great work.” Let us, like the church at Philippi, be “encouraged” (v. 40).

Show 20 footnotes

  1. Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:460.
  2. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:249.
  3. Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 132.
  4. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:251.
  5. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:251.
  6. Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 190.
  7. R. K. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 268.
  8. William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles: The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), 133.
  9. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:462.
  10. Erdman, The Acts, 133.
  11. Erdman, The Acts, 133.
  12. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 265.
  13. Harrison, Interpreting Acts, 273.
  14. Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, 137.
  15. It should be noted that, very clearly, the Most High God was at work here saving these missionaries from death.
  16. Erdman, The Acts, 132.
  17. The jailor would have been a Roman loyalists and an unlikely convert.
  18. Stott, The Message of Acts, 262, 68
  19. Stott, The Message of Acts, 270.
  20. Fortner, Life After Pentecost, 188.