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It was on Paul’s second visit to Lystra, Iconium, and Derbe that the brethren commended Timothy, who had been converted through Paul, as one whom they believed to be called of God to give his life to the ministry of the Word. This young man was of mixed parentage, his mother being a Jewess, but his father a Greek. So in order not to offend Jewish prejudices, Paul circumcised him, something he would never have agreed to had Timothy been, like Titus, a Gentile. Paul took Timothy along, after the local brethren had expressed their fellowship by prayer and the laying on of hands. In answer to their prayers, God gave him some special gift, which we understand was the gift of pastor, for in after years Timothy always manifested a true shepherd heart. Later in writing to the Philippians, Paul said of Timothy, “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel.”
What a splendid testimony for the older preacher to give concerning the younger! Many ministers of the gospel are far more concerned with getting on in the world, furthering their own interests, than they are about the people of God. It was different with Timothy. His one yearning desire was to be used by God for their blessing.
So Paul made no mistake in taking this young man with them. He was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium, and he proved to be a valuable helper in the years that followed. “And as they went through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the apostles and elders which were at Jerusalem. And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.”
Led By a Vision (Acts 16:6-15)
After they had ministered in these cities they turned north and thought of going into Asia; that is, a limited area of Asia Minor in which were located in later years those seven churches spoken of in the book of Revelation. They intended to go into this district, but they “were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia.” What does that mean? Had not the Lord Jesus told them to go into all the world? Certainly. Well, was not the gospel, for Asia as well as for every other part of the world? Yes. But there is often a specific time for certain work to be done, and the Spirit of God saw that the time had not yet come to enter Asia. Later on, Paul went to Ephesus, the chief city of Asia, and had a glorious ministry. Hundreds, even thousands, throughout the city were converted. But this was not yet the Lord’s time. It is a wonderful thing for the servant of God to be guided by the Lord’s Spirit and move each moment in His will.
So they turned aside to the district called Bithynia, just over the border, but once more they were hindered. The Spirit of Jesus in some way spoke to them and forbade them to enter. And why not? In the next verse we have the answer. “And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas.” Troas was a seaport looking across the Aegean to Greece. Remember, the apostles had not yet visited Europe. So far as we know, no one had yet carried the gospel to that continent.
“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” In the morning he related the vision to his companions, and Luke wrote, “Immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them” (10). Note the pronouns we and us. Luke became a member of the missionary group at Troas, and from this time on is identified with the work. He and the others concluded it was God’s way of telling Paul and his companions that the time had come to cross the Aegean to enter into Europe and carry the gospel to-shall I say?-our forefathers.
People sometimes remark, “I am not interested in missions to the heathen. There is plenty of work to be done here,” piously adding, “Charity begins at home.” Yes it does, but it is a pity if it also ends there. And how thankful we should be that thousands of years ago somebody did believe in missions and so carried the gospel to our forefathers that they might be brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The apostles decided immediately to act upon Paul’s vision. “Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis.” They had landed in Europe, and from thence took the Roman military highway to “Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony.”
A Roman colony was a city that had been granted special privileges by the Roman government because of some service rendered to the empire. All freemen in such a colony were regarded as having all the rights of Roman citizens. It was similar to a little bit of Rome in a distant country. The apostle Paul saw in this a beautiful illustration of the Christian’s position in this world. Later he wrote about it in his letter to the Philippians: “Our [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” They would understand that very well, for though they lived in Macedonia, their citizenship was in Rome; and though we live in this poor world, our citizenship is in Heaven! We belong to Heaven and have all the privileges of heavenly citizens.
“We,” wrote Luke, “were in that city abiding certain days.” At first, it seemed as though no one was interested in their message. Many missionaries have the same disappointment. Paul heard the man in the vision say, “Come over into Macedonia and help us,” and he surely had reason to believe that when he reached Macedonia he would find some anxious people waiting to receive him. But there was nothing like that. They abode “certain days,” with no one asking for help or seeking them out, with no evidence that any man or woman was a bit concerned about them.
Young people sometimes hear a fervent missionary from a distant field tell of the need of young men and young women for work in Africa or China or in some other country. They say, “I must answer the call.” They arrange to leave everything here and go out to the mission field, only to find nobody wants them. And they say, “Isn’t that strange? They were pleading that we come, and instead of wanting us they are ready, in some instances, to kill us.” Was the missionary wrong? Did he give a false impression of conditions? Not at all! The heathen do not realize their need often until the preaching of the true God gives them a sense of their real condition. Nevertheless it is that very need that calls for someone to help.
So while the Macedonians needed help, there was no one to actually say, “We welcome you and are anxious for the message you have come to give.” Finally, the apostles located a little company at a place of prayer. “And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made.” That tells us it was a Jewish prayer meeting. It was the custom of the Jews, if ten men could be gathered together, to have a synagogue in a Gentile city. But if not enough were available, they would go where they could get flowing water for their cleansing rites, and there establish a place of prayer.
So Paul went to this prayer meeting, but nobody was there but a few women! All the men were absent. How many prayer meetings are just like that! Men often think they are too busy to come together and wait upon God in prayer, but a few faithful, devoted women will carry on alone. So Luke wrote, “And we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.”
Paul was not indifferent to the soul needs of these women. He was thankful to find a few in Philippi ready to hear the Word. One was a Gentile, perhaps a proselyte, of the city of Thyatira. Thyatira was one of the leading cities of Asia. The Spirit of God had forbidden Paul to go to Asia, but He had this woman from Asia waiting for Paul in Macedonia. She doubtless had learned from the people of Israel of the true and living God. Her “heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” There was no great crisis in her life. She had already been seeking the truth, and now when Paul unfolded the gospel, without any excitement, without any outward evidence, the Lord opened her heart and she received the message and trusted the Savior.
“She was baptized.” Thus she took the public place of identification with Christ. “And her household.” We are not told who the members of her household were, except that in verse 40 we read of “the brethren” there. Lydia was a business woman, a seller of purple, and she probably had a number of men working for her. Apparently all of them opened their hearts to the Word. Lydia offered her own home as a home for the missionaries, saying, “If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there.” And we are told, “she constrained us.” Thus the gospel had entered Europe and the work of evangelizing Macedonia was started.
The Apostles Persecuted (Acts 16:16-24)
Next we see Satan’s efforts to patronize the gospel, and the results of this. If Satan cannot stop the work of the Lord by out-and-out persecution, he will try to hinder it by condescension. And just as soon as the church of God accepts the patronage of the world it becomes subservient to the world. The apostle Paul was very jealous that nothing be allowed which, in the slightest degree, would indicate that the church of God had any connection whatever with the powers of evil. We see this in the next incident here recorded.
“And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying.” It was a very common thing in the ancient world at the time the gospel was first being carried to the various countries, to find such characters as this young woman. They believed themselves to be in touch with heathen gods and thought they were actually possessed by the spirit of a god. Many people flocked to these fortunetellers for their advice in matters relating to business, or marriage, or to affairs having to do with the government of kingdoms, and so on.
After all, we have not progressed very far. Today we find the same characters. Even in our land, with all its enlightenment, there are literally thousands of people who scarcely make a move without consulting a clairvoyant, or spirit medium, someone who is supposed to have special illumination because of contact with the unseen world.
This woman in Philippi believed she was possessed of the spirit of the god Apollo. It says in the King James version that she had “a spirit of divination.” The margins of some Bibles read “a spirit of Python.” Python was a serpent sacred to Apollo. The people believed that Apollo himself spoke through this woman, who was thus enabled to give counsel. When under the power of this spirit she was not conscious of what she was saying; in a kind of cataleptic state, she was dead to all around her. Actually we know from Scripture it was a demon and not a god at all; yet people flocked to her for help, and actually believed she was putting them in touch with the heavenly spheres. She heard Paul preaching the gospel and undoubtedly it was suggested to her by Satan that she associate herself with him and his companions. She was just a poor female slave, and the money that came to her for fortunetelling went into the hands of men who owned her, body and spirit.
The young woman “followed Paul and us [notice Luke is still of the company], and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which show unto us the way of salvation.” That is very significant when we realize the woman was under the control of a demon. Even Satan himself believes in the reality of God’s salvation and here attempts to take the position of a patron of the work of the Lord by saying, “These men…show unto us the way of salvation.”
Day after day she followed them, always making the same statement, endeavoring to give the impression that she, in some sense at least, was affiliated with them. “But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.” We have many instances in modern days of missionaries working in pagan lands where they have come in contact with people who seem to be just as truly possessed with demons as this young woman was. On many occasions these servants of God have cast out those demons, using these same words.
I remember a dear servant of God telling of a woman who continually raved and blasphemed against God. He and others felt she was under the power of a demon, that she had worse than a diseased mind, worse than a heart at enmity against God. They finally met together in special prayer and when this woman began blaspheming God as usual, God’s servant rose up and said, “I command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, come out of this woman and enter no more!” The next moment the woman fell at his feet in a fit. He said it reminded him of what he had read in Scripture, “The devil threw him down, and tare him,” but from that time on she was never so affected again.
Demon possession is a very real thing, and the power in spiritualism today consists in this: not that God allows spirits of the dead to come back and speak through mediums but that demons take possession of these mediums and speak through them. The church of God needs to be on guard against those who are seeking to imitate the work of the Lord. The name of Jesus drove out the demon from this woman, for Jesus is conqueror and victor over Satan’s host. Whenever the power of Christ’s name is invoked, He can be depended on to vindicate the glory of His name.
Now that the demon was gone out of the woman, she could no longer go off into trances, therefore her masters were indignant. The money that had come through the use of the demon’s awful power over this girl no longer flowed into their coffers; their profits were gone. “And when her masters saw that the hope of their gains was gone, they caught Paul and Silas, and drew them into the marketplace unto the rulers, And brought them to the magistrates, saying, These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city.” Notice they did not know anything about Christianity; they did not recognize Paul and his companion as Christians-but as Jews. So it was an outbreak of anti-Semitism. “They are Jews; get them out of the way!” Oh, how often that cry has been sounded!
If there is trouble here or there, men are always looking for a scapegoat for it. During World War II many put all the blame upon the Jews! It is so much more convenient than to confess our own sins! Our trouble comes not because of any particular people, Jew or Gentile, but results from departure from God. He is dealing in judgment with the nations of this world because of their rejection of His testimony. Let us humbly confess our sin and failure before God and thus seek deliverance from the world’s prevailing distress and grave suffering.
The possessed girl’s masters put the blame on Paul and Silas, not because they were Christians, but because they were Jews, and so should be dealt with. “These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans.” I imagine the very people who accused the apostles would not have been so proud to acknowledge themselves as Romans before their country was taken over and dominated by the Romans; but now they glory in what should be their shame.
“And the multitude rose up together against them: and the magistrates rent off their clothes.” This was the Eastern way of saying, “We have come to our wits’ end; we don’t know what to do in a case like this,” Then they were taken and beaten and thrown into prison. We are not told of any definite trial, or of an opportunity given to explain matters and clear themselves of the charges preferred against them. The brutal jailer, when he received them, “thrust them into the inner prison, and made their feet fast in the stocks.” Their backs were torn and bleeding as a result of the dreadful flagellation, but the jailer did not so much as wash their stripes.
The Jailer’s Conversion (Acts 16:25*40)
What would we do in circumstances like that? Note what they did: “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.” These dear men, afflicted, miserable, unable to sleep, could not move without anguish. Yet as they sat in that dungeon their hearts went out to God, presenting their case before Him, and assured He heard, they lifted up their voices in glad thanksgiving for His grace. And we are told, “the prisoners heard them.”
What a challenge that is for us when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances! We have perhaps never yet had to endure conditions so bad; but have we learned to lift our hearts in thanksgiving to God no matter what our circumstances? We read, “In everything give thanks.” Someone may say, “I can give thanks for blessings, but not for trials and testings.” But Scripture says, “In every thing give thanks”-”And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
Perhaps someone is reading this who is passing through great trial. I know that some are going through deep waters, and my heart goes out in sympathy, for I too have gone through the floods and been almost overwhelmed. I too have passed through fires of affliction. But I can assure you there is no circumstance in which the believer can be found where the Lord is not able to sustain him and lift him above trial and enable him to rejoice. We are told to glory in tribulations. There is a Savior for you and you may find deliverance, peace, rest, and joy in Him.
It does not take much character, nor much Christianity, to be happy when everything is going our way. But when everything goes wrong-when poverty, sickness, bereavement, or misunderstanding is our lot-to be able to rejoice in the Lord then is Christian victory! That is what we see in the prison experience of Paul and Silas.
They presented the first sacred concert ever held in Europe. Just two artists, the concert hall a dungeon, neither piano nor organ to accompany; yet these two artists had such effect that they brought down the house! Soon the whole prison began to shake. That was the most successful sacred concert I have ever heard of. As they sang, “suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and every one’s bands were loosed.”
You may think it far-fetched, but I have an idea that if there were more joy in tribulation, more triumphing in trouble in our own day, we would see more shaking by the power of God. The unsaved people of the world are watching Christians, and when they see Christians shaken by circumstances, they conclude that after all there is very little to Christianity. But when they find Christians rising above circumstances and glorying in the Lord even in deepest trial, then the unsaved realize the Christian has a comfort to which they are strangers.
You may have heard the story of the Christian who one day met another believer whose face was long as a fiddle and asked, “How are you?” The man replied, “Well, I am pretty well under the circumstances.” To which the other replied, “I’m sorry you are under the circumstances. Get above the circumstances! Don’t allow yourself to be under them. Christians should never be under the circumstances.” Paul and Silas were not. They were above them.
As they prayed, God took hold and began to shake the prison until He had loosened the very doors open and the fetters off the prisoners’ limbs. The keeper of the prison-this hard man who had thrust them into the dungeon, this man so insensible to the things of God that it looked as though no power could reach him and bring him to repentance-“awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.” You see, under the Roman law he was responsible for these prisoners. If he lost them, he lost his life. So rather than face the executioner himself, he sought to take his own life, “but Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.”
I wonder how it was that Paul realized the condition of things. It does not seem there was any possibility of his seeing beyond that dungeon to the jailer’s own apartment. Yet he appeared to know and he spoke out at the right moment. Doubtless he was guided by the Spirit of God.
How often God has guided His servants, giving the right message at the right time! Somebody told me of a poor, wretched, miserable man under the power of strong drink, fighting for long against it. He finally thought he might as well give up trying. Then happening to tune in the radio he heard a voice say something like this, “Remember, if you are absolutely hopeless, Jesus is ready to save you!” He thought, “Why, that is for me.” As he continued to listen, the gospel message came in power and he dropped on his knees beside the radio and his soul was saved.
The Philippian jailer was soon to learn the joy of the gospel message. When he heard the warning cry of Paul, “he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas.” Their stocks became their throne and he, their jailer, lay suppliant at their feet! He then “brought them out, and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’” He knew they had something he needed, and he was anxious to learn the secret of the One who had given them not only songs in the night, but songs from a dungeon death cell. Their answer came back quick and clear-“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” No beating about the bush. No going into a labored explanation of Christian doctrine, or of the nature of the church, or of sacraments. Clear and incisive was their message, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ [put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ] and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
Bishop John Taylor Smith used to tell how, when he was a Chaplain-General of the British Army, the candidates for chaplaincy were brought to him and given a hypothetical situation to deal with. “Now, I want you to show me how you would deal with a man. We will suppose I am a soldier who has been wounded on the field of battle. I have three minutes to live and I am afraid to die because I do not know Christ. Tell me, how may I be saved and die with the assurance that all is well?” If the applicant began to beat around the bush and talk about the true church and ordinances and so on, the good Bishop would say, “That won’t do. I have only three minutes to live. Tell me what I must do.” And as long as Bishop Smith was Chaplain-General, unless a candidate could answer that question, he could not become a chaplain in the army.
I wish that were true of our own army. What answer would you give to a man with only three minutes to live? Can you find a better one than this?-“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
There are so many who say, “I do not understand which is the true church.” Never mind! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Then some say, “I do not understand the true nature of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper.” Never mind! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. “Yes, but my life has been so wicked. I feel I ought to make restitution first for the sins of my past.” Never mind! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. “I am so afraid I might not hold out.” Never mind! This is God’s message to any poor sinner today: Put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, and your house. The same offer is for your house as for you. When God saves you, it is evident He wants to save your whole house.
“And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.” I think they had all been getting dressed, his wife and children, and maybe some of his servants. They all crowded in to hear these strange preachers who a little while ago were cast into prison and were now pointing them to Christ.
“And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes.” I imagine he said, “I am ashamed of the way I treated you. Let me make you as comfortable as I can. Let me show my gratitude.” “And was baptized, he and all his, straightway.” The whole household was brought to Christ that night! The apostles found the man of Macedonia at last who in a vision said, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”
“And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.”
There is just one more incident, and with this the chapter closes.
When it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go. And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace (Acts 16:35-36).
Evidently the magistrates, looking into the matter, had come to the conclusion that these men were not law violators and so said, “We must get them out of the way.” But Paul said, as it were, “We represent the Lord Jesus Christ and do not want to be branded as violators of the law of the land so long as we are innocent, and therefore we want to be cleared of any such charge. Let them come themselves and take us out.”
It was not pride that led Paul to make this demand. It was a proper sense of the dignity of his calling as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans [freeborn citizens of the Roman empire were entitled to trial and should never have been cast into prison uncondemned]. And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city (38-39).
And so Philippi, the first city in Europe to receive the good news of salvation, seemed about to close its doors to the gospel. Instead of the magistrates saying, “Now we have set you free, go throughout our city and proclaim the glorious message,” they said, “Please leave our city. We do not want your message.”
“They went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia: and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.” This was the nucleus of the church at Philippi.
So the gospel entered Europe, and we can be thankful that from that day to this the message of grace is still going out in that continent. Although we live on a different continent, we enjoy the message today because it was brought to Europe so long ago.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Acts 16". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany