Acts Lesson Thirty-four: Acts 16:16-40 – Paul, the Fortune Teller, and Prison

16 Once, as we were on our way to prayer, a slave girl met us who had a spirit of prediction. She made a large profit for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 As she followed Paul and us she cried out, “These men, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation, are the slaves of the Most High God.” 18 And she did this for many days. 

But Paul was greatly aggravated and turning to the spirit, said, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out right away.

19 When her owners saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas  and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. 20 Bringing them before the chief magistrates, they said, “These men are seriously disturbing our city. They are Jews 21 and are promoting customs that are not legal for us as Romans to adopt or practice.” 

22 Then the mob joined in the attack against them, and the chief magistrates stripped off their clothes and ordered them to be beaten with rods. 23 After they had inflicted many blows on them, they threw them in jail, ordering the jailer to keep them securely guarded. 24 Receiving such an order, he put them into the inner prison and secured their feet in the stocks. 

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the jail were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 When the jailer woke up and saw the doors of the prison open, he drew his sword and was going to kill himself, since he thought the prisoners had escaped. 

28 But Paul called out in a loud voice, “Don’t harm yourself, because all of us are here!” 

29 Then the jailer called for lights, rushed in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 

31 So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the message of the Lord to him along with everyone in his house. 33 He took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds. Right away he and all his family were baptized. 34 He brought them into his house, set a meal before them, and rejoiced because he had believed God with his entire household. 

35 When daylight came, the chief magistrates sent the police to say, “Release those men!” 

36 The jailer reported these words to Paul: “The magistrates have sent orders for you to be released. So come out now and go in peace.” 

37 But Paul said to them, “They beat us in public without a trial, although we are Roman citizens, and threw us in jail. And now are they going to smuggle us out secretly? Certainly not! On the contrary, let them come themselves and escort us out!” 

38 Then the police reported these words to the magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them, and escorting them out, they urged them to leave town. 40 After leaving the jail, they came to Lydia’s house where they saw and encouraged the brothers, and departed. (HCSB)

As Paul and the team continued their work in Philippi, they encountered their first significant challenge as well as experienced a great victory. I’ll split this lesson into three sections.

  • Paul’s encounter with the fortune teller – verses 16-24.
  • The prison miracle – verses 25-34.
  • The Philippian magistrates admit their mistake – verses 35-40.

Paul’s Encounter with the Fortune Teller

The beginning of this section continues the narrative of the previous lesson. We don’t know how long the team was in Philippi when this event occurred, but it would appear that it wasn’t immediately after the conversion of Lydia and her household. Now, let’s look at some information regarding the encounter with the slave girl who possessed the spirit of prediction.

  • The English translation of the original Greek says, “slave girl met us who had a spirit of prediction.” The original Greek literally meant she had a “python spirit.”
    • The python was the symbol of the oracle at Delphi.
      • It represented the god Apollo, who was believed to give predictions of future events.
      • The python had become an omen of predicting future events.
      • Anyone who was believed to have the gift of predicting future events was described as led by the python.
      • Greeks and Romans placed great belief in omens and fortune-telling.
      • Military commanders would consult oracles before beginning any major military campaign.
      • Emperors would consult an oracle before making an important decree.
    • Because of these factors, the slave girl was an important source of income for her masters.
  • The slave girl understood that Paul and the team were Christians, and they had come to evangelize the city.
    • The possessed girl was able to see the nature of Paul’s preaching and the reality of God being proclaimed by Paul.
    • This is similar to what occurred during the time of Jesus’ ministry and His encounter with demon-possessed people.
      • Luke 4:34.
      • Mark 1:24.
    • She kept declaring that Paul spoke of the way of salvation and were slaves of the most high God. Why would this upset Paul? There are several possible reasons.
      • Paul didn’t want the Gospel or the name of God promoted by a demon-possessed girl.
      • A more likely reason is that the non-Christians hearing her declarations would not understand the true meaning behind the words.
        • Most of those hearing the girl’s words were Gentiles.
        • Although the term “Most High God” was common in the Old Testament, it was equally common in the Gentile world and often was applied to Zeus.
        • The term “way of salvation” would also be confusing to a Gentile as the Greco-Roman world was filled with “saviors,” and the emperor often called himself the “savior” of the people.
        • Although the statements made by the possessed girl were completely factual, they were also easily misunderstood by the pagans who heard the message. 
          • The truth could easily be warped by people with a polytheistic background.
          • Jesus could be seen as just another “savior” in a growing group of Greek “gods.”
        • In response to this danger, Paul commanded the demon to come out of the girl by the power of Jesus’ name.
        • The demon was cast out immediately after Paul made the declaration.

With the demon cast out and the girl no longer possessing the gift of fortune-telling, attention turns from the girl to Paul. Let’s look at some points from this section.

  • Healing a possessed slave girl was not the issue that caused the situation to become tense.
  • The real issue was the economic loss the slave girl’s owners would now incur.
    • There are similarities with the incident involving the Gerasene pigs in Mark 5:16-17.
    • The economic motive can also be found in the incident with Simon Magus contained in Acts 8:19f.
    • It would lead Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths to oppose Paul in Acts 19:24-28.
    • The profit stumbling block is a common obstacle to the Gospel in Acts.
    • The actions of the slave girl’s owners are in stark contrast to the generosity displayed by Lydia in sharing her home with the missionary team and fellow Christians in Philippi.
  • Luke switches from the first-person narrative in verse seventeen and doesn’t reappear until Acts 20. There are two main thoughts on this switch.
    • Luke remained in Philippi and didn’t rejoin Paul until the end of Paul’s third missionary trip.
    • Only Paul and Silas, as the leaders, bore the brunt of the owner’s anger and were dragged before the magistrates.
    • The phrase “They are Jews” may indicate that only Paul and Silas were to blame since they were outsiders in this Gentile city.
    • It makes the most sense that a combination of the latter two reasons is why only Paul and Silas were brought before the authorities.
  • The charge also includes a reference to Jewish practices that weren’t permissible for Romans to practice. Prejudice and racism were alive and well in the first century.
    • We see in the charges brought against Paul and Silas an avoidance of the real reason for their anger.
    • Their loss of income motivated all the charges brought against them, which wouldn’t be a legitimate reason for bringing them before the legal authorities.
    • They also accused them of “disturbing” the city.
  • The charges were false, but they achieved the desired result.
  • The authorities had Paul and Silas stripped for their beating.
    • This beating is likely one of the beatings Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 11:25.
    • They were then beaten by an instrument that was a bundle of rods with an ax protruding from the middle. The rods were tied together with a red band called a fasces, the same symbol that Mussolini revived and was linked with the fascist movement in Europe.
    • Although not as brutal as the flogging that the Romans inflicted upon Jesus, it was still a severe form of punishment.
  • The question that begs to be asked is, why didn’t Paul inform them that he was a Roman citizen? There are only two logical answers.
    • Because of the mob mentality, there wasn’t time.
    • Paul could have been saving that trump card for later when it might prove more valuable.
  • Once the beating was finished, they were thrown in prison.
  • However, they weren’t just thrown in prison; they were placed in the most secure section of the prison.
    • It’s likely this was the innermost cell of the prison.
    • When we envision this, we should think of the dungeon, the dark, dreary, and coldest part of the prison.
    • Their feet were placed in stocks.
      • The stocks were usually connected to the walls of the prison cell.
      • They contained numerous holes through which a prisoner’s legs would be secured.
      • They allowed for severe stretching of the torso, creating excruciating pain for the prisoner.
    • However, Luke doesn’t indicate that any form of torture took place.
    • The entire emphasis on the description of their incarceration is on the extremely tight security under which they were placed.
    • The incredibly tight security makes their miraculous deliverance all the more amazing.

The Prison Miracle

Considering their circumstances, it could have been easy for Paul and Silas to bemoan their fate. Instead of complaining or asking God to smite those who mistreated them, they were praying and  singing songs of praise to God. Let’s consider the actions of Paul and Silas and the events as they were in prison.

  • Christians should always be filled with hope; we are on the winning side.
    • Peter slept peacefully the night before his trial in Acts 12:6.
    • Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God.
    • Their actions were a witness of their relationship with God, and the other prisoners were listening.
  • The area around Philippi is prone to earthquakes, but this was no ordinary earthquake.
    • The doors, likely locked by bars, were thrown open by the force of the earthquake.
    • The chains came off the prisoners.
    • Those chains may have been attached to the walls and torn loose by the violence of the shaking.
    • Thinking back to Peter’s miraculous release from prison, we could expect that Paul and Silas would make their way out of the prison and escape. However, that was not the case.
  • As the jailor woke up and saw the open doors, he prepared to kill himself.
    • His first thought is that the prisoners had escaped.
    • Instead of waiting for Roman justice, he prepared to take his own life.
    • Jailers and guards were personally responsible for the prisoners and were held accountable if they escaped, resulting in the execution of the guard who failed in their duty.
  • Instead of taking his own life, he heard Paul tell him not to hurt himself as all the prisoners were still in their cells.
  • The miraculous release didn’t lead to the escape of Paul and Silas and potentially other prisoners. Instead, it leads to the far more significant event of the jailer’s conversion.
  • Upon hearing Paul’s voice, the jailer called for torches to be brought and rushed into the cell, falling to his knees at the feet of Paul and Silas.
    • In contrast to Paul’s reaction at Lystra, contained in Acts 14:15, Paul doesn’t object to the actions of the jailer. 
    • It may have been an act of worship, but more likely a gesture of subservience.
      • Paul had saved the life of the jailer.
      • Paul’s God had, in an instant, reduced all the efforts of securing the prisoners to naught.
  • The jailer’s expression “what must I do to be saved” could be interpreted in two ways.
    • He may have been asking how his life could be spared. But, in reality, his life already had been spared. None of the prisoners had escaped, so he was under no threat of punishment.
    • It is more likely he was asking in a religious sense. 
      • He may have heard the slave girl’s statements that Paul knew the way of salvation.
      • He may have directly heard Paul preach or had heard of Paul’s preaching but didn’t completely understand the message.
      • Maybe he had fallen asleep to the hymns that Paul and Silas were singing.
      • The miracle of the earthquake and the prisoners not escaping now prepared him to receive the message.
      • Paul’s answer was simple and classic – “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.”
  • There is now a transition, and somehow the jailer’s family enters the scene.
    • An important to emphasize before continuing is the idea of “household” salvation.
      • This verse doesn’t mean that the family is saved through the actions of the jailer.
      • Salvation is very much a personal action.
      • It is also a decision that requires understanding. This means that very young children are not able to make a conscious decision regarding salvation. There is no set age at which a person can understand the Gospel, but it does exist for each person.
      • The phrase “believe on the Lord Jesus” is directed at each member of the household, not just the head of the household.
    • Whether the jailer brought his family to the jail or the evangelism occurred at a location outside of the jail is irrelevant. What we do know is that the entire household did hear and respond to Paul’s message of salvation.
      • Throughout Acts, we see evidence of conversion through action.
      • In this narrative, once conversion took place, the jailer recognized the severity of Paul and Silas’ wounds and attended to them.
      • Luke may also be using a wordplay here. The jailer “washed” their wounds, and the family then were baptized, also a “washing.”
    • The jailer then took Paul and Silas and had the wounds they received from the beating cleaned and dressed.
    • It is clear the family responded to the message Paul preached as after Paul and Silas’ wounds were attended to, the family was baptized.
  • We then see another remarkable event.
    • Paul and Silas are still technically prisoners.
    • The jailer brings them into his house and provides them with a meal.
    • They rejoice together. They could have sung hymns together, prayed together, or possibly Paul and Silas gave further instructions on the faith. We don’t know for sure.
    • What we do know is that the jailer didn’t treat them as prisoners but as brothers in Christ.
  • We can also speculate about the other prisoners.
    • Were they ordinary prisoners, or were some possibly awaiting execution?
    • Although we don’t know, it is possible that some may have come to salvation through the message of Paul and Silas.

The Philippian Magistrates Admit Their Mistake

The narrative now switches to the next day. At some point between the arrest of Paul and Silas and the following morning, the magistrates realized there wasn’t sufficient evidence to keep them in jail and await further punishment. Therefore, they decided to have them released. However, things didn’t go according to their plan.

  • The jailer relays the message that Paul and Silas are to be released. The jailer urges them to go in peace.
  • Paul declines the offer to leave Philippi quietly. It is likely there are a couple of potential reasons behind his decision.
    • Leaving quietly could place the newly established church under a cloud of suspicion. There are several questions the Gentiles could’ve asked.
      • Who were these men?
      • Were they guilty of some crime?
      • Why did they leave so quickly and secretly?
      • What do their followers believe?
      • Paul wanted to leave the church in a positive light before leaving Philippi.
    • The magistrates had overstepped their authority in how they handled the case against Paul and Silas.
      • Paul and Silas were Roman citizens.
      • The magistrates had publicly flogged and thrown them in prison without a trial.
        • This could be done for non-citizens, even without a trial.
        • Roman citizens could be flogged and thrown in prison, but not without a trial.
        • The actions of the magistrates were beyond their authority.
    • Either reason makes sense, and it is likely that both played into the action taken by Paul.
  • Once the magistrates heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were understandably “afraid.”
    • Abusing the rights of a Roman citizen was a serious offense.
      • The magistrates could be removed from office for such an offense.
      • Philippi could have its rights reduced.
      • The emperor could deprive Philippi of all of the privileges normally associated with its status as a colony.
    • The situation was quite ironic.
      • Paul and Silas were treated as criminals but were innocent.
      • The magistrates who condemned them were actually the lawbreakers.
      • The magistrates wasted no time in coming to meet Paul and Silas.
    • The magistrates apologized to both of them. One can only imagine that they were quite animated in demonstrating sincere remorse for their actions.
    • The magistrates were likely still concerned about the events of the previous day and wanted them to quickly leave town to avoid further friction.
    • However, Paul and Silas were now in an advantageous position.
      • They weren’t in a rush to leave town.
      • The magistrates weren’t in a position to give them further trouble.
    • The missionaries now went back to Lydia’s home.
      • They met with the Christians who gathered there.
      • They encouraged them in their faith.
      • Satisfied that the church was in good standing, they left for the next city.
  • One might question whether Paul’s actions were a bit grumpy in his dealing with the magistrates. But let’s consider his actions.
    • It was essential that the fledgling church had a good reputation among the authorities if it was to grow.
    • The Christians didn’t break any of the Roman laws.
    • Paul and Silas were innocent of any wrongdoing.
    • It was essential that the magistrates admitted the innocence of Paul and Silas and cleared the charges brought against them.
    • Luke repeatedly points out throughout Acts that for every charge brought against the Christians, they didn’t break any laws in each occurrence. 

Here are some final thoughts on this passage.

  • Lydia’s home became the central meeting place for the church in Philippi.
  • It is likely the jailer, and his family became members of that church.
  • There were no apostles present.
  • No elders were ordained.
  • Yet, this fascinating mix of believers became a centerpiece for evangelism in Philippi and the surrounding region.
  • Paul’s letter to the Philippians is proof of the health of that congregation.


  • Never compromise on the purity of the Gospel message. The situation with the slave girl is an example. Although she was proclaiming that Paul and the team were the “way to salvation,” the circumstances surrounding this event could have led people to be misled if Paul hadn’t taken the action that he did.
  • Never be afraid of your circumstances if you know that you are walking in step with God’s instructions. False charges were brought against Paul and Silas, yet they never wavered in their faith or trust in God. 
  • Always rejoice regardless of your circumstances. Being locked up in jail could easily have been a discouraging situation. However, Paul and Silas sang and praised God even during this dark time. As it turned out, their actions, along with their miraculous release, led to the salvation of at least the jailer and his household and possibly other prisoners.
  • Ensure that the church of Jesus is never slandered or made to look as if its actions are criminal in nature when no wrong has been committed. This means that our actions and words need to be above reproach.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s