Prison to Praise, Suffering to Salvation | Acts 16:16-34 Commentary

Physical Bondage Leads to Spiritual Freedom

Following the divinely-directed episode with Lydia (Ac 16:9-15), Paul and co. find themselves in trouble while still in Philippi.

After Paul drives a demon out of a fortune-telling female slave — causing her to lose her prophetic abilities and her masters to lose their business — he and Silas are thrown into prison.

Far from downcast, in the middle of the night in their dark cell, the two are praying and singing hymns to the Lord — to the amazement(/chagrin?) of their fellow inmates.

Suddenly, there’s an earthquake that frees them from their shackles. Given what typically happens to guards who allow prisoners to escape (e.g., in Peter’s escape, the guards were cross-examined and executed), the jailer decides to kill himself.

However, Paul steps in to try to save him — in more ways than one.

What follows are notes from a Sunday School lesson first shared on 6.23.19. The author’s translation (AT) is included in the notes. The Greek text and bibliography are at the bottom of the page. Please feel free to peruse the commentary using the hyperlinked outline below:


Acts 16:16 — Profitable Prophetess

  • And it came to pass, as we were going into the place of prayer, we were met by a young female slave who had a spirit of divination and who brought in profit to her lords by fortune-telling (Ac 16:16, AT)
  • Lydia – wealthy woman (Ac 16:14) contrasted with slave girl (Pao, 1198)
  • Spirit is literally “python” (Marshall, 285)
  • Πύθων (pythōn) is the name of the serpent or dragon that guarded the oracle in Delphi and was said to have been slain by Apollo (EDNT, 196; Marshall, 285 cf. Polhill, 351). Anybody who was thought to predict the future was thought to be led by the “python” (Polhill, 351)
  • Very powerful spirit (Keener, Lecture); Many people throughout history have reported witnessing demonic possession (Keener, Lecture)
  • Back then, people with a spirit of prophecy (cf. Ac 21:9), would often have their words cleaned up and/or made more ambiguous by pagan priests (just in case the prophecy didn’t come true) (Keener, Lecture)
  • Python also meant ventriloquist. She’s being described as one who possessed by a demon who is in a sense acting as her ventriloquist (Marshall, 285)
  • She is a gold mine for her lords (Polhill, 351)
  • Slave girl is being manipulated physically and spiritually (cf. Pao)

Acts 16:17 — Demonic Witness

  • While that girl was following, to Paul and us she cried out saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you a(the)1 way of salvation.” (Ac 16:17, AT)
  • “Most High” might imply pantheon, not necessarily orthodox beliefs (Keener, Lecture). “Most High” often referred to Zeus (Keener, IVP; Polhill, 351) so they may be perceived as serving  just another “god” in a pantheon (Polhill, 351)
  • “In the ancient world generally, one was thought to have power over something if one knew its real name, thus it is often argued that the evil spirits tried to gain this type of control over Jesus and the disciples.” (Gempf, 1091)
  • But she is likely addressing the public – blowing the cover of God’s undercover work (Gempf, 1091)
  • In Luke-Acts, demons often get Jesus’ title right:
    • 34 “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Lk 4:34, NIV, NIV; Marshall, 285)
    • 41 Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah. (Lk 4:41, NIV; Marshall, 285)
    • 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” (Lk 8:28, NIV; Marshall, 285)

Acts 16:18 — Out of Bondage

  • And she did that over many days. But Paul, having become very annoyed, turned around and said to the spirit, “I command you, in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out that very hour (i.e., moment). (Ac 16:18, AT)
  • Demons aren’t the best witnesses (Keener, Lecture)
  • Over many days, Paul may have discerned that this profession was not matched by a genuine conversion (Gempf, 1091)
  • She is freed from spiritual bondage (Pao, 1199)

Acts 16:19 — Out of Money

  • Seeing that the hope of their profit had gone out, her masters seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities (Ac 16:19, AT)
  • Owners must’ve been mad! They didn’t do anything to Paul and Silas! (Gempf, 1091)
  • gone out (exercomai) – same word to describe exorcism of Ac 16:18 (cf. Polhill, 351)
  • Marketplace (agora) was central marketplace, which served as a forum and not necessarily where there were a lot of items being sold (Keener, Lecture) – center of civic activity (Keener, IVP)
  • In Ephesus, the gospel ruined business of those who were selling silver for the shrines/temples for the god Artemis (Eph 19:23-27; Marshall, 286; Polhill, 352)
  • The Gospel can mess up people’s business. We can’t be surprised when businesses and corporations support causes that are contrary to Christ – they want to stay in business!

Acts 16:20-21 — Antisemitic Rationale

  • and having brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are stirring up trouble in our city: Being Jewish,… (Ac 16:20, AT)
  • …they are proclaiming customs which are not lawful for us to accept or practice, being Roman.” (Ac 16:21, AT)
  • Didn’t say that they had exorcised a demon that was making them money, didn’t say they had damaged property… but a baser charge (Keener, Lecture cf. Polhill, 352)
  • They capitalized on Anti-Jewish sentiment (Keener, Lecture; cf. Ac 18:2; Marshall, 286; Gempf, 1091; Polhill, 352)
  • Jews would be eventually be kicked out of Rome in Ac 18:2, 12-17; Philippi was a Roman colony (Marshall, 286)
  • They appealed to the desire for “law and order” (Polhill, 352)
  • Officially, Romans were not to practice foreign religions (didn’t always work out that way in practice) (Marshall, 287; Polhill, 352)
  • Romans often complained that Jews were always converting people (Keener, IVP)
  • Christians wanted to save people from fire! (Keener, Lecture). What is right according to Scripture, may be seen as wrong according to society

Acts 16:22 — No Good Deed Unpunished

  • and the crowd joined the attack against them. The magistrates, having had Paul and Silas’ clothes torn off, ordered them to be beaten with rods (Ac 16:22, AT)
  • Normal for people to be stripped when being punished (Keener, Lecture; Marshall, 287)
  • Being naked was very humiliating, especially for Jews (Keener, Lecture). It discourages followers (Keener, IVP)
  • This is not America; one was not innocent before proven guilty! People were often beaten to coerce evidence (Keener, IVP)
  • Certain Roman police (called lictors cf. Polhill, 352) carried rods known as fasces (Mussolini used this symbol in the fascist movement’ Polhill, 352). Roman citizens were not to be beaten like this, but the authorities didn’t know Paul was a citizen yet. (Marshall, 287)
  • Paul talks about his persecutions at length in other letters (2 Cor 11:24-28 cf. Marshall, 287; Polhill, 353)
  • You can be doing the Lord’s will and still face hardship and persecution
  • 18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” (Jn 15:18, NIV cf. Jn 16:33; Mk 13:13, etc.)

Acts 16:23-24 — Masters’ Stock Drops, Paul & Silas Dropped in Stocks

  • 23 After subjecting them to many blows, they threw them into prison and commanded the jailer to guard them securely (Ac 16:23, AT)
  • 24 who, upon receiving such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks (Ac 16:24, AT)
  • Inner prison would have no light (Keener, Lecture); stocks could also be used for torture (Keener, IVP; Polhill, 353)
  • Likely extra precautions for people with known to have power! (Marshall, 287); they are thrown in the dungeon (Polhill, 353)
  • Irony: After setting the slave girl free from spiritual bondage, they find themselves in physical bondage (cf. Pao, 1199)
  • Another depiction of maximum security; only God can set them free (Marshall, 287)

Acts 16:25 — Midnight Music

  • About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Ac 16:25, AT)
  • Verb (ὑμνέω |hymneō) literally means “hymning!”
  • Cf. Peter was sleeping in prison before his divine rescue (Ac 12:6 cf. Polhill, 355)
  • Midnight is when people are trying to sleep! (Keener, Lecture). Who hates loud music at night?
  • Hard to sleep in the first place. Re: wounds, smells, no bathrooms, etc. (Keener, Lecture)
  • When I merely stub my toe, the first words out of my mouth are usually not prayers and hymns!
  • Not sure if they were holy or wholly out of their mind (Gempf, 1091)!
  • Christian principles in action:
    • 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-5, NIV; Marshall, 288)
    • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (Jas 1:2-3, NIV; Marshall, 288)

Acts 16:26 — Earthquake!

  • 26 Suddenly, there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. Immediately, all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. (Ac 16:26, AT)
  • Earthquakes were relatively common in Philippi. God can use natural means to achieve His desired purpose (Keener, Lecture)
  • 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. (Ex 14:21-22, NIV; cf. Keener, Lecture)
  • Supernatural means of escape (Gempf, 1091)

Acts 16:27 — Deathly Decision

  • Having been awakened and seeing that the doors of the prison had been opened, the jailer drew his sword and was about to execute himself, assuming the prisoners had escaped (Ac 16:27, AT)
  • Suicide, in many cultures, was/is considered more noble than being executed (Keener, Lecture cf. Keener, IVP)
  • Historically, Christians have been against suicide as a noble death. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that mental health issues are very real (Keener, Lecture)
  • With Peter’s third prison break, the guards are executed (Ac 12:19). If a guard let a prisoner go, whatever punishment the prisoner was going to get, was applied to the guard (cf. Marshall, 288; Polhill, 355)
  • In this case, the guard probably thinks everyone has escaped! (Keener, Lecture)

Acts 16:28 — Don’t Do It!

  • But Paul called out in a loud voice saying, “Do not do any harm to yourself! For we are all here.” (Ac 16:28, AT)
  • Paul saves him from killing himself. He could have let him do it…
  • Supernatural (in)sight from Paul (Marshall, 289)?
  • Prisoners may have stayed for fear of the guards (Keener, IVP) or Paul may have encouraged them to stay (Gempf, 1092)

Acts 16:29-30 — What Must I Do?

  • 29 Asking for a torch, he rushed in and trembling, prostrated himself before Paul and Silas (Ac 16:29, AT)
  • 30 And, having brought them outside, he said, “Lords, what must I do to be saved?“ (Ac 16:30, AT)
  • “Asking how to be saved is a motif in Luke-Acts (Lk 3:10; 10:25; 18:18; Acts 2:37);” (Keener, IVP)
  • kurios (“Lord”) could be a polite term meaning “sir” – especially in the vocative case (Keener, Lecture)
  • Perhaps the jailer heard the demon-possessed woman proclaiming that they were servants of the Most High God who were declaring the way of salvation (Keener, Lecture)
  • Miracles serve to confirm Paul and Silas’ message (cf. Marshall, 289)

Acts 16:31 — Believe ON the Lord Jesus

  • And they said, “Believe upon the Lord Jesus and you will be saved — the same goes for your household (Ac 16:31, AT)
  • In that culture, people were expected to follow the religion of the head of the household (Keener, IVP) usually the husband (Keener, Lecture)
  • Grammar: sometimes a subject referring to multiple parties (compound subject) gets a singular verb to emphasize the most prominent member of the party (Wallace, 401-402; see footnote–>)2 For example:

    • “Matt 13:55 Is not his mother called Mary and his brothers [called] James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Wallace, 401-402)
    • John 2:2 Jesus was invited to the wedding and [so were] his disciples. The connotation seems to be “Jesus was invited to the wedding and his disciples tagged along.” (Wallace, 401-402)
    • “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved—and if members of your house believe they too will be saved.” The condition is the same for both and the offer is the same for both.” (Wallace, 401-402)
  • Same conditions and terms (Marshal, 289); no “proxy” faith (Polhill, 356)
  • Believe ON vs. Believe that. There’s a difference between believing that (intellectual assent) and believing in (belief/faith in action). We have discussed this previously in the study on James 2:14-26 (Faith & Works)
  • Irony: Those in physical bondage show their jailer the way to spiritual freedom! (Pao, 1199)

Acts 16:32 — Conversion & Instruction

  • And they took to him the word of the Lord, along with everyone in his house(hold) (Ac 16:32, AT)
  • More explanation, they didn’t just leave. More instruction is necessary after conversion (Marshall, 290)

Acts 16:33 — Washing: Cleansing and Baptism

  • And taking them with him, in that hour of the night, he washed their wounds and he was immediately baptized — the same for everyone in his house (Ac 16:33, AT)
  • He washed their wounds; he was washed by baptism (Keener, Lecture)
  • Jailer risks getting into trouble by eating with prisoners in his home! (Keener, IVP)
  • Change of heart leads to change in action (Marshall, 290)!
  • Just like with Lydia’s conversion led to hospitality (Ac 16:15) (Polhill, 356)

Acts 16:34 — Christian Hospitality

  • Having led them up into the house, he prepared a meal and rejoiced with all in the house, because he had believed in God (Ac 16:34, AT)
  • Table fellowship! Probably not kosher (Keener, Lecture)
  • We should not miss the remarkable nature of Jews and former prisoners eating at the table of their former Gentile jailer (Keener, Lecture)
  • “No longer prisoners in his eyes; they were brothers in Christ” (Polhill, 356)


  • Following and serving Christ — even driving out demons in his name – can lead to hardship and persecution
  • God can use natural and supernatural means to achieve His purpose
  • It’s OK to praise God even in the midst of trouble, for we know God is Sovereign (Keener, Lecture)
  • The miracle wasn’t merely to physically free Paul and Silas, but to spiritually free the jailer – and his household (Polhill, 355)
  • Our sufferings can lead to someone else’s salvation
  • From spiritual bondage, only God can set people free

Greek Text (UBS5)

16 Ἐγένετο δὲ πορευομένων ἡμῶν εἰς τὴν προσευχὴν παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα ὑπαντῆσαι ἡμῖν, ἥτις ἐργασίαν πολλὴν παρεῖχεν τοῖς κυρίοις αὐτῆς μαντευομένη. 17 αὕτη κατακολουθοῦσα τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ ἡμῖν ἔκραζεν λέγουσα, Οὗτοι οἱ ἄνθρωποι δοῦλοι τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου εἰσίν, οἵτινες καταγγέλλουσιν ὑμῖν6 ὁδὸν σωτηρίας. 18 τοῦτο δὲ ἐποίει ἐπὶ πολλὰς ἡμέρας. διαπονηθεὶς δὲ Παῦλος καὶ ἐπιστρέψας τῷ πνεύματι εἶπεν, Παραγγέλλω σοι ἐν ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐξελθεῖν ἀπʼ αὐτῆς καὶ ἐξῆλθεν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ. 19 ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ κύριοι αὐτῆς ὅτι ἐξῆλθεν ἡ ἐλπὶς τῆς ἐργασίας αὐτῶν, ἐπιλαβόμενοι τὸν Παῦλον καὶ τὸν Σιλᾶν εἵλκυσαν εἰς τὴν ἀγορὰν ἐπὶ τοὺς ἄρχοντας 20 καὶ προσαγαγόντες αὐτοὺς τοῖς στρατηγοῖς εἶπαν, Οὗτοι οἱ ἄνθρωποι ἐκταράσσουσιν ἡμῶν τὴν πόλιν, Ἰουδαῖοι ὑπάρχοντες, 21 καὶ καταγγέλλουσιν ἔθη ἃ οὐκ ἔξεστιν ἡμῖν παραδέχεσθαι οὐδὲ ποιεῖν Ῥωμαίοις οὖσιν. 22 καὶ συνεπέστη ὁ ὄχλος κατʼ αὐτῶν καὶ οἱ στρατηγοὶ περιρήξαντες αὐτῶν τὰ ἱμάτια ἐκέλευον ῥαβδίζειν, 23 πολλάς τε ἐπιθέντες αὐτοῖς πληγὰς ἔβαλον εἰς φυλακὴν παραγγείλαντες τῷ δεσμοφύλακι ἀσφαλῶς τηρεῖν αὐτούς. 24 ὃς παραγγελίαν τοιαύτην λαβὼν ἔβαλεν αὐτοὺς εἰς τὴν ἐσωτέραν φυλακὴν καὶ τοὺς πόδας ἠσφαλίσατο αὐτῶν εἰς τὸ ξύλον.
25 Κατὰ δὲ τὸ μεσονύκτιον Παῦλος καὶ Σιλᾶς προσευχόμενοι ὕμνουν τὸν θεόν, ἐπηκροῶντο δὲ αὐτῶν οἱ δέσμιοι. 26 ἄφνω δὲ σεισμὸς ἐγένετο μέγας ὥστε σαλευθῆναι τὰ θεμέλια τοῦ δεσμωτηρίου· ἠνεῴχθησαν δὲ παραχρῆμα αἱ θύραι πᾶσαι καὶ πάντων τὰ δεσμὰ ἀνέθη. 27 ἔξυπνος δὲ γενόμενος ὁ δεσμοφύλαξ καὶ ἰδὼν ἀνεῳγμένας τὰς θύρας τῆς φυλακῆς, σπασάμενος [τὴν] μάχαιραν ἤμελλεν ἑαυτὸν ἀναιρεῖν νομίζων ἐκπεφευγέναι τοὺς δεσμίους. 28 ἐφώνησεν δὲ μεγάλῃ φωνῇ [ὁ] Παῦλος λέγων, Μηδὲν πράξῃς σεαυτῷ κακόν, ἅπαντες γάρ ἐσμεν ἐνθάδε. 29 αἰτήσας δὲ φῶτα εἰσεπήδησεν καὶ ἔντρομος γενόμενος προσέπεσεν τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ [τῷ] Σιλᾷ 30 καὶ προαγαγὼν αὐτοὺς ἔξω ἔφη, Κύριοι, τί με δεῖ ποιεῖν ἵνα σωθῶ; 31 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Πίστευσον ἐπὶ τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ σωθήσῃ σὺ καὶ ὁ οἶκός σου. 32 καὶ ἐλάλησαν αὐτῷ τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου7 σὺν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 33 καὶ παραλαβὼν αὐτοὺς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τῆς νυκτὸς ἔλουσεν ἀπὸ τῶν πληγῶν, καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη αὐτὸς καὶ οἱ αὐτοῦ πάντες παραχρῆμα, 34 ἀναγαγών τε αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν οἶκον παρέθηκεν τράπεζαν καὶ ἠγαλλιάσατο πανοικεὶ πεπιστευκὼς τῷ θεῷ.3


  • Gempf, Conrad. “Acts.” In New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham, 4th ed., 1066–1107. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
  • Keener, Craig. “Acts, Lecture 17: Acts 16-17”. March 1, 2016. or on YouTube
  • Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
  • Marshall, I. Howard. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 5. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
  • Pao, David in Burge, Gary M., and Andrew E. Hill, eds. The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012.
  • Polhill, John B. Acts. Vol. 26. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.


  1. in the Greek there is no definite article (i.e., “the”)

  2. When two subjects, each in the singular, are joined by a conjunction, the verb is usually in the plural (e.g., in Acts 15:35 we read: Παῦλος καὶ Βαρναβᾶς διέτριβον ἐν Ἀντιοχείᾳ [Paul and Barnabas were staying in Antioch]). However, when an author wants to highlight one of the subjects, the verb is put in the singular. (This even occurs when one of the subjects is in the plural.) The first-named subject is the one being stressed in such instances…It is sometimes argued that only the Philippian jailer needed to exercise faith in order for his household to be saved. This view is based on the use of the singular verbs πίστευσον and σωθήσῃ. Such a notion is foreign to the Greek, for in the other instances of a compound subject with a singular verb the second nom. was still subject of the verb. Applied here, since the two verbs are linked by καί, there is no reason to treat them differently: πίστις is required of the jailer’s family if they are to receive σωτηρία. The reason for the singular each time is evidently that the jailer is present while his family is not (Paul could not very easily have said, “All of you believe …” when speaking to one man). An expanded translation brings this out: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved—and if members of your house believe they too will be saved.” The condition is the same for both and the offer is the same for both.”Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 401–402.
  3. Barbara Aland et al., eds., The Greek New Testament, Fifth Revised Edition (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2014), Ac 16:16–34.
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