Luke-Acts: Acts 16

Acts 16 contains a portion of Paul’s second missionary journey, which began at the end of chapter 15 and which will go on until 18:22. We hear about some extraordinary things happening, as well as some “ordinary” things such as preaching and Baptism. Of course, we might describe these things as “ordinary” in terms of the ministry of the Church, but because God is at work through them, they truly are extra-ordinary as well; they really should be (and are) just as notable as things like visions and demon exorcism. It’s all God at work.

Map of Paul's second missionary journey
Paul's Second Missionary Journey. Image courtesy

16:1-2 We’re introduced to Timothy and given some background about him. This helps connect us to what we know as the books of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, where, for instance, we learn that Timothy’s mother was named Eunice and was instrumental in passing on the Christian faith to him. We infer from this account that Timothy’s father wasn’t a believer in Christ.

16:3 This may strike us as quite remarkable, given what we just read in chapter 15 about how Gentiles (Timothy’s father was Greek, so he wasn’t completely Jewish by heritage) should not be compelled to adopt Jewish practices and customs. Here Timothy is circumcised! Why? The key is that he wasn’t compelled to do so as if he needed to be for salvation. He underwent it so that his presence in the synagogues wouldn’t be contested. It would, literally and figuratively, open the door for Christian preaching. Contrast this to the approach Paul took in Galatians 4, and we see that conforming to Jewish practice is a contextual thing; it’s an option, but never required.

16:4-5 The result of their ministry (remember, Paul was commissioned by the church in Antioch to go on this journey, 15:36-40) is that the churches are strengthened in the faith and that God gave them numerical growth as well.

One thing we can learn from this is to be precise when talking about “growth” in churches. Growth can happen in two different ways, and they’re not necessarily tied together. Growth in faith (to use the language of Acts, being strengthened) is one kind of growth, and growth in numbers (people being added to the fellowship) is another. Though the ideal is always both, just because one is happening doesn’t mean the other is. Growth in faith is something that we always desire, whether or not growth in numbers is happening. And we must be seriously concerned if a growth in numbers is happening while people are not growing in faith.

16:6-7 The first question that might come to mind after reading this verse is, why would the Holy Spirit (note that He’s also referred to as the Spirit of Jesus) not want them to speak the word anywhere? The simple answer we must content ourselves with here is, the Spirit didn’t reveal His reasoning here, so we cannot presume to answer. As we’ll hear about (and can see on the map above), they did eventually come to Ephesus in Asia, so perhaps this prohibition more a matter of the Lord’s timing.

16:8-9 Paul is called to Macedonia in a vision. This may have been in a sort of dream similar to other Biblical accounts (e.g. Matthew 1:20, 2:12, 2:13).

16:10 This verse is noteworthy because Luke shifts from third-person (they) language to first-person (we). We know that Luke carefully sourced his account, and so this may be an indication that he’s switching from his notes of reported accounts to a first-hand account. This first-person writing appears from 16:10-17 and then again in chapter 20.

16:11-15 The account of the conversion of Lydia is a simple yet beautiful one. Continuing the Jewish theme, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (and presumably others as well) seek out a place of prayer on the Sabbath. That there isn’t a synagogue to enter is notable; there needed to be 10 Jewish men to establish a synagogue, and that seems to be lacking here. But many faithful women are present, including Lydia, who sold “purple” goods. That doesn’t necessarily stand out in our context, but purple was a colour of royalty and luxury. Not naturally occurring, it was expensive to dye clothing and other fabrics this colour. So any time the colour purple shows up in the Bible, it’s noteworthy (e.g. for the tabernacle, Exodus 35-39; the rich man of the parable in Luke 16:19). From this we can infer that Lydia was a woman of significant wealth.

Again the geography is notable; God prevented the missionaries from going to Asia, but here in Philippi of Macedonia is a woman from Asia (Thyatira was north of Ephesus)! (This Philippi is the city that bears the name of Paul’s letter to them: Philippians.) She, like others we’ve already met in Acts, seems to be a Gentile who was a Jewish convert. And notice that it’s God at work here; it is God who opens her heart as she listens to Paul’s preaching. And then God seals her and her household in baptism, a “regular” result of hearing and believing the Word.

And then she goes on to show the fruit of hospitality to the missionaries by hosting them. It’s possible that her house was the location of the congregation in Philippi; the regular practice of that very early church was that someone of means would host a group of Christians in the home. There weren’t church buildings as we know them today in that very early church.

16:13-14 The Greek phrasing suggests that it may have been more than one Sabbath and/or more than one time of preaching and hearing (note again the ongoing theme of people being “hearers” of the Word). Regardless of the timing, God was at work through the Word.

16:16-18 Luke is intentional about highlighting women in Luke-Acts, particularly that Jesus and His followers ministered to them, and that they were close companions of Jesus and His disciples who were involved with the work of the Church. This one has a different aspect to it, though. Even though she speaks the truth (16:17), she is possessed by a spirit. (This is consistent with other appearances of spirits in the Gospels and Acts; they know who Jesus is, and they recognize His Word at work.)

16:19-24 The exorcism has consequences; those who were forcing the girl to make them much money off her fortune-telling have lost their income source. So they persecute Paul and Silas. This has happened before from Jewish people, now it’s happening from Gentiles.

16:25 Even in prison, Paul and Silas continue their ministry! Again, people are hearing!

16:26 A miraculous setting-free not just of Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners.

16:27 The standard punishment for a guard whose prisoners escaped was that the guard would receive whatever the prisoner’s fate was to be. So we can infer that at least one of the prisoners was to sentenced to death.

16:28-34 Remarkably, no prisoners make their escape, and it becomes an opportunity to witness to Jesus. This jailer had seen a sign, and now it was explained to him what (more properly, who) the sign was pointing to. Once again, preaching leads to baptism and hospitality.

16:35-39 We come to learn that the Roman authorities have acted unjustly; Paul and Silas are in fact Roman citizens and so should not have been treated like they were. They were now in danger of being punished by their superiors. Paul makes a small use of his earthly rights here, not to exact revenge but simply to keep the rulers accountable.

16:40 Having been released, they head back to see Lydia and the others. These travel narratives usually end with the fact of the people of the Church in various places being encouraged as the missionaries go about their travels.