My Chains Fell Off, My Heart Was Free

Tom Nettles
| Acts 16:16–40 | January 1, 2018

The work in Philippi had begun with a peaceful situation at a place of prayer by the river. A woman had been converted, along with those of her house, and had made her home the center of continuing work in the city. On a return trip to the place of prayer, a demon possessed girl began to stalk them and call out after them This led to a series of events in which the gospel message penetrated some of the most unlikely corners of society. Paul could write to the Philippians later, with entire credibility, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (1:29). Just as surely as their faith had been granted by the kindness of God’s grace, so had suffering been granted by the wisdom of God’s providence.

 

I. Demonic Aggravation – 16-24. A woman who had extraordinary powers as a result of demonic possession followed Paul and Silas through the town.

A. A demonic façade of credibility – 16-18.

  1. The girl was under bondage to the devil and was being used by profiteers in the demonic insight given to her. One of the purposes of the gospel was to release people from the power of Satan (Ephesians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4). “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [the cross]” (Colossians 2:15). Compassion for the girl would drive Paul to cast out the demon in the name of Jesus.
  2. Her message, while strictly true, was not in its essence the gospel but drew attention to Paul and Silas themselves. It could have been an attempt on the part of the demon to achieve a compromise so that he would not be cast out, and Paul would end up with some degree of alliance with the enemy in his task of gospel preaching. See parallel in Mark 5:1-13, where the demons were addressing Jesus as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” Jesus’ disclosure of his identity was his business not theirs.
  3. If Paul needed supernatural intervention, he knew, as an apostle, God would provide what was needed and he should not in any sense imply approval of the demonic possession of a person made in God’s image. His personal proclamation would be a sufficient demonstration of the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16, 17).
  4. Paul’s action in casting out the demon showed the true power of the name of Jesus Christ in freeing the girl from the darkness of such spiritual oppression. Nothing more is said of her, but it is hard to imagine that she did not also hear and respond to the gospel. Perhaps like the man of a legion of demons (Mark 5:15, 19) she was now settled in a peaceful repose, in her right mind, and fully attentive to the true gospel as a child of great mercy.
  5. This passage demonstrates powerfully the distinction between correctness of head knowledge and the consent and adoration of heart knowledge. The devil in Matthew 4, the demons of Mark 5, the spirit of Acts 16, and the devils of James 2:19 all indicate true notions about God and Christ, even fitting fear, but nevertheless are enemies of the gospel and have the intent of destruction. True faith arises from a change of heart, both understanding and affections. This involves assertion of the truth, confession of personal blame and need, and opening of spiritual eyes to the glory of Christ’s person and work in freeing us from sin and Satan and uniting us to the saving grace of God.

B. The aggressive evil of covetousness – 19-21. In Mark 5: 17, the owners of the pigs wanted Jesus to leave their territory; these owners of a person wanted Paul and Silas to be punished for their action.

  1. Their motivation had nothing to do with true justice, but only to do with a loss of profits gained by the most sinister of means.
  2. They took matters into their own hands, dragging them to the magistrates and hurling a barrage of imprecise, undemonstrated charges. At the time Paul and Silas were apprehended, there is no evidence that any turmoil existed.
  3. The accusations concerned only the assumed differences between Jews and Romans. The legal status of Jewish monotheism contrary to the polytheistic syncretism of Rome, had a long and hard-won history. Certain restrictions existed, however, in the process of proselytization. This objection has elements in it of the eventual all-out persecution by the Roman empire of the church.

C. The blindness of prejudice – 22-24

  1. The crowd, after these charges were brought “rose up together against them.” This is an example of pure antisemitism. How much these hostiles knew of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, about whom Paul preached and whose name he had invoked in his “crime” we don’t know. They seemed to sense, however, that it was a special application of the Jewish religion that had caused them to lose profit.
  2. Without hearing their side of the case, and without trial, the magistrates stripped them, struck them with blows, and threw them into prison. Paul knew that God would intervene in order to gain a broader sharing for the gospel, but perhaps did not anticipate this particular way of accomplishing it.
  3. The jailer, having received strict orders concerning their imprisonment, made their incarceration as sure as possible, putting them in the inner prison, or dungeon, and fastening their feet in stocks. God will bring his people to extremities in their helplessness in order to demonstrate his control of all things and the overwhelming power of his deliverance. He is not at the mercy of demons to declare his message. Nor can the most intense and apparently fail-safe strategies of human opposition hinder him in his determination to save his elect (2 Peter 1:3, 4, 10; 3:9, 14, 15).

 

II. Providential Intervention – 25-30

A. God gave grace to rejoice under persecution. – Verse 25. Another demonstration of the difference in a saving knowledge of God and mere mental assent is found in the response of Paul and Silas in “praying and singing hymns of praise to God.” The soul in the throes of redemptive love finds the goodness of God in everything and knows that the grace of forgiveness and justification transcends infinitely the most egregious of earthly circumstances. The singing of hymns was a greater evidence of the power of God than the earthquake that followed.

B. God intervened by means of the forces of nature – Verse 26.

  1. The entire world stands under condemnation, on the edge of eternal destruction, and will come to the time when such a display is consummated with holy fierceness and finality (Zephaniah 3: 8; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10). Before then, God may manifest his displeasure through the means of nature in what we consider natural disasters (Habakkuk 3: 3-12) He also may use these same manifestations of sovereign power for the salvation of his people both before the final judgment as well as at that time (Habakkuk 3:13; Zephaniah 3:9-20).
  2. On this occasion God manifested his perfect control of all things in opening the doors, loosing both stocks and chains, and keeping all the prisoners in their places. Physical barriers were thrown down while the natural tendency of felons to escape was changed into satisfaction with the presence of the praise of God.

C. Despair turned to hope – Verses 27-30

  1. The jailer had been given the job of assuring that all the prisoners were kept until they could be disposed of according to the laws of the state. They were his responsibility until that time. Any failure could result in the forfeiture of his life (See Acts 12:19).
  2. When the earthquake opened the doors of the prison, he assumed that the “prisoners had escaped.” Rather than face both the interrogation and humiliation before the authorities with the end result of an execution, he would take the execution into his own hands. He had been seized with a sense of ultimate despair and hopelessness from which there was no escape. At this point it was the fear of mere physical execution that drove him.
  3. Paul, either by knowledge of the law in such cases or by seeing the jailer draw his sword, called to him not to harm himself.
  • “We are all here,” he said. Not only were Paul and Silas there but all the prisoners stayed put. Again, we are not told about the prisoners beyond that fact, but it was at least possible, if not likely, that all had been saved. Like the thief on the cross, their crimes, so obvious to all, had put them near the word of salvation (Look at Philippians 1:3-5 for a possible reference to this experience).
  • God was building the church at Philippi from a business woman who sold purple cloth, a demon-possessed girl, people under incarceration, and, soon, the jailer himself. Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
  1. Having passed by the fear of self-murder or public execution, an even greater fear gripped his soul. One burning issue now ransacked his conscience and he must make his way to the preachers of the gospel without delay. He did not bother to reattach the chains or even close the door to the prison, but called for a light and fell at the feet of Paul and Silas. Obviously having knowledge of the central features of their message from his awareness of the “crimes” which brought on the riot, he immediately posed the question about an ultimate issue. They spoke of a “way of salvation,” and the guilt that lay on his soul was pressing him with a greater sense of condemnation than any earthly tribunal.

 

III. A Gospel Presentation – 31-34. When Paul wrote to the Philippian church later from prison, he said, “My circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” (Phil 1:12). They had seen this first hand in his first evangelistic visit to Philippi.

A. The Gospel in a sentence – Verse 31 We will take a brief look at the importance of each word.

  1. The word “Believe” comes from a root word that implies several aspects of the understanding and affection. The character of each of these attributes in the kind of faith that saves comes from the nature of the gospel itself.
  • This word begins with cognition. One must know the objective claims that are made. We cannot believe what is not presented to the mind and defined.
  • Assent is included. One must be convinced that the presentation is true. Yes, Jesus lived; yes, Jesus died on the cross; yes, Jesus rose from the dead; yes, it was for others that he died for he had no sin of his own; yes, it is right that God receives sinners only through him; yes, I deserve condemnation and the verdict of divine wrath against me is just.
  • Cordial consent follows assent. The heart and the affections embrace this way of salvation and find in Jesus the only worthy object of trust, love, and worship. “Whom having not seen, you love; and even now, though you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable, full of glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1: 8, 9). “If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
  1. “In,” “on,” or “upon.” This implies a trustworthy and stable foundation that will bear the weight of the thing that is placed “upon” it. The conviction of our helplessness is so strong, of our guilt is so oppressive, and of Christ’s worthiness and acceptability so simple that we can see no other refuge than his unchanging love and perfect reconciliation.
  2. Lord Jesus Christ – This nomenclature includes an affirmation of each aspect of the person and work of the One who will save.
  • “Lord” affirms the sovereignty of the object of faith. He is Lord, ruler, final authority. This title attributes to him deity. It identifies him as the God of covenantal, redemptive love.
  • He is identified with a specific historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. Not only does his name identify his function, “Jehovah is salvation,” but it shows that salvation is to be found only in the historical events of this person. As Peter had said, “Neither is there salvation in any other for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
  • This is Christ, the God/man who was anointed to accomplish all the works figured and prophesied in the types, sacrifices, offices, and ceremonies of the elect nation Israel. He was the fulfillment of all prophecies and was the epitome of all prophets (Luke 24:25-27; Hebrews 1:1, 2); He was the final priest in that he offered himself once for all as a propitiation for sins (Hebrews 1:3; 2:17, 18; 7:26, 27; 9:12-14; 10:11-14)0: 13:20, 21). He is king and reigns over his church forever and will see every knee bow to him and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Psalm 2:7-12; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 6:15-17; John 18:33-37).
  • “You will be saved,” – This is a clear affirmation of justification by faith. All that is necessary for full salvation is found in Christ and in Christ alone. Salvation from condemnation is assured. Eternal life by his righteousness is granted. Salvation from the tyranny of a corrupt heart and the destructive flow of ugliness that constantly plagues our days is certain.
  • “You and your household” is an elliptical construction meaning, “and if your household believes, they too will be saved.”

B. An expansion of the sentence and of the audience – Verse 32. This implication led the jailer to take these prisoners to his household where his family also could hear the message of the gospel. The jailer heard the gospel, put in such summary form earlier, in an expanded form now. All that were in his house were present and heard this same presentation.

C. Saving faith confirmed by obedience and compassionate action – Verses 33, 34.

  1. His radical change of heart immediately was demonstrated in the jailer’s washing their wounds. A man who was not accustomed to compassion and gentleness, but only to the harsh realities of crime and punishment, now becomes lamblike, harmless as a dove, and manifests humble tenderness. He looked “to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:4).
  2. Paul obviously had included Christ’s command to baptize those who had become disciples, He and all his household were baptized. They had been united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection and now their verbal profession and heart submission were confirmed by their obedience to this external symbol.
  3. Their baptism is followed by another manifestation of their union with Paul and Silas in faith. They set a meal before them, since they were greatly in need of nourishment in light of the physical trauma of the day. But this was not done out of sense of guilt or in a condescending way, but with great rejoicing, arising out of the reality of the faith that both he and his household had gained.

 

IV. A Righteous Vindication – 35-40

A. The magistrates seek to gloss over a mistake – Verses 35, 36. Probably aware of their peremptory, and perhaps illegal, actions of the day before, the officials wanted the evidence of their incompetence out of sight. The prisoners received the word third hand. This disrespectful and impersonal manner of hiding from their evil was not to be embraced by Paul.

B. Paul confronted them with the dereliction of duty as public officials – Verse 37.

  1. They had been beaten in public and without trial. This was inexcusable and a significant breach of public trust and illegal in itself.
  2. Paul and Silas were Roman citizens with special protections under the law. None of these had been observed in addition to the outrage of indiscriminate punishment.
  3. In addition, they had been thrown into prison as if they were to await another punishment in addition to the beating for crimes that were not specified, untried, and unproven. Even with Paul’s joy in divine providence over the fallout of these events, he would not suffer fools lightly but demanded that they own up to their incompetence. “Let them come and bring us out themselves.”

C. The effort to save face – Verses 38, 39. The irresponsibility of their actions fell with weight on their sense of public status. How embarrassing! And with possible repercussions for their position or their own lives. They are now at the mercy of Paul and Silas and come to them. First, they “appealed to them,” probably admitting their mistake and asking that they not make any official charges as Romans citizens against them. Having received some assurance that the prisoners did not want to exact any official penalties, but only their personal owning of responsibility, the official ended by “begging them to leave the city.” The heart of evil does not like to linger around evidences of its malfeasance.

D. Being led in triumph – Verse 40. They went to the place that had been the center of their activity. Those who had been converted since they arrived (probably including others of whom we are not told) had gathered. Paul and Silas were able to give further instruction and encouragement before they departed. The vision of the man from Macedonia had yielded the first converts in Europe and changed the entire trajectory of the movement of the gospel.