Video Uploaded: .
The Spreading Flame - Series 5: Episode 2

The church planted in Philippi

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 16:11-40

Paul went to Philippi. He met Lydia at the place of prayer. She responded to the Gospel message. A slave girl disrupted Paul's work until he cast out the evil spirit from her in the name of Jesus, causing her owners to lose income. They took Paul and Silas to the magistrates, who beat and imprisoned them. Overnight God set them free through an earthquake. The jailer was saved and the magistrates escorted Paul and Silas out of the city.

Paul went to Philippi. He met Lydia at the place of prayer. She responded to the Gospel message. A slave girl disrupted Paul's work until he cast out the evil spirit from her in the name of Jesus, causing her owners to lose income. They took Paul and Silas to the magistrates, who beat and imprisoned them. Overnight God set them free through an earthquake. The jailer was saved and the magistrates escorted Paul and Silas out of the city.


Welcome to this episode. Each series sees a development of the impact of the Gospel as described by Luke. We started in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the Gentiles, and in this series the Gospel is coming to European territory.

Background and Introduction

We saw in the first episode, the amazing way that this happened. Something totally surprising happened to Paul when he had a vision. In the vision in the night, there was a man who appeared to him who looked as though he came from the province of Macedonia, which is in northern Greece today, who called to Paul and said, “Come over and help us.” Paul, at that time, was in Asia Minor, in the area around Troas. He felt that God was redirecting him and calling him to move countries.

We told the story last time about how that vision came about and now we’re going to see what actually happens when they land in the territory of Europe, in the territory of Macedonia in particular. Paul’s group arrives at a big and well-known city, called Philippi. This is the first moment that he is entering into a new country so, what happens here is incredibly important and proves to be very dramatic. There are a number of interesting themes here: the power of God, persecution and opposition from satanic forces. All sorts of things are happening in this very dramatic story. I invite you to share this amazing story with me, which comes in several parts. We’re going to start with Acts 16:11 - 15,

Arrival in Philippi

11 ‘From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.’

Acts 16:11-15, NIV

The scene is the major city of Philippi. It was described as a Roman colony, which means that the Romans brought their culture into that city. They allowed some of their citizens, and particularly those who had retired from the army, to come and live in these special Roman colonies. There were many retired soldiers, administrators and others, living in the city of Philippi.

When Paul went there, he thought, ‘How am I going to connect with the people?’ This is the evangelist’s question all the time, “How am I going to actually connect with people?” You are always looking for that point of connection. His first thought would be, ‘Is there a synagogue here?’ As far as we can tell, there wasn’t because whenever there was a synagogue, Paul goes there first. We see that time and again in the book of Acts - it is his natural point of connection. The next best thing is to find a place of prayer and devotion where people who are spiritual seekers are gathering. This is exactly what he found because he heard there was a place of prayer just outside the perimeter of the city. He went there with his friends. As the story tells us, there was a group of women there, and he started to talk to them. Here we have the natural point of contact for Paul in this context.


There was a woman, called Lydia, who proves very significant in our story. She didn’t come from the area; she came from Asia Minor, the city of Thyatira. It says she was a dealer in purple cloth. We know from the historical records that this was a high-quality fabric, quite expensive, and therefore she was a businesswoman dealing in more expensive fabrics and probably fairly wealthy. Yet, she is a seeker. She’s described as a worshipper of God. That means that she, although a Gentile, is seeking after the Jewish God. We find this phenomenon in the book of Acts on a number of occasions. You may remember the story of Cornelius, who was a Gentile Roman soldier, but he was also a God-fearer, someone who believes that the Jewish God is the true and living God - Yahweh, the God of Israel, and is somehow or other, trying to connect with that God. It appears that Lydia is something like that. Despite being probably quite wealthy and successful, there’s a spiritual hunger within her. When Paul, the evangelist, comes along with a message and says, “ I know this God and he has sent his Son, and his Son has died and risen again, and forgiveness can be achieved, and the Holy Spirit can come.” When he gives the Christian message, she is ready. In every situation where evangelists go, they expect that there are some people who are prepared and ready. She opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. What an amazing thing for a successful woman to do, to quickly respond to a complete stranger who arrives at the place of prayer, which she often visits. We have this wonderful story where Paul and his team come into her home. Presumably she has a fairly substantial home. No husband is mentioned. No children are mentioned. We don’t know whether she’s married or single. She could be single but she has household servants, and maybe slaves in the household. They stay there, and members of her household are also baptised. Paul has very quickly got a number of converts in Philippi. It is amazing! He has the vision and as soon as he comes, people are responding. He follows in obedience to a new place. That is a great start, isn’t it?

An Evil Spirit Challenged

But the next event is more problematical, Acts 16:16 - 24:

16 ‘Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her. 19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, who are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.’

Acts 16:16-24, NIV

It is amazing how things can change so quickly in the life of Paul. A great start with Lydia and her household being baptised and then suddenly something rather sinister happens. The place of prayer seemed to be a good place for evangelism, so he went back there more than once. He was looking out for other people like Lydia but this slave girl is there, fortune-telling - an occult practice, an aspect of witchcraft practiced today in many countries and significantly maybe in your country. It is something that people are open to. They always want to know the future. They always fear the future, and so want to have some reassurance. Fortune-telling is a common practice. The source of her knowledge is clearly explained in the passage; it comes from an evil spirit, not from God. The girl was a constant distraction for Paul. Whenever he was talking to people, she would interrupt. He was going around the place of prayer talking to people, just like he had done with Lydia but she was always there alongside, interfering. This really annoyed Paul until such a time as he felt God calling him to challenge the evil spiritual power and overturn it. So, he evicted the spirit from the girl. Of course, the owners of the girl were horrified because fortune-telling makes money. That is one of the reasons why people do it; it is a money-making thing. Maybe you are familiar with that in the marketplaces and in different parts of your cities and towns. There are occultists, people involved in witchcraft, people involved in fortune-telling and one of their motives is certainly to make money. It happens today; it happened in the time of Paul.

The people who owned the slave girl and in their possession took really radical action against Paul and Silas. They took them before the magistrates and the magistrates took very serious action against them because they were being accused of causing a riot in the city. Commonly Paul is accused of this wherever he went and the magistrates were always afraid of unrest, civil conflict, or rioting. They knew that this would cause tremendous problems for them. Paul and Silas were beaten, flogged, and thrown into prison. Notice that the jailer is very cautious with them. He places them in the most secure part of the prison, the inner cell, and he makes sure that their feet are fastened in the stocks. In other words, he’s heard a rumour that they are quite powerful people and maybe have some magical, or divine power, and he is quite cautious, and he wants to be very sure that nothing strange happens in prison. They are put in the most secure place in the prison. Notice the details that Luke records there. Despite the jailer’s best efforts, this isn’t going to be an easy issue for him.

God Sets Them Free

We see what happens next when, in the night, something astonishing happens that instantly changes the situation. Acts 16:25 - 34,

25 ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.’

Acts 16:25-34, NIV

The jailer had given them pretty harsh treatment. He hadn’t even washed their wounds and they had been severely flogged, which means a lot of bloodshed. Notice that later on he washes their wounds. When they came in, their wounds weren’t washed, they weren’t cared for, they were put in the inner cell, their feet were placed in stocks. But there is something about Paul that is irrepressible. He keeps rising up in faith, however difficult the circumstances are. Despite a severe flogging, at midnight he is praying and singing hymns to God with Silas. They are worshipping God; they are trusting God; they would be thinking, ‘God brought us here to Macedonia by a vision. He must have a purpose. Who is this man of Macedonia? God must be doing something. Lydia’s come to faith. We will surely get out of this place,’ They were worshipping and praising. What an amazing example that is to us, when we are facing really hard situations. The prisoners, rather than telling them to shut up, were listening at midnight. Something is actually happening spiritually in the prison as a result of this worship.

Then the earthquake changes everything. This is a divinely inspired event and it is localised, as far as we can tell. It is something God was doing in the prison. The jailer got a terrible fright. Fancy waking up and finding that all the doors are open in your prison and probably all the prisoners have escaped! He was terrified of what would happen. He wanted to commit suicide because he knew he would be executed or severely punished if he had allowed all his prisoners to escape. He didn’t know whether they had escaped because he couldn’t see clearly, until he got the lights. There was no electricity in those days; it took a bit of time to create the torches of fire that were then placed in different places around the prison. In fact, they were all still there. All the prisoners were in awe of what was happening. Their first thought was not to escape; their first thought was that something unusual and significant was happening and that these two other prisoners were very significant people. Their praise and their worship had affected them so, they stayed put and the jailer was persuaded not to commit suicide. Such is the intensity of the experience. He has heard that they are followers of Jesus. He probably heard some of their singing earlier on in the evening before he went to sleep. He then asked that powerful, deep and humble question, “What shall I do to be saved?” Of course, Paul and Silas are quick to respond,

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your whole household. Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him.”

In other words, Paul explained the Gospel to the jailer and to all the prisoners gathered around. The jailer believed in Jesus. Paul and Silas went into his house nearby. They spoke to the household and they were baptised during that same evening. I wonder what the magistrates would have thought if they had found out what was going on in the prison. They had just condemned these two men to flogging and detainment overnight, with a view of evicting them from the city. Yet something extraordinary had happened overnight and the jailer himself had become a follower of Jesus Christ.

What a fascinating story. I wonder who the man of Macedonia was. Was it the Philippian jailer? Was it representative of him? We will never know for certain but some Bible commentators have suggested that he is the person represented by that vision. Daylight came. Something had to be done with these prisoners who were no longer in chains, no longer in the inner cell. What was going to happen next? Acts 16:35 - 40,

Escorted Out of the Jail

35 ‘When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jail with the order: “Release those men.” 36 The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out. 38 The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. 39 They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 40 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.’

Acts 16:35-40, NIV

The key to understanding this is that Roman citizens were not allowed to be punished in any way without a proper trial. It was illegal for the magistrates to punish them in order to discourage them and to stop them doing what they were doing. They should have had a trial first. You could punish people who weren’t Roman citizens freely, as a Roman magistrate, and the authorities wouldn’t really mind, but if they are Roman citizens you have to be careful. Both Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, so they felt as though they had made a bad mistake. They wanted to calm things down and make sure that Paul didn’t create a big fuss about this issue, which is why they came and escorted them very politely from the prison, and then persuaded them gently and firmly that they’d like them to leave the city. That’s ultimately what happened. They went to the house of Lydia to meet with the newly formed church and then they left.

Who was in that newly formed church, I wonder? There was Lydia, members of her household, probably the Philippian jailer and some members of his household, and perhaps a few other people from the place of prayer where they had been preaching over a number of days. A little church community had been formed in a matter of days. It says very clearly that they only stayed there several days but in those several days, something very remarkable had happened. God had broken through tremendously.


As we think about this episode and what we can learn, there are several things that come to mind. The first is that, despite this complex and difficult start to the church in Philippi, it became a very fruitful and productive church. We know this because Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians later on - a very friendly letter which showed how much partnership and friendship there was between him and them. They supported him while he was in prison; while he was travelling; sent somebody to be with him; sent financial gifts; and prayed for him regularly. Out of this small church something wonderful grew over time. Out of small beginnings, God can do great things.

The second reflection is about Paul’s missionary strategy. He went to places where he was guided to go. The Holy Spirit will often lead us in missionary strategy to know which places to go to. He would always target strategic places, usually big urban centres, and he particularly thought, ‘I’ll start in Philippi because it’s a major city in Macedonia’. His missionary strategy also has another key point. He always tried to find the best point of contact with people in any community and here it was at the place of prayer. This represents a missionary strategy that didn’t start with Paul, it started with Jesus. In Luke 10: 5 - 7, when describing how the 72 missionaries that Jesus sent out, including the Apostles, should go and preach and what their strategy should be, he says a very interesting thing concerning arriving at a particular village or location,

5 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ 6 If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. 7 Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move from house to house.”

Luke 10:5-7, NIV

If you go to a place and you find someone who is peaceful, that means open and receptive, stay there. Connect with them. This is what is sometimes called the man or person of peace. You find a place of contact and then you build your missionary strategy out of that. Lydia was that person of peace in Philippi. She welcomed Paul into her home and he used her home as his base.

Another reflection I would make is, concerning the converts in this city of Philippi and the people who were influenced by the miraculous. They go across different social classes. We have Lydia, who was probably very wealthy as a businesswoman. We have the jailer who was essentially a civil servant, a middle-ranking person in society and we have the slave girl who was oppressed and poor, and her life was touched deeply. We don’t know whether she was actually converted. The Gospel touches every group of people.

There’s an interesting point here about baptism. We know that baptism is one of the key parts of the process of being and becoming a Christian. We know we need to repent from our sins, have a living faith in God, receive the power of the Holy Spirit, but also, that we need to be baptised. In the New Testament, generally speaking, people were baptised at the moment that they believed, as we see on the Day of Pentecost. Here in this passage, there are two examples of household baptisms, as we also find in the household of Cornelius in an earlier episode. What are we to make of the people in this household? Did they believe? Usually the people in that culture, in the household were very strongly inclined to follow the leader of the household. Lydia was the leader of her household. The Philippian jailer was the leader of his household, and so the family members, the servants, the slaves, and the friends in that household were inclined to follow the same faith. But were there infants there? We don’t know whether there were any infants, and the Church has taken different positions on whether infants in households of faith should be baptised or not. It is not a point of agreement in the Church and we can’t definitely answer the question one way or the other from these passages but we need to note that different answers have been made to that question. Underlying both those answers, whether you baptise infants or not, is the importance of the reality of baptism as a sign of real conversion and faith in Jesus Christ.

My final comment on this episode is concerning resilient faith. Paul and Silas in prison, praising God and singing hymns at midnight, is just a remarkable story by any standards. We thank God that he can give us strength, even in the hardest circumstances, and praise brings a sense of the presence of God. That praise filled the prison, and you can tell the prisoners were intrigued by what was going on and open. That’s why they stayed awake. That’s why they didn’t run away when all the doors opened. They waited because they knew something amazing was happening and that came partly through the sheer resilience of Paul and Silas.

Thanks for listening to this episode and I look forward to welcoming you to the next one.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How would you answer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’
  • Discipleship
    1. From small beginnings God can do great things. Share examples of this truth
    2. Spend time praising God for the strength he gives.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to trace other occasions when an earthquake occurs in the Gospels and Acts.
Created by Word Online