Philippi was a Roman colony as was Pisidian Antioch, where Paul visited earlier (Acts 13). Roman colonies were settled by Roman citizens, usually military men and their families, and they were governed and treated as though they were the cities in Italy. Roman citizens there were very influential and were often among the very wealthy land owners.
Paul and Silas were brought before the magistrates in Philippi (see my previous blog HERE), but they were not charged for destroying the financial hopes of the owners of the slave girl (Acts 16:19)! No doubt this was due to the fact that soothsaying, itself, was not regarded very highly by Roman law, and its practitioners were usually regarded as charlatans by the general public, just as it is today. Instead, the missionary team was charged with illegal evangelistic activity, because proselytizing, though often practiced by other religions in the 1st century CE, was technically illegal, albeit overlooked unofficially, as long as it didn’t result in problems relating to civil disorder—which may have been the reason for the Jews being expelled from Rome by Claudius Caesar (cp. Acts 18:2).
The magistrates had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into prison without a trial (Acts 16:20-23). At this time Luke introduces his third cameo figure, the Philippian jailor. Apparently, he knew something about the charges against Paul and Silas, whether informed by the magistrates or through rumor of their evangelistic activity, because later he would ask Paul and Silas how he could be saved (Acts 16:30).
Luke shows us that just as Peter’s Gospel could not be bound in prison (Acts 12:8-10), neither could Paul’s (Acts 16:25-35). While Paul and Silas were chained and worshiping God, about midnight, what Luke describes as a “great earthquake” occurred and shook the prison. The greatness of the quake, however, had more to do with what occurred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners than how it might have appeared on a seismograph today. Luke points to chains falling from all the prisoners and the cell doors opening by themselves (Acts 16:26). This reminds me of the beginning of the Lord’s ministry at Luke 4:18-19 and points to his anointing Paul “to preach good news to the poor (i.e. those destitute of spiritual guidance). He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…” The prison may have been shaken, but the detailed effect was a miraculous occurrence as opposed to the normal destructive effect that one would normally expect to follow such an event. Rather the real “quake” occurred in the foundations of the world as the cultural prison of mankind. The Gospel was being fulfilled in a mighty way in the very institutions which tried to suppress its outreach!
Immediately the jailor took Paul and Silas into his home, which was presumably attached to the prison, where he washed their wounds and fed them. Both he and his household received Jesus as their Savior (Acts 16:34).
The day following their imprisonment, word was sent by the magistrates to release Paul and Silas. However, Paul and Silas at this time played their Roman citizenship card (Acts 16:17)! It would not have been prudent to reveal their citizenship earlier, since that would call into question the Roman law against evangelism, and whether or not their activity caused the public outcry. Depending upon the public sentiment, which obviously seemed anti-Semitic, Paul and Silas could have met with the same result had a trial taken place. At this time, however, Paul’s Roman citizenship could be made to benefit the Gospel, for clearly the magistrates had acted illegally against Roman citizens. After Paul’s challenging their behavior, they came to the missionaries and asked them to please leave the city (Acts 16:36-39), which also brings to mind another event in the ministry of Jesus.
After Jesus healed a man who was not in his right mind, and that healing had a financially negative burden upon some in their community, the elders of the city came to Jesus and asked him to leave (Luke 8:35-37). Jesus left but in leaving he also left behind a disciple who spread the Good News of all that Jesus had done for him (Luke 8:38-39), which changed the hearts of the people who later did receive Jesus (Luke 8:40), and it was something like this very thing that occurred in Philippi. The city leaders didn’t understand, and asked Paul and Silas to leave, but in leaving, they left behind the seeds of the Kingdom of God which spread and bore fruit.