Paul and Silas in Prison: Worshipfully Responding to Trials

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Paul and Silas were companions during Paul’s second missionary journey. Silas was one of two men (Judas, also called Barsabbas, was the other) chosen by the apostles to accompany Barnabas and Paul on this outing. Things were going great. Judas and Silas encouraged the believers, and then the team ran into a snag. 

Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over taking John Mark on this journey. During their last trip, Mark left the missionaries early and went home (Acts 13:13). Barnabas wanted to take him with them again, and Paul refused. The two separated over the disagreement. So Paul took Silas with him, and headed toward Syria and Cilicia. 

The two then traveled through Lystra and Iconium, and picked up young Timothy, whom everyone was speaking well of, and brought him on their journey. This story continues in Philippi. 

Paul, Silas, and the female slave

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. 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.” 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 (Acts 16:16–18).

The missionaries ran into a woman who was able to predict people’s futures because of a spirit of divination. It should be noted that she was a slave, and her owners were exploiting her bedevilment for gain. 

Led by this entity, the woman began following Paul and Silas around and yelling out that they were servants of the Most High God who were telling people how to be saved. What she said was true. So why was Paul so annoyed by that? 

He probably didn’t want to offer the impression that she was working alongside them. The locals knew this woman, and an endorsement from her didn’t necessarily add to their credibility. In frustration, Paul simply turned toward her and dismissed the evil spirit. No ceremony. No prayer. He simply appealed to his authority in Jesus’ name—and the spirit departed.

Paul and Silas are taken before the magistrates

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. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:19–21).

It’s pretty telling that these individuals weren’t happy that this woman had been set free. Instead, they were angry that they couldn’t use her to make more money telling fortunes. So they grabbed the missionaries and took them to the authorities. 

It’s also interesting to note that they didn’t bring up their slave. They probably didn’t want to explain to the authorities that these guys cast the spirit out of a slave, and now they couldn’t profit from her bondage any longer. 

Instead, they appealed to anti-Jewish sentiment in the area. After all, Emperor Claudius was in the process of expelling all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). And then they accused them of disturbing the peace—a charge they’d have a better shot at getting to stick.

Paul and Silas are beaten and put in prison

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:22–24).

Like Pilate with Jesus, the magistrates focus more on appeasing the crowd than providing justice. Without giving the two an opportunity to speak for themselves, the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. It was illegal to inflict this kind of punishment on Roman citizens without due process, and Paul speaks about this experience to the Thessalonian church:

You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:1–2).

Roman magistrates were attended to by lictors, officers who cleared the magistrate’s way in public and carried out sentences against wrongdoers.  The lictors carried fasces, a bound bundle of rods that represented the magistrate’s authority and would be used to punish citizens. 

It was common for magistrates to strip people for punishment. This added a level of humiliation, especially for more modest cultures like the Jews. Luke writes that the two were severely beaten. 

Paul and Silas were placed in the inner cell and put in stocks, which were fastened to the floor. These stocks prohibited movement and comfort. 

Rescued by a violent earthquake 

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 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. 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. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here” (Acts 16:25–28)

Joy in the midst of persecution and suffering is a theme of Acts. When Peter and the other apostles were persecuted and flogged by the Sanhedrin, Luke tells us:

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41).  

Here we see Paul and Silas respond to their ill treatment with prayers and praises. Luke described the next event as an earthquake, but no normal shake would open the cells and loosen everyone’s chains. This was clearly an act of God. 

Apparently, the jailer was sleeping because we’re told he wakes up and sees the open prison doors. Instead of facing trial and possible execution for negligence, the jailer decided to take his own life, but Paul stops him. 

The conversion of the jailer 

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 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 16:29–34).

The jailer is privy to why the missionaries were brought in, and he’s also had to listen to them pray and sing to the Lord while they’ve been jailed. The fact that Paul stopped him from taking his own life probably sealed the deal. He wanted what he witnessed with these two men. 

As the New Testament clearly points out, belief in Jesus was necessary for salvation (John 3:16, Romans 10:10–11, Acts 10:43). 

Remember, the prisoners are still sentenced to jail, but the jailer has taken them out to wash their wounds. Their severe treatment has probably left quite a bit of dried blood on their persons. And after washing Paul and Silas, the jailer and his household are washed in the waters of baptism. 

The jailer then brings the missionaries into his home and feeds them, and Luke makes it a point to communicate how much joy he and his family experience from believing in God.

Paul and Silas challenge the magistrates 

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”

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 do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”

The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. 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)

After cleaning and feeding the duo, the jailer has obviously brought them back to the jail. Now that the crowds are gone, the magistrates want to dismiss all of this quickly and quietly, so they send an officer to release Paul and Silas and send them on their way. 

Paul—never one to shy away from an issue that needs to be addressed—challenges the officers. He recalls the events from the day before and reveals the fact that they’re Roman citizens. If they had received due process, their citizenship wouldn’t have been a surprise. The fact that the magistrates were alarmed when they found out Paul and Simon are Roman demonstrates the poor treatment the two received. 

The magistrates show up at Paul’s request, a sign that they’re aware just how much trouble they could be in for this injustice. Luke tells us that they came and tried to appease them, but they also wanted them to leave the city. 

After a brief visit with Lydia’s household, the two complied and left Philippi. 

What can we learn from Paul and Silas in prison? 

When we look at this story as believers, there are some clear lessons we can draw upon. One of the most obvious is how Paul and Silas responded to this turn of events. Remember, they were mistreated and beaten roughly enough that the jailer felt he needed to get cleaned up. 

But while they were fastened to the floor of their jail cell, they sang and prayed. This is the same response that we see from the other apostles when they experienced mistreatment and persecution. They identified their suffering with Jesus’ own suffering. In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul called this the “participation in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). 

The early believers were under no illusions that they were above abuse. Paul basically told the Corinthian church that suffering was to be expected—but so should supernatural comfort:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3–5).

And it’s important to notice that their response to this situation had an impact on those around them. The jailer responded to the spirit of Jesus he saw in Paul and Silas. He was used to prisoners complaining and arguing for their innocence. What he wasn’t used to was people responding to beatings and imprisonment with hymns of praise. 

How we respond to the most trying times has an impact on those around us, and it confirms that we truly believe that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

Watch the Book of Acts

The entire Book of Acts is available to watch. It’s a complete rendering of this biblical book starring Dean Jones as Luke and James Brolin as Simon Peter. It’s available to watch in nine languages, including Russian, Mandarin, and Portuguese. 

Check out this section on Paul and Silas in prison.

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