The Work in Philippi: Part 13 of 14

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

Humbling the City Magistrates (16:35-40)

35 And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go.
36 And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace.
37 But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.
38 And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans.
39 And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city.
40 And they went out of the prison, and entered into the house of Lydia: and when they had seen the brethren, they comforted them, and departed.


Introduction

The next day after they had been thrown into the Philippian jail, the city magistrates realized that Paul and Silas had committed no real crime. The town magistrates sent orders to the jailer to release them. Paul would not go. He divulged his Roman citizenship and noted that he and Silas had been scourged without a hearing which was strictly forbidden for Roman citizens. He demanded that the magistrates come up with a personal apology and escort them out. Paul realized this was an important precedent. Preaching the gospel was not an offense. He had broken no laws. He wanted the record set straight—not just in Philippi but wherever he witnessed.




Commentary

35 And when it was day, the magistrates sent the serjeants, saying, Let those men go.

Luke did not tell us what the original intention of the magistrates was in jailing Paul and Silas—whether for one night or for longer. If for longer, they now changed their minds (nor does he say why they changed their minds) and decided to release the two prisoners. Perhaps they were more interested in having them outside of the city limits than keeping them in further incarceration1. However that may be, they sent the “officers” (serjeants) to instruct the jailer to release them. These officers were the lictors, the “rod-bearers,” who had earlier given Paul and Silas the flogging (v. 23).


36 And the keeper of the prison told this saying to Paul, The magistrates have sent to let you go: now therefore depart, and go in peace.

The jailer was all too glad to inform the two that they had been released and to send them off with the Christian greeting of “peace2.”


37 But Paul said unto them, They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves and fetch us out.

Will this Christian apostle go? Will he say that his citizenship is in heaven, and that he has no interest in the politics of Philippi? Will he say that it is not his business to resist evil, and then to leave quietly? No, that is not what he learned from Christ. Let their apology be as public as was the wrong they inflicted. Paul refused to leave the prison and insisted that the magistrates come to the prison in person and request that they leave. He refused to be secretly released as if nothing had happened. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and Paul intended to teach the unjust magistrates their lesson. By the time he was through with them, they would think twice before abusing their authority again. It was not simply a question of satisfying the demands of outraged justice; it was important that they should take this stand for the sake of the church. Had they left the city under the cloud of public disgrace, the church might also have suffered from public prejudice

and the spread of the gospel impeded.

Paul and Silas were Romans, and according to the Valerian and Porcian laws, they were exempt from crucifixion and from other forms of degrading punishment. If Paul and Silas were to complain to the appropriate authorities, those responsible for beating and imprisoning them without proper trial would be in serious trouble indeed. Paul knew it, and they knew it. Moreover, a Roman citizen could not be expelled from a Roman city. Gross injustice had been done and done publicly; now let those responsible come and make what amends they could. He was a Roman citizen; evidently, Silas was also (v. 38).

The magistrates had had them publicly flogged and thrown in prison, and did it all without a trial. It was strictly an illegal procedure. Every phrase of Paul’s statement was an indictment: “beaten us publicly; condemned us; being Romans; and threw us into prison without a trial.” That was the sharp, clean-cut, incisive declaration of wrong committed by the civic authorities. Evidently, local magistrates did have the right to mete out minor punishments like flogging of noncitizens, even without a hearing. They seem in Paul’s day to have had this authority even for offending Roman citizens—but not without a trial. They had scourged and imprisoned two Roman citizens with no formal condemnation, and that was beyond their authority. In this case, the magistrates were unaware that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. Why Paul did not make it known that they were Roman citizens before this, Luke does not say. Possibly he did not have the opportunity, or perhaps he thought by taking a beating he could enhance his chances for a more rapid spread of the gospel in Philippi, or in the hubbub of the original “hearing,” the slave owners did all the talking and the crowd all the shouting (vs. 19-22); and the two missionaries were unable to communicate the fact.


38 And the serjeants told these words unto the magistrates: and they feared, when they heard that they were Romans.

The “panic” of the magistrates was understandable. Abuse of the rights of a Roman citizen was a serious offense. Magistrates could be removed from office for doing what they had done; a municipality could have its rites reduced. For instance, the emperor could deprive Philippi of all the privileges of its colony status for such an offense.

On two later occasions recorded by Luke, Paul did not hesitate to reveal his Roman citizenship and invoke his civil rights at the first sign of high-handed injustice.


39 And they came and besought them, and brought them out, and desired them to depart out of the city.

The magistrates found the presence of the two men embarrassing. They might have feared, too, that their continued presence in the city would lead to further trouble. They did not want to be responsible for their safety. No doubt, the jailer had told his story of Paul’s amazing influence over the other prisoners and possibly had added his own statement as to their legality and peaceful nature of their mission. In any case, the city authorities now stood in considerable awe of the two missionaries.

The situation was ironic. Paul and Silas had been treated as criminals but were innocent. The magistrates who condemned them now found themselves genuine lawbreakers. They lost no time in getting to the prison and politely requesting the two injured men to come out of prison, and pleading with them to go quietly on their way. Evidently, they were still concerned about all the commotion Paul and Silas had stirred up among the citizenry and requested that they leave town also. The two missionaries complied, but they were in no rush—nor did they really have to be. Paul expected the magistrates to lead them out of the prison and into the streets as acknowledgment of the wrong they had done to the two missionaries.

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