Acts 16:6-40

Text Comment


The first “we section” begins: Luke is present as an eyewitness. This manner of speaking extends to the middle of our passage (16:17) and then resumes again in 20:5. One of the genuinely important evidences both of Luke’s authorship and of Acts’ eyewitness authority.


Apparently there was no synagogue in Philippi. You had to have ten Jewish males to have a synagogue. But there was a place where people associated with Judaism — God-fearers — typically met. And here Paul met some women on the Sabbath day.


cf. v. 17 the elasticity of the word “save” — cf. Hebrews 9:28. Sometimes all, sometimes part of the process. “He shall save his people…”

This is a wonderfully important passage, to which a biblically informed Christian will have cause to return time and time again. Its importance lies not only in its being the narrative of the gospel’s entrance into Europe — which will continue to be the center of its influence in the world until our own lifetime, and not only in its being the narrative of the establishment of the Philippian church itself, which will, of course, later figure in the NT, one of Paul’s letters being addressed to that church, but, still more, its importance lies in providing an historical commentary on the biblical teaching of grace and salvation, especially in several crucial respects. It is these respects that I want to consider with you this evening.

The Bible teaches God’s grace and way of salvation in many different ways. It is after all the Bible’s great theme, so it is not surprising that it should be taught in a variety of ways. Here that teaching is illustrated in flesh and blood.

  1. First, we see here the particularity of divine grace and saving love: how it fastens on some and not on others.

You see this immediately in vv. 6,7,10. God prevents them from working in two places and leads them to a third. The “problem” of the unreached heathen is simply never a “problem” in the Bible, never something to be explained, or justified. That many do not hear of Christ and salvation is a fact and the Bible acknowledges it as a fact. But it is never explored as a “problem” or a reason to object to the wisdom or goodness of God.

The classical Arminian resolution is to suggest that those who have not heard are held accountable only for the light which they have been given. That is right, of course. Paul says that it is in Romans 2. But what is completely unbiblical is the suggestion that such people can be saved by the use they make of the light they have when they have not heard the gospel. “Those who sin without the law shall perish without the law.” The preferred modern alternative to the biblical picture is simple universalism: everyone will be saved anyway, so the problem of the unreached becomes no problem at all.

But there is nothing remotely like this in the Bible, nor even a sense of a need to supply some justification in this respect for God’s providence, leaving as it does multitudes of human beings in ignorance of the gospel.

The Bible’s philosophy of history is simply this: all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; God chooses to save some of those who are worthy of death and for those and those only he effects salvation, not only through the work of his Son on the cross, but through the work of his Spirit through the witness of the church.

I do not hesitate to admit that this troubles the mind. It is a truth we must bow before in silence. But, then, that is true across the board. God’s ways are not ours, and, in particular, we sinners are poor judges of what ought to be done with sinners. But, in any case, it is not the Bible’s point of view to see these facts in other terms than these: the universal guilt of mankind, the universal blindness to sin and bondage to unbelief, and the electing love of God overcoming that willful and determined unbelief in the case of those God has chosen to save. No one is owed a chance at salvation; no one is owed the right to hear. The fallen angels are not redeemed or saved! But, what is more important, no one fails to be saved for want of hearing the gospel. Hearing is never the issue. Many hear who do not believe and their guilt is only increased thereby. Everyone who would hear, hears, for only those God intends to save, only those whose ears he intends to open when otherwise they would remain tightly shut, will believe when they hear. [It is my private opinion that the reason so many human beings did not hear and do not hear through the ages of human history is precisely because of God’s mercy. He did not intend to save them — for reasons known to himself alone — and so did not intend to make their guilt any worse by giving them a message they would not believe. He would rather they be beaten with few stripes, not many, and so he did not see to communicating the gospel to them.]

We will never be competent to understand this subject or to treat this matter until we understand properly — which means until we are completely broken by — the true measure both of our sin and God’s holiness and purity, and until we grasp with delight and complete agreement of heart the holy freedom of the living God.

  1. Second, we have here the illustration of the power, the infallible working of divine grace. This is the sovereignty of grace not in the matter of election, but in the matter of the execution of election.

When God chooses a person for salvation nothing can stand in the way of that man or that woman’s eternal life — not the world, not the Devil, not the man or woman’s own visceral hatred of God and love of unbelief. “All who were ordained to eternal life” in Galatia at that time believed,” we read in Acts 13:48. And, here, we see the same power of grace at work.

  1. In v. 14: “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message. The Spirit of God working within Lydia made her a believer in Christ. Others heard and did not believe; but the Lord opened Lydia’s heart.
  1. In v. 18 Paul orders the evil spirit out, and out he goes!
  1. In v. 30 we see the power of divine grace beautifully in another way. The Philippian jailer interprets these extraordinary events in terms of his own personal relationship to God. He might not have done so; many in the NT did not do so, but he did! It all becomes so clear to those in whom the Spirit is working — so clear that even the most confused and even inaccurate communication of the gospel is enough to save them, that even events themselves without words communicate the truth about God and man –. Why did the jailer believe as he did? He didn’t first check the cells; he assumed he would be punished for an escape brought about by natural causes! Because God was at work. This is the terror of the Lord.

“To as many as received him, he gave them authority to become the children of God, even to those who believed on his name. Who were born, not of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but were born of God.” “My sheep hear my voice and follow me. I have other sheep that are not of this fold. They too will hear my voice and follow me.” That is the point: God speaks, in whatever way, and they hear!

Remember in your thinking about these things and in your conversations with others about them to keep the questions and the issues separate.

If the question is “what must I do to be saved?” We should all answer, as Paul does here: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ…” But, if the question is “why does one believe and not another” the answer is not “because he believed and she did not” but “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” The Bible does ask that second question; often. And gives the same answer always: God gives his sheep eternal life, whom he loves he predestines to become conformed to the likeness of his Son, and those he predestines he calls and those he calls he justifies.

However much we are brought short by this doctrine and confused by it and troubled by it, as we all are from time to time, it is, after all, what happens. We have all seen this in speaking to people and in the conversion of people we know or hear about. One moment: darkness, unbelief, indifference to Christ and the next: clarity, faith, love, thrill in Christ’s salvation.

I just read in the little biography of McCheyne by Alexander Smellie an anecdote I had not heard before, concerning the conversion to Christ of three of McCheyne’s cousins through his influence. These were three gals of a nominal Christian family and they came, almost simultaneously, to true and living faith in Christ as a result of a visit that Robert McCheyne paid to their family home in August of 1842. His words, and perhaps especially the example of his life, brought them to see things that they had never seen before. This was the Holy Spirit at work, of course, all the most plainly in view of the fact that the three came almost as one to this new faith. One of them, Maria, writes afterward to her cousin, “You say, it seems like a dream, the precious week you spent here. I feel, indeed, awakened from a long dark dream, and I earnestly pray that I may be still more awakened and enlightened.”

What is also interesting about all of this is that there was another sister who did not fall under the sway of the gospel. She thought what had happened to her sisters unfortunate and unnecessary and quite dismal. She also found quite distasteful her sisters’ new interest in talking to anyone and everyone about their faith. “I cannot make my sisters understand that they are far too young to be encouraged prowling about the Parish, talking to all the ploughmen and women on religion and conversion. The sort of feeling of equality there is too much of in Scotland is hateful to me. The lower orders are very well in their way, but should be kept in their proper place…. I…fear having some brothers-in-law in the shape of pious tallow-chandlers, or tinkers, or ploughmen, presented to me, and then told they were Christians and therefore far better than my unconverted self.” [Smellie, pp. 139-141] The Lord had opened three hearts, but not another. The wind blows where it will and who knows where it comes from or where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit of God.

So in Philippi. Three different individuals called — I’m assuming the slave girl was as well –, in three different ways, but with the same surprising and wonderful effect.

Here are the great applications of the Bible’s doctrine of divine grace and salvation sola gratia.

  1. Glory to God alone! “Salvation is of the Lord.”

  1. Humility and Wonder for Man. “What do you have that…”

  1. Prayer for the lost. Prosper’s argument vs. the semi-Pelagians.

  1. Third, we have illustrated the corporate reach of divine grace, the family solidarity of God’s gracious working.

We speak of this often and are reminded of it at every infant baptism. But, we have it here in spades.

  1. V. 15 Lydia is reached by Paul but her whole family comes into the church and is baptized.

  1. VV. 31-34 The Philippian jailer is evangelized and the evangel has in it the promise of salvation for his family, and not only he but his entire family is baptized and joins the church.

Now, someone might argue, indeed, many have argued that we cannot tell the makeup of those families or households. Perhaps they were all adults and, surely, it would be fair to assume that all of them believed just as Lydia and the jailer did. Well, that is possible, though the Bible doesn’t say that. It is certainly just as likely that there were little children in these households who were included with their parents, even that the jailer’s wife was included in the decision of her husband and changed her faith, at first, simply because he had. But, the fact is, grace embraced the family as a unity, the church was built not with individuals but with families summoned by the call of God. And, when you add this historical data to so much else in the Bible, including Peter’s “the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call,” it seems a desperate strategy to attempt to separate what seems to be happening here in Philippi from that long tradition of family grace, of grace in the lines of generations so much a part of the faith of the covenant from the beginning.

“I will be a God to you and…
“You and your children must be circumcised…
The other household baptisms of the NT.

The family is as fundamental an institution in the world of grace as it is in the world of nature. And what a kindness of God that it is! This part of the covenant a very great mercy. David in Psalm 103! [Remember: means here too! A promise that can be forfeit here too! But, what is that. So too all the gospel!]

  1. Finally, we see here illustrated the way divine grace obliterates the barriers sinful men create between themselves.

McCheyne’s unconverted cousin would not have like this church in Philippi. Its charter members were a Jewish business-woman; a formerly possessed slave girl, and a jailer — with their families and servants if they had them. They must have had interesting congregational meetings! Rich and poor; from the more despised sections of society a majority of the members came. That was God’s way. Not many wise; not many influential; not many of noble birth. God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise… the weak things to shame the strong… the lowly and despised things, the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one might boast before him!

This was obviously the Lord’s doing. He could have created a church in Philippi according to the HUP, but his grace summoned these specific and so different people out of darkness into his marvelous light. And if that is beautiful to him, then it must be beautiful to us as well!

And now you find the thread that ties all of these aspects of sovereign grace together: “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Now, I want all of you to love God’s church and all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in truth. I want you to have large hearts towards those who think differently about some things in Christian theology than you do. But, I don’t want any of you to lose a sense of the vast importance of your Calvinism, of the supreme importance of the doctrines of sovereign grace. This is the Bible’s doctrine of salvation and it is the only doctrine that can produce the effects in our heart — humility, wonder, love, gratitude — that that salvation ought to produce in us. I don’t say that other Christians don’t have such virtues, only that they can’t produce them consistently from their theology, and, sooner or later that must tell! Prosper reminds us that Arminians are rarely true to their principles and Arminian pew-sitters rarely even know what Arminian theologians say [faith a work; Christ not a penal substitute].

In the American church, as so often in the church’s past, it was Arminianism that came first, and then liberalism in theology and outright unbelief. Make man the measure of things in relationship with God, and you have bought the farm, even if that doesn’t become clear for a while. And that is what so many Christians do — make man the measure of things in salvation. God does his part, to be sure, but man does the rest and has the decisive vote. Not in the Bible and not in a Christian heart. Which is why even a convinced Arminian like Charles Wesley had to write and wanted to write about his own salvation in this way:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed thee.

To which Rabbi Duncan responded, “Where is your Arminianism now, friend.” The Lord opened Wesley’s heart, just as he had Lydia’s and in that fact is found the secret of all things of true and eternal importance. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord!