Bible study: Acts 16 – Paul and Silas in prison

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why did Timothy need to be circumcised?

After everything that has happened, with so many Gentiles coming to faith, and with it being confirmed by God over and over that that was okay, why does Paul insist that Timothy is circumcised before joining them? It seems pretty redundant, especially against that backdrop. It’s pretty clear that circumcision, or indeed any aspect of religious background, doesn’t make someone a ‘better’ Christian.

The answer, I think, is in verse 3: “the Jews who were in those places… knew that his father was a Greek”. It wasn’t for Timothy’s benefit, but for everyone else’s. It was because of the doubt and lack of understanding of those around him that Timothy needed to be made ‘traditionally’ right with God. Without that, no matter how well respected he was, some would think less of him, or worse, disregard him. And of course that would have an impact on Paul and Silas too, and their mission. So I suppose it made sense, politically at least, for Timothy to take on part of the Jewish identity.

I can see some of that in me. I grew up a Baptist, but ended up being called into ministry in the Anglican church, and now I’m a Reader. As part of that journey I had to be baptised and confirmed, even though I had been dedicated and baptised by full immersion in the Baptist church many years before. Some would argue that once is enough, and that the Anglican church should have recognised by Baptist declaration of faith. I certainly don’t see my second baptism and confirmation as being any more significant than my previous baptism, and it doesn’t make me a better Christian having done it. And neither does having the title of ‘Reader’ automatically make me a better preacher or leader (although the training and experience that has accompanied it has certained helped!). But, like Timothy, it’s sometimes important to be seen to be ‘one of us’. To have the same label as those I’m ministering to. Because to some people that sort of thing matters more, and it would be wrong to deliberately put stumbling blocks in front of them. So now I’m a proper Anglican. And I’m admitting to it on my blog, so I can’t deny it. That doesn’t nullify my Baptist roots, of course, and neither denominational label really makes me better or worse for it. The important thing is that I’m where God needs me, doing what God needs me to be doing, amongst the people who need me to be there doing it.

Why would the Holy Spirit stop Paul and Silas from going to Asia and Bithynia?

This is another incident that seems to stand out, flying in the face of what we’ve heard earlier in Acts. The Word is for everyone, of all nations, no matter what background they’re from. And yet it would seem that the Holy Spirit specifically stops them from ministering to Asia and Bithynia. Why? Didn’t they deserve to hear the Word too?

I don’t know what the circumstances were there, and maybe a clever historian will be able to tell me what was going on in those places at the time. Maybe there was a plague or civil unrest or something that would have put Paul and his friends in danger. That certainly seems more likely than God simply not wanting those people to hear the good news! But it doesn’t seem like Paul got the reason either. He had to act on faith that God knew what he was doing.

I think sometimes I can demand too much explanation from God. He’ll point me in a particular direction, and I’ll stand firmly where I am until I’ve asked all the questions I can think of about why that’s a good idea, and how it’ll affect other things, and what it might look like when I get there, and what my family will think, and so on. I know God knows, and I just want to be reassured that I’ve heard correctly and that God has it all in hand. At the moment, I think God’s calling me towards some sort of full-time ministry, but I don’t know what, or where, or why. And I’m afraid to start looking in case I find an answer. I’ve only just got here, why would God be calling me to something else? Maybe I need to take a page out of Paul’s book (not literally, that’s bad for my Bible) and just trust God. Maybe I need to step out without knowing where I’m going. Maybe I need to stop asking questions and actually listen for once.

Why did Paul and Silas wait in their prison cells?

This isn’t the first prison escape we’ve seen in Acts. Peter escaped from similar circumstances, with the Holy Spirit breaking him out. This time, however, it’s all a bit more Hollywood. The doors didn’t just click open, there was an almighty earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. So why didn’t everyone make a run for it? I mean, you could understand Paul and Silas staying where they were, that would make sense with the rest of the story, but what about the other prisoners?

I read an article the other day that was suggesting that the churches that are growing are the ones that actually believe what the Bible says. In those churches, the preachers made it absolutely clear that unbelievers needed to believe, that salvation wasn’t an optional extra, that Jesus really does matter. In other churches, where that message is softer, and unbelievers are gently encouraged to explore and see what they think, and there’s no urgency, the growth was slower, or non-existent, or they were in decline. I heard a similar thing on the radio too, where someone compared going to church with going to football training – if the coach tells you to give 110% on the pitch, but your vicar invites you to maybe start thinking about staying for coffee after the service, it’s going to give the impression that football is more important than faith. Clearly, people respond to clarity and passion.

I wonder if a similar thing happened in the prison with Paul and Silas. They had been singing hymns and praying while they were locked up, and were still at it at midnight. And when the earthquake came, all the prisoners stayed where they were. On any other night, if an earthquake had opened the cell doors, I’m quite sure everyone would have scarpered. But this time, they clearly made the connection between the God the Paul and Silas openly worshipped and their miraculous release. God cannot be ignored.

I’m too soft on my friends, it seems. I don’t tell them to believe. I live my life as a Christian quietly. I gently drop Jesus into conversation when I think it’ll cause a ripple of intrigue. I plant seeds and leave them to grow in their own time. I wait for opportunities. That’s not how Paul shared the gospel. If I want to see my friends come to faith (which I absolutely do), I need to be more vocal about it. I need to make opportunities, not wait for them. I need to make it absolutely unavoidably clear that they need Jesus, that faith isn’t an optional extra. I need to shout louder than the football coach. I need to start singing loudly, and expect the earthquake.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *