Leading Freely: A Bible Study

For the next part of my leadership study for The Piper Project, I’m going to study the story about Paul and Silas when they are stuck in jail in the book of Acts 16:16-40. This is another way I like to study the bible. Through story-telling.

Here’s the plan. I’ll start with a disclaimer, then do a quick intro (bullet-point style), jump into the story and then go over my “leadership takeaways.” Capiche?

P.S. This is a long post. FYI.


False teaching is the bane of my existence. And I’m terrified of becoming one. The best way to war against that is if you compare what I’m writing to what you are reading in the Bible. Compare what you’re learning in God’s Word and discern whether or not I’m on the right track. Does it match what you’re reading? Is my method in line with love and grace? There are a ton of false teachers out there and though I try not to be one, I know I’m imperfect and misunderstand things often. I want you to practice building discernment and I want you to practice on me. So please be wise when you’re reading this.


  • Luke wrote the book of Acts. He’s the same guy who wrote the gospel according to Luke (the 3rd one of the 4). He was a doctor and a bit of a travel journalist. I find his writing to be plot driven which means his stories have a lot of conflict (no good story is without conflict) and keeps a steady pace. To me, it reads as an adventure story of shipwreck, murder, miracles and hope.
  • Luke’s story follows Paul primarily. Luke kind of weaves himself in and out of the story. Sometimes it’s in the first person narrative, other times in third person omniscient (he writes other character’s motives sometimes and knows things only God would).
  • Paul was Saul before he was converted. He hated Christians and murdered many of them until Jesus confronted him on it. You can read more about it in the book of Acts. I won’t get into it today. The reason I’m bringing this up is because Paul is who I’ll be examining for leadership qualities. And a big thing about him is the fact that he was forgiven for some big things. This is key.
  • We’re jumping in at chapter 16. Lots has happened. Paul has had a falling-out with his friend, Barnabas. They were super close so I imagine it was a painful loss. But had that not happened, he probably wouldn’t have brought Silas alongside him in the journey. They were blocked a couple times by the Holy Spirit from entering different countries. We don’t know why. God is mysterious about stuff like this but they know for sure that the answer was ‘no’ and the blockage was a good one (as opposed to being blocked by Satan. There is a difference. One is a ‘no’ for our good and protection. The other is a ‘no’ to oppose, discourage and harass. There’s something about the apostles that they are able to tell the difference). Paul has a dream and believes he’s supposed to go to Macedonia (modern day Greece, Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, and Bulgaria). A business woman named Lydia is blessed by their company. She’s a generous, family woman who offers to host them. Paul and Silas are persuaded to stay.
  • Our story begins here.

The story

At the beginning of this story, Luke includes himself so we know he’s apart of the scene. He, Paul and Silas are heading back to the place where they met Lydia. I suppose they imagine that if they had success there yesterday, they might have success again.

On their way, they meet a girl who’s being held as a slave. She has a spirit of prediction and her owners have been using her as a means of revenue. She offers the people fortune-telling for a sum of money and her owners reap the rewards.

When the men pass, she cries out loud in front of everyone, “These men, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation, are the slaves of the Most High God!” This is a true statement. They are what she says they are. However, this yelling went on for days. I imagine she interrupted their teaching and disturbed the listeners, too. The girl would not stop and so, Paul knew something was wrong. Even though the woman spoke truth there was something in the way she spoke it, that disturbed his spirit. After a number of days of her screaming this to the crowd, Paul firmly but with a great amount of respect for the girl, told the demonic spirit to leave her in the name of Jesus Christ.

And it did.

The little slave girl was freed from the demonic spirit but she was still under the captivity of her owners.

And they were furious because they’d lost a main source of their income now that the girl could no longer predict or fortune-tell. So they grabbed Paul and Silas and brought them before the chief magistrates. The slave owners weaved this incredible story full of exaggeration, saying they were the ones disturbing the city (it was the demonic spirit who yelled the loudest, remember?). How they were Jews (considered enemies and troublemakers), and promoted illegal practices and customs that oppose the Roman way of life.

The town didn’t question Paul or Silas on what happened. They didn’t get a fair trial but by this point there was a huge mob. Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten and humiliated in front of everyone before they were thrown in jail. From what I understand, they were put in the innermost part of the jail and I’m assuming it’s like ‘maximum security.’ Whatever occurred up there, the Romans felt threatened enough that they needed to lock these men down as deep as possible. And even then, their feet were put in the stocks. There is no way these men could get out.

It’s nighttime. Completely pitch black. There are rats and mice, scratching and squealing. The prisoners are full of lice and the place smells of a sewer. Paul and Silas’s wounds are likely infected from the dirt and grime. They weren’t bandaged and are still bloody from their beating. They are stuck in one spot so if they did have to use the bathroom, they would be sitting in their own pee and feces. There’s nothing pretty about this scene. They are still naked and humiliated. There’s nothing dignified about them or their situation.

And yet, they decide to sing.

Luke says they were singing and praying all these hymns to God and the prisoners were listening. I don’t think the men were doing it as a show. They had nothing to win or lose at that point. I think they needed hope just as much as anyone else. Prayer, singing and praise has always been the cure for a discouraged soul. The prisoners likely caught the wave of whatever hope these men were clinging to or at least started to wonder how on earth they could praise God after they had just been beaten and humiliated and suffering the same thing they were.

All the sudden, there’s this massive earthquake that permeates down to the deepest part of the prison. The doors are unlocked and the prisoners shackles are loosened. Everyone is free! No matter how guilty or innocent they may be. They are free.

(NOTE: To me, this is a small part of the miracle. The other miracle is the way God works in the hearts of the prisoners and the jailer. I don’t find it hard to believe an earthquake could break open doors and shackles. I’m amazed at how people respond).

There’s something about Paul that he realizes this miracle wasn’t for him. And I don’t know how or why all the prisoners stayed but they are all there still. Perhaps freedom was too much for them? Perhaps they were so afraid of the Romans that they’d rather stay there than get caught again and die? Or perhaps they admired Paul and Silas and whatever the two of them did, they wanted to follow to? Whatever the case, the jailer is losing his mind because he’s positive they all left (it’s still pitch black, remember, so he can’t actually see who’s there or not). He’s certain he’s going to die for failing at his job. He’s so lost in despair that he determines the only way out to save himself from the hands of the Romans is to kill himself. He grabs his sword and just as he’s about to fall on it, Paul stops him, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!”

The jailer stops and calls for lights. Nobody’s left. The jailer is literally shaking and falls down before Paul and Silas, asking for help or mercy or whatever they can offer. He wants to be saved. Likely from the Romans. He’s terrified of what his own people will do to him and his family.

“Believe in Jesus,” they say, “He’ll protect you and your family.”

The jailer has just witnessed a massive miracle and a wave of mercy on the behalf of the prisoners. They could’ve left if they wanted to but if they did, the jailer would’ve for sure been executed. But for whatever reason, they stayed. I’m going to call that a miracle of mercy because I don’t know what else to call it.

All of this led him to believe and a man’s faith is born.

The jailer took Paul and Silas to his house, fed them and cleaned their wounds. Matched them with the highest honour as they told him and his family more about who they were praising when they were in jail. I can only imagine what the jailer’s wife must’ve been thinking when he brought these dirty, bloody men home. That would’ve been a bizarre sight. Nonetheless, the whole family believed them and got baptized.

Now this is the part that I find even more unbelievable than the miracle itself… Paul and Silas go back to jail. Likely of their own volition. I believe they went back for a couple of reasons:

1. It was the merciful thing to do. If they didn’t, it would put the jailer and his family in danger;

2. It was the God-honouring thing to do. Christians are called to honour the government, no matter how harsh they may be.

3. They want justice.

Cut to the chief magistrates. Their sitting together after the earthquake and they’re measuring all the damage. Their entire prison is broken and that’s going to take a lot of money to fix. But it’s not just the prison, ever since Paul and Silas arrived, they’ve been causing problems all over the place. First, they broke so-and-so’s fortune telling business. Then, they started teaching people about this so-called hope they have and that could cause a revolt. I mean, they already had a mob of people after Paul and Silas. At least the mob was on the Roman’s side but still, it was civil unrest and that is far from the peaceful existence they desire. Then there was this earthquake and now the jail. The chief magistrates could’ve killed Paul and Silas if they wanted to but they were a superstitious bunch (hence, the fortune-telling). I think they were starting to realize that the God they served was actually on Paul and Silas’s side. If they killed the men, they would likely face even worse problems than they’ve seen so far.

That’s my assumption, at least.

So the next morning, the magistrates send the police to release Paul and Silas. The jailer tells them what’s going on and Paul is a stubborn old man who realizes that the power has shifted.

“They’ve just beaten us in public. Stripped us down and humiliated us. Sent us to jail without a trial and now they want us to leave?! In secret?! Suuuuuuure,” says Paul, slyly, “We’ll leave but they can escort us out!”

And he knows that by doing this, the chief magistrates will have to admit they did something wrong. It’s also smart because they will be protected from another mob should one want to attack them again.

The police tell the magistrates what Paul said and it’s here we also learn, for the first time, that Paul and Silas are a Roman citizens. I find this so fascinating because we’re learning about this at the same time as the magistrates are. Depending on whose side your on, this news could be very good or very bad. Good because it’s a bit of a “Gotcha” moment. Justice is about to be served. But this is very bad news for the magistrates because they realize they’ve violated the rights of one of their own. So now they’ve gotta eat some humble pie and apologize for what they’ve done.

They do apologize and follow what Paul has requested to lead them out of the city with an escort. Paul and Silas go to Lydia’s house where they encouraged them before leaving for Thessalonica.

Leadership takeaways

  • Being a leader means you care for others more than yourself. There’s something about Paul that is very “other” focused. There are other parts of the story or in his writing where he asserts himself or represents himself in court but in this story he is so focused on caring for his enemies. He doesn’t want to waste this opportunity. Even when given the chance for freedom, he’d rather stay to make sure his enemies are safe. He takes integrity to a whole other level.
  • Being a leader requires an awareness of what we’ve been forgiven for and constantly forgiving others. I think the reason Paul was able to care for the jailer and his other enemies well is because he was very aware of what Jesus had forgiven him of. He was a Roman, too, and for most of his life, he persecuted Christians the way this town did to him and Silas. God’s forgiveness stripped him of his entitlement. He knew he didn’t have the right to judge them for what they were doing to him. He did the same thing because he didn’t know any better.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself or yearn for justice. Paul knew he could walk out into freedom but he’d still have to deal with the mob. He honoured the magistrates request (even in the midst of humiliation and rejection) but asserted himself at the same time. You can still care for your enemies, protect yourself and yearn for justice at the same time.
  • Being a leader means that we need to be open to however God will use us. Even if that makes us uncomfortable. God used Paul and Silas as a catalyst. The chief magistrates blamed Paul and Silas for all their problems but it was mostly bringing all the the town’s dysfunction to the surface. What I takeaway from this is, sometimes we will be a blessing to people like Paul and Silas were to Lydia, the jailer and their families. Other times we’ll be blamed for the sin and problems people are having. They will blame the bad things that are happening on people like Paul and Silas rather than take responsibility for their mistakes. It’s called gaslighting. People do this all the time, including Christians.
  • Being a successful leader means we have to let go of shame. We will sin against each other and others will sin against us but the “victim mindset” will not serve us in anyway (ie. this belief that the world or God owes us something for everything it’s put us through). I remember reading in a Christian counselling journal that this victim mentality is another form of shame. It makes us feel small and we are held captive to the trauma that occurred. Like forgiveness, letting shame go is meant for our good. When we let shame (or anything that makes us feel small and victimized) go and place it at the foot of the cross, we are freer to love others, including our enemies.
  • Being a leader means you’re going to face opposition. Paul and Silas experienced so much of it in this story. And yet, they did not break. Their spirit did not break. I believe this is because they remained firm in their identity in Christ. They knew they were loved by God. They knew He was on their side. They knew that the way people treated them was not an indication of how Jesus felt about them.