Who were these God-fearers?
God-fearers were a large group of sympathizers among Gentiles with one-God worship of the God of Israel. Their existence is documented in numerous Jewish texts of the period, using a multitude of Greek terms (theosebeis, sebomenoi, phoboumenoi, metuentes). The most famous example of all is obviously Cornelius, an Italian soldier who had started to worship Yahweh, while still being Gentile.
All of these Gentiles ‘God fearers’ adopted Jewish belief in and worship of one God, ceasing to worship other gods. Although in practice this was something which may have been difficult in their commercial and business lives, given the role of rites and festivals to certain more respectable gods such as Apollos in commerce and urban government.
More committed God-fearers also adopted the minimum food laws for Gentiles residing in the camp of Israel which were known later as the seven Noahide laws – from the instructions God gave to Noah about food with blood in it. Coincidentally or not these appear to have effectively been the same rules that the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 briefly tried to impose on Greek Christians. Although Paul’s advice to eat whatever Christians found in the meat markets without asking questions effectively undermined and ended that rule for Greek Christians.
The most committed of these God-fearers went further and it appears adopted full Jewish food laws, abstaining from pork and shellfish.
Finally for the most committed of these God-fearers there was the final step (for men) of circumcision and full conversion to Judaism – such as done by Nicolaus (Acts 6:5) one of the seven deacons or stewards elected to serve the Jerusalem church. But from the historical mentions of these God-fearers in the time of Paul it appears that those who took the final step of circumcision and because proselytes, full Jews, were a minority. The final step for women from God-fearers to proselytes was naturally more blurred.
Was Lydia a ‘God-fearer’ or a proselyte?
The answer to this question is simple, a God-fearer, the text says so, and the description of the worship shows it was not that of full proselytes:
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. 13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16 ESV 11-15)
So effectively Lydia was already acting as Gentile believer in YHWH, and hoping for the Messiah and kingdom – and also acting as leader of a nascent church in Philippi – before Paul started preaching. Paul’s message to her then was largely things she and her group already knew, without the usual problems Paul faced of Jewish resistance in relation to food laws and other Jewish practices.
What about the gaoler / jailer?
With the jailer there is no evidence to suggest he was a committed or practising God-fearer. Given that Lydia’s status is mentioned it seems reasonable to expect that if he had been a member of Lydia’s congregation the connection would be stated.
However, on the other hand, the frequent assumption of some readers that his was a lightning conversion from idol-worship and polytheism is also unmerited. Given the prevalence of Yahweh-worship among Greeks attracted to monotheism, and the open and active nature of Lydia’s riverbank congregation of Gentile Yahweh-worshippers, it is unlikely that a middle ranking government official in Philippi, a man who saw a wide range of prisoners taken to his jail, would be unaware of the existence of the ‘God-fearer’ faith current among some in his city.
The other factor to be considered is the apparent speed of not just his baptism, but also that of his wife and family. The general practice throughout the New Testament is of not encouraging people to make lightning conversions and sudden baptisms. …Which may be the reason that the Philippian jailer is so often cited as justification for quick baptisms, or even for emotional pressure on people to make a quick conversion because it is, at least apparently, such a remarkable exception, if it is. But again that the jailer was an active worshipper of pagan gods is an assumption not found in the text.
The pattern which is more usual is for Jews and proselytes who have some understanding of the one God to be baptised following “a good confession”. That is the pattern Paul followed with other Greeks, such as in Athens and Lystra. To believe that Paul quickly took advantage of the situation to baptism a man who a few hours earlier had been a polytheist worshipping idols stretches credibility much more than the possible alternative. There is no evidence that this was not someone who was already aware of the God of Israel, and someone who did not start from zero at midnight before his baptism. Paul’s actions suggest that Paul was now building on the jailer having some previous exposure to monotheism.
There’s too much we don’t know to dogmatically assert that this case justifies lightning conversions. For example we don’t know that the jailer’s wife or another relative wasn’t connected to Lydia’s group. Why shouldn’t they be? It’s entirely possible. We also don’t know that the jailer had not encountered not only Greek God-fearers, but also full proselytes and Jews. Given the status and location of Philippi it would have been surprising if he hadn’t. Most of all, despite the quickness of the baptism itself, we don’t know how long all these events in Philippi took. All we know is that Paul judged that this man was suitable to become one of the first male members of a new church in Philippi. That in itself is the main evidence that this man was not, a few hours earlier, a paid-up polytheist and idol worshipper.
Paul meets with the new church in Philippi after his release
Assuming that Lydia did not know the jailer and his wife, which is an assumption, then the first meeting of the new church with the jailer was the same day.
40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:40 ESV)
It was critical for Paul to ignore the magistrates command and to meet with the new church before leaving the city. And one of his tasks would have been to introduce the jailer and his wife, if they did not already know Lydia, to “the brothers” – which at this point means baptised male and female members in Philippi. And this is perhaps the most important point of the jailer and his wife’s baptism, that they were joined into Christ in fellowship with brothers and sisters together.
Footnote – A message of salvation – excerpt from chapter 69 of ‘Studies in the Acts of the Apostles’ by Harry Whittaker
A message of salvation
The officer, almost unable to believe his ears, shouted to warders to bring lights, and within a minute he came into that cell trembling to think that these two men of God (as he knew they claimed to be) had been victims of his organized flogging a few hours before. Now, in the sight of prisoners whom he regarded as the scum of the earth, he humbled himself before Paul and Silas, expressing solicitude for their well–being and also, on a different plane, for his own.
Like all Philippi he knew that they proclaimed a message of “Salvation” (v.17), a religion of truth and righteousness free from all the variegated hocus–pocus of the ancient cults, and
calling for obedience and loyalty to an Almighty Creator who had chosen to reveal Himself specially to Jews. So, when he had brought them out into his own quarters, he made his
humble submission: “Sirs, (literally, Lords), what must I do to be saved?” He did not mean: “saved from disciplinary action by the rulers,” for not a prisoner had been lost. He used the word in the high sense which Paul had given it in his preaching. The answer was, in effect. We are not Lords, but the Jesus we serve is. Believe in him, and you will know a salvation no other religion can give you. And the same saving faith is available to all in your household, male or female, slave or free, Roman or Greek or foreigner.’ Thereupon he locked up his prisoners once again, but Paul and Silas he installed in his own house, and since all in it were awake and scared by the frightening violence of the earthquake, they were by and by soothed by the reassuring message about a Creator in control of all the world, a message now filled out at length by two weary blood–stained lacerated men who convincingly asserted that they spoke with authority given to them by the Son of God.
“Comformable unto his death.”
How easy it would be to proclaim the message concerning a suffering Saviour, inasmuch as their own experience there in Philippi had so eloquently recapitulated it:
1. The casting out of evil has resulted in
2. evil men resenting the loss of their own profit and influence.
3. Arrest follows.
4. There are charges before the rulers:
5. “They trouble our city.”
6. “They teach different religious customs.”
7. “They are against Rome.”
8. Over against these charges is the claim: “We are Romans, and loyal to Rome.”
9. The multitude joins in the attack.
10. Stripped of their clothes, the two have many stripes inflicted on them.
11. With feet fast in the stocks (literally: the wood; s.w. 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; 1 Pet. 2:24).
12. they counter their suffering with a psalm to God.
13. Their prison is like the tomb,
14. and special measures are taken to prevent escape.
15. There is a mighty earthquake,
16. and all in the prison who put confidence in them are loose.
17. The guard, as good as dead, is given his life.
18. God’s servants are vindicated by a higher citizenship.
19. Freed from bondage,
20. they comfort the brethren,
21. and go away to a distant place.
22. Along while later they return.
No wonder Paul was able to write in later days: “I rejoice in my suffering for you, and fill up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). And also, to these Philippians: “… that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil. 3:10)
Baptism and fellowship
It was evidently only after a substantial amount of time spent in instruction of the assembled household that Paul allowed any attention to the less important matter (as he deemed it) of their backs, raw and sore and bloody from the beating which the jailor had himself superintended. Every Roman house of quality had its hot and cold baths. So without further delay the officer
saw to it that Paul and Silas were comforted with warmth, their backs sponged and anointed, and themselves arrayed in clean garments. Then, in the bath which had washed their stripes, the jailor and all those with him who had heard Paul’s instruction had their sins washed away in the blood of Christ. Then he brought them into an upper chamber where, with little delay, food was set out for them all. There can be little doubt that they now all partook of a holy meal together, a Love Feast, culminating in the sacramental Bread and Wine in memory of the Lord whose sufferings and victory had just now been re–enacted in the experience of his servants. Amongst them all, preachers and converts alike, there was a most profound sense of joy at the unexpected outcome of an untoward experience.
From H.A. Whittaker ‘Studies in the Acts of the Apostles’ Biblia Books.