Silas, the Good Companion
What we know of Paul's associate
Silas is known chiefly by the incident at Philippi during Paul's second missionary journey, when they were both involved in a riot which led to their incarceration in a prison cell where they sang praises to God and converted the jailer. Silas appears but briefly in the records but from what little is said something of a picture emerges.
He first comes into view as a 'chief man' among the brethren at Jerusalem ten years or so after the Crucifixion. The expression means a leader or overseer and it may therefore be taken that Silas was an elder of the church, and might well have been a believer during the Lord's life upon earth. Now he had been selected, in company with his fellow-elder Judas Barsabas, to accompany the emissaries of the Antioch church Barnabas and Saul, to Antioch, bearing to that church from the Jerusalem brethren the letter which adjudicated on the questions which had been at issue between them. The whole story appears in Acts 15 and it is in that chapter that we have our first glimpse of Silas.
He was a man who had "hazarded his life for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 15.26); evidently he had remained in Jerusalem during the persecution which followed the martyrdom of Stephen and been a pillar of strength to the newly-formed Church. Like James, the principal elder of that Church, he must have had a clear understanding of the relative places of Jew and Gentile in the Divine plan and the manner in which the Divine call was now being extended to the Gentiles, to have been chosen as one able to present the judgment of the Jerusalem Church on the matter. This points to a mature man of sound judgment and wide vision, fully consecrated to the Lord. The Apostle Paul's choice of him later on, to accompany him on his second missionary journey, is therefore quite understandable.
The Church at Antioch in Syria was less than ten years old. Originally founded by several missionaries including Barnabas of Cyprus, it had the distinction of being the first Gentile Church, in that both Jews and Gentiles constituted its membership. Antioch itself, more than three hundred miles from Jerusalem, was the third largest city in the world; only Rome and Alexandria exceeded it in size. Its main street, running straight from one side of the city to the other, was four and a half miles long; miles of other streets were paved with marble and adorned with temples, public buildings, market places, fountains and statues, all redolent of Greek civilisation. At night the streets were brilliantly lit and the business and pleasures of the inhabitants went on by night and day as in any modern city. The Jewish colony there was one of the most prosperous in the ancient world. This was the city to which Paul was brought by Barnabas and in which he commenced his life's work; Silas in those early days was one of his co-labourers.
According to Acts 15 Silas and Judas, after delivering their letter to the brethren of Antioch, "being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them". It would appear that Silas had marked ability as a preacher and the opportunity of ministry during his stay. All of this must have endeared him the more to these believers so that, when Judas returned to Jerusalem, Silas chose to stay at Antioch. (There is a little doubt about this, for Acts 15.34 "Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still" is only a late interpolation and does not appear in the older manuscripts; it is thought that it was inserted to account for the fact that soon afterwards he was chosen to accompany Paul). If he did thus stay it can only be because he saw a need for his services or opportunity for greater missionary outreach than was afforded by the community at Jerusalem. The indications are that, like Paul, his mind was reaching out toward the evangelising of the Gentile world and here at Antioch he found himself at the centre of missionary endeavour to that end. Paul, planning his second missionary journey not long afterwards, chose Silas to be his travelling companion and co-worker. So they departed from Antioch, "being recommended by the brethren unto the grace of God" (Acts 15.41).
Silas was a Roman citizen, like Paul, and this rather unusual honour for a Jew did constitute a definite advantage when travelling in the Roman world. It is not known how he obtained this citizenship, but probably it was, again like Paul, by right of birth. Later on in life he seems to have adopted the Latin form of his name, Silvanus, by which he is mentioned in 1 Thess.1.1; 2 Cor.1.19 and 1 Pet. 5.12, for the same reason that Paul used his Latin name "Paulus" in preference to the Hebrew "Saul" when moving about in the Roman world.
So these two set off, visiting the Christian communities Paul and Barnabas had established a few years earlier in Syria and Cilicia, Phrygia and Galatia, provinces of Roman Asia, in what is now modern Syria and Western Turkey. At Lystra they encountered a young man, Timotheous (Timothy) "well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium," (Acts 16.2). Inspired by his zeal for the work, Timothy accepted the invitation to join them and finally they came to Troas, on the Aegean Sea opposite Macedonia in Greece. Here they met Luke the physician and here, so far as can be discerned, began a friendship between physician and Apostle which was to last the rest of Paul's life and produce the two notable histories, the 'Gospel according to Luke' and 'The Acts of the Apostles', both of which have been of such inestimable value to Christians in all times. Here, at Troas, Paul had the famous dream in which he saw a Macedonian man beseeching him to "come over into Macedonia and help us" (16.9) in consequence of which the four men took ship and crossed the sea to Greece, eventually finding themselves in the Macedonian capital city of Philippi. Silas must have been reflecting by now that the work of the Lord was taking him a long way from his home church of Jerusalem. It is highly probable though that he was conscious of an extreme satisfaction of heart that in a very real sense he was engaged in the duty laid upon all believers by the Lord at the time of His ascension, to be His witnesses "to the uttermost parts of the earth".
Certain business men of Philippi (perhaps they would be better described by the more modern term 'racketeers') however, did not see the matter in this light. They were the owners of a slave-girl, the victim of demon obsession; the public exploitation of her frenzied utterances brought them in a very comfortable income. Paul, pitying the girl, exorcised the demon and restored her distraught mind to normal, thus destroying what had been a very profitable racket. The two evangelists found themselves arraigned before the magistrates, subjected to a merciless scourging, and thrown into the city jail with their feet made fast in the stocks. In what must have been a condition of acute physical pain they spent the night singing praises to God with such verve that the other prisoners in the jail could do naught else but listen. Then came the earthquake which disrupted the prison walls and set them free, the conversion and baptism of the jailer and the morning visit of the magistrates. They were now in a state of sheer panic upon learning that they had unwittingly scourged Roman citizens though not condemned, thus laying themselves open to the severest of penalties. Finally there was the meeting with the brethren of the newly-formed Philippi church in which they exhorted the believers to steadfast endurance, and so departed. It was a crucial and gruelling experience, but one that proved Silas a worthy companion of the stout-hearted Paul and a fitting representative of the One who said "ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake, but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24.9, 13).
Still the pilgrims plodded on, first to Thessalonica, where they founded the Thessalonian church but not without active opposition from the Jewish community, then to Berea, where they received a welcome and an acceptance of their message which warmed their hearts. Here were some true Bible students, who "received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17.11). Paul went on to Athens; Luke had stayed behind at Philippi, but Silas and Timothy remained for a while at Berea establishing the brethren in the faith. Then came a message from Paul; he had reached Corinth, the most dissolute city in Greece, and here, against all apparent likelihood, there was prospect of a great work for Christ. They were to come to him with all speed.
Silas laboured with Paul at Corinth for something like two years. It must have been a good training-ground. The Jews of the city were mainly hard-hearted and hostile and in the end there had to be an open rupture between Paul and the orthodox synagogue, although a substantial number of them, including Crispus the presiding minister, took their stand with Paul. The Gentile converts came from all walks of life but in the main from the dregs of society, for Corinth was a city where everything that was corrupt and depraved and immoral tended to congregate, so much so that in those days the expression "Corinthian" denoted the extreme degree of all that was foul and unclean and degenerate. And yet the Lord had said to Paul something that He said of no other place: "I have much people in this city" (Acts 18.10). Paul had just come from Athens, the pinnacle of the country's culture and civilisation, where he found but a poor response to his preaching. At Corinth, the haunt of every kind of wickedness known to man, he found "much people". The Epistles to the Corinthians show what struggles those believers had to rise out of their native environment to the purity and the holiness of the glory of God.
It was during these two years at Corinth that the two Epistles to the Thessalonians were written and despatched. In both of them Silas, under his Roman name-form Silvanus, joins his greetings with those of Paul and Timothy. He evidently remained with Paul during the whole of the latter's sojourn at Corinth.
Paul went from Corinth to Ephesus, taking with him Aquila and Priscilla. Timothy went too, but there is no mention of Silas or evidence that he accompanied Paul to Ephesus. Several years later, when Paul was again at Ephesus, he wrote the two Epistles to the Corinthians but there were no greetings from Silas as might be expected if he was there too, only one reference (2 Cor. 1.19) to the work of Silas at Corinth in the days of the founding of the church. It is clear he was not with Paul then. Neither did he accompany Paul on his third missionary journey as did Timothy and Luke, at least in part.
Did Silas stay to minister to the church at Corinth? It is not likely, or Paul when writing to the Corinthians later on would almost certainly have sent greetings to his old colleague. It is more probable that there came a call for his services either at the home Church at Antioch or his original one at Jerusalem. With his missionary experience among the Gentiles it is perhaps more to be expected that it was to Antioch he returned. It tends to be forgotten that these missionary journeys of Paul and his colleagues were inspired and endorsed by the Antioch church, which was the leading centre for missionary outreach in those early days. The prominence of Paul's journeys in our minds is due to the fact that Luke the historian was his constant companion and fellow-traveller. Peter and others had equally full lives and the stories of their travels and achievements would have been just as absorbing and instructive had the Holy Spirit seen fit to appoint historians for them as was done for Paul.
A very slight clue to what might have been the later work of Silas is afforded by the First Epistle of Peter. There is ground for thinking that Peter himself spent some time with the Antioch church and served them as leader round about fifteen years after the Crucifixion. The first "bishop", or leading elder, of Antioch recorded by Eusebius is Evodius, who held office during the period just preceding the Jewish rebellion and destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70. Evodius declares that he assumed office in direct succession from Peter. The next "bishop" was the famous Ignatius, who served for nearly forty years and was martyred at Rome in A.D. 107. Now if Silas did in fact return to Antioch from Corinth round about A.D.52 he might well have found Peter there and worked with him and earned that Apostle's regard. About a decade later we find Peter writing his First Epistle from Rome (the expression "church that is at Babylon salutes you" in 1 Pet. 5.13 is almost certainly his guarded reference to Rome at the time of Nero's persecution although some do contend that Peter was writing from Babylon on the Euphrates or even from the Roman garrison of the same name in Egypt) and sending it to the Christians of the Greek provinces, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, by the hand of Silas (1 Pet. 5.12).
At this time Silas was in Rome with Peter (and, incidentally, with John Mark). Paul, following his acquittal, had already left Rome; this would be during the several years' gap between his first and second trials when no one knows where he really went. Spain, Britain, Greece, Asia, all have been suggested. Luke also was absent from Rome. Silas therefore was commissioned to take Peter's Epistle to all the churches of Roman Asia, many of them the ones he and Paul had visited some twenty years earlier. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Silas did undertake at this time a kind of final missionary journey over these lands, perhaps, for all we know, finishing at Antioch and there spending the final years of his life. He would by then be at least in his late sixties and perhaps more.
So, at last, this valiant soldier of the Cross must have come to the end of the way, convinced, like the one who at the first introduced him to missionary service, that he had fought a good fight, kept the faith, and finished the course in glorious confidence that the crown of life was laid up for him "in that day". He was a young man when Jesus moved and talked in Judea and Galilee. He may have seen and heard Him and given his heart and life. In later years that gift was utilised to the full, as this erstwhile "chief man" of the church at Jerusalem travelled the length and breadth of the known world, even at last to Rome itself, fulfilling his mission as a herald of salvation.