Acts 16: 16 – 24 Paul and Silas in prison – part 1
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’ She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.
When her owners realised that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.’
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
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This passage is about conflict, the conflict of the church of Jesus with a secular world which cares little for human life or dignity.
As we saw yesterday, Philippi was a very Roman city. It was also heavily influenced by Greek culture. It had many wealthy and powerful citizens. Among those citizens were some who owned a young girl slave with a remarkable ability; she could speak in oracles.
The NIV says she “had a spirit by which she predicted the future”, but the Greek words it’s translating are “pnevma pythona”, which means “a spirit of a python”. This was the same term that was used for the oracle at Delphi. Her ability was probably no more than wise insight into affairs dressed up in language that could be interpreted in several ways. However, it would also have been tied into pagan worship, most probably the worship of Apollo as practised at Delphi.
This girl took to doing something rather remarkable; she started to follow Paul and his companions obsessively, shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”
Perhaps she was already coming to faith in Jesus?
At all events “Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned round and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’” I’m not at all sure that “annoyed” is a good translation. The King James bible translates the Greek as “Paul being grieved.” A literal translation of the Greek might be “becoming greatly troubled” – and that seems about right. Confronted by someone trapped in pagan practices who is nevertheless witnessing to Jesus, Paul probably would feel “greatly troubled”.
Paul heals her.
And we hear no more of her. Did she come to the place of prayer? Was she baptised? It would be fascinating to know, but Luke has a different story that he wants to tell us.
The kingdom of God has moved in power against the pagan world, which loses no time in striking back.
The owners of the young slave find that she can no longer act as an oracle. They had been earning a great deal of money from this ability of hers, and they’re furious at losing it. They seize Paul and Silas and drag them into the market place to face the authorities. They accuse them of “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice”. And this may well be true. Paul would probably have warned new Christians against eating food sacrificed to idols, and against worshipping the Roman emperor as a god.
This accusation of advocating different customs was clever. Human nature can easily be roused to reject the stranger, the non-conformist – the different. We see it today in racism, and in the fear of immigrants and in homophobia. Paul and Silas had no sympathisers in the crowd.
The magistrates had them stripped, flogged with rods and jailed. Humiliating, extremely painful, physically damaging and a situation where they were entirely at the mercy of the authorities.
When you witness against powerful vested interests, you can expect to pay a price.
Help us to show love in all that we do, so that our lives witness to you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.