The woman we hear about in today’s reading was from the bottom of the social scale, a slave and also a woman in a patriarchal society. In those days that would have been like being close to the lowest of the lows. We are told that she was possessed by a spirit by which she predicted the future, a spirit of divination. She was, therefore, being used and doubly exploited, firstly by the spirit who had no right to possess her (or anyone else for that matter), and secondly by her owners. Her owners did not care for her or her status and condition at all; anyone genuinely concerned for her and her wellbeing would not have exploited her condition. They would have tried to help her. Instead, all her owners were interested in was their means of making money.
It is interesting to consider why she felt prompted to follow Paul and Silas. Was she prompted to do so by the spirit, perhaps seeking to undermine and interrupt their ministry? Was she prompted to do so by God, since He would have known that bringing her into the presence of Paul and Silas would result in an opportunity for her being liberated as they were guided by the Holy Spirit? Perhaps some part of her recognised that God was working through Paul and Silas. Whatever the reason, we do know that she followed them for many days, calling out “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”
This too throws up questions. Was what the spirit caused her to call out untrue? What was the focus of her statement? We also don’t know how it was said. Was it perhaps tinged with sarcasm or said in a mocking way? I think there is wisdom to be sought here and a warning. In theory what the woman said seems ok. However, if we dig a little deeper, we realise that to someone living in Philippi ‘Most High God’ wouldn’t necessarily mean the God that we know. It could have meant either Zeus or whoever people thought of as the top god in the local pantheon. And ‘salvation’ wouldn’t mean what it meant to a Jew or a Christian, entry into the world of God’s new creation, overcoming corruption, sin and death. It would mean ‘health’ or ‘prosperity’ or ‘rescue’ from some kind of disaster.
In addition, when we consider the subject or focus of her statement it is “these men” and not the “Most High God”. In contrast the message brought by the apostles was God-focussed. It is always good to ask ourselves what is the focus, the most important thing. Unless the focus is on God, it should raise alarm bells and we must exercise discernment. Is it all about us, or all about God? To dig deeper, it helps if we turn to the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4 or Luke 4. We may learn from those accounts the ways in which the devil works. It is no surprise that even the devil knows Scripture, but the devil seeks to twist, misuse and distort truth and the very word of God. The devil challenges Jesus and the truth “…if you are the son of God” and presented Jesus with a passage from Scripture, beginning “…for it is written.” We must read Scripture in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a right heart and mind attitude – the mind of Christ – to avoid reading into it something that quite simply isn’t there. We know that “the Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b), and we know “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Was it wrong for Paul to command the spirit to come out of her? I don’t think Paul acted in anger. It took him days before he responded. Perhaps not surprisingly, Paul reached the end of his patience. For any person to be possessed and in captivity is appalling. God brings freedom and abundance of life. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36). Jesus also said “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) In commanding the spirit to come out of the woman, a number of things happened:
- The woman was freed from the spirit
- The woman was freed from servitude
- The woman was free to live and live freely, to perhaps seek employment that wasn’t exploitative and make a new life
The focus rapidly shifts from the woman, who we don’t hear of again, to how her owners react to her being freed. They seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. Their accusations were manipulative in the extreme:
- They resorted to racial bias (these Jews)
- They appealed to the Philippians’ pride (us Romans; the Philippians prided themselves on being Roman citizens of a Roman colony)
- They accused them of engaging in customs that are illegal: By law, Jews were not permitted to make converts of Romans.
Their punishment was brutal. Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and given a severe flogging – and even the crowd joined in attacking them. They were then incarcerated and placed in the stocks. The reaction is disproportionate to what happened and unjust in the extreme.
It is incredible that despite their ordeal they were praying and singing hymns to God and evangelising. Amazing faith, amazing grace, people of God fully reliant on God. And then the earthquake happened during which the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors had opened wide. He drew his sword and was about to kill himself since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. He clearly knew that his life could be forfeited if the prisoners for whom he was responsible escaped. Paul and Silas could so easily have fled and escaped, but instead, they remained there and gave assurance to the jailer who recognised that God was at work in them and responded. Paul & Silas told him “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” We can see, in stark contrast to the message given by the woman at the start of the reading, how the focus here is as it should be – on the Lord Jesus. The jailer washed their wounds first and then he and his entire family were baptised and the fruit was freedom and joy: “he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.”
This passage speaks to us about the nature of discernment and God’s desire that we are free to be the people he created us to be. It may be that there are areas of our life that are in chains. It may be that there are areas of our life which we have yet to invite Christ into. Jesus came that we may have life, new life and have that life abundantly. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. Jesus came to set us free.
It also speaks about faith sustained even in adversity; it’s so amazing that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God in their experience. They experienced such faith and God’s grace that kept on giving.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer now and invite Jesus to set us free, to be Lord in every area of our lives, to lead us in life and light and to bless us with faith that would enable us to pray and sing songs even in times of adversity. Amen