Last we left our intrepid missionary team – Paul, Silas, and Timothy – they listened as the Spirit of the Risen Jesus blocked them from continuing ministry-as-they'd-always-done-it. Their time in Asia was drawing to a close. Their first foray into Europe – their pathway to Rome itself – was dawning. And the Macedonians – people yet unreached with the good news – were calling for help, whether they knew it or not! So, once Luke joined them in Troas, they set sail for Macedonia and made their way to a city – a Roman colony – called Philippi.
They look for a synagogue – but there isn't one. To have a synagogue, you'd need ten Jewish men. And in this whole city, there aren't any. Instead, there are a few admirers of the Jewish faith – women who aren't really full converts, but who are interested. They pray out by the river, outside the city.
So the four missionaries swing by, and they sit down, and they do conversational evangelism. Paul doesn't stand up and preach at them. Paul doesn't wield his apostolic authority with a heavy hand. Paul and friends sit down with these women, and they talk about Jesus – the Way to meet Israel's God – the Way of Salvation. A God-fearing merchant woman called Lydia – not a native, but a homeowner in Philippi – well, she believes. She believes because the Lord opened her heart. God took the initiative, and the gospel begins to take hold.
Paul and friends made a regular habit of visiting that prayer group along the river. Luke doesn't tell us how long this went on – certainly weeks, possibly a couple months. But then something unusual started to happen. “We were met by a girl 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 a way to be saved!' She kept this up for many days” (Acts 16:16-18). They try to put up with it – they really do – but it gets to be a problem. So it's exorcism time.
See, for all Paul's tolerance in his letters of people who spread the gospel with impure motives, he does not believe our saying that all press is good press. It might be tempting to think, “Hey, what's wrong with what this girl's doing? This must be a friendly spirit who came to help get the mission moving along, right?” That's what the last Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church apparently thought, when she preached in Venezuela that Paul was the bad guy in this passage who destroyed her spiritual gift out of jealousy because this demon-possessed slave-girl was maybe closer to God than the Apostle Paul was. (Yes, she really taught that nonsense!)
What's going on here was obvious to Luke's readers. The Greek literally says that this slave-girl had a “spirit of Python.” The most famous fortune-telling oracle in Greece was at Delphi, where a priestess called a Pythia was possessed by the Greek god Apollo once a month to give riddles telling the future. That's what we have here: this girl is being used like that, to staff a local oracle-shrine and say whatever the demon wants her to say – Luke may be suggesting that the demon here is Apollo himself, even – and the whole business is very, very good for making money.
Still, wouldn't you think Paul might find it helpful to have a local authority going around and shouting that they've come to preach God's message of salvation? Wouldn't that speed things up? Maybe that's what we'd be tempted to do. Endorsements welcome from anybody, right? But that's not how Paul is seeing things. When we're out spreading the good news, there's only one Spirit we can trust and rely on. It isn't a demon. It isn't even our own spirits. It's God's Holy Spirit – the Spirit of the Risen Jesus. That's the only Spirit who consistently and perfectly leads us into all truth, the only one who always has kingdom interests in mind.
The problem with this python-spirit's testimony is that it's meant to mislead. What the demon wants to do is get everyone to hear Paul's message the wrong way. Have you ever had some important news to share, and somebody else beat you to the punch and gave people the wrong expectation? When I was in college, I founded a Christian campus group called Mars Hill, and one of the events we put on every year was an orientation to help Christian freshmen be mentally and spiritually ready for college. One year, a new professor – an ardent atheist – advertised the event to his classes, offering them extra credit to come to it. We had more people there than ever! Wasn't that so generous of him? Except when he told them what the event was, he told them it was something very different from what we meant. So a lot of people came, and a lot went away disappointed or with ideas we hadn't meant to get across. To this day, I don't know if that was intentional sabotage or just his own misunderstanding. But for some students, it poisoned the well against what we were there to do at the college.
That's what the python-spirit is up to. Through this girl, it wants people to hear Paul's message and interpret it differently than he means it. When she says “servants,” she means for people to think about the pagan priests who interpret Apollo's oracles. When she says “Most High God,” she wants people to think about Zeus or about one of the local mountain gods. And most of all, when she says “a way to be saved,” she wants people to think about the kinds of 'salvation' pagan religion offered – good health, worldly safety, prosperity – and not about salvation from sin and the promise of eternal life in the resurrection. If people get drawn to Paul through what the python-spirit says, they'll end up going through Christian motions while keeping pagan eyes; they'll toss Paul's God alongside all the other gods they serve. They'll see his religion as just one more compartment in a big pagan house with tolerant room for everybody.
You know, to look around us at this world – even at the church world – you'd think many professing American Christians first heard the gospel from a python-spirit. Because that's exactly the style of religion you'll find a lot of places – that we can serve God at the same time we serve values contrary to him; that 'God' is a generic thing who is whatever we believe him to be; that as long as we go through the motions, it doesn't matter what we really think or believe; and that all that matters is getting a 'good life' of safety and prosperity and health.
And friends, this passage makes it clear: that's pagan! And as soon as it's clear the effect those lies will have on his ministry, Paul acts – and he cuts through all the watered-down words with just one name, one authority: “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her” (Acts 16:18)!
Jesus is the cure – the real Jesus who lives and reigns and whose Spirit inspired the Scriptures. For every prosperity preacher who talks about 'God' this and 'God' that, Paul says clearly: “Jesus!” For everyone who wants to reinterpret God, to put him on a shelf beside this culture's multitude of idols, Paul banishes all our Zeuses and Apollos with the overwhelming name, “Jesus!” May we never have pagan minds or pagan hearts. May our view of the gospel never be filtered by a python-spirit. May we answer all these muddled, mixed-up misconceptions with one name: “Jesus Christ!”
So with those words, Paul sets the slave-girl free from the demon. Knowing that she might be less protected against her masters' cruelty, he maybe hesitated before. Luke doesn't tell us what became of her, but now that she means less profit to her owners, they might be looking to sell her – and maybe the Philippian church aims to pool some cash together, pay the sum, and set her free. Luke doesn't tell us, but that's how I imagine it.
But Paul has another problem. The owners are furious that Paul just let loose a landslide right across their revenue stream. So it's time for legal action (Acts 16:19). Now, they could accuse him of property damage in a civil suit. They might even win a little something. But they've got a vendetta. They want to make Paul pay! So they accuse him of disturbing the peace and of spreading customs it wouldn't be lawful for a Roman citizen to follow (Acts 16:20-21). In other words, Paul's gospel is unpatriotic!
That sells well in Philippi, because if there's one value Philippi holds above all others, it's patriotism. Philippi was just a small city until about ninety years earlier, when Octavian – the future Caesar Augustus – and Mark Antony caught up with two men named Cassius and Brutus and made sure they died. Cassius and Brutus had been pretty busy two-and-a-half years earlier on the Ides of March, when they stabbed Julius Caesar to death. And here at Philippi, Caesar's blood was avenged.
In honor of the victory, Augustus enlarged Philippi and made it a Roman colony – one of only four in all Macedonia. In several waves, he settled it with Roman army veterans – many of the people there in Paul's day would've been descended from military families. And as a Roman colony, Philippi got special privileges, and its two magistrates, the duumviri, were appointed from Rome itself. In other words, Philippians took everything Roman very seriously. Patriotism mattered above all else.
There are places in this country like that, aren't there? There's even a risk, in some churches, of making patriotism a higher value than the gospel. I read a story once of a frightening object lesson. One communion Sunday, a pastor had the American flag next to the altar, and while serving communion, he spilled the cup onto the flag. A man barged into his office afterward and threatened him if he ever disrespected the flag that way again.
The point, though, was which one do we see as holier: the flag of our country, or the cup we receive as the very blood that redeems us from our sins and welcomes us into a higher kingdom? That man in that pastor's church valued the flag more than they valued Jesus. And there's a word for that. The word is “idolatry.” We need to be seriously on-guard against elevating the emblems of our country to the level of the sacred symbols and truths of the gospel.
But that raises the question: To follow the gospel, do we therefore have to be unpatriotic? Do we have to totally give up being American to be a Christian? Some of my old seminary friends say yes. But that's not quite what I see here.
As Luke sets up this story, we find out that Paul and Silas are both Roman citizens, just like everybody in Philippi. What's more, when push comes to shove, they abide by Roman law – while the accusers and even their judges break it by badly mistreating them. Luke wants to show us that it isn't true that the gospel can't be accepted by Romans. Paul and Silas are Romans; they're about to convert some more Romans; and the whole book is about how their mission takes them to preach the gospel to the emperor himself. They've got no problem with Caesar; they just want Caesar and all his subjects to know that Jesus is Lord and Caesar ain't – that the kingdom of God isn't under Caesar's jurisdiction, and that Christ's values correct Roman ones.
The gospel isn't unpatriotic. You can be a good Roman and believe it – even if some of your Roman neighbors don't see it yet. You can be a good American and believe it and practice it – even if the Supreme Court isn't so sure. You can be a good Liberian, a good Russian, a good Syrian citizen, and still accept and practice the 'customs' of the gospel. But Jesus is Lord of Lords, King of Kings, President of Presidents. The Supreme Court of Heaven outweighs the Supreme Court of the United States. The banner of the cross means more than the stars and stripes. The values of Jesus correct and clarify American values.
When we gather as the church of God, we aren't here as Americans, or as Pennsylvanians; we're here as members of a kingdom purchased “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). When we ascend the heavenly Mount Zion, the flag no longer flies over us; it carpets the ground at our feet. We honor and respect everything it means to be a good Roman or good American, but we do it beneath the Lordship of Jesus first.
Paul's magistrates and accusers will learn that the hard way (Acts 16:37-40). They don't take time to even hold a trial. The magistrates assume these outsiders aren't citizens; and since the slave-girl's owners are wealthy citizens who own land there, their testimony is all the evidence needed. Paul and Silas are stripped naked, beaten brutally until half-dead, and finally thrown in jail under the malicious eyes of a pagan Roman jailer. That prison was no pleasant place. Compared to a Roman jail, our county prison would seem like paradise. Paul and Silas were in the innermost cell – filthy, no ventilation, no light. Their feet are put in stocks, possibly spread too far apart as a way to torture them – a punishment reserved for serious crimes. They get no food; their bleeding injuries go untreated; and as night falls, all the other prisoners get stuffed into the same inner cell (Acts 16:22-24).
And that's where things get interesting. No one can sleep – not like that. So it's no surprise they're all awake at midnight. And Paul probably has some words from the longest psalm on his mind: “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. At midnight I rise and give you thanks for your righteous laws. I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. The earth is filled with your love, LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:60-64). Even though the wicked have bound him, Paul refuses to forget the message he's come to bring. Even at midnight – especially at midnight – he'll give thanks to God. So Paul and Silas turn to prayer and song.
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25)! It can't have been easy for them to pray and sing. They're hungry, they're cold, they're hurt, they're barely clothed if at all, they're crowded, they're swatting away rats... and they sing beautiful praise to God. In their prayers and in their songs, they bear witness to the truth and majesty of the gospel. They share the good news with the prisoners who share their chains. Maybe those prisoners heard what happened with the slave-girl – heard that Paul and Silas were servants of the Most High God, who came to teach the way to be saved. Whatever background they've got, they're a literally captive audience – but more importantly, they're a captivated audience. Hearing Paul pray, hearing Silas sing – it moves them, it entrances them, it makes them want more!
If there's one thing these prisoners have in common, it's that they know they've got no direction to go but up, in an earthly sense. They have no pride, no public honor, nothing else to crowd their heart. And when they hear something beautiful burst into their lives, they're spellbound by this Jesus faith Paul and Silas are singing into their lives. All the convincing they need is in the movement of the song, the passion of the prayer, set against the backdrop of the missionaries' unjust suffering. Imagine what it must have been like, in the dead of night, to hear these two men pray and sing! It draws out the yearnings of all those around them.
Can we say the same thing? Is our faith attractive to people? Is there enough truth and beauty in our lives to make them want to listen? That's not the same thing as asking whether our faith gives us a 'good life', the kind the python-spirit wanted people to look for. Paul and Silas aren't singing because everything's coming up roses. They're singing because, even after a beating – especially after a beating – when everything around them is ugly and scary and painful and shameful and dark – then especially is Jesus beautiful. His strength is magnified in our weakness. And because Jesus is so beautiful, he makes our faith beautiful through our trials, so that in our beautiful faith, we can lift high the beauty of Jesus Christ, so that the prisoners around us can be spellbound for their own good.
That's the big question I want to ask you this morning. If nothing else, wake up for these next moments. Is Jesus beautiful to you? Does your faith show off his truth and beauty to others? Does it draw anyone? And what would it take to make your faith a beautiful witness?
Friends, dive deeper into Jesus! Throw yourself into him. Draw near to him. Let his glory overtake you. When you least feel like talking to anyone, pray. When you look around and see nothing worthwhile, sing a song to God! Let Jesus be your all in all. Let him be all your hope and stay. Because if our faith is in Jesus, then our faithful prayers and faithful songs can show off the splendor of the King. We are God's people – we are Zion – and doesn't the Scripture say that “from Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2)?
Sadly, the jailer wasn't inside the cell. It was just prisoners there. The jailer may have gone back to his personal dwelling, leaving some lesser guards in charge outside. They couldn't hear the songs. So God did something dramatic. “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone's chains came loose” (Acts 16:26).
Good news for prisoners! Bad news for prison guards. Worst news of all for the jailer. He was ready to kill himself rather than face the magistrates' wrath over letting everyone escape (Acts 16:27). But Paul stops him: “Don't harm yourself! We're all here!” (Acts 16:28). We know what stopped Paul and Silas from running. What about everyone else? They were spellbound by the Jesus faith – that's what. They didn't want to run away from what they'd seen – not even from a prison.
The jailer knew what Paul and Silas were imprisoned for. He'd heard the stories, maybe heard the slave-girl himself. He knew that these men had come to show a way to be saved. But not until now – as he saw in the earthquake the wrath of God; as he felt in his bones the fear of his situation; as he considered his death and what it all might mean – not until now does he ask them, “Lords, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
They turn it around – it has nothing to do with Paul and Silas being 'lords', and everything to do with Jesus being Lord of everything. The beauty, the earthquake, the salvation – they don't come from Paul and Silas. They come from Jesus! “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household” (Acts 16:31). It isn't a complicated message. It isn't a to-do list. It isn't a long creed. There's time for details later, when Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32). It can all be summed up in this: trust the Lord Jesus; turn to him to rescue you; turn to him to beautify you; depend on him for all you've got; join up with what he's doing even today!
Does the jailer do that? Just look how he turns from fear to fearlessness! Once worried about Paul and Silas escaping, now he escorts them in his personal custody, cares for them, feeds them at his own table – risking death to do that – and trusts them with his life (Acts 16:33-34). He and everybody he can reach get baptized right away – because they believe in the Lord Jesus, and through all the risks, that brings them joy.
Take this with you this morning: Just trust Jesus. Trust him to save you. Bury yourself in him, and rise anew to sing joyfully to God – not the generic paganized God of the python-spirit, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who pours out his Spirit into us so we, too, can share the good news – so we, too, can be windows into the beauty of Jesus – so that others around us might be spellbound by the Jesus faith. Go forth and have beautiful faith through the gospel. Amen and amen.