Acts 16:16-24: Paul and the Slave Girl

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

August 28, 2016

Acts 16:16-24


In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, there are two stories of women encountering the power of Christ.  The first was Lydia.  We learned about her two weeks ago.  It’s kind of ironic that although Asian, she’s the first named convert on European soil.  She heard the testimony of Paul, Silas and Timothy while the Lord worked in her heart and she’s changed.  Her encounter with Christ is more traditional than the young girl we’ll hear about today.  This is a story not only about her, but about her owners and what happens when the work of the gospel goes against the financial interests of others.  Twice, in Acts, we learn that Paul’s teachings had a negative impact on the economic well-being of Gentiles, which resulted in his persecution.[1] There’s a lot for us to ponder in this reading.  Read Acts 16:16-24.



A church in Kentucky called a new pastor fresh out of theological seminary.  He was on-fire for the Lord and ready to straighten up the congregation and clean up the town.  For his first sermon, he attacked drinking.  He laid out all the evils of liquor and reminded his congregation how drunkenness leads to debauchery. [2] A number of men in the congregation ignored him after the service and left by the side door.  That afternoon, the Clerk of Session stopped by his house and informed him that many families in the congregation were involved in Kentucky’s distillery business and they all enjoyed a good bourbon in the evening.  The fledging pastor understood and promised not to discuss the evils of alcohol again.

The next Sunday, he stepped into the pulpit and preached a sermon on the evils of gambling.  “Don’t be like the Roman soldiers who executed Jesus and gambled for his clothes,” he said as if that was the greatest of the sins committed that Friday morning.[3]  “Stay away from casinos and the racetrack,” he thundered.  Again, there were those who avoided him at the door after the service and that afternoon the Clerk of Session was back at his house.  “Pastor,” he said, “there are many people in the church who are involved with the Kentucky Derby.  Horses and betting are a way of life for us.”  Again, he nodded in agreement and said he’d avoid talking about gambling.

Seven days later he’s back in the pulpit, railing against the Confederate battle flags that he’d seen flying around town and how, to a certain segment of the population, this was offensive. He thought it was a great message but again there were those who avoided him and the Clerk showed up at his house to tell him that many his congregation were descendants of soldiers who fought under that flag.  He shook his head, and said, “Okay, okay, I get the message.”

The very next Sunday, he stepped up into the pulpit and began to discuss how dancing can lead to ever more serious sin.  Again, there were those who avoided him after the service and that afternoon, the Clerk of Session was again at this door.  “Pastor, there are many of us here who love to dance and the Armstrong family owns the local dancehall.”  The pastor listened, but this time something snapped.  Instead of agreeing or promising to avoid talking about dancing, he tore into the Clerk.  “You tell me I can’t talk about the evils of liquor, gambling, an old flag, and dancing.  What can I preach about?”

The Clerk thought for a moment… “How about the Chinese?”

Aren’t we like that?  If we want to talk about sin, let’s concentrate on the sins of others.  We don’t like admitting our own failures or our need of being remade in the likeness of Christ.  If we have a business interest in what is being questioned, then it’s not preaching, it’s meddling.  Woe to the meddler…

Unlike the new pastor in Kentucky, who had his own problems, we need to be a more accepting of everyone while realize we all have logs in our own eyes which distort how we view the world.[4]  Certainly this is the case in Philippi when an occasion for celebration (the girl’s deliverance from demonic possession) led to the persecution of Paul and Silas.

Let’s consider what happened.  We have a slave constantly interrupting the missionaries as they try to tell others about Jesus.  Now, English versions generally indicate she was a troubled psychic, but a more literal reading of the Greek shows she had the spirit of Python.  This connected her to the Oracle of Delphi.[5]  There may even be deeper symbolism here as a python is a snake and we remember what the snake said back at the garden.[6]  People assume her utterances are the voice of a god, which makes her valuable to her owner.  People pay money to her owners for her to tell their fortunes.

This woman, who is a slave, points out that these missionaries are also slaves, but slaves to the one true God.  Essentially she’s saying their God that is above all gods.[7]  Although Paul and company are teaching that there is only one God, her words allow those who listen, who come from a Greek mindset, to understand Paul and company’s God is greater than anything they worshipped.[8]

There are two interesting things about this.  First of all, she’s supporting Paul’s message.  Secondly, she’s obviously emotionally disturbed.  But Paul isn’t interested in her validation of his message nor does he seem to have any concern for her condition.  He’s just annoyed.  Here, we see a very human side of Paul.  It’s not out of compassion that he invokes the name of Jesus to cast out this demon, it’s because he’s lost patience.  But it works.  The girl is saved from this awful burden of which she’d endured.   Sadly, we don’t hear anything more about her, but the text isn’t about her or even about Paul, it’s about God’s power and work to spread the message of Jesus.[9]

What we learn next, as I joked about in the beginning, is that Paul’s good deed hurt the profit of others.  With the girl freed of the demon, she can no longer earn money for her owners.  For this reason, they haul Paul and Silas off to the authorities, but instead of talking about what they’d done (freed the girl of her bondage), they trump up charges.  There is a bit of racism here.  They point out that they are Jews, Jewish agitators[10], who are disturbing the peace.  “These guys are not one of us,” they protest.  “They’re outsiders!”  Blaming our problems on outsiders is a safe thing to do, and sadly such excuses often find sympatric ears.  It’s also the type of rhetoric that often leads to witch-hunts.  Hitler did it to the Jews.  The labels we apply to others can be damaging.  It can result in injustice.  When we are suspicious, truth is easily overlooked.  Paul and Silas are beaten and then led off to jail.

You’ve heard the old phrase, I’m sure, that “they should be put under the jail house.”  Well, that’s what happened to these two.  They are placed in the innermost cell where their legs are locked in iron.  The stage is set for next week’s story, but first we should look at what we might learn from this passage.

The main thing we must realize is that God’s hand is behind all this.  Paul might have invoked Jesus’ name to get the girl off his back, but she’s healed!  God’s purposes of freeing an enslaved humanity is fulfilled.  People are encountering Jesus.  The slave girl in Philippi stands in contrast to Lydia, the first convert of the city.   Lydia sells her purple cloth and enjoys the profits of her labor while the slave girl is burdened and disturbed and her owners use her to make themselves a profit.  In a way, Lydia was in control of her destiny while the slave girl was under the thumb of her owners.  But both experience a newfound freedom in what God can do in Jesus Christ.  Although we don’t know what happened to the slave girl after this passage, and we must assume she was still a slave, at least she is no longer deranged. That’s good news!

Secondly, we see an example of human behavior at its worst in this passage.  The owners of this slave aren’t benevolent masters.  They don’t care about the girl, or her mental health, only the income they can obtain through her. When she can no longer perform, they are mad at Paul and Silas.  They weren’t honest.  They couldn’t admit they’d made a bad investment.  Instead, they blame others.  It’s the easy way out.  It’s a way to get the crowd on your side.

It used to be in our society, you label someone a Communist and everyone’s suspicions were immediately raised.  Today, it’s terrorist, a Muslim, a gang member or an illegal alien.  When we slap on such labels as a means to divert attention from the real issue, we’re not being honest.  Today, with social media on the internet, it’s easy and tempting to “like” or “share” mean-spirited messages of others, but are we then reflecting the face of Jesus?  Is this what one who encourages us love and not to judge and to be honest in our dealings do?

Finally, this passage is a warning of how, in the pursuit of money, we can be exploitive.  In our world today, we’re often far removed from the problems of production.  There are blood diamonds that come from Africa, dug by those who live essentially as slaves and the money made off them used to fund warlords in places like Angola and Sierra Leone.  But because of them, we have less expensive jewelry.  Or think of oil production in places like Nigeria and Venezuela and the corruption it funds, yet we have cheap fuel.  There are people living and working in horrible conditions in Asia and South America, but we have cheap clothing.  We depend on dangerous chemicals, which threaten the lives of those living around where they are produced, but it’s far away so we don’t worry about it.

I’m sorry.  I’m unable to offer any easy answers to these problems.  And I would warn you against accepting easy answers, because they are probably not easy nor a true solution.  But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we must open our eyes to the problems of the world.  We must do what we can to alleviate suffering and improve the lives of others.  We must be the conscious of the world.  We must be concerned for the needs of all of God’s children, especially the “least of these” which would include the slave girl of Philippi.  God loves the world and all the people within it, and so should we.  Amen.

[1] See Acts 19:23ff.

[2] This is actually in scripture.  See Ephesians 5:18

[3] All four gospels indicated that the soldier’s “casts lots” (a game of chance who I loosely interpret as gambling).  See Matthew 27:34, Mark 14:24, Luke 23:34 and John 19:24

[4] Matthew 7:3.

[5]F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 332

[6] See Genesis 3.

[7] The reference of God being above all gods is common in the Psalter.  See Psalm 82:1, 84:7, 86:8, 95;3, 96;4-5, 97:6 and 136.2.

[8]Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abington, 2003), 238

[9] Gaventa, 238-239.

[10] The Message translation uses “Jewish agitators”


Acts 16:16-24: Paul and the Slave Girl — 1 Comment

  1. Good message. In my 91 years on this earth, I have learned it is about greed Is greed part of human nature? I see it in organized religious institutions, too.

    I have no answer. I believe we are badly in need of world population control before we erode the planet. Should I write the pope?

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