Acts 16:16-24 (NIV)
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl 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 troubled that he turned around 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 the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace 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. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Notice the word “we” in verse 16. This indicates that Luke himself was an eyewitness to these events. Actually, the first of the “we” statements that indicated that Luke was one of the party traveling and ministering with Paul occurs a few verses earlier, in Acts 16:10.
The girl that followed Paul and company around was demon possessed. In the pagan cultures of those days, demon possessed people were often believed to have supernatural powers, and it was believed that their ravings while under the influence of the demon were oracles of the future. So, her owners exploited this and made a lot of money from those who wanted to hear from this “oracle”.
The demon was real. The fact that this was not merely a case of mental illness, as some argue, is demonstrated by the woman’s ability to identify Paul and company as agents of the Most High God who were bringing a message of salvation, and by the demon’s immediate and permanent departure at Paul’s command.
Paul’s rebuke came as he grew more and more frustrated with the woman following them and loudly identifying them to everyone day after day. He finally hit the breaking point and lashed out, not at the woman, but at the demon who had victimized her for so long, and who was interfering with his own ministry. And, of course, at the name of Jesus, the demon fled.
This set off a series of events. The girl’s owners suddenly realized that without the demon the girl’s value to them had dropped hugely, and a large source of their revenue was instantly gone. In their anger, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them to the magistrate in the marketplace, accusing them of undermining Roman customs and authority by the gospel they were preaching.
The crowd in the marketplace was stirred up by these accusations, and a full-blown riot was in danger of beginning. So, the magistrate took strong and immediate action. He ordered that Paul and Silas be stripped and flogged right there in the marketplace, and that they be put into the most secure part of the local jail, an inner cell with no windows. To make sure that there was no chance of escape, even from there, the jailer locked their feet into wooden stocks.
This seems to many people to fit under the rubric of “no good deed goes unpunished”. Paul had released this girl from the mastery of a demon, and he and Silas were repaid by being beaten and imprisoned. But God was at work even in these events to expand His kingdom and to bring glory to His name and honor to this pair who had suffer so much for the sake of the gospel.
Father, I have heard some criticize Paul for acting rashly and without divine guidance in this episode. But we must always remember that Paul had no inherent power and that the name of Jesus was no magic spell. Unless You had enabled the deliverance, it wouldn’t have happened no matter how frustrated Paul was. Even in this, You were still in command. And even though it cost suffering on the part of Paul and Silas, You ended up being glorified in the event, and Your kingdom grew. Help me always to be willing to suffer for Your name if that’s what it takes to move Your kingdom agenda forward. Amen.
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