A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 16:16-18 b). An anonymous slave girl.
On another Sabbath, when Paul and his friends were going to *the place of prayer*, they were *met by a slave girl*, who evidently stood in their way. Luke tells two things about her. First, she *had a spirit by which she predicted the future*, or, literally she had ‘a spirit of a python’ or ‘a python spirit’. The reference is to the snake of classical mythology which guarded the temple of Apollo and the Delphic oracle at Mount Parnassus. Apollo was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire ‘pythonesses’, his female devotees, with clairvoyance, although other people thought of them as ventriloquists. Luke does not commit himself to these superstitions, but he does regard the slave girl as possessed by an evil spirit. The second thing he tells us is that as a slave she was exploited by her owners, for whom she made a lot of money by *fortune-telling* (16). As Paul and his friends continued their walk, the girl followed them screaming: ‘*There men are servants of the Most High God*’ (a term for the Supreme Being which was applied by Jews to Yahweh and by Greeks to Zeus), ‘*who are telling you the way to be saved*’ (17). Since salvation was a popular topic of conversation in those days, even if it meant different things to different people, it is not in the least strange that the girl should have hailed the missionaries as teachers of ‘the way of salvation’. Nor is it strange that the evil spirit should have cried out in recognition of God’s messengers, for Luke has documented the same thing during the public ministry of Jesus (Lk.4:33-34, 41; 8:27-28). But why should a demon engage in evangelism? Perhaps the ulterior motive was to discredit the gospel by associating it in people’s minds with the occult.
The girl’s shrieks continued *for many days* until *finally* Paul was provoked to take action. He was *troubled*, Luke says, which certainly means that he was deeply ‘disturbed’ (BAGD). The verb *diaponeomai* could be translated ‘annoyed’ (RSV), but it is gratuitous to say that Paul had ‘a burst of irritation’ (JBP) or ‘lost his temper’ (JB). It is better to understand that he was ‘grieved’ (AV), indeed indignant, because of the poor girl’s condition, and also dismayed by this inappropriate and unwelcome kind of publicity. His distress led him to turn round and command the evil spirit in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her, which it immediately did (18). Although Luke does not explicitly refer to either her conversion or to her baptism, the fact that her deliverance took place between the conversions of Lydia and the gaoler leads readers to infer that she too became a member of the Philippian church.
Tomorrow: c). The Roman gaoler (16:19-40).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.