Acts 16:6–25: Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district [a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She 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.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed 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.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26 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.
Tucked away in the story of the growth of the church, a few verses in Acts 16 detail how a top Christian leader endangered both himself and his ministry for the sake of a person with all the counts against her. Who would think his action was worth it? She was:
- A female
- A slave
- A Gentile
- Possessed by an evil spirit
- In bondage to the city’s powerful men
- Bad mannered
Yet, Paul modeled for us courage and a strong sensitivity to the Spirit. Let’s examine the evidence.
Led by the Spirit
First we should note the signs in this passage that Paul was led by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit guided Paul and his companions (v. 6) not to preach in Asia (Ephesus). They planned to enter Bythnia to the north, but again the Spirit would not allow them (v. 7). Paul received a vision of a man across the Aegean Sea in Europe begging him to come and help (v. 9), so they went there, “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (v. 10). The Spirit-led journey became one of the hinges of history — the extension of the gospel of Christ to Europe.
Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit must have continued as the party reached the place and person, Lydia, who was ready to welcome the Savior. The Spirit was working, for “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (v. 14). And surely it was the Holy Spirit still at work when Paul and Silas had the moral fortitude to, from their prison chains, pray and sing at midnight, an act that was followed by an earthquake, a shout that led to salvation, and a whole household entering into the kingdom of God.
Outnumbered in the City
So, knowing Paul was led by the Holy Spirit, what do we find he did? Perhaps the people of Philippi were at first neutral to Paul and his team, for they walked about without hindrance. That Lydia’s prayer meeting was held outside the town at a riverside may be a sign, though, that new religious teaching was not welcome.
There were few Jews in the city, not even the standard ten men necessary for a synagogue. There would be little support. But it was worse than that. Anti-Jewish feeling hung over the forum and could be called on to excite a crowd. Later the slave-owners would accuse Paul, “These men are Jews and are throwing our city into an uproar.” But Philippi was also highly Romanized. Excavations have found eighty percent of its stone inscriptions written in Latin, the language of the Romans. The accusation leveled at Paul and his friends was, in part, that they were “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (v.20–21).
Offending against anti-Jewish and pro-Roman social stances could lead to riots and possible lynching. Paul, sophisticated, educated, and well-traveled, would have seen this danger in the first few days in town.
Ministering at the Bottom of the Heap
The slave woman whom Paul freed from demon possession was at the bottom of all social scales. Slaves made up about one third of the population in cities like Philippi, and a slave was property. To act for the advantage of a slave looked like interfering with another’s property. Paul knew this too.
Female and probably young, her place in society was nothing. On top of that, she was a member of a different race and nation. Why would a supposedly proud Jew like Paul care? This unfortunate woman was abused, powerless, useless to everyone except for her fortune-telling, and so bad-mannered she tracked the visitors, shouting relentlessly. Two persuasive arguments could prevent Paul from doing anything for her: she was considered of no value to society; and, if he did help her, he took the enormous risk of bringing sure and serious retribution on his own head. Is it any wonder he did nothing for days when her pestering annoyed Paul and his party! Perhaps he hesitated to get involved in a private matter. Besides, there was money involved. Tempers flare when people lose money.
There is a possibility that we have jumped to conclusions when we read that Paul was “annoyed” (v. 18). We suppose that he was annoyed with the young woman for following their itinerant band and shouting loudly after them. But there is another interpretation. What if Paul was annoyed with the circumstance that permitted manipulative and wealthy men to take advantage of a troubled and powerless young woman? What if Paul kept his cool for days, knowing that he and his friends were outnumbered, Jews in an easily aroused anti-Jewish environment, surrounded by a mob that was pro-Roman and eager to worship Caesar’s idols?
What if to him it was blatantly obvious that this was unjust, but he felt hampered by the jeopardy to himself, his friends?
Speaking for Justice
Among the issues of exploiting a woman, a slave, a troubled person, there were, as so often today, religious issues and money issues. Further, for Paul, was the question of his freedom to share the gospel. If he made himself unpopular on the street, he would lose the chance to talk of Christ. Surely that would be the strongest argument of all.
But no. Led by the Holy Spirit, Paul healed the girl and went to prison for it.
Did he regret his action? No. He was so comfortable with what he had done that he and Silas sang in prison.
Would Christ have agreed with this action that severely curtailed an evangelist’s ability to preach the gospel? Emphatically yes. We can know so by Paul’s words and the resulting miracle: “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her” (v. 18)!
So What about Today?
In today’s world, will God hear and act if we ask for justice to be done “in his name”? Surely yes. Is it right to speak for women? Should one step in even if there are moneyed interests? Yes, with the help of the Holy Spirit, as Paul had.
There is a remarkable model here. The leading male Christian of the time was the one who risked his life and ministry to act for justice for an unimportant, economically disadvantaged, and abused female.
May we act for the right, knowing God is in control. And may we call on all Christian leaders to walk in the steps of Paul, by the power of the Holy Spirit.