Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Paul at Philippi – Systemic Deception Unmasked

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Acts 16 marks the point in time when the infant church moved beyond the confines of what we today call the Middle East and Turkey. The Aegean would prove to be the cradle of Christianity as we know it. The shores of the Mediterranean would be where Christian theology would develop over the next several centuries.

  1. The Macedonian Vision (16:6-10)

We have a vivid description of Paul’s fumbling to find his next mission. Twice the Holy Spirit stopped him from pursuing further missionary work in Asia. Finally Paul and his companions end up at Troas, on the coast. There they receive their marching orders from the Spirit, but in the form of a nighttime vision (or dream?) of a man of Macedonia, begging Paul to cross the sea into Europe. Paul understood the vision but no action was taken until there was concurrence – συμβιβάζοντες – that the vision was indeed of divine origin. Group discernment was crucial. Verse 10 marks the beginning of the ‘we’ mode of narrative in the Book of Acts. It is thought that the ‘we’ sections of Acts represent those segments of Paul’s travels when Luke, the author of Acts, joined the missionary group.

Wall icon of Paul’s vision at the chapel of the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Chambésy, outside Geneva in Switzerland. This is a starkly modern interpretation of the scriptural passage (Acts 16:9). It combines a modern industrial image of Macedonia with a very traditional iconographic image of Saint Paul across the water from the industrial image that beckons him. This is the kind of iconography we need more of today as an evangelistic tool. But we must be careful not to impose a modern contrast between Europe and Turkey-Middle East to Paul’s time. The entire area was united by a common cultural heritage.

  1. Arrival at Philippi – Lydia (16:11-15)

Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi around the year 48. True to their usual practice as devout Jews, they look for a place of Jewish worship on the Sabbath, but they presumably acquainted themselves with the city and its people before the Sabbath (cf. verse 12), as Paul would do later in Athens (Acts 17:16-23).

It does not appear that there was a synagogue in Philippi, but Paul found a place of prayer. Literally, the Greek text does not say “place of prayer”; it simply says “prayer”. In the mind of the author, prayer defined a place; there was no need in the Greek text to write “place of prayer”! The “prayer” was found outside the gate of the city by the river.

How does a place become prayer?

The gathering at prayer was a group of women. Paul and his companions sat down and talked with them. Were they all Jewish? We are not told. But Paul’s usual practice when entering a new town was to speak first to local Jews before going to the Gentiles. Lydia was among the gathered women – a prominent woman in the town and a woman of some means to be trading in the very expensive purple cloth. She was from Thyatira in Asia (today’s Turkey). So perhaps she had her first contact with Judaism in her home town. She was a worshiper of God. In other words, she was a “God-fearer” (θεοσεβής), a common term for Gentiles who were drawn to worship or honor the God of Israel. Luke tells us that the Lord opened her heart so that she paid close attention to Paul’s teaching, thus emphasizing the divine initiative in Lydia’s conversion.

Did God override Lydia’s free will in opening her heart to receive Paul’s teaching? No the choice was hers how to respond to Paul’s teaching. God opened her heart so she would pay careful attention to Paul, but the decision to become a disciple of Christ was hers. She and her entire household were baptised. No prolonged catechism, as became the custom in subsequent church development, just preaching the simple good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, nothing ecclesiastical is needed when the Spirit is moving!

Lydia’s immediate response was to offer gracious hospitality to Paul and his companions. She was very persuasive – παρεβιάσατο ἡμᾶς, Luke tells us. The verb here represents a forceful action. She was indeed very persuasive. Hospitality is a perfect response to God’s initiative. Hospitality defines the mutuality of our story with God.

  1. The troubling spirit of a slave girl (16:16-24)

The main incident in Philippi involved a slave girl who had a “spirit of divination.” The Greek text refers to πνεῦμα πύθωνα, a python spirit. The python was a snake that was associated with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. The high priestess at Delphi – called the Pythia – gave oracles while in a trance or state of ecstasy (μαντευομένη).

The English translation is rather misleading: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl…” This sounds like a chance encounter. But the Greek text implies something perhaps more confrontational: Ἐγένετο δὲ πορευομένων ἡμῶν εἰς τὴν προσευχὴν παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα ὑπαντῆσαι ἡμῖν = “It transpired as we were going to the prayer a young girl with a python spirit encountered us.” The verb ὑπαντάω can mean “go out to meet, draw near” – in other words, an intentional encounter, not a chance encounter! As a matter of fact, the verb has a second meaning: to oppose, to meet in battle. This was not a chance encounter! This was a confrontation between the Spirit of God that was guiding the apostles and a spirit of deception.

The girl was not just a slave to her masters, who made money off her, but also to the spirit that drove her divinations. She followed Paul and created a confusion between the God of Israel and the highest god of the pantheon of popular belief – whoever that highest god was; Zeus, perhaps, in Philippi? A cult of Theos Hypsistos is well attested in cities of the Aegean and Propontic Thrace in the middle of the first century. As the pagan philosopher Celsus would later put it, “I think that it makes no difference whether we call Zeus the Most High [ὕψιστος], or Zen, or Adonai, or Sabaoth, or Ammon like the Egyptians, or Papaeus like the Scythians.” Confusion of spirits is very much still with us. Syncretism is attractive to many people, especially self-identified “spiritual seekers.” Paul could not tolerate such confusion.

The poor slave-girl followed Paul for many days. Paul heard her; he heard her cries as cries for liberation. Do we hear the cries of the powerless on our way to “prayer”? Does pious, religious god-talk keep us from seeing the oppression of people? Ministry in the name of Jesus releases people from oppression, especially poor women, and gives voice to those who are voiceless. Who are some of the voiceless in today’s world?

Paul is “annoyed” the NRSV translators put it. The Greek says διαπονηθεὶς, deeply pained, disturbed throughout his being. He experienced not only anger at the deceptive spirit but also pain at the captivity of the girl. He performs an exorcism in the name of Jesus Christ. The Most High God is not Zeus or any other supreme being, but the God who works σωτηρία – salvation, deliverance – by the name of Jesus Christ.

The reaction to the exorcism is immediate and vicious. The girl’s masters, the authorities and magistrates, and the crowds – κύριοι, ἄρχοντες, στρατηγοί, ὄχλος – and later also the ῥαβδοῦχοι, the policemen [literally, the rod carriers], all ganged up against Paul and his companions. Their entire social order was under threat – a magnificent example of commerce, politics and religion working together to keep a system going when threatened by new teaching! This is a powerful scene. It clearly echoes the scene at the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus, where religious and political authorities were joined by crowds.

  1. Conversion of the Jailer (16:25-34)

The prison scene is beautiful and needs little commentary. Here it’s an earthquake that sets the prisoners free, unlike in earlier imprisonments in the Book of Acts where an angel opened the prison doors (5:19 & 12:7). Another household baptism takes place and the jailer, just like Lydia, offers hospitality to the apostles. The jailer’s question to the apostles, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” echoes the rich ruler who asked the same question of Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, etc.). Although perhaps the jailer is not thinking of eternal life. Salvation carried many meanings for a pagan such as the jailer. Or, the author has put his question in terms that a Christian reader will understand. We must always be careful about how much of our current beliefs we read into ancient texts.

  1. The Denouement and Departure (16:35-40)

By morning, the apostles are back in jail. But the magistrates clearly want Paul and his companions to be let out of prison so they can go on their way – the quicker the better. The jailer himself understands this to be the intention and advises Paul to leave the city. But Paul will not go quietly. As Roman citizens, they meant to expose the illegal acts of the local authorities. They received an apology from the magistrates, who nevertheless asked them to leave the city – surely an echo of Luke 8:37, where the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave after he healed the demoniac. A return visit to Lydia to encourage her and the brothers and sisters with her and a farewell to Philippi. But Paul will be back on his next journey in the Mediterranean lands (Acts 20). And a few years after he established the Christian faith in Philippi he wrote a beautiful letter to the community in Philippi.

The Philippi episodes clearly unmask the collaboration of commercial, political and religious forces to keep a society ordered for the benefit of the powerful. Isn’t this the state of the world as we know it? How should Christians respond to the exploitation of the poor?

What does Acts 16 say about the ease with which societies point to foreigners as the reason for economic and social problems? Xenophobia was part of the established order that the authorities wanted to protect in Philippi.

Paul and Silas prayed and sung in prison – and the foundations of the prison were shaken. When God’s people pray and sing powerful things happen – but only when they are not for our own spiritual edification! This is the key that is missing in so much of today’s Christianity. Paul and Silas were singing and praying – and the other prisoners were listening. A community was being formed right there in prison. And this community should shake the foundations not only of that prison, but of the system of incarceration in general. That has not happened. Christians are among the most eager supporters of prison systems. Is there a difficulty here that we’re not seeing? That we are not debating?

At the end of Philippi sojourn, Lydia’s home becomes a house of ex-offenders! What does this say about the ways our society treats ex-offenders? How should the church reach out to prisoners?

The Philippi sojourn raises profound political and socio-economic questions that are still pertinent to the situations that prevail today in society. Do we have the courage to confront these questions?

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