by Roger McCay
14 June 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:16-19
Link to Audio Version
C.S. Lewis in his preface to the Screwtape Letters (a book, which publishes the fictional letters from a senior to a junior demon advising him on his work, oppressing a gentleman in England) gives this apt statement:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
Today, we are going examine, in part, elements of the first error Lewis mentions. As Westerners, what is classified by most as “evil” (within individuals or society) is often parsed down to psychological disorders, sociological and societal disadvantages or maladjustments, and so forth, without consideration for the possibility of outside spiritual forces at work in the person, persons, communities, and even nations. This is merely the logical conclusion of secularists, who do not have room in their worldview for supernatural powers, except for entertainment in movies and such.
Now, often, the secular conclusions as to why individuals or groups are acting in destructive ways are valid, to a point. There are, indeed, psychological disorders, and sociological and societal issues that contribute to “evil” behavior (as Christians would define it). However, in the Scriptures, we see a larger picture, as there are two sources of evil that are often discounted, redefined, or deflected and redirected among secularists: the sin in the hearts of human beings and demonic forces.
As for the latter source, the Scriptures are absolutely clear that there are demonic forces at work that seek to overturn God’s order of things and bring oppression and misery to mankind. As for the former, the Scriptures are also clear that the sin of human beings is the source of uncountable miseries in this world. As Christians, we need to keep these two sources of evil in mind, as we deal with evil and sin on a daily basis, and as we see it take place in the broader world.
The sway of the secular mindset is powerful and pervasive, which makes it easy to lose the larger picture that Scripture paints for us as to the nature of things in the world. As such, there is a tendency to either discount, or just overlook, the forces behind those who are under the sway of evil.
Now, as you can imagine, what I just said could easily lead to many rabbit trails, even very relevant ones concerning what is going on today. But, due to obvious limitations of a sermon, let’s focus on the microcosm of the specific evil we see in our passage today, which has applications towards the larger picture. The passage is about a young girl whose life is captive and completely under the sway of two evil forces: demonic and human exploitation.
And, I’ll mention this up front, because this poor girl’s situation is so depressing. There is a real solution to evil. The solution lies in one name—the name of Jesus Christ.
Let’s look at the first force of evil in her life. The evil of demonic exploitation—v. 16.
16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.
We are introduced, in v. 16, to a slave girl, some think around thirteen to fifteen years old, who was on the socially opposite end of the spectrum from Lydia, whom we looked at last week. Lydia, if you recall, was a Gentile; a wealthy, intelligent businesswoman; and she was the head of her own household. She also had a belief in the God of the Jews, but she needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. In contrast, this young girl was a demon possessed slave who was exploited by her owners for profit. The contrast between the two is stark. Yet, the gospel hones in on a shared need between them: the need for redemption; the need for Jesus.
Sometime (maybe a week or more) after the group of missionaries first met Lydia and the ladies at the Gangites River for worship, they were, presumably, heading back to that location for prayer. On the way, they were accosted by the girl, whom your English translation likely says had “a spirit of divination,” like in the ESV, NASB, and KJV. The NIV says “a spirit by which she predicted the future.” Now, I’m not sure why the Bible translators chose to go with such general terms, but they did, and they miss the specificity of the term that Luke actually used to describe her. In the original Greek text, she is literally said to have a πνεῦμα πύθωνα—a “spirit of Python.” This is a very specific reference, and knowing what it means helps us to better understand the dynamic of what was going on.
For one thing, the spirit of Python is one of the Greek myths connected to the pantheon of Greek gods, which was tied into the Hellenistic culture of the time and their polytheistic norms. The spirit of Python was the spirit that possessed the oracle of Delphi, and the spirit was tied to the Greek god Apollo. Variations of the myth concerning Python and Apollo, exist, which I won’t go into today. What it boils down to is that when the Scripture says the slave girl had a spirit of Python, it was tying her oracles to a manifestation of the god Apollo. As for the oracle of Delphi, she was also called the Pythian and was often a slave girl of great beauty. There were likewise other lesser oracles of Python, like this slave girl in Philippi. The phenomenon they were subjected to was called “ventriloquism,” in that they would be possessed by the god and speak in his voice. So, picture a young girl speaking in a deep voice of a man.
It is important to note that Luke does not describe the oracle’s divination as prophecy. He avoids the term “prophecy,” and, instead, uses a term translated in the ESV as “fortune-telling.” The word Luke uses comes from the word “manic,” and such oracles were called “mantics,” indicating, as James Boice explains, that “She would go into a trance, behave in an erratic fashion, and the demon would speak through her.” So, Luke is clear in his language to differentiate prophecy from what the demon was doing through her.
We get an idea of what the phenomenon was like from a gentleman named Lucan, a contemporary to the time in which this event occurred, who wrote an epic poem called Pharsalia. This poem told the story of the civil war that took place between Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate led by Pompey the Great. In book 5, one of the key figures, Appius, consults the oracle of Delphi—the Pythian Oracle—who then gives a foretelling, but in such vague terms that Appius is misled, as to whom the victor would be in an upcoming battle. Craig Keener gives a nice summation of Lucan’s description of the spectacle of the Pythian Oracle, which may have been similar to what Paul and his companions were facing:
Lucan claims that Apollo forced himself on the pythoness, invading her body and replacing her thoughts; her head tossed, her hair bristled, things were overturned, and the fire of Apollo’s wrath tortured her from within, yielding frenzy, foaming lips, inarticulate panting and groans, wailing, and finally articulate speech.
Now, we don’t know if that was exactly what was happening, but it gives a picture of the popular understanding, at the time, as to the phenomena that occurred with such a possession and how an oracle was used as a puppet—ventriloquism.
Christians, of course, understand from the Scriptures that the gods of the pagans were demons. Paul state it straight up: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20). His theology was consistent with the Torah in Deut. 32:17: “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.”
So, what the people of Philippi would have viewed as a god, (the Pythian Apollo using a vessel to give oracles), we need to understand was in fact a demon exploiting a helpless girl towards its own ends.
We find those ends in the words of the demon, as the oracle met up with the missionaries and followed them around for days making a fuss—v. 17.
17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
At first glance, as believers, we might say, “Well, wasn’t the demon telling the truth?” Ironically, that we would think such a thing actually highlights the devious nature of the demon’s proclamation. What the demon was saying was not to the advantage of the missionaries, and was certainly not to the glory of the Lord. The context of words and the understanding of words within a certain culture matter.
She identifies the missionaries as slaves, δοῦλοι, or bondservants of “the Most High God.” Two things here. First, she is saying they are of a similar status as herself. She was a slave in the service of a god of the pantheon—Pythian Apollo. Second, she identified them as slaves to the “Most High God.” To this particular group of pagans, who had almost zero exposure to the Jewish religion and the Jews understanding of the one living and true God, they would have understood her as saying they were slaves to the Most High God, Zeus (or, perhaps, Jupiter from the Roman pantheon).
Further, her words, in such a pagan culture, would have ranked the God whom the missionaries proclaimed as just one god among many, whether he was the Most High God or not.
Moreover, the demon-god Apollo, through his oracle, was saying that the Most High (Zeus) was speaking through these men, proclaiming “a way” of salvation.
Now, I know your English Bible probably says “the way.” However, in the original Greek, the word “way” is what is called “anarthrous.” In other words, it has no definite article—no “the.” It is more literally translated as “a way” and not “the way.” Sometimes adding a definite article is fine in translation, and sometimes it is not. In the context and structure of this passage, it seems better to be more literal here and translate it as “a way.”
This helps us to further understand the consistency of the devious proclamation of the oracle. “A way of salvation” would be one way among many. Further, the idea of salvation that the pagans would have understood would not have been salvation from one’s sins, as we Christians understand it. It would have had a very different meaning, more towards a better life, with no understanding that salvation was an ultimate redemption in Jesus Christ.
Do you see how devious this was? The demon was trying to, in the minds of the hearers; reduce the Lord God to being one god among many; reduce “the way” to being “a way” that you could try among others; and reduce the critical need for salvation, in Jesus Christ, from sin—hence, eliminating the imperative nature of the gospel. Even more, for possible converts, the demon was trying to gain a foothold with them, for later credibility towards misleading them. As the demon attested to the validity of the missionaries, it would have been put in a position to have a later voice in order to continue to twist the truth and lead people away from the truth in Christ.
And, as v. 18 puts it, this demon hounded the missionaries, constantly inserting itself into their work, disturbing what they were doing, and confusing people “for many days.”
So what we have here is clear demonic exploitation of a young girl towards its own ends. It is horrible to see. This girl had no control, even, of her own facilities. It had taken over her mind, and, in her mantic state, her personality, and she was not her own. This child, created in the image of God, had been overcome by evil and was being used by evil towards evil’s end.
While there are many horrible states of being, this one is at the top of the list. I think this is why the images we see in films like The Exorcist are so disturbing and terrifying.
But, it was not only the demon that was exploiting this child. It was also human beings exploiting her out of the sin of their own hearts. Verses 16 and 19 highlight the underlying sin of these men, which was greed, where it says this slave girl “brought her owners much gain” and in v. 19 the rage of the owners when “they saw their hope of gain was gone.”
They were pimps. They were spiritual pimps who had a joint ownership of this girl. They had erased her identity (notice she remains nameless), and she was a commodity to be used to gain them money. That is exploitation in a nutshell, my dear friends.
There was absolutely no care for the plight of the girl. They had no desire to see her liberated from demonic possession, although they wouldn’t have seen it as demonic, but divine. They had no care for her as a person and were enraged when she was redeemed in the name of Jesus. Luke makes their motivation and the reason for their outrage absolutely clear—money and gain, and the loss of money and gain.
Man’s exploitation of man has been going on for pretty much all time. The Sumerians, who invented writing and keeping written records, more than 5000 years ago, had records of slavery. Slavery was an already established practice, clearly going back into prehistory. In the Scriptures, by comparison, Joseph’s being sold into slavery occurred somewhere around 1899 BC, a bit under 4000 years ago. So, man’s exploitation of man has been going on for as long as we know.
Understand that these things go hand in hand—sin and demonic activity—which we see laid out plainly, in this case in Acts 16, in the form of exploitation. The Scriptures paint a dual picture of the forces against which Christians struggle. On the one hand Paul says that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 5:6). Then on the other hand there are those who do Satan’s work, like Bar-Jesus and those of his ilk who are minions of Satan (Acts 13:10). Demons take advantage of the sin in the hearts of man and direct it towards their agenda. The larger picture is the demonic realm, with “rulers, authorities and powers, and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Also, consider the revelation in Daniel, concerning the war in heaven and various “princes” in Daniel 10. Yet, the boots on the ground takes place in the actions of people who are led by the nose in their sin: people entrapped in the snare of the devil (2 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pt. 5:8); evil in the world.
In this case, the slave girl’s spiritual pimps were demonstrated to be minions of Satan in that the satisfaction of their greed was the motivator for them to carry out the evil one’s agenda. That agenda, at least in part, was to sabotage the gospel proclamation and its reception along with debasing the image of God in this young girl—her dehumanization.
These things continue in similar and different forms today: human trafficking; sex trade; other forms of sexual exploitation; the exploitation of labor, the elderly, disabled, and children; the exploitation of cult followers; also the exploitation of people due to political and media agendas, etc. If there is a way to exploit someone for financial or some other gain—including status and power—people will find it and do it.
While the sinful heart of humankind is clearly evident in such things, we know enough from the Scriptures that it is a sure bet that demons are in the middle of such injustices and degradations of humanity. It is as Paul describes the evil one in Eph. 2:2: he is the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” The enemy has command over ‘the principalities and powers’ of the unseen world, which are constantly busy towards evil ends working through human minions. That’s the biblical picture. We see the fallout of the work of these dual sources of evil every day in the world. We could spend hours on this topic seeking and finding such things in our society, while we witness the destruction the evil one’s work brings about, through his minions, before our very eyes.
My friends, be discerning. Use the true knowledge the Lord gives us in his Word. Recognize the template the Scriptures set for understanding the scheme of the enemy (there’s much more than what I’ve brushed over today, by the way—so study). And look at what’s going on in the world, even in your own lives, and recognize it for what it is. It’s everywhere, in many forms. It’s difficult to miss, if you know what you are looking for.
I say all this not without hope—the name of Jesus – v. 18:
18b Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
Some get hung up on Paul being “greatly annoyed,” which seems a holier than thou position by his critics, to be honest. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if all that was going on while you were trying to share the gospel with the lost? Basically, Paul was very disturbed by the demon’s antics in the girl, and annoyed at the demon’s devious attempts to suborn the gospel and mar God’s glory.
Why did he wait many days, though? I think, along with many others, that Paul was culturally aware enough to know what he was dealing with. He knew that when he cast out the demon, his relatively peaceful days of gospel proclamation would be curtailed in Philippi. By casting out the demon, he, in a way, violated a policy of Rome, concerning their pluralistic stance towards religions. His religion would have interfered with another religion, bringing “harm” to the slave owner’s legal commerce. Paul was a veteran of being run out of town and persecuted for the gospel, after all. He was under no romantic delusions.
Yet, when the time was right, in the power of the Spirit of God, Paul cast the demon out of the girl with one name—the name of Jesus Christ. It is the name to which every knee will one day bow, and whom every tongue will confess is Lord (Phil. 2:10; Rev. 5:13). Jesus was the solution. In Jesus there was redemption for that poor lost child. Such is the power of his name.
Now, while saved from the demonic forces in Jesus’ name, the girl’s exploitation may have just taken another form, maybe even sexual exploitation, which was common. We aren’t told. My prayer is that the optimistic hopes that many have put forward, that she became a part of the church in Philippi, are true. I pray that it was so. Yet, we are not told one way or the other. Certainly, without even further intervention by the Lord (perhaps through efforts of the Lord’s servants there in Philippi—Christians), her status and condition in life may have gotten worse after her spiritual redemption from the demon. Her owners were angry. Such is the evil of man in this world.
However, if she was, indeed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, redeemed in Christ, reborn, given faith and repentance, then her hope would have been to eternal life of peace and joy, whatever further sufferings she might have had to endure in this life. She had been listening to the missionaries’ gospel proclamation, after all, so she had heard the truth.
Sometimes, though, that hope to the future in Christ is the best a person can know in this life. That’s simply a hard reality. It is why, in the Scriptures, we are repeatedly told we will suffer in this life. Our hope is in Christ Jesus. In our redemption, our salvation, we look to the future when Christ returns consummating his kingdom, bringing the ultimate justice for those who suffer injustice, and bringing glory and eternal life for his people (Rev. 20-21).
The solution is Jesus, my friends. Never forget that. Because Jesus is the solution to the misery of evil, Christians must call upon him to save.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 3.
 James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 278.
 Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2435.