Called to Conflict — Part 1 of 3 (Acts 16:16-18)
We want peace. And sometimes we will do almost anything to get or keep it. To keep peace we will avoid a conversation that promises to turn into an argument. To avoid conflict we will find ways around engaging with a group of people that are hostile toward belief in Jesus. In trying to avoid conflict we may even try to sidestep the opportunity to help a person or community that is being exploited or brutalized. But Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 3:8) and those that are following Him are called to help in that work (2 Corinthians 10:4). We are called to conflict. In the material that follows we see how a godly leader and his associates are used by the Lord Jesus to confront evil spirts and humans, bring deliverance to someone being exploited, and to suffer; they are called into conflict.
16 Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. 17 This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” 18 And this she did for many days.
We pick up our story with Paul and his company going to join new Jesus followers in prayer. Among the things that did not change for the new believers after the decision to come to Christ was the practice of going to prayer (Acts 16:13). Before they met Paul and his company Lydia and other God-fearing people were regularly retreating from the rigors of life to call on God (Acts 16:13). After making a decision to trust Christ (Acts 16:14-15) they are found continuing in the practice with support from an apostle and his missionary band. (There are four in Paul’s group. There is the apostle himself, Silas, Timothy, and Luke. The first two are Jews. Timothy is half Jew and Luke is a Gentile.)
We are often found saying that we would like to see more of the spectacular work of the Spirit mentioned in the gospels and Acts in our own day. “Where is the work of Jesus in our church and our community?” But we cannot overlook the fact that in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 5:16), His apostles (Acts 1:14; 3:1), and people who experienced exceptional grace (Cornelius – Acts 10:1-2; Lydia – Acts 16:13) that prayer is conspicuously present.
For those of us who earnestly desire to see God move now like He did then the counsel is clear:
To see the hand of God move in our lives in ways similar to what we see in the Scriptures importunate prayer, individual and corporate, must be made primary and continuous.
We can see the need for prayer that is unrelenting and continuous in the example, exhortation, and explanations of Jesus.
- The Example of Jesus for Continuous Prayer (Luke 5:16; 14:23; Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12; 9:18; 11:1) — So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. (Luke 5:16)
- The Exhortation of Jesus for Continuous Prayer (Luke 11:5-11; Luke 18:1) — Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart… (Luke 18:1)
- The Explanation of Jesus for Unrelenting and Continuous Prayer (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29) — However, this kind does not go out except by prayer [and fasting]α. (Mark 9:29) Jesus made it clear that the power of the one he sends is derivative. The ability to cast out a demon was not based on an inherent authority of the exorcist but on the name and authority of Jesus Himself. In prayer the one asking acknowledges their inability to solve the problem on their own and their great need for help. Apart from this humbling of self and asking for help it will not be possible to command unclean spirits to come out of their victim.
- The Apostolic Admonitions for Unrelenting and Continuous Prayer (Acts 16:16; Acts 1:14; 3:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; Romans 12:12) — The apostles have a special ministry of clarifying the commands of Jesus, unpacking His precepts, exemplifying His edicts. Through them we learn that the Lord, as He Himself demonstrated, would have us continuous and fervent in praying.
We will not see God work like He did until we are willing to keep the commands of Jesus regarding prayer. He has shown us how. Now we need to make supplication like the Son, to appeal to heaven for help like His apostles did, and charge the throne of grace like the early church. The likelihood of getting into the regular practice goes up with better planning. Here are three things needed if we are going to become people of prayer:
- An Established Time — Our time for prayer should be scheduled. Putting it on the calendar is evidence that we are being intentional. A goal without a date is a dream. Including others in the plan helps us become accountable. For those in leadership, delegating the role of leading prayer time helps to ensure that it is not vulnerable to our personal vicissitudes.
- A Particular Place (Luke 21:38; 22:39-40) — Jesus regularly retreated to pray. When in Jerusalem He had a custom of going to the Mount of Olives; He would, at times, be there all night in prayer. Why Olivet? It was removed from the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but near enough to be a practical retreat from day-to-day teaching in the temple. The distance between temple and the Mount of Olives was a Sabbath’s journey (Acts 1:12). How far is that? It would be 2,000 cubits or 0.57 miles..
- A Clear Purpose — Prayer, if it is not focused on what matters to God, can become a thing of (1) pride and (2) a dead ritual. Our prayers should have as their goal getting from God what we need to do His will; this is good praying (Luke 10:2; Mark 14:38; Luke 22:42; Matthew 6:10).
For-Profit Demon-Based Exploitation (Acts 16:16)
Although thus far these notes have made much of the fact that they were regularly going to prayer, that activity is incidental to the story. That is, Luke is not pointing out that they were praying regularly after coming to Christ. He is saying that en route to the prayer meeting they were attacked by an evil spirit. The slave girl possessed with a spirit of of divination met them as they went to prayer. She did not meet them once as then were going to meet other Jesus followers in prayer. Luke says this she did for many days (Luke 16:18).
In Greek the text says that the certain slave girl (παιδίσκην τινὰ) was of a python spirit (πνεῦμα πύθωνα). The python is known to us as a large snake that can squeeze the life out of its victims. For the ancient world it was two things: (i) the symbol of the Oracle at Delphi and (ii) a representative for the god Apollo. A pythoness was a person believed to be able to render predictions of future events by the power of an indwelling python spirit. The serpent had thus become a symbol of fortune-telling. We, of course, knowing the association between Satan and the symbol of a serpent (Genesis 3:1; Revelation 12:9; 20:2, 10), see all of this as satanic. The slave girl, possessed by an actual demonic spirit, was a profit-making pawn.
Greeks and Romans put great stock on augury and divination. No commander would set out on a major military campaign nor would an emperor make an important decree without first consulting an oracle to see how things might turn out. A slave girl with a clairvoyant gift was thus a veritable gold mine for her owners. (Polhill, 1992, p. 351)
Her masters, pagans and profiteers of the day, were made rich by her demon-inspired utterances. Who cares that she was a prisoner in her own body? Like so many women today, her flesh was valued for its ability to make money even if she was being destroyed in the process. Let that sink in.
Through the slave girl the demon antagonized the four missionaries — especially Paul. The indwelling spirit called out daily through the slave girl telling the community two things. First, it told all who heard her who the men were: servants of the Most High God. Second, it told listeners what they were doing: they proclaim to us the way of salvation.
Demons not only recognize who Yeshua is, they also recognize who His servants are. Hence, when the maid exclaimed, These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim unto you the way of salvation, it was clearly demonic recognition. (Fruchtenbaum, 2020, Kindle Locations 6074-6076)
Is this a bad thing? After all, although the inspiration is from a demon, could the advertising and endorsements have helped with ministry? A thousand times no. Hell to the no! And to understand why we need only consider two things — Paul’s emotional disposition and Jesus’ example for His disciples.
Paul’s Disposition – The spirit motivated the girl to follow them and cry out about their identity and intentions. How did Paul feel about that? It vexed him. The NKJV says that he was greatly annoyed (διαπονηθεὶς). The verb translated greatly annoyed (διαπονέομαι) is only used twice in the Bible – Acts 16:18 and Acts 4:2.
διαπονέομαι: to be strongly irked or provoked at something or someone—‘to be irked, to be provoked, to become angry.’ διαπονούμενοι διὰ τὸ διδάσκειν αὐτοὺς τὸν λαόν ‘being provoked that they were teaching the people’ Ac 4:2; διαπονηθεὶς δὲ Παῦλος ‘Paul became provoked’ Ac 16:18. (Louw, 1996, p. 762)
Here and in Acts 4:2 we have the idea of being irked or provoked by someone because of an intrusion. In the earlier passage the Sadducees are greatly annoyed because the apostles have the audacity to teach the resurrection in their temple. Like Paul they were beyond just a bad attitude and provoked to act.
Jesus Example for His Disciples – The apostles look at life through the lens of the Lord’s teachings. In Jesus’ ministry there were multiple occasions where demons identified Him publicly.
- 23 Now there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:23-25)
- 41 And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of God!” And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ. (Luke 1:41)
Notice that Jesus did not allow demons to “help” with ministry. He says, in effect, “Keep my name out of your mouth.” Why? In the passage from Luke many are delivered from demonic possession and the demons, as they are being evicted, cry out “You are the Christ, the Son of God!” The testimony of evil spirits was unwanted by our Lord. To accept their testimony would have been to certify them as sources of information. That endorsement would have been a boost for their deceptions and endeavors to destroy people; it would also have implicated the Holy One of God in their unholy work. Paul is a bondservant and student of Jesus. He knows that what appears to be an aid to the ministry is really a part of the evil spirit’s strategy to hurt more people. How? If the spirit were allowed to aid the apostle it would support his plan (1) to gaining credibility a a help to people regarding the spiritual realm and then (2) to use the credibility deceive and destroy more people. “Paul was grieved, annoyed, and indignant. He did not want any kind of testimony on his behalf from a demon.” (Fruchtenbaum, 2020, Kindle Locations 6080-6082)
And why now? That is, if the spirit was really trying to help and knew about these men and their work why had it not spoken about it before now? Although the spirit knew about Jesus, his disciples, and the gospel, unless it was confronted by people coming into its territory, it was glad to keep the way of salvation a secret. And if it was such a helpful spirit why was it complicit in the enslavement and exploitation of the girl? Such a obviously demonic entity needed to be kicked out – immediately.
Not every spirit that can say Jesus is with Jesus. Some will use His name to further their own schemes and plans.
Dealing with the Devil (Acts 16:18)
But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour.
The greatly annoyed apostle is altogether against evil associations and collaborating with the corrupt (Acts 16:18; Mark 1:23-25; Luke 4:41). He does not want the ministry associated with the works of the devil. And Paul’s Perception of the problem is on point. The problem is not the girl. Real problem is spiritual and the person responsible is the spirit that possesses the girl. Thus he turns and addresses the spirit.
Paul is not trying to get along with the spirit. He is not trying to be a friend to God’s foe (James 4:4; 1 John 2:15). He is against the spirit and what it is doing to (1) imprison the girl and (2) try to become an associate in the ministry. Thus Paul goes full ghostbuster and, in the name of Jesus, commanded the spirit to come out of her. It seems to be a very expedient and efficient exorcism. The spirit came out that very hour.
But why did he wait so long? That is, why did Paul let this spirit follow and vex them for many days? Here is a theory: he had been working on this since they encountered the evil entity. What looked like an expedient and efficient exorcism had actually been obtained in prayer in the days prior. This, as mentioned earlier, is the teaching of Jesus on prayer. I do not think it likely that Paul would have missed the opportunity to apply the Master’s teaching in this moment.
29 So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer [and fasting]α.” (Mark 9:29)
I believe that when the Spirit-led apostle knew that he had obtained what he had sought in prayer that he spoke to the spirit and commanded it to come out. The effect was immediate even if the prior pleading with God took some time.
And, brethren in Christ, unless we look at this passage as being our passage and the characters of the story as being us we will miss the application of timeless principles.
If you have invaded the land and begun to take territory do not think is strange when a fiery trial comes upon you. When you are making progress in the work of God it is reasonable to expect that the enemy will endeavor to distract you, discourage you, disturb you, and even deceive people about his association with you.
But do not worry; God has seen all of this before it happened. And if we listen He reveals the truth about the situation. E.g., the problem your are facing is really spiritual. The person we think is a pest and problem if often a pawn that needs our prayers. Beloved, we need to pray for our enemies; they, like the certain slave girl, are being used by the devil and destroyed in the process (John 10:10; 1 Peter 5:8). The real enemy is Satan, chief among evil spirits, and a world system under his sway. Evil spirits like Satan are tirelessly using people in attempts to hinder the work of God in and through us. In some cases, in order to effect the deliverance of the person being used, you will have to leave your comfort zone and enter into conflict; it may even become necessary to perform an exorcism.θ
α — The words “and of fasting” do not appear in the two best Greek manuscripts (Aleph and B).
θ — Executing an exorcism is not an ability inherent to the child of God; the power to put out an evil spirit is the result of a request made by a son or daughter of God in the name or for the sake of Jesus.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Fruchtenbaum, Arnold G. (2020). Ariel’s Bible Commentary: The Book of Acts. San Antonio, TX: Ariel Ministries.
Horton, F. L., Jr. (2003). Exorcism. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers.
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1). United Bible Societies.
Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.