Today’s meditation and retelling is from Acts 16:16-40.
I always thought it strange that this demon-possessed girl announced the truth of Paul and Silas’s message, and yet the disciples found this troublesome. Why would a demon endorse their message, and if it did, why would that be a bad thing? There must be something we’re missing. Perhaps this gave the distinct impression to listeners that Paul and Silas were in cahoots with the demons. Jesus was accused of this very thing, too (Luke 11:15).
Also, if this demon-possessed girl bothered Paul (whatever the reason), why did it take him “many days” to cast the demon out? Why didn’t he do so at once? We’re not told what was going on that would have hindered this solution, so we can only speculate. Andrew Wommack’s interpretation is that perhaps the girl had no desire to be free of the demon. If that were the case, as Jesus said, casting out one demon without replacing it with a new Spirit might leave her with more demons than she started with in the end (Matthew 12:44). As a naturopathic doctor, I think of this as similar to a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics. They might wipe out the pathogen, but if you don’t repopulate with good bacteria to defend the territory against subsequent attacks, opportunistic organisms may invade instead. The end state of that patient’s digestion and health generally can then be worse than it was to begin with. Perhaps Paul and Silas waited to see if the girl might give any indication that she wanted deliverance. But after many days of her presumably hindering their message and preventing others from coming to the Lord, they’d had enough.
Unfortunately, the girl turned out to be a valuable slave, because of the demon. In their anger, her owners dragged Paul and Silas before the magistrates of the city. I’m not sure why Paul didn’t tell the magistrates that they were Roman citizens then, since apparently that would have changed everything. Perhaps God told them to keep their mouths shut about that for the time being, though it seems like if that were the case, it would have been recorded. Also, while the apostles were certainly persecuted in many cases for their faith, I can’t think of a time in scripture when God explicitly told them to submit to persecution because He intended to use it for the greater good, even though He always did so. God taking evil and turning it for good certainly isn’t the same thing as God causing evil and turning it for good. Later in Paul’s life, God specifically tried to lead him away from Jerusalem, apparently to spare him persecution (Acts 21:4-11). It therefore seems more likely to me that in the ensuing brouhaha, Paul just couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
I love how God redeemed this miserable story, though. Beaten, bloody, in stocks so they couldn’t even move, and now thrown into prison, Paul and Silas surely didn’t feel like singing. Yet they offered a sacrifice of praise, anyway (Hebrews 13:15). This time, God didn’t send an angel, but an earthquake. He needed to make sure the jailer was awake to see Paul and Silas’s deliverance. As a result, rather than committing suicide (since the jailer knew that if all the prisoners escaped on his watch, he would be killed for his negligence), he and all his family were saved. Not only that, but the Roman law protected Roman citizens from being punished without a trial (Acts 22:25-29). When the magistrates learned they had thus treated Roman citizens, they were afraid, for their positions and possibly even for their lives. Naturally, word of the scandal would spread—”Did you hear what the magistrates of Philippi did to two Roman citizens? Yes, and without trial!” The next question of course would be, “What did the men do to deserve such treatment?” And so the gospel might spread even farther than it might have otherwise. Also, magistrates in other cities would be careful not to repeat the offense, protecting Paul and Silas from similar treatment in the future. The story might even have protected other believers from harassment too, as they preached; surely no other magistrates would be in a hurry to repeat the Philippian mistake.
I felt a sinister presence right away, at the edge of our meeting in Philippi. One minute, it felt like I had the crowd’s full attention, like they were hanging on my every word. The Holy Spirit was almost palpable. I brimmed with anticipation, eager for the awesome display of the Lord’s power that was sure to follow. But then suddenly, the energy of the group shifted, and soured. I didn’t miss a beat, and continued speaking, but I scanned the crowd for the source of the disturbance. My eyes landed on the girl at once.
She was dark-skinned, her wrists spangled with bracelets and her head and waist with colorful scarves. These told me her profession at a glance: she was a diviner. All diviners were either demon-possessed or charlatans, so I wasn’t too surprised to note the sneer and hollow expression she wore. Demons I could deal with. The problem was the effect she was having upon the crowd.
As I continued preaching, I saw the girl whispering to those around her, though her vacant eyes remained locked upon me. Sometimes the demon-possessed retained some control of their own bodies, but not this girl. She had surrendered herself to it totally. I couldn’t hear what she said to the listeners around them, but the effect was like a bucket of cold water upon the Holy Spirit’s flame. People began to wander away, before I had even finished. All my hopes for the great outpouring of the Spirit that night evaporated. Finally, I dismissed what remained of my listeners at dusk, urging them to return to hear me speak again the next morning. I caught the girl’s smirk of satisfaction as she wandered away, too.
When we were alone again, I turned to Silas in frustration and threw up my hands. “What happened?” I demanded. “Did you feel it too? That shift?”
The younger man nodded, grim-faced. “You saw her?”
“Yes! What was she saying to them? Could you hear?”
Silas nodded again. “It was always some variation of, ‘These men are servants of the Great High God, and they’re telling us how to be saved!'”
I let out a grunt of disgust. The words were true, of course, but the effect of the words were proof enough that, coming from her, it would have the opposite effect. There were those who already spread rumors that we performed signs and wonders through the power of the demonic. The diviner girl’s apparent endorsement must have convinced at least some of them that the spirit by whom she operated and the Spirit through Whom I did were one and the same.
“Maybe she won’t come back tomorrow,” Silas soothed, but I turned a deadpan expression upon him. He gave me a bashful smile and shrugged. “Just being optimistic.” He knew as well as I did that if Satan discovered his tactic had worked to hinder the gospel, he would assuredly double down on it.
I huffed. “Let’s just pray that, if the girl herself is still reachable, she’ll give some indication of it tomorrow,” I murmured to my protege as I walked into town, toward the house where we were staying for the night. “Then we can cast it out, and turn her distraction to our advantage.”
“We might have to cast it out anyway, whether she wants us to or not,” Silas returned, falling into step beside me.
“I know, but it’ll be worse for her if we do it without her consent.”
“Why?” Silas frowned.
“Remember the Lord’s teaching on this? He said, ‘when a demon is cast out of a person, it goes to wander in a waterless realm, searching for rest. But finding no place to rest, it says, ‘I will go back and reoccupy the body I left.’ When it returns, it finds the person like a house swept clean and made tidy, but empty. Then it goes and enlists seven demons more evil than itself, and they all enter and possess the person, leaving that one in a much worse state than before.'” I told Silas, “If I cast it out, I want to be able to replace it with the Holy Spirit, for her sake. If I can’t do that…”
“Ah, I see,” Silas bit his lip, and then looked up to heaven. “Lift the confusion and the oppression off of that girl, Lord! Long enough for her to hear that she has a choice, to hear that she can be set free!”
I agreed with Silas in prayer, both of us alternately speaking in English and groaning in tongues as we interceded for the girl all the way to our house for the evening.
But alas, the next day was no different—nor the next, nor the next. The girl turned up every day that we preached, souring the crowd against us and growing increasingly bold. “These men are the servants of the Most High God!” she began to shout over us. “They are proclaiming the way of salvation!” Many would-be listeners seemed to be scared off by her expostulations. Finally after nearly a week of hindrance, I approached the girl, standing right before her, peering into her eyes. I willed her to show me some indication that she was still in there, and that she wanted deliverance—but alas, she was only a shell. Still, I couldn’t let this go on.
“I command you in the name of Jesus, the Anointed One, to come out of her, now!”
At first, the girl’s vacant expression did not change. I turned my back on her and, unhindered, proceeded to preach again to the small crowd gathered. I had to break off, though, because their attention was arrested by the spectacle behind me. Exasperated, I turned to see what had distracted them, expecting the usual foaming and writhing of a demon fighting his eviction.
I saw this, but I also saw a pair of well-dressed, burly men at the girl’s side. I suddenly understood for certain what I had only suspected before: she was a slave, and she probably made these masters of hers a great deal of money with her divinations. The girl shrieked, and then went still. I knew she wasn’t dead, having been through this plenty of times before, but her masters behaved as though I had killed her.
“You!” they spat, pointing at Silas and me.
My mouth fell open, which was about all the time I had for protest. In moments, the two swarthy men had each chosen a target—one falling upon Silas and the other upon me. When my huge captor got close enough, he wrapped one hand all the way around my skinny upper arm and proceeded to drag me toward the central marketplace of Philippi.
“Don’t struggle!” I called to Silas, behind us.
Silas let out a short laugh, which I understood to mean, As if I could!
I tripped a few times as my captor dragged me inexorably along, at his own pace rather than mine. Moments later, we found ourselves before the city magistrates, on our knees.
“These Jews are troublemakers!” Silas’s captor announced. “They’re throwing our city into confusion. They’re pushing their Jewish religion down our throats. It’s wrong and unlawful for them to promote these Jewish ways, for we are Romans living in a Roman colony!”
This announcement was met with an uproar, from both the magistrates themselves and from the surrounding mob—always ready to be whipped into an emotional frenzy, whatever the cause. I considered retorting that the two men who seized us were really upset that they had lost their source of income from the demon-possessed girl, but it was clear it wouldn’t matter. The emotional pitch was too high. The magistrates, feeding off the energy of the crowd, tore their clothes and cried out that Silas and I were to be beaten with rods. Silas caught my eye, looking briefly terrified.
In minutes, both of us were stripped to the waist, tied to a pole, and on our knees, while bloodthirsty soldiers relished laying stripes into our backs. The dull thud of the rod against Silas’s flesh and my own made me groan in rhythm with it. Then, some part of my consciousness detached as protection from the pain. I made a song of it. It was, in a bizarre sense, almost meditative. I was with the Lord, looking down at our suffering bodies, bemused. I wondered if this was how we would die.
And then it was over. I scarcely heard the crowd anymore, a dull roar in my own ears. All I saw were the paving stones, slick with my sweat and blood. The tunic was replaced upon my raw flesh. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I winced in anticipation of the moment when I would have to remove it again. I decided that when the time came, I would try to soak the tunic in water so that it would not stick to my wounds when I peeled it off.
These thoughts distracted me sufficiently that I was surprised to find myself on my feet, walking somewhere with an escort. It was bright, and then it was dim, dank, and chilly. We were forced into a cell, and then to our knees. Something wooden slammed across my ankles, hands and neck. Stocks, I realized. Silas received the same treatment beside me, I saw as my eyes adjusted to the gloom. The roar began to fade from my ears, too, and with it, I felt the sting and throb of my wounds begin to return. I could make out the cadence of taunts from our captors, but not their substance. Then the door slammed shut. Silas and I were alone again.
We were silent for some time, probably both regaining our senses after the physical shock.
I was so grateful for shock, I thought. How kind of the Lord, to build in that mechanism to the human body, so that the nerves could not be overloaded with too much pain at once. I hadn’t really felt the pain except at the very beginning, and as it crept back to me now.
“You okay?” I croaked to my companion at last.
Silas groaned in response.
Over the subsequent hours, the pain returned in dribs and drabs, but never all at once. I felt the ache of my stiff, restless limbs, the throb and occasionally the sting of my wounds. I drowsed a few times, but then the discomfort of my position awakened me. I glanced over at the keeper of the prison, whose silhouette I could just make out from where I sat. I could tell the man had fallen asleep from his akimbo position, and his jaw that hung agape. Every now and then he let out a snore.
Eventually Silas said, “So. That could have gone better.”
I started to laugh, but winced from the pain of it. “The Lord has us here for a reason,” I managed.
Silas snorted. “You think so, huh? We’re gonna do great things, all by ourselves down here, preaching to the rats?”
I didn’t bother to rebuke him. Less than a minute later, he sighed, having apparently rebuked himself.
“I’m sorry,” Silas murmured. “You’re right. Of course the Lord has a purpose. He will take what the enemy meant for evil, and turn it for good.”
“Let’s praise Him for it,” I said with determination, and began to sing softly, “Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing out the honor of His name; make His praise glorious.”
Silas, recognizing the psalm, joined in, “Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power Your enemies shall submit themselves to You.”
“Yes!” I agreed, louder than I meant to. I heard slight creaks and groans from other cells adjacent to ours, and suspected we had roused an audience now. The jailer was still asleep, though. I continued, terribly off-key, “All the earth shall worship You and sing praises to You; they shall sing praises to Your name!”
We finished one psalm and went on to the next, and as we did so I felt my spirits lift. I knew Silas’s did too. I also felt a sense of anticipation that I could not explain. Neither of us could sing a lick, but our discordant voices blended in joyful noise and occasionally dissolved into laughter. I could see a few of the eager faces of our audience of fellow prisoners though our bars, cast in shadow.
“Keep singing, boys,” said one hoary prisoner, his voice scratchy with disuse. “You’re doing it!”
“Doing what?” asked his cell mate.
“I dunno,” said the old timer, “but they’re doing something. Can’t you feel it?”
I certainly could. I responded with, “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord! He is their strength in the time of trouble.”
“And the Lord shall help them and deliver them!” Silas belted as loud as he could. “He shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in Him—”
“Shh!” I hissed. I thought I’d heard a rumble, and wasn’t sure what it was. A second later, the rumble grew much louder, and the ground beneath us trembled violently.
“Is that—an earthquake?” Silas now had to shout over the din.
As if in response to his question, our stocks—which were locked—rattled open. So did our cell door.
So did everyone else’s!
“Ha ha!” Silas cried, and then moaned with relief as he straightened and gave his angry limbs a decadent stretch. “Thank You, Lord!” he cried out.
I too straightened, stretched, and couldn’t help groaning as my stiff limbs began to move. All around us, I heard the other astonished prisoners doing the same.
“Psst!” hissed one of the other prisoners. “This was your doing, preachers! Where should we go now?”
I glanced at the keeper of the prison, who had startled awake and let out a cry when he saw that all of the cell doors stood ajar. He swore as he scrambled to his feet, and drew his sword. I watched him with alarm, thinking that he intended to attack us, until he turned it upon himself.
“Stop!” I shouted.
I so startled the man that his sword clattered to the ground, and he uttered another cry, as if I were a ghost. I realized that the jailer had seen the open cells, assumed we had all fled, and that he would be executed for failing in his duties.
“Don’t do that!” I told him, holding up my stiff hand. “We’re all still here! Nobody’s run away!”
I could still see only the man’s silhouette. He turned to shout to jailer who was out of sight.
“Bring me a torch!” he cried.
In a few minutes our jailer bore a lantern, held it aloft, and saw that indeed, all of the prisoners were still within, though none of us were chained or barred. He re-secured all of the other cells once more, though he did not lock any of the rest of the prisoners back in their stocks. When he got to ours, I expected him to seal our bars as well, and go back to sleep. But when he got close enough, his expression crumpled, and the lantern shook with his trembling. He came into our cell, falling on his knees before us.
“Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?” he begged.
Silas beamed at me, and I nodded at him to go ahead. He told the jailer, “Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus. Then you’ll live as you were meant to live—and everyone in your house included!”
The jailer wiped his eyes as he stood to his feet, though I hadn’t noticed that he had been crying before. “Come,” he told us. “Tell my household yourselves!” He turned and whistled for the other jailer who had stood in the shadows watching all of this, the one who had presumably brought him the lantern. The other jailer watched us, wide-eyed, as we walked out of our cell behind our original captor.
“I am Jerome,” he introduced himself. “My wife is Sophia, and our daughters are Alexandra and Katye.”
We did not have far to go, as Jerome and his family lived right by the prison. He called out in a loud voice to rouse his wife and daughters when we entered. The girls were young teens, and they seemed irritable to have been so awakened. Apparently the earthquake had been quite localized, and not even extended so far as to his home. His wife looked alarmed, looking at Silas and me.
“Who are these men, Jerome?” she asked in a low voice, not taking her eyes off of us. “They certainly look like the men who were beaten in the square today—”
“They are, but just wait until you hear—!” He tripped over his own tongue trying to tell his wife and daughters what had happened in the prison, though he got it all out of order and seemed to forget basic words in the process. At last, Silas and I helped him fill in the details.
“It was a miracle!” Jerome concluded, throwing his hands up. “These men are from God, and they are here to tell us how to be saved! But quickly, we must first attend to their wounds and their bellies. Alexandra, Katye, draw some water, lather some soap, and bring some salve if we have some. I will tend their stripes myself. Then help your mother prepare these men something to eat.”
“Oh, praise the Lord!” Silas uttered as Jerome bathed and applied salve to the raw flesh of his back. When it was my turn, I hissed from the sting but also let out a few involuntary praises as he dressed my wounds. He washed our bloody tunics in the soapy water afterwards and gave each of us a fresh tunic while ours dried. Around the third watch of the night, Sophia and the girls set a meal before us of bread and cold meat. My stomach growled when I saw it, but I knew we must put the Lord’s priorities first. The meal was a cold one anyway; it could wait.
So Silas and I took turns telling Jerome and his family about the Lord. We told them about Jesus, His death and resurrection, and about the Holy Spirit He sent at Pentecost. We invited them to be baptized. Jerome agreed eagerly, though the only water they had on hand was now dirty with soap and blood and dirt. Jerome declared that he didn’t mind a bit, but Alexandra and Katye did. They dumped the previous basin and drew fresh water, assembled dry clothing for the family to change into afterwards, and then Silas and I took turns baptizing all four of them. As we did so, the Holy Spirit fell upon each of them. Alexandra, the most demonstrative of the family, babbled with tongues while laughing and crying. The others held back, but we could see that their faces were radiant with joy. Both teenaged girls shrieked with combined shivers and giddiness, and ran back into the house to change into dry clothing.
And then, what a meal we shared! I could hardly remember when one had tasted so good, seasoned with hunger and enjoyed with the love of new brothers and sisters.
“I only regret that I have to bring you back to the prison now,” Jerome cast Silas and me an apologetic look. “I know you’ve done nothing but the Lord’s work, and the magistrates only agreed to punish you because you cast a demon out of a valuable slave, and the owners wanted you to pay for it. But still, if I don’t return you to your cells, they’ll kill me—”
“We know,” Silas held up a conciliatory hand. “And the magistrates also know we did nothing wrong. They can’t hold us forever.”
It was just before dawn when we followed Jerome back to prison. He pleaded with his eyes for us to forgive him as he locked us in once more. We nodded to him and smiled that we understood.
Silas and I had just finally drifted off to sleep the following morning when the rattle of our cell door jolted us awake.
“The magistrates sent word that you’re free to go on your way!” Jerome gasped, beaming at us. “Congratulations! Go in peace!”
Silas began to climb to his feet, but I held up a hand to him. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, frowning. “We are Roman citizens in good standing, yet they beat us up in public and threw us in jail. And now they want to get us out of the way on the sly without anyone knowing? No indeed! If they want us out of here, let them come themselves and lead us out in broad daylight.”
Jerome gaped from Silas to me. “You’re—Roman citizens?” he echoed. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
Before I could answer, the jailer hurried from our cell, leaving the door wide open. He ran outside, presumably to relay this astounding piece of information to the magistrates.
“Why didn’t we think to say that earlier?” Silas asked me, smacking his forehead.
I shrugged. “Honestly everything was so chaotic at the time that it didn’t occur to me. But I think that the Lord wanted us to meet Jerome and his family anyway.”
“And us!” wheezed the old-timer in the cell beside ours. He grinned through the bars, revealing several missing teeth. “Your singing was so terrible it made the earth quake!”
Everyone laughed at this, just as we heard a commotion coming down the stairs. The magistrates followed Jerome, who could barely contain his smug grin. The magistrates themselves were white-faced and flustered.
“You are—Roman citizens?” one cried.
“You should have said—”
“We had no idea! Please, forgive us—!”
They tripped over one another in their efforts to apologize and beg our forgiveness, and plead with us to leave the city so that the whole affair might be quickly forgotten. Heads held high, we followed the magistrates out in broad daylight, waving goodbye to our fellow prisoners as we went. Jerome did not want to appear overly friendly with us, but his eyes twinkled at us warmly, and we nodded at him before we departed.
“What do you think?” Silas whispered to me as we walked away. “Should we leave the city, as they asked?”
“Soon,” I told him with a sly smirk. “But not just yet. Best not to let the magistrates breathe too easy.”