29 May 2017

Acts 16:16-34

“Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (v. 26)

Psalm: Psalm 15


This week we continue our reading of Acts, and we follow Paul on his missionary journeys around the Aegean Sea, visiting towns and cities predominantly in Greece and Asia Minor. In this passage Paul was with Silas and Timothy in Philippi in Macedonia. This was their first major stop in the Aegean mission, and the writer (probably the author of the third Gospel, traditionally believed to be the disciple, Luke) was keen to stress that this was Graeco-Roman territory and a strongly gentile context.

As in his Gospel, Luke demonstrates a particular concern for women. The first convert in Phillippi was a wealthy proselyte woman (Luke 16:11-15) and the second person to be liberated was a gentile slave-girl. She is described in some translations as having a "spirit of Python" (v. 16), which refers to snake protecting the Delphic Oracle and Temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus. Priestesses in the cult were said to have the power of clairvoyance. Whether the girl's foreknowledge was genuine or an elaborate confidence trick, she was simply a puppet in the hands of her owners, who seem to have profited greatly from her.

There are several episodes in Luke's Gospel in which Jesus demonstrates God's power over Jewish magic; here his apostle demonstrated God's power over pagan magic. But the real victory was over the greed that leads human beings to control, oppress and even own one another for the sake of financial gain. In freeing the girl from this way of life, Paul also exposed the unscrupulous avarice of her owners; the greatest opposition to the gospel is not necessarily in colourful acts of defiance, but in the routine pursuit of moneymaking at all costs.

Perhaps it is to emphasise the freedom offered by the gospel, that the subsequent conversion story is set in a prison. The slave-girl's owners took revenge by falsely accusing the apostles, getting them flogged and imprisoned (verses 19-24). This sets the scene for the conversion of the gaoler.

It is hard to tell what most touched him; the divine power that opens prison doors and looses chains (verse 26), or the human compassion of the apostles, who chose not to escape (verse 28) and therefore protected him from punishment and ruin. Perhaps the point is the union of divine power and human compassion.

Liberation is linked to cleansing, and at the end of the passage the gaoler washed the wounds of the apostles, who responded by washing the gaoler and his family in the water of Baptism. This signifies their liberation from the imperial system that controls and punishes and their release into the kingdom of God, who heals and restores.

To Ponder

  • Take some time to step back and consider society - what accepted and authorised practices of moneymaking or which of our political systems might, in fact, be opposed to gospel values of freedom and healing? How might you work to expose them?
  • Have you ever had an experience of divine power and human compassion? What impact has it made on you?

Bible notes author

The Revd Anna Bishop

Anna Bishop is a wife, mother and Methodist presbyter. She is currently without appointment while her two small children teach her a spirituality of interruption! She is living in the Salisbury circuit, where she leads Baby-interrupted Bible Study and Little Blessings, a service of worship for babies, toddlers, pre-school children and their carers.