In Acts 16, there’s a justly famous story about the time when Paul was unjustly imprisoned, freed by an earthquake and then chose to stay in jail so he could lead his jailer to Christ.
This is a fascinating piece of scripture, and as Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Shane Hipps adeptly pointed out in his sermon series on it June 10 and 17 (available via Podcast), this text underscores the reality that if we’re committed to Christ, we’re free – regardless of our outward circumstances.
This message is comforting and inspiring, and it’s central to the Christian life, so it deserves all of the attention it gets. But the middle and end of this story are so compelling that it’s easy to forget the unsettling beginning – the circumstances under which Paul found himself in the Big House. Please give this a read:
‘Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.’ – Acts 16:16-18 (TNIV)
The passage goes on to explain how the woman’s owners stirred up trouble against Paul and Silas, and had them tossed in the slammer without genuine cause. That’s when the very notable part of the story that I mentioned at the beginning happens. Hipps unpacks those verses very well in his podcasts, so I enourage you to give them a listen.
But I want to focus on the text I’ve italicized above – Paul’s extra-large encounter with a medium.
Paul meets up with a slave woman able to work as a fortune teller because she’s possessed (?) by a spirit. He has the ability, through Christ, to exorcise her of this entity, but leaves her that way for ‘many days.’ Eventually, though, he gets so annoyed that he commands the spirit to leave the woman.
That’s the word used by Today’s New International Version. Other translations use terms like grieved, troubled, fed up, bothered and exasperated here – and a number of others do use annoyed. The Amplified Bible goes so far as to say Paul was ‘sorely annoyed and worn out.’
I think it’s safe to conclude that English Bible translations are on the same page here. Paul was not ‘filled with righteous indignation at her blasphemy,’ or ‘afraid she would spill the beans about Jesus to the wrong person at the wrong time and upset Christ’s plans for Paul in Phillipi,’ but plain old, garden-variety irritated.
Now, most of the time, I find myself identifying with the Apostle Peter, but this is one of the rare instances where I’m right there with Paul. Annoyance and I are very close friends – and something I found cute or charming the first 45 times I heard it becomes like a resounding gong or clanging cymbal very quickly after that. I far too often lash out in the face of my daughter’s incessant silliness, for example. (I’m getting better at doing it in a ‘That was funny, but let it go’ sort of way, with God’s help, though.)
The point is, if Paul got crabby with the clairvoyant slave after many days of her repeating the same message – whether the message was holy or not – I totally get that. Maybe she had a really shrill intonation, or was unclear on the concept of the Inside Voice. Perhaps it was the repetition that got on his nerves – hearing any sentence over and over for many days could wear on the most saintly of saints.
But when Paul finally does evict the spirit from Hotel Slave Woman, he does so ‘in the name of Jesus Christ.’ Any Sunday school teacher worth her salt will tell you that the words ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ are meaningless (or blasphemy) if what is being declared or asked for is not in alignment with the will of Jesus Christ. Since Paul was successful in banishing the spirit, it must be safe to conclude that Jesus was onboard with it.
Was He just as annoyed as Paul was with the tone, the volume or the repetition of the woman’s message? (I thought God’s patience was inexhaustible.) Or did He object to being proclaimed by this particular spirit?
Maybe the spirit’s sudden switch from profiteering to propheteering was motivated more by fear when it came into the presence of Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit. Was Paul’s and Jesus’ annoyance rooted in the spirit’s sudden, convenient fealty? If so, what took them so long?
It’s important to note that Luke (the writer of the book of Acts) doesn’t say the spirit possessed the slave (I put those words in Luke’s mouth a couple paragraphs ago for the sake of brevity; call it journalistic licence) – more like the other way around: ‘a female slave who had a spirit,’ the same language you could use to say I’m a male servant who has a dog. It doesn’t say the spirit had the woman, after all.
He also does not call the spirit evil, merely ‘a spirit’. But just was the spook’s affiliation?
No entity that would provide insider information to a slave woman so her owners could profit from her insight could be a Godly spirit, right? But does that make it an ipso facto evil spirit? I sure thought so until I read this passage the other day. But was I mistaken? Or are the heavens populated with freelance spectres as well as angels and demons? I’d always thought the spiritual realm was carved into two mutually exclusive categories – With God or Against God (and therefore evil). But that’s not implied by Luke’s choice of words here – or by the fact that Paul waited for ‘many days’ before giving the spirit the boot. Surely if the spirit was evil, he would have taken pity on the poor slave woman much, much earlier, wouldn’t he?
So far, all I’ve really done in this blog post is ask a bunch of questions. Sorry, reader. I will now answer all of them using the full extent of my spiritual, cognitive and deductive gifts:
But I love this passage. I love the way that it pokes holes in my inferences and perceptions of what good and evil look like in the spiritual realm, of what phrases like ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ realy mean, and about what genuine devotion to God really looks like.
Perplexing. Unsettling. Fascinating.
I wonder if Jesus’ ears are burning.
Peace be with you.