The Divine Irony In God’s Service.
Acts 16: 6 – 40.
Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia established by King Philip II and the father of Alexander the Great around 356 B.C. as a military outpost that controlled the gold mines nearby. It became a Roman colony soon after Octavian and Marc Antony defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius in the city in 42 B.C. Much later, the Roman emperor Octavian settled Roman army veterans there. While in Troas during his second missionary journey, Paul saw a vision of a man in Macedonia asking for help (Acts 16:8-9). He, Silas and others immediately set sail for Neapolis, arriving eventually at Philippi (Acts 16:11-12). As usual, on a Sabbath, Paul went to a place of prayer along the river, most likely a synagogue, to meet with the city’s Jews. There, he met Lydia from Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics and a worshipper of Yahweh, and it was at her home that the Philippi church first took root later on (Acts 16:14-15).
The next encounter was unusual in what appears to be an apparent truth-speaking from a slave girl with a spirit of divination! Using her uncanny ability, she persistently tailed the missionaries and publicly announced their evangelistic intentions in Philippi (Acts 16:16-17). What was so inappropriate in her proclamation, quite apart from the fact that a spiritual entity was able to either forthtell a future or most likely, mindread Paul and Silas’ intentions? To a Roman audience in the city, Jupiter was the ‘most high god’ in the ancient Roman pantheon, and it seemed as though the divining spirit was endeavouring to obfuscate Jupiter with the Christian gospel! No wonder Paul was livid, and when she did not cease from her attempts to muddy their message, he drove the divining spirit out of her (Acts 16:18). And here we have the divine irony: having lost their source of her divining income, the girl’s masters incited the whole city against Paul and Silas, and the result was their incarceration in a Philippi jail (Acts 16:19-24).
It would be an understatement that their first and only night in prison was uneventful. An earthquake flung open the prison doors, followed by an attempted suicide by the jailer who thought all his jailbirds had escaped, Paul’s intervention, and the warden and his entire family embraced the faith (Acts 16:25-34). Undeniably, God’s ways are past our ability to prognosticate. In God’s economy, the incident with the slave girl was just a subsidiary diversion to commit Paul and Silas to a Roman prison for the salvation of the jailer’s family. That was not the end of the story in God’s plans for His gospel.
Paul’s suffering for the gospel’s sake is well-referenced, and his advice to those who bore the message was to expect similar treatment in Christ’s name (c.f., 2 Tim 2:3; 2 Cor 11:23-27). One would have thought that given the opportunity to exit quietly would be appreciatively welcomed after being beaten and imprisoned. But in Philippi, Paul was otherwise motivated. The gospel and her human messengers are inextricably linked, the latter’s life is a witness to the credibility of the preached Word (c.f., 2 Cor 1-3). Hence, being publicly mistreated as criminals in a Roman city did not portend well for the intended Message. Paul used his Roman citizenship to authenticate their innocence and vindicate the credibility of the gospel by having the magistrate publicly escorted them out of jail (Acts 16:35-40). This strategic undertaking also protected the small group of Philippian believers from further communal retaliation. When we follow God each step of His way, there is a purpose even if it leads to unjustified imprisonment. He will protect the integrity of His gospel and His faithful and obedient messengers.