(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

The passage raises some awkward questions. But for the fact I am systematically working my way through the book of Acts I would avoid commenting upon the slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. I am very wary of stating that Scripture has to be interpreted bearing in mind the limitations of knowledge at the time it was written. However, it must be accepted that many diseases like epilepsy and schizophrenia known today to be caused by malfunctioning of the brain and treatable with drugs, were explained in New Testament times in terms of demon possession. The existence of numerous exorcists (See the seven sons of Sceva) was due to the belief that the only way to cure mental illness was by casting out the demon causing it. I think it is perfectly correct to describe someone suffering from manic depression or dementia as having an evil spirit. My father had an evil spirit in the latter stages of Parkinson's disease. He was quite different from the father that I knew and loved. He would lay in wait for me and attack me with a cushion! This strange, alien spirit was not produced by a wicked supernatural being that had taken possession of him but to changes in his brain caused by Parkinson's disease.

I feel at a disadvantage in commenting on the people described in the Bible as having an evil spirit because I am neither a Greek or Hebrew scholar nor an expert in mental illness. It seems to me that when I read about Saul's evil spirit I am reading about depression brought on by the Lord rejecting him. Jealousy of David's success and popularity exacerbated it; sweet music from the shepherd's lyre alleviated it. Luke's description of a boy who is thrown into convulsions and foams at the mouth suggests he was suffering from epilepsy. See Luke9v37to43. I hardly know what to make of the story of Legion. I think it more likely that he was mentally deranged than that he was possessed by a legion of demons. The man thought that he was possessed but the request of the demons to enter a herd of pigs and the subsequent behaviour of the pigs makes no sense. I do not doubt that Jesus miraculous healed the deluded maniac and that part of the cure was the behaviour of the herd of pigs. In the end he sat at Jesus feet in his right mind. Luke8v35.

I may be wrong in what I write. It is a perplexing subject and one I would be glad of some help with. I do not doubt that people with an unclean spirit were miraculously healed. I just think it probable that the diagnosis of the cause of these conditions reflects the limited medical knowledge of the time. Jesus' ministry did not advance the cause of Medical Science. That is not why he came.

I have somewhat modified my view since writing this. See exposition on Luke4v31to44

(B) What was the woman?

Luke tells us she was a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. v16. Luke uses a technical term. He actually writes: she had a python. This is a reference to the snake that guarded the temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus. Apollo was thought to be embodied in the snake and to inspire 'pythonesses' - female devotees with powers as mediums and clairvoyants.

It is significant that the term, 'python', came to mean ventriloquist. We can see why by reading the story of Saul and the witch of Endor who was a medium. See 1Sam28v11to15 The medium was asked to summon Samuel because Saul needed guidance for the future. The woman cried out in fear when Samuel appeared to her. This was not what she had expected! Saul did not see Samuel as the witch saw him. However Saul did hear the words Samuel spoke. What usually happened was that the medium pretended to see the spirit of a dead person and then used her powers of ventriloquism and mimicry to give the message.

The slave girl of Philippi was more than a ventriloquist. She had earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. v16. This suggests that the medium had some success at predicting the future. She was also something of an obsessive and subject to repetitive behaviour. The girl followed Paul and his companions shouting again and again, day after day, "These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you the way to be saved." v17.

There are two possible explanations of the medium's strange spirit. She may have been something like an autistic savant. These are individuals, usually men but not invariably so, who have extra-ordinary skills not exhibited by most persons. Savants frequently have unusual abilities in music, art, mathematics or languages. Some are capable of staggering feats of memory. Other have more peculiar powers such as always knowing what time it is.

We all have a limited capacity to forecast the future. The brain picks up signals and we have premonitions, hunches, feelings and forebodings. I can remember a driver of one of the Debenham school buses dying suddenly one night of a heart attack. Next day the children said, "We thought it was strange - old Fred always used to say, 'Cheerio', when we got off the bus but yesterday he said, 'Goodbye'. He must have known."

Pehaps this facility that we all have to a very slight degree was very strongly developed in the slave girl. She was a very rare type of autistic savant.

The second explanation is that a supernatural, malign spirit from outside had invaded her life and dominated her. This demon then imparted to the slave strange powers. I am not very inclined to believe this although I have no doubt that Satan exploits mental abnormalities for his own purposes. Satan will use a person's depression to undermine their faith. He does this by communicating thoughts to the mind and exaggerating doubts and fears. Satan operates just like any other person except he communicates directly to the brain without having to use audible language.

(C) Why was Paul troubled?

Paul and his fellow missionaries were getting free publicity. What the medium said was true: "These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you the way to be saved. v17. There are at least four reasons why Paul put an end to the woman's behaviour. It was:

    (1) Irritating.
    I would not like it very much if every week when I entered Marks and Spencer to do my shopping some 'daffy' youth who stacked shelves followed me about shouting at the top of his voice, "Here's old Johnny Reed - he'll tell you the way to be saved." I doubt very much if the 'daffy' youth would make this announcement in a tone of voice that conveyed respect! Many years ago my father and I got on to the little, green Theobald's bus that ran from Bury St Edmunds to our village of Brockley. As we walked between the seats a coarse, red-faced fellow bawled out, "Here comes the Brockley parson - he'll tell you how to be saved." It wasn't pleasant. I wasn't very old but I have never forgotten it. I feel as angry now as I did then at the way that man tried to humiliate my father.

    Paul put up with harassment from the medium for many days. He probably realised what the consequences would be if he put a stop to her antics. Paul knew it would result in trouble and might put an end to his work in Philippi.

    Worldly people rarely do us any favours when they talk about our Christian profession. I have been playing hockey with big George for nearly 30 years. He will pronounce when we are at tea, "Johnny is a real hell-fire preacher." He has never heard me preach but he assumes, possibly from the way I play hockey, that this is my habitual theme. Nothing could be further from the truth. See article on hell. I overheard my friend Tommy Bamber describing my religious position to our Japanese hosts during our visit to Japan: "He has very strict and inflexible views on right and wrong." This hardly does justice to my Christianity. See 'Why I am a Christian.'

    The media rarely does the militant Christian any favours. Zealous believers are harsh, hard, unbending, unyielding, intolerant, bigoted, hypocritical and censorious. How we are hated! Liberal clergy are cast in the mould of the Vicar of Dibley - nice, soft as a marsh mallow, zany and not really believing anything.

    (2) Disruptive.
    Paul liked things done decently and in order. He writes to the Colossians: For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are.... Col2v5. The repetitive cries of the disturbed slave girl were not conducive to preaching the gospel. They distracted people from the message. They drew attention away from the evangelist and the gospel to the medium with her strange powers.

    It does not take much to distract people in church. I am not in favour of babies crying or small children running between the aisles during the message. I once tried to lecture a group of sixth formers on a field trip to South Wales standing amongst a flock of sheep. Every time I opened my mouth to point out a glacial feature in the landscape the sheep baaed in unison. The giggling girls never listened to a word I said! Many middle-aged ladies find the efforts of a harassed mother to pacify its screaming offspring far more entertaining than the best efforts of the preacher.

    (c) Innappropriate.
    It was not appropriate to get publicity for a Christian mission from a notorious medium. She may have increased interest in Paul's ministry for a time but only amongst those interested in novelty or travelling circuses.

    Not all publicity is good publicity. The media have a tendency to focus on the messenger rather than the message. During the Billy Graham campaigns in this country the press devoted a lot of space to the evangelist but not many column inches to his message. Jesus said to his followers, "You are my witnesses." Paul's aim was to preach Christ and him crucified. He did not preach with eloquence or brilliance but in fear and trembling and in the Spirit's power.

    I wonder if today we rely too much on the ability of the messenger and not enough on the power of the gospel.

    (4) Dangerous.
    Paul did not want Christianity to be linked in any way with paganism - with the worship of Apollo and pythonesses. If the missionaries allowed the slave girl to publicise their work it was almost as if they were giving tacit approval to all she stood for.

    Paul was all things to all men that he might win some for Christ but it was he that insisted the church broke from Judaism. He was also determined to keep the faith untainted by paganism. There are huge dangers in borrowing from paganism. This is recognised in the Old Testament. Almost as soon as the Israelites left the land of Egypt they made God in the image of a golden calf and worshipped it.

    Christianity in Britain is not free from paganism. The way we celebrate Christmas owes as much to paganism as to Christianity. I think the ideas about what happens after death owe more to old pagan beliefs than to the New Testament revelation. Hell is a pagan word. Not only was it adopted by Christians to describe the final punishment of the wicked but its old pagan associations were retained. Before I took a funeral service recently I was told by the deceased's daughter to mention in my eulogy that her parents were now reunited in heaven. On the whole the Bible teaches that when we die we go to sleep. The big event is the resurrection to life that occurs when Jesus returns to earth.See my article on Heaven and Hell. Concessions made to paganism take root and are remarkably difficult to eradicate from popular belief and practice.

(D) Paul put a stop to the medium's aggravating behaviour.

Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned round 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." v18. This is an example of the church militant! Paul did not ask the slave girl if she was willing to be changed - he just changed her whether she was willing or not. There is no evidence that the medium became a Christian as a consequence of her deliverance. She lost the ability that made her valuable as a slave and which may have earned her privileges as a slave. Her future became very uncertain. The girl's owners may have cut their losses and sold her on.

The medium lost her strange powers and her obsessive, repetitive behaviour for the sake of the gospel. We may not be equipped, like Paul, to do miracles but we may need to be more militant. Whenever the media, whether press, TV or radio, tarnish the reputation of Jesus or conspire keep him hidden we should go onto the attack - like Paul - without fear of the consequences.

(E) Paul paid a price for disassociating himself and the Philippi church from paganism.

Paul and Silas were very roughly handled by the owners of the slave girl, the crowd and the authorities in Philippi. They were given no opportunity to defend themselves. Instead they were stripped, beaten and thrown into prison. Paul was never in the best of health and twelve strokes of the cane on his bare back would not have helped matters.

Paul and Silas were treated with hostility and contempt for restoring a very disturbed woman to normality. There are three reasons for this:

    (a) The syndicate who owned the medium lost its investment.
    This made them furious. They no longer had a nice little earner in the strangely accurate fortune teller. The syndicate members were unsympathetic to Paul's good work because it hit them in their pockets.

    There are people who oppose charities because in their view charity begins at home. Others are against the government giving overseas aid because the money should be spent on our own people. I have even heard folk arguing against help for the handicapped. They say, "I've worked for everything I've got." God gave this instruction to the Children of Israel: At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites .... and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. Dt14v28to29. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees. Dt16v12.

    (b) Paul and Silas were Jews.
    The Jews were unloved then as they are unloved now. Racial prejudice casts a dark stain on human history. It has led to an awful catalogue of suffering and misery.

    In Britain many who would oppose racism are deeply prejudiced against Christians - especially fundamentalist Christians. I can still hear the sneer in Jeremy Paxman's voice as he asked Tony Blair whether he and George Bush prayed together. What would be wrong with that? It is a pity Tony Blair was so uncomfortable with the question. Then there was the infamous remark of Alistaire Cambell's when Tony Blair was asked a religious question, "We don't do God."

    We need to be aware of the growing prejudice and hostility towards organised religion in Britain. There is a nasty virulent edge to it. Eventually there will be a price to pay.

    (c) The activities and behaviour of the missionaries was un-Roman.
    Philippi was a very Roman town. It is unlikely that the ex-legionnaires would have approved of making so much of a man who was crucified - who died the death of a criminal. The Lord's Supper was exclusive and it celebrated the blood shed and the body broken. Christianity made no distinction between bond and free, male and female, Greek and Jew. All these matters, as well as the unwillingness of Christians to make sacrifices to Roman God's or observe pagan festivals, would set them apart.

    If Christians behave in a way that offends the prevailing culture of the age in which they live they will get short shrift. If we make a stand against politically correct attitudes to language the sparks will fly. If a teenager refuses to participate in the laddish culture they will be labelled odd. It is even possible to incur the wrath of fellow Christians by holding unorthodox views.

    Sadly the non-conformist is rarely given a proper hearing. He or she cannot make their case. The easiest thing to do is to trash the rebel unheard. I have just finished reading, 'Birdman of Alcatraz', by Thomas E. Gaddis. Robert Stroud is a classic example of a man who was never given a fair hearing by the United States Federal Prison Bureau. He had the audacity to take on and show up the Bureau on one occasion and they never forgave him for it. So they kept him in solitary confinement for over 42 years. We should never underestimate the lengths to which spite will go.