The Power of God and His Word

Among the sketches of the arresting power of the word of God that Luke presents in Acts 16, the exorcism of the unclean spirit in vv16-18 is the most outwardly powerful. Even though it is a short scene, it is worth reflecting on the aspects of the arresting power of God’s word that is revealed in it.

As the scene opens, we are introduced to another resident of Philippi, but she makes quite a contrast to Lydia, the God-fearing merchant. This resident is a slave girl who is doubly oppressed. Not only is she oppressed by a spirit, but her owners have exploited her oppression for their own gain. In that respect, she really is the polar opposite to Lydia, who had the most freedom for a woman of her time and was not far from the kingdom of God.

But in God’s providence, this poor slave girl volunteers to be Paul and company’s herald around town.

Maybe it was because the spirit couldn’t do anything else, akin to what happened when Jesus himself encountered unclean spirits and they had to—they were compelled to—confess that he was the Son of God.

Or maybe it was a crafty attempt to associate the gospel of Jesus Christ with paganism. After all, Luke says that this slave girl was possessed by “a spirit of divination” as the ESV puts it, or more literally translated, “a pythonic spirit.” This is a specific reference to the Greek god Apollo, who was called the Pythian god and was worshipped as such by the Greeks at Delphi. Those who were “inspired” by Apollo were thus possessed by a pythonic spirit.[1]

That is to say, with this specific designation of the unclean spirit, Luke is associating the slave girl’s activity with the god Apollo and those who were possessed by him. And the residents of Philippi, who would have known this, may then have begun to associate the ministry of Paul with the Greek gods. After all, what this slave girl says is generic enough to be misconstrued by the casual listener. Though there is a mention of “the way of salvation,” that way is not specifically tied to Jesus. For that reason, it’s possible that this unclean spirit was seeking to discredit Paul’s missionary efforts by identifying him closely with pagan culture.

Whether it was a matter of compulsion or craft, it was certainly a committed effort. Luke tells us that this happened for many days until Paul got fed up with it all one day. And when he was through with it all, he exorcised the spirit out of this slave girl in the name of Jesus.

Now, I’m of the opinion that this scene has some humor because it appears that Paul had no other goal than to get some peace and quiet; he was annoyed, so he exorcised a demon. That suggests, to me at least, some amount of humor. But it’s also pretty serious. This is a sketch of the power of God through his word because in this scene, a fortune-telling spirit was utterly powerless against the Word of God. To be sure, the power was in the name of Jesus, but that power was mediated through a word spoken by Christ’s servant. With a word, this spirit is silenced.

The significance of this powerful word is its testimony that the kingdom of God was at hand. It was a foretaste of that great day when everything that opposes God will be stopped, when every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. It was also a foretaste of the justice and mercy of God, for in God’s Kingdom there is no room for oppression or profiteering.

Ultimately, though it is incidental to the main plot, the fact that this slave girl was liberated from oppressive possession by an unclean spirit was probably a pretty big deal for her. She tasted the freedom that is found in King Jesus when the Lord banished this spirit from oppressing her.

In the end, we should be impressed by the power of God’s Word as it reveals the power of God himself. Moreover, we should remember that even now the power of God’s Word is working to advance his kingdom and to defeat the kingdom of Satan. We may not see exorcisms in Short Hills, but our words of the grace of the Lord Jesus do have power. And every time a sinner repents and believes, we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God breaking in and snatching another soul from the oppressive dominion of Satan and sin.

[1] Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2008), 312.

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