Picture for a moment how many doors we walk through every day– the bedroom door, the bathroom door, the front door, the back door, the car door, and the garage door. There are the school doors, the office doors, the church doors as well as the elevator door, revolving doors, and automatic doors. Our lives seem filled with going in and out of doors.
Contrast with impact of closed doors.
In our scripture passage, we find an underlying theme of opening doors:
• Open door of demon possession
• Open door of slavery
• Open door of jail cell.
• Opening prison doors.
• Open door of salvation
I. The slave girl
On his regular trips to the place of prayer, Paul keeps encountering a woman who is a person in the street, a slave-girl, a possession herself, owned not only by other humans but held captive by a spirit that appears to give her special powers.
The text does not treat the girl as if she is a fraud, who misleads others into thinking her predictions are reliable by throwing her voice. The text implies there is an actual spirit present that speaks through her.
Scholars call such people “diviners” who were believed to be able to predict the future but also to see more deeply into realities the rest of us might miss; in the Greek culture, these powers were linked to the god Apollo, whose worship center at Delphi had a snake as his symbol.
People would come to these people to ask them questions which they would answer while in a trance, speaking “in the spirit of the snake-god.” That may sound a bit exotic to us, but in her own setting, this girl “would have been accepted as a more or less ordinary member of society serving a useful function for people in that culture.”
The LXX connected this type of spiritualist activity with the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, and that by Roman times, python and related terms had come to refer to ventriloquists who claimed that a god spoke through them.
The slave girl is not, however, the first magical practitioner that Paul has met. Acts is careful to draw contrasts between the apostles and their actions and charlatan magicians and theirs. In addition to Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24), in Acts 13:6-11 Paul blinds a magician named Bar-Jesus (also called Elymas) in order to keep him from preventing their conversion of the proconsul Sergius Paulus. In Acts 13, we are told that the magician is a false prophet, so perhaps that is why Paul is so harsh with him.
This girl is a lucrative small-business enterprise for the men who own her. Like so many young girls, she is used by others, but her strange public announcements about Paul and his little band of missionaries, we suspect, do not bring much income to her owners. “These men,” she cries out, “are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us a way of salvation.”
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Although some may say that Paul acted out of compassion for the girl, the text plainly says that Paul was “very greatly annoyed,” so it seems fair to say that this exorcism is almost impulsive. Paul is tired of being heckled by the spirit that possesses her and can recognize who he is, who his God is, and what he has to offer. He’s focused on doing what he came to do, and healing slave-girls doesn’t appear to be at the top of his agenda. Paul finds her distracting, ironically, even though she proclaims the truth. Is she too loud, or too repetitious, or is it just too much for the truth to come from such a source?
Paul was on a mission, and he didn’t really see the girl or her healing as part of that mission, and certainly not as at the heart of it.
II. Those profiting from the slave girl
The next dramatic contrast set up by the story is between the Christian missionaries Paul and Silas and the avaricious owners of the slave girl who resent the money they will now lose because her spirit has been cast out. We are not told if the slave girl is distressed by losing her gift. We are told, however, that all her owners care about is the money involved. Several times in Acts the apostles are contrasted with those whose motives or methods are too mercenary – whether they are Ananias and Sapphira, who hold back money from the common fund (Acts 5), or Simon Magus who tried to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit from Peter (8:14-24).
Motivated by greed, the slave girl’s owners charge that Paul and Silas, as Jews, are advocating the practice of customs that undermine Roman law and practice. The magistrates then have them beaten and imprisoned, but later in the passage (vv. 37-39), the magistrates are forced to apologize and order their release because they are not only Jews, but also Roman citizens!
Some men were profiting from the girl and exploiting her talents. Those who were making money at the expense of the slave girl accused Paul and Silas of breaking local traditions and had them arrested. No one cared about the slave girl, except for Paul and Silas, but their courage to stand up for her made them condemned men.
III. Singing in jail
While they were in prison they sang and prayed. They didn’t complain or whine or withdraw. Instead they witnessed to their faith. They were not ashamed of their beliefs and they weren’t afraid to make their faith visible. Paul and Silas were free to express their faith even while confined. They used their confinement as an opportunity to worship. As it turns out at least one of their captors was listening.
About midnight they were praying and singing hymns. Calling on the presence of God is the way they knew to stay sane.
Then suddenly without any warning there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains in the prison were unfastened.
Paul and Silas are not just jailed, they are chained and put into stocks. Even after being beaten, they still sing hymns loud enough for all the other prisoners to hear. In spite of the chorus, however, the guard manages to fall asleep.
IV. The jailer
An earthquake shakes the prison to its foundations, throws open the cell doors and loosens everybody’s chains! Only then does the guard wake up, and even then he doesn’t say “Wow! An earthquake!” It’s as if he simply wakes up from a deep sleep to find all the cell doors open.
One would think that the initial reaction would be one of getting out of there as soon as possible–a good instinct to have no doubt if one has not already lost hope in one’s life. But what Paul and Silas come to show us through their actions and compassion for another, not their own self-interests, is that though there is the appearance of an open door, because of the law, in reality, the door is really not open. We see this clearly through the actions of the Philippian jailer, a human being as you and I are, who we discover is working to feed himself and his family. According to Roman law, the Philippian jailer was responsible for Paul, Silas, and the rest of the prisoners. So when the Philippian jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he knew at that moment his life and work were at stake.
Paul knew the law. Paul clearly understood that if the open door for him meant the closed door for another fellow worker, that of the Philippian jailer, the door was really closed to both of them. An incredible and compassionate insight on Paul’s part that boggles my mind.
Perhaps out of duty and self-respect, yet painstakingly not seeing any other way out, the jailer draws his sword and is about to kill himself when we hear Paul cry out, as we long to hear our own voices cry out, “Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!” Alone, death seemed inevitable. Together, in looking out for each other, new life is possible.
As people of faith, I believe we are constantly called to open doors for someone else in a world that is used to closing doors. From Paul’s example, we are to see that we cannot be free or make full use of freedom if we know our neighbors and our international brothers and sisters around the world are in fear of losing their lives and thus not free. All too often we have seen freedom used under the auspices of profit leading to the oppression and exploitation of other women, men, and children and their countries in the name of national security and self-interest.
Paul stood for what he believed, and because of the system he was thrown into prison. But take note. Paul’s freedom would not come at the expense of another human being’s life.
Paul stood for what he believed, was thrown into prison, and saw his liberation interwoven with that of a fellow worker. Paul and the prisoners having been beaten, attacked, and inflicted with many blows, mentally and physically, by the magistrate in power also did not simply walk out of the prison quietly.
At this point the narrative becomes a conventional conversion story again (see 2:37-41; 8:34-38; 10:33-48), ending with the conversion of the guard, who apparently brings his entire family to have a meal with Paul and be baptized.
The faith of Paul and Silas was one of courage, love and passion for others. They challenged the status quo and were imprisoned unjustly. God, however intervened and awhile later Paul and Silas were set free. They were liberated, free again to continue their ministry in another place.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2010, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.