Commentary on Acts 16:16-34
In Acts, trouble follows Paul.
Or perhaps Paul tends to help precipitate the various controversies which embroil him. Either way, Paul’s time in Philippi is no exception to the general rule. Despite the successes narrated in last week’s text from Acts, Paul and Silas will find themselves swept up in a crowd’s fervor but ultimately vindicated by God’s miraculous involvement.
A Nameless Mantic Slave
A seemingly innocuous set of events precipitates a consequential dispute. Luke narrates the proclamations of a mantic slave girl: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Verse 16 does not specify how much time had passed between the conversion of Lydia and the declarations of the fortune-telling slave girl. However, the imperfect tense of the verb pareichen and the remark that these encounters became a daily event suggests that these became regular and for Paul a nuisance.
Why would Paul find her pronouncements so irritating? At first glance, we might imagine that by calling Paul and his companions servants of “the most high God,” she was implying that their God was one among many. That is, hers was a declaration infected with pagan thought. However, Luke elsewhere has faithful Jews describing the God of Israel in the same way (Luke 1:32, 35, 76; 6:35; Acts 7:48). Beyond our speculating about Paul’s mood on this particular day, Acts does not provide a significant rationale for Paul’s indignant reaction. Perhaps the best we can argue is that the mantic girl’s proclamation while true was also misleading in Paul’s eyes. That is, the ambiguities of her message, the source of her inspiration, and her role as a profitable fortuneteller corroded the full message Paul hoped to proclaim.
Almost unflinchingly and seemingly without much thought, Paul exorcises her, alleviating his annoyance, but also crippling the profitability of a syndicate’s manipulative business. We hear nothing of how this changed the life of this unnamed slave. Instead, she drops from the narrative as quickly as she flitted into it. Ultimately, she is not a fully formed figure in this narrative but a mere narrative hinge. In fact, her owners’ indifference to her state of being quickly becomes evident.
Gripped with avarice, the formerly profitable girl’s owners accuse Paul and Silas of profound treachery before the city’s ruling authorities. Notice, however, that their indictments fail to mention one key piece of evidence: the loss of the unnamed slave girl’s services in a lucrative endeavor! Instead, these rapacious merchants resort to the tried and true method of base ethnocentrism. They accuse Paul and Silas of drawing Philippi’s denizens away from the approved Roman way of life to Jewish customs incommensurate with the city’s ethnic values. Of course, the charges are false. Not only are their true motives cloaked in these false ethnic accusations, but also we will later learn that Paul and Silas are Roman themselves (Acts 16:37)!
Despite their innocence, Paul and Silas are beaten and then remanded to prison. What follows is an excellent example of particularly dramatic scenes in Acts which imbue the story with a novelistic air. In these stories, we see most clearly a likely impulse in Luke’s writing not only to inform his readers but also to compel and even entertain them.
“Not Escape but Rescue” –Beverly Gaventa1
Securely ensconced in a deep cell and securely bound, Paul and Silas pray and sign hymns as midnight strikes. A powerful tremor suddenly provides them with a path to freedom. The guard–realizing that a prison escape would be interpreted as a dereliction of duty–tries to take his own life only to be stopped by Paul.
The guard then asks a simple but consequential question: “What must I do to be saved?” What might we imagine this Roman guard meant by this? Did he want protection from authorities above him who might hold him accountable? Did he view Paul and Silas as “divine men” with great power who might grant him some gift? Did he even comprehend the depth of his query?
Perhaps in that moment of despair followed by relief, we ask too much of this guard by asking these questions. Perhaps he did not fully understand what he was asking, but in his grasping for answers, many of us can relate. The sense that life has spun out of control often characterizes the questions we ask of God.
The guard’s question is complex perhaps even beyond his understanding, but the answer is clear: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Much like Lydia last week, the guard hears the gospel and in response hosts Paul and his companions in his home. Once again, hospitality is a marker of his gratitude for the good news. In both the cases of Lydia and this guard, conversion is not a solitary experience, but one shared by all those who together create a home. The repercussions of both Lydia’s and the guard’s conversions extend well beyond themselves. Similarly, the outpouring of hospitality by the whole household suggests the communal dimensions of conversion in Acts.
At the Intersection of Drama and Theology
Such an artful combination of these theological narratives is typical of Luke-Acts. Imbued with a dramatic flair, these stories can both delight and teach.2 The challenge for the preacher is to communicate that same sense of dramatic significance to her audience. To be sure, our modern entertainment industry makes such a homiletical task difficult. After all, most churches lack the special effects budget to recreate a powerful earthquake!
What we can do, however, is recreate the dramatic storytelling imbedded in this narrative. It is too easy for those hearing the reading of this slice of scripture to lose the narrative and theological connections between the slave girl, the vile accusations made against Paul and Silas, and the ultimate deliverance of both the guard and his prisoners. Therefore, the preacher’s task when preaching this text is to highlight how these seemingly disparate stories cohere so well.
Draw attention to the slave girl’s brief cameo in this story. Wonder aloud about her “healing” and why she does not merit even a mention in the accusations brought against Paul and Silas. Compare the parallels between Lydia and the Roman guard.
In this connective narrative tissue lies a profound message: at the intersections of drama and theology, power and weakness, travail and rescue, the story of God’s people was and is being told.
1Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 239.
2See Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).