When Paul knew that God was directing him to Europe, he responded at once by taking his small missionary party across the Hellespont from Asia into Macedonia. The party included the following people: Paul and Silas, who had started out together; Timothy, who had been added along the way; and Luke, who indicates his presence by use of the first-person plural pronoun “we.” This was the first entry of the Gospel into Europe. From this momentous crossing the Gospel spread across Europe and eventually reached ourselves.
The first convert the missionary party had in Macedonia was a Jewish woman of Philippi whose name was Lydia, whom we discussed in last week’s devotional. God had at least two other people in Philippi whom he also wanted to bring to faith in Jesus: another woman, who was a slave, and a male Roman jailer. In vv. 16-18, we read of this slave girl following after the missionaries, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (v. 17). This seems to be a replay of what happened many times in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Those possessed by demons would follow him, and the demons within them would shout out who Jesus was. “I know who you are—the Holy One of God,” they would say (Mark 1:24; cf. Matt. 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 4:34; 8:28).
When the slave girl is introduced to us in this passage, it is as one who had a “spirit” (v. 16). That does not quite do justice to what the Greek text says. It actually says, “She had a spirit of Pythona.” That does not mean much to most of us, which is why it is not translated literally. But “pythona” was a certain kind of snake—a python. It is used here because the python was associated with the god Apollo. You have perhaps heard of the Pythian Apollo, that is, the Apollo god who was associated with the snake.
We are given a clue to how she operated by the word “fortune-telling” that occurs at the end of verse 16. The English words do not tell us a great deal. But the Greek word is based on the word “manic,” which indicates an unnatural, frenetic behavior that frequently appeared when one was in a trance under spirit influence. Apparently that is the way she got her messages. She would go into a trance, behave in an erratic fashion, and the demon would speak through her.
As this girl followed Paul and Silas she cried out after them, saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (v. 17).
The name “Most High God” is appropriate on the lips of this woman, since the demon, who was associated with Satan in his rebellion, spoke through her. The demons call God “the Most High” because that is what they want to be. They want to possess heaven and earth. But they cannot. In fact, the opposite is the case. What was happening here was that God through the word of the missionaries had come to challenge them and begin to take away from them even that tiny bit of earthly dominion they had.
I suppose that, in a certain sense, the second part of the slave girl’s cry was not surprising either, though we would not necessarily expect one of Satan’s followers to say, “These men … are telling you the way to be saved.” The demons did not want the people of Philippi to be saved, of course. Perhaps some form of divine compulsion came upon them. Yet for whatever reason, they did identify the missionaries accurately, just as the demons identified Jesus and His purposes accurately when he was on earth.
As Luke tells the story, there seems to have been a period when Paul tried to ignore the interruption. Why didn’t he stop immediately and cast the demon out? It may be that he anticipated the problems that eventually erupted. He had been in other cities where, due to disruptions of one kind or another, he had not been able to stay long. Perhaps he thought, “If I do anything now, it will disrupt the work. I need more time to teach about God and ground these believers in the faith.” At any rate, a period of time went by, which Luke indicates by saying, “She kept this up for many days” (v. 18).
At last Paul became troubled and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her” (v. 18). And the demon did, just as the spirits did when Jesus issued such commands! The girl was delivered in that instant, and we are to understand that Paul then began to teach her about Jesus Christ. She became the second member of the church at Philippi that we know of, right after Lydia. Isn’t that interesting? The church began with two women—a Jewess, who was undoubtedly looked down on by those of this very Roman community, and a slave girl, who had been used by her masters to make money.