Acts 16:16-24

16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. [1]

Last week, in 1 Samuel 28, we saw one of the ways the devil’s kingdom works through indirect power. The witch of En-dor was a phony. She had no real demonic power. She was a ventriloquist, pitching her voice into a cave and pretending to converse with the dead to give desperate God-rejecting people some sense of false freedom in their sin-bound lives. Her scam was based upon one of the predominate world views of Saul’s day and our day: animism.

It is the belief that non-human entities (plants, animals, inanimate objects like crystals, unexplained phenomena) possess a spiritual essence. Animism believes the souls of the dead remain the world like ghosts or spirits, acting as intermediaries between a distant and unknowable god (The Universe) and the living. Animism’s belief that spirits of the dead or ghosts exist is not a biblical worldview.

There are no ghosts. The Bible teaches there are only 2 categories of created spirits: holy angels and fallen angels (demons). Neither class of angels works at the command, spells, sacrifices, or charms of humans. Holy angels work at the specific direction of God. Fallen angels (demons) work against both God and men yet are under God’s sovereign control and can do nothing apart from his divine will. Their aim is to destroy people. The devil’s fake news hasn’t changed since the garden: you control your destiny and you deserve the very best. Those lies lead the deceived and the demonized into utter despair and ultimate destruction. Behind animism is demonic destruction.


But not all psychics and mediums are fakes like the witch of En-dor. Dr. Luke tells us of a young girl demonized by what the ESV calls a spirit of divination. Literally, a Python spirit. The word Python referred to the legendary snake that guarded the Oracle at Delphi, a temple in central Greece housing the most famous fortune-tellers in the ancient world. The python was associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. Not far from Philippi, there was a large shrine dedicated to Pythian Apollo. As the priestesses of Apollo at Delphi were able to predict the future, so this slave girl served her human masters in Philippi as a fortuneteller. She was an instrument of demons who used her as a mouthpiece.[2] As with all our idols, behind the cult of Apollo were demons.

Missions professor Robert H. Bennett, in his book I Am Not Afraid, examined the modern culture of Madagascar and evangelism work taking place there. Like much of Africa, it is a country steeped in animism and spirit worship. Bennett’s interviews with formerly demonized Malagasy Christians reveal that many wanted spirits to possess them so they could make a living as fortune tellers and healers. They made incomes far beyond their neighbors by predicting the future, casting and lifting curses, and healing the sick. But they paid a heavy price to their demon masters who placed many taboos on them. Demons restricted their diets, so they slowly starved. One testimony Bennett records reads:

Many were the difficulties in my life. Many times the [spirits] would make me sleep outside of my house, at the river, or in the forest. Many foods were taboo for me. I could not eat meats… In brief, my life was very narrow. When I became Christian …faith liberated me from many chains. I now know that it was the work of the darkness that I followed before, but now I follow Jesus who has liberated us from many things.[3]

Here’s another:

I was always in anguish during my life and I was afraid.… The [spirits] did not allow me to eat most foods: no pork, no beef, no chicken wings, or greens. After my conversion, I received freedom. I am not afraid. I have no anguish. I have a love for the people around me. I was no longer in difficulty. The spirits of the dead no longer came to me. When they came to me I prayed and they disappeared.[4]

Whether invited or involuntarily possessed, Bennett’s interviews all record the physical and mental anguish demons brought to their victims. It gives us some idea of what life must have been like for the Snake Girl of Philippi – a life of deprivation and terror and torment. Unlike the modern-day Malagasy witch doctors, this young slave could earn no wealth from her demonic powers. There are a number of powers at work in Acts 16: the power of the flesh; the power of the devil; the power of the world; and, the power of the Holy Spirit. The entire chapter focuses upon three people: Lydia, the Snake Girl, and a jailer. It’s a snapshot of life in Philippi and a case study of converts into the church Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Dr. Luke were planting there. You have a wealthy person, a demonized slave, and a middle-class jailer. We’re focusing on the Snake Girl and the satanic opposition to the Gospel this morning.


The power of the world and the flesh and the devil are displayed in this young girl’s slavery. Contrast her to Lydia whose story comes first in the chapter. Lydia was an intelligent, independent businesswoman. She was a merchant dealing in purple cloth, indicating she worked in supplying fine clothes for the wealthy and elite of Philippi society.[5] She appears to be the head of her household, indicating she was single. I’m not aware of any parachurch movements devoted to “Acts 16:14 womanhood.” But maybe there should be.

Contrast the free and successful Lydia to the young girl we find in our passage this morning. Lydia was a woman, but Luke says the slave is a young girl. Likely, she’s just a tweenager. She is a wholly owned subsidiary of a business enterprise that specialized in profiting (pun intended) from religious people desperate enough to pay money for some kind of connection to a higher power. It would appear her human masters allowed her the freedom to move about the city as she pleased since she followed Paul and his companions for many days. But she’s not really free; she’s considered property, not a person under Roman law.

She was also enslaved by a demon. Not only was her body enslaved for the use of greedy men, but her mind was enslaved by the evil one. Here was a young girl bound in a dark and terrifying life, held captive by evil men and an evil spirit. Paul, on the other hand, had been enslaved some 15 years before as he traveled on the road to Damascus. Both Paul and this young girl were not their own. Paul belonged body and soul to the Lord Jesus Christ. This slave girl belonged bodily to her greedy owners while her soul was bound to the will of the evil one and his minions. So, we see in this text the power of slavery. The Snake Girl is a slave to men and to demons. Paul is a slave to Christ. Only one of them is truly free as the passage opens.

There are other slaves in this passage as well. The people of Philippi were bound spiritually – desperate to know their futures, desperate for contact with something divine. They were so enslaved to their own sins they were willing to pay handsomely for some spiritual word from the Snake Girl. Verse 16 says, she brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. People are always anxious about the future and desperate to preserve their illusion of self-control. The citizens of Philippi were no different. And they demons preyed on that anxiety and idolatry.

But Paul would later write to the church there, which likely included the snake girl, “The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:5-7). Those who trust into Christ are free from any slavery to worry because the one, true God holds our future in His loving, nail-pierced hands. He has broken the power of the dark forces over us and we may rest peacefully in the freedom that serving the Lord Jesus brings.


The next worldly and demonic power at work in the passage is greed. In the ancient world, magic and fortune telling were often combined to protect a person from misfortune, or to issue curses upon an enemy, or influence another person, or to know the future. Oracles like the little python girl were BIG business because religion was a big business. Rome was an empire of many demon gods, all of whom were thought to control people’s destiny. Some controlled the sea, some the weather, some fertility. There were charms and spells to ward of sickness and evil; there were incantations and sacrifices to bring good fortune. Every consultation, every sacrifice, every charm, every spell was sold at a price. And there was no shortage of people willing to pay for contact with the Snake Girl of Philippi.

The fact that she had multiple owners indicates that she was an expensive slave to buy. The ideal oracle of Greco-Roman culture was a beautiful, young girl. Such young women were seen as being highly favored by gods and spirits.[6] The little girl with the python spirit was a gold mine. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul tolerated the snake girl to follow him and his companions around for many days (v. 18) as she kept on shouting (17) after them. Paul was being opposed by the power of greed.


Another power of man’s fallen nature and the devil’s dark kingdom in Philippi was the power of false spirituality. False spirituality was what drove the Philippians to seek out the snake girl in their rejection of the one true sovereign God whose Law was written upon their hearts (Rom. 1). False spirituality was what oozed out of the mouth of the Python Prophetess as she spoke the lies of demons in the name of a Greek idol called Apollo.

False spirituality in the guise of national religion was the basis of the charge by the angry owners of the slave girl as they accused Paul and his company in vv. 20-21: “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” On the arches of the entrance to Philippi was inscribed a warning against bringing false religions into the city.[7] Worshipping the demon gods of Rome was patriotic. Preaching only one all-powerful God was not only politically subversive but threatened the vast economy of the demonic religions on which businessmen like the slave owners relied.

The slave owners believed Jews were pagans because Jews refused to worship the gods of Rome (including Caesar; Acts 17:7). To them, Paul and company threatened the ability of the gods to communicate with the citizens of Philippi. Moreover, these Jews preached a message about their one and only God being the supreme King, a direct threat to the rule of Caesar. Good Romans worshipped the ideal of Rome. And Philippi was a Roman colony, an outpost of Rome in the empire. Roman colonies were founded and run to promote Roman culture among heathen nations like Macedonia. Colonies were considered part of Rome itself; their inhabitants were citizens of Rome and had their own senate and freedom from Roman taxes. Latin was the spoken language and the Lex Romana was their law.[8]  Philippi was a “Rome away from Rome,” a fortress from which the empire could protect its interests and promote its influence.

But Jesus was planting an outpost of his own in the Roman colony of Philippi, and he was populating it with citizens of HIS Kingdom: a business woman named Lydia and her household; an unnamed Gentile slave girl; a half-Jewish boy from Lystra named Timothy, a Doctor from the medical school of Philippi named Luke; a Jewish elder and prophet from Jerusalem named Silas (15:32); a Roman soldier and family; and a turncoat Rabbi enslaved to Christ named Saul Paulus of Tarsus. The Gospel was breaking into the devil’s stronghold.

Paul would write to the church at Corinth: “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).


Paul was hesitant to cast the demon out of the slave girl. He knew doing so would cause a stir in a city with a law against new religions. Doing so resulted in Paul’s first formal legal indictment in the book of Acts. As a Roman city, Philippi’s city administration was in the hands of its two magistrates (praetors) who sat in the seat of judgment (bema) in the city square. Here the two Jews, Paul and Silas, face opposition through legal coercion that is both civil and spiritual. It is a civil matter in that Paul has disturbed the peace of the city in the name of his un-Roman God.

It is spiritual opposition as well. Satan has lost the battle over the slave girl. Now he has found a new means to hinder the ministry of the Gospel in Philippi through these legal charges. Vv. 20-21 tell us the accusers alleged: “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them…. The charge that Luke relates is not the destruction of a business venture, but the charge of interfering with the spiritual life of a Roman city.

The sentence of the court is a public beating with bundled rods, a symbol of Roman justice. This beating was called an admonitio, from whence we get our English word “admonition.”[9] The spiritual oppression in the City of Man takes the form of a legal proceeding, as it did for Jesus on his way to Calvary. Bleeding and bruised, Paul and Silas are clapped into the stocks and left to sit on a filthy floor in the darkness, deep inside a Roman jail.

There is an attempt at emotional coercion in this story as well. The snake girl follows after Paul’s team shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (17). Certainly, her constant announcement is true. It MAY be that the demon was mocking these men. It MAY be that the demon is forced to proclaim the truth, as demons constantly did before Jesus during his earthly ministry. But another likely possibility is that the demon was attempting to associate itself with Paul’s ministry. This was an attempt to announce that both the slave girl and Paul served the same great spiritual source.

How it must have grieved Paul to hear the demon crying out day after day, pretending to be a fellow servant of the Most High God. That name that describes God’s absolute power. All Satan and his forces understand and crave is God’s absolute power; they know nothing of His love or mercy. Lucifer’s goal was power: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14).  This, by the way, ought to be a warning to us. Power belongs to God. Whenever you see someone in Jesus’ church striving for power, it is almost always a spiritual issue and NOT an administrative issue. Paul describes himself as the lowliest form of slave, NOT as a master. Satan craves power and control. Power struggles can be demonic. Be VERY wary of people in God’s kingdom who love power and control!

That phrase, the Most High God, was also a title used for Zeus. So, the demon may be striving to connect Paul’s Gospel with the polytheism of Rome. Whatever the demon’s motive, Luke tells us that Paul became greatly annoyed (18). So, the missionaries faced legal oppression and emotional oppression in their assault upon Satan’s control of this girl and this city. They also faced physical oppression. The admonitio given to Paul and Silas consisted of many blows (23). It was severe enough that the jailor needed to wash their wounds (33). Imagine the scars that Paul carried, having been stoned and beaten.

So, for the sake of the Gospel, these missionaries suffer legal and spiritual coercion, emotional coercion, and physical coercion as the devil tries desperately to stop the Gospel from advancing. They are accused by angry men, illegally sentenced by hasty men, taunted by a demon, oppressed by false spirituality, and sacrificed upon the alter of greed and racism. But all that Satan and evil men can devise to oppose the Gospel does not prevail. In the midst of all this oppression, there is true power and true freedom at work in Philippi.


The Python Priestess finds delivery from the forces of evil that have enslaved her and used her for so long. When he could stand the oppression no longer, Paul turned to the python demon and said: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” Luke tells us: And it came out that very hour (18). And Paul’s response is the only biblical formula for an exorcism: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out.[10] Paul is NOT exercising this demon. Jesus is. And Jesus’ power is absolute and immediate. The demon left without any ritualistic practices and spells or any holy water being tossed. Jesus rules. He alone casts out the forces of darkness. Most commentators agree that Paul began to share with her the meaning of true freedom in Christ and that this once-enslaved young woman was added to the church since this passage is a snapshot of people brought into Christ’s church in Philippi.

The python demon offered false fortune and false hope but the Snake Girl of Philippi fond her real future and true hope in Christ’s liberating power. It’s likely he told this priestess of Apollo what he told the Roman jailer in verse 31. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved….” (31). The message of the Gospel is a simple message. God has done everything He can to make his message of salvation simple. It is simple enough for a child to understand and take for her own. It was simple enough for the jailor and his family to understand. It was simple enough for Lydia and the Snake Girl to understand.[11] It is the message of freedom from the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Note the three characters in this chapter: A Gentile woman, a demonized slave girl, and a Roman soldier-jailor.  All of these were low-life categories to the Jew. Saul the Rabbi would have utterly despised these people. The morning prayer of every good Pharisee, including Saul, was, “O Lord, I thank thee that I am neither Gentile, nor slave, nor a woman.[12] But Paul the apostle, having the power of the Spirit of Jesus, shared the Gospel message with those he would have crossed the street to avoid as Rabbi Saul.  Paul was no longer oppressed by the chains of false religion; and his freedom in Christ led to the freedom of these three individuals.

We have seen the powers of the world, the flesh, and the devil at work in Philippi. But we have seen the power of the Spirit of God triumph over these powers as well. Man’s fallen nature is a prison. Satan’s lies promises power and a self-rule but deliver only slavery and oppression. Only Jesus can make you free. Come; repent of your slavery to the opinions of men and your servitude to your own oppressive life-rules that you falsely hope will make you free. Come and drink deeply of the freedom that is yours by trusting into the righteous life and sacrificial death of Jesus.

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.[13]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 16:16–24.

[2] Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 17, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 592–593.

[3] Bennett, Robert H., I Am Not Afraid: Demon Possession and Spiritual Warfare. Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

[4] Id.

[5] Bock, p. 534.

[6] Bock, 536.

[7] Barton, Bruce. Life Application New Testament Commentary, p. 530.

[8] Id.

[9] Bock, 539.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 16:18.

[11] Duncan, D. Prisoners of Philippi.

[12] Morgan, p. 381.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Is 55:1–2.