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The story in Acts 16 of the demon-possessed slave girl is a curious story to me for many reasons. If it's better to break up my questions into several, I can do so; but for now I'd like to keep them as one since I suspect the answers will be related. Here is the story in Acts 16:16-18 (NIV):

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" At that moment the spirit left her.

Why is this spirit giving seemingly positive witness to Paul's claims? If it is true testimony, why does Paul eventually get annoyed with the girl? Does he just tire of her screaming? Why didn't he perform the exorcism immediately upon encountering her?

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5 Answers 5

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Why Stop the Girl?

It seems as though the testimony of a competitor would be the ultimate advertising. (Imagine a picture of Bill Gates happily using an iPad.)

Something that Paul could not accept in her testimony of them was that she left out something very important—the definite article. This is a time when the Greek leaving it out is important (unlike the last clause in John 1:1 where having the article on both nouns would hinder understanding and cause confusion).

"These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved."

should be

"These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you a way to be saved."

Paul and the others had already established that their message of Christ's sacrifice was the way of salvation. We may note that leaving out the definite article changed a sound, Biblical teaching to the heresy of pluralism, turning Jesus from the unique Son of God to one-among-many.

The NET Bible notes state that the grammar could allow either using "a" or providing a "the." They also state they prefer the definite article as Luke elsewhere refers to Christianity as "the way." However, I disagree for the same reason. Whenever Luke refers to Christianity as "the way," he uses the article (see Acts 9:2, 18:25, 26, 19:9, 23, 22:4, 24:14, and 22.). If Luke meant the girl was proclaiming that they were teaching "the way," he would have used the definite article.

The early church and apostles had faithfully proclaimed that "...there is salvation in no one else. Because there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we can be saved" (Acts 4:12 NIV).

Also, while Jews, proselytes, and God-fearers would have recognized "the Most High God" as YHWH, the average Greek might not. They might think the girl was saying that Paul and the rest were representatives of Zeus. Paul could not let that confusion go unaddressed.

Why Wait So Long?

I believe Paul showed such restraint to find out exactly what was going on. He needed time to observe and discern by the Spirit the details. Was she going to repent on her own? Was she in need of deliverance (it would be possible that the spirit of pythia was not yet know to Paul, Luke, and the others)? Were her handlers abusive? She might have been speaking these things on her own; Paul needed to know why she said them. There is also the possibility that onlookers were beginning to see her as one of the converts following the missionary team (like Lydia). If that was part of it, not only would Paul be accepting the fatally flawed testimony of a seeress but he would be giving tacit endorsement to the oracle.

Once this had become clear, action had to be taken. Demons were misleading and unreliable witnesses (as seen here by changing the message). It was the believers who had been called to testify of Christ. They believed that when God wanted to use the supernatural to validate their testimony, he would do so. Not only would they not want the association of the spirits, they would not want to encourage others to rely on them.

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It's interesting that the NIV, NET, ESV, NASB and KJV all have the definite article here, esp. since it is present in the Greek seemingly everywhere else (e.g. 9:2 or 18:25) but not here. –  Soldarnal Apr 10 '12 at 22:21
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@Soldarnal, I think so. The notes on the NET Bible say the grammar could go either way. They prefer "the way" because Luke refers to Christianity as "the way" in other places. As you point out, the use of "the way" in other places makes the lack of the article here stick out. (I have added a little more information, also.) –  Frank Luke Apr 11 '12 at 1:53

vv. 16-18 The believers in Philippi continued to meet at a specific place for public prayer and discourse. One day, while on their way to this location, Paul and companions were met by a slave girl who had a πνεῦμα πύθωνα (lit. “python spirit” or “spirit of divination”). Python spirits were associated with a trance-like, or ecstatic, state in which someone made religious-sounding utterances, which this girl perhaps continued while regularly following Paul and his group.

Out of annoyance, compassion, or even a sense of justice,[1] Paul finally turned and commanded the spirit to leave her. It is the description of Paul’s emotional response that helps to validate the historicity of the story. Luke makes no attempt to insert any other, perhaps more religious, feelings into the story. The success of Paul’s command is evidenced by the fact that the spirit obeyed, and left her.

vv. 19-21 At the heart of this episode, and the imprisonment that follows, is the loss of revenue for the conglomerate of handlers. Luke describes the hope of earning as ἐξῆλθεν, “gone out” the same verb and conjugation used in verse 18 to describe the spirit’s response to Paul’s command. This inextricably connects the response of the handlers to the exorcism wrought by Paul. They respond by dragging Paul and Silas before the στρατηγοὶ (“magistrates”), claiming that they are causing uproar.

I prefer a reading that sees Paul finally having enough of witnessing the abuse of this girl. Her handlers were clearly profiting from whatever was causing her to be a witness (accurate, nonetheless). Perhaps association of the message of freedom with such profiteering had become muddled and Paul felt that it was in the best interests of the gospel to make a clear separation between the two.

As for your last question

Why didn't he perform the exorcism immediately upon encountering her?

That's up for debate. Perhaps to avoid making the (what turns out to be) inevitable clash with local authorities. Philippi wasn't really a Judeo-Christian hotbed so Paul had to navigate the situation a bit differently.

[1] Διαπονέομαι, “to be irked” falls within the semantic domain of Moral and Ethical Qualities and Related Behavior, subdomain Anger, To Be Indignant (Louw & Nida, 763). ESV, NASB, NIV all translate διαπονηθεὶς as “annoyed” while the HCSB translates it as “aggravated.” However, the domain allows for greater range of emotional response. Given the domain and subdomain classification, it is important to note that this emotion was probably not directed at the girl herself. This passage is included as part of the noted “we” passages, which (as established above) indicates that the author was present at this time. The natural flow of the story indicates that the abuse of the girl was knowledge, at least to this group, which may have been the result of her constant presence. That διαπονέομαι allows for indignation is helpful, since indignation is defined as “anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Indignation.”

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Why is this spirit giving positive witness to Paul's claims?

Frank Luke has some intriguing arguments that her witness was flawed. However, it would seem odd if this were a sort of pluralism; would the way of salvation not have been unique to Christian theology? In other words, even if the phrase has some grammatical indefiniteness, I find it difficult to belief that the idea of ὁδὸν σωτηρίας, "way of salvation," was anything but distinctively Christian.

Gill says:

Whether she said this of her own accord, or was obliged to it by divine impulse; and whether it was through fear of Paul, and in flattery to him, or was with a good or bad design, is not easy to determine: however, certain it is, what she said was truth; and sometimes the devil himself, the father of lies, is obliged to speak it.

Henry likewise takes the testimony to be true, and suggests that either the spirit was constrained by God thus to witness, or that the Devil was contriving to disgrace the apostles, "as if these divines were of the same fraternity with their diviners."

If it is true testimony, why does Paul eventually get annoyed?

Paul was not angry with the girl, but with the spirit that was oppressing her. See Swasheck's answer with regard to this. Frank Luke also has some good, relevant discussion. Gill's reasoning overlaps with both these answers:

Paul being grieved at the unhappy condition the maid was in...and that the people were so imposed upon and deluded by it; and that it should be thought that there was any combination and agreement between that and him.

Henry also takes it to mean that Paul was grieved to see Satan working through her. He also suggests that she may have been shouting these words in a mocking way, similar to "Hail! King of the Jews!" which seems quite plausible.

There's an additional point that may be helpful. The example of Christ is already to cast out the demons, even when they give a positive witness.

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. —Luke 4:33-35 NIV

Again, he didn't renege after a positive testimony:

He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” ...The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission. —Mark 5:7-8, 12-13

No allegiance is to be had with the Devil even when he is apparently giving help! The power of God is enough.

Why didn't he perform the exorcism immediately?

Gill says that Paul delayed in order to make the eventual expulsion more emphatic and noticeable. Henry suggests it was because Paul for a time thought it was a providence to aid him, and only cast the demon out once it became a hindrance. This seems to conflict with the point made above, however. This question is perhaps the most difficult; I commend Frank Luke's suggestions on it.

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+1 I missed this earlier and I'm glad I found it now :) –  Jack Douglas Mar 24 '13 at 18:23

All excellent answers:

Why is this spirit giving seemingly positive witness to Paul's claims?

The same reason Balaam could only bless Israel even though he set out to curse them.

If it is true testimony, why does Paul eventually get annoyed (diaponeo) with the girl?

diaponeo - through the pain, grieved. Paul was pained by her condition. She is a contrast to the quietness of Lydia (meaning 'travil) where the whole household is saved. The demon proclaims Christ but has no sincerity.

2Ti 3:5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

Paul's response is to show the demon the power of God.

Why didn't he perform the exorcism immediately upon encountering her?

Luke presents the two women as a contrast. One who quietly travails and her household is saved, and one who outwardly "prays to be seen of men" (figuratively). The delay makes the parallel. Paul stayed with Lydia and the damsel stayed with Paul.

Just as Acts 12 has a hidden picture of Christ in the events surrounding Peter's escape from prison, Paul may have had a small "dinner theater" in mind as a teaching tool. He let the two grow together (Lydia and the damsel) until the 'judgement'. He modeled God's long-suffering patience in the process.

Even God's patience has a limit.

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Good observation about the connection with Lydia. Didn't notice before how both the stories of these women are introduced back-to-back with the apostles going to "a place of prayer". –  Soldarnal Jun 7 '12 at 15:28

Why would a demon follow Paul around, knowing he was a threat to it? Because in the blinding insanity of its pride, it didn't consider a Sovereign strike or turning upon it. Also, Satan will quote 99% truth in order to float ONE lie, but obviously with no fructifying power behind it. He would be God. He's a mixer. People would've accredited her "truth-telling" to God. Satan sometimes appears to fight against himself, because by doing so, he knows how to secure a more strategic advantage down the road. Satan must make use of truth in order to get his lies believed. What this incident mostly brings out for me though, is that his well-laid plans were Sovereignly foiled and overridden. The same applied at Christ's crucifixion: If Satan had known Christ would rise and kick his head in, he would never have crucified the Lord of glory. God's triumphs are often hidden in apparent defeat. He loves confounding Satan. Being God, He always has the last say, the final move in the face of Satan's "checkmate".

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