Acts 16:16-18 – The Spirit of Python

DelphicWhile walking through the marketplace, Paul and Silas encounter a girl possessed with the “spirit of Python” (πνεῦμα πύθωνα). The Python was the serpent or dragon that guarded the Delphic oracle at Mt. Parnassus. Apollo was also the god most associated with prophecy in the Greek world, but particularly the priestesses who were associated with the Delphic Oracle.  Keener points out most Greek readers of this story would find the story perplexing since a spirit like this giving clearly identifying Paul in this way would be viewed more or less positively (3:2429). A Greek might think this particular oracle was a positive witness.

If this is the case, why does Paul cast out the demon if it is not actually telling a lie at the time? Or, why does the demon force the girl to identify Paul and Silas in this way? Perhaps Paul was not interested in having the spirit of Python as a witness. The true witness in Acts is the Holy Spirit. The demon may have identified Paul in this way in order to show its power over Paul, in the sense of “I know who you really are, etc.” In Luke 8:28 a demon identifies Jesus as the Most High God. In both cases the demon is attempting to express power over a potential exorcist.

CoinOn the other hand, Paul as a “servant of the Most High God” may have been understood in Philippi as a reference to Zeus (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 94).  When Jews or Christians hear the phrase they assume that the reference is to the God of the Bible. But the people of Philippi would not make this assumption. The demon is therefore very misleading since Paul does not serve the “Most High God” from the Roman perspective.

The slave girl’s pronouncement is not a single occurrence, but rather an ongoing problem for Paul. It is as if this slave girl is following him around all day! Luke uses the verb διαπονέομαι (diaponeomai), “to be deeply distressed” or “to be greatly annoyed.”  This is the same verb used earlier in Acts 4:2 to describe the feeling of the Sanhedrin over the preaching of the apostles  (ie., that Jesus was raised from the dead), and it is the word found in LXX Gen 6:6 for God’s grief over the sin of the world prior to the flood. Paul is not merely annoyed, he is deeply distraught at the situation and casts out the demon without any ritual at all.

What is the point of this story? Keener suggests this story contributes to Luke’s overall theme that “nothing can hinder the Gospel” (3:2420). This includes a very powerful demonic spirit, the “most high god” and even the local political leaders in Philippi. Perhaps Luke includes the story to draw a literary parallel to Luke 8:26-33 where another demon identifies someone as the Most High God.

20 thoughts on “Acts 16:16-18 – The Spirit of Python

  1. Thanks. That helps the story make a lot more sense. The oracle as a trump card, so to speak, is something I hadn’t considered before but it makes loads of sense upon reflection. Turning and casting out the demon would then be the fullest expression of power in the contest. I like it.

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  2. Another similar interpretation found in The Book of the Acts, explains that this story was given by Luke to contrast the very different people that could be impacted and changed by Jesus (Bruce 312). Going from Lydia’s story to that of the woman possessed by the spirit shows how two completely different people were impacted by the work of the gospel. Although we do not know if this woman comes to believe in Jesus, she is still relieved of her condition and rescued in a way. This woman was not only able to read people’s fortunes but she was also thought to be a “ventriloquist.” This meant that the girl would move her mouth to speak but the sounds and voice that was audible to people was obviously not her real voice. Her possibly eerie voice may have been another factor that annoyed and disturbed Paul about the situation.

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  3. When reading “Paul was deeply distressed”, I would have to say that the reader really does not have much knowledge of the situation to understand what prompted Paul really to cast out the demon. Personally, I agree with the thought that this claim of the Most High God was not being understood correctly by those nearby – hence Paul threw out the demon as a witness to the true Most High God.

    There is some thought that can be given to the idea that Paul was just purely annoyed, but this seems to be more than annoyance. Perhaps this was reminiscent to his days of persecuting believers, and he realized that this would be a hindrance to believers approaching him, or Jews listening to him. Perhaps it was a struggle because he was not necessarily inclined to cast out the demon, but God instructed him to do so, and he did not know if this would be the culturally best witness to the crowds around him.

    Luke again gives the reader enough to know that God did use this instance to grow Paul in his ministry, as can be seen in the following verses (16:20-24) where Paul does not escape the title of Jew, or use his Roman title to escape physical discomfort. As the reader can see, this was to the salvation of the jailer, but it does make me wonder if Paul and Silas were praying in the middle of the night because they really did not know how God was going to use this to His own good.

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  4. I see a story that says nothing can hinder God when he decides to use someone. you have a person out to destroy Paul or hurt his reputation in the town, and ultimately he shuts this demon spirit up. In acts 19 we see seven sons of Sceva who try to cast out demons not by the power given to them from God but on their own power, and they are beaten, bloodied, and ran off naked. Comparing these two stories I would say this confirms Paul’s authority from God and shows that anything he does is blessed from God.

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  5. Me personally I agree with Keener. I think that this story is an example of the fact that nothing can hinder or stop the gospel. The gospel is so powerful that nothing or no one can stand in front of it. I think in this story it also shows the power that God ultimately has. It shows that God has complete authority over Satan. In this blog P Long asks the question of “If this is the case, why does Paul cast out the demon if it is not actually telling a lie at the time?” (Long 2015) I think that Paul cast out the demon to show everyone how powerful the Holy Spirit was. I say that because back in those days, the best way to come across people was probably to show them the power of the spirit. Throughout Acts, there are plenty of acts that show the power of the Holy Spirit. From Peter praying for the lame beggar and him being healed to Paul casting out the serpent demon, there are plenty of stories and events that happen in Acts to show the power of the Holy Spirit. A scripture that comes to mind when thinking about this story is in Mark. Mark 3:14-15 says that “He (meaning Jesus) appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” The apostles in this story were just doing what Jesus gave them the power to do. This story basically shows how powerful the Holy Spirit is.

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  6. I would say that this story does have a theme of “nothing can hinder the gospel” like Keener says but this is also showing more of Paul’s knowledge of the Phillipian people’s beliefs and the gods that they worshipped. With this slave girl pronouncing that he is a “servant of the Most High God”, Im sure that Paul would have known what ideas were getting into people’s minds by hearing that and I am sure that it was also a huge distraction to Paul and the work he was trying to do. Paul casting out the spirit of Python from the girl was a way to show he was not a servant of Zeus because you wouldn’t think that he would cast out a spirit that was proclaiming who he was. Also I think that having a demon or a spirit be the witness you have for Christ is not a very good witness at all.

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  7. We spoke about this is class, and asked the same question; why did Paul not want the possessed slave girl telling everyone he was from the Most High God? As you say above, it could be because he did not want a demon to be his witness and person supporting him; quite different then if it was a true follower of Jesus. To have a demon supporting and advertising for you it not a good thing, especially if what they are saying could be mistaken for another god entirely–as you mentioned above with the Philippians and Zeus. Perhaps the demon knew that this constant shouting and following would make Paul distraught and further upset him, taking away his attention from his preaching. I would think that that is why the demon forced the slave girl to identify Paul and Silas this way for the demon knew what would be the result of his pestering, but wouldn’t the demon in turn not want to pester them for he knew that it would lead to his demise?

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  8. When reading this passage, one question that struck me was why Paul waits so long to cast out this spirit. Many days went by and he was deeply distressed so why wait? The only likely answer I can think of is that Paul merely wanted to avoid trouble, since messing with someone else’s slave wasn’t really socially acceptable. (Spoiler alert) we know further on that Paul does get himself into a great deal of trouble. Yet even in beating and imprisonment, Paul and Silas are able to witness to the prisoners through prayers and hymns of praise. This being said, I think what we can take from this is that God used every detail, pleasant or not, to accomplish a ministry that would not have been possible otherwise.

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  9. The point of the story I see is that not only the gospel cannot be hindered, but the fact that God is proving his point to the Greco-Roman world who truly is “boss.” Zeus and Hermes were the big gods of the Greek world, and Rome’s army was considered as a force to be reckoned with, along with their gods and goddesses. The Almighty God, though, is ready to make his presence known. Look at any of one of the four gospels— stories of demon-possessions occur a lot. Jesus had cast demons from men into pigs nearby (Matt. 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-38), and the demons knew who Jesus was, where they were instantly brought out.

    Simply put… Paul now understands the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, and protecting Paul. So much so that even the Holy Spirit works through these demon-possessed people, even if the demon does not necessarily attack.

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  10. I believe that this story is in the book of Acts to show us that the power of God cannot be stopped. If God appoints someone to spread His word, He will make sure that the gospel is spread and that nothing stands in the way of that. This story of the slave girl also shows readers that God has the ultimate power over Satan. Paul may have become irritated by the demon because of what the demon was saying. The demon that possessed the girl may have been attempting to control or distort the truth at that time because the people of Philippi may not have understood that the Most High God was a reference to Jesus. Rather, they may have thought this was a reference to another pagan god. There may not be a clear explanation as to why Paul cast out the demon but I think that he may have done it because the demon possibly was being misleading in Paul’s eyes. The source of her inspiration and the role she had as a profitable fortuneteller could corrode the message that Paul was trying to convey to the people. In order to alleviate his annoyance, he cast out the demon. After this happens there is no mention of what happens to this slave girl after she is freed from the possession. All I can say is that God is very powerful and can overcome anything that comes His way. He will let nothing stand in the way of what He has planned.

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  11. I think that Paul cast out the “demon” because he might have been concerned that people would think that the god she was talking about was a false god. If people thought it was a false god that they thought was a real god, then they might come to know the real God.
    I think that the point of this is that Paul was concerned and annoyed about a couple things in the situation. I think that the concern would be the gospel is being misrepresented because of the girl saying that Paul is the “servant of the Most High God”. People might think that she is talking about any number “gods” who were made during that time period or before the time period. This would probably sway them to believe in that false god and not the real God. This could have also been the reason why he was annoyed with her or because she was doing this shouting or talking for several days. I think that he had, had enough of it and just decided to take care of the situation. This got him in a heap of trouble, but that is for another post.

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  12. I think Luke recorded this story to further show the supremacy of the Gospel. If this demon was attempting to show its power and dominance, even in a way that was not necessarily insulting, then the demon, and the people around, should be clearly shown that only the God of the Christians has true authority. This also would have been a way for Paul to distance himself from any relation to Zeus. If people truly thought he was the servant of Zeus, a quick way to tell those people otherwise would have been to deny and cast out anything that would make that relation seem possible. In relation to Luke 8, this could have been an attempt by Paul to further show that his allegiance and power came from that of Jesus Christ and not Zeus.

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  13. I think the point of the story is that “nothing can hinder the gospel”. We read that the spirit of the Python had stronghold in Philippi. When Paul came the spirit of the python attacked him and tried to confuse him. However, God’s power prevailed, because it is most high and cannot be distracted from anything. Not matter how long it may take “nothing can hinder the gospel” God’s power will find a way. To answer the question regarding why Paul cast out the demon, even though she was speaking the truth. I believe that although the possessed girl was speaking the truth she was still possessed. The truth that she was speaking was coming from the devil. I think Paul knew that people were listening to her and she could have influence on them. The people could start believing the truth coming from the devil instead of the truth coming from God’s chosen. Although the devil was using the truth to mislead the people. Another way to look at this is that Paul was simply tired of hearing from this women and decided to cast out the demon. And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour” (Acts 16:18).

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  14. The story might also serve as a sign for the coming dismantling of paganism in the Greco-Roman world given that Christians and Jews oftentimes thought of the pagan gods and spirits as demons. The exorcism of demons and the abandonment of idols to serve the living God are two sides of the same coin.

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  15. In looking at Acts 16 we find Paul and Silas being followed by a slave girl, who had a spirit of divination. This meaning she gained profit from sharing knowledge of the future. Which would make sense why later the owners were so upset for casting out this demon because it lost them profit. Backing up the story to this servant girl following them, the Bible tells us she did not just follow them for a few minutes, rather she followed for many days. Typically, only people that see people as idols and themselves as a crazed fan would follow them for days. Kind of like if Bob Dylan came to town and you just followed him around for days. She even called them “servants of the Highest God,” again it does not seem like she is doing something particularly wrong here. I enjoy how Dr. Phil Long looks at this situation and observes why Paul would be so quick to cast out this demon and why the demon is forcing her to identify Paul and Silas at this time. A possible read on could be that the demon was trying to express power over them and their own power. Also, another understanding of this observation is that Romans would not understand “Most High God” to be God, but rather Zeus. This cleared up many of my questions like this as well. Personally, if I were Paul, I might not have waited a couple of days, I can easily lose my patience sometimes. We see in Acts 16:18 tells us how distraught Paul was and annoyed or frustrated with this girl. He then cast the demon out of her, he did this without a formal proceeding like praying to God, he just did it. Paul and Silas continued on their journey, nothing can stop the power of God and furthering the kingdom.

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  16. The slave girl is being used by her masters to make a profit for them. While the spirit inside of her is expressly telling people that Paul and Silas are servants of the Most High God, it is also not telling the whole truth. Being followed around constantly would make me annoyed as well, but being followed around and having someone telling the people something that they are clearly going to misunderstand would frustrate me greatly as well. The point of the story could be symbolic for the Gospel reaching the pagans and the demons are being cast out of the city, like Paul did for this girl. But more likely the point would be to, stop the demon from spread any kind of deceiving witness to the people of Phillipi.

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  17. the two ideas for the issue Paul had with the spirit’s words are intriguing no matter what the spirit was attempting to hinder Paul and silas’s ministry and that is likely why he dealt with it. it is true that the demon was not lying but it certainly knew that only Paul, silas and itself were the only ones that knew that. The romans may have thought that Paul was a believer like them in Zeus and Apollo which misleads the audience from the start. on the other hand when they realize that Paul is not a follower of their most high God the romans are going to be pretty upset either way the spirit is going to be putting a damper on any sharing of the gospel. the other option is that the spirit was trying to show its dominance over the two men of God as knowing ones name was a big deal in that time. the overall issue is that the demon was attempting to set the apostles up for failure before they even started.

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  18. As discussed in class (*hint, hint, wink, wink*) Paul casts out the spirit from the young girl not only to prevent any confusion in his ministry but also to be sure that any endorsement of his ministry came from a suitable source. Young girls inhabited by spirits were not exactly what Paul had in mind when he thought of a recommendation for his ministry. It also is pointed out that the girl’s words were unclear in a pagan setting. Does “most high God” mean Yahweh or Zeus? It depends on who you ask. Therefore, the girl’s calling does not directly hinder or encourage Paul’s ministry; at least not that we are told about. Either way, Paul’s decision to cast out the spirit comes mostly from his great annoyance. This brings up the question of why hadn’t Paul cast the spirit out sooner? Perhaps he assumed the girl would eventually leave them alone, however, that was proven not to be the case. Lastly, it is worth addressing the point of this story in the book of Acts. Nothing that we know of happens to the girl or the spirit following this interaction. However, the story does lead us to Paul and Silas’ arrest and subsequent release from jail; allowing them the opportunity to bring the jailer and his family to Christ. Therefore, the story, if nothing else, can be viewed as the backdrop of the story of Paul’s advancement of the gospel in Phillipi.

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  19. What Paul might’ve have been greatly distraught about is the fact that the spirit inside the slave girl was announcing the arrival of Paul and Silas. the issue Paul could’ve had was possibly trying to keep a low profile at first and then the possessed girl blew his cover by shouting “these men are servants of the Most High God”. This is the town where the oracle is. People come from far away to hear what the oracle has to say. And for Paul to exorcise the demon out of the girl was a public statement that he serves the highest god, the God Almighty. That even the demons flee at the mention of the name of Jesus.

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