What makes the events of Paul’s mission work in Philippi (Acts 16) so interesting for us is that this one of the first times that we are introduced to specific individuals who are converted and joined to the body of Christ. Luke takes note of a few individuals earlier in the book such as Paul himself or Sergius Paulus on Crete, but most of the time he just tells about groups of people who accepted the gospel. In Acts 16, Luke records the conversion of three specific individuals—Lydia, a slave girl, and a jailer.
The record of the salvation of these individuals serves a greater purpose than simply to provide interesting conversion stories. The fact that Luke, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, chose to record the conversions of these three specific individuals was to teach us some important truths regarding the power of the gospel and Christ’s plan in building his church. Comparing and contrasting these three individuals help us to draw some conclusions regarding the nature of the gospel and the purpose of the church.
The Universal Appeal of the Gospel
Christ could hardly have chosen three more different people to save than Lydia, the slave girl, and the jailer. Notice how different they were.
First, their nationalities were different. Philippi was quite a cosmopolitan city. It was fairly large and influential, it was a common retirement spot for Roman military men, and it attracted much commerce. Lydia had evidently come to Philippi for the reason of commerce. Verse 13 says that she was from Thyatira, which was a city in modern Turkey. Thyatira was known for its fabric dyes, and evidently Lydia had come to Philippi to deal in dyed cloth.
The slave girl was likely a native of Philippi, and so she was probably Greek. As we’ll see in a moment as well, she was a worshiper of the Greek god Apollo, so that further indicates that she was probably Greek.
The jailer was a Roman soldier, maybe even a retired Roman official who had retired in Philippi.
So here we have three individuals who come to Christ, each of different nationality—West Asian, Greek, and Roman.
It probably goes without saying, but these individuals differed in gender as well. This may seem like a mundane point to us, but in that day women were looked down upon, and here Lydia becomes an influential member of the church, one of the few believers to be named in Paul’s letter to the church here. In fact, many scholars believe that Lydia was wealthy, and that her home was the meeting place for the church here.
Which leads to the next difference. These three individuals were of completely different social status. Lydia was a business woman. She was likely wealthy. Not just anyone would have had space in their home to entertain guests like she did in verse 15.
The girl, as verse 16 tells us, was a slave. You couldn’t get much more opposite to a wealthy business woman than a slave. The girl was a member of the lowest class of their society.
The jailer fell somewhere in the middle. Being a soldier in the Roman army, he would have been your average middle-class worker.
The religious beliefs of these individuals differed as well. Lydia, according to verse 14, was a worshiper of God. She was a Gentile proselyte to Judaism. You might remember that on Paul’s first missionary journey it was his practice when he first entered a new city to visit the Jewish synagogue there. Now that his second journey had found him further away from Israel, the city of Philippi evidently had no synagogue. In order to have a synagogue, a city had to have at least 10 Jewish male heads of households in the city. So even in a fairly large city like Philippi, there were not even 10 male Jews. So Paul found the next best thing. As verse 13 tells us, on the Sabbath they went down to the river, and found several women who had gathered there to worship, and Lydia was among them. She had probably converted to Judaism in Thyatira where there was more Jewish witness, and when she came to Philippi had joined with other God-fearing woman in their Sabbath worship.
Once again, you could not get more opposite to Lydia in terms of religion than the slave girl. Verse 16 says that she had a spirit of divination. It literally says that “she had a spirit of Python.” According to the Greek myths, Zeus, the king of the gods, brought into existence at the town of Delphi an oracle, a place where the gods could be consulted. The oracle was guarded by Python, a female serpent, and answers from the gods were obtained through a priestess. According to mythology, Apollo, the son of Zeus, killed the serpent and took control of the shrine. He made the priestess, known as the Pythia or Pythoness, his servant. As a consequence, Apollo became known as the god of prophecy. Sometimes the name “Python” was associated directly with Apollo.
Based on the myth, at this time, there was an actual shrine and a succession of priestesses at Delphi, which wasn’t too far from Philippi. There are ancient pictures of the Pythoness sitting on a three‑legged stool over a cleft in the earth from which the oracle was supposed to proceed. When about to prophesy, she would go into a kind of ecstatic trance and utter a stream of unconnected phrases and obscure words. People would come from all over Greece to the shrine to enquire of the oracle, especially concerning the future. A priest would put their questions to the Pythoness, and her utterances, which were supposedly inspired by Apollo, would be interpreted by the priest and presented to the questioner, often in an ambiguous form.
The prophetic powers of Apollo, supposedly manifested in the priestess at Delphi, were also thought to be present in other women. Like the priestess, their utterances would be accompanied by convulsions or other abnormal behavior, which were assumed to be evidence of the presence of a spirit from Apollo, or a “spirit of Python.” In some cases, such behaviors may have been self‑induced; in other cases, they may have arisen from mental disturbance, or physical defects in the brain. Usually such a woman would be a slave, often owned by a group of men, who charged clients for her services.
So in Acts 16:16, the “slave girl who had a spirit of Python” was one of these women supposed to have similar powers to those of the Pythoness at Delphi, and to whom people came seeking the future. And evidently in this case she actually was demon possessed, which made her do things that people thought proved she was a Pythoness. It wasn’t that she actually could tell the future; she just went into convulsions because of the demon, and people interpreted what she said as divination, and her owners made a pretty penny off of it. So the whole background to the incident is pagan, associated with the Greek god Apollo. And Paul evidently realized that eventually. Notice that initially Paul just ignored the girl. But after a while, verse 18 says that he became troubled and cast the demon out of her. Why did he become troubled? It was because he realized that he was getting an endorsement from a prophetess of Apollo, and he didn’t want his message associated with that cult. When the girl said that Paul was a servant of the Most High God in verse 17, people could have interpreted her to mean that they served Apollo, because that title, Most High God, was used in Greek worship for Apollo just like the Jews used it for Yahweh.
So Lydia was a worshiper of God, the slave girl was actively involved in pagan worship of Apollo, and again, the jailor falls somewhere in the middle. Typical Romans worshiped certain spirits privately in their homes and also observed public worship rites of various gods. But most Romans were just nominally religious or just participated in religious rites for superstitious reasons. In other words, the average Roman citizen was not as actively involved in cultic worship practices as the slave girl; the average Roman was actually pretty secular in his mindset. That’s probably where this Roman soldier was. He was nominally involved in the traditional Roman worship rites, but practically speaking he was secular.
So here again we have major differences with these individuals. One is a worshiper of God, one involved in a pagan cult, and one generally secular.
Finally, each individual’s needs were slightly different as well. For Lydia, she simply needed more knowledge. She was already on the right track, being a worshiper of Yahweh, but evidently she had not yet been told about Jesus. And once she was, she responded positively to the message.
The slave girl, being demon possessed, had her own unique needs that had to be met before she could accept the gospel.
And the jailor had what you might call your basic moral needs. He was a secular pagan who needed to know how he could be saved.
Now in each case, of course, God had to do a miraculous work for them to respond to the gospel. That is clear in how the text describes Lydia’s salvation. Verse 14 says that “the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” Paul preached, the Lord opened, and she responded. But in each case the individual had slightly different needs.
The Unifying Effect of the Gospel
But although each individual was quite different from the others, the solution to their problems was always the same—the gospel of Jesus Christ. In each case we get a little more of the gospel made clear to us.
With Lydia, all the text says is that she responded to Paul’s message, but it doesn’t give us any details as to what exactly the message was. Of course, knowing Paul’s pattern already in the book of Acts, we can be pretty certain as to what it was, and it is further confirmed by what he said to both the slave girl and the jailor.
Notice first in whose name Paul cast out the demon from the slave girl. In verse 18 he says, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her.” He did not cast out the demon in his own power; he did so upon the authority of Jesus Christ, whose message he was proclaiming. The girl herself gives us a good indication of his message. She said that they were proclaiming the way to be saved. So there we have the problem and the solution: they needed salvation, and Jesus Christ was the solution.
The clearest indication of Paul’s message comes with the jailor. After the jailor attempts suicide and Paul stops him, he cries out in verse 30, “What must I do to be saved?” Evidently he had already heard some of their message, or perhaps he had heard the demon possessed girl. He already knew his need—he needed to be saved—and perhaps he already knew that the solution to his need somehow involved Jesus Christ based upon what Paul had said. But he wanted to know how to be saved. And Paul told him. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
A very simple answer applicable to all three different individuals. Simply believe in Jesus for who he is—he is the master—and you will be saved. And notice that he says, “you and your household.” In other words, here is another indication that the gospel is applicable to all kinds of people. Anyone can believe in the Lord Jesus. And whoever does will be saved.
Three very different individuals. They had different nationalities and genders and social status and religion and needs. But they were each unified together into one Church by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In that day a pious Jewish man would pray the same prayer every morning. He would give thanks to God that God had not made him a Gentile, a woman, or a slave. And here we have evidence of the gospel’s power, because here we have two women, a slave, and all three Gentiles, each coming to Christ as a result of the gospel message.
The Manifold Wisdom of God
Now the question I would like to close with from this event is this: why does God work like this? Why does God choose to save such different kinds of people and unite them together in one church? Wouldn’t it be easier if he just saved the same kinds of people? Wouldn’t it be easier for unity within the church if all the people in that church had the same background and the same nationality and the same basic culture? Why does God save such diverse people?
We might say that it is because he cares for all different kinds of people, and he doesn’t want to leave anyone out, and there may be some truth there. But I think the Bible reveals an even greater purpose, and it is clearly laid out for us in Ephesians.
The book of Ephesians is a book about the church, and it clearly reveals to us God’s purpose in the church. The first part of the book tells how God established a plan in eternity past by which He would accomplish His own glory. What is that plan? What did God establish before time in order that He might be ultimately glorified? Verses 11–12 tell us:
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
Before the foundation of the world, God chose to love individuals and called them to be his children. This is remarkable when we realize that as chapter 2 of Ephesians clearly tells us, man is in his heart a rebel against God and hates God with all of his being. So the fact that God does a supernatural work regenerating those who hate him is truly remarkable. And what is clear already in this text is that he did so to the praise of his glorious grace.
But that’s not all. God did not only choose to love individuals and draw them to himself, but he also chose to build these believers into one body with Christ as the head.
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.Ephesians 1:22–23
So God takes people from every walk of life and every kind of background, calls them to be his children, and unites them together into a unified body under the headship of Christ.
This might not seem particularly remarkable except when you realize how different individuals who make up this one body are from one another. We’ve seen that illustrated in Philippi. Here are three completely different individuals, and God unites them together into one body.
Why did God choose to do this? Why did God choose to love individuals, draw them to himself, and unify them together into one body with Christ as its head? How does this accomplish his eternal purpose of glorifying himself? Verse 10 of chapter 3 clearly spells out the final motivation for this plan:
. . . so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.Ephesians 3:10
God’s purpose for calling out a people for himself and unifying them together into one body under Christ is that his great wisdom might be marveled at by supernatural beings, ultimately bringing him supreme glory. Now what does it take for supernatural beings to marvel? It takes something supernatural, and God’s eternal plan of regenerating sinful people and uniting them together in one body is clearly that kind of supernatural act that would cause supernatural beings to marvel at the manifold wisdom of God.
We have witnessed that in God’s workings in Philippi. God’s wisdom is marveled at by supernatural beings when people from all different walks of life are unified under the headship of Christ, because it takes something supernatural to accomplish something like that.
Our response should be that of Ephesians 3.20–21:
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.