Reflection on Acts 16: 16-34 by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken – “For freedom Christ has set us free”
Today’s story from Acts shows us just how horrible life could be within the Roman Empire. The setting for the story is Philippi,
a Roman colony in Macedonia. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar there had been a series of civil wars. Philippi
was the place were Octavius, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and Caesar’s friend Mark Antony fought against and defeated
the assassins Brutus and Cassius. Then there was a power struggle between Mark Antony and Octavius, which the latter
eventually won at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. After that Octavius was given the title Emperor and the name Augustus by
the Roman Senate. To minimise the possibility of further uprisings, Augustus sent the Italian supporters of Mark Antony into
exile to Philippi, where a colony for veterans from the wars was established on land confiscated (that is, stolen) from the local
people. Colonisation has always been unjust. Philippi became a little Italy outside Italy, and its citizens were exceptionally
proud of their Roman heritage.
By the time that Paul and his travelling companions, Silas, Timothy and Luke, arrived in Philippi in about the year 50 CE, it was
a well-established Roman colony, exhibiting an inherent characteristic of the Roman economy – the cruel exploitation of people.
Our story today opens with a tragic situation. A slave women with some form of mental illness is being exploited by her owners
as a fortune teller. Perhaps she actually did have paranormal skills, but maybe her wild behaviour was sufficient to convince
the gullible of her exceptional insight into the future. Whatever the case she was in bondage, to her owners and to her demons.
Her misery made her valuable to her masters. She had unusual insight into the identity of the Christian missionaries. “These
men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” she screamed out at them as she followed them
around. After doing this for many days, Paul’s patience was exhausted.
This story follows on from the stories in the gospels of demons revealing the identity of Christ, and Jesus rebuking them to be
quiet. Whereas Jesus always acted out of compassion, Paul’s exorcism seems to have been motivated more by exasperation.
Slaves were non-people in the Roman world. Domestic slaves existed to make life comfortable for their owners. All other
slaves existed to make money for their owners. Slaves had no rights and were expendable. It would have been a blessing
for the woman to be restored to sound mind. However that meant her commercial value had vanished, which would have
made her extremely vulnerable. What did her masters do with her? Sell her into prostitution perhaps? Luke is far more
interested in the consequences of Paul’s exorcism on the apostles than he is in the outcome for the woman. Slavery was so
inherent a part of the Roman economy that even Luke is blind to its evils, and Luke was probably a manumitted slave himself,
as most physicians were slaves. It is almost beyond comprehension that this ancient evil is still with us. Where slavery still
occurs it is more prevalent today than at any other time in human history.
Roman Philippi was strategically important for the Roman government, so it continued to be a place where retired soldiers were
encouraged to settle. Non-Romans could gain Roman citizenship after having served twenty-five years in the Roman Army.
Their loyalty to Rome had been demonstrated by their years of military service, and their pride in their status as Roman citizens
was all the greater because hard won. We see this demonstrated in how the story of Paul’s exorcism develops. The woman’s
owners were aggrieved at the loss of their means for making a living, so they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the
market place where the leaders of the community adjudicated disputes and passed sentence on lawbreakers. The woman’s
owners accused Paul and Silas of “disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as
Romans to adopt and observe.”
First off we notice that the accusers drew attention to the ethnicity of Paul and Silas. Jews were excused from serving in the
Roman army because of the Sabbath. You couldn’t have soldiers who insisted on resting one day in seven. Also the Roman
legions marched behind standards bearing images of the Roman gods, which was offensive to Jews because contrary to the
first two of the Ten Commandments, about having no god but God and making no graven images. In a city full of retired soldiers
and their descendants Jews were outsiders, and were probably resented because of their exempt status when it came to
military service. In fact there appears to have been fewer than ten adult male Jews in Philippi, because it required only ten
Jewish men to form a synagogue and Paul found no synagogue in this Roman colony. However, Paul and Silas weren’t as
marginalised as the Philippians thought. They too were Roman citizens, a fact the magistrates of Philippi would later rue not
ascertaining before having the apostles publicly flogged, a shame inducing punishment Roman citizens were exempt from.
It is notable that the accusers fudged the issue. They didn’t explain that Paul and Silas had destroyed their means of making
money by healing their slave, which might have caused the magistrates to press pause on their sentencing, given the miracle
involved. Rather they accused the apostles of teaching customs unlawful for Romans. There was a modicum of truth in this.
The persecution of Christians, which was yet to gather momentum, arose because Christians worshipped Christ not the Roman
emperor. The Romans were tolerant of the variety of deities worshipped within the empire providing everyone worshipped the
emperor. Emperor worship was intended to be the glue that held together the diverse peoples ruled by Rome. Jewish
sensibilities were accommodated. Rather than insist they pour out a libation to the emperor, the sacrifice offered daily in the
temple on behalf of the emperor (a sacrifice Rome paid for) was considered sufficient to demonstrate Jewish loyalty. Christians
had no such immunity. What’s more for Christians, Jesus was a rival to the emperor. He was the true Lord, the true Redeemer,
the true Saviour, the true Son of God; all titles that were bestowed upon Caesar. So not surprising that the newly minted
Roman citizens attacked the apostles. Here again we hear an echo of the gospels, where a mob of Roman lackeys call for
Jesus to be crucified. The apostles were unjustly severely beaten and then imprisoned in the most secure part of the Philippi
The apostles did not let their plight influence their attitude. Rather they prayed and sang hymns to God, and in return God
caused an earthquake that unshackled the prisoners and burst open the doors to the jail. The apostles’ response was both
unusual and unexpected. Most prisoners would have taken the opportunity to flee, which is what the jailer anticipated had
happened. Rome’s way of ensuring that prisoners could not bribe jailers to release them was to execute the jailers who allowed
prisoners to escape. Suicide seemed a better option for the jailer, than the shame of a public trial and execution. Only by
shouting, “Do not harm yourself, we are all here,” did Paul save the man’s life. Now there was a role reversal. The jailer was
indebted to the apostles, and this gave them the opportunity to preach the gospel to him and his household, with the
consequence that a second household in Philippi was converted. The first household was that of Lydia, the seller of highly
expensive purple dye.
Freedom is a theme in this story, from the freeing of the slave woman from her demons to the freeing of the apostles from their
chains in a Philippian jail. We tend to define freedom by its opposite; by what makes us not free. We speak of freedom from
tyranny, from persecution, from oppression, from bondage, from pain. Human happiness depends upon us having freedom.
Freedom is one of the big themes of scripture, and is at the heart of the story that underpins every other story in the Bible, the
story of Israel’s release from Egyptian slavery. Even the Jesus story is told in terms of the exodus story. Jesus was executed
at Passover, and should we not get the significance of that, Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “our paschal lamb, Christ, has
been sacrificed”.1 And for what purpose? Paul answers, “For freedom Christ has set us free.”2
Probably the best known scripture on freedom is Jesus’ assertion that truth makes us free. Certainly the deceptiveness of lies
reduces our freedom. However, that’s not what Jesus is on about. His statement has been divided into two verses, and
unfortunately the second verse is often quoted without reference to the first, so that we don’t get to hear what Jesus was really
saying. “Jesus said to the people who believed in him, ‘You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And
you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”3 It is not abstract truth that sets us free, but faithfully adhering to the truthfulness of the teachings of Jesus, as expressed in his words recorded in the gospels and through the stories of his interaction with people. We remember that Jesus chose not to live in a self-aggrandising, self-serving manner, as the devil in the wilderness had tempted him to do. Rather he lived and died for the benefit of others. That is where true freedom is to be found. If we only strive for our own freedom and not also for the freedom of others, if we do what we want to do and don’t consider the impact of our actions on others, if we focus on our own rights and not on our responsibilities towards others, we will all end up much less free.
The Roman Empire was a brutal, enslaving regime. Jesus came offering a different kingdom. “Take my yoke upon you, and
learn from me,” he said. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”4 This is slave terminology. Slaves are the only people
who are forced to wear a yoke. Slaves are the only people who are forced to carry burdens. Christ invites us to become his
slaves, and in Him find our ultimate freedom. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,”
writes Paul to the Corinthians, and to the Christians in Rome he says, “You have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the
advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.”5 For this freedom Paul and the other early Christian missionaries
risked imprisonment and their lives. For this freedom the jailer and his household were baptised. For this freedom our
predecessors preached Christ. For this freedom we gather here today. Amen.
1 Corinthians 5:7 NRSV
2 Galatians 5:1 NRSV
3 John 8:31-32 NLT
4 Matthew 11:29-30 NRSV
5 Romans 6:22