Seeing the Life of Jesus in Philippi

Acts 16:16-34

As you probably know, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are two consecutive volumes written by the same author. The gospel tells us about the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Book of Acts begins with Jesus’ ascension and tells us about the life of the early church, how the Holy Spirit spread faith in Christ from Jerusalem to Rome, and how God used the apostles as his witnesses.

If you pay attention, you might notice that what the Holy Spirit is doing in Acts sounds very much like what Jesus was doing in the Gospel of Luke.

In the gospel, Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth by reading from the prophet Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

What kind of freedom did Jesus bring? In what way did he set the oppressed free? In the very next scene, Luke tells us.

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in the midst of the people, he came out of him without doing him any harm. And amazement came upon them all, and they began talking with one another saying, “What is this message? For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits and they come out.”  (Luke 4:33-36)

Jesus was an exorcist. If I had to summarize the ministry of Jesus, it would go something like this. Jesus and his disciples walked from town to town, depending on the solely hospitality of the townspeople they met. They announced the coming kingdom of God, healed the sick and cast out demons. And, according to Jesus, his small victories over Satan’s minions were a sign that the kingdom of God was already poking its nose into this present evil age.

But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

A Woman with a Spirit

Paul’s encounter with the young girl in Philippi sounds remarkably like those of Jesus with the demon-possessed people of Galilee.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by an enslaved young girl 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 slaves 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. (Acts 16:16-18)

Of Human and Spiritual Bondage

So, the story begins with Paul’s encounter with a young girl who is both enslaved by human masters and inhabited by some sort of spiritual presence. By this spirit, the girl could predict the future and provide individuals with messages from the divine world.

Continue reading “Seeing the Life of Jesus in Philippi”

A Spirit of Python 

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by an enslaved young girl who had a spirit of Python … Acts 16:16

Python

We know a little bit about the spirit inhabiting the young girl. Luke calls it a spirit of Python. In Greek mythology, Python was a huge serpent or dragon that lived on Mount Parnassus and inhabited the temple at Delphi. Python was the offspring of Gaia, the earth goddess, and Delphi was thought to be the center of the world. At the temple in Delphi, a priestess would speak for the goddess, predicting the future and telling people of the fates that awaited.

Within this ancient story, the god Apollo is said to have killed Python and claimed the site as his own. Apollo became known as Apollo Python, in honor of his victory over the serpent.

And while this may be just one version of a very old legend, Delphi was a very real place which contained a temple dedicated to Apollo. The myth of Python added to its prestige and importance. The priestess there was called Pythia, and it was believed Apollo spoke directly through her. The Oracle of Delphi became a major center of fortune-telling for the Greek world and people from all over came to receive a message from the gods.

When Luke says, then, that the enslaved woman had a spirit of Python, he is saying that she has the same kind of spirit that you would find at the great oracle of Delphi. That would be a very powerful spirit indeed. For Christians and Jews, the Greek gods weren’t real, but the evil spirits behind them were.

Liturgical Spitting

Following up on my post on baptismal exorcism, I looked at the baptismal rite of the Orthodox Church in America, which I assume has its roots deep in 2000 years of Orthodox liturgy. The rite begins with 1100 words of exorcism divided into four prayers. At one point, the priest breathes on the candidate’s mouth, breast and brow in the form of a cross in order to expel any demonic presence.

Then the rite continues with renunciations, turnings and spitting on the devil.

Continue reading “Liturgical Spitting”

Ancient Christian Baptismal Preparation

I’ve been thinking about Lent and the early Christian practice of preparing catechumens for baptism at Easter. The word “catechumen” itself implies that teaching and learning were part of the process of preparation. The church taught the faith it had received and the catechumens learned. Catechesis is instruction.

Catechumens were also expected to put what they learned into practice. The so-called Apostolic Tradition once attributed to Hippolytus sets out this requirement.

When they are chosen who are to receive baptism, let their lives be examined, whether they have lived honorably while catechumens, whether they honored the widows, whether they visited the sick, and whether they have done every good work. (20:1)

Along with instruction, the church practiced prayer and fasting as a means of preparation. Circa 155 AD, Justin (called “The Martyr”) wrote this in his First Apology or defense of the Christian faith.

As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated.

The catechumens fasted and prayed for the remission of their sins, as did the church.

Continue reading “Ancient Christian Baptismal Preparation”

Exorcism By Prayer and Fasting

There is an interesting textual issue surrounding Mark 9:29 and Matthew 17:21. When Jesus came down from the mount of transfiguration he found that some of his disciples had unsuccessfully attempted to exorcise a demonic presence from a young boy. After Jesus cast the demon out and healed the boy, Matthew and Mark record that his disciples asked him why they had not been able to drive the demon away.

In the King James Version, Jesus provides this answer:

This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 17:21)

This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:29)

More recent translations omit “and fasting” from Mark 9:29 and eliminate Matthew 17:21 completely. In Mark, then, “this kind” come out by prayer alone and in Matthew the disciple’s failure is solely a sign of too little faith.

Continue reading “Exorcism By Prayer and Fasting”