In our last post, Paul and his companions had traveled diagonally from southeast to northwest across modern-day Turkey, and sailed a short distance across the northeastern corner of the Aegean Sea to Philippi, a city that Luke describes as a leading city of Macedonia and a Roman “colony”, lit. a “prominent District of Macedonia city, a colony” (kolonia). It pays to listen carefully when Luke describes places, as he was intimately familiar with the Roman system of government, its regions, and its politics.
We’ve already noted that a Roman Colony was a miniature Rome. This was true not only in appearance, but in its collective privileges as a city and the privileges enjoyed by its individual citizens. Conybeare and Howson tell us that Roman citizens in Philippi most importantly were exempt from scourging, free from arrest under all but the most extreme circumstances, and had the right of appeal from their magistrates to the Emperor himself. Roman colonies were not political and commercial entities like we think of the colonies established by England or Spain. Rather they were military posts by which the Empire was made safe. The insignia of Rome was plainly visible in the city, and Latin was spoken and written in addition to the native languages. Although the citizens paid poll taxes and land taxes, they were otherwise free from intrusion in public affairs by the Roman governor of the province. They had their own magistrates, who proudly referred to themselves by the Roman title Praetor.
Because it was a military center and not a commercial center, the Jewish population was small. There was no synagogue in the city. Instead, worshipers gathered in a more temporary structure usually erected outside the city, called a Proseuchae. Because of the ceremonial washings associated with the Jewish religious practices, it was often erected near a river. Epiphanius suggests that the difference between a synagogue and a proseuchae is that the former is a “place of prayer” while the latter is a “house of prayer.” Many religious and secular historians of the day note that even where there were synagogues, on momentous occasions the Jews would leave the synagogue and go to the shores to offer special prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
Luke tells us that they went (1) outside the gate of the city (2) to a riverside where they assumed there would be a (3) place of prayer (lit. proseuchayn). They sat down and began speaking to the women assembled there. Somewhere in the cobwebby depths of my mind are the echoes of some preacher explaining the location and the audience as fitting with doing the laundry. (Women + water = laundry). If this preacher had done his homework, he would have seen how out of tune he was with the historical and cultural context of the passage. These women were clearly at a proseuchae for the purpose of worship and prayer! What is odd is that they were apparently few and there were no men present. This suggests that the Jewish community in Philippi was very small and on the fringe of life in the Colony.
Luke mentions one special woman in particular — Lydia, from Thyatira, a seller of purple clothing and fabric, and a “worshiper of God.” Luke uses the word sebomenae, literally to “fall back before,” a word used in other places for the attitude of devout Jewish proselytes. The Holy Spirit opened her heart to accept Paul’s message of salvation and grace through Jesus the Messaiah for gentiles as well as Jews.
Luke is not specific, but apparently her conversion affected many close to her. She and her household were baptized. This gives us added insight into Lydia’s position, and it isn’t one of a laundry maid. Apparently she was wealthy enough to have a home that required staff. There is no mention of a husband or children. She was no doubt of the same character as the virtuous woman praised by Lemuel in Proverbs 31:10-31.
She “urged” (lit. parakaleo, to “come alongside”) Paul and his companions to stay at her house (another indication of her wealth) on the basis of their judgment of her faithfulness to God. It may have taken some convincing as Luke says “she prevailed” on them.
We’re not told how long they remained in Philippi at Lydia’s home, but they were there long enough to have made a habit of “going to the place of prayer”. On one of these occasions they met a slave-girl who had a demonic spirit that enabled her to foretell the future. Her owners were using her to turn a tidy profit.
She followed Paul, driven by the demonic spirit, crying out, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” Luke says she did this for many days.
Paul became exasperated. He turned and said to the demonic spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” It left her immediately.
Please note that Paul was not exasperated with the girl — it was the demonic spirit that was doing the talking. But wasn’t it telling the truth? Yes, even demons know the truth and recognize God’s chosen people. It was the source, the attitude (perhaps mocking), and the repetitive distraction.
There are two women in this passage, Lydia and this slave-girl. In Paul’s eyes they both were deserving of God’s mercy and grace. But this slave-girl, unlike Lydia, would not come to Christ as long as she was in her oppressed condition. There is a beauty of spirit that resides in every believer, and it cannot cohabit with demonic influences. This demonic spirit was interfering and obnoxious! Luke doesn’t tell us about what happened to the slave-girl, for circumstances mushroomed out of control and their attention was drawn elsewhere.
But that’s another story… and another post!