In the last post Paul, Silas, Luke and Timothy arrived at Philippi and began a small-scale ministry among some devout women who gathered regularly at the “place of prayer” on the riverbank outside the city gates. They met Lydia, a woman of some wealth and influence, who after accepting Paul’s message was baptized (along with her entire household), provided them with lodging. They were there for some time.
As they continued to go to the “place of prayer” over many days, they encountered a slave-girl who was possessed by a demon who enabled her to foretell the future. Luke tells us that she had “masters” (plural) who were profiting greatly from her abilities. This was no ordinary slave. Apparently her abilities were already known when she came to the block in the slave market, and the bidding was hot and heavy — so much so that competing bidders eventually had to pool their resources. Subsequently she was owned by a “co-op”, and the profits were divided among them. It was apparently a lucrative business. Her fame in the region may have been one of the reasons Paul decided to put an end to the demon’s incessant pestering, regardless of the truth of his statements through her.
When the demon left her at Paul’s command, things happened fast as you might imagine. And that’s where we pick up the story now…
v19 “When her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone…” The change in the slave-girl’s personality, demeanor, and perhaps even her physical appearance was immediate. Her owners realized immediately that she was no longer the same person, and that what was missing was the very thing they had invested in so heavily! (It’s possible that they had not even had time to recoup their investment, although Luke doesn’t indicate this.)
“…they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” Luke tells us that these owners themselves laid hands on Paul and Silas and physically dragged them to the agora, the commercial hub of the city. Bear in mind that Philippi had special status under Rome, including her own magistrates. Although Philippi had a Roman garrison stationed there, they were relatively free to see to their own civic affairs. Thus it was that the girl’s owners dragged them to their local magistrates and not to the Roman governor.
v20 “And when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, ‘These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.”
Notice that this is a two-pronged charge. (1) Paul and Silas are causing an uproar in the city because they are Jews, and (2) are teaching illegal customs under Roman law. This is nothing short of an accusation of disturbing the peace and sedition. My, my, how things changed since the realization that their goose that laid the golden eggs had laid her last egg! Their charges were, of course, falsified because they would have had no case if it were simply presented as taking financial advantage of a slave, which was lost upon the healing of the slave. Conybeare and Howson note that there was no basis in Roman law for depreciation of property value through exorcism.
While Philippi was able to govern itself without Roman interference, nevertheless Rome kept a watchful eye open toward sedition and such cities’ proper disposition of such cases. The magistrates were under great pressure to deal swiftly and conclusively in such issues, a fact known to the slave-girl’s owners. Their charge of sedition was almost guaranteed to bring the harshest possible punishment as swiftly as possible.
v22 “And the crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them, and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.” Note first that the crowd in the marketplace became enraged. The general populace knew the requirement to deal swiftly in such cases as well as the magistrates did. The mob quickly got the upper hand, and the magistrates probably bowed to their wishes if for no other reason than to save their own necks and positions.
Second, note that any sort of formal trial was skipped. The magistrates pronounced sentence immediately. This would come back to haunt them within 24 hours.
Third, note the form of punishment. As a “model of Rome”, Philippi would resort to the Roman style of punishment. Luke distinguishes this punishment from the scourging that Christ received at Pilate’s hands, the use of a multi-tailed short whip with sharp bone chips or lead at the end of the tails, designed to shred the skin and muscles of the back. Here the device of punishment was the rabdos (Gr. “stick”). It was likely not a pikestaff or cudgel (a six-foot walking staff or shepherd’s staff), but rather somewhere between that and an old-fashioned switch. It was quite capable of raising large painful welts and of breaking the skin. It’s effectiveness would be reduced by layers of clothing, and for this reason Paul and Silas were stripped of their robes first. Punishment would have been inflicted publicly by professional lictors who knew their business, whether with the rabdos or the whip.
Have you noticed the similarities between this event and the trials of our Lord? When the Sanhedrin initially dragged Him before Pilate, their charge was “misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar” (Luke 23:2, disturbing the peace and sedition). Both the Philippian magistrates and Pilate abdicated their authority and let the mob make the final decision: “But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified. And their voices began to prevail. And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand should be granted.” (Luke 23:23-24)
v23 ”And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and fastened their feet in the stocks.” Conybeare and Howson describe conditions in the “inner prison” and the “stocks” as a place of continued torment. The inner prison would have been what today would be called “the hole” in the most abusive military prison camps. It was a hole, deep inside an already dark prison building. It was completely dark, usually damp, and at the temperature of subsurface soil (typically about 55 degrees), filthy (no bathroom provisions), and often filled with the moans of other prisoners. It was indeed a microcosm of darkest hell. The “stocks” inflicted further misery, often locking the prisoner’s head and limbs into contorted positions (unlike the Puritan’s version of stocks). Luke notes that the jailer mercifully only placed their feet into the stocks. Conybeare and Howson note “We must picture for ourselves something very different from the austere comfort of an English jail. It is only since that Christianity for which the Apostles bled has had influence on the hearts of men, that the treatment of felons has been a distinct subject of philanthropic inquiry…” (p. 234) Indeed! The jailer was taking no chances.
Now what? Had not Paul had a dream, inspired by the Holy Spirit’s direction, in which a “man from Macedonia” had beconed them to come and help? Was their ministry in Macedonia now to be cut off in its infancy? How would Paul and Silas respond to being “shamefully treated” (I Thess. 2:2) like this? If ever there were circumstances devised by evil men that caused ultimate despair to descend…
Next time — Philippians – The Ugly (turned to beauty)!