Sermon for Sunday Evening, April 30th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 16:16-24 ESV] 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. 19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
How frequently is it that you must make a moral decision that happens to upset others or impact you in some negative way?
If you are a whistleblower on the job-site, you risk being fired because you’ve called to attention some dangerous situation. But the right thing to do is to blow the whistle.
In life, you are called as Christians to befriend even those whom others would not befriend. And doing so might cause you to lose popularity. But the right thing to do is to befriend them anyways
There is that old phrase “No good deed goes unpunished.” Of course that is an exaggeration, a hyperbole. But it certainly does happen that good deeds get punished. Evil punishes good when good does good. I’ll repeat that: evil punishes good when good does good.
Look at our situation from Acts chapter 16 this evening. Here we’ll see a situation where “A good deed goes punished.” And, we’ll conclude that good deeds must yet be done. We are called to do the right thing, regardless of the repercussions.
I. A Demon-possessed Girl
In the passage, a girl has an evil spirit possessing her. The text says “a spirit of divination.”
And divination is evil.
We see this clearly in Deuteronomy:
[Deu 18:10 ESV] 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer
Well, what is divination? The exact process of divination can vary considerably, but in the definition of it we find “determine by lot of magical scroll.” So rather than looking to the Word of God or employing reason to judge a situation, the diviner “pulls straws” or finds some other method to determine “fate.” Some in the ancient world would kill animals and pretend to read their entrails and find some message there. Today we have “palm readers.” No one can read your palm. They can only try to convince you of that, but it is all nonsense.
You can see, of course, that these are charlatans and they would (and they still do) find in the entrails or in the palm only the message they want to find.
So this “spirit of divination” in the child would pretend to “divine” something, pretend to foretell the future but they’d really only be saying what they want to say.
Now, here comes an interesting question. Do evil spirits like this actually have some ability to know the future? Well, in the context of the passage it seems that the spirit was successful, that is how the people were making money off of this possessed girl. So perhaps such spirits have greater ability than humans to foresee the future. Or perhaps it was all lies, both the lies of that evil spirit and lies from the handlers or masters of this girl, and they’d convince others about the evil spirit’s ability to foretell the future.
Either way, this is clearly evil.
The spirit is evil of course. And so are the people using this poor girl for their profit. Can you imagine that. How desperate. How wicked. How desperately wicked they are. This is a human being made in the image of God and they are using her for their own profit.
Now the evil spirit knew more than the average person did. For he said what they were not willing or able to say: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Even if this was mockery, it was still the truth.
Though the devil is “the father of lies,” we know that He mixes in truth in order to deceive. Ever false religion (from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to Buddhism) and every bad theological movement (Neo-orthodoxy, theonomy, wokeism on the left, Christian Nationalism on the right) in Christianity has an element of truth to it. That’s how that hook you in. It sounds really good. But if you study further or really think about it, looking to the Scriptures, you’ll see the errors. Even cults have the appearance of family and belonging. A hiker we recently had stay with us had unknowingly joined a cult for a couple weeks in the Arizona desert before high-tailing it out of their.
So the evil spirit is causing trouble even though the proposition is actually true.
And, the text says, she (really the evil spirit through her) kept doing this. It kept saying “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
What was the intent of this evil spirit? What was its purpose in saying this?
Matthew Henry says it might be that the spirit was trying to distract the disciples in their work. As they were going to prayer, the evil spirit tried to ruffle them when they needed to be most composed.
Now I don’t understand why Paul didn’t cast out the demon immediately. It was only upon repeated pokes at them that Paul became annoyed and responded. All we can say is that this was in the Lord’s plan, and perhaps Paul had reasons to not cast out the demon immediately. They were perhaps trying to “lay low” or complete certain Gospel work. But it became necessary in his mind that he cast out this demon. So he says “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
Paul is not shy here about who he’s working for. None other than Jesus Christ.
And the name of Jesus Christ is above every name, certainly above the demon that possessed the poor young girl. God is greater than all, and Christ is God.
II. The Consequences of Doing the Right Thing
So what happens? What are the consequences of doing the right thing? All rejoice for the evil spirit is cast out? Hardly. The evil people are upset.
Why are they upset. Well, it is clear. As J. Vernon McGee says on this passage “When you touch a man’s pocketbook then he really begins to move.” The owners of the girl saw that their hope of gain was gone. They didn’t care for her for one second beyond what financial gain they could make from her. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And this account provides an example of one such evil.
While the disciples should be praised for their good work (or Jesus should be praise for it is in his name that the demon is cast out) instead they are beaten and jailed.
Incidentally, you know that they are not in Israel, because there are no jails in Israel. This is not an Old Testament concept. They did have cities of refuge and a person could be there for a time while in trial. But punishments were either capital (the death penalty) or of financial recompense, paying back twice or four times what was stolen or destroyed.
The troublers (that is the owners of the previously-possessed girl) accuse the evangelists of being the troublers. They don’t say outright that it is because of money that they accuses Paul, Silas, and Luke. They say that these Jews are disturbing the city. Now, maybe the city needs to be disturbed. It needs the Gospel to shake it up, to wake it up. But these people are calling evil good and good evil.
And the charges they bring up are general, not specific. A true charge would be specific. This person did that at such a time and here are the witnesses. But evil men bring general charges. They are troubling the city, it is claimed. Where is the crime? What law is broken? None. If there specific charges with two or more witnesses they could be proven or disproven. But general charges don’t meet that criteria.
Regardless the crowed joined in and the magistrates were against the evangelists, persuaded by the evil men. They, the evil men, get the other Gentiles on their side to oppose these Jews. Guilty by ethnicity!
Now, would they (Paul, Silas, and Luke) have done anything different if they had a do-over? I don’ think so. I think they would again do the good and receive the unjust punishment.
The fact that the evangelist are beaten and jailed shows you how evil the world is. These great men, bringing the Good News of eternal salvation to the world, and even casting out a demon, they are not praised but persecuted.
They sought to go to prayer and instead they went to prison!
Should we expect any better? No, indeed not. Many of your good deeds will be punished by the world.
But should you do these good deeds anyways? Absolutely.
See, our understand of Biblical ethics is no “ends-based” but “means based.” We “do what is right” and hope that it brings good results. The alternative view entails breaking the law, being evil, doing whatever it takes to achieve some goal in view.
We are not promised success when we do right. Even if we were to follow perfectly all the commandments of God, we are not guaranteed a good outcome in this life. But the follow the commandments we do anyways, simply because they are right, and they of God.
III. Christ’s Unjust Punishment
But we, like Paul, Silas, and Luke, are in good company. Jesus Christ himself was the one who least deserved to be punished.
[Jhn 10:32 ESV] 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”
And when Christ was crucified it was under the pretense that he blasphemed God. But he was God. He spoke on the truth. … And yet was punished.
You are then to take heed brother and sisters in the Lord, that when you speak truth, or when you do what is right, persecution from the world will often follow. Don’t let that make you think you’ve done wrong, or should change you way one bit. For there is only one truth and right way, and that is walking in the path of the Lord, obeying HIs commandments, and trusting in His eternal plan.
So let us pray that we do what is right whatever the consequences. Let us pray.