Why Did Paul Get Arrested at Philippi and What Should We Learn From It?

There is a story of St. Paul’s arrest, beating and imprisonment at Philippi that serves as a kind of paradigm for the radicality of true Christianity and why it so perturbs many in this world. For, of itself the Christian faith, its message and the transformation it can effect, is very unsettling for a world that quite literally and figuratively banks on sin. Lets consider this lesser known story of Paul and see what it ought to mean for us, if we take the Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it.

Philippi was the first “European” city that Paul evangelized as he came across from Asia Minor. Arriving at the port the port of Philippi in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went right to work evangelizing. One of their first Converts was Lydia, a wealthy woman from Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. Other converts followed. And here is where we pick up the story.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants 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 troubled 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.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:16-24).

Note, in this story, the heart of the problem. St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her “owners” of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and trafficking on her trouble. In the name and Power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world and touched their pocketbooks. They see the Christian message for it is: revolutionary, disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.

A threat not only to profit, but to power. In having Paul arrested they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well indicating that Paul was not merely preaching some “strange new religion” but were advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word “customs” here in Greek is ἐθη (ethe) and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” Cicero in De Legibus, ii. 8,  says, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, to publicly proclaim new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy and forbidden.

And frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas are true enough. They have hindered profit in the healing they wrought. Further they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears we hear a religious phrase. But to Roman ears the phrase was provocative and revolutionary.  It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar is Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar and a higher King demanding first loyalty: Jesus is Lord!

This is not the tame and domesticated proclamation of the faith so common today. This is not the faith that is trimmed to fit into worldly categories and to be tucked under political, philosophical and moral preferences. This is the faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to the world’s priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas are a serious threat.

And what of us today? We have gone through a long period where, in many ways we have thought the faith could be lived quietly and that it generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and getting along were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in, be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic President we could say we had finally made it and been fully accepted. Finally we fit in.

Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days and we still had a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. But having finally “made it” we assumed room temperature and the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture faded away. At the same time Western culture has also largely died. (Coincidence)?

And now we are coming full circle where we have got to rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. And as we proclaim healing and an allegiance to something other than this world, we will become increasingly obnoxious to the world around us.

Consider both things for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:

1. They ate away at profit Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her, but profited her slaveholders. In this world today there is a lot of trafficking in sin and addiction. Terrible demons afflict many people regarding sexuality, drugs,  and alcohol. And there’s a lot of money to be made selling pornography to sex addicts, and others. Sex sells, Hollywood movie producers, contraceptionists, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex slave industry also feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol  are big money makers too. Not to mention the huge numbers of products that are sold using the demon of fear: You are not pretty enough, you are not healthy enough, you are getting old, you don’t drive the right car, you haven’t impressed your friends enough. You need to buy our product right away so you are not so pathetic. And thus the demon of fear and low self-esteem is exploited, along with the demon of greed.

But what would happen if the Church were to start effectively preaching unabridged Christianity which says, “You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can also find serenity in Christ and so you won’t need all that extra alcohol and those drugs. And you can be set free from your enslavement to sex, take authority over your passions and discover the beauty of traditional marriage. What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?

Well, of course the answer would be that we like Paul would be and are, under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists, since that is the most focused issue these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful, and for now our successes are meager, their profits may go away. Yes, we must be dealt with.

But really, we will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith. Not the faith that is trimmed and tucked under worldly priorities, the faith that insists on being “realistic” and makes endless apologies to the inevitable objections of the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and the demons.

Paul and Silas didn’t end up in prison by preaching a watered down, tamed and domesticated moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl, and in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits well on sin.

2. They threatened power Calling Jesus Lord was a revolutionary threat to the incumbent power which seeks and demands our first and full loyalty. And thus today, many strive to make Catholics fit into neat little political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to fit into their narrow little categories and march in lockstep with a party system. Even Catholics in those categories want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than their Church, and are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between a Church teaching and the party line, guess which usually gives way.

But in the end the Church will not just fit into some neat political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.

And thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal, Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being shown the door, kicked to the curb and our very right to religious liberty is threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are being slowly removed, and lawsuits against Catholic Institutions are increasing. It will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty and Church must refuse that loyalty.

Because, Jesus is Lord, not the Federal, State or local government. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith he announces cannot be defined down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.

But here too, no tame, domesticated Christianity, will threaten or change this world. When Paul preached the people rioted, but too much modern preaching incites only yawns and indifference.

What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary, and threatens the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world turns more secular the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.

Are you ready?

In this video Fr. Barron comments on the movie “The Matrix” which depicts an interesting Christian motif. The Matrix is a machine from which people need liberation. The solution can only happen when some one from outside the Matrix (Neo) enters in and announces liberty, dies rises and defeats the Matrix.

14 Replies to “Why Did Paul Get Arrested at Philippi and What Should We Learn From It?”

  1. Father, you are right on the money (pun intended :)! As a person with an advanced degree in theology, I get so tired of what I know to be watered down Catholicism. I believe that we need our bishops and priests, DREs, Confirmation coordinators and all catechists and teachers to be on fire for Jesus – not only in what they say and teach, but in how they live their lives!

    I do think, however, that it has to start with our bishops and priests, who have the charism and authority from Our Lord to preach the Gospel. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough of them have taken this as seriously as they should have in the past. I do, however, see hope in the actions of many of our bishops who are now taking more public stands and in priests, like yourself, who write well and take the time to also publish. Hopefully our seminaries will also start doing a better job of preparing and teaching the art of homiletics. For those of us who get homilies with little substance, it’s refreshing to be able to feed the soul in other ways. Please keep up the good work – many of us out here are counting on you!

    1. I do think that younger priests and bishops are more likely to zealous and outspoken for the Lord. Time will tell if they end up getting tamed or not. We can only but pray for a holy zeal combined with strategic prudence for all the clergy and leadership in the Church. But the battle lines are clearer than ever.

    2. “I do think, however, that it has to start with our bishops and priests…”

      We can’t wait on the bishops and priests. There’s no excuse, really. They are a great help, and would be a bigger one if they were all holy, but I wouldn’t bank on the Lord’s excusing us because they weren’t.

  2. What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi?

    That we should make a rather more sophisticated reading of Paul’s writings elsewhere about the obligation to submit to governmental authority.

    1. From the article: Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi. While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar and a higher King demanding first loyalty: Jesus is Lord!

      1. Yes — if only that part were considered too. But too often there are people who point to the “respect government authority” passages and stop there. Some of them have even used that here to justify their zeal for capital punishment.

        1. Pray for the poor souls. Prayer is more powerful than words, and is a mouthful of reason on Earth as in Heaven.

    2. We are not called to submit to the government. People need to open their eyes to all the scriptures and take them in context, not with blinders. The author of Romans does say we are subject to the governments discipline. He does encourage us to try and get along. But, the Christians were told to stop preaching in Jesus name yet refused to relent. So how do you explain away you narrow view.
      We must keep an open mind to the scripture and examine them daily to see if what is being said today is true. Mr. Barron… “It is hard to kick against the goads.”
      “All authority in heaven and on earth goes to me (Jesus). Therefore,…”
      Mr. Barron, I am not talking about submitting to governing authorities.

  3. The way the ‘blog and the responses evolve toward a finished presentation reminds me of part of Revelation 3

    14 ‘Write to the angel of the church in Laodicea and say, “Here is the message of the Amen, the trustworthy, the true witness, the Principle of God’s creation: 15 I know about your activities: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, 16 but since you are neither hot nor cold, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say to yourself: I am rich, I have made a fortune and have everything I want, never realising that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too.

  4. i am a continuing student at the international leadership university pursuing a bachelor of education in counseling psychology and recently my lecturer told to prepare an analysis of the letter of Paul to philippians. your homily Father has helped me a lot i do appreciate.keep the fire burning. for me i do really appreciate the teaching of the catholic church and particularly from the priest. he is called to live and imitate Christ himself, mediate us and nurture us. or-else whenever i feel empty in spirit i look back to what actually i was taught during catechist and amazingly is that i just find i had left the way of the cross. confession becomes the key to conflict resolution at all levels. lets not be ruined by pride. Sylvester Nzau- Nairobi-Kenya

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