Is the Unseen Real?: Acts 16:16-18

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In our last post from the book of Acts we saw how Paul handled his violated expectations when he encountered a group of people he hadn’t anticipated. To learn more check out But That’s Not Who I Expected! Acts 16:11-15. In today’s post we’ll learn about a young slave girl who follows Paul and his companions around, disrupting their mission. And we’ll discuss whether or not the unclean spirit inside this poor girl was real.

Varro’s Unseen World

Imagine for a minute you were born in 116 BC, not far from Rome. Turns out you’re smarter than most, quite a bit smarter. Growing up you find you have an enthusiasm for science and math. As an adult you become a scholar with a wide range of interests and expertise. One day you’re pondering what causes disease in human beings. And as you sit there, deep in thought, it occurs to you that because of the limitations of human eyesight, there’s likely unseen organisms, organisms so small they’re undetectable. In a moment of inspiration, it hits you that these unseen organisms may well be the way human diseases are transmitted. These tiny imperceptible “creatures” might float through the air and enter into us through the nose and mouth as we breath.

Now imagine with me, that it’s time to share your idea with your academic peers.

How do you think that worked out for you?

I can tell you how, because there was such a person born in 116 BC, not far from Rome. His name was Marcus Terentius Varro. And he was the first person to propose germ theory.

And the idea of germ theory wouldn’t catch on for another one thousand eight hundred years.

Which brings us to today’s text.

Acts 16:16-18

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. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 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.

Acts 16:16-18

Paul and the Slave Girl with an Unclean spirit

Before I get back to Marcus Terentius Varro, I want to talk about the slave girl for a moment. Some of my favorite Bible teachers say the slave girl was saying something true, that “these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim the way of salvation.” But she was saying it in a way that was disruptive and disturbing because the source was this evil spirit inside her. Sometimes, the enemy’s best tactic is to align himself with Jesus, initially, temporarily, and then wait for an opportunity to promote one of his lies later. And I agree with all of that. But according to Keener there’s more to the story. During that time, in that culture, Gentiles believed the title “Most High God” applied to a Zeus like god, a god who was most high among other lesser gods. Keener writes, “The spirit ambiguously reduces the missionaries’ deity to a chief role in polytheism.” I found that interesting.

The Unseen World

So back to our friend Marcus. Marcus Terentius Varro, is who I think about when I read what happened between Paul and the slave girl with a spirit of divination, and when I read about other accounts of possession by unclean spirits in the Bible. I think of Marcus Terentius Varro because in today’s world, more than two thousand years after Varro walked the earth, belief in unclean spirits and demons and angels and anything unseen or unmeasurable is unfashionable. A materialistic view is in favor in our culture today. But I think we’re very much like Varro’s contemporaries in that we just don’t have the capability to see. For Varro, his ideas weren’t recognized as true and real, simply because the microscope hadn’t been invented yet.

When I read about the splash the microscope made in the scientific community a few hundred years ago, and when I read about what we’ve been doing recently, to confirm the existence of subatomic particles, it makes me wonder if it’s just a matter of time before we find a way to discern the unseen world described in the Bible.

Maybe it’ll be 1,800 years before that happens. But when I see what Jesus said and did in the Gospel accounts, it makes me believe that somehow, ultimately:

What’s currently unseen will be revealed.


Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, The history of germ theory in the College collections

Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, IVP Academic; 2nd edition, January 3, 2014, pp. 370-371

Image of scientist using a microscope via

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2 Comments on “Is the Unseen Real?: Acts 16:16-18

  1. Pingback: How to Set Yourself Free: Acts 16:25-34 | God Running

  2. Pingback: How They Were Singing in the Suffering–Acts 16:19-25 | God Running

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