Backpacking with Bill: Delphi

By: William D. Shiell

Today we drove four hours into the mountains to visit the ancient city of Delphi. In 600 B.C., this area was home to a vibrant religious community. The priests here held sway over the minds of most Greek people for over 200 years. They claimed to be able to predict the future. For at least three days each year, slaves and kings could receive equal information—for a price. To keep up the game– and the tourism– the religious people turned to sports, theater, and retail shops. Eventually the place collapsed under its own weight of corruption. The Romans and many others tried to revive Delphi’s influence by expanding the stadium—but to no avail.


We walked through the ruins, visited the museum, and learned more about the world that preceded Paul’s ministry. The Greeks weren’t the last people to try to profit from popular religion. In the first century, Paul picked up on the scheme when he and Silas visited Philippi. In Acts 16, a slave girl was possessed by the demon of Delphi—a python-like snake. Under the control of her masters, she could predict the future. But Paul rebuked the snake, exorcised the demon, and replaced the religious system with the name of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The authorities arrested Paul and Silas not because they healed the girl but because they healed her in Jesus’ name. They threatened to overturn established religious order, despite its widespread corruption. Even when people are suspicious of their own faith, it’s hard to let go of tradition and turn to a living God. It would take several more confrontations by the One who conquered sin and death to show the people that our God in Jesus Christ liberates slaves, offers a secure future in him, and invites us to follow a servant leader.



A few verses later in Acts 17, Paul faced similar accusations from the religious people of Corinth (we’ll visit this city tomorrow). But even the Roman official Gallio could see through the people’s motives. Gallio realized that Paul’s problems were not with God; Paul was dealing with people trying to cling to the last vestiges of power and commerce in the name of God.

When faith, money, and the future mix, the result is pretty toxic. Despite our attempts to maintain a grip on tomorrow, our faith in Jesus teaches us to trust the God who holds the future and offers each day as a gift.


The museum of Delphi contains a relic from Gallio’s reign from around A.D. 52. His name appears on an old rock that locates Gallio in the same town and timeframe as Paul. We wouldn’t need the rock to remind ourselves of Paul’s timeless message. What remains in Delphi is a testimony to all of us who follow Jesus and have the privilege of being compensated for religious work. A suffering Messiah and sacrificial leaders are the only kinds of people worth following…and the only kind of faith that survives.

April 22, 2016

William D. Shiell

President, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William

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