Checkmate, Finally! – Acts 16:35-40

by Roger McCay
9 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 16:35-40
Link to Audio Version

It’s hard to be humble and wise with a self-giving love when you are ignorant. How can you be humble (as the Lord defines humility), wise (the beginning of which only comes from fearing the Lord), and have a self-giving love (which the Lord defines in his Word, and illustrates in Jesus Christ), if you don’t know the Lord’s Word? Likewise, how can you know what justice is, what mercy is, or any such virtues, if you do not know how the Lord defines them? If you don’t know the Lord’s Word, how can you discern the Lord’s will? How can you be obedient? How can you be ethical?

Let’s expand on that. How can you know how to discern the Lord’s will in life, if you are ignorant as to what’s going on around you; if you don’t know the laws of the land; if you don’t know the influences of the populace; if you don’t know the current trends, pressures, the philosophies, the dangers, and the ways of the world? If you don’t know these things, how can you use them or work within them to accomplish the Lord’s will? How can you know when and how to stay out of their way, when they are counter to the Lord’s will? And, how can you even begin to maneuver among, avoid, and counter the traps and schemes of evil one if you are ignorant of what such a trap might be?

How can you checkmate the devil if you don’t understand the rules and strategies of the game?

Psalm 17:4-5 puts it this way:

With regard to the works of man, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.

Ignorance is the antithesis of a solid foundation upon which to stand or a clear path upon which to walk. It is darkness. Blessedly, the Logos, the Word, was made flesh—Jesus Christ (John 1:1). In him and his Word, we find true knowledge and true understanding. We find a light that pierces the darkness of ignorance and lights our path so that we might follow Christ humbly, wisely, and with a self-giving love. It’s as the psalmist exclaimed in Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

We are all ignorant in one way or another. Yet, ignorance is not a permanent state. We can learn. We must learn, as knowledge and understanding are essential characteristics of a believer, who follows the Word Made Flesh. Such learning is a lifelong endeavor.

Now, we’ve spent a couple of months looking at the battle between Paul and the evil one, which took place in Philippi, as described here in Acts 16. It really started with the enemy’s attack through the slave girl, who was a demon possessed oracle of Python. After Paul cast out the demon in the name of Jesus, the demon’s scheme didn’t just fizzle. The demon’s minions took it from there, attacking Paul and Silas, the gospel, and the Lord’s name, putting the fledgling church in Philippi in danger. During this series of sermons, I’ve couched the battle in terms of moves in a chess game leading towards checkmate, and we’ve looked at each move from a biblical and ethical point of view.

Here is a quick rehash to get us back up to speed. After Paul cast the demon out of the girl, the enemy used his human minions to great effect. Paul and Silas were unjustly accused before the magistrates and the people of Philippi by the slave girl’s owners. And, while Paul could have spoken out, declaring their Roman citizenship, in an act of self-giving love, he remained silent. In his silence, he and Silas were unjustly punished. The magistrates had their lictors strip Paul and Silas naked before the crowds and beat them bloody with rods. Following that, the magistrates imprisoned them, with the jailer casting Paul and Silas into the inner prison and locking them in stocks. Remarkably, while bruised, broken, tortured, and imprisoned in the dank dark prison, Paul and Silas held a midnight worship service of singing and prayer. At that point, God himself acted, bringing an earthquake that broke open the doors of the prison and freed the prisoners of their bonds. Yet, Paul and Silas (along with the other prisoners) did not take advantage of their new freedom, staying put. The jailer initially thought the prisoners had escaped and sought to kill himself, in an act of honor. However, Paul, in an act of loving his enemy, stopped him, by assuring him they were all there. The jailer was then brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he and his whole household were baptized. He brought Paul and Silas out of the prison, washed their wounds, fed them, and enjoyed a morning of learning with the missionaries, as Paul and Silas taught them about the Lord Jesus, the gospel, and what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.

Paul’s actions were wise as a snake and humble as a dove all through the battle with the evil one. He continuously operated morally and ethically according to the chief Christian value of self-giving love. It is plainly evident that he could not have done any of this without knowledge of the Lord’s Word, knowledge of the law and culture, and some insight into human nature. Most importantly, he could not have done it without the power of the Spirit of God, as he took each step along this journey following the Lord’s will and in the Lord’s footsteps.

Now, Paul was a very knowledgeable guy. He had been esteemed among the Pharisees, and had been educated by one of the best rabbis of the day—Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). His knowledge and study were known and obvious to anyone who engaged him. We see this in Acts 26:24, in his defense before Festus. Festus was so astounded by what Paul was saying that he yelled out, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” Peter was appreciative of Paul’s knowledge, as we see when he commented on Paul’s Epistles (his letters), in 2 Peter 3:16, saying, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.”

In our passage today, the apostle Paul utilizes his knowledge of the Lord’s Word and will, the law of the land, and human nature in order to checkmate the evil one and secure the reputation of the gospel, the Lord’s name, and the fledgling church in Philippi.

First off, we see that Paul and Silas are back in prison when the police arrive with the magistrates message. After the meal, fellowship, and a morning of teaching, the jailer put them back into prison. My thought is that Paul and Silas voluntarily went back in, for the very same reasons they did not escape in the first place—self-giving love. They didn’t take advantage of their freedom, so, humble as doves, they protected the jailer by going back in. Hence, come day, Paul and Silas were behind bars, where they were supposed to be, according to the local magistrates, when the police arrived.

There are various reasons posited for why the magistrates had decided, so soon after imprisoning the missionaries, to let them go. It could have been that the magistrates felt they had made their point with a painful warning. Or, perhaps, now they were thinking straight and were not caught up in the mobs emotions. The clever arguments from the day before didn’t seem so clever in hindsight. Did they really put these men through such punishment in such an unjust manner? Anyway, Luke doesn’t tell us their motivations, only that the magistrates sent word to the jailer to “Let those men go” (v. 35).

Yet, Paul said, “No. No-way. No-how.” Verse 37:

“They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”

On the surface, this might seem kind of petty, pushing the point. However, this was the key point of the battle. One final move was needed for the checkmate. If Paul and Silas had just gone their merry way, in peace (like the jailer urged them to do), then the enemy might have claimed victory. If they had taken the magistrates first offer, then they would not have been publicly vindicated. The taint of the charges and the imprisonment would have stuck to them, the church, and the Lord’s name. It would have jeopardized the gospel proclamation in Philippi, tainting it, and tainting the brand-new church there in town along with every single member of it. “Those are the people who have fallen under the influence of those anti-Roman teachings. They are affiliated with those criminals that the magistrates saw punished, and who then slinked off into the darkness once they were released. Stay away from them lest their taint get on you.”

Paul wisely saw how accepting freedom at that point and under those circumstances was unacceptable. And, he had one last move to make in this cosmic game of chess: “We’re Roman citizens.” Checkmate!!!

The time had come to claim their rights. Sometimes the system works against you; sometimes it works for you. Paul knew to not toss the baby out with the bathwater, in the face of injustice. Wise as a snake, he knew that if the system could work for him, then he must strategically use it for the Lord’s glory.

So, why was it such a big deal that they were Roman citizens? The bottom line is that it was a major violation of Roman law to beat and imprison Roman citizens without trial. It was a criminal offense, and the magistrates were guilty. It meant that the magistrates were now in danger of suffering the wrath of Rome for their rash and unjust actions.

All this came as a shock to the magistrates. In a heartbeat, they went from smug to terrified and unsure. In order to save their skins (much less their position as magistrates), they knew they had to appease these two prisoners. They needed to make the whole thing go away. So, they did four things. They went to the prison themselves, apologized to Paul and Silas, personally brought Paul and Silas out of the prison, and then asked them to leave Philippi (“Go away, please”).

What this did was to publicly vindicate Paul and Silas. They received a public apology from the magistrates, in person. It was now known and publicly acknowledged that Paul and Silas were not criminals. They had, in fact, been terribly treated by the people of Philippi. For the proud Romans of Philippi, it would have been an embarrassment for them, also. Perhaps their anger even found a new focus in the slave owners, who brought the false, explosive charges. As it was, this apology and vindication changed the official view of the missionaries, the gospel, and the Christian God and faith they proclaimed. It left the magistrates loath to “go there” in attacking those affiliated with Paul and Silas, as the potential of their own downfall lay in that direction.

Satisfied in a sound victory against the evil one’s schemes, Paul and Silas (on their way out of town), visited the new church at Lydia’s home, encouraging them in the faith. From there they departed, leaving Luke, presumably to minister to the fledgling congregation.

Now, as to knowledge: Paul and Silas would not have won this battle without certain knowledge. If they were ignorant of the Lord’s Word and will, the laws, culture, and ways of the community in which they were ministering, then things would have gone differently. The principle we can derive is that it is important that we, as God’s people, likewise know the Lord’s Word and will, know the laws of the land, and know the culture in which we live. We are then to use that knowledge humbly and wisely, as we seek to live for the Lord, as his disciples, in self-giving love, to his glory. Do this, and stay at it. It’s a lifetime endeavor.

Sometimes you will face injustice. Sometimes the laws will not be in your favor, as you seek to follow Jesus. However, if you are doing the Lord’s will, Peter’s answer stands true. It is “better to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

Yet, how can you obey God if you cannot discern God’s will in any given situation? How can you obey God if you don’t know his Word? You can’t! Study your Bible diligently. It is the rule for life, given by God. Study, also, the world around you. From the knowledge you gain from these studies, you are then armed to engage the culture; armed to recognize the devil’s schemes, avoid them, and fight against them. You can live in a way that glorifies the Lord, even when laws and public opinion go against you. Armed with knowledge, you can do the Lord’s will no matter what the circumstance might be in which you find yourself (Romans 12:2). As such, be ethical with self-giving love; suffer, if you have to; use the laws to your advantage, if you can. Remember, too, Peter’s words:

14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name (1 Peter 4:14-16).

Knowledge is critical to perseverance in the faith. In this life, we cannot know everything. Yet, we can know enough to be victorious in Christ. He calls us to be faithful. We can’t be faithful without knowledge. Stay the course, my friends. Be in the Word. Engage the culture. Know the world you live in and how to live in it both morally and ethically, as a faithful Christian following Jesus. Call on the Lord to help you. Call on his strength and wisdom. Call on him to show you the way. He leads the way. He will get you through to that checkmate, that victory. All praise and glory to the Lord! Because victory is in Jesus, Christians must persevere in enduring faithfulness to his will.