by Roger McCay
21 June 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:19-24
Link to Audio Version
Have you ever wondered what Jesus meant by “be wise as a snake and innocent as a dove?” This is part of the charge he gave his disciples when he first sent them out to proclaim the good news in Matthew 10. His charge in v. 16 is “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Now, “innocent as doves” seems easy enough to understand, but “wise as (or like) a snake?”
While there are various definitions as to what that statement means, sometimes the best definition is given in an illustration. Thus, in our passage today (and particularly through Acts 16:19-40), we get a wonderful illustration of what it means to “be wise as a snake and innocent as a dove.” If we understand the Lord’s command, as a concise formulation of a winning strategy against the evil one and his minions, Paul’s actions model the Lord’s strategic formula brilliantly, as he engaged in spiritual warfare, as a sheep among wolves, battling with a demon and those under the sway of the evil one.
As we looked at last week, Paul exorcised a spirit of Python (Pythian Apollo – a demon) out of a slave girl, in the name of Jesus. Even though the demon was exorcised, at that point, however, the battle was far from won. People and circumstances had been put in place and were set in motion by the demon in order to discredit Paul, the gospel, the fledgling church, and mar the glory of the living and true God. The demon’s strategy was so devious, it could have won the battle whether Paul exorcised it or not. It almost seems a hopeless case of a catch-22.
Sometimes we feel that way, don’t we? As we look at the world and we see the impact of evil (both in the actions of demonic forces and in sinful humans), as we see this evil affect our lives, and the lives of our families, communities, the nation, and the world, it can seem overwhelming—a no-win situation.
Think about it. The enemy has been scheming and working against God and his people since before the Fall. He has put his agents in place throughout every aspect of society in every nation—minions who are enslaved to his devious plans (either wittingly or unwittingly). It is all beyond any of us, limited by our sin in the flesh, our very short lives, and hampered by limited facilities and power.
Satan’s strategic warfare is vast and complicated, making it easy to be overwhelmed and to concede defeat. And no wonder. Evil is deeply rooted in society and the world at large, even in our own hearts. Agents of evil are constantly at work, attacking us all from so many devious angles. How can we ever hope to win?
The victory, of course, is in Jesus, as all us Christians know. He’s already won the war. But, did you know that we, his people, can actually checkmate the devil? That’s what the Lord was telling us as he gave us that strategic formula, in Matt. 10:16. We can beat the enemy in battle, just like Paul did in Philippi.
Like a chess game, the spirit of Python had played its pieces well, setting up for several steps ahead. If Paul ignored the demon and allowed it to continue to insert itself through the slave girl while Paul proclaimed the gospel, (thereby playing it safe), then the demon would have had a victory right there. It would have suborned the gospel, and gotten a foothold into corrupting the church from the get-go, as we looked at last week. Yet, if Paul cast out the demon in Jesus’ name, which the demon was probably quite aware was a possibility, then Paul was set up to be attacked by the very pagans to whom he and his companions were trying to bring the saving message of the gospel—attacked from a legal position, by people motivated from a sincere loyalty to the Roman empire and its laws, policies, customs, religious norms, and culture. Such attack could accomplish a similar and maybe even a more devastating victory against the church, by bringing the gospel into disrepute, discrediting the church, crushing the fledgling faith of the people of the church, and marring the name of Jesus. So, the demon might have thought, “Checkmate.” However, Paul was clearly wise like a snake (and wise to a snake called Python), able to play the snake’s game (if you’ll pardon my likening a deadly spiritual battle of cosmic proportions to a game). Paul countered the snake move for move, each play made ethically, according to God’s will, while he persevered in thoughtful obedience to Christ through the battle, finally checkmating the evil one, victorious in the Lord Jesus Christ.