Checkmate (Part I) – Acts 16:19-24

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.

How’d Paul do it? Well, by my count, it took eight back and forth moves after Paul cast out the demon to reach checkmate; then two more moves, consisting of knocking over the enemy’s king and then a victory celebration in Christ, which we’ll see when we get to Acts 16:40.

Now, first, let’s consider Paul’s casting of the demon out of the slave girl from a bit different angle than last week—from an ethical point of view. A bit on ethics: A simple explanation of an ethical dilemma is that one occurs when two values (including morals, laws, or ideals) collide. In Paul’s case, Value 1 was to keep the law of the land, as the law was laid out by authorities instituted by God (see Romans 13 for more on that). Value 2 was opposing evil for good, in this case evil in the form of a demon exploiting a slave girl (Rom. 12:21; James 4:7).

So, if Paul cast out the demon, his religious action would (via Paul’s acting in Jesus’ name) bring harm to the legal business of the slave owners, as the girl would no longer be able tell fortunes. The result of such an exorcism would logically lead to a loss of income they received from her exploitation (v. 19), which could be construed as a violation of the law, as Paul would be liable (whether they defined his act as magic or the actions of an alien religion).[1] Yet, if Paul left the demon in the slave girl, he would be allowing the continuation of her demonic exploitation towards evil purposes, when he was empowered by the Lord God to stop it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in his book Ethics, and I agree wholeheartedly, based on his Biblical logic, that the first question of ethics is not “How can I be good?” or “How can I do good?” Rather, it is “What is the will of God?” [2]

Posing that question, in this case, might look like asking, “Was it God’s will to obey this particular law of the land, which would require allowing a girl to be exploited by a demon, as it worked its devious ways towards corrupting the gospel, new converts, and marring God’s glory?”

A way towards the answer would be to then ask, “Which action passes the test of the Lord’s two greatest commands—to “love God with all your heart soul, and mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-39)? How is it loving God to allow a demon to corrupt the gospel of Jesus Christ, attack the Lord’s mission and his church, and mar the Lord’s Glory, when you can stop it? It’s not. How is it loving the slave girl to allow her to remain possessed by a demon, when you can stop it? It’s not. Then follow up with the question, “Is it God’s will to oppose evil for good?” Of course.

The answer to the dilemma is obvious. I get it. but it’s good to know the steps involved in finding the answer to the equation—steps of ethical decision making.

Even though Christians are commanded to obey the authorities set over us (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pt. 2:13), the Bible is clear that the authorities are not perfect and their edicts can, at times, be imperfect and even evil. Their mandate by God, however, is to oppose evil and support the good (Rom. 13:4). When the law does not support that divine edict, whether in an absolute or circumstantial sense, it becomes an unjust law. Hence, when man’s law comes into conflict with God’s will, we must obey God before man (Ex. 1:17; Dan. 3; Acts 5:29).

As it was, unquestionably, Paul, in this case, did what was right before God. Besides, if Paul was not doing the Lord’s will in casting out the demon, the demon was apparently not obligated to go anywhere, like what happened in Acts 19:13-16. Successfully casting out a demon in Jesus’ name, following after Jesus’ own example (e.g. Mark 5:1-20 with Legion) vindicated Paul’s message and action. Paul did the will of God, and that was the only thing that mattered. Thus, he was completely innocent in his actions, no matter what the law of man or any magistrate might say. He was wise as a snake, in his ethics, and innocent as a dove before God, making a move towards checkmate of the demon.

Despite his innocence before God, after Paul cast out the demon, the evil one countered with a move against Paul and the Lord through his human minions. They were enraged at their loss of income from the exploited girl. So, they drug Paul and Silas to the agora, Philippi’s forum, “which was not only the market-place but the centre of a city’s public life,” where the magistrates convened to execute Roman justice.[3] There, they brought charges against Paul and Silas—vv. 20-21:

“These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.”

It is interesting that the accusers did not say, “They cast out the spirit of Python out of our slave, costing us business, since she can’t tell fortunes anymore.” Why did they not? Publicly, a charge against the missionaries for exorcism would have been difficult to prove, especially since the Python possessed girl had, to the casual observer, been giving her endorsement to the missionaries—no motive, so to speak. It would have been easier to argue a civil charge of liability in their loss of income from the girl, which was their main issue anyway, according to Luke. Yet, that was still an uncertain outcome. Even so, if it was somehow proven, Paul and Silas would have only been fined. No, they were irate! And, as minions of the evil one, their charges were designed to be a bit more devious and explosive. They went for the throat with criminal charges.

From a position of status, the slave owners capitalized on their own status in the city to add weight to the charges, as it was typical that the status of the accused was lower than the accusers. Craig Keener explains:

Accusations by Roman citizens would carry considerable weight, especially against non-Romans (which the colonists wrongly assume the Jewish preachers to be). As Romans, the slave girl’s owners probably descend from veterans settled in Philippi, and hence are probably landowners, who would hold particularly high status. [4]

Hence, from that position of superiority, the accusers started off by saying, “These men are Jews.” This was true, and it was not a crime to be a Jew. In fact, Judaism was officially recognized by Rome. And, Christianity, at that time, was still mostly understood as a sect of Judaism. However, regardless of the official status of Jews and their religion, there was a considerable bias and dislike, even hatred, towards Jews by many Romans. The agitation was not due to racial tensions, as moderns would couch it, but was more towards a disgust, even a perplexity, towards the Jews’ snobbery, religion, and customs.

Tacitus, born about A.D. 56, was a Roman administrator, senator, and historian. He gives us an example of Roman views towards the Jews in his Histories:

Moyses, wishing to secure for the future his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practised by other men. Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden.[5]

He goes on a bit with his interpretation of their religious practices. Then he says,

This worship … is upheld by its antiquity; all their other customs, which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness…. among themselves they are inflexibly honest and ever ready to shew compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart, and though, as a nation, they are singularly prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; among themselves nothing is unlawful.[6]

He continues on, but you get the point.

Another thing about their mentioning up-front that Paul and Silas were Jews, was to establish a bias, not only from a disgust with Jews in general, but also according to the recent actions of the emperor Claudius towards the Jews. Claudius had recently expelled all the Jews from Rome, as mentioned in Acts 18:2, which happened around A.D. 49 to 51. This was also the third time the Jews had been kicked out of Rome by an emperor. The expulsion by Claudius was due to an uproar among by the Jews involving constant disturbances of the peace in Rome. These disturbances were also (no surprise) likely going on between the Jews and the Christians, as the Roman historian Suetonius wrote the disturbances were because of “Chrestus,”—seemingly a reference to Christ. [7]

With those recent happenings in Rome, we now have Philippi, a loyal Roman colony influenced by Roman culture and Greek Hellenism (as it was in Macedonia). It had been settled by retired Roman soldiers, their families, and had a few generations of Roman citizens who were very loyal to Rome and the emperor. They were staunch, patriotic Romans. Hence, as the emperor had recently cast the Jews out of Rome, the Jews were put in even a worse light than usual in Philippi. Also, as Jews were, at the most, an extreme minority in Philippi, there was the added suspicion towards the unfamiliar and the different. So, up front, by identifying Paul and Silas as Jews, a powerful bias was put in place against them, no matter what the charges actually were.

They then had two charges thrown against them. First, they are accused of “disturbing our city,” and “disturbances were an imprisonable offense.” [8] The accusers, with this first charge, subtly alluded to the disturbances in Rome by the Jews. “These Jews are disturbing our city … they are disturbing the Pax Romana,” with the implied “just like the Jews disturbed the peace in Rome and received our glorious divine emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus’ wrath for it.” Remember, the Imperial Cult was alive and well at the time. Layers upon layers of spiritual warfare, my friends.

Another thing about this charge is the question, “How were they disturbing the city?” Was there anything to this? … Maybe. We are not told of any disturbance caused by them, so we can really only guess what they might be implying, if it wasn’t just a total fabrication. At the most, a disturbance might be the transformation of people who heard and believed the gospel—2 Cor. 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Such gospel transformation can, at times, involve division among family and, by extension, community (Lk. 12:51-53, Matt. 10:34-35). Yet, the Christian ethic and Paul’s teaching was one that said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). Any hostility under Paul’s eye and teaching would not be that of Christians being hostile towards unbelievers, it would have been the unbelievers being hostile towards the Christians.

Anyway, the disturbance charge was almost certainly a false accusation in the form of sensationalizing—making something out of nothing. We see this in the media every day, so you know what I mean. As it was, it was a charge meant to incite the anger of the populace and the magistrates, putting Paul and Silas in a position to receive a harsh punishment.

The second charge seems to indicate that (to whatever extent in reality), the so-called disturbance may have pointed to the new believers’ transformation, something which would have impacted every aspect of their life. Paul and Silas were charged, after all, with advocating “customs that are not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”  The calculated impact of this charge was that if they were introducing an alien cult involving unlawful Roman practices, a good Roman citizen could not accept or abide such a thing. They would be outraged. So, it was particularly serious charge, as Keener explains:

Roman conversion to Judaism (or otherwise turning from Roman gods) was legally punishable in the late republic …, though the law was rarely enforced in this period except when such activity threatened public peace or welfare.[9]

The charge was exactly that. Thus, Paul and Silas’ Judaism (at least what the accusers understood as Judaism or a sect of Judaism), was painted as a threat to the public peace and welfare.

Such was a direct affront to these Romans. Being a Roman was a badge of pride and a beloved way of life to them. And here these two Jews were supposedly threatening their way of life, their peace, and their religion. It was an appeal to Roman identity versus the customs of foreigners.

If you think about it, such was a pretty ingenious way to attack these Christian missionaries. The slave owners had “xenophobically” painted Paul and Silas as “anti-Roman Jews,” placing them in pretty much a no-win situation.[10] Interesting, it is, though, how, providentially, it never occurred to the accusers, nor to the magistrates for that matter, that Paul and Silas might be Roman citizens, or to even ask the question—which would have changed everything going forward. Biased, prejudiced and emotional accusations do so often suffer from utter blindness to truth, logic, and justice.

Which speaks to Paul’s next strategic move against the evil one’s schemes. Paul remained silent to the very fact that he and Silas were likewise Roman citizens—which, as we’ll see in v. 37, will lead to Paul’s checkmate of the enemy. We’ll pick up at that point of the battle (Paul’s silence), Lord willing, next week.

So, what does this mean for us? What can we learn from the battle so far? Well, clearly, the enemy is wily, and his schemes are complex. He not only uses our sinful tendencies and those of his own minions against us, using things like greed, ignorance, prejudice, and bias. But he also uses other things—more upstanding motivations. He can use against us the laws of the land, patriotism, pride in heritage, pride in American citizenship, pride in race, pride in civic virtue, pride in shared tribulations and trials, pride in “wokeness,” and fondly held traditions and customs of our culture. These are potential idols of the culture that can entrap us. Beware the idols of the culture! They will have you kneel before them, and they will rule you in opposition to the Lord, in violation of his command: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The list can go on and on of how the enemy twists things as he makes his moves against us. The enemy is a master of twisting the truth and just about anything towards his purposes. Remember, when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted Scripture to Jesus in order to enhance his temptations (Lk. 4:10-11). We need to be aware of such twisting. Sometimes it is blatant, but other times it is very subtle.

We can, however, see from the apostle Paul’s calculated moves a way to counter the enemies schemes. It won’t often be easy. Sometimes awareness can nip it in the bud. So, be on the lookout. Be alert—1 Pt. 5:8: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Don’t think you are somehow immune from the evil one’s attacks. Such arrogance invites disaster.

Yet, as we saw today, and we’ll continue to see. Paul made his moves counter to the enemy’s moves with careful and thoughtful obedience to Christ, taking in account the culture, context, and other factors. He was ethical, setting for us a pattern of the Christian ethic as a tool to counter Satan. While this may seem sophisticated, and it can be, it boils down to faithful, thoughtful obedience to the Lord, following the Lord’s will, guided by the Spirit and his Word, as it is revealed in the Bible. That implies a lot for us, my friends, a lot of effort to be expended in order for us to be ready to engage the enemy in this war.

I’ll sum it up. Christians are at war. We must fight the war in a manner “wise as a snake and innocent as a dove.” To do this we must constantly train. We must be alert for attacks. We must fight according to the Lord’s lead, according to his Spirit, Word, and ethical tactics. This will not end for us until we die or the Lord returns in glory. Let us be vigilant, persistent, and constantly in the Word and prayer as we engage the enemy, standing firm in the power of the Lord (Eph. 6:10-18). We can counter and even checkmate the enemy, as we’ll see; and we can rest in the knowledge that the Lord always wins. Because victory is in Jesus, Christians must persevere in enduring faithfulness to his will.


[1] Cf. Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 537. Also, A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 79

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Neville Horton Smith (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 186.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 266.

[4] Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2469–2470.

[5] Tacitus, Annals and Histories, trans. A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 612.

[6] Ibid, 613.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, The Early Church to the dawn of the Reformation, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 32.

[8] Keener, 2471.

[9] Ibid., 2471–2472.

[10] Ibid, 2468.