Checkmate (Part II) – Acts 16:22-24, 37

by Roger McCay
28 June 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:22-24, 37
Link to Audio Version

Have you ever considered where self-giving falls on your value scale?

C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, says this:

In self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He “did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness.” From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience…. From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated, and so forever….This is not a heavenly law which we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law which we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ordinary life, but simply and solely Hell. Yet even Hell derives from this law such reality as it has. That fierce imprisonment in the self is but the obverse of the self-giving which is absolute reality.[1]

When we think of what Jesus did and continues to do for us, we find a picture of where he puts self-giving on the value scale. The apostle John blatantly laid it out for us in , “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” Don’t stop there, though. Don’t forget the rest of the sentence, “… and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Notice that’s an ought. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s what is expected of us by God. It’s a moral imperative laid out in Scripture. The Bible teaches us that love is not love without self-giving. Self-giving is actualized love; and love is the highest commandment encompassing all the law—love God and love others (). In fact, if you are a disciple of Christ, integral to your calling in life is to follow Jesus in denial of self, which the Lord places at the top of your value scale ().

But is it an impossible call? Is it an illusion? There are some who would say that a selfless life is an impossibility; that all people are inherently selfish; and every act has a selfish underlying motive, even the most altruistic actions. This is the claim of those who hold to psychological egoism, which claims “every human action is motivated by self-interest,” and so, selfish. [2] However, they get to that conclusion by cleverly reinterpreting motives and making assumptions and generalizations that do not hold up under scrutiny and logic. For example, as James Rachels puts it,

When we brush our teeth, at least in normal circumstances, we are not acting selfishly; therefore not all actions are selfish. And, when we smoke cigarettes, we are not acting out of self-interest; therefore not all actions are done from self-interest. [3]

When it comes to true self-giving without underlying selfish motives, Christians are especially equipped. We have been regenerated. We have been and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, who works in us to do God’s will, according to his good pleasure (). We are enabled to actually do righteous unselfish acts. God himself is the catalyst for it.

Yet, there are those in the world who would counter the Scripture’s “ought” of self-giving with an “ought” of selfishness. This is called ethical egoism, which says, “our only duty is to do what is best for ourselves.”[4] Some are blatant with it, like Ayn Rand, who, in The Virtue of Selfishness, wrote, “The achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.”[5]

As a general principle, I’d like to think most would deny such a moral philosophy, but actions tell the truth as to what someone truly believes. In fact, as we look at the world around us, and as we understand the sinful desires of our own heart, it’s easy to see that there is a tendency to put self-interest as the highest value.

This is not to say that self-interests are somehow wrong in themselves. Self-interest and selfishness are not the same thing. It is when our self-interests turn into selfishness that we cross the line. Self-interest becomes selfishness when, as Rachels explains, we “ignore the interests of others, in circumstances in which their interests ought not to be ignored.”[6]

Today’s passage includes an action that we don’t even pick up on until we almost reach the end of this account of events in Philippi, in v. 37. Its absence makes it even more of an obvious inclusion in the passage. It’s like a verse that is there in substance, but is unseen until the big reveal. The action was an inaction. Paul and Silas remained silent, withholding information from the authorities as to their Roman citizenship. If they had claimed their citizenship rights, the whole course of events would have been different moving forward, and vv. 22-24 would have looked totally different. But, wise as a snake, and innocent as a dove, Paul, with Silas right beside him, made their move in the battle with the demon, Python, knowing that sometimes the only way to win is to suffer.

You may remember from last week how Paul and Silas were drug before the Magistrates of Philippi by a demon’s minions, the owners of the formerly possessed girl who had had a spirit of Python that Paul had cast out in the name Jesus. They were enraged because she could no longer tell fortunes through the power of the demon that possessed her.

Dragging them before the magistrates, these accusers insidiously brought criminal charges against Paul and Silas, when, at the most, they only had hope for a civil complaint of liability to be viable in an unbiased court. So, the accusers used their own status as Romans citizens, an appeal to the general Roman bias against Jews, and the patriotism of the crowds and magistrates to add weight to the charges. They painted Paul and Silas as anti-Roman Jews who were disturbing the peace and bringing corrupting practices into their beloved city. As a result, the people of Philippi, good Roman citizens, were outraged at this outlandish violation. The fact that the charges were unjust, sensationalized, and trumped-up was lost in their fervor. Any chance for a peaceful trial with facts laid out and justice served went out the window. For Paul and Silas, it might have seemed like a no-win situation, as it got violent fast.

However, as Paul was clearly wise as a snake, he, like the demon Python, was thinking ahead several moves. Instead of indignantly announcing that he and Silas were Roman citizens, a strategy he later uses in Jerusalem, he withheld that bit of information. It is not until v. 37 that he strategically breaks his silence on this issue. Now, he could have repeatedly called out that he was a citizen, and it would have had to have been taken seriously by the magistrates. But, counter to what would seem to be in his and Silas’ self-interests, he remained silent. Yet, as we’ll see, Paul made a wise and critical move in the interests of Jesus, the gospel, and the church. It also would turn the tide of the battle leading to checkmate and the toppling of the demon’s king.

So, why was his move wise?

First off, consider the evil one’s strategy. A regular strategy of Satan and his minions (demonic and human) is to appeal to our self-interests in devious ways. It was the appeal to Eve in the Garden. It was the appeal to Jesus in his desert temptation. Yet, the appeal to our self-interests … well, therein we find the lie. Succumbing to the temptation really only benefits the enemy’s interests and not ours, in the end. He laughs. We cry. Lewis calls it Hell.

If Paul had called out, it might have spared him a beating, humiliation, and maybe the misery of the stocks in prison in vv. 22-24. Yet, he likely would not have been let off to go his merry way. He most likely would have been dragged into a lengthy legal process, with no guarantees at the end. Just consider what happens later when he appeals to his Roman citizenship in Jerusalem (). That took years to sort out. Even more, based on what was transpiring at the time (with the clear bias against them, inflated emotions, and appeals to the pride of Roman virtue), Paul and Silas had no reason to think that an appeal to citizenship would have achieved justice in any way.

Due to the entire unjust nature of the trial with trumped up charges, the spun-up crowd, and the snap decision of the justices without inquiring into the circumstances and the truth, it seems evident that justice and truth were not a consideration. Paul surely sensed the magistrates were not after the truth. Rather, it seems logically probable that they saw this situation as an opportunity to bolster their own status in the eyes of the people as protectors of the Roman way, with their actions aligning with the emperor. “Play up to the crowds; look at the heroic magistrates protecting the virtue of the Roman citizens in Philippi!” Their own self-interests were large before them, as spiritual forces of evil led them by the slave ring in their nose. There is no evidence they were interested in doing the right thing at this point, even by their own Roman standards of justice. There is no record that they even asked Paul and Silas for their version of events—an injustice itself.

Further, as Craig Keener explains, “even as a Roman citizen, Paul remained an outsider to the colony and hence was of lesser status than the property owners who were charging him with a crime. (Indeed, some scholars suggest that preaching foreign customs might be viewed more harshly for a Roman than for a “mere” Jew). [7]

Moreover, in an immediate practical sense, Paul probably recognized that appealing to his citizenship would have had a more potent impact “after the heat of the mob instead of being squandered in the midst of it.” [8]

As it was, appealing to their Roman citizenship, in their own self-interests, would not have been to the benefit of their mission from God, the name of Jesus, the reputation of the gospel, or to the benefit of the church. It could have damaged the whole mission in Philippi, putting the church under harsh lights as anti-Roman, criminal, and even broken the church in the fallout. Acting in their own self-interests would have ended their missionary journey to Europe, as an utter failure.

On the other hand, if Paul, as the spokesman of the two, stayed silent, they, perhaps, would be in a better position to uphold the Lord’s interests. So, here we have a great example of being wise as a snake, as a counter move to the snake’s temptation.

Yet, was it right for Paul to remain silent? Is silence an innocent action before God? Well, this falls into the realm of Christian ethics. You may remember the basic lesson, in ethics, last week that an ethical dilemma occurs when two values collide, and that the first question of ethics is, “What is the will of God?” Now, the odd thing about this situation is that Paul’s dilemma was to choose to withhold information, which was, seemingly, counter to his own self-interests. At first glance, it doesn’t seem a dilemma.

Let’s look at it. There are a few dynamics here that I’ll touch on to demonstrate the complexity of what he had to figure out under very stressful circumstances.

First off, there is one big value that is in competition with a few others in this matter. This big value is self-giving love (which we looked at earlier). In Paul’s case, this would include obedience to the Lord’s command (who sent him)—see also . It would also include glorifying the Lord’s name (it was in Jesus’ name he cast out the demon); proclaiming the gospel even at great personal sacrifice (his mission from God); upholding the truth and God’s word; and loving and ministering to the church, which would include protecting the church, even at the risk of his life. Satan’s goal, of course, was to sabotage this value of self-giving love, and hence, God’s mission and name.

Colliding with this big value (self-giving love) are at least three other values: 1) self-preservation; 2) legal rights; and 3) transparent honesty.

You can see how this is far more complicated than a surface reading allows. We don’t have time to really dig into this, so I’ll be brief. First, self-preservation is not a bad thing. In fact, tending to our self-interests, which includes self-preservation, is a good thing, easily proved in Scripture. Ecclesiastes 3:24, for example:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.

Indeed, God puts the desire to avoid suffering, pain, and death into us. It’s necessary for the survival of humankind, and all that comes from our survival—good and bad. Tapping into that reality, self-preservation is written into Jesus’ call to follow him, as a motive. Consider , which (if you haven’t picked up on by now with my quoting it over and over to you) contains, in my opinion, a, if not the, key to our understanding our call to discipleship.

34 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Written into the call to deny self, take up our cross, and even lose our life to follow Jesus is the benefit of self-preservation in an ultimate sense. But, self-preservation is a secondary consideration to the call to follow Jesus. It is a benefit of answering the call.

And, please note, just because there is an eventual benefit from an action does not mean that such an action is selfish. Receiving a benefit from a selfless action does not make that action selfish. It is when self-interest slips into being selfishness that it falls counter to God’s will of unselfish love.

In Paul’s case, here, the pursuit of self-preservation (by yelling out he was a Roman citizen) would have slid over into the selfish category, voiding it as a valid reason for speaking out, considering the harm it would have brought to the Lord’s name, the gospel, the church, and his God-given mission.

It would have been morally and ethically wrong. This ethical rationale follows in the dilemma of whether to insist on his rights. Legal rights are a good thing. But when wielded selfishly, they fall outside of the purview of righteousness. We see this laid out quite clearly in the selfishness of a woman claiming her right to her own body in order to murder a child by abortion. If Paul had claimed his rights, it might very well have been like an abortion of the church in Philippi. What we learn from this is that, at times, abdicating our legal rights upholds love towards God and neighbor.

More perplexing might be whether Paul’s remaining silent violated truthfulness. Did he not have an obligation to be honestly transparent? Was withholding information deceit, even lying?

In the area of truthfulness, when it comes to Christian ethics, there are many trails we can follow. You might think that transparent honesty (straightforward truthfulness where it comes to the facts of a matter) would always harmonize with self-giving love. Yet, that is not the case, according to the Bible. There are many reasons why, which I can’t get into today, reasons for why we are not always obligated to tell the truth (consider the midwives in , Rahab in & 6:25, and the Lord’s guidance to Samuel in , for example).

Blessedly, in this situation, the Lord makes it simple for us to understand. We know from Jesus’ own example that we have a moral right before God to remain silent. What do the Scriptures say? : “So he [Herod] questioned him at some length, but he [Jesus] made no answer.” See also on Jesus’ silence before Pilate. Jesus did not answer false accusations; he did not try to defend himself for his own interests; he did not try to demand his rights; he said nothing, in these cases. His silence also led to his being tortured and crucified. Don’t you know he could have avoided these things? Yet, in self-giving love, he remained silent so that he would die for his people, so that we might be saved, so that we might benefit eternally, and for God’s glory. It was the ultimate example of love.

Jesus’ remaining silent vindicated the right, giving divine approval to the right to remain silent in cases just like what Paul and Silas found themselves. They were innocent as doves.

So, we learn, like Dr. David Jones, my ethics professor at Covenant Seminary, once wrote,

The obligation to communicate what we know is true is not absolute. Confidentiality and secrecy are biblical values that are justly guarded by silence. The biblical demand for truthfulness does not mean that everyone has a right to know what we know. [9]

Sometimes, people, even the highest authorities, do not deserve the facts. And sometimes silence is the best answer, even if it is counter to your self-interests.

Thus, Paul and Silas remained silent, and they suffered for it—suffered in order to win. Verses 22-24:

22 The crowd joined in attacking them,
[the mob was screaming for blood, maybe throwing things]

and the magistrates tore the garments off them
[they stripped them naked before the crowd, humiliating them]

and gave orders to beat them with rods.
[a punishment that would have left them bloody, torn, and broken]

23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely.
[introducing our next key character in the story]

24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison
[a dark, miserable place reserved for the worst of criminals]

and fastened their feet in the stocks
[a punishment that would have kept them locked in place on the filthy floor, hardly able to move, except to lie back on the floor on their torn, bloody, and pain-filled backs].

It’s a dismayingly brutal and grisly picture. There is no justice in it. Yet, sometimes it is necessary to unjustly suffer in order to win the battle against evil (; ). Jesus is the ultimate example of this (). In , Paul and Silas follow in Jesus’ footsteps in denial of self, for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom. What an expression of self-giving love—the highest value.

The enemy would use suffering to deter our faithfulness—an intimidation tactic. Yet, the Lord works through suffering to bring victory and good—.

What is your primary value? Is it self-giving love—of God—of neighbor? Does your life illustrate what self-giving love is? Are you willing to suffer for the glory of the Lord, for the church, and for the sake of the gospel?

My friends, let us follow Jesus according to his lived out moral ethics of self-denial and self-giving love. Let us do it for his glory. Sometimes that means we remain silent, and sometimes it means suffering. It is in such things that we find the path to victory, the win, in the battle against the evil spiritual powers that assail us. Because victory is in Jesus, Christians must persevere in enduring faithfulness to his will.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem with Pain (New York; Macmillan, 1962), 152-153.

[2] James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 64.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), 23.

[6] Rachels, 71.

[7] Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2481.

[8] Ibid., 2480.

[9] David C. Jones, Biblical Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 145-146.