The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks ( Acts 16:22–24; ESV).
…But Paul said to them, “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.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed (Acts 16:37–40; ESV).
These verses seem especially relevant right now. Our pastor is preaching through Philippians. That pushed me to remind myself of the planting of the church in Philippi (more about that in another essay) and the episodes surrounding it. These verses are particularly interesting in light of the new round of mask mandates going into effect again as the delta variant of Covid-19 surges across the US.
One of the first responses one sees and hears from American Christians is the assertion of their civil rights. To be sure, we live in a twofold kingdom (Calvin), and in the secular sphere of that kingdom American citizens do have certain “unalienable rights,” as we say in the Declaration of Independence. Those rights are protected by the constitution of the United States.
As a Roman citizen the Apostle Paul also had civil rights. They were clearly spelled out in Roman law. The punishment for violating those rights and for violating Roman law were severe. We know that the civil authorities in Philippi feared what might happen as soon as the Apostle Paul declared his citizenship and asserted his rights. The behavior and tone of the authorities changed dramatically. They knew immediately that they had violated the civil rights of a Roman citizen and were in grave jeopardy. Where they had just beaten him now they could not have been more solicitous. They apologized and begged him to leave.
Paul had them over a barrel. We know that he did not depart right away. Not only had he baptized the Philippian Jailer but he had baptized “all his” (καὶ ⸄οἱ αὐτοῦ πάντες: Acts 16:33), i.e., his household as he had done for Lydia and her whole household ( καὶ ⸆ ὁ οἶκος αὐτῆς; Acts 16:15). So, he stopped to fellowship and pray with and say goodbye to Lydia “and the brothers” (Acts 16:39) before leaving for Thessalonica.
What is remarkable about this episode is the way Paul voluntarily and deliberately allowed the Roman authorities to abuse him physically by beating him and then by jailing him in what was the equivalent of a high-security facility (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, 2.375). The beating he received was, as the ESV says, was with a wooden rod. This was the “punishment known formally in Lat. legal terminology as admonitio (BAGD, s.v. ῥαβδίζω). Clinton Arnold notes a passage Cicero where a man who was thus beaten during such an admonitio to death (ibid., 2.375). Arnold says, “[i]t is curious why Paul and Silas do not invoke their Roman citizenship at this point to avoid this painful and degrading punishment” (ibid., 2.376). There is a way to explain it: Paul prioritized his mission to Philippi over his Roman civil rights.
Paul knew what they were going to do to him and Silas and he let them do it. He could have stopped it with four words: We are Roman citizens. He did not. Here is a place where American evangelicals (and particularly Pentecostals and Charismatics, who fancy that they have apostolic power and authority) should seek to imitate the Apostle Paul. The new mask mandates rolling out are onerous and dubious. I have no brief for them as medical measures. The “experts” give conflicting testimony as to their value. That is not the point. The point here is that we who have a dual citizenship (and all Christians do have a dual citizenship—Paul wrote to the Philippian church: “But our citizenship is in heaven”) ought to prioritize our citizenship in the Kingdom of God over our citizenship in the kingdom of man.
Both spheres of God’s Kingdom are real but both are not equally ultimate. The Kingdom of God is eternal. The Roman Empire has been effectively gone for most of 1600 years. Jesus still reigns. To have a citizen in the Kingdom of heaven is to have an everlasting citizenship. Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. Were my kingdom of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I should not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Paul was imitating Jesus, who allowed the Jewish authorities to try him and and the Roman authorities to beat and murder him for the sake of his mission. The Apostle Paul would eventually be martyred for the sake of the mission: to announce the law and the gospel everywhere and to call all humans to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
You and I are not the Apostle Paul but we can learn something from this episode. A piece of cloth or even blue paper is hardly equivalent to being beaten with wooden rods, being shackled and jailed but when we are asked by civil authorities to cover our faces in the interests of public health should we not ask ourselves how the pagans hear our objections to masks in public places? This is not a plea to withdraw from public life. Christians are citizens and they do still have a right to petition the government for redress. They have a right and even a duty to make reasoned, gracious, calm arguments in the public square. Perhaps you have seen the videos of the parents testifying before school boards objecting to masks or the videos of citizens of San Diego County testifying before the Board of Supervisors against mask mandates. Clearly some of those have not been well served by the legalization of marijuana in San Diego. The intemperance of other speakers has discredited their cause. When we publicly identify ourselves as Christians and then abuse Scripture (here I am thinking of the poor woman who proudly announced that she was not a sheep but a goat) in order to resist mask mandates we do no service to the Kingdom of God.
After they had been beaten and jailed, the Apostle and Silas were “praying a psalm with respect to God” (προσευχόμενοι ὕμνουν τὸν θεόν; Acts 16:25—we should not substitute our modern idea of “hymn” here, as most English translations do, since it is almost certainly a psalm since “hymns” designates a type of Psalm in the LXX). They were giving witness to Christ to the other prisoners. Luke mentions that the prisoners heard them. Paul and Silas were letting them know that they had been jailed for the sake of Christ and that they were innocent but had voluntarily suffered for Christ’s sake.
Christian, before you give vent to your outrage about the infringement of your civil rights over being asked to wear a mask, give a thought about Paul and Silas, who permitted themselves to be beaten and jailed unjustly for the sake of Christ, his gospel, and his Kingdom. Fulfill your duties wisely and graciously in God’s twofold kingdom but remember to keep the two spheres in their proper order.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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