Keeping silent can, at times, be more powerful than speaking. Jesus took that approach with King Herod (Lk 23:8,9) and other authorities (Mk 15:3-5). In the proud Roman colony of Philippi, Paul adopts the same technique with its leaders when accused of damaging the culture (Ac 16:20,21). But after a night of miracles, Paul breaks his silence in order to humble the powerful.
Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned (Ac 16:23) following an upset over a healing (Ac 16: 18). In the amazing night which followed, the jailer and his family were saved (Ac 16:34). Now, in the morning, the authorities release the prisoners (v35). The jailer, no doubt pleased, tells them to go in peace (v36). However, Paul has a surprise: he and Silas are Roman citizens (v37)! Citizens had greater rights in the Roman empire and could not be tried in the brutal way that Paul and Silas were; so this claim is an alarming development for the legal powers, which could bring them trouble (v38). From our point of view, the situation is also funny as Paul accuses them of failing to uphold Roman ways – the very accusation they made against him! But what’s to be done? Paul says he is not leaving quietly: the leaders must escort them from the city! Worried by this situation, they do just that (v39), asking Paul politely to leave so that more trouble does not follow. The apostle, however, goes first to Lydia’s home to encourage the Christians (v40).
The story, then, is straightforward. But it triggers this nagging question for us: why didn’t Paul state his citizenship earlier and save himself a lot of pain and shame (1Th 2:2)? Why stay silent? Well, it might have been that the hubbub of the crowd (Ac 16:22) prevented him getting a word in. But surely at some point he could have spoken up to save himself? So what else might have made him hold his tongue? The answer is probably to look to the example of Jesus (1Co 11:1) who promised help to his apostles, via the Holy Spirit, in circumstances such as these (Mk 13:9-11).
Firstly, we should note how Jesus used silence to control situations. In line with a famous Old Testament proverb, he knew when to deflate ‘fools’ who weren’t really listening to him, by not speaking (Pr 26:4) – as seen in the court rooms he faced before death. In Philippi, Paul may well have realised he could have a bigger impact for the gospel if he only spoke of his citizenship in the cold light of morning. There are times when it is wise for Christians not to rush to our own defence, even in the teeth of slanders and lies. Silence can be more powerful.
Secondly, whilst Jesus knew he could expose sins with his words, he also knew that only his death would actually kill sin and save his people (Is 53:5-8) – so he didn’t fight it. Paul saw his work as involving cross-like moments in which he too had to suffer for the good of Christ’s people (Co 1:24); his actions in Philippi showed that clearly to others. Christians do not relish suffering but neither do we under-value it. God often works great good through our hardest paths.
Thirdly, Jesus spoke of his kingdom as being not of this world and so not requiring the military or legal techniques which worldly empires use (Jo 18:36). Paul’s willingness to forgo his citizen’s rights displayed his deeply held faith in that idea. He would not build a kingdom in the flesh but in the Spirit (Ep 6:10-20). At times, Christians will refuse to be panicked by their needs in this world, sure that in His kingdom God will meet all our needs (Mt 6:31-34) and all will be well.
Fourthly, Jesus trusted his Father completely to bring him to glory, even through suffering (Lk 22:42). Paul would later preach that powerfully to the Philippian Christians (Ph 2:8-11) and his silence in court showed his own humble faith in the Father. Christians can be at peace in hard circumstances, as we trust our Father who has our lives in his hands.
However, one question remains: why did Paul break his silence in the end? Maybe because, like Jesus, having suffered it was now time to show the rulers of this world who the true king is. In doing so, he will have left the city with something to talk about and may have given his Christian friends a little extra protection. Certainly, he could leave feeling that Christ was truly the victor.