Ace in the hole

No, I’m not a poker player (well, not anymore). But I know what it means to have an “ace in the hole.” A “hole card” is one that lies on the table face down. You know what it is, but no one else does (unless you’re just plain terrible at bluffing!) until the final showdown. Your ace in the hole is your secret weapon, the one you use to win the pot — or metaphorically, an argument or debate.

And if Acts 16 is any indication, I wouldn’t want to play poker against the apostle Paul.

As we’ve seen, Paul and Silas were unjustly thrown into prison in Philippi. It was the first time, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Graciously, in keeping with Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, God used the situation to bring salvation to the jailer’s household. Transformed and filled with joy, the jailer tended to Paul and Silas’ injuries, took them into his home, and fed them.

Though Luke doesn’t say, I presume Paul and Silas were still in the jailer’s home the next morning, when the man received word from the magistrates that the two prisoners were to be released. The jailer gave Paul the good news: “You can leave now. Go in peace” (Acts 16:36, CEB).

In all likelihood, the magistrates thought that these two Jewish wanderers, these nobodies, just needed to be taught a lesson and then sent on their way. Surely a good thrashing and a pain-filled night in prison was enough to convince them to leave and never come back. Not even the jailer, now their brother in Christ, thought to challenge this arrogant injustice. He simply bid them to leave in “peace.”

Not real peace, mind you; not biblical peace. Just peace of the please-don’t-rock-the-boat variety.

Paul wasn’t having it. He played his ace in the hole, speaking directly to the officers who had been sent by the magistrates:

Even though we are Roman citizens, they beat us publicly without first finding us guilty of a crime, and they threw us into prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? No way! They themselves will have to come and escort us out.

Acts 16:37

When the magistrates heard the news, they were alarmed. In their rush to pacify the angry crowd the day before, in their blind prejudice against these two Jewish men, it had never even occurred to them to ask if they were Roman citizens. The officials could persecute outsiders with impunity — but not citizens, who were owed a fair trial. To run roughshod over a citizen’s rights was an insult to the empire, and the officials who did so would be punished.

The magistrates were right to be worried. Over a century before, a corrupt Roman official had been brought to trial for routinely and blatantly abusing his power to make himself rich. Such abuses, of course, were common. But at trial, it was revealed that the official had tortured and crucified a Roman citizen. The man had proclaimed his citizenship to the bloody end, but his protest was repeatedly ignored.

The outcome? The official fled Rome before the trial was finished. Later, however, he was found and executed.

The defense attorney had been Cicero. The case was thus well known, serving as a warning to later Roman officials.

We can understand, then, why the magistrates came to “apologize” to Paul personally. That’s how the NRSV translates Luke’s word; the CEB has “console,” while the NIV has “appease.” The point is that the officials knew that Paul had them over a barrel; they had to humble themselves and plead with him to leave the city as quietly as possible.

Readers over the centuries have wondered: why didn’t Paul play his trump card earlier? He could have saved himself and Silas much pain…

Numerous explanations have been advanced. Given the situation Luke described, it’s not clear that Paul would have had the opportunity to object even if he had wanted to.

But Paul was never one to run from suffering, not if he believed it would advance the gospel. He saw himself as following in the footsteps of a crucified Savior; it’s hard to imagine that he would put his privileged status as a Roman citizen first. And if he wondered whether he had made the right call, surely the gospel joy of the Philippian jailer and his household was confirmation enough.

Moreover, Paul’s strategy left him holding the upper hand. From the prison, Paul and Silas went straight to Lydia’s house. Luke tells us that they “encouraged the brothers and sisters” there (Acts 16:40), which suggests that this may have been the beginning of the Philippian church. What Paul had done made him temporarily untouchable, and would make the Philippian officials think twice before bothering believers in the city.

Not bad for a simple play. But as Luke has shown us again and again, one should never bet against God.

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