Why Did Paul Appeal to His Roman Citizenship?

by Doy Moyer

Acts 16 tells us the story of Paul and Silas being arrested and imprisoned in Philippi. They sang praises while bound, others listened, and then an earthquake shaking the foundations set them free. Instead of running, Paul told the jailer, who was about to commit suicide, not to harm himself. We then read of the conversion of the jailer and his family.

Acts 16:35-39 then tells of the chief magistrates sending their police to release Paul and Silas. It’s at this point that Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship: “They beat us in public without a trial, although we are Roman citizens, and threw us in jail. And now are they going to send us away secretly? Certainly not! On the contrary, let them come themselves and escort us out.” Hearing that Paul was a citizen put fear into these officials, “So they came to appease them, and escorting them from prison, they urged them to leave town.

The question is, why did Paul wait until then to appeal to his citizenship? He was already free. Why didn’t he do it earlier? Here are a few thoughts about that.

First, isn’t it interesting that Paul was not using his citizenship for selfish reasons? Had he appealed to it earlier he could have avoided the jail time altogether. But he waited. There must have been a reason for this.

I realize that we cannot give an adamant answer here, but this is something, I believe, worth thinking about. Recall that the jailer had come to them and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Our minds immediately jump to salvation from sin, and this is indeed what was addressed. But there may be more to it.

Is it possible that the jailer was also wondering about being saved from impending judgment from the Romans because he was facing the prospect of losing those under his charge? He was about to kill himself for a reason, and he knew that there is something special about Paul and Silas. He could still lose his life because prisoners were set free, even after he had obeyed the gospel. Could this be avoided?

Here, then, is a suggestion to consider. Paul appealed to his citizenship at that moment, after being set free, not to use it selfishly or mock the officials, but rather to make a point that would force the officials not to punish the jailer. If they themselves had violated the law by what they did to Paul, then they cannot very well punish the jailer for what happened to those under his charge due to an earthquake.

Paul not only was instrumental in saving the jailer from his sins, but he was also saving the jailer’s life and reputation by appealing to his own citizenship and making a point that forced the issue.
Perhaps… just perhaps… while our heavenly citizenship is always most important, our earthly citizenship can be used for the benefit of others rather than for selfish reasons.

Just think about it.

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