Checkmate (Part III) – Acts 16:25-28

by Roger McCay
5 July 2020
Scripture Passage: Acts 16:25-28
Link to Audio Version

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”[1]

By this thought, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet, seems to attempt framing a perspective on how to find peace with our enemies, which touches on the question of “How do we love our enemies?” Longfellow gives a nice sentiment. But, who among us can read the secret history of our enemies? Why does he assume our enemies have experienced sorrow and suffering? Why is it sorrow and suffering and not something else? How is hostility disarmed by a pity derived from our own imagination? Why is it wise to disarm hostility based on notions that are not based in reality? What proof does he have that his statement is in any way true? Who is the “we” he is referring to? And, who are our enemies? I could go on, and it was hard to shut my brain off on this line of thought, which may have been the point of Longfellow’s statement, after all.[2] As it is, Longfellow presents a nice sentiment, but it’s artificially perfumed wind.

Still, the dilemma he addresses is real enough. It’s hard to love our enemies. Nonetheless, Jesus unequivocally tells us, his disciples, to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-44). Although loving our enemies can be hard, it can be done, and not by entertaining nice romantic thoughts that find no purchase in the real. Loving our enemies is done by invoking the value of self-giving love through action in concrete circumstances framed with a Biblical perspective on reality that incorporates both seen and unseen realities. Did you get that? [repeat]

First off, with whom do we actually struggle? In Eph. 6:11-12, Paul tells us that the reason we need to don the full armor of God is in order “to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” R.C. Sproul explains: “In the heavenly spheres there are evil powers that have evil influence mediated through powers and principalities, which are earthly governments.” [3] He goes on to say that the people of God’s struggle is, therefore, “not just against people but against governments that have been or can be demonized; that standing behind worldly forces and authorities are supernatural powers that for the most part remain invisible to us.”[4]

Concerning the enemy, notice Sproul said our struggle is “not just against people.” That we struggle against people is obvious, but we have to keep in mind the larger picture of the spiritual warfare that’s going on in the midst of the struggle. Along these lines, Paul gives us a realistic perspective concerning people with whom we might struggle, along with some tasks, in 2 Tim. 2:24-26. If you think about it, this passage aptly captures a lot of what happens in the next few verses of Acts 16. 2 Tim. 2:24-26:

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Like demonized governments, people can be held in sway by demons and led to do the will of demons, as demons lead them along according to their sin. They are trapped and used by evil to evil ends, according to the sin in their own hearts. Here we have a picture of our enemy—demonic forces working in and through governments and authorities at all levels, and individuals caught up in the evil one’s trap with demonic forces using them according to the devil’s will. Arrayed against us are Satan’s minions—both demonic and human.

And lest that overwhelm you, remember that there are also “agents of God for good that are involved in nations and governments” (as Sproul puts it).[5] Don’t forget that (2 Kings 6). These agents of God are also not just people but angelic forces (e.g. the archangel Michael in Dan. 12:1). In the case of the jailer of our passage, well, he starts out in the enemy’s camp and ends up in God’s camp before this is all done.

Over the past few weeks we’ve studied Paul’s strategic moves, as he, with Silas, battled the enemy in Philippi, and we’ve learned more of what it means to be “wise as a snake and innocent as a dove.” The enemy used his minions to great effect—the slave girl possessed by a spirit of Python, the slave owners, and the magistrates. Paul and Silas ended up being unjustly accused before the magistrates and the people of Philippi. Paul could have spoken out, declaring their Roman citizenship. Yet, in an act of self-giving love, he remained silent. In his silence, he and Silas were unjustly punished. At the magistrates command, the lictors stripped them naked before the crowds and beat them bloody with rods. Following that, the jailer then cast the missionaries into the inner prison and locked them in stocks. And that is where we left them last week.

In our passage today, Paul and Silas make two more moves in this strategic battle, and God himself makes the pivotal move. These moves illustrate how loving our enemies takes place in the context of prayer, worship, ethical obedience, and self-giving love, all in harmony with our Lord’s own movements.

Verse 25:

25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”

Here we have the fourth strategic move in the battle after Paul cast out the demon from the girl. It’s an audacious move, considering what they’d been through. It also fits and helps define the whole counter-cultural bent of the battle. James Boice, perhaps cynically, puts it this way:

If they were like many normal Christians, they would have said, “We should never have started out on this journey. It is just too hard to bring the gospel to Europe.” If they had been more theological, they might have said, “I suppose these people are just not among the elect. As soon as we can, we had better get out of here and go somewhere God is going to bless.” If they were like many of our contemporaries, they would have said, “God wants us to be happy, and we’re not happy here sitting in these stocks. Let’s find a place where we can be happy.” [6]

No, they didn’t do any of that. Rather, they prayed and sang praises to God, as witnesses for the Lord to all those imprisoned there with them. Perhaps in their minds the words of the Psalmist came to bear:

61 Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law. 62 At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” (Psalm 119:61-62)

Certainly, their actions were those of warriors of God, fully armored in God’s armor, fully armed with the Sword of the Spirit, standing strong in God’s power, battling the enemy in prayer. Eph. 6:18 – “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

Prayer was appropriate for many reasons, and in this case was a sound fighting strategy. The Lord had sent Paul and Silas to do his will. They were doing that in a faithfully wise and persevering manner. Thus, they likely prayed for his will to be done; to bolster them in their faith and action; for the church and converts in Philippi, for the slave girl, the prisoners all around them, and even for their enemies—the slave owners, the magistrates, the people of Philippi who cheered on their beating, and the jailer who imprisoned them. They prayed these things glorifying the Lord, bathing all their petitions in the promise and hope of Christ and his Kingdom. I imagine it was quite a witness for those there with them, who listened intently.

Even more, they sang to the glory of the Lord. It was a midnight worship service of music and prayer. They rejoiced in their sufferings, knowing that in suffering they shared in the sufferings of Christ for his glory and for their edification. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).

Their praying and singing demonstrated their solid grasp on the unseen realities, which is the enemy and his minions versus the all-powerful Creator God, the Lord (who never loses a battle), and the Lord’s servants (who are blessed by the Lord’s ultimate victory in Jesus and his ever present working in the world of all things towards the good of his people).

Verse 26:

26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.

This verse hearkens back to the Lord’s response to the prayers of the church in Acts 4:31 and the release of Peter in Acts 12:6-11. Here, the Lord, through an earthquake, blew the doors of the prison open, unfastened everyone’s chains, broke the stocks, and yet, the roof stayed in place. It was a targeted earthquake, so to speak.

The Lord heard and answered their prayers. He vindicated their faithfulness, the veracity of their message, and their status as God’s servants with a visible and tangible engagement in this spiritual battle. He had providentially been involved all along; he had clothed his servants in his Armor; and, in this case, he chose to put his unmistakable stamp upon the events. Hence, as the move was the Lord’s, it is an element of Move Prime, as a part of the whole work of the Lord.

Clearly, Paul and Silas understood what the Lord had done, but it’s interesting how the other prisoners would have seen these things. In their culture (similarly to the Jews), earthquakes, sometimes, were tied to theophanies—a visible manifestation of a god or gods. They knew Paul and Silas were holy men—perhaps considering them sages. Paul and Silas’ actions would have been consistent with the expected actions of various philosophers, like the Stoics, for example. The prisoners had heard the prayers and singing. Perhaps they even knew all about the situation with the slave girl, etc. So, with some idea of the prisoner’s perspective and how they may have viewed Paul and Silas, we have a little insight into their actions in what happens next.

Verses 27-28:

27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

Once more, with this next move by the missionaries, we have their response to even more ethical dilemmas. They face a couple of ethical choices: 1) escape or not; and 2) call out to save the jailer’s life or not.

So, why not run for the hills? Well, considering their circumstances, and if they were physically able to run, escaping would have made things worse for themselves and the church, as they’d now be fugitives from the law (despite being unjustly accused and punished in the first place). It would have defeated the whole point of being silent that we looked at last week. It would have destroyed the good work for the Lord they had done in Philippi, perhaps even ending their missionary journey, perhaps even marring the Lord’s name.

Furthermore, there is the jailer. Not escaping had the same effect as calling out to save the jailer’s life. Roman law would have probably seen him executed for it. Well, why does that matter? Why stay and also call out in order to save the jailer’s life? The bottom line is that if they had just let the jailer be killed (due to their action of escape) or let him kill himself (due to inaction) they would have violated the value self-giving love. Either action would have brought disaster upon the jailer. Jesus said love our enemies. What else could they do? God’s will was clear.

“Yet the Lord opened the doors,” you might say. “He cast off their chains. Why not, like Peter, high tail it out of there? Weren’t Peter’s guards executed when he escaped?” Yes, they were (Acts 12:19). However, Peter’s circumstance were different. Peter’s action did not set a norm for universal principles. Every ethical action is made within concrete historical circumstances. Paul and Silas’ action was made in a historical situation unique unto itself, in which they applied the commands of Christ accordingly. It is as Bonhoeffer wrote in his Ethics, “The nature of all concrete responsible action is to grasp in what is real the love of God with which the real, the world, was loved and then from God’s love to find the way of dealing with reality.” [7] They did just that. They showed love, in concrete responsible action, to their enemy, the jailer. Thus, we see the wise and innocent action before God in the circumstances in which these missionaries found themselves, and to which they boldly and bravely committed themselves, come what may.

Furthermore, sometimes doors the Lord opens before us are not meant for us to go through, but for us to help or allow others through. Much like Chrysostom said, “For whom did that event happen at midnight? And for whom was it accompanied by an earthquake? Listen to God’s dispensation and be filled with wonder! The chains were loosed and the doors opened. But this event happened for the jailer alone.” [8]

What about the other prisoners? How’d they get them to stay? It seems likely, with all they had heard and experienced that remarkable night, the prisoners figured it best to listen to Paul. His God had spoken, after all. They may have been terrified of Paul and Silas. They were in awe of them, at least. Or, it may be that they were just too weak to run. We’re not told.

As a retired soldier and a veteran of three deployments (one as an artilleryman and two as a chaplain), I have to say, that, while at war, one of the more difficult commands of the Lord to wrap my head around was “How do I love my enemies—these enemies in particular? They’re so horrible and full of hatred. They’ve killed and maimed so many of my brothers and sisters … How can I love them when they’ve given no reason to do anything but despise them?”

Well … it’s not through imagining their “sorrow and suffering” growing up, or whatever.

It’s not that you stop fighting them in a just war (another ethical topic). But love for our enemies can be found in the law of war, for a start, concerning engagements and dealing with prisoners of war—the mercy that can be displayed in such actions. It’s found in not going too far in destruction. It’s found in not targeting civilian noncombatant enemies. It’s particularly found in circumstances—dealing with the enemy in specific situations that you can’t predict. It’s an “in the moment” thing. It’s not abdicating justice, but it’s mercy in the midst of justice. It’s found in action – self-giving love – not warm feel-good emotions, but a will to righteousness. It’s resisting the urge to kill them all, destroy everything, and salt their fields, leaving a wasteland. It’s a matter of “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). It’s a matter of praying for your enemy (Luke 6:27-28).

Back home, well … The riots and violence we’re seeing these days across the country (last night was apparently pretty bad, too [4 July 2020]). People with political positions that just seem evil, particularly the ones that seek to destroy our way of life; and the positions that are demonstrably evil, like the murder of the innocent unborn. People enslaved to the culture, parroting whatever ephemeral thing the culture is doing, calling good evil and evil good, engaging in cancel culture, spewing hatred. People attacking people across all forms of media and in real life, destroying people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s hard to see how such hateful and violent people would not be considered enemies: especially if your culture, your heritage, your race, and your religion (among other things) are under attack; and especially if you become singled out as one of their targets of hatred. They make themselves enemies. Yet, Jesus says to love them.

Consider that couple that made national news defending themselves and their home in St. Louis just the other day….

Well, down here, we live in a gun-filled world. Most everybody around here has guns – even lots of guns. There’s talk out there about how people have their guns and aren’t afraid to use them on people who might come here looking to destroy and loot…. Okay, an understandable sentiment. However, we live in a land of law and order (which still stands true here in our town, at least), law and order put in place and secured by authorities instituted by God (Rom. 13:1-4). As we live in a land of law and order, if it comes down to it, don’t fight the people who would destroy that law and order by violating law and order.

Know the laws when it comes to firearm possession and use, and keep to them. Let the police and sheriff do their jobs (Rom. 13:4). They have the authority, authority given to them by God, to handle situations in ways that civilians do not. We, of course, have the legal and moral right to self-defense and the defense of others (Ex. 22:2-3; Neh. 4:14; Luke 22:36-38). In our state, we have castle doctrine. We can stand our ground. Yet, even in potential life-threatening situations, a way to love your enemies may present itself—even if it’s simply allowing them to fall back or retreat.

Whatever form conflict takes (whether in verbal battles in person or in social media, or even life or death battles against armed mobs), self-giving love (in the form of loving our enemies) does not equal hating the people who would seek to harm us—those who would make themselves to be enemies. Such hatred stirs up emotions towards rash action, putting us against the Lord’s command, and can lead to disaster. Loving your enemy means praying for them and seeking what is best for them, according to the Lord’s will—very much like what I mentioned of my thoughts on how to love human enemies while at war. And also, very much like what we see going on with Paul and Silas here in Acts 16:25-28.

In seeking what is best for all, including our enemies, we have a sure and true answer. What’s best for all is a who—Jesus. Which is where we will pick up on next week, (Lord willing), when the jailer, seeing the self-giving love of Paul and Silas, asks, “What must I do to be saved?”

Now, I know many of us regularly pray for revival in our country. I know this for a fact, as I’ve prayed with many of you. We pray for national revival—people all over coming to know Jesus as their Lord and their Savior. What if a key way for the revival to happen is for us to be obedient to the Lord and love our enemies? It’s not really a “what if,” though. It’s an imperative action. If you want revival, love your enemies.

Satan’s goal is to keep those he has enslaved as our enemies. Our goal is to seek to make enemies into brothers and sisters in the Lord, and according to the Lord’s will to his glory. Let us love our enemies. Because victory is in Jesus, Christians must persevere in enduring faithfulness to his will.


[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Outre-mer and Drift-wood (New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1886), 405.

[2] Longfellow’s statement immediately before the one quoted here states: “Every great poem is in itself limited by necessity, — but in its suggestions unlimited and infinite.” Ibid.

[3] R.C. Sproul, Unseen Realities (Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017), 107.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 281.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Ilse Tödt et al., trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, vol. 6, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 233.

[8] Francis Martin and Evan Smith, eds., Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 207, citing Chrysostom, Catena on the Acts of the Apostles, 16.25.