The Living And Laboring Lord
1. What we are being given in today's worship service is a passage that is set in an important direction looking at the concluding section of the Acts of the Apostles. Here Paul begins to trek on in his first steps to Rome. But, this was not accomplished according to a normal person's planning and implementation. While as a lone prisoner whose life was being plotted against by the Jews and as Paul was guarded by a Roman escort, he was first sent to Caesarea. Well, what in the world does the entire event recorded here mean? As we reflect on this matter, I would like to read with you the scriptural passage for today.
The Enthusiasm Of The Man And The Life-Risking Plan
2. Please look from verse twelve to verse fifteen. "As dawn came, the Jews formed a conspiracy and made a vow that they will not eat or drink until killing Paul. The total number of persons in this vow were even more than forty men. They went to the chief priests and elders and said this: 'We have solemnly sworn that we will not eat or drink a thing until killing Paul. Therefore, please go out now to ask the commander assembled with the Sanhedrin* to bring Paul to you under the pretext of seeking more details about him. We have put together a plan to kill him before he gets here.'"
3. The talking about the plot to make Paul a dead man does not just begin here. When Paul decided to sail out from Greece to Syria already on his final stage of his third missionary journey, it is written in 20:3 that "As the Jews had a plot against Paul, he made his return via Macedonia." However, the new element which appears in today's passage is that they risked their lives. They took a vow not to eat or drink until killing Paul. So, this included over forty Jews. This was not just simply a refusal to eat or drink, we are informed from later words from them that their plans were even to risk their own lives. What they planned was to have Paul, who was confined to the garrison, summoned to the high court and then killed while being transferred. Paul surely wasn't to come walking alone. Naturally he would be escorted by Roman soldiers. With a sufficient awareness of that fact they had decided to attack Paul. It was obvious that the results of that would not be on Paul alone but it would be a terrible disaster to befall the lives of the group they themselves were in. They had decided to pull off those very plans.
4. Here we get a glimpse at one form of religious fanaticism. However, the expression "fanaticism" stems from the perspective of the readership of the Acts of the Apostles. They themselves were not feeling like that about their actions. For them it was nothing but an enthusiasm for God, a genuine show of personal righteousness, a sincerity in risking one's life for the assembly to which one belonged. I'm not sure if "the Jews" written about here were a fanatical body that had been organized long before. Perhaps it may not have been that way at all. Either way, the pledge to risk one's life like this was not coming out of the mouths of the men all in one voice. Usually such a thing begins with one person. There is a person who announces, "I will risk my life." Then people join in saying, "I will also." Usually it takes that type of form.
5. Next, the organized authorities themselves join in. Cooperation from the chief priests and elders is sought after. We understand from what is written later that their request was completely accepted. In verse twenty it is written that "The Jews, under the pretext of getting more details on Paul's case, have decided to apply to you to bring Paul tomorrow to the high court." The high level voting and decision making body of the Jews had already handed down a decision and begun to work. We shouldn't naively think they agreed to this on the basis of their hatred for Paul. It may turn out to be a horrible incident of awful bloodshed, and if the connection of the assassins and the high court's plotting together is detected it may reach as far as the Roman empire and the entire Jewish system. However, they joined in. This is what has been written about in this passage.
6. Sometimes people measure if a deed is right or not based on whether that person is going at it with all his might and strength, or if he is sincere, or if he is "risking life and limb." However, enthusiasm motivates people to some extent whether it is right or not. We also sometimes operate with similar values. Yes, rather unexpectedly even Christians easily operate under these types of values. We sometimes end up giving our approval to some deed just because it looks good at first appearance and somebody does it with enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of a person to risk his life inspires others, and this includes persons who have high authority in society, and with this backup from the authorities is added. In this way, the every day realities of society operate. To go even further, that's exactly how the world operates. This is more or less the thought in everybody's mind, isn't it? But, is such thinking really accurate? What will Luke say regarding this point through his development of the story here?
The One Who Holds The Past, The Present, And The Future
7. He is completely powerless as compared to the authority of the Jewish institutions which largely operate under the previously described method, and Paul is there before them no longer able to do anything to preserve himself or to head for Rome. Even help, which is very near by and which one might expect, does not come to him. That is, the church in Jerusalem doesn't seem to move at all on his behalf. What remains with him is only the message that the Lord gave to Paul the prisoner-- "Take courage. In the way you testified boldly of me in Jerusalem you must testify also at Rome," (23:11).
8. How did things proceed from there? Please look from verse sixteen on. "So, the son of Paul's sister heard this conspiracy, came into the garrison, and informed Paul. With that, Paul called one of the centurions. 'Please take this young man to the regimental commander because he has something to report.' Whereupon, the centurion brought the youth to the commander and said thusly, 'The prisoner Paul called me and requested that I bring this youth to you because he has something he wants to tell you.' The commander led the youth to a place where no one else was and inquired, 'What is it you want to report?' The youth said, 'The Jews have decided to apply to you to have Paul brought to the Sanhehrin tomorrow under the pretext of seeking more details about Paul's case. Please do not concede to them. Among them more than forty men have vowed not to eat or drink until killing Paul, and they have devised a plot. So, now they have set up that plan and await for your consent.' Thereupon, the commander ordered, "Don't tell any one that you have informed me of this matter.' He made the youth go back," (verses 16-22).
9. We know almost nothing about Paul's family. Here his nephew comes on the scene. And, he tells that he heard a plan conspired by the Jews. But, it is unlikely that the rumor of the plot had come into his hearing because he knew the plan in minute detail. I can't imagine their simply leaking out the details of this plan which was for the Jews what you could call a life-risking once-for-all battle plan. If that's so, we think this nephew could be part of the inner circle rather than be speaking as an outsider to the Jewish plan. Actually, it is possible to translate that section in verse sixteen as "while he was there he heard." Again, if we think of Paul as originally raised in a home of strict Judaism, we could see quite readily how the nephew, who is his relative, was after all an enthusiastic adherent of Judaism as well. At least we don't think he was a sympathizer of Paul's from the start. We feel he had not at that current moment in time been a Christian in public.
10. The nephew helped Paul. For us the relationship seems natural; but, we should not read this automatically in the original situation. When a Jew became a Christian, the enemy most feared was often one's relatives. But, Paul was saved by such a relative. The Lord long ago had prepared his assistance outside the church. In a certain sense, he prepared allies from among enemies. The risen Christ, who said "Take courage," was truly at work on the outside of the walls surrounding Paul who was locked up tight under arrest. In a time when he couldn't do anything for himself to preserve his own skin, the providence of the Lord had long ago begun beyond all sorts of possibilities imaginable.
11. So, there wasn't just his nephew. The ones used to preserve Paul were complete outsiders, Roman soldiers who were Gentiles. That is the point Luke is emphasizing here.
12. Please look from verse twenty-three on. "The commander called two centurions and said, 'Prepare two hundred foot soldiers, seventy cavalry men, and two hundred support troops so that you can leave for Caesarea at nine tonight. And, he commanded they prepare the horses, let Paul ride, and convey him safely to the governor-general Felix, and he wrote a letter with the following contents," (vv. 23-25).
13. The one person escort of Paul may seem like overkill. But, this was a natural measure; for, the Roman soldiers knew how Jewish fanaticism has been around for ages and how difficult it was dealing with people who take the sword with a readiness to throw away their lives. Even with that, why did the commander decide to escort Paul to Caesarea on the same day? Originally, it was just a story about how he ought not to give in to the demands of the Jews who wanted Paul brought to the high court.
14. We only have conjecture regarding this regimental commander's conduct, but we can surmise from his letter one part of his reasons. Please look from verse twenty-six on. Have you noticed the first section of the letter varies from the facts? Verse twenty-seven is a lie. Paul had Roman citizenship in the Roman empire. But, when the commander first understood that after he tried to torture Paul, he did not actually help Paul out of trouble just because he found out Paul had citizenship . In short, for him the important thing was only the reality of protecting persons with Roman citizenship. Based on what we understand from this situation this commander would get into an imposition himself for whatever happened to Paul. No, not just an imposition but great trouble. It if happened that Paul's life simply was snuffed out by the Jews while under Roman military protection it would raise suspicions that this commander had accepted a bribe from the Jews. It would expose his own position and future to crisis. Then, there is one more reason connected to verse twenty-nine. The issue which involves Paul does not even have to do with Roman law. The commander understood it as an issue pertaining to Jewish law. But, problems concerning Jewish law was a big pain that no Roman would want to mess with. So in the end he turned it over to the governor-general. I think this was probably his real motivation.
15. In short, he did not understand Paul's case one single bit, and he had no sympathy for Paul. He did not hand down such a decision because he had considered the legitimacy of what Paul had been talking about. We see here only a political decision of the Gentile for self-preservation, which had no connection at all to God's Word. However, the Lord used even a decision like that Roman man's to further his own plans. Through such an event as this the Lord opened up Paul's future. In the middle of this world where God is not worshipped and Christ is not accepted as Savior, the risen Lord has already been busy at work. Luke was recording this perspective.
16. Furthermore, even the details of the miserable events which happened to Paul recorded up to here have a connection to the event I read you today. That is, we might be able to see them as preparing the way for Paul to go to Rome. In the way it was even in Lysias the commander's letter, for him the important thing was Paul's having Roman citizenship. Paul entered the protective care of the Roman military and his citizenship was known to the commander as a result of Paul's being assaulted by the crowd. He was assaulted by the crowd as a result of his spending time for purification in Jerusalem in compliance with the wishes of the Jerusalem church. What we read here was that during the days Paul was in Jerusalem everything turned out to be against him; but, now all that had happened was revealed as events occuring not outside the providential hand of God. The risen Lord was working even in the miserable realities Paul experienced. Consequently, what Paul ought to do, as the Lord simply said before "Take courage," was to trust in the risen Lord who holds in his providential hand the future belonging to Paul.
17. The Lord is alive. Make no mistake. Human enthusiasm and authority do not determine this world's direction. In this world which seems to operate entirely without a relationship to Christ, the risen Lord is living and laboring. So, the Lord is living in our lives which never proceed according to our own thinking. No one else but the risen Lord holds our future, too. Therefore, whatever situation we may be in, we ought to worship and adore this One as Lord and we ought to live trusting in this One.
End Note: *Sanhedrin means the Jewish high court consisting of seventy elders or judges.