As I sit to write these few words about today’s reading in Acts 23, I have had the occasion over the past 24 hours to have two conversations with young adults about the big issues of life. One of them was troubled about events and circumstances of life that are happening that are not pleasant at all, while the other was troubled that important life events were not happening, leading to a wonderment about what God was doing and why it was taking so long for the next chapter to develop.
Life in this world, even when faithfully running the Life Race of the committed follower of Christ, is not always fair and free of pain, difficulty, complication and confusion. Not for Paul, not for us. Here Paul was doing good stuff – bringing the offering to Jerusalem that would speak to the unity of Jew and Gentile in Christ – and he ends up as the focus of a riot he did not create, thus being jailed by the Romans under the pretext of serious accusations to come from the Jews. What is fair about this?
But we can be sure that in all of life’s circumstances there is an over-arching plan of God that is being executed – most often out of sight and beyond our awareness. It is a bigger plan, and often it is something we do not fully understand until long after it is over and we can look back at what has transpired.
God’s larger plan for Paul is revealed to the Apostle …
Acts 23:11 – The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
There is the big plan. God is going to get Paul to Rome and in front of an unusual number of prominent people and others who need to hear the gospel. Looking ahead some years later after Paul has been in Rome for an extended time, even in difficult circumstances of varied levels of confinement, he is able to positively say to the Philippians (1:12-14) …
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Look again at the statement of God to Paul in verse 11, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Paul’s unpleasant circumstances of gangs threatening to kill him, being beaten, and thrown into prisons … these events had nothing to do with Paul’s character or actions, but rather it related to a larger plan of God to use Paul in a bigger way. And so, not every bad event that arrives on our doorsteps has necessarily something to do with errant behavior on our part; it may rather be God’s sovereign intervention in our lives that finds its outworking in convoluted and circuitous paths – even some we don’t appreciate … some that seem like we are lost and alone in the dark. Take heart; be faithful; serve God; trust him for clarity another day.
The remainder of chapter 23 is quite a story of a plot to kill Paul that involved 40 men and a conspiracy with the Sanhedrin. In God’s sovereign plan, the plot comes to the ears of the commander – Lysias – who puts together a contingent of 470 soldiers and horsemen to usher Paul quickly out of town by dark of night. Over two days of travel they take him safely to Caesarea, about 75 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, where he will await hearings and examination under Roman authority. God’s plan to care for Paul is evident in all of this. And for Paul … for us … there is no safer place to be than in the midst of God’s plan for us, even if it doesn’t always make sense, even if it is uncomfortable.
The Plot to Kill Paul
Acts 23:12 – The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They went to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”
16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.
17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him to the commander.
The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”
19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”
20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”
22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”
Paul Transferred to Caesarea
Acts 23:23 – Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”
25 He wrote a letter as follows:
26 Claudius Lysias,
To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings.
27 This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. 30 When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.
31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.