MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 27, 2011 FROM ACTS 23:12-35
As we have seen, this final major section in the book of Acts recounting Paul’s conflicts in Jerusalem, has been nothing, if not eventful. We have seen the fulfillment of the prophecy predicting Paul’s imprisonment in Jerusalem. Within a week of Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, Jews familiar with him from his ministry in Ephesus publicly instigate a hostile crowd against him and he is nearly torn to pieces. The Roman tribune in charge rescues him and grants Paul’s request to publicly address these Jews who moments earlier tried to kill him. In the middle of his address, the Jews shout Paul down and in a strange bit of Roman justice, if he hadn’t invoked his Roman citizenship, the Romans would have flogged him. The next day Paul defends himself before the Jewish leadership and the Roman tribune for the purpose of enabling the Romans to discover what he has done to merit such a hostile reception. He barely begins his defense when the high priest orders his lackey to punch Paul in the mouth. Paul manages to escape further injury by raising the issue of the resurrection and thereby, driving a wedge between the Pharisees and the Sadducees on the Jewish council. This meeting also ends in violence and the Romans must again bodily remove Paul from the scene in order to keep him from being ripped apart. Today, as we read earlier, Luke records yet one more attempt to kill Paul that is again thwarted by the Roman officials.
It’s clear as Luke writes this, he wants to reveal the work of the adversary in trying to destroy Paul. Although not all our problems are the result of satanic attack, it’s transparent that’s what is going on here. In the face of this onslaught of satanic opposition coming through the Jews, Luke (even more importantly) wants us to see God’s power to defend his servants against enemy attacks. As we dig into Luke’s account this morning, we hope by God’s grace to again be reminded of the enemy’s evil plans for us and take that as a warning to us to live with more vigilance. The hope is also that God will use this account to increase our confidence in him and his sovereign power over the forces of evil that seek to destroy us.
Luke begins the account with a familiar development in Acts—an evil conspiracy to destroy Paul. This orchestrated plot to kill Paul is nothing new in Acts—it goes back to the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. As we survey Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry, we see the heaviest concentration of the enemy’s attempts on his life here, as he is beginning his ministry to Rome and when he was first saved. We know from the ministry of Jesus that Satan is often most active in the early phases of a ministry. In the case of Jesus, we see this in Revelation 12 where John uses apocalyptic language to describe the dragon “standing before the woman [who we know to be the Virgin Mary] about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” We know these spiritual forces were motivating Herod’s plot to destroy baby Jesus. Likewise, immediately after Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his messianic ministry, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness where he was attacked by Satanic temptation. Like Jesus, Satan hits Paul hard at the very beginning of his walk with God. In Acts chapter nine, soon after his Damascus Road conversion, Luke writes beginning with verse 23, “23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” As they would here in chapter 23 many years later (as he opens a new chapter in ministry,) an earlier generation of Jews plot to kill Paul, only to be frustrated by his daring escape.
Later, when Paul entered Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion—at the beginning of his ministry, we read in Acts 9:29, “29 And he [Paul] spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.” Another plot to kill Paul is discovered and the church hustles Paul out of harm’s way. The next recorded attack of this nature Luke is some 20 years later when, after Jesus calls Paul to a new phase of ministry to Macedonia during his third missionary journey he comes to Greece. Luke records in Acts 20:3, ““3 There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia.” Again, a plot by the Jews is discovered and once again Paul is snatched from the jaws of the evil one. At each major new chapter in Paul’s ministry—his conversion and early ministry—his call to Macedonia and here as he begins his ministry that will ultimately lead him to Rome, the enemy is extraordinarily active.
The point is that in both the ministry of Jesus and Paul we see this spiritual principle: Satan works especially hard to destroy God’s servants and ministries at their conception. That means that when a new believer or church is born, or when a new chapter in the life of a church is beginning—new truth-driven reforms are about to be implemented—when new evangelistic initiatives are put forward—mark it down—expect exceptionally strong opposition during those seasons. Part of the role of the elders, deacons and the spiritually discerning in a church is to anticipate these attacks and pray for God’s protection over new seasons and ministries in the church. Also, when the sparks begin to fly as the adversary begins to initiate division within the body—the spiritually discerning must expose what is happening there. “Do you see what is happening here? We mustn’t fight against each other—the issue here is not the new carpet or the new constitution or ministry initiative—that is what Satan wants us to get hung up on. Of course we must discuss those issues and calmly, Biblically seek out the truth. But the underlying issue here is that we are under attack. Why are we tearing into one another when we should be fighting this battle on our knees in prayer and humbling ourselves before one another? We are playing right into the enemy’s hand—don’t you see that?”
In addition to revealing the timing of Satan’s attacks, Luke even more clearly highlights another crucial truth concerning the enemy. That is: Satan is far more tenacious in his opposition than we would care to imagine. Satan heightens his opposition against Paul as he, constrained by the Spirit, goes to Jerusalem (Acts 20:8) and prepares to move on to Rome where he will speak before Gentile kings. As we have seen, in a period of only a few days, Paul is rescued by the Romans four times from the hands of hostile Jews. They just keep coming at him. There is no letdown--they are relentless in their attempts against Paul’s life.
Most believers would confess that they are not nearly as consistent in their walk with God as they would like. We have times of great joy and blessing, but also times when we get discouraged and slip our spiritual lives into cruise control. A lack of persistence characterizes many believers’ walk with God. Because that is our own experience and the way we too often live out our spiritual lives, it’s natural for us to assume that Satan follows a similar pattern. That is—he attacks us once or twice and then backs off for a season before intermittently coming back at us. That assumptions is not rooted in Scripture and believing that lie can be lethal to us and our testimony. We must always remember that, although we can tragically be spiritually apathetic and indifferent at times, Satan never is.
Peter tells us in First Peter 5:8-9, “8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” Notice that Peter attributes much of the sufferings of the world-wide church to the activity of Satan. Satan prowls after his prey--he seeks to devour it. The verbs are in the present tense which means that he is constantly, continuously, unceasingly prowling after and seeking whom he may devour—a word that literally means to “gulp down.” Peter pictures this attack, not as a boxing match where your opponent gradually punches you into submission. No, this is a sudden, gulping down of his prey that he has so diligently sought out and prowled after. The bottom line is that Satan doesn’t take coffee breaks, vacations or sabbaticals. He is constantly, relentlessly looking for an open door into your life and family. Do we believe this? Do we live like this is true? It is not in him to let you get back up after he has knocked you down—he stays on the offensive. There is no sense of fair play in him. He is not looking to give you a fighting chance, any more than a lion allows a gazelle multiple chances to escape before he pounces. He wants to destroy you as viciously and quickly as he can so that he can move on to other prey while the taste of you is still in his mouth. Peter chooses this powerful prowling lion metaphor to speak of Satan because it is doubtless accurate, but also because he wants us to be alarmed and vigilant. Satan does not view you as a competitor to match wits with—you are lunch. He’s not like a house cat that plays with a mouse or a bird before he finally devours it—his agenda is your sudden destruction and he is relentless in his pursuit of that—never resting as he hunts you down.
Neither does he give up and throw in the towel in those areas of your life where he has tasted defeat before. He keeps all the areas of your soul under surveillance and if he spots a moment of vulnerability, he pounces. Think about David. David was a man after God’s own heart who had written glorious, inspired psalms of prayer and praise—who had radically obeyed God in so many areas of his life. Yet, in a moment of weakness David must have reasoned, “You know—I am weary of battle. I need a break from the horrors of war—I’m taking a year off—God can use Joab just as ably as he can use me to defeat the Philistines.” That was all the opening Satan needed. With that one instance of shirking his kingly duties, David opened himself up for attack. From that point, it was very easy to get David up on the roof at the same time Bathsheba was in her tub. One sinful decision to stay home while others fought the enemies of God was all the opening Satan needed to hang David out to dry and bring countless hardships upon him, his family and Israel for generations to come.
If you give Satan an inch and he will take a mile. In Acts 23, the adversary knew that during this time in a spiritually deceived, openly hostile city like Jerusalem, he would have unusual access to Paul through the Jews. It doubtless took a very small spark to set off the fuel of hatred that had accumulated for Paul in this city that was renowned for killing God’s messengers. Peter’s command to us in light of the relentless and opportunistic character of our enemy is “Be sober-minded; be watchful…” If your enemy is constantly prowling, that means constant vigilance is necessary. Satan is dead serious about this conflict and so Peter says that we likewise are to be “sober-minded.” That is---grave, serious. In an evangelical culture where “You must have fun” is practically elevated to the 11th commandment, Peter’s call to be grave, serious and sober-mindedness sounds like a foreign language. Sober minded people are often in the church thought of as cosmic “kill-joys,” “sticks-in-the-mud.” Peter is not calling us to live without joy—far from it. He is simply reminding us that we are in a real war with real enemies with real destructive power and the presence of very real casualties all around us that gives sad testimony to that fact. Many of the Christian casualties are so busy having fun, they are blind to the fact that they have been hemorrhaging spiritual vitality for years. Peter is simply commanding us to know our spiritual context and live accordingly. Too many believers are taking horrible risks with their spiritual life and health by trying to live as close to the edge of sin as possible without falling in. They forget that as they wander close to the edge of the precipice, someone who hates them and wants to destroy them is standing right behind them. Jesus says that--rather than walk on the edge, the temptation to sin should cause us to rip out our eyes and cut off our hands—whatever it takes to keep us out of danger.
One reason we have labored this point—in addition to the fact that we all need to hear it—is because it makes the second implication of this text all the more glorious. That is: God providentially protects his faithful servants. Providence is not a word you hear much in the church today and its loss has been our loss. Providence is God sovereignly orchestrating the normal circumstances and situations of life in such a way that his purpose is accomplished. There are those rare times when God very clearly and supernaturally intervenes in ways that are overtly magnificent—we call these “miracles.” God’s providence is different. This is God’s ongoing activity to sovereignly accomplish his will through less clearly evident means. We are almost never able to accurately interpret God’s providential activity in our lives while it is happening. It’s only after we reflect on a past season of our lives that we can think, “Now I see that the reason I got that job—that I didn’t even really want to apply for…it was so I could meet so and so who led me to Christ.” That’s God’s providence and Luke describes in this chapter the Lord’s powerful providential activity to protect Paul and accomplish his will in spite of, and even because of these trials.
Let’s re-read this section of this account and as we read it, be on the look-out for God’s providential activity in protecting Paul from this plot to kill him. After the plot is disclosed we read in verse 16, “16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.” 23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.”
Even though there is nothing manifestly miraculous in this account, we see God’s fingerprints all over this. It’s like the book of Esther—where God’s name is never mentioned but he manifests his providence in every detail. This story begins with 40 Jews plotting to kill Paul. They want the Jewish high priest and council to go to the Roman tribune and request that Paul be brought to the Sanhedrin to meet and discuss their charges against him. This would have allowed the Jews to trap Paul in the narrow, isolated streets of Jerusalem where he could have been quickly disposed of by 40 avowed assassins.
The way the story begins does not bode well for Paul. The plan is well thought out and the Jews have Paul in their back yard with 40 potential killers. The odds seemed steeped in their favor. Odds however, are immaterial when God is involved. Speaking from personal experience, Paul says in Romans 8:31, “31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” When God is in the equation, odds are absolutely irrelevant. The odds against anyone in this room being saved are absolutely, utterly hopeless. Apart from the miraculous, resurrecting work of God—no one gets saved. God renders “odds” of no account. Notice God’s providential working to protect Paul in this. In order for Paul to be rescued from this conspiracy at least four things must occur. First, someone sympathetic to Paul must hear about it. Second, this person or persons must report it to someone who has the authority to stop it. Third, the person in authority must take the threat seriously and finally; he must set in motion an intervention of sufficient force to foil the attempt. In order to highlight God’s providence, let’s unpack these four.
First, someone sympathetic to Paul must hear about the conspiracy. This was highly unlikely on many fronts. First, there were only 70 members of the Sanhedrin who knew about this, these 40 Jews and doubtless a few others who had been brought into this in some way. The population of Jerusalem at this time was about 50,000—most of whom would have been very much in favor of killing Paul as a turncoat and a false teacher. So a few more than100 out of 50,000 people are in on this and because the success of this conspiracy was dependent upon secrecy, this was not something these Jews would have been blabbing about. Luke gives very few details about how this plot was uncovered saying only in verse 16, “16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.” Again, Luke is tantalizingly sparing in details here. Up to this point, we did not know that Paul even has a sister in Jerusalem. Also, it was no sure thing that this nephew would be sympathetic with Paul. It was not uncommon for Jewish family members to completely disown relatives who’d followed Jesus. That would have been even more likely for family members of a recognized leader of the church. Paul himself says in Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Most scholars infer from the statement that Paul had lost “all things” that this included any friendly relationship with his family.
Yet, in God’s providence somehow, this young man overhears this plot. We don’t know how hears about it and it doesn’t matter. What we know is that “against very high odds” this young man hears of this doubtlessly carefully guarded secret. And he just happens to be Paul’s nephew --who just happens to be sympathetic with Paul. Second, in order for Paul to slip out of this noose this person or persons must report it to someone who has the authority to stop it. The young man wisely tells Paul who has one of the centurions take the young man to the tribune. Third, the person in authority must take the threat seriously. This is another unlikely occurrence because verse 17 tells us that this was a “young man” which probably meant—a teenager. Again, we see the crucial role teenagers can have in furthering the cause of Christ. He uses a teenager to help Paul avoid capture so he could go to Rome to preach to kings. We know that this was probably a young person because--in addition to the word Luke uses for him, he also gives this little detail in verse 19. “The tribune took him by the hand, and asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” This is not some mature young adult because the tribune takes him by the hand. This is probably a young or at least small teenager and the tribune—who commands over 1000 Roman soldiers, has a private conference with this Jewish teen. If you had made up this story, you surely would NOT have included this detail. You would have chosen someone more credible as the messenger to the tribune.
Fourth, in order for Paul’s rescue to come off, the person in authority must initiate an intervention of sufficient force to stop the conspiracy. In the providence of God, this tribune not only takes this report from this teenager seriously, he enlists considerable resources to rescue Paul on the basis of this young man’s report. Why would he do this? Well, remember the story. This tribune discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen only moments before almost having him scourged—perhaps killing him. It was against the law even to bind a Roman citizen not charged with a crime. It seems reasonable to assume this dynamic influenced the tribune to be more than a bit sensitive about Paul’s safety. At this point, Paul could have reported this incident to the tribune’s superior and made no end of trouble for him, so this man is very sensitive at this point to keeping Paul from harm.
Verse 23 tells us that he enlists 200 soldiers, 200 spearmen and 70 cavalrymen to assemble three hours after sunset to accompany Paul to Caesarea. This gave Paul a 10-1 advantage of guards over conspirators. It’s clear that in God’s providence the tribune was taking absolutely no chances here. Even if the Jews had discovered this escort under the cover of darkness, they would have been powerless to act—these men who had bound themselves by oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. It was good for them that Jewish law allowed a person to be released from oaths that became impossible to keep. Otherwise, you would have had 40 very dead conspirators. Luke’s point in recording this incident is to again put on display God’s sovereign power to accomplish his will no matter how serious the opposition is. We can assume that Paul probably wasn’t worried in the least because as we saw last week, he had a personal promise from Jesus that he would speak his name to the gentiles in Rome. That means that Paul was invincible until he had fulfilled his purpose. It didn’t matter whether there were 40 or 4000 conspirators; Paul had the word of Almighty God that he would get to Rome and testify to his name there. He was untouchable at least until he had done that.
As we close, let’s think about more application of this account to our lives. First, to use Peter’s words as it relates to Satan’s relentless activity in our lives, “Be watchful, sober-minded—resist him.” One of the many reasons why we must swim against the stream of the fun-loving, almost recreational Christianity so common today—why we must be blood earnest about our walk with God is because we have an enemy who is seeking every opportunity to devour us. We would never drive a formula one car 200 miles an hour with one hand on the wheel while sending a text message with the other. That is an insane risk that will eventually cause us to crash and burn. Yet, far too many believers live their Christian lives as if it were at a loud party at night in the middle of a jungle teeming with lions. How many of us would use the adjective “vigilant” to describe our spiritual lives?
Second, although we must never allow God’s sovereign protection of us to embolden us to recklessness, we can take courage that as we are in the fight, we are invincible until God is finished with us. Long odds at success are irrelevant. As we often quote Luther, “God plus one is a majority.” Just as he did with Paul, God will orchestrate all the details in our lives and ministries in a way to enable us to be faithful to him. We may only see one step at a time as he gradually reveals his providential plan for our lives, but we can be confident that God’s providence will safely lead us to victory for God’s glory and our joy. Just as God protected Paul from the enemy onslaught, so he will protect us also as we seek to do his will. Think about what God is laying on your heart or calling you to do in life or ministry. What are the obstacles? What are the odds against success? They are irrelevant when God is in the picture. We mustn’t forget that. May God give us the grace to take these truths to both warn us and embolden us for God as we live for him.
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