Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Acts (Page 1 of 6)

Acts Unfinished

Acts finishes unfinished.

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house
and welcomed all who came to see him.
Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God
and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”
(Acts 28:30,31).

That’s it?  No details of that time?  No what happened to Paul afterward?  Did the statute of limitations run out?  Does he appear before Caesar?  Was he freed?  Executed?

Luke’s ending implies Acts’ story is meant to continu–fto be ongoing– generation after generation, century after century.  We are “writing” the current chapter.

Dr. Gordon Fee suggests Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

That was the story of Acts.  First in Jerusalem through Peter.  The Holy Spirit is mightily outpoured.  Peter preached his Pentecost sermon.  3000 Jews from all over the Roman Empire (in Jerusalem for Passover) repent, believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Within months, that number grows to 5000.  Almost immediately Jewish authorities turn hostile.  But the gospel advances through the apostles’ preaching and the Holy Spirit’s signs and wonders.

Persecution intensifies.  Stephen is martyred.  Believers scatter from Jerusaleminto Judea and Samaria, gossiping the gospel wherever they go.  Meanwhile, Saul of Tarsus, a young rabbi, has followers of “The Way” jailed.  He travels to Damascus, Syria to drag wayward Jews back to Jerusalem and punishment.  But on the road, the risen Christ appears, blinding him and converting him.  From now on, he takes center stage in the Gospel’s forward-moving expansion.

But he is not alone.  Peter finds himself led by the Spirit to a Gentile house.  He preaches to Cornelius and his household, and the Spirit is poured out on them as at Pentecost.  The Jewish Christian church is becoming Gentile–especially as persecuted believers scatter to Antioch, Syria and plant a strong Gentile church there.  From Antioch, eventually the Spirit sends Saul (soon to be known as Paul) on three missionary journeys through western Asia and ultimately eastern Europe.  At every step, Jews oppose.  But at every step, as the Spirit empowers, the Gospel advances.

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple, a Jewish mob grabs Paul.  His life is spared only because Roman troops rush in to restore peace.  But he spends the next two-plus years imprisoned before being shipped to Rome to stand before Caesar. In Rome, in his own rented house,  Paul is chained to rotating guards who repeatedly hear the gospel.  Jews reject it.  But Gentiles come to listen and be saved.

Acts ends without an ending.  That will come only when Jesus does.  The book, then, is not just history; it’s a paradigm for the church in every generation.

Again, as Dr. Fee writes, Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

Historically the Gospel hasn’t advanced on a straight incline.  Periods of expansion have been interrupted by periods of halting.  That seems to be so in America now.   Statistics are a mixed bag.  I’ve read 8-10 studies.  The Pew Research Center says in 2008, 80% of Americans considered themselves Christian.  (Whether they were or not remains another story.)  By 2017 that number fell to 75%.  Evangelicals from 2007 to 2014 fell from 26.3% to 25.4% (Pew Research Center).  Another study claims evangelicals have slightly increased.  Another says, “Okay, church attendance is declining; but it’s really just clarifying who the real Christians are.”

The polls are dizzying.  But I’ve deduced this:  we Christians in America are probably declining a bit in number.  But even if we’re holding steady, nothing in any research I’ve read suggests that the Gospel is not triumphantly and joyfully moving forward.  In other words, if God intends the church in Acts to be roughly replicated in each generation, it’s not happening here and now.

So the non-ending end of Acts gives us something to pray for and work toward:  a church through which the Gospel is triumphantly, joyfully moving forward with an expansion of the Gospel, despite opposition, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities.






Rome Finally

Years ago our young family vacationed at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  It was this N.J. boy’s first trip to the South.  I was fascinated and excited to arrive.  In today’s text, the apostle Paul arrives in Rome–the city he long hoped to visit, albeit not as a prisoner.

Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days; then we weighed anchor and came to Rhegium. After one day there a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli.  There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome (Acts 28:11-14).Three winter months on Malta, when sea travel was treacherous. They embark early February on a grain ship.  After a day’s sail, they reach Syracuse on the east coast of Sicily.  They spend three days there, then set sail again, docking at Rhegium on Italy’s toe.  There they wait one day for a south wind to blow, taking them 180 miles in two days to Puteoloi, the principal port of southern Italy.

Image result for map of paul 4th missionary journey

In Puteolois they find a community of Christians.  While the centurion conducts week-long business, Paul is permitted to visit them.

“And so we came to Rome.”  But, author Luke will backtrack to tell of an important meeting.

The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:15).

A few miles north of Puteoloi, they reach the Appian Way.  News of Paul’s approach has reached the capital city, so believers from there travel south.  Some walk 33 miles to Three Taverns.  Others travel 10 miles further to meet the apostle at the market town of Appius.  Paul thanks God for their encouraging presence.  Three years have passed since he wrote the Rome church, and he must have wondered how they received it.  Now his long desire to visit Rome (thoughunder different circumstances) is being realized, and their welcome lifts his spirits.

When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.  But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor — even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” They replied, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:16-22).

Paul is allowed a measure of freedom awaiting his trial.  He lives in a private house, lightly chained by his wrist to a Roman soldier.  (Interesting to speculate on Paul’s conversations with these guards, who change every four hours.  They, of course, hear everything Paul teaches his visitors.)

After three days Paul makes contact with the leaders of the Jews, inviting them to come to him.  He insists he did nothing against “our people” or against “the customs of our ancestors”.  Nevertheless, he was arrested and handed over to the Romans who wanted to free him.  But the Jews objected, forcing him to prove his innocence by appealing to Caesar.  He is a prisoner, he says, “for the sake of the hope of Israel”; that is, for the fulfillment of that hope in Messiah Jesus.

The Jews deny knowledge of Paul’s case (they want little to do with Paul and his Christianity).  All they know is Paul’s Christianity is everywhere-opposed by the Jews.  But they’re willing “to hear from you what you think”.

 After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.  Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.  So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,  ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’  Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts28:23-28).

They come together again, this time more Jews than before.  Paul labors long “to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets”.  They  disagree with each other, some convinced, the majority refusing to believe.  The bulk of the Jewish community, then, stands opposed to Messiah Jesus.

Paul pronounces the Holy Spirit’s words through the prophet.  Isaiah 6:9,10 stands in judgment against them, a solemn last word in Acts. If Romans 9-11 is any indication, Paul spoke these words with sorrow.  But Jewish disbelief means riches for the Gentiles.  “ . . . they will listen”. 

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:30,31).

W.M Ramsay (19th & 20th century New Testament scholar) suggests the two years was “the statutory period within which the prosecution might state its case”.  If the Romans did or not, we don’t know.  Many scholars argue that Paul was later released and traveled again.  In any case, for those two years, the gospel spread.

There, in a house unknown to us Paul received visitors.  And with courage and without hindrance he preached the fulfillment of God’s saving reign in the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly the Romans knew—and allowed it. So there, in the heart of the empire, Luke shows Acts 1:8 being fulfilled:  the Lord Jesus Christ is made known “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 * * *

Since Acts closes in “unfinished” fashion, I believe Paul’s (crazy) route to Rome is a paradigm for today.  I’m thinking of men and women who cross language and culture lines (missionaries) with the gospel.  I have a friend who ministers in a country officially “closed” to the gospel among a little-known people group.  Families are coming to faith in Christ.  God still gets his servants where he wants them to make his good news known.

One important reason to faithfully support our missionaries in prayer and finances.

 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations,
and then the end will come
(Jesus, Mat
thew 24:14).







In 2000 “Castaway”, Tom Hanks played a FedEx employee marooned on an island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific.  Hanks has to transform himself physically and emotionally to survive.  In today’s text Paul and 275 other men are castaways on a Mediterranean island with an experience quite different from Hanks’.

After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.  Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.  They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

Safely on shore, the men learn they are on Malta.  Luke calls the people barbaroi—“barbarians.”  The island, strategically lying at the narrows of the Mediterranean was settled in the 6th century B.C.  In 216 B.C. Rome captured it from Carthage and Augustus settled Roman veterans there.  These “barbarians” are descended from the Carthaginians.

Luke is probably using barbaroi to mean “natives” of the island.  In any case, they show remarkable kindness to the 276 survivors.  It’s a cold, rainy morning and the castaways are wet to the bone.  So the “natives” build a welcoming fire to warm them.

Paul pitches in.  But as he lays sticks on the fire, a viper, cold and stiff in the twigs, grabs his hand.  The islanders see.  To them, it’s a sign.  The man survived the sea, but Justice wins out.  The man must be a murderer.  When they see Paul shake off the snake, they wait for him  “to swell up or suddenly drop dead.”   When he doesn’t, the “sign” changes.  He must be “a god”. 

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.  After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.  They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed (Acts 28:7-10).

Publius, a land-owner, is island-chief.  He courteously welcomes the shipwrecked men and orders them fed for three days.  When Paul learns Publius’ father is ill, he goes in and prays for him and the man is healed.  Then, in a scene reminiscient of Jesus in Galilee, crowds of sick flocked to Paul “and were cured”.  The “barbarians” treated them royally then.  And when the men were ready to sail, the islanders filled the ship with “all the provisions [they] needed”.

* * *

God provided.  A fire to warmly welcome the castaways.  Food from the chief for three days.  A shipful of provisions for the trip to Rome.

God provides.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
*Count your many blessings, see what God has done.”

God provides.

God lavished mercy.  The barbarians could have been indifferent to the castaways, or hostile.  Instead, they were kind.  Publius’ father was a pagan, one single sick old man.  God healed him.  The islanders were pagans.  Yet every sick one who came to Paul was cured.

God lavishes mercy.

You were dead through the trespasses and sins  in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.  All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22,23).

God lavishes mercy.

Encouragement for us next time we feel like “castaways”.

















The most famous shipwreck of all time is the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic.  It went down in the Atlantic, tragically claiming 1,514 lives on its maiden voyage April 14, 1910.  Not until 1985 did an expedition find the shipwreck and discover the Titanic split in half–two sections lying in the ocean floor about 1/3 a mile apart, the stern crushed, the bow remarkably intact.

No one made a movie about Paul’s shipwreck.  But hundreds of thousands have read about it.

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

About midnight on the fourteenth night of the storm, as we were being driven across the Sea of Adria, the sailors sensed land was near (Acts 27:27).

Two weeks.  324 hours.  Almost 500 nautical miles.  The storm has blasted its fury on the ship and its crew and passengers.  Suddenly, in midnight’s blackness, the sailors hear waves crashing on rock and sense land is near.

They took soundings and found the water was only 120 feet deep. A little later they sounded again and found only 90 feet. At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight (Acts 27:28,29).

Soundings show water’s depth shrinking fast.  They throw out stern anchors.

Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the prow. But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, “You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.” So the soldiers cut the ropes and let the boat fall off (Acts 27:30-32).

Sailors try to abandon ship in the lifeboat.  Paul warns everyone will die unless they all stay aboard.  The sailors cut the lifeboat’s ropes and waves catch it away.

As the darkness gave way to the early morning light, Paul begged everyone to eat. “You haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said. “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. Then everyone was encouraged, and all 276 of us began eating — for that is the number we had aboard (Acts 27:33-37).

Night’s eerie darkness surrenders to pre-dawn light.  Paul, the prisoner, has become a leader.  He urges everyone to eat.  They’ll need strength for the challenge ahead.  With words reminiscent of the Eucharist, he eats.  His confidence encourages them all.  The whole ship—276 of them—start eating.

After eating, the crew lightened the ship further by throwing the cargo of wheat overboard.  When morning dawned, they didn’t recognize the coastline, but they saw a bay with a beach and wondered if they could get between the rocks and get the ship safely to shore. So they cut off the anchors and left them in the sea. Then they lowered the rudders, raised the foresail, and headed toward shore (Acts 27:38-40).

The crew throws overboard the wheat cargo, a final attempt to lighten the ship.  Morning brings clear sight of an unknown coastline—a bay with a beach.  Could they sail between the rocks and reach shore?  They try.

But the ship hit a shoal and ran aground. The bow of the ship stuck fast, while the stern was repeatedly smashed by the force of the waves and began to break apart. The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan. Then he ordered all who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land, and he told the others to try for it on planks and debris from the broken ship. So everyone escaped safely ashore (Acts 27:41-44)!

The ship hits a sandbar, its bow aground while waves smash the stern.  Guards who lose prisoners pay with their lives.  “Kill them!” shout the soldiers.  “Kill them before they escape!”  But the centurion wants to save Paul; he orders the prisoners spared. Everyone is commanded overboard, swim or float on debris.  They all survive the stormy waves and reach the beach.

* * *

Hard to imagine the apostle Paul swimming for his life through rough seas from a shipwreck toward a strange shore.  I find it harder to imagine God’s reason for sending Paul on that ship to Rome.  Surely there were others.  Earlier, when the seas weren’t so treacheerous.  Paul did evangelize on their safe island.  And Lord only knows the effect of his witness on the ship’s crew and the centurion with his soldiers.  But two years of prison in Caesarea and a long near-deadly ship vogage seem an outsized price to pay.  God must have had other reasons, I guess.  But he’s not telling.

What’s even more surprising is that God didn’t save Paul from shipwreck, but through it.  How like Jesus!  God didn’t save Jesus from the cross, but through it.  That’s good news.

So is this:  God saves his suffering people.  Here’s the less-good news:  God saves his people through suffering, but usually not from it.

I’m staggered at how many and how much Christians suffer.  In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Pastor Timothy Keller writes, “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”  Death, and often its painful precursor, is the ultimate example.  It comes to us all–the most devastating shipwreck.

But God saves us through it.  If we’re believers, we pass through “the valley of the shadow of death”–and meet Jesus on the other side, suffering gone with the “better by far” come.

Still, while surrendering to his will, I pray God save me from “shipwrecks.”




Northeaster & the Angel

“ . . . the sea represents a place of peril, of human vulnerability, the place where would-be sailors are at the mercy of the elements” (William Willimon–American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church).  True story today, but especially so in the 1st century.  Paul, now a prisoner at Caesarea, is taken by sea to Rome.

When the time came, we set sail for Italy. Paul and several other prisoners were placed in the custody of an army officer named Julius, a captain of the Imperial Regiment. And Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was also with us. We left on a boat whose home port was Adramyttium; it was scheduled to make several stops at ports along the coast of the province of Asia (Acts 27:1,2).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

“We” implies Luke, as well as Aristarchus, is traveling with Paul, who is under the guard of Julius, a Roman centurion.  Julius chooses a ship which will stop at Asian ports as it makes its way home to Adramyttium. The ship sailed north from Caesarea reaching Sidon in about 24 hours . . .

The next day when we docked at Sidon, Julius was very kind to Paul and let him go ashore to visit with friends so they could provide for his needs (Acts 27:3).

Friends” in Sidon had probably been evangelized in the dispersion after Stephen’s martyrdom.  It’s likely Paul had previously visited the church.  Now the centurion allows Paul to visit them for a meal and maybe some supplies to help on his journey.

Putting out to sea from there, we encountered headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland. We passed along the coast of the provinces of Cilicia and Pamphylia, landing at Myra, in the province of Lycia. There the officer found an Egyptian ship from Alexandria that was bound for Italy, and he put us on board (Acts 27:4-6).

As they set sail on the westward leg of the journey, headwinds hinder their course. They  use the island of Cyrus as a shield and dock at Myra, a regular port-of-call for grain vessels.  The centurion now books passage on another grain ship destined for Italy.  Since it is early fall, some commentators suggest ship  owners were trying to squeeze in one more trip before winter, when seas were especially treacherous.

We had several days of rough sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus. But the wind was against us, so we sailed down to the leeward side of Crete, past the cape of Salmone. We struggled along the coast with great difficulty and finally arrived at Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages by then because it was so late in the fall, and Paul spoke to the ship’s officers about it. “Sirs,” he said, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on — shipwreck, loss of cargo, injuries, and danger to our lives.” But the officer in charge of the prisoners listened more to the ship’s captain and the owner than to Paul. And since Fair Havens was an exposed harbor — a poor place to spend the winter — most of the crew wanted to go to Phoenix, farther up the coast of Crete, and spend the winter there. Phoenix was a good harbor with only a southwest and northwest exposure (Acts 27:7-12).

Gale-force winds now make sailing westward impossible.  “The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages . . . because it was so late in the fall . . . “   Officers and crew hold a council.  Paul, an experienced traveler,is pulled in.  He warns of danger if they go on.  But they decide they can make safer harbor.  They turn south and “struggled . . . with great difficulty” and finally reach Fair Havens. “Winter sailing” meant “scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility and the double raging of winds, showers and snow (Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39).  It is now October A.D. 59.  The ship is anchored in a harbor exposed to wind-whipped seas.

So Paul’s warning to the ship’s officers is well-founded—but disregarded.  Most of the crew argue to continue on to Phoenix, where a good harbor for wintering awaits.

When a light wind began blowing from the south, the sailors thought they could make it. So they pulled up anchor and sailed along close to shore.  But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (a “northeaster,” they called it) caught the ship and blew it out to sea.  They couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale.  We sailed behind a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat that was being towed behind us. Then we banded the ship with ropes to strengthen the hull. The sailors were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor and were thus driven before the wind. The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. The following day they even threw out the ship’s equipment and anything else they could lay their hands on.  The terrible storm raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. No one had eaten for a long time (Acts 27:13-21a).

A gentle, summer-like south wind springs up; the sailors think they can make Phoenix.  Soon after pulling up anchor “a wind of typhoon strength” (a “northeaster,” they called it) drives the ship away from the coast and out to sea.  They’re at the storm’s mercy.  To save the dinghy they’re towing from being smashed into the ship they pull it aboard.  To strengthen the ship’s hull from being pounded apart they stretch cables several times around it.  To keep the ship from rising too high in the wave-crests they drop its anchor.  To lighten the ship against the onslaught of waves, they throw “cargo” and some of “the ship’s equipment” overboard.  Extreme measures.  The storm “raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.”

Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Fair Havens. You would have avoided all this injury and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down.  For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’  So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island” (Acts 21b-26).

After many days fighting the furious storm, the crew gathers around Paul.  Why would they listen?  Probably because Paul’s warning at Fair Havens came true.  Plus they’re desperate for any solution.  Paul’s message is good news-bad news  Good news:  nobody will die.  An angel promises God will keep everyone safe. Bad news:  shipwreck on an island and  the ship will go down.

* * *

We’re called to believe apart from an angel.

It reminds me of Thomas.  When  doubting Thomas saw the resurrected Christ, he finally believed.  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  I take that to mean special favor, special joy, comes on all of us who believe God, who believe Jesus risen, though we haven’t seen him.

When we sail smooth seas, trusting the Lord’s words doesn’t break a sweat.  But when a “Northeaster” hits, an angel would help, wouldn’t it?  I’m sure one has come to some.  I’ve read several accounts of Christians comforted in suffering by an overwhelming presence of the Lord.  I think most of us, though, are left with promises on a page.  We’re called to believe without an angel.

To make matters worse, the promises confuse.  Some seem to say that if we believe and keep praying, the Lord will deliver us.  Others promise deliverance through death into heaven.  We’re left to trust that God will do what’s best.  And the “worst” is entrance into eternal glory with our Lord.

Sometimes, though, in a raging “Northeaster”, it would be nice to have an angel.








Defining Moment

(This is long.  Paul’s fault, not mine!)

Life has certain “defining moments”.  The birth of a child or the death of a beloved are just two. In human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining moment.  Paul declares this moment in his apologia to King Agrippa.

“A few days later King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to pay their respects to Festus.  Since they were spending many days there, Festus discussed Paul’s case with the king. He said: ‘There is a man here whom Felix left as a prisoner.  When I went to Jerusalem, the chief priests and elders of the Jews brought charges against him and asked that he be condemned. I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.  When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in.  When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected.  Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.  I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges.  When Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar’” (Acts 25:13-21).

Agrippa rules for Rome over southern Lebanon and southern Syria.  He is the great-grandson of Herod the Great, Judea’s king during Jesus’ birth. Bernice is his year-younger sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.145-46; Juvenal Satires 6.156-60).  The two arrive in Caesarea to pay respects to new Governor Festus.  Over several days, the governor discusses Paul.  Agrippa, probably curious, asks to speak with him.  Felix agrees, hoping this “investigation” will provide an appropriate charge to send with Paul to Rome.

“Then Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear this man myself.’ He replied, ‘Tomorrow you will hear him.’  The next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp and entered the audience room with the high ranking officers and the leading men of the city. At the command of Festus, Paul was brought in.  Festus said: ‘King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer.  I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.  But I have nothing definite to write to His Majesty about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that as a result of this investigation I may have something to write.  For I think it is unreasonable to send on a prisoner without specifying the charges against him’” (Acts 25:22-25).

Lavish ceremony marks the “investigation”.  The contrast between prisoner Paul and  the “important” leaders is stark.  Festus admits Paul’s done nothing to deserve death; but he’ll send him to Rome because Paul has appealed.  Hopefully he can be sent with a specific charge. King Agrippa invites Paul to speak.

“Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ So Paul motioned with his hand and began his defense:  ‘King Agrippa, I consider myself fortunate to stand before you today as I make my defense against all the accusations of the Jews, and especially so because you are well acquainted with all the Jewish customs and controversies. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently. The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee.  And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me’” (Acts 26:1-7).

The Jews know how I’ve lived, the kind of strict Pharisee I was, begins Paul—then quickly jumps to the heart of his defense.  “ . . . it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today”.  That hope?  Resurrection.

“’Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead? I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.  Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them’” (Acts 26:8-11).

Paul admits it:  he once opposed the name of Jesus—violently, obsessively.  But something happened one day that changed everything.

“’On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”  “Then I asked, “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied.  “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.  I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may be sanctified by faith in me”’” (Acts 26:12-18).

“I am Jesus,” the Voice declared.  He was appointing Paul to a mission “as a servant and . . . witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you”.  Jesus.  Jesus is alive!  Risen from the dead! And he is sending Paul “to open [Gentile] eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me”. 

“’So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me’” (Acts 26:19-21).

Paul explains he has been obeying the heavenly vision.  And it was this that agitated the Jews against him.

“’But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen–that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles’” (Acts 26:22,23).

Paul claims his preaching is in perfect continuity with Moses and the prophets (see Isaiah 25:6-12).  They said Messiah would rise from the dead.

 “At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’  ‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied. ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.’ Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’  Paul replied, ‘Short time or long– I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains’” (Acts 26:24-29)

Resurrection is too much for Festus.  Paul must be out of his mind.  Too much learning has led to insanity.  Paul appeals to Agrippa.  Jewish-born, he’s familiar with “these things”.  But, when Paul asks him directly if he believes, he retorts, “Do you think in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Agrippa has lost his opportunity and the “investigation” is over.

“The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them.  They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, ‘This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.’ Agrippa said to Festus, ‘This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar’” (Acts 26:30-32).

Had Paul been mistaken to appeal to Caesar?  Governor and king both decide Paul is not guilty of any crime against Rome.  Had he not appealed, he could have been set free.  I’ve always read that statement as an “if only”.  Instead, it’s a God-sovereignty statement. The Lord’s night-message to Paul in Jerusalem makes Paul’s appeal as God-ordained . . .

“Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem,
so you must also testify in Rome”
(Acts 23:11b).

* * *

Resurrection. The “defining moment”. Jesus was resurrected, and I will be.  When I started preaching, resurrection was a nice, way-far-off hope.  Now, at age 74, resurrection is a way-nearer hope.  Soon I’ll leave to be with Jesus—or even better, Jesus will come.  Either way–ultimately bodily resurrection.

Death is God’s curse for humanity’s sin (“ . . .for dust you are and to dust you will return.”–Genesis 3:19b).  But death is also our enemy (“The last enemy to be destroyed is death”–1 Corinthians 15:26).  Therefore, aging and suffering are too.  God didn’t create us for any of that.  Sin robbed us of life; but God will restore it.  That’s his promise to Old Covenant Israel and to us who believe in the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.

“ And [the Lord] will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples . . . he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces . . . “ (Isaiah 25:7,8a).  Together with ancient Israel, this is our hope.

Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of ours . . .

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).

Marriage.  Birth of children.  Career job.  A far-bigger “defining moment” is the moment we trusted our lives to Jesus Christ.

Because that’s the moment we became one “who belongs to him” for resurrection.







Felix and  Festus.  Sounds like two characters from Sheriff Andy in Mayberry.  But they were Roman governors of Judea.  The first from 52-58 A.D.  His successor from 59-62 A.D.  They’re important to us, because Paul was tried by both.

When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison” (Acts 24:27).

No verdict from Felix after two years.  He was recalled to Rome and was succeeded by Festus.  Paul languished in prison.

 “Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem, where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.  They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way.  Festus answered, ‘Paul is being held at Caesarea, and I myself am going there soon. Let some of your leaders come with me and press charges against the man there, if he has done anything wrong’” (Acts 25:1-5).

First on the agenda, Festus visits Jerusalem, calling the Sanhedrin and other leaders to present the charges against Paul.  They urgently ask the governor for a favor:  “Might you transfer Paul from Caesarea to Jerusalem?” A change-of-venue request was common.  But author Luke reveals the Jews’ motive:  they want again to ambush Paul.

Festus is unmoved.  The prisoner is in Caesarea.  The governor/judge is going there.  Some of the Jewish leaders should come along to press charges, so a judgment might be made.  Another attempt fails.  Again Providence is protecting the apostle from death.  God wants Paul in Rome.

“After spending eight or ten days with them, he went down to Caesarea, and the next day he convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him.  When Paul appeared, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove.  Then Paul made his defense: ‘I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar’” (Acts 25:6-8).

The next day after returning to Caesarea, Festus “convened the court” (literally, “sat on the judgment seat”).  Paul is brought in and the Jerusalem Jews bring “many serious charges against him”.  They prove unprovable.  According to Luke, Paul’s defense is a simple denial.  He hasn’t transgressed Jewish law or the temple or Caesar.

At this point, then, acquittal should follow.  But . . .

“Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, ‘Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there on these charges?’  Paul answered: ‘I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well.  If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!’  After Festus had conferred with his council, he declared: ‘You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go!’” (Acts 25:9-12).

Suddenly (to get on the good side of his unruly subjects?), Festus asks Paul.  “Will you stand trial in Jerusalem?” Justice is about to miscarry.  Paul stands firm.  He’s now in Caesar’s court, where his trial should be held.  He’ll die if he deserves it.  But since theJewish charges are untrue, “no one has the right to hand me over to them.”

Paul’s next words are pivotal:  “I appeal to Caesar!”    He’d die in Jerusalem, so he exercised his Roman-citizen-right.  Paul will stand trial in Rome, possibly before Caesar himself.

* * *

I’ve argued that . . .

  • God providentially orchestrated Paul’s rescue by the Romans from the Jews in the temple.
  • God providentially birthed Paul to a Roman citizen father making Paul a Roman citizen and so saving Paul from flogging.
  • God providentially uncovered the Jews’ plot to kill Paul, so a huge contingent of soldiers safely delivered him to Caesarea.
  • God protected Paul from injustice before Governor Felix.
  • Now, God orchestrated events so Paul could appeal to Caesar.

Remember the Lord’s night-appearance to Paul in Jerusalem?  “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).  Merely foreknowledge?  I say NO:  sovereign providence!  God was using men to his own ends.

But can I apply God’s providence to myself?  Can I say with assurance God is providentially orchestrating events in my life?  Can I be confident he called me to a life of pastoring?  That he now has allowed two diseases to afflict me?  Can you say assuredly that God is providentially orchestrating events in your life?

Consider just these four texts . . .

“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Pro. 16:33).

” . . .your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).

“No one from the east or the west or from the desert can exalt a man. But it is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Psalm 75:6,7).

“In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).

J.I. Packer (British theologian and Professor of Theology at Regent College) quotes the Westminister Short Catechism, then summarizes divine providence. . .

“God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (Q.11).

“If Creation was a unique exercise of divine energy causing the world to be, providence is a continued exercise of that same energy whereby the Creator, according to his own will, (a) keeps all creatures in being, (b) involves himself in all events, and (c) directs all things to their appointed end. The model is of purposive personal management with total ‘hands-on’ control: God is completely in charge of his world. His hand may be hidden, but his rule is absolute.”

Is that good for us?  Paul assures us  . . .

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him– with those who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28,29).

Felix may leave us in prison.  Festus may capitulate to the Jews.  But only if God orchestrates it.  And only for our good and his glory.



Hear “Nixon”, and you think “Watergate” (unless you were born after 1975).  Hear “Felix”, and you should think of Paul’s first Roman trial complete with a corrupt, ruthless governor and two years in prison.

“Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: ‘We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly. We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. But the commander, Lysias, came and with the use of much force snatched him from our hands and ordered his accusers to come before you. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.’  The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true” (Acts 24:1-9).

The Roman tribune has chosen to transfer Paul to a high authority.  With a huge contingent of Roman military, he takes him sixty miles north to Caesarea and Governor Felix.  Five days after arriving, Paul is brought before the governor.  Ananias, the high priest from Jerusalem, some elders and a lawyer, Tertullus, are present for the prosecution.

Tertullus (prosecutor):  “You’re the empire’s greatest governor! (Oh, puh-lease!)  You’ve wisely created much-needed reforms and ushered in perpetual peace (what about all those uprisings and Felix’s ruthless reactions who only sparked more Jewish violence?).

“But, let me be brief.  This man (finger pointing) has stirred up riots among the Jews all over the world (shattering Roman peace) and is a ringleader of the (notorious) Nazarene sect.  He even tried to desecrate the temple!  We wouldn’t have bothered you with this but Lysias, the Roman commander, forcibly grabbed him from us and ordered we come to you.  Your examination will show all these charges to be true.”

“When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: ‘I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.  My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city.  And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.  I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance.  But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin–unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today'” (Acts 24:10-21),

Paul (defendant):  “I didn’t argue in the temple.  I didn’t stir up a riot in the city.  My accusers have no proof of their charges.  It is true that I worship the God of our fathers ‘as a follower of the Way.’  But I believe everything in the Law and Prophets, and, like them, hope in the resurrection of the dead.  For that reason I seek to keep a clear conscience before God.

“I came to Jerusalem to bring gifts for the poor.  I created no trouble.  Asian Jews started it all.  They should stand before you with their charges.  Or Tertullus and these Sadduccees should name the crime they say I committed—unless it was my shout that set them off: “It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today (this is irrelevant theology to the Romans).

 “Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. ‘When Lysias the commander comes,’ he said, ‘I will decide your case.’ He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs” (Acts 24:22,23).

The wheels of government grind slowly.  Felix declares, “We’re adjourned.”  He needed no more information about Christianity, being “well acquainted with the way.”  But he did want to hear from the Roman commander on scene.  Until then, Paul was to be guarded but granted some freedoms.

Lysias was never summoned.

“Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison” (Acts 24:24-27).

Soap Opera:  When Drusilla was six, her father promised her to an Armenian king, if he would be circumcised.  Years later, he refused.  So her brother gave her in marriage to a Syrian king.  At a dinner party (I made that up) Felix saw Drusilla across the room and her beauty sparkled stars in his eyes.  He wooed and won her away from her husband.  Drusilla, divorced and remarried.  So when Luke writes “Jewess”, don’t think “godly.”

Curiosity:  I’m assuming this is why Felix sent for Paul.  But his curiosity turned to terror when Paul told of God’s coming judgment. “No more.  I’ll call you when I’m ready.”

Corruption:  Government’s not only slow: it’s corrupt. Felix talked frequently with Paul hoping he’d bribe him to get out.  Two years later—no bribe from Paul.  But Felix is gone, leaving Paul under guard.

 * * *

What was God doing?  Okay, the Romans did rescue Paul from death by Jews.  And as long as they held him, the Jews couldn’t get him.  And Paul got to deliver the gospel to Governor Felix (who wanted a bribe more than righteousness).  But, two years in prison with Lord knows how many “conversations” with the greedy governor.  Two years!  Couldn’t God just have gotten Paul passage on a ship headed west?

When troubles come, our first response is, “Why?”  Our second is to explain to God why this trouble makes no sense, and he’d be a lot better off getting us out of it.  There’s no changing God’s mind, though.  And let’s face it:  we don’t understand some things God does.  Think there’ll be a long line in heaven?  Folks lining up with all our “why?”  questions.

‘Til then, we’ll just have to accept our ignorance and trust God’s wisdom.





Plot & Providence

“I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes.”  If Charles Spurgeon is right, then the Lord’s “fingerprints” are all over Paul’s escape from the Jews’ plot to kill him.

“The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot.  They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.  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’” (Acts 23:13-15).

Paul, a Roman citizen, remains in Roman “protective custody”, because twice Jews in the temple tried to kill him.  They’re not done yet.  “More than forty men” take a “curse oath” (Greek, anathematize—“bring under a curse”) “not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.”  They arrange for the Sanhedrin to request the Roman commander bring Paul before them for more information.  They will kill him on the way.

These men may appear as fanatics.  But they honestly believed the rumors that Paul had forbidden Jews to follow Moses.  Furthermore, they were sure he had defiled the temples by bringing a Gentile into the holy Court of Israel.  God’s holiness must be upheld by the death of the transgressor!

Paul would have met a violent death had it not been for what happened next . . .

“But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.’  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.’ The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, ‘What is it you want to tell me?’  He said: ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 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.’ The commander dismissed the young man and cautioned him, ‘Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me’” (Acts 23:16-22).

With all our information about Paul, we know nothing of his family life.  Well, almost nothing.  He had a sister, who had a son.  Where did she live?  If not Jerusalem, why was her son there?  Author Luke doesn’t say.  Just that the young man hears somehow of the Jews’ plot and tells Uncle Paul—an act of God’s providence.  Paul is accessible to the young man, because he’s in “protective custody”, not imprisoned.  And since the soldiers almost flogged a Roman citizen, they’re apparently eager to keep Paul reasonably happy. The commander believes Paul’s nephew and warns him to say nothing about their meeting.

“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. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix’” (Acts 23:23,24).

A military force that large shows the Romans took the Jewish threat seriously and considered Paul an important prisoner.  One man in “protective custody” riding in the middle of 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen, and 200 spearmen!

“He wrote a letter as follows: Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. 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.  I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin.  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.  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” (Acts 23:25-30).

The commander is not only getting Paul out of Jerusalem; he’s transferring Paul to a higher authority than himself—Governor Felix.  The governor was once a slave, but was set free either by Mark Antony’s daughter or Emperor Claudius (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 20.137).  His administration was marked by violent disturbances, his brutal reactions only turning the Jews more passionately against him.  Tacitus (1st century Roman historian) said that Ananias “practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of [a] king with all the instincts of a slave” (Histories 5.9).  To that governor Paul is now taken . . .

“So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris.  The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks.  When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.  The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 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” (Acts 23:31-35).

The military force leaves about 9 p.m. on what seems a forced march, and travels 35 miles through the Judean hill country at night without incident.  They reach a trade-route crossroads on the border of Judea and Samaria—Antipatris.  The threat of Jewish ambush lies behind; ahead lies a flat coastal plain inhabited by Gentiles.  The infantry and spearman return home, while the calvary takes Paul the last 25 miles to Caesara.  There the officers “delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.”

* * *

If Spurgeon is right (and the Scriptues teach God is sovereign over all things:  he “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”–Ephesians 1:11), then  over Paul  and the might of Rome’s legions was the hand of Providence.  As he rode in that military contingent, I imagine his mind drifted back to the Jerusalem night when the Lord appeared and said . . .

“ . . . just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem,
you must bear witness also in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

That memory must have encouraged Paul, surrounded by Rome’s military power.

I’m not a prized Roman prisoner.  The Lord hasn’t appeared and told me the purpose for my suffering.  But, because God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”, I believe the same hand of Divine Providence hovers over me.  To that hand I cling.








Keystone Kops Court

One of my favorite psalms is the second:  Why do the nations rage? Why do the people waste their time with futile plans?  The kings of the earth prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one. “Let us break their chains,” they cry, “and free ourselves from this slavery.” But the one who rules in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them (Psalm 2:1-4, NLT).  Can you picture God laughing?  I bet he did during Paul’s interrogation before the Jewish high court.

Having found Paul to be a Roman citizen, the tribune can’t interrogate Paul with flogging.  Still, he wants to know why the Jews had rioted against him . . .

Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them (Acts 22:30).

The “chief priests and the entire council” are the Sanhedrin, Israel’s supreme court.  It’s composed of 71 “sages” (including the high priest), who meet in the temple daily, ruling on legislative and judicial issues and serving as the final authority in matters of Jewish law.  Before this august body the apostle now stands. The Roman tribune is present.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth (Acts 23:1,2).

Paul takes the initiative.  He declares he’s lived “with a clear conscience before God”.  That got him a strike on the mouth courtesy of the high priest’s impetuous order.  What so incensed the high priest?  Paul speaking before being asked?  The idea that he could be a good Jew though a Christian?  Paul’s “holy boldness”?

Whatever the specific reason (and author Luke doesn’t tell us), Ananias was acting in character.  Jewish historian Josephus writes that Ananias disgracefully profaned his sacred position by, among other things, taking the tithes that should have gone to the common priests (Jewish Aniquities). Five years earlier the Syrian governor sent him to Rome on suspicion he was involved in a bloody outbreak between Jews and Samaritans.  He was cleared; nevertheless, the high priest was well-known as a ruthlessly violent and greedy man.  He administered pro-Roman policies, making him an enemy to many Jews.

At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people” (Acts 23:3-5). 

His mouth still stinging from the slap, Paul angrily prophesies against Ananias.  “ . . . you whitewashed wall”—a tottering wall with deficiencies hidden.  “God will strike you”—a prophecy fulfilled less than ten years later when war broke out with Rome.  Jews dragged him from an aqueduct where he was hiding and put him to death along with his brother.

Was Paul’s prophecy a burst of uncontrolled temper?  More likely justified anger, because the slap was punishment even before the trial. Nevertheless, it brought a reprimand from “[t]hose standing nearby.  ‘Dare you insult the high priest?’”  Paul immediately apologizes, quoting from Jewish law in Exodus 22:28b.

But how could he not know that the man who commanded the slap was the high priest?  Presiding over the meeting in his high priestly robes certainly gave him away!  Some have suggested Paul spoke ironically: “I never thought a high priest would do that!”  Others think Paul may have been looking away and so didn’t know who spoke.  This all amounts to speculation, since we’re not told and no suggestion seems to satisfy.

When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:6-10).

Author Luke points out that Paul sees the council is split between Sadducees and Pharisees.  So when he identifies himself as a second-generation Pharisee who held to “the resurrection of the dead”, council Pharisees concede that a man who holds to so central a tenet of faith can’t be all bad.  Council Sadducees, meanwhile, explode.  For, as author Luke explains, Sadducees deny end-time resurrection and the spirit world, as well.  Pharisees, believe in both.

Paul’s words ignite a sharp conflict between the two groups.  When the uproar makes it clear no serious examination of Paul can be made, some of the law experts (who are Pharisees) declare, “We find nothing wrong with this man.  Maybe a spirit or angel spoke to him”.  Now the conflict becomes violent.  The tribune, afraid they’ll “tear Paul to pieces”, orders soldiers to grab Paul and bring him into their fortress.

That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (23:11).

Paul is disheartened.  His worst anxieties about his fate in Jerusalem are being realized.  Twice, crowds of Jews physically threatened his life.  How will he get out of the city to fulfill his dream of preaching in Rome and further west?

That night, inside the Roman fortress, the Lord appears to the prisoner.  “Be encouraged!” he urged.  And then the Lord promised, “ . . . just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem (as Paul had spoken to the crowd in the temple), so you must bear witness also in Rome.”  During the next two years of imprisonment and trials, the apostle must have clung to that promise.

* * *

The Lord wanted to get Paul to Rome his way (  Neither Roman flogging nor the Jewish Supreme Court could hinder.  And the way he freed Paul from the court is quite funny.  Picture Paul before that august body open-mouthed watching them fight over theology, so violently that the Roman tribune has to rescue Paul from possible harm.

Government—even “godly governments ordained by God”—prove inept and ineffective.  They’re only (fallen) human.  And while we’re charged to obey the authorities–and we should be thankful for good government–our lives don’t depend on them.

We are in the hands of the eternal God, our Father in heaven through Jesus Christ.  And he will fulfill his good purpose for us—even if he has to make our enemies act like zany, inept Keystone Kops.

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