How do you feel about the future of UK Christianity? I was telling a friend recently that the I used to listen to sermons warning that Christians in the UK may face real persecution for their beliefs and think; things might be really tough for my grandchildren. Now that doesn't seem so far away. Perhaps you're more of a glass half-full type of person than that. However, if you listen to voices in the media they'll tell you that the glass is rapidly draining, or perhaps, that the glass was never there in the first place.
My hope this evening is that in this short passage concerning Paul's transfer from Jerusalem to Caesarea, which at first glance looks like a pretty ordinary piece of narrative, we'll be equipped with a realistic optimism about the future of the Gospel. I've got three points tonight, the first of which is this; expect opposition because of the Gospel.
1. Expect opposition because of the Gospel, v12-15
12The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14They went to the chief priests and the elders and said, 'We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15Now 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.'
In immediate response to Paul's defense before the Jewish Sanhedrin in v1-11 of chapter 23; the next day, a group of more than forty men make it their solemn vow not just to stop Paul or to put him on trial but to murder him, saying that they will not eat or drink again until Paul is dead.
So what has Paul done to draw such intense hatred from his Jewish brothers? What great crime has he committed?
In chapter 22 Paul tells us that he is a thoroughly trained and zealous Jew, one who even persecuted Jesus' followers. But on the road to Damascus Paul has met the risen Lord Jesus Christ and has put his faith in him. Now rather than being a persecutor of the early church he is one of it's leading proponents.
Paul is hated because of his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul is not guilty of any act of immorality still less has he committed any crime deserving death or imprisonment as v29 will later state. No Paul has simply believed in Jesus as his Saviour and Lord and has encouraged others, even non-Jews, like you and me to do the same. So why does Paul's witnessing to Jesus Christ cause such offence?
The Gospel lays claim to objective truth
Paul understands his own trial in 23.6 as having been provoked by his 'hope in the resurrection of the dead'.
It's this claim - that Jesus has not only died but risen from the dead as living proof that he really was the Christ - that provokes this plan to assassinate Paul.
This hope divided the Pharisees (who did believe in a resurrection) and the Sadducees (who did not) but it also divides everyone into those who trust in Jesus' resurrection and those who do not. Paul's hope is founded on the resurrected Lord Jesus whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. Paul is confident of the resurrection of the dead because of Jesus' resurrection an actual historical physical event which he has witnessed.
Paul's message, the message of the Gospel is that Jesus has risen from the dead proving that he is indeed the Christ; the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, proving that he did indeed die to save sinners and proving that one day he will return to judge the earth. Paul himself speaks of this back in Acts 17.31:
31For he(God) has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.'
This is no matter of opinion, no clever philosophy rather it is news, good news, that has been announced and which we must respond to. That's much more offensive than a privately held opinion about what the meaning of life may or may not be.
It's this Gospel which won't be dismissed as mere subjective opinion which Paul has been preaching for the past 20-25 years. In doing so he has already faced opposition; been beaten, imprisoned and run out of town because of his faith in Jesus. In fact Paul has already been run out of Jerusalem and had to be escorted out to Caesarea after two separate assassination plots have been discovered (Acts 9.20-30).
Intense opposition is nothing unusual for followers of Jesus. In Matthew 10 Jesus says to his disciples as he sends them out:
24 'The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!
Hatred is one of the normal responses to the name of Jesus being lifted up. It may not often in this part of the world result in an attempt on our lives but intense and angry opposition is something which all followers of Jesus should expect to face at some point.
In July 2012 Pastor Saeed Abedini was convicted by the Islamic Republic of Iran for his religious beliefs by a sham trial. He has been beaten, tortured, and told he will hang for his Christian faith unless he recants. Currently he is serving a sentence of eight years in one of Iran's most notoriously brutal and deadly prisons. His response has been to hope in the promise of Romans 8.35-39 that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of Christ.
We must be ready to face opposition when it comes. We must expect it and we must prepare ourselves for it by hoping in God and delighting ourselves in his love. We may even long for it; Paul will write within at most a couple of years of these events to the Philippians how he wanted:
'...to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.'
Perhaps Paul was then remembering the previous night where, having being taken by armed guards to the barracks, the Lord Jesus had 'stood near' to Paul. Paul is comforted by the presence of the Lord Jesus as he 'participates in his sufferings'. In suffering many Christians have reported a special closeness to God an extraordinary awareness of his presence and love us. Indeed Jesus promises us in Matthew 28 that as we witness to him he will be with us even to the very end of the age.
So lets be aware of the opposition we will face for proclaiming the gospel but let us not fear that opposition but rather ask that like our brother Saeed we would meet it with certain hope in the risen Jesus' unbreakable love for us. I wonder is that something we are willing to pray? That we would suffer well? If not let's ask God to help us to desire his presence and the honour of his name more than we hunger after our own comfort.
That's point one: 'Expect opposition because of the Gospel'. However, our passage doesn't end with these forty men's hatred for Paul and the Gospel.
2.Expect God to use you, v16-22
16But when the son of Paul's sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.
17Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, 'Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.' 18So 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.'
At the end of v15 Paul is facing a serious threat to his life. In v16 we meet a new character who will prove pivotal in reversing Paul's fortunes. Paul's nephew hears of the plot and goes to visit Paul. Then via one of the centurions he is able to inform the commander of the plot to kill Paul.
This is a remarkable intervention. Somehow Paul's nephew has heard about the plot to kill him and is able to gain access to both Paul and the commander who will in effect rescue Paul. At this point there are a whole load of questions in my mind:
How on earth did he know about the plot to kill Paul? Commentators suggest that Paul's nephew was perhaps a zealot; part of the group who were now plotting against Paul. That would explain his knowledge of the plot but not why he would want to rescue Paul who was seen by the zealots as one of the their own who had betrayed them in the most spectacular way.
Since when did Paul have a sister nevermind a nephew? We could reasonably speculate that Paul's conversion to Christianity as a the son of a Pharisee was perhaps not popular with his family and that's why we haven't heard anything of them but we don't know. What we do know is:
(i) That through the most seemingly unlikely means God is still fulfilling his promise to Paul to bring him to Rome to testify about him.
(ii) Second that even a young boy can be used by God for significant Gospel work. The word used to describe Paul's nephew here and the note in v19 that the commander 'took him by the hand' suggest that he was no more than a teenager. A previously unknown teenager effectively saves Paul's life here and his actions become instrumental in the Gospel being preached in Rome and from there spreading to the rest of the known world.
Did he know the full implications of his actions at the time? Almost certainly not, but what an encouragement and a spur that should be to us to act boldly for the sake of God's kingdom. God is a God who uses even weak acts done in faith to display his strength and glory. 1 Cor 1.26ff says this:
26Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are
Some of you will have heard the story of Mr McGinley. He was an Australian naval man who described his life before meeting Jesus as 'reprobate', he was a drunkard and a womaniser but through the ministry of a navy chaplain he became a follower of Jesus. After leaving the navy Mr McGinley made a commitment to go out onto a busy Sydney shopping street each day handing out tracts which explained how a person could start following Jesus. He wasn't an eloquent speaker so he would simply hand over the leaflet saying 'Brother if you died tonight do you know you're going to heaven?'After years of doing this he knew of no one who had come to faith.
The story goes that a minister told this story as an example of faithfulness. After the sermon someone approached the minister asking a few further questions and revealed that they had been converted after reading one of Mr McGinley's tracts. So as all good preachers do the minister reused the story several times, in doing so he met several others who had come to know Jesus as a result of Mr McGinley's faithfulness including the head of a large and now very fruitful mission agency. Eventually the minister got to visit Mr McGinley at his home, him now being too sick to walk the streets and to tell him of all that God had been doing through his simple obedience.
God is in the habit of using unremarkable people to do remarkable things. You and I are most likely; unremarkable which means we are prime targets. If we will seek God and serve him faithfully he is more than able to use our weakness to display his strength in the most incredible ways. That's point two: 'Expect God to use you'.
3. Expect remarkable reversals, v23-35
Let's pick things up again in v23:
23Then 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. 24Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.'
As a result of the actions of Paul's nephew Paul is given a military escort out of town - and what an escort it is! 470 military personnel are involved plus horses including several 'mounts' for Paul and his possessions. If this weren't all happening at night it would look like the visit of a state dignitary. But this is Paul a homeless, poor witness to Jesus being escorted out of Jerusalem for the final time being afforded the full protection of the Roman state.
Paul is taken via Antipatris [MAP] before being delivered to Caesarea on the coast. He arrives with a cavalry and a letter from the commander which declares that Paul is a Roman citizen and in v29 that he has done nothing deserving death or imprisonment. It's quite a turnaround.
In 2007 I attended a conference in South Korea. A friend of mine left the conference centre to go to a shop. As he crossed the road a South Korean man seeing a westerner got off his bicycle and started to tell him about Jesus. Eventually my friend got a word in and explained that he was a Christian and in fact he was here for a conference about how to reach students across the world with the good news about Jesus. At the beginning of the twentieth century missionaries to South Korea were routinely killed now conservative estimates reckon around 30% of the country are Christians. God is in the habit of turning things around, remarkably.
And yet if we review these events carefully they begin to sound familiar: A Jewish conspiracy to murder Paul requests a sham trial, Paul is taken into Roman custody to stand trial before their authorities whilst being declared innocent in v19 of any crime deserving death or imprisonment. These words mirror the words of Pontius Pilate in Luke 23.22:
What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.
Paul is being (mis)treated like Jesus. And yet God is using this attempt on Paul's life in order to provide him with safe passage to Rome at Roman expense! God turns things around and Jesus' death and resurrection are the ultimate example of that; God himself in the person of Jesus is betrayed, lied about and eventually murdered. The most horrific suffering comes as the result of Jesus proclaiming the most stunningly good news. And yet God raised this Jesus from the dead and with that same power sent a rag tag group of uneducated, lower-middle-class out to tell the ends of the earth about Jesus.
Look where Paul ends up, v32
32The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia,35he said, 'I will hear your case when your accusers get here.' Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod's palace.
Paul ends up in Herod's palace. This was an incredible piece of architecture built by Herod the Great. The same Herod who just fifty or so years later was attempting to kill the infant Jesus. Now Paul the Gospel preacher is taking refuge from the Jewish authorities here. God uses this great edifice to Herod's reign as a convenient staging post for the spread of the Gospel. Isn't that a beautiful irony?
Friends, two thousand years later the name of Jesus is known. We've still got a bit of work to do before every tribe and nation knows the name but it's a distinct possibility in our lifetime. Dare we be sceptical about the future of UK/European Christianity if this God who held the Roman empire in his hands as his chosen instrument to spread the Gospel is our God?
We should be hopeful. We should be prayerful. We should with realistic optimism call out to God to turn our nation, our continent around. We should like Paul's nephew play our part whether or not we realise it's significance now or only in eternity. Jesus has appointed us to bear fruit even fruit that will last when we abide in him. So let's strive with that hope in mind emboldened by the example of those that have gone before us and empowered by the God who is still bringing the dead back to life. Let's pray...