Look first at v12: When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (Acts 23.12)
And the first point that the plot against Paul teaches us is that, as Jesus said, 'A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.'(John 15.20) Jesus was plotted against, the apostles were plotted against and Christian disciples today, and therefore the Christian message itself, will face plots and persecutions. Including, it would appear, plots - yes we have to be as wise as serpents as well as gentle as doves - against Christian ethics and education. So we must act but also pray. Because, ultimately, we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil, writes Paul in Ephesians 6. And God is sovereign. His purposes cannot be thwarted. Despite all the plotting the gospel keeps on spreading, and the opportunities to tell the gospel are there, such as St Joseph's in Benwell. As Psalm 2 puts it, 'Why do the nations rage and the people's plot in vain?'
One or two of our missionaries have been affected by plots against the wider Christian community by Islamic extremists. One missionary known to my family in West Africa recently suffered at the hands of a plot by Al Quaida to kidnap him because of his gospel preaching. The gunmen surrounded him and tried to bundle him into a car. He refused, so they shot him in the head at point blank range. Yet the person he'd been sharing the gospel with trusted Christ and then took the message all over North Africa. 'Why do the nations rage and the people's plot in vain?'
In the 1980s I had the privilege of travelling with a well known Christian speaker in the USA who had spent a few years explaining the gospel on the radical university campuses of South America. Many times did political extremist atheists plot to stop him preaching in places such as Argentina. Some used to hide in the wardrobe of his hotel rooms and try to kill him by surprise. Other groups plotted outdoor surprises. But God protected him and led him to other universities, and eventually to North American universities where he became known as the Billy Graham of the student world. As with the plot against Joseph in the OT and indeed the plots against Jesus and here against Paul their plotters meant evil against them but God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20) 'Why do the nations rage and the people's plot in vain?' God really is in control. Do you believe that? Does that lead you to trust him and to pray to him? All of which brings us to the next point we learn from the plot against Paul and that is...
Take courage, Jesus is with you as you go in his name. You see let's remind ourselves what's just happened. Look at v10&11 of chapter 23.
When the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. 11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”(23.10-11)
There’s a wonderful story of John Bunyan, the writer of Pilgrim's Progress. A Quaker came to visit Bunyan when he was in prison in Bedford in the seventeenth century. And the Quaker said to Bunyan that the Lord had sent him to visit him, but he'd been looking all over Europe to find the prison which he was in. Bunyan said to him, “If the Lord had sent you, He would have told you where I was, because He knew where I was all along!”
Well, the Lord knew where Paul was. And he knows where any one of us is at any one time - in times of difficulty, in times of distress, in times when circumstances seem to be against us. The Lord comes to Paul and reassures him. He tells him that he will and must witness to Christ in Rome. And what does the Lord promise us? He promises to be with us wherever we go in his name (Matthew 28:20). Do you believe that? Yes, Jesus promises to be with us when we need reassurance. And to be with us, as we do what we must, and that is to witness to Jesus, wherever we are, to be bold in standing up for him. As John Newton put it: "If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer - His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable." Yes, Jesus promises that when we step out in faith tomorrow at work or wherever he will be right there with us, giving us not only confidence in him for the present but also for the future. Yes, his plans will prevail. We need that reassurance. Paul needed that reassurance. Because look at what happens next.
1. THE JEWISH CONSPIRACY AGAINST PAUL
The Jews had been frustrated in their attempt to lynch Paul and the Sanhedrin,
the Jewish council, hadn't been able to convict him. So more than forty Jewish
men in league with certain members of the Sanhedrin, including probably the high priest Ananias, made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul (v12-13). Why was there so much hatred for the Apostle Paul? Why can there be so much hatred for Christians and the gospel message today? Well this is the next point we learn from this plot. Essentially it was Paul's love for the gospel, his love for Christ that brought forth this animosity, hatred and violence. This was a conspiracy to kill the Apostle Paul, chiefly for preaching the gospel, simply for preaching that you are saved not by the works of the Law, but by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. That's what had raised the animosity of the people. So we shouldn't be surprised when we meet opposition to the gospel. One former member of the IRA who'd been converted to Christ tried to describe the fanaticism that he'd held. He’d murdered several people. He'd planted bombs with nails and bits of shrapnel in them in order to maim. He said: "The violence that is in the natural man, in the natural heart, the unconverted heart, toward the gospel, there's something satanic in it, make no mistake about it."
What did the plot against Paul involve? Well look at v12-15. The conspiracy was to have Paul brought back to court, on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case, along narrow streets where he could easily be intercepted and murdered before he got to court. They prevailed on the chief priests to persuade the Sanhedrin to petition the commander to co-operate with them. Paul was in extreme danger.
But, and this is the next point we learn, even the most careful and cunning of human plans can't succeed if God opposes them. As Isaiah 54:17 says, no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed. If it's God's will nothing can stop the St Joseph's project going ahead. No opposition shall succeed.
On this occasion God's providential intervention involved Paul's nephew. Who? some of you are asking. Well all this brings me to my second heading
2. GOD'S DELIVERANCE OF PAUL
Paul has a sister we learn in v16. And as I've said a nephew. This is his fourth visit to Jerusalem. There’s no mention of him visiting any family before. Are his parents there? Paul had come from Tarsus in Cilicia as a young boy to study in Jerusalem. His family must have been extraordinarily wealthy to afford that kind of elitist education. Perhaps his family had come with him to Jerusalem. Anyway we are now roughly around the year 57 A.D.; twenty-four years have gone by since Paul’s conversion. At the time of his conversion, what would his parents have thought? Waste of an education? My father used to think that when I became a Parish Assistant here 30 years ago. And as the son of a Pharisee, Paul would in all likelihood have been disinherited. But we're not told about that. What we do know for certain is that the news of the plot against Paul spread from Paul's nephew to Paul, from Paul to a centurion, and from the centurion to the commander, who then learned about it from the youth's own lips. Doubtless remembering Paul's Roman citizenship, the commander decided on immediate and resolute action.
Do you see what this is saying? God uses extraordinary means. A young child, in this case, to accomplish His purposes for the Apostle Paul and for the gospel, and therefore for you and for me. I wonder how God brought you to Christ? What were the factors involved? I imagine there would be extraordinary little details involved. There were for me again involving a sister! Not my sister but the sister of my best friend. She unbeknown to us had become a Christian and then she invited us both along to a Christian youth group in the big city on a Friday night. And when you lived in a village at the age of 14 in 1976 that was a big deal - the city on a Friday night. Little did we know that it was a Christian youth group and that through it God would change our lives! As some you know, when I was 12 my mum had said to me Jonathan, wouldn't it be nice if you became a vicar. I just laughed and said you must be joking - that is the last thing I would ever want to do. But God had other ideas. And God used my best friend's big sister in the process and unbeknown to me my gran's prayers. And God used this little boy, despite any family animosity that there might have been towards the Apostle Paul, God used his little nephew because God had designs and God had purposes, and God had work for the Apostle Paul to do. Thirdly and finally
3. THE NIGHT FLIGHT TO CAESAREA
So thirdly there’s the night flight to Antipatris and eventually to Caesarea with 200 infantry and 200 spearmen and 70 cavalry…470 soldiers accompanying Paul! God is again using extraordinary means - this time the ruling pagan authorities to achieve his purposes. Now the military HQ for Rome in Judea was actually in Caesarea; there was only a small garrison of soldiers in Jerusalem. The number of soldiers in Jerusalem was about six hundred. And 470 of them are being deployed to secure the safety of the Apostle Paul! The world is coming to Paul’s defence…for a short time. Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t there something ironic? Luke no doubt loved to write this part of Acts 23. Here is mighty Rome, with its crack soldiers and cavalrymen and spearmen, and they’re marching down by night, in order to protect the Apostle Paul. And Paul is given a horse to ride on, and other horses perhaps for his belongings?
The mighty empire of Rome is coming to Paul’s defence...for a time.
Their destination was Caesarea, the provincial capital of Judea and Felix, the governor of Judea, had his residence there. Felix, a former slave, governed by virtue of the fact that he was freed by the mother of Emperor Claudius, along with his brother who was a favourite at the court of Claudius and then of Nero. And Felix was utterly ruthless at quashing Jewish uprisings. The commander sent a letter, actually for selfish reasons but favourable to Paul. And learning that Paul is from Cilicia, Felix is prepared to try the case when his accusers arrive. According to Roman law, his accusers must be there to face him.
What’s going on in all this? Well God is in control. By his providence he's working his purposes out in ways neither Paul nor we could imagine. And sometimes we might think what is God doing? Well he's in control working his purposes out. In the end Paul would get to Rome to witness to Christ. The gospel will be preached. It will not be thwarted. God has worked to provide opportunities for us to take the gospel to other parts of Tyneside in ways that we could not have imagined 3 months ago. The door closed on Clayton Academy, although we still remain committed to Christian education, but another door has opened at St Joseph's. God is working his purpose out and his gospel will not be thwarted by anyone, not even by our coalition government. The Roman government actually helped Paul. Although Paul is under guard in Caesarea, he would be well treated as a Roman citizen, and he had the reassurance that Jesus had met with him two days before and had said that he would go to Rome.
Now it’s going to take two years before he gets to Rome. God’s providence is never in a hurry, is it? God’s promises are never in a hurry. He gives us just what we need for today. And grace is like that. Do we remember that when we get frustrated?
What do you think Paul was thinking? Perhaps he was reflecting on a letter that he had written to the church in Rome just a few weeks before when he was in Corinth. And perhaps he was reflecting on something that he'd said in that letter that has been the cause of great comfort to the Lord’s people ever since he wrote it: Romans 8:28 - that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, for those he called according to His purpose. And if so there’s probably one thought that’s spinning through his mind as he prepares for the trial that will take place in five days time: God is in charge here. God is in control here. Every detail, every circumstance, every set of contingencies, big things and little things; God is working out His plan. God is fulfilling His purpose. Do we think like that or do we just panic?
John Newton once said: "There’s something wrong with your head, if you think that the arc of God’s sign - the rainbow [representing the promise of God, now] - is falling from the sky. God’s promises can never fail. God’s purpose is always sure and certain.”
And Paul is probably thinking as he would go on to teach the believers at Philippi: "I can trust Him. I can trust Him in the good times, and I can trust Him in the bad times, and the uncertain times, because that’s the kind of God we have." What about you? Are you trusting him in the good times, the bad times and the uncertain times? Because he is faithful and utterly trustworthy.
Paul discovered that in Jerusalem and now in Caesarea. As the Holy Spirit had predicted it was a tense and difficult time in both places. The future of the gospel was at stake. Powerful forces ranged themselves for and against it. And sometimes it feels like that today in this country doesn't it? Paul found himself trapped, unarmed and totally vulnerable. But his courage in Christ is an example to us, especially when he stood on the steps of Fortress Antonia, facing an angry crowd which had just severely manhandled him. He stood there with no power but the Word and the Spirit of God. Yes God was with him as he stood firm and stepped out in faith. Do you know the acrostic for faith? Forsaking All I Trust Him.
What was the source of Paul's courage? It was his serene confidence in the truth. He was aware that the Romans had no case against him. He was also convinced that the Jews had no real case against him either, because his faith in Christ was the faith of his fathers, and the gospel was the fulfilment of the law. Above all he knew that his Lord and Saviour was with him and would keep his promise that Paul would somehow bear witness to Christ in Rome.
Do you lack courage? Have confidence in God, in the truth that sets you free, in the truth of God's Word, in his promises. Remember that Jesus is with you wherever you go in his name. Be courageous, develop that serene confidence in the truth.
You see we may not be Paul but we all still need to go and play our part, courageously and compassionately, in making disciples of all nations, in being salt and light, in giving our time, talents and treasure. If you're not sure where to begin then ask God to show you, talk to someone - the opportunity for giving and serving here, and, we pray, at St Joseph's and elsewhere in the future, are there, for the glory of God.