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An Unexpected Rescue

This morning we are continuing in our study of Acts – specifically today, we’re looking at Acts chapter 23. Now if you happen to have missed the last couple of Sundays, no worries – let me give you a quick recap to catch you up to speed.

In Acts chapter 21, the Apostle Paul arrived in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey – however, he did not receive a warm welcome from the Jews. They believed, that as Paul had travelled the known world, preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles – that he had become almost anti-Jewish and was teaching people to reject the Jewish traditions and to disregard the laws of Moses! Of course, this was not at all what Paul was teaching, but the Jews were so convinced and so riled up about this that it wasn’t long before an angry mob grabbed him, dragged him out of the temple area, and was about to kill him!

Thankfully, a Roman commander who was stationed nearby heard that a riot was developing and so he and his men rushed down to see what was going on. When he saw the crowd beating Paul, He immediately arrested Paul for whatever crime he had done to cause such an uproar – assuming at first that Paul was an Egyptian terrorist who had done some terrible things some time earlier! Well, it soon came out that Paul was not that Egyptian terrorist – and was in fact a Jew. So the commander then gave Paul the opportunity to address the rioting Jewish crowd (in hopes of calming everyone down), but Paul’s explanation of why he was preaching to the Gentiles just made the Jews even more determined to kill him – and the soldiers had to lift Paul up on their shoulders to keep him away from the angry mob.

Of course, the commander still couldn’t figure out what Paul had done to incite such a violent reaction, so he prepared to have Paul flogged in order to encourage him to confess his crime. But just as they were preparing to flog him, Paul causally mentioned that he was a Roman citizen – and it was quite illegal to flog a Roman citizen without first giving him a fair trial.

This was quite a shock (and quite a concern) for the Roman commander – because he could really be in big trouble for how he had treated a Roman citizen – and so that quickly put an end to the flogging. But the commander still didn’t know what crime Paul had committed, so the next day, he brought Paul before the Jewish High Council for trial.

Well, at that trial, Paul was nearly torn to pieces again – as the Pharisees and the Sadducees violently argued about Paul’s case! So again, the Roman commander rescued Paul from the angry mob and brought him back to the fortress. And this is where, as Mike pointed out last week, that Jesus Himself appeared to Paul and said to Him:

“Be encouraged, Paul. Just as you have been a witness to me here in Jerusalem, you must preach the Good News in Rome as well.” Acts 23:11

Despite the hardships that Paul was going through – God had a plan for it all. Paul was going to be his witness not only in Jerusalem – but also in the centre of the known universe – Rome! 

And today, we’re going to see just how God arranged to make that all happen! 

So as I said, we’re going to pick up the story now in Acts chapter 23, starting at verse 12.

12 The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty of them in the conspiracy. 14 They went to the leading priests and elders and told them, “We have bound ourselves with an oath to eat nothing until we have killed Paul. 15 So you and the high council should ask the commander to bring Paul back to the council again. Pretend you want to examine his case more fully. We will kill him on the way.”

Acts 23:12-15

So let’s pause here for a moment. This is a pretty significant development. We’ve seen opposition to Paul and the Gospel before, but this has taken things to a whole new level. These 40 men – with the full cooperation and support of the the leading priests and the elders – have taken an oath not to eat or drink anything until they have killed Paul.

Now I know that science has come a long way since Bible times, but I think even back then they understood that the body needs food and water to survive! They understood that this oath would result in either Paul’s death or their own! These 40 men were so determined to kill Paul, that they would rather die of starvation than to see Paul live!

And that’s not even an exaggeration – I mean, just look at their plan to kill Paul. Verse 15 says their plan was for the high council to ask the Roman commander to bring Paul back for a second trial – and then would kill Paul on his way to that trial. Well, these assassins had to assume that if they were going to attack and kill someone being escorted by a Roman commander and his soldiers, that this attack would not go unanswered!  You don’t attack a squad of Roman soldiers and expect to escape unscathed! These guys had to know that this attempt to kill Paul could very easily cost them their own lives. But apparently, they were literally willing to die in order to get rid of Paul!

Which I find pretty incredible! How deeply do you have to believe in something to be willing to sacrifice your own life for that cause!?

But I guess people do that more than you might think. Millions of soldiers throughout history have willingly sacrificed their lives for their homes and families. Missionaries have faced martyrdom in very hostile places for the sake of the Gospel – that continues even today! Or perhaps the greatest example is Jesus Himself – sacrificing His life on the cross so that you and I can have true abundant life!

And maybe that’s the difference between these 40 assassins and the examples I just listed: All were wiling to die for their cause – but their motivations were very different. 

These 40 assassins were motivated by fear and hate. They wanted to kill Paul no matter what the cost! Whereas these other examples were motivated by love! They wanted to protect and rescue and serve others no matter what the cost. 

As Jesus said in John 15:13…

13 “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

And this is such a good reminder to us that while our actions are important, our motives for doing those actions are so much more important. Even the most noblest of actions – when done for the wrong reasons – can be very wrong! And I’ll say that again: Even the most noblest of actions – when done for the wrong reasons – can be very wrong!

Allison and I were talking about this a few weeks ago and I gave her the example of someone taking a knife and cutting another person! That action actually isn’t good or bad in itself. The action is neutral – it’s the motive that makes it good or evil!

If the person doing the cutting is acting out of hate – trying to hurt the other person – then clearly the evil motive makes it an evil action.

But when a surgeon takes a knife and perhaps even makes the exact same cut, trying to save that persons life – then suddenly, that action becomes very good and noble because of the motive!

Actions in themselves are neither good nor evil – it’s the motive behind those actions that matter!

That’s why Jesus says in Matthew 5:21:

“You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!” Matthew 5:21-22a

In this example from Jesus of a man hating someone else, there were no murderous actions – only that person’s inner motivations – but Jesus says there is no difference! It’s the same thing as murder. Actions are neutral – it’s the motivations that make it right or wrong.

I suppose that’s why God commands us not to condemn others – because we don’t know their motivations. We only see their actions – We don’t know what’s going on in their heart. Only God knows that.

Our job is to keep a check on our own motives. Or better yet, to ask God to check our motives – because sometimes our sinful and deceitful hearts can blind us even to our own inner motivations.

Proverbs 16:2 says…

People may be pure in their own eyes,
but the Lord examines their motives.

Proverbs 16:2

We need to invite God on a regular basis to examine our motives – to search our hearts and see if we are truly being pure – not just in our actions – but in our innermost being. That’s the part that God is most concerned about!

And so for these 40 assassins – while their actions may have appeared noble (especially in their own minds – being willing to die for their cause) – God knew their hearts. 

And also, God had completely different plans in mind for Paul. And so, God arranged for something very different to happen.

Verse 16 says…

16 But Paul’s nephew—his sister’s son—heard of their plan and went to the fortress and told Paul. Acts 23:16

Now wait a second! What are the chances?

First of all, this is the first we have heard anything about Paul’s family. Don’t forget – Paul’s hometown was Tarsus – nearly 600 km away from Jerusalem. What in the world is Paul’s nephew doing in Jerusalem?

And an even better question: How in the world did this young man find out about this plot to kill Paul? I am very confident that these 40 assassins would have been very careful not to let anyone know that they were plotting to ambush a Roman commander! The whole plot hinged on the element of surprise! If they were discovered, they could all very well be facing execution!So how in the world did this young man get wind of the whole plan?

Well, actually, we’re not told how – but we can know without a doubt that God had a central part in it! This is one of those stories – much like the entire book of Esther – where there is no specific mention of God’s involvement, but His fingerprints are everywhere! These “coincidences” don’t just happen – they are clearly orchestrated by God!

It’s actually kinda like your life! There are no chapters and verses that spell out how God has been at work in your life specifically – but his fingerprints are everywhere! From the moment of your birth to the fact that you’re sitting here right now – and everything in between, God has been absolutely central to every event of your life – guiding you to where you need to be – even if you were never aware of his involvement in your life! Psalm 139:15 says..

15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.

16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

Psalm 139:15-16

God knew about every thing that was going to happen in your life – the good, the bad and the ugly – before any of it happened. And He didn’t just know about it, He chose to get involved in it!

Our God is not some distance God who passively watches the people and events of this world with minimal interest! No! He is intimately and personally involved in the lives of every single one of us – caring deeply about every hurt, every defeat, every victory, every experience that we go through. I’m reminded of Matthew 10:29 where Jesus says…

29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

Matthew 10:29-31

In this massive understatement – which I imagine Jesus said with quite a twinkle in his eye – we are reminded that we are incredibly significant to God. He doesn’t just know about us – He knows ever intimate detail of our lives. Not even the lose of a single hair on our heads goes unnoticed to Him! We are more valuable to Him than a whole flock of sparrows – to say the least!

And because we are so valuable to Him, He is constantly at work in our lives – leading us, guiding us, shaping us into the people that He created us to be. As Paul would later write:

6 And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.

Philippians 1:6

Even when we don’t see him, God’s fingerprints are everywhere! And in this case, God’s fingerprints were squarely on Paul’s nephew – bringing him to Jerusalem and putting him in the right place at the right time to hear about this plot so that He could warn Paul.

But that’s not the end of God’s involvement in this situation. Let’s read on. Verse 17

17 Paul called for one of the Roman officers and said, “Take this young man to the commander. He has something important to tell him.”

18 So the officer did, explaining, “Paul, the prisoner, called me over and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”

19 The commander took his hand, led him aside, and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”

20 Paul’s nephew told him, “Some Jews are going to ask you to bring Paul before the high council tomorrow, pretending they want to get some more information. 21 But don’t do it! There are more than forty men hiding along the way ready to ambush him. They have vowed not to eat or drink anything until they have killed him. They are ready now, just waiting for your consent.”

22 “Don’t let anyone know you told me this,” the commander warned the young man.

Acts 23:17-22

And we’ll pause here again. Now there are a couple of interesting things to make note of here. First of all, it seems pretty clear that Paul’s nephew was still pretty young – seeing as the commander “took his hand and led him aside.” It would be kinda weird for the commander to take a young adult by the hand to led him aside. So I’m assuming this young fellow was a teenager at best – perhaps not even that old!

Which makes it all the more incredible that this Roman Commander would actually listen to what he had to say! Why would a Roman commander listen to – or even care what this young Jewish boy had to say? But as we’re going to see in just a moment, the commander took the word this young man very seriously – and apparently believed every word – because look at what he does next. Verse 23

23 Then the commander called two of his officers and ordered, “Get 200 soldiers ready to leave for Caesarea at nine o’clock tonight. Also take 200 spearmen and 70 mounted troops. 24 Provide horses for Paul to ride, and get him safely to Governor Felix.” 

25 Then he wrote this letter to the governor:

26 “From Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings!

27 “This man was seized by some Jews, and they were about to kill him when I arrived with the troops. When I learned that he was a Roman citizen, I removed him to safety. 28 Then I took him to their high council to try to learn the basis of the accusations against him. 29 I soon discovered the charge was something regarding their religious law—certainly nothing worthy of imprisonment or death. 30 But when I was informed of a plot to kill him, I immediately sent him on to you. I have told his accusers to bring their charges before you.”

Acts 23:23-24

This is pretty incredible. Just one day earlier, this same commander was preparing to flog a confession out of Paul – but now he’s going above and beyond the call of duty to protect and rescue Paul from those who want to harm him! Escorted by 470 armed soldiers, spearmen, and mounted troops –  Paul would be secretly sent to Caesarea in the middle of the night to Governor Felix. Paul would be safely in the next city before those 40 assassins even realized he was gone! Little did they know that they would be getting very hungry very soon!

But the commander is doing all this at the word of Paul’s young nephew! What are the chances of a Roman military commander taking the word of a young Jewish boy who happens to be the nephew of his prisoner!? God must have been involved somehow!

Well, the story concludes with this:

31 So that night, as ordered, the soldiers took Paul as far as
Antipatris. 32 They returned to the fortress the next morning, while the mounted troops took him on to Caesarea. 33 When they arrived in Caesarea, they presented Paul and the letter to Governor Felix. 34 He read it and then asked Paul what province he was from. “Cilicia,” Paul answered.

35 “I will hear your case myself when your accusers arrive,” the governor told him. Then the governor ordered him kept in the prison at Herod’s headquarters.

Acts 23:31-35

Now of course, we’ll continue this story next week to see what becomes of Paul and how his trial before Felix all turns out – but for today, I just want to close with a general observation about this whole story.

As I mentioned earlier, while there is no specific mention of God’s involvement anywhere in this story – his fingerprints are everywhere!

Consider Paul’s nephew for some reason being in Jerusalem at this exact time, and in some unexplained way being able to learn about a plot to assassinate his Uncle – or consider that the Commander actually listened to this young fellow and sent Paul safely to Caesarea heavily guarded in the middle of the night – it all points to a sovereign God doing exactly what He said He would do. We read last week how God promised Paul:

“Just as you have been a witness to me here in Jerusalem, you must preach the Good News in Rome as well.” Acts 23:11

And wouldn’t you know it – it sure looks like Paul is headed safely in that direction! Now of course, when God first said this, I don’t think anyone would have guessed that this was how Paul was going to get to Rome – but God certainly knew all along!

God used the rioting crowds, a Roman commander, 40 assassins, and a young kid to all work together to carry out His good and perfect will for Paul!

And I think that’s such an encouragement for us! God uses the most unexpected people and the most unexpected circumstances to bring about his good plans for our lives!

  • That rioting crowd trying to tear Paul to pieces – who knew that they would be his ticket to Rome?
  • The Roman officer that arrested Paul as a suspected terrorist and was preparing to flog him – who knew he would be the guy to rescue Paul from 40 angry assassins!
  • And those 40 angry assassins who had vow not to eat a morsel until they had killed Paul… who would have guessed that they would be instrumental in sending the Gospel to Rome!
  • And even that young kid – Paul’s nephew – who would have guessed that he was the linchpin in all this – the centrepiece of God’s rescue plan for Paul!

You just never know who or what God will use to bring about his good purposes for your life!

We talked earlier about motives – and how our actions are actually neutral – they are neither good nor bad in themselves. It’s our motives that give our actions meaning!

The same is true for our circumstances in life. The things that God allows in our lives are actually not good or bad in themselves – they’re just things in life. Of course they can be very painful and difficult to go through – I don’t want to minimize the hardships that we sometimes go through. For example, it was no picnic for Paul to be torn apart by the rioting mobs! But in the end, God used that painful experience to bring about good – much like the example of the surgeon making those painful cuts to bring about healing!

And so when it comes to the difficult circumstances and events of our lives – we need to examine the motives. Not necessarily our motives this time – but God’s.

We need to ask ourselves – what is God’s motive in allowing this to happen? What is He trying to accomplish in my life through this difficult or painful thing? Is there a lesson to be learned? Is there a festering wound that he’s working to heal? Is God trying to show me something new about Himself? Is he working to move my life in a new direction?

And sometimes, we may not be able to discern the answer to those questions. Sometimes we can’t see in the moment what God is doing. But I would say that most of the time, in hindsight – perhaps even many years later, we can look back and see what God was up to. We can see that He was using that unexpected situation or unexpected person to do something very good in your life.

That’s certainly been true for me! As I look back on some of the most difficult and most painful times of my life, now in hindsight, I can see that God was doing something incredible – something very good  – even though I certainly did not see it that way at the time.

And so I would just encourage you with the words of Proverbs 3:5 this morning:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.

6 Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.

Proverbs 3:5-6

We may not be able to discern God’s motives in the moment – especially in those painful and difficult seasons of life – but we can trust His motives! We can trust that God is good. That God loves us like crazy and wants the best for our lives!

It might not feel like that when we’re being ripped apart by the angry mob or being plotted against by 40 angry assassins. But it’s true none-the-less. God loves you! He really loves you and his motives for every circumstance in your life is for your good. You might not see it now – but it’s true.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.

Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.


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