Waiting for Trials

When we left Paul last in Acts 23, he was in the midst of a good news/bad news situation.  For a third time he had riled up the crowds, most recently by speaking about the resurrection in front of the Sanhedrin.  Paul was in an odd situation where he was essentially under arrest but he had not been charged with a crime because the Romans didn’t know what to charge him with.  They couldn’t let him go free, both for his safety but also because he might really be a danger as far as they knew.

Paul sitting in the Roman barracks is not good enough for a group of Jews who want nothing more than to see Paul dead.  They make an oath to kill Paul and they scheme to set things in motion that would allow them to carry out their plan.  All of this is rather bad.

Fortunately for Paul, the Lord has already spoken to him and assured him that this will not be the end of his story.  He will go to Rome and he will testify about Jesus there.  So it doesn’t matter what the Jews plot or what they try to do because Paul is under the Lord’s protection.  And it just so happens that Paul’s nephew overhears the plot to kill Paul and the commander in charge of Paul is warned of the danger.  This is where we pick up in Acts 23 this morning.

Acts 23:23-35

23 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. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”

25 He wrote a letter as follows:

26 Claudius Lysias,

To His Excellency, Governor Felix:

Greetings.

27 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. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 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. 30 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.

31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 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.

We’ll be covering a lot of scripture this morning because there is a lot of story and frankly not a whole lot that needs to be explained.  There are 470 trained military men who accompany Paul on his transfer to Caesarea.  If this seems like overkill, I imagine it is.  There were 40 Jews who took an oath to kill Paul.  Even with the element of surprise, they probably wouldn’t stand much of a chance against 40 trained Roman fighters.  Instead Paul gets 470 men to accompany him.

I understand that the commander doesn’t want anything to happen to Paul under his watch but I could also see the temptation to just let this attack occur as well.  Presumably nobody would care much if one prisoner was killed in an ambush that couldn’t have been foreseen.  At least that’s how I’d be tempted to view it.  I can’t know for sure but this large number of protectors seems like a reminder to Paul that the Lord is with him and no harm will befall him.

The letter that is sent along with Paul is mostly true with a few minor embellishments.  The commander makes himself out to be a protector of freedom as the rescuer of Paul.  He leaves out the part where he almost beat a Roman citizen of course.  Overall, this commander does seem to be concerned about Paul’s welfare however and he has done the right thing to protect an innocent man.  Contrast him with Pontius Pilate who handed Jesus over even though he knew Jesus was innocent.

Acts 24:1-4

24 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.

It should be no surprise that flattery is not a new concept and the man who would function as the prosecutor here opens by speaking highly of the governor who would decide the case.  As I was reading commentary on this passage, it just happens that Felix was not that great of a governor.  Certainly there were worse ones than he, but the area did not experience a long period of peace like Tertullus said nor is there any surviving records of any great reforms under his leadership.  In short, the flattery is a lie.

Acts 24:5-9

“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. [7]  By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”

The other Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.

Finally after waiting several days, an actual accusation is made against Paul in court.  You’ll note that the accusations have expanded beyond just bringing a Gentile into the temple.  The Jews know that the Romans wouldn’t be very concerned about this and they also knew that this would be quite difficult to prove.

On the other hand, surely word of Paul’s deeds had spread and it would be verifiable that there had been riots in several cities that Paul had visited.  They try to belittle Christianity by referring to it as a sect and even tying it with Nazareth as this was not considered to be an important place as even the people of Jesus’ day looked down upon it.

Acts 24:10-16

10 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.11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 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. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

Paul does not make the same false flattery as Tertullus to open but he does acknowledge the governor’s experience in handling matters such as these.  He appeals to Felix’s experience to give him a fair trial.

Paul’s defense is almost a non-defense.  He admits to being a Christian which the Jews were calling a sect.  But Paul also says that the accusations are baseless because there is no proof of his wrongdoing.  Paul doesn’t need to offer excuses or alibis.  Instead, he basically challenges his accusers to prove that he did anything wrong instead of just declaring it over and over again as they had previously done.

Acts 24:17-21

17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 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. 19 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. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—21 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.’”

In sales there is something that is known as the ABC’s of sales – Always Be Closing.  In other words, always be looking for a way to close the deal and complete the sale.  Paul doesn’t need to make a defense because he knows his accusers have nothing on him.  So instead, he switches into evangelism mode and begins to present the gospel by speaking of his hope in the resurrection.

Paul lives what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

Paul was obviously under a great deal of stress standing in court and being accused of wrongdoing.  Nevertheless, he was always ready to give an answer for the hope that he had.  This is not just something that Paul had to do but it is a challenge for the rest of us as well.

The idea is not that this is for people who are gifted evangelists or teachers or preachers.  Everybody should be able to offer an explanation of the hope that they have in Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t have to be eloquent or pretty.  But it should be honest.  You should be able to answer a few simple questions about your faith if you’re asked about it.

Do you believe that you are going to heaven when you die?  Why do you believe that?

I know that people get tongue tied and flustered if they’re not used to explaining their beliefs but in my opinion the saddest response that you can give to this kind of question is “I hope so.”  I want everyone to be able to say without a shadow of a doubt that yes, they are going to heaven.  And the reason they know they’re going to heaven is that even though they are a lousy sinner, Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins.  That’s the basics.  Feel free to word that any way you like but every Christian should be able to say why they believe beyond a doubt that they are going to heaven.  Paul always looked for the opportunity to express his faith.  Personality wise not everyone is going to be so bold as Paul was but no matter how bold or timid you are, you should be able to answer the question if asked.

Acts 24:22-23

22 Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” 23 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.

Felix is familiar with Christianity.  As it had spread throughout the Roman world it is actually a good sign that he is acquainted with it because it means that he is in touch with his people.  Paul remains under guard but essentially he is placed under house arrest.  He is not free but he experiences a fair amount of autonomy.

Acts 24:24-26

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about 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.”26 At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.

Once again, Paul presses the gospel and it apparently strikes a nerve with Felix.  It causes him to be afraid because he was certainly not a righteous man.  Like many of the Roman rulers of the time, Felix has a twisted marriage history and Drusilla is his third wife whom he stole from another man.  On top of this, it appears that he is corrupt in looking for a bribe so it is no surprise that he does not like it when Paul speaks of future judgment.

Acts 24:27

27 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.

Paul waited in Caesarea for two years without ever having a verdict issued.  This is a case where nobody gets what they want and yet it is probably best for all parties.  Paul is safe even though he is not exactly free.  Under house arrest, he can have guests come and go as they please and he’ll be able to write to his associates.  We have a few epistles written while Paul is in prison but most certainly there were many more.

The Jews would have had Paul out of the way but they ultimately still want him dead.  Whether this is a victory or defeat for them all hinges on how concerned they are with his continued influence even while in prison.

The trials are not over either.  Paul will go before Festus for another trial.  And then Paul will present his case to King Agrippa even though Agrippa is not able to issue a verdict.  And ultimately Paul will go stand trial before Caesar.

This is not a short amount of time that Paul spends in prison.  In fact, from the time of his arrest in Jerusalem until the time that he is likely freed in Rome, counting his transport and shipwreck time on the way to Rome, Paul is probably under guard for five years.  That’s not a short amount of time for anyone to give up and as Paul is not a young man those years spent in prison likely seem all the more precious to him.

A couple of years back I preached on the book of James.  I’m currently studying it again for my own self.  James has a lot to write about trials and seeing them as things which cause growth.  Paul had literal legal trials to endure in this phase of his life but the application is universal.

We all go through trials in life.  And sometimes it feels like things are not moving as swiftly as we’d like.  If God wants us to wait for something though, it is not wasted time.  If God wants us to endure something, it is to teach us something important.

We don’t know of all the good that came out of Paul sitting under arrest while waiting for trials to conclude.  We don’t know what kind of growth came about because he endured such things.  The book of Acts doesn’t tell us and I can’t begin to guess.  But I can guarantee one thing.  Paul didn’t do this in vain.  Likewise, when we endure such things, we don’t do it in vain either.  God has a purpose even when we can’t see it for all of the hardship that we currently have.

A Murder Plot

For the last two weeks Paul has been in trouble with the Jews and the Romans.  We’ve covered a lot of verses but very little time.  Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple and the Jews began rioting and tried to kill Paul.

Fortunately for Paul, the Romans were concerned about the peace of the city and they rescued Paul from the hands of the Jews.  They tried to learn what the source of the trouble was but they were unable to get a straight answer from the crowd which yelled various conflicting things.

Paul then surprised the Roman commander by speaking to him in Greek and asking for permission to speak to the crowds.  Despite speaking to the commander in Greek, Paul addressed the crowd in Aramaic which would have meant that the commander had no clue what was taking place.

As Paul addressed the crowd, they listened to him and his testimony until he mentioned that the Lord had sent him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.  At this suggestion they would hear no more and declared that Paul was unfit to live.

The commander might not have understood what Paul had said to the crowd but he knew that Paul had riled them up once again.  So the commander was prepared to beat Paul to get the truth from him when Paul declared that he was a Roman citizen.  As a citizen Paul was entitled to certain rights and one of these rights was that he was not allowed to be beaten without a trial and conviction.

So the commander is left with a problem on his hands.  He can’t just let Paul go free because the crowd will tear him apart.  Likewise, he doesn’t know if Paul really is guilty of something or not.  All he knows is that Paul has greatly upset the Jews and they want him dead.  So it is decided that Paul would be taken before the Sanhedrin and hopefully the truth would come out about what was really going on.

That’s where we pick up at in Acts 23

Acts 23:1-2

Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth.

Although Paul’s trial does not last as long as Jesus’ trial, there are a few parallels to be found here.  Jesus and Paul both answer the charges against them with the idea that what they had done had been done in public.  If there was anything immoral that had occurred, anyone could stand up and make an accusation and have that accusation be corroborated by any number of people who also saw it.

In John 18:20-22 we see the same thing.

20 “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21 Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

22 When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.

Paul does not respond to being struck quite as graciously as Jesus did however.

Acts 23:3

Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

Paul had a lot of fire in him.  He was the type of person whom you would have loved if he was on your side and you would have hated if he was arguing against you.  He’s not going to be quiet just to keep the peace.  Instead he is going to say exactly what he believes regardless of the consequences.

Obviously there are times when we should speak up and there are other times when we should keep quiet.  Paul’s response to the high priest is quite harsh, but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

One of the core beliefs of our denomination is pacifism.  This means that we seek peace when possible.  It doesn’t mean that we simply roll over and allow people to trample us and take advantage of us.  I don’t believe that anyone would consider Paul a pacifist but he speaks the truth in his response to the high priest.

One of the things that you’ll constantly hear people say is that Christians aren’t supposed to judge.  This is used as a criticism against basically any Christian belief.  And that’s the problem in a nutshell.  In order to believe in something, you have to make a judgment.  You have to declare that something is right and something is wrong.

Yesterday I was reading about the latest airstrikes that the president has authorized in Iraq.  And no one is sure how far the president is willing to take the airstrikes.  Will it be just used as a warning, will it have to continue with a considerable amount of force and loss of life, or will it even require putting troops back on the ground to accomplish the mission that the president believes is important.

The reason that no one knows how far the president is willing to take it is because no one knows his moral code.  That’s not to imply that he has no morals.  What it means is that we don’t know what the basis for his morals are and thus we don’t know how far he’s willing to take it.  He unwillingly agreed to airstrikes after more than a month of slaughter.  But where will he draw the line going forward?

This is the issue with judging.  If you have an authoritative moral standard such as the Bible, you aren’t judging.  Ironically, the people who complain about Christians judging other people are actually the ones doing the judging.  As a Christian I believe that the Bible is God’s truth and it is the source of my morality.  I don’t create standards for myself but rather I follow what I believe God has set as the standards for my life.  When I declare something to be right or wrong, I don’t do so because I like or dislike something; I do it because I believe God has called it good or evil.

On the other hand, if you lack an authoritative moral standard, how do you make your decisions on right and wrong?  In such a case, you have to determine for yourself what is right and wrong.  In fact, those are the people who are judging because they decide what is right or wrong based upon their feelings or whatever popular opinion may be at the time.

When Paul rebukes the high priest for striking him, you’ll note that Paul never seeks revenge.  Instead he calls upon God for retribution.  When you call sin as sin, let the judgment up to God.  The high priest is not going to be judged because Paul called him out.  He’s going to be judged for his sin regardless and God is the one who will be doing the judging.

Acts 23:4-5

Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”

There are too possible explanations for Paul’s response here.  The first is that honestly didn’t know who was the high priest at the time, having been away from Jerusalem for probably five years.  The Romans understood the authority of the high priest in Jerusalem and therefore they regularly switched high priests in order to keep their power in check.

The other possibility is that Paul is mocking the position of high priest because he was not acting like a high priest.  I honestly don’t feel strongly one way or another as to which explanation makes the most sense in this passage.  This is either an apology or another barb at the man who had just ordered him to be struck.

Acts 23:6-10

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

Paul understands the makeup of the Sanhedrin.  Even though they are all religious leaders, they have some very different beliefs.  Paul is never going to win an argument with the entire group of them.  While it may appear as though Paul is just intentionally stirring up trouble once again, I believe that he has a higher purpose in mind.

Paul is never going to win over the entire group of people.  But by making such a divisive statement he may hope to get at least a couple of the Pharisees to actually consider what he believes and to just maybe convert one to Christianity.  In that case, it is certainly worth the riot that he brings about as he was never going to win his appearance before the Sanhedrin anyway.  There were enough people who hated him that this was probably the way that things would end regardless of what he said, so he may as well say something that could at least possibly reach a couple of people.

As for the difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees, it’s not all that important that you remember which is which.  However, there is a very easy way that you can remember it.  The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection or heaven, so they’re sad, you see?

Acts 23:11

11 The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

I have no clue how Paul must have felt or what was going through his mind as he slept the following night.  He wasn’t officially arrested and charged with a crime but he also wasn’t a free man.  He may have thought that his end was drawing near and that sooner or later that crowds would actually overpower the soldiers and tear him apart as they had already tried to do twice.

But the Lord offers Paul encouragement that his journey is not at an end yet.  Paul is going to fulfill one of his goals of making it to Rome and testifying in the capital of the Roman Empire.

We all need encouragement at times and I’m certain that Paul is no different.  There have been times when I’ve had enough trouble with my unreliable body that I just dread the thought of getting older and it getting worse.  Last year I feared that at the rate I was going that I’d be in a wheelchair by 50.  And of course that’s still a possibility.

But in the midst of my frustration I was reminded of the same thing that Paul had to be reminded when he suffered through physical trials.  God’s grace is sufficient.  If Paul had to be reminded of this when he struggled, we’re certainly no better and we need encouragement in our darkest times as well.

As Paul waits to discover what will happen next, the Lord offers him encouragement that he will go to Rome and continue his good work there.  The journey is not over yet for Paul.

Acts 23:12-22

12 The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They 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. 15 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.”

16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.

17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 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.”

19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”

20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 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.”

22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”

Paul’s enemies will stop at nothing to be rid of him.  It’s not enough that he is currently locked away and kept from spreading what they consider blasphemy.  Paul must die in their minds and they are absolutely determined to make it happen.  They are not concerned about the justice system.

Not that anyone would excuse it but before when the mob was trying to kill Paul, it could be argued that it was in the passion of the moment.  Paul said something that angered them and then things got out of control.

In this case, they are plotting cold blooded murder.  They have rationally determined that Paul needs to die without a trial or conviction of any wrong doing.  They have already determined that he is guilty no matter what anyone else may say.  On top of it all, they are not just waiting for the right opportunity to arise in order to kill Paul.  They intentionally set things in motion which would allow them to carry out his murder.

Fortunately Paul’s nephew overhears this.  I’m guessing that this is not a kid as Paul is presumably at least 50 at this point and probably closer to 60.  What are the odds that his nephew just happens to overhear a murder plot?  Usually such things are carried out in secret away from anyone who might accidentally overhear something.

Of course there are no such coincidences with God.  It is not Paul’s time to die.  He must first go to Rome and testify there.  Paul has one more stop before that becomes a reality though.  He must escape those who wish to kill him.  Paul is not frightened though.  It doesn’t matter what people intend to do to him because he has God on his side.  And the Lord has already revealed that he will go to Rome before the ordeal is over.