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To the End of the Earth (53): The Conspiracy

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Jul 29, 2007

Acts 23:12-35

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The Lord's Day Evening

July 29, 2007

Acts 23:12-35

To the Ends of the Earth

“The Conspiracy”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now turn with me if you would to Acts 23, and we're going to pick up the reading this evening at verse 12, and we’ll be reading through to the end of the chapter.

Paul has given what was always bound to be an unsuccessful defense before the Sanhedrin Council. He's been taken back into custody again into the Antonia Fortress, under the auspices of Commander Lucius. We are about to make a journey now from Jerusalem down to Caesarea.

Now before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer. Let us pray.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. They are ever fresh, and ever new. We read these lines, and perhaps we are very familiar with them, but from the stores of Your riches and grace You manage each time to feed us - and we are a needy people, and we need Your word. And we ask, Holy Spirit, that You would now come and bless us, and write Your word upon our hearts. And we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Verse 12 of Acts 23:

“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. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to take no food till we have killed Paul. Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.’
“Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.’ So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, ‘Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.’ The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, ‘What is it that you have to tell me?’ And he said, ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.’ So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, ‘Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.’
“Then he called two of the centurions and said, ‘Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.’ And he wrote a letter to this effect:

‘Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. I found that he we being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.’

“So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.’ And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod's praetorium.”

So far God's holy word.

Things have not gone well at the Sanhedrin. We read back in verse 10 of chapter 23 that

“When the dissension became violent, the tribune [the Roman soldiers], 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.”

That night [we read in verse 11] Jesus came and stood by him, assured him that just as he had been a witness to the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem, he would also be a witness to Him in Rome.

There's a wonderful story of John Bunyan. A Quaker came to visit John Bunyan when he was in prison in Bedford, in England, in the seventeenth century. And the Quaker said to Bunyan something of this nature–that the Lord had sent him to visit Bunyan, but he had been looking all over Europe to find the prison which he was in. And 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. 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 gather against us. The Lord comes to him, reassures him.

It's a dramatic story that unfolds. It's almost like a movie, isn't it? It's very dramatic; it's very picturesque. You can imagine–and I'm going to try and paint the picture a little for you in the time we have available this evening. It's a story about conspiracy. Who doesn't like conspiracy stories? It's a story about a night flight by a huge military escort, first to Antipatris, and then all the way down to the coastal city of Caesarea (where you remember Paul had been just over a week before as a free man; now, as a prisoner).

I. The Jewish conspiracy.

First of all, there's this Jewish conspiracy. Members of the Sanhedrin are involved in it…the Sadducean section of the Sanhedrin rather than the Pharisaical section of the Sanhedrin. A plot. Tempers are hot. It's the next morning, and that night the plot had been hatched–a plot to assassinate the Apostle Paul. The hatred, the unimaginable hatred for the Apostle Paul! What did Paul ever do to these men? Paul was a small, insignificant man if history is anything to go by; and if tradition is anything to go by, Paul was not a big man. But it was his ideas, it was his love for the gospel, it was his love for Christ that brought forth this animosity and hatred and violence. They make an imprecatory oath; that is to say, that they are prepared to die in order to see this oath carried out. They would neither eat food nor drink until it is done…forty men in complicity with certain members of the Sanhedrin, including probably the high priest Ananias.

Paul is to be brought down the next morning [this is the plan] from the Antonia Fortress to the southwest corner where the Sanhedrin are probably going to meet. And somewhere–perhaps in the streets of Jerusalem, if that's the route they would take, or perhaps in the Court of the Gentiles…they had done it before. These militia, these…well…terrorists. (You know they are terrorists to one and freedom fighters to another.) The Sicarii, as they’re called…they've been around for some time. We've already heard mention of one back in Acts 21, an Egyptian. Jews who had shown sympathy with the Roman Empire were being killed. That's part of the reason for the military escort down to Caesarea, because the roads in and out of Jerusalem were notorious for robbers and thieves, but especially for these murderers. They’re to bring Paul down, and somewhere along the way they will kill him. They will knife him in the back.

And Ananias the high priest is involved. He's a brutal man. He's a scheming man. At one point in his career he was pro-Roman; at another, he was pro-militia. He would be killed, perhaps eight years from the time we are thinking of now. This man will be killed by the Jews, by the terrorists whom at one time he had supported, for being pro-Roman. They will burn down his house. They will trap him in an aqueduct below his house with his brother Hezekiah, and the two of them are murdered in that aqueduct. A conspiracy to kill the Apostle Paul, to have him slain, simply for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, simply for preaching that you are saved not by the works of the Law, but by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. That is what had raised the animosity of the people.

Now friends, make no mistake about it. There is tremendous hostility towards the gospel. It takes various forms. It takes various forms. You can't understand how these men would be prepared to kill Paul for the gospel? Well, just think of 9/11. Just think of Middle Eastern terrorists. I've spoken to IRA terrorists. I used to visit an IRA terrorist in prison every week who had been converted. I remember listening to him as he tried to describe to me the fanaticism that he held. He was prepared to murder — and he had murdered. He’d murdered several people. He had planted bombs with nails and bits of shrapnel in them in order to maim. The violence that is in the natural man, in the natural heart, the unconverted heart, toward the gospel…make no mistake about it, there's something satanic about it. There's a conspiracy to kill him.

II. Deliverance.

But secondly, there is a deliverance. Paul...are you listening? Paul has a sister. What?!? Paul has a sister? And a nephew? Why have we not heard about this before? Where in all the letters that Paul wrote — the thirteen epistles of the Apostle Paul — where is there any mention of a sister? Or a nephew? Who are these people? Did Paul visit them? This is his fourth visit to Jerusalem. There's no mention of him visiting his family. Are his parents there? Are they still alive? Paul, you remember, had come from Tarsus in Cilicia. He had come as a young boy to study in Jerusalem, perhaps even before his teens. His family must have been extraordinarily wealthy to afford that kind of elitist education. Perhaps — though we cannot prove it — but perhaps his family had come with him to Jerusalem. Imagine…imagine when the Apostle Paul was converted. After all, he was converted around the year 33 A.D. 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? As the son of a Pharisee, he would in all likelihood have been disinherited.

I remember hearing of devout and almost medieval Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland, in the South of Ireland, in the Republic of Ireland, being converted and being ostracized by their family, never spoken to again. No birthday card, no Christmas present, not allowed to visit with their family any more. You mightn't believe that's possible in the twenty-first century. Imagine what Paul's father would have thought of the wasted education given to this man. I remember my father saying to me in 1974, when I told him…having been converted, I told him my intentions to enter the ministry. I remember his words. “What a waste,” were his words. “What a waste.”

Well, you multiply that by a thousand-fold here. Maybe Paul's parents are no longer alive. We don't hear anything about them. He was a persona non gratis in the family. But there is a sister, apparently, and there is a nephew. And this nephew has access somehow or other to this plot, this conspiracy. I don't know the answers to these questions. Blood is thicker than water, they say. And whatever, this young man–and he's obviously a young boy, because the centurion takes him “by the hand”, which suggests that he was perhaps a young boy–he goes to the Apostle Paul, goes to the prison. How come he wasn't seen? He must have done it in a fairly furtive fashion. It's nighttime, of course. He informs the apostle, his uncle, of the plot.

Do you see what this is saying? God uses extraordinary means, and, yes, can I say “little things”? Little children, perhaps. A young child, certainly, to accomplish His purpose; to insure that His providential design for the Apostle Paul and for the gospel, and for you and for me, are accomplished. I wonder if we were to have a session and you related to me or to one another your conversion…. How did God bring you to Christ? What were the factors involved? I imagine there would be extraordinary little details involved. For me, it was the love of Beethoven sonatas that brought me to Christ. Too long a story to go into, but it was a little thing. It was a trivial thing. It had absolutely nothing to do with the gospel, and it certainly had nothing to do with Christianity, but that was what God used. God used this little boy, and despite what evidently must have been family animosity towards the Apostle Paul, God used him because God had designs and God had purposes, and God had work for the Apostle Paul to do.

Isn't that what Joseph learned, in all of the multifaceted nature of Joseph's life from the time he was a spoiled teenager with his lovely clothes - with labels? God used a coat of many colors (the equivalent of a labeled garment of some kind, whatever it is just now), until he becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt in order that through him God would save His people alive through a period of famine. “You,” he says to his brothers years later, from the vantage point of time, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” God meant it for good.

III. Night flight.

There's the conspiracy and there's this extraordinary deliverance, and then there's the night flight. And I don't know about you…I'd love to see this! I was thinking this afternoon…you know, I drift away sometimes when I'm preparing a sermon, and I'm away, I'm gone! I was gone for five or ten minutes or so, and I was back…imagine being dropped in 57 A.D. somewhere outside Jerusalem. And I'd want to go by the road down which they traveled to Antipatris and Caesarea and see 200 infantry and 200 spearmen and 70 cavalry…470 soldiers! Now, scholars will say that the estimated number of soldiers in Jerusalem [the military headquarters for Rome in Judea was in Caesarea; there was only a small garrison 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 defense…for a short time. Isn't that extraordinary? Isn't there something ironic? Don't you think Luke loved to write that little part of Acts 23? Here is mighty Rome, the greatest empire perhaps that has ever been, with its crack soldiers and cavalrymen and spearmen, and they’re marching down by night, furtively, in order to protect the Apostle Paul. And Paul is given a horse to ride on, and from the grammar of the passage, other horses upon which — who knows? — his books, his parchments, his belongings? The mighty empire of Rome is coming to Paul's defense...for a season…for a season.

There's a letter. Lucius, the commander, sends a letter. It's a wonderful, extraordinary letter. You might wonder, how did Luke ever get his hands on a letter written by a Roman commander in Jerusalem to the Roman governor in Caesarea? Well, maybe in the exchanges that will take place between Felix the governor and Paul, Felix showed the letter to the Apostle Paul. That's a possibility, though Luke says “a letter of this sort…of this kind.” It's a general letter. It's the sort of letter these commanders would write. But do you notice what it says? And do you notice what it doesn't say? You notice how the commander says that he “rescued” the Apostle Paul because he knew he was a Roman citizen. He didn't know anything of the sort! Nor is there any mention in this letter of the fact that he almost had him flogged…because he's looking after himself. He's writing to Tiberius Antonius Felix, the one-time slave now governor of Judea. He was freed by the mother of Emperor Claudius, along with his brother. And his brother, a man by the name of Pallas and Claudius were close…actually, very close…we won't go into it. Extraordinary, what's going on — the little twists and turns. And Paul, having been brought half way, thirty-five miles or so to Antipatris, perhaps spending a few hours to rest, and then going all the way to Caesarea, eventually comes into contact with the governor of Judea, Tiberius Antonius Felix. And learning that he is from Cilicia, he is prepared to try the case.

What's going on here? What do you think was going on in Paul's mind as it now becomes apparent that the trial is about to take place (and so far all we've had, you understand, are pre-trial hearings)? Now the trial in earnest is going to take place. According to Roman law, his accusers must be there to face him, and they’re still in Jerusalem and they will take five days to get here; and we’ll hear about this in a couple of weeks’ time. But Paul is in the fortress in Caesarea. I wonder what was going on in his mind. Just over a week before he had been in Caesarea as a free man. He had met with the church in Caesarea. No mention of the church now. I wonder what the folks in the church in Caesarea were thinking. Don't you think some of them were saying, “I knew it was a bad idea to go to Jerusalem!” Did they visit him? Did they take him parcels of food, perhaps? They most certainly were praying for him. And yet Paul is in that cell in Caesarea, uncertain of the future, knowing just this one thing: that Jesus had met with him two days before and said to him he would go to Rome.

It's going to take two years before he gets to Rome. 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 what we need just for the day — “Give us this day our daily bread.” And grace is like that. But, I mean, imagining what's going on in Paul's mind…is he contemplating events of the last few days, the last week? It's been a traumatic week in his life, and I imagine because he was thinking he was going to go to Rome, and perhaps he was going to go to Rome soon, that 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 I wonder if he was reflecting on something that he had said in that letter that has been the cause of great comfort to the Lord's people ever since he wrote it: that God [in the eighth chapter of Romans and the twenty-eighth verse]…that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, for the called according to His purpose. I imagine (I'm just conjecturing, you understand) what's going on in the mind of the Apostle Paul in this prison cell as he contemplates all the things that have been happening to him — the people that have been involved, the circumstances that have befallen him, the little things, the big things, the deliverances from death, from the murderous conspiratorial plot to kill him —and I imagine for the Apostle Paul there's one thought that's spinning through his mind as he tries to catch some sleep and prepare himself 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 His plan. God is fulfilling His purpose.

You know, John Newton once said, thinking of the arc — the rainbow that is the sign and seal of the covenant with Noah —


“If you think you see the arc…” [representing the promise of God, now]... “If you think you see the arc falling, you can be sure it is due to a swimming in your head.” There's something wrong with your head, you understand, if you think that the arc of God's sign - the rainbow - is falling from the sky. God's promises can never fail. God's purpose is always sure and certain.”

And I imagine for the Apostle Paul as he contemplates what is going on in his life in these days in a cell in Caesarea...I imagine that's what's going on in his mind: “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.”

Father, we thank You for Your word, and we ask that You would write it now upon our hearts and give us the assurance of faith, trusting in You and Your promise, now and forever, because we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.