Acts 28:16-31

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After six months studying Acts (off and on), I can’t quite believe we are finally at the very last section. I have learnt so many things that I never knew, and God has shown me a lot about myself and the world and ministry. I hope you have been similarly blessed.

We have arrived at last in Rome, and Paul is staying in his own house, with a soldier to guard him. ‘Guard’ is an ambiguous word and it is still not clear whether the soldier’s job is to ensure Paul does not escape, or to protect him against attack. Either way, there is no sense of dark shadow or imprisonment as we usually imagine. Paul is not in jail, although he does mention being bound by a chain. He is in lockdown in his own rented house, people are free to come and go, and he is able to teach and dialogue, as he did in Ephesus (19:9-10) and Corinth (18:7-11).

Paul begins by calling the Jewish leaders to his home, three days after arriving, to tell them of his innocence. However, they have neither read nor heard any bad report about Paul; in fact, they are keen to know what he thinks, especially because they have heard others speaking against this sect he represents. They arrange another day for Paul to speak to a much larger crowd of Jews. Now Paul takes his opportunity to set forth the faith clearly, testifying about the kingdom of God, and persuading them about Jesus from the Jewish scriptures. Listening to Paul for the whole day, some were persuaded, but others did not believe. Luke describes the scene as asymphonic, discordant, and as they left, Luke says Paul uttered one – it’s clearly not one, but Luke specifies it in this way – word:

The Holy Spirit was right. He said through Isaiah the prophet to your fathers: “Go to this people and say: ‘Hearing, you hear, and you do not understand; seeing, you see, and you do not behold’. For the heart of this people is hardened, and with their ears they hardly hear, and their eyes are closed, with the result that they never behold with their eyes, or hear with their ears, or understand with their hearts, and they do not turn so that I heal them.”

It is such a powerful indictment that it is worth repeating in full, as the New Testament itself does five times; it is in each gospel (eg Lk 8:10) plus here in Acts. The strange construction with repeated verbs reflects a particular formation in the original Hebrew. All of us have had this experience at some time in our lives: we hear or see something, but don’t realize its full implications, or don’t act on it. There is a serious sense of finality in this passage. Although there were some, even many, among Israel who believed – we just saw that thousands had believed in Judea, plus men in the very room with Paul in Rome – clearly the idea of Jesus as Messiah was not embraced by Jewish people on the whole. Thus they will miss out, as a people, on the healing and salvation that God offered throughout the scriptures. Paul announces that this salvation will therefore be announced to the Gentiles, and they will listen, even if the Jews do not.

The last two verses form a fitting conclusion, although it is quite abrupt. Paul stays in this house two years – at least – welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness and without hindrance. Luke’s final summary could not be clearer: this gospel is not chained, and it will be proclaimed regardless of the situation.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord Jesus, that the good news about you will continue to be preached, and that nothing can hold back the word of God. Forgive me for the stubbornness of my heart, and loose my inner chains, that I might testify about you and your kingdom with boldness and freedom.

Acts 28:1-15

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This is the penultimate part of the story, just before Paul finally arrives in Rome. The first section (verses 1-10) are about their stay on the island where they had come ashore after the shipwreck; the next section is about the very last journey from there (verses 11-15).

Paul and his companions, the sailors, the soldiers and the prisoners, stayed on Malta for three months, until the winter had passed and the sea was safer for travel. Throughout their time on the island, Luke describes the Maltese – literally, the Barbarians, neither Jewish nor Greek in culture and language – as wonderfully hospitable, indeed philanthropic, honoring them with many honors (verse 10). Even the chief of the island, Poplius (see more on him below in the footnote), kindly welcomed them into his own home for three days. When they departed, the locals supplied them for the voyage also.

Luke tells two anecdotes which further explain the positive feelings of the Maltese for these shipwrecked Romans and Jews. Firstly, Paul is bitten by a venomous snake but suffers no ill effects; he is therefore thought to be a god (cf Acts 14:11). Secondly, Paul heals first the father-in-law of Poplius, who was suffering from fever and dysentery, and then other residents of Malta who were sick. There is no report of Paul’s preaching the gospel in Malta, but we can only guess that he took full advantage of the opportunities provided during their stay there. The country has historically had one of the highest percentages of Christians (98%) in the world.

After three months, the group sailed in another Alexandrian ship; this one had as a figurehead at the prow the twin sons of Leda, known as Gemini, patron of sailors – who I’m sure felt safer in this boat with this protection. They came to Syracuse, where they stayed three days, Rhegium, where they stayed a day, and Puteoli, where they stayed for a full week with some Christian brothers. How the soldiers could have been happy about all these extra stops I’m not sure, but perhaps they were also enjoying their voyage and port-stops after a fortnight adrift at sea and then three months stuck in Malta. According to historians, Puteoli was actually the chief seaport for the capital, and was a thriving commercial city, with many luxurious resorts boasting mineral baths due to its proximity to Vesuvius.

From Puteoli it seems they may have gone by land to Rome, which Luke mentions rather abruptly. Christian brothers in Rome had heard about the arrival of Paul, Luke, and Aristarchus in Italy, and met them on the way in two different places. This inspired thanksgiving and courage in Paul.

How had the gospel arrived in Rome before Paul did? Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome while he was on his way from Macedonia to Jerusalem, probably in the mid 50s, about five years before arriving in person. There was already an established church there, which probably began with Jewish people who had been in Jerusalem for Pentecost (cf Acts 2:10), heard Peter’s sermon, and become followers of Jesus, then returned home to Rome. Some scholars believe it was Peter himself who built up the church in Rome after he disappeared from the story of Acts (after 12:17). We met Priscilla and Aquila back in Acts 18, who had come from Rome presumably already as followers of Jesus. This is a good reminder that the church is not built on the shoulders of one man alone.

We have learned lots of facts perhaps we didn’t know before today, but what else would the Holy Spirit want us to take away from this passage? I’m struck by the ‘good times’ hinted at by Luke here. Paul, our hero, is a prisoner who was almost lost at sea, has just suffered a shipwreck, and been bitten by a snake. Doesn’t sound too good. And yet, he was entertained by the chief of the Maltese, visited some beautiful ports, saw lots of friends who encouraged him, and probably spent some relaxing time in the hot springs. Thank God that he allows us these moments of pleasure in the midst of our travails.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you care for your people. Thank you for protecting your servants and giving them honor in the midst of trials. Please build your church, and use me as your tool. Send people to encourage me in my journey, and may I also be an encourager of others.

* Generally, translations don’t simply transliterate his name as I have, but instead turn it into Publius, which is more Roman. There is a well-attested tradition that Publius became the first bishop of Malta and served the church there for 31 years, before being transferred to Athens and later martyred.

Acts 27:13-44

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Having set the scene in the previous paragraph, Luke now turns to the main story of the chapter: the shipwreck. Paul, along with at least two friends, plus several prisoners and the soldiers guarding them, is at sea on the way to see Caesar in Rome. Nothing is going to thwart God’s purpose to get Paul to Rome.

The sailors start by simply trying to sail close to the coast of Crete to get to Phoenix, but even here the wind is too strong, driving the ship south. After three days of battling the typhoon, they give up hope of ever regaining control. It is not until the fourteenth night, after drifting helplessly across the sea, that they approach land. By this stage they have already thrown overboard most of their cargo (which was grain) and had little to eat.

However, Paul appears twice in the story as a beacon of hope. Somewhere between Day 3 and Day 14, he stands among the whole company and urges them to “be of good cheer”, knowing that no man would be lost. He has this revelation from an angel of the God whose he is and who he serves. Just as the angel encouraged Mary and the shepherds (Luke 1:30; 2:10), and Paul himself at Corinth (Acts 18:9, though the speaker is not specified as an angel), so here the angel told Paul, “Fear not!” Paul is confident that the Lord will fulfill his promise, and encourages the others to trust also.

The second time Paul appears to encourage them is on that fourteenth night, when the ship is held by anchors near the shore, waiting for daybreak when they will be able to see where and how to land safely. Now he is telling them to eat, as there is no longer any need to conserve food. Luke clearly picks up some imagery from the Gospel, of both the last supper and also the miraculous feedings (Luke 9:16; 22:19). Of course, there are not 4000 or 5000, but nevertheless it is amazing that they still have enough food to revive 276 men who have barely eaten for two weeks. I love the little historical note there, Luke entering the story as a narrator, subtly reminding us that this is an eyewitness account.

There are a couple of twists in the tale. Firstly, in verses 30-32, some of the sailors attempt to escape in the lifeboat by a ruse of letting down an anchor from the bow – four anchors had already been let down at the stern. But Paul informs the soldiers, and instructs them that all men must remain together in order to be saved. Why? Practically speaking, possibly all the sailors were needed to help get the boat to shore, or the whole company off the boat. But it feels like there is something deeper here. It is interesting that again the centurion and his soldiers do the bidding of Paul (cf Acts 23:17); they seem to believe his word, though why is not clear. Luke wants to show Paul as the hero who is in control and is not afraid.

The second twist is that the boat cannot make it to shore. The men need to swim or ‘surf’ ashore. The soldiers decide to kill the prisoners so that they can’t escape. But the centurion saves Paul, again demonstrating that he is the hero of this story, yet still needs rescuing, and the centurion’s function as a character is to protect (not imprison) him.

What do we learn from this story? Primarily, that God is faithful to his promises. Even in the depths of despair, Paul has hope that he will not be abandoned, and he shares that hope with others to whom he is bound in disaster. If God tells me not to fear, can I be obedient to that command, as Paul was? If, like Luke or even one of the sailors, someone like Paul tells me to believe, can I do that? If, like the sailors, I had the means to escape the peril and abandon my colleagues, would I do that?

Prayer: Lord God, in the midst of turmoil, help me to trust you and to believe in your promises. Let me be one who offers encouragement and hope to others. Use me to demonstrate your care and concern for those who are lost.

The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room: ** The Siege of Gondor  ** – 3. 'But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor … if there is a  captain
Paul’s hope in the midst of despair for some reason reminds me of Gandalf talking to Pippin in Minas Tirith.

Acts 27:1-12

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Finally, after six chapters in Judea, Paul gets back on the road – or rather, the sea. In the previous chapter it was decided by the Roman authorities that Paul was certainly innocent of any crime leading to imprisonment or death, but as he has appealed to the emperor, he has to go to Rome for an audience there. He is still in custody, having been handed over to another centurion named Julius, along with some other prisoners. Aristarchus, a Thessalonian who joined Paul back in Ephesus (19:29) and continued with him from Macedonia to Asia (20:4) and probably beyond (cf Col 4:10; Phile 1:24), and Luke were also there on the journey.

Julius treated Paul humanely (the Greek word is philanthropos), allowing him even to depart the company of prisoners and go visit his friends in Sidon while the ship was in port. The next few verses are simply travelogue: Sidon >> (north of) Cyprus >> (south of) Cilicia and Pamphylia >> Myra >> Cnidus >> (south of) Crete >> Fair Havens. See the map below for details. They were probably on a smaller boat as they hugged the coastland, and then transferred to a larger grain-carrying vessel at Myra for the open sea journey. However, they were significantly impeded by the wind and trouble seems to be slowly brewing.

Luke’s words come like clouds rolling over the horizon, getting darker and more ominous. First there is the wind against them (verse 4), then the deep sea (verse 5), then many days slow sailing to get only a short distance with difficulty because of the wind (verse 7), then more difficulty (verse 8) and much time (verse 9). Now Luke warns that this is going to be a dangerous voyage, as it is already past September or even October (dated by the fasting Day of Atonement) and heading into winter. Sailors throughout history have warned of the dangers of sailing in the Mediterranean. Even today, this voyage, which looks so simple and short on the map, is considered to be the most dangerous sea crossing in the world, due to the unpredictable winds and currents.

Paul advises them not to depart the aptly named Fair Havens – in fact, the name of the port could be translated as Beautiful Harbour – where they may wait it out, perhaps in the nearby city of Lasea. He sees hubris – in Paul’s day this Greek word was used for injury inflicted by a violent tempest, but it also translated the Hebrew word for pride, and this is how we understand the word today. It is impossible to miss Paul’s implication: Continuing on this voyage because you think you are capable of weathering the storm will lead only to damage and loss. They risk the cargo, the ship, and even their lives.

However, the centurion is persuaded more by the pilot and the captain (or ship-owner, the Greek word is ambiguous) than by what Paul has said. The Beautiful Harbour is not suitable, it seems to the seafarers, to spend the winter. Note they do not plan to continue the journey all the way to Italy, but just to get a little further along the coast of Crete, to Phoenix, from which they can see both south and north west. I am no sailor, nor familiar with the port towns of Crete, but there doesn’t seem a lot of point to me to sail that extra 70 km, just to stay there for four months. Perhaps Phoenix was simply a more comfortable place, a larger city, or perhaps it was better protected from the cold. Whatever the reason the majority wanted to go there, we will see tomorrow that this was a poor decision.

What I hear in this passage is a warning: a warning to read the signs, a warning to listen, a warning against pride that assumes I know best. I can think of a time in my life when I have seen warnings and ignored them, thinking I could manage, and thus suffered the consequences. As a leader of cross-cultural workers, I have occasionally needed to warn my team-members that I see them about to crash and burn; sometimes they have listened and sometimes not. When there is a storm brewing, may we all learn to heed the warnings.

Prayer: Father God, open my ears to your word. Help me to read the signs that you send to warn me against danger. Forgive me for my pride in those times that I thought I knew best.

Acts 26

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This is one of the most wonderful chapters in the book, a marvelous summary of a large portion of what we have already read, especially from Chapter 8 to this point. (It doesn’t include the significant Lukan theme of the coming of the Holy Spirit to those who believe in Jesus.) The Jewish King Agrippa has given Paul permission to speak, and he does so with boldness and freedom.

Paul begins by acknowledging Agrippa’s ability to understand because of his acquaintance with Jewish customs and inquiries. He also considers himself blessed to have this opportunity to defend himself, once again, but before a different audience. Perhaps he genuinely considers that Agrippa, with his bicultural ambivalence, will be able to appreciate Paul’s commitment to both Jewish faith and Gentile people. Before this moment, he has generally been standing before either a Jewish or a Gentile audience to make his defense.

The next part of Paul’s speech reaches back into the past, both his own personal history and also that of his fathers in the faith. Everyone knows of Paul’s zeal for Judaism, his life as a Pharisee and a scholar, his knowledge of the scriptures and the hope held out in them. His first engagement with Jesus was as a vicious persecutor of his followers, under the authority of the high priests. But as he went to Damascus to arrest these ‘saints’ (set-apart-ones), as he now calls them, Jesus met him on the way. This Lord appeared to him to appoint him as a servant and witness to both Jews and Gentiles, to open their eyes and proclaim repentance, forgiveness, and turning to God.

Paul argues that what he preaches is consistent with the ancient Hebrew faith. I love the little addition to Paul’s story this time: that Jesus speaks to him on the Damascus Road in Hebrew. Moses and the Prophets, that is the Jewish Scriptures, predicted that the Messiah would suffer, rise from the dead, and proclaim light to his own people and to the nations (cf Isaiah 53:8-10; 49:6). Paul is now accused because of this hope, the promise God made to their fathers and believed by the twelve tribes, of resurrection from the dead and the extension of faith to the Gentiles.

There is a short interruption to Paul’s speech, when Festus – a Gentile – decries Paul as a madman, driven so by his scholarship, but Paul responds that not only is he not mad, his words are uttered with truth and sound-mindedness. He appeals to Agrippa’s superior knowledge and faith in the Jewish prophets, and is rewarded by the king’s tongue-in-cheek affirmation. Finally, Paul concludes to the whole hall, and us as readers, that he wishes we all would become followers of Jesus.

Luke’s postscript to the speech has the king and queen and governor depart the auditorium with the comment that Paul has done nothing worthy of death or imprisonment. They would have released him had he not appealed to Caesar, but as things stand he is on his way to Rome.

Luke has invited us as readers into the auditorium to sit alongside King Agrippa and Governor Festus and all the rest, and to make a decision about Paul and his message. As you are reading this blog, I assume that you have already made a decision to be a follower and servant like Paul. Therefore what we can take away from this is that this faith is not craziness, though it may seem that way to some (like Festus). To those with an open mind it may even be persuasive. We can be confident that this message of Jesus is the outworking of an ancient faith and that it still transforms lives today.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you that this faith does make sense, even though it seems crazy – and I seem crazy – to some people. Help me to stand on the truth of your word and to follow Jesus, as Paul and millions of others have done.

Acts 25:13-27

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This is the last ‘waiting’ section before we get to Paul’s longest discourse in the Book of Acts. I was tempted to skip over it today and just focus on the more meaty Chapter 26, but I think Luke is doing this to us with a purpose, to build up the tension before the final climactic speech. Having thought in the previous section that Paul could finally move out of Caesarea and onto Rome, we discover that still several more days had passed. I find it amusingly ironic that in the context of these chapters, Festus tells Agrippa in verse 17 that he ‘did not delay’. But back to the beginning of our story, and the introduction of today’s characters.

Festus, we know, is the new Roman governor of Judea. Agrippa is the Jewish ‘puppet-king’, son of the Herod Agrippa I who persecuted the early church (12:1-3) and then died during a public ceremony (12:23), and great-grandson of Herod the Great, who persecuted the Jews during the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt 2:1-16). Agrippa II would have been yet a young man, just 17, when his father, Agrippa I, died in Judea in 44 AD. He was raised and educated in the imperial court in Rome, but was always interested in the welfare of the Jews and their state. In the late 40s and early 50s, he moved to the area as ruler, doing all he could to keep the peace between Rome and the Jews. Berenice is an interesting character; she was Agrippa II’s sister, but suspected of being his lover also, along with many other leaders of the time. Luke doesn’t mention any of this romantic political soap opera, however.

So, here we have Agrippa and Berenice coming to stay with Festus for ‘many’ days, learning about what is going on with the Jews in Judea. Festus tells them about Paul, left as a prisoner by his predecessor, Felix. We already know the story which Festus explains in verses 15-21. The main sticking point seems to be this contention that Jesus died and yet, according to Paul, lives. Agrippa wants to hear Paul for himself.

So the next day, the meeting is arranged in the auditorium, with all pomp (the Greek word is actually phantasia) and circumstance, with the commanders – that is, of a thousand soldiers each – and the prominent men of the city of Caesarea. And believe it or not, Luke trots out the context again (!) via Festus’ speech before the court in verses 24-27. Bored as we may be to hear it once more, take a moment to picture the scene: a great hall, the king and queen of the region, the governor, all the local area commanders, and other important men. In comes Paul. Look at him, says the governor, about whom all the Jews in Jerusalem and Caesarea are crying out, passionately, that he must no longer live. And yet the governor has found in him nothing worthy of death. Festus is going to send him to the Emperor, Nero, but he doesn’t know what to write, or what charges he can lay against the prisoner. He asks all the assembly, especially the king, for advice.

Luke is asking his readers to sit in that hall and get ready to respond to Paul’s self-defense. What should Festus write about him?

Prayer: Lord God, give me a heart of discernment. Help me to hear and judge wisely.

Acts 25:1-12

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In the previous passage we heard about how Paul was stuck in the governor’s palace in Caesarea, not exactly under arrest but also not free to go. He was still there when the governorship transitioned from Felix (who was interested in hearing about faith in Jesus) to Festus. In this passage we learn more about the new governor.

The Roman political capital of Judea was Caesarea, but its cultural and religious capital, in the hearts of the Jewish people who populated the province, was always Jerusalem. Only three days after arriving in his provincial palace in Caesarea, Festus went up to Jerusalem. The chief priests and other Jewish leaders are still trying to get Paul into a vulnerable position – after two years, really? – so that they can ambush and kill him. But Festus takes them at their word, that they are prosecuting a case against him, and suggests that they accompany the governor back to Caesarea to hold the trial there.

Having spent just over a week in Jerusalem, the new governor travelled back to Caesarea. The next day he had Paul brought in to stand trial and the Jews from Jerusalem again accused him, this time of many weighty charges, but nothing stuck. Paul’s defense was that he had done nothing against the Jewish law, nor the temple, nor Caesar. Festus tried to curry favor with the Jews by asking Paul whether he wanted to go back to Jerusalem to have another trial there; did he suspect the ambush plot? It may have been tempting for Paul to get out of Caesarea where he had basically been a prisoner for two years, but he did not take the bait. Instead, he once again protests his innocence, even volunteering to die if he is genuinely guilty. Probably fed up with this treatment which has gone on for two years, Paul appeals to Caesar. It is equivalent to having his case heard in the supreme court. After conferring with his council, Festus agrees. However, it will be some time before Paul actually gets there.

There is a dreary sameness about these chapters, and there is going to be another chapter of it before we finally get out of Caesarea. I suppose Luke’s intent was to have his audience experience this drag on in the same way that Paul himself did. How I wish Luke had dragged on a bit more in Ephesus or Corinth instead, where the ministry was more exciting! But ministry can be somewhat of a drag during some periods of our life, right? There are seasons of sameness, of paperwork, of writing, of doing the same thing with the same people for week after week, month after month, year after year, and very little to show for it. Was Paul bored of it? Maybe he was, but he didn’t give in to the lure of a change or seeing his family in Jerusalem (he probably had at least one sister there) again. Next time you are feeling that dragging feeling, remember Paul in Caesarea and hang on for a bit longer.

Prayer: God, sometimes it feels like nothing is happening in my life or in my ministry. Help me not to be discouraged. Fill me with your Spirit so that I might prove faithful.

Acts 24

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Reading this chapter, I can’t imagine how frustrating this period of Paul’s life might have been. It is not unlike life for some of us right now, under lockdown.

The first twenty-two verses detail the trial before the governor, Felix. It’s taken the Jewish leaders five days to get to Caesarea from Jerusalem, and they have brought a prosecutor. As readers rooting for our hero Paul we might start to get a bit nervous, seeing this slick professional open his gambit with high praise of the occupying enemy leader. Is Paul the pest going to get it in the neck? The Jews seem pretty happy with how Tertullus has begun. Governor Felix then gives Paul his opportunity. He doesn’t resort to cheap flattery as his opponent had, though he does acknowledge the governor’s long service as judge in the Jewish province. There is not a hint of anxiety in Paul’s speech. He confidently presents the facts: that after many years away he came to Jerusalem with alms for the poor of his people, purified himself for worship in the temple, and did not stir up any riot or trouble, nor even had a discussion with anyone there. He acknowledges that there may be some Asian Jews who might have something against him, but they are not there in this court. Paul’s behavior in Jerusalem, in the temple, and in the Sanhedrin has no scent of unrighteousness. Paul confesses only that he believes the Law and the Prophets (shorthand for the Jewish Bible), and that he worships the Jewish God according to the Nazarene ‘Way’. The only contentious thing is that he believes in the resurrection, and perhaps this is why he is on trial.

Felix’ response is fascinating. Luke notes that he already knew about the Way. Felix essentially puts off making a decision, primarily by saying he would wait for the commander to come. He then orders the centurion to ‘guard’ or ‘keep’ Paul – the word is ambiguous, not clarifying whether he is guarded from others or guarded from escaping. Whichever it is, Paul clearly has a measure of freedom and is able to receive visits. Don’t forget he is staying in the governor’s palace, not in a prison cell. He ends up in this place for at least two years, when the governor was replaced. During this time, Felix frequently called for Paul and listened to him talking about faith in Jesus, righteousness, and self-control. Not unlike the people of today, Luke tells us that Felix did not like to hear about the coming judgment.

Did Paul perceive his 2+ years in Caesarea as prison or opportunity? Luke gives nothing away here about his attitude. How would you have felt? Many of us are in a comparable situation right now, not uncomfortable and yet not free to travel as we wish. Two years seems like a very long time to live like that. All we can conclude from this passage is that Paul used the time as an opportunity to speak about Jesus with his captor and benefactor, the governor of Judea. Perhaps he also wrote letters – potentially Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians – and who knows what else. If you are stuck somewhere, I encourage you to press into the Lord to know how you can make the most of this time.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, use me where I am to do your will. Forgive me for my impatience. Let me live in this moment for your glory.

Acts 23:12-35

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We left Paul in our last reading, safely ensconced in the Roman army barracks, having a vision of Jesus standing by him to give him courage. The next day, however, the plot thickens. Slowly we as readers see that this is not the same kind of pericope as the Gentile riot and jailing of Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:19-40), nor the Jewish accusations against Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17), both of which have pre-echoes of what we are reading here. Instead, this is a story which is driving the whole narrative from Asia to Jerusalem and onto Rome.

Luke repetitively uses a fascinating word about the Jews’ plot against Paul: anathema. Today this word has a different meaning; however, for Luke, with a background in the Septuagintal (Greek Old Testament) scriptures, it is about the cursed object devoted to destruction (cf Deut 13:12-18; Josh 6:17-21). The Jews see Paul in this way, as a cursed man whom they must destroy in order to save Israel from idolatry. More than forty men put themselves under a curse if they do not destroy this curse, Paul; note that they are not part of the Sanhedrin or the chief priests and elders. They go to see these leaders and tell them about their curse-oath, instructing them to tell the Roman commander to bring Paul back to the Jewish Council, and then they will kill him. This seems hubris to me. What right does this mob have to tell the elders what to do? What right do the elders have to instruct the Roman commander? Even if it did come to pass, could the mob have overcome the Roman centurions who would have escorted Paul? Whether the Jewish elders did what was asked of them is a mystery – Luke does not report on whether their request was fulfilled – and what happened to the men is also unknown. Did they really not eat or drink? Did they die under their self-imposed, foolish curse?

Paul’s nephew heard about the plot and was allowed into the barracks to see Paul and tell him about it. Huh! All this crazy plotting, when one of them could have just pretended to be a relative, come in and killed Paul in his cell! In the barracks, we see that the social order has been somewhat upended. Paul summons the centurion, as if the centurion is his servant, and orders him to take the young man, his nephew, to the commander. The centurion dutifully obeys, and the commander willingly takes the young man by the hand and draws him into a private space. He then listens carefully to the report, releases the young man, entrusting him to silence, and acts immediately. Who is in charge here? The centurion does what the prisoner requests, and the commander does what the young man requests. More and more, the commander seems to be another Cyrus, a Gentile enemy doing the will of God.

The commander orders two centurions to gather a company of almost five hundred men, including horses and weapons – that is, half a legion – to go in the middle of the night accompanying Paul to Caesarea. Paul is to go mounted, demonstrating that he is honored, to be safely delivered to the governor, Felix. The commander also writes a letter to Felix explaining the whole situation. He states categorically that he found that none of the accusations leveled against Paul are worthy of death or even imprisonment. Thus we understand that keeping Paul in the barracks, and sending him to Caesarea, are not to keep him in prison, but to protect him from the Jews. However, the commander is not making a final decision about this, as he has instructed the Jews to once more present their case against Paul, this time before the governor as judge.

The commander’s orders are followed and Paul arrives first in Antipatris (a full day’s journey of about 40 miles in itself), from which most of the army delegation returns to Jerusalem, and then another day’s journey on horseback brings them to Caesarea. The governor reads the letter, ascertains Paul is from Cilicia, and then has him kept under guard (in the sense of protecting him, not stopping him from escaping) in the praetorium – that is, the governor’s official residence, not a jail, which had probably been occupied by the Romans after being built by the Jewish king Herod.

This is quite a story. Our narrative’s hero, Paul, is very much passive here. He is protected by a young man, his nephew, then the might of Rome, personified by the commander, Claudias Lysias, the governor, Felix, and 470 soldiers. Where were they when Jesus stood accused? We can’t avoid noticing the parallels, but with vastly different end results. God wills what he wills. For Jesus, it was death on the cross; for Paul, it was testifying in Rome. Sometimes Paul rotted in jail, this time he slept comfortably in a palace. Sometimes God protects, sometimes he doesn’t. He has his own purposes in that. It is hard to hear, especially when I am, you are, the person who doesn’t get protected. In Paul’s case, this time, God’s protection surrounded him, and sometimes it will for you and me too. God can use anyone to accomplish his purposes, whether a brave young Jewish man or a massive idolatrous army.

Prayer: Thank you for your protection, Father. You are the Lord, and you can use anyone to achieve your purpose. Sometimes, though, I know you don’t protect because you have another purpose in mind, and sometimes we suffer; help me in those times to trust in you.

Acts 23:1-11

Click here to read the passage.

While this is quite a serious scene, I can imagine a smile lurking in the eyes of both Paul and Luke as they recount what happened. This meeting with the Sanhedrin was orchestrated by the Roman commander (cf 22:30), not Paul, and yet there is a sense in which Paul is stage-managing the whole event.

Why do you think Ananias has him struck when Paul speaks? For starters, he fixes his gaze on them, no sense of shame or dishonor, despite the fact that he is the defendant-prisoner and they are his accusers. Then he calls these men who hate him “brothers”. And then the cracker, which is obscured in most translations: Rather than simply saying “I have conducted” or “I have lived”, using the Greek word peripato which would be the normal way, Paul actually says, “I have been a citizen (polit-eumai), before God, in good conscience”. They must have known by this stage that Paul had saved himself from punishment by flaunting his Roman citizenship to come to this meeting, so this is something of a kick in the teeth.

The order of the words in verses 2-3 is also amusing, again hidden in the translation. Woodenly (or Yoda-like): ‘Ananias orders to strike him … “To strike you about to is God!”.’ And Paul continues, “you white-washed wall, sitting there judging me according to the law and transgressing-the-law as you order me to be struck!” When told that this is the high priest he has insulted, Paul immediately says he didn’t know, and that somewhere (where? not in the Old Testament, is it?) it is written that you should not speak evil about the ruler of your people. Do you think Paul really didn’t know he was the high priest? Did you notice he never actually apologized or retracted his statement?

Paul’s next move is the master-stroke, and quite possibly planned ahead. While he already has them on the back foot, Paul cries out (not just ‘says’) that he is a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee, and that he is on trial because of his hope and the resurrection of the dead. Paul knows very well that this will create a conflict between the two groups of Pharisees and Sadducees, the latter of which do not believe in angels, spirits, or resurrection. Now the Pharisees side with Paul, their brother, against the Sadducees, wondering exactly whether an angel or a spirit has spoken to him. Essentially, Paul has turned them against one another, and we all remember what Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Luke 11:17). The dispute between the two groups becomes so violent that the commander has Paul removed for his own protection.

Paul won the victory in the Sanhedrin by cunning. The Jews were defeated, and the commander’s desire to understand what Paul was accused of was also thwarted. Safe and sound in the Roman army’s barracks, Paul received a night-time visit from Jesus (cf Acts 18:9), who encouraged him and also charged him that it is necessary for him to testify in Rome also. Paul’s plan to go to Rome (Acts 19:21) is confirmed by the Lord, but we will see in the coming narrative that it is an all-expenses paid trip. Again Luke has drawn us readers into this story with humor, and shown Paul to be the hero, vindicating himself against his enemies with wit and wisdom. His gospelling adventure continues.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to trust you for courage in scary situations. Give me presence of mind to use wise words and to win your battles.