Sermon for Sunday Evening, November 19th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
[Act 23:12-35 ESV] 12 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. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 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.” 16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 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.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 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. 21 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.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.” 23 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. 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” 25 And he wrote a letter to this effect: 26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 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. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 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.” 31 So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32 And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. 33 When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. 34 On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod’s praetorium.
A night ride has feelings of rarity, excitement, and danger. Unless you’re a regular long-haul truck driving, you’re probably not doing very many night rides. If you have done one in the past, perhaps it was for long-distance travel. Growing up in Michigan, once or twice we drove Florida for vacation. And we’d start in the evening, drive through the night, and drive through the morning until we got there. Definitely not an easy thing to do; to stay up that many hours.
A night ride also can be for the sake of not being seen. You travel “under cover of darkness.” Well, there is little in our world today that is dark, with all of the street lights and car lights. But in pre-modern times you’d have true cover of darkness; it would be very difficult for anyone to spot you.
And there is a danger in taking the wrong road, or in tripping on an unseen rock, or coming upon highway robbers who themselves employ the cover of darkness for their operations.
In our chapter in Acts, Paul goes on a night ride. It is not the pleasurable sort, and was not even his choice to go. But it was for his safety as the Roman commander didn’t want Paul, this Roman citizen, to have an untimely end at the hand of the Jews. And sending off a travel party at night was more likely to avoid interaction with the Jews who wanted Paul dead.
Well, let’s look at this text in 3 headings.
I. A plot against Paul.
II. The plot discovered.
III. Night ride out of Jerusalem.
I. A plot against Paul
We’ve seen the Jews previously trying to kill Paul only for him to be saved by the Roman tribune and his soldiers. The Jews want him dead for their accusation that Paul is against the law of Israel. They’ve misunderstood his view of the law. Christ has come and fulfilled the law. They believe Paul is also teaching people to disparage the law. And, oh heavens, he has brought a Gentile into the temple. That is their accusation. Paul is not guilty.
But a group of the Jews comes together – some 40 or more people – and the vow not to eat or drink until Paul is dead. Until they kill him. Of course, they expect him to be dead within 24 hours. They don’t expect to starve.
We see just how much zeal there is among the Jews. But it is misplaced.
And even the Jewish leaders are involved. They ask the council to be in on the plan. Call for Paul to speak with you again, and we’ll ambush and kill him.
Look at the zeal. But zeal for what? It is not zeal for the law, as they say. If they were zealous for the law, they’d know that the law doesn’t allow them to take justice into their own hands. They want to skip the trial and just kill Paul.
Here we see the wickedness of the darkened mind. They have rejected Jesus, now they reject Paul. They are resorting to murder to get their way. They murdered Christ, now they want to murder Paul.
But the plot is discovered.
II. The plot discovered.
Who discovers the plot?
Paul’s nephew. The son of Paul’s sister. And we didn’t even know previously that Paul had family. But some are there in Jerusalem. It seems Paul was born in Tarsus but came to Jerusalem with his family at a fairly young age.
Then this nephew tells Paul about the plot. Well, how was he able to enter the Roman barracks and speak to Paul? In those days, it was common for prisoners to be fed by their family and friends. In fact, prisoners to whom nobody brought food from the outside often starved.
And we see that Paul’s nephew was quite young and therefore not a threat to anyone. How do we know he was young. See verse 19, “the tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” This is how you lead a child. Taking them by the hand.
So the boy tells Paul, and Paul has the boy tell the triune, the Roman commander, as well.
The plot has been discovered.
But what are they going to do about it? Fight back? Arrest the Jews? No, the commander decides to send Paul away to Caesarea where the Governor (Felix) resides for him to decide the case.
III. Night ride out of Jerusalem
Then beings the night ride.
And look at the forces that are gathered. 200 soldiers. 70 horsemen. 200 spearman, and 2 centurions That’s a total of 472 men of the Roman army protecting Paul as he is carried on his night ride away from Jerusalem.
I was to title this sermon “Night ride to Caesarea” butt that is inaccurate. It seems the night portion was only to Antipatris, a city 40 miles from Jerusalem situated about halfway to Caesarea. The second half of the journey took place the following day.
They originally leave Jerusalem at “the third hour of the night” which is 9 AM. So it is plenty dark. And the foot soldiers go only part of the way, turning back when there was no longer threat of ambush, but the mounted horsemen continues protecting Paul.
They are going to Felix the governor of Judea at the provincial headquarters of the Roman legion, which was stationed at the port city of Caesarea.
And they are sent with a letter from Cladius Lysias. This the tribune we’ve been hearing about for a few chapters. We now have his name.
A. Letter of Cladius Lysias
And there is a letter, not an exact copies, but noting the general idea of what he wrote.
“I rescued this man from the Jews who wanted to kill him. He seems innocent to me, but now the Jews are plotting to kill him. I’m sending him to you. Please sort this out.”
Do you ever feel like Governor Felix in your life. Here is a problem, sort it out. Someone else has made a big of things, and then in comes to you. What do you do? Sort it out? Well, we’ll see Felix, next time, doesn’t do anything. He leaves Paul in prison for 2 years and Felix leaves before he settles the case. He’s a fence-sitting, a neutral man, not motivated to solve the issue.
B. Paul in front of Felix
Paul is brought to the Praetorium, one of Herod the Great’s several palaces which was then the official residence of the Roman governor, Felix.
Felix asks Paul what province he is from and Paul says “Cilicia.” This is the province where Tarsus is located.
Why did the governor ask Paul “what province he was from” (Acts 23:34)?
Some but not all Roman provinces required their accused natives to be repatriated to be tried locally. Cilicia wasn’t one of the provinces with a repatriation requirement, so Felix agreed to hold a trial when Paul’s “accusers also have come” (Acts 23:35).
We will look at that trial more next time.
For this time, we find Paul has a reprieve. God has saved him from the Jews again by way of the Romans.
Paul get’s away. But what about those 40 Jews who had taken an oath not to eat or drink until they killed him? Do you think they starved to death? Maybe. But they weren’t so keen on the law after all (as attempted murderers) and so probably weren’t very likely to honor their vow either.
IV. God’s preservation.
We have then another account of God’s preservation of Paul. Death was again at the doorstep, but the Lord delivered Paul from it so that Paul could preach Christ not only to the tribune and the council of Jewish religious leaders, but also now to the Governor of Judea.
God preserved Paul. He has preserved Paul through many dangers, toils, and snares.
And I think, How many calamities has the Lord kept you (and I) away from? How many times has a plot against you been foiled? Man’s plots. Satan’s plots? How many times has the Lord delivered you from danger. Surely it is many.
And perhaps we have many cases we don’t even know about. The Lord has protected you from things you were unaware were even threats against you. He is a preserving God.
We can learn that truth here. The Lord protects His people. He guides them. It is so clear that God guides Paul’s path, especially as he is bound in chains. He goes where the Lord has planned for him to go. To Antipatris, to Caesarea, these are not the plans of Paul but of God.
And Paul seems unfazed by it all. He’s been through this before. He trusts in the Lord. Paul lives under the constant threat of death. At any moment, it could be over. He has been saved at the last moment a number of times, and he will be saved a number of more times before the Acts of the Apostles is done.
What can we learn from Paul, living under that threat of death?
Is our situation very different.
Yes and no.
We cannot say that we have the same trials as Paul. I haven’t been stoned or beaten, arrested, imprisoned, or dragged off at night. The visible threats of death are not ever present realities.
But let us consider this. Our end could come, and it could come even as swiftly as the threats that came upon Paul.
We could die at any moment from a number of different means or for seemingly no reason at all.
But God preserves us. Each step of our lives also has been preserved by God. Each step we take is balanced by God so that we do not fall. Each night ride we’ve gone on has been protected by God so we do not fatally crash.
God has preserved us and cares for us through all things.
So we should learn to TRUST God. Many trials
There are many dangers, toils, and snares,
but as the hymn proclaims,
through these, I have ALREADY COME. Look at how God has preserved you! Through these you’ve already come!
Not by your own power. But by the grace of God.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far.
Even in the darkness of the night ride. The valley of the shadow of death. We trust in God. We fear not, for He is with, His rod and His staff, they comfort us.
Paul was there. Paul trusted in the good shepherd as David did before him.
God’s grace brought him to Jerusalem. And God’s grace brought Paul out of Jerusalem. No doubt, Paul could say, even from prison, “tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Let us trust in the grace of God, knowing that He will take us home.
Let us pray.