Last week we saw how the Roman commander in Jerusalem had ordered Paul to be flogged in order to force a confession from him. The commander — do you remember? — wanted to find out why the Jews in Jerusalem were so furious with him. The commander was thinking: ‘Paul must have done something wrong to make them so angry.’ So, he thought that by flogging Paul, he’d be able to extract a confession from him. But, as they were stretching him out on the rack, Paul revealed that he was, in fact, a Roman citizen. And you couldn’t flog a Roman citizen without a fair trial. So, after that, the commander called a meeting of the Sanhedrin to see what they thought of Paul. And do you remember? While he was addressing them, Paul referred to his belief in the resurrection of the dead. And that statement divided the Sanhedrin, because some of them believed in the resurrection of the dead and others did not. And soon there was a great uproar which turned violent. So, the Roman commander ordered Paul to be taken back to the barracks for his own safety.
Well, during the night, the Lord appeared to Paul and said to him in verse 11:
Take courage! As you have testified to about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.
What an encouragement that must have been to Paul to know that the Lord knew all about him and what he was going through and had appeared to re-assure him. And I said last week that though the Lord no longer speaks to us from heaven or appears before us in visions as he did to Paul, nevertheless he still speaks to us in his word to re-assure us with his promise that he will never leave us or forsake. And so, we must go to his word, again and again, in order to remind ourselves constantly of his faithfulness and of his willingness to help us so that we too can take courage whenever we’re going through trials and troubles.
But notice this one other thing before we move on from verse 11. The Lord was telling Paul that he was headed for Rome. He said to Paul:
As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you will testify about me in Rome.
So, the Lord wanted to bring Paul to Rome. But how was Paul going to get there? Well, as we’ll see, he had to be taken out of Jerusalem at night because the Jews were plotting to kill him. And the journey to Rome was not straightforward. He remained a prisoner the whole time and he was kept in Caesarea for more than two years, waiting to be examined by the governor. And the whole time he was there, he was kept under guard. The Lord wanted Paul to reach Rome. But it would not be easy for Paul.
We often assume that God will grant his people an easy life. We assume that his will for us is to give us a carefree and untroubled life. We assume that he promises his servants freedom from trouble and anxiety. But look at this: Was there ever a more faithful servant of the Lord than Paul? And yet his life consisted of one trouble after another.
So, do you remember that passage in 2 Corinthians 11 where Paul described his life and all the things he had to endure? He wrote:
24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
It was just one thing after another. But, of course, his troubled life followed the pattern of the Lord Jesus who was a man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering. You see, the Christian life is often a life of suffering now. Troubles now. Anxiety now. There’s glory to come, of course. And perfect peace and rest in the life to come. But often our life can be like Paul’s life and it’s filled with sorrow and trouble.
But here’s the thing. And we can learn this lesson from Paul. Though he had to suffer so much, the Lord was working through him and through his suffering to accomplish his purposes. Through all that Paul was called to endure, God was working to bring him to Rome so that he could preach the gospel there so that sinners could hear and believe and receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life. Paul’s suffering meant salvation for many in Rome. God is able to work through whatever we are called to endure in this world.
Verses 12 to 15
Take a look at verse 12. Paul needed to take courage, and he needed the Lord’s help because the next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and they bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until what? Until they had killed Paul. More than 40 men were involved in the plot, we’re told in verse 13. And look at verses 14 and 15: They involved the chief priests and the elders in their plot. And the plot was simple enough: The chief priest and elders were to get the Sanhedrin to ask the Roman commander to let them question Paul again. And while Paul was being moved from the barracks to the Sanhedrin, the men were going to attack Paul and kill him. Now, instead of telling the 40 men that they had no right to take matters into their own hands, instead of telling them that they had no right to kill Paul who still hadn’t been formally tried and found guilty of any crime, instead of reminding them of the Lord’s sixth commandment forbidding murder, the chief priests and the elders seem to have agreed to their plan.
Verses 16 to 22
And so, we’re reminded once again of the violent opposition to Christianity in those days and of the suffering Paul and his fellow apostles had to endure for the sake of Christ. And, of course, it’s been the same ever since. But, look what happened on this occasion. Verse 16: The son of Paul’s sister heard of the plot. Well, someone might say: ‘That was lucky!’ But what does the Bible say? Lamentations 3:
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?
The 40 men, and the chief priests and the elders, got together and the plotted and planned how to kill Paul. But who can speak and have it happen unless the Lord has decreed it. And the Lord had not decreed that Paul should be killed that day. The Lord had decreed that Paul should preach in Rome. And so, the Lord ensured that the son of Paul’s sister just happened to overhear their plans. And he was able to speak to Paul in the barracks and warn him. And the centurion was willing to do as Paul asked and take the young man to see the commander. And the commander was willing to listen to the young man and take the message seriously.
How come the young man heard about the plot? How come the centurion listened to Paul? How come the commander was prepared to take the young man’s message seriously? It was the Lord, working in the background to protect Paul from his enemies and to ensure that Paul would one day reach Rome.
And isn’t it wonderful? The Lord is able to guide, not only believers like Paul, but unbelievers like the centurion and the commander. The Lord is able to work out his plans and purposes through preachers like Paul and through unbelievers like the centurion and commander. You see, the Lord rules over all. He’s able to guide and direct all people. What does our Catechism say? Question:
What are God’s works of providence?
God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise and powerful preservation and control of all his creatures, and all their actions. The Lord controls all of his creatures and all of their actions.
So, he controlled the centurion and the commander and all their thoughts and actions to make sure that Paul was protected.
Of course, we see this in other places in the Bible. For instance, the book of 2 Chronicles ends with Cyrus’s decree. Cyrus was the king of Peria. And in his decree,he permitted any of the Jews in exile at that time to return to the land of Israel. He released them from their captivity. In the book of Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes was willing to listen to Nehemiah’s request and to let Nehemiah return to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He even agreed to provide the timber they needed to rebuild the gates of Jerusalem. In the book of Esther, the Lord used Esther and Mordecai, of course, to deliver his people from their enemies. But he also used King Xerxes, Esther’s unbelieving husband. And, of course, many years later, the Lord God so guided and directed the heart of Pontius Pilate that he agreed to order the execution of the Lord Jesus in accordance with God’s great plan for our salvation. Throughout the Bible, we’re shown that the Lord rules over all people everywhere. And he rules over all people everywhere to ensure that his plans and purposes will be fulfilled. And so, when we sit down to watch the news, and we wonder what is happening in the world, we need to remember and believe that the Lord God is still enthroned in heaven where he rules over all; and he’s still able to guide and direct the leaders of the nations in order to work out his plans for his church. We don’t need to be afraid. And we don’t need to be anxious. The Lord our God rules over all.
Verses 23 to 35
In verse 23 we see what the commander did. He called two of his centurions to get 200 soldiers plus horsemen plus spearmen to take Paul to Caesarea that very night. And look at verse 24: he wanted Paul taken there safely. And then he wrote a letter to be handed to Felix, the Roman governor. And in the letter he explained to Felix why he was sending Paul to him. And so, in due course, Paul arrived in Caesarea where he was put under guard in Herod’s palace. Though he was still a prisoner, at least he was safe. And he was also one step closer to Rome which is where the Lord wanted to lead him so that he would be able to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to those who were at the heart of the Roman Empire.
So, this passage reminds us of the violent opposition there was — and still is — to Christianity. And this passage reminds us that the Lord our God rules over all and he’s able to guide and direct the hearts of unbelievers and use them to fulfil his plans. And this passage reminds us that the Lord calls believers to endure much suffering and sorrow in this troubled life. But just because we might be called to suffer, doesn’t mean God has abandoned us, because God is able to use our suffering to accomplish his plan to build Christ’s church here on earth.