In Jerusalem, Paul has testified to Jesus as the Messiah and been rejected. Now the Lord would have him move to Rome (v11) and so he arranges this in a quite unexpected way.
Paul’s extraction will be triggered by a conspiracy. More than forty Jews vow not to eat or drink until they have assassinated the apostle. The vow shows their determination and belief; it may also be an attempt (which fails) to ensure secrecy. However, the vow also reminds us of a foolish one taken by the first king of Israel: Saul. He bound his army not to eat of drink when seeking his vengeance on the Philistines (1Sa 14:24). The result was lawlessness (1Sa 14:28-33) and a royal crisis which almost saw the death of his son Prince Jonathan (1Sa 14:43-45), the finest man in the army (1Sa 14:14,15). This disaster at the top of Israel long before, is being repeated in Paul’s day by these rash assassins and their willing helpers amongst Jerusalem leaders (v14,15).
The injustice on display here warns Christians to be careful in their own judgements. It is a human tendency to rush to judge before sufficient evidence has been assessed. The Bible warns us to take care. There is right and wrong, good and bad. But in assessing a person, we must listen to witnesses (Dt 19:15), including any who speak from a different viewpoint (Pr 18:17). We must also be wary of our own bias and capacity to distort the truth (Je 17:9). And where situations are unclear and/or messy, we should be slow to judge, as the Lord Jesus was (Lu 12:13,14).
The rashness on display here is also a warning. The forty, like King Saul long before, are swept by their passion into a foolish vow. At times, we too feel a pressure from circumstances or from other people to act. Christians, however, should take time to see what is right, just as the Lord Jesus resisted pressure from others in order to make his own choices (Lu 13:31,32). We pray and decide, rather than being driven into panicky choices which are foolish, sinful, or both.
But what helps to control our panics? A deep sense of the Lord’s sovereignty. Our verses shout that out, as they show us the method the Lord used to overturn the plots of men. The conspiracy is discovered by a member of Paul’s own family in Jerusalem: his nephew (v16)! The lad then tells Paul who, in turn, tells him to report it to the Romans (v17,18). The whole scene is one of tense drama, as the commander quietly quizzes the young man about the plan (v19). Jerusalem has truly become a dark place of intrigue, anger, suspicion and violence. This is the very opposite of the dreams of the Old Testament (Ps 122) and shows how the Lord is moving against the city. Well, the commander takes the threat (v20-21) seriously, swears the boy to secrecy (v22) and puts into place a comprehensive security team for Paul (v23). Then he sends him out of Jerusalem and down to Caesarea, when the governor – Felix – can hear his case (v24). Paul couldn’t have planned all this for himself. But the Lord is at work in it all, to bring about what he desires.
Some Christians are prone to anxiety, fear and panic. As pressure builds, we believe we are stuck in a situation and our minds show us all the worst possible outcomes, convincing us that we’ll never know peace. But it isn’t true. The Lord remains in full control of life. We must remember incidents like that of Acts 23, as well as our own past times when he has brought us through impossible situations, granting to us peace again. These then give us hope in the face of the hard places of life, especially at the end when we face death, that the Lord will bring us through.
We can remember the same when we look out at the world with all its big movements and seemingly unstoppable forces. Some tell us that we are simply subject to the forces of chance, washing us this way and that. Others spin tales of conspiracy, where the rich and powerful are in charge of all that happens. Or it can be alien powers from who knows where. Or simply the relentless forces of natures, as described by scientific laws. In all kinds of ways, we are told that our lives are controlled by malevolent or indifferent powers. The truth is, however, that the Lord who loves us writes the stories of our lives. He prepares all that is required, to bring good to us in the end. He cannot fail. So we can tell our anxiety to shut up. That’s not easy to do but we must build up our confidence in our God who is sovereign, entrusting ourselves fully to him.