A Plot to Kill
Acts 22:30 - 23:35
A Plot to Kill
Some story-writing tips,
The American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut was once asked to share some tips for writing a good story.
This is some of what he came up with.
Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
And last one,
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Well, once again, we find ourselves with a long section of story, of narrative, in the book of Acts.
And while Luke, our historian and theologian, is by no means a sadist, making up things that happen to Paul, we do see awful things happen to him, and they do show us, what he’s made of.
But even more than that, the things that happen to Paul, actually show us, not just what he is like. Luke wants to teach us, what God is like.
So let’s take a look at the story,
Paul’s Judaism is fulfilled in his Christian faith
Remember, Paul was seized by a crowd, who accused him of speaking against the temple, and the Old Testament law,
So verse 30 of chapter 22, The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, so he gathers the Sanhedrin, that is the ruling council of Jerusalem.
The Sanhedrin functioned like a court for all sorts of matters;, civil issues through to criminal cases, and of course, matters of religion.
Notice though, the first thing that Luke tells us happened: Paul addresses the gathering. Chapter 23 verse 1, Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.”
It’s definitely not usual practice, for the accused to open proceedings, in any kind of trial. We’d expect some kind of formal reading of the charges or accusations against Paul to be made, at the very least.
But there are a couple of reasons why Luke, our very careful historian chooses to record this these unusual circumstances.
One might be to remind us that this isn’t a properly constituted court. Paul doesn’t get treated, according to standards God had set down for his people.
See, Luke’s already giving us the heads up, “don’t expect this to go according to the rule of law.”
The second thing, and the reason that the Jewish leaders never actually state their charges against Paul in this whole event, is that to Luke, our historian and theologian, the specifics of the complaint against Paul are not what’s most important.
It’s the accusations against Paul that have got us to this point,
But we know the charges are false, and what’s much more important, what Luke wants to direct our attention to, is what we learn in this event, from Paul’s own mouth,
And what we learn from seeing God’s hand at work.
So Paul’s starts to defend himself, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” And all of a sudden, whack, one of the high priest’s cronies, smashes him in the mouth!
We know from the Bible and from other historical sources, that this high priest Ananias was a nasty piece of work.
One historian of the time describes how Ananias made himself rich at the expense of others, and when the Jewish people would give their tithes to the priests, to support the priests, so they could live, Ananias would send his henchmen down to beat the living daylights out of the priests, until they handed over what had been given to them.
This here is not at all out of character with what we know of the man.
And his objection is not that Paul seems to be saying that he’s never done anything wrong. We don’t need to look too far into, say, Paul’s letters in the New Testament, to see that he was very aware of his own sinfulness,
And in fact, many of us, and countless other Christians throughout history have taken great comfort in the fact, that the great Apostle Paul, was aware of his failings, and struggles with sin, in the ways that we very often are.
No, Paul’s not claiming to be sinless, as much as claiming, as he has all along, to be a faithful Jew, and that just as he sought to live a life of obedience to God within the context of Old Testament Judaism,
Now he’s continuing to live a life of obedience to God as a follower of Jesus.
He’s saying, “at this level, nothing has changed”
I used to seek to be obedient to God,
I still do,
I used to love God’s Word and obey it,
I still do,
He’s saying, “My Christian faith fulfils my Judaism.
I have a clear conscience about what I believe, as I always have”
And that’s what the high priest objects to.
He thinks it’s blasphemy, to say that you can be a follower of Jesus, and be faithful to God.
He thinks it’s blasphemy to say that Jesus Christ fulfils the Old Testament Word of God.
The irony is, in this incident, it’s the high priest who rejects God’s Word.
The Old Testament gave instructions about how justice was to unfold,
About hearing the accusation against someone,
About punishment following deliberation, not preceding it.
The high priest dishing out violence because he doesn’t like what he hears, is absolutely not the justice God wants for his people.
Paul condemns the high priest
Verse 3, Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
It’s an accusation of hypocrisy, you whitewashed wall
You look all clean and nice on the outside, but under that thin, clean, white, veneer, you’re filthy.
It was an image used by God’s prophet Ezekiel to describe, men just like this actually, the leaders of the nation, whose hypocrisy would one day be exposed.
Jesus himself accused the religious leaders of being “whitewashed tombs.”
Here’s a high priest, whose role entails judging people in accordance with God’s law, and yet he acts contrary to the very law that he claims to uphold.
He ought to be referred to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
But this wasn’t the way that people generally spoke to the high priest!
Especially not if they wanted to live, in the case of this particularly violent and short-tempered high priest, so the whole room kind of gasps when Paul accuses him of hypocrisy.
Notice how quick Paul is to apologise , sort of! “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”
He quotes there from Exodus 22. God had clearly stated his people were not to speak ill of their leaders, and Paul says, “Look, I know that’s the command, and that’s not what I intended to do.”
And there are 2 main possibilities as to what’s happening, why Paul can say, “I didn’t realise that this was the high priest.”
One possibility is that he’s speaking ironically!
“Oh, I didn’t realise that someone like you could be high priest!”
Early on in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, one Washington insider got stuck into Carter for being famously unimpressive, and he referred to a famous quotation, When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President. Now I’m beginning to believe it.
That might how Paul’s thinking. “This is what passes for high priest these days?”
“Oh, please forgive me for taking a little while to cotton on, that the guy getting his thugs to beat me up, is the high priest.”
The other possibility, is that Paul just didn’t know, that this bloke was the high priest.
Paul’s been out of these religious circles in Jerusalem, for maybe 20 years,
Perhaps he didn’t even see who had given the instruction to hit him,
And since this isn’t a properly constituted court, it’s quite likely the high priest wasn’t sitting somewhere in a particular position, or even dressed in his normal ceremonial outfit.
So there’s a couple of options.
I read a couple of weeks ago, that some of the Ethiopic languages, have punctuation to indicate, when the writer intends to convey irony or sarcasm. It’s a thing like a little upside down exclamation mark, and it means “this bit here, it’s ironic, or sarcastic.”
It’s a pity our Bible doesn’t have that, because then we’d know for sure!
But I think the most likely explanation is the simplest explanation, that Paul didn’t know that the person who spoke was the high priest.
And the fact that Paul quotes Scripture seems to suggest that he’s probably being serious, rather than trying to be ironic, or sarcastic.
But let’s just think about this for a moment,
The man is a hypocrite, But as soon as Paul realises that he’s done what God has told him not to do, he responds in humility, and acknowledges that he was wrong.
Don’t be too proud to submit to the Word of God, even in the heat of the moment!
That’s hard to do, in the heat of the moment, isn’t it?
When we’re “on trial” for our Christian faith, not usually actually on trial, but when we’re maybe defending the faith,
When we’re presenting a Christian perspective,
And when there’s some opposition,
If you’re anything like me, it’s really easy to overstep the line;
To say something that’s not quite true,
To say something about someone that you shouldn’t?
Maybe some of us are going to struggle more with this more than, but there are times, when we step over the line,
When our argument,
The way we speak, is actually contrary to God’s Word.
And although, in the heat of the moment, humility is perhaps the hardest thing to manage, and the furthest from our mind,
Let’s remember Paul’s example,
Acknowledge we’ve said something, or done something that’s wrong, and submit ourselves again, to God’s word.
Don’t be too proud to submit to the Word of God, even in the heat of the moment!
Paul preaches the resurrection, the hope of Israel
So Paul changes his tactic, and cuts straight to the heart of his argument. Verse 6, 6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.
You might know something of these 2 groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The Pharisees in the first century AD were really big on trying to make sure everyone kept the Law of Moses.
And the way they thought, to make sure that no one broke any of the laws that God had given them, was to add a great big list of extra laws, what became known as the oral tradition, which would keep you from even getting close to breaking God’s Law.
So if the Old Testament Law said you couldn’t drive faster than 80 kilometres an hour, the Pharisees’ oral tradition said you couldn’t drive faster than 60 kilometres an hour.
Keep that law, and you’re well and truly safe from breaking that other law. Most of us!
The Pharisees were lay people, they weren’t priests or anything like that,
They took God’s Word seriously,
And they thought that ignoring God’s Word, breaking God’s law, was bad;, bad for individuals, bad for society.
The Sadducees, were more of an elite group. They were generally part of the aristocracy,
They were connected with the priests in the temple, and particularly the high priest it seems, in the era of Paul, came from among the ranks of the Sadducees.
So 2 quite distinct groups, and as Luke points out here, there were some fairly strong differences in their core beliefs;, The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.
And to this mixed group, Paul announces, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Now, we might be tempted to think, this is just, divide and conquer.
But it’s not just an attempt to cause chaos.
It is a very shrewd step, and there’s no doubt that Paul’s read his audience well,
But repeatedly through Acts, particularly in this later section, when Paul is on trial, and even more particularly, when Paul is defending himself in front of Jewish audiences, he comes back to the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and he does it, on those other occasions, even when he’s not trying to cause division.
Paul wants to say, “what’s really at stake here, is the resurrection”,
Not whether I took some bloke into the temple, because everyone knows I didn’t. I was in the temple to fulfil a religious vow, I’m hardly going to desecrate the temple while I’m there doing that.
And it’s not about whether I believe the Word of God in the Old Testament or not. You’ve all just seen me back down publicly, because of what God’s Word says about how we treat our leaders.
No, this is really, about the resurrection of the dead;
The resurrection generally,
And the resurrection specifically, the resurrection of Jesus’ Christ.
See, Paul knows, that the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely fundamental in God’s plans and purposes.
Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated that the great hope and expectation of the people of Israel, for the future kingdom of God, it was here!
The much longed-for, and hoped-for, eternal reign of God’s king had arrived!
That’s what the resurrection says to a Jew who understands his or her Old Testament.
For Paul, the Christian message really does hang on the resurrection. If it’s false, if, as the Sadducees say, there is no resurrection, then as far as Paul’s concerned, Christianity is useless.
He says his letter to the Christians in Corinth, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then Christians are to be pitied more than anyone on earth!
But if, as the eyewitnesses all claim, all several hundred of them,
If, as the history proves, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a true fact, then everything that God had promised that would one day come about through his chosen king, starts to unfold.
So it’s an opportunistic argument, sure, but it’s a real argument. And you’ll see at the end of verse 6 there, there’s a little footnote, pointing to just a few of the places in the next couple of chapters, where Paul makes the same statement; The resurrection is key.
Here Paul’s saying, it is possible for someone like a Pharisee, for people who loved God’s Word, and were jealous for God’s law, it was possible for people like that to come to Jesus.
That is, that Pharisaic, law-loving branch of Judaism, finds its fulfilment in Christianity, in the Christian understanding that Jesus kept all the law, fulfilled all the law.
But the Sadducees’ approach to religion and to God, needed a fundamental shift,
What the Sadducees denied, Christianity holds as absolutely central.
Luke presents Paul to his first readers as an example of how to interact with the Jews who consider them to have abandoned true Judaism.
This is Luke’s little training course in how to do evangelism among your fellow Jews.
Don’t argue endlessly about the Law,
About the place of the temple,
But in your conversation, get to the resurrection.
Show how the resurrection of Jesus, is the true hope for all Israel.
Speak of how the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, guarantees our resurrection from the dead,
How Jesus’ resurrection, shows God’s vindication of claims and his teaching,
How Jesus’ resurrection, ushers in the reign of God’s long-promised Messiah.
Get to the resurrection,
And don’t be distracted from getting to the resurrection by opposition, or persecution, or disinterest.
And while we’re not in the same context,
The people we’re amongst don’t have the same eschatological hope as the first Jews, that is, the hope of the last day,
Our friends and family aren’t waiting and looking for God’s king to establish his kingdom,
In our conversations with our friends, it’s still good for us to consider how we speak of the resurrection of Jesus.
Not in an artificial sense, “Did you see the football game yesterday?”
“Since I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, I care not for football.”
No, the idea is not to be obnoxious!
But it is the resurrection of Jesus that offers us the hope, that our experience of this life is not all there is.
It is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that assures us that those denied justice in this world, will receive it in the world to come.
And of course also, that those who escape justice in this world, will face it in the world to come.
Friends, if ever you become blasé about the resurrection,
About our resurrection from the dead, guaranteed by Jesus’ own victory over death,
If ever you find yourself thinking, that the resurrection is some small thing, of little consequence,
Then read the news headlines, and give thanks to God for a resurrection to eternal life, and a resurrection to right and just judgment.
If ever you think the resurrection is some small thing, come with me one week, as I sit with the terminally ill father of small children, with only days to live. The only hope in that cruel situation, is the hope of resurrection.
It’s good for us, to get to the resurrection, for there, at an empty tomb, we find hope.
Well, needless to say, There was a great uproar, and the Pharisees say, “well, we don’t think he’s such a bad guy after all!”
But once again, Paul is in such danger, that the Roman commander steps in to rescue him, and we have this, what’s become a bit of a familiar sight, the pagan Roman army, rescuing God’s messenger.
God gives two demonstrations of his sovereignty
But remember our variation of Kurt Vonnegut’s story tips, what do we learn about what God is like,
Well, here see that God gives Paul, and he gives us, 2 demonstrations that he is in control of all of these events.
A promise of ministry in Rome (v 11)
First God promises Paul that he will testify in Rome.
Verse 11, that night, Jesus appears to Paul, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
It’s testify about me, and from what we know Paul does, that must mean testify about Jesus. And so the Lord who appears to Paul, must be Jesus, just like it was Jesus who appeared to Paul on the Damascus road and commissioned for this ministry in the first place.
It’s a good reminder for us, yeah, we’re not Paul, absolutely, but let’s take the opportunity to have our evangelism sharpened, our conversations given a more deliberate edge.
Paul is to speak about Jesus,
And so I take it that Christians today are to speak about Jesus.
We don’t just talk about Christianity,
We’re not just on about believing in God.
We want people to encounter Jesus,
We want people to hear the claims of Jesus,
To hear the call of Jesus.
And I wonder, if we think back to the last conversation we had, that we would consider, in some way evangelistic, would we say that it was a conversation about Jesus,
Or was it a conversation about Christian ethics?
Or Christian behaviour?
Or the benefits of living a Christian life? ‘Cause there are many! Don’t get me wrong!
And I’m not saying that those things are bad, at all, but I wonder sometimes, if we think we are testifying, to use Jesus’ word here, but in fact we’re doing something different,
Something good , maybe,
But not actually what we imagine ourselves to be doing.
This, though, is God’s assurance to Paul that he is in control of all of these events, because, Paul might have wondered at some point, mightn’t he?
He’s been beaten by a mob,
Just about flogged,
Nearly torn limb from limb,
He’s been smacked in the face,
Jesus says, this isn’t out of control!
My plan is for you to testify in Rome.
You might think that things are completely beyond you, but I’ve got this in hand.
You might remember the 2006 Australian Open tennis championships. Marcos Baghdatis, a young Australian who nobody had ever heard of, and who had never won anything of significance, had made his way through to the grand final, and was facing off against Roger Federer, who history records, was having the best season, statistically, of any tennis player ever!
In a press conference before the final, the young and inexperienced Baghdatis was asked if there was any point people watching the match! He replied, “It should be a good match, me and Federer have 14 Grand Slam Titles between us!”
Of course, he had none, and Federer had all 14!
If the resurrected Jesus Christ stands next to Paul, then Paul can say, “We have 14 Grand Slam titles between us, what have I got to worry about?”
What God promises Paul is still 2 years away,
There are 3 trials between now and then,
There’s a shipwreck between now and then.
What great assurance this must have been to Paul.
Of course, we generally don’t have the specific promise from God, do we?
When things come crashing down,
When the bottom falls out of our world,
Most of us don’t get a real physical visit from Jesus assuring us that God has everything in hand.
So how do we maintain our witness?
How do we maintain our confidence in God’s sovereignty,
God’s ability to achieve his purposes?
Well, we do still have promises, from God, don’t we?
We have the promise of Christ’s presence with us always, by his Spirit.
We have Jesus’ promise that he will never abandon his followers.
And we have the examples, time and time again in Acts, including these 2 examples here, repeated demonstrations that God is sovereign over everything, regardless of how bad it looks.
I think the very reason that Luke records these 2 demonstrations of God’s sovereignty, to reassure and encourage us as his readers, when we don’t receive the specific and personal assurance that we might wish we had.
He wants us to be confident based on what God has said,
How God has acted,
The lengths that God has gone to, to see that the good news of Jesus continues to press forward.
Will we trust in a sovereign God, based on his Word, even without the specific assurance we might so eagerly desire?
, And of course, let’s , just , remember, Paul gets to Rome, sure.
Paul testifies in Rome, yes.
But as a prisoner.
This probably wasn’t how Paul anticipated it going, and yet God demonstrates his sovereignty.
The Assassins’ plot foiled (v 12 – 24)
The last part of the section illustrates just how far Paul’s opponents were willing to go to silence him, and equally, just how easily God is able to over-rule, to achieve his ends.
A group of more than 40 men take a vow, we’re not going to eat or drink, until we’ve killed Paul. Not the sort of vow I’m ever likely to make!
Verse 15, Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”
No matter how much people might dislike your Christian witness in your workplace, or in your family, or your school, take heart, I’m pretty sure they don’t hate you this much!
We’re given an intriguing detail about Paul’s family, which we know nothing else about! He had a sister, who had a son.
He heard about the plot, and told Paul,
Paul asks the centurion to take him to the commander, and the young man repeats this threat to the commander. Notice one small additional piece of information, verse 20, Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin , tomorrow
So their great vow not to eat or drink until they’ve killed Paul, they don’t want to have to wait too long!
And so the commander prepares soldiers, horsemen, and spearmen, 270 men in all, so that Paul can be kept safe, and delivered to the governor in Caesarea.
The commander, who’s name we discover here, Claudius Lysias, that’s a nice little detail isn’t? Don’t you feel that we know him so well by this stage, so it’s nice to find out his name?! he writes to Governor Felix.
Lysias describes his assessment of Paul, and there’s a bit of self-preservation, isn’t there?! I rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. Yeah, eventually! Not before you got ready to flog him!
But there are parallels in the letter, to another Roman official’s conclusions, Pilate’s assessment of Jesus, where in Luke 23, the governor says, I have found no basis for your charges against him.
As Jesus went, so goes Paul, his follower and messenger.
So Paul is carried away to Caesarea, to Governor Felix.
It’s not what we expect to see, knowing that it was the Roman Army who crucified Jesus.
But Luke wants us to remember that God is sovereign, even over the commanders of armies,
And of course, he also wants to show his original readers, that as far as the government is concerned, there is nothing at all to fear from the Christian message.
Luke addresses both volumes of his work, what we call Luke’s gospel, and this book, Acts, to a man named Theophilus.
And it seems that Theophilus was a high ranking person in Roman Society. Intriguingly, Luke addresses him in his introduction in Luke chapter 1, as “Most Excellent Theophilus.”
The only other times that language of address is used in the Bible is when people are addressing the Roman governors in this section of Acts. You can see it there in verse 26, His Excellency, Governor Felix. It’s the same honorific title.
So Theophilus, may be one of these very high ranking officials.
Whatever the specifics, Luke goes to great lengths to show, that those in positions of authority,
Those who lead the nation, continually find no fault in the Christian message, or with the Christian messengers.
But Paul is, for now, under guard in Herod’s palace, verse 35.
It sounds like an ominous way for this section to close.
Another day, another prison cell.
Not much has changed, it seems.
Except, if we cast our minds back to Paul’s first encounter with Jesus, on the road to Damascus, in chapter 9. Jesus promises there, that Paul will be his witness, before kings.
Herod Agrippa was appointed king by Emperor Nero, and it’s as a prisoner in this place, Herod’s palace in Caesarea, that Paul first has that opportunity, to testify to Jesus before kings.
In World War 1, aviation was still a very new concept, it was extremely dangerous, and I read this week, that the life expectancy of a British pilot, was 8 days.
You’d have to say, on the surface, we’d have to expect something similar for Paul. He’s dodged a few bullets, but surely his time is up.
But, back to Kurt Vonneget, the awful things that happen, just show us more and more about God, and we’re reminded that he is sovereign over all the events in Paul’s life, and over all the events in our lives.
God’s sovereignty, is demonstrated once again.