April 18, 2016

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Chapters 12-28)            

                    

Subtopic E: Paul in Jerusalem (21:15-23:22)                                                      

                          

                                                                           

         Lesson: IV.E.6: The Plot Against Paul (23:11-22)

 

 

Acts 23:11-22 (KJV)

 

11 And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.

12 And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.

13 And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy.

14 And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.

15 Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to morrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.

16 And when Paul's sister's son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul.

17 Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him.

18 So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee.

19 Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me?

20 And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly.

21 But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee.

22 So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.

 

 

Introduction

The narrative has all the marks of an eyewitness account; only the most skeptical would question Luke’s accuracy and truthfulness.

 

 

Commentary

11 And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.

 

Alone, locked up, and held under guard; it would be natural for Paul to be depressed, fearful, and discouraged by all this.  Perhaps he was secretly chastising himself for the commotion he had caused.  He had failed and now what about his plans to go on to Rome?  At this point he was not even sure he would get out of Jerusalem alive.  Where would all this end?  What good had it done him or anyone else for him to have come to Jerusalem; fine thanks he had received from the Jerusalem Christians for the generous gift he had brought them.

 

The following night after his appearance before the Sanhedrin, Paul had a reassuring vision{1] while in the Antonia prison.  Dear reader, I can imagine Paul praying and the Lord taping him on the shoulder and then standing beside him.  We would insult the very sacredness of this incident if we discussed how the Lord appeared or how Paul heard Him.  He was there, and Paul knew it.  He spoke, and Paul heard it. It put a new heart into the apostle, and he took courage as the Lord commanded him. If ever he had needed reassurance, it must have been now, and the Lord (Jesus) met that need.  He spoke to Paul that night in the Antonia, bidding him to “be of good cheer.”  He could take the cruelty of his circumstances now as part of that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.  All things would indeed work together for good.  He was the called according to God’s purpose.  He was still in the center of God’s will. 

 

Notice what the Lord said to the apostle: “Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” It covered all his needs at the time.  He had a word for his dejection: “Be of good cheer.” He had a word for his sense that he had failed in Jerusalem: “But thou hast testified concerning Me at Jerusalem.” There may have been a failure in method, in policy, but the motive was pure, and therefore the Lord could say: “Thou hast testified.” He had a word or his fear about the future: “So must thou bear witness also at Rome.” What a night it was.  How full of light, how full of glory.  His Master’s word of cheer to chase away the dejection of his spirit; his Master’s word of commendation astonishing him, and yet comforting him in view of his failure; his Master’s word of appointment, filling him with certainty that in spite of all the difficulties in front of him, he would preach Christ at Rome.

 

The Lord’s message, “Be of good cheer,” simply means “Take courage!” Jesus often spoke these words during His earthly ministry.  As God’s people, we can always take courage in times of difficulty because the Lord is with us and He will see us through.  Notice, there was not a word of criticism or reproach from the Savior.  Rather, it was a message of shear praise and promise.

 

The next two or three years would be filled with difficulties, delays, and outright dangers, but Paul would rise triumphant over them all; nothing could prevent him now from getting to Rome. The Lord had certainly prepared him well for the events that had just transpired in Jerusalem—“I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (20:23).  Still they had been particularly trying—the mob in the temple square, the arrest, the attempted scourging, the violence of the Sanhedrin.  To what was it all leading?  The Lord’s words assured him that there was a divine purpose in all that had happened to him.  As he had borne his witness in Jerusalem, so would he bear it in Rome.  Paul had already expressed his own desire to visit Rome—“After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also” (19:21).  Now the visit received the Lord’s endorsement.  The key word is, of course, “testify.” Notice that his task was not to defend himself, but “to testify.” All Paul’s troubles in the past two days had ultimately derived from his testifying to Christ before the Jews.  Now his trip to Rome and all of the legal hassle in between also would be a testimony.

 

On so many occasions Paul was on the very brink of disaster, and yet somehow or other he came through unscathed.  A person who did not know the secret might innocently say that he led a charmed life.  There was no charm about it.  It was simply that the Lord stood by him.  Paul knew it; he accepted it; he literally threw himself upon it.  It gave him a kind of daring that was beyond the boldness of a gladiator.  He had been taught it from childhood; he learned it by heart in the psalms—“A thousand shall fall at thy side . . . but it shall not come nigh thee” (Psalm 91:7)—but he felt it, knew it in his heart, when he stood by the Cross and felt the love of God flowing through the sacrificial life of Jesus, poured out indiscriminately upon those who deserved it and those who did not, given extravagantly to men and women who were still sinners.

 

Any disciple who in some measure shares Paul’s experience can do anything; for no matter what happens to him or around him he knows that the Lord stands by.

 

 

12 And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.

13 And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy.

 

The Lord’s assuring vision to Paul was timely, coming as it did on the day following the fiasco at the council meeting, for his troubles were far from over.  The threat came from a group of 40 zealous Jews{7] who placed themselves under a vow to neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul{2].  They placed themselves under an anathema, a curse, probably in the form of “May I be cursed/eternally damned if . . .” One wonders if they died of hunger or thirst, for their vow was definitely not fulfilled.  Actually, Jewish law provided for the release from a vow that was unfulfillable because of some unforeseen circumstance.  Paul’s removal under heavy Roman guard would have qualified.

 

 

14 And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.

15 Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to morrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.

 

The 40 conspirators hatched a plot to fulfill their vow, which involved the cooperation of the Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin was to call a session and have the tribune deliverer Paul to them under the pretense of giving him a further hearing.  On the way between Antonia and the council chamber{3], they would ambush and kill Paul{4].  It was a desperate plan with little chance of success, conceived perhaps in the knowledge that the Sanhedrin lacked the power in most cases to inflict capital punishment; and the plan may have been as much a symptom of their frustration with Roman rule as it was of their desire to be rid of Paul.

 

That was the plot.  Careless with their own lives, thinking to do God a service, these fanatics would rid Judaism of Paul once and for all.  The Jewish leaders, however, had to play their part with the military tribune.  They were to tell him they wanted to “inquire” something more perfectly.  The word is a medical word for making a careful examination—the word from which comes our English “diagnosis.” How sad that religion should disgrace itself with dark plots, lies, and violence.  But little wonder, since religion is spawned by the father of lies, he who was a murderer from the beginning.

 

Their plan might have worked, but the 40 fasting men and the scheming religious leaders had forgotten that Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, and that the exalted Lord was watching from heaven.  At Paul’s conversion, the Lord had told him that he would suffer, but He had also promised that He would deliver him from his enemies (Acts 9:15-16; 26:16-17).  Paul held on to that promise all of his life, and God was faithful.

 

It says something about the spiritual leadership in Israel at that time that no protest was raised by the religious authorities when the conspirators took them into their confidence. On the contrary, they appeared quite willing to give their blessing to the enterprise. Notice also, that there is not any evidence of an attempt by Jerusalem Christians to inform Paul of the plot. 

It is perhaps significant that it was the high priestly aristocracy and the elders whom they approached, the Sadducees on the Sanhedrin.  The scribes (Pharisees), with their greater openness to Paul (23:9), are not mentioned.

 

 

 

Verses Referenced

(23:9) “There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

(26:16-17) “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them.”

 

 

16 And when Paul's sister's son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul.

 

It is a simple thing for God to bring to nothing the schemes of wicked men.  In the providence of God, the plot was overheard by no less a person than Paul’s own nephew.  Little is known of Paul’s family.  There are reasons for believing that Paul came from a well-to-do and influentialJewish family in Tarsus and that his father disinherited him when he became a Christian (Philippians 3:8). The present passage is the only mention of his sister and of her son.  Paul’s sister however, seems to have cherished a love for her dynamic and charming brother.  Paul mentions “Andronica and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7).  He also mentions “Herodianmykinsman.” Was Junia in reality Paul’s sister?  We do not know.  However, it seems that some of Paul’s family wasChristians.  In any case, Paul’s nephew stumbled across details of the plot and lost no time in bringing the news to Paul.  The story of what went on in the Tower is so vivid and circumstantial that it is almost certain that Luke was there. 

How Paul’s nephew learned of the plot is anybody’s guess.  He seems to have been a young man, perhaps in his late teens{5]. His accessibility to Paul was not unusual.  Prisoners of high rank, such as Paul with his Roman citizenship, were often given a great deal of liberty for visits from family and friends. 

 

 

Verses Referenced

(Philippians 3:8) “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ

 

 

17 Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him.

18 So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee.

 

Paul’s substantial standing with the Romans is indicated by the unquestioning compliance the centurion gave to his request.  He did not even tell the centurion of the plot. 

 

The boy is described here has a “young man,” which suggests that he was only a youth.  Today, we would probably call him a young “teenager.”

 

 

19 Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me?

 

Lysias sensed that it was a matter of extreme importance and graciously took the young man by the hand and led him to a place where he could receive the report in secret.  The kindly gesture speaks volumes for the regard with which he now held Paul.  The friendly act would help put the young man at ease.

 

This may be a good place to mention that there is no record in Acts of official Roman persecution against the church; the opposition was instigated by the unbelieving Jews.  While the empire had its share of corrupt political opportunists, for the most part, the military leaders were men of quality who respected the Roman law.

 

20 And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly.

21 But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee.

 

Paul’s nephew gave the report in detail, and the tribune listened attentively and without interrupting. This was serious news.  Verses 20-21 repeat the content of verses 12-15. The repetition increases the dramatic effect considerably.  With each new reference to the plot, the threat to Paul’s life becomes more ominous.  From the perspective of information, they contribute nothing new; the only exception being that we now learn that the attempt on Paul’s life was planned for the next day (v. 20).  The tribune may have already received the council’s request that the prisoner be brought to them again, for the boy spoke of them as if they were waiting even then for the tribune’s decision.  He urged the tribune not to fall in with their plan.

 

The phrase “now are they ready, looking for the promise from thee” implies that the tribune may have already given some promise of another trial for Paul. This news, however, put a completely new complexion on the matter.  He had not bargained for such dishonesty and fanaticism on the part of the Jews and the Jewish authorities.  The tribune, however, knew enough about the Jews to take the story quite seriously once it was brought to his attention.  The extent of their fanaticism can be understood when we realize that the execution of this plot certainly would have meant the death of many of them at the hands of the Roman guard who protected Paul.  Such intense religious fanaticism was common among the Jews of that day.

 

 

22 So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.

 

The dramatic effect is continued in verse 22 as Lysias continued to insist on secrecy.  It was of utmost importance that the whole matter be kept strictly secret if the plot or some other version of it was to be avoided. No one was to know the tribune was aware of the plot.

 

The commander seems to have made up his mind about what he would do, even as the boy was speaking.  He may have already decided to send Paul to the governor—for he himself lacked the necessary imperium{6] to deal judiciously with prisoners of provincial status—once he had restored public order, but now he determined to send him to the governor that night.  The tribune’s plan was simple and wise.  He knew that he had to get Paul out of Jerusalem or there would be one murderous plot after another, and one of them just might succeed.  He also knew that he had better determine the charges against Paul or he might be accused of illegally holding a Roman citizen.  He could solve both problems by sending Paul to Caesarea and putting him under the authority of Felix, the Roman governor.

 

With a brief warning he let the young man go.  He could be trusted to hold his tongue.  His own life would not be worth much if the conspirators found out he had overheard them and betrayed them to the Romans.

 

 

 

Special Notes

{1] Paul had experienced such visions before, particularly at critical junctures in his career (18:9; 16:9; 22:17; 27:23).  The expression “the Lord stood by him,” has led some to believe this was a literal appearance of Christ. 

{2] The text has “the Jews” but obviously means only the 40.

{3] Theexact location of the council chamber in Paul’s day is not certain.  Josephus located it just outside the temple precincts, which would make for a more likely ambush spot than if the chamber were located within the temple precincts, as the rabbinic sources have it. 

{4] The western text has the men say (end of v. 15) that they would kill Paul “even if we ourselves could die for it.”

{5] He is called a “young man” in verse 17, which would place him somewhere between 20 to 40 years of age.

{6] Imperium” is a Latin word which, in a broad sense, translates roughly as 'power to command'. In ancient Rome, different kinds of power or authority were distinguished by different terms. Imperium referred to the ability of an individual to command the military. Primarily used to refer to the power that is wielded, in greater or lesser degree, by an individual to whom it is delegated.

{7]One theory says that the men who plotted against Paul were probably Sicarii or Assassins (21:38), whom we know the high priest Ananias did not hesitate to employ to remove his enemies. 

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