Monday, July 16, 2018

Acts 23:12 -35 ”Killing in the Name of God?”

Previously we have seen that Paul had come to Jerusalem, back from his ministry to the   gentiles in Asia and Greece and Macedonia. His intention was to bring a monetary gift, collected by the gentile churches who had it in their hearts to help their impoverished Jewish brothers in Jerusalem. Paul went to Jerusalem against all human advice.  Everyone,   and Paul  knew that he  was going  into the lion’s den (21:13). And so, just as it was said, it happened. Paul was recognized in the temple and falsely accused of teaching against the law of Moses, and also accused of having brought a gentile into the court of the Jews. An angry mob gathered around him, and he would have been killed then and there, had it not been for the intervention of the Roman garrison from the Antonia fortress adjoining the temple precincts. 
The Roman soldiers (once they had established that he was not an Egyptian terrorist cf. 21:38) permitted Paul to defend himself, but his defense (21:40 – 22:22) resulted in a repeated call by the Jews to have him done away with (22:22).  Again the Romans protect him. But they wanted to know the reason  as to why  the Jews  hated Paul so much, and so in 22:30-23:10  we  find  that Paul is given  an opportunity to address the Sanhedrin, the council of 70 Jewish leaders  made up from the  sect of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 
That meeting does not go well right from the start, and it ends with the Sadducees and Pharisees disagreeing among themselves concerning the matter of the resurrection. And so, as chaos ensues among themselves, Paul is saved once again in the midst of it all.  
The writer  of the book of Acts, the Gospel author Luke, shows us  that behind it all  there is the divine hand of God, frustrating the schemes of human beings and ordering all things so that His purposes for the advance  of the Gospel will  prevail .  And so Paul is taken back into custody again at the Antonia Fortress.  A dramatic story now unfolds.

A Deadly Plot (23:12-15)

By now the Romans have rescued Paul twice from the Jews. (21:32-36; 23:10; see also 22:22-24). But the Jews are not giving up. They are fiercely determined to do away with Paul,  and not just Paul. They want to do away with the Gospel of  the Jesus  whom they  had crucified. Luke consistently highlights Israel's rejection of the gospel as it was preached by Paul.

And so it is that we read that more than forty men take an oath (anathema) - a curse oath-  an imprecatory oath.  They were prepared to die in order to see this oath carried out. According to this oath they swore that they would not eat nor drink until Paul was dead (23:12,14,21). In their minds, Paul was an offender against the holy law and against the holy temple. In their minds there was the thinking, that they needed to get rid of Paul because he  had defiled law and temple. In their minds only Paul's  death could  atone  for this, and  so hey are prepared to take on themselves that curse, if God's offended holiness is not avenged. One commentator says that this vow is an extension of a commitment to remove the curse of God from a defiled temple by seeing to it that the perpetrator will experience death "at the hands of heaven" [1]

We need to stop here and think this one through, because this is precisely the reason  why  many religious groups  justify their killings in the Name of God. I  don’t know whether you remember the writer, Salman Rushdie (who calls himself a lapsed Muslim and now even a hard core atheist[2]), who wrote the  book , “Satanic Verses”.  Many Muslims took offence at this book and  they  accused Rushdie of blasphemy and in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (a Muslim clergy ruling) ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. Numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulted from violent Muslims over this book.  The motive is very similar. Muslims felt that the Qu’ran  and  the honour of Allah were at stake, and so in their minds  Rushdie needed  to die. Rushdie  is  no saint and no Paul, by the way, and he is not a faithful husband, having 4 failed marriages behind him.

But what is the common issue behind both these stories? It is this. Men are forever trying to defend the honour of God and   His institutions upon the earth. They feel themselves to be His spokesmen and agents and executioners. 
But here is the BIG question. If God is God, the living, all powerful, all seeing, all present sovereign  God, intimately  involved in the history of this world, then   who needs to defend Him? 
Indeed who can defend Him?  Surely God can defend himself! And He will not need to  defend Himself as one  who is accused, for God in His very essence and being  cannot be accused! He does not need human zealots and armies to defend Himself.  God needs no defender. In fact, He is the Judge! The Bible teaches that He has appointed a day in which He will bring His own terrible wrath to bear upon all the enemies of the gospel, and upon all who have failed to embrace and kiss the Son (Psalm 2), who is  the ONLY Saviour from the wrath of God.

So then, behind  this story in Acts  is a Jewish faith  that is so far gone and  so very far removed  from God. This is no faith. It is a religious system  which has God in a box. It has  a small view of God. Their god  must be defended. 
How different is Paul’s view. He knows  that  God is sovereign . He knows that God's purpose will stand.  He knows himself to be in the hands of  the true truth  of Almighty God (see  23:11) 
So then, those who place themselves under a curse in order to remove a curse assume that they are in the will of God, but they are really revealing  what is true of them. They know nothing of the One true God. They are enemies of the cross of Christ. They are brute beasts, ignorant fools,  dead in their sins and therefore they are  under God's condemnation and they will only increase their punishment by taking such action against Paul, a messenger of the gospel. He was once one of them. But his eyes had been opened (Acts 9).
And so  they  ask the chief priests and the elders  to get Paul   from the Antonia fortress to come to them yet again under the  pretext  that they  wish to  get  more accurate information,  but the real purpose will be to kill him[3].
Persecutors of the gospel have no interest in  hearing the truth. All they know is that it conflicts  with their views of  the small god which they have created in their minds, and whom they need to defend in such violent ways.  
What did Paul ever do to these men? He simply  declared  what the OT already had said about the Messiah. He simply preached that which  the OT  taught  and  showed implicitly:  no one  can be saved  by the works of the Law, but by faith alone in the Messiah, Jesus Christ alone. That is what had offended the  Jewish  people, and the result was  this violent reaction.  The violence  that the unconverted heart is capable of -  there's something satanic about it.

Divine Providence (23:16-22)

Paul's nephew, a young man (yes! Paul had family- he had a sister and a nephew that we know of  from this text),  heard of this plot (literally "ambush"). He reports it to Paul, who then sends him with a  message by by way  of a centurion to the Tribune, the Roman commander. In a kindly (by the hand) and discreet way (he drew him aside), the commander interrogates the nephew. The commander takes the plot seriously, asking the young man not tell anyone about this.   In all this we see the Hand of God as He rules and overrules fulfill His saving purposes. “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.” (Prov. 21:30). All this does not  mean that human beings do not  play an essential role. They do! The nephew, the apostle, the  centurion and the  tribune all are essential to seeing that this evil plot is foiled.  Paul must  testify also in Rome!”(23:11)

Roman Precautions& Protection  (23:23-35)

The commander calls two of his centurions and orders them to prepare for Paul's transfer to Caesarea. Two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen indicate that the Romans take this threat very seriously.  They are to leave under the cover of darkness for Caesarea on the coast, the provincial capital for Judea. It is  amazing to see this, isn’t it? God uses   the Roman government  to protect  His prime witness to the Lord Jesus. It all shows us who is really in charge in this world.   

The next step  in Paul’s witness is  that he needs to appear before Felix, the Roman governor of the province. The attached letter from Claudius Lycias, the commander  of Fort Antonia  in vv.25-30 provides the open door into the governor’s presence. This governor,  Felix was once a slave, but he was freed by the emperor  Claudius, probably because he was a very competent man and loyal servant of Rome. Felix's tenure as governor  was marked by ongoing disturbances among the people, whether from   Jewish terrorist  groups  against Roman  outposts and  sicarii, i.e. assassins with their "short daggers", or  from  messianic impostors and  false prophets.  He responded in brutal kind  and this  made him even more unpopular, and it stirred up more unrest. 
Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD) was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire and  said that he "practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of king with all the instincts of a slave" .

The letter  gives the essential introduction and details  to Paul’s  situation. His assessment, is accurate. The charges brought against  Paul and  the Christians by the  Jews are theological, stemming from an internal religious disagreement  (see also 18:15; 25:19). As far as Roman law is concerned,  Paul is innocent.  

By example and testimony the commander reminds us of three things  concerning the interrelationship of the Christian and the state: (Source:  footnote 1) 
1. The state's proper role is to protect the rights of its citizens (Rom 13:4; 1 Tim 2:2-4). This the Christian may insist on.
2. The state is incompetent to make judgments on theological/religious matters.  The things of Caesar belong to Caesar. The things of God belong to God  (Lk. 20:25).
3. Christians must follow their Lord's example in guarding their innocence before the laws of the state ( see Acts 25:8, 10-11, 18-19; 26:31-32)

The 60 kilometre  journey to  Antipatris happens  without incident. The topography and most suitable to Jewish ambush lie behind them now. Ahead lies a flat coastal plain inhabited predominantly by Gentiles. The infantry and spearmen can return home while the cavalry takes Paul the remaining  40 kilometres  to Caesarea. There the officers delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.  God  has used the  Roman empire  to protect his gospel messenger.

We have learned two great lessons from this text:
1.     Killing in the Name of God, such as it is displayed here and in many modern examples is based on a poor understanding of the one   true  God. The killing in the Name of God in the Old Testament   is of a very different  kind and origin.  In those cases God Himself, after much warning , forbearing and patience  with  evil nations directed  Moses and Joshua and David to exercise His judgement upon them. It was a unique  time and commission  in biblical history. All  that is a foreshadowing of the great judgement to come at which time  the sovereign God of the Universe will dispose of all His enemies.  New Testament Christians  have no such mandate, and they  do not have  to protect God. They do not have to kill  God’s enemies. They  do not  have to  go on Crusades to drive their enemies away from any holy land. The earth IS the Lord’s, and His judgement is coming. 
2.    God is able  to vindicate His own cause and protect His Gospel witnesses. They are immortal until their work is done.

[3] Anaireo :  Acts 23:15, 21; 25:3; compare Lk 22:2; Acts 21:36; 22:22.

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