Bible readingThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 23:16-22

16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”


Paul’s status at this point in Acts is ‘Paul the prisoner’, which is ongoing throughout the rest of the book.

In my last post before Christmas, I wrote about the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Paul.

Paul’s nephew — his sister’s son — found out about this cold-blooded conspiracy, went to the barracks and told him (verse 16).

Information about Paul’s family is scant. John MacArthur gives us a few possibilities about this lad and his parents. Also note the providential aspect to this (emphases mine):

Do you realize that the Bible says nothing about Paul’s family at all? All we know is his father was a Pharisee because he made that statement earlier. We don’t know anything else. We do know that in Philippians 3:8 he said that because of his faith in Christ, he had suffered, “The loss of all things.” And, most Bible teachers assume that “the loss of all things” included being disinherited from his Jewish family because from then on, you hear nothing at all about his family, nothing at all.

How, then, all of a sudden does Paul’s sister’s son come to Paul’s rescue? What is he doing in Jerusalem? Did he live there? Was he there studying to be a rabbi, as Paul had been when he was a boy? Was Paul’s sister really one who cared about Paul even though he had been disinherited? Had Paul’s sister become a believer? Interesting to think about. I can’t imagine the apostle Paul not trying to convert his family, can you? I’m sure he gave it everything he had.

An interesting thing pops up in verse 16, “When Paul’s sister’s son heard of the ambush” – the verb “he went and entered the barracks,” that aorist participle there could be translated “having been present,” and it is possible that the boy was present when the plot took place. It is possible it means he was present at the prison. It is possible that it means he was present at the plot. It seems sensible to say he was present at the plot or he wouldn’t have known the plot. Can you imagine how God worked the circumstances to have that little boy hanging around the conspirators and to get the right message, and then to have the presence of mind to go warn his uncle?

But, that is what happened. You can see that this is no less supernatural than if God had reached a big sky-hook out of Heaven and pulled Paul right up.

I think it’s interesting to add a point, and I’ll take a minute to do that. There is a word in Romans 16 that is translated in the English Authorized Version “kinsman.” Sometimes it means countryman; sometimes it means relative. It is an interesting thought, if you look at Romans 16 in verse 7, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, who are in Christ before me.” That’s interesting. The possibility is there.

Then he says, in verse 11, “Greet Herodion, my kinsman who are in the Lord,” with another individual. Verse 21, “Timothy my fellow worker” – or work fellow – “and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipater, my kinsmen.” Now, it may have been that Paul did have some fruit in his own family. We don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Well, so the boy heard about the plot and he came to the barracks and told Paul. Now, maybe the family was high, kind of high class. You know, Paul had been a member of the Sanhedrin and his father a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, and the whole ball of wax, zealous for the law. It could have been that his father was kind of a sharp guy, up there, and we don’t know – it’s possible – that he may have been even in the leadership of Israel. But whatever, the boy heard it, went, and told Paul about it. How exciting!

Matthew Henry’s commentary simply says:

… some how or other, we are not told how, he heard of their lying in wait, either overheard them talking of it among themselves, or got intelligence from some that were in the ploy: and he went into the castle, probably, as he used to do, to attend on his uncle, and bring him what he wanted, which gave him a free access to him and he told Paul what he heard.

I particularly liked this, which points out that God had a plan for Paul:

Note, God has many ways of bringing to light the hidden works of darkness; though the contrivers of them dig deep to hide them from the Lord, he can made a bird of the air to carry the voice (Ecclesiastes 10:20), or the conspirators’ own tongues to betray them.

To understand Paul’s relationship with the centurion — commander of 100 soldiers — who did his bidding (verse 17), it is worth noting that a) Paul informed the tribune that he was a Roman citizen from birth and b) the tribune and his centurions thought the Apostle was someone pretty important if the whole city of Jerusalem wanted to kill him. Because no one, including the Sanhedrin, enlightened the Romans about their hatred of Paul, they had to work on assumptions.

Also, Paul, having been not only well educated but also doing the Lord’s work, was a model prisoner, thereby earning the centurion’s respect. So, when Paul asked him to take the lad to the tribune, Claudius Lysias, there was no objection. (St Luke, the author of Acts, never mentions the tribune by name.)

The centurion duly took the boy to Claudius Lysias, explaining that he had something to tell him (verse 18).

Henry offers this analysis, which further indicates that divine providence was at work:

The centurion very readily gratified him, Acts 23:18. He did not send a common soldier with him, but went himself to keep the young man in countenance, to recommend his errand to the chief captain, and to show his respect to Paul: “Paul the prisoner (this was his title now) called me to him, and prayed me to bring this young man to thee; what his business is I know not, but he has something to say to thee.” Note, It is true charity to poor prisoners to act for them as well as to give to them. “I was sick and in prison, and you went on an errand for me,” will pass as well in the account as, “I was sick and in prison, and you came unto me, to visit me, or sent me a token.” Those that have acquaintance and interest should be ready to use them for the assistance of those that are in distress. This centurion helped to save Paul’s life by this piece of civility, which should engage us to be ready to do the like when there is occasion. Open thy mouth for the dumb, Proverbs 31:8. Those that cannot give a good gift to God’s prisoners may yet speak a good word for them.

Paul’s nephew must have been young, because the tribune took him by the hand to ask him about his news privately (verse 19). The boy was probably nervous and, by holding his hand, the tribune reassured him. Henry says that, too, was significant, reminding us that the tribune acted illegally in having a fellow Roman citizen — Paul — bound for scourging. That carried a huge penalty, if his superior had found out. Recall, too, that the tribune bought his Roman citizenship, whereas Paul was a natural born Roman. Claudius Lysias was obliged to be nice to Paul, even indirectly:

The chief captain received the information with a great deal of condescension and tenderness, Acts 23:19. He took the young man by the hand, as a friend or father, to encourage him, that he might not be put out of countenance, but might be assured of a favourable audience. The notice that is taken of this circumstance should encourage great men to take themselves easy of access to the meanest, upon any errand which may give them an opportunity of doing good–to condescend to those of low estate. This familiarity to which this Roman tribune or colonel admitted Paul’s nephew is here upon record to his honour. Let no man think he disparages himself by his humility or charity. He went with him aside privately, that none might hear his business, and asked him, “What is it that thou hast to tell me? Tell me wherein I can be serviceable to Paul.” It is probable that the chief captain was the more obliging in this case because he was sensible he had run himself into a premunire in binding Paul, against his privilege as a Roman citizen, which he was willing now to atone for.

Paul’s nephew told the tribune that the Jews planned on obtaining the tribune’s consent to see Paul in the council on the pretext that they had more questions for him (verse 20), when, in fact, they, having taken an oath, were going to murder him in cold blood (verse 21). The boy said:

do not be persuaded by them

The tribune asked the boy not to say anything about their private exchange, and dismissed him (verse 22).

Consider the Lord’s work here. A subject of the Romans — a boy, at that — tells the Roman tribune what to do. MacArthur says:

Now, here is a little kid commanding the Roman commander. Now, you can see how God is superintending this thing. “Do not thou yield to him, for there lie in wait for him.” There is an ambush of more than 40 men who have anathematized themselves with an anathema. In other words, they have devoted themselves to destruction. They will neither eat nor drink until they have killed him, and they are now ready, and “The whole thing depends upon the promise from you to deliver the prisoner.”

Henry points out that the boy never mentioned which of ‘the Jews’ were plotting against Paul:

he does not say who, lest he should invidiously reflect upon the chief priests and the elders; and his business was to save his uncle’s life, not to accuse his enemies

As for telling the boy to say nothing to anyone, Claudius Lysias knew that if this conspiracy against Paul did not work, the Sanhedrin would come up with another. Even worse, if the Sanhedrin knew the Romans had actively prevented their plot from going ahead, there could have been a huge revolt in Jerusalem. John MacArthur explains:

I don’t think that that commander wanted an argument with those Jews, and I don’t think that he wanted them to know that he knew their plot, because if they knew he knew their plot, and he wouldn’t let it come off, then you would begin to see potential revolution and sedition.

And Jerusalem and Judea w[ere] volatile. It was only a few years after this that the whole place exploded in a revolution. And, he knew the past history of what other commanders had run into in that place, and he did not want to butt heads with them.

John MacArthur laid out four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation.

Today’s passage shows the beginning of the conquest, with God working through Paul’s nephew and the Romans to defeat the Sanhedrin’s evil, murderous conspiracy.

Next time — Acts 23:23-30