Bible kevinroosecomThe 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 23:31-35

31 So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. 32 And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. 33 When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. 34 On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod’s praetorium.

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Last week’s entry discussed the letter that Jerusalem’s Roman tribune Claudius Lysias — whom St Luke referred to by name in Acts 23:26 — sent to the Roman governor Felix.

Claudius Lysias had moved Paul’s case up the management chain, therefore, the Apostle was no longer his responsibility.

As we read last week, the tribune ordered two of his centurions — each in charge of 100 troops — to provide Paul with horses. It is quite possible that Luke, the author of Acts, accompanied Paul on this journey to Caesarea.

Paul had a huge military escort. The full phalanx of men took him during the night to Antipatris (verse 31). BibleHub’s atlas page tells us more about Antipatris, which was halfway between Jerusalem and Caesarea (emphases mine):

It was a town built by Herod the Great, and called after his father Antipater. It is probably identical with the modern Ras el-`Ain, “fountain head,” a large mound with ruins at the source of Nahr el`Aujeh, in the plain to the Northeast of Jaffa. There are remains of a crusading castle which may be the Mirabel of those times …

It is 28 ms. n. w. of Jerusalem, has ruins, a fine spring and is on the ancient Roman road: 27 ms. a little w. of n. are the ruins of Cesarea, on the coast. Another site has been suggested at Kefr Saba, 4 ms. n. of the first mentioned place.

The following day, no doubt after a short rest period, the main body of troops returned to the barracks in Jerusalem (verse 32). Antipatris was in a calmer region characterised by the lack of tension between Romans and Jews, as it was mostly Gentile. The more armed Roman troops were needed back in the city, hence their return. Therefore, the horsemen continued escorting Paul from Antipatris to Caesarea.

Matthew Henry’s commentary tells us:

Thence the two hundred foot-soldiers, and the two hundred spearmen, returned back to Jerusalem, to their quarters in the castle; for, having conducted Paul out of danger, there needed not strong a guard, but the horsemen might serve to bring him to Cæsarea, and would do it with more expedition

John MacArthur says:

Once they got him down to Antipatris, they were in Gentile territory – pretty much. And, they felt that the 70 horsemen could handle him, so the other 400 came back to Jerusalem. And that was wise, too, because he had to have his forces where they needed to be, back in the city.

Upon arrival, the cavalry presented Paul and the letter from Claudius Lysias to the governor, Felix (verse 33). They duly returned to Jerusalem.

Felix read the brief letter and asked Paul where he was from. Paul told him he was from Cilicia (verse 34), where Tarsus was.

Felix asked Paul that question, because he wanted to be sure that he was authorised to hear the case. MacArthur explains:

he had to determine who had jurisdiction. The Romans had divided their conquered world into various provinces over which there were procurators, or governors. Cilicia and Judea were considered to be in the domain of Felix, and that’s what he wanted to determine so that he would know that he had jurisdiction. When Paul replied that he was from Cilicia, which is just north of the Judea area, he agreed that that was his jurisdiction. He says, “I will try the case,” verse 35, “…when your accusers arrive.”

Having told Paul that he would hear his case, he commanded his men to put Paul up in one of Herod Agrippa I’s apartments (verse 35). That was the Herod who suffered a divine judgement of death by worms in Acts 12. He was eaten alive. His palace — praetorium — became the governor’s residence. So, Paul was lodging in the same building as Felix.

At the beginning of Acts 23, MacArthur said that there were four themes to the chapter: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation.

Clearly, this was a time of consolation for Paul, to be accommodated in such grandeur — even if he was a prisoner.

Throughout this chapter, MacArthur — and Henry — have pointed out that God was working through unbelievers, the Romans, to deliver Paul to safety. Luke did not write of divine intervention, but it is apparent. MacArthur says:

You talk about first class; he’d had been escorted by 470 soldiers, and now he is going to room in the palace. God is taking care of him.

You can just imagine that Paul is there in the palace just praising the Lord for a promise given only a night before, and fulfilled already – the care of the Lord for His children. Do you see a miracle in the passage? Did you see a miracle anywhere? No miracle. No signs, no wonders, and no mighty deeds. Did you see God at work in His providence, ordering the circumstances, ordering the lives of the people, moving all the scenes and the characters on the stage to accomplish His will?

Beloved, this passage tells me things about God even though God isn’t mentioned. One, it tells me God is faithful. He keeps His word. Do you believe that? Peter said this in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise.” I see a faithful God. He makes a promise in verse 11, and right in the morning He carries out the fulfillment of it. Paul is 60 miles closer to the promised destination the first day, and God confirmed that promise in his heart. God is faithful.

Second, God is caring. Did you see the care of God? Did you see how He takes care of His servant? He knows how much Paul can handle. He knew that it wasn’t time now for Paul to sneak out of town, or to be dragged out of town, or to be hustled through the Judean hillsides between the robbers and all of the people that were lurking there, and the seditionists; by two or three men, sort of scared and huddled in the corner. He knew how much Paul had endured, and He knew it was time for Paul to go first class, and that’s how he went.

Henry’s commentary points out another aspect, the fact that Paul’s stay in the governor’s palace brought him in contact with many great men with whom he could share the Good News:

Paul had never affected acquaintance or society with great men, but with the disciples, wherever he came; yet Providence overrules his sufferings so as by them to give him an opportunity of witnessing to Christ before great men; and so Christ had foretold concerning his disciples, that they should be brought before rulers and kings for his sake, for a testimony against them, Mark 13:9 … There he had opportunity of acquainting himself with great men that attended the governor’s court, and, no doubt, he improved what acquaintance he got there to the best purposes.

There is a concept popular in some Protestant denominations, that of common grace. Catholics would call it natural law. Jewish people understand it as the Noahide laws. Whatever the case, divinely oriented common decency prevents our world from completely falling apart through violence and depravity. Even though we all sin, most of us — wherever we are in the world and regardless of belief or unbelief — recognise the difference between right and wrong.

How the Romans treated Paul in Acts 23 is one good biblical example of divine intervention at work in unbelievers.

Next time — Acts 24:1-9

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