Rev. Erik Veerman
A Matter of Life and Death
I want you to travel back in time with me. Imagine everything that happened on the journey to Jerusalem.
It began with an intentional shift. In the middle of his ministry, the Scriptures say, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The annual spring-time feasts were coming up and he knew he needed to be in Jerusalem. And then, every step. Every movement was intentional. It’s not that ministry didn’t happen on the way. It did. He continued to bless many and to powerfully teach and preach.
That, in itself, is amazing thing to think about. He knew what was going to happen – that he would suffer. He made that divine leading clear to his companions. But his closest friends wouldn’t have it. “May it never be.” They said. He rebuked them. This was God’s divine will, even though they didn’t understand.
And so they pressed on with him, to Jerusalem.
When he arrived, he was warmly greeted. But Jerusalem overflowed with people – Jews from all over on their pilgrimage. Hundreds of thousands. The temple area was jam packed - people coming and going, prayers and sacrifices. Then things started to unravel. His very presence in the temple stirred things up.
That’s when everyone seemed to turn against him. In no small way, either. The Jewish leaders wanted him dead. Everything he stood for threatened them - threatened their power and position. So they sought to stamp him out… and his followers. To them, his teaching and claims hd already gotten out of control.
Next, word spread – truth and lies - who he was, what they thought he stood for.
He was soon arrested, bound by Roman soldiers. Ordered to be flogged. Put on trial - a mock trial, mind you. The verdict was already set in their minds. He was bruised and beaten. Hit in the face in front of the high priest. What could the Romans do? The charges were baseless, the Romans knew that and said so. But the crowd wanted nothing else but his death. They had been shouting “Away with this man.” They plotted his death.
What happened next?
Well, that depends on who you think I was talking about.
If you thought I was speaking about Jesus, you would be right! Everything I said portrayed his Journey to Jerusalem.
If you thought I was speaking about the apostle Paul, you would be right! Everything I said portrayed his Journey to Jerusalem.
There’s at least 12 parallels between Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his trial… and Paul’s journey to Jerusalem and his trial. This isn’t a coincidence. Luke, the author of Acts, and the author of the Gospel according to Luke unpacks both for us.
An important question is “why?” Why did God orchestrate this parallel account, and Luke then highlight it?
Well, the answer, I believe, goes back to why this very book was written. Do you remember the themes?
• A - the ascended Christ,
• C - the Church,
• T - to the ends of the earth, and
• S - the Holy Spirit.
God has been working his plan. It’s all been coming together. There’s been an explosion of Jesus followers.
And part of what Luke, guided by the Holy Spirit, is informing his reader is that it’s all true. As Luke has unpacked the history of the early church in Acts
• the miracles have testified to its truth,
• the repeated outpouring of the Spirit from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and ends of the earth have testified to its truth.
• AND, the parallel between Paul and Jesus up to this point have testified to its truth. That God is in the midst of it all.
Luke was validating Paul’s authenticity - his teaching and his ministry.
It’s easy to skim over the last few chapters of Acts. Right?
We think, “what’s going on here?” It’s a legitimate question. We’re given these long accounts of Paul’s trials. There’s some repetition. Some of you have asked me, “what are you going to do with this text or that text?” Actually, I’ve asked myself that question at times.
But what I’ve found is that these later chapters go much deeper than a surface level reading. The Lord shows us, first, that he’s in control over all of it, second, that the Gospel is still going to the ends of the earth – he’s even using the Romans to provide cover and protection for the Gospel message, and third, along the way, besides those things, he’s teaching us about hope and about boldness in sharing Christ.
I wanted to start there for an introduction because we’re at another turning point in Acts. The parallels between Paul and Jesus journey diverge here. Jesus continued on the path to the cross. Paul, however, was rushed away from Jerusalem, from immanent death. He began his long journey to Rome.
You’ll notice my sermon is titled “A matter of life and death.” If I had points this morning, I would have 4 of the: point 1, “a matter of life and death,” point 2, “a matter of life and death,” and youcan figure out my last points - “a matter of life and death.”
• That’s because for these 40 assassins, if you could call them that, they saw this matter as a matter of life and death.
• For Paul, the situation was for sure a matter of life and death.
• For the Romans, this became a matter of life and death.
• And for us, these matters are matters of life and death. That’s because, for Jesus, in his parallel journey, years earlier, the matter was a matter of life and death.
Let me start with a couple of reminders. Last week in our study, the apostle Paul had been on trial with the Sanhedrin – they were the Jewish leaders. The Romans were the ones who called for the trial. But it devolved into another brawl. Paul pinpointed the very reason they were all there. The resurrection. Well, that stirred the pot, so to speak. The Romans had to again rescue Paul from death – it even says “they were afraid Paul would be torn to pieces.” So they brought Paul back to the barracks. And that night, Jesus appeared to Paul. That’s up in verse 11. Jesus not only encouraged Paul, but promised that Paul would testify about him in Rome.
And the question we’re left with is this: Just how is Paul going to get to Rome? He’s in a tight spot. He’s in the jail right there on the north side of the temple mount. Not the safest place for Paul to be.
And that’s when the plot to kill him was hatched. 40 Jews bound themselves by oath to kill Paul. They wouldn’t eat or drink until they had killed him. That’s how serious they were! Why? Because this was a matter of life and death to them.
Historical records outside of Scripture describe a Jewish group of trained militia. These were likely those men – not a random group of angry Jews with their shovels. They were likely skilled fighters. They risked their own lives. Remember, Paul was in a Roman jail, so these 40 men would be going up against the Romans. They knew, even the ones that survived would likely face death for their involvement if Paul was killed. Paul was a Roman citizen, after all, and had the rights and privileges and protection.
But it wasn’t just these 40 Jews. No, complicit in their plot was the Sanhedrin – the chief priests, which included Ananias the high priest and the council of elders.
So the 40 brought their proposal to the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin signed on to it. They agreed to request Paul for further questioning. The plan was that when Paul was brought out, they would ambush the Romans and kill Paul.
This matter was so serious to all of them, that they were compelled to take things into their own hands. In their minds, they had to undermine the Roman authority. Paul needed to die. The idea of killing their enemy was not new to them, of course. Jesus was crucified at the hands of the Romans because of the Jews insistence. And Stephen was martyred, by the Jews. But there’s something new, here. They risked their own lives.
So the stakes have been raised. This was a matter of life and death for Paul. Now let’s go back to the earlier question: how will God protect Paul as he promised?
Well, from the most unlikely of sources. A boy – the text says, “young man.” We’re not given his exact age, but the tribune had taken him by the hand. We get the sense that he was perhaps a young teenager.
Not only that, but he’s Paul’s nephew! And Paul has a sister. We didn’t know that before! It appears that they have a good relationship. Maybe they were Christians? Paul’s family likely would have disowned him if not… since he was such an outcast among the Jews. But also, Paul does mention a different family member who was a Christian. At the end of the book of Romans, Paul greets a relative who was part of the church in Rome.
We have several teenage boys here. One thing is for sure. You all like to snoop around. Your curiosity sometimes gets you in trouble, doesn’t it? I know, I’ve been there… and I know a couple of you pretty well.
Imagine that God used your snooping to save your uncle. Maybe you were hiding on the roof – I mean what boy doesn’t like being on a roof! Yesterday at our workday we needed to clean off the roof to fix the leaks, so I asked, “who wants to work on the roof?” and every single boy said “me me me.”
Well, you were on the roof, no one saw you, and you overheard a plot. Some men were going to murder your uncle! You heart was pounding. You snuck off just as stealthily as you had gotthere. And you ran to let your uncle know. You saved his life.
We’re not told just how this boy overheard, but God had put him in the right place at the right time. And Paul’s nephew ran and told Paul what he heard. Remember, even though Paul was in prison, he had not yet been charged with a crime. He had more freedom. The Romans would have let his nephew in to see him.
This set off a chain of events.
• Paul’s nephew was brought to the Roman tribune. He was the senior military officer in the region
• Paul’s nephew told them the plot – all the details. That included how serious these 40 men were, not eating or drinking. And how the Sanhedrin were part of the conspiracy.
• The tribune took it all in… and then told the young man not to tell anyone.
Boys, that was probably the hardest part. Not telling anyone. “Hey, I know something secret, but I can’t tell you.” “what do you mean you can’t tell me? If you tell me, I promise I won’t tell anyone.” “well, ok, if you promise.” You know the temptation.
And so the chain of events continued.
The Roman tribune launched a counter measure. 470 men. That included soldiers, mounted cavalry, and trained men with spears. That’s over 10 times more men than the 40. It says they left at “the third hour of the night.” That would be about 9pm. Picture in your mind all the soldiers, swords, horses, spears, as they converged to the temple area to retrieve Paul. And then imagine as they soldiered off to Caesarea with their precious cargo.
• Proverbs 21:1 - The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.
• Psalm 22:28 – Kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.
• Isaiah 46:9 - I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning... saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, ...I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.’
• John 19:10 - Pilate said to [Jesus], “...Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above."
God orchestrated all of it. In a display of his providence, he protected his apostle and used the secular Roman authority to accomplish it. Everything that comes to pass is in his hands.
It’s not that the Romans didn’t have their reasons to protect Paul. Rather, God used their motivations. You see, this was also a matter of life and death for the Romans. Were Paul to have been killed as a Roman citizen under their watch, then they in turn would have faced the death penalty.
Or consider the Roman tribune, Claudius (verse 26). His motivation was personal. He wanted to take advantage of the situation for personal gain. Look at the letter he wrote to Governor Felix in verses 26-30. He began, “O his excellency, the governor Felix!” Let me summarize the rest of it: “I” “I” “I” “me,” “I.” That’s pretty much it! Claudius made himself the hero of the story! Notice he conveniently didn’t mention he almost flogged a Roman citizen.
God sovereignly worked this all out. He used Paul’s nephew. He used the Romans. He will take his Gospel spokesman, the apostle Paul, to Rome.
Beloved, God is in control of all matters in your life. Matters of life and death. His providence oversees your activities, who you meet, what happens each moment. This doesn’t take away the responsibilities God has given you. No, the Scriptures are clear about that. But God orchestrates all of it… everything that comes to pass. That doesn’t mean physical health or protection all the time. You know that. Stephen’s martyrdom demonstrated that. But if you remember, Stephen’s martyrdom also demonstrated God’s sovereignty in all that he accomplished through it. The dispersion of God’s people all over.
Paul’s life is a prime example. As you know, this situation was not the first matter of life and death for him. No, everywhere he went, he encountered life and death situations. But God went before him. Through the persecution and trials, God comforted him. Guided him. Gave him strength to persevere. This did not mean that Paul sat back and let his enemies overcome him. No, several times he acted in self-defense –
• He escaped out of window in a wall
• He used his Roman citizenship as cover
• He was persuaded not to jump in the middle of the mob in Ephesus
• He left Berea early because of the persecution.
Acts 23 is no different. When Paul’s nephew reported the murderous plot, Paul acted to protect his life. Maybe he thought, “Oh, this is the way God is going to rescue me!”
But none of his actions were done out of fear. No, he willingly entered into danger… it gave him an opportunity to share the salvation found in Christ alone. For example, in his journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit spoke to him multiple times about the persecution he would experience in Jerusalem. Agabus the prophet predicted he would be bound. But none of that deterred him.
Where can you draw an apostle Paul kind of comfort in life and death?
We jointly confirmed an answer this morning - the Heidelberg Catechism question 1, written 450 years ago. Centuries and centuries of Christians have been blessed by these words.
Let me read some parts of it, again, but imagine that the apostle Paul saying these words to you. “My only comfort in life and death is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ… He preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head…. Through his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.” And if I can add… “or to die in him”
CS Lewis used the phrase “die before you die.” I think that he may have gotten that saying from the puritans. “die before you die.” Be prepared to die, not in a morbid sense at all! No rather in a glorious hope sense. The beginning of Colossians 3 speaks of this same thing. It say, “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We have already died in Christ, died to our sin and it’s consequences, died to the world. Instead, we are alive in Christ. Our life is “hidden in him.”
If you are a believer in Christ Jesus, you belong to him, body and soul. He holds you in his hands in this life. And he holds you in his hands in death. There’s no greater comfort in life and death than to rest and trust in the savior. The more and more you grasp hold of this promise, the more and more you are freed from the fear of dying, the more and more you can live! This is joy and peace in all matters of life and death!
So, Paul’s journey continued. He was whisked away to Caesarea by the sea, to Felix, the regional governor, who received him and read the letter. He agreed to hear the matter once Paul’s accusers arrive. Paul will spend some time there, detained, but then begin a journey to Rome.
Jesus’s journey, on the other hand, took a different turn. After the crowd shouted, “Away with him,” they then shouted, “Release Barabus.” In Jesus’s case, the mob would get their way, or so they thought. Pilate, the Roman governor, released Barabus, the guilty one, and had Jesus, the innocent one, taken away for a Roman style execution.
The persecution continued as he was led away. His hands and feet nailed to a wooden cross. The Jewish leaders and the rest of the mob looked on, as the cross was hoisted. In their minds, they had won. This man Jesus, and his followers would be no more. But what they didn’t realize is that their actions played into God’s perfect will. You see, God the father had orchestrated everything that had taken place. The very thing that they though would put an end to this - the death of Jesus, was the very thing that God used to bring life. In him, in Jesus, are found all matters of life and death.