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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 8

Paul saved from assassination

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 23:12-35

A group of forty men plotted to assassin Paul but his nephew heard and went to Paul and the Roman commander who quickly organised a large protection party to escort him to Caesarea to go Governor Felix because Paul was a Roman citizen and has to have a fair trial.

A group of forty men plotted to assassin Paul but his nephew heard and went to Paul and the Roman commander who quickly organised a large protection party to escort him to Caesarea to go Governor Felix because Paul was a Roman citizen and has to have a fair trial.


Series 6 has presented us with a dramatic series of events as Paul moves around from country to country, with the goal of getting to Jerusalem and then from there, going to Rome. That’s why Series 6 is called ‘The Gospel to Rome’.

Background and Introduction

You will hopefully have seen some of the earlier episodes and notice the dramatic events that have taken place, particularly as Paul arrives with his friends in the city of Jerusalem. Luke, the author, is travelling with him. This is eyewitness testimony and Luke tells the story in considerable detail. In fact, this could be worthy of a Hollywood movie, such is the drama of what is happening in this particular situation. Some of the story has happened already and more of the story unfolds today with a dramatic assassination attempt on Paul. The prophets of the church had warned Paul, “If you go to Jerusalem there’s going to be trouble and suffering and difficulty for you.” It only took a very short time for that trouble to start. If you’ve listened to the earlier episodes concerning these events, you’ll remember that Paul went into the Jewish Temple, with some friends, to fulfil a Jewish ritual and to show respect for the Jewish religion and the Jewish law. Some people who had seen him in other countries started a commotion and a riot. They started accusing Paul of disrespecting Judaism in the Temple compound and this led to a spontaneous riot in the Temple. The riot was so severe and the beating of Paul so significant that he could have been killed at that moment, but for the intervention of the Roman military authorities. The Temple in the city of Jerusalem, was a very large area with an amazing big Temple building in the middle, and was overlooked by a building next to it - the Roman army barracks, where the garrison was headquartered. It was called the Antonia Fortress and it had four huge towers. The two nearest towers overlooked the Temple. You could literally look down, as a Roman guard, onto what was happening in the Temple like a modern surveillance camera on a high pole can look down a road, or a street, or look into a market area or a shopping precinct. We’re aware that this kind of camera surveillance is developing quickly in all sorts of different countries in the world. The Romans had their own version of this. They had guards right at the top of the fortress looking down and they saw the riot. They alerted the commander and he quickly sent some soldiers in who rescued Paul from the crowd, took him into the fortress and then interrogated him.

In the last episode, we saw the Roman commander trying to resolve the issue and trying to understand what was happening by bringing Paul back to the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He convened a meeting and he said, “Right! We need to understand more clearly what this argument is about. Us Romans, we don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know whether Paul’s done anything that is breaking Roman law.” So, he invited the Jewish ruling Council and Paul to debate the issue together, while the soldiers looked on in the Council chamber. We saw that during this discussion, arguments and disagreements broke out amongst the Sanhedrin themselves, about Paul and his ideas, and particularly his idea about the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of Jesus. This led the commander to take Paul back into custody in the Antonia Fortress. He thought, “We’re not going to get anywhere here.” He still couldn’t understand what the controversy was about. He just saw tremendous hatred of Paul, and his Christian message, from the Jewish religious authorities represented by the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious Council. What effect would all this have had on Paul himself? These are very dangerous and dramatic events and he’s been through tremendous danger already. But at the end of the last episode, we saw a wonderful miraculous act of God’s grace towards Paul. Acts 23: 11, while Paul is back in the Antonia Fortress back in prison. It says,

‘The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”’

Isn’t that amazing? God reassured him at that moment that he was not going to lose his life and he was not going to spend the rest of his life in prison in Judea; God had a greater purpose for him. The idea that Paul had had some time ago, that he needed to get to Rome and share the Christian faith in the heart of the Empire - this idea would be fulfilled by God’s grace. The Lord said to Paul, “Have courage.” Some of you need courage as you’re listening to this episode because some elements in your own experience reflect the opposition and the challenge that you face to testify about Jesus.

An Assassination Plot

What’s going to happen in this next episode? The commander doesn’t know what to do. He’s the leading authority in the city of Jerusalem, representing the Roman governor. The Roman governor who rules the province of Judea, is based in the city of Caesarea, which is a long way away from Jerusalem, and he’s the final authority if he needs help. Then something extraordinary happens. Let’s read verses Acts 23:12 - 22, the first part of our reading for this episode,

12 ‘The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They went to the Chief Priests and the elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.” 16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul. 17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him to the commander. The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”

19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?” 20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.” 22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”’

Acts 23:12-22, NIV

I told you it was going to be dramatic! Who are these plotters, these 40 men who take on a really dramatic oath? They are not going to eat or drink until they have killed Paul. In other words, they are intent on an assassination immediately, and they are willing to risk their lives because if you intervene in the Roman military environment and you’re caught out, you will be executed immediately. They were willing to give their lives to get rid of Paul. That was how passionately they felt; he was against the Jewish nation and against the Jewish religion. They were completely convinced that he was undermining their whole faith and their whole nation. Who were these people? What motivated them? This particular period of history was a time of intense unrest amongst the Jews and there were periodic acts of rebellion and assassinations of Roman officials that took place right the way across the country. There was a group known as the Zealots who appear in the Gospels and were committed to taking up arms against the Romans. Within the Zealots, there was a smaller group known as the Sicarii, who carried small swords, or daggers, under their loose-fitting clothes, and they were assassins. We know from other sources that these people were operating throughout the country. We know it was a time of unrest. It is not surprising that people are willing to be so extreme as these forty people were willing to be. They were against the Romans and against anything that undermined the Jewish state. Within less than 10 years of this event, the whole country was at war against the Romans. There was an armed rebellion. It started in Galilee and it spread across the country. It took the Romans four years to suppress that rebellion. It was known as the Jewish War. They had to draft in thousands of troops from other provinces in order to suppress the rebellion. That was only a few years after this. So, we are in a situation of very great nationalistic fervour and real tension. These radical plotters wanted to preserve their nation. They hated the Romans but they also hated people who undermined their religion because it was their identity and they felt Paul was one of their people, and they felt the Church was undermining Judaism.

The plan was very simple. They couldn’t assassinate Paul in the Roman fortress because they couldn’t get in. They had to get Paul out of the fortress; “How can we get him out? We can try and persuade the commander to bring Paul back to the Temple compound and meet the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin again; to have another meeting.” While Paul is back in the Temple area, they would be hidden away somewhere and they can attempt an assassination. There would only be a small Roman guard who they could get past and they would probably stab Paul to death suddenly. That was their plan. But they had to persuade the Sanhedrin rulers to ask the Roman commander to grant this request and to bring Paul out of the Roman fortress. Notice that when they talk to the leaders of the Sanhedrin the leaders don’t say, “Well, that’s a bad thing to do. You shouldn’t be seeking to assassinate him.” They collaborate with these plotters and they want to send the request; they’re happy to send the request to the commander, which shows their corruption and their desire to get Paul killed as well. We must remember that this is the same organisation, the same group, that condemned Jesus ultimately to death through the Roman authorities as a false messiah. They are deeply opposed to the Christian faith and Paul is seen as the key representative of the development of that faith across the Roman world.

Paul’s Nephew Takes Courage

What they didn’t anticipate was an unknown person who suddenly appears on the scene, by God’s providence. Paul’s nephew. Paul used to live in Jerusalem before he was converted to Christianity. He had come from Tarsus and he lived in Jerusalem as a young adult. He trained in Judaism and so it is likely that his sister also lived in Jerusalem. That is why it is quite understandable that Paul’s family would be very interested in what was going on when he suddenly reappears in the city. His nephew listened in to what was happening and he heard a rumour of this plot. He got permission to go into the fortress and talk to Paul. Paul, then talked to the centurion, and the nephew was brought to the commander. The commander got to hear about the assassination plot before anything is done. This presents the commander with a very challenging situation. What to do next? He can’t keep Paul in prison forever without charging him. He doesn’t want to release him to the Jews and see him assassinated, and then create another great controversy. He’s in a very awkward position.

A Way Out

What should he do? He has found this issue with Paul incredibly difficult ever since it started, and the assassination plot creates another problem for him. What is the right thing for the commander to do? He has an idea that really he can’t deal with this himself. Somebody else needs to deal with the situation and that person is the Roman governor himself. So, we read Acts 23:23 - 35 to find out what happens next,

23 ‘Then he ’the commander, ‘called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. 24 Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.” 25 He wrote a letter as follows: 26 Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. 28 I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. 29 I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. 30 When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him. 31 So the soldiers, carrying out their orders, took Paul with them during the night and brought him as far as Antipatris. 32 The next day they let the cavalry go on with him, while they returned to the barracks. 33 When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. 34 The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.’

Acts 23:23-35, NIV

The commander made a wise decision. He knew that Paul was a Roman citizen, as mentioned in this letter to the governor, which meant that you couldn’t keep him in prison without charge and you can’t punish him without a law case. He felt it was impossible to deal with the situation himself. He decided to send him off to the governor in the Roman military capital of Caesarea, on the coast, where the governor lived, and where the army headquarters was for the whole country.

The letter from the Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, explains very briefly the situation, pointing out that Paul is a Roman citizen but it also says that he has asked the accusers to go up to Caesarea, too. Rather than having the debate in Jerusalem, they can have it in Caesarea where the Governor is the final authority in the whole country. This gets the problem off his hands, which is very convenient for him, but is probably the best thing that he could do. We should notice the extraordinary circumstances of this journey. It was at night; it’s difficult travelling at night in the ancient world, for obvious reasons. Not only did they go at night, they went immediately before anything else could happen. Not only did they go immediately, the number of soldiers sent with Paul was extraordinary! Quite out of proportion to what you might expect; 200 soldiers; 70 Horsemen and 200 spearmen - that’s nearly 500 soldiers to guard him. The reason for this is, as I’ve stated earlier, the country was in a state of ferment and there were groups of terrorists, or freedom fighters, already operating in the country. This group of forty might have involved some of those in the city of Jerusalem. The commander was well aware that assassinations and attacks on Roman convoys took place across the country on a regular basis at that time. So, he wasn’t going to take any chances and he sent out such a huge military convoy that nobody could possibly attack successfully, and he did it immediately so that he could get away from any interventions by this group of assassins.

Off went Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea, stopping at a Roman military outpost called Antipatris. That was about 60 km down the road and then about another 40 km to get to Caesarea, about a hundred-kilometre journey, which would have taken all the way through the night and into the following day. The problem became the problem of Governor Felix, who ruled the province at this turbulent time. He had a reputation for harshness and had taken a lot of actions against the Jews that were suppressing their nationalism and their opposition to the Romans. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to be presented with another problem. Here’s another Jewish problem landing on his in-tray. Here’s another controversy amongst the Jews - an assassination plot, all sorts of problems. This wasn’t going to be something that he was looking forward to. All he did at the end of this episode was to put Paul in prison in Herod’s Palace in Caesarea.


As I said at the beginning, we could make a movie out of this. Paul’s life is very dramatic and there is a lot more that can be said as the story continues. For now, let’s pause and think, ‘Why is this story being told? Why are we getting so much detail on this story?’ One reason is that Luke himself, the writer of Acts, is described as being with Paul in Jerusalem and probably is with Paul as he’s travelling to Caesarea, given the amount of detail that he recalls. This is eyewitness testimony of very dramatic events taking place. I think that Luke has in mind that we learn some lessons from these kinds of stories. Here are some of the things that I think we can draw by way of reflections and learning points from this episode.

The first one is that in Paul’s life, Luke records no less than four incidents, when in very dangerous situations, God intervenes, or an angel intervenes, and speaks to him in the form of a vision or a dream or words that come very firmly to mind. I’m just going to pause now as we think about this, and go over those four again. One of them, of course, occurs in our passage, but let’s go back in the story a little further. If you’ve been following the book of Acts as we’ve been studying it together, you’ll have noticed some of these already. The first occasion, Acts 16:9, is when Paul is trying to work out where he should be evangelising and planting churches and he’s had a frustrating time not knowing what to do next. It says,

 ‘During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’

This is a vision; this is a point of direction. Paul’s a bit uncertain about life, he’s at a crisis point; he doesn’t know which way to go, what to do. Have you ever been in that situation in life? Not quite sure where to go and you’re hoping that God might speak to you. God spoke to Paul and gave him direction, which meant that he crossed the Aegean Sea and entered into Macedonia and Greece and a whole new mission started. Then later, he ended up in the city of Corinth. It was a complicated situation in Corinth, with a lot of opposition coming to him. In Acts 18: 9 - 10, it says,

9 ‘One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10 For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”’

Acts 18:9-10, NIV

Here is another vision of reassurance. Notice, that what is needed in response to these things always, is courage and confidence to move forward. The third example is in our passage today when he was in prison in the fortress and wondering, ‘What’s going to happen next? Will I be here forever? Will I ever get out alive? And the Lord spoke to him in Acts 23:11,

“Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”’

The final example comes a little later in the story, but I’ll mention it briefly now and we’ll discuss it more fully when we get to it. Paul eventually leaves Judea by ship, and is sent by the governor, to Rome and to the Emperor, and we’ll explain how that happens later on. During that journey, there’s a violent storm and a shipwreck takes place. During the storm, when everybody thought that the ship was going to sink, Paul spoke, in Acts 27:24, to all the sailors and everybody on board ship, that’s over 250 people, and said that God had spoken to him,

“Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.”

That’s another miraculous intervention. Over 250 lives were at risk at that point if the ship had sunk but every single person survived. We will tell you more about that story when we get to it. The point I’m illustrating is that, at crucial moments in Paul’s life when he needed guidance or comfort, God spoke to him and reassured him that he was with him throughout these difficulties.

The second point I want to draw as a reflection from here, is to notice in the book of Acts, the role of what I call ‘God’s insignificant people’. People who appear in the story, briefly, have a dramatic influence almost by accident, without really trying to achieve anything, and then disappear out of the story again. We’ve had a few examples in the past in the book of Acts: for example, Dorcas, the widow who died, who was doing good to the poor and Peter came and raised her from the dead, and as a result of that resurrection, hundreds of people became believers. Or perhaps Ananias, the unknown disciple of Jesus in the city of Damascus, who helped Paul, baptised him and prayed for him so that he was filled with the Holy Spirit, then he disappeared off the scene. Now we have another example, Paul’s nephew, who heard about the assassination plot and made one active intervention that made all the difference. I want to encourage you: many of you might feel, ‘I’m one of those insignificant people’. You are not that insignificant, because who knows, at any point you could become a key person, a link in the chain of God’s events for other people, if you are available. Ananias was available. Dorcas had given her life to help the poor people. Paul’s nephew was willing to take a risk. It was risky going to the commander. What would happen if the assassins had found out that he’d gone? He’d be assassinated too. God uses insignificant people. The book of Acts is a story of the partnership of leaders and many ordinary people who make things happen.

My final point of reflection would be that this is an amazing story of courageous faith in times of danger and uncertainty. As you are listening to this talk today, it may be that you face times of danger or uncertainty for all sorts of reasons, and this passage, like so many others in the book of Acts, encourages us to trust God even when the situation looks impossible. Paul faced an absolutely impossible situation. The Romans had got him under guard; the Jews weren’t even going to tolerate him in the city and would assassinate him at the first opportunity. He was on his own, powerless, but trusting God, having courage and obeying the things God called him to do. That is all God asks us to do. Thanks for listening to this episode and I hope you’ll join us for the next one.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Do you think you are too insignificant for God to use? What does Paul’s nephew teach you?
  • Discipleship
    1. In what ways has God guided you in your life?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why were the Jews so against Paul? Trace the story back to the life of Jesus.
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