TAKE COURAGE! YOU MUST TESTIFY IN ROME
Key Verse: 23:11
“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.’”
When we watch the news, we find that there is so much evil in the world. It seems that people in the world plan evil and succeed. Even some Christians question God’s existence like Jeremiah did when they see so much unrighteousness and injustice in the world. Today’s passage may shine a little light on this question for us. Behind all the evil plans of people, God fulfills his plan, protecting and providing for his servants. May God help us to hear his voice and see what God is doing in the background of world history.
I. Take Courage; Your Vision is My Vision (22:30-23:11).
Look at verse 22:30. In the previous passage, Paul shared his testimony with a compassionate heart for the Jews, but they shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live,” especially after he said that the Lord would send him to the Gentiles. The commander took him into the barracks but wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused of. Since the commander found out that Paul was a Roman citizen, he could not hold him without any evidence. So he released him first and assembled a court hearing with the priests and the Sanhedrin.
Now Paul is standing before the Sanhedrin members. It is like Jesus standing before the Sanhedrin before his death. Paul was innocent but being tried before the Sanhedrin and the Romans. The truth was that he did not violate any laws or regulations of the Jews but was being falsely accused that he brought Greeks to the temple, which is nothing to do with the Roman law. The reason why the Jews became crazy has nothing to do with the first accusation except their pride of being chosen by God was hurt. Would the commander understand it, even if Paul explained it to him? What about the Sanhedrin members?
How did Paul deal with the situation? Look at 23:1. “Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, ‘My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.’” It is truly a bold statement, which includes both before and after he met the risen Christ. Paul was a Pharisee trained under Gamaliel, who was a member of the Sanhedrin. Therefore, some of the Sanhedrin members most likely knew him, and vice versa. Paul knew what they believed and where they were coming from. There are so many duties a Jew should fulfill. Since he was a Pharisee, he had even more responsibilities than a regular Jew. Who could say such a statement? He must have been very legalistic with himself, trying to keep all the laws and regulations. Even if he kept all the laws and regulations, he cannot be perfect before God. What about his persecution, putting innocent Christians in prison and approving them to be killed? Yet, Paul did not say that he was innocent but fulfilled his duty as far as he remembers. For example, when he realized that he committed sin, he brought a sin offering to the temple and received God’s forgiveness.
Paul’s statement makes me to examine myself, asking a question, “Have I fulfilled my duty as a shepherd in my good conscience?” The answer is ‘no,’ I have failed to pray for each one of you many days and fill the needs, not to mention knowing what you need inside. Therefore, I repent of my sins and shortcomings and pray to grow to be like the good shepherd Jesus. But I can say that I have not intentionally done anything wrong or evil to anybody. This does not mean that I am innocent. Please, forgive me if my words or deeds or even gifts with good conscience have offended you.
Look at verse 2. The high priest, Ananias, however, ordered those who were standing near Paul strike him on the mouth. It was because he believed that Paul was lying to the people. To him, it was impossible for a human to fulfill every duty in one’s life. Since he was the high priest, who was appointed as a judge among the people of Israel in the matter of religion, he ordered Paul to be punished.
How did Paul respond? Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” In Paul’s statement, “whitewashed wall” is another expression of “hypocrite”. So Paul was accusing that Ananias was a hypocrite because he judged that Paul was a liar without two or more witnesses against him. It also revealed the hypocrisy of the Sanhedrin members who judged others but they themselves violated the law of God. Just as they killed the innocent Jesus because of jealousy, they wanted to kill Paul because he betrayed them and worse than that, he became a servant of the Way.
Look at verses 4-5. Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!” Caiaphas was the high priest before and now Ananias has become the high priest, but Paul did not know about the change. When Paul heard that he violated the word of God, he replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written; ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” Paul quoted Exodus 22:28, acknowledging his ignorance that if he knew it he would not say such. Some people assume that Paul knew Ananias as the high priest but said such words in order to convict the high priest and the Sanhedrin. But I will take his statement as is, not trying to assume his motivation, which contradicts his good conscience.
Yet, Paul also intentionally brought a critical point to the Sanhedrin. Look at verses 6-8. Paul said, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead,” knowing that some of them were Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection or angels or spirits, and the others Pharisees, who believed all these things. Paul brought the issue of the resurrection of the dead, which could make them divided. As expected, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There was a great uproar, and some of the Pharisees even defended Paul, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces and decided to bring him in to the barracks.
By bringing up the resurrection of the dead, Paul put the ball on the other side of the court, making them fight among themselves, which reveals who they were. They were not even religious leaders but pure politicians. They did not care for the truth but only their political agenda and defeating their political opponents. They focused on their political issue so much so that they forgot why they gathered there. In fact, they were living in hell.
Let’s take our attention back to Paul. Look at verse 10b. Where is he now? Paul was in the barracks of Roman soldiers, maybe in a jail cell all by himself. How might he feel? How would you feel when you are almost torn to pieces and left in a cell all by yourself? You have worked hard for Christ, preaching the gospel and raising disciples, but constantly being persecuted and even being nearly torn to pieces. You are probably discouraged and fearful for the unknown future. Though Paul had vision to preach the gospel to the whole world through Rome, but that vision was dimmed due to the current situation. As prophesied, he was bound and suffering, and might even die like Jesus and Stephen.
What did God do for Paul? Look at verse 11. “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.’” In this verse, there are four points. First, the Lord stood near Paul. When he was in prison with Silas at Philippi, he could sing and pray, and experienced the miracle of the door opening and his chains falling off. But in Corinth, he fell into fear and the Lord came and spoke to him very personally. At this moment, Paul also might have thought that the Lord was far from him. He was not being released but getting in more and deeper trouble, maybe even regretting that he did not listen to others’ warning not to go to Jerusalem, which could have been God’s warning. But the Lord appeared before Paul and stood near him in order to assure him that he is near. Jesus is standing by him and taking care of his needs. In fact, the Lord was always with him. But when Paul needed it, Jesus came and stood near.
How do we know that the Lord is near? When David felt that he was going through the darkest valley, he trusted that the Lord is his shepherd. (Ps 23) When Elijah felt that he was the only one left among the ungodly, God told him that he saved 3,000 who did not bow down to Baal. (1 Ki 19) Ps 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” When we call on God in prayer, God is near to us, listening to us. When we listen to Jesus’ words, we also know that he is near, standing by us.
Secondly, take courage. Often we think that Paul never lost his courage, but we need to remember that in his letter he asked Philippian believers to pray for him to live by faith with sufficient courage. (Phil 1:20) At this moment, he was discouraged because he got into trouble due to his testimony. He fell into doubt that the Jews would never accept the gospel message. It seemed the Sanhedrin members were too stubborn to accept the gospel. He may be right, but he did not need to worry about whether people would accept the gospel or not, but just keep preaching the gospel with courage. The rest is God’s work.
In the Old Testament, there is another time God told someone “Be strong and courageous.” In Joshua 1, God repeated this phrase 4 times, because he had to lead the unruly people of Israel to conquer the vast land, fighting against warlike people with a handful of untrained slaves. It is because the conquest of the Promised land is not by human power or skills or chariots but by faith in the power of God. Therefore, he just needed to obey God’s direction by faith even though God’s word did not make any sense to him. The first and great battle was not fighting against his enemies but against their doubt while they were walking around the walls of Jericho until they all tumbled down. Courage comes through faith. When we trust in God’s word, we can obey his word by faith and experience the power of God.
Thirdly, remember what he had done in Jerusalem. What did Paul do in Jerusalem? He shared his testimony with a compassionate heart and courage. To Paul, however, it seemed like a failure because no one accepted his testimony but everyone stood against him, beating him and trying to kill him. But to God, it was a great work because through his testimony Paul demonstrated the power of God revealed in love, turning his enemy into his servant. He should remember that his mission is to be a witness of Jesus’ resurrection, not turning the hearts of the Jews even though he earnestly prayed for them. Even if all the Jews turned to be his enemies, Paul did what God called him to do.
Fourthly, your vision is my vision. After the great work of God in Ephesus, Paul had a great vision, saying, “After I have been Jerusalem, I must visit Rome also.” But it seemed that it was his wishful thinking if his life ended here. How discouraging it was for Paul. His future was uncertain and hope was diminishing. But God confirmed his vision at his lowest point of his life, saying, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” It is like God was saying, “Your vision is my vision.” What a great assurance Paul received from God. It was not just his vision but also God’s will for him to go to Rome. Maybe Paul expected the great work of God in Rome like the work of God in Ephesus. Yet, he was called to testify to the love of the risen Christ, just as he did in Jerusalem.
While I was meditating on this passage, the word of God rebuked and encouraged me at the same time, reminding me of what happened in my life. While I was in Dongyo center under Dr. Abraham Kim, God granted me training and gave me 1 Corinthians 15:10 as my life key verse, which enabled me to experience the power of God’s word. When God sent me to America, I also expected a great work of God, and there were times we had a lot of disciple candidates and Sunday worship attendants from COD ministry coworking with Msn. Monica. But most of them went away except a few. This pattern repeated again and again. God opened my heart that my experience in Korea actually worked against me because I had kept the way of making disciples in the same way in America. I needed to be changed and am learning the principle of spiritual volunteerism with prayer and patience. Through today’s passage, God is telling me that I am called to testify about Jesus’ love and power in his death and resurrection, and that moving the hearts of people is God’s work. If I pushed you too much to bear, please, forgive my ignorance and pray for me to learn to wait on God who does his work. This verse also encouraged me to continue to testify believing that my vision is God’s vision for this nation to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Though this vision came through the late Dr. Lee, I also accepted it in my heart and prayed to contribute 10% of his prayer for it, raising 1,200 Bible teachers. I do not know when, but that is God’s job, I just need to testify about Jesus, his death and resurrection. Amen!
II. Contrast between human plan and God’s plan (23:12-35).
Look at verses 12-15. The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than 40 of them were involved. They made a plot to ask the commander to bring Paul back to the Sanhedrin for more questions and kill him on the way. Wow! There are forty assassins. Even if there is one, your life is at stake. You may not fall asleep but give the order of protection from them. In today’s terms, they are like 40 suicide bombers. Even if they died, they would kill you. Probably, when they were swearing the oath, they firmly believed that they would fulfill it within a week maximum.
Yet, there is God’s work here, fulfilling Paul’s vision in three ways. First, God revealed their evil plot. The son of Paul’s sister heard of their evil plot and came to tell Paul. Paul asked one of the centurions to take the boy to talk to the commander. The commander even told the boy not to tell anyone about this.
Secondly, God’s protection for Paul. The commander ordered two centurions with two hundred soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen to take Paul to the Governor Felix in Caesarea. The 470-member cavalry was like a triumphal entry of a general or a bodyguard unit for a king. It was the highest protection the Roman commander could provide. What a protection God provided! While Paul was riding a horse with 470 soldiers, what would he think of it?
Thirdly, God’s provision for Paul. The commander also wrote a long letter, defending Paul in three ways; the accusation of the Jews has something to do with their laws, and no charge against Paul was found, and finally there was a plot by Paul’s accusers to kill him. When the governor read the letter, he only asked one question about Paul’s birthplace, Cilicia, which was under his jurisdiction. So he agreed to hear Paul’s case. Paul was living Herod’s palace.
These reminds me of Romans 8:28 and 31, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose… What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us.” Sometimes, we may feel like the world is against us, when we are receiving persecutions and it seems our vision to serve God is being dismissed. But God protects his people and provides the way out of the evil plot. Rather, God was leading Paul to Rome step by step to fulfill his vision. In the meantime, Paul is going to testify before kings.
Recently, there was persecution at ONU and the plan to serve children 6-10 years old was jeopardized, and I could not find any volunteers from Wheaton College. But this passage encouraged me that God will protect God’s flock and provide volunteers who are willing to serve. Among these young children, great men and women of God will come out and be used by God for world salvation work. Amen!
Through today’s passage, we learned that God encouraged Paul in many ways, when he lost his courage due to his situation. May God help us to listen to the word of God and receive courage through faith in his promise, believing in God’s protection and provision even when it seems impossible. Amen!