God's Overruling Providence
Several Sundays have gone by since I last spoke to you on Paul’s experiences in the book of Acts, and of course I realize that there are numbers here this morning who were not with us at the former times when we considered this entire book from chapter one down to verse 11 of chapter 23. But we shall go right on from that point where we left off on the last occasion that we were speaking from this book, and trust that even though many have not followed us in the previous studies, there will be some special lesson for each one in the present passage, so I will read from the 12th verse to the 35th verse of Acts 23.
“And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy. And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul. Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you tomorrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him. And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him. So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, “Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee. Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me? And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee thou wouldest bring down Paul tomorrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly. But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee. So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me. And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night; and provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor. And he wrote a letter after this manner; Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them: then came I with an army, and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman. And when I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council: whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee, and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee, what they had against him. Farewell. Then the soldiers, as it was commanded them, took Paul, and brought him by night to Antipatris. On the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the castle: who when they came to Caesarea, and delivered the epistle to the governor, presented Paul also before him. And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was. And when he understood that he was of Cilicia; I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come. And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.”
It is important to remember that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” One would emphasize that upon reading a portion such as this for in this particular instance we have absolutely no mention of God or of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the way of salvation, of redemption by His blood, or of any other great truth of Scripture. We simply have a historical incident, and we might well ask, “Of what profit is it to us?” But it is part of Holy Scripture, and God by the Spirit caused Luke to write it and preserve it for a definite purpose and, I think, to bring before us in a very special way God’s providential care of His people.
God is never nearer to His people than when they cannot see His face; He is never closer than when they do not hear His voice; He is never undertaking for them more definitely than at the very times when His own name is not even mentioned. You see that in the Old Testament in one little book which is distinctly the record of God’s providential care, the book of Esther; a book that brings before us some of the most thrilling experiences in the history of the nation of Israel, God’s earthly people, the Jews. And yet in that little book we do not have the name of God or any pronoun referring to God; we do not have any reference to any Bible doctrine; and at a time of tremendous stress we do not even read anything of prayer. Yet God worked providentially for the deliverance of His people.
Somebody has well said that God is often behind the scenes, but He moves all the scenes that He is behind. It is well for us to remember that. There are times in all our lives when we seem to be forgotten of God, times when we find it difficult to pray, times when we grope in the darkness and we can’t understand God’s way with us; but He is always near at hand. He is waiting to undertake for us, and He is watching over us, even when we are so weak and sick that we can not remember His promises. In the book of Psalms there is one place where it says, “He remembered His covenant for them.” That is a wonderful thought. When they forgot, He remembered still and remembered it for them.
Here we find the Apostle Paul in a very precarious situation and no outward evidence of any manifestation of divine power, and yet God is watching over him in it all. We have already noticed how he had been arrested and how he had been given an opportunity to speak for himself but how his message had been refused and his enemies had demanded his death. But the Roman chief captain had taken him in custody and put him in prison, and now in the opening verses of the section before us, verses 12 and 13, we read of a conspiracy entered into by over forty desperate men who evidently hated the Gospel of God above everything else in the world, and thought they would be doing God service if they could put this servant of His, the Apostle Paul, to death.
We read that “certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” There were more than forty who had entered into this conspiracy. Farther down in the chapter we read that they had bound themselves with an oath. This in itself is suggestive. What a wicked thing it is for men to enter into a curse like this, to bind themselves with an oath to do anything, whether good or evil. Our Lord Jesus Christ has distinctly forbidden His followers to take oaths of any kind, and yet how recklessly people talk today and how even ungodly men call God to witness as to what they intend to do. I am not speaking merely of profanity, as awful as it is. I never can understand how even self-respecting men, not to speak of professing Christians, can stoop to profanity. I am sure one never hears a man take the name of God in vain or blasphemously use the name of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ but he finds himself looking with utter contempt upon anyone who can stoop so low; and yet I think there are many who actually think it is an evidence of an independent spirit and of manliness to dare to use oaths and profane language. Unconverted men sometimes carry it so far that they are not even conscious of it as oath after oath comes from their lips. God’s Word says, “Swear not at all”; and in the Law we read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This refers not only to profanity but also to taking such an oath as these men took, for doubtless they bound themselves in the name of God that they would not eat or drink until they had taken Paul’s life.
I sometimes wonder what became of the poor wretches when they were not able to carry out their oath. They must have had a terrible time until I suppose at last they simply broke down and violated their own oath. It generally ends up that way.
I wonder if it is necessary to say a word to real Christian people as to the wickedness of taking God’s name in vain. One shudders sometimes to hear the language that professing Christians use. The Lord Jesus told us, “Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool.” And yet what a common thing it is today to hear people use the word “heaven” in a careless, profane way. Do you ever use it that way? How often you will hear a young Christian ejaculate, “Oh, heavens,” or “Good heavens,” or something like that. Do you realize that this is just as profane, that it is just as wicked in the sight of God as if we were to use other vile expressions which wicked, ungodly men use because you are taking in vain that which speaks of the throne of the Majesty of the universe, and you are doing something expressly forbidden by our Lord Jesus who said to “let your yea be yea and your nay nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” When you feel it necessary to add any kind of an oath or a strong expression to any asseveration you make, you are simply departing from the simplicity of speech which should characterize believers, and we read, “That for every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”
These men had bound themselves with an oath that they would kill Paul. I take it they believed it was their religious duty to get rid of him, and when you can get a man to believe that it is his religious duty to do something, he will go to any length to carry it out. Saul of Tarsus must have remembered those days when he thought that he ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. So we can be sure that he now would not have any hateful feelings toward these men who are seeking his life. He would remember the days when he was seeking the lives of those who trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we find these conspirators coming to the priests and elders of the people in order to have their dire purposes sanctioned by these religious leaders. They came and told them of the oath that they had taken, and said, “Now won’t you act as if you would inquire something further concerning him, and we will be waiting nearby, and when they bring him, we will kill him.” It was a diabolical plot and one might have thought of Paul as totally helpless. He knew nothing of it, and there seemed to be no way by which he could learn of it, shut up in prison as he was. But there was One who knew all about it, and although unseen, He was watching over His servant all the time. When we speak of God’s providential care, we mean God’s unseen interference in the affairs of men.
These men did not realize it, but knowledge of their plot came to Paul in a most interesting way. Paul had a sister living there (we might never have known it except for this incident) who had a son, and her son became aware of this plot. Perhaps the conspirators did not think that it was necessary to keep the thing so secret since Paul was shut up in prison, but at any rate this lad heard of it, and he went to the prison and asked the guard to take him to his uncle Paul. And when he told Paul what he had learned, the apostle immediately called one of the officials, the centurion, and said, “Will you take this man in to see the chief captain? He has something to tell him.”
Notice the level-headed way in which Paul acted. He did not say, “I am not afraid of this. God is able to protect me. He is still able to work miracles.” But God does not use miracles when it is not necessary. He would have us use good common sense and not count on His interfering or intervening in some miraculous way. I remember years ago when I was a Salvation Army officer, we used to say that there were three things that should characterize every saint of God: “Now abideth these three: grit, grace, and gumption; but the greatest of these is gumption.” Gumption is just good, common, ordinary sense, and I know a lot of Christians who don’t use good sense. Some way or other they have an idea they are God’s favored people and it is not necessary to use good judgment and wisdom in regard to the affairs of life; the Lord will undertake for them. Bless you, if you are hungry and a good dinner is put before you, God is not going to put the food into your mouth in some miraculous way. And so God isn’t turning upside down the universe in order to please people who happen to be in difficult circumstances. He expects us to use common sense.
So Paul used his head, and he sent the young man in to the chief captain, and when the lad came in to him and gave him his message, “The chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou has shewed these things to me.” He must have thought he had a very important prisoner, for see what he did.
He let the young man depart, and then called two centurions and said, “Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred.” That’s seventy cavalrymen, two hundred infantrymen, and two hundred spearmen. Just think of it! Four hundred and seventy Roman soldiers, all to protect this Christian servant of God and keep him from his foes who were seeking his life! God saw that he was protected. Did he need the Roman soldiers? No, He could have sent several legions of angels; but God doesn’t work in miracles unless it is necessary, and so He used soldiers instead.
And then the chief captain thought he had a good opportunity to get into the favor of the Governor down at Caesarea, and so he wrote a letter which was partly true and partly false. He said, “Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them: then came I with an army and rescued him.” Well, that is all true, but the next part of the letter was absolutely false. “Having understood that he was a Roman.” He did not understand anything of the kind. He thought he was an Egyptian. He told Paul that. He said, “Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?” And it wasn’t until they were about to scourge Paul, and Paul said, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” that the chief captain came to his rescue and said, “Are you a Roman?” And Paul said, “Yea.” The chief captain said, “With a great sum obtained I this freedom”; but Paul answered, “But I was born free, and I have certain rights.”
You see, Claudius Lysias was in a tight fix for if that lash had come down on the back of Paul, a Roman, and it got to the ears of the Governor, Claudius Lycias would have been arrested himself for violating the law of the Empire. So now he wants to make it appear that it was his zeal for the Roman government that led him to save Paul’s life. That was what some people would call a “white” lie, but every white lie is absolutely black in the sight of God, and “all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” That is, whether they tell white lies or black lies. All lies are lies in God’s sight.
So he says, “When I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council,” (which was quite true) “whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee what they had against him. Farewell.” So much for the letter.
And so the soldiers went on with Paul, and they took him away at once to be sure that these conspirators did not fall upon him. They took him by night as far as Antipatris, and then on the morrow the infantrymen returned, but the cavalrymen went on to Caesarea, which was the seat of Roman government for that district. They delivered the epistle to the governor, “And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was. And when he understood that he was of Cilicia” (Tarsus, you know, was the chief city in Cilicia and there Paul was born). “I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come.” So now we see Paul in the hands of the Roman government, in prison at Caesarea, waiting for his accusers to come down from Jerusalem and plead against him. “And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.”
Now notice the position in which Paul is found. He had gone up to Jerusalem, apparently—I speak thoughtfully here, I don’t want to go to extremes—apparently against the commandment of the Lord. Certain disciples along the way said to Paul, through the Spirit, that he should not go to Jerusalem; but because he loved his Jewish brethren so tenderly, though they did not understand him, and he hoped that God would use him to bring them a knowledge of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, he continued on his way. He had written sometime before to the church of Rome that he hoped to visit them and he asked them to pray that he might have a prosperous journey. He goes on to Jerusalem, but he finds himself unable to do that which he had hoped. He finds that instead of his brethren being willing to receive him, they do not understand and want to put him to death, and he finds himself in a Roman prison, first in Jerusalem and then in Caesarea, and afterwards from there sent on over land and sea, still a prisoner, to Rome. He obtains his objective at last but he reaches Rome in chains. In all this God was overruling. In all this He was having His own way. It is a wonderful thing to realize that in spite of our mistakes and our blunders we have a blessed Father in heaven who is working everything out for good. Paul could write, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.”
I may be addressing some of you who find yourselves in very perplexing circumstances, and the worst of it is perhaps some of you blame yourselves and rightly for the circumstances in which you are found. You say, “Dear me, if I had only used a little more common sense!” or “If I had only been more true to my God, these things would not have happened!” and you feel perhaps as though God has forsaken you because of your mistakes and blunders. Oh no, not a bit of it. God is still for you, and He is watching over you and undertaking for you.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Just trust Him and say from the heart as David did, “I will trust and not be afraid,” for God is undertaking. He manifested His love to the full when He gave His Son to die for you, and “having not spared His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”
And to you who do not yet know Him as your Father, to you who have not yet trusted Christ as your Saviour and who may be saying in your heart, “God is not interested in me,” oh let me assure you He has the same gracious interest in you as us who are Christians. The Lord Jesus was not just speaking to the apostles when He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father…Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” God is interested in you, dear friend, whoever you may be and wherever you may be today. He was interested enough in you to send His Son to die for you, and He has watched over and preserved you up to the present moment to give you an opportunity to trust Him for yourself. Don’t blame Him because the way may seem dark before you. Don’t doubt His love because perplexities arise on every hand. Don’t say that God is indifferent because you find yourself apparently sinking beneath the waves of trouble. God is right at your hand, and He wants to undertake for you. Look up to Him in faith. Take your place before Him as a repentant sinner. Trust in Christ as your Saviour, and count on Him for blessing.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea:
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
The trouble is, dear friend, if you are thinking hard thoughts of God, it is because you do not know Him yet. Oh, could you only know Him as they who have found Him in Jesus Christ know Him, your heart would be filled with praise instead of doubt and fault-finding.