Acts 23 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Plot Uncovered; Paul Taken to Caesarea
The Romans, like late-twentieth-century Americans or Koreans or Germans, were a "can-do" people. They would expect any gospel that promised its spread to all nations to show results (Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8). But in this episode Luke seems to paint himself into a corner. On the heels of a divine vision assuring Paul that he will witness in Rome comes a report of plotters determined to take the apostle's life. Is God able to fulfill his purposes to bring the gospel to all nations, especially to Romans? Like the book of Esther, without ever mentioning God, Luke reveals the divine hand, frustrating the schemes of human beings and ordering all things so that his purposes for the gospel's advance will come a step closer to fulfillment.Deadly Plot (23:12-15)
Twice the Romans have rescued Paul from the Jews' deadly intent (21:32-36; 23:10; see also 22:22-24). But his removal into the safekeeping of the Roman authorities only seems to intensify the Jews' determination to do away with him. From Acts 22:30 forward Luke consistently highlights Israel's rejection of the gospel by using the general term the Jews to refer to those who oppose Paul.
More than forty men take a "curse oath" (anathematizo). They " `accursed themselves' or `wished for themselves the curse of God' or `declared their lives forfeit' if they did not bend every effort to fulfill their voluntarily accepted obligation to kill Paul" (Behm 1964:355). They declare their fanatical devotion in a complete fast from food or drink until Paul is dead. Such a vow means death either way, for any ambush of a Roman military contingent would lead to the immediate death of most of the attackers.
Is this vow an extension of a commitment to remove the curse of God from a defiled temple by seeing to it that the perpetrator will experience death "at the hands of heaven" (see comment at 21:28-32)? In Jewish thinking, zealous ones should take on themselves that curse if God's offended holiness is not avenged.
Although the plotters are unsuccessful, we do not need to conclude that they die. Jewish casuistry provided for the breaking of a vow "[that cannot be fulfilled by reason] of constraint" (circumstances that kept the conditions of the vow from being met; m. Nedarim 3:1, 3).
The enemies of the gospel, in the end, have only the self-destructive power of self-imposed curses to try to realize their plans. What a feeble hope in comparison to the providential, saving power of God! And how ironic! Those who place themselves under a curse in order to remove a curse assume that they are in the will of God but are really picturing what is already true of them. These enemies of the cross are persons under God's condemnation and only increase their punishment by taking such action against a messenger of the gospel.
These devoted plotters are also deceptive plotters. In order to maneuver Paul into a situation where they can get at him, they ask the Sadducean segment of the Sanhedrin, the chief priests and elders, to persuade the council to officially petition the commander to "bring Paul down" (NIV to bring before) from the Antonia fortress to them. The pretext will be to secure more accurate information about his case; the purpose will be to kill him (anaireo; Acts 23:15, 21; 25:3; compare Lk 22:2; Acts 21:36; 22:22).
Persecutors of the gospel have no interest in the truth about the gospel messenger. Not only must we continually show ourselves interested in the truth (21:34; 22:24), but we must be wise as serpents and innocent as doves when confronting such schemes (Mt 10:16).Divine Providence (23:16-22)
Paul's nephew, a young man probably in his early twenties, heard of this plot (literally "ambush"; Josh 8:7, 9 LXX). He reports it to Paul, who then sends him with his message up the chain of command through a centurion to the commander.
Since Paul's imprisonment, like most incarceration in ancient times, is not a punishment but a custody until his case can be determined (in Paul's case it is also protective custody), his nephew's access to him is not unusual. That Paul can call for a centurion to take the young man to the tribune, and that the "command" would be obeyed, reflects not only his status as a Roman citizen but also the urgency of his message.
As the centurion reports to the commander, he gives Paul a title that will become for the apostle a mark of persecution and a badge of honor. From now on Paul is consistently "Paul, the prisoner" (23:18; 25:14, 27). For freedom-loving ancients to identify with someone in prison, deprived of liberty because of alleged or proven wrongdoing, could be a matter of shame (2 Tim 1:8). But for Paul that shame turns to honor when he lengthens the title to say "Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus" or "prisoner for the Lord" (Eph 3:1; 4:1; Philem 1, 9). So may all Christians who suffer shameful circumstances in persecution realize the honor that rests on them because of the One for whom they suffer.
In a kindly (by the hand) and discreet (drew him aside) way, the commander interrogates the nephew. Evidently the Sanhedrin has already lodged its request, for the young man urges the tribune, Don't give in to (peisthes; better "yield to, be persuaded by") them. The commander takes the plot seriously, asking the young man to depart and not tell anyone that he has reported this.
This unmasking of the plot is a silent witness to God's providential ruling and overruling in the affairs of humankind to fulfill his saving purposes (Prov 21:30; Is 8:10). Human beings play an essential role. The courageous nephew, the determined apostle, the compliant centurion and the discerning tribune all are essential to seeing that the cunning plot is foiled. Here is the first time the promise of the night vision, "so you must also testify in Rome" (Acts 23:11), guides Paul as he responds to unfolding events. Strong courage must be matched by canny wisdom if the persecuted witness is to avoid a premature death.Roman Precautions (23:23-30)
The commander calls two of his centurions and orders them to prepare for Paul's transfer to Caesarea. A detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen indicates the Roman assessment of the seriousness of the threat and the importance of the prisoner. The mounts provided for Paul will be for relays, baggage, the soldiers to whom he is chained or his friends (Williams 1985:390). They are to leave under the cover of darkness--at 9:30 p.m.--for Caesarea on the coast, the provincial capital for Judea. The might of Rome's legions willingly deployed to protect one witness to the Lord Jesus is silent but powerful testimony to who is really Lord in that world and in ours.
Since the tribune lacks the necessary authority to deal judicially with prisoners of provincial status once he has restored public order, he may have already decided to transfer Paul to the governor's direct jurisdiction before he heard of the plot (Sherwin-White 1963:54; Marshall 1980:369). That news only accelerated the process.
The governor in question is Felix. He had served under Cumanus administering Samaria (A.D. 48-52) and succeeded him as governor until his recall in A.D. 59. Originally a slave, he was emancipated either by Antonia Minor, daughter of Mark Antony and mother of Emperor Claudius, or by Claudius himself, depending on whether Antonius (Tacitus Histories 5.9) or Claudius (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.137) is his correct nomen. Felix's tenure was marked by ongoing disturbances among the people, whether from the old-style terrorist-hoodlums (lestes), messianic impostors and false prophets, or the new threat, sicarii, assassins with their "short dagger" terror (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.160-61; Jewish Wars 2.252-53). The brutal measures he took to deal with these only turned the Jews more against him and stirred up more unrest. Tacitus said that he "practiced every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of king with all the instincts of a slave" (Histories 5.9).
In standard epistolary form the tribune's letter identifies the sender, Claudius Lycias (see comment at 22:28), and the receiver, Governor Felix, who is addressed with the honorific title "His Excellency" (this was appropriate to his office though he was not a member of the equestrian class). The body of the letter rehearses the tribune's conduct with reference to the prisoner and his assessment of the charges against Paul. His recounting of Paul's rescue deals loosely with the truth in order to place himself in the best professional light. In fact, he learned Paul was a Roman citizen only after the rescue-arrest and at the point of scourging as a part of interrogation (22:25-29). His assessment, however, is accurate. The tribune concurs with Gallio before him that charges brought against Christians by Jews are theological, stemming from an intramural religious debate (18:15; compare 25:19). Paul is innocent of all crimes before Roman law.
By example and testimony the commander reminds us of three things about the interrelationship of the Christian and the state: (1) The state's proper role is to protect the rights of its citizens (Rom 13:4; 1 Tim 2:2-4). This the Christian may insist on. (2) The state is incompetent to make judgments on theological/religious matters. Whenever it does so it transgresses the boundary articulated by Jesus (Lk 20:25). (3) Christians must follow their Lord's example in guarding their innocence before the laws of the state (23:14-15, 22, 41, 47; compare Acts 25:8, 10-11, 18-19; 26:31-32).Roman Protection (23:31-35)
The thirty-five-mile nighttime leg of Paul's transfer proceeds without incident. Traversing the Judean hill country, either through Bethel or via the more southerly route to Lydda and then ten miles north, the military contingent comes to Antipatris, identified by most with modern Kulat Ras el Ain. A military station at a trade-route crossroads on the border of Samaria and Judea, just at the foot of the Judean hill country, it signals safety to the troops, both geographically and ethnically. The topography and populace most amenable to Jewish ambush lie behind them now. Ahead lies a flat coastal plain inhabited predominantly by Gentiles. The infantry and spearmen can return home while the cavalry takes Paul the remaining twenty-five miles to Caesarea. There the officers delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. This transfer models God's ability to use even the military might of an empire to protect his gospel messengers.
Paul's movement toward Rome is at the same time a final movement away from Jerusalem. Though he will continue to witness "to the Jew first" (28:17-27), Jerusalem's refusal to receive the gospel message (22:18, 22) and constant intent to destroy its messengers (Lk 13:34; Acts 25:3) seals its judgment from God (Lk 13:35; 21:20, 24).
Felix asks Paul his province of origin, either because he wonders about the need to show courtesy to a monarch of a client kingdom or he seeks a way to be rid of a troublesome case involving a Roman citizen in an imbroglio with the Jews. Paul's reply, however, gives Festus no relief. Eastern Cilicia at that time was part of the united province of Syria-Cilicia. The governor may not have wanted to trouble legate Ummidius Quadratus with the case. Or he is aware that Tarsus is a "free city" whose citizens are exempt from normal provincial jurisdiction. Or he may be wishing not to further antagonize Jerusalem Jews, who would have to take their case to Syria if it is remanded there. In any case, Felix decides to hear the case himself, after the accusers arrive. Herod the Great had built in Caesarea a very costly palace (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 15.331), which now served as the headquarters of the Roman procurator of Judea. Here, literally "in the praetorium of Herod," Paul was kept under guard.
Even in this initial, seemingly tangential interrogation we find God's purposes fulfilled through the thwarting of the governor's desires. Pilate was unable to transfer jurisdiction over Jesus to Herod Antipas. As a result, Jesus' prophetic declaration that he would suffer in Jerusalem was fulfilled. Similarly, Felix does not succeed in sending Paul to Cilicia or Tarsus. As a result, the road to Rome lies more directly before Paul (Acts 23:34-35/19:21; 23:11; compare Lk 23:6-7/9:51; 13:33). God's "fingerprints" are certainly all over what happens to Paul in these last days and hours. These turns of events authenticate his message and mission.
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