22 May 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 23:23-35. b). The plot is foiled. (continued).
People naturally ask how Luke could have managed to get hold of the tribune’s official letter to the procurator, so as to be able to publish the text. It is not impossible that it was read out in court, or that Felix divulged its contents to Paul during one of the occasions on which he questioned him privately (23:34; 24:24). On the other hand, Luke says that Claudius Lysias wrote to Felix *as follows* (25) or ‘to this effect’ (RSV, NEB), so that he may be claiming to give no more than the gist of its contents. In any case, as we read the letter, we cannot help smiling. The tribune was substantially accurate in describing how he had rescued Paul, given him special treatment as a Roman citizen, brought him before the Sanhedrin, learned that the charges against him were only religious (about ‘Moses and a certain Jesus’, according to the Western text of verse 29), not civil or criminal, foiled a Jewish plot against him, sent him to the governor, and ordered his accusers to come and present their case in court. At the same time, Lysias somewhat manipulated the facts in order to portray himself in the most favourable light, putting discovery that Paul was a Roman citizen before his rescue instead of after it, and drawing a discreet veil of silence over his serious offence in binding, and preparing to torture, a Roman citizen. Nine of the principal verbs in the letter are in the first person singular. The letter was fairly honourable, but decidedly self-centred.
After giving the text of the letter, Luke describes the military transfer of Paul from Jerusalem, via Antipatris, where the troops stopped for the night, to Caesarea, where both the letter and the prisoner were handed over to Felix. The governor read the letter, enquired about Paul’s province in order to be sure that he came within his jurisdiction, determined to hear the case himself when Paul’s accusers arrived, and ordered Paul to be kept under guard meanwhile in the rather magnificent palace which Herod the Great had built for himself and which was now the *praetorium*, the governor’s official residence. Luke does not explain what *kept under guard* will have meant, but we may be sure that, as a Roman citizen, and with no criminal charges to face, Paul was not ill-treated.
Luke’s great skill as a historian-theologian, not to mention the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is clearly seen in these chapters. The future of the gospel was at stake, as powerful forces ranged themselves for and against it. On the one hand, the Jewish persecutors were prejudiced and violent. On the other, the Romans were open-minded and went out of their way to maintain the standards of law, justice and order of which their best leaders were understandably proud. Four times they rescued Paul from death either by lynching or by murder (Acts 21:32-33; 22:23-24; 23:10; 23:23ff.), taking him into custody until the charges against him could be clarified and, if cogent, presented in court. Then three times in Luke’s narrative, as we have seen, Paul either has been or will be declared innocent.
Between these two powers, religious and civil, hostile and friendly, Jerusalem and Rome, Paul found himself trapped, unarmed and totally vulnerable. One cannot help admiring his courage, especially when he stood on the steps of Fortress Antonia, facing an angry crowd which had just severely manhandled him, with no power but the Word and the Spirit of God. Luke seems to offer him to us as a model of Christian valour so that, as Chrysostom put it at the end of his fifty-fifth and last homily on the Acts, we may ‘emulate Paul, and imitate that noble, that adamantine soul’. The source of his courage was his serene confidence in the truth. He was well aware that the Romans had no case against him. He was convinced that the Jews had no case either, because his faith was the faith of his fathers, and the gospel was the fulfilment of the law. And above all he knew that his Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was with him and would keep his promise that he would bear witness, some day, somehow, in Rome.
Tomorrow: Acts. 24:1 – 26:32. Paul on trial.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.