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We’re Restless for Reassurance
As we open our story up this morning, we find Paul in the middle of what might appear to be a debilitating, career-ending situation. In his obedience to the Lord, Paul gave up his itinerate ministry throughout all of Rome in order visit the church in Jerusalem. As we’ve seen over the last month or two, the Lord himself compelled Paul to go to Jerusalem, even as the Lord himself told Paul it would be the end of his ministry as he would know it. It’d mean chains, imprisonment, and possibly death.
Obeying God sometimes is a most difficult matter—and, it puts us in situations that seem altogether foolish and vulnerable. Yet, Paul obeyed. Did it bear immediate fruit and victory? Did his chains immediately fall off, as God would deliver him with a show of his power? Shouldn’t Paul be free to continue his ministry?
God could have done that. Perhaps Paul even thought it might be God’s plan. God had done it before. Earlier in Acts when the apostles obediently put themselves into the prison system, God showed up. Peter and John were delivered from their Jewish accusers in chapter 4. The same thing happens in chapter 5. Peter was later imprisoned in chapter 12, yet the chains and the entire prison system miraculously opened up so that Peter walked right out of the prison. Then in chapter 16, Paul himself had a similar experience when he was put into prison at Philippi. We’re told that—
“Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”
The jailer awoke, was himself converted, and God gets the glory while Paul and Silas enjoy the freedom to continue their gospel ministry for Christ’s kingdom.
There are times in our own lives—and in the ministry of a church—when we might feel God is doing this sort of work on our behalf. You may be able to remember a time in life when it felt as though God always had wind in your sails. These moments are moments of great reassurance and freedom. You got the job you had prayed for—thus, reassurance that you are where God needs you to be. Your family is trusting in and worshipping the Lord together—thus, parents, you feel reassured that the Lord is blessing your hard work as mom or dad. The church is growing in number, and the fellowship is sweeter than ever—thus, you know that the Lord is behind it. It’s not hard to feel reassured and have confidence in moments like these.
Yet sometimes, these moments are suddenly halted. Something feels “off” in the church’s ministry, and things don’t move forward. Your plans begin to get frustrated. Your family gets a little ruffled over some difficult matters. What do you do in a moment like that? It’s our natural desire to question, isn’t it? We question whether we are in God’s will. We question whether we have done something wrong. Or perhaps we question whether God is still with us. We feel as though we are on trial—perhaps between court hearings, and we don’t know what the jury will decide. Is this going to turn out to my favor?
In many ways, this all illustrates our deeply human desire for reassurance. Let’s say you’re in that situation—you’re stuck in the waters at sea without any wind in your sail. You’re between court hearings, and you have no idea how it will turn out for you. You don’t need in that moment the whole thing to be over. You don’t need the wind to pick back up. At the very least, you need reassurance that it will be ok. Humans don’t mind struggle. We don’t necessarily desire it, but we can handle it. What we can’t handle—what breaks us—is having no hope or assurance through the struggle.
As we turn to our story this morning, we find Paul between the courts. He’s between court hearings—and, he’s not simply sitting at home, twittling his thumbs, waiting for his next court date. He’s being held by the roman proconsul, and he’s being viciously attacked by his Jewish kinsmen. No jailbreak this time. God’s not showing up like that—with that kind of “wind-in-your-sails” reassurance. Instead, God leaves Paul in chains. He leaves him in the struggle. To a man who had been living a fast life of ministry for decades, this must have felt like God suddenly struck him dead in the water at sea. Stranded. Was his ministry over? Was God finished with him? Was God displeased with his decision to go to Jerusalem? These are very normal questions and doubts to have in a moment like this. Although, I don’t think Paul actually wrestled with these questions—and, the only reason why is because of this matter of assurance. Paul was a man filled with assurance—and it was God who gave him the assurance.
As we walk through this story, we’ll see that God reassures Paul in three ways, as he uses three very different people who provide very different perspectives to Paul’s situation. We’ll see (1) Jesus’s reassurance, (2) a relative’s reassurance, and (3) a political commander’s reassurance. There are three very different people, here, all fitted in God’s sovereign plan to give a unique perspective to Paul’s situation. As God would have it, these perspectives are ripe with reassurance for Paul.
Jesus’s Assurance: Standing Over, Standing By, With a Purpose
Take a look at the first verse that we read—chapter 23, verse 11.
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
This might be one of my top ten favorite verses in all of Acts. It’s rich with encouragement and assurance, even for us today.
Remember that Paul is at what seems like a violent stalemate, with no forward movement. This verse comes off the heels of Paul testifying his case to the Jews two times—and the last one ended with a dissention that became violent. Verse ten says “when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away …. and bring him into the barracks”. That’s something else. In any other situation, this is the sort of kangaroo court that makes a man say “it’s pointless”. The Jews couldn’t agree on the specific charges. They simply agreed that Paul was guilty and needed to die—and, it would seem that Rome would keep Paul in custody until this endless conflict was resolved.
So Jesus shows up—and not with jailbreak. Not this time. This time, he encourages Paul in three ways.
Jesus Stands Over Paul
First, notice that it says “Jesus stood by him”. Don’t you love that? After being aggressively pursued by the Jews and taken into custody by the Romans, Jesus shows up in a vision at night and “stood by him”. This is obviously a show of loyalty, protection, love, care. R. C. Sproul comments on the greek word in this phrase and says the notion of Jesus “standing by” isn’t going far enough. Sproul says “The Greek words indicate that Jesus came and in a sense overshadowed Paul. His presence was enormous.” Perhaps you can picture someone who had just received debilitating news—their child was killed in an accident, or they find out that they have terminal cancer. This is the sort of stuff that debilitates you, and cuts you out from under your feet. You have to sit down just to breathe. What do people do in that situation, to offer you comfort? Sometimes they get close, hug you tight so that you can feel some sense of security as your world is crumbling underneath you. That’s what Sproul sees in this—and, I certainly have no reason to doubt what he’s saying. Jesus was standing, investing his whole body into caring for Paul.
Is this not how God cares for his children? He literally is our security and constancy. Whenever God’s people are faced with the meaningless, chaotic, painful miseries of this world, they have been so taught to cry out to God. As David cries out to God in Psalm 61—
2 From the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,3 for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. 4 Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!
Is that not our Lord, meeting his servant Paul, in our passage? God truly does meet us in this way—a constant rock to hold onto, and a strong wing to shelter under. These are biblical metaphors to describe God’s constancy, power, mercy—all virtues that belong supremely to him, even as he works them together for his people who humbly receive him by faith. Jesus’s gesture toward Paul, no doubt, would have been a source of assurance to Paul. Yes—he’s at the mercy of godless, unpredictable men. The Jews were unpredictable in their charges. The Romans were unpredictable in their legal proceedings. Yet the Lord would remain constant in his resolve to uphold Paul. In this sense, you might say that Jesus was standing over Paul with loving arms.
Jesus Stands By Paul
Although I suspect there is another piece of assurance in Jesus’s gesture, here. Simply knowing that God is constant and changeless, powerful, and merciful is one thing. Many know this, although they struggle to believe that God would extend such blessings to them. Again—when the wind stops blowing in our sails, we begin to ask questions. Often, it’s not doubting God’s existence and virtues altogether. It’s doubting whether God is working those virtues together for our good. We’ll say, “has God left me? Have I deserved this? Have I offended God?” God doesn’t change, but I do. I can screw things up.
So, we need to know that God isn’t simply standing over us, but that (at a more fundamental level) he’s willing to stand by us. We need to know that he’s willing to simply be there, to accept us and receiving us as righteous despite our sin, so that he can stand over us with his loving arms.
I’m kind of making a distinction, here, between Jesus standing by us with his loyalty (accepting us as righteous), and Jesus standing over us with his wings—shadowing over us and protecting us.
In other contexts of Scripture, the language of “standing by” is an imagery of prosecuting and defense attorneys at court. In modern trials, only two people stand in the courtroom—the attorneys. So also in the Bible. In the Old Testament book of Zechariah, when Joshua the high priest was caught up into God’s heavenly courtroom, we are told that Satan was “standing at his right hand to accuse him”. Satan was the prosecuting attorney—and so he always is. He prosecutes, he accuses and slanders God’s people with every cunning method he has available to him. And the reality is, Joshua was a sinner in God’s holy presence. Satan had a point. “Joshua shouldn’t be here, your honor. Consume him in your wrath according to your holiness!”. Yet God always provides a way. As a show of his mercy, the Lord had Joshua’s dirty and sin-laden clothes removed with pure vestments. Then we’re told of the defense attorney. “And the angel of the Lord was standing by”, to testify to the purity which God had just clothed Joshua with.
Fast forward about 500 years, to about 36 A.D. Stephen, a Christian, is put on trial by a mob of Jews who were about to make him the first Christian martyr. When Stephen provides his own defense, he doesn’t appeal to his own righteousness. He doesn’t say “I don’t deserve this”. He appeals to Jesus who had forgiven his sins and clothed him with righteousness, and made him right with God. He appeals to Jesus who truly did come, and truly did rise from the dead, and truly is demanding loyalty and allegiance to his kingdom. The Jews accuse him of the same accusations they are not accusing Paul of. Yet ironically, one of the chief prosecuting attorneys of Stephen was Paul—or, Saul of Tarsus. As Saul and the Jews charged Stephen and killed him, we’re told that Stephen saw Jesus “standing at the right hand of God”. Most point out that the ascended Jesus standing, here, is a most unusual picture of Jesus in the New Testament. It’s Jesus participating in the court trials. He’s defending Stephen, welcoming Stephen through his atoning blood and irreproachable righteousness. We need to know Jesus is standing by us, not just over us.
Then, fast forward another few decades. The prosecutor Saul becomes the prosecuted Paul. Paul is literally between trial hearings, here. Paul doesn’t know what verdict awaits him in a sinful, fallen, unpredictable Roman court system. Yet in the midst of all the prosecutions and hearings, we read in our passage that “the Lord stood by him”. I truly suspect that Jesus’s standing gesture was saying more than “I’m here to stand over you, and to console you”. He was saying “I’m here to stand by you, to defend you, and reassure you that you are righteous and accepted in your Father’s kingdom.”
Brothers and sisters, that’s where our assurance all begins. Jesus defends our case as he stands by us with his atoning blood and irreproachable righteousness. The devil—much less any other prosecuting attorney cannot bring a charge against God’s elect whom God saves through his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus stands by us. Yet more than this, he stands over us. We may not get a vision as Paul did, yet we do have an equivalent that is more than sufficient. We have Jesus’s ministry through his word, his Holy Spirit, his sacraments, and the fellowship of his people. There may be times when you, like Paul, question God’s love and care for you because of various life circumstances. Yet thanks be to Christ, life circumstances—much less your shortcomings—cannot outwit Jesus as he stands by you, to defend you. By faith, you are accepted—and you need not question God’s love and care for you.
Jesus Gives Paul a Purpose
So Jesus is standing by—or perhaps, even standing over Paul—in this difficult moment as Paul is on trial. It’s a massive gesture designed for Paul’s assurance—he’s accepted and secured in Jesus’s kingdom. Yet there’s more to verse 11, there. Jesus says to Paul, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome”.
Take courage. “Be firm and resolute”, Jesus says. “Don’t lose your focus or concentration. There’s still wind in your sails, you just don’t know it. God is still directing your path according to his purposes, you simply can’t see the moving pieces.” What an encouragement. Not only does this mean that Jesus approved of Paul’s testimony to the Jews (which seemed ineffective by our standards), it also means Jesus is sovereignly directing Paul’s imprisonment to Rome. This was a call to trust Jesus, and a call to be wise. “Paul, when you get a chance—use your citizenship to appeal to Caesar. I need you to testify in Rome”. The Lord would provide the way.
Now, we’ll see how this all folds out in God’s providence for Paul in the coming weeks. For now, it’s simply worth seeing that God had Paul exactly where he wanted Paul, and he had a purpose for Paul’s seemingly pointless trials and imprisonment. This was a controversial matter. Throughout the letters that Paul wrote during this time of imprisonment, Paul kept having to reassure the churches that his imprisonment has really served to advance the gospel. He had to defend God’s wisdom—there were people who criticized Paul for this. “He’s wreckless! He shouldn’t be in prison! It’s a harmful to Christ’s kingdom!”. Paul heartily disagreed. In fact, I love the last line in Acts. Fast forward five chapters to the end of Acts, here, and you’ll still see Paul on house arrest in Rome. But here’s the wisdom of God in it all. “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed al who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance”. Without hindrance? That’s not what Paul’s critics say. It’s what God’s word says. Such is God’s wisdom and purposes. Don’t ever think that God has left you dead in the water, without the wind of his providence and purposes in your sails. So long as your are accepted and received by him through Christ, repenting from your sins, then rest assured that he is taking you somewhere “without hindrance”.
So, that’s the assurance Paul receives from Jesus in this passage. As you receive him by faith, rest assured that he is standing by you as your defense, to accept you into his kingdom. He is standing over you as your firm and constant comforter. In all that, he’s ensuring that his purposes for your life are working together for your good, and his kingdom.
Now, there are two more people in this story who each provide further assurance to Paul.
A Nephew’s Assurance: God is in Control
Starting in verse 12, we read the story of certain Jews who plotted “and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy”. So, the Jews are getting passionate and desperate. They’d rather die than see Paul continue his ministry of the gospel. This means they needed a plot to have Paul killed before they die of hunger.
So, they decided to tell the tribune what he wanted to hear. “We’ll cooperate. We’ll have an orderly trial and determine the case more exactly” as verse 15 states. Up to this point, the Jews were a chaotic mess over the matter, and it made the tribune’s job impossible. So, this would have been cause to get Paul out of the barracks, onto a road where the Jews could ambush and kill Paul.
Picking up in verse 16, “Now the son of Paul’s sister [i.e., Paul’s nephew] heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.” Then, Paul asks one of his guards to take his nephew to the tribune, and the rest is history. The tribune agrees to hear Paul’s nephew, the tribune believes Paul’s nephew, and then the tribune hastily arranges to bring Paul to the next court up in Caesarea.
Lots of people ask lots of questions about this passage. Who was Paul’s nephew? How did he hear of this plot? How was he given access into the barracks to talk to Paul? Why was the tribune to eager to hear his case? Some people make a big deal out of these questions, but the simple answer is—we don’t know. In fact, I’d go a step further to say the questions are beside the point.
What is the point? The point is that Jesus’s purposes for Paul to make way to Rome are ripening—and, they’re ripening fast. They’re ripening despite incredible hostilities. Just like that, Paul is off to Caesarea, on his way to Rome—and, the Lord would sovereignly use the Roman court system as Paul’s escort.
It’s really shocking if you think about it. The Lord is still directing Paul’s paths, despite Paul being in Jewish and Roman hands.
We can be so fickle in our understanding of God’s ways, aren’t we? It’s easy to think that the gospel is advancing when Jesus is breaking chains and opening up prison doors, and that the gospel is hindered when Jesus doesn’t release Paul from prison. Yet the whole point of this is to show that Jesus is Lord over all. He sets up kings, he directs their ways, and he deposes them from their thrones. The plots against Christ and his apostle Paul are utter vanity, and lead to their own death. This whole story is seeping with Psalm 2—
Ps 2:1 Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
Ps 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
Who can thwart God’s ways? No one.
So, who was Paul’s nephew? He was God’s chosen instrument to protect Paul from the Jews, and to get Paul’s journey to Rome moving forward. As Paul saw this developing, what do you think this did for his faith?
Jesus had just said “take courage…. you must also testify in Rome”. In comes Paul’s nephew of all people with news which, no doubt, could be leveraged to get Paul further from Jerusalem, and closer to Rome. If Paul had any wit to himself at all (and he did), then he’d have been aware that this development among the Jews would have been the tipping point for the proconsul in charge of him. The Jews were impossible to work with, so the matter needed to be resolved in a higher court. When Paul told his nephew to take the matter to the proconsul, I don’t think Paul was merely trying to save his head. I think he was trying to slowly make his way up the court system, onto Rome.
So in other words, Paul’s nephew served to be the Lord’s instrument of assurance to Paul’s faith. The sovereign Lord was providing opportunity, direction, and protection in the plan he had revealed to Paul—and therefore, assurance. It’s like watching mom and dad plan a vacation as a child. Do you remember the steps? Mom and dad first start talking about the vacation—they get you excited, but it remains only that for some time. Just talk. Then, they start buying supplies, and you start seeing the house littered with sunscreen and beach toys and new swim suits. What does that do to you, as a child? The talk suddenly gets real. You can taste the vacation, at that point. You get reassured that this plan is really happening.
For Paul, his Lord said “you’re going to Rome”. It may have just felt like talk, for a while. Then his nephew shows up with game-changing news which the proconsul couldn’t ignore. Before he knows it, Paul is mounted on a horse with a personal escort to Caesarea, onto Rome. I love verse 23—
Acts 23:23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.”
If Paul felt for a moment like there was no wind in his sails, I hardly would think he feels that way now. The Lord is on the move—and this time, he’s using his enemies to accomplish his purposes. How’s that for assurance. Nothing could be used against Paul, for he was saved by Jesus, defended by Jesus, and sovereignly guided by Jesus.
There may be times when you think you’re in dead waters, stuck. Remember the Lord’s salvation and promises. There is nothing that he cannot or will not use to bring his purposes for you into fruition. I don’t say that because it sounds nice. It’s Biblical. It’s classic Calvinistic Christianity, folks—resting in God’s sovereignty not only for your calling and justification, but also your sanctification and glorification. Everything, by faith, is designed for your good and growth in godliness. Romans 8:28—
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
And as you continue to read Romans, Paul presses on to show us that God makes this a reality despite our enemies.
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Paul’s answer is a loud and resounding “no”. We’re secure, for our Lord is sovereign. It was easy for Paul to see this, given his circumstances. It can be more difficult for us to see it. So at the very least, we trust in his word and watch him work his goodness into our lives over year, and even decades.
So to bring this all together: we’ve seen two of the three people whom God used to give Paul assurance during this whole trial fiasco. First, Jesus personally visits Paul and gives Paul assurance in three ways. He stands by Paul as Paul’s defense attorney, and he stands over Paul to personally express his love and care for Paul. I think both of those are there, in verse 11 of our passage. Yet more than this, Jesus also reassured Paul by expressing his plans for Paul to go to Rome. It’s nice to know what’s ahead of you, isn’t it? Jesus’s visit was certainly the main source of assurance for Paul in this whole story.
But as we just noted, Paul’s nephew shows up to get this all rolling. When the nephew showed up with news, you can only imagine Paul thinking, “the Lord Jesus is thwarting the enemy’s plots, and making straight the path to Rome.” That’s reassuring. It’s wind in the sails.
That, then, brings us to the third and final point of reassurance for Paul.
A Commander’s Assurance: Acknowledging Paul's Faith
Starting in verse 25, you read the gist of the letter which the proconsul wrote to the governor Felix. We’re not going to re-read that letter again, but I do want to point out a few quick matters. If you read it carefully, you’ll notice that the proconsul went out of his way to declare himself without guilt in this affair, as well as Paul. The only group that was ill spoken of in this letter were the Jews. “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed”—they had an unlawful uprising.
Then, in comes the proconsul to laud and justify both himself and Paul. Paul was about to be killed “when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen.” The proconsul rescued Paul. Then, the proconsul declared Paul’s innocence. Verse 29, “I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.” The proconsul saw it all for what it was. (1) Paul was a Roman citizen, to be protected and treated honorably until proven guilty. Then more importantly (2) Paul was an innocent man. He was being charged with “questions of their law”—religious laws and customs of the Jews.
Why does all this matter? It’s significant to see that the Roman system acknowledges Paul’s faith as a lawful expression of the Jewish faith. They saw Paul’s Jesus as a reasonable extension—even fulfillment—of Paul’s Jewish faith. “This is a Jewish thing, not a Roman thing”, is essentially what the proconsul said. “Paul is innocent by Roman standards”. Ironically, the Roman system is seeing what the Jews couldn’t. Paul’s Jesus really is a reasonable fulfillment to the Jewish faith, and to be recognized.
Is this not the gospel advancing, even despite opposition? Only the Sovereign Lord could orchestrate this sort of thing. “As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome”. It might seem that the more the Roman court investigates him, the more the gospel will be proclaimed and understood as the fulfillment of Judaism. I can only imagine that as Paul was watching all this unravel for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom, he marveled with a glimmer of reassurance in his soul. The Lord is moving. Even the proconsul’s declaration of Paul’s innocence makes it clear, as it backhandedly declared Jesus to be a legitimate Jewish Messiah.
So, three sources of assurance to Paul, as Paul appeared stuck in dead waters. (1) Jesus’s visit, (2) the nephew’s report, and (3) the proconsul’s letter to the governor. In their own ways, they all teach us that the Lord is in control. He’s ever keeping wind in our sails, even when it might seem like we’re stuck or surrounded by enemies. Rest assured, brothers and sisters. He’s standing by you; he’s standing over you. As he has justified you and cleansed you with his blood, he’s sovereignly working all things together for your good and his kingdom. Let’s pray.