Our reading today provides an example of how God uses the events of our lives to accomplish his purposes, even when “what we’re going through” at the time often makes no sense to us at all.
It’s no secret Paul held a great desire to visit Rome and preach the gospel (Rom. 15:22-24). Yet, no matter how hard he tried, it just never seemed to work out. As we have read in Acts 19:21-22, Paul once again made these same travel plans. Take a peek at the end of the book of Acts, and you will find that ultimately, he does get there. However, it would not be quite in the way he would have chosen. Darryl Bock notes, “It is ironic that Roman justice will bring him there as a prisoner so that Paul will arrive safely and immediately be speaking to the highest levels of Roman society.” More than once, Paul’s itinerary nearly cost him his life. But, it would result in a God-given opportunity to give testimony to Christ and his kingdom for “two whole years” (28,30-31) to those in Rome. Think of it what began “with the growth of the church being stimulated by the persecutions of Saul the Jew, closes with the Church reaching all the way to Rome because of the imprisonment of Paul the Christian.” When such things happen to us, we often say, “I couldn’t have planned it if I’d tried.”
God puts similar desires within each of us for his own good purposes (Phil. 2:13). But sometimes we become frustrated and impatient in the way they seem to be coming to pass; we give up too soon on those dreams he has placed in our hearts. Notice, however, how God in his providence has already worked all this out for Paul if he will only remain faithful to the vision placed within him (Acts 26:19).
Paul’s enigmatic journey continues in chapter 23, as he arrives back in Jerusalem from his third missionary trip. There, he is falsely accused by the Jewish crowd of defiling the law and the temple (Acts 21:27-28). He is arrested and left defending himself before the Jewish leaders. In our reading today, we see three more movements that bring him along in this journey toward his ultimate opportunity.
Conflict with Those in Charge (Acts 23.1-5)
Paul speaks here in his own defense, stating that he had led a blameless life and had a clear conscience before God. This infuriated the high priest, Ananias, who took it as blasphemy and so ordered Paul to be hit in the mouth. It appears here that Paul gave his reply to Ananias without thinking, possibly reacting to the pain. He had had enough of this hypocritical leader. I recall watching a military miniseries once that related how to respond when you don’t feel respect for those in authority. “We salute the office not the man.” It can be difficult to control our anger when we are unjustly treated. And there’s this tendency for all of us to say things we later regret. We should be careful, however, that we don’t lose our opportunity for the place God wants to use us the most. Paul recovers and apologizes for failing to follow one of God’s guiding principles.
Helping God Out (Acts 23:6-11)
Paul quickly realized that he has a way to “turn the tables” on his accusers and exploit the circumstances to his own advantage. He subtly “reminds” his opponents of a well-known and ongoing theological argument between themselves (Sadducees and Pharisees) over the reality of the resurrection. The result was that it divided the group about Paul’s outcome. Even though Paul brilliantly wins favor among part of that group called the Pharisees, the dissension that he somewhat creates grows so violent that his own life now becomes endangered. It seems Paul’s choices were making things go from bad to worse. The next evening, however, Paul hears God speak to him a word of encouragement in the middle of his troubles – no matter what it looks like, Paul is assured he is still on the road to Rome for the gospel. How will he get there, considering the circumstances?
Learning God Ways Through Experience (Acts 23:12-35)
The Jews are so intent on ending Paul’s life that they take an oath not to eat or drink until they get rid of him for good. The plot is soon discovered, however, and plans are made to protect Paul by escorting him safely to Felix, the governor at Caesarea. Paul’s experience during this period served ultimately as the catalyst to place him in front of Caesar and his household to speak for Jesus. If you think about it, it seems pretty unlikely that if Paul had journeyed as part of a missionary outreach to Rome on his own, that a meeting with such a high-level audience would have been possible. As someone has said, “It is one of the mysteries of God and his providence that many times we cannot see why things are happening as they are. Yet God is surely at work in ways we could not have planned for ourselves.”
We never know how our own problems will turn out to further the gospel. But we can trust that God is with us all the way and will enable us to tell our story to the right people at the right time. The hardest lesson for me to learn (and maybe for you too) is to be patient and trust that God will maneuver me to be right where he wants me at this moment. Paul himself could never learn this by reading a book or taking a class in theology. He could only learn this through experience. He would end up recording the following life principle as a result:
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me
has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become
known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the
rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” Phil. 1:12-13
Question – what has happened to you so that it has served to advance the gospel? This is a hard question to answer I’m sure for all who follow Jesus. We desire to escape our pain or avoid our difficult circumstances when very often, our prison is the preparation for our platform to speak the gospel. God seems to draw us to such places so our voice will be heard the best and the loudest. It might not always be fun, but it is usually very effective.