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The Providence and Protection of God

Date: Aug. 10, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 23:12-35

Key Verse: Acts 23:16

“But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.”

Who here has ever heard or used the term, “the providence of God?” If something happens, you say, “it was the providence of God.” What do you mean by that, and do you really know what it means? To understand it very simply, look at the root of the word providence, which is to provide. Simply put, God’s providence is his ability to provide. Like how a father provides for his household: he provides food, he provides shelter, he provides safety, and he provides leadership. Now let’s take that a little deeper, to get a little better understanding of providence. What does providing for someone do? It sustains them, it preserves them. Providing food and shelter sustains the life of a person. How are these provisions made? For a father, these provisions are made through labor. For God, he provides through governing his creation. Remember how Elijah was fed – God commanded ravens to bring him bread and meat twice a day (1 Kings 17:2-6). This is what God’s providence is: the preserving and governing of all his creatures and their actions.

You can see God’s providence in nature. All of his creatures are fed, from the big blue whale that feeds on tiny little krill, to the itsy bitsy spider that feed on other itsy bitsy bugs. Every year, without fail since man learned to plant crops – the seasons always come in their appointed time, the rain comes at it’s appointed time, and there’s a time for planting and a time for harvest. These are not coincidental, accidental events – these are events determined and carried out by God. All of God’s work sustains life on earth – through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3); and the work of his providence sustains all creation. God’s providence is the preserving and governing of all his creatures and their actions. We will see God’s providence in today’s passage, as he preserves Paul’s life and governs his creation to accomplish that goal. We will also see God’s protection of Paul. I don’t think I need to explain what protection means. I pray that our faith in God may be strengthened as we see the providence and protection of God work for the good of the apostle Paul.

Last week we saw Paul on trial before the Sanhedrin. The dispute became so violent that the Roman commander feared that Paul would be torn to pieces. He ordered his troops to take Paul away from the Sanhedrin by force and bring him into the barracks. The following night the Lord Jesus Christ stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Paul was discouraged, depressed and vulnerable. He wanted to show the Jews he was not opposed to them by performing one of the most solemn rituals in the temple. Yet here he was in the barracks, rejected by his own people and nearly torn to pieces by them. He was gloomy, and sad, uncertain of his future, but just then Jesus comes to cheer him up. “Take courage,” he says. The Lord of heaven and earth pays a personal visit to Paul and tells him that he is going to go to Rome.

Today’s passage begins the next morning, while Paul was still in Jerusalem in the barracks next to the temple. Look at v.12-13, “The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot.” This seems a little bit ridiculous. The sixth commandment, which every Jew should know by heart, is “You shall not murder.” But here were 40 men, who swore to God, that they shall not eat or drink until they murdered Paul. Jesus predicted that there would be a time when someone who kills thinks they are offering a service to God (John 16:2) – and the time is here. This seems like such a foolish oath. What if they don’t kill Paul? Won’t they starve to death? Well, fortunate for them, there were provisions made in the Jewish law to free them from their oath if circumstances out of their control prevented them from fulfilling their vow. So for example, if Paul were to be somehow escorted by 470 Roman troops and they couldn’t possible get to him to kill him, then that would be a good reason for them to be released from their vow.

We have a similar concept in some contracts today. Actually I just heard about this yesterday from Dan, but I thought it was funny. Has anyone heard of an “Act of God” clause? In some homeowner’s insurance policies, for example, if your property is damaged by something classified as an “Act of God,” the insurance company can refuse to pay for the damages. An “Act of God” would be defined as an event outside human control, where no one can be held responsible. Insurance contracts contain these Acts of God clauses to avoid paying massive bills, for example in the event of a flood, earthquake or hurricane. Well, it seems the Jews also had an Act of God clause, that released them from the bondage of their oath if an event occurred that was out of their control. So most likely, they would not starve to death if something like that were to occur while they were under oath.

Next, the plot thickens in v.14-15, “The men went to the chief priests and the elders and asked, ‘We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.’” The chief priests and the elders were the upper crust of Jewish society, especially here in this capital city of Jerusalem. They were guardians of the law, keepers of the traditions of their ancestors. Here was a group of 40 men who came up to them, telling them without any sense of shame, we want to kill a man, and we want you to help us. We haven’t found any reason of him deserving death yet, but we still want him killed. We also don’t want to go through another trial, we just want him killed. Now you would think the chief priests and elders should rebuke these misfits, and have them punished for conceiving such a thing. But what do they do? They comply with the plot. The chief priests, elders and the Sanhedrin all agree to lie and deceive the Roman commander, and would become willing accomplices to murder.

Will their plot work? Is the end for Paul? Absolutely not! Something amazing happens next: it was the providence of God. We are going to see God’s preserving hand, and his governing hand at work. Can we all please read v.16, “But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.” Somehow, some way, this secret plot was discovered, and it was discovered quickly – because the wicked men were ready to strike the very next day. First of all, Paul had a sister, and a nephew? This is the first and only time we hear about Paul’s relatives. So Paul has a sister and a nephew. And second, we don’t know how he heard of this plot, but somehow he heard, though no one suspected him of being an ally, or probably even a relative, to Paul. It’s not clear if he heard from someone involved in the plot, or someone related to someone else involved in the plot, but somehow he heard, and he safely brought the urgent news to Paul. What a surprise this must have been to Paul! He could really put his trust in Jesus’ words, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” This was life-saving news. He is seeing the providence of God at work, working to preserve his life, and using his nephew to bring the news. This was just the beginning.

Paul called to one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” Paul sensed the urgency and the sensitivity of the message, and he knew right away what to do. He did not tell the guards to pass the message, nor did he ask them to call the commander. He had done a wise thing, sending his nephew to the commander may give the message more credibility since it came from the outside. I believe the Holy Spirit gave Paul wisdom in this situation, which is the providence of God, as he governs the actions of his people. The centurion took Paul’s nephew to the commander and said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.” Wow – look at the actions of the centurion. He was in his own right a captain, one who was over 100 people, telling them what to do – yet he complied with Paul’s request and did not question him or the nephew. He seemed to have trusted Paul. This may also be a testimony to the character of Paul. He might have been a humble, helpful man in the barracks, his conversations may have been full of grace and seasoned with salt, that he had a good reputation even among Gentiles.

The commander’s response is equally surprising. He took the Paul’s nephew by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?” Somehow he knew the message was urgent and sensitive. He took the young man by the hand, as a sign of courtesy and gentleness. He spoke to him privately – seeing that the centurion did not know the message, and sensing that Paul had sent him for a reason. Paul probably never sent a messenger to speak with the commander before, and with the recent events, the commander may have perceived that something bad might be coming to Paul. The young man told all the details of the plot against Paul, and the commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.” The commander was very wise and prudent. No one must know that he knew the plot, otherwise, the Jews might try to come up with a different plan. Here also, we see that the commander trusted the young man and had a genuine concern for the safety of Paul.

The providence of God preserves and governs all his creatures and their actions. We see here the providence of God preserving Paul’s life, so that he could testify in Rome. We also see God governing all of his creatures and their actions. “Creatures” might sound like “monsters,” but really the word just refers to God’s creation, and that’s also what humans are. Here God worked through Paul’s nephew, and also through non-believers, pagans and Gentiles to carry out his will. When the Roman commander first met Paul, he assumed he was guilty and ordered him flogged. Now the commander has become a supporter and helper of Paul. Jesus told Paul to take courage, and that he would go to Rome. The Jews almost put a stop to that plan, but God overruled. Nothing can frustrate the will of God. King David, who was on the run from many powerful enemies, such as King Saul, and even his own son Absalom, witnessed the overruling hand of God when he wrote this in the Psalms, “Though they plot evil against you and devise wicked schemes, they cannot succeed. (Psalm 21:11).” King Solomon, David’s son and considered the wisest man to ever live, wrote the Proverb: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord. (Prov 21:30).” Take the advice from the wisest man who ever lived: no wisdom, insight or plan can ever succeed against the Lord.

The Lord now proceeds to protect Paul and move him to safety so that Paul may continue to witness to governors, kings, and anyone else he comes in contact with. As we see how the Lord protects Paul, keep in mind the providence of God, moving people, animals, and governors according to his will. Look at v.23-24, “Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, ‘Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide horses for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.’” The centurion wasted no time, and acted quickly. Look at the number of troops! Two hundred soldiers, two hundred spearmen, and seventy cavalry – 470, this was a small army, for one man: Paul. This was done at night – at 9 at night, before the men could prepare an ambush. And if there were people setting up an ambush, there was no way 40 men could go up against 470. The size of this group would deter anyone from trying to attack. 470 troops would not be quiet either – so this was also making a statement – that no one was allowed to touch Paul. This was truly an “Act of God” that would ruin the Jews plan to kill Paul.

Horses were also provided for Paul. It’s interesting that it’s plural here: horses. This again speaks to the innocence of Paul. If Paul was truly a criminal worth of shame, he would have to had walked to Caesarea. But here he was given a horse, and more than just one. The additional horses may have been for his own comfort, or they may have been for any companions travelling with him – in any case he was privileged to receive a horse on his way to Caesarea.

The Roman commander also drafts a letter to Felix, the Governor of Judea, and here we learn the commander’s name, Claudias Lysias. See what he writes in v.27-28, “This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin.” The Roman commander is stretching the truth here a little bit, to cast him in a positive light. He said he rescued him learning he was a Roman citizen, but the truth is the commander arrested him, bound him in chains, then took him from the crowd and almost had him flogged, before he found out he was a Roman citizen. But he does speak the truth in v.29-30, and there is a key piece of information in this next part. Look at v.29-30, “I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against this man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.” The commander bears witness to the governor, and shares his own belief that Paul is completely innocent, and has done nothing worthy of death or even imprisonment. It’s ironic that the Jews had condemned this Jewish Christian man, but the Gentiles declared his innocence. His innocence would make his testimony even stronger, showing that God is holy, but men are bound in sin.

The soldiers brought Paul as far as Antipatris, and went back to the barracks. Antipatris was about 38 miles from Jerusalem, which would probably make it around a 10 hour walk. This was far enough from any danger from Jerusalem. Paul was now at a safe distance. Antipatris was on the border between Judea and Samaria. 400 of the soldiers went back, while the 70 remaining horsemen went on with Paul all the way to Caesarea the next day. From Antipatris, Ceasarea was about 26 miles away. Look at v.33-35, “When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him. The governor read the letter and asked what province he was from. Learning that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will hear your case then your accusers get here.’ Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.” The governor asked Paul what province he was from to see if he should hear his case. If Paul was from a distant province, like Asia or Achaia, he might have sent him to their governors to be heard. At the time, Cilicia was part of a greater Cilicia-Syria-Phoenicia province. As governor of Judea, he may have also had the privilege to hear cases of citizens from Cilicia or Syria.

Paul was ordered to be kept under guard in Herod’s palace. This residence was built on some beautiful beachfront property, and was home to King Herod the Great – the same person who had ordered the killing of all boys 2 years and under in Bethlehem when he learned that Jesus was born there. This palace was now home to Roman governors, and Felix may have lived here or very close. Paul, also being a Roman citizen, was not treated harshly as a prisoner, so though he was kept under guard, they might have been more lenient with him. Paul was still a prisoner, in chains for Christ, but even under guard, he could be kept safe and protected.

We see in today’s passage that by God’s providence, he preserved Paul, and governed people and animals to carry out his will, and he protected him. What was the goal of all this? What is the purpose of God’s providence and protection? It is all done for the glory of God – so that God may be glorified. It is so that the world, which has rejected God from the beginning and turned to utter darkness and sin, may come back to God through Jesus Christ and receive light and life through him. Paul had an extremely important task to carry out – extremely important. Jesus once told his disciples, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles (Matt 10:18).” Paul would be brought before governors and kings to proclaim the gospel, the good news of God’s grace to all the world. The message must get out, God wants the world to know that salvation and the forgiveness of sins has been offered and made through his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ alone is the hope of resurrection from death, and freedom from the judgment of God for sin. Nothing could stop the message from getting out, and we thank God that by his providence, he rescued Paul from his enemies in Jerusalem so that he could testify to Felix, all the way to Caesar.

Now what does that mean for us? We may or may not be thrown in jail for our faith. We may or may not have to go before kings to testify. What does God’s providence and protection mean to us? First and foremost, we must all repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ, so that we may be reconciled with God and receive his grace. Then – let us find rest and peace in Jesus Christ. We are given life, not by our works, but by God’s grace. God’s providence preserves and governs his creation: take note of the word preserves. God will preserve your life. Jesus taught his disciples this one time, “I tell you my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7).” Not one sparrow is forgotten by God; neither are you, and you are worth more than many sparrows. God knows the number of hairs on your head, even for those who are losing their hair. God knows who you are individually. This is the beauty of his providence: while God can take care of all the world and its creatures, as he takes care of you it seems like he is personally taking care of you, and he is.

Another time, Jesus spoke these words, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (John 6:39-40)” Do you belong to Jesus Christ? Do you believe in him? Then you shall not be lost. You shall never be lost. Jesus will lose none of whom God has given him. God’s providence will preserve you. I know that many of us feel as if God is far away, or some might feel that God’s providence is not what they wanted. Providence isn’t God giving us what we want, providence is God preserving our souls for eternity. I do not want to minimize anyone’s hardship or struggle, but perhaps God has given that to you so that you may minister to others who go through the same thing. Or perhaps God desires you to draw closer to him, to trust in him and find that his grace is sufficient. Or God may be disciplining you, so that you may learn humility, self-denial, self-control, or complete trust in him. In Heb 12:11 it says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” What good can knowing God’s providence do for us? The Heidelberg Catechism gives this answer (question 28): “That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love, since all creatures are so in his hand that without his will they can not so much as move.”

What is God’s providence in my life? Glad you asked. One is that he led me to IIT. It was my fourth and last choice for college, but God closed the door to two other schools, and my mom helped push me here. But in this ministry I met a shepherd who confronted me with my sins, I met my most beautiful and precious wife, and I was given an opportunity to grow through message preparation. I’ve repented for much over the years, and am still growing in God’s grace. But now a more recent story of God’s providence. The more I think about it, the more God’s hand has intervened in every day of my life, and I believe it is the same for each of you too, if you meditate on what he has done. My father’s funeral, in March of this year, is an example of God’s providence. One of the things I wanted to do was to give a eulogy and witness to my family, I felt the responsibility should be on me as his firstborn son. But the first day we went to the funeral to discuss it, I got scared, because the funeral director talked about another Chinese family whose sons preached at their funeral, and it didn’t go very well. So I was discouraged. But after some encouragement from Mary, and prayer with Msn. Deborah Yang, Msn. Sarah Kim, Msn. Grace A. Lee and Msn. Sunji Jun, I decided to do it. The night before, I didn’t know what to preach on, but I found in my Dad’s bible a bookmark on Matt 4, and from there I received my text: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galile of the Gentiles – the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The Lord gave me wisdom to prepare a short eulogy. On the next day, we were preparing to have the service, similar to worship service. I was scared, I had chosen hymns, but only my family was there to sing them, and I wasn’t sure if they really knew them. But at just the right time, just before service started, a bus load of people from UBF came, and it became such a beautiful memorial service for my dad. I thank God for the memories, and for his grace. I thank God for his providence, to uphold and strengthen me, even after many sleepless nights, to preach the gospel and witness to my family.

One last thing about God’s providence – is that he rewards. God provides all things. God provides life. God preserves and governs all creatures for his glory. And for those who serve to glorify God, God will not only provide the strength, but he will also provide the reward. This is an encouragement to devote yourself to God and to his service – testifying to others, making disciples, serving brothers, sisters or students to grow and expand the kingdom of God. Trust God to provide for all your needs, and you can also trust God to provide strength for his work.

I would like to finally close with a story about George Mueller. Mueller was an extraordinary servant of God. He was born in the 1800s and lived for most of the century. He worked with Charles Spurgeon, D.L. Moody, and was also an inspiration to the great missionary to China Hudson Taylor. He pastored one church in England for over 66 years. When he was 28, he founded the Scripture Knowledge Institute for Home and Abroad, which created Bible schools, distributed Bibles, supported missionaries, distributing books and tracts and lastly, developed orphanages. Of these Mueller is most famous for his orphanage work, and it was said he cared for 10,024 orphans in his life. He built 5 very large orphan houses, I believe the total being able to house 2,000 orphans. The amazing part about running these orphan homes was that Mr. Mueller never asked anyone for money. He made his requests to God alone. He started with only 50 cents in his pocket when he began this work.   Over the course of time, 1.4 million English pounds, the equivalent today of 7 million dollars were sent to build and maintain these homes. From the time they first opened, the orphans never missed a meal. Here were his reasons for establishing the orphan houses: 1. That God may be glorified, should he be pleased to give the means to run them, to show that it is no vain thing to trust Him, and so the faith of his children may be strengthened. 2. For the spiritual welfare of the children. 3. For the physical welfare of the children.  He put those reasons in that order intentionally. Here is a quote from Mueller himself:

“It seemed to me best done, by the establishing of an Orphan-House. It needed to be something which could be seen, even by the natural eye. Now, if I, a poor man, simply by prayer and faith, obtained, without asking any individual, the means for establishing and carrying on an Orphan-House: there would be something which, with the Lord’s blessing, might be instrumental in strengthening the faith of the children of God besides being a testimony to the consciences of the unconverted, of the reality of the things of God. This, then, was the primary reason, for establishing the Orphan-House. . . The first and primary object of the work was, (and still is) that God might be magnified by the fact, that the orphans under my care are provided, with all they need, only by prayer and faith, without any one being asked by me or my fellow-laborers, whereby it may be seen, that God is FAITHFUL STILL, and HEARS PRAYER STILL.”

Mueller’s primary objective was to glorify God, and by doing so to strengthen the faith of believers. Simply by prayer and faith, with the object of glorifying God, the Lord provided all that was needed. Remember again – the providence of God is his preserving and governing all of his creation for his glory. He will sustain you, and as Rom 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God is faithful still, and hears prayer still. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in God his Father, in his providence and protection, and do good, and the Lord will give you an inheritance that shall never perish, spoil or fade.

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