On the Back Burner

Acts 23:12 – 26:32

Illustration – Maxie Filer

Paul’s guardian angels were working overtime.
Ch. 23 ends with a murder plot by a group of 40 Jewish assassins forming a conspiracy and binding themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. And in all likelihood they would have succeeded had it not been for the providential intervention of a young man (who happens to be Paul’s own nephew) who overhears the plot and reports it to the commander who has Paul in jail.
Perhaps more amazing is the seriousness with which the commander takes this threat to Paul’s life and the lengths to which he goes to protect Paul. That very night he made arrangements to transfer Paul to Caesarea, some 55 miles to the NW of Jerusalem.

In the Gk text, Luke uses the correct title of the commander – Chiliarch (centurion=commander of 100 / chiliarch=commander of 1000) – this is not a subordinate officer, but the ranking military official in Jerusalem. He considers this threat so serious, and this prisoner so valuable – listen to the safeguards he takes – Acts 23:23-24 “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 mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.” More than half of the Roman military contingent in Jerusalem is assigned to the safety of Paul.
Certainly, we can’t let the significance of Paul’s standing, or the sovereign intervention of God pass us by. That the Jews, in the first place, saw Paul as such a threat – and that Rome would consider his safety so important. And Paul does arrive safely in Caesarea, not realizing that it will be his home for more than two years in captivity.

Though the Jew’s attempt to kill Paul has failed, they are in no way defeated, nor does their hatred mellow with time. Within 5 days, a contingent of Jews lead by Ananias, the high priest himself, and accompanied by a hot shot lawyer named Tertullius arrive in Caesarea to press their case before the governor, Felix. With trumped up charges and perjured testimony, they indict Paul. The prosecution begins as Tertullius lays out the charges against Paul – but when the prosecution ends, the persecution is relentless in seeking Paul’s life whatever the cost.

They will fail again before Felix, but in ch. 25, when Felix is replaced by Gov. Festus, he is in office less than 3 days before the Jews once again come and re-file their charges.

It seems evident that the Jews have really gone long beyond a pursuit of justice here – this is a hate-filled grudge. They are driven by revenge, they seek the death of one of their own who has betrayed them. He’s not just considered a heretic, but a traitor.

With so much legal goings-on you would think that Paul’s guilt or innocence was at the heart of the matter. And though we see that this really had little bearing on his treatment, Luke is going to make sure that we understand the absolute undeniability of Paul’s innocence.
• It begins with the military commander’s letter to Gov. Felix - 23:29 “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.”
• The facts weren’t that difficult to determine - 24:11-13 “You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.”
26:26 “The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.”
• When Gov. Festus is visited by King Agrippa and his wife Bernice, he relates the earlier trial to them – 25:18-19 “When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.”
• The next day, when Paul is brought before King Agrippa, Festus makes this statement in vs. 25 – “I found he had done nothing deserving death.”
• It is later, in private, that King Agrippa tells Festus, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death, or imprisonment.”
• There is no question, looking at the evidence and hearing the testimony, that Paul is innocent. Luke wants to hammer this point home - that neither Paul nor Christianity are a threat to Rome. They are not seditious or treasonous. Paul is a law abiding citizen who can capably defend himself before governor and king.

Despite the evidence, Paul finds himself the victim of what most of us think is a modern day phenomenon – bureaucracy – small men in big positions unwilling to make important decisions.

For over two years Paul sits in a prison in Caesarea, stuck on a back burner, going nowhere, unable to do what he knows to be God’s commission to him.

Sometimes we struggle more – not with the violent upheaval of crisis – but with the monotonous, mundane waiting for something to happen.

You may have a different picture of Paul – but everything I read about him and by him in the NT tells me that Paul probably wasn’t a very patient waiter.

In 2 Cor. 11 – you remember how Paul listed all of those hardships and struggles and threats to his health and his life. But I suspect that harder than any of those for Paul to take was to sit and do nothing, while bureaucrats twiddled their thumbs.
• First it’s the commander, Claudius Lysias – in his letter he writes, “I don’t know what to do with him so I’m sending him to you.”
• Then Gov. Felix leaves him in prison two years as a political favor to the Jews (and also hoping to receive a bribe.)
• Gov. Festus isn’t any better as he passes the buck to King Agrippa.
• And finally, Agrippa makes his brilliant commentary, “I would have let him go, but he did appeal to Caesar.” (Shades of another former weak-willed politician named Pilate who knew what should have been done, but refused to do it.)

Perhaps the epitome of this non-committal attitude is seen in Felix – 24:24-25 “Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”

Listen to the things Paul confronts him with – faith in Jesus, righteousness, self-control, the judgment to come. He isn’t debating the legal technicalities of his case – he is making Felix come face to face with his own sinfulness and his own accountability before God.

It isn’t ever going to be convenient to hear things like that.
When Paul stands before King Agrippa himself – his concern isn’t with obtaining his freedom, but with saving Agrippa’s soul – and once again he describes his own conversion – and then – 26:27-29 “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”

Paul has been stuck on the back burner for over two years – awaiting everyone’s decision about what to do with him. Then, suddenly, as Festus is hedging towards sending him back to Jerusalem – Paul says four of the most significant words in Acts – they are destiny-determining words – with these four words everything changes – “I appeal to Caesar.”

Four simple words, but with tremendous power and awesome consequences. There are times we don’t quite comprehend the importance of, or the chain of events set off by some things we do.

Illustration – Glorious Slice

I’m sure Paul knew the power those words held – I’m not sure he could have imagined the chain of events that would follow them.

Have you ever become discouraged because the odds seemed stacked against you? Or worse yet, that nothing you did seemed to make a difference? There were people and circumstances that were in control and calling the shots, and all you could do was wait.

How do you wait when everything inside of you cries out to do something? It ultimately brings you back to the real question – who is in control of your life? If we seem to be on the back burner, whose back burner is it? God doesn’t have a back burner – he has a purpose in everything we go through. Rather than seeing delays and waiting as inconveniences and misery, seek God’s wisdom for what he has in mind and how he is preparing you for something else. Ask how God can use you while you are stopped in your tracks.

There are times when God needs us to slow down, or come to a stop – the Psalmist writes, “Be still and know that I am God.” There are some things that you can’t learn and God can’t teach you on the fast track.

For two years, Paul sat on Roman bureaucratic back burners – but it wasn’t time wasted, it wasn’t spent stewing about how miserable he was and how badly he was being treated. During this time he wrote 3, possibly 4 of his letters in the NT – Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians.

When he went before his accusers and his judges, his constant assertion of his innocence is laced with personal convictions, appeals for repentance, demands for decision. His mission work hasn’t stopped – it has changed audiences. Now he preaches the gospel message to governors and kings. The irony of it wasn’t lost on King Agrippa – Paul is getting in his face and Agrippa says, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Maybe it’s intended to be a rhetorical question – but what Paul says essentially is “Yes!”

Paul believed so much in what he was doing and saying that he fully expected people to believe and respond – even a king.

So you’re on the back burner. You’re spinning your wheels. What do you do? Sit back and stew – or get out and serve? Your path may be detoured, your direction may be changed, your life may not look anything like what you were expecting – but your mission has not changed because your Lord has not changed. Paul - and you - and I - were all commissioned to take the good news of Jesus Christ to all the world – wherever we are – even if it is on the back burner.