The Lord Provides
Sermon Text: Acts 22:22-30; Acts 23:1-35
Sermon Theme: God’s work done in God’s way never lacks God’s provision.
The Jews listened to Paul’s account of his conversion, but the mention of his being sent to the Gentiles, was so contrary to all their national prejudices, that they would hear no more. Their frantic conduct astonished the Roman officer, who supposed that Paul must have committed some great crime. Paul pleaded his privilege as a Roman citizen, by which he was exempted from all trials and punishments which might force him to confess himself guilty. The manner of his speaking plainly shows what holy security and serenity of mind he enjoyed. As Paul was a Jew, in low circumstances, the Roman officer questioned how he obtained so valuable a distinction; but the apostle told him he was free born… This at once put a stop to his trouble. Thus many are kept from evil practices by the fear of man, who would not be held back by the fear of God. The apostle asks, Is it lawful? He knew that the God whom he served would support him under all sufferings for his name’s sake. But if it were not lawful, the apostle’s religion directed him, if possible, to avoid it. He never shrunk from a cross which his Divine Master laid upon him.
See here the character of an honest man. He sets God before him, and lives as in his sight. He makes conscience of what he says and does, and, according to the best of his knowledge, he keeps from whatever is evil, and cleaves to what is good. He is conscientious in all his words and conduct. Those who thus live before God, may have confidence both toward God and man. Though the answer of Paul contained a just rebuke and prediction, he seems to have been too angry at the treatment he received in uttering them. Great men may be told of their faults, and public complaints may be made in a proper manner; but the law of God requires respect for those in authority.
The Pharisees were correct in the faith of the Jewish church. The Sadducees were no friends to the Scripture or Divine revelation; they denied a future state; they had neither hope of eternal happiness, nor dread of eternal misery. When called in question for his being a Christian, Paul might truly say he was called in question for the hope of the resurrection of the dead. It was justifiable in him, by this profession of his opinion on that disputed point, to draw off the Pharisees from persecuting him, and to lead them to protect him from this unlawful violence. How easily can God defend his own cause! Though the Jews seemed to be perfectly agreed in their conspiracy against religion, yet they were influenced by very different motives. There is no true friendship among the wicked, and in a moment, God can turn their union into open enmity. Divine consolations stood Paul in the most stead; the chief captain rescued him out of the hands of cruel men. Whoever is against us, we need not fear, if the Lord stand by us. It is the will of Christ, that his servants who are faithful, should be always cheerful. He might think he should never see Rome; but God tells him, even in that he should be gratified, since he desired to go there only for the honor of Christ, and to do good.
False religious principles, adopted by carnal men, urge on to such wickedness, as human nature would hardly be supposed capable of. Yet the Lord readily disappoints the best schemes of iniquity. Paul knew that the Divine providence acts by reasonable and prudent means; and that, if he neglected to use the means in his power, he could not expect God’s providence to work on his behalf. He who will not help himself according to his means and power, has neither reason nor revelation to assure him that he shall receive help from God. Believing in the Lord, we shall be kept from every evil work, and kept to his kingdom… All hearts are in God’s hand, and those are blessed who put their trust in him, and commit their ways unto him.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Do you know people so dedicated to false beliefs or wrong religion that they are willing to kill people who oppose them? What causes people to be so fiercely loyal to falsehood? We can see why in this passage that the Jews react with such violent hostility to someone who had committed no offense against Jewish law, who loved them, and who proclaimed to them salvation through the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul gave the answer in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” So deceived were they that they were unable to discern the truth and were swept up into Satan’s rebellion. That rebellion began in heaven. Lucifer, not content with being the most exalted of all God’s created beings, rebelled against God (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12-16). That rebellion continued into Paul’s day to silence the preachers of the gospel. The zealots who wanted to kill Paul were dupes of Satan, willing to be used to stifle the saving gospel by killing the most effective Christian preacher. We should see here how hatred confuses people’s minds. They based efforts to do away with Paul on religion, on their great love for the law and their desire to protect its purity. They were quite prepared to break one of the Ten Commandments to achieve that “religious” goal. Apparently, it doesn’t make any difference whether terrorist acts are carried out, as long as one’s own goals are advanced. In our passage, these zealots seem quite prepared to face the wrath of Rome. If caught murdering a Roman prisoner, they would surely have been executed to a man; so great was their hatred of Paul and so enflamed their religious emotions that they worried not at all about themselves. They could not tolerate the suggestion that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jewish proselytes. That would make them spiritually equal to the Jewish people before God — the most blatant heresy imaginable to the crowd. Anyone who dared place Gentiles on an equal footing with Jews in God’s saving purpose should not be allowed to pollute the earth with his presence. Racial prejudice had pushed their passions beyond the bounds of reason.
- What would make you so fiercely loyal to the truth of Christ? Are we truly grateful to God for His loving kindness and mercy in our lives that we are obedient in doing God’s work in God’s way? Are you being faithful to your commitments with a sincere humble heart of gratitude, and leaving the problems to God? We may not be Paul, with the specific work we see in Acts, but the Lord saved us for a mission to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). Glory God in your commitment to proclaim Christ’s excellencies by: being salt and light in our local community; feeding the hungry, showing hospitality to the stranger, visiting the sick, clothing the poor, caring for the incarcerated in Jesus’ name; caring for widows and orphans; raising children and grandchildren in the admonition of the Lord.
- What is the role of the conscience (Acts 23:1)? How could Paul claim to have lived his life with a “perfectly good conscience?” Conscience is one of Paul’s favorite words; he used it twice in Acts (Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16) and twenty times in his letters. The word means “to know with, to know together.” Conscience is the inner judge or witness that approves when we do right and disapproves when we do wrong (Romans 2:15). Conscience does not set the standard; it only applies it. Given that Paul had lived his life with a perfectly good conscience before God does not mean all his actions had always been right. It does mean that Paul felt no guilt for anything he had done when he summed up his life in Judaism, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6) — he wasn’t blameless in God’s sight. It should be noted that the conscience does not determine whether actions are morally right or wrong. Conscience is the faculty that passes moral judgment on a person’s actions (Romans 2:14-15). But it does so based only on the highest standards of morality and conduct perceived by that individual. It is thus neither the voice of God nor infallible. A conscience ignorant in biblical truth will not necessarily pass accurate judgments (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:4). Prior to his conversion, Paul’s had not. It is possible for the conscience to be damaged, dysfunctional, even destroyed. The Bible speaks of a weak conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 8:10), a wounded conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12), a defiled conscience (Titus 1:15), an evil conscience (Hebrews 10:22), and a seared conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) — one so covered with scar tissue from habitual sin that it no longer responds to divine truth. Obviously, a conscience in one of those states will not always assess things properly. On the other hand, the Bible commends a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:5; Hebrews 13:18; 1 Peter 3:16; 1 Peter 3:21), a blameless conscience (Acts 24:16), and a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:9; 2 Timothy 1:3). Such a spiritually healthy conscience results from the forgiveness of sin based on the atoning work of Christ (Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:22). Christians’ consciences, informed by the standards of God’s Word, are able to assess accurately their actions. Thus, Christians need to strengthen their consciences by constantly exposing them to the truths of Scripture. Paul had such a fully and rightly informed conscience, and it was not accusing him.
- When we look at the world and think of the way our culture has fallen away not only from spiritual values but even from rationality, we can almost find ourselves sinking down into despair. But we ask ourselves, “How can anyone speak to a culture like ours?” How can anyone speak reasonable spiritual words to those who will not reason, or even listen? Humanly speaking, the task seems impossible. But we are not left to merely human resources. As God’s people, we can always take courage in times of difficulty because the Lord is with us and will see us through. For the Lord’s message to Paul was one of “Take courage!” Jesus often spoke these words during His earthly ministry. He spoke them to the palsied man (Matthew 9:2) and to the woman who suffered with the hemorrhage (Matthew 9:22). He shouted them to the disciples in the storm (Matthew 14:27) and repeated them in the upper room (John 16:33). This is Christ’s unique word for all who are trying to serve him, however feebly we may feel. You may ask the questions, “How are we to obey Him? How can we take courage when we feel fearful or discouraged?” The only way is to get a clear vision of the Lord Himself. It is to see Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who endured such hostility of sinners against Himself (Hebrews 12:2-3). G. Campbell Morgan observes that, “All our fear and all our panic result from a dimmed vision of the Lord, a dimmed consciousness of Christ… [For] there is no refuge for the soul of man other than the Lord Christ.” If you’re discouraged about your present difficult circumstances, or feeling down about past mistakes you have made, or anxious about the future, the Lord wants you to take courage. He is with you in your trials, He commends you for your past service, and He promises to use you again in His service as you continue to walk with Him. At such times Christ stands beside us, his presence vivid and sustaining; telling us, “Have courage, I have more work for you to do. Keep going… Do not stop… Do not quit.” He surrounds us with His amazing love, making the result something that honors him and is beautiful. For we can pray for His Divine guidance as we examine our opportunities for service, the challenges that threaten to turn us back, the dangers posed by the world, the flesh, and the devil ― finding our courage in Him. Remembering often of His presence that comforts and His promises that encourage and His power that equips.
- Paul was rescued from torture here by his providential birth as a Roman. Where in your life has God’s providence been clearest to you? In what ways are you using any privilege you have to serve Christ? Do you think of circumstances as being things that are against you — something that God cannot control? Have you ever found yourself thinking, if the circumstances of my life were different, perhaps then I could have been somebody or could have done something great for God or could have triumphed in the particular difficulty in which I am now? Do not reason that way. For circumstances do not limit God. Circumstances are not independent of God. God creates circumstances and is the master of circumstances. Let us think of the amazing circumstances in Joseph’s life that God used to raise him from the pit of slavery to become the prime minister of Egypt: circumstances as small as the fancy coat his father gave him that provoked his brothers’ jealousy; the fact that the cistern was dry in the season of the year he was thrown into it so that he did not drown but his life was preserved; circumstances that involved the passing of the caravan at precisely that moment so that his brothers said, “Look, here’s a caravan on its way to Egypt. Let’s not kill him. Let’s sell him and make money out of this;” circumstances as small as his being purchased, not by a person of little importance in Egypt, but by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guards; the circumstance of the attachment that Mrs. Potiphar had for him; the accusation that caused him to be thrown into prison — not just any prison either, but the one where the political prisoners were kept; circumstances so small as the chief cupbearer and the chief baker being imprisoned along with him, and their having dreams, and the fact that he was able to interpret their dreams. When the chief cupbearer was restored to his position in Pharaoh’s court he forgot Joseph, who had interpreted his dream favorably. Two years passed — two dark years for Joseph, who was languishing in prison. But one day Pharaoh himself had a dream and the cupbearer was there to remember that Joseph had been able to interpret his dream earlier and so spoke about Joseph to Pharaoh. They sent for Joseph, and he became the second highest power in the land. Insignificant circumstances? Yes, but circumstances that were created and were being used by God. So do not say, “God cannot deal with my circumstances; they are too complicated, too difficult, too depressing.” It is probably in those very circumstances that God wants to work through you. He has a way of using many kinds of circumstances to bring people to faith and glorify his own great name. Nobody can tell you what God is doing in your present circumstances and nobody can see the future any more than you can. But God is doing something in your circumstances. And if you are going through dark times, as Paul was, if you are discouraged, if the way seems dark, if you are weary with the struggle, the message of this passage is to continue to trust in God and serve him regardless. His purposes for you will be accomplished and the will of God will be done. We can see the providential hand of God over Paul’s status as a Roman citizen and can see God sovereignly orchestrating the background and events of Paul’s life so that he might acquire the status of a citizen of the empire and thereby enjoy the protections of the empire as he sought to preach the gospel throughout the world. The birthplace of Paul was no mere coincidence. His status as a Roman citizen was a visible representation of God’s control over every facet of his creation and life. Remember, God is in control of our lives even when we are taken through difficult and dangerous circumstances.
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