Divine Providence


Acts 23:12-35

Text Comments



v.12

Oops! That was a vow they could not have kept. But, in those days, even strict Jews had ways and means of escaping the consequences of an unfulfilled vow.


v.14

That is, they went to those certain to be favorable to their plan. There were, no doubt, some wiser heads or real Christian sympathizers who they would not have included in their plans.


v.15

Such a plan, with Paul in Roman custody as he was, was bound to cost many lives, but no one who follows, for example, events in today’s middle east can possibly deny that political zealots with religious motives often are willing to lay down their lives to take the lives of their enemies.


v.16

Other than this single reference, we know nothing about Paul’s family or the posture it had taken to his conversion and subsequent Christian ministry. His reference in Phil. 3:8 to having "suffered the loss of all things" may well be taken to imply that he had been disinherited by his family, but there may have remained a family affection nonetheless. (Cf. Cranmer’s sisters, one Catholic, one Protestant, the latter who may have nerved him to his immortal obedience on the last day of his life.)


v.19

The fact that the commander took Paul’s nephew by the hand suggests that he must have been rather young.


v.20

Note that the plotters intend Paul’s death "tomorrow." They hadn’t intended to fast very long.


v.23

In other words, they were to leave the city under cover of darkness.


v.26

We will hear more of Felix, of course. He was the governor of Judea from A.D. 52-59. He was by no means a great man. Tacitus, the Roman historian, sums up his career in a sentence: "He exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave." But he was a favorite of the emperors Claudius and Nero. T.R. Glover: "the day would come when we would call our cats Felix, our dogs Nero, and our sons Paul!"


v.27

How like human nature. He doesn’t bother to report the fact that he had arrested Paul and had had him scourged before he found out that Paul was a Roman citizen. We are always protecting ourselves!


v.29

It became clear to this commander that the original charge about Paul having instigated a violation of the sanctity of the temple was bogus. No one will press that charge later either when Paul is tried.


v.34

The mention of Cilicia is an interesting historical detail. In this period the procedure was developing that permitted an accused man to be sent back to his home province for trial and that would have let Felix off the hook, though it would have irritated the Jews who would have had to go to Cilicia to present their charges. But at this time Cilicia was not a full province, as it would be just a few years later. It was ruled by the Legate of Syria who would not want to be bothered with minor offenses. Hence Felix had little choice but to keep Paul in Caesarea and try him there. One scholar of Roman legal procedure suggests that a later writer than Luke would scarcely have understood this tricky legal point — once Cilicia was a province it wouldn’t have mattered — and would not have known to mention it.

I want to speak briefly this evening concerning this lovely and interesting episode of the divine providence and remind ourselves of what we are always tending to forget about the Lord’s sovereign disposal of all events in our lives and the lives of others.

There was a plot hatched to murder Paul. "Somehow" it came to the attention of Paul’s young nephew. "Somehow," "As it happened," "Lo and behold." The Bible often speaks this way as if to draw our attention to the character of these events as being what the world would call "good luck" or "coincidence." But, of course, "luck" and "coincidence" are pagan terms. God was at work delivering his servant from danger. He had told Paul (23:11) that he was going to Rome, and now he frustrated the plot to kill him so as to fulfill the plan he had already announced. The French have a saying: "Coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous."

But notice too that Paul does not sit back and let God protect him as he will. When news reaches him of the plot he instructs his nephew to see the commander and tell him what he had learned. Paul does not take the view that the divine providence, the divine control of affairs means he has nothing to do, no plans to make, no efforts to undertake. Not at all. Paul doesn’t know what is to come, what will come of this plot against him, and so he takes appropriate action.

But, what is more, while it is not so hard to see the connection between 23:11 — the promise that Paul would see Rome — and the nephew’s discovery of the plot to kill Paul, no one could read out of this paragraph the fact that Paul would spend the next two long years in prison in Caesarea.

It is easy enough to see that God protected his servant by means of the nephew’s overhearing the plotters, but why on earth is Paul delivered from death in a fashion that consigns him to two long and uneventful years in a Roman jail. What a waste we think!

But this little picture is a perfect encapsulation of the biblical doctrine of providence. We have in this little piece of Paul’s history the divine control of all events, God’s sovereign disposal of history — God knew where Paul was going and how he would get him there; we have also the doctrine of concursus, or means, by which any outcome, any event in history can be described as either the act of God or of the second causes he uses. We can say, entirely truthfully, that God delivered Paul from the hands of the Jewish plotters, or that he was delivered by means of his nephew’s discovery of the plot and Paul’s ability to get that intelligence to the Roman commander. God promised Paul he would testify in Rome; he didn’t tell him by what interesting means he would get him to the capital! [God told Abraham long before that Israel would spend a long sojourn in Egypt before taking possession of the Promised Land, but he didn’t tell him by what astonishing means that divine plan and purpose would come to pass: Joseph’s coat and his jealous brothers, a kidnapping, Joseph’s time in prison, his ascension to the right hand of Pharaoh, the famine in Canaan, etc. But Joseph had no difficulty seeing the reality of both levels of causation: he tells his brothers that God sent him ahead of them to Egypt to ensure the salvation of God’s people, but their acts by which they sent him to Egypt were real choices on their part and evil nonetheless. You meant it for evil, God meant it for good.]

The plotters had no idea — they would have gnashed their teeth at the thought — that they, with their plot, were working out the Lord’s purpose to send Paul to Rome to bear witness to Christ there. But, as it happens, that is exactly what they were doing.

But, finally, we also see here the hiddenness of God’s plan and purpose. It is not so hard to see certain features of God’s purpose after the fact, but at the time they could not be seen, and still today we cannot explain much of it. Why, if he was to go to Rome, the two years cooling his heels in Caesarea? No one who thought the way Christians so often think today, who so confidently tell us what God is doing here and what he intends to do there, would have had any idea, as Paul was being successfully spirited out of Jerusalem at night, that he was rushing off — not to Rome, but to two-years of jail time in Caesarea. "The Lord’s ways are not our ways, and they are a great deep."

I want to turn your attention to the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" which is No. 128 in our hymnal. This is a remarkable piece of poetry because it combines such beautiful and memorable and suggestive expressions with such deep and accurate reflection on the Bible’s doctrine of divine providence, God’s rule over all things and his bringing all things to pass according to his will and plan. "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform," is a line one hears all the time from the lips of folk who would have no idea that it came from William Cowper’s hymn.

But see how well the hymn grasps the biblical doctrine and turns it into faith and hope. God is sovereign, he is the Immortal and Almighty Ruler who "plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm." And he is working out, in all things, his sovereign will.

But as Cowper goes on to explain in vv. 3-5, it is by no means possible for believers themselves to see the end from the beginning of God’s plans for them. They must have faith. There will be dark clouds and terrible storms, his providence will often wear a frown, but at the end, when all is seen and known, when God’s purposes have unfolded, we will see that behind that frowning providence was always a smiling face and that the clouds that looked so threatening were full of blessing instead. The lesson, as Cowper draws it in v. 6, is that we are all to know our limitations and trust ourselves to God’s goodness and mercy. The unbeliever can’t see the plan at all, either at the beginning or the end, but the believer can at least see some of God’s purposes at the end. God will make it plain to him that He was always in control, always was working his purposes out. Appearances can be deceiving; But God will always communicate his goodness in his plan to those who believe in him.

In one of the studies of hymns that I consulted the author speaks of Cowper’s hymn in comparison with those of Isaac Watts.

"This is the Calvinism we have met earlier in Dr. Watts. But whereas the good doctor boldly asserted the dogma that God is sovereign, all-powerful, arbitrary and not to be questioned, Cowper takes a more trustful attitude and assures us that in due time the event will interpret God’s purposes for man’s good. Poetry and an attitude of faith can make even Calvinism comforting!" [A.E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, 133]

Well what this author takes to be a different approach, Cowper and Watts would have seen as complimentary and entirely biblical in that complimentary way. Sometimes we must assert the naked sovereignty of God and use that doctrine to humble man and ourselves before the Almighty, to warn us of the futility of all human efforts to assert the will of man against the will of God, and to comfort believers in the knowledge that, whatever appearances may suggest, there are no accidents in human life. But, the believer also needs the comfort of knowing that the reason life seems to often dark and threatening to him or her is only because of the limitations of our knowledge and understanding. God’s purposes are always wise and good, always loving and merciful toward his children, however impenetrable they may be to us at the time. At one point in the Genesis history, when things seem bleakest, Jacob, now bereft of Joseph and thinking himself to be bereft of Benjamin as well, says in near despair "Everything is against me!" [Gen. 42:36] The reader smiles at his remark, because, of course, anyone who knows the story knows that he is just days away from the most glorious resolution to this apparent calamity and a greater happiness than he has ever known in his life.

We don’t know what were, if any, the precise circumstances that prompted Cowper to write his hymn. It has been thought to be connected with a breakdown he suffered in 1773 when he made an attempt at suicide. One story, not verified, has it that he had resolved to drown himself in the river Ouse at a spot about three miles out of town. He called a cab and told the driver to take him to the place. For some reason, perhaps on purpose, the driver could not find the spot and after driving about looking for it for an hour deposited the poet back at his front door.

The hymn first appeared in the Olney Hymns jointly authored by Cowper and John Newton. It bore the title: "Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness."

And that had proved true more than once in Cowper’s life. His first bout with a mental breakdown landed him in an asylum, but that was what led to Cowper’s conversion, which occurred in that asylum. Then, later, when he was happily established in the home of Mrs. Unwin, he was crushed by the death of Mrs. Unwin and the breakup of what had been for him the most happy living arrangement. But it was that new calamity that led Cowper to John Newton and to the new home and the wonderfully fruitful association between Cowper and Newton at Olney.

"God moves is a mysterious way," was Cowper’s last hymn. The lesson of his life had been learned. Now we must learn the same lesson and trust God always to know what he is doing even when we cannot begin to see his purposes or how the unfolding of the hours reveals his love for us.

If I find him, if I follow, is he sure to bless?
Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, answer "Yes!"