In the morning the Jews joined in a conspiracy and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who joined in this conspiracy. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the council must notify the tribune to bring him down to you, on the pretext that you want to make a more thorough examination of his case. And we are ready to do away with him before he arrives.’
Now the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush; so he went and gained entrance to the barracks and told Paul. Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to report to him.’ So he took him, brought him to the tribune, and said, ‘The prisoner Paul called me and asked me to bring this young man to you; he has something to tell you.’ The tribune took him by the hand, drew him aside privately, and asked, ‘What is it that you have to report to me?’ He answered, ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more thoroughly into his case. But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him. They have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they kill him. They are ready now and are waiting for your consent.’ So the tribune dismissed the young man, ordering him, ‘Tell no one that you have informed me of this.’
What a nefarious world of religious and political intrigue we are entering in today’s reading!
Sadly the scene has become a familiar one in the history of religious persecution and is still a feature of today’s world. A groundswell of fanatics rises up and prevails upon the religious leaders – the chief priests and elders – and, all too easily it seems, the zealots’ murderous voices win over the ruling Council who should know better.
Their cunning plan was to get the Council to ask the Roman Tribune, under whose custody Paul resided, to send him to the Jewish leaders for some further examination … but then for him to be ambushed and killed whilst in transit between the two authorities.
Now enters the tantalising figure of Paul’s nephew! We know next to nothing about Paul’s private and family life and here, out of the blue, pops up this close family member who foils the murderous plot! Lots of questions bubble up for the reader: who was Paul’s nephew; what circumstances brought him to be here at this pivotal time; and how did he get wind of this plan – was it possible that he was even present when the plot was hatched!
These enticing questions remain unanswered by the author of Acts … but what is clearly inferred is that God is at work here as much as in the startling miracles described in other chapters. Yes, the finger of God is more subtly present but he is just as potent in furthering his Divine Will by working through individual motivations and the machinations of political conspiracy.
For us today, this is a great reassurance and solace. When we wring our hands in despair at the selfish, malicious actions of people and the despotism of nations we should believe anew that all is in God’s hands. Ultimately, as C.S. Lewis reflected, “history is a story written by the finger of God.”
God of each person; God of the nations: when I despair of humanity’s cruelty and Government corruption, help me to see that, unlike us, you are not overwhelmed by events, plots and political intrigue. God of history, transformed through Christ’s saving Grace, be ever present in our lives. Amen.
Professor Graham Handscomb, Member of Christ Church URC Chelmsford