Paul must have savored that time with the Lord Jesus, alone in his cell. In every way, this situation must have been excruciatingly painful for Paul—the sense of failure as he languished just yards away from the finish line, as the barracks were located in the Antonia Fortress that abutted the wall to the temple grounds itself. He had been so close to completing his vow to God, and to the churches. He had been so close to bringing real reconciliation, concrete bonding, to the Gentile and Jewish Christians.
The Jerusalem church had asked him to perform this one last act of public affirmation to show he was both faithful to his people and faithful to God, faithful to Christ, and faithful to scripture, that he would embody both Torah and Messiah in sacrificial obedience.
Through completion in the temple of the vow he had made in Cenchrea, and through his willingness to finance four more vows, Paul was certain he could potentially cement equality and acceptance between the Gentile churches and the Jerusalem church. It seemed like that would be the apex of Paul’s ministry.
But would it have?
If ever there was an irresistible force, a “force of nature” as some people are described, then that was Paul. From the moment we met Paul, clear back in Luke’s Book of Acts, chapter 7, he was a man with a mission, with powerful zeal, endless energy and determination, the kind of charisma and elemental impulse that left people dazed in his wake. Once he set his course, it seemed, only an act of God could stop or redirect him.
Let that sink in, a minute.
How was Paul converted? It was as though the Lord took him by the hair and hauled him off his horse mid-gallop, on the road to Damascus. It took three days of literal blindness before Paul could truly see.
Why did Paul not evangelize in Asia? In a story parallel to Balaam riding on his donkey, the Holy Spirit blocked his way. It took a vision from God to redirect him towards Macedonia.
What kept Paul from completing his vow? . . . Had the Lord been at work in that angry mob, bodily hauling Paul out of the temple and blocking his way? Was Jesus’ visit with Paul in his cell the redirection he required? Would Paul’s completion of temple vows and rituals have undermined the Gospel of Grace to all?
Jesus’ comfort and encouragement could not have come at a lower point in Paul’s life, reassuring Paul that God knew what was happening, and God’s purposes were still being served. Paul would have to let go of all that he had been planning to accomplish, let go of the reconciliation he had been devoting most of his ministry to, for years.
He could pray for it.
He could pray for the advancement of the Gospel, for Jesus to be glorified in His own, for the Antioch Church and the Jerusalem Church to forge strong bonds, for the Greek and Asian leaders to be fully received despite their not being circumcised. He could pray that all his good teaching in the Lord would be understood and lived out by the diverse body of Christ, that the churches he had helped found would be strong in the face of persecution, that they would thrive in their faith, they would grow spiritually and in numbers.
He could pray they would receive and build on good teaching from those whom Paul had trained—from Timothy, Titus, Prisca and Aquilla, from Barnabas and Mark, his first companions, from all the many leaders he had recognized and laid hands on in each of the churches, from Apollos and others who were trained in speaking and teaching and who were also filled with the Spirit of Christ.
But he would have to let it go as his mission. Jesus had something else in mind for him, now.
“Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” Jesus’ words had made Paul’s focus clear. All else must fall away as Paul set his face towards Rome.
Remember how Paul had had to backtrack to Troas in a detour to avoid a plot on his life?
Well, now the plot just got bigger!
After the disastrous meeting with the Sanhedrin, forty Judeans got together and pledged an oath to fast from food and drink until they’d killed Paul. They went to the chief priests and elders to get them in on the scheme, arrange for Paul to be delivered to the Sanhedrin for more questioning, and on the way from the barracks to the council, they’d assassinate him.
It’s crazy how things work out though, isn’t it!
Randomly (or was it?), Paul’s nephew caught wind of their nefarious plan, and got word into the tribune, who kept it on the downlow, fully intent on protecting Paul.
Because of the plot on Paul’s life, Tribune Lysias secretly sent Paul on to Caesarea to appear before Governor Felix. He’d have to do it fast, and he’d have to keep Paul protected. With the death threat, I’m sure the intensity of the tribune’s interest in what was unfolding was even more piqued. Assassination spelled power grab, dark political doings, fear, control, backroom deals and the like.
He summoned two of the centurions and said, “Get ready to leave by nine o’clock tonight for Caesarea with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride, and take him safely to Felix the governor.”Acts 23:23-24
Roman commander Claudius Lysias had not reached tribune by being naïve. No stranger to political intrigue, the Roman commander wrote a letter to Judea’s governor that shed himself in the best possible light. “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, but when I had learned that he was a Roman citizen, I came with the guard and rescued him.” Whatever prize Paul represented, Tribune Lysias intended to be on the winning side.
It would be 55 miles of hard riding through the dark of night, as this nearly 500-man company made their way up the coast towards Herod’s fabulous palace complex on the Mediterranean Sea.
Finally, they stopped at Antipatris, 28 miles north of Jerusalem, a town built by Herod the Great, and named after his father Antipater, located near a spring. By the end of the next day, Paul was once again under guard, now in Caesarea’s dungeon, while governor Felix was folding up Tribune Lysias’ provocative letter and tucking it in his belt.
I imagine him, lips pursed, eyeing Paul thoughtfully. “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive,” he said. Having a Jewish wife, I’m thinking Felix considered he had the inside track on whatever had gotten the Sanhedrin so exercised.
Paul was well familiar with the insides of a jail cell. He knew what it was to be in chains. As he later wrote,
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.
But the word of God is not chained.
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;2 Timothy 2:8-13
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
Yet never before had Paul been so alone. He had been ferried to Caesarea in such secrecy, and with such alacrity, no one knew he was there.
Paul’s long time of loneliness was about to begin.
[Caesarea Maratima, Herod’s magnificent seaside palace and coliseum on the Mediterranean Coast | ABRAHAM GRAICER / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]