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Stephen R. Clark

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Oreland, Pennsylvania
Joined June 1996


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August 8, 2021 | Huntingdon Valley, PA | Huntingdon Valley Presbyterian Church
You can listen to the sermon here:

Acts 23:9-35

The Acts of the Apostles
40 Zealot Assassins Vs. A Mystery Nephew

Reading Acts, it’s easy to think that Paul is a trouble-magnet!

Before his conversion, he was the one causing trouble. Now, after his conversion, well, it’s still him causing trouble. But, as John Lewis would say, it’s “good trouble.”

Reading about his exploits is like watching a TV series called “Paul, the Troublemaker.” We could call this episode, “40 Zealot Assassins Versus A Mystery Nephew.” All we need now is a dramatic theme song!

In this brief passage, we see aggressive resistance to the gospel, how God used Paul in unlikely ways, Paul being encouraged, the Holy Spirit at work behind the scenes, and the reality that God’s plans will always succeed.

Let’s recap what’s happening.


Paul is in Jerusalem and has been brought before the Sanhedrin -- a sort of local religious supreme court. He’s there because he is viewed as a threat to the religious establishment. Pretty much the same way Jesus was.

This gospel Paul is preaching is radical stuff and it’s having a significant impact. But if one examines the impact closely, the results are all positive. People’s lives are transformed for the better. They are more honest, hard-working, diligent in caring for their neighbors, sharing what they have with others who are in need. All good things!

Still, the Sadducees and Pharisees are outraged. Why? Because it shifts the power from them to the God they claim to serve. The situation is intense.

Look at the language in verses 9-10. There was a great uproar. They were arguing vigorously. The dispute become violent. Paul was at risk of being torn to pieces. It was such a ruckus that the Roman commander had to step in and use force to extricate Paul.

The day before, as you can read in chapter 22, these people had become so riled up, they were tearing off their clothes, throwing dust in the air, and threatening Paul’s life.

Clearly, in this court, there was no order!

The story moves quickly from there and is as exciting as any TV drama!

The next night, after things have calmed down, Paul is visited by Jesus and given a glimpse of what’s coming next for him.

Then a plot is hatched to assassinate him, but a relative -- his nephew -- learns of the plot and warns him. Paul sends his nephew to the commander who believes the boy.  A counter-plan is developed on the spot to spirit Paul out of town under cover of darkness.

In just a couple of days he ends up 60 miles away protected by the Romans, in a safe house in Caesarea.

Wow! What a wild ride for Paul!

And that’s where this cliff-hanger of a story lands. For now. Tune in next week!


Let’s take a deeper look at some of the scenes from this episode.

This rowdiness isn’t exactly a new experience for Paul. Before his conversion, he was an intense, devout Jew on a mission to stamp out this upstart threat called, eventually, Christianity. He was the one who threatened the lives of those he opposed.

In Acts 8:3 it states, “But Saul -- Paul’s name before conversion -- began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”

And then in Acts 9:1 he’s described as “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”

This Saul-Paul was not a nice guy. At least, not to those who were followers of Jesus.

On the flipside of his Damascus road experience -- where he was blinded by the light and confronted by Christ -- now Paul is feeling the wrath that he once was the instigator of. He understands full well the consequences of his actions. Just as he once hunted and persecuted Christians, he is now the one in the crosshairs being hunted.

It’s a little ironic yet it’s a clear example of how God uses us -- just as we are -- with the personality he gave us -- for his glory. But first, he has to redeem us and turn us in the right direction. So, Paul, previously a bulldog for the religion of the day is now a bulldog for the risen Savior. Same guy, just with a redeemed and retooled purpose.

So here’s Paul. Pulled from the fray and placed in protective custody, if you will. It’s the night after and all is calm and quiet. Then Jesus appears. This is not a dream or a vision.

Earlier, again at night, in Acts 18:9 “the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.’”

Later, in Acts 22:17-18, Paul recounts how, sometime earlier, he was praying at the temple and fell into a trance and he heard Jesus tell him, “’Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’”

But this time, in chapter 23, Jesus actually appears to Paul and “stands near Paul.” I love that description. He’s standing beside Paul, close to him, and says, “Take courage.”

“Take courage” in the Greek is actually a single word: Tharseo. In the New Testament, only Jesus uses this specific word and only a handful of times.

For example, in Matthew 9:22, after the woman with an issue of blood touched his garment and was healed, Jesus turned to her and said, “Take heart -- tharseo -- your faith has healed you.”

In Mark 6:50, when walking on the water toward his terrified disciples, he said, “Take courage -- tharseo! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

In John 16:33, concluding a discourse of comfort and clarification for his disciples, he wraps up saying, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart -- tharseo! I have overcome the world.”

Something similar happened to Joshua on the night before he marched on Jericho. I imagine Joshua going off by himself to think when, in Joshua 5 we read, “...he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’ ‘Neither,’ he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’”

I believe this event is what’s called a theophany, and this was the pre-incarnate Jesus.

His reassuring message to Joshua is simple yet powerful, “I have now come.

But, back to Paul.

After his nighttime encounter with Christ, the day breaks and the intrigue mounts.

Instead of facing the wrath of a handful of stuffy religious leaders, he’s now the target of a band of 40 plus assassins. These were likely a sort of unofficial religious militia called Zealots. They conspire, scheme, and plot to take Paul out or die trying. When it comes to spreading the gospel, resistance is inevitable.

What’s remarkable is that these are “devout” Jews that claim to be stringent observers of the Law. And yet, they are intent on breaking at least two commandments: Don’t murder and don’t bear false witness. They know the Law. And yet their hearts are possessed by hatred. Jesus called others of their ilk a viper’s brood, children of Satan.

But, Jesus has now come and he has other plans for Paul. He sends Paul’s nephew to the rescue.

In writing, there’s a literary device called deus  ex machina. When a writer has written himself into a corner -- say, the main character is in a locked room with no obvious means of escape -- this is a tool to save the day. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a key turns up that unlocks the tamper-resistant lock and he’s free. Or, in old westerns, when the heroes are pinned down in a gunfight with the bad guys, without having been summoned, the cavalry comes over the hillside to the rescue. It’s the sudden appearance of an unexpected and often unlikely solution to an otherwise impossible situation. Kind of like every episode of "MacGyver"!

In Paul’s story, up pops a nephew -- a person no one anticipated -- to save the day.

This passage is the only reference in the Bible that mentions Paul’s family. We don’t know who Paul’s parents are, we don’t know for sure if he was married or not, but all of a sudden we learn he has at least one sister and one nephew. And we don’t know anything about them except that the nephew was in Jerusalem and somehow got wind of the plot against Paul. The exact mechanics of how this came about, we don’t know. But clearly the Holy Spirit was moving behind the scenes on Paul’s behalf.

The boy discovers the plot and brings the information to his uncle Paul. It was normal for prisoners to depend upon their families for meals. So it’s possible that’s how the nephew was able to gain easy access to Paul in prison. He comes to Paul, tells him about the plot, Paul sends him to the commander, the boy tells him about the plot, and the commander believes him and takes immediate action.

Suddenly, the forty plus assassins are confounded by a force of at least 470 armed guards! There’s no way they are going to touch Paul.

When God has a plan, nothing and no one can thwart it.

When reading this, it immediately reminded me of Esther. If you have never read the book of Esther, read it this week. One of the intriguing features of the book of Esther is that God is never overtly mentioned. Yet, God’s hand can clearly be seen at work in the life of Esther and her uncle Mordecai. In the story, Mordecai overhears a plot of two guards to kill the king, who has taken Esther as his wife. This would clearly put her in danger as well as the king. Mordecai tells Esther, she tells the king, the plot is stopped cold, and the two plotters are put to death.

By the way, in the book of Esther, this is only the beginning of the intrigue, plot twists, and exciting action. Her story is just about as thrill-packed as Paul’s!

So, Paul’s nephew is a kind of Mordecai to Paul in this Acts passage.

This also is not the first time Paul has faced death threats. In Acts chapter 9, shortly after his conversion, in his enthusiasm to spread this new message, Paul, of course, stirs up some trouble. Twice in chapter 9 alone it’s reported he has to be spirited away to avoid death threats. And once the place he was taken to was Caesarea.

In today’s passage, once more after creating a little dust-up, Paul eventually ends up in Caesarea again, some 60 miles away from Jerusalem, for his own safety,

Like I said earlier, Paul is a trouble magnet! But it’s all good trouble.

Before we move on, I want to point out something else interesting.

A biblical rule of thumb is that when something is mentioned three or more times in a book, or chapter, or passage, odds are it’s really important and we should pay special attention.

At least three times in this passage, we read about the 40 plus men who took an oath to kill Paul. Clearly, this is a serious threat. Paul’s life, and probably the lives of others near him, are in danger.

But, I think, the really important point being made is that, even in the face of serious, real, imminent threats, the Holy Spirit is at work behind the scenes and there’s a mystery nephew about to show up. God’s plans are never thwarted. In this situation 40 plus assassins were stopped by one young nephew who sounded the alarm and raised up 470 armed men.

God’s plans will not be thwarted.


So what can we take away from this passage? A really close study of these verses will yield a treasure trove of truths. But let me suggest these five for our consideration today:

  1. Resistance is inevitable.

  2. God can use anyone.

  3. The Lord is near us.

  4. The Holy Spirit is at work.

  5. God’s plans will not be thwarted.

Let’s look at each briefly:

First, Resistance is inevitable. Our calling, our purpose in Christ is to fulfill the command found in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus said,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Paul took this command very seriously, just as we should. He was pouring out his life for the gospel. And just as he encountered resistance, we can expect the same.

It may even come from those who should be on our side. The religious leaders of Paul’s day should have been his allies. Instead, they were focused on their own power and prestige and saw the gospel as a threat to their way of life.

The culture in which we live is not our friend. The gospel, in this post-modernist world, is radically counter-cultural. The truths of the Bible are seen as a threat to personal liberty, personal freedom, and personal rights.

Even though God’s word is powerful and will ultimately bring great positive change to the lives of those who embrace it, we will always get pushback from those we are trying to reach. And we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens.

Second, God can use anyone. Paul understood this well when he wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork -- his workmanship -- created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Our temperaments, our IQ, our interests, our skills, our abilities, our pasts, our hopes and dreams -- these are all gifts of God, the way he made us, how he has equipped us to complete the good works he has prepared for us to do.

Just as with Paul, God can take us as we are, then redeem and retool us to be effective for the Kingdom. Through his grace, he smoothes our rough edges.

In Esther’s case, this young, devout country girl is raised up and made a queen “for such a time as this” to save her people.

If God can use Paul and Esther, he can use you and me.

Third, The Lord is near us. We are not alone. Just before he ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” That promise is for us as much as it was for them.

In Deuteronomy 31, Moses encouraged Joshua, promising, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

In Hebrews 13:6, we are promised, that we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

No matter what we are going through, Jesus is near us. He will never forsake us or leave us alone.

Fourth, The Holy Spirit is at work. Just when your enemies are hatching plans to bring you down, a nephew will show up to warn you. When 40 are against you, the Holy Spirit will have 470 ready to come to your rescue.

When we get nervous and shaky about sharing our faith, we can remember that Acts 1:8 promises us that we will be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission and “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When we feel alone, we can be assured by John 14:16 that reminds us “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth.... for he lives with you and will be in you.”

The word translated as advocate means comforter, helper, one who comes alongside, intercessor, one who comes to our aid. We may never have a vision of Jesus, or hear the audible words of Jesus, or have Jesus appear in person as Paul did. Be we all have unlimited access to the Holy Spirit who is near us, in us, around us.

Fifth, God’s plans will not be thwarted. Isaiah 54:17 tells us that, “‘ weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and this is their vindication from me,’ declares the Lord.”

Job acknowledged, “I know that you -- meaning God -- can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Even though Paul probably had moments when he was discouraged, he still knew the truth of God’s Word. The source of his courage was his firm confidence in that truth.

We’ve already seen one reference to this truth in the Great Commission. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What is being inferred is that we are commissioned as agents of his authority. Paul understood this.

In John 14:12, Jesus said, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Resistance is inevitable. God can use anyone. The Lord is near us. The Holy Spirit is at work. God’s plans will not be thwarted.

These are five truths we can learn from this passage. But five is a lot and maybe you’ll have trouble remembering them. If so, here’s the one big takeaway.


If you take nothing else away from this episode of Paul’s story, you must understand this: Tharseo.

Take courage! Fear not! God is with you. Jesus cares about you. The Holy Spirit empowers you. God has you in his hands. He will never leave you or forsake you. And he is at work in your life.

In Philippians 1:6 Paul declares, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Once you embrace Christ, he relentlessly embraces you.

As Paul states firmly in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? ... [No!] in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hear today the comforting word of Jesus: Tharseo. Take courage! Fear not! God is with you. Now and always.

And now that you’ve heard this message, ask God what you need to do with it. How do you need to apply it in your life? Who else around you needs to hear this truth?

This week, dwell on these truths and let them soak into your heart and mind.









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