Forty Angry Men

by Pastor Don Hosfeld

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“When the scorner is punished, the simple is made wise” (Prov. 21:11).

History Matters

I grew up as the youngest child, and though I got into my fair share of trouble, I am sure I avoided some punishment along the way simply by learning from my older sister’s mistakes. The best mistakes to learn lessons from are somebody else’s. Why repeat the mistakes others have already made and learn the hard way? This is true from the smallest of issues to those of profound importance.

Imagine the pitcher on a baseball team that refused to look at how other pitchers had success or failure against the same batters. Personally, I would think that to be foolish unless that pitcher was facing my team!

Have you ever considered how America became a constitutional republic? Admittedly, this is a bit of a trick question. It wasn’t because we won the revolutionary war against England; that could have led to various types of government. America became a constitutional republic because the founding fathers were students of history and knew very well the historical disasters of democracy and other forms of government. The founding fathers looked at all the types of government and set up, not a perfect system, but a system that best gave us the opportunity to avoid failure and find success.

“Men often learn by example what they would not learn by precept.…”

But if these examples demonstrate how practical this principle of studying what produces success and failure is when it pertains to the “things of man,” how much more must this be true when it concerns “the things of God” (1 Cor. 2:11)?

Arguably, the best place for believers to look for mistakes made by others is in the history of the nation Israel. This is not to suggest they made any mistakes we would not have. Rather, we have the extraordinary privilege of being able to look back and learn from their actions so we do not repeat their mistakes. The study of history is an opportunity for us to learn, not an occasion to criticize.

“History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.” – Lord Acton

Romans 15:4 tells us “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning.…” This is also expressed in 1 Corinthians 10:11 when Paul, speaking of those who left Egypt and opposed God in the wilderness, said, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition….”

A Plot to Kill Paul

“And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.

“And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy.

“And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.

“Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to morrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him” (Acts 23:12-15).

There have been many foolish instances of Jews killing or trying to kill those whom God sent, but this just might take the cake. Pun intended! The fact is, Paul’s life had been threatened and in danger throughout his ministry. Upon returning to Damascus after meeting the risen Lord, “the Jews took counsel to kill him” (Acts 9:23). Once he reached Jerusalem, there too, “they went about to slay him” (v. 29). He was persecuted and expelled from Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:50), threatened to be stoned at Iconium (Acts 14:5), was stoned at Lystra (Acts 14:19), and in Greece, the Jews “laid wait” for him (Acts 20:3). I’m not thinking they had good intentions. In Acts 21, as “they [the Jews (v. 27)] went about to kill him,” (v. 31) he had to be arrested by the Romans for his own protection. We are told that when the people saw the Roman guards coming, “they left beating of Paul” (v. 32).

One of the great evidences for the truth of Paul’s message and ministry was his willingness to give up honor, power, authority, and certainly wealth for a life of threats, beatings, stonings, and what would lead to his eventual killing. Paul summarizes his sufferings well for the grace message in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. Nothing but meeting Jesus alive could explain Paul’s conversion.

The forty-plus men from Acts 23 didn’t just seek to kill Paul, though. They made the highly foolish decision to “bound themselves under a curse” (v. 12) not to eat or drink until they killed Paul. This may be the most successful diet plan ever conceived; don’t eat or drink until you’ve killed someone God is protecting.

These forty angry men were likely of the Sadducees sect since Paul had already convinced the Pharisees to let him go (vv. 6-9). They may not have believed that Paul was a true representative of God, but they sure should have known that what they were doing was wrong. Note carefully that they bound themselves under this curse before ever speaking to the chief priests (v. 14). They didn’t go to the priests seeking permission or even guidance on whether killing Paul could be done lawfully; they went with a plan to commit murder. That they made their oath before going to the priests might make one wonder if this speaks of their confidence that the priests would participate or their disregard for what the priests and the Law said. Probably both.

These men were hypocrites; for they sought to kill Paul because they thought he was guilty of breaking the Law (v. 29), yet they were ready to murder him behind the scenes and outside of the trial and without a guilty verdict, which is entirely contrary to the Law. Theirs was not the only hypocrisy Paul was facing. To the high priest, Ananias, Paul said, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law” (v. 3).

Believers today should guard themselves against and reject hypocrisy from both the non-believer and the believer. In his final epistle, Paul warns that some shall “depart from the faith…. Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” The church is to be the “pillar and ground of the truth.” We shouldn’t be accepting of the world’s wisdom that the end justifies the means.

Secret Things Revealed

“And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul” (Acts 23:16).

What a turn of events in the life of Paul. As Paul’s nephew told him about what he had heard, it must have been a reminder that he had once gone to the high priest with a plan to arrest the kingdom saints. And just like Paul’s plans were interrupted, so too would this plan be interrupted.

“The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: He maketh the devices of the people of none effect” (Psa. 33:10).

The day before this plan was to be executed, Paul was on trial before the council (v. 1); the Pharisees wanted to let Paul loose, while the Sadducees had other ideas (vv. 6-9). Seeing the commotion, the chief captain ordered soldiers to go down and bring Paul to the safety of the castle (Antonia Fortress) (v. 10). That night, the Lord appeared to Paul, and we are told He “stood by him.” What a remarkable image these three words resent. Christ doesn’t just send a message that says, “Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (v. 11). Christ came Himself to comfort and encourage Paul. With this declaration of going to Rome, is it any wonder, then, that Paul’s nephew would happen to hear of the plans to kill Paul?

“…curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter” (Eccl. 10:20).

This was no lucky break. Paul may not have known that that very evening forty plus men were conspiring to kill him; (add that to the list of questions I want to ask Paul someday—did Christ tell him that night of the plans of these forty fasters), but the Lord knew, “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord” (Prov. 5:21). The Lord appeared to Paul to strengthen him. The phrase “Be of good cheer” means to take courage and was used often by Christ during His earthly ministry (cf. Matt. 9:2; 14:27; John 16:33). If the Lord has purposed that Paul was going to Rome, to Rome he will go. No scheme of man could prevent this from happening.

“The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (Isa. 14:24).


Good and Acceptable in the Sight of God Our Savior

“Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him.

“So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain….

“Then the chief captain… asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me?

“And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly.

“…there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee.

“So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me” (Acts 23:17-22).

When Paul gets word from his nephew of the plan, he calls for a centurion and tells him to take him to the chief captain so he might be told of the scheme. We shouldn’t let it escape us that Paul was able to get this centurion to do what he wished. A centurion isn’t an ordinary guard but a man with command authority. It’s hard to imagine any centurion being willing to help Paul had he been a problematic prisoner. It is possible to exercise civil rights without being rebellious or insulting. Paul’s willingness to submit to authority is a demonstration of greater concern than himself: God’s desire for “all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), which is why Paul
said in the proceeding verses “I exhort therefore, that…supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority (vv. 1-2).

How often do we Christians fail to follow Paul to this extent, especially those of us who recognize Paul as our apostle and our example in following Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1)? Are we more willing to be wronged than to do wrong?

A Sad State of Affairs

“And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night;

“And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor” (Acts 23:23-24).

When the chief of the captains was told of this plan, he could have allowed Paul to fall victim to the conspiracy, but he chose to ensure Paul’s safety. This is the same man who ordered Paul to be “examined by scourging” and “was afraid” upon finding out Paul was a Roman citizen (cf. Acts 22:24-29).

Herein lies another lesson for the believer from these events; for it is with the non-believing Gentiles that Paul found safety from oppression. How far Israel had fallen! To Israel, God said:

“Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy” (Psa. 82:3).

The nation which had been given every “advantage” because “unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2) was not the one ensuring a fair trial, but it was they who sought to pervert justice. Paul would have greater protection from wrong by the Roman army and Felix than he would from Ananias, the high priest.

“Woe to them that devise iniquity, and work evil upon their beds! when the morning is light, they practise it, because it is in the power of their hand” (Mic. 2:1).

Are we, the Body of Christ, the world’s best example of truth and justice, or do people find it more abundantly from the unbeliever? Have we learned from Israel’s mistakes, or are we, like they, ready to set aside truth for what benefits us or is convenient?

Opposing God

These forty angry men may not have realized it, but they weren’t opposing Paul; they were opposing God. Ignorance wouldn’t be an excuse for them. Certainly, their guilt was as great as Ananias’, whom Paul said God would smite for his acts of hypocrisy and injustice (Acts 23:3). We aren’t told what happened to these men, but we can be sure, like all opposition to God, failure is its destiny.

Even we believers should never assume we aren’t standing in opposition to God. It’s easy to be fooled into serving ourselves while thinking we’re serving God. Fighting against God is not only like what we see in our example or the Book of Revelation, here man forms an army to face off against God. Often, we are fighting against God in ways much more subtle. Many of the things that stand in the way of God are our everyday decisions—yes, believers, our everyday choices.

It’s not easy to accept the idea that we could be opposing God, but this is the kind of warning Paul gives the Corinthians. To those believers, he speaks of the need for “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

It’s in verse 4 that Paul mentions tearing down strongholds. Large cities, like Corinth, would have a fortress high up on a hill if they could, and Corinth did. These are places to hide when under attack (being confronted). Paul was using imagery that was easy for people to see. They could see the fortress and know how it was used, and Paul used this imagery to describe the arguments, thoughts, and plans he, through God’s Word, was tearing down.

Today, the fortresses people hide in and Jesus Christ is tearing down are the strongholds of philosophies, thoughts, reasonings, ideas, and false religions—all the ideological forts that people use to barricade themselves against God.

How do you tear down these things standing in opposition to God? As verse 5 says, “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

Paul didn’t try and win arguments; he tried to win people to Christ. Paul didn’t try and force believers to do what he thought was right; he wanted to get them to take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ. Renewing your mind was a constant theme.

Could you be fighting against God all the while thinking you were in the right? That is a serious question and one we all would do well to ask ourselves and ask regularly. Especially since we have the means to verify every thought, every position, and every doctrine with the full and final authority: the Word of God.

Let us learn from the mistakes of others and not oppose God. Let us take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ.

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