“God’s anonymous: Paul’s nephew”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
In April of 1940, the Germans launched what they called Operation Weserubung, the invasion of Norway and Denmark. And as the Germans began to move across their border, the Norwegians had no choice but to find some way to keep their gold reserves from falling into enemy hands. So they planned to ship it to the United States, to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, for safekeeping until the war was over.
The only problem was, how could they get it all the way from Norway to New York without the Nazi guards noticing? After all, you can just imagine what the Germans could do with all that gold!
That’s when someone had an idea. Why not move it, at night, on sleds, through the snow, to waiting ships on the coast? So that’s exactly what they did!
Quietly, secretly and carefully, they loaded it into boxes and onto sleds. And with the help of thirty-eight children, not to mention their parents, over a period of six weeks and over a distance of thirty-five miles, they successfully snuck $9 million dollars in gold, (worth more than $200 million today!), right under the Nazi’s noses. Then about a month later, it arrived safely, by ship, in New York.
You can read about it in a book called Snow Treasure, by author Marie McSwigan.
Who would have thought that something so valuable and so precious could be saved by such young children?
So it was in the words of our text from the book of Acts chapter 23. I’ll begin reading at verse 12: “When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near’” (Acts 23:12-15).
So what’s going on?
By this time, the apostle Paul had finished all three of his missionary journeys. Over a period of some nine years and a distance of some ten thousand miles, he was able to visit places like Syria, Cilicia, Asia, Macedonia and Greece. Now finally, he returned to the capital city of Jerusalem once more.
And while he was there, he took time to visit that one place to which he had been so many times before, the holiest and most beautiful place of all--the temple in Jerusalem.
But there was a problem. The Bible says in Acts chapter 21, “When the Jews from Asia saw him in the temple, they stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place’” (Acts 21:27-28).
So did Paul actually bring Greeks into the temple, into their “holy place”? Not at all. But when a mob rules, truth doesn’t matter. Worse yet, just as soon as everyone heard about it, the Bible says the crowd seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut (Acts 21:30).
Thankfully, just as they were about to kill him, (poor Paul!), word reached the ears of the Roman guard that all of Jerusalem was in an uproar. So promptly, quickly and efficiently, a group of soldiers and centurions(!) intervened. And not knowing what else to do, they arrested him, bound him with chains, then asked who he was and what he had done. But since no one really knew for sure just what he had done, for his own safety and protection, the guards picked him up and carried him away from the crowd and into the barracks. Meanwhile, the mob continued to shout: “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” (Acts 22:22).
What a mess!
Now imagine for a moment that you were a Jew and you knew Paul was as innocent as innocent could be, but you still wanted him dead. How could you get rid of him? How could you kill him?
I’ll read once again the words of our text: “When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy” (Acts 23:12-13). And they said, “Give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near” (Acts 23:15).
Now if we didn’t know any better, it’s easy to say that their plan was pretty much a done deal, fool-proof, cut-and-dried, as in poor Paul didn’t stand the ghost of a chance. In a matter of moments, he would be as dead as dead could be.
But strangely, miraculously, God had another plan. Enter Paul’s nephew--one of God’s anonymous.
Let me stop there for just a moment. Whenever we think of the apostle Paul, we see him preaching in a synagogue or even teaching on the Areopagus. We see him sitting in prison bound in chains, or writing letters to the Ephesians, the Corinthians or to the church in Rome.
But what we often forget is that he was very much a man, very much flesh and blood just like us. He felt the same joys and sorrows, and endured the same tragedies and triumphs, just like any of us. As he once wrote to the Corinthians: “When someone is weak, then I feel weak too; and when someone is led into sin, I am filled with distress” (II Corinthians 11:29).
He felt the same grief, pain, dangers and hardships, just like any of us. Yet by the grace of God, through it all, he was able to say, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).
And part of his humanness, part of his “flesh-and-blood-ness” was that he was part of a family. He had a father and a mother and even a sister.
Which makes us wonder--what did they think of their son and brother, the apostle Paul? Did they believe in Jesus just like he did? And did they share the good news, the gospel, just like he did?
Let’s get back to the text. Verse 16: “Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered 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 tell him.’ So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, ‘Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you’” (Acts 23:16-18).
And just as soon as the commander heard all that was about to happen, he got to work! He said, “‘Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen, (that’s four hundred and seventy men, by the way!), to go as far as Caesarea at nine o’clock tonight. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.’ And he wrote a letter to this effect” (Acts 23:23-25).
And sure enough, with quite a lot of help from those soldiers, and a bit of help from his nephew, his sister’s son, all by the grace of God, Paul would safely and eventually make it all the way to Rome.
So what does all this mean to teach us? I’ll leave you with two things.
It’s been said that whenever there’s a dark and stormy night, when the sky is ink-black and the rain is coming down in sheets, for just a split second there’s a flash of lightning, making it possible for you to see something you would otherwise not see.
And this verse from the book of Acts chapter 23 is just that--a flash of lightning on an otherwise very dark and stormy night. Here was Paul beaten, threatened, arrested and bound in chains, about to be killed by forty men who vowed they wouldn’t eat until he was dead when, all of a sudden, there’s word of a sister and a nephew who saved his very life!
Though we have no idea just who they were or where they came from, nor do we even know their names, God used them to be part of His plan.
And there’s a message there for us as well! It doesn’t matter who we are. It doesn’t matter where we’ve come from or what we’ve done. Each and every one of us can take our place along with all of God’s anonymous to be part of His miraculous plan.
And one more thing--did you notice what Paul said to one of the centurions? He said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him” (Acts 23:17).
“Young man,” he said. “Boy,” maybe twelve to fourteen years old. Who would have thought that God could use someone so young and so simple to be part of His plan?
But isn’t that just the way God is? David was just a boy when he killed that giant Goliath. Esther was just a girl when she became queen. A little boy fed thousands with his lunch of fish and bread. And a young girl named Mary bore the sinless Son of God.
God can use even the youngest and the simplest among us to be part of His plan.
It’s easy to say that behind every song, there’s a story. So it was for a song by Mark Hall called, Praise You in This Storm.
It was early in the morning in October of 2004, as a ten-year-old girl named Erin Browning lay in a hospice bed in her home, coming to the end of a battle she had fought since she was seven. The cancer that started in her bone had spread to her abdomen.
Still in such pain and shortness of breath, fear and exhaustion, she had only one request of her mother. She said, “Just read the Scriptures.”
So she read her the Scriptures, especially her favorite verse from Proverbs chapter 3: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
And for the next four hours, from 1 in the morning till 5, loved ones took turns reading the Bible to her, frightened yet faithful, hoping for some last-minute miracle.
Mark had met Erin just eight months before at a concert in Greensboro, North Carolina. Erin loved his group, Casting Crowns, and had even choreographed a dance to one of his songs. So when he heard her story and learned she had just a short time to live, he wrote her a song.
This is how it goes: “I was sure by now God, You would have reached down and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day. And once again I say, ‘Amen’ and it’s still rainin.’ But as the thunder rolls I barely hear Your whisper through the rain, ‘I’m with you.’ And as Your mercy falls I’ll raise my hands and praise the God who gives and takes away. And I’ll praise You in this storm, and I will lift my hands, for You are who You are, no matter where I am. And every tear I’ve cried You hold in Your hand. You never left my side. And though my heart is torn, I will praise You in this storm.”
Finally, early in the morning of November 1st, ten-year-old Erin breathed her last breath and went home to be with her Lord, the place where she said she always wanted to be.
In the words of her mother, Laurie, “Through all this I’ve learned that God can use even an average, ordinary family to do extraordinary things.” And she said, “A lot of times I may not like His plan, but I accept it. I’m just honored that He chose to use someone so young as Erin.”
And how is all this possible? Because we have a Savior Jesus, who died so we could live.
We thank You, Father, for even the smallest and weakest among us. And we pray that You’ll use even us for Your glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen