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The Great Curse


The Great Curse

Text: Acts 23:12-24

Paul is in Jerusalem, and now, as a Roman citizen, under arrest, but still technically innocent, on remand…  Paul is in the castle, under guard, but being fed and sheltered from the Jews, and with some privileges.   

1. The Plot Against Paul. 12 And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, 

Among the Jews of that day there were many zealots.  Fanatics who would kill for the Jewish cause, its religion and its aim of a national restoration and freedom from Roman rule.  Jewish versions of the republican zealots that we knew here in the 70s – 90s. These Jewish fanatics became known as ‘the knife-men’ for their guerrilla tactics, moving among crowds of people at festivals, hoping to furtively ram a knife into some Roman soldier or citizen or collaborator.  Perhaps there was even a converted zealot among the disciples of Jesus, “Simon called Zelotes”. We see here a measure of their fanaticism…

  • The curse.  and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.  In verse 14 we learn that it was a great curse!  It certainly was, – probably a curse along the lines of that found in 1 Samuel 14:44, Saul answered, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.”   It was a very serious oath, and it involved a period of fasting until the oath had been fulfilled, and Paul was dead. Two indications of its seriousness:-
    • The dreadful word used. The word for ‘vow’ or ‘curse’ used here is the Greek word ἀναθεματίζω (anathematizō). It the same word that Paul himself used when he wrote to the Galatians about people who preach a false gospel. Galatians 2:8-9 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.  It could literally be rendered, ‘let him go to hell!’  AMP: But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we [originally] preached to you, let him be condemned to destruction!  This is one serious curse!
    • The dreadful consequences. Here’s another indication of its seriousness; the Talmud states that the punishment for breaking a vow is the death of one’s children.  That’s an indication of jut how fanatical and determined these men were.

Now, this is where we must pause, and remember that we too are under a great curse, far greater even than the curse upon the heads of those Jews that day.  

  • It is a SELF INFLICTED Curse.  We bear Adam’s curse.  The curse of sin, and guilt and condemnation.  Like those Jews, our curse is self-inflicted.  We have called it down upon our own heads, by our rebellion and wilful rejection of God’s law.  We fall short of God’s standards and requirements.  We miss the mark – we break God’s righteous law.  Galatians 3:10. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.  
  • It is a WEIGHTY and DREADFUL Curse.  This curse is OUR anathema.  It is even more awful than the curse that the Jews wrecked upon themselves, and it will bind us to a lost and unending eternity.  I want you today, because of what I am going to say next, to fully appreciate the weightiness, and the horror of this self inflicted curse.  Listen how Jesus, our loving Saviour describes it.  Mark 9:44-48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
  • It is an INESCAPABLE Curse.  I’m told that the Jewish curse, binding and horrendous as it was, could nevertheless be escaped from – there was a get-out clause, if it became impossible to keep the vow.  But for the curse of sin, and the curse of the law, there is no get-out clause!  Someone had to bear the full burden of the curse, someone had to pay the debt for the broken covenant.  We are unable to pay and we are doomed.  

Now, you can see our plight.  We have by our natural birth, this awful curse hanging over us, a curse that will eventually bring us to the very pit of hell itself.  But God’s justice, and his terrible anger with our sin, is tempered by his love, and his mercy for sinners.  I want you now, having grasped the awfulness of the curse, and the consequences of the curse, to be able to appreciate more fully, what Jesus did for us when he died in the cross.  He TOOK OUR CURSE. The anathema, the weight of our awful punishment was laid upon Him and he bore it, our of love for you and me! My eternal punishment was laid on him.  In Q39, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, Does it have a special meaning that Christ was crucified and did not die in a different way?  Yes. Thereby I am assured that he took upon himself the curse which lay on me, for a crucified one was cursed by GodGalatians 3:13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:  God cursed his own son, so that you and I would not have to suffer the consequences of our curse. Jesus, bore the curse for ME! 

The 17th century Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt : 

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of Glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God.

2. Who, who, my Saviour, this hath done?
Who could Thy sacred body wound?
No guilt Thy spotless heart hath known,
No guile hath in Thy lips been found.

 3. I, I alone, have done the deed!
'Tis I Thy sacred flesh have torn;
My sins have caused Thee, Lord, to bleed,
Pointed the nail, and fixed the thorn.

4. The burden, for me to sustain
Too great, on Thee, my Lord, was laid;
To heal me, Thou hast borne my pain;
To bless me, Thou a curse wast made.
  • The cabal.  Now we find out also that there was a considerable number of men who were so full of hatred for Paul and the Gospel message of grace that they would bind themselves in this way.  13 And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy.  Forty to one!  The odds were not in Paul’s favour.
  • The collusion.  Of course, they needed to get Paul, before they could murder him, and fulfil their vow and get a decent meal again, and that’s where the problem lay, for Paul is in a castle, surrounded by the soldiers of the most ruthless army in the world, every one of them a gladiator, sworn to do his duty to the death.  But they have a cunning plan.  They will go to the leaders of the Sanhedrin – presumably those who hate Paul the most, and probably they would be the Sadducees, and involve them in the plot too.  All the priests have to do is to ask the Romans to bring Paul back, just to clarify one or two wee points, where there may have been a bit of a misunderstanding.  That’s all.  When the Romans brought Paul into the Sanhedrin to be gently questioned, the knife-men would strike!14 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.  15 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.

So, the plot thickens, and Paul’s fate will be sealed.  Except for the Supergrass!

2. The Super-grass!.

This brings us to one of the most intriguing passages in the book of Acts.  Into the narrative comes Paul’s nephew – his sister’s son, of whom we know nothing, not even his name! Let’s see:-

  • The informer. 16 And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, Paul came from a wealthy family. – they were Roman citizens, a right only held by people of some importance.  We also know that Paul, when he became a believer in Christ, would, like all other such Jews, have been shunned, estranged and cut off from his family.  There would be no more contact, and no emotional, moral or financial support for a son who had had betrayed the Jewish faith.  In Philippians 3:7-8 he wrote,  But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,  But now we learn that Paul had a nephew, and the family had sent him to Jerusalem, presumably to study.  He would have been a Pharisee, like his uncle Paul was, and perhaps had agreed with the what the Pharisees had said in v9 …the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.  Whatever, – there is a saying that blood is thicker than water.  Perhaps when this young man heard that his uncle was to be the victim of a assassination, he was pricked in conscience, for he made his way, secretly to the castle, and asked to see his uncle. …he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul.  Interestingly, Paul received his nephew, listened to his story and beloved what he was reporting.  It had to be taken seriously.  17 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.  
  • The ingress.  Another interesting insight from this story, is the access that Paul had to visitors, to the guards and to the commander himself!  It’s a little snapshot of history, revealing how differently a Roman citizen is treated by the police, from a non-citizen. The young man, presumably also a Roman citizen, was brought to speak to the commander, for look how cordially the boy is received.  He is ‘taken by the hand!’ A sign of kindness and friendship in the ancient world.  V18-19.  
  • The intelligence.  V20.  It’s an interesting conversation isn’t it!  This boy is speaking to the commander as an equal, warning him of the plot and even daring to give him advice!  
  • The instruction.  The commander listened well to the boy, and took that advice.  22 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.

There is an interesting lesson here.  This is one of those intriguing biblical moments when some anonymous character appears on the page, and changes history!  Like when King Ahab died.  He was the wicked king of Israel in the days of Elijah, and he picked a fight with Syria, and roped in Jehoshaphat the King of Judah, and set that king up for a fall.  The Bible records that some anonymous archer simply fired and arrow in the air.  That arrow pierced a kink in Ahab’s armour and killed him.  1 Kings 22:34-35 And a certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness: wherefore he said unto the driver of his chariot, Turn thine hand, and carry me out of the host; for I am wounded. 35 And the battle increased that day: and the king was stayed up in his chariot against the Syrians, and died at even: and the blood ran out of the wound into the midst of the chariot.  We don’t know who that archer was – but God used him to change history.  So with Paul’s unknown nephew. 

There’s a lesson in that. We may not, and probably won’t ever attain fame or celebrity – but God uses ordinary people like you and me to achieve his sovereign purpose. 1 Corinthians 1:27 But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28 And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: 29 That no flesh should glory in his presence.  Finally, let us see:-

3. The Midnight Flit.

The commander, Lysius has a dilemma now. If he lets Paul loose, frees him, he’ll be assassinated, and a Roman citizen will have died, and he will be blamed.  If he hold on to him in the castle at Jerusalem, there’ll be more plots and more riots, and again he’ll be blamed.  He must get Paul off his hands, and out of his jurisdiction.  He makes an instant decision.  He will send Paul to the Roman governor, a man called Festus, and h all do it tonight, before the Jews make their formal request to interview Paul again.  He did it under cover of darkness, and to ensure Paul’s safe passage to Caesarea, he sent an armed guard.  A very large armed guard!  A very well equipped armed guard!  23 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; 24 And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor.   Two hundred infantrymen, forty horse mounted cavalry, and two hundred men with spears. Four hundred and forty highly trained and dedicated troops to get one man a distance of  around 75 miles.  Paul was not to walk or travel by cart.  He was to be provided with beasts, – horses or mules, – more than one, so that they wouldn’t tire out.  He was taking every precaution to make sure that Paul arrived into the custody of the governor, – he was ticking every box.  It was the ultimate midnight flit!

So, our little historical snapshot has reached its conclusion for now.  In our next study we will see what happened when Paul got to meet Festus.  

© Bob McEvoy October 2021

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