Not taking chances

There are times we want people to know, “I’ve got your back.” And we might mean it, with all the heroic altruism it implies. But if we’re perfectly honest, we sometimes pledge to protect someone else’s back for an ulterior motive. We’re also covering our own tails: if we don’t watch out for the other person, we’re going to be in trouble with somebody else.

As we’ve seen, Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune who had taken charge of the apostle Paul, had almost made a disastrous mistake. Needing to understand why the angry Jewish mob in the temple had wanted to kill Paul, he ordered that the apostle be interrogated — which included having Paul flogged. It never occurred to Lysias to ask if Paul was a Roman citizen. When he found out this was in fact the case, he hurriedly reversed course; violating Paul’s rights in that way would have brought serious consequences on his own head.

When Paul’s nephew informed him of a conspiracy to ambush and kill the apostle, Lysias knew he had to act decisively, not only for Paul’s sake but his own. Failing to keep a man in his protective custody safe — a man who was a Roman citizen to boot — would reflect poorly on his ability to keep order in Jerusalem.

The tribune, therefore, called in the cavalry.

Literally.

He decided to send the apostle to the governor, sixty miles up the Mediterranean coast in the port city of Caesarea. He committed almost 500 men to the task, with orders to take Paul to Caesarea under cover of darkness.

Wait: five hundred men? For a prisoner transport? It may seem excessive, but Rome was in the habit of flexing its military muscle. Assuming the troops stationed in Jerusalem were at full complement for the festival, Lysias could afford the manpower. Besides, wasn’t he taking the chief troublemaker out of the picture?

The tribune was in no mood to take chances. He would get Paul to Governor Felix in one piece, or his own career might be on the line.

Both foot soldiers and cavalry would accompany Paul through the first part of the journey, which was rockier and therefore posed a greater risk of ambush. Once they reached more open country in Antipatris, though, with no one in pursuit, the soldiers could turn back, and the horsemen would take charge from there.

To make sure Felix understood what was happening, Lysias wrote a letter to be sent along with Paul:

Claudius Lysias, to the most honorable Governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was almost killed by them. I was nearby with a unit of soldiers, and I rescued him when I discovered that he was a Roman citizen. I wanted to find out why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their council. I discovered that they were accusing him about questions related to their Law. I found no charge deserving of death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a conspiracy against his life, I sent him to you at once and ordered his accusers to bring their case against him before you. (Acts 23:26-30, CEB)

There are at least three important things to note about the letter. The first is the way he ingratiates himself with the governor. He calls Felix “most honorable” — other translations have “his Excellency” — an honorific that Felix technically doesn’t merit.

Then there’s his obvious spin-doctoring of the story. He did not “rescue” Paul from the Jewish mob, nor did he know about Paul’s citizenship until after he had ordered Paul to be illegally flogged. Lysias, of course, conveniently omits that little detail. He edits the history so that the governor will see him as his trustworthy and capable agent in Jerusalem. Again, why take chances?

Second, though Lysias probably never quite understood what the ruckus over Paul was about, his opinion on the matter is important. In essence, he’s saying that the conflict had something to do with Jewish law, not Roman law; in his opinion, Paul was innocent of any crime against the empire. That should sound familiar: earlier in Acts, similar stances had been taken by the proconsul in Corinth and the town clerk in Ephesus — and a similar verdict will be reached again later, by other officials.

Third and finally, the tribune’s letter adds an important procedural detail: he has, according to proper Roman procedure, ordered Paul’s accusers to appear before the governor themselves. As Luke will tell us shortly, that means Ananias himself, the high priest, and his attorney and entourage must make the journey to Caesarea.

From one point of view, Lysias has done his job, perhaps even congratulating himself for getting Paul safely to the governor while keeping himself in Felix’s good graces.

From another point of view, however, the tribune was simply the surprising instrument of the sovereignty of God. God had the power to free Paul from prison with a mighty miracle, as he had in Philippi. But he could also use other means, whether a young boy who cared about his uncle, or a Roman tribune who cared about his career. Jesus had promised Paul that he would appear in Rome, and Caesarea brought him one step closer.

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