The Comfort of the Lord

Acts 23:12-24
P.G. Mathew | Sunday, May 14, 2000
Copyright © 2000, P.G. Mathew

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”

But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.

Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” So he took him to the commander.

The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”

The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”

He said: “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”

The commander dismissed the young man and cautioned him, “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”

Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”

Acts 23:12-24

In this study we want to examine the twenty-third chapter of Acts, especially verse 11: “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.'” This passage speaks about the comfort the Lord gives to his people as they serve him.

What Is God’s Comfort?

As a young boy, whenever I was in any trouble-whether I cut myself or was sick or fell down from a tree-I would go to my mother, not my father, with my problems. As my mother cuddled and comforted me, all my troubles instantly vanished. When I became a grown man, I still went to my godly mother when I could with my much greater problems. My mother would pray with me, give me the strong comfort of the Scriptures, and assure me that with God’s help everything would be all right.

In Isaiah 66:13 God likens himself, not to a father or to a husband, but to a mother when he speaks about comforting Zion, which stands for God’s people. In the Hebrew text we read, “As a man whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you, and in Jerusalem you shall be comforted.” In other words, not only a child, but a grown man needs comfort of his mother.

Mothers know how to comfort. I am sure that is part of the reason that in child custody cases, generally speaking, the custody is given to the mother. In nature, no love is stronger than a mother’s love. Yet in this passage from the book of Acts we find a love that is stronger than the mother’s love. It is the love that God is speaking about in Isaiah. As a mother comforts a man, so I, the Lord, will comfort you.

The quality of God’s comfort is maternal, and the source and agent of this comfort is the Lord himself. And where do we find this comfort? In Jerusalem. Jerusalem, spiritually speaking, is the church, so when you come to church, you will find comfort-the comfort of the Scriptures, the comfort of the sacraments, and the comfort of fellowship with the people of God. We find it a great privilege to come to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s day and receive comfort from the Lord.

Therefore, even though God has blessed us with human mothers who sacrificially comforted us and still comfort some of us even to this day, we are even more blessed because we have a comfort that transcends all human comfort. In Isaiah 49:15 God says to us, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” The moment you trust in Jesus Christ and are baptized, you come under the rule and comfort of the triune God, who Paul introduces us to as the God of mercies- “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles”-in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.

Do you have troubles? It doesn’t matter what type of trouble it is. For many of us, our problems only seem to increase as we get older. But let me tell you, we have the comfort of the Father himself. And what is the purpose of the comfort we receive? That we may comfort others. That is why I said when you come to church, you also receive comfort from the people of God.

Jesus Christ is committed to our comfort. In John 14:16 he said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor,” or Comforter. This means that Jesus Christ is our Comforter, sent by the Father, to accomplish our comfort on the cross by his death and resurrection, and that the Holy Spirit is also our Comforter.

Let me make one more point: If you are not a Christian, you cannot experience the comfort of God. You are “without God and without hope in the world” (Ephesians 2:11). I was watching a great scientist being interviewed on television the other day. What a brilliant mind this man has! Yet he also has a serious disease which is killing him. And when I looked at this man, I saw him as a hopeless man because, instead of trusting in God, this man trusts in the universe and in reason. He finds his comfort and salvation in knowing the universe, not God. Oh, what a tragedy that is! There is no comfort outside of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Only when you trust in the triune God will you come under his rule and his comfort.

Paul’s Problem

We want, then, to examine this issue of God’s comfort to the apostle Paul as he defended the gospel before the Sanhedrin as we read in Acts 23. After his third missionary journey, Paul went to Jerusalem and to the temple to worship. There he was seized by a crowd of Jews who beat him and tried to kill him. When the Roman soldiers came to break up the riot, Paul was taken into custody by the Romans. When Paul spoke again to the crowd, another riot began and Paul was taken to the Roman barracks. The commander, Claudius Lysias, wanted to know why the Jews were shouting at Paul, so he ordered him flogged and questioned. Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, and so instead of flogging him, the commander had him brought before the Sanhedrin in an attempt to find out why the Jews were accusing him.

Paul defended himself before the Sanhedrin confidently, in the power of the Holy Spirit. The content of his defense was the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the hope of the resurrection of God’s people. Paul believed the resurrection of the dead has taken place in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he saw in Christ’s resurrection the promise that all God’s people will be raised up from the dead.

This resurrection defense produced such a dispute among the Pharisees and Sadducees that Paul’s life was once again threatened. Once again the Roman commander rescued him and brought him back to the Tower of Antonia. In Acts 23:11 we find Paul spending a second night in the dark, lonely barracks of the fortress. This apostle of Christ, the apostle to the Gentiles, a Roman citizen, a prominent Jewish rabbi, a former zealot of Judaism, was now bound and being kept in the barracks under Roman control. Paul had no freedom; he was alone, dejected, and depressed. And it is interesting to note that there is no mention of even one person from the Jerusalem church coming to help Paul while he was in this prison.

Jesus Christ Appears to Paul

As Paul lay in the barracks, it seemed all had deserted him. Yet there was one who stood by him. In Acts 23:11 we read, “The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.'”

When you are by yourself, don’t you ever think that you are alone. God is always with you. The Lord Jesus Christ appeared to Paul in the barracks just as he had appeared to the apostles years before in the locked upper room after his resurrection. Our Lord Jesus Christ can go anywhere. Didn’t he promise in his great commission, “Go and make disciples . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”?

The Lord Jesus Christ-the King of kings and the Lord of lords-came to comfort Paul in his troubles. Let me say it again: God will comfort us in all our troubles. If you have troubles, I hope you will see by faith the Lord Jesus Christ standing beside you. Does he come to judge us? No, Christ stands beside us as our comforter. No wonder Paul wrote elsewhere, “We live by faith, not by sight.”

What time was it when Jesus appeared to Paul? In the night. In the night of your life, in the night of your troubles, when all have gone away from you, remember this: Not all have gone away. There is one standing with you: the Lord Jesus Christ. Are you in the night of your life? Do you have some problems? You can be assured the Lord is with you.

Encouraging Words from the Lord

Not only that, the very presence of Jesus was designed to comfort Paul. God could have sent some angels to Paul. It had been done before and would be done again, but this time he showed himself. Why? Because the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ is better than the presence of Gabriel, Michael, or any other heavenly being. The presence of the Lord Jesus Christ is also much better than the presence of a pastor, a wife, a husband, a child, or a friend. I hope we will develop a desire for the presence of the Lord in the middle of the night.

Additionally, we notice that when Jesus appeared to Paul, he was not mute. He spoke and prophesied to Paul, saying, “Tharsei! Take courage!” Jesus was telling Paul, “I know your trouble. I know your problem. I know you are fearful. I know you are dejected. I know you are lonely. But I tell you, fear not!” No wonder Paul could write to the Ephesians later, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10).

Tharsei! That word appears eight times in the Bible, and every time it is spoken, not by a fallen human being, but by our Lord Jesus Christ. “Take courage!” Jesus said to Paul, and that is what he is saying to us also. Jesus Christ understands our problems and troubles and everything else in our lives. He comes to us in the hour of our night, and his very presence brings great comfort to us. But more than that, he also tells us something to do. What is it? “Take courage!”

Why should we take courage? We should do so based on what Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Praise God for the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ! He is with us, as he promised, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” That is why we can take courage.

What else did Christ say to Paul? “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “Paul, you know, I have been watching you, and I noticed that you did a good job in Jerusalem in giving witness to me.” Oh, such a word would comfort us, isn’t that true? “Thou good and faithful servant. You have done a good job,” Jesus was saying. But then he added, “So you must also testify in Rome.” Notice the phrase “you must.” In other words, it means it was necessary and ordained by God that Paul go to Rome to testify about Jesus Christ. Paul could take comfort in these words. This meant no one would be able to kill and destroy him. He would be kept safe by Jesus as he was brought to Rome, and Christ would give Paul the opportunity to witness by the power of the Spirit of God in the court of Rome. Jesus was assuring Paul that despite his chains and the prospect of a trial, everything would be all right.

Can you imagine Paul’s reaction to Jesus’ words? I suspect that all of a sudden he began to speak in tongues and praise the Lord. Everything was going to be all right. The Lord Jesus Christ himself, the Lord of the universe, the King of kings and Lord of lords, came into the barracks and told Paul, “Don’t worry about anything. I will be with you. You will bear witness for me in Rome also. I am here to take care of you.” Almighty God himself met with his apostle and told him, “Do not worry.”

We know that Paul had already desired to go to Rome to preach the gospel. We read about that in several places in the book of Romans as well as in the book of Acts. For example, in Acts 19:21 we read, “After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. ‘After I have been there,’ he said, ‘I must visit Rome also.'”

Now Jesus himself was telling Paul, “Your desire is going to be fulfilled. You must bear witness for me in Rome. This is my ordination, my decree, and no enemy is able to frustrate it.” Paul’s going to Rome was also a fulfillment of Acts 1:8, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Everything was going to be all right for Paul.

The Plot Against Paul

The day after Jesus appeared to Paul, Paul’s problems increased. Forty of the Jewish people who opposed Jesus Christ and the gospel covenanted together, saying, “We will not eat or drink until we have killed this man.” Now that is a human covenant and determination. But hadn’t Jesus Christ had told Paul, “Don’t worry about anything. I am for you”? And as we read in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

After they covenanted together, the forty Jews went to the chief priests and elders of the Jews. They asked them to go to the Roman commander and ask him to send Paul down to the Sanhedrin so the Sanhedrin could inquire of Paul and get more accurate understanding of the problems of his case. The plan was that when Paul walked through the alley from the Fort of Antonia to the assembly hall of the Sanhedrin, the Jews would kill him.

As the forty Jews plotted to kill Paul, there was a young boy, Paul’s nephew, listening to them. This boy had probably been sent from Cilicia to Jerusalem, just as his uncle Paul had been sent, to study under Gamaliel or some other great rabbi. In God’s ordination this boy was present and listening as the Jews made their plans, and God ordained that he go to the Fort of Antonia, somehow gain entrance to the barracks, and tell his uncle Paul what the Jews were planning to do. Paul immediately called a centurion, and God caused the centurion to listen to the boy’s story. Then the centurion himself took the boy by the hand into the presence of the commander himself, Claudius Lysias. The commander, by the direction of God, listened to the boy and immediately, in the night, commanded four hundred and seventy soldiers to take one person, Paul, from Jerusalem to Caesarea for safekeeping.

What had Jesus told Paul? “Do not fear! Tharsei! Take courage! I’ve been watching you. You have done a good job, and, but you must bear witness for me in Jerusalem, in Rome also, and no one is going to destroy you.”

Brothers and sisters, may we trust and hope in our God! Let us have full confidence that no one is going to touch us or harm us unless God so ordains. No matter how bad our problems get, we are safe in the care of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Help from the Presence of God

Paul did believe the word Jesus spoke to him. He added faith to it and lived in the strength God gave him to continue witnessing for Christ. Two years later, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, Paul told the king, “But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike” (Acts 26:22). Who was helping Paul? God. God promises his help to us this day and every day until the day he wills that we die and be with him.

In God’s time Paul arrived in Rome. Luke writes of this in Acts 28:14, “And so we came to Rome.” This was the fulfillment of God’s purpose of evangelism. We are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth, meaning it is the will of God that we testify to this gospel wherever we are. Never be afraid to declare the gospel. “Be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Don’t ever think that anyone will destroy you. It is impossible to destroy you because God wants the gospel proclaimed to the uttermost parts of the earth. So Luke says, “And so we came to Rome.” They did so with the help of God.

In the Old Testament, in Daniel 3, we find an example of this idea that the presence of God helps his people. Nebuchadnezzar built a great image and wanted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to worship and bow down to it. In Daniel 3:16 we find their reply: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.'”

Was Nebuchadnezzar pleased with the response of the three Hebrew youths? No. In Daniel 3:19-20 we read, “Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace.” In verse 22 we read, “The king’s command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace.”

Oh, this was night. This was trouble. This was a big problem for the three Hebrew children. But read verses 24-25: “Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, ‘Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?’ They replied, ‘Certainly, O king.’ He said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.'”

What happened in the furnace? God showed up to encourage the three Hebrew boys. The four walked about in this seven-times-hotter-than-usual furnace. I am sure they were talking about wonderful things. It was not just walking about. I am sure there were also some words coming from this fourth one to encourage them.

I hope we will see that God is with us in everything that we experience. Jesus told us, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In other words, Jesus is promising us, “Nothing will happen to you. It is my responsibility to take care of you. Not even a hair of your head shall perish.” Total salvation is guaranteed for us because there is a fourth One, our Lord Jesus Christ, who came down and died on the cross and was raised up on the third day according to the Scriptures. He is our Lord and Savior. He governs the entire universe and yet he is standing by our side, encouraging us in all our troubles.

Christ with Us

In Acts 18 we find another instance of the Lord Jesus Christ encouraging Paul. Paul was preaching the gospel in Corinth, a terrible place, a commercial city, and he encountered much opposition from the Jewish people there. I am sure their refusal to hear caused him to become somewhat dejected and confused. In Acts 18:9 we read, “One night. . .” Oh, that another night in Paul’s life. He was troubled, confused, alone, dejected, and depressed.

But what happened that night? Did God send an angel to speak to Paul? No. “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision.” What did he tell Paul? “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”

Jesus Christ is speaking the same thing to us today. I don’t want to be too repetitious, but if you are troubled and confused and afraid of the world, don’t be. Know that no one can do anything against you without God’s permission. Keep on speaking the gospel, because God has many people in this city. Don’t be afraid, because Jesus himself has said, “I am with you.”

Paul had a similar experience in the early days of his conversion. After three years, he came to Jerusalem and began to declare the gospel, thinking that his Jewish friends would appreciate his newfound faith. But in Acts 22:17-18 Paul said, “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'”

Oh, I believe in a God who speaks to his people! I am not saying that God will appear for us as he did for Paul. He may, for he is able to do that, but he may not. But whenever we read the word of God, God is speaking to us, and every promise in the Bible is for us. Not only that, this God is with us, and he will comfort and guide us, wherever he sends us.

Paul’s Final Witness

In 2 Timothy 4 we read about the final witness Paul made before the court of Rome. Paul was in prison, aware that he was nearing the end of his life, as he writes in 2 Timothy 4:6-8. “The time has come for my departure,” Paul said. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Let me assure you: No one can touch God’s servants until it is God’s time. They are immortal until their service is done. This ought to encourage us to preach the gospel boldly and faithfully. We are immortal until our service is done.

In verses 16 through 18 Paul describes his trial in the court of Rome. He begins, “At my first defense no one came to my support.” This verse has always puzzled me. Paul spoke about a church being in Rome. In fact, the epistle to the Romans speaks about the church of Rome. Yet when Paul was standing in Caesar’s court, no one from the church of Rome was there to help him, either as an advocate or as a witness.

Paul was expressing the great loneliness he felt. “No one came to my support but everyone deserted me.” Paul used the same word in verse 9 to describe Demas’ abandonment. Now he was saying that, like Demas, everyone else abandoned him. Probably these Christians were protecting themselves. They didn’t want to experience any danger by associating with a person like Paul.

Let me tell you, it is a sin to abandon a child of God, especially an apostle of Christ. It is a sin not to help God’s people in their trouble. That is why Paul continued in verse 16, “May it not be held against them.” But then Paul said a wonderful thing: “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all Gentiles might hear it” (v. 17).

The Lord stood by Paul. I am sure he encouraged him, saying, “Paul, everything is going to be all right. You know, your time is up. I will help you in your defense, but then they are going to kill you. But I have given you everlasting life.” That is probably why Paul made this very interesting statement: “And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever.”

May we realize that there is someone who will never leave us nor forsake us! “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). We are not alone. Our God is with us and in us by his Holy Spirit.

Immortal Until the Work Is Done

No one can destroy God’s servants. They are immortal until their service is done. There is the story of a missionary to Ecuador named V. Raymond Edmond. As a young man, he was in Ecuador doing missionary work in 1926. All of a sudden he became sick with typhus. The doctor was so sure of Edmond’s impending death that his funeral service was set for 3:00 p.m. on July 4, 1926. In fact, his young wife did not have a black dress for the occasion, so she dyed her wedding dress black.

God, however, had another plan. About forty years later Dr. V. Raymond Edmond, the fourth president of Wheaton College, was addressing the student body when he suddenly turned, collapsed, and went to be with the Lord.

Do you see my point? We are immortal until our work is done. Therefore, I hope that we will become serious about evangelism and the defense of our faith. There are many people in this city; therefore, we must open our mouths and declare the gospel. How can they believe unless they hear the word? How can they hear the word unless a preacher preaches?

When Paul was commissioned, this is what the Lord Jesus Christ told him: “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles” (Acts 26:17-18). This ought to give us great confidence. We must do our job.

Boldly Declare the Gospel

Let us examine a few more scriptures that will embolden us to declare the gospel in the face of trouble. In Isaiah 43:2-3 we read, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” This is what happened in Daniel 3. How can God be our Savior and allow us to be destroyed? It is an utter impossibility. That is what this verse teaches us.

In Isaiah 54:17 we find a great promise of God to comfort us. “No weapon forged against you will prevail. . . .” I’ve traveled around the world many times. Do you think I come and go in my own strength? Oh, no. It is in his strength.

God tells us to rejoice and fear not. He says, “Do not your heart be troubled. No weapon forged against you shall prosper. Open your mouth! Declare the gospel! I will be with you, and I have many people in this city. I will rescue you and deliver you. Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.”

God has a purpose-world evangelization-and that purpose is on target. It is going to be fulfilled, and God is calling us to be partners with him in fulfilling it. If we don’t help him, he will always use other people, because his plan shall never be frustrated. Every elect will be saved. But I urge you to participate in this great plan. Preach the gospel with confidence and boldness, knowing that no one can destroy you.

I hope you will see the Lord standing by your side in the night. I hope you will hear his words of comfort: I am with you. Keep on speaking. Everything is all right.

What if you are not a Christian? Then you are like this brilliant scientist I saw interviewed on television. This man sits on the same chair Isaac Newton sat on. He is a mighty man, and yet a hopeless man. He is without God and without hope in the world. He is like the rich man we read about in Psalm 49, who has all the things but perishes like a brute beast.

If you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, I urge you to trust in him today. No man can redeem himself because the price of redemption is so costly that no man can pay it. But God sent his own Son in our place, and he paid it all. And now he says to us, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). Isn’t that wonderful? Without money. It is all paid. I hope you will not let this day end without trusting in this Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

May God help us not to listen to the world or anyone in the world except the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone will stand with us in the hour of our trouble and tell us, “Be not afraid. Take courage. You have done a good job, and you are going to continue to do a good job because I will be with you. No weapon forged against you shall prosper.” May God continue to keep us safely by the power of the mighty Holy Spirit. Amen.