This article was from a sermon delivered at Fossil Creek Church of Christ by Randy Cantrell in 2009.
Acts 23:1-11 “And Paul, looking stedfastly on the council, said, Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: and sittest thou to judge me according to the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? And Paul said, I knew not, brethren, that he was high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people. But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great clamor: and some of the scribes of the Pharisees part stood up, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: and what if a spirit hath spoken to him, or an angel? And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should be torn in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the castle. And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.”
Sleepless nights happen. We worry about careers, finances, children, relationships, health – and sometimes, just life in general. Like King David of old who stayed up all night worried about the health of his son – the child who entered the world because of David’s sin with Bathsheba — we often find ourselves worried about things beyond our control.
2 Samuel 12:16 “David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.”
The night falls and sometimes it wraps us up in despair, dread and fear.
Paul has been falsely accused of defiling the temple in Jerusalem. He was only guilty of preaching the Gospel of Christ. It was upsetting to people. A Jewish group that rejected Christ grew enflamed against Paul. He was used to running for his life. This time things were growing more serious by the minute. Acts 21 says that the entire city of Jerusalem was in confusion.
A beating begins – intended to kill him – and then the military came on the scene. They seize Paul and put him in chains. This begins 5 years of imprisonment. No formal charges are brought against Paul – and in fact, the entire proceeding is informal. Paul’s accusers are still clamoring for him to die when he requests to speak. Acts 22 begins his defense.
He speaks in Hebrew and he seems like a learned man – so they grow increasingly quiet as he speaks. He gives them a brief history of his life, and how he came to be a follower of Jesus. He recounts the story of his presence during the death of Stephen – and how the Lord told him to depart and preach to the Gentiles. Well, the mere mention of Gentiles upset these Jews to no end. The Jews had little regard for Gentiles – and for Paul to tell them that God sent him to the Gentiles was beyond their comprehension.
They got so mad they ripped off their clothes in preparation to stone him (you need your arms free if you’re going to stone a man to death). They were so mad and outraged they threw dust in the air. They really want him dead now.
The officials are now thinking of scourging him. They don’t know he’s a Roman citizen. Paul asks them if it’s lawful to scourge a Roman – and one who isn’t even condemned. Now they’re afraid to beat him further. They didn’t know he was a Roman. They’ve already imprisoned him falsely. There have been no formal charges against him and they’ve already beaten him. Rome wouldn’t look favorably on this and Paul knew that. When he’s asked if he’s a Roman, he simply answers “Yes.” No documentation is necessary because it was a capital offense to falsely claim Roman citizenship. The Chief Captain was also a Roman citizen, but he had paid a large sum of money to get his citizenship. Paul tells him that he’s a Roman citizen by birth.
They’re all afraid now. But another night arrives.
In the morning Paul is loosed and brought before the Sanhedrin. They want Paul dead, but they realize they’re powerless to get him now – because the Roman officials are going to do whatever they must to protect themselves. Paul is going to eventually end up in a Roman prison. Paul will continue his defense in Acts 23.
The crowd grows increasingly violent and now officials fear Paul may literally be ripped to pieces. Soldiers rescue him once more and bring him to the castle where he can be safe from the mob. It’s here we find greater meaning in Acts 23:11 “And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.”
It wasn’t the first night for the Lord to stand by Paul. It wouldn’t be the last. And while we’ve all had sleepless, worrisome nights – none of us have had a night like Paul must have had on this night (or so many other nights).
Falsely imprisoned. People are willing to kill him. Not because he’s a criminal. Not because he’s guilty of wrongdoing. All because he’s a gospel preacher who refuses to shut up.
1 Peter 4:15, 16 “For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil-doer, or as a meddler in other men’s matters: but if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.”
Paul knew firsthand the glory of suffering for the Lord. But his life as a Christian was really one long night of overcoming challenges, hardships and ill-treatment.
Yet, he could encourage the Corinthian church with these words, “For our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory.” 2 Corinthians 4:17
Listen to Paul’s catalog of sufferings – and realize this man considered his afflictions “light.” It makes all of us realize how fortunate we really are to have lives that are very easy by comparison.
2 Cor. 11:23-28 “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.”
For Paul, the nights were a light affliction compared to glories of eternal life. Paul’s nights were fearful, lonely and dreadful – but compared to heaven, they were light. The glories of heaven were far weightier – more glorious than the nights fearful. The Spirit’s inspiration stresses the term “exceedingly.” The glories of heaven are exceedingly superior to any trouble or difficulties we face in this life.
In Acts 23 Paul endured the night with the Lord by his side. But when the morning light broke – things grew even worse. More than forty men made a vow that they wouldn’t eat until they had killed Paul. Sometimes the night just seems to wrap its arms around us refusing to let us go.
Time and time again as you read the rest of the book of Acts you find Paul defending himself before Roman officials. And every time he does – guess what else he’s doing? He’s preaching the gospel of Christ. Felix would hear it. Festus would hear it. Even Caesar would hear it.
All this darkness. All this suffering. All this pain. And heartache.
The Book of Acts concludes with Paul at Rome – in a lodging of his own, guarded by a Roman soldier. It’s a house arrest of sorts. And the book concludes with these words of God:
“And he abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him.”
Paul’s nights had purpose. His growth was part of the process.
2 Corinthians 12:10 “Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
Paul’s reliance on the Lord was strongest when things were beyond his control. That’s often the case with all of us. Night comes and it forces us to realize we need God. During the day – when things are running smoothly – we are more likely to forget about God and our need for Him. Paul was never able to forget that need – and it gave him power and strength that we admire. But we can have it, too. We can enter the night knowing the Lord will stand by us. But first – we have to position ourselves right by God’s side. That is the true lesson of Paul’s life – to make our stand by God so He can make His stand by us.
Night is often a metaphor for difficulties. During a night of contrary winds Jesus came walking on the water. Peter denied the Lord at night. At night the apostles were once fishing without success – when the Lord told them to cast down their nets one more time (and we know they took in so many fish they couldn’t contain them all). The rich farmer who decided to build bigger barns to hold all his goods would die at night. The prophesies of the destruction of Jerusalem involved talk of how two people would be sleeping at night – one would be taken, the other spared. Nicodemus had a pressing question that caused him to come to Jesus by night. Many apostles and disciples found themselves in prison at night. Many shipwrecks occurred at night. Christ was betrayed at night.
Two ideas are contained in our text – and in many other places in the scripture: 1) our need to stand near the Lord and 2) the Lord’s promise to stand by us – even during the night when things seem most bleak.
What can we do to make sure we have secured the proper place near God?
We live in a town full of tickets. People can go see live theater, live music concerts, professional sporting events and lots of other events that require tickets. Good tickets are considered those seats closest to the action or event. People pay a premium for those seats. If you’re going to be near – it’ll cost you.
God, Christ and the Church work the same way. If you want to be close – or near – then it’ll cost you more. You’ll have to sacrifice more to sit up close spiritually. You’ll have to pay a higher admission price to be near to the Lord. But being far away isn’t safe when it comes to the Lord and things spiritual.
In Matthew 13 Christ begins to teach seven parables about the Kingdom of heaven. One message found in these is the value of being near God – being in the Kingdom.
Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.”
Again, Matthew 13:45, 46 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a merchant seeking goodly pearls: and having found one pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”
Standing near God will cost you everything. You’ll have to set aside your entire life if you want to be near God. God won’t tolerate anything having priority over Him.
Exodus 34:14 “for thou shalt worship no other god: for Jehovah, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:”
Matthew 10:37 “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
We sometimes fret about things of this life – what we’ll wear, what we’ll eat, where we’ll live. But the Lord admonishes us to put Him first – ahead of all these pursuits.
Matthew 6:33 “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
For Christians – knowing what to do to stand close to God isn’t so much the challenge. Rather, it’s setting our mind to pay the price. We don’t often want to buy the ticket because we think the price is too high. We want the benefit of the close seat – but we’d like to get it cheaper. With God, that’s not possible.
Determine right now that you’ll pay the necessary price to be close to the Lord. Make up your mind to be dependable in the Church. Be accountable to the congregation. Be here. Be reliable to chip in and help with the work – however small or large it may be. Devote yourself to making the Church the most important thing in your life.
Your job will be better. Your marriage will be improved. Your relationships will be what they should be. And you’ll be nearer to God.
But the second perspective is to realize that God has a place where He stands when the night comes. He stands by His own. He sees us through the troubles of our life. Night comes to us all. There are many forms of night that plague us, but let me just talk briefly about three of them.
First – Night comes when we have challenges with those things that are temporal. We may worry about a job. We may struggle with our entire career. We might find ourselves in the midnight hour with our finances.
Christians are responsible for performing work. The man is obliged by the Gospel to work and provide for his family. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, If any will not work, neither let him eat.”
Women have their role, too. Titus 2:5 “to be sober-minded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed:”
Work is part of life. Christians must work. But sometimes things don’t go as we planned. Sometimes we may not plan properly – there are times when we plan poorly. And sometimes things happen beyond our control. A company goes through a poor sales cycle and people are laid off work. A Christian finds himself out of work. Night falls.
Some Christians have better money-management skills. Some can’t even balance a checkbook. No matter – every Christian can properly understand God’s principle of debt.
Romans 13:7, 8 “Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.”
Christians are to be good citizens. We must pay our taxes. We must pay the debts we incur. It’s honorable and right – and certainly God’s people should be the example of honor and righteousness.
When you treat others the way you would be treated – then you love others. The command is to owe no man. That doesn’t mean it’s sinful to take out a car loan or a mortgage. It does, however, mean it’s sinful to not repay that loan. Christians cannot default on their promises – and that’s all loans are, promises to pay.
Sometimes night falls when Christians neglect this command. They overextend themselves financially. They bite off more than they can chew. They find themselves in debt that they cannot pay. Brethren, it’s sinful. Christians must count the cost before embarking on a vow or promise to pay.
But that’s more of how to avoid the night of debt. The lust for more is most often at the root of our problems with secular things. We’re not content with what we have. And it’s not worse in America because we’re a capitalist society. Stories abound of men in foreign countries who claim to be faithful gospel preachers, but really they are merely out for a paycheck because Americans are so ready to send money to a foreign work. For that reason we do not send any financial support to a gospel preacher without a full accounting of that man’s faithfulness to God. But the point is clear – quite often impoverished countries suffer even greater abuses of lust than we do in America. All men are susceptible to the cravings for more.
All these physical things and our needs sometimes create stress and challenges. But these are usually the result of our fears about tomorrow – not today.
Matthew 6:11 “Give us this day our daily bread.”
The Lord wasn’t condemning planning for the future. He was, however, condemning the quest to put a premium on material things over spiritual things. I also think the Lord was condemning selfishness because of the terms “us” and “our” as opposed to “me” and “my.” We want all people – God’s people in particular – to have the things they need for survival today. It’s also worth noting that the prayer is for bread and not some other food item. Basic, but sustainable food.
1 Timothy 6:8 “but having food and covering we shall be therewith content.”
We often find ourselves suffering the grip of night because we’re not content with what we have – we want MORE.
Secondly, we may find ourselves facing the night of poor health, injury or some other physical aliment. Things happen that rob us of the physical health we once had – or the health we wish we had.
The scriptures are full of stories of blind men, lepers and others who suffered in the flesh. Paul himself had some thorn in the flesh that he prayed would be removed. It wasn’t and he was fine with that.
2 Corinthians 12:7 “And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted overmuch.”
As if Paul didn’t have enough night to contend with – but God wouldn’t remove this thorn. Paul would have to lean on the Lord for strength to just endure it.
Sometimes that may be our lot in life, too. Doctors and medical science are vastly superior to anything before in the history of mankind, but still there are things men cannot solve. Diseases without cure. Health conditions that cannot be improved. Injuries that have permanent consequences.
It’s night for many people who suffer the problems associated with this physical flesh. It can worry us. It can create added stress in our lives. The perspective of our physical body is best viewed in light of eternity.
Matthew 10:28 “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Luke 12:4 “And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”
Our physical ailments – however severe or minor they might be – have no bearing on our eternal destiny. Nor should they have any bearing on our determination to grow closer to God.
I’m reminded of a letter written to Gaius. 3 John 1:2 “Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.”
First and foremost we ought to give greater diligence to making sure our soul is in good health. That’s where our treasure is found. The flesh will fail us. We’ll lose our physical abilities and vibrancy. We may lose our mental health and not be the person we once were. No matter – it need not affect our closeness to God.
Like all nighttimes – this is a night that requires God’s help. Sometimes the problem isn’t removed and we find ourselves in the same spot Paul was in with his thorn in the flesh. We have to endure it.
And finally there is the night of death.
Maybe it’s our own impending death. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one. It overshadows our life like nothing else.
Death affects us like nothing else. The sorrow that Christ saw at the house of his friends caused Him to cry. Lazarus is dead and Mary and Martha are devastated.
John 11:33-35 “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping who came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, Where have ye laid him? They say unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept.”
Most people don’t understand death. Many refuse to believe there is anything beyond this life – and death. Others are unsure of what is beyond death – and that ignorance brings with it fear.
Christians aren’t like the rest – that is, Christians who have devoted themselves to walking close to the Lord. We have hope of heaven. We have a Savior. We know death is a separation of this flesh and our spirit. This body wasn’t built for eternity. But our spirits were.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that fall asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, who have no hope.”
The spirit is what makes us alive.
James 2:26 “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.”
Death is the finality of this life though and that makes us sad. We mourn because relationships in this life are ended by death. We’re sad for ourselves when we find out we’re going to die – and for our family. We’re sad at what the dying will miss.
A faithful Christian life results in putting on incorruption at death. For us to reach our final goal of going to heaven – we must die.
1 Corinthians 15:54 “But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”
Still, death is a night through which all of us must pass. It’s a time when even unreligious men want to have the Lord stand by them.
Mosie Lister wrote,
When I stand on the dark side of Jordan, head way down and let me take your hand in mine. I will need a friend to walk close beside me, in that hour when I leave this world behind.
When my friends are gathered all ‘round my bedside, when I’m waiting for my last and final call, hold my hand dear Lord and stay close beside me, in that hour I will need you most of all.
In that hour don’t forget me, hold my hand, let me feel thy holy power. I could never walk alone through the valley, hold my hand dear Lord in that hour.”
The Lord stands by us through it all. That doesn’t mean the Lord will remedy all of our problems. It does mean that the Lord will help us through whatever problems we encounter.
John the apostle, the son of Zebadee, is thought to have been banished to the isle of Patmos – a 13 square mile isle where offenders were sent. The scripture is silent about that, except John clearly writes of tribulation and being alone. And it appears to some that he wasn’t physically away from brethren and the congregations by choice. John was allowed to see things no man had ever seen. The curtains were pulled back and John through inspiration was able to share with us what he saw.
Revelation 21:3, 4 “And I heard a great voice out of the throne saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them, and they shall be his peoples, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God: and he shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and death shall be no more; neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more: the first things are passed away.”
Revelation 21:23 “And the city hath no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine upon it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the lamp thereof is the Lamb.”
Today you can assure yourself closeness with God by drawing near to Him.
Hebrews 10:22 “let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water…”
Drawing near to men of power and position requires certain things. You’re not going to gain audience or nearness to the Prime Minister of England or the President of the United States unless you’re able to fulfill certain requirements. All powerful people require certain things before they’ll let you come near. God is not a man, but drawing near to Him has requirements, too.
The conditions set forth in the Gospel are required if people want to draw near. Only those with a true heart can get close to God. No liar or dishonest person will get close. No hypocrite or pompous person will draw near.
Fullness of faith is demanded. Full faith that Christ is the Son of God. Full faith that the scriptures are the Word of God. When the Ethiopian asked Phillip about baptism Phillip told him, “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.”
A heart sprinkled from an evil conscience refers to the repentance that every person must embrace if they’re going to get near God. Blood was sprinkled on the altars of Old Testament times. Today, the blood of Christ touches our hearts – our minds – and we fully recognize that God gave Christ to die for our sins.
And our body washed with pure water signifies baptism into Jesus Christ. No person can draw near to God without going through Jesus Christ. And on person can enter Jesus Christ without being baptized into His name for remission of sins.
Within this one verse the Hebrew writer gives us the recipe for drawing near to God. And in the next verse he gives us the recipe for staying close to God. Faith, repentance and confession that Jesus is the Son of God – followed by baptism for the remission of our sins – these steps are necessary for us to draw near to God. Then begins the journey to remain close and grow even closer to God through Christ and the Church that He purchased with his shed blood.
Hebrews 10:23 “let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised:”
Don’t hold your faith loosely. Hold on tightly and don’t waver or give up. Don’t grow weak. Don’t get lazy. Know that God is faithful who promised – that during the darkness of night – He’ll stand by us.
Revelation 22:7 “And behold, I come quickly. Blessed is he that keepeth the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Whatever the night – there will be a time when the shades of night are passed. The light will shine and all darkness will be gone. The worries, fears and stresses of this life will be over. No more pacing with concern. No more rolling things over in our mind in an attempt to find wisdom. No more tears shed over concerns. It will all be passed.
Revelation 22:5 “And there shall be night no more; and they need no light of lamp, neither light of sun; for the Lord God shall give them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever.”