Text: Acts 23:12-35, 2 Corinthians 4:8-12, Job 33:4
Paul was on the road to his death, a journey to Rome he suspected would end in martyrdom. Yet, in spite of the uncertainty ahead, he was exuberantly alive in Christ. This paradox of death and life exists for us all. Trusting in God’s good providence is life, but trusting in our own strength means only death.
Though faced with a fierce opposition that constantly threatened his life, Paul did not set his hope on his own strength, nor place his trust in earthly and human things. His sight was always set upon Christ and His kingdom. The Jews, however, were a remarkable contrast. They, too, were committed to a kingdom in this life-and-death struggle, but it was not the Kingdom of Christ.
Forty of these men swore an oath not to eat until they killed Paul (Acts 23:12). Translators render this phrase both as “oath” and “curse,” and it comes from the Greek word anathema. I’ve heard this word used in English for strong dislike (i.e., “After she stole my boyfriend at the party, she is anathema to me.”), but that’s such a sad watering-down of this big, meaty word. Anathema is a declaration, a curse, or vow that a thing is devoted to destroying (Numbers 21:2-3, Joshua 6:17). It is a thing accursed—something set aside because of moral worthlessness.
In fact, another place this word is used in the Bible is Peter’s third betrayal of Christ. Peter was using his strongest language to emphasize the distance between himself and Christ:
Then he started to curse and to swear with an oath, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about!”
In His mighty grace, Christ forgave Peter. His forgiveness is so deep. But to plot evil is to seek death instead of life. The prophet Micah reminds us that to lie in bed at night and devise evil schemes is bad, but to wake up the next morning and vow to commit yourself to them is to make a covenant with evil (Micah 2:1). It’s like the difference between crimes committed in the heat of passion and a cold-blooded resolve to do evil.
In cold blood, these men took a vow devoting themselves to the destruction of Paul, believing it was for the good of society. This combination of spiritual blindness and self-reliance is deadly. They believed that if they didn’t act, justice would never be done. But trying to take justice into our own hands shows contempt for God’s providence. The plans of those forty Jews were foiled because they’d bound themselves to do evil, which is death itself.
How often do we believe that God depends on us to wrangle our version of justice in the world? Instead, we must depend on Him and His sovereignty. Let us bind ourselves to Christ and His Kingdom, not to death and anathema or by taking things into our own hands. God is sovereign, and His is the way of life.