These past few years have seen the role of law enforcement spark controversy in various communities. While African American communities have always had what could be charitably described as an “uneasy” relationship with government authorities, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was significant, for as I observed last week, while there have been many eras throughout world history that could be characterized as an “age of rage” the internet has brought the rage home to many of us, almost to an overwhelming degree. After Trayvon there was Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatters became a movement, and a polarizing one at that. Those who defended the police as those who are trying to do an impossible job, employed the counter hashtag #bluelivesmatter, and lines were drawn in the sand.
This all corresponded with the rise of Donald Trump, who promised to restore law and order in American cities as part of his pledge to make America Great Again, and after his unlikely victory protests erupted in various american cities, sometimes erupting in violence as we saw last month in Charlottesville between the Alt-Right and Antifa, and sometimes it seems that anarchy rules on the streets. If America is a boiling pot, there are times when the waters spill over into Canada. The alt-right is here. Antifa is here. The anarchists are here. the government is here.
I don’t bring this up today to be sensational or to try to preach from the newspapers. But only to state that there are serious questions being asked today about the legitimacy of government to enforce laws and the manner in which our governments in particular enforce the law, and as Christians we not only live in this nation under the law, but we work with and go to school with and drink coffee in the shop with people who either distrust or defend, or sometimes detest the government and law enforcement, and we get in conversations, in which people may ask us, what do you think, and so often our answer as Christians is, I try not to get involved in all that.
I had no intention on speaking on this topic this week, but as i reflected on our text today from the section of the book of Acts we are studying i was struck by how central to the story the role of law enforcement plays in these chapters as the Apostle Paul no finds himself at the mercy of forces that he cannot control. One man, in particular, a Roman Tribune named Claudius Lysias, plays a prominent role over the the three chapters that Paul is in Jerusalem and it is he who sends Paul on from Jerusalem, ultimately to Rome. This Tribune, basically stands in for the Roman Law Enforcement system. He’s like the chief of police, or maybe the FBI, and the basic takeaway from these two chapters is this: God preserves the apostle Paul and sends him on in his mission through the Roman Justice system. And make no mistake, it is God who is directing this entire process, for in Acts 23:11 Jesus appears to Paul in a vision:
Acts 23:11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
It is Jesus who is directing Paul to Rome, but this is not like previous missionary calls to Paul in which Paul hears the call and sets out. No, this is different, for Paul will testify in Rome, yes, but he will do so entirely at the mercy of the Roman legal system. Now, Paul is not completely passive in this; he defends himself at trial, and claims his rights, and makes legal appeals. He at times stresses his identity as a Jew or as a Roman Citizen, taking advantage of the rights and privileges they afford. And thus it seems that this is something that our text calls us to explore, the relationship between our justice systems, God’s will, and the Christian.
Law Enforcement Is An Instrument of God to Protect the Weak, Preserve Order, and Punish the Wicked
The first principle that we find in the passage and in the New Testament is that Law Enforcement Is An Instrument of God’s Providence to Guard Against Anarchy, the lawless mob. We first meet this Tribune, Claudius Lysias, in Acts 21:31, after Paul has already been dragged by the mob out of the temple, seeking to kill him. Look how quickly Claudius and his men arrive!
Acts 21:30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 21:32 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”
The lawless mob had taken justice into their own murderous hands and were already beating Paul to death when the authorities arrived on the scene. They literally had to arrest and then carry Paul away because of the violence of the crowd. This is not the only time in these chapters that Claudius Lysias has to intervene to protect Paul from the mob.
As we noted last week as we spoke of the age of outrage, violence is deep in the heart of man. You can take your pick - even if you’re not a Christian here, take your pick. Study either the Bible, or study the books of human history, and i defy you to tell me that violence is not deep in the heart of man. Violence is depicted in the bible in the first two sons after Eden, as Cain slew able. In the days of Noah it was said that the earth was filled with violence. Josephs brothers threw him in a pit and sought to kill him, until they decided to sell him into slavery instead. Moses first failed attempt at delivering the people Israel from the Egyptians was to try and inspire an violent rebellion. After taking the land of Canaan, the nation of Israel devolved into violent anarchy as “every man did what as right in his own eyes”. Atheists today will tell you that the Bible is a supremely violent book, and I’ll agree with them, because the Bible is detailing in part, God’s case against the heart of man. But you can see this outside of the Bible. The last century we were supposed to have been so enlightened, yet more were killed in world wars than other centuries combined, more ind of famine from their own government programs than other centuries combined, more Christians were killed for their faith that in other centuries combined. Violence runs deep in the heart of man.
And thus it is a providential mercy of God that he has instituted governments to guard against the violence that anarchy invariably leads to. And this is the Christian position, that God has instituted governing authorities, legal systems and law enforcement to protect the weak, to guard against lawlessness and to punish wickedness.
Rom. 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
And thus we see in these chapters how God preserves the Apostle Paul through Claudius Lysias and the Roman system of justice. Justice is preserved:
Through Investigation: Acts 21:33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.
Through Trial: In these four chapters, Acts 22-25, Paul is given no less than 5 opportunities to present a defence of himself. Twice in Jerusalem. Once in Acts 22 in which he addresses the mob directly. Once before the Sanhedrin, the Jewis court which is specially convened at the request of the Roman cohort investigating the case. And Three times in Caesarea, before two Roman governors and ultimately the king of the region.
Through Transfer: I don’t have time to read the whole story in chapter 23, but there is a really exciting account there of how, as Paul is in the custody of Claudius Lysias, the Jews make another plot to intercept Paul on the way to a trial and assassinate him. And so Claudius Lysias makes the decision to move Paul from Jerusalem to another city where he can be safe and the trial can continue, and they escort Paul to Caesarea with an escort of 200 soldiers, 200 spearmen, and 70 horseman.
Through Appeals: Acts 25:10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. 11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” 12 Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
And so we should take a moment right now and be thankful that we live in a country that operates under a rule of law that protect the weak, to guard against lawlessness and to punish wickedness. Canadians enjoy many rights that ensure that most disputes will be invested, that we will our days in court to defend ourselves against our accusers, that when we are under the custody of the state we are relatively safe and have our rights protected and that we have a system of appeals. Many in this world do not have such things.
Law Enforcement Systems are Corrupted By The Depravity of Man While systems of justice are providentially instituted by God, they are enacted and executed and ultimately corrupted by us. For we ruin what we touch. There has only been one government system in the world that was enacted by God, the nation of Israel, and they still corrupted it. And we see this in play out in this man Claudius Lysias, who, though he providentially serves as Paul’s protector and is generally depicted as being a noble, good officer of the law, we see that the law itself and its enforcement has been corrupted by the heart of man. We see this most clearly after Paul speaks to the mob in chapter 22. Paul calms the crowd by speaking to them in Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect used in Jerusalem. Paul speaks of his credentials as a full-fledged jewish man, a scholar of the law, but then tells of how Jesus met him, and changed him and sent him to the Gentiles, and at that the crowd goes nuts.
Acts 22:23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
We see in the Tribunes response to the chaos of the crowd that law enforcement and human systems of justice are always corrupted by human sin.
Legal =/= Moral
The Tribune’s first impulse to examine Paul is to beat a confession out of him. “Examined by flogging” in verse 24 is a pretty good euphemism. This is torture. The Roman floggings were horrific, as they would use a leather whip with pieces of pottery, stone and glass weaved in that would tear at the skin. Now notice, up until the point that Paul declares that he is a Roman citizen, it seems that this form of violent torture would have been a legal means of extracting information or a confession from a suspect.
While it might have been legal and common in the Roman Empire to torture a non-citizen, this doesn’t automatically confer moral status on an act. Something can be legal, but immoral, for example, abortion, or many forms of lying and slander. Something can be illegal, but moral, for example, preaching the gospel in a place in which the gospel is outlawed. We need to be very careful that we do not simply equate the two. It’s important to make a distinction that the legal status of an act may change, but the moral status of an act does not.
Law Enforcement Is Not Applied Equally and Perfectly
Paul asks the man if it is lawful to flog a Roman citizen, which ultimately prevent the Tribune from torturing him. But look at the conversation more closely. The Tribune is surprised that Paul is a Roman citizen and assumes that Paul must have secured his Roman citizen as he has, by paying for it. Notice the assumption that the Tribune is making. He’s saying in effect, “If you were poor, I’d still be able to beat you. You’re only getting off because you’re rich.” Paul surprises him again be revealing that he is a citizen by birth. The point is that because our systems of justice are corrupted by human sin, the law is not applied equally. Now Paul knows this and knows his rights and thankfully he is spared. Yet we see justice here in the system, where a rich man can buy a citizenship and be spared the torture that a poorer man would be forced to endure.
Thus we see in these chapters the righteous role of government to restrain evil and anarchy, yet we also see the sinful corruption of government by humanity that may lead to injustice, and yet remember, Jesus uses both realities in the person of Claudius Lysias to bring about his purposes that Paul may testify of Him in Jerusalem and then Rome.
How are Christians to orient ourselves toward the legal system?
Know Our Rights, Know the Laws, Know Our Accusers It’s really interesting to note how Paul works the system all the way through these chapters, and that could have been the whole sermon itself. But Paul knows his rights - he knows precisely when to play the “I’m a Roman citizen” card. He knows the laws. And He knows his accusers. When he speaks to the Jewish mob, he plays the “I am a good Jew like you” card. When he goes up in front of the Jewish supreme court, he plays the “I am Pharisee” card, knowing that half the supreme court were Pharisees. Being a Christian does not mean that we need not be wise in defending ourselves and our rights, when we are accused or oppressed.
Pray that we would be ruled by good men enforcing just laws that protect the rights of the accused, for we do not know when it might be us on trial So many of us today look at the law in regards to outcomes If legislation is passed or a court case handed down, we often look at the outcome in a vacuum, as in, “oh, that’s what I wanted to be the outcome, good”. We want law and order, but we must be just as zealous to hold our governments accountable to preserve the rights of the accused, for we do not know when it might be us on trial
Christ Uses All Things For His Purposes, Even Imperfect Systems of Justice God’s prudential rule over the nations and sovereign unfolding of his purposes in history, include his direction of both just and unjust systems of government. The clearest presentation of this reality is the book of Hababkuk. Habakuk cries out out to God in chapter 1 saying, “God when will you do something about the violence that fills Jerusalem? No one pays attention to your law and justice is perverted.” So God answers, “Ok, I’m going to act now. I am raising up the Babylonians to punish the wicked in Jerusalem.” And Habakuk is like - “Wait God, the Babylonians? They’re worse than us!” And the Lord’s answers back, “I know Habakuk, write this down. All the earth is corrupt. All will be exposed. All the earth will be silent before me, and the just shall live by faith.” And Habakuk stops complaining and starts praying for God’s mercy to restrain his wrath. Habakuk is a really important book because it points us to the gospel at precisely those times when we are confronted by systems of injustice.
Entrust our souls to the one and only just King: I close this sermon with the words of Habakuk, entrusting his soul to the one and only just king:
Hab. 3:16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Hab. 3:17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.