What I have to say in this week’s study is applicable to everybody. It is about hardships, about the difficult times in life that come to all.
You may think now, especially if things are going well for you, that there are not going to be any difficulties in your life. But there are going to be, if you have not had them already—and you probably have. The Book of Job says, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). That is a poetic way of saying that hardships are a normal part of life, for Christians as well as others. So hardships will come eventually, just as they came to the apostle Paul. What we are going to see in this study is how Paul went through his hard times and how God took care of him.
Paul had begun to experience some of these dark days already. Even when he was free, traveling from city to city to preach, he experienced difficult and uncomfortable circumstances. On more than one occasion he was the victim of mob action. He was beaten, stoned. Later he is going to be shipwrecked. Yet during those earlier days he was at least free. Now he has entered into a period of his life in which he is imprisoned. He does not have liberty to travel, and the days of incarceration in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and eventually Rome become quite long. Paul was imprisoned for two years in Caesarea and for another two years in Rome, at a minimum. So, including travel time, Paul was in Roman custody for at least five years, and possibly longer.
To make matters even more severe, we observe, if we read this section carefully, that the names of God or Jesus are not mentioned even once. After Paul had spoken to the Sanhedrin, Jesus appeared to him to say, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (v. 11). It is a New Testament equivalent of God appearing to Abraham after he had rescued his nephew Lot from the four kings of the east who had attacked and overthrown Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Zoar. Abraham had won the battle through a surprise attack. But he was in danger of a full retaliatory assault from the superior force. God told him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). That must have been a very great comfort to Abraham, as God’s words on this later occasion must have been to Paul.
Nevertheless, from this point on, Jesus does not appear to Paul or speak to him, as far as we know from anything mentioned either in Acts or in Paul’s letters. Paul has no special revelation, no direct word of comfort during the events that are recorded in this chapter.
In his study of Acts, Harry Ironside points this out, making it an introduction to what he wanted to say about living through dark times. He says we know it by experience that there are days in our lives when not only do things seem dark, but also God does not seem to be speaking to us. He seems silent and remote. Does that mean that God has forgotten us or does not care what is happening? Ironside says quite rightly, “God is never closer to His people than when they cannot see his face.”1 That is gloriously true. But there are still those dark times when we seem merely to be plodding along in some weary path from day to day, and we wish somehow we could break out of it.
What do we do in these times? We live by the words we have received from God earlier. And what that means in our case is that we are to live by the Bible, for that is where God has spoken and continues to speak.
“Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham.
“Take courage!” Jesus told Paul.
These words were not repeated. But they had been spoken, and they were meant to remain with these men and strengthen them to trust God in the difficulties.
By now you have the drift of where I am heading. What I want to say is that those words were also spoken for you. If you are going through hard times, as many are (or if you are anticipating them), you are to live by faith in these promises and trust God who gave them.
1H. A. Ironside, Lectures on the Book of Acts (New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1943), 545.