The story is straightforward. Paul had been attacked by the Jerusalem mob and had almost been lynched. Yet he had escaped from the Jews’ hands because of the Roman troops’ intervention. It was the Romans’ job to keep peace in Jerusalem, especially in volatile times like these, and the soldiers did it very well. Paul was taken into custody, and it would have seemed to all who were in Jerusalem, Jews and Romans alike, that in the keeping of this large military force Paul was now certainly very safe.
Yet there were men in the city, known as zealots, who were determined that the apostle should not escape their hands. There were about forty of them, and they got together to take an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They went to the chief priests and elders, the rulers of the people, said what they had done and made this suggestion: “Why don’t you contact the Romans? The Romans will listen to you. Say that you want to interrogate Paul a bit further. Ask them to bring Paul to the court a second time. We will be lying in wait, and when they bring Paul by we will fall upon the soldiers and murder him.” Their exact words were:
“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” (vv. 14-15).
The zealots were an interesting phenomenon in Paul’s day. They were the equivalent of what we call terrorists. They had a cause, which was the deliverance of their people from Roman occupation and control, and they proceeded exactly the way terrorists do in our time. They were secretive. Nobody could be certain who they were. They operated apart from the law. They were violent. They were ready to do anything they thought necessary to accomplish their political objectives, particularly assassinating people.
Some have questioned whether the zealots could have cooperated with the Sanhedrin, as the zealots seem to have done in this story, since they were not supportive of the Sanhedrin. They were fanatics, and they considered the rulers of the Jews to be compromisers. As a matter of fact, there were times in Jewish history when they were violently and openly opposed to the Sanhedrin’s policies. People who have known this have asked, “How could men like this, the terrorists of their day, have cooperated, even for such a limited objective, with those who were their actual enemies?”
The answer, of course, is that they could have, just as terrorists today will cooperate with various governments temporarily for their own, sometimes quite antagonistic, objectives. The Sanhedrin hated Paul for his teaching. If the zealots, for whatever reason, wanted to kill him, the Sanhedrin was willing to cooperate with them to this extent.
We are trying to apply this to ourselves, of course. So let me say that I would be very surprised if anyone who reads this has a band of fanatical people literally united against him or her today. For most of us these are very different times.
Still it is worthwhile noting that, although we may not have a band of forty terrorists trying to kill us, we nevertheless have a far greater enemy than that. Our enemy is Satan, whom the Bible describes as “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan is an extremely fierce foe, and he is all the more dangerous because he is a spiritual being and we cannot see him. Moreover, there is this parallel. Although Satan is for himself and not others, not even for the world itself, even in its opposition to God, there is nevertheless a certain amicable tension between Satan and the world so that Satan uses it and the world uses him. These two, the world and the devil, are allied against us in much the same way that these Jewish terrorists were allied with the Sanhedrin against Paul.
In fact, it is even worse in our case, because Satan and the world have a beachhead for their evil in us. In Christian theology this is spoken of as “the inclination of the flesh,” which means a natural inclination toward evil because we are sinful beings. That is why, to use a popular liturgical phrase, temptation is said to come to us from “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” They are a formidable alliance.
Formidable! But not invincible, and destined not to win ultimately. The enemies of the apostle did not succeed in their plan, and neither the world, the flesh, nor the devil will succeed in overthrowing us.