Acts 23:1-11

Once the Roman commander realizes Paul is a Roman citizen and that he cannot coerce a confession from him by torture, he arranges for the Sanhedrin to gather and brings Paul to its members to be examined.  His goal is to find out what exactly the charges are that the Jews are leveling at Paul and determine if Rome has any issue with anything Paul has done.  It has been an eventful two days for Paul.  He started yesterday in the temple fulfilling his purification rights, and ended it spending the night as a prisoner in the Roman barracks after being saved from a mob that wanted to kill him.  He now stands before the most powerful group of Jewish men in Israel who are largely convinced he is guilty of capital crimes.  Very little has gone right since he came to Jerusalem with the simple intention of bringing relief for the poor.

Paul stands before the Sanhedrin.  Claudius Lysias – the Roman commander – has called for the council to gather so he can find out once and for all what the crimes are that the Jews say Paul has committed.  Paul’s address to the crowd in the temple ended in a riot with people calling for Paul to die, so the commander was not able to ascertain what exactly Paul has done.  His hope is that the Sanhedrin will examine Paul and formally charge him one way or the other.  One would reasonably expect, however, that this will not end well based on the reactions of the Jews to Paul’s words yesterday.

Paul is very familiar with this scene.  His last appearance before this council was as the chief persecutor of The Way – many years ago.  Back then he actually came to some of these same men and asked for the authority to chase down followers of Jesus in Damascus and bring them back for punishment in Jerusalem.  Now he stands before them as one of the chief adherents to the very gospel he used to persecute.

He apparently is not remotely intimidated by the gathering.  This is likely because of his background as a Pharisee and because of his faith in God and his confidence that he has done nothing wrong.  These are the most influential and powerful men in Israel but they hold no ultimate authority over a man directly commissioned by God.  As he stands, he looks intently at the council (Paul likes to do this – 13:9 & 14:9), perhaps sizing them up spiritually and probably also noting the theological divide that will come into play in his defense.

The text says nothing about anyone asking Paul a question before he speaks.  He knows and the council knows why he is there so he begins the proceeding with a statement.  “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.”  It is hard to know exactly what he means by this.  Does he include his whole life up to the present, even the time he spent chasing down and executing Christians before Damascus?  If that is the case – and it very well could be – it means that he sees what he did during that time of his life as wrong but knows the motives behind it were pure (I Tim 1:12-15, Phil 3:4-6).  He did what he did because he honestly thought he was serving God.  On the other hand, he may mean that he has lived his life since his conversion with a clear conscience.  Either way, the meaning is that he knows he has done nothing wrong and is innocent of the charges of speaking against the temple and the Law as the Jews have accused him.

The high priest, Ananias, does not like what Paul says.  It could be that he cannot believe someone who preaches the gospel and teaches that Jesus was the Son of God and rose from the dead can have a clear conscience.  How can someone who teaches blasphemy dare to stand before the Sanhedrin and boldly state that he has lived with a perfectly good conscience before God?  He commands those standing next to Paul to strike him on the mouth.

Ananias was a high priest in Jerusalem from 47-59 AD. From Josephus (Ant., XX, v, 2; vi, 2; ix, 2; BJ, II, xvii, 9) we glean the following facts:  He was the son of Nedebaeus (or Nebedaeus) and was nominated to the high-priestly office by Herod of Chalcis.  In 52 AD he was sent to Rome by Quadratus, legate of Syria, to answer a charge of oppression brought by the Samaritans, but the emperor Claudius acquitted him. On his return to Jerusalem, he resumed the office of high priest. He was deposed shortly before Felix left the province but continued to wield great influence, which he used in a lawless and violent way. He was a typical Sadducee, wealthy, haughty, unscrupulous, filling his sacred office for purely selfish and political ends, anti-nationalist in his relation to the Jews, friendly to the Romans. He died an ignominious death, being assassinated by the popular zealots (sicarii) at the beginning of the last Jewish war.  (Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Entry for ‘ANANIAS (1)'”. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.)

Paul reacts strongly to being hit.  He says to Ananias, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!  And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?”  Treating someone unjustly during trial is against the Mosaic Law (Lev 19:15).  Paul rebukes Ananias for his unjust order and uses similar words to what Christ used when He condemned the religious leaders (Matt 23:25-28).  To be a whitewashed wall is to be a hypocrite.  Everything looks good on the outside but underneath is corruption and sin (full of dead men’s bones).

Those standing near Paul (including the one who struck him?) rebuke him for his retort to Ananias.  They say, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”  At this Paul answers, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’

This is a difficult exchange to understand.  Is Paul’s reaction to Ananias sinful or prophetic?  Does Paul sincerely regret his outburst or is his apology really just sarcasm?  And how in the world can he not know who the high priest is?

The simplest explanation is to take the text at face value and say that Paul lashes out after being hit and then feels bad when informed that he has just reviled the high priest.  He quotes Ex 22:28 to show he knows what he did was wrong.  The problem with this explanation, however, is how does he not know who the high priest is?  He just spent seven days in the temple fulfilling his purification rites (21:27).  Was he there that whole time without finding out who is the high priest?  It is possible that he has been away from Jerusalem for long enough that he has lost track of who the high priest is or perhaps what he looks like.  But his time in the temple seemingly would have caught him up and would make his ignorance less plausible.  And besides, his address to Ananias seems to assume that Ananias is in charge of the council and the one sitting in judgment of Paul.

Another explanation is to assume Paul speaks sarcastically when he says he did not recognize the high priest.  If this scenario is correct, then Paul does not apologize for his outburst against Ananias but instead adds to it by saying in effect, “He is so unlike a high priest as to be completely unrecognizable to me.”  The problem with this explanation is it makes his quoting the Exodus 22:28 prohibition seem out of place.  If he does not regret what he said, why quote the Law as if he violated it?  Perhaps what he means is if Ananias were a true ruler of Israel he would have accorded him the proper respect.  Or it could mean that while Ananias personally deserved what Paul said, the office of high priest did not.  This is captured well in the translation of The Message“How was I to know he was Chief Priest?  He doesn’t act like a Chief Priest.  You’re right, the Scripture does say, ‘Don’t speak abusively to a ruler of the people.’ Sorry.”

Regardless of which scenario is accurate, the question remains as to whether or not Paul is justified in his response.  Can a believer respond the way Paul does and do it with a clear conscience (as Paul claims he has had up to this point in his life)?  Paul’s harsh answer to Ananias differs significantly from how Christ acted during His trial.  Jesus did not respond in kind when treated harshly – even when He was struck for perceived disrespect of the high priest (Jn 18:19-23).  Also – as we highlighted in the Chapter 22 study – Peter admonishes all believers to suffer as Christ suffered when treated unjustly (…and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously – I Pet 2:23).  Finally, even Paul himself tells the Corinthians, “…when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate” (I Cor 4:12-13).  So is Paul’s response justified or does he temporarily lose his temper and Luke presents it here without comment?

One way to understand this is to say that what Paul says is prophetic rather than simply angry.  He predicts God’s judgment on Ananias – which does in fact take place in his manner of death – and is therefore not simply lashing out after being hit.  From this perspective it is notable that Paul uses similar words to what Christ used to describe the religious leaders (as noted above).

The other explanation, of course, is to just say that Paul is wrong in his response and this story is a case of him not living up to his teaching or Jesus’ example.  This is certainly the simplest way to understand the story.  In the end, however, there is probably no way to definitively interpret this difficult text.  Numerous explanations of Paul’s words are possible and each one seems as valid as the other.

After his exchange with Ananias, Paul tells the council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!”  He says this because he knows the makeup of the Sanhedrin and knows that some of the members are Pharisees and others are Sadducees.  The Pharisees believe in resurrection while the Sadducees do not.  The Sadducees do not believe in anything that is not explicitly mentioned in the Pentateuch.  And since resurrection is not discussed there, they believe the body and soul both die at the time of physical death.  Luke’s further explanation in verse 8 that they do not believe in angels or spirits most likely refers to the spirits of the dead.  Angels are mentioned in the Pentateuch so it follows that the Sadducees do believe they exist as messengers of God.  What they do not believe, however, is that the dead can exist as spirits/angels awaiting resurrection.

Paul’s claim here is both shrewd and honest.  He obviously knows what effect his words will have on the group (otherwise Luke would not have noted his knowledge of the makeup of the council).  But what he says is also the truth.  Everything Paul preaches truly is based on the resurrection of Jesus.  If Jesus is not alive then there is no gospel and Paul is not here.  He is on trial for preaching against the Law and the temple, but neither charge would exist apart from Paul preaching the gospel.  His ultimate crime is preaching that a Man who was put to death has risen from the dead and offers salvation to all who believe.

The council erupts after Paul’s words.  The Pharisees immediately come to Paul’s defense and say they find nothing wrong with him and that perhaps a spirit or an angel has spoken to him (which could be their way of understanding Jesus commissioning him).  The Sadducees – which include Ananias and most of the priests of the temple – presumably argue against Paul.  The debate becomes very heated and the original intent of the gathering – to determine formal charges against Paul – gets lost in the tumult.

The Roman commander – who has not been allowed to participate in the proceedings but who is apparently close enough to know what is happening – decides things are deteriorating so rapidly that his prisoner is now in danger.  The members of the council are so lost in their arguments and so passionate that the commander honestly thinks Paul may be torn to pieces.  He orders his men to come into the council chambers and remove Paul by force (this is the third time they have rescued Paul from a riot – the commander must really be getting tired of all the religious fervor that follows him).  They bring Paul back into the barracks without anything having been settled.  At this point Claudius Lysias must be frustrated over having a prisoner who foments unrest everywhere he goes but who has not committed any real crime against the state.

During the night back in the barracks, Jesus appears to Paul to encourage him.  It has been an incredible time in Jerusalem.  He came back with the best of motives and even brought a contribution for the Jewish believers.  What has happened since he arrived, however, has been all bad.  The Jewish Christians doubted his ministry.  In trying to placate them he exposed himself to further scorn from the Asian Jews.  He was almost beaten to death by a mob, he was arrested by the Romans and almost scourged, this is his second night in a Roman prison, and he had to appear before the Sanhedrin where he was hit in the mouth and almost killed in another riot.  It has not been an encouraging time.  And even though he knew he was coming back to a bad situation (20:22-23), these last few days have been extraordinarily hard.

His Savior knows what he has been through and knows what he needs.  Jesus comes to him and tells him, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.”  He not only encourages him in what he has done to this point, He tells him what he must do going forward.  With this short sentence Jesus lets him know Rome is the ultimate goal and that he will be safe in everything that happens before he gets there.  Paul now knows how to approach the trials that are ahead and can be confident that no harm will befall him.  He also knows that even though all the Jewish leaders and the people in the city think he is a blasphemer worthy of death (which may weigh on someone of Paul’s background after hearing it for several days straight), God is pleased with his actions and is on his side.

Jesus does not deliver Paul from prison and He does not tell him all the hard times will go away.  The Jews are still going to conspire to kill him and he faces years in prison along with shipwreck and snakebite.  But Paul knows without a doubt that God is with him and that he is doing his Savior’s will.  And that makes the hard times bearable and even profitable.  It is likely that Jesus does not visit him if the events of the last few days had not occurred.  The hard times bring His encouragement and presence.  It is events like this that will cause Paul to tell the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s