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The Book of Acts Series

Acts, Chapter 23

John Baugh

March, 2010

Acts 23 (New American Standard Bible)



In chapters 21 and 22 of Acts, Luke has recorded the Apostle Paul's journey to Jerusalem in response to the burden he felt to reach his people. As much as he has given to the Gentiles over the 30 years of his ministry, he still has Jerusalem on his heart, and so in spite of the warnings of the Holy Spirit to stay away from Jerusalem, he has come to the city of the faith of his formative years and to the temple where he was worshiped so many times to share the Gospel message with the Jewish people he loves so much. In Paul's heart Israel should have been a nation that exercised its faith in Jesus Christ and its acceptance of him as Messiah. The end result of Paul's actions is that in Acts chapter 22 he has become a prisoner in the hands of the Roman Consort, with the Jews seeking to have him killed. At his request, the Roman commander has allowed him to address the Jewish mob that has followed Paul and the Roman soldiers to their barracks and he tries once again to witness to the Jews, only succeeding in making the mob at the steps of the Roman barracks even angrier. The result of this was that the Jews grew so intent on killing him that only the intervention of the Roman soldiers saved Paul's life.


At the end of Chapter 22 a confused Roman tribune has gathered together the chief priest, the Sanhedrin and Paul in his court at the fortress of Antonia, overlooking the Temple courts a day later in an attempt to determine what action, if any, he should take against the apostle. And so Chapter 23 of Acts begins with Paul addressing the leaders of the Jewish nation and the representatives of the Jewish people in that meeting.


 1Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, "Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day." 2The high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth.

3Then Paul said to him, "God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?"  4But the bystanders said, "Do you revile God's high priest?"  5And Paul said, "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.'"


In his opening to the council, Pal shows how not to make friends and influence people. The previous day, he opened his address with a respectful statement of greeting. This time, he only addresses the council as brethren, a reference that only angers the chief priest, who evidently had no desire to be called the brother of the apostle. Anyone addressing the Sanhedrin was expected to refer to that body as "Rulers of Israel, and elders of the people…" That formal greeting is obviously missing from Paul's opening. Addressing the chief priest and council on a level of equality may have been Paul's intent, but it was guaranteed to alienate him from the people he most needed to come to some level of acceptance with.  IN addition to using terms that indicated he considered himself the equal of the council, Paul also implies that there is no justification for any complaint against him, stating that he has "lived in good conscience before God up to this day". Although this was a true statement, there was no way it would not anger the Jews and that is exactly what it did.


The reaction from the High Priest was immediate and severe. He ordered that Paul be struck across the mouth. I, my mind, the strike was not a formal tap to indicate displeasure, but more of a teeth rattling slap with a closed fist by one of the Temple guards.


It is apparent that having Paul struck was not decent action on the part of the Chief Priest, but Paul's response to Ananias seems absolutely reckless. Perhaps Paul has decided that any chances of resolving his problems with the high priest and council have passed and that there is no reason not to say exactly what is on his mind. He does know that the Romans understand that he is a Roman citizen and that they have no obligation to surrender his verdict to the Jews. If that is the case, there is no longer any obligation on Paul's part to pacify the Jews, except that he is quickly setting fire to any bridges of reconciliation that might be built between himself and the Priest and council.


The slap by the Temple Guard was intended to be a degrading insult to Paul. The law commanded that no Jew should ever be struck in the face by another Jew and so it would have been very offensive to Paul in addition to being against Jewish law. The action was certainly offensive to Paul as it would have been to anyone else - Jew or Gentile. The apostle immediately flashes back in anger to the offensive action by the Chief Priest by shouting,


"God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?"  


What Paul said (In Modern Gentile terms) was, "You are a bloody hypocrite - and a violator of Jewish Law". The only white-washed walls in Israel were tombs. Jesus used this figure when he said to the Pharisees, "You are like tombs, white-washed on the outside, but within full of dead men's bones," (Matthew 23:27). So the apostle is calling him a stinking (with the smell of death) hypocrite, and this is not lost upon the high priest. It certainly is not the most tactful way for a prisoner to address a judge.


This exchange brought more anger from the crowd as a response to the apostle cursing the priest, because they responded:


"Do you revile God's high priest?"  


It is possible that Paul did not know the office that Ananias held, as he had only recently been appointed High Priest. Paul either did not know the official capacity of Ananias, or he decided to throw more fuel on the fire, because he replied:


"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.'"


The second part of Paul's statement indicates that he was not aware of who Ananias was, because it is worded as an apology. However, the damage has been done at this point. He has insulted the Jewish High Priest, making it impossible for him to receive anything approaching a fair hearing from the Jews making up the Sanhedrin.


Strangely, Paul is usually the most sensitive of men to the requirement for normal courtesies. But here he sets that roughly aside as he addresses the Sanhedrin. Ordinarily, recognizing that their position was given by God, he would have used the courteous address their office demanded, as Jesus always did when he spoke to them. But now, with an uncaring touch of disdain, he apparently thinks of himself as the equal of these men, he addresses them as brethren -- much to the offense of these officials who regard him as a prisoner standing there ready to be judged. And he expresses an obvious testiness, irritability, quickness of temper and the flash of anger with which he retorts. His reply is not that of a man in control of his emotions.


At this point, Paul seems to attempt to turn the group before him against each other.


 6But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!" 7As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.  9And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, "We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" 10And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks.


Paul had stated many times in the past that his roots and beliefs were Pharisee. Perhaps hoping to receive some support from the Pharisees, he makes a cry for support from that group. Pharisees believed in strict adherence to the teachings of the law. The Sadducees were more moderate in belief, more political in action and liberal in general. They denied the supernatural, refused to accept the existence of angels or spirits and did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.


Considering what Paul said and the difference in beliefs of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul's statement generated an immediate argument within the council as each side began arguing their belief set with the others on the council, the Pharisees saying that it might be possible that Paul had been spoken to by an angel or spirit and the Sadducees denying any chance that such an occurrence could have happened.


When he saw the meeting falling apart into a shouting match and an obvious loss of control occurring, the commander of the guard ordered that Paul be removed and taken back to the barracks lest he be overcome and "torn to pieces" by the angry mob. The Roman Soldier obviously knew his duty was to protect his prisoner from the anger of the mob that had taken over his meeting and so he pulled him out to a safer location. Three times now the Roman officer has pulled Paul out of the fire. He seems to be becoming an expert at apostle rescuing from angry Jews.


Perhaps Luke is being kind to Paul in his report. It makes sense to wonder if the apostle is now in his cell in the Roman barracks, humiliated and defeated in spirit, knowing that his loss of self control has cost him any chance of reconciliation and any future chance of addressing the council. Perhaps Paul now knows that it is over, that all of his dreams of testimony to the Jews have been destroyed.


However, that is not necessarily the way God works, is it? With the creator of the universe, the rules do not necessarily state that three strikes equal an out. Often when we think that all is gone, God's plan begins to take form and emerge from our despair.


11But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, "Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also."


The horrible outcome of the meeting with the chief priest and council was not to be the end of Paul's ministry, because God was not yet through. The very next night, as Paul remained prisoner of the Roman Soldiers, the Lord stood at his side and told him,


"Take Courage"


Obviously Paul, one of the most courageous men in the Bible, had lost courage at this point, but there is no room for failure of courage.


Another translation might be:


"Take Cheer" or "Cheer up" or "Be of Good Cheer"


Obviously, Paul was in poor spirit, but that was not the frame of mind needed to accomplish the Lord's plan. Certainly, there is no reason to believe that at this point, he is anything but cheerful. In fact, (since the Holy Spirit says this to him) he is likely defeated and discouraged, but (according to the Holy Spirit) he is not abandoned. Indeed, at this very point, the Lord comes to restore his ministry.


"…for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also."


The Lord still has work that needs to be done and Paul is still the one who has been appointed to complete that work. According to the Lord, the same words of witness that have been shared in Jerusalem (to evident failure) need to be shared in Rome, and it is to be Paul's job to accomplish that task.


The words shared with Ananias by the Holy Spirit so many years earlier come back to mind as this event unfolds:


"… for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake."  (Acts 9: 15-16 NASV)

Regardless of the outcome in Jerusalem, Rome is to be in Paul's future. It is the will of the Lord that these things might be accomplished.

The desire to bear witness at the heart of the Roman Empire and capital of the Gentile World is second only to the desire to witness in Jerusalem in Paul's heart. In fact he has already stated this desire to go to Rome after Jerusalem. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, he shares his prayer that he might be able to see them in a visit to Rome. In the message Paul receives from the Holy Spirit, Paul learns that his prayer is about to be answered by the Lord.


"…for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also."


How had Paul witnessed in Jerusalem? He witnessed as a prisoner. That is to be the way he will witness in Rome.


After this Paul is his usual self again -- and yet he is bound. Ahead of him, before he even comes to Rome, lay two years of confinement in Caesarea. And after he arrives at Rome he is to be a prisoner there at least another three years. And yet, in this moment, the power of his ministry is given back to him. From here on, the things he says, and does, have that same wonderful infusion of the Spirit's power which makes unusual things happen. And from Rome he is to write some of his greatest letters -- letters filled with power, which are still changing the history of the world. The joy of the Lord is back in his heart. The glory returns to his ministry. The love of Jesus Christ is filling him and flooding him, empowering him and enriching him. But ahead there are two lonely years of waiting in Caesarea, during which nothing is recorded of his ministry. I am sure he had a ministry during that time, but there is no account of it in the Scriptures. And then there are three more years ahead in Rome, as a prisoner of the Lord.


However, the Jews are still determined to kill Paul:


A Conspiracy to Kill Paul


 12When it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. 13There were more than forty who formed this plot. 14They came to the chief priests and the elders and said, "We have bound ourselves under a solemn oath to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. 15"Now therefore, you and the Council notify the commander to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case by a more thorough investigation; and we for our part are ready to slay him before he comes near the place."


This portion of Luke's story certainly underscores the hopelessness of Paul's attempt to witness to the Jerusalem Jews. They are not only unwilling to listen, they are intent upon killing him, to the point of taking an oath that they will neither eat or drink until they have accomplished their oath of murder.


And so they concoct a plot by which they can get Paul away from the protection of the Roman guardhouse and down into the streets of Jerusalem on his way to the high priest's palace. There, in the narrow, tortuous alleyways of that old city, they have a band of forty men who have vowed to overpower his Roman guards and take his life. This is certainly a workable plot, but as has already been pointed out, the Lord has other plans for Paul.


16But the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush and he came and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, "Lead this young man to the commander, for he has something to report to him." 18So he took him and led him to the commander and said, "Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to lead this young man to you since he has something to tell you." 19The commander took him by the hand and stepping aside, began to inquire of him privately, "What is it that you have to report to me?" 20And he said, "The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down tomorrow to the Council, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more thoroughly about him.  21"So do not listen to them, for more than forty of them are lying in wait for him who have bound themselves under a curse not to eat or drink until they slay him; and now they are ready and waiting for the promise from you."  22So the commander let the young man go, instructing him, "Tell no one that you have notified me of these things."


The plans become known to Paul's nephew, who notifies the Roman soldiers about the plan and the Commander responds.


Paul Moved to Caesarea


 23And he called to him two of the centurions and said, "Get two hundred soldiers ready by the third hour of the night to proceed to Caesarea, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen." 24They were also to provide mounts to put Paul on and bring him safely to Felix the governor.


It is interesting that 470 armed soldiers were dispatched to protect one person. Evidently the commander wanted to take no chances that anything bad would happen to this Roman prisoner under his authority. Perhaps his response was overkill, but it guaranteed that no band of Jewish Zealots would attack the convoy escorting this prisoner.


In addition to providing extensive protection, the tribune sends a letter to Governor Felix explaining Paul's situation and laying the groundwork for guarantee of fair treatment to Paul by Felix:


25And he wrote a letter having this form:


26"Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix, greetings. 27"When this man was arrested by the Jews and was about to be slain by them, I came up to them with the troops and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. 28"And wanting to ascertain the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their Council; 29and I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment. 30"When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, also instructing his accusers to bring charges against him before you."


If we believe Luke's report (and we do), it appears that the Commander wrote a letter that made himself look as good as possible to the Governor, when in fact the actual happenings were different from what he reported.  Commander Claudius Lysias did not rescue a man he thought to be a Roman citizen, In fact, he was about to commit a capital offense (having a Roman Citizen scourged) when he discovered that Paul was in fact a fellow citizen of Rome. For whatever reason, he missed accurately reporting that fact.


However, the letter from Claudius Lysias was virtually a letter of acquittal for any serious charges against the Apostle Paul. The commander reports that as far as he can determine, Paul has done nothing that is worthy of either death or imprisonment. In stating this, he lays the groundwork for Paul receiving a just hearing before the Governor.


Paul Appears before the Governor:


Acts Chapter 23 ends with Paul arriving before Felix and the initial disposition of the charges against him.


31So the soldiers, in accordance with their orders, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris.  32But the next day, leaving the horsemen to go on with him, they returned to the barracks. 33When these had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. 34When he had read it, he asked from what province he was, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35he said, "I will give you a hearing after your accusers arrive also," giving orders for him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium.


Caesarea is located about sixty miles north of Jerusalem. The Romans covered the initial forty miles of that journey to the fortress of Antipatris in a rapid forced march of a single night's duration. The next morning the horsemen brought Paul the remaining twenty miles to the governor's palace in Caesarea.


Felix was a successor to Pilate as governor of Judea. He had been in office several years by now. Evidently his reading of the Commander's letter leaves him kindly disposed toward Paul. The only question he asks in his initial hearing is "Which province does he come from?"


Why was Paul's home province important?


There were two kinds of provinces in the Roman Empire:


1 - There were those under the control of the Roman senate,

2 - There were those which reported to the emperor -- the imperial provinces.


"Most Excellent Felix" learns that Paul is from Cilicia which, like Judea, is an imperial province under the direct control of the emperor himself and responsible to him. And so the steps are in place for Paul's eventual transfer to Rome.


What was Felix's initial verdict?


34When he had read it, he asked from what province he was, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, 35he said, "I will give you a hearing after your accusers arrive also," giving orders for him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium.


Essentially Felix brushed Paul aside; or rather he said that any action on his part would (must) wait until Paul's accusers came sixty miles north from Jerusalem to Caesarea to attend a formal hearing in his court. Until that time, Paul was to be held in Herod's Praetorium (Herod's Palace in Caesarea). It was Felix's ruling that Paul would remain in this confinement until his trial.




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