Acts 23

‘And Paul, fixing his eyes on the council, said, Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded those that stood by him to smite his mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God is about to smite thee, whited wall. And dost thou sit judging me according to the law, and breaking the law commandest me to be smitten? And those that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? And Paul said, I did not know, brethren, that he was high priest, for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people’ (vers. 1-5).

It is scarcely to be supposed that this was a regular assemblage of the Sanhedrim, it was done hurriedly to meet a crisis. A military commander had no authority so to assemble the religious chiefs of the Jews. This may serve to explain what ordinarily would seem scarcely intelligible. Paul appears not to have known that the high priest was present. Had he been in his official robes, this could scarcely be understood; especially as we are told that Paul looked steadfastly at the council. If it were an informal meeting, neither high priest nor other may have worn any distinctive raiment.

Ananias is quite distinct from Annas the high priest in the earlier days of which the Gospels treat; nor had he been so long appointed that Paul must have remembered him. He may have been a comparative stranger to the apostle, especially in his official capacity. But, what is of more importance to remark, the apostle’s testimony was that he had lived before God in all good conscience unto this day: not a word about Christ or the gospel. It was thoroughly true. Even of his unconverted days we know that he could say, ‘Touching law, a Pharisee; . . . touching righteousness that is in law, found blameless’ (Phil. 3:5, 6). Of this he thinks and speaks as he confronted the council. Surely it was not according to this new calling and that which was his life now. For Christ was all to him. He was thinking of the Jews, he declared what seemed thoroughly calculated to meet their thoughts. But it utterly failed, and the high priest Ananias commanded those that stood by to smite him on the mouth. This was an injurious insult, perpetrated by the judge, and in the teeth of the law. But it is not surprising that the apostle’s words provoked the high priest, and none the less, because he was as far as possible from the conscientiousness of a Gamaliel.

But the apostle resented the contumely and reproved it severely. ‘God will smite thee, whited wall.’ In every respect this was true. Ananias was no more than a hypocritical evil-doer. Our Lord had made an allusion in Matt. 23:27 which will help us to understand this; and it appears that God did smite the hypocrite not long after.

As high priest he was sitting to judge Paul after the law, and there contrary to the law he commanded him to be smitten; but did Paul rise in his quick rebuke to the height of grace any more than of truth? The apostle is thoroughly righteous, but he descends rather to the same ground on which they stood; he had spoken with warmth however truly, so that the bystanders could say, ‘Revilest thou God’s high priest? And Paul said, I did not know, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people.’

The apostle hastens to acknowledge the error, as far as it was such, whatever might be the unworthiness of the conduct and of the language that occasioned it. Still Ananias was high priest that day. This Paul owns. He ought not to have spoken so of one in that position. The word is plain, ‘Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people.’ Overruled of God and prophetic, was it Christ-like? Was it not rather the immediate resentment of a righteous man at an unrighteous deed? He at once apologizes, when he learnt the official state of the judge however unjust. ‘I did not know’ . . . But God loves to guide those who are kept immediately dependent on Him, even when they know nothing of the circumstances.

The apostle throughout scarcely seems to be breathing his ordinary spiritual atmosphere. This comes out still more plainly in what follows. ‘But when Paul perceived that the one part were of Sadducees and the other of Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees259; concerning the hope and resurrection of [the] dead I am judged’ (ver. 6). Here the root of the matter appears. The apostle avails himself of a rent between the two great parties of the Jews, to take the ground which would enlist the more orthodox and God-fearing in his favour. ‘I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees,’ he cried. Was this again according to the height of the truth he preached and loved? It was incontestably true; but was it Christ all in all? Was it not rather a prudent appeal sure to split up the crowd before him for himself to fall back on a ground altogether lower than his wont?

Nevertheless there was truth and important truth before all here. ‘I am judged concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead.’ This thoroughly falls in with the Book of the Acts. Luke begins here as his Gospel ends with the resurrection and ascension, and gives full scope to the testimony of the risen Lord throughout. The apostle everywhere consistently urges the hope and resurrection of the dead. It was bound up with Christ, the Son of man; but he does not directly introduce the full truth of His person any more than he puts forward at this time the resurrection ‘from’ the dead. The resurrection ‘of’ the dead is a great and needed truth notwithstanding; and to this, not the Sadducees who now were in power, but the Pharisees in their way held firmly.

The apostle knew resurrection in an incomparably larger measure. To him it was inseparable from the glorified Christ, the Head of the church Who really was his life and his testimony; and for this he endured habitual rejection and suffering. But in Jerusalem the apostle is not found in the same power as elsewhere. The spirit of the place had its influence; in all this business we find him by no means according to that heavenly light which so shines throughout his accustomed orbit.

The high priest Ananias was too truly a representative of the people as a whole. They were no better than a whited wall; and they too in due time afterwards fell under the smiting of God. The apostle turns to the audience as we saw, when he perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, and cried out in the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am judged. ‘And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit; but Pharisees confess them both. And there arose a great clamour, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ part stood up and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man; and [what] if a spirit spoke to him, or an angel?’ (vers. 7-9).

We have seen all through the Acts of the Apostles that the Sadducees were as prominent in opposition after the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit, as the Pharisees had been while the Lord was on earth. There seems a certain fitness in this. The Righteous One was intolerable to the earthly-minded champions of human righteousness, ever found wanting when weighed in God’s balances. When He rose from the dead, the Sadducees were naturally roused to action, more especially as at the time they were in outward power. The high priests successively seem to have been of that party. The resurrection of Jesus was a death blow to their system, as it is to infidelity at all times. For it is God’s intervention in power whilst the world goes on as it is, the pledge that the risen One will come and judge it, for He it is Who is of God ordained Judge of quick and dead. Resurrection is the sole and final condition of man which answers to the counsels of God, and which will manifest His glory.

Paul, therefore, perceiving that if one part of his audience were Sadducees, the other were Pharisees, avails himself of the truth held by the Pharisees, which ought to have lifted all above personalities and prejudices. In all cases grace loves to do so, even as flesh finds its wretched pleasure in continual strife and self-seeking. Here too it was of moment to press resurrection as a conditional truth of Christianity, resurrection being not merely at the end but before the end comes. Not that the apostle here refers to resurrection as specifically from the dead; he is content to speak of that which every God-fearing Jew acknowledged — the hope and resurrection of the dead, which was certainly not for judgment of the wicked. Resurrection was not disputed but held from the beginning. Old Testament saints waited for it, not merely Israelites but those who were outside like Job, as may be seen in Job 19:25-27, when the Redeemer stands on earth at the latter day. Christ personally becomes, as every believer in Christ knows, the seal of the truth of resurrection, for in His case it is not only the dead man raised but raised from among the dead, and so it will be for those raised at His coming.

No Pharisee doubted the resurrection of the dead. Paul was not only a Pharisee but a son of Pharisees, a stronger expression than that which obtains in the Received Text or the Authorized Version. He belonged to a family of Pharisees, who rejected free-thinking and held to the common faith of God’s people.

The effect was immediate. There arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. No doubt the apostle was not here preaching the gospel nor rendering that testimony to which his heart turned habitually. Christ resorted to no such measures when He was being judged; but it was surely righteous in itself if not according to the height of grace in Christ. Yet it was the means of no deliverance to Paul, on the contrary his adversaries were divided, but power was on the side of those who felt the blow struck at their infidelity. ‘For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit, but Pharisees confess them both.’

The Sadducees were the sceptics of that day and of the lowest kind; they were blinded by materialism, the poisonous error which is now prevailing everywhere throughout Christendom. How solemn that the worst unbelief of Judaism should now pervade an immense part of the baptized in Christendom! Catholic or Protestant, high church or low, or dissent makes little difference. The great expansion of experimental science has in past days fed this distemper far beyond the effect of pure or mixed sciences. Even the discoveries which have added so much to personal ease and selfish enjoyment, all tend to help it on. Man in his present life becomes everything: God is excluded, not to say denied, because He is unseen.

The resurrection of the dead, and yet more from the dead, is the grand weapon of faith against prevailing error and in favour of souls in danger of destruction. The God Who raised up Jesus from the dead is sending remission of sins through His name. To Him give all the prophets witness (how much more the gospel!), that everyone who believes on Him shall receive both the forgiveness he needs, and the life in Christ without which there can be no living to God. This alone is the true deliverance from Sadduceeism then, or from that which is akin at the present time.

‘And when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul should be torn in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them and bring [him] into the castle. And the night following the Lord stood by him and said, Be of good cheer,260 for as thou hast fully testified concerning Me at Jerusalem so also must thou testify at Rome’ (vers. 10, 11).

The Gentile in chief command was not used to the gusts of violence that blew among the Jews when a question of religious difference sprung up and roused them. At this time indeed religious indifference prevailed excessively among the heathen. It was not so among the Jews, though their modal condition was wretched in the extreme. The chiliarch, therefore, being alarmed at the agitation, had Paul removed from the midst of men who seemed excited enough to tear him in pieces.

It was a time when the apostle might have been much tried. He had appealed to orthodox feeling against the Sadducean unbelief that sought his destruction, but he was a prisoner still, though safely guarded by Roman soldiers. It was not the happiest position for one who valued nothing but Christ. So much the more gracious was that which we last read, ‘And the following night the Lord stood by him and said, Be of good cheer, for as thou didst fully testify the things about Me at Jerusalem, so must thou also testify at Rome.’ Truly the Lord is good: not a word of blame, nothing but assurance of help, and this by so remarkable a manifestation at the very time when discouragement would have been natural. The apostle’s visit to Jerusalem had not resulted in the least as he himself desired. He might have regarded it as only a failure. The Lord noticed nothing but his faithful testimony; and He adds that so he must testify at Rome also

This was evidently then the corrected and proper scope of Paul’s allotted sphere: Jerusalem was outside it. For Peter had been entrusted with the gospel of the circumcision, as Paul was, beyond all controversy, with that of the uncircumcision, under which came Rome as the then metropolis of the world. Thither the apostle was to go, not free but in bonds, a prisoner, as suited the Lord, whilst it was a part of His moral government because he would go to Jerusalem. The greatest representative of the gospel was to enter Rome in a chain!

Has the gospel ever been otherwise at Rome? It is not that God had not work there already done. Many souls there were before this, calling on the name of the Lord, both Jews and Gentiles, as the Epistle to the Romans lets us see, but the great witness of the gospel was to enter Rome as a prisoner. If released afterwards, he returned, a prisoner again, to die at Rome for Christ. It was indeed a solemn type, as foreshadowing what Rome would ever prove to the gospel of God.

‘And when it was day the Jews, having made a combination, put themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. And those that made the conspiracy were more than forty, who therefore ( οἵτινες) came to the chief priests and the elders, and said, We have put ourselves under a great curse,261 to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. Now therefore do ye, with the council, signify to the commander that he bring him down unto you,262 as though ye would judge his cause more exactly. But we, before he come near, are ready to slay him’ (vers. 12-15).

It is sorrowful to read the dark conspiracy of the Jews at this time. They were no better than the heathen, but rather worse as knowing better. So it ever is where light shines in measure without grace; it becomes deeper darkness. Deceit and violence characterized them, especially where the gospel was concerned, and none was so identified with it as Paul. God’s word in the Law and the Psalms and the Prophets was too truly verified in their case. Their feet were swift to shed blood, and with their tongues they used deceit. They did not know the way of peace, but hated most him who preached and lived it. Alas! there was no fear of God before their eyes. And it is evident that the ecclesiastical chiefs were quite as much implicated as the blood-thirsty rabble, the prey of crafty leaders who taught that religion sanctifies murder (John 16:2). It is therefore said to be ‘the Jews’ not merely ‘some of the Jews’, as in the softened words of the Received Text. Accordingly, when the conspirators told the religious leaders their plot to murder Paul on his way to the council, not a word of remonstrance or horror! The chief priests and the elders were really therefore the more guilty. Dr. Hackett and others cite from Philo a passage which remarkably illustrates such conduct as a principle calmly laid down without the smallest sense of its atrocity. Now Philo was a contemporary Jew of Alexandria.

But God knows how to defeat wicked efforts against His servants. As He had comforted Paul’s heart privately, so now He wrought providentially and, singular to say, through a relative of Paul himself who was there. ‘But Paul’s sister’s son heard of the ambush, and having come and entered into the castle, he reported it to Paul. And Paul called to [him] one of the centurions and said, Bring this young man to the commander, for he hath something to report to him. He therefore took and brought him to the commander, and saith, The prisoner Paul called me to [him] and asked me to bring this young man to thee, as he hath something to say to thee. And the commander took him by the hand, and going aside privately asked, What is that which you have to report to me? And he said, The Jews have agreed to ask thee to bring down Paul to-morrow into the council, as though they would inquire somewhat more exactly concerning him. Do not thou therefore yield to them; for there lie in ambush for him more than forty men of them, who put themselves under a curse neither to eat nor to drink till they have slain him, and now they are ready, looking for the263 promise from thee. So the commander let the young man go, charging him, Tell no man that thou didst show these things unto me’ (vers. 16-22).

Whatever may have been the haste of Lysias at first, he appears to have waked up thoroughly to his duty on behalf of the prisoner against his relentless enemies, and to have sought at last to make up in kindness for the wrong then done.

It is instructive also to observe how far the apostle was from fanaticism in his proceedings. For, although the Lord had miraculously guaranteed his preservation that he might have the desire of his heart in bearing witness of Christ in Rome, he did not count it beneath him to advertise the military chief of the plot against his life. Confidence in the word of God does not despise or dispense with legitimate means. Perhaps men are not wanting who flatter themselves that they may be more faithful or spiritual than he.

The commander was prompt in action, as we have seen him considerate with Paul’s young kinsman. ‘And he called unto him some two of the centurions and said, Make ready two hundred soldiers, that they may go as far as Caesarea, and seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen,264 at the third hour of the night. And [he bade them] provide beasts that they might set Paul on and bring [him] safe through unto Felix the governor, having written a letter in this form: Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor Felix, greeting. This man when seized by the Jews and about to be slain by them, I coming up with the soldiery rescued, having learnt that he was a Roman. And wishing to know thoroughly the cause for which they accused him, I brought [him] down unto their council, whom I found to be accused about questions of their law, but to have no charge laid worthy of death or bonds. And when it was shown to me that a plot would be against the man, I forthwith sent [him] unto thee, charging his accusers also to speak against him before thee. [Farewell]’ (vers. 23-30).

How the letter became known to the Evangelist we cannot say; but there it is with every mark of genuineness, and so much the more, because we can readily see that the commander was not scrupulous as to truth, and sought to commend his own zeal and services to the governor. God is not straitened as to means, knowing all without means, and ever and anon communicating what is good for us to know as He sees fit. The commander in fact only learnt that Paul was a Roman after he had caused him to be tied up for scourging, a serious infraction of the law as against a citizen. But it is quite natural that he, a heathen, should do what he could to hide his past fault by professing zeal exactly where he had failed. Little did he anticipate that a letter meant only for the eyes of Felix was to stand on the indelible page of Holy Writ with the falsehood rendered evident by the history without a word of comment, as is the manner of Scripture. Nor was there the smallest wish in the blessed prisoner to expose the wrong. But God would give us to learn thereby what man is, and what God is, confiding in His care in abhorrence of evil and cleaving to good.

The immense guard provided for the safe conduct of a prisoner, confessedly not guilty of punishment, proved the commander’s estimate of Jewish perfidy and violence; and this on the night when his information of their plot was received. How sad to see vindictiveness and deceit in the Jews abhorred and thwarted by heathen resoluteness to stand by earthly righteousness and order’ Truly the foundations were out of course: not that the Romans were not evil, but that God’s people, the Jews, were yet more deplorably bad.

Nor was Felix, the procurator of Judea, ignorant of their moral state, though himself a man of more than usually mean, cruel, and abandoned character. Not only was he married to a Jewish wife, but he seems to have been a joint-governor for years before his promotion to the sole dignity, though herein Tacitus and Josephus clash not a little. During his office he had ample experience of insurrection and of intrigue, of bloodshed and of plots, in dealing with which his servile origin gave only, as is usual, a haughtier tone and stronger impulse to his ruthless policy. Still he easily understood on what slender grounds the Jews might pursue to death an object of their unrelenting animosity. A Roman governor too was not to be less firm in upholding Roman law in the presence of Jews who boasted of a divine revelation. All this God’s providence used in favour of His servant. The notion that so large a retinue was intended as a special honour of Christ’s minister is a blunder, from not seeing that the true glory of the Christian is in his conformity to Christ’s cross.

‘The soldiers therefore, as it was commanded them, took up Paul and brought [him] by night unto Antipatris. But on the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him and returned to the castle; and they, when they entered into Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, presented Paul also to him. And when he had read [it] and asked of what province he was, and understood that he was of Cilicia, I will hear thee fully, said he, when thine accusers also are arrived. And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s praetorium’ (vers. 31-35).

The description is vivid, as we ordinarily find in the narrative of Luke. Kefr-Saba was the ancient name of the city whence the foot-soldiers returned, as all danger of ambush or pursuit was then past. When Herod rebuilt it, he called the new city Antipatris, in honour of his father. It was some twenty-six miles from Caesarea, but considerably more from Jerusalem, even by the direct route through Gophna, discovered by Dr. Eli Smith, with many a mark of Roman use. The Jerusalem Itinerary makes the distance of Caesarea from Jerusalem sixty-eight miles, but this was the more circuitous route by Bethhoron and Lydda. Nowhere did Herod lavish such effort to render a city magnificent. It is now an utter ruin. There the apostle remained a prisoner for years before he was sent on to Rome. But of this we are to hear more in the history that follows.

259 Such is the reading of the most ancient MSS. with the Vulgate and Pesch. Syr.

260 ‘Paul’ is not in the best authorities.

261 ‘We have cursed ourselves with a curse’ it is literally; which may be correctly rendered, ‘a great curse’.

262 ‘Tomorrow’, though read by HLP and most, is not in the oldest witnesses, but implied of course in the story.

263 Not ‘a’, but what they counted on already.

264 ‘Spearmen’ is rather a guess for δεξιολάβους, which has been variously but not yet satisfactorily explained. Meyer cites Const. Porphyrog. who distinguishes the δεξιολάβους from bowmen and targeteers. Grasping the weapon with the right hand is not very distinctive.