Where the world comes to study the Bible

34. Paul’s Trial Before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30—23:35)


I can’t help feeling sorry for the commander of the Roman troops, who just can’t seem to rid himself of the responsibility for Paul and his protection. It is amusing to see this man, who would surely be viewed as being “in charge” and “in control” in Jerusalem as being “out of control” with regard to Paul. I wonder if this man did not initially see “Paul” as the means to a big promotion, and fearing, as time went on, that Paul would be the cause of his professional demise. Think through the events which brought Paul and the commander together, and the agony which Paul brought into this Roman commander’s life.

Hearing of a disturbance in the city of Jerusalem, the commander rushed to the scene, hoping that he would find and capture an Egyptian revolutionary. What a feather in his cap it would have been if he had captured one of the most wanted men in the Roman Empire. Now here was a promotion in the making, if he could only get there fast enough to catch this criminal before he slipped away, as he had done before. But instead of finding this Egyptian rebel the commander found Paul, who would have been beaten to death by the Jews, except that they drew back from their victim when they saw the commander and his troops arriving. Paul’s life was thereby spared, not because the commander had wanted to save him, but because he appeared too quickly, hastened by the mistaken thought that Paul was someone else.

The commander was now faced with a disturbance of major proportions—greater than he yet understood—as well as with a “prisoner.” The problem was that he did not know what the charges against Paul were. The shouting mob was no help. Accusations were either contradictory or confused, with many people not even knowing why they were assembled. The commander was willing to listen to Paul, and was surprised to find that he spoke Greek. He now realized that Paul was not the criminal he originally thought he might have been. Paul was a Jew from Cilicia, not an Egyptian. The significance of this would only sink in later, if ever, for this Roman soldier, who may not have been well informed about the various factions within Judaism.

When Paul asked the commander if he could address the crowd, I think that he may have given permission for a couple of reasons. First, he was rattled by the situation, and by the fact that Paul was not who he thought. Whatever Paul was guilty of, he seemed not to be a criminal or a revolutionary. Second, the commander was still trying to find out what charges to make against Paul. If he were to try Paul, there must be charges, and so far he had no idea what these might be (a situation that others would later face as well, see chapters 24-26). In allowing Paul to speak to this crowd, the commander expected to hear from Paul something that would tell him what all this commotion was about. There was one thing he had not counted on, however, and that was that Paul would speak to this crowd in Hebrew, not in Greek, and thus he did not understand of thing which was said.

How irritated the commander must have been when the crowd exploded, once again, and he had no idea why. He would get to the bottom of this! Enough was enough. And so he had Paul taken to the barracks, where he would “interrogate” him, which was an examination by scourging. The centurions who assisted were preparing Paul for his lashing when Paul caught all of them off guard with a further revelation about himself. Not only was he a Jew from Cilicia, he was a Roman citizen. As a Roman citizen, he was not to beaten without first having been charged, tried, and found guilty. The commander was about to have Paul beaten in order to determine what charges should be made against Paul, if any. To have beaten Paul as a Roman citizen would have been a mistake that could have cost the commander his career. Even to have gotten to this point was enough to jeopardize his future. If the commander was a “career man” his career would not have looked very promising at this point.

The centurions could not stop what they were doing fast enough. The let go of Paul as though he were something hot out of the oven. No one wanted to be guilty of treating this man as they were doing. The commander was even more frightened, for he had ordered Paul’s “interrogation.” No matter how upset he might have been with Paul, he very courteously and kindly inquired of Paul, to be certain that he was a Roman citizen. He learned that Paul’s citizenship was superior to his own, for Paul had been born a Roman, while the commander had to purchase his citizenship, at considerable cost.

When the commander verified, to his satisfaction, that Paul indeed was a Roman citizen, he began to take the necessary steps to “back out” of the problem he had created, by detaining Paul unlawfully, and by nearly beating him illegally. He released Paul, pending the outcome of his “trial” which was to be conducted by the Sanhedrin. He arranged for the trial on the following day. I can almost hear the sigh of relief which the commander breathed. “Now,” he said to himself, we will get to the bottom of this. I am off the hook, because I have tossed the ball back into the court of the Jews. They can try Paul and punish him, and I can be rid of this problem.”

If this man only knew what the future held. Paul does go to trial, as our text records, but there is no solution to the problem. Indeed, there is yet another uprising, this time within the Sanhedrin itself. Paul would have been torn limb from limb if the commander had not intervened—again. There are still no formal charges, and there seems to be no way of dealing with this problem. The solution to the commander’s problem seems to be provided by yet another crisis: forty Jews conspire to kill Paul if and when he is brought, once again, before the Sanhedrin. Now the commander is “forced” to send Paul to Caesarea, to be dealt with by someone else. Is it finally over for the commander? Is his life finally free of Paul? Time will tell. One thing is certain, the career of the commander was almost as much endangered as was Paul’s well-being. The difference is that God had purposed to save Paul’s life, and to arrange for his transportation to Rome, so that in the process “kings and Gentiles” would hear the gospel through his proclamation of the gospel.

Our Approach

Our approach in this lesson will be to give attention to the fate of the apostle, comparing and contrasting his treatment by the Roman commander (as a representative of the Roman government) and by the Sanhedrin (as representatives of the Jews). We will find that Paul fares much better at the hand of the heathen than he does at the hand of his own countrymen. We will then note how all of this affects both the apostle and the gospel. In conclusion, we will seek to identify those principles which underlie God’s work, through the ages, through Israel, and through the church, and then explore their implications for our lives.

The Structure of the Text

Chapter 23 is but a continuation of Luke’s account of Paul’s journey to Rome via Jerusalem. In this chapter, Paul will stand trial before the Sanhedrin. At the very beginning of the trial Paul will “lock horns” with Ananias, the high priest. Knowing that there is no hope for a fair trial, Paul raises the theological issue of the resurrection of the dead, which divides and deadlocks the Sanhedrin, forcing the Roman commander to intervene, and to take Paul back into custody. The Lord will appear to Paul to encourage him concerning the certainty of his arrival in Rome and his witness there. Unable to execute Paul legally, some of the Jews form a conspiracy, vowing to kill Paul. This conspiracy includes at least part of the Sanhedrin. Paul providentially learns of this conspiracy and sends word to the commander, who acts quickly and decisively to get him out of danger, sending him with an armed escort to Caesarea, where he will stand trial.

The structure of our text may be outlined as follows:

  • Off to a Bad Start 22:30—23:5
  • Chaos in the Council23:6-10
  • Divine Encouragement23:11
  • A Jewish Conspiracy and Roman Corrective Measures23:12-35

Off To A Bad Start

The commander of the Roman troops in Jerusalem was “between a rock and a hard place.” If Paul was left alone with the unbelieving Jews, disorder was certain to break out. The commander did not know how or why. He had tried to learn what the issues were, and to determine whether or not Paul had broken any Roman laws. He was convinced that the Jews were dogmatic about the fact that he had broken their laws. And so he turned Paul over to the Sanhedrin for trial. It was not going to work out as the commander had hoped.

During the past 25 or more years the Sanhedrin484 had been confronted by the gospel at least five times. It deliberated anxiously over the growing popularity of Jesus after the raising of Lazarus, and determined He must die (John 11:47-53). In a hasty and illegal meeting, it determined that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy and must die (Luke 22:66-71). After the resurrection of our Lord, it arrested Peter and John and warned them not to preach in the name of Jesus any longer, wishing that they had some legal grounds to deal more severely with them (Acts 4:1-22). They shortly after arrested a larger group of the apostles, this time beating them to underscore their threats and warnings if they preached in the name of Jesus any more (Acts 5:17-42). Under pressure from the Hellenistic Jews, Stephen was tried, on charges very similar to those made against Paul (Acts 6:8—7:60). The Council hardly seems to have reached a verdict, when the mob drug Stephen out and stoned him. Now, more than 20 years later, Paul stands before the Council. The issues have hardly changed through the years. The charges against Paul are virtually the same as those against Stephen, and not unlike those against our Lord.485

The Council assembled and Paul was brought before them to stand trial. Claudius Lysias was eagerly standing by, not so much to keep order (though this would soon be required), as to hear the precise charges against Paul, so that he could then have some basis for dealing with Paul under Roman law, or allowing his case to be handled by the Sanhedrin.

Paul “looked intently at the Council” (23:1) when he spoke to them. This added the strong sense of conviction which he held. He “looked them eyeball to eyeball” and said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (23:2). This was too much for the high priest, who ordered those standing by to strike Paul on the mouth. Why did the high priest find this statement so offensive? What was it about these words which set him off?

Before we seek to answer these questions, pertaining to the reaction of this ungodly unbeliever, let us seek to answer it to our own satisfaction. How could Paul say that he had lived his life with a pure conscience? Did he not write, referring to himself as “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15)? Had he not often spoken, with much regret, of the suffering which he had caused many saints, before his conversion (for example, Acts 22:4, 19)? How could his conscience be clear when he had done so much that was wrong? There are at least two reasons why Paul could say what he did:

First, Paul’s exact wording here refers primarily to his conduct as a citizen, to his civil obedience, living his life in a way that kept the laws of the land, and thus gave him no qualms of conscience. The marginal note in the NASB at verse 1 indicates that the expression, “lived my life” is more precisely rendered “conducted myself as a citizen.” This expression is a rare one, used elsewhere only by Paul in Philippians 1:27 (here rendered “conduct yourselves” in the NASB). Its specific reference is to one’s life as a citizen. And so when Paul here claims to have lived with a clear conscience to this very day, he is specifically referring to a clear conscience with regard to his civil conduct. If their charges were that he was conducting himself contrary to Jewish and Roman civil laws, Paul had no pangs of conscience on such matters in the least. Any such charges must therefore be false.486

Second, Paul could have a clear conscience with regard to his past sins because of the cross of Jesus Christ, the cross which he proclaimed. Paul possessed a clear conscience, and he offered this same cleansed conscience to all who would believe in Jesus as Messiah. Paul could possess a clear conscience due to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, but because these Jews (and Ananias in particular) rejected Him and His atoning work on Calvary, they could not claim to have a clear conscience. Paul claimed to have that which they could not claim, and under the law they could never hope to attain:

1 Now even the first {covenant} had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. 2 For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which {were} the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. 3 And behind the second veil, there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, 4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which {was} a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant. 5 And above it {were} the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. 6 Now when these things have been thus prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle, performing the divine worship, 7 but into the second only the high priest {enters}, once a year, not without {taking} blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance. 8 The Holy Spirit {is} signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the outer tabernacle is still standing, 9 which {is} a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience, 10 since they {relate} only to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. 11 But when Christ appeared {as} a high priest of the good things to come, {He entered} through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:1-14).

Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled {clean} from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:22).

A devout Jew’s highest efforts at law-keeping might enable him to claim, as Paul did, that he was, as pertains to law-righteousness “blameless” (Philippians 3:6), but he could never stop “looking over his shoulder” with respect to God’s holiness. The Old Testament law never gave men the ability to claim a clear conscience, but grace did, in the Old Testament and the New. This was that which Paul had experienced, which he proclaimed, and which the high priest and his associates rejected.

No wonder the high priest was so upset! Paul was claiming a cleansing which the legalist could not even imagine. Did this “Paul,” this “law-breaker,” really dare to think of himself as so clean, so righteous? How dare he speak this way, or so Ananias seems to have reasoned (or, rather, reacted).

This high priest would have had a difficult time coming to any sense of a clean conscience. He was one of the most wicked men who ever held this position, and he was guilty of many of those things of which he accused Paul:

The high priest at this time was Ananias, son of Nebedaeus, who received the office from Herod of Chalcis (younger brother of Herod Agrippa I) in A.D. 47 and held it for eleven or twelve years. He brought no credit to the sacred office. Josephus tells how his servants went to the threshing floors to seize the tithes that ought to have gone to the common priests, while the Talmud preserves a parody of Ps. 24:7 in which his greed was lampooned:

“Lift up your heads, O ye gates; that Yohanan ben Narbai, the disciple of Pinqai, may go in and fill his belly with the divine sacrifices! Some five years before this time he had been sent to Rome by the legate of Syria on suspicion of complicity in a sanguinary conflict between Judaeans and Samaritans, but was cleared and restored to the high priesthood by the Emperor Claudius, thanks to the advocacy of the younger Agrippa. His great wealth made him a man to be reckoned with even after his deposition from office; and he did not scruple to use violence and assassination to further his interests. His pro-Roman policy, however, made him an object of intense hostility to the militant nationalists in Judaea, and when the war against Rome broke out in A.D. 66 he was dragged by insurgents from an aqueduct in which he had tried to hide, and put to death along with his brother Hezekiah. His son Eleazar, captain of the temple, took fierce reprisals on his assassins.487

Ananias was a bold, insolent, violent-tempered member of the Sadducean party, noted for its stern and exacting judgment on others. Josephus depicts his infamy. He made himself exceedingly wealthy on the ill-gotten gain of his office, forcibly took the tithes that belonged to the priests, thus leaving some to starve, sheltered a wicked brood of henchmen, and collaborated with the sicarii or Assassins of the country. He convened the Sanhedrin in the interim between the governorship of Festus and Albinus and condemned to death by stoning James, the brother of Jesus and pastor of the Jerusalem church, with other Christians, plus innumerable other wicked deeds, according to Josephus.488

Ananias was a hypocrite indeed. Here he was, a wicked man, misusing his office for his own gain, at the expense of others. He was a man who associated with and made use of the services of assassins. He stirred up political strife. And yet he was sitting there in his place of authority, acting so offended at Paul’s alleged offenses, which he knew to be unfounded. What distressed Paul was that he was sitting in judgment of him, trying him for violations of the law—seemingly to uphold the law—while he was, in the very process of “carrying out the law” disdaining and disobeying it. He was accusing Paul as a law-breaker, but he, the judge just broke the law, by ordering him struck (cf. John 7:51; 18:21-23).

Paul hotly retorted to this flagrant disregard of the law, calling Ananias a “whited wall” and indicating that God would strike him in due time. The expression “whited wall” may have come to Paul’s mind from the words of Ezekiel the prophet:

10 “It is definitely because they have misled My people by saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace. And when anyone builds a wall, behold, they plaster it over with whitewash; 11 {so} tell those who plaster it over with whitewash, that it will fall. A flooding rain will come, and you, O hailstones, will fall; and a violent wind will break out. 12 “Behold, when the wall has fallen, will you not be asked, ‘Where is the plaster with which you plastered {it}?’” 13 Therefore, thus says the Lord God, “I will make a violent wind break out in My wrath. There will also be in My anger a flooding rain and hailstones to consume {it} in wrath. 14 “So I shall tear down the wall which you plastered over with whitewash and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation is laid bare; and when it falls, you will be consumed in its midst. And you will know that I am the Lord. 15 “Thus I shall spend My wrath on the wall and on those who have plastered it over with whitewash; and I shall say to you, ‘The wall is gone and its plasterers are gone, 16 {along with} the prophets of Israel who prophesy to Jerusalem, and who see visions of peace for her when there is no peace, ‘declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 13:10-16).

Paul’s words were prophetic, when he said that God would strike this “whited wall,” for he was to be violently killed a few years later.

The question for us, however, is “How could Paul speak this way to the high priest?”489 Was this a quick-tempered act, which was sinful? Paul acknowledged his sin in speaking thus, but he also claimed it was a sin of ignorance. He did not know this man was the high priest. There are some who would doubt Paul’s words. I have no doubt that Paul was both sincere and honest in his claim of ignorance. I do not know why he did not know who the man was, but there are many possible reasons. (1) Paul had not been in Jerusalem for a long time, nor had he been there long this time. Why would he know who was the high priest, or, better yet, why would he know what he looked like? (2) This seems to have been a hastily called meeting, and may not have been nearly as orderly and formal. Was Ananias dressed casually or sitting in some seat other than his normal place? (3) Some think Paul had bad eyesight. Whatever the reason, Paul did not know who he was speaking to, and thus sinned in ignorance.

It does seem to be sin, and this Paul seems to have readily acknowledged.490 Much has been written about Paul’s response to the high priest here, either condemning him for a brash act of temper, or defending him. Luke does not really indicate the goodness or badness of the act, nor need he do so. Are any of our actions carried out with entirely pure motivation? Is there anything which we do that is not tainted by our own sin? Nothing we do, including our acts of obedience and worship, are entirely pure. Our purity comes from our identification with Him. Regardless of all the factors entering into Paul’s words, he did acknowledge error on his part, a violation of the law. But this was all a part of the divine plan. God’s will is not accomplished because we do the right thing, for all the right reasons. God’s will can be accomplished by evil men, acting out of evil motives, or by good men, acting out of mixed motives (see Philippians 1:15-18).

Though the high priest had no regard for the law, Paul did. He knew the words and the intent of Exodus 22:28, and he cited them to those nearby. For all of Paul’s freedom from the law, Paul was still a man who endeavored to live in accordance with the precepts and standards set by the law, and thus he knew he was obliged to show respect to this man, Ananias, not for his personal piety, but due to his position. The Paul who would teach the saints to live in submission to God-given authorities, even the wicked rulers (see Romans 13:1-7), would do so himself, even with regard to this evil and hypocritical high priest.

If Paul’s regard for the Jewish law serves to show up the disregard of Ananias for the law (Roman and Jewish), so does the commander of the Roman troops in Jerusalem, Claudius Lysias. Claudius Lysias was careful to conduct the legal proceedings in a way that was prescribed by (Roman) law. It is true that he nearly mistreated Paul, in violation of the Law, but this was due to his ignorance of the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen. Once he was aware of Paul’s citizenship, he made certain that Paul’s rights, guaranteed by Roman law, were protected. But as for Ananias, he only pretended to carry out the law and to uphold it, and yet in his own practice and in the proceedings of Paul’s trial he disdained and disregarded the law, illegally ordering Paul to be struck. Claudius Lysias, the Gentile, was “more righteous” than Ananias, the Jewish high priest.

Chaos in the Council

The hot interchange between Paul and Ananias made one thing clear to Paul, as it should be clear to us as well—that Paul would not receive a fair trial before the Sanhedrin. I believe that Paul came to Jerusalem with high hopes, for he deeply yearned for the salvation of his own people, the Jews (Romans 9:1-5). The day before, standing on the steps to the barracks, Paul had spoken to those with whom he could easily identify, having once believed and behaved just as they were now. But when he spoke of his conversion experience, they would not listen. Indeed, they exploded violently, demanding that he be killed. That experience, along with this interchange with Ananias made it clear that these Jews had nothing in mind for him but death. All they sought was the legalization of his execution. Anything which Paul said would be used against him, if possible, or ignored. The words of our Lord, spoken to Paul in his “temple vision” many years before (Acts 22:18, 21), were even more relevant to Paul now. He must leave Jerusalem or be killed, and he must go to the Gentiles.

What was Paul to do now? No divine instructions seem to have been given. Paul was left to act in accordance with his knowledge of God’s will, and in accordance with the wisdom God gives at such times. If the decision of the Council would most certainly be unfavorable, then he must seek to prevent a decision from being reached. And so he chose to turn one part of this Council against the other, to set the Pharisees against the Sadducees. He did this by crying out, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees;491 I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6).

The Pharisees, as Luke informs us in verse 8, strongly held to some beliefs that the Sadducees scorned and rejected. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, in angels and spirits, while the Sadducees reject all of these. At the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, He was immediately opposed by the Pharisees, based upon some of His teachings and practices. The main “bone of contention” was that Jesus was willing and eager to associate with sinners, and even spoke of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. This was too much for these separatistic Pharisees to endure. But in spite of their many differences with Jesus, many of their theological presuppositions were in agreement.

The Sadducees were not only more “liberal” theologically and doctrinally, but they were more “the establishment.” They were more willing to cooperate with the Roman government and to accommodate them, for their own gain. They held many of the positions of power and of prestige, and did not wish to lose them. Thus, the Sadducees not only disagreed with Jesus more than the Pharisees on theological issues, but they strongly opposed Jesus because of the threat He posed to their position, power, and privileges. As Jesus took a public role in Jerusalem, the Sadducees took a more aggressive role in opposing Him, finally joining forces with the Pharisees to put Him to death.

After the resurrection of our Lord, and especially after Pentecost and the preaching of the apostles commenced, the Sadducees took the leading role in opposing the apostles and Christianity. After all, the gospel was based upon the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. They could not allow such teaching to go unchallenged, especially when they were accused of instigating the death of Jesus. On the other hand, the Pharisees seemed to gradually become less aggressive in their opposition to the apostles. This stance can be seen in the speech of Gamaliel to the Council (Acts 5:33-39).

In this session of the Council or Sanhedrin, we see the fragile alliance between the Sadducees and the Pharisees disintegrating, and turning, once again, to open disagreement and debate. In Paul’s outcry he identified himself with the Pharisees in their belief in the resurrection from the dead and in the hope which stems from this belief. The Pharisees found themselves in a most interesting position: they found that they had more in common with Paul than they did with the Sadducees.492 And so a number of the Pharisees had to acknowledge, at least in principle, that what Paul claimed and taught was, by their own system of belief, believable. The Sadducees, on the other hand, found Paul’s experience and teaching totally unacceptable and unbelievable. And thus the resulting “chaos in the courtroom.”

There is something to be learned here, I think, about presuppositions. Presuppositions either open the door to other revelation, or they close the door to it. The presuppositions of the Pharisees (with which Paul agreed) inclined them to at least acknowledge the possibility of what Paul claimed. The presuppositions of the Sadducees closed the door to any consideration of anything Paul said, for they did not believe these things were in the realm of possibility. It is not that such people cannot be saved, but that their presuppositional foundations must first be shaken. The rug must be first pulled out from under them, and a new foundation be shown as needed. This can only be done by the Holy Spirit.

Divine Encouragement

The evening of that ill-fated “trial” before the Sanhedrin, the Lord Himself appeared to Paul, with a very simple statement, “Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” While we are not told a great deal about this appearance of the Lord to Paul, it must have had a profound impact upon his attitude and outlook. Let us consider some of the lessons which are implied in this incident.

(1) Even the most faithful servants of God can suffer from discouragement and despair. Some might wish to argue the point, but it is hard to imagine that Paul was not discouraged at this point in time. How intent he had been on getting to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:1-14), and how strong was his desire to see Israel saved (Romans 9:1-5). Did he, like Elijah of old, hope that his ministry might turn this nation around, only to realize that his efforts “failed”? Does he now see that his ministry is much like that of Isaiah (see Isaiah 6:9-10)?493 Even Paul can be discouraged. He seems to be tempted to doubt here, as John the Baptist did in his imprisonment (see Luke 7:19).

(2) Encouragement ultimately comes from the Lord. God often uses people to encourage us, but it is God who is the source of all comfort and encouragement. It is in His character, His power, His promises and purposes, that we find our hope and comfort (see Romans 5:1-11; 8:18-39; 2 Corinthians 4:16—5:10; 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; 3:16; Hebrews 13:5; 1 Peter 5:10).

(3) Encouragement and assurance is often given by being reminded of something which we already know, but have either forgotten or doubted. Paul was not told anything new by the Lord, but only assured that what he had already been told was still going to take place. Encouragement often is the result of being reminded of God’s promises, and being reassured that He always keeps His promises. The promise which God made to Abram in Genesis 12, He repeated on numerous other (later) occasions, and especially at points in time when Abraham needed to be reminded and reassured (for example, Genesis 13:14-17; 14:19-20; 15:12-21).

(4) Encouragement need not be based upon one’s success, but on one’s faithfulness, on one’s obedience to the task God has given. Paul’s testimony in Jerusalem had not been successful, but the Lord told him that he had completed his task of “solemnly witnessing to His cause” in that city. His task was done, and in this Paul could find comfort and encouragement.

(5) There is encouragement in the fact that God yet has a task for us to fulfill, and they we are to be used in fulfilling His purposes. Paul’s task was completed in Jerusalem, but he is yet to witness in Rome. There is more work to be done. What joy one can have in knowing God, in his grace, has chosen to use us (see 1 Timothy 1;12-17).

A Conspiracy and Counter-Measures

It may very well be that Paul’s treatment by his fellow-Israelites was the source of great discouragement. Thus, the appearance of our Lord to Paul on the night of his trial before the Sanhedrin would have been an encouragement to him in the light of what had happened. But the appearance of our Lord to Paul may also have been an encouragement to him in the light of what was yet to happen. If you were Paul, and you had been rejected by your own people, God’s chosen people, the Jews, and you had risked your life to witness to them, only to be beaten, and now imprisoned, there would be much cause for despair. But things were still to get worse. While the Lord was speaking with Paul, some of the Jews were speaking with each other, and the result was a conspiracy to kill Paul. More than forty Jews bound themselves to a solemn oath.494 They covenanted together that they would neither eat nor drink anything until they had put Paul to death.495 They had enough of trying to do away with Paul through the legal means. If they could not kill him due to Roman intervention, and due to the chaos in the council, they would kill him through intrigue.

The conspiracy was not merely the evil plot of a handful of evil men; it was a plan which won the approval and the participation of the leaders of the Sanhedrin.496 In order for this scheme to work, the leaders of the Sanhedrin would have to cooperate, convincing the commander of the Roman troops to release Paul for yet another trial before the Council. On the way to the Council, the forty or more men would see to it that he never made it alive. They would thus finally be rid of Paul. There is now little effort to retain the appearance of righteousness or legality. They would kill Paul any way they could.

The “Watergate mentality” has been with us since the beginning of time. It reasons that the cause is so important, and the danger so great, that any means is acceptable to rid the cause of that which threatens it. The cause, was not the law of God, nor justice, but the preservation of the power and position of these leaders. They were tired of the threat which the gospel posed to them, especially as boldly proclaimed by Paul.

On the surface, it would appear that Paul was really in danger now. Things seems to be going from bad to worse. But this is only the appearance of things. In reality this conspiracy is Paul’s ticket for a safe departure out of Jerusalem. It is also his next step toward Rome, although some time will yet pass before he arrives there.

It was no “coincidence” that Paul’s nephew just “happened” to be there when these conspirators met, and to overhear their plans. Providentially, this young man was given access to Paul, and then was received and taken seriously by the commander. How kind and gentle this Roman commander was.497 How cruel and cunning were these Jews. The chosen people of God were about to commit murder, while this pagan was about to take strong measures to protect the life of the apostle, and to indirectly help to promote the gospel!

The commander was not about to lose a prisoner to the Jews. He would take strong measures to assure Paul’s safe exodus from Jerusalem. He was intent on Paul having a fair trial. If the Jews had cast aside justice and the Old Testament law, this Roman soldier was following Roman law to the letter, giving Paul every benefit of the doubt and every privilege that was due a Roman citizen. And so he ordered two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to escort Paul safely to Caesarea, where he was to be handed over to the custody of Felix the governor,498 to stand trial there. The left shortly, traveling in the darkness to Antipatris, a city about half way (about 35 or 40 miles) to Caesarea.

The letter which Claudius Lysias wrote to Felix was a brief account, not altogether complete, accurate, or in the proper sequence of events. It was written in a way that reports usually are, so that the one writing the report is viewed in the best light. Nevertheless, the letter was reasonably accurate. Of particular interest is the fact that the commander indicated in very clear language, Paul’s innocence: “I found him to be accused over questions about their Law, but under no accusation deserving death or imprisonment” (verse 29). Why, then, did the commander not release Paul, if he knew him to be virtually innocent? Because he knew that the Jews would kill Paul, and that Paul’s rights, as a Roman citizen, would thus be violated. He felt obligated to keep Paul alive. On the other hand, if he turned Paul loose, there was a strong likelihood of another civil disturbance. Every time Paul and these Jews met the sparks flew and a riot inevitably seemed to commence.

What a sigh of relief the commander must have breathed, to have Paul a fair distance from Jerusalem and his area of responsibility. Felix, on the other hand, summoned Paul and discerned that he was in his jurisdiction, and so he summoned the Jews and prepared to conduct yet another trial when they arrived. This was not to be the last trial, either.


There are several very important lessons taught by our text. Let me point out some of these as we conclude.

(1) There is a very clear contrast in our text between the kindness and attention to the law of the Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, and the cruel disregard for the law of the Jews, and especially of the Sanhedrin. We would have hoped to have seen the Jews portrayed as eager to preserve, promote, and practice the law, and have expected the Romans to have a disregard for law, and to evidence a lack of compassion. Such is exactly the reverse of the matter, as Luke’s account describes the treatment of Paul.

Here is Paul, a Jew on the one hand, and a Roman citizen on the other. The Jews hate Paul, and want to kill him, which they are willing to go to any extreme to accomplish. The crowd tried to kill Paul by beating him to death, stopped only by the arrival of the Roman troops (21:31-32). Then, when the Sanhedrin was trying Paul, they must have hoped for a “guilty” verdict, which they hoped would have allowed them to execute Paul, as Jesus had been put to death. This, too, failed, because the Council was divided and the trial never was completed (22:6-10). Once their hopes of legally putting Paul to death were terminated, the Council agreed to take part in an illegal conspiracy to kill Paul (22:13-15). Justice and the practice of the Old Testament Law were thereby cast aside for the pragmatic issue of silencing Paul.

Contrast the cruelty, violence, and disregard of the Law by the Jews, especially the Sanhedrin (something like our Supreme Court), with the kindness, peace-keeping, and law-abiding of the Romans, and especially of the commander. As a Jew, the Jews deprived Paul of his rights under the Old Testament Law, but as a Roman, the commander gave Paul every consideration, going to great extremes to protect him from mistreatment, by his own people, by the Jews!

This contrast, between the Jews and the Roman commander, is similar to that found in the Old Testament Book of Jonah. There, Jonah had no compassion on the sailors, while they risked their lives to save him, even when they knew that he had greatly endangered them (Jonah 1). There, Jonah had no compassion on the Ninevites, even though the children and the cattle were innocent. Jonah wanted all of them to die a torturous death.

We see in these two instances (Paul, in our text, and Jonah, in the Old Testament Book of Jonah) that Israel’s judgment is both near and well-deserved. We see, as well, good reason for God’s compassion on the heathen, who in both instances were far more compassionate than their Jewish counterparts.

The more one reflects on Paul’s treatment in Jerusalem by his fellow-Israelites, the more one sees that the situation in Paul’s day is very similar to that which occurred all too often in the Old Testament (see Jeremiah 6:1-8, 13-19, 27-30; 7:1-11ff.; 8:8-12; 22:3, 16-17; 23:1-40; Ezekiel 13; 16; 34:1-10). And, as one looks ahead to the last days, one realizes that the same essential features found both here and in Israel’s past, are present in the future as well. The people of God cease to be grateful for God’s grace, and the privileges He has bestowed on them. They become self-righteous and even cruel. They disregard the Law of God. And those who are Israel’s leaders, the “shepherds” abuse their position. Rather than protecting the weak and the vulnerable, they prey upon them. Rather than to feed the flock of God, they feed upon the flock. This is a continual theme in the Old Testament, and the treatment of Paul in Jerusalem has all the same earmarks. It is happening again. And just as before, it will soon be the time for God’s judgment to fall on the city of Jerusalem once again. The treatment of Paul in Jerusalem (not to mention the earlier treatment of Jesus, the apostles, and Stephen) is more than sufficient cause for God’s wrath to fall upon the disobedient Israelites, and especially their leaders.

(2) In the Book of Acts in general, and in our text in particular, we see not only how the gospel was proclaimed to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles, but also why. The gospel was first preached to the Jews, but as a nation they rejected the gospel, even as they had rejected Jesus as their Messiah. Paul went to Jerusalem and then to Rome because the gospel was to be rejected one last time in Jerusalem, and then it would go, with Paul, to Rome. As Paul would teach in his epistle to the Romans (chapters 9-11), the gospel went to the Gentiles because it was rejected by the Jews. If the Jews would not be a “light to the Gentiles” by believing in Jesus and by proclaiming salvation in Him, it would go to the Gentiles through their unbelief, by men like Paul and others, who would proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. This rejection of Paul and his gospel in Jerusalem, by the people and their leaders, was the last straw. Now, the gospel was soon to make its way to Rome with Paul. It is with sadness that we find Paul coming to grips with the rejection of Jesus by his people, Israel, and with his turning from Jerusalem toward Rome. Here, not only is God about to turn His back on Jerusalem and the Jews, but Luke (and Paul) are leaving Jerusalem for the last time in this book.

(3) This chapter, like the rest of the Book of Acts, underscores the sovereign control of God over history, in such a way as to allow men freedom of choice, and yet to insure that God’s program will be carried out exactly as purposed in eternity past. In Acts 1:8 the divine program for the proclamation of the gospel was spelled out by our Lord. The gospel would be proclaimed in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the remotest part of the earth. This is precisely how it happened, as Luke describes it in Acts. But it did not happen only due to faithful saints, who were careful to carry out God’s plan to the letter. Even the apostles and the early church seemed to misunderstand and to drag their feet. God used not only his saints, but the opposition of unbelieving Jews (see Acts 8:1; 11:19ff.) to propel the gospel outward. He also used the Roman government, its laws, and its officials in furthering the gospel (see Acts 18:1-2, 12-17; 21:30ff.).

It seems to me that too many Christians think that God’s will can be thwarted or hindered by man’s lack of faith or obedience, but the Book of Acts (not the mention the rest of the Bible) shows this to be untrue. God’s purposes always come to pass in Acts, and just as God planned and promised, although often in a way very different from the way we would have expected or planned. The more I study Acts, the more I find that we are not told whether certain decisions and actions were “rightly motivated” or “prompted by the Spirit”; they were just done. For example, were the eleven apostles “right” in choosing Mathias as the twelfth apostle (see Acts 1:15-26)? Some would say that they were, and others would differ, especially in the light of God’s appointment of Paul as an apostle, something none of the apostles decided to do, or were even eager to accept, when God did it (see Acts 9:26ff.). Were the apostles and elders “right” in appointing the seven “deacons,” so that they would be free to minister the word and pray? Why, then, were two of these seven men raised up by the Lord as great preachers, with seemingly more successful preaching ministries than most of the apostles? Was Paul “led of the Spirit” to cast the demon out of the fortune-teller, or just “fed up” with her constantly annoying him (Acts 16:16ff.)? Was Paul perfectly motivated in his determination to go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21ff.)?

The more I study the Book of Acts, the more I am inclined to conclude that it didn’t matter whether or not men were perfectly correct in their actions, decisions, or motives. After all, who could ever claim such, except our Lord? But a sovereign God does not need perfect followers in order to achieve His will. He does not even need saints, to carry out His purposes. And so God used the apostles, Paul, the elders in Jerusalem, Roman officials, and unbelieving Jews, to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, and as far as Rome (in the Book of Acts). We need not spend long hours agonizing over the fact that our understanding of God’s will and our obedience to it were imperfect. We must press on, seeking to do that which is pleasing in His sight and according to His word, yet knowing that even when we fail, His purposes, promises, and program will not. What comfort there is in serving a sovereign God, whose purposes will never be frustrated by sinful men or seemingly unfavorable circumstances.

(4) Paul’s words to the Sanhedrin remind us that a “clean conscience” is available to even the worst sinner, who trusts in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of conscience. Paul was once just like these members of the Sanhedrin—an arch enemy of the gospel and a persecutor of the saints. He spoke of himself not only as the one who was formerly “chief of sinners,” but as one who was presently holding the same position (1 Timothy 1:13-15). How is it possible for such a sinner to have a clear conscience? The writer to the Hebrews made that very clear—it is not through one’s own works or righteousness, but through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and through His sacrificial and substitutionary death, in the sinner’s place (Hebrews 9).

Do you have a clear conscience before God? You can, just as Paul did, by personally trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s provision for the cleansing of your sin. This cleansing is not due to any good you have done or will do, but only due to that which Jesus Christ has done:

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).

I hear so much psychological jargon today, about “being in touch with your feelings” or “dealing with your past” or “having a good self-image.” What God offers is far better—a clear conscience, the assurance that the guilt of our sins has been washed away, so that God can accept us through Christ, and so that we can live our lives free from the guilt and self-condemnation of a defiled conscience. If your conscience has never been cleansed, I pray that you will be cleansed in conscience today, through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, on your behalf.

484 “The Sanhedrin (a Hebrew and Aramaic loanword from . . . the word translated ‘court’ in v. 15 . . .) was the senate and supreme court of the Jewish nation. In the NT it is also called the . . . ‘body of elders’ (22:5; Luke 22:66) and . . . ‘senate’ (5:21); Josephus also refers to it as the . . . ‘council’. . . The Mishnah calls it the Sanhedrin, the great Sanhedrin, and Sanhedrin of the seventy-one, the great law-court. It comprised the high priest, who presided over it by virtue of his office, and seventy other members. It first appears in history in the Hellenistic period (c. 200 B.C.) as the body which regulated the internal affairs of the nation (Josephus, Ant. 12.142); it maintained this role until the revolt of A.D. 66 . . . The Sanhedrin at this time included a majority of members from the Sadducean party, supporting the chief-priestly interests, and a powerful minority from the Pharisaic party, to which most of the scribes or professional exponents of the law of Moses belonged. The body is frequently referred to in the NT by some or all of its component groups; . . . ‘their rulers, elders, and scribes’ . . .” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 91, fn. 12.

485 Consider the following similarities: (1) The issue with the Jews was always the claim of Jesus to be the Messiah. (2) The opponents were never able to win when they attempted to debate. (3) When accusations were made before the political authorities, there was never any consistency, but only conflicting charges and allegations, and thus there was no charge made that would stand up under scrutiny and investigation. (4) The general allegations had to do with disloyalty toward Rome, and worse yet, revolutionary activity, which was intended to turn the masses against Rome. (5) If a guilty verdict was rendered, it was done because of pressure being brought to bear on the Roman officials, and of their fear of losing control.

486 “It is a pointed disclaimer against the charge that he is a renegade Jew, an opposer of the law, the people, the temple. Paul addresses the Sanhedrin as an equal and has no “apologies” (in our sense) to make for his career as a whole. The golden thread of consistency runs through, as a good citizen in God’s commonwealth.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 398.

487 F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 425.

488 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 342.

489 “Paul’s reaction has been contrasted with that of Jesus, “who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return” (1 Pet. 1:23). But when Jesus himself was struck during his interrogation before Anna, he too protested against the illegality of the action. There is no need to join the chorus of disapproval voiced by older commentators, who felt free to condemn Paul for his righteous protest in a situation which they themselves were unlikely to face. The warm impetuousness of a man of like passions with ourselves is vividly portrayed in this trial scene, and there is no doubt who presents the more dignified bearing--Paul or the high priest. The metaphor of the “whitewashed wall” suggests a tottering wall whose precarious condition has been disguised by a generous coat of whitewash: in spite of appearances, a man who behaved as Ananias did was bound to come to grief. His was the “haughty spirit” of Prov. 16:18, which “goes before a fall.” Paul’s words were more prophetic than he realized; had he known the man intimately, he could not have spoken more aptly.” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 425-426.

490 Note these words of Marshall: “What is more surprising is Paul’s reply. Some commentators note how Paul’s swift reply goes against the spirit of Matthew 5:39 and his own words in 1 Corinthians 4:12. We should not dismiss out of hand the simple explanation that Paul lost his temper, with verse 5 giving something of an apology; Paul was both human and sinful, and we do not need to credit him with a sinless perfection that he himself never claimed.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 363.

Even if Marshall has gone too far, in explaining this outburst from Paul as a manifestation of his temper, we must never forget that neither Paul, nor any of the apostles, nor any other saint, was perfect. Only our Lord was without sin, and thus we should not be surprised at the fact that one so great as Paul would have acted in anger or in haste. But if Paul was quick to rebuke Ananias, he was also quick to acknowledge his sin.

491 Let us seek to square Paul’s words here, with those in Philippians or Galatians. Why would Paul claim to be a Pharisee here, and reject it elsewhere? For one thing, Paul was a “Pharisee” in many regards. He certainly was a Pharisee in terms of his basis belief in miracles, heaven and hell, eternal judgment, and the spirit world, including angels. He was in agreement with the Pharisees in terms of his belief in the resurrection of the dead, and probably in many tenants pertaining to Messiah. Paul’s point in Philippians and Galatians is not that Pharisaism is all bad, and entirely to be rejected, but that the self-righteous, works-oriented view of righteousness was wrong, damnable. All of Paul’s righteous deeds were but dung, so far as making him righteous before God and saving him from God’s wrath. One could easily, like Saul, be a lost Pharisee. But a Pharisee would still be able to retain much of his beliefs when he came to faith in Jesus as Messiah. Much more Sadducean theology would have to go in order to be saved.

492 “A Sadducee could not become a Christian without abandoning a distinctive theological tenant of his party; a Pharisee could become a Christian and remain a Pharisee--in the apostolic age, at least.” F. F. Bruce, p. 428.

493 Note that Paul cites this text from Isaiah 6 in the final chapter of Acts (28:26-27).

494 There is a touch of irony here, for it was in conjunction with the taking of a vow that Paul worshipped in the temple, and as a result was arrested. Did Paul take a vow? So did these men, but a very different kind of vow. Yet both “vows” were taken in a religious context. How far from true religion the vow of these 40 men was.

495 I seriously doubt that any of these men starved to death, or even lost any weight. These “gnat strainers” laid heavy burdens on the shoulders of their followers, but had ingenious ways of avoiding the laws themselves. Without a doubt they found a way out of their vows. As Bruce notes, “The Mishnah makes provision for relief from such vows as could not be fulfilled ‘by reason of constraint’” (Ne darim 3.1,3). F. F. Bruce, p. 431, fn. 37.

496 Luke does not tell us that all of the members of the Sanhedrin were included in this conspiracy, but only that the “chief priests and elders” were (23:14).

497 “Paul, as an unconvicted Roman citizen, was kept in honorable custody in the Antonia fortress: he was allowed to receive visitors, and centurions promptly saw to it that his commissions were carried out. So, when his nephew came to the fortress and reported the plot to Paul, Paul immediately told a centurion to take the young man to the tribune, so that he might hear for himself what was afoot. The tribune received the young man kindly. “Never was a tribune more amiable,” comments Alfred Loisy, perhaps in irony--but Luke presents all his Roman officers in an “amiable” light. Having listened to what the young man had to say, the tribune treated his report seriously, made up his mind at once what ought to be done, and dismissed his informant with a warning to tell nobody that he had reported this plot to him.” F. F. Bruce, pp. 432-433.

498 “Marcus Antonius Felix (as his full name is usually taken to have been) was a man of servile birth, who owed his unprecedented advancement to a post of honor usually reserved for the equestrian order to the influence which his brother Pallas exercised at the imperial court under Claudius. Pallas was a freedman of Claudius’s mother Antonia, and was for a number of years head of the imperial civil service. Felix succeeded Ventidius Cumanus as procurator of Judaea in A.D. 52, but before that he may have occupied a subordinate post in Samaria under Cumanus. His term of office as procurator was marked by increasing insurgency throughout the province, and by the emergence of the sicarii. The ruthlessness with which he put down these risings alienated many of the more moderate Jews, and led to further risings. Tacitus sums up his character and career in one of his biting epigrams: “he exercised the power of a king with the mind of a slave.” Despite his lowly origins, he was remarkably successful in marriage (from a social point of view, that is); his three successive wives were all of royal birth, according to Suetonius. The first of the three was a grand-daughter of Antony and Cleopatra; the third was Drusilla, youngest daughter of Herod Agrippa I, who figures in the following narrative.” Bruce, pp. 436-437.

A. T. Robertson adds, “He was one of the most depraved men of his time. Tacitus says of him that “with all cruelty and lust he exercised the power of a king with the spirit of a slave.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930), III, p. 408.

Report Inappropriate Ad