MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 20, 2011 FROM ACTS 22:30-23:11
As we move into Acts chapter 23 this morning, we again see Paul giving his testimony before a mostly hostile crowd. The Roman tribune wants to determine if he committed any crime the previous day during the riot so he assembles members of the council of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Luke tells us the Roman tribune “`…commanded’” the chief priest and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.” This morning, we want to look at this text through a particular biblical lens and see if that will give us additional insight into what are to apply to our lives. The lens a teaching of Jesus where he made a number of promises to the apostles about what to expect when they faced the kind of angry opposition Paul meets here with these Jewish rulers. In Matthew 16 Jesus says beginning in verse 16, “16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
It’s clear that Jesus was speaking about situations just like this one because Paul is bearing witness before Gentiles and in the succeeding chapters, he will dragged governors and before kings. Today, as we examine the text we heard a few minutes ago, we want to look Paul’s appearance here through the lens of this text. Specifically, asking “How did Paul do at being as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.” Did he follow the leading of the Holy Spirit here and if so how? Jesus calls the apostles to show Holy Spirit-dependent wisdom in these situations so let’s look at Luke’s account and evaluate it in that light.
Luke begins in verse one of chapter 23, “And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” This is not unlike how Paul introduces most of these court-room scenes. He begins by making a brief, preliminary personal comment before launching into his defense. We’ll see Paul use this approach again in the coming chapters. However, the high priest, the highest ranking Jewish official, evidently did not see this as simply an introductory remark but took great offense at this statement. Verse two says, “And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.” Ananias took great exception to Paul saying that he had “lived [his] life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” This is a bold statement but it is not unlike what Paul says elsewhere. He tells Timothy in Second Timothy chapter one, “3 I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” Paul serves God with a clear conscience. Later on in Acts he says to the Roman Governor Felix in 24:16, “16 So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
Why did Paul’s claim to have lived his life with a clear conscience so repugnant to the high priest? What he is saying is that, “I have lived my life in a pattern of obedience—when I was a practicing Pharisee and now that I serve Jesus Christ as his apostle. In all this, I believe I have been following God’s will as I understand it.” That clearly implies that Paul’s turn from his Pharisaic roots to be an apostle of Jesus Christ was at the prompting of God and had he stayed where he was—where the high priest and other members of the council were—he would have been violating his conscience. Ananias and the Sanhedrin think Paul went seriously off the deep end 20 ago and was now living as an enemy of God’s people. The notion that this was the kind of direction that would lead to a good conscience did not strike Ananias as appropriate. This would imply that all those Pharisees were not acting in good conscience like he was. Paul would have come off as at best, arrogant, and at worst, bordering on blasphemy. In response, Ananias has one of his lieutenants hit Paul right in the mouth.
We need to pause for a moment to get a closer look at Ananias to see just what kind of high priest would, against Jewish law, have someone struck in the mouth after one statement. There is quite a bit of extra-biblical history about Ananias and all of it points to a very bad man. He had a reputation for being a hot tempered bully. He ruled from about AD 47-AD 58 so this trial occurred in the final year or so of his priesthood. He was also a thief. According to a Jewish historian, he stole the tithes given by the Jews that were intended for the common priests who served under him. The Jews hated him for his pro-Roman stance. Although most Jews hated Rome because they ruled over them—it was in Ananias’ selfish interest to be friendly with Rome because of his frequent interactions with them. To show just how deep this hatred ran, about eight years after his retirement from his role of high priest, the Jews still maintained resentment against him. We know that because as soon as the war between Rome and the Jews broke out in AD 66, Jewish insurgents dragged from the place he was hiding from the Romans and murdered him.
Jesus warned the disciples that he would be sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. If anyone ever qualified as a wolf—it was Ananias. When he ordered Paul to be struck he was in clear violation of Leviticus 19:15. 15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Ananias simply did not have the right to do physical violence to someone in a court of justice without any given reason. He did not--as the high priest did during Jesus trial--rip his robe to signal that Paul had uttered blasphemy; he just walloped Paul—out of the blue. As we look at Paul’s response we see that if we had ever believed him to be a wimp or a doormat, that myth is shattered here. Verse three gives Paul’s immediate response, “3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” I think it’s safe to say Paul wasn’t blessed by this response. He basically calls down a curse on the “whitewashed wall.” The phrase “whitewashed wall” comes from Ezekiel 13 and the imagery conveys that this man is like a wall that is rotten and crumbling, but has been made to look much better than it is through the liberal application of white paint. In other words, Paul calls him a rotten phony—a hypocrite and tells him that God will judge him for this grave injustice done in the alleged pursuit of justice.
The question we must ask in light of our Matthew chapter ten lens is—“Does this response live up to the standard of being as gentle as a dove?” The rather self-evident answer here is, “No.” We don’t have to speculate about this or wonder if there were some extenuating circumstance that would give license to Paul to respond more like an angry bear than an innocent dove. We know the answer because Jesus was placed in almost the exact same circumstance as Paul and his reaction was markedly different. In John chapter 18, verse 19 the apostle gives us a snapshot of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and says. “19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”
Notice that neither Jesus or Paul simply stood there and took the pummeling without a response. Even Jesus, who was “like a Lamb led to slaughter who opened not his mouth,” responded if for no other reason because the high priest broke the law of God. Notice however that Jesus simply asks, “Why did you do that?” He does not call down judgment on this man—though he could have with one thought executed him right there on the spot. There is no name calling here—just a very reasonable question in light of the context. His response is an amazing display of self-control. We also know that Paul’s response was sinful from his own writings. He said in First Corinthians 4:12, “12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;” It seems pretty clear that when Paul calls him a “whitewashed wall” and pronounced God’s condemnation on him, he was probably not trying to bless the target of this remark. Peter says of Jesus in First Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” That doesn’t describe Paul’s response. Paul was not as gentle as a dove, nor did he wait for the Holy Spirit to lead him to respond here—he just reacted in his flesh.
Verse four continues with the response to Paul’s outburst, “4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” This verse generates many questions. First, how did Paul not know that this order came from the high priest? Luke doesn’t say, but there are several possibilities. It could have been that Ananias gave a very subtle signal to his lieutenant to strike Paul and Paul didn’t see it and blamed the guy who threw the punch. It could have been that Paul didn’t recognize Ananias as the high priest. He wasn’t a frequent traveler in Jerusalem and with this kind of meeting; the high priest might not have been wearing his high priestly garb. Whatever the reason, Paul isn’t aware that he has just called God’s judgment down on the high priest of Israel whom he had also called him our equivalent of “malodorous hypocrite.”
Another question regarding Paul’s response is “If Paul is not under the law, why does he respond in obedience to the Jewish law and even explicitly cite it?” First, we must clarify that just because Paul cites a Jewish law and responds a certain way because of that command, that he is “under the law.” Being under the law does not mean that you do not obey those elements of the law that express the righteousness of God. It simply means that you are not trying to acquire or earn your salvation through acts of righteousness. What is easy to overlook in this text is that Paul makes it clear that this Jewish law is still in force.
When Paul hears who the target of his verbal assault was he quickly humbles himself and says, quoting Exodus 22:28, “28 “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.” That text falls in a context of social justice texts—how we are to respond to others and provides the foundation for Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 2:2 where he tells Timothy, “1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Exodus tells us not to revile or curse a ruler of the people. Paul builds on that and tells God’s people to pray and give thanks for those in authority over them.
Although Paul fails to live up to the standard, “gentle as a dove” when he is attacked here, he gets is clearly operating under the Spirit’s control as he makes his next statement. Verse six continues, “6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.”
I see this is as a very wise response on at least two fronts. First, it seems clear to Paul at this point that he would not be given a fair hearing at this point. The Roman officials do nothing to rebuke Ananias for this clear breach and at this point, Paul has only made one statement—a fairly tame one at that--before being physically assaulted. The handwriting was on the wall at this point—there will be no justice done here. So Paul decides to do what he could to bring the curtain down on this show. He knows that the council is divided between Pharisees who make up the majority and Sadducees who were also represented. There was a long and checkered history between these two groups and the dividing lines were deep and jagged. The Pharisees, much more in tune with the Scriptures, believed in the angelic and supernatural realm and also the future bodily resurrection of both God’s people and God’s enemies. The Sadducees believed neither of these and there had been a long, ongoing battle on this very sore subject for a very long time.
We see that here. We know Paul is trying to induce a division because he begins his statement with, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees...” That is a completely unnecessary statement. There was no need to declare this, of for no other reason that most of these men already knew this from his address to the crowd in chapter 22. In essence, he is saying to the Sadducees, “I am one of THEM!” No, Paul makes the statement to draw a line of separation between these two groups. That was like scoring a piece of Plexiglas before you break it along the score line. He broke it down this seam when he says, “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” By that he means—the hope found in the resurrection. That was like throwing a steak on the floor in a room filled with big dogs—mayhem ensued. This clearly created a diversion which spared Paul further humiliation. I don’t see this tactic to be too far removed from what Jesus did when he diverted the Pharisees in some of his conflicts with them.
Matthew 21 is one example. “23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him? 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ Jesus didn’t want to answer that question because it would have only enflamed the situation. So he uses a tactic to expose the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and shut them down. Likewise, Paul uses the existing animosity between these two groups of leaders to extract himself from this no-win situation. I see the wisdom of God at work here, not treachery especially in light of the second reason this is a piece of Holy Spirit led wisdom on Paul’s part.
That is—the issue he uses as a diversion is also central to his argument. When Jesus diverts the Pharisees in Matthew 21, he asks a question that goes to the heart of their concern. He is revealing that in their extreme hypocrisy, they have abused their authority and have no right to question his. Likewise, when Paul brings up the resurrection, he is not simply choosing an unrelated topic in order to throw a match on a puddle of gasoline. The resurrection of the dead is central to Paul’s argument and we know that because in his future court testimonies he also cites this as primary. When Paul will stand before Governor Felix in the next chapter he will say,
“14 But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, 15 having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Later, when he recounts for Felix this meeting with the council here in chapter 23 he tells Felix what the Jews found objectionable, “21 …that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.’ ” Later in chapter 25, Governor Festus—who succeeded Felix summarizes the nature of this dispute to King Agrippa who ruled under Rome over several small territories. He says in verse 19, “19 Rather they [the Sanhedrin]had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.” When Paul is given a chance to state his case before Agrippa he says beginning with verse six, “6 And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, 7 to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! 8 Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
It’s clear that Paul sees the topic of the resurrection of the dead, not only a suitable trigger for a diversion between Pharisees and Saducees, he also sees it as central to his defense and his message. The question is—why is the topic of the resurrection central to Paul’s argument? We shouldn’t over think this one. The Jews saw, just as other cultures saw, that people died. George Bernhard Shaw said, “The statistics on death are impressive. One out of one people still die.” The Jews knew that we are like the morning mist that evaporates by noon. We are like grass that is there in the morning and the wind blows over it and we are gone. They knew the pain of separation from loved ones in death and they knew that people didn’t come back from the dead. The grave was very good at not giving up its spoils.
Even though there is not much about the afterlife in the Old Testament compared with the New Testament, there are a few texts that reveal an understanding of a future resurrection. When God graphically portrays a sign to signify the restoration of Israel in chapter 37, he uses dry bones coming back to life. Dan Block in his commentary on Ezekiel says this, “With good reason, we who are heirs of the glorious message of the prophets and apostles may find in this text a dramatic affirmation that the sting of death will be overcome by the animating power of God’s Spirit…After all, as Ezekiel had witnessed, and as he had heard on dozens of occasions, the Lord is Yahweh. He has spoken. He will make good his word.” Hosea 6:1-2 is more direct. The prophet says, “1 “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Although that clearly points to Jesus, neither Hosea nor the Jews knew that. They just knew it spoke of a future resurrection. The prophet Isaiah says in chapter 26, “19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” That’s a very clear picture of resurrection. Finally, Daniel gives perhaps the most complete picture of bodily resurrection in 12:2. He writes, “2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” That speaks not only of a resurrection, but of a resurrection leading to either everlasting life or everlasting contempt. So the Jews had a resurrection hope. They had a hope that when a person was planted in the ground, it wasn’t over for them. They would live again. And that promise was no less sweet to them than these now-fulfilled promises are to us.
When Paul tells this crowd, “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” we know what he meant by that even if all these rulers would not have known it in full. That is—when Jesus was raised from the dead, that began a new age that age the Jews had been waiting for when the grave would no longer infallibly keep every victim. They believed this would come with the Messiah. By declaring that God has now fulfilled the hope of resurrection, that meant that the new age inaugurated by the Messiah had arrived—the age when death would be conquered and the sting of death removed. What they didn’t know was that this new age would coexist with the old. Resurrection is here, but people still die. Now however, the hope of resurrection is utter certainty because God has started this in the person of Jesus. The Saducees didn’t believe in resurrection, so they revolt.
We see just how deed this division is between these two groups of Jewish rulers because when they came to the hearing, they were united in their desire to have Paul executed. Yet, when Paul mentions the resurrection, immediately they both pivot and the Pharisees actually (and temporarily) embrace Paul and his experience on the Damascus Road. “9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” They get in two digs there because they defend Paul’s understanding of resurrection, but also bring up the issue of spirits or angels as well—which they knew would inflame these Saducees. Paul knew that, as much as they had against him, they had even more against each other. He trumps their opposition to him by bringing up an issue that occasioned even stronger opposition between these two parties.
Finally, the following night—Paul is doubtless wondering, “How do I get out of here? That ploy I pulled yesterday will only work once. I can’t even begin to tell my story without getting clobbered. How will I make my defense?—will I ever get to Rome?” As he does in chapter 18 when Paul was experiencing so many problems in Corinth, Jesus appears to him and consoles him. He says in verse 11, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” This must have been tremendously encouraging to Paul and he would need this kind of assurance because he would be hung up in Palestine for another two years before he would finally be allowed to travel to Rome to testify before the ruler of the Empire.
As we close, what can we take home from this very engaging account? First, the apostle Paul—who shows such radical, out of the box grace in almost all situations—including contexts of deep suffering and persecution--blows it here. He loses it. Although we must never use our fallenness as an excuse for sin, we must remember that we are fallen creatures and any perfectionistic tendencies we have are not in line with Scripture. The old saying goes, “Perfectionists take great pains…and give them to others.” Although we must always strive for Christ-likeness—must always “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” we must also see sin as inevitable and allow ourselves to enjoy God’s grace when we fail. This is not the same as rationalizing willful, repeated sin because “after all, I’m only human.” This is simply to know that when the heat is turned up and we blow it, it is far more Biblical (and healthy) to receive the grace of forgiveness and ask God what you can learn from your sin, than it is to flagellate yourself with self-condemnation. That’s not the gospel.
Second, regularly rejoice in the hope of the resurrection. When you lose a believer to death who you love, rejoice in the hope that the grave is not the final stop for them. As you get older and your body is a mere shadow of what it was when you were young, rejoice that—if you are in Christ, a new body is waiting for you. But more than that—regularly preach the gospel to yourself and as you rehearse the gospel promises that give you life, regularly remember to thank God for the resurrection made possible by the resurrection of Jesus who is the first fruits that guarantee a harvest of resurrected bodies.
Finally, take comfort from the fact that God gives us the encouragement we need to fulfill his call on our lives. When Paul is in dire need, Jesus appears to him. He personally appears to him, not only because he was discouraged, but perhaps even more because Jesus knew that two years would pass until he moved from Palestine—a time period that would have caused Paul to question his call—if it had not been so strong. Likewise, when we are in dire need, God will send Jesus to you in the form of a verse that applies perfectly or a saint who calls you up or visits with you in the hall or prays for you at church. Jesus will meet us where we are just as he met Paul and if you need encouragement, feel free to seek it out after the service by coming forward for prayer. Also, know that sometimes God gives us a very clear sense of calling because he knows the opposition we will face will cause us to need that kind of encouragement. Several years ago, a couple who no longer attend here came to me and had a very strong call experience that involved some really miraculous things. At the time, I told them that God wouldn’t give them that kind of call unless they would need it in the future. Sure enough, as they went forward with phase two of their ministry, they were assaulted by the enemy. It was only their strong sense of calling that kept them from giving up. We all have callings to ministries—in the home, church and workplace. Expect God to give you that call and reaffirm that call in proportion to the amount of opposition you will face. May God give us the grace to receive God’s forgiving grace when we fall, rejoice in the resurrection and trust that God will give us what we need to do what he calls us to do for his glory and our joy.
Page last modified on 12/4//2011
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