A Pastor’s Commentary
Studies in the Book of Acts :”For Old Time’s Sake”
If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting or being lied about do not respond with lies
Or being hated do not give way to hating, and yet don’t look too good, nor walk too wise
If you can dream and not make dreams your master; If you can think and not make thoughts your aim
If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same,
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to made a trap for fools
Or watch the things you’ve given your life to broken, and stoop and build’em up again
If you make one heap of all your winnings; and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, And lose and start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them, “Hold on.” If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue or walk with kings nor lose the common touch. If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run, If all men count with you, but none too much; Yours is the earth and all that’s in it, And – which is more- you’ll be a man, my son
This poem describes many of the men and women of the Bible, including the Apostle Paul. But Bible characters are only human, and from time to time in the lives of each of them, we find some weakness or temporary failure. And one of those times is in this chapter in an incident in which the great Apostle Paul failed to keep his head when others were losing theirs.
As we look at chapter 23 we will see Paul going before the ruling body in Jerusalem, called The Sanhedrin. And the chapter falls into three parts. First we have the presentation to the Sanhedrin in verses 1 through 10. Then in verse 11 we will see the presence of the savior. And in verses 12 through 23 the prevention of satanic plans
Now to get the full impact of what happens in this chapter you have remember what has been happening before we get to it. Chapters 21 and 22 describe the week he has gone through. In it he had been: beaten by a mob, had his death demanded by a group of Jewish zealots, bound in chains preparing to be scourged, and, come within a hairsbreadth of being scourged. (Incidentally, hundreds of years later Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England would say “Few things in life are more exhilarating than being shot at unsuccessfully.”) And interestingly enough, the only thing that saved him from all of that was a Roman commander who decided at the end of chapter 22 to take him to the Jewish court (the Sanhedrin) rather than the Roman one.
And so, in the opening verses of chapter 23 we find Paul in the presentation to the Sanhedrin in verses 1 through 10. The first thing we need to understand is something about the representatives of the group. Throughout the book of Acts Luke has referred to them simply as “the council.” But it is obvious from the context in each case that it is the Sanhedrin that he is referring to. In Acts 26:10, Paul says, in effect, that at one time he had been a voting member of this group himself. Later in his testimony he is going to say that he voted for the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. It was made up of about 70 men (including the High Priest of Israel) who wrote laws and issued judgments based on their interpretation of the Mosaic law. When Israel was taken over by Rome they left the Sanhedrin intact as an aid to keeping order in the nation (a common Roman practice.) Since they held their positions for life, it is entirely possible that Paul may have recognized some of the men who were at his hearing that day. From his membership, he knew that there were two main factions in it: The Pharisees, who were “traditionalists” and experts in the Old Testament scriptures (Paul had once belonged to this group.) The other group was the Sadducees, who were much more liberal. They did not believe in the supernatural and put no emphasis on the law of Moses. (Some good-natured preacher along the way pointed out that said that one way to keep two groups apart in your thinking is that since they didn’t believe in the supernatural “they were sad, you see”) Another important thing to know about both of these groups is that they were responsible before God. They had been present for most of Jesus’ teaching, even though it was only to criticize and argue with him. And this is a perfect illustration of the fact that it is not knowledge of scripture that brings salvation, it is what one does with that knowledge. Now knowing something about these “representatives” of the Sanhedrin, we see in verse one, Paul’s report to the Sanhedrin.
Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”
Remember that Paul was exhausted and in pain as he came to this meeting – traveling many miles on horseback, much of it at night. And the tone of his statement was probably almost sarcastic – in so many words “I’m not guilty of anything, and you are wrong in judging me.” So, the response of the Sanhedrin is in verse 2:
And the high priest, Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
The self righteous and self important High Priest probably took Paul’s words and tone of voice as an insult. Besides that, the whole group had been embarrassed for years by this former “rising star” of their group who had so publicly turned against them.
Then Paul’s reaction to the Sanhedrin is recorded in verses 3 through 5:
Then Paul said to him God will strike you, you, you whitewashed wall. For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?
In effect Paul calls the High Priest a total hypocrite. But he suddenly realizes his hot-headed mistake when bystanders responded in verses 4 and 5.
And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s High Priest? (5) Then Paul said, “I did not, know brethren, that he was the High Priest; For it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.”
How could Paul not have known that the one who ordered him struck was the high priest? Many Bible scholars believe that Paul had poor eyesight – Paul himself hints at it in Galatians 4:15 and 6:11. Also, it is probable that Paul did not know Ananias personally. He had been away from Jerusalem and the Sanhedrin for 20 years by this time. In addition, Ananias may not have been wearing his priestly robes. This was a hastily called meeting and he might not have been presiding.
But even in that pressurized situation notice how Paul was consistently courteous and based his statements on scripture. Notice, too, that he did not apologize for what he had said, but for the person he said it to. The High Priest was a whitewashed wall, but he was also the High Priest. And that teaches an important principle: although it is never wrong to speak out against ungodliness, it is wrong to be disrespectful of authority under any conditions. But nonetheless the damage was done. In a moment of anger Paul had said the wrong thing to the wrong person. And in doing that he had lost an opportunity for witness – and probably to get a fair trial. Surprisingly enough, verses 6 through 10 talk about the recess but there are several things that led up to it. The first was Paul’s perceptive presentation in verses 6 through 8.
But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged (7) And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided (8) For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.
Paul knew exactly how to get the attention off of himself and onto them. And verse 8 is the verse that explains why the uproar arose Another factor leading to the recess was the Pharisees’ protests in verse 9:
Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”
All of this taken together led to the commander’s provision for Paul in verse 10 (something at which he was becoming an expert by now)
Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away by force from among them and bring him into the barracks
Note the means of protection God provided – the government! This is just a reminder of the way God uses all kinds of things to accomplish His purposes for His children.
The second section of the chapter, even though it is only one verse, is the presence of the Savior in verse eleven.
“But the following night the Lord stood by him and said “Be of good cheer, Paul, for as you have testified for me in Jerusalem so you must also do at Rome.”
Let’s think first about the background of the appearance. Paul was probably sitting in his cell feeling utterly dejected. Instead of eloquently and convincingly presenting the gospel to his former peers he had blown his chances with his own explosive anger. He had hoped to win this battle and then go on to Rome to “preach the gospel before kings as God had told him in the very beginning he would do. But now he feels that all is lost. Having let the Lord down so badly, how could he go on? But in this appearance the Lord spoke to each of those needs. For his dejection Jesus, Himself said “Be of good cheer.” For his feeling of failure – “you have testified for me in Jerusalem” Even if the method had been wrong and the results uncertain, he had testified. And he was content to accept the Lord’s measurement of his work. For his fears about the future – so you will also bear witness in Rome.” This is typical of the way the Lord works – look at 2 Corinthians 1:3,4:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, (4) Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Ironically, Jesus Himself had been through this same experience in Jerusalem a few years earlier. Who better to comfort Paul in this special situation? And remember that this is a promise to us too! Although Paul had many trying experiences after this, we never see him discouraged again.
Well, the last part of the chapter shows God’s gracious provision for Paul continuing with the prevention of Satanic plans in verses 12 through 33.
Paul probably awoke the next morning feeling refreshed and invigorated, but there were some Jews who didn’t share his feelings. So in verses 12 through 15 we find them plotting a conspiracy against Paul.
And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. (13) Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. (14) they came to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul (15) “Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he is to be brought down to you tomorrow as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near.
I have often wondered if those men starved to death – they did if the were sincere, because they never captured Paul. God is going to protect him again, but this time he is going to use a different means – an unlikely eavesdropper. The communication of the plan to Paul is in verses 16 through 22. Notice first the unlikely source of the communication in verse 16:
So when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their ambush he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.
There are a couple of interesting things about this verse: First, just to know that Paul had a sister and a nephew – one of the few things we are told about his personal family life. Second, we don’t know how old this nephew was; the Greek refers to him as a “young man,” or what his profession was, but he must have been a fairly important person, because he had access to the Jewish conspirators as well as the area where Paul’s cell was. But at any rate, God used this unusual circumstance as a part of the deliverance of Paul.
Then in verses 17 through 22 have the spreading of the communication.
(17) Then Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him.” (18) So he took him and brought him to the commander and said,
“Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to bring this young man to you. He has something to say to you. (19 Then the commander took him by the hand, went aside and asked privately, “What is it that you have to tell me? (20) And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though you were going to inquire more fully about him. (21)” But do not yield to them, for more than 40 of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neithereat nor drink until they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you.”(22)So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him, “Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me.”
And so as a result of that information the commander puts together the caravan described in verses 23 and 24
And he called for two centurions, saying “Prepare two hundred soldiers,and seventy horsemen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; (24) and provide mounts to set Paul on and bring him safely to Felix the governor . . . . “ (31)Then the soldiers as they were commanded took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris (32) The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him and returned to the barracks
No finer protection could have been planned – this would have been 470 highly trained men. And the verses that we skipped over (25 to 30) tell that he even included a letter of introduction for Paul to Felix the governor explaining the whole situation.
All of this illustrates the sovereignty of God in lives. Isn’t it amazing how God pulled off Paul’s deliverance? An intricate mixture of the small and the great, the human and the divine. This heretofore unknown nephew “just happened” to overhear the plot to kil Paul. He somehow was able to enter the heavily guarded barracks and tell Paul about it. A centurion was willing to take him to the commander. The busy commander listened to him right away and believed him. Then he put together a small army to escort Paul out of town under cover of darkness!
As Paul rode out of town the next day more like a king than a prisoner, he must have been thinking of two things: God’s grace and God’s power.
Paul had blown it with the Sanhedrin as far as he could tell, but Jesus graciously comforted and reassured him that it would all come together anyway.
And he had faced the most determined plot against his life that he had probably ever faced, but it was no match at all for the power of God.
This same two things – God’s grace and God’s power