Following in Christ's Footsteps

Acts 23:1-5

After being brought to the Sanhedrin, Paul took a seat in front, with Jewish guards surrounding him. The account suggests that the meeting opened with few preliminaries. Before Paul had an opportunity to pick out the high priest from everyone else, he was required to speak on his own behalf. He started by addressing the council in friendly words, calling them men and brethren. Then he immediately sought to justify himself in their sight. He claimed that he had spent his life in such a way that his conscience was free of any guilt toward God. He was, in other words, denying the accusation of his enemies that he was a traitor to God and to the faith of his fathers.

Without giving Paul a chance to say another word, the high priest ordered the guards standing near him to strike him across the mouth as a rebuke. It was not the first blow Paul ever received, but it was the first to inflame him as this one did. Here he stood in the highest court of his nation among the spiritual leaders of his people. Here, of all places, he should have been treated with simple justice. And here he stood as an innocent man. Therefore, in this court that prided itself on being a bastion of the law of God, he should have been acquitted of any wrongdoing. Indeed, he should have received something far better than mere acquittal. As God's spokesman to the world of gentiles, he should have received acclaim. After his years of toil for God, his return to the Sanhedrin, where he had once been a promising young member, should have been a joyous homecoming. But it was far from that. Instead, his brethren looked down on him as a despicable criminal. Paul found such treatment hard to accept. As a Jew with a deep love of Jewish institutions and of all things Jewish, who loved his people so much that he had once offered to suffer the divine wrath they deserved (Rom. 9:3), he was wounded to the core.

He responded with anger, but it was anger energized by pure disappointment and grief. He lashed out at the man who ordered the blows and called him a whitewashed wall. He meant that the man was a hypocrite. In all his finery as he occupied a commanding place before the Sanhedrin, he looked good on the outside, but inside he was full of corruption. Perhaps Paul was recalling Jesus' charge against the Pharisees who opposed Him—that they were like whitened sepulchres (Matt. 23:27). Paul scolded his adversary for authorizing abusive treatment contrary to the law that he was obliged to uphold. The law did not permit an accused man to be smitten or punished in any way before he had been properly tried. As in our modern courts, so in a Jewish court, a man was held innocent until proven guilty. Unaware that his adversary was the high priest himself, Paul pronounced a fearful judgment upon him, saying that God would smite him for his shameful attack upon Paul.

Getting Practical

In the flesh

Paul was entirely justified in what he said. The law was on his side. Justice was on his side. Moral principle was on his side. And yet his conduct fell short of being perfect. Again, we must understand that Paul's last visit to Jerusalem was out of God's will. The record we have of that visit, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is intended to show us that even the greatest man of God cannot afford to ignore God's direction. The chief consequences for Paul were two. First, he suffered all the rejection and adversity and all the loss of freedom to serve God that God predicted would come upon him if he persevered in his foolhardy attempt to save the Jews from destruction. Second, he found it impossible to present a good testimony for Christ, for everything he did was in the flesh, not in the spirit.

We see him in the flesh when he responded to the blow across the mouth. How can we be sure that he was not following the prompting of the Spirit?

  1. Consider Paul’s own words written some years after this incident: "And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will" (2 Tim. 2:24–26).
  2. Consider also the example of Christ. On more than one occasion He denounced whole groups of sinners, such as the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23), the money-changers at the Temple (John 2:13–17), and the unbelieving cities in Galilee (Matt. 11:20–24), but never did He denounce an individual standing before Him. Instead, He always showed a face of love, giving that individual a chance to recognize his Savior.
  3. Especially consider Christ’s conduct at His trial before the Sanhedrin many years earlier. There His circumstances were almost exactly the same as Paul’s described in Acts 23. But notice how He handled Himself under extreme provocation (John 18:19–23). As very Creator and Lord of all, He warned the high priest bluntly that he needed to follow due process. And when He was struck on the face, He again pointed out the injustice. But He was perfectly calm. We see no flash of anger, no words of insult, no threat of impending doom. Later, when He was subjected to further unlawful abuse, He said nothing (Luke 22:63-65). His restraint was a powerful testimony to His persecutors that He was controlled by the Spirit of God.

Paul’s lapse into ungodly behavior before the Sanhedrin is full of lessons for us. One is that no one should think he has enough credit with God or enough good works on his record to risk disregard of God’s will. Another is that when men abuse us, we must restrain the fleshly impulse to fight back. We must show them the face of Christ—a face softened by longsuffering, gentleness, and love.

Yet even though Paul acted improperly before the Sanhedrin, God honored his words. His disobedience to God's direction was an issue between him and God. So far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, he stood there as God's prophet and apostle. God expected them to recognize who he was, pay respect to his high office, and submit to his authority. On the Day of Judgment, God will hold them accountable for their failure to give Paul his rightful place. Therefore, God supported and vindicated whatever Paul said.

Paul said that God would smite the high priest. This high priest, named Ananias, was a conniving politician, remembered as a gluttonous fat man who was entirely unscrupulous in advancing his own interests. He held the position of high priest for over ten years and then remained a strong power behind the scenes for another seven or eight years. His success rested in part upon his skill in avoiding the displeasure of the Romans. But finally in AD 66, shortly before the Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, his pro-Roman stance brought his downfall. He was waylaid by a band of Jewish extremists and assassinated. Indeed, God smote him, as Paul predicted.

After Paul pronounced a curse on Ananias, the people standing around Paul chided him for speaking such words against the high priest. Immediately, Paul realized that he had spoken rashly, without careful consideration, and he apologized. He went so far as to acknowledge that he himself had disobeyed the law, for the law forbade any member of the nation to speak evil against his rulers. The command that he had broken was this: "Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people" (Exod. 22:28, which he quoted from the Septuagint).

Delving Deeper

Coming to a false position

Paul's admission of wrongdoing was an ironic sequel to what he said earlier—that he considered himself faultless before God. Here again his disobedience left him in a false position.

Notice that his clear violation of an Old Testament command still in force in his day removes any possibility that his response to the high priest was by the moving of the Spirit. The Spirit would never have led him to break the law. On the contrary, the Spirit if consulted would have advised a very different response, perhaps to keep his mouth shut. Therefore, his behavior was unjustified. In plainer terms, it was wrong.

Pondering a Question

Why does Luke tell us about this embarrassing moment in Paul’s life?

We must remember that Luke was Paul’s faithful companion and perhaps his closest friend, and Paul was Luke’s spiritual mentor. We may assume that we have this account only because Paul wanted Luke to include it. Why? Perhaps to give us a good example of how to deal with sin. Paul immediately confessed his sin and never afterward sought to hide it. He was completely transparent about it. Perhaps also Paul wanted to leave a warning to other Christian leaders not to think themselves too high and holy to fall into sin.

We have said before that Scripture informs us about this embarrassing moment to discourage hagiolatry. Perhaps another reason Paul himself urged Luke to record it was that he foresaw the same danger. He did not want to be remembered as St. Paul.

Yet why was this unflattering account of Paul included in a book written to assist his defense in Rome? Perhaps because it shows how Paul conducted himself under extreme provocation by a ruler. As soon as he understood who the man was, Paul treated him respectfully. Any judge reading the account would see that Paul was no rebel at heart, no threat to Roman authority.

Delving Deeper

The mark of validity

Luke’s account is valuable in another respect as well. It is unthinkable that Paul’s dear friend Luke would have included a story of Paul’s moral slippage unless it was true. It is another in a multitude of evidences that the Book of Acts is dependable history.

It is also another rebuke to the critics, who imagine that the book comes from a much later writer who wanted to celebrate Paul’s achievements and venerate Paul. Yet their theory runs afoul of the unvenerating candor we find in chapter 23.

Escape from Condemnation

Acts 23:6-10

Perhaps through the intervention of the Roman officer, Paul was then allowed to speak further. After taking a false step through impulsive words, he looked out over the Sanhedrin and carefully considered what to say. The realization that he had blundered badly must have shaken him out of his stubborn refusal to accept God's direction. From what happened next we surmise that now was the time when Paul finally admitted to himself his error in coming to Jerusalem. Outside the Temple he had tried to give his personal testimony. His first words before the Sanhedrin suggest that he was intending to try again. But the Jews who heard him earlier reviled him and called for his blood. Here, before he could say more than a few words in his own defense, he suffered scorn again. This time it came from the high priest himself. In a moment, the cloud of self-deception lifted from his spiritual eyes, and he clearly saw the futility in his mad crusade to save the Jews. Moreover, he understood that his carnal reaction to the high priest was a sure sign that the Holy Spirit was not filling and helping him. Therefore, because he had neither power to gain anything nor anything to gain, Paul left off his attempt to tell of his own spiritual journey. To persevere was pointless.

As soon as he came into agreement with God, God gave him wisdom for his next words. Paul was in great peril. Roman policy permitted the Sanhedrin to enforce the Jewish law prohibiting defilement of the Temple, regarded as a capital offense. Thus, if the Sanhedrin agreed that Paul had committed this crime, Claudius Lysias, who represented Roman authority in Jerusalem, would have permitted them to execute Paul. But the Lord did not want him to die in Jerusalem. He therefore showed Paul the course that could take him out of danger.

Before him Paul saw a Sanhedrin divided into two parties, Pharisees and Sadducees. The division between them was longstanding and bitter. He perceived that he could save himself by taking advantage of this division. How? All he had to do was present himself as a Pharisee and declare his support for what the Pharisees believed. He calculated correctly what the result would be. The Pharisees would rally to his side, the Sadducees would recoil in disgust, and conflict would erupt between the two parties, making it impossible for the Sanhedrin to agree on any verdict. Among the contentious issues that fueled constant debate between the two parties was whether the dead will rise again. Therefore, Paul cried out that he was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee, and that he was under attack because he held to the doctrine of the resurrection. The effect of his words was exactly what he expected. The two parties began to argue.

Some among the Pharisees suddenly found enough charity in their hearts to say kind words about Paul. They were willing to declare him free of any great evil. His testimony in the Temple courtyard must have been reported to them, for they knew his claim to have seen the risen Christ. Although they were not ready to accept Paul's interpretation of the vision, they were willing to concede that maybe an angel or a spirit had appeared to him. They therefore warned against condemning him on the basis of that testimony. If the vision came from God, they would put themselves in the position of resisting the Almighty.

Pondering a Question

Why did the Pharisees think that if a spirit might have spoken to Paul, he should be exonerated?

Most commentators think that by "spirit," they meant an evil spirit, a demon. But if Paul had been listening to an evil spirit, the Pharisees surely would have seen such dependence on evil powers as further reason to condemn him, not excuse him. They condemned Jesus for being in league with Beelzebub (Mark 3:22).

It is more likely that they meant the spirit of a dead person, perhaps even a godly man from the past. They remembered that after Samuel died, his spirit visited Saul and spoke to him (1 Sam. 28:3–25).

The words of the Pharisees merely infuriated the Sadducees even more. Besides rejecting the doctrine of resurrection, they denied the existence of angels and spirits. Conflict rose to such a pitch that the two parties apparently came to blows. Both sides surrounded Paul and sought to take him into their hands. The Roman officer realized that if he did not intervene, the mob would pull Paul apart. The soldiers he brought with him were insufficient to handle the crisis. So, he called reinforcements down from the nearby Roman fortress, Antonia, who arrived in time to deliver Paul from the brawling politicians. They conducted him safely back to the fortress.

A Timely Vision

Acts 23:11

Now that Paul had turned from his folly and submitted to the Lord's will, the Lord was ready to meet with him. All through Paul's endeavor to go to Jerusalem and save the Jews, the Lord never attempted to speak to him directly. He sent others to warn him. Paul was denied the privilege of hearing the Lord speak because he was stubbornly following the wrong path. But now, after Paul's change of heart before the Sanhedrin, fellowship with the Lord was possible again. The very next night, the Lord came and stood by him. It is evident that Paul saw him with his physical eyes and heard him with his physical ears. This was no dream, nor any vision during a trance, but a real appearance of Christ to Paul when he was awake and conscious—an appearance comparable to what Paul saw on the road to Damascus. Then, the glory of Christ was overpowering. Now, it was evidently muted. But His presence was no less real.

Christ came with words of comfort. He first urged Paul to forsake gloomy thoughts and be glad. No doubt Paul was berating himself because he had been so long out of step with the Lord. Remorse flooded his soul. He desperately needed to feel that the Lord forgave him. We can surmise that it was primarily to assure Paul of forgiveness that Christ came to him in such a dramatic way. Yet Christ had another purpose as well. Paul was also troubled by fear for his life. Christ revealed to him that he should be calm, because he would not die in Jerusalem. He would be spared so that he might witness for Christ in Rome. Christ was making it clear to Paul that whereas Paul went to Jerusalem without the Lord's blessing, he would have the Lord's blessing when he went to Rome.

Getting Practical

We can learn many lessons from Paul's repentance.

  1. Just as his change of heart was instantaneous, so was his restoration to God's favor and grace. In one moment he spoke rash and imprudent words contrary to the law of God. Moments later he spoke words of wisdom coming from the Holy Spirit. The change in his conduct must have reflected a change in his heart. Once he took down the barrier of self-will erected against God, he immediately resumed the character of God's mighty warrior.
  2. The Lord was waiting eagerly for Paul's repentance, and when it came, He did not make Paul endure any display of His displeasure. How different God is than we are! We cannot hear an apology without letting the offender know how deeply he hurt us, and without trumpeting how noble we are in extending forgiveness. Or we may even withhold forgiveness until we have made him squirm under our words of censure. But Christ is not childish like us. His forgiveness was immediate and complete. To make sure Paul knew he was forgiven, He came to his side right away with no words except words of love.
  3. Earlier, to show Paul that he was in need of repentance, the Lord used the same methods that He uses with us. Paul's disobedience did not begin until he set foot in Jerusalem. Therefore, up until that moment, the Lord was content with giving him warnings. At any time during his journey, he could have turned back and escaped any fault. But as soon as he reached the forbidden place, the Lord's mechanism of correction began to operate. Paul went from failure to failure. He failed to escape the demands of James and of the Pharisees—demands that must have rankled his conscience. He failed to speak effectively to the crowd outside the Temple. He failed to gain a respectful hearing at the Sanhedrin. At last, when he fell into a sin obvious to his own eyes, he even failed to keep his self-respect. Then he was ready to say that he was wrong. Likewise, when we are wayward from God's will, He lets us fail, and the taste of failure gets more and more bitter until we are ready to spit out our pride.

A Plot Unfolds

Acts 23:12-15

Paul's presence in the city let loose a flurry of fanaticism. Extremists convinced that Paul was an archenemy of all things precious to Jews banded together and conspired to take his life. No less than forty stirred themselves up to make a terrible vow. They pledged to each other that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. In essence, they were saying that if they could not kill Paul, they would kill themselves. We can see that the mentality of modern suicide bombers has roots in the ancient world.

These conspirators were not riffraff from back alleys. These were men of enough standing to gain an audience with the chief priests and elders. In fact, when they met the leaders, they spoke as if they were in command. It is evident that they were members of some organized movement which the leaders feared to disregard. At this time, resistance to Roman rule and to the many gentile incursions upon Jewish society was building in strength. About ten years later it was strong enough to produce a full-scale rebellion, but the outcome for the Jewish nation was not freedom, only destruction.

The conspirators told the leaders to send Claudius Lysias a message, requesting that he bring Paul back to the council the next day. The pretext would be that the council wished to question Paul further. But the forty conspirators would set an ambush, allowing them to attack Paul's escort before it could reach the council. Having often observed the commanding officer as he moved about the city, they doubted that his escort to the council would be a large force of soldiers. So, they were confident that they could overpower the Romans and kill Paul.

A Plot Foiled

Acts 23:16-22

But the conspirators made one mistake—the same mistake that has been made by many other conspirators down through history. By bringing so many into the plot, they compromised its secrecy. Somehow, news of the plot reached one of Paul's relatives in Jerusalem. This was his nephew, son of his sister. The plotters' downfall was probably the result of informing too many leaders of their intentions. They told not only the chief priests, but also many among the elders, perhaps including some Pharisees who were sympathetic to Paul. These may have had ties with Paul's family, which had long been prominent in the Pharisaical party. Perhaps one of the elders deliberately alerted Paul's family to what was being planned.

However the news came to Paul's nephew, he was eager to save his uncle's life, and he went immediately to the Roman fortress to warn Paul. Evidently, Paul was not being held under tight security, for the young man had no trouble gaining access to him. When Paul heard what his nephew had to say, he instantly accepted the report as credible and, summoning one of the centurions nearby, requested that he take the young man to see the captain. The centurion did Paul's bidding and found the captain willing to hear the young man. Indeed, the captain showed himself very friendly, for he took Paul's nephew by the hand and went aside to speak with him confidentially. After the young man told the whole story to the captain, he ventured to give him advice, saying that he should not take Paul to the council, as the Jews requested.

Pondering a Question

What was the captain's attitude toward Paul?

In the captain's handling of the strife centering on Paul, we find many clues that he took Paul's side. Once he found out that Paul was a Roman, he treated him virtually as an equal. He spoke to him in a familiar manner about how he himself obtained the privilege of Roman citizenship. He set Paul before the Sanhedrin as if he were a man of sufficient rank to address such a body. He kept Paul under loose custody at the fortress. He readily assented to hear the information brought by Paul's nephew. He received the young man as a friend. And in his letter to the governor, he said nothing critical of Paul, but offered the opinion that Paul was guiltless and worthy of release.

The Romans at this time were extremely leery of Jewish extremism. So, the captain was by no means disposed to think that the Jews had good reason to hate Paul. If anything, he was disposed in Paul's favor, because the Jews also hated Romans like Claudius Lysias. Another point in common was that Paul was a Roman citizen. Also, the captain perhaps detected that Jewish opposition to Paul had something to do with his friendliness to gentiles. Therefore, for all these reasons, he saw Paul as an ally, not an enemy.

Another factor bearing on his attitude was that he had initially mistreated Paul. He therefore realized that it was good policy to get on Paul's good side, lest Paul retain a grudge against him when he later defended himself in court. There he would be able to complain that Lysias treated him illegally.

The captain did not question the report or quarrel with the advice, but took immediate steps to frustrate the plot. He dismissed the young man and ordered him to tell no one that he had tipped off the Roman authorities.

Decisive Action

Acts 23:23-24

Then Claudius made arrangements to hurry Paul out of Jerusalem before there could be any more trouble. As a chiliarch, Claudius was entitled to exercise command over a thousand men. Since Jerusalem was a hotbed of trouble, it is likely that he was kept fully supplied with soldiers. He was therefore able to make an effective response to the present crisis. He called two centurions and assigned them the task of escorting Paul to the palace of Felix, Roman governor of the whole province, who resided in Caesarea along the coast. The captain directed the centurions to assemble a force of almost 500 men—that is, about half of the total Roman force in Jerusalem—and to leave soon after dark on the same night, at about the third hour (nine o’clock), when most Jews were in bed. All three kinds of troops employed in land combat were included: seventy cavalry, 200 heavy infantry, and 200 light infantry, here designated by a word suggesting that they were spearmen. Claudius also instructed his junior officers to provide Paul with a mount, so that he could move quickly rather than trudge along on foot.

The captain's first object was clear. He wanted to prevent Paul's enemies from making any attempt on his life in Jerusalem. His second object, in case these enemies found out that Paul was being moved to another place, was to escort him with a strong enough force to deter any attack along the road. As it turned out, the Roman escort succeeded in removing Paul secretly by night from Jerusalem and in conducting him safely to Caesarea.

The Captain's Letter

Acts 23:25-30

The captain sent a letter along with the escort, explaining who Paul was and why he was being sent to Felix. The letter illustrates the skillful use of half-truths to influence another man's judgment. Claudius was correct in saying that he rescued Paul from a mob bent on killing him. He also gave an accurate account of what happened when he took Paul before the Sanhedrin—that the Jews failed to bring any charge against Paul that had any merit under Roman law. Finally, he stated the true reason why he whisked Paul out of Jerusalem—to save his life from enemies plotting to ambush and kill him.

But on one point he fudged the facts. He said that the reason he and his men waded into the riot outside the Temple was to rescue a man known to be a Roman citizen. This was neither true nor plausible. How could the captain have known whether Paul was a Roman? Claudius stooped to prevarication because he was afraid of censure for his actual conduct. He mistreated Paul by arresting him summarily on a mere assumption of guilt, by putting him in bonds, and by preparing to scourge him—all of which were forbidden when dealing with a Roman citizen. Claudius decided that the best way to protect himself was to paint himself as Paul's protector rather than as his persecutor. Whether the lie fooled Felix, we do not know. But Claudius knew that the only evidence against him was Paul's witness, and the governor could hardly put the word of Paul above the word of his military commander. Also, Claudius was probably hoping that after all he had done to protect Paul, Paul would be kind enough not to contradict the captain's report.

Transfer Completed

Acts 23:31-35

During the first night of travel, the convoy took Paul all the way to Antipatris along the coast, about thirty-five miles from Jerusalem and twenty-five miles south of their destination. Imagine the discipline and conditioning of troops able to march so far in about nine hours. They were keeping a pace of one mile every fifteen minutes. That Luke implies a speed which is approximately the realistic upper limit to quick-tempo marching without a break for nine hours is another testimony to the accuracy of his record.

The remainder of the journey was through gentile settlements in open country. Since little danger of ambush remained, the foot soldiers returned to Jerusalem, leaving the small force of cavalry to protect Paul. Immediately upon arrival in Caesarea, Paul's escort delivered him to the governor.

As Paul stood before Felix, the governor inquired first as to the prisoner's native province. Paul said he came from Cilicia. This was the province in southeast Asia Minor where his home city, Tarsus, was located. The governor's question was intended to find out whether he had jurisdiction in Paul's case. At that time, the empire was organized in such a way that a citizen of Cilicia could stand in Felix's court. Therefore, Felix set a time for a hearing. He said he would consider the case as soon as Paul's accusers came down from Jerusalem. Until then, Paul was to be kept in "Herod's judgment hall."

The actual word is "praetorium," a Latin word originally signifying the residence of a military commander. In later times, the same word was used for the residence of a regional governor. In Caesarea, the governor's residence, or praetorium, was a palace that Herod the Great had built originally for his own comfort when he visited the city. Now under the control of Felix, the palace included some rooms, probably secluded from the main building, where prisoners were held.

Getting Practical

The Lord promised Paul that he would not die in Jerusalem. In the story of how the Lord saved Paul from a strong band of conspirators, we see how infinitely resourceful the Lord is in bringing His will to pass. No drift of events can take Him by surprise or find Him helpless to resist. No human power can overrule His will or work around it.

Notice how easily God stopped the plot against Paul. He did it in four easy steps. He had a conspirator tell his plans to one of Paul's sympathizers; the sympathizer told someone in Paul's family; Paul's nephew told Paul and the Roman captain; and the Roman captain escorted Paul out of Jerusalem. God accomplished the first step by causing an enemy of God to act foolishly. Even the heart of one of His enemies is a tool in His hand.

How then can we doubt that He will fulfill His promises to us? He is truth. Therefore, we can believe what He says. He is almighty. Therefore, we can be sure that His will cannot be frustrated. It will prevail against all contrary circumstances, leap easily over all barriers, and laugh at what men reckon to be impossibilities. Just because our minds are too small to comprehend the ways of God, let us not be weak in faith.

Further Reading

Lessons on Acts 1-14 appear not only on this website, but also in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.