Following in Christ's Footsteps
After the Roman officer Claudius Lysias rescued Paul from an angry mob outside the Temple, he did not know what to do with his prisoner. The reason for the tumult surrounding Paul was a great mystery. What did the Jews have against him? Before he could deal with Paul properly, he had to know what kind of threat he posed to public order and safety. But when he set about to scourge Paul, with the object of extracting a confession of his crime, Paul stopped him by pleading his rights as a Roman citizen. A Roman citizen could not be punished without a regular trial, and he could not be punished by scourging. At last, determined to gain the information he needed before he could dispose of the prisoner, the officer resolved to take Paul before the Sanhedrin. He wanted to hear from Jewish leaders exactly what accusations they had to bring against Paul. So, he ordered them to convene the Sanhedrin in a full session. When they gathered, he went to the meeting himself, taking Paul along so that he might speak in his own defense.
Paul took a seat in front, with Jewish guards surrounding him. Who presided over the meeting is a matter of some dispute. It may have been the Roman officer, or it may have been the high priest. In either case, the high priest had a place in front of the assembly. Yet Paul did not recognize 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, 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. As this man stood in all his finery and exercised prominence in 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.
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 honor Paul. 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" (Ex. 22:28, which he quoted from the Septuagint).
Escape from Condemnation
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 proclaim Christ. 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. If the Sanhedrin agreed that he committed a capital offense under Jewish law—if, for example, they decided that he profaned or attempted to profane the Temple precincts—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. Notice in his words that he had now abandoned any hope of witnessing to the Jewish leaders. He was merely trying to escape with his life. 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 (that is, a demon) 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.
The words of the Pharisees merely infuriated the Sadducees even more. Besides rejecting the doctrine of resurrection, they denied the existence of angels and demons. 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
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.
A Plot Foiled
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.
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.
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. Then he made arrangements to hurry Paul out of Jerusalem before there could be any more trouble. 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 his officers to assemble a force of almost 500 men, including seventy cavalry, 200 infantry, and 200 spearmen, and to leave soon after dark on the same night, at about nine o'clock, when most Jews were in bed. He told them also 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
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.
During the first night of travel, the convoy took Paul all the way to Antipatris along the coast, about twenty-five miles south of their destination. 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." Luke is referring to the governor's own residence, a palace that Herod the Great built originally to house his military commander.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.