Event(s): The Sanhedrin divided; The Plot Against Paul
Today’s Text: Acts 23:1-22
Tomorrow’s Text: Acts 23:23-35
Determined to get to the bottom of the situation, the Roman commander who has Paul in custody has him released from his chains, brought before the Sanhedrin, and calls on all the chief priests and their council to appear before him. As they begin, Paul has the floor for opening statements.
“If Paul’s offenses proved inconsequential, Claudius Lysias (the Roman commander) would release him. If the Jews charged him with some religious crime, the Sanhedrin could try him. If they charged him with a civil crime, the Roman provincial governor would try him.” –Expository on the Book of Acts
Acts 23:1 “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” Paul was not claiming to be sinless. He was claiming that nothing he had done, and nothing he preached was contrary to the will of God contained in Scripture.
Acts 23:3 “..you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” The law considered a person innocent until proven guilty. So for Ananias to have Paul slapped in the face, before he had even been tried yet, was completely out of line. Jesus had been struck in the same manner when He appeared before the council.
A “whitewashed wall” implied someone who looks good on the outside, but on the inside is full of spiritual decay and rot. Paul’s reaction was somewhat extreme, though understandably so. Some people believe he lost his temper, others believe it was truly a misunderstanding and he openly apologized for his response. Based on Paul’s track record, it’s more likely the latter is true.
Acts 23:6 “when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees…” Since we’ve not done so yet, it may be helpful to explain the differences between these two groups of people, who made up the Jewish council.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were both theological and political enemies. The Pharisees were comprised of middle-class or what we would call “blue-collar” businessmen. They were held in much higher esteem by the common man than the Sadducees were because the people could relate to them better. The name “Pharisee” seems clearly related to the word paras, meaning “to divide, separate.” So interpreted, Pharisee could simply mean the “separated ones”.
Pharisees were big time rule-keepers and created “fences” around people in an attempt to keep them from replicating rebellious behavior that had gotten Israel in trouble in the past. This is why they were so incredibly “religious”…to the point of being legalistic. As opposed to the Sadducees, they were far more concerned with religion than they were with politics.
When it came to their specific religious beliefs, they accepted the written Word as inspired by God (which up to this time would have been what we now know as the Old Testament). But they also gave equal authority to traditions, which had been put into place as a result of their stringent interpretation of the Word of God. These were religious practices they held to very carefully (such as washing of hands before eating, etc.) And they elevated such religious expressions to an equal plateau with the written word of God.
The Pharisees also maintained that an after-life existed and that God would punish the wicked and rewarded the righteous in the world to come. They also believed in the existence of angels and demons.
The Sadducees were aristocrats. Most of them were very wealthy and held powerful positions of authority including that of chief priests and high priest. (Ananias, whom we read of in today’s text, was a Sadducee.)
The Sadducees didn’t relate well to the common man like the Pharisees did. The name “Sadducees” is related to the Hebrew verbal form sadaq (tsahdak) meaning “to be righteous.” Whereas the Pharisees approach to righteousness was through strict law abiding, the Sadducees approach was through religious liberalism.
Because their focus was less on religion and more on politics, they worked hard to keep the peace by agreeing with the decisions of Rome and were quick to jump on anything that would threaten that. They feared the people, and they feared Rome.
The Sadducees were more conservative in one area of doctrine, and that was that they considered only the written Word to be from God. As opposed to the Pharisees, they denied the existence of the spiritual world (angels and demons) and denied that there was an afterlife. They denied the resurrection of the dead.
Paul knew he couldn’t get a fair trial, so he changed his tactics. His approach was to bring up a controversial issue in which he knew his jury was already divided. The issue was the resurrection of the dead. When it related to this, he knew at least half of the jury would side with him.
Acts 23:11 “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” Again, we see God showing up to encourage Paul…in the middle of the night. As we read on, we can tell it was most likely this encouragement that prepared Paul for the events that would continue to unfold.
Acts 23:14 “we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul.” Knowing their case was weak against Paul, they choose to take matters into their own hands. Their plan was to lie in wait, ambush, and assassinate him. This was far beyond what they considered their own religious zeal; this was pure hatred.
Acts 23:16 “he went and entered the barracks and told Paul.” God will work through angels, dreams, visions and words of prophecy. However, He can also bring help to us from some of the most unexpected places – in this case, a young boy. Most scholars believe Paul’s nephew was not even a teenager.
Some of Paul’s persecutions were swift and ended quickly. Others, as the one we’re currently following him through, were more of a process. God’s faithfulness always shone through in both. In the same way, when we’re facing difficulties that seem to drag on, we can know and trust that God is with us in both – the quick battles and the long ones…as well as the big picture and the small details.
Psalm 144:1 says, “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.” A battle is a hostile encounter; a war is a prolonged conflict. Training our hands speaks to the larger span that our lives cover; but training our fingers speaks to the details. Either way, He is right at our side, training us. And as we see in the life of Paul, God will make Himself known even more visibly to us so that we know He’s right at our side.
Is there something you’ve been battling that seems like it’s been going on…forever? We can be tempted, in those moments to think God is not actively involved. But one word from Him can dust us off, put us back on our feet, and give us the courage we need to press on. If you’ve been facing a battle, or a war, today, maybe ask God to breath a new word into your heart that will renew your strength.