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Bible Commentaries
Acts 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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The period of Paul’s imprisonment began with his arrest and rescue by Claudius Lysias, as recorded in the last chapter; and here we have the second of five pleas which Paul made in the various situations developing from his being a prisoner. This imprisonment was to last until the conclusion of Acts.

Verse 1

And Paul, looking stedfastly on the council, said, Brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. (Acts 23:1-2)


The council … This was the historic court of the Hebrews called the Sanhedrin, including perhaps some of the very men who had condemned Jesus to death. "They no longer met in the famous hall called the Lishcath Haggazzith,"(F1) in the sacred area where no Gentile might have gone, but in a more public place, as indicated by the soldiers having access to it a bit later.

In all good conscience until this day … Paul repeatedly affirmed that he had always maintained a good conscience in the sight of God (1 Corinthians 4:4), even declaring that "from his forefathers" he had worshiped God with a pure conscience (2 Timothy 1:3). This "is an unanswerable argument against the oft-repeated theory" that all religious actions are right, just so long as one is sincere in what he does.(F2)

For a more extended comment on "Conscience," see my Commentary on Hebrews, Hebrews 9:14; and for a full sermon on "Higher and Lower Courts," see in my book, The Gospel in Gotham, pp. 17-25. Conscience is important to every man; but the value of conscience as a guide is determined by the kind of teaching upon which it is founded. Jesus himself told the Twelve that "Whosoever killeth you shall think that he offereth service unto God" (John 16:2). Ranked in the ascending order of their authority: (1) public opinion, (2) conscience, and (3) the word of God are the three tribunals before which every man is judged.

Ananias … His ordering Paul to be struck in the mouth was an arrogant and illegal display of prejudice and unscrupulous hatred toward Paul. The order was probably obeyed the instant it was given. "He was one of the most disgraceful profaners of the sacred office of the high priest."(F3) Hervey questioned whether or not Ananias was actually high priest at this time, because "Josephus speaks of a Jonathan who was high priest during the government of Felix."(F4) Besides that, as Lewis pointed out, the New Testament usage of "high priest" has three meanings: (1) the man in office, (2) one who had previously held it, and (3) a member of the privileged family from whom the high priests were chosen.(F5)

This Ananias was a son of Nedebaeus and had acquired the office from Chalcis, a brother of Herod Agrippa I, in 47 A.D. and held it (probably with some interruptions) until 59 AD.(F6) He was an appropriate successor to those who had murdered the Lord.

Regarding the council meeting in which this defense of Paul occurred, it may not be thought of as any formal gathering of the Sanhedrin with the high priest in charge. Lysias was in charge of this meeting. Ramsay said: "This meeting was convoked by a Roman military officer, and was not a formal assembly presided over by a high priest in official dress."(F7) Any or all of the circumstances noted above may have accounted for Paul’s failure to recognize Ananias as high priest.

Verses 3-4

Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: and sittest thou to judge me according to the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest?

God shall smite thee … This was doubtless a prophecy put in Paul’s mouth by the Lord; for it is a fact that not many years later the reprobate Ananias was murdered by his own people at the time of the beginning of the Jewish war.

Contrary to law … It was illegal to smite a man who had not been condemned; and, as yet, Paul had not even been tried; but such nice distinctions concerning the rights of defendants had long before ceased to exist in the reprobate court known as the Sanhedrin. The final years of that once sacred tribunal were marked by every kind of vice and venality.

Revilest thou God’s high priest … ? It WAS illegal to revile an authority such as the high priest; but the Sanhedrinists were much quicker to defend that law than they were to honor the law forbidding striking a man illegally.

Verse 5

And Paul said, I knew not, brethren, that he was high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people.

I knew not … There is no reason whatever to accuse Paul of blindness (or near-sightedness), as some have done, or to insist that "Surely Paul would know the high priest,"(F8) or that he spoke sarcastically, as if to say, "You cannot make a high priest out of contemptible material like that!"(F9) For reasons cited under Acts 23:4, the view here is that Paul simply spoke the truth and that he did not know the high priest by his personal appearance, although he might indeed have known his name. Milligan, however, thought that Paul simply regarded Ananias "as a usurper."(F10) Paul’s admission of wrong and the citing of the scripture in Exodus 22:28 which he had inadvertently violated does not seem to allow the view that Paul would have said what he did, if he had known he was addressing the high priest. True enough, the current holder of the office was vile; but the office itself had long been accounted sacred.

Paul’s understandable outrage and impromptu protest, in all probability inspired, had two very important results: (1) it prophesied the destruction of Ananias, and (2) it led Paul to see at once that there was not any possibility of justice for himself in such a tribunal. "There was no prospect before this tribunal of a fair inquiry and a just decision."(F11) This accounts for the strategy Paul immediately employed in his defense.

Verse 6

But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out to the council, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of a Pharisee: touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.

This writer has no sympathy at all for the views of writers like Farrar who "on moral grounds," no less, are critical of what Paul here did. There was no fault whatever on the part of Paul in setting those mad-dogs at each other’s throats instead of his own. He well knew the schismatic condition of the Sanhedrin and very wisely took advantage of it in order to save his own life.

The resurrection of the dead … The so-called "moral problem" comes here. Was it strictly true that Paul had been brought before them because of his teaching on the doctrine of the resurrection? Well, of course it was. As Alexander Campbell noted:

The literal resurrection of the dead, in the person of the Son of Mary and the Son of God, was the omnipotent argument, wielded with irresistible power by the eyewitnesses of the fact, against Sadduceeism and every form of materialism and infidelity, which any form of philosophy, falsely so-called, has ever obtruded upon mankind.(F12)

That Paul on this occasion elected to state the fundamental precept of Christianity in such a manner as to divide his foes was a stroke of genius and should be praised and appreciated. When Jesus appeared to Paul later on that same occasion (that night), there was not one word of blame or censure.

Verses 7-9

And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great clamor: and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ part stood up, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: and what if a spirit hath spoken to him, or an angel?

Paul’s identification of himself as a Pharisee is also offensive to some people; but it should be remembered that the "noble Pharisee" must never be identified with the Pharisees whom Jesus denounced. See my Commentary on Matthew, Matthew 3:7, for classifications of Pharisees. Many priests became Christians (Acts 6:7), most of whom were doubtless Pharisees; and it is very likely that much of Luke’s gospel (Luke 9:51—19:28) was researched through Luke’s interviews with such Pharisees (then Christians) while Paul suffered the two whole years incarceration in Caesarea. The true and righteous Pharisees, of whom Paul must be reckoned, obeyed the gospel. Paul’s words in this passage have the effect of saying, "Only such as I am are the TRUE Pharisees."

The notion that Paul’s claiming to be a Pharisee in this situation was improper, is nullified altogether by the fact that he also made the same claim before King Agrippa (Acts 26:5) and in his letter to the Philippians (Philippians 3:5); thus there was nothing unusual about the identification of himself with the Pharisees here.

Verse 10

And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should be torn in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the castle.

Dissension … This was the third riot in two days! And, at that time, the chief captain was still totally ignorant of any cause for such disturbances. Lysias had saved Paul’s life in each of the three riots, and would be called upon to save it a fourth time the next day. "He must have been confused and disgusted. What kind of people were these Jews? He could make no sense out of their words and actions."(F13)

We have speculated somewhat with regard to Paul’s insistence on returning to Jerusalem, even wondering if perhaps there was some degree, at least, of Paul’s being out of complete harmony with the divine will by his refusal to change his plans. Certainly the disciples at Tyre interpreted the words of the Holy Spirit as a directive for Paul "not to set foot in Jerusalem" (Acts 21:4); and Luke agreed with them. Whether or not they were right is immaterial, because Paul did not so interpret the words of the Spirit but went on to Jerusalem, the others reluctantly saying, "The will of the Lord be done." In this problem we may have a glimpse of the truth that men do not always know with dogmatic certainty what the words of the Holy Spirit mean. Otherwise, it would not be true that "We walk by faith and not by sight." There must have been some dreadful feelings of uncertainty, disappointments and grief in Paul’s heart, and emotions of fear that perhaps, after all, he had been wrong about this trip to Jerusalem.

Then came the glorious reassurance from the Lord himself.

Verse 11

And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness at Rome also.

Christ himself comforted and strengthened his apostle. Trenchard analyzed the meaning of this episode thus:

There is not a whisper of reproach but: (a) encouragement from the Lord of all comfort, (b) the ratification of the witness in Jerusalem, despite all the turbulence; and (c) confirmation of the purpose that Paul should witness in Rome.(F14)

Our Lord’s specific assurance that Paul should go to Rome could indicate that Paul’s mind had been deeply troubled by events which he might have thought were the end of any hopes he had of going to Rome. The very fact of Jesus’ appearance to Paul in this context speaks of the absolute necessity of it.

Verses 12-15

And when it was day, the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. And they were more than forty that made this conspiracy. And they came to the chief priests and the elders, and said, we have bound ourselves under a curse, to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. Now therefore do ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you, as though ye would judge of his case more exactly: and we, before he comes near, are ready to slay him.

The Lord had called the temple a den of thieves and robbers; and here is the most amazing proof of it.

More than forty … How many more? Well, to the forty, one must add the chief priests and the elders of the people, the entire dominant factor which controlled the temple itself. How evil this once glorious institution had become! Once the moral nature of man is decapitated at the highest level, the consequent descent to lower and lower levels of shame, carnality and depravity is inevitable and accelerated. Having rejected the Christ only some thirty years before, the temple partisans at the time here recorded shamelessly exhibited the morality of a group of vicious outlaws.

Incidentally, it should be observed that the whole temple party had already conceded to themselves that any fair hearing of Paul’s case before Lysias would result in his acquittal. This conspiracy, therefore, is their own announcement of Paul’s innocence.

Bound … under a curse … Bruce gave the form of such an oath thus, "So may God do to us, and more also, if we eat or drink until we have killed Paul."(F15) The spirit of Jezebel rested upon the temple fathers, for she made a similar vow: "So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time" (1 Kings 19:2).

Conspiracy … This word occurs "only here in the New Testament."(F16) Amazingly, they "knew that many of the chief priests and elders would favor their murderous designs,"(F17) indicating that the satanic behavior in the temple was known to many and recognized as typical of their operations. The plot to kill Paul was skillfully designed and would in all probability have succeeded if it had not been providentially frustrated. It was simple enough. The high priest would request of Lysias another hearing, promising, of course, that no riot would ensue next time, and pretending of course that they would fully resolve the matter at another hearing; and there was no reason to suppose Lysias might not have honored such a request. In the meanwhile, forty desperate men, armed with daggers, would waylay the escort as they started for the meeting place and murder Paul before he ever appeared before the Sanhedrin, which of course would have professed surprise and avoided all implications involving themselves. Beautiful! But God did not allow it.

Verse 16

But Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, and he came and entered into the castle and told Paul.

Paul’s sister’s son … This is all that is known of this "young man," as Paul called him, and all that is known of Paul’s sister; and we shall refrain from indulging speculative guesses concerning them. It seems proper, however, to receive the deduction of Conybeare to the effect that "The whole narrative gives the impression that he was a very young man."(F18) This is justified by the chiliarch’s taking him "by the hand" (Acts 23:19).

It would be interesting to know just how this lad learned so much about that conspiracy, and if his mother was a Christian, and why, if they were living in Jerusalem, Paul would have been staying with Mnason instead of his sister, etc. Root’s suggestion that "the young man" might have been "a rabbinical student in Jerusalem as Paul himself had been a generation before"(F19) is an example of the guessing which scholars like to indulge.

Verse 17

And Paul called unto him one of the centurions, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain; for he hath something to tell him.

Note that Paul did not trust the centurion with the message, but rather contrived to get it delivered to the chief captain himself.

Verse 18

So he took him and brought him to the chief captain, and saith, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and asked me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say to thee.

This young man … The same word is used of Paul, as "the young man" at whose feet the clothes of Stephen were laid. The centurion discharged the errand for Paul exactly as requested, indicating the favor in which Paul was viewed in the castle.

Paul the prisoner … Alas, this was to be the status of Paul for half a decade.

Verse 19

And the chief captain took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, What is it that thou hast to tell me?

The care with which Lysias protected himself against any possible eavesdropping is notable, and his caution was well rewarded; for after receiving the tip-off on what was afoot, he could move without the temple conspirators’ knowledge that he had intentionally acted to thwart their murder of an innocent man. In the political climate of that era, this was decidedly to his advantage.

Verses 20-21

And he said, The Jews have agreed to ask thee to bring down Paul tomorrow unto the council, as though thou wouldest inquire somewhat more exactly concerning him. Do not thou therefore yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, who have bound themselves under a curse, neither to eat nor to drink until they have slain him: and now are they ready, looking for the promise from thee.

The full and concise manner of "the young man’s" report suggests that he was at least of sufficient age to grasp all the details of the plot, indicating also the exercise of a rather subtle diplomacy. Whereas the plotters proposed that the council should have Paul brought down, in order that "they" the council might further examine him, the young man’s report of it gave the right of inquiry to the chiliarch, "as though thou wouldest inquire."

Verse 22

So the chief captain let the young man go, charging him, Tell no man that thou hast signified these things to me.

Thus protecting himself against any premature knowledge of what he might do, the chiliarch acted with decisive speed and authority to checkmate the evil conspirators.

Verses 23-24

And he called unto him two of the centurions, and said, Make ready, two hundred soldiers to go as far as Caesarea, and horsemen three score and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night: and he bade them provide beasts, that they might set Paul thereon, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor.

The whole force was 470 men; and their departure at the third hour of the night (9:00 P.M.) was thus well ahead of any request the chief priests might send to him the next day; and the size of the escort was large enough to kill any thought of the forty conspirators of following it, overtaking it, and murdering Paul anyway. This abruptly aborted their plot.

Provide beasts … This has been variously understood as the need of several mounts for Paul, which would be changed from time to time on such a forced march; or as including mounts for the soldiers guarding Paul, and to whom he was still presumably chained; or as including sufficient mounts for Luke and other companions of Paul. The text affords no way of knowing exactly what all might have been included.

Felix the governor … This was the procurator of Judaea, one of the successors of Pontius Pilate, although the office itself, for a time, had disappeared under the rule of Herod Antipas I, who was king over the whole area once ruled by Herod the Great; and, of course, during his reign no procurators were needed. However, Herod was summarily slain by an angel of God (Acts 12:23) in 44 A.D.; and after that, the old system of procurators was revived.


Felix Marcus Antonius, a brother of Pallas, the notorious favorite of Claudius, through influence at Rome, was named procurator of Judaea about 52 A.D., an office he held until recalled by Nero in 59 A.D. He was succeeded by Festus. Thus, this is another date in secular history that touches and illuminates Acts. The events being described by Luke in this chapter occurred two years before the recall of Felix, that is, in 57 A.D.(F20) (This favors a 55 A.D. date for Romans.)

Felix, trading on his influence in Rome, was an unscrupulous scoundrel. Paul was innocent, and should have been released at once; but Felix hoped to get a fat bribe, and kept Paul in prison. He put down certain brigands and robbers, "but he himself was worse than any of them."(F21) Hervey tells how he "murdered Jonathan the high priest, using the ASSASSINS,"(F22) one of the "high priests" who held office during the term of Ananias, whose high priesthood was interrupted.

The epitaph which history has written by his name is this: "With savagery and lust, he exercised the powers of a king with the disposition of a slave."

Verses 25-26

And he wrote a letter after this form: Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix, greeting.

Here is revealed the name of the chief captain. The coincidence of his being called "Claudius" at a time when Claudius was emperor might have resulted from Lysias’ mere annexation of the name "as a compliment to the emperor, such liberties being then common."(F23)

Felix … See under preceding verse. In addition to what is said above, Felix’ importance is further seen in the fact that his outrageous and unprincipled conduct did much to precipitate the war in 70 A.D. which led to the ruin of Israel. Dummelow said: "His folly and cruelty goaded the nation into disaffection and rebellion."(F24)

Verses 27-30

(Salutation — previous verse) This man was seized by the Jews, and was about to be slain of them, when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman, and desiring to know the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him down unto their council: whom I found to be accused about questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was shown to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to thee forthwith, charging his accusers also to speak against him before thee.


This is a classical example of a self-serving distortion of truth to serve selfish and political ends. "Having learned that he was a Roman …" implies that the rescue was made to prevent harm to a Roman citizen, whereas Lysias did not even know that he was a Roman until after he had illegally bound him, a fact left comfortably out of sight in his letter!

The genuineness of such a document as this is evident in every nuance of it. This was politics as it was played in the Roman Empire in those days. Alas, it may be feared that the same old game goes on in the same old way in all times and places.

Significantly, Paul is sent to Felix, not as a criminal, but as a fellow citizen rescued. If an honorable man had held the office then entrusted to Felix, Paul would have been released at once.

Verses 31-33

So the soldiers, as it was commanded them, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. But on the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the castle: and they, when they came to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, presented Paul also before him.

Antipatris, 26 miles south of Caesarea, was rebuilt by Herod the Great in honor of his father Antipater (hence the name).(F25) Plumptre gave the distance from Jerusalem as 42 miles;(F26) others say it was 38.

Brought him to Antipatris by night … means one of two things: (1) Paul and his escort of 470 men made a forced march in order to arrive at Antipatris the same night they left Jerusalem, or (2) that they stopped en route, arriving at Antipatris the next night. The words are capable of either construction.

Came to Caesarea … Boles appropriately observed that:

They entered Caesarea in daylight, and such a parade would have attracted many curious eyes. Philip and other Christians of Caesarea must have been startled to recognize the rapid fulfillment of prophecy concerning Paul’s journey to Jerusalem.(F27)

Verses 34-35

And when he had read it, he asked of what province he was; and when he understood that he was of Cilicia, I will hear thee fully, said he, when thine accusers also are come: and he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s palace.

What province … ? This was a pertinent question to determine if Paul really came under his authority; finding he had no worry on that point, he postponed any action until he could devise some manner of turning the situation to his own profit.

In Herod’s palace … Vicious criminals would not have been kept in such a palace, and therefore it may be inferred that Paul was honorably treated and given the best accommodations available for a man under detention. This was to be Paul’s home for two whole years, during which Luke would canvass the cities and villages of Galilee Judaea, Samaria, etc., preparatory to writing the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps in that work of the incomparable Luke, one may read the purpose of that strange providence which left the greatest of apostles to suffer frustration and delay under the lock and key of Felix. For the benign character of Paul’s imprisonment in Herod’s palace, however, one may be grateful and thankful to the Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Acts 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/acts-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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