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Bible Commentaries
Acts 23

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Introduction

Paul is now a Roman prisoner. This will be the case throughout the remainder of the book of Acts. From this time forward, Paul is either in a defense of his faith or he is seeking to avoid the conspiracies of the Jews to take his life.

Verse 1

And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.

Just as the penetrating look of the apostle had unmasked the "child of the devil" (13:9-10) and locked on to the "cripple" in Lystra (14:8-9), Paul now sizes up his inquisitors with an unflinching stare. Without hesitation, Paul declares "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day."

The conclusion we are brought to is that Paul has lived his entire religious life with a clear conscience toward God. Even during the time when he is the chief instigator of murder and mayhem against the Lord’s people, he does so with a "good conscience."

I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 26:9).

It is possible, even when one sincerely thinks he is right, to be wrong! Our consciences are creatures of education. For our consciences to direct us correctly, they must be taught correctly. It is not enough to be doing what "seems right" or "feels right"; we must be doing what is right according to the word of God. A person should always be willing to check to be certain that he has a "thus saith the Lord" for the things that he preaches and practices (Matthew 7:21-27).

There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death Proverbs 16:25).

Verse 2

And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.

It needs to be understood that this is not a formal assembly of the Sanhedrin with the high priest in charge. The Roman chief captain is in charge of this meeting, and the court members are merely standing about. Ananias shows his mean and arrogant nature by ordering that Paul be struck in the mouth.

This is not the Ananias who is called high priest in the Gospels and in Acts 4:6, but the son of Nebedaeus who was nominated by Herod, King of Chalcis, and held this office from 49-59. He was accused of rapine and cruelty by the Samaritans and in 52 had to go to Rome to defend himself. ... His order to strike Paul on the mouth is typical of the violent character of the man. The Sadducees were notorious for their arrogant manners even toward their colleagues (Lenski 928-929).

Verse 3

Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?

Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: Ananias has chosen the wrong man if he thinks he can abuse Paul and escape without rebuke. Just as quickly as Ananias chooses to strike Paul, Paul parries with a verbal blow that is not only a stinging rebuke but also prophetic. History declares that Ananias was later killed by his own people. Lenski says the Greek used in Paul’s reply is far more telling than the translation:

The key word is placed forward with the fullest emphasis: "Smite thee shall God, thou whitewashed wall!" literally, "God is about" to do that very thing to thee (930).

The words "whited wall" are a bold way of saying that Ananias is a hypocrite. This is the same metaphor used by Jesus when he calls the Pharisees "whited sepulchres" in Matthew 23:27.

for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?

When Ananias gives the order to "smite" Paul, he violates the very law he is supposed to be upholding. It is against the law to strike a man who has not been condemned.

Verse 4

And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest?

It was illegal to revile one of authority. Is it not interesting how this bunch of Jewish hypocrites applies the law? They recognize the illegality of reviling one of their own, but they fail to see the equal illegality of striking one who is not condemned.

Verse 5

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

It seems to be news to the apostle that Ananias is the high priest. Various commentators have differing explanations as to why Paul does not know Ananias is the high priest. ("Wist not" is old English for "knew not.") It has been suggested: Paul does not recognize Ananias because he is not dressed in his priestly attire. Ananias is not rightfully the high priest but has usurped the office. Paul speaks with derision in that he would not recognize such a coarse, crude man as high priest. It is most likely that Paul simply does not know Ananias by sight, and he makes a mistake that he quickly acknowledges by citing Exodus 22:28, which forbids one to "speak evil of the ruler of thy people."

Verses 6-8

But when Paul perceived that the 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: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.

Paul knows that the Sanhedrin court is divided between Sadducees and Pharisees. He uses a brilliant maneuver to remove the attention from himself and to pit these contentious factions against each other. In a bold announcement, Paul declares he is a Pharisee and reduces the charges against him to the fact that he, as a Pharisee, believes in the resurrection. Is this grand apostle not the master of the moment! This assembly of mad dogs now turns to snap and bite each other!

Verse 9

And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.

It is always a source of amazement to see the volatile character of the Jewish Sanhedrin. One moment the enemy is Paul, a blasphemer of Moses and polluter of the temple who is not fit to "live on the earth." The next moment the enemy becomes other members of the court; and, consequently, Paul has "no evil" in him; he has become a champion!

The Pharisees take advantage of this situation not only to affirm their belief in the resurrection but also to state their belief in "spirits and angels." Both of these issues are defining differences in Pharisees and Sadducees. (For additional notes on Pharisees and Sadducees, see notes on 4:1 and 5:34.)

Verse 10

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

Claudius Lysias certainly has his hands full in his attempts to discover the true identity of and cause for the disturbances over Paul. This is the third riot in two days! We can surmise that this noble Roman soldier would have preferred to be at some far-flung Roman outpost leading his men in combat against the enemies of Rome. That prospect would certainly have been a less frustrating job than trying to baby-sit these disgusting Jews whose words and actions he does not understand.

Verse 11

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

The "bonds and afflictions" that have been foretold for Paul are now a reality. What could be a more appropriate time for a word of "good cheer" from the Lord himself.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; ... (Hebrews 4:15).

We can appreciate the grief and hopelessness Paul must have felt. "Outside the prison he could hope for nothing but death, and inside there was no field of usefulness. In whatever direction he could look, prison walls or a bloody death confronted him, and hedged his way" (McGarvey, Vol. II 228).

Verses 12-14

And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy. And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.

It is amazing to witness the abject moral depravity by these Jews. It is even more amazing to see this one-time high and holy Jewish court become co-conspirators in this murderous plot. These men who represent the keepers of the Law for Israel have joined this band of thugs and assassins. "More than forty" have "bound" themselves with "a great curse" to "eat nothing until they have slain Paul." Vincent says this "great curse" means they literally "anathematized or cursed themselves; invoked God’s curse on themselves if they should violate their vow" (576). In view of the moral turpitude of this band of scoundrels, it is doubtful if any of them died of self-imposed starvation!

Verse 15

Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you to morrow, as though ye would inquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.

Here is the plan. The first thing in the morning, the council will request the chief captain to bring Paul down that they may ask more questions of him. during the process of bringing Paul to the meeting, these forty desperate men will rush Paul and murder him before the Roman soldiers realize their intentions. This plan, driven by hatred, is very cleverly conceived and thought out. This murderous plot, if left unexposed, would probably have worked.

Verse 16

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

Here is one of the rare and brief occasions when Luke gives us a bit of information about Paul’s family. It becomes a matter of fact that Paul has a sister, and this sister has a son. These meager facts open the door for much speculation, which we are going to leave to other writers. It is unknown if this nephew of Paul is a Christian. One thing is certain: he is concerned about the welfare of his Uncle Paul.

Verses 17-18

Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him. So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee.

"Providence thwarted the plot of the conspirators in the most simple way. Providence has a way of doing that" (Lenski 945). It would have been no problem for the young nephew of Paul to gain access to his uncle. He brought with him the chilling details of the plot against Paul. How the lad learns of the conspiracy is not explained; but with so many involved in this murderous plan, it is not difficult to imagine a leak of information. What is obvious is that Paul does not want a misunderstanding of this critical message; therefore, he does not entrust the message to the centurion but rather has the centurion take the young man directly to the chief captain.

Verse 19

Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me?

The chief captain takes precautions to keep this meeting with the young man private. That this young man is most likely a youth, perhaps a teenager, is indicated by the kindly, protective way Lysias "took him by the hand."

Verses 20-22

And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would inquire somewhat of him more perfectly. But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee. So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.

This young man may have been fearful of the consequences of what he is about to tell, he may have been intimidated by the presence of this Roman soldier, or he could have had a hundred other fears; but nothing hinders him from a faithful rehearsal of the plot to kill Paul. With the authority and decisiveness that must have been second nature to one of Rome’s finest, the chief captain sends the young man away with instructions "tell no man."

Verses 23-24

And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night; And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor.

It is obvious by the size of the force assembled by Lysias, he is taking no chances with the protection of Paul. The total guard is 470 men. There are two hundred infantry, seventy cavalry, and two hundred spearmen. Vincent says spearmen "are distinguished from the heavy armed legionnaires and the cavalry. They were probably light armed troops, javelin-throwers or slingers" (578). If there is to be any blood shed in this expedition, it will be Jewish blood!

It is apparent that the chief captain feels an urgency to evacuate Paul. He instructs the centurions to leave Jerusalem by the "third hour of the night" (9:00 P.M.). This time would have been well in advance of the request of the Jews to see Paul on the "morrow."

An additional sign of the speed with which Paul is to make the trip to Caesarea is indicated by the command to "provide beasts" upon which Paul is to ride. "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" (Coffman 440).

A new character in this drama is introduced here: "Felix the governor." History has little good to say for Felix Marcus Antonius, a former slave who rose to power by gaining the favor of Emperor Claudius. Felix was originally the slave of Antonia, the mother of the Emperor. It was through this contact with the Emperor that he was eventually appointed governor of Judaea. The historians, almost without exception, summarize the reign of Felix with the words of Tacitus: "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 manner: Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting.

It is customary upon sending a prisoner to a higher authority that a letter accompany the man with explanation as to the charges against him. Here, again, it is amazing that various commentators such as Reese ponder "how Luke came to know the terms of the letter" (597). Luke does not have to read a copy of this letter; Luke writes by inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16)! (See notes on 4:16 and 7:60.)

We also learn the name of the chief captain. "Lysias" was a common Greek family name. The name "Claudius" likely was adopted in honor of the Emperor under whose reign he had become a Roman citizen.

Verses 27-30

This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them: then came I with an army, and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman. And when I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council: Whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee, and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee what they had against him. Farewell.

This is the body of the letter the chief captain sends to Felix. It is in this correspondence that this noble Roman plays politics; and as Lenski says: "Among all the Roman officers we meet in the New Testament this chiliarch makes the poorest showing" (952). In an attempt to put himself in the best light, Lysias leaves the impression that he rescued a Roman citizen from the clutches of a Jewish mob. ("... and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman.") The truth is Lysias has Paul in chains and is ready to scourge him before he learns of his citizenship (21:33; 22:24).

It should be noted there are no charges against Paul"worthy of death or of bonds."Paul should have been set free, but corrupt and greedy Felix holds him with the hope of receiving a bribe (24:26).

Verse 31

Then the soldiers, as it was commanded them, took Paul, and brought him by night to Antipatris.

With great haste, what amounts to a small Roman army rushes through the night to arrive in Antipatris."Antipatris was about 35 miles out of Jerusalem, and 26 from Caesarea. It was rebuilt by Herod the Great, and renamed in honor of his father Antipater" (Reese 599).

Verses 32-33

On the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the castle: Who, when they came to Caesarea, and delivered the epistle to the governor, presented Paul also before him.

The next day Paul is left in company of the cavalry. They deliver him to Felix at Caesarea while the foot soldiers return to Jerusalem. Paul is surely bone weary after this forced all night journey, besides another twenty-six miles by day.

Verses 34-35

And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was. And when he understood that he was of Cilicia; I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come. And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.

Felix asks Paul"of what province he was."It is very important to Felix to determine whether Paul is under his jurisdiction. The governor is reluctant to involve himself in any legal harangues with the Jews; this problem can be avoided if Paul is not under the legal jurisdiction of Felix. When Paul answers that he"was of Cilicia, "the question is settled: Felix is involved.

Coffman makes the following observation about"Herod’s judgment hall:

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 (443).

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Acts 23". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/acts-23.html. 1993-2022.
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