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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Acts 23

Verse 1

‘And Paul, looking steadfastly on the council, said, “Men, brethren, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day.”

Paul began his defence fearlessly and immediately by declaring that he lived before God, and that he sought to do it with a good conscience. Compare here Acts 24:16; 1Ti 1:5 ; 1 Timothy 1:19; 1 Peter 3:16; 1 Peter 3:21. He wanted the court to know immediately that he was a man who treated his conscience seriously and lived in accordance with it. And that as a Pharisee he had no grounds for thinking that he had failed in his obligations (see Philippians 3:7-9). However, somehow this caused offence. Possibly his method of address was not considered deferential enough, or possibly it was because he was considered to have commenced his defence too precipitately. The council may have felt that he was too forward and should wait to be asked. Either of these would partly explain (but not excuse) the next action.

Verses 1-9

Paul Appears Before the Sanhedrin (22:30-23:9). The Lord Assures Him That As He Has Testified in Jerusalem So Will He Testify in Rome (23:10-11).

The chief officer did not know quite what to do with Paul. He was not even quite sure of what the accusation against him was. At first it had been quite clear. He was an Egyptian insurgent, he was a blasphemer, he had taken Greeks into the inner temple, he was all that was bad (or so he had been told). Now having listened to Paul he was not so sure. He had also probably been visited by Jewish leaders who had wanted him to hand him over to them. This was presumably why he as a mere chief captain was able to ‘command’ the appearance of the Sanhedrin. If they wanted him they must justify their request, for Paul was a Roman citizen.

Having described the appearance of the risen Jesus in chapter 22 Paul will now continually proclaim the hope of the resurrection. The word of God is not bound. This proclamation is found in Acts 23:6; Acts 24:15; Acts 26:6-8 (in the introductory analysis in ‘h’, ‘l’, and ‘h’). It will then be followed by a further description of the risen Jesus to Paul (Acts 26:12-18). So his period of detention from his arrest in Jerusalem to his commencement of his journey to Rome is one long proclamation of the resurrection from the dead which is everywhere emphasised.

Verses 1-35

PAUL’S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM AND THEN TO ROME (19:21-28:31).

Here we begin a new section of Acts. It commences with Paul’s purposing to go to Jerusalem, followed by an incident, which, while it brings to the conclusion his ministry in Ephesus, very much introduces the new section. From this point on all changes. Paul’s ‘journey to Jerusalem’ and then to Rome has begun, with Paul driven along by the Holy Spirit.

The ending of the previous section as suggested by the closing summary in Acts 19:20 (see introduction), together with a clear reference in Acts 19:21 to the new direction in which Paul’s thinking is taking him, both emphasise that this is a new section leading up to his arrival in Rome. Just as Jesus had previously ‘changed direction’ in Luke when He set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), so it was to be with Paul now as he too sets his face towards Jerusalem. It is possibly not without significance that Jesus’ ‘journey’ also began after a major confrontation with evil spirits, which included an example of one who used the name of Jesus while not being a recognised disciple (compare Acts 19:12-19 with Luke 9:37-50).

From this point on Paul’s purposing in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem on his way to Rome takes possession of the narrative (Acts 19:21; Acts 20:16; Acts 20:22-23; Acts 21:10-13; Acts 21:17), and it will be followed by the Journey to Rome itself. And this whole journey is deliberately seen by Luke as commencing from Ephesus, a major centre of idolatry and the of Imperial cult, where there is uproar and Paul is restricted from preaching, and as, in contrast, deliberately ending with the triumph of a pure, unadulterated Apostolic ministry in Rome where all is quiet and he can preach without restriction. We can contrast with this how initially in Section 1 the commission commenced in a pure and unadulterated fashion in Jerusalem (Acts 1:3-9) and ended in idolatry in Caesarea (Acts 12:20-23). This is now the reverse the same thing in reverse.

Looked at from this point of view we could briefly summarise Acts in three major sections as follows:

· The Great Commission is given in Jerusalem in the purity and triumph of Jesus’ resurrection and enthronement as King. The word powerfully goes out to Jerusalem and to its surrounding area, and then in an initial outreach to the Gentiles. Jerusalem reject their Messiah and opt for an earthly ruler whose acceptance of divine honours results in judgment (Acts 19:1-12).

· The word goes out triumphantly to the Dispersion and the Gentiles and it is confirmed that they will not be required to be circumcised or conform to the detailed Jewish traditions contained in what is described as ‘the Law of Moses’ (Acts 13:1 to Acts 19:20).

· Paul’s journey to Rome commences amidst rampant idolatry and glorying in the royal rule of Artemis and Rome, and comes to completion with Paul, the Apostle, triumphantly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the Kingly Rule of God from his own house in Rome (Acts 19:21 to Acts 28:31).

It will be seen by this that with this final section the great commission has in Luke’s eyes been virtually carried out. Apostolic witness has been established in the centre of the Roman world itself and will now reach out to every part of that world, and the command ‘You shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth’ is on the point of fulfilment.

This final section, in which Paul will make his testimony to the resurrection before kings and rulers, may be analysed as follows.

a Satan counterattacks against Paul’s too successful Ministry in Ephesus and throughout Asia Minor and causes uproar resulting in his ministry being unsuccessfully attacked by the worshippers of ‘Artemis (Diana) of the Ephesians’. This city, with its three ‘temple-keepers’ for the Temple of Artemis and the two Imperial Cult Temples, is symbolic of the political and religious alliance between idolatry and Rome which has nothing to offer but greed and verbosity. It expresses the essence of the kingly rule of Rome. And here God’s triumph in Asia over those Temples has been pictured in terms of wholesale desertion of the Temple of Artemis (mention of the emperor cult would have been foolish) by those who have become Christians and will in the parallel below be contrasted and compared with Paul freely proclaiming the Kingly Rule of God in Rome (Acts 19:21-41).

b Paul’s progress towards Jerusalem is diverted because of further threats and he meets with disciples for seven days at Troas (Acts 20:1-6).

c The final voyage commences and a great sign is given of God’s presence with Paul. Eutychus is raised from the dead (Acts 20:7-12).

d Paul speaks to the elders from the church at Ephesus who meet him at Miletus and he gives warning of the dangers of spiritual catastrophe ahead and turns them to the word of His grace. If they obey Him all will be saved (Acts 20:13-38).

e A series of maritime stages, and of prophecy (Acts 19:4; Acts 19:11), which reveals that God is with Paul (Acts 21:1-16).

f Paul proves his true dedication in Jerusalem and his conformity with the Law and does nothing that is worthy of death but the doors of the Temple are closed against him (Acts 21:17-30).

g Paul is arrested and gives his testimony of his commissioning by the risen Jesus (Acts 21:31 to Acts 22:29).

h Paul appears before the Sanhedrin and points to the hope of the resurrection (Acts 22:30 to Acts 23:9).

i He is rescued by the chief captain and is informed by the Lord that as he has testified in Jerusalem so he will testify in Rome (Acts 23:11).

j The Jews plan an ambush, which is thwarted by Paul’s nephew (Acts 23:12-25).

k Paul is sent to Felix, to Caesarea (Acts 23:26-35).

l Paul makes his defence before Felix stressing the hope of the resurrection (Acts 24:1-22).

k Paul is kept at Felix’ pleasure for two years (with opportunities in Caesarea) (Acts 24:23-27).

j The Jews plan to ambush Paul again, an attempt which is thwarted by Festus (Acts 25:1-5).

i Paul appears before Festus and appeals to Caesar. To Rome he will go (Acts 25:6-12).

h Paul is brought before Agrippa and gives his testimony stressing his hope in the resurrection (Acts 25:23 to Acts 26:8).

g Paul gives his testimony concerning his commissioning by the risen Jesus (Acts 26:9-23).

f Paul is declared to have done nothing worthy of death and thus to have conformed to the Law, but King Herod Agrippa II closes his heart against his message (Acts 26:28-32).

e A series of maritime stages and of prophecy (Acts 19:10; Acts 19:21-26) which confirms that God is with Paul (27.l-26).

d Paul speaks to those at sea, warning of the dangers of physical catastrophe ahead unless they obey God’s words. If they obey Him all will be delivered (Acts 27:27-44).

c Paul is delivered from death through snakebite and Publius’ father and others are healed, which are the signs of God’s presence with him, and the voyage comes to an end after these great signs have been given (Acts 28:1-13).

b Paul meets with disciples for seven days at Puteoli and then at the Appii Forum (Acts 28:14-15).

a Paul commences his ministry in Rome where, living in quietness, he has clear course to proclaim the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 28:16-31).

Thus in ‘a’ the section commences at the very centre of idolatry which symbolises with its three temples (depicted in terms of the Temple of Artemis) the political and religious power of Rome, the kingly rule of Rome, which is being undermined by the Good News which has ‘almost spread throughout all Asia’ involving ‘much people’. It begins with uproar and an attempt to prevent the spread of the Good News and reveals the ultimate emptiness of that religion. All they can do is shout slogans including the name of Artemis, but though they shout it long and loud that name has no power and results in a rebuke from their ruler. In the parallel the section ends with quiet effectiveness and the Good News of the Kingly Rule of God being given free rein. This is in reverse to section 1 which commenced with the call to proclaim the Good News of the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 1:3) and ended with the collapse of the kingly rule of Israel through pride and idolatry (Acts 12:20-23).

In ‘b’ Paul meets with God’s people for ‘seven days, the divinely perfect period, at the commencement of his journey, and then in the parallel he again meets with the people of God for ‘seven days’ at the end of his journey. Wherever he goes, there are the people of God.

In ‘c’ God reveals that His presence is with Paul by the raising of the dead, and in the parallel His presence by protection from the Snake and the healing of Publius.

In ‘d’ we have a significant parallel between Paul’s warning of the need for the church at Ephesus to avoid spiritual catastrophe through ‘the word of His grace’ and in the parallel ‘d’ the experience of being saved from a great storm through His gracious word, but only if they are obedient to it, which results in deliverance for all.

In ‘e’ and its parallel we have Paul’s voyages, each accompanied by prophecy indicating God’s continuing concern for Paul.

In ‘f’ Paul proves his dedication and that he is free from all charges that he is not faithful to the Law of Moses, and in the parallel Agrippa II confirms him to be free of all guilt.

In ‘g’ Paul give his testimony concerning receiving his commission from the risen Jesus, and in the parallel this testimony is repeated and the commission expanded.

In ‘h’ Paul proclaims the hope of the resurrection before the Sanhedrin, and in the parallel he proclaims the hope of the resurrection before Felix, Agrippa and the gathered Gentiles.

In ‘i’ the Lord tells him that he will testify at Rome, while in the parallel the procurator Festus declares that he will testify at Rome. God’s will is carried out by the Roman power.

In ‘ j’ a determined plan by the Jews to ambush Paul and kill him is thwarted, and in the parallel a further ambush two years later is thwarted. God is continually watching over Paul.

In ‘k’ Paul is sent to Felix, to Caesarea, the chief city of Palestine, and in the parallel spends two years there with access given to the ‘his friends’ so that he can freely minister.

In ‘l’ we have the central point around which all revolves. Paul declares to Felix and the elders of Jerusalem the hope of the resurrection of both the just and the unjust in accordance with the Scriptures.

It will be noted that the central part of this chiasmus is built around the hope of the resurrection which is mentioned three times, first in ‘h’, then centrally in ‘l’ and then again in ‘h’, and these are sandwiched between two descriptions of Paul’s commissioning by the risen Jesus (in ‘g’ and in the parallel ‘g’). The defeat of idolatry and the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God have as their central cause the hope of the resurrection and the revelation of the risen Jesus.

We must now look at the section in more detail.

Verse 2

‘And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to smite him on the mouth.’

The chairman of the council, the High Priest Ananias, then commanded that he be smitten on the mouth. This was possibly a preemptory reminder of who was in charge. A modern judge would have sternly told him that he must wait until he was called on. Or it may have been in order to suggest that he was not treating the aristocracy with sufficient deference. Normally they would be addressed as, "Rulers of the people and elders of Israel." Or perhaps it was just in order to indicate that he must not be so arrogant in front of his betters. Ananias was himself an arrogant man and full of his own self-importance, and by this demonstrated his arrogance and unfitness to be presiding. But prisoners, whether guilty or not, were often treated contemptuously by courts, and we have here another example of the way in which Paul was seen as ‘following in His steps’, for Jesus had been treated in a similar way (compare John 18:22). It is the way the Master went, shall not the servant read it still?

Verse 3

‘Then said Paul to him, “God will smite you, you whited wall. And do you sit to judge me according to the law, and command me to be smitten contrary to the law?” ’

But Paul knew his Law. And he knew that the Law did not allow such treatment to one who was on trial (e.g. Leviticus 19:15). So he retaliated verbally with a returning insult (and afterwards admitted that he should not have done so, however justified it might have seemed). He warned the High Priest that he would be answerable to God for his action. A ‘whited wall’ is one that has been painted to hide its imperfections so that it can pretend to be what it is not (compare Ezekiel 13:10-11; Ezekiel 13:14; Matthew 23:27) and was liable to be exposed by judgment (Ezekiel 13:10-11; Ezekiel 13:14). He was saying that the judge was a hypocrite and would himself face judgment for it. Like Peter, Paul could be a bit precipitate (compare Galatians 3:1; Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2 and contrast 1 Corinthians 4:12 - Barnabas would never have done it. But then he would never have achieved what Paul did).

He was quite rightly pointing out that the judge also came under the eye of the divine judge. But he should have remembered that he was speaking not only to the High Priest but to the whole court, although in fact his words were an unconscious prophecy (or an effective curse) for Ananias was murdered by terrorists at the beginning of the Jewish war.

Verse 4

‘And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” ’

Immediately people present were shocked and asked him if he thought it right to revile God’s High Priest. They could not believe their ears. It was not a question of whether they approved of what the High Priest had said. It was because to revile God’s representative was to be seen as reviling God (Exodus 22:28).

Verse 5

‘And Paul said, “I did not know , brethren, that he was high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people’.” ’

Paul immediately admitted his fault. He informed them that he had not known that this man was the High Priest, otherwise he would not have done it. Perhaps there is also here the strong hint that if the man had behaved more like a High Priest he might have the better recognised him. Nevertheless the Scriptures enjoined the giving of proper respect to the leaders of the people when in office (Exodus 22:28), therefore he regretted it however deserved it might have been. In a similar way today we speak of ‘contempt of court’. We may hold the judge in contempt, but when he is officiating he represents the Law, and must therefore be treated with the respect due to his position, even if not for himself.

We must remember here that Paul had been away from Jerusalem for many years, apart from brief visits. He was not therefore familiar with the current High Priest. And at this ad hoc meeting the High Priest may well not have been robed. Indeed the fact that Paul had begun ‘men, brethren’ does suggest that he had not recognised among those met together any particularly high level officials, for he usually uses the correct address. Although it might be that had he been seen as a respected Pharisee such an address would not have been seen as coming amiss.

This Ananias was an altogether unpleasant person and was in fact noted for his greed and arrogance. Josephus called him ‘the great procurer of money’, partly because of his unscrupulous use of the trading in the Temple for gain, and partly because he was ruthlessly violent in extracting money from people, for example, in using beatings to extort tithes from the common priests' allotment and leaving them destitute. He was an extremely wealthy man and was not above using bribes and violence in order to increase his wealth and obtain what he wanted. Thus his treatment of Paul here was quite in character.

Verse 6

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

We are not told the details of the proceedings that followed this rather inauspicious opening. Some discussion clearly took place and it would seem that no one was quite sure what he was guilty of and it seems probable, in view of what follows, that the Sadducees began to harp on about his claim that ‘angels’ had spoken to him and refer to his talk about Jesus having risen from the dead. Both these ideas would be totally unacceptable to them, but they were not sufficient to condemn a man for. No alternative charge of any weight appears to have been put forward. The whole situation seems to have been remarkably vague.

So we need not assume that what is said in this verse happened immediately. Indeed it actually probably arose from things that were being said, which were being allowed to pass unnoticed simply because the Pharisees were too busy disdaining Paul and not sufficiently busy in following what was being said. But Paul’s astute mind recognised only too well the true significance behind some of the things being said by the Sadducean opposition, things which the Pharisees were allowing to slip by because their minds were on Paul as someone worthy to be condemned.

Thus when he surveyed the Council and recognised there a number who would in fact agree with his main proposition, the resurrection from the dead, and should have been supporting him more vociferously in his claim that angels spoke to men, that is, if they had been properly following what lay behind what was being said, he decided to draw their attention to this fact.

We must not see this as just a ploy. Paul, who saw these proceedings as having become weighed down by inessentials, was genuinely concerned to establish the truth of the resurrection, and of ‘heavenly beings’ speaking to men, and of his defence of them, especially in the eyes of Claudius Lysias. That was after all what his testimony had been all about. And he would thus want the trial to follow that course. He certainly did not want to finish up condemned on false grounds simply because of the prejudice of the Sadducees reacting against his Pharisaic beliefs. If he was to be condemned let it be for something worth while, something that will enable Claudias Lysias to recognise that what he is being charged with is simply a subject on which the Jews themselves were in dispute. For the trial to become a dispute about Jewish teaching would strongly aid his case.

Furthermore, once the subject of the trial altered and became fixed on the resurrection he would then be able to remind them that Jesus had risen from the dead. That was what he really wanted men’s thoughts to be concentrated on, and the arguments to be about.

So he points out that what he is really being condemned for is something that is dearly held by a number of them, the hope of the resurrection. For every genuine Pharisee lived his life with only one final aim in view, that he might attain eternal life and the resurrection from the dead.

‘I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees, touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question’ he declares. Let all now recognise what is central in his thinking, the resurrection from the dead. This is what his ministry is all about, life from the dead. From this point on this subject of the ‘hope of the resurrection’ becomes a theme in Acts, appearing again in Acts 24:15; Acts 26:6-8, and being sandwiched between two descriptions of the appearance of the risen Jesus. His trial as it is being conducted here, he points out, should have nothing to do with the trumped up charges that have been previously brought. It is the basic teaching about angels and the resurrection and the afterlife and how they are viewed and whether they are accepted that is the important question. That is the real reason why the High Priest and his set are so strongly against him, and want to condemn him, because of the Sadducean prejudice against the resurrection and against angels, and the Pharisees among them do not seem to be noticing it. Paul felt that it was time that the Pharisees supported him on this.

Some have referred the reference to ‘the hope’ as meaning the hope of the Messiah, which was also held by the Pharisees, to be held along with that of the resurrection. However, Acts 24:15 suggests that ‘the hope’ is of the resurrection of all men, both the just and the unjust. On the other hand Acts 26:6-8 might be seen as confirming that the hope in mind is the hope of both the Messiah and the resurrection. This would also tie in with Acts 17:18, ‘Jesus and the resurrection’.

Verses 7-8

‘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.’

This immediately made the Pharisees wake up and concentrate on the case, and they then began to take up certain points that they had previously let slip by, recognising the truth in what Paul had drawn their attention to. They may have been sceptical about angels speaking to Paul but they were not sceptical about angels in general. They believed firmly in them. So they now argued that it was not reasonable to dismiss his claims simply on the grounds that angels did not exist. Perhaps angels had spoken to Paul. Who could tell?

This then led to dissension between the two sides as they argued the possibility of angels speaking at all, and whether the resurrection could occur. After all, Paul’s defence, assuming that it was anything like that before the crowds, had included references to angels, and to the resurrection (note Acts 22:9-11 where this is made clear). So the truth or not of these questions was not a side issue, it was important. His case was bound to be dismissed by the Sadducees, who considered such things ridiculous, but surely it should not be viewed like that by the Pharisees? Surely they should give it more careful consideration.

Verse 9

‘And there arose a great clamour, 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 has spoken to him, or an angel?” ’

The result was that instead of universal condemnation Paul now suddenly found that he had some powerful supporters. Some of the Rabbis, recognising that the truth of what they themselves believed in was at stake here, and was being arrogantly dismissed, now declared that his words about spirits and angels could not just be trivialised. That indeed he may be right. Perhaps an angel or spirit had spoken to him, for such beings did exist. This would certainly strengthen the case that he had put before the crowds and the chief captain.

“And what if a spirit has spoken to him, or an angel?” This strictly reads, ‘And if a spirit has spoken to him or an angel ---?’ leaving the question in the air.

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 to the fortress.’

Indeed feelings now began to rise so high (and we really cannot blame Paul because they could not discuss reasonably together) that the chief captain who was observing the proceedings became alarmed and commanded that soldiers take him by force (the temple police may have tried to interfere) and convey him to the safety of the fortress.

He must have been in some despair. Here he was stuck with this prisoner, who was a Roman citizen and therefore difficult to deal with, and it was apparent that none of his opponents knew what to charge him with. He was having to hold him without charge and risk any consequences.

Verse 11

‘And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, “Be of good cheer, for as you have testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must you bear witness also at Rome.” ’

In fact there was apparently only One person who was satisfied with the way that things were going, and that night the risen Lord stood by Paul, presumably visually, and encouraged him (compare Acts 18:9-10; Acts 22:17-21). He told him to be in good heart, for it was God’s purpose that just as he had testified openly about Him in Jerusalem, so he would testify in Rome. He was not to see what was happening as a setback, but as an opportunity. God was in control.

At first sight it might appear to us that Paul’s being in captivity was a hindrance to the spread of the Good News. Think what he could do if he was free, we might say. But we need to recognise that that might not have been so. Paul was now such a marked man, and so intensely hated by many Jews in many cities, that wherever he went his life was in danger. So much so that some followed him around with the aim of killing him. And what was more this then not only meant that his own life was in danger, but that it would also cause problems for his companions and for the churches. He had after all, already been responsible for a number of ‘uprisings’ in a number of cities, which could always flare up once he visited them again. And now that he was such a marked man it would not be easy for him to slip in and out unnoticed. This being so his being directly under the protection of Roman soldiers, with his companions able to visit him freely, gave him the opportunity to think through problems and enabled him to run a kind of Bible School and Correspondence course in complete safety, and at the same time brought great encouragement to the church because they saw how bravely he faced his trial. They would not want to let him down. And it would even support his doctrine. For his doctrine was being substantiated by his life. There is no one who is believed quite as much as a martyr.

Verse 12

‘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.’

Indeed these Jews were so determined to kill Paul that they bound themselves under a curse to do so. They swore that they would neither eat nor drink until they had achieved their purpose. We are not told whether the Asian Jews were involved, but it must seem possible. It was not, however, only them. These men clearly expected to achieve their aim quickly and if they failed would abandon the curse on the grounds of impossibility of accomplishment, a useful Rabbinic let-out. But the curse was real nevertheless. In their own eyes they knew that they would lose face before God and men by its failure.

Verses 12-24

The Jews Plan An Ambush With The Purpose of Slaying Paul, Which Is Thwarted by Paul’s Nephew and the Divine Hand (23:12-24).

We discover here how the hatred that has followed Paul around at the hands of the Jews is continuing to grow. It had begun with the Jews of Asia, and continued with the stirred up crowd. Although the last, left to itself, would soon die down. But there was a core of fanatical Jews in whom the hatred continued and grew. With them it would not die down, and it is of them that we now learn. And gradually that hatred will grow through the controversies of the Sanhedrin, while the High Priest probably never forgave him for publicly calling him a whited wall and reminding him of the judgment he faced. And soon the majority of the Sanhedrin will become determined to seek his death. He has become a focal point and they are beginning to believe their own propaganda. And they do so unceasingly until he disappears in a ship towards Rome. Jerusalem has truly rejected both the servant and his Master, and is rejected in turn by Him.

Here then the hatred of many Jews against Paul is revealed by another determined plot to kill him. By now he was notorious and it is questionable how safe his life could ever be again. Humanly speaking only the Roman guards and the fortress kept him safe from death. As it was with Jesus when He was in Jerusalem, so it is with Paul. Plans were being made by the Jews to kill him.

Verse 13

‘And they were more than forty that made this conspiracy.’

The size of the conspiracy comes out in that ‘forty’ men were involved. Such a number would be needed in order to keep the attention of the Roman guards who might be expected to escort the prisoner, while the assassination was taking place. And the assassination had to take place in the short time before Paul reached the Sanhedrin. Forty is regularly a number connected with judgment and trial (forty days of rain at the Flood, forty days of Goliath calling on Israel to fight him in the confidence that they would not, forty days of Elijah in the wilderness), and with the giving of the Law (forty days in the mount twice over, without food and drink). Perhaps they (or Luke) saw it as symbolic of their aim, to avenge the breaking of the Law.

Verses 14-15

‘And they came to the chief priests and the elders, and said, “We have bound ourselves under a great curse, to taste nothing until we have killed Paul. Now therefore do you, with the council, signify to the chief captain that he bring him down to you, as though you would judge of his case more exactly, and we, before he comes near, are ready to slay him.” ’

All they needed now was the opportunity. So they went to the chief priests and elders (they avoided the Pharisees) and informed them of their plans. They pointed out that they had put themselves under a curse not to taste anything until Paul was dead. Would the council now ask that Paul be brought before them as before so as to get him out of the fortress. Then as soon as he was out they would attack the guards, fall on him and slay him. The Romans would not be anticipating any such attack in the short journey between the fortress and the Sanhedrin’s meeting place by the Temple. And to the disgrace of the Sanhedrin it agreed.

Verse 16

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

However, God was aware of the plan and ensured that news of the plot reached the ears of Paul’s nephew. Possibly Paul’s sister, as a well-dowried woman, was married to a member of the Sanhedrin, or to a member of the High Priest’s family, or someone closely connected, so that her son overheard discussions taking place at home. Whichever way it was he came to the fortress and informed Paul. Paul would have a certain freedom to enjoy visitors.

Verse 17

‘And Paul called to him one of the centurions, and said, “Bring this young man to the chief captain, for he has something to tell him.’

Paul then immediately called one of the centurions to him and asked him to take the boy to the chief captain, as he had some important information to impart. As a Roman citizen his request would be received with respect. They would not want to offend him.

Verse 18

‘So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and says, “Paul the prisoner called me to him, and asked me to bring this young man to you, who has something to say to you.” ’

So the centurion took Paul’s nephew to the chief captain, and told him how Paul had called him and had requested that the lad be brought as he had important information.

Verse 19

‘And the chief captain took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” ’

The chief captain then took the lad’s hand (he was clearly a sympathetic man) and led him aside and asked privately what it was he wanted to tell him.

Verses 20-21

‘And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down tomorrow to the council, as though you would enquire somewhat more exactly concerning him. Do not therefore yield to 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 till they have slain him, and now are they ready, looking for the promise from you.” ’

Then the lad explained what he had overheard. On the next day the Jews would pretend that they wanted to question Paul, but really it was simply a ruse in order to get Paul out of the fortress. Once he left the fortress they would attack the guards and kill him. All they were now waiting for was the chief captain’s promise that Paul would be forthcoming. No doubt the chief captain questioned the lad about the source of his information, and was satisfied. He would know that the High Priest Ananias was quite likely to be involved in such a plot. It was typical of his methods.

Verse 22

‘So the chief captain let the young man go, charging him, “Tell no man that you have signified these things to me.” ’

So the chief captain let the lad go and told him to tell no one what he knew, or that he had told it to the chief captain. His main concern here was probably with the lad’s safety.

Verse 23

‘And he called to him two of the centurions, and said, “Make ready two hundred soldiers to go as far as Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and two hundred spearmen (or packhorses), at the third hour of the night, and he bade them provide beasts, that they might set Paul on them, and bring him safe to Felix the governor.” ’

Then he called two centurions and told them to take a largish force and escort Paul to Caesarea, to the procurator Felix in the procurator’s palace. This force was to be comprise of two hundred soldiers, seventy cavalry and two hundred ‘dexialabous’ or (in A) ‘dexiabolous’ (we do not know the meaning of the first word. Possibly it signifies light-armed soldiers, or right handed bowmen or spearmen or slingers, or even pack horses so as to give the impression that the expedition had another purpose. Dexiabolous probably indicates right-handed slingers). This would deprive the fortress of a good proportion of its force for a short while, but the chief captain could not be sure how many men they might have to deal with if anything was suspected and they were waylaid. He was quite well aware of the excited state of the populace, which was continually in a state of ferment at this time, which could easily be roused to assist any attempt on a small force. He may, however, have also taken the opportunity of fulfilling another errand, hence the packhorses, and simply have brought that aim forward. Paul was also to be provided with a horse, and one for his luggage. They left at 21:00 hours that evening. Hopefully no one would suspect the reason for the departure. There was no reason why they should.

Verse 25

‘And he wrote a letter after this form:’

The chief captain sent with the force that was taking Paul a letter to Felix. ‘After this form’ may suggest that Luke was not sure of the contents, but hazarded a reconstruction based on information received. On the other hand it may have been read out in the court with Luke present. The wording confirms, however, that he knew something of its contents, as the white lie about the chief captain’s knowledge that Paul was a Roman before he rescued him reveals. Luke would not have made that up. The chief captain wanted some kudos for himself.

Verses 25-35

Paul In The Hands of The ‘Most Excellent’ Felix (23:25-35).

The ‘most excellent’ Felix, to whom Paul was being taken, was a freedman who had been appointed as procurator, a most unusual situation. Procurators were usually of equestrian rank. His appointment was an act of favouritism to his brother and he proved to be what he was, and by his behaviour in Palestine increased the hatred of Rome. Tacitus says of him that ‘practising every kind of cruelty and lust he wielded royal power with the instinct of a slave’ (which of course he had been). His method of exacting his will was by violence and crucifixions. He married three times, and each time into royalty. His first wife was the granddaughter of Anthony and Cleopatra, his present and third wife was Drusilla, a very beautiful Jewess and daughter of Agrippa I. She had been married when young to Azizus, king of Emesa, a petty Syrian king, but Felix saw her shortly after her wedding, desired her, and through the services of a magician from Cyprus prevailed on her to desert her husband and marry him in defiance of the Law which both forbade such behaviour and forbade her marriage to a pagan. This was typical of the man. Tacitus says, ‘he believed that he could commit all kinds of enormities with impunity’. He was not very reliable.

Under his procuratorship hostility against Rome increased enormously, resulting in the expansion of the influence of the zealots, and he then reacted viciously against them by hunting them down remorselessly and dealing with them with extreme cruelty. This simply produced a further reaction which resulted in general hatred and contempt and a huge increase in the number of ‘assassins’ (sicarii), men who mingled in crowds with hidden daggers and secretly murdered collaborators, until no one in Jerusalem with political connections could feel safe.

His behaviour also resulted in the incident of the Egyptian mentioned previously in Acts 21:38, who was in fact but one of a number who around this time led groups into the wilderness so as to receive the ‘omens of freedom’ and seek to establish the kingdom of God, only to face a vengeful and bloodthirsty Felix with his soldiers. We are told that after the defeat of the Egyptian more and more fanatics arose and ‘incited many to revolt, exhorting them to exert their independence and threatening to kill any who submitted willingly to Roman domination, and to suppress all those who would voluntarily accept servitude. Deploying in gangs throughout the country they looted the houses of the nobles and killed their owners and set villages on fire, so that all Judaea felt the effects of their frenzy’ (Josephus). Thus around this time the country was in turmoil, a turmoil which would never in fact finally cease until it resulted in the Roman invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This uneasy situation further explains the large escort.

In fact during the period when Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea a dispute arose between the Jewish and Syrian inhabitants there over equality of citizenship The Jews claimed precedence because Herod the Great had founded the city. The Syrians on the other hand were understandably reluctant to give way and claimed that the city had always been intended to be a Gentile city. Thus for a time there was a good deal of street fighting between the two parties. At one stage when the Jews had gained the upper hand Felix stepped in and using his soldiers, quelled them by force, handing over their houses to be plundered by the soldiers, something that would inevitably produce a complaint against him. When the rioting continued he sent leading men of both groups to Rome for Nero to decide the issue. But the Jews had complained to the emperor about his behaviour and before the matter was settled Felix was recalled, and recognising that the Jews might press their complaint about his behaviour tried to pacify them by leaving Paul in prison, hoping it would help his case with them. In the end he only escaped severe punishment because of his brother’s influence.

However, in the same way as the tyrant Herod Antipas feared John the Baptiser, so Felix appears to have feared Paul. Nevertheless he still kept him in prison when he could have released him, and this because he was hoping that Paul would be willing to pay him a large bribe. He was the worst type of Roman governor.

Verse 26

‘ Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor Felix, greeting.’

This is a standard opening form giving name of sender, name of recipient and a greeting. Lysias would be his given name. Claudius would be added when he became a Roman citizen during the reign of Claudius. ‘Most excellent’ is a normal way of addressing a high official.

Verse 27

“This man was seized by the Jews, and was about to be slain by them, when I came on them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman.”

He explains the circumstances of Paul’s rescue, and suggests that he did it because he knew that Paul was a Roman citizen. This was presumably in order to gain himself some credit. We note that he leaves out any details that could have sounded unfavourable. He wanted to avert any blame that might be directed at him.

Verses 28-29

“And desiring to know the cause for which they accused him, I brought him down to 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.”

He explains how he was at pains to examine him, even bringing him before their Sanhedrin, but as a result discovered that it simply concerned questions of interpretation of Jewish teaching and that Paul had not been accused of anything which deserved death or bonds. Once again the Paul’s innocence is emphasised.

Verse 30

“And when it was shown to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you forthwith, charging his accusers also to speak against him before you.”

Then someone had shown him that there was to be a plot against Paul, which is why he has sent him to Felix, also informing his accusers that they too must go to Felix to lay their charges.

The chief captain had no rights of judgment. Thus as he was uncertain as to whether any blame could lie at Paul’s door, he had sent him to the one who was responsible for judgment, with an explanation of the facts as he knew them.

Verse 31

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

So that night the contingent of soldiers left as commanded and arrived at Antipatris, roughly just past half way to Caesarea. The journey from there would be through less dangerous territory.

Verses 32-33

‘But on the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the fortress, and they, when they came to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, presented Paul also before him.’

From that point on the full escort was seen as no longer needed and the cavalrymen carried on with Paul, while the infantry returned to the fortress. Once the cavalry reached Caesarea they handed over the letter, and Paul as well.

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, he said, “I will hear you fully when your accusers also are come.” And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s palace.’

Felix then had Paul brought in and asked him what province he came from. Had he named the province of a local king he would have sent him to him. But once he learned that he was from Cilicia he recognised that he must deal with it himself. Syria and Cilicia were under the same legate and he was his deputy. So he informed Paul that he would hear the case as soon as his accusers arrived. Then he gave orders that he be detained in Herod’s palace, his own headquarters. Paul was being given due respect as a Roman citizen.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 23". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/acts-23.html. 2013.