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PAUL BEFORE THE SANHEDRIM—AN INTERRUPTED TRIAL
1. The Scene in the Council Chamber; or, Paul’s Doubtful Strategy (vers.1–11).
2. The Conspiracy of the Forty; or, Paul’s Life Endangered (Acts 23:12-22).
3. Paul’s Midnight Ride to Cæsarea; or, Paul’s Safety Ensured (Acts 23:23-35).
Acts 23:1. Earnestly beholding, or looking steadfastly on, describes the eager, anxious gaze with which the apostle was accustomed to scan those to whom he spoke—perhaps arising from his infirmity of sight (Alford), but more from the intense emotion of his spirit (see Acts 14:9, and compare Acts 7:55.) Men and brethren. Or simply brethren (see also Acts 23:5-6.) The omission of “fathers” (Acts 22:1) was probably intended to suggest that he felt himself on an equality with the council. I have lived.—πεπολίτευμαι properly signifies to discharge one’s civil and political duties, but as used here and elsewhere (Philippians 1:27) by Paul, includes his whole moral and religious conduct, or his behaviour in every respect. In all good conscience.—I.e., in every respect, in every instance with a good conscience, or with a consciousness of integrity and sincerity (compare 2 Timothy 1:3).
Acts 23:2. The high priest Ananias.—Not the individual of that name mentioned earlier (Acts 4:6; compare Luke 3:2; John 18:13), but the son of Nebedæus, who succeeded Camydus, or Camithus, was nominated to the office by Herod, King of Chalcis, in A.D. 48, and entered on his duties in the procuratorship of Tiberius Alexander (Jos., Ant., XX. Acts 23:2). He was deposed from his office not long before the departure of Felix (Ant., XX. viii. 8), but still retained great power, which he used violently and lawlessly (Ibid., ix. 2). He was eventually assassinated by the Sicarii (Wars, II. xvii. 9). Them that stood by him were not members of the council or spectators, but most likely the servants in attendance, as in Christ’s trial (John 18:22; compare Luke 19:24). To smite him on the mouth.—Compare John 18:22; Jeremiah 20:1-2. “This mode of enjoining silence is practised in the East at the present day” (Hackett). “For a Jew to order a Jew to be struck on the cheek was peculiarly offensive. ‘He that strikes the cheek of an Israelite strikes, as it were, the cheek of the Shekinah,’ for it is said (Proverbs 20:25), ‘He that strikes a man (i.e., an Israelite, who alone deserves the name) strikes the Holy One’ ” (Farrar).
Acts 23:3. Thou whited wall!—Thou hypocrite! Like the similar phrase, “whited sepulchre” (Matthew 23:27). The prophecy here uttered against Ananias—not a wish (Kuinoel)—was fulfilled (see above).
Acts 23:4. To revile God’s high priest was certainly forbidden by the law of Moses (Exodus 22:28).
Acts 23:5. I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest.—These words have been interpreted as meaning either:
1. That the apostle refused to acknowledge Ananias as high priest; either because he had procured the dignity by money (Grotius) or by usurpation (Lightfoot), and was therefore not the high priest in reality.
2. That the apostle declined to recognise as God’s high priest one who behaved so insolently as Ananias (Calvin, Baumgarten, Stier, Meyer, Besser, Holtzmann), in which case his language would be ironical.
3. That he spoke without due reflection, and therefore rashly, and now meant to recall his words (Bengel, Wetstein; Olshausen, Ewald, Wordsworth, Hackett).
4. That at the moment he was not acquainted with the person of the high priest, Ananias having been installed into office during his absence from the city (Chrysostom, Beza, Lechler).
5. That when he spoke he did not really know by whom the order to smite him had been given (Farrar)—which might well have been the case if his vision was as defective as is commonly supposed (Alford, Plumptre), or if Ananias was not presiding (Zöckler), because the Sanhedrim was sitting at the bidding of the Roman captain (Lechler), or if, though Ananias did preside, Paul did not know he was the high priest (who was not always required to preside: compare Schürer’s Gesch. des Jud. Volks, p. 156 ff), but thought him an ordinary member of the court (Lechler, Plumptre). Of these, the first and second may be set aside as improbable, if not unworthy of the apostle. The third may contain an element of truth, to this extent, that the apostle ought, perhaps, to have been sure who the person was against whom he uttered so severe a prophecy. That he knew and spoke in anger, “in an outburst of natural indignation” (Conybeare and Howson), we think unlikely in the case of one
(1) who had just been claiming that he had lived before God in all good conscience up till that day (Acts 23:1);
(2) who had the day before exhibited such presence of mind;
(3) who possessed, along with his brother apostles, the promise of the Holy Spirit’s help as to what he should say when brought before kings and councils; and
(4) who afterwards, when confessing his wrong-doings before the council, made no mention of this supposed ebullition of wrath (Acts 24:20-21). In our judgment this last consideration is fatal to the theory that Paul spoke unadvisedly with his lips. The fourth and fifth explanations appear in all respects the most satisfactory. It is written.—The passage (Exodus 22:28) applies to any civil magistrate as well as to the high priest.
Acts 23:6. Sadducees.—See Acts 4:1; Acts 5:17. Pharisees.—See Acts 5:34. For both see “Homiletical Analysis.” Men and brethren.—Or, simply brethren. The son of a Pharisee.—According to best codices, a son of Pharisees. Of, or touching, the hope and resurrection of the dead.—I.e., touching a hope (which I have), even that there shall be a resurrection of the dead (compare Acts 24:15; Acts 24:21; and see Acts 17:31). Baur, followed by Holtzmann, objects to the apostle’s statement as untruthful, since he must have known that the matter for which he was called in question was not his preaching of a resurrection from the dead, but his teaching with regard to the law, that it was not binding on Gentile Christians. But in point of fact the apostle’s statement was substantially correct, that whatever was the ostensible ground of complaint against him, the real cause of his apprehension was his witness concerning Christ’s resurrection—since out of that rose the altered relations of both Jews and Gentiles toward the law. Besides, had the apostle here deliberately uttered an untruth, or been guilty of an evasion, it is hardly likely that the recollection of this would not have troubled his conscience afterwards when his remembrance of having set his judges at variance did (Acts 24:20-21).
Acts 23:7. A dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees.—Here again Baur “can scarcely imagine that a single expression undesignedly” (Baur himself holds it was deliberately) “let fall by the apostle could have kindled so fierce a fire” as to blind both parties to their own interests, and Weizsäcker thinks it “far from being in the least probable that Paul should have attempted to set the Pharisees and Sadducees against each other, or that he should in point of fact have succeeded in doing so”; but Josephus (Life, 29) relates a similar procedure of himself when his life was threatened at Taricheæ, which was followed by a similar result, the division of his enemies, which ended in his life being spared.
Acts 23:8. The Sadducees denied the doctrine of a resurrection and the existence of either angel or spirit. “They have been called materialists.… But there is no proof that they denied what in our day we call the invisible world. They were only opposed to new speculations. They believed firmly in Mosaism, and adhered to the letter of the Scriptures. The resurrection, they said, was not supported by a single text in the law. The Sadducees, for the same reasons (the silence of Moses), discouraged Messianic hopes.… The Sadducees were the living proof that the Old Dispensation was drawing to a close” (Stapfer, Palestine in the Time of Christ, pp. 319, 320). The Pharisees confessed both. They “had formulated, under the Maccabees, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body,” by which they “did not intend merely the survival of the soul, the immaterial part of man, or even of a spiritual body, as St. Paul afterwards teaches, but a reunion with the very body which had been laid down” (ibid., p. 318). The Pharisees “believe that souls have an immortal vigour in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards and punishments according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life”—the vicious being “detained in an everlasting prison,” but the virtuous having “power to revive and live again.” The Sadducees hold “that souls die with the bodies” (Jos., Ant., XVIII. i. 3, 4).
Acts 23:9. The scribes should probably be some of the scribes. But if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him.—Supply, What then? The allusion obviously is to Paul’s vision in the temple (Acts 22:17). The best texts omit let us not fight against God. They were probably an interpolation from Gamaliel’s speech (Acts 23:9).
Acts 23:10. “The fear of the chiliarch was naturally heightened by his knowledge that he was responsible for the life of a Roman citizen” (Plumptre).
Acts 23:11. The oldest authorities omit Paul. For the phrase be of good cheer, in which the verb is θάρσει (Christ’s), compare Matthew 9:2; Matthew 14:27; Mark 6:50; John 16:33. For the same phrase with a different verb, εὐθυμεῖτε (Paul’s), see Acts 27:22; Acts 27:25. The vision announced the close of the first and the beginning of the second of Paul’s proposed journeys (Acts 19:21).
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 23:1-10
The Scene in the Council Chamber; or, Paul’s Doubtful Strategy
I. An exalted exordium.—
1. Delivered in a historic place. If in the usual court room of the Sanhedrim, the Hall Gazith, in one of the temple chambers, then it was probably the spot on which Stephen had stood twenty-two years before, when Paul heard him deliver his great apology (Acts 6:12); on which the apostles had stood when Gamaliel, a Pharisee, spoke up in their defence (Acts 5:34); and on which Christ had stood when Caiaphas pronounced him worthy of death (Matthew 26:57). If in some apartment in the city to which their meetings had been transferred about twenty-six years before this (see “Critical Remarks” on Acts 22:30), it was still the spot on which many a solemn trial had taken place. Men in general, and speakers in particular, are always more or less affected by the associations which cluster round the spots on which they stand.
2. Presented to a venerable court. The highest ecclesiastical and religious tribunal of the country, composed of priests and elders and scribes (Acts 4:5-6), belonging to the two principal parties of the day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (see “Critical Remarks,” and below), and presided over by the high priest of the time, Ananias, the son of Nebedæus.
3. Spoken with intense earnestness. Realising at once the sanctity of the place, the dignity of the court, and the solemnity of the occasion, the apostle fixed his eyes with steadfast gaze upon his auditors and began to pour out upon them the transcendent thoughts with which his soul was laden.
4. Begun with dignified self-respect. Not cringing before them, as if he either acknowledged himself a culprit or desired to fawn upon them with flattery, but dropping the term “fathers” which he had employed on the castle stairs (Acts 22:1), and addressing them as an equal, “as a former Sanhedrist to his ancient colleagues”—brothers! The man who is conscious of his innocence has no need to hang his head like a bulrush, or speak with bated breath and whispered humbleness, or forget the native nobility of his manhood.
5. Summed up in a noble confession. Not prompted by self-esteem or rendered possible by a self-indulgent criticism, but dictated by an inward consciousness of its truth. A confession that all his life long—not even excluding his persecuting days (Acts 26:9)—he had studied, and, so far as he could speak for himself, with a considerable measure of success, to preserve a good conscience, which could only have been done by following its dictates, in all his relationships in life, at all times, and under all circumstances, aiming at the service and glory of God (2 Timothy 1:3; Hebrews 13:18).
II. An unmannerly interruption.—
1. From whom it proceeded. From the high priest who presided over the council, Ananias, the son of Nebedæus, who was appointed to fill this ecclesiastical office by Herod of Chalcis and whose tenure continued from A.D. 47–59, when he was superseded by Ismael, the son of Phabi. Having lived after his deposition till the outbreak of the Jewish war in A.D. 66, he was murdered as a friend of the Romans by the revolutionaries. During the last years of his life, even after the demission of his office, he ruled like a tyrant in Jerusalem. His haughty disposition revealed itself in his behaviour towards Paul (see Schürer in Riehm’s Handwörterbuch des Biblischen Altertums, ii. 62, art. Ananias). “Ananias” says Besser (Bibel Stunden, III. ii. 504), “was the third high priest whom the Spirit, poured out from the throne by the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, called to repentance. But, like his predecessor Joseph, he was a legitimate successor of Caiaphas.”
2. How it was expressed. By commanding the officials of the Sanhedrim who were standing by to smite Paul upon the mouth. To the arrogant prelate it seemed unendurable—in fact, an intolerable presumption and unspeakable insolence—that one who was arraigned before them as a prisoner should either call them “brothers!” or advance for himself the claim of innocence. The mouth that uttered such words should be stopped. Whether the attendants obeyed or not is uncertain. If they hesitated for a moment (Besser) the probability is that they ultimately carried out their master’s command and inflicted on the apostle the same brutal insult that had once been offered to his Master (John 18:22), and long before to the prophet Jeremiah (Acts 20:1-2).
3. What response it evoked. Unlike his Master who, when one of the officers standing by struck him, meekly answered, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou Me?” (John 18:22-23), Paul replied with an indignant outburst—“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 the law.”
(1) So far as Ananias was concerned the language was both strikingly correct and richly deserved. Sitting there as Jehovah’s representative, clothed, perhaps, in his white priestly raiment and pretending to be a judge of offences against Heaven’s law, he was little better than a whited wall, beautiful without, but coarse within, “daubed over with untempered mortar”—an expression which perhaps had been borrowed from the similar phrase of Jesus Christ, “whited sepulchre” (Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44), and had become current among the early Christians as a fit designation for hypocrites, of whom Ananias was a magnificent specimen. That the phrase did not express a malediction or imprecation must be assumed, since such would have been altogether unbecoming on the lips of one who professed himself a follower of Jesus, and who had claimed to have lived up till that moment in all good conscience before God. The terrible utterance is best understood as a prophetic denunciation (Zöckler), which, according to Josephus (Wars, II. xvii. 19), was ultimately fulfilled, the Sicarii or assassins in the revolutionary war having entered Jerusalem and, after burning Ananias’s palace, dragged him, along with his brother Hezekiah, from concealment and murdered both. The rebuke as to his judging Paul contrary to the law was thoroughly deserved.
(2) So far as Paul was concerned, there was nothing wrong in either of the statements, unless it was wrong to denounce a scoundrel like Ananias, and foretell his fate. If anything was wrong about the utterance it was the passion (if there was such) with which it was accompanied. “It was certainly some disadvantage to Paul that (although provoked and unjustly smitten) he called the high priest ‘whited wall’; he was glad to excuse it by his ignorance. We may not be too bold or too forward to speak in a good matter, lest we overshoot” (Trapp.) But is it not rather easily assumed that Paul lost his temper and burst into a rage? Had he done so, it seems to us Paul would have not only acknowledged his offence when he cooled down—which some say he did (but see below, and “Critical Remarks” on Acts 23:5)—but when recalling this scene afterwards would not have omitted to mention this unchristian outburst (if it was such) as one of the mistakes he had committed—which, however, he did not (see Acts 24:21).
4. How it ended. Challenged by the attendants for reviling, as they called his scathing sentence, God’s high priest, as they styled the painted and decorated hypocrite who presided over the assembly, Paul replied that he wist not that the person whom he addressed was the high priest. This statement is generally interpreted as an acknowledgment on Paul’s part of having spoken unadvisedly with his lips. It ought, however, rather to be accepted in its plain and literal sense, as an intimation that, from some cause or other—defective sight, or an uncertainty as to whether the president of the court was the high priest—he did not know the exalted dignity of the person he addressed (see “Critical Remarks”). Had he known that Ananias was the high priest, rather than seem to violate the law of Moses—“Thou shalt not speak evil of a ruler of thy people”—he would have borne the indignity in silence. This does not appear to us as an admission that he had spoken rashly, except perhaps in so far as he ought to have made sure who the object of his denunciation was before launching against him such a scathing judgment and rebuke. But the judgment and the rebuke fell on the right head, and Paul, if he erred, only showed he was still a man and not the equal of his Divine Master (see “Hints”).
III. A dexterous strategy.—
1. The occasion of it. The mixed character of the council, which consisted of Pharisees and Sadducees.
(1) The Pharisees at the time of Christ formed a compact, important, and influential party inside the Jewish people—representing that tendency which was generally peculiar to post-exilic Judaism, and which in them (the Pharisees) received its sharpest and at the same time its most correct expression, viz., the tendency to transform religion into merely external legal service. That tendency drew after it as a necessary consequence this, that the external action rather than the moral disposition became the decisive factor in determining the quality of an action. Hence the Pharisees laid great stress upon oral legal tradition as supplementing the written law. The Pharisees were the democratic, popular party in Palestine.
(2) The Sadducees, deriving their name originally, it is believed, from Zadok the high priest in David’s and Solomon’s times, consisted principally of the members and adherents of the high priestly family, and formed in consequence the aristocratic party in Jerusalem, whose chief distinction lay in this—that they rejected the Pharisaic principle of legalism and with that the oral tradition which their rivals valued.
(3) Their dogmatic differences were principally these: that the Pharisees believed in and the Sadducees denied, the resurrection of the body and future punishment, the existence of angels and spirits, the doctrine of an overruling providence, which superintended and controlled the seemingly free actions of men (see Schürer in Riehm’s Handwörterbuch, arts. Pharisäer and Sadduccäer; and Langhans’s Biblische Geschichte und Literatur, ii. 431–435).
2. The nature of it. A sudden exclamation by Paul that he was a Pharisee and a son of Pharisees, and that he was that day being called in question for the hope and resurrection of the dead (see “Critical Remarks”). Both statements were true, although the latter may not have been so obvious to his hearers as it was to himself. It was undoubtedly a clever stroke, and perhaps illustrated that serpentine wisdom combined with dovelike harmlessness which Christ recommended to His followers (Matthew 10:16). “Religion,” says Trapp, “doth not call us to a weak simplicity, but allows us as much of the serpent as of the dove. The dove without the serpent is easily caught; the serpent without the dove stings deadly. Their match makes themselves secure and many happy.”
3. The effect of it. It divided the circle of his enemies into two opposing camps. Some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party immediately protested that they found no evil in Paul. If a spirit or an angel had spoken to him, what then? That was by no means impossible or incredible; and, if it really was so, it might be dangerous to meddle with the prisoner. Of course to the aristocratic Sadducean party, who regarded spirits and angels as nursery legends, creatures of the fancy, such a suggestion sounded ridiculous. The deeply seated antagonism which parted the two sects rose to the surface and flamed out into angry dissension. In their violent attempts, on the one hand to release, and on the other part to detain, Paul, he was like to be torn in pieces between them.
4. The end of it. The commandant of the castle, who had once more got to hear of the turmoil and feared for his prisoner’s safety, despatched a company of soldiers to the council chamber to rescue the apostle and fetch him into the fortress.
5. The rightness of it. That the apostle’s bold stroke terminated in his release may seem to many to be justification enough of the course adopted; but on subsequent reflection Paul himself was not perfectly sure about it (Acts 24:21). At least, without expressly granting that he had done wrong, he owned himself ready to admit that his action might wear the appearance of wrong. Possibly he was not himself certain that he had not erred from that straight path of conscientious duty he had up till that moment endeavoured to tread. His exclamation was perhaps secretly dictated less by an effort to vindicate himself or advance his Master’s cause, than by an endeavour to set his judges at loggerheads. If so, he would himself pronounce it wrong. What a sensitive conscience the apostle must have had!
IV. A sweet consolation.—
1. Its opportune arrival. The night following that exciting scene in the council, which again had ensued on a day of equal agitation in the temple and on the castle stairs. At a time when the apostle’s soul and body both were exhausted by the terrible conflict through which he had passed, and when perhaps through natural reaction he might have been disposed to subside into deep depression. But man’s extremity is ever God’s opportunity (compare Acts 27:24).
2. Its heavenly origin. It came direct from the Lord—i.e., the risen and exalted Christ, who instead of sending consolation to His wearied servant by a messenger, either human (2 Kings 4:42), or angelic (1 Kings 19:5), came Himself, stood by that servant, discovering His presence and speaking to that servant with His own lips. This circumstance showed both the importance of the occasion and the need of Paul.
3. Its cheering burden. It was practically an assurance that neither would his life be taken nor his career ended by this outrageous assault upon his person. The purpose he had formed would be fulfilled. As he had testified for his Master in Jerusalem, he would live to do the like in Rome (see “Hints” on Acts 23:2).
1. That a good conscience is a strong support in time of trouble.
2. That good consciences are not always fully enlightened.
3. That mistakes, when discovered, should be frankly acknowledged.
4. That good men should study not to let their good be evil spoken of.
5. That wicked men who hate each other often combine against the good.
6. That materialism is an old heresy.
7. That a good man may defend himself by all honest means.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 23:1. A Good Conscience.
I. From what it proceeds.—
1. True faith in Christ, which obtains the forgiveness of sins.
2. The assurance of Divine grace and eternal life.
3. The renewal of the Holy Ghost to a new life and conduct.
4. The faithful performance of our calling.
II. To what it contributes.—
1. The possession of inward peace before God.
2. The establishment of the heart in the hour of danger.
3. The strengthening of the soul for the performance of duty.
Note.—Those who attribute to Christianity a gloomy condemnation of, and a certain injustice towards, the natural man, and that which is good in him, or even those real devotees who, going beyond the truth, think badly of and inveigh against themselves and their former life, may learn here from Paul’s example that a regenerate man may rejoice before God and man even in his former relatively good conscience when in a position of error and sin, if his present conscience in Christ bears him witness that he has not belonged to the class of gross hypocrites.—Stier.
Acts 23:2. The Three Ananiases in Acts.
I. Ananias of Jerusalem, the insincere disciple (Acts 5:1); or, the detection and doom of false professors. A warning to Church members.
II. Ananias of Damascus, the true disciple (Acts 9:10; Acts 22:12); or, the ministry and reward of a humble Christian. An encouragement to Christian workers.
III. Ananias also of Jerusalem, the Sadducean high priest; or, the criminality and judgment of those who, acting as God’s vicegerents, nevertheless misrepresent Him. An admonition to Christian ministers.
Ananias and Paul. A parallel and a contrast.
I. Resemblances.—Both were—
1. Men. Probably both were (certainly one was) possessed of intellect and education.
2. Jews. Members of the Hebrew nation and of the covenanted people.
3. Representatives. The one of Jehovah, whose priest he was; the other of Jesus, whose apostle he claimed to be.
II. Differences.—In their—
1. Offices. The one a high priest, the other an apostle, as above stated.
2. Characters. The one a hypocrite, the other sincere.
3. Beliefs. The one a Sadducee, the other a Pharisee.
4. Positions. The one judge, the other prisoner.
5. Conduct. The one violent, the other resentful.
1. The differences between men are commonly more than their resemblances.
2. The best men do not always occupy the highest social positions in life.
3. The providence that makes prisoners of moral princes like Paul, and judges of mean reptiles like Ananias, though not wrong, is nevertheless mysterious.
4. Well-nigh intolerable are—
“The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes.”
Acts 23:3. God’s Judgment on Whited Walls.
I. A striking characterisation of hypocritical professors.—Whited walls. “Holy offices, spiritual titles, priestly dignities, are nothing else than white lime, by which the internal impurity of a carnal heart is covered.”
II. A solemn prediction of Divine judgment on such professors.—“God shall smite” them! If not by temporal calamities, by eternal punishments. In the great day of the Lord the secrets of all hearts shall be exposed.
III. A significant instance of moral retribution.—What will eventually happen in the case of hypocritical professors will also be the fate of other sinners. Their iniquity will be recompensed. Their wickedness will return upon their own pate.
Acts 23:5. Sins of Ignorance—
I. Are not permissible.—No excuse for a violation of the law of God to plead that it was done in ignorance.
II. May be disastrous in their consequences.—To the individual who commits them, and to those who are affected by them.
III. Should always be frankly confessed when discovered by him who has committed them, as was the case with Paul.
IV. May be forgiven.—As was the inadvertent mistake of the apostle.
Acts 23:6. The Hope (of Israel) and the Resurrection of the Dead.
I. The hope of Israel involved the resurrection of the dead.—See Psalms 16:9; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 49:15; Isaiah 25:8; Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:12; Daniel 12:2; Hosea 13:14.
II. The hope of Israel was guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.—This proved that a resurrection of the dead was possible, and would become actual in the case of the followers of Christ. See Acts 4:2; John 11:25; John 14:19; Romans 8:10; 1 Corinthians 15:23.
III. The hope of Israel and the resurrection of the dead form the burden of the gospel message.—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:28).
IV. The hope of Israel and the resurrection of the dead will reach their culmination at the last day.—See John 5:25; John 5:28; John 6:39; John 6:44; John 6:54; John 11:23-24; 2 Corinthians 5:14; Philippians 3:21.
Acts 23:1-6 with John 18:19-24, Jesus and Paul before the Sanhedrim; or, the Master and the disciple before unrighteous judges.
I. Wherein the Master and the disciple resembled each other.—
1. The same unmerited disgrace was inflicted on both.
2. Both maintained their Divinely bestowed dignity.
II. Wherein the Master was above the disciple.—
1. The holy self-consciousness of Jesus was more than the good conscience of Paul.
2. The calm answer of Jesus was more heavenly than Paul’s human vehemence.—Gerok.
Spots in the Sun; or, some things about Paul’s character that call for explanation.
I. Magnificent self-conceit, or spiritual pride.—“I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” Does not this seem a pretty high claim for even a Paul to advance? Does it not come tolerably near the violation of one of his own precepts (Romans 12:3)? Justifies it not Paul’s statement that he was a Pharisee? What was it, if not a manifestation of that self-righteousness so vehemently condemned in them? Well—
1. Paul could not have meant to assert that he had lived a sinless or blameless life (see Romans 3:9-10), either before his conversion (see 1 Timothy 1:13) or after it (Philippians 3:12).
2. Paul was certainly not conscious at the time that he was doing wrong in making such an allegation, as afterwards he was not in the least degree troubled about it (Acts 24:20).
3. Paul could only have signified that he had, throughout his entire career, endeavoured to follow the dictates of his conscience, as he afterwards explained to Timothy (2 Timothy 1:3). Possibly in so saying Paul may have been mistaken; but a mistake cannot be catalogued as a sin.
II. Unchristian anger, or lack of meekness.—“God shall smite thee, thou whited wall!” Was this like obeying his Master’s words—“Whosoever smiteth thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). And what about his own precepts?—“Be ye angry and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26); “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath” (Romans 12:19). To these interrogations it may be answered—
1. That anger is not always sinful, and, if ever there was an instance in which it was justifiable, it surely was when Ananias, God’s vicegerent, commanded Paul to be unjustly smitten.
2. That even Christ did not abstain from complaint when unjustly smitten by Annas (see John 18:23).
3. That as Paul was acting under the Spirit’s guidance when he stood before the Sanhedrim (Luke 12:12), we cannot doubt that his language about the high priest was justified, and was intended by the Holy Ghost as a Divine judgment, which, ten years later, was fulfilled.
4. That as the Lord, when He appeared to Paul that night, did not find fault with His servant, so neither should we.
III. Deliberate untruth or unworthy equivocation.—“I wist not that it was the high priest.” How could Paul say so when he knew that he was standing before the Sanhedrim? In addition to the last two observations under the preceding charge, which apply to this with equal force, the various explanations offered in the “Critical Remarks” and “Homiletical Analysis” may be consulted.
III. Worldly policy, or cunning craft.—“I am a Pharisee … touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.” How, it is asked, could Paul describe himself as a Pharisee when he knew that he had utterly and permanently broken with them; and how could he, as a good man, resort to the device and trick of a vulgar demagogue? Well, it is noticeable that this is the only point about Paul’s conduct that did cause him uneasiness. Yet
(1) it was perfectly true that he was a Pharisee in so far as he held with them the doctrine of a resurrection; and
(2) if he did throw an apple of discord among his enemies it is not quite clear that this was sinful.
Acts 23:7. Divide and Conquer; or, Paul’s Happy Stroke!—Surely no defence of Paul for adopting this course is required, but all admiration is due to his skill and presence of mind. Nor need we hesitate to regard such skill as the fulfilment of the promise, that in such an hour the Spirit of wisdom should suggest words to the accused which the accuser should not be able to gainsay. All prospect of a fair trial was hopeless; he well knew, from fact and present experience, that personal odium would bias his judges, and violence prevail over justice; he, therefore (Neander) uses, in the cause of truth, the maxim so often perverted to the cause of falsehood—Divide el impera.—Alford.
Acts 23:8. The Creed of the Sadducee.
I. A hopeless and melancholy creed.—
1. No resurrection. Then
(1) Christ is not raised and Christ’s people will not be raised hereafter. If Christ still exists, and if Christ’s people do not cease to be at death, in both cases existence is apart from the body.
(2) We are yet in our sins, and Christ’s death has not been an atonement for the sins of men.
(3) The Christian gospel is a fiction, the Christian’s hope a delusion, and the Christian himself of all men most miserable (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
2. No angel. Then
(1) man is the highest created being in the universe, which may say much for man, but does not speak highly for the universe, considering what man has in practice shown himself to be.
(2) Scripture, both old and new, which talks of principalities and powers in the heavenly places and even represents them as having at times appeared to men, must be set down as largely mythical, a conclusion which may not disturb rationalising critics, but which will unquestionably disconcert sincere Christians.
3. No spirit. Then
(1) man is not a composite being, consisting of soul and body, but a simple organism, consisting of body only; and the materialists of to-day and yesterday are right.
(2) There can be no immortality for man, since nothing remains after the earthly house of this tabernacle has been dissolved.
(3) It is doubtful if there can be any Holy Ghost or any God distinct from His works, in which case the dogma of pantheism must be accepted as correct, a result which philosophers might hail as the highest expression of wisdom, but which ordinary reasoners would not be able to distinguish from atheism.
II. An unproved and unproveable creed—
1. Unproved. No dialectician, whether scientist or philosopher, has ever demonstrated that man is the most exalted being in the universe, that he consists only of material particles, and that when he dies he can never again return to life. Arguments to that effect have been frequently advanced, but it is doubtful it they have convinced more than a few. At the bar of impartial reason the verdict sounds that the Sadducean thesis has not been established.
2. Unproveable. Except on the hypothesis that there is no personal God, and before one could convert that hypothesis into a truth he must have roamed the universe and demonstrated by personal examination that no such being as God anywhere existed—in other words, must himself be God.
III. A refuted and exploded creed.—
1. By the consciousness of man, which attests that his “I” is something totally distinct from his material body, that angels are at least conceivable beings, and that the doctrine of a resurrection is in perfect accord with the deepest instincts of his nature.
2. By the testimony of Scripture, which announces the fact of a resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:52), certifies the existence of angels (Luke 15:10; Galatians 3:19) and pre-supposes the reality of man’s spiritual nature (Job 32:8; Romans 8:10).
3. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which places the doctrine of a future resurrection beyond dispute, and in so doing guarantees the existence of man’s spirit as a separate entity from his body. If it does not certainly prove that there are angels, it at least shows, by what occurred in connection with the rising of Christ, that there are intelligences in God’s world superior to man.
Note.—The inconsistency of the Sadducees, in denying the existence of angels and spirits and yet adhering to the Pentateuch, which contains so many narratives of angelophanies, and practising the temple ritual, which certainly proceeded on the assumption that for man there was a future life, has been thus explained: The great body of the higher priestly class were mere Sadducees and were carried along by one of the great waves of thought which were then passing over the ancient world, and were Epicureans and materialists without knowing it, just as the Pharisees were, even to the eye of a writer like Josephus (Life iii.), the counterpart of the Stoics.—Plumptre.
Acts 23:11. Paul’s Midnight Visitor.—“And the night following the Lord stood by him.” What did this signify?
I. Christ’s fidelity towards His servant.—When Christ called the persecutor Saul to be an apostle, He did not send him forth alone and unprotected, but put him under the same promise as had been given to the eleven: “Lo! I am with you alway!” The present appearance of Christ to Paul in the castle prison showed that Christ intended to keep His word.
II. Christ’s sympathy with His servant.—Even had Christ not expressed His sympathy in words, His presence could not have failed to indicate it. Perhaps also Paul remembered the words which Christ formerly spoke to him upon the way to Damascus—“Saul! Saul! why persecutest thou Me?” If he did, he must have felt solaced by the reflection that as Christ had sympathised with His persecuted followers when they were cast into prison by him, Saul, so now did his Lord sympathise with him, Paul, in his bodily sufferings and mental anxieties.
III. Christ’s approbation of His servant.—Remarkable that no word of fault-finding or rebuke falls from the lips of Christ. Rather, the absence of any such word signified approbation. What a comfort to Paul! who always affirmed it was a small matter for him to be judged of his fellow-men so long as he secured a favourable judgment from his Master (1 Corinthians 4:3). So should Christians labour to be accepted of Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).
IV. Christ’s protection of His servant.—“Thou must bear witness also at Rome! “Then Paul could not be left for ever in the hands of his enemies. Already Paul had conceived the idea of visiting Rome (Acts 19:21). Now he learns that his Master had included that in His plan also. Henceforward Paul knew that he would lead a charmed life until his work was done. So may the Christian reason.
V. Christ’s use for His servant.—Paul was not to be cast off, but promoted to higher service. “Thou must bear witness for Me at Rome also.” All Paul’s past experiences had only been training him for his last place of ministry—Rome. So Christ leads His people and educates them for higher and nobler service. Often true on earth; certainly true of all earth’s discipline, which is a preparation for nobler service in heaven.
Illustrations.—Saints in Prison.
1. Paul. Not the first time this that the apostle had been imprisoned. “In prisons more abundant” (2 Corinthians 11:23) formed one important item in his life-record. A memorable instance occured in Philippi (Acts 16:23). Nor was this the first experience Paul had of being visited during night by Christ in a season of dejection. On an earlier occasion in Corinth (Acts 18:9) Christ had appeared to him with words of cheer.
2. Master Philpot. This eminent martyr under Mary wrote to his friends that his loathsome and horrible prison was to him as pleasant as the walk in the garden of the King’s Bench, because, though in the judgment of the world he was in hell, he nevertheless felt in the same the consolation of heaven.
3. Samuel Rutherford. Dating his letters from Christ’s palace in Aberdeen, within which he was detained as in a prison, this holy man thus wrote to a friend: “The Lord is with me; I care not what man can do. I burden no man. I want nothing. No king is better provided than I am: sweet, sweet and easy is the cross of my Lord.… My well beloved is kinder and more warm than ordinary, and cometh and visiteth my soul. My chains are over-gilded with gold.
4. Madame Guyon. This illustrious lady, imprisoned in the castle of Vincennes in 1695, not only sang but wrote songs of praise to her God. “It sometimes seemed to me,” she wrote, “as if I were a little bird whom the Lord had placed in a cage; and that I had nothing now to do but sing. The joy of my heart gave a brightness to the objects around me. The stones of my prison looked, in my eyes, like rubies. I esteemed them more than all the gaudy brilliancies of a vain world.”
The Midnight Vision in the Castle; or the Master speaking words of cheer to His servant. These words assured him of three things:—
I. Of a safe issue out of his present troubles.—So they upheld and comforted him in the uncertainty of his life from the Jews.
II. Of an accomplishment of his intention of visiting Rome.—So they upheld and comforted him in his uncertainty as to liberation from prison at Cæsarea.
III. Of the certainty that, however he might be sent thither, he should preach the gospel and bear testimony at Rome.—So he was upheld and comforted in the uncertainty of his surviving the storm in the Mediterranean, and in that of his fate on arriving at Rome. So may one crumb of Divine grace and help be multiplied to feed five thousand wants and anxieties.—Alford.
Comfort for Christ’s Suffering Servants.
I. Christ’s presence with them.—As Christ appeared to Paul in the castle, so is He ever beside His faithful servants in the hour of their tribulation. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” “If He undertake our protection, we may set those that seek our ruin at defiance” (Henry).
II. Christ’s words to them.—“Be of good cheer.” Christ desires His people to be happy under all circumstances. Because
(1) He is ever with them. “God is near thee; therefore cheer thee, sad soul!”
(2) All things work together for good to them that love Him. “Who, then, is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?”
III. Christ’s plans for them.—
1. That they should serve as His witnesses, wherever they might be.
2. That their lives should not terminate till their work was finished.
3. That their own purposes for Him, if for His glory, should be fulfilled.
Acts 23:1-11. The Best Advocates of a Servant of God before the Judgment-Seat of an Unrighteous World.
I. The comfort of a good conscience in his breast.
II. The curse of an evil thing in the ranks of the enemy.
III. The sympathy of the honest and unprejudiced in the world.
IV. The gracious testimony of a righteous judge in heaven.—Gerok.
Acts 23:12. The Jews (rather than certain of the Jews) who banded themselves together under a curse to kill Paul were not the members of the Sanhedrim, who had forgotten their opinions in the council (Acts 23:6-9), and were again united as one man against the apostle (Holtzmann), but the Jewish populace, or at least forty of them (Acts 23:13), who came to the chief priests and the elders (Acts 23:14)—i.e., to the Sadducean members of the council (De Wette, Meyer), who were hostile to Paul—with the information that they had bound themselves under a great curse to take him off. Josephus (Ant., XV. viii. 3, 4) mentions a similar conspiracy of ten Jews, who bound themselves by a solemn oath to assassinate Herod the Great, and relates (Ant., XII. vi. 2) the story of Matthias, the founder of the Maccabean dynasty, who slew an apostate Jew who offered sacrifice at Modin.
Acts 23:15. Ye with the council signify.—i.e., with the consent of the council or Sanhedrim. As though ye would inquire something more perfectly.—Better, as intending to investigate wore accurately (than on the former trial) the things concerning him—i.e., the charges against him. The words on the morrow are omitted by the best MSS.
Acts 23:16. Whether Paul’s sister’s son resided in Jerusalem, or had accompanied him thither, cannot be determined. Against the former supposition stands the fact that Paul lodged with Mnason (Acts 21:16). Plumptre suggests he may have been one of Paul’s Roman kinsmen (Romans 16:7; Romans 16:11) who had come to Jerusalem to attend the feast, and had heard the plot talked of in the caravanserai where he and the other pilgrims lodged. Alford thinks he may have been a young man domiciled in Jerusalem, as Paul himself had formerly been, for the purpose of attending school.
Acts 23:17. Bring this young man unto the chief captain.—Though Paul had a promise of Divine protection, he did not neglect the use of ordinary means.
Acts 23:18. The words Paul the prisoner show that the apostle was still chained to a soldier.
Acts 23:21. A, or the—i.e., the expected promise rather than “order” (Rosenmüller) or “message” (Grotins).
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 23:12-22
The Conspiracy of the (more than) Forty; or, Paul’s Life Endangered
I. The plotters.—
1. Their persons. Jews; not members of the council, but zealots among the outside crowd who had been disappointed at the seeming failure of proceedings against Paul.
2. Their number. Over forty. Nothing symbolic in the number, which might have been any other. The conspirators having been so many were a formidable band as to strength, but a weak conclave as to secrecy. When two have possession of a secret it becomes liable to escape into publicity; how much more when it is shared in by nearly half a hundred?
3. Their aim. To kill Paul—which probably they considered could not be compassed in any other way than by secret assassination, since the Sanhedrim had lost the power of inflicting capital punishment, and to all appearance Rome had thrown her shield over the apostle’s person.
4. Their oath. Not to eat or drink anything until they had accomplished their purpose. To this course they had bound themselves by a solemn imprecation before God. A rash experiment it might have turned out for them had not a loophole been provided for escaping from their vow, in case it should prove unsuccessful or impossible to be fulfilled. But, according to the Talmud, one who had taken on himself a rash vow might be released from it on application to the wise men of the time. “He that hath a vow not to eat,” said the Jewish doctors, “woe to him if he eat, and woe to him if he eat not; if he eat he sinneth against his vow; if he eat not, he sinneth against his life. What must one do in such a case? Let him approach the wise ones, and they will release him from his vow, as it is written, ‘The tongue of the wise is health’ (Proverbs 12:18).” (From the Talmud; quoted by Lightfoot, Horæ Hebraicœ et Talmudicœ).
II. The plot.—
1. Its disclosure to the chief priests and the elders. These were manifestly the Sadducean members of the Sanhedrim, who were hostile to Paul. The plan discovered to these, was
(1) cleverly contrived by the would-be assassins. It possessed at least one mark of sagacity—it was simple and not difficult to understand. The chief priests and elders should call a second meeting of the council, propose to amicably forget their yesterday’s bickerings, lay aside their mutual jealousies and recriminations, unite against their common foe and request the military tribune to fetch down his prisoner a second time into their council chamber, when they would promise with due care and becoming seriousness to make an accurate investigation into the charges which had been preferred against him. If they did this, the military tribune would hardly refuse their request; and then they, the confederates, the “Invincibles” of Jerusalem, would be in readiness, as the apostle was being conducted back to their chamber, most likely under a small escort, to fall upon him by the way and despatch him with their knives. It appears to have been told out, as well as contrived, in cold blood. The conspirators seemingly were not troubled with qualms of conscience, or secret fears, but talked about their infernal project like a matter of common business. The plan, moreover, appears to have been
(2) complacently listened to by those “holy scoundrels” into whose ears it was poured. Not one of all these venerable priests and elders expressed themselves as shocked at the proposal. Had they but “shook their heads” and “made a pause” when those villains told their tale, or “turned an eye of doubt” upon their faces, “deep shame had struck “them “dumb,” wrought in them fears, and caused them to break off their purposed deed of blood. But no! the dark communication whispered into their ears made secret joy within their guilty bosoms. When, having assented to the project, they laid it before the full council, it was
(3) silently accepted by all, probably also by the Pharisees, who may have felt that they had gone too far in throwing their shield over a prisoner so hateful as Paul. “The miserable rulers, who scruple neither to smile nor slay contrary to the law, accept this bold proposal just as willingly as they embraced Judas’s offer against Jesus” (Stier).
2. Its detection by Paul’s nephew. How he came to be in Jerusalem, and how he obtained a knowledge of the conspiracy against his uncle, are points that have not been reported by Luke. But he may have lived in Jerusalem with his mother, Paul’s sister, or been a student at some Rabbinical school in the city, as Paul himself had formerly been, or arrived in the Metropolis from Rome as a feast pilgrim; while it is scarcely necessary to inquire how a secret got out which was first shared in by forty unprincipled ruffians like the conspirators, and then told to a circle of bloodthirsty hypocrites like the Sanhedrists (see “Critical Remarks”). Anyhow, the diabolical project having come to his ears, he carried it to his uncle (to whom he appears to have found easy access), who, calling to him one of the centurions, requested that the youth might be conducted to the chief captain, for whom he had a communication of importance. This done, the chief captain having taken him aside, listened to the story—which possibly did not startle him, knowing, as he must have done, the characters of both the Sanhedrists and of the lawless zealots, with which the city at the time was full, but which he cautioned the young man to keep to himself, along with the fact that he had discovered it to him the chief captain.
3. Its defeat by the chief captain. With a promptitude which showed he regarded the young man’s story as antecedently probable, and intrinsically credible, and the situation as highly critical both for his prisoner, who might lose his life, and for himself who might be punished for neglect of duty in allowing a prisoner under his charge to be assassinated, he issued instant orders for the preparation of an escort of two hundred heavy armed soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen (see “Critical Remarks”), to start at the third hour of the night—i.e., about 9 p.m., to convey Paul to Cæsarea, which order was executed and by which Paul was rescued.
1. The depths of Satan which exist in the hearts of men—not always excepting those who profess to be religious (Revelation 2:24).
2. The ease with which God can bring secret things to light, and disappoint the devices of the crafty.
3. The safety of those whom Christ shields.
4. The duty of those whom God has promised to protect not to neglect the use of ordinary means.
5. The great service—to God, Christ and men—which may be rendered by a youth.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 23:11-12. The Two Covenants against Paul and For Him.
I. The murderous covenant of Paul’s enemies.—Powerful.
1. By their number—forty against one.
2. By their design—sworn to kill him.
3. By their craft and dissimulation.
II. The gracious covenant of Paul’s Lord.—More powerful.
1. He discloses the designs of the conspirators.
2. Against powerful enemies He stirs up yet more powerful protectors.
3. He brings Paul uninjured out of the den of murderers.—Gerok.
Acts 23:12-23. The Foes and the Friends of Paul.
I. The foes stirred up by Satan.—
1. The forty, and more, conspirators sworn to kill Paul.
2. The chief priests and elders aiders and abetters of their murderous scheme.
3. The high priest and the Sanhedrim who gave it their co-operation.
II. The friends raised up by God.—
1. Paul’s sister’s son, who happened to hear of the plot.
2. The chief captain, who took measures for Paul’s transportation to Cæsarea.
3. The soldiers—footmen, horsemen, and spearmen—who escorted him on the way.
The Hand of Providence, as seen in the circumstances that led to the defeat of the conspiracy and the rescue of Paul.
I. The number of the conspirators.—This made its secrecy practically impossible.
II. The discovery of the plot almost immediately after it was made.—This gave time for counterplans.
III. The presence in Jerusalem of Paul’s sister’s son.—Had he not got to hear of the conspiracy, access might not have been so easily found to the apostle’s presence.
IV. The kindness of the chief captain.—Otherwise he might either not have listened to or not believed in the young man’s story.
V. The credence given to the tale.—This led the military tribune to take instant measures for the apostle’s safety, probably before the Sanhedrim had approached him with a request for the re-hearing of Paul’s case.
VI. The strength of the escort.—This rendered it certain that no surprise attack upon the road would succeed in doing hurt to the apostle.
How the Lord Laughed at Paul’s Enemies.—By delivering Paul—
I. From the heart of a powerful, determined, and promising conspiracy.
II. At the moment when his destruction seemed imminent and inevitable.
III. By means of a boy, whose promptitude of action did more for Paul than all the plotting of the zealots and Sanhedrists did against him.
IV. With the aid of the instrument they hoped to employ for his destruction.—viz., the chief captain.
Acts 23:12-24. A Defeated Plot.
I. The formation of the plot.—The depths of Satan.
1. The conspirators.
(1) The Jews, or the Jewish party, in particular forty of them, hot-headed zealots, “the Orangemen of Judaism.”
(2) The chief priests and the elders, the leaders of the party who were supposed to have influence with the Sanhedrim.
(3) The council, or Sanhedrim, who, without question, acquiesced in the diabolical project.
2. The conspiracy.
(1) Its object: to kill Paul. So ten zealots conspired to assassinate Herod the Great because he had built a theatre and held gladiatorial shows in the Holy City.
(2) Its motive. Partly chagrin at being defeated in the council on the previous day, but chiefly hatred of Paul as an apostate. So Matthias slew a Jew who had offered sacrifice at Modin (See “Critical Remarks”).
(3) Its bond. An oath neither to eat nor drink until their project should be realised.
(4) Its plan. To persuade the captain to fetch down Paul to the council, so that he might be stabbed on the road.
II. The discovery of the plot.—The folly of sin. Clever people frequently outwit themselves.
1. The conspirators were too many. Moral: when you want a secret to be kept, tell it to no one.
2. The plan was too good. The conspirators were so captivated with the ingenuity of their scheme that they could not refrain from talking about it.
3. The result was too sure. So certain were the plotters of success that they omitted the most ordinary precautions for safety. They paid no attention to who was listening while they were talking; and so it came to pass that Paul’s nephew came to hear of it.
III. The defeat of the plot—the counsel of the Most High.—
1. The young man conveyed the information to his uncle. A proper and courageous thing to do. Indicated presence of mind and promptitude of action.
2. Paul requested a centurion to take the lad to the captain. A mark of the influence which Paul had acquired, even over his keepers. Superiority of character will shine forth, even in a prison.
3. The captain heard the story, and charged the lad to hold his tongue. Remark upon the captain’s courtesy and prudence. Even heathens may exhibit some virtues.
4. Lysias arranges for Paul’s transmission to Cæsarea. Thus defeating the devices of the apostle’s foes.
Acts 23:18. Paul the Prisoner.
I. In the mouth of the centurion a colourless designation of condition.
II. In the lips of his enemies an angry speech of degradation.
III. In the language of Paul a boasted title of honour.—Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 1:9; 2 Timothy 1:8. “Paul the prisoner; but therein happier than any potentate with all his chains of gold. Said Ignatius, ‘My chain is my honour, my links pearls.’ One hour changed Joseph’s fetters into gold chains, his stocks into a chariot, his gaol into a palace, Potiphar’s captive into his master’s lord, the noise of his gyves into abrech. So, and much more than so, will it be with all Christ’s prisoners at His coming.… This made Chrysostom say that he had rather be Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ, than Paul rapt up into the third heaven” (Trapp).
This Young Man; or, What a Youth may Be and Do.—Discovered in the characteristics and conduct of Paul’s sister’s son.
I. Characteristics.—Five noble qualities in any, but specially in a youth.
1. Intelligence. Paul’s nephew walked not through the world or the city of Jerusalem sleeping or dreaming, but kept his eyes and ears open, and picked up the plot which had been formed against his uncle.
2. Affection. On what footing religiously he stood with his uncle cannot be told. Perhaps, like his uncle, he was a Christian disciple, though just as likely he was not. Yet in the sudden peril which confronted his mother’s brother, he forgot not his blood relationship, and felt imperilled to make a bold stroke for his rescue.
3. Promptitude. Much depended on the swiftness of his action. Had he delayed in making known his discovery, his uncle’s life might have been lost. But the instant he became acquainted with the gruesome plot he took measures for its frustration.
4. Courage. Had he been timid he would have shrunk from the difficulties that opposed his forward movement. But animated by a holy affection he brought to the execution of his purpose a lofty and undaunted fortitude. First, he found or forced his way into the castle to see his uncle, and next he boldly proceeded to the governor’s presence; and finally he told out his story, seemingly without pausing to inquire whether it would be believed.
5. Discretion. Counselled to keep his secret to himself and to reveal to no one the communication he had—made to the governor, he did so, and thus both escaped the danger to which his own life would have been exposed, had it got abroad that he had foiled the plans of the conspirators, and enabled the governor to carry out his scheme for the safety of Paul.
1. He frustrated a wicked plot. Rendered futile and vain the murderous designs which had been formed against Paul. By being shrewd and wide-awake, prompt and decisive, loving and considerate, courageous and fearless, prudent and cautious, he defeated forty villains who had plotted together, and bound themselves under a curse, to commit a dark deed of blood, and delivered the Sanhedrim from being partakers of the awful crime.
2. He saved a noble life. The noblest life that that day existed in Jerusalem; the life of the greatest man that bad arisen within the Christian Church; the life of one who under God had proved himself one of the grandest benefactors of his nation and of the world.
3. He furthered a Divine purpose. How little men know when they serve as instruments in God’s hands. It was in the Divine purpose and plan that Paul should preach at Rome, and consequently that he should escape from this peril. Yet neither of these facts were known to the youth, who simply carried out his own thoughts, and in so doing advanced the Divine design.
4. He secured for the Church and the world a rich legacy of religious literature. Had Paul’s life been taken as the result of that conspiracy, both the Church and the world would have been poorer to-day by the lack of those immortal letters which were written from Cæsarea and from Rome.
1. That young men may be used by God for the loftiest purposes; and
2. That in order to be so used they should cultivate for themselves the noblest qualities of mind and heart.
Acts 23:23. Two.—Not one or two (Howson), but some or certain two—i.e., two or three (Hackett) of the centurions. Compare “some two of the disciples” (Luke 7:19). Soldiers.—Heavy armed, as distinguished from the “horsemen.” The spearmen, δεξιολάβοι, “right hand graspers”—an obscure word, not yet satisfactorily explained—have been interpreted as meaning military lictors who guarded prisoners, and were so called from taking the right side (Kuinoel), but probably signified a lightly armed Roman cohort of slingers and javelin throwers (Jos., Wars, II. Act. 17:5; III. Act. 7:18; IV. Acts 1:3), hence rightly enough named spearmen.
Acts 23:25. A letter after this manner.—Lit., having this type, as to verbal form, stamp, and contents. Such a writing relative to a prisoner, called an elogium, was required by Roman law to be sent with every prisoner forwarded to a magistrate for trial. That this was not the actual missive of Claudius Lysias, but only a free reproduction of what the writer of the Acts supposed it might be, has been argued
(1) from the difficulty of understanding how the writer of the Acts would get to know what Lysias wrote, and
(2) from its similarity to the introduction of Luke (Acts 1:3), which, like it, uses the epithet “most excellent,” and to the Jerusalem letter, which employs the same salutation, “greeting” (Acts 15:23). But as to
(1), the letter of Lysias may have been unsealed and shown to Paul, if not also to Luke, who most likely accompanied him; while as to
(2), it need only be supposed that Lysias, Luke, and James, knew the art of polite letter-writing. It is a gratuitous assumption to assert that the composer of the Acts is responsible for the inaccuracy which occurs in Lysias’ letter (Holtzmann).
Acts 23:28. I brought him forth—better, down—into their council.—This clause is omitted by some authorities.
Acts 23:30. From the Received Text the word μέλλειν should be struck out, according to the best authorities; but even then two constructions are combined:
(1) μηνυθείσης ἐπιβουλῆς τῆς ἐσομένης, and
(2) μηνυθέντος ἐπιβουλὴν ἔσεσθαι. The sense, however is, it having been shown to me that there would be a plot against the man. By the Jews is wanting in the oldest codices. So is the concluding word, farewell, which was probably inserted from Acts 15:29.
Acts 23:31. By, or during night the apostle with his escort travelled to Antipatris.
Acts 23:32. On the morrow after their arrival at Antipatris. Returned to the castle.—Possibly one of the centurions (Acts 23:23), along with the footmen and spearmen.
Acts 23:35. I will hear thee.—Perhaps fully should be added to convey the force of the preposition. The rule of Roman law was: Qui cum elogio mittuntur ex integro audiendi sunt. “The governor of a province was not to give implicit credit to the document with which a prisoner was sent to him; he must institute an independent examination of the case for himself” (Hackett).
HOMILETICAL ANALYSIS.—Acts 23:23-35
The Midnight Ride to Cæsarea; or, Paul’s Safety Ensured
I. The departure from Jerusalem.—
1. The time. “The third hour of the night;” i.e., about nine o’clock in the evening. The military tribune obviously lost no time. Neither had God. The conspiracy had been hatched in the early hours of the morning. In the course of the forenoon it might be laid before the council. In the afternoon it was public talk in the inns. In the evening by nine o’clock, it was defeated. Well says Russell Lowell in his “Biglow Papers”:
“And you’ve got to get up early
If you want to take in God.”
2. The escort. Two hundred footmen, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. A large guard for the protection of one man. From this may be inferred the military tribune’s sense of the danger arising from the reckless daring of the Sicarii which infested the country. Besides, the Roman citizenship of Paul rendered it necessary that no risk should be run of harm coming to him while in the tribune’s care. “Or, perhaps, finding Paul to be a very extraordinary man, the chief captain was proud to have him his prisorer and under his protection; and the mighty parade with which he sent him off intimates as much” (Henry).
3. The destination. The soldiers were simply told they were to go to Cæsarea. Even the centurion was not informed at first of the reason of this midnight march. His instructions ran to provide beasts of burden, either horses or mules—to carry packages he might infer, but, as Luke indicates, to set Paul on one of them, and so convey him safe to Felix.
4. The accompanying letter.
(1) Its writer. Claudius Lysias, concerning whom nothing is known beyond what is here recorded.
(2) Its recipient. Felix (Antoninus), at that time Roman Procurator of Judæa, to which office he had been appointed A.D. 53. A freedman of the emperor Claudius, and brother of Pallas the favourite of Nero, he “exercised his power as a prince with the spirit of a slave” (Tacitus, Hist., Acts 23:9), while Josephus (Ant., XX. viii. 5) relates that under this rule “the affairs of the Jews grew worse and worse continually.” Suetonius affirms that he was the husband of three queens: (a) Drusilla, the daughter of Juba, king of Mauritania and Selene, the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra; (b) another Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I., sister of Herod Agrippa II., and wife of Azizus, King of Emesa, whom she left to marry Felix; and (c) a royal lady, whose name is unknown. This immoral governor ruled over Judæa for seven or eight years, was recalled by Nero in the year A.D. 60 or 61, and accused by the Cæsarean Jews, but acquitted on the intercession of his brother Pallas (Jos., Ant. XX., viii. 9). He was succeeded by Festus. Tradition reports that along with Drusilla and their son he perished in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in the days of Titus Cæsar.
(3) Its contents. After a courteous salutation (Acts 23:26), it explained how Paul had come into his hands (Acts 23:27), and why Paul was now forwarded to him (Acts 23:30). The apostle had been rescued by him (Lysias) when in danger of being slain in the temple (Acts 23:27), because he (Lysias) had come to know that he (Paul) was a Roman—an incorrect statement, which Lysias makes to represent his own conduct in the most favourable light, and which indirectly confirms the genuineness of the letter (Meyer). The apostle had been examined before the council of his countrymen, with the result that nothing had been found against him worthy of death or of bonds, but only certain charges about questions of their law had been advanced to his discredit (Acts 23:28-29). The apostle’s life had become imperilled in consequence of a conspiracy against him, which had come to his, the tribune’s ears, and which was the reason why Paul had been forwarded to Cæsarea, that if his accusers had aught to urge against him they might do so before a regular tribunal.
II. The arrival at Cæsarea.—
1. The halt at Antipatris. This town, built by Herod the Great, on a site called Kaphar-saba (Jos., Ant., XIII. xv. 1; XVI. Acts 23:2)—the modern Kefr Sâba—and named Antipatris in honour of his father, was forty miles from Jerusalem, on the direct road to Cæsarea, and might easily be reached, by a forced march of four miles an hour, by seven or nine o’clock a.m. Here the cavalcade halted for the day, and on the morrow—i.e., the day after arriving at Antipatris—the horsemen and spearmen proceeded on their journey to complete the twenty-six miles that remained between Antipatris and Cæsarea, the soldiers returning to Jerusalem, as the most dangerous part of the road was then passed.
2. The presentation of the letter and the prisoner to Felix. This was done on reaching Cæsarea. Felix, on perusing the document, put only one question, inquiring to what province the prisoner belonged. “Felix was not the principal Roman official in that part of the empire. The proconsul of Syria bore supreme authority over Judæa. Felix was proconsul, or deputy, of Judæa under that great official.… Felix deemed it expedient to inquire respecting the nationality of the prisoner, as it might have been desirable to have him sent at once to the seat of the government of some other procurator or proconsul” (Spence). Compare Pilate’s action in sending Christ, a Galilean, to be judged by Herod (Luke 23:6-7).
3. The decision of Felix concerning Paul. Having learnt that Paul belonged to Cilicia, Felix determined to investigate his cause himself. “The political motives which induced him to retain a Cilician in Judæa are to us now unknown” (Spence). When Paul’s accusers should arrive the trial would be opened. Meanwhile the apostle was commanded to be kept in Herod’s judgment-hall, pretorium, or palace—originally a mansion, erected by Herod for his accommodation, but then used as an official residence by the Roman governor. Most likely a part of this edifice was set apart for the lodging of state prisoners, and in any case it is apparent that in Cæsarea Paul was not treated like a common criminal, but allowed a large amount of liberty, his friends being permitted to visit him (Acts 24:23), during the two years of his confinement in that city.
1. The respect which Christians, when sincere, exact, even from men of the world. This shown by the numerous guard provided to escort Paul.
2. The disrespect to truth which is often exhibited by men of the world. This instanced by Lysias’ inaccuracy in his letter.
3. The possibility of finding virtue in the hearts of those who have not been renewed by Divine grace. As in Lysias.
HINTS AND SUGGESTIONS
Acts 23:25-30. Lysias’ Letter to Felix. “This epistle, which is a good specimen of the Roman method of writing letters, may be considered as a model of brevity, simplicity, and perspicuity. The customary title of respect to a superior, and expression of good-will, are once only made use of; and in this it differs exceedingly from modern epistles to persons of high rank and authority, which are generally encumbered with multiplied compliments and ascriptions of honour. Lysias, however, was careful not to intimate to Felix that he had bound Paul, in order to scourge him; and as we suppose this to have been an exact copy of the letter, it appears he was willing Felix should conclude that his interposition in Paul’s favour arose from a previous knowledge that he was a Roman citizen, though it is evident this was not the case. In other respects, the account was fair and candid; and we cannot wonder that a heathen should state his conduct in that light which was most favourable to his own reputation and advancement, and not likely to injure any man” (Scott). “This letter shows us that Claudius Lysias has granted protection to the Roman citizen without being attracted by the witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. The respect of a Roman, which he demands of the Jews, he wilfully emphasises, by so representing the matter as if he had rescued Paul from the Jews, after having learnt of his Roman citizenship. Through this crafty report he expected to receive from his excellency Felix the governor the more praise, while we see that Lysias was a man of not more than heathen virtue. The more powerfully also through this showed the hand of the Lord, which can deliver from the wisdom of the mighty and can make all things, even the ambition of a heathen officer, work for the good of poor Christians” (Besser).
Acts 23:31. The Apostle’s Ride to Antipatris.—A modern counterpart of this has been found in Luther’s conveyance to Wartburg by his friends after the Diet of Worms. “He was enjoined not to preach on his way home. Declaring, however, that the word of God was free, he preached, despite the injunction, at Hirschfeld and Eisenach. As he was making a little détour from the latter place, in order to visit some of his relatives and friends at Möhia, near Salzungen, he was suddenly fallen upon, in the neighbourhood of Altenstein and Walters-hansen, by a company of horsemen, lifted out of the waggon, and whilst his companions, Nicholas Amsdorf and James Luther, were suffered quietly to go on their way, he was set upon a horse, driven about for some hours in the forest, and finally, at eleven o’clock at night, brought to the castle of Warnburg, near Eisenach, which had formerly been the seat of the old landgraves of Thuringia. It soon became evident that this sudden capture, which, in all probability, was ordered by the elector, was intended to secure the well-being and personal safety of the Reformer” (Hagenbach’s History of the Reformation, i. 138, 139).
Paul’s Midnight Escapes.
I. From Damascus.—By being let down over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:25).
II. From Thessalonica.—After the uproar in that city, by being sent away to Berœa (Acts 17:10).
III. From Jerusalem.—To Antipatris and Cæsarea.
Paul’s Last Departure from Jerusalem.
I. A mournful departure of a witness for the truth, whose message of salvation his blinded people have rejected.
II. The glorious, triumphant march of an anointed servant of God, whom the Lord leads victoriously through the midst of enemies.
III. The solemn homeward journey of a warrior of Christ, who goes to meet his last fight, his last victory, his last reward.—Gerok.
Acts 23:33-35. Paul’s First Interview with Felix.
I. Presented to the governor.—The representative of the Lord of the whole earth to the plenipotentiary of Cæsar, the minister of heaven to the servant of Rome, the noblest man that ever stood in Herod’s palace to one of the worst that ever found in it a home.
II. Questioned by the governor.—As to what province he was of. Perhaps out of mere curiosity, more likely because he wished if possible to shirk an unpleasant duty by handing him over to some other official. The least important question Felix could have asked.
III. Accepted with the governor—So far, at least, as not to be condemned by him without a hearing. Even Felix accorded him what his countrymen so often denied him—permission to defend himself. He should not be pronounced a criminal without a fair trial. Sometimes heathens may teach their more enlightened fellows lessons in morality and goodness.
IV. Lodged beside the governor.—Kept in Herod’s palace. “Another trace of the faithful care of God for His servant, as He granted him time and rest to pray and strengthen himself in the Lord;” but also an unconscious tribute of respect and honour paid by Felix to the illustrious prisoner who stood before him.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Acts 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
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