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David Guzik :: Study Guide for Acts 23

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Paul in Protective Custody, From Jerusalem to Caesarea

A. Paul's defense before the Sanhedrin.

1. (Act 23:1-5) Paul rebukes the high priest.

Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day." And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?" And those who stood by said, "Do you revile God's high priest?" Then Paul said, "I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, 'You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'"

a. Paul, looking earnestly at the council: Paul began his message before the Sanhedrin (what an opportunity for preaching!) in a way he probably thought to be innocent enough. He simply said, "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day."

i. Paul was not trying to say he was sinlessly perfect and that his conscience had never told him he was wrong. Rather, he meant that he had responded to conscience when he had done wrong and had set things right.

ii. Nor would Paul ever consider a clear conscience a way to be justified before God. "Paul might well appeal to the testimony of conscience as he stood before the supreme court of Israel; it was on no righteousness of his own, however, that he relied for justification in the heavenly court. The purest conscience was an insecure basis of confidence under the scrutiny of God." (Bruce)

iii. Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 4:4 is relevant: For I know nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord.

b. And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth: However, Paul's declaration he had lived in all good conscience before God until this day drew the wrath of the high priest. He was offended that someone accused of such serious crimes could claim a clear conscience.

i. Or, perhaps, he was convicted in his heart by the inherent integrity of Paul's claim.

c. God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! How did Paul say these words in Acts 23:3? It would have helped to hear Paul's tone of voice as he rebuked the high priest; was it an outburst of anger, or was it a calm, collected rebuke with that much more weight to it?

d. Whatever the tone, the rebuke was entirely accurate and justified.

i. The high priest indeed was a whitewashed wall; a white veneer of purity covering over obvious corruption.

ii. The high priest was also not only to be the administrator of the law, but the example of it. His command to have Paul struck was in fact contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the law. Deuteronomy 25:1-2 says only a man found guilty can be beaten, and Paul had been found guilty of nothing.

e. The Ananias who was high priest at this time was a man who did no honor to the office. He was well known for his greed; the ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells of how Ananias stole for himself the tithes that belonged to the common priests.

i. "He did not scruple to use violence and assassination to further his interests." (Bruce) Because of his pro-Roman politics, he was, however, brutally killed by Jewish nationalists.

ii. God will strike you: "Paul's words, however, were more prophetic than he realized. Ananias' final days - despite all his scheming and bribes - were lived as a hunted animal and ended at the hands of his own people." (Longenecker)

f. However, Paul agreed that it was wrong to speak evil of the ruler of your people (Exodus 22:28), considering the office more than the man; but claims he did not know that Ananias was the high priest.

i. Some think he did not know because Paul's eyesight was bad. This is an inference from Galatians 4:14-15 and 6:11, as well as from early written church traditions.

ii. Others think that Paul is being sarcastic here, with the idea "I didn't think that anyone who acted in such a manner could be the high priest!"

2. (Act 23:6-9) Paul divides the Sanhedrin.

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, "Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!" And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection; and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees' party arose and protested, saying, "We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God."

a. Paul perceived: Paul seems to have read his audience and saw they were not conducive to the gospel - the actions of the high priest and the attitudes of those present made this plain. So, Paul gives up on preaching the gospel, and does what he can to preserve his liberty before this council that wanted to lynch him.

b. One part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees: Paul's course is now to divide the Sanhedrin among their party lines - to get one side (the Pharisees) sympathetic to him, instead of having them united against him.

i. Sadducees were the "religious liberals" of their day, and denied the reality of life after death and the concept of resurrection. Luke rightly says of them, Sadducees say that there is no resurrection; and no angel or spirit.

ii. The Pharisees were more likely to find some ground of agreement with Paul, being the "fundamentalists" of their day. They took the Bible seriously, even if they did err greatly by adding the traditions of men to what they received in the Bible.

iii. Usually the Saducees and the Pharisees were bitter enemies, but they were able to unite in opposition against Jesus (Matthew 16:1, John 11:47-53) and Paul. It's strange how people with nothing in common will come together as friends to oppose God or His work.

c. I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: Knowing his audience, Paul refers to his heritage as a Pharisee, and declares, "concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged." He knew this was a "hot issue" between the two parties.

i. Of course, this was an essentially true claim. The center of Paul's gospel was a resurrected Jesus.

d. When he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided: Paul picked the right issue. Framed in these terms, he immediately gained the Pharisees as an ally, and he let them argue it out with the Sadducees.

i. The Pharisees, in saying "let us not fight against God" are returning to the previous attitude that their great leader Gamaliel advised in Acts 5:38-39.

e. Paul has saved his skin; but he certainly cannot be happy. He had the opportunity to preach to a huge crowd of attentive Jews on the temple mount, and now an opportunity to preach to the Sanhedrin - and both opportunities blew up in his face.

3. (Act 23:10-11) After Paul is rescued by the Roman commander, he is comforted that night by Jesus.

Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks. But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, "Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome."

a. Now when there arose a great dissension: The commander must now be certain that these Jews are crazy in their endless and violent disputes. Previously, they rioted over the one word "Gentiles," now it is over the one word "resurrection."

b. The commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them: The commander removed Paul for his own safety, and left him in custody in the barracks.

c. What a dark place Paul must have been in, sitting alone in the barracks! Two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities blew up in his face, and it would not be surprising if Paul blamed himself for the missed opportunity before the Sanhedrin. After all, wasn't it his reaction to the punch from the High Priest that spoiled everything?

i. It wouldn't be surprising if Paul sat alone in the barracks that night, with his head in his hands and tears streaming down his face, mourning the lost opportunities for God and how he might have spoiled them. Paul probably wondered if God would ever, ever want to use him again, or if this was the end.

ii. "Bold, courageous, fearless during the day, the night of loneliness finds the strength spent, and the enemy is never slow to take advantage of that fact." (Morgan)

iii. It was in the darkness of that night when the fears came upon Paul; when his trust in God seemed to falter; when he worried about what God was going to do and if he was going to make it. It was in the darkness of that night that Jesus came to Paul and stood by him.

d. But, in a marvelous way, the Lord stood by him. Jesus' physical presence (as it seems was the case) with Paul was a unique manifestation. But Jesus promised every believer to always be with them (Matthew 28:20).

i. Jesus knew where Paul was; He had not lost sight of Paul because he was in jail. When John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, was in jail, a man visited him and said, "Friend, the Lord sent me to you, and I have been looking in half the prisons in England for you." John Bunyan replied, "I don't think the Lord sent you to me, because if He had, you would have come here first. God knows I have been here for years." God knows where you are today; even if you are hiding it from everyone else, God knows where you are.

ii. Paul was alone, but he wasn't alone; if everyone else forsook him, Jesus was enough. Better to be in jail with the Lord than to be in heaven without him.

iii. Paul had been miraculously delivered from jail cells before; but this time, the Lord met him right in the jail cell. We often demand that Jesus deliver us out of our circumstances, when He wants to meet us right in them. We sometimes think we are surrendering to Jesus when we are really only demanding an escape. God wants to meet you in whatever you are facing now.

e. Be of good cheer, Paul: Jesus was not only with Paul; He gave him words of comfort. The words be of good cheer tell us that the night brought with it an emotional and perhaps spiritual darkness upon Paul. Jesus was there to cheer His faithful servant after he had spent himself for Jesus' sake.

i. Jesus would not have said be of good cheer unless Paul needed to hear those words. Paul knew his situation was bad, but he didn't know the half of it! The next day, forty Jewish assassins would gather together and vow to go on a hunger strike until they murdered Paul. Paul didn't know this would happen, but Jesus did! Yet He can still say to Paul, be of good cheer.

ii. You might think that things are bad right now, but you may not even know the half of it! But Jesus knows, and he still says to you, be of good cheer. Why? Not because everything is fine; but because God is still on His throne, and He still holds to His promise that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

iii. Anyone can be of good cheer when everything is great; but the Christian can be of good cheer when everything is rotten, because he knows that he has a great God.

f. For as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome: Jesus remembered what Paul had done in Jerusalem, and told Paul that there remained more work for him to do in Rome.

i. Paul could have been discouraged about the lack of results from the sermon in Jerusalem. But the results were not his responsibility. His responsibility was to bring the Word of God and to testify of Jesus; the results were God's responsibility. You have testified for Me in Jerusalem means that Jesus complimented Paul on a job well done!

ii. Yet, though Paul had done a good job, there was more to do. So you must also bear witness at Rome was Paul's next assignment. The greatest words a faithful child of God can hear are "there is more for you to do." Those words grieve a lazy servant, but bring joy to a faithful servant.

iii. Dear child of God, there is more for you to do! More people to bring to Christ, more ways for you to glorify Him, more people to pray with, more humble ways to serve His people, more hungry to feed, more naked to clothe, more weary saints for you to encourage!

iv. "A divine decree ordains for you greater and more trying service than as yet you have seen. A future awaits you, and no power on the earth or under the earth can rob you of it; therefore be of good cheer." (Spurgeon)

g. So you must also bear witness at Rome: The promise of more work to do was also a promise of continued protection. Paul could not perish until he had finished the course God had appointed for him. Rome waited!

i. Paul really wanted to go on to Rome (Acts 19:21, Romans 1:9-12). Sometimes we think that just because we want something a lot, it couldn't be God's will for us. But God often gives us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4).

ii. The timing of this promise was especially precious. It didn't look like Paul would get out of Jerusalem alive, much less make it to Rome. God not only knows what we need to hear; He knows when we need to hear it.

iii. Paul faced his enemies the next day with a smile, knowing that they were powerless against him, because God had more for him to do!

iv. "This assurance meant much to Paul during the delays and anxieties of the next two years, and goes far to account for the calm and dignified bearing which from now on marks him out as a master of events rather than their victim." (Bruce)

B. Paul is delivered from the plot of assassins.

1. (Act 23:12-15) Forty men vow to set an ambush and kill Paul.

And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, "We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul. Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near."

a. Saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul: These men lack nothing in zeal. But their zeal is not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Zeal and devotion by themselves prove nothing about an individual's right relationship with God.

b. Suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him: However, in their zeal, they think nothing of lying to the Roman commander to carry out their plot. They will readily disobey God to follow their zealous plot.

c. Would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul: Did these men who made the vow of fasting die, because they failed in their mission to kill Paul? Probably not. Ancient rabbis allowed for four types of vows to be broken: "vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error, and vows that cannot be fulfilled by reason of constraint" - exclusions allowing for almost any contingency. (Longenecker)

2. (Act 23:16-22) Paul's nephew learns of the plot and warns the Roman commander.

So when Paul's sister's son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, "Take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him." So he took him and brought him to the commander and said, "Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to bring this young man to you. He has something to say to you." Then the commander took him by the hand, went aside and asked privately, "What is it that you have to tell me?" And he said, "The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more fully about him. But do not yield to them, for more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him; and now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you." So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him, "Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me."

a. In these unusual circumstances, we see God's protecting hand all over Paul. God knows how to take care of His servant!

3. (Act 23:23-33) Paul escapes to Caesarea, with a full military escort and a letter referring his case to the provincial governor.

And he called for two centurions, saying, "Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor." He wrote a letter in the following manner:
Claudius Lysias, to the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him. Farewell.
Then the soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him.

a. Prepare two hundred soldiers: Again, we are impressed with the wise action and fairness of the Roman commander, whose name was Cladius Lysias, as we learn from his letter.

i. Remember that Acts was likely written as a defense brief or a "friend-of-the-court" document for Paul before his case was heard by Caesar Nero in Rome. It should not surprise us that Luke emphasizes those events that cast Roman officials in a positive light!

b. I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman: In his letter, Claudius implies that he learned of Paul's Roman citizenship right away, and he says nothing of the way Paul was bound twice and almost scourged for the same of interrogation.

c. The assessment that Paul had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains was important for Luke to record. Since Roman officials trying Paul's case were going to read this document, they needed to know that other Roman officials had judged Paul "not guilty."

i. "One of Luke's prime motives in writing his twofold history is to demonstrate that there is no substance in this charge of subversion brought not only against Paul but against Christians in general - that competent and impartial judges had repeatedly confirmed the innocence of the Christian movement and the Christian missionaries in respect of Roman law." (Bruce)

d. Took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris: Why did the 200 soldiers go this far, and not all the way to Caesarea? Because the most dangerous part of the road was only up to Antipatrias. "Up to Antipatris [about 25 miles] the country was dangerous and inhabited by Jews; after that the country was open and flat, quite unsuited for any ambush and largely inhabited by Gentiles." (Barclay)

4. (Act 23:34-35) Paul awaits trial in Caesarea.

And when the governor had read it, he asked what province he was from. And when he understood that he was from Cilicia, he said, "I will hear you when your accusers also have come." And he commanded him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium.

a. And he commanded him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium: As Paul awaited trial in Caesarea, how do you think his heart stood? Afraid? Stressed? Discouraged? No doubt, he probably trusted in God, because he had received the Lord's words of encouragement and His promise that lonely night in Jerusalem. Have you received the Lord's words of encouragement and promise to you? Are they making a difference?

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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