The story of the bible as it relates to Israel and the Jews is a depressing account of a people who go on and on disobeying God in spite of their privileged place and in spite of repeated warnings.
Jesus himself said in Luke 13: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! There is much that we can learn from this in our relationship with God – we are often just like Israel – we know what is right, we know what we ought to do and how we ought to live but we don’t.
Acts chapter 23 is another episode in Israel’s long history of disobedience and rejection of God’s provision. We have noted that Paul’s missionary journeys had come to an end, the reason for this seems to be less to do with completion of his missionary task as such and more to do with a new and specific role for Paul. Israel had rejected Jesus, now they had rejected the coming of the Holy Spirit and the benefits of the new covenant – judgment was now inevitable. Judgment in the form of exile from the land took place about 600 years prior to these events in Acts and a similar judgment was on its way. The process being put into effect in Acts bears some remarkable similarities to the previous judgment round about 600 BC. Whilst judgment was by this stage in Acts inevitable, there seems reluctance on God’s part to bring the judgment about – at least there seems to be many opportunities offered for repentance. Before Jesus was crucified the people made a choice, then the religious establishment, then the political establishment (Jewish as well as Roman) – it was not until all these groups were afforded a chance to come to a right response to Jesus’ message that the crucifixion took place and likewise in Acts a similar picture emerges.
The people had made their response (the riot in the Temple), and now it was the turn of the religious establishment to respond to Paul and his message – the message of a new covenant and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
- 70 at the Sanhedrin
Moses had set up a management team comprised of 70 members of the nation and this group had developed over the years into the Sanhedrin – it was a kind of religious council staffed by Sadducees and Pharisees. You will recall that the Roman commander Claudius Lysias was trying to find out what Paul had done that was to cause so much turmoil in the city – he assumed that a meeting of the Sanhedrin with Paul would provide answers.
As Paul stands before the 70 members of this religious body, his first statement is that he has fulfilled his duty to God in good conscience. Paul said this a number of times in his letters too – often we are misrepresented and misunderstood in what we do for God. Sometimes this can arise from genuine misunderstandings, but at other times there is a deliberate attempt to discredit and misrepresent. Paul had nothing to hide or be ashamed of, his conscience was clear. We can see something of the atmosphere in the Sanhedrin in what happened next – in response to Paul’s quite innocuous statement, the High Priest ordered Paul to be struck on the mouth! This is a kangaroo court at best and there seems little doubt that the members of this body were not at all interested in offering Paul a fair hearing. Jesus had been here before – his response to being struck was rather different to Paul’s (John 18: 20-21) but Paul was not Jesus and he was not going to allow these people to get away with this! He turned to the High Priest and said ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!’. Was Paul right to respond in this way? I think not – in fact he quickly apologised for his disrespectful attitude to the high priest. I wonder how we would respond in this situation? Paul himself would later say that our attitude should be that of Christ Jesus (see Philippians 2). Perhaps we can say that as believers we are not perfect from day 1, but we need to grow and mature. Peter says at the end of his letter: But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In order to grow we need the nurture of God’s word and the warm environment of fellow believers. Paul likens the church to a body with different parts, each one making a contribution for the benefit of the whole body – how could a hand do well on its own? It would soon die and the body from which it left would be diminished and handicapped – so it is with the church. We need each other to grow successfully. Don’t expect to thrive as a believer if you exclude yourself and don’t spend time with fellow believers.
Paul needed to speak to explain himself and allow this body of men to arrive at a decision – this was the request of Claudius Lysias. I find Paul’s tactics somewhat unexpected. Rather than telling his story of conversion (as he had with the crowd in the Temple and as he was about to do with King Agrippa) he focused on resurrection. He simply said ‘I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead’. The result was almost comical – Paul had opened up an old wound between the Pharisees and Sadducees who needed no encouragement to engage in an almighty row. Luke describes it as a great uproar and at one point things seemed to be getting so out of hand that the commander was afraid for Paul’s life! It was time for the Roman soldiers to rescue Paul once again!
Why did Paul adopt this diversionary tactic? He could have attempted to argue his case – he was more than capable. I suspect that Paul knew that there was really no chance of a sensible debate with the members of the Sanhedrin – their minds were closed. Paul seems to have decided that the best way to deal with the hearing was to pull the pin from his resurrection-hand grenade and get out during the rumpus! Sadly I see the emergence of a similar attitude to Christian things in our society – it seems no longer possible to have a rational discussion with some people, their minds are closed. The followers of Richard Dawkins are a fine example of this – evolution can explain anything and everything in their minds and thus a debate about God is not worth their time, their minds are closed to truth.
One is tempted to conclude that Paul’s tactics did not afford the Sanhedrin a proper opportunity to come to a measured opinion and decision. The next section of chapter 23 will demonstrate that they had most certainly arrived at a fixed conclusion.
- More than forty men
More than forty men got together and decided to murder Paul. They bound themselves with an oath that they would not eat until they had succeeded. What is remarkable is that these men approached the Sanhedrin, explained their plan and it seems that the Sanhedrin were happy to assist. The Sanhedrin had not only decided against Paul but they had decided that if they could not stop him by legitimate means they would be quite happy to participate in his murder.
The opposition of men to the truth is remarkable and one is tempted to suggest that this fierce opposition is likely to be partly inspired by the work of the evil one. He is scheming against all that is right and good – he no doubt saw Paul as a key player in God’s plans and was trying to eliminate him. But God was on Paul’s side! If God is for us, who can be against us? In view of this great statement of Paul’s in Romans 8 we rather expect God to intervene in a dramatic and powerful manner, but this is not often God’s way in this period of his dealings with men. He seems to prefer to work in small and unexpected ways. This time he would use a young boy – a nephew of Paul. We don’t know the precise circumstances or how old the boy was but he heard somehow about the plot and he went into the barracks and told Paul. Paul wisely sent his nephew in the care of a centurion to Claudius Lysias. The centurion took the boy by the hand to his commander and the story of the plot was told. Lysias sent the boy away with instructions to tell no one. He was just a boy! But he was playing a vital part in God’s great plan – so can we.
- More than 400 soldiers
One wonders what Claudius Lysias made of all of these events. He had been surprised by the riot in the Temple grounds, the riot in the Sanhedrin and now a plot to murder Paul. What was it with this guy? Whatever it was, it seemed to Lysias that there was only one solution and that was to get Paul out of Jerusalem fast. Caesarea, the Roman town on the coast was the base of the Governor Felix and Lysias made arrangements to get Paul there in one piece. He took no chances: 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen were got ready and Paul was escorted out of Jerusalem under darkness. When they arrived in Antipatris the soldiers returned to the barracks in Jerusalem and Paul continued on with the horsemen to Caesarea. Presumably the need for the additional soldiers was less once they had reached this less populous part of the country.
Claudias Lysias needed to explain to Governor Felix what was going on. The soldiers were given a letter and we have the contents of that very letter to this day! Here it is in full:
To His Excellency,Governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin.
I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.
It’s a sad observation that the Romans who had no heritage of the worship of God should be acting with relative order and decency whilst God’s people who certainly ought to have known better were behaving in the most appalling manner. In every aspect of our lives we should be Christ-like. Having said this we should also note that Lysias was rather selective in the story he told, failing to mention that he almost had this Roman citizen flogged!
On reading the letter, Felix asked which province Paul was from: Cilicia. He needed to know if Paul was from a province with a governor, if he had been, then that governor had a right to witness the case, but since Cilicia was not such a province then the case could proceed. The accusers had to be present and so Paul was detained until they arrived, then at last this matter could be sorted out. Five days later they arrived and it was now time to hear the case.