One of my favorite psalms is the second: Why do the nations rage? Why do the people waste their time with futile plans? The kings of the earth prepare for battle; the rulers plot together against the LORD and against his anointed one. “Let us break their chains,” they cry, “and free ourselves from this slavery.” But the one who rules in heaven laughs. The Lord scoffs at them (Psalm 2:1-4, NLT). Can you picture God laughing? I bet he did during Paul’s interrogation before the Jewish high court.
Having found Paul to be a Roman citizen, the tribune can’t interrogate Paul with flogging. Still, he wants to know why the Jews had rioted against him . . .
Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them (Acts 22:30).
The “chief priests and the entire council” are the Sanhedrin, Israel’s supreme court. It’s composed of 71 “sages” (including the high priest), who meet in the temple daily, ruling on legislative and judicial issues and serving as the final authority in matters of Jewish law. Before this august body the apostle now stands. The Roman tribune is present.
While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.” Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth (Acts 23:1,2).
Paul takes the initiative. He declares he’s lived “with a clear conscience before God”. That got him a strike on the mouth courtesy of the high priest’s impetuous order. What so incensed the high priest? Paul speaking before being asked? The idea that he could be a good Jew though a Christian? Paul’s “holy boldness”?
Whatever the specific reason (and author Luke doesn’t tell us), Ananias was acting in character. Jewish historian Josephus writes that Ananias disgracefully profaned his sacred position by, among other things, taking the tithes that should have gone to the common priests (Jewish Aniquities). Five years earlier the Syrian governor sent him to Rome on suspicion he was involved in a bloody outbreak between Jews and Samaritans. He was cleared; nevertheless, the high priest was well-known as a ruthlessly violent and greedy man. He administered pro-Roman policies, making him an enemy to many Jews.
At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people” (Acts 23:3-5).
His mouth still stinging from the slap, Paul angrily prophesies against Ananias. “ . . . you whitewashed wall”—a tottering wall with deficiencies hidden. “God will strike you”—a prophecy fulfilled less than ten years later when war broke out with Rome. Jews dragged him from an aqueduct where he was hiding and put him to death along with his brother.
Was Paul’s prophecy a burst of uncontrolled temper? More likely justified anger, because the slap was punishment even before the trial. Nevertheless, it brought a reprimand from “[t]hose standing nearby. ‘Dare you insult the high priest?’” Paul immediately apologizes, quoting from Jewish law in Exodus 22:28b.
But how could he not know that the man who commanded the slap was the high priest? Presiding over the meeting in his high priestly robes certainly gave him away! Some have suggested Paul spoke ironically: “I never thought a high priest would do that!” Others think Paul may have been looking away and so didn’t know who spoke. This all amounts to speculation, since we’re not told and no suggestion seems to satisfy.
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks (Acts 23:6-10).
Author Luke points out that Paul sees the council is split between Sadducees and Pharisees. So when he identifies himself as a second-generation Pharisee who held to “the resurrection of the dead”, council Pharisees concede that a man who holds to so central a tenet of faith can’t be all bad. Council Sadducees, meanwhile, explode. For, as author Luke explains, Sadducees deny end-time resurrection and the spirit world, as well. Pharisees, believe in both.
Paul’s words ignite a sharp conflict between the two groups. When the uproar makes it clear no serious examination of Paul can be made, some of the law experts (who are Pharisees) declare, “We find nothing wrong with this man. Maybe a spirit or angel spoke to him”. Now the conflict becomes violent. The tribune, afraid they’ll “tear Paul to pieces”, orders soldiers to grab Paul and bring him into their fortress.
That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (23:11).
Paul is disheartened. His worst anxieties about his fate in Jerusalem are being realized. Twice, crowds of Jews physically threatened his life. How will he get out of the city to fulfill his dream of preaching in Rome and further west?
That night, inside the Roman fortress, the Lord appears to the prisoner. “Be encouraged!” he urged. And then the Lord promised, “ . . . just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem (as Paul had spoken to the crowd in the temple), so you must bear witness also in Rome.” During the next two years of imprisonment and trials, the apostle must have clung to that promise.
* * *
The Lord wanted to get Paul to Rome his way (http://theoldpreacher.com/providential-protection/). Neither Roman flogging nor the Jewish Supreme Court could hinder. And the way he freed Paul from the court is quite funny. Picture Paul before that august body open-mouthed watching them fight over theology, so violently that the Roman tribune has to rescue Paul from possible harm.
Government—even “godly governments ordained by God”—prove inept and ineffective. They’re only (fallen) human. And while we’re charged to obey the authorities–and we should be thankful for good government–our lives don’t depend on them.
We are in the hands of the eternal God, our Father in heaven through Jesus Christ. And he will fulfill his good purpose for us—even if he has to make our enemies act like zany, inept Keystone Kops.