Paul now stands before the Sanhedrin. No doubt some of their number has changed in the many years that have passed since Paul last stood before them, but among them would have been many who had been his friends and colleagues back when he himself had been an up and coming Pharisee, and had led the persecution against the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now he stands before them once again, this time as a representative of the same One he had formerly persecuted on their behalf.
This is the third time in Acts we have read of Paul looking earnestly or fixing his eyes upon someone. The first time was in Acts 13:9, when he fixed his eyes upon the sorcerer Bar-Jesus. The second time was in Acts 14:9, when he fixed his eyes on the man crippled in his feet and saw he had faith to be healed. Now, Paul fixes his eyes on the Sanhedrin. These three passages provide the best evidence we have that what many imagine was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” eye problems of some kind, is not actually the case. It is unlikely someone with weak eyes would be able to fix his eyes in this manner. Squinting with watery eyes at someone would not seem to fit with this word atenizo at all. If Paul was able to fix his eyes, his eyes must not have been all that bad.
Now Paul speaks to them. We will be examining his address here, but one thing we need to keep in mind, and that is that Paul’s words were not just his own. Remember the promise Christ made to His disciples. He told them in Luke 12:11-12:
11. “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. 12. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Paul, as God’s apostle working on His behalf, has the same privileges of any one of God’s representatives of the Acts period. Thus, whenever he appears before rulers, as he does here, we can be assured that his words are all taught him by the Holy Spirit. Paul does not misspeak here, nor does he answer in an inappropriate manner. There are many who wish to accuse him of this, and do accuse him of it in their teaching. Yet by doing this, they only accuse the Holy Spirit, Who was teaching Paul the words he spoke. As we study this, we should keep firmly in mind that the answer Paul gives here is the very answer the Holy Spirit wants him to give.
First of all, he addresses them as men and brethren. He recognizes his connection to them as men who were his brothers, that is, his fellow Israelites. He had once been a colleague of theirs, but now he is not, yet their ties as true Israelites remains. Then, he testifies as to his lifestyle up to this time. He has lived in all good conscience before God until the very day in which he is speaking to them. The word for “lived” is politeuomai, which has to do with one’s character and manner of life. He meant he had conducted his life and demonstrated a character that was in all good conscience before God even to this time. This is quite a testimony to be able to make as to your own life and behavior, and even more impressive when we realize Paul’s words were inspired, so he was not exaggerating. Paul really had lived a life that his conscience told him was just as he should have lived it.
2. And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
Though Paul’s testimony was true and right, the high priest Ananias does not think so. He commands those who stood by him, probably his own temple guard, to strike Paul on the mouth.
3. 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?”
Whether or not the high priest’s command is carried out, we do not learn, for we only read that Paul immediately spoke up with these condemnatory words against this command. First, he proclaims sentence against this high priest. Remember, Paul was God’s apostle, and he had every right to pass a sentence like this. The high priest may have been representative of the religious establishment in Israel, and the one recognized by Rome, but God no longer recognized them as his leaders, and He had chosen instead the ones whom He had made kingdom rulers over His ekklesia, like Paul. As such, it is Paul who has power to condemn a man in God’s sight, and so it is the Sanhedrin, not Paul, who are truly on trial here. This situation, then, is much like chapter 7, where we saw the same thing in the case of Stephen, standing before the same council of men, though no doubt their number has turned over somewhat in the decades that have passed since then.
Now Paul also has the right to proclaim a man to be struck by God. Peter had that right, as we saw it in Acts 5, when by his word Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead. Paul has that right, and we saw him use it in Acts 13:11, when he proclaimed that the sorcerer and false prophet Bar-Jesus would be struck with blindness, and he immediately was. If Paul had said that he was to be struck immediately, we can be certain that his sentence would have been carried out here as it was then, and Ananias would have been struck by God on the spot. Yet his words indicate that God was going to strike him in the future, and so the sentence is not immediately carried out.
Now Paul calls Ananias a whitewashed wall. This was a figure only used in one other place, and that was by Christ Himself in Matthew 23:27, when the Lord called the scribes and Pharisees this. There, he spoke not of a whitewashed wall, but of a whitewashed sepulcher, beautiful on the outside, but on the inside full of dead men’s bones. The reason they would whitewash things was to show that unclean things were present. The tombs were whitewashed to show where they were. This told the Jews, who always were concerned with remaining clean, that there were unclean things present, and they should stay away. The same would be true of a whitewashed wall. In fact, the wall of a tomb might well be what Paul is referring to here. If we apply the figure as Christ explained it, Paul means that Ananias looks good to men on the outside, but on the inside he is full of uncleanness. Since Paul was speaking by the Holy Spirit here, we can be sure his assessment of this man was just.
Then, Paul tells us why he has expressed this harsh judgment of Ananias. This man is sitting to judge Paul according to the law, and yet this command to strike Paul on the mouth was contrary to the law. We can see this from Deuteronomy 25.
1. “If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, 2. then it shall be, if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, that the judge will cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence, according to his guilt, with a certain number of blows.
We see from this that, when a man was condemned as deserving to be beaten, then he was to be beaten in the presence of the judge. Yet this was only when he had been rightfully condemned. It was contrary to the law to have a man struck during his trial, before a judgment had ever been passed against him. This is why Paul tells Ananias that his command is contrary to the law.
4. And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”
Those who stand by, probably the temple guard and various servants of the high priest, speak up and condemn Paul in return. They accuse him of reviling God’s high priest. Well, he was the high priest, but we might seriously question whether he was really God’s high priest, for we know that God had rejected these wicked men long before this, as we learned from Acts 7.
5. 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.’”
Paul claims here that he did not know that he was the high priest. Yet we would have to very much wonder how this could be so. We could compare the events here with the Lord Jesus’ appearance before a former high priest, the man Annas. In John 18:19-23, we read:
19. The high priest then asked Jesus about His disciples and His doctrine.
20. Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. 21. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.”
22. And when He had said these things, one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, “Do You answer the high priest like that?”
23. Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?”
Paul is standing now before another high priest, and again he is struck, or at least the priest intends him to be struck, for speaking the truth. This high priest, we quickly learn, is no different from Annas. He is no more willing to hear God’s truth than the wicked men who condemned the Lord to death about thirty years before this.
It could hardly be that, with his familiarity with the gospel, Paul would not have known this story of the Lord before the former high priest Annas. Though Annas was not the current high priest, he had been high priest before, and he judged the Lord as if he was, since, as we read in Luke 3:2, he and Caiaphas were sharing the priesthood, in a way. So Paul should have known this, and recognized in this thing that he was being treated just as Christ had been treated there before him. How could he fail to recognize, then, the identity of the man who had ordered him to be struck?
Besides this, as far as we can tell, Paul had once been a member of this august body himself. He well knew its ways, and he would well know that the one who presided over the Sanhedrin was the high priest. In fact, the Sanhedrin was modeled after Moses and his seventy in the wilderness, as we read it in Numbers 11:16-17.
16. So the LORD said to Moses: “Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17. Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.
The Sanhedrin was modeled after this, so it consisted of seventy members, with the seventy-first being the high priest, who presided over it like Moses. So even if the high priest was not wearing his priestly robes, as some have speculated (though we cannot imagine why he would not have been,) and even though Paul had been out of Jerusalem for a long time and so might not have recognized the man who held the office at this time, still there can be no doubt but that he would have known that the one who commanded the Sanhedrin was the high priest. So why then does he make this statement?
We need to keep in mind that the men Paul was standing before had already been rejected by God as rulers over His people. Consider the Lord’s parable of the tenant farmers in Matthew 21:33-42. The Lord’s conclusion about the meaning of this parable is given in verses 43-45.
43. “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. 44. And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”
45. Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them.
According to the Lord’s teaching, He had taken the kingdom of God away from these wicked men, and given it to those who would produce its fruit, apostles like Paul. So in the Lord’s eyes, Ananias was no longer a ruler over His people. However, consider Who was a High Priest in God’s sight. For in Hebrews 7, we read that the Lord Jesus Christ is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. Moreover, it calls Him a high priest, stating in Hebrews 7:26-28:
26. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; 27. who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. 28. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weakness, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.
So there was a new and better High Priest set over the people of Israel than the high priest that Paul stood before. This Man was now the true High Priest, whereas the priest Paul stood before had been rejected and the authority taken away from him by God. No wonder Paul “did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest.” In truth, he was not, for he had lost all such privilege.
Moreover, Paul’s words carry a much deeper meaning when we consider them in this light. Paul had spoken evil of a man who no longer had any authority over the people as far as God was concerned. Yet what had the Sanhedrin done? They had spoken evil against the Lord Jesus Christ, the Man Whom God had set up to be their High Priest. The high priests after the order of Aaron were given the authority to collect tithes, Hebrews 7:5, and to offer gifts and sacrifices, Hebrews 8:3. Yet high priests were never given rulership over the people. The only high priest we read of doing this was Eli in I Samuel 4:18, that “he had judged Israel forty years,” though he had done a very poor job of it! Yet Melchizedek first of all was a king, and then a priest, and the Lord Jesus too was a Priest/King. He was not only a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, but He was also a King, a true Ruler of the people. Moreover, He had been announced to these men as their Ruler in Acts 5:31.
31. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
These men knew that God had exalted the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Ruler over His people. Yet they had spoken evil of Him! So Paul’s words, though on the surface they seem to be an apology, are actually a rebuke of these men, for Paul had merely spoken evil of a man whom God had rejected, but these men had spoken evil of the One Whom God had set up as the ultimate Ruler over His people for the eon and beyond!
Now we might wonder if Paul in saying this retracted his statement that God would strike the high priest? For certainly the high priest was not struck dead on the spot, as another Ananias was in Acts 5:5. Yet this does not necessarily need to be the case, for Paul did not proclaim when this Ananias would be struck by God. The Companion Bible, citing Josephus, declares the following: “Ananias. Son of Nedebaus. He was murdered by a band of the Sicarii some years after, being caught in an aqueduct where he had concealed himself.”
The Sicarii were a band of assassins who considered all who cooperated with Rome, like the religious leaders, to be deserving of death. Eventually they caught up with this Ananias, and murdered him. It would seem that this is what Paul is referring to, and that it was God Who brought about this violent end for Ananias. While the Sicarii certainly were a loathsome lot, it may be God used them to bring punishment upon this wicked man. He certainly deserved it.
6. 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!”
These were the two major parties in Israel. The Pharisees claimed some kind of descent from some of those heroes among the Maccabees, who had helped to free Israel during the time of the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes. The Sadducees were another party composed mostly of those among the priestly class, and so were far more elitist than the more popular Pharisaic party. As we will learn in verse 8, there were theological differences between the two parties as well.
Now we need to remember that Paul has been out of circulation as far as Jerusalem and its politics are concerned for over two decades now. He knew what the balance of power was when he left the Sanhedrin, but as we all know, the political landscape is always in turmoil, and change is the norm. Paul now perceives as he studies the situation that the balance of power in the Sanhedrin at this time is about equal, with neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees having an obvious majority. Knowing this, Paul is well aware how he can exploit this fact to take advantage of the long rivalry between these two. Therefore, he speaks up at this point.
Now Paul refers to the Sanhedrin as “men and brethren,” reminding them of his former status as one of their number. He was every bit as qualified as many of them to be in the position they were in. Then, he also reminds them of the fact that he is a Pharisee. Moreover, he is not one who was recruited to this position later in life, for he is the son of a Pharisee as well. Now he throws out this accusation. It is concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead that he is being judged!
Now this is a point that we need to note most carefully. Paul here calls himself a Pharisee, and willingly identifies himself with that party. We know that Paul was a Pharisee before his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, as he himself testifies to this fact in Acts 26:5. Moreover, he testifies in Acts 22:3 that he was trained by Gamaliel, and in Acts 5:34, we learn that Gamaliel too was a Pharisee. So it is not surprising to us that Paul was a Pharisee before he came to faith in Christ. What surprises many people, however, is that Paul would claim to be a Pharisee after his conversion. Had he not given all that up when he came to faith in Jesus Christ?
Now while this is the common perception of the matter, this verse in Acts 23:6 shows us that this was not the case. Paul proudly proclaims himself to be a Pharisee, and unless we are going to charge him with lying, we had best take his word for it. While it is clear that Paul’s object was to disrupt this session of the Sanhedrin by this announcement, this does not justify the idea that he lied to get his way here. We have no reason to think he was not telling the truth.
Moreover, if we would familiarize ourselves with the Biblical facts on the matter, we would find that there was nothing about faith in Jesus Christ that was contrary to being a Pharisee. In Acts 15:5 we read of “some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed.” Clearly, these believers did not consider it that they had to resign their place as Pharisees when they believed. Interestingly, this means that this dissention in Jerusalem that we read of in Acts 15 about whether or not the new believers outside the land had to be circumcised and keep the law was between these men who were Pharisees and Paul, himself a Pharisee. Yet that is the picture the Bible presents us.
This all fits because there was nothing in the creed of the Pharisees that would make it inconsistent to be both a Pharisee and a believer. The Pharisees taught the inerrancy of Scripture, and supported following its teachings, even to a radical degree. There is nothing contrary to this in being a believer in Jesus Christ. This is in stark contrast to the Sadducees, who rejected all the books except those of Moses, and refused to believe in resurrection, angels, or spirits. Since the Bible taught all these things, and since faith in Jesus Christ meant faith in One Who had risen from the dead, being a Sadducee and being a believer were directly at odds. For this reason, we never read of a Sadducee who believed, since if he believed, that meant he immediately ceased to be a Sadducee. Yet not so with the much more Godly philosophy of the Pharisees. As Paul demonstrates here, it was quite possible to be both a Pharisee and a believer.
Of course, this is not to say that there were not many Pharisees who were unbelievers, and that these were often the most outspoken and violent opponents of Christ and His followers. Yet this was their personal choice, and nothing demanded of them by their status as a Pharisee.
Therefore, Paul told no lie. He had been a Pharisee, and he had never ceased to be one.
7. And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided.
There was nothing that Paul could have said that would have stirred up his audience more than this. These issues of resurrection, angels, and spirits were a matter or long-standing contention and bitterness between these two rival parties. No matter how much they disliked Paul, there were Pharisees who were so passionate about this issue that all he had to do was declare himself on this side and they would feel it was their duty to publicly support him. Moreover, there were Sadducees who were so passionately against these things that they would immediately feel the need to respond by condemning not only Paul but also all those who supported him, including those of the opposite party. Very quickly tempers would flare, and this august body of dignified men would be close to breaking out into an open brawl.
8. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.
The Lord here fills us in on the reason this statement of Paul’s caused such contention. The difference that the Sadducees had with the Pharisees seems to be based in the fact that they recognized only the Torah or the first five books of the Old Testament as being inspired, whereas the Pharisees recognized the other books of the Old Testament as well. (Unfortunately, they also recognized other rabbinical traditions of much more questionable value.) The Sadducees did not believe they could find resurrection, angels, or spirits in the five books of Moses, and so they claimed these things do not exist. This greatly angered the Pharisees, but they found it very difficult to counter their arguments without referring to other books besides the books of Moses, and such arguments did not sway the Sadducees. The Lord, as we know, used Exodus 3:6,15 when answering the Sadducees’ argument, and so demonstrated that even the books of Moses require resurrection, effectually destroying their position.
However, the point for this story in Acts 23 is that Paul’s identification with the Pharisees and the resurrection pulls these two rival parties into their old, bitter argument. They quickly forget about their hatred for Paul through this reminder of their hatred for one another.
9. 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.”
Now a loud outcry arises in the midst of this Sanhedrin meeting. It is started, as I suggested above, by certain of the scribes who were of the Pharisees’ party. They may or may not have been Pharisees themselves, but this was the party they supported and the side they had chosen. Now, with Paul speaking up on this side of the old argument, they feel obligated to support him. It is interesting to note that it was the scribes of the Pharisees’ party, not the leaders of that party, who stood up and did this. It could be that the leaders of the party were more focused on their hatred of Paul, and so could not be so easily swayed to back him by one simple statement on his part. These scribes, however, who perhaps have ambition to move up in the party and want to show their zeal for the party platform, are the ones who are first drawn into the old argument that disrupts the whole proceedings.
So these scribes arise and protest on Paul’s side. They contend that they find no evil in this man, which was the most honest conclusion the Sanhedrin could possibly have come to on this day. Then, they bring in this matter of a spirit or an angel. If one of these has spoken to Paul, they argue, who are they to speak against it? If they do, they will be fighting against God. By bringing this issue up, they are showing their zeal for the Pharisees’ party platform, as we said. Yet this statement is also yet more inflammatory to the Sadducees, for now there is not one but two of the old disagreements between the two parties on the table, and all this will do is make the Sadducees that much more incensed.
10. 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.
Now the situation devolves from a loud outcry in verse 9 to a great dissension in this verse, and we can only imagine the speed with which this occurred. This meeting of these men who are supposed to represent the people of Israel is now in complete chaos. It seems that the Pharisees are determined to defend Paul and let him go, whereas the Sadducees are just as determined to hold Paul and punish him for his opposition to their teachings. Physical violence seems quite likely, as it seems that both sides are physically trying to lay hold of Paul for their own purposes, and this is resulting in a kind of tug-of-war between them. The chiliarch sees this and is actually afraid that Paul will be pulled to pieces by them, a fear which does not seem entirely unfounded. Therefore, he commands his soldiers to go down into the meeting hall and take Paul by force from among them, and to bring him back to their barracks.
Now many who exposit the Bible today tend to look at this situation and shake their heads and cluck their tongues in disapproval. How could Paul speak in a way that would cause such an uproar? Surely, they reason, he must have done this from purely human motives, and he must have been wrong in doing so. Surely this is not what God wanted him to do. Wouldn’t God have wanted him to preach the gospel to these men instead?
Yet to those who believe and teach this kind of thing, remember what we saw is taught in Luke 12:11-12, which we examined above. Luke 21:12-15 says much the same thing:
12. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. 13. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. 14. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; 15. for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.
This promise, made originally to the disciples, is one I believe Paul had every right to claim as well, since he was given a position which, in his own words, was “not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles.” II Corinthians 11:5. Therefore, when Paul came before rulers, as he did in this case, his defense did not have to be thought out in advance, for the Lord gave him the mouth and wisdom that he needed to answer them. By Christ’s promise, then, we can be assured that Paul’s words here were not his own, but the words given him by the Lord Jesus Christ. It was Christ Who wanted him to answer like this.
But why, we might ask, did Christ have him answer like this? Why squander this opportunity to proclaim the gospel to the Sanhedrin? We need to remember that this is not the first time that a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ has stood before the Sanhedrin. We saw back in chapter 4 that Peter and John stood before these men, and we read there in verses 8-12 and 19-20 how they gave testimony to them of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, all the twelve were brought before them in Acts 5, and proclaimed the gospel to them in verses 29-32. Finally, Stephen appeared before them in Acts 6, and in Acts 7:2-53 and 56 gave testimony to them of the Lord Jesus. To all these appeals, however, the Sanhedrin had remained unresponsive, and instead they actually stoned Stephen, the Lord’s witness, to death in a blatant act of murder and rejection. Therefore, the Lord had already spoken His piece to the Sanhedrin. His attitude towards them here could best be described as lack of interest. He has already said to them all He cares to say, and they have rejected it. Therefore, there is simply nothing more He wishes to say to them through His agent Paul. If they did not hear before, they will not hear now. Therefore, all the Lord really does is throw a wrench into the trial here and get His messenger removed from among them. He simply has nothing left to say to the Sanhedrin, at least, not until they stand before Him in the Day of Judgment, when He will speak their condemnation.
So the bottom line here for the chiliarch is that he does not really get his wish. Paul does appear before the Sanhedrin, but instead of finding them an orderly governing body that is able to get to the bottom of Paul’s “crimes” so that the chiliarch can know what they are, he finds them an unruly lot that is just as volatile as the crowd from which he had taken Paul in the first place.