For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2001 James Melough 

23:1.  “And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”

He spoke the truth.  Even when persecuting the Christians, he did it believing that he was doing right.  Few can make such a claim.

It is of vital importance that we have a clear conscience relative to all we think, and say and do, but clarity of conscience must be according to Scripture, not according to what we may think, Paul himself being the outstanding example of the sin that may be justified by a conscience governed only by one’s own reasoning.

Israel little grasped the significance of that moment.  As far as we can tell it was the last time they, as the official representatives of the nation, would hear the gospel.  They had heard it first from the lips of Peter on the day of Pentecost years before.  Now they were to hear it for the last time from Paul.  They were about to seal their national doom.

It is a fearful thing to reject the gospel, for no rejecter knows whether it may be the last time he will ever have such an opportunity.

23:2.  “And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.”

There is strange contradiction between his conduct and the meaning of his name, which is the grace of God.  He is reputed to have been a rough overbearing man who displayed none of the grace that might have been expected from one supposed to be God’s high priest.  Within about eight years of this he was assassinated.  How little he knew of that grace implied in his name!  It is to be noted also that the Lord was similarly mistreated at His so called trial, “And when he (the Lord) had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so?” Jn 18:22.

23:3.  “Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall (hypocrite): for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?

We do well to note the difference between Paul’s language when addressing religious hypocrites, and his speech to those who made no such claim.  It was the same with the Lord Himself, Who on numerous occasions denounced the Jewish leaders as hypocrites, see for example Mt 23.  Many today make the mistake of refusing to expose and denounce wrong doctrine for fear of being thought unloving; and the enemy, well aware of this, takes full advantage of it, hurrying to call every such charge an unloving accusation.

This man, in commanding Paul to be smitten, was breaking the very law which he was supposed to uphold, and by the authority of which he presumed to sit in judgment upon Paul, see Le 19:35, “Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment.”  All whose teaching is contrary to Scripture must be similarly exposed.

23:4.  “And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest?”

Like all of their breed, they hastened when it suited their own purpose, to appeal to the very law they themselves flagrantly violated.

23:5.  “Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”

Paul, for reasons unexplained, having been unaware that Ananias was the high priest, quoted Ex 22:28, “Thou shalt not revile the gods (judges), nor curse the ruler of thy people,” and thus graciously apologized for his own inadvertent infraction of the law.  There was no such acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of Ananias, nor will those who oppose God and His people ever admit to doing wrong.  Look, for example, at the atrocities that have been committed against genuine believers down through the ages by the harlot Roman travesty which calls itself the true church, when their deeds were condemned by the God they piously profess to serve.

23:6.  “But when Paul perceived that the one part was Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.”

It would be easy to construe this as simply a ploy to divide the Sanhedrin, and win the sympathy of the Pharisees; but Paul’s character, as revealed in Scripture, must be taken into account. This fearless witness who had already endured so much for Christ was not likely to stoop now to a mere earthly expedient to save himself.

Were his words true?  Of course they were.  The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the anticipated resurrection of believers to eternal blessing, and of unbelievers to eternal torment, is at the very heart of the gospel.  This conflict between Sadducee and Pharisee was inevitable if they were to hear the gospel, and that was God’s purpose in bringing Paul to Jerusalem.

23:7.  “And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided.”

This division among themselves pointed up the incongruity of their presuming to sit in judgment on God’s servant.

23:8.  “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.”

In these two groups we see represented the two parts of humanity: in the Sadducee, those who believe that there is nothing beyond this life; and in the Pharisee, the religious, but unbelieving moralist.  Both are lost and need a Savior.

23:9.  “And there arose a great cry: and the scribes (students of the law) that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”

Like Paul in his unconverted days, and like every natural man, they failed to discern that they were all fighting against God.  Whether as a skeptic, or as an unbelieving moralist, man in his natural state is at enmity with God.  (The words “... let us not fight against God” aren’t found in many of the original manuscripts, in which case the thought being expressed might be paraphrased, “... if a spirit or angel has spoken to him, what of it?)”.

23.10.  “And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down,, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle (barracks).”

The removal of Paul from their midst may be a foreshadowing of the truth that the gospel, of which he is the outstanding exponent, would be taken from unbelieving Israel, and received by the Gentiles.

23:11.  “And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.”

This refutes the argument that Paul had gone up to Jerusalem in disobedience to God’s will.  Israel as a nation had heard the gospel from the lips of Peter on the day of Pentecost following the Lord’s ascension.  Now from Paul, they as a nation were to hear it for the last time.  This rejection of the gospel would seal their doom.  God would cast them off, and postpone the offer of the millennial kingdom.  It is a fearful thing for a man or a nation to exhaust God’s patience, and to be given up, without hope of remedy, to plunge on to eternal ruin.

Nor should we miss the significance of the mention of these two cities, the one, the city of the Jews; the other, that of the Gentiles.  What the Jews rejected was now to be given to the Gentiles.

23:12.  “And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse (oath), saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.”

23:13.  “And there were more than forty which had made this conspiracy.”

There is special significance to the words when it was day, for it was also the beginning of a new day spiritually for Israel.  She as a nation, having rejected the gospel, would now be left to walk in the path chosen by her own folly, experiencing the wrath, rather than the blessing of God.

Their “banding together” reminds us that Israel, no matter what her internal differences, is united in her opposition to Christ and the Gospel.

Spiritual significance may also be seen in their vow that “they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.”  As noted already, the Word of God is spiritual food and drink to sustain the new life of faith.  Israel nationally has neither eaten nor drunk spiritually from that day till now.  

There being “more than forty” of them has also a lesson to teach. Forty is the biblical number of testing.  That day was Israel’s time of testing, but she didn’t know it.  Before her lay the equivalent of the desert wanderings of the disobedient generation in the days of Moses.  That generation perished.  So did the generation of Paul’s day, and so has many another since then.

Israel’s time of testing had come to an end.  In the years between Peter’s first preaching of the gospel to them, and this last preaching by Paul, they had demonstrated that as a nation they would not accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their Messiah.  Their attitude, as a nation, was reflected in the attitude of this band of more than forty assassins: they were murderous in their hatred of God and of His Christ, and of all who belong to Him.  The fanatical hatred of the would-be assassins is revealed in that they were apparently willing to die to accomplish Paul’s murder, for they must have realized that some of them at least would be slain by the soldiers guarding Paul, and that the rest would almost certainly be executed by the Romans for his murder.

23:14.  “And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.”

How little they knew of the terrible spiritual reality embodied in their words!  As noted already, their fasting would go far beyond the literal: they would eat no spiritual food as long as they retained their murderous attitude towards the Lord Jesus Christ, and those who are His.  They are still under that curse: their fast continues.  But the end is in sight, for everything points to the fact that the day is near when there will be fulfilled that which has been spoken by the prophet, “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.  In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem....” Zec 12:10-11, but, “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness,” Zec 13:1.

The hypocrisy is unbelievable.  The rulers of Israel, political and religious, would join hands in this compact to slay God’s servant without cause, just as they had slain the Lord, their Savior Messiah.  How much evil may lurk beneath the cloak of mere religion!  There has been no more murderous persecutor of true believers than the great harlot system centered in Rome, and calling itself “the church.”

23:15.  “Now therefore ye with the council signify to the chief captain that he bring him down unto you tomorrow, as though ye would enquire something more perfectly concerning him: and we, or ever he come near, are ready to kill him.”

They who were responsible to teach others the law of God, were being tutored by murderers as to how to accomplish the death of an innocent man.  Small wonder that God soon after this destroyed the whole corrupt system, and scattered its votaries like chaff to the four corners of the earth.

23:16.  “And when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait, he went and entered into the castle, and told Paul.”

How Paul’s nephew discovered the plot is not disclosed, nor need we speculate.  It is sufficient for faith to realize that in this we have simply another evidence of the care with which God watches over His own.  As the poet has put it:

Why should I ever careful be,
Since such a God is mine. 
He watches o’er me night and day,
And tells me, Mine is thine.

Why God, Who could have circumvented their scheme in a thousand other ways, chose this method, is not revealed, but one lesson at least may be learned: God, in this present age, appears to have chosen in His sovereignty to work by means rather than miracles. In the present instance He chose to use Paul himself, his nephew, the centurion, and the chief captain; and later 470 Roman soldiers (v.23), to deliver Paul from these evil men.

We might note in passing that the miraculous is associated with God’s dealings with Israel, not with the Church.  See for example the miraculous deliverance of Peter, the Apostle to the Jews (Ac 12), in contrast with total absence of miracle in connection with this deliverance of Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

23:17.  “Then Paul called one of the centurions unto him, and said, Bring this young man unto the chief captain: for he hath a certain thing to tell him.”

This is an example of how God guides and works by circumstances. Paul might very well have reasoned, “Well, I’ll leave the matter with God,” but he recognized that God, having brought him the information, expected him to use it intelligently.  The principle still applies.  Clearly the chief captain was the only one who could do anything about it, so Paul hastened to acquaint him with the information.

23:18.  “So he took him, and brought him to the chief captain, and said, Paul the prisoner called me unto him, and prayed me to bring this young man unto thee, who hath something to say unto thee.”

Having done all he could do, Paul then left the rest with God, and he couldn’t have left his affairs in better hands.  We would save ourselves much grief if we followed his example.

23:19.  “Then the chief captain took him by the hand, and went with him aside privately, and asked him, What is that thou hast to tell me?

23:20.  “And he said, The Jews have agreed to desire thee that thou wouldest bring down Paul to morrow into the council, as though they would enquire somewhat of him more perfectly.

23:21.  “But do not thou yield unto them: for there lie in wait for him of them more than forty men, which have bound themselves with an oath, that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him: and now are they ready, looking for a promise from thee.”

23:22.  “So the chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast shewed these things to me.”

It is obvious why this Claudius Lysias (v.26) held the rank of chief captain.  He was a prudent man who knew the wisdom of having secrets shared by as few as possible.

23:23.  “And he called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night (nine o’clock):”

His employing such a large force to conduct Paul safely out of Jerusalem, may indicate the extent to which he had been impressed with the Jews’ hatred of the Apostle, and their determination to destroy him.  He was apparently determined that as long as he was responsible, no harm would come to this unusual prisoner.

It is perhaps significant that the literal darkness that enveloped Jerusalem as Paul departed, was itself but a shadow of the far deeper spiritual darkness that would enshroud that city for what has been now almost two thousand years.  There is no darkness deeper than that which follows deliberate rejection of truth.

Since three is the number of resurrection, its being the third hour of the night, would remind us that there are two resurrections: one of life; the other of damnation (Jn 5:29).  Paul went out to be a witness for God in Rome, and from there (following a second arrest, see comments on 28:31) to go from time into eternity in the certainty of having his body raised at the resurrection of life.  With the exception of the few believers among them, those left behind in Jerusalem would be the reluctant witnesses to the folly of fighting against God.  Their going from time into eternity would be to the certainty of the resurrection of death, following which they will pass into the eternal torment of the lake of fire (Re 20).

23:24.  “And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor.”

What provision God made for the safe conduct of His servant out of Jerusalem!  Four hundred and seventy Roman soldiers guarded him, nor did he have to take one step: he rode out on horseback! How different with the unbelieving Jews left behind in that darkened city!  The very same Rome that furnished Paul safe passage, would furnish, just a few years hence, the legions which would destroy the city, slaughter thousands of Jews, lead thousands more into slavery, see the rest scattered, and that would end Israel’s national existence for two thousand years.

23:25.  “And he wrote a letter after this manner:”

23:26.  “Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor, Felix sendeth greeting.”

23:27.  “This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them: then came I with an army, and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman.”

His previously noted prudence extended also to his being careful to omit the fact that he had learned of Paul’s Roman citizenship only after the rescue, and after having bound him.  His rearrangement of the facts would serve no doubt to represent him as a champion of Rome and of the rights of Roman citizens.  But apart from all that, the fact remains that he was the instrument used of God for the deliverance of Paul from the hands of the Jews.    

23:28.  “And when I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council:”

23:29.  “Whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds.”

23:30.  “And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee, and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee what they had against him.  Farewell.”

As Pilate could find nothing in Christ worthy of death or bonds, neither could Claudius find anything worthy of death or bonds in Paul; but Jewish hatred needed no justification for its murderous purpose.  In their blindness they saw what they did as service to God.  Such is the power of Satan over the minds of all who reject the truth: wrong becomes right; and right, wrong.

23:31.  “Then the soldiers, as it was commanded them, took Paul, and brought him by night to Antipatris.”

As the Jews were unaware that Paul had gone from their midst, so were they also ignorant that God’s grace had gone with him.  From now on they would be the objects of God’s wrath rather than His mercy and grace.  So is it with the man who exhausts the patience of the God Who warns, “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” Ge 6:3, and Who warns further, “He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy,” Pr 29:1.

23:32.  “On the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the castle:”

The one who was the  representative of God’s mercy and grace had gone, and there returned to them those who in a few brief years would destroy them.  This is the demonstration of the principle that he who rejects mercy must inherit destruction.

23:33.  “Who, when they came to Caesarea, and delivered the epistle to the governor, presented Paul also before him.”

Israel’s loss has been the Gentiles’ gain, for the man and the epistle presented to Felix were but symbols of another Man and another epistle being presented to the Gentiles: the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures which bear the same witness to His character as did that other epistle to Paul’s.

23:34.  “And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was.  And when he understood that he was of Cilicia;”

23:35.  “I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come.  And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.”

Felix’ reception of Paul and the epistle, and his confinement of the Apostle, all combine to foreshadow in a measure the response of the Gentiles to the gospel.  To Felix, the matter of Paul, and the letter that accompanied him, were probably nothing more than just another incident to be dealt with in his official capacity as governor.  Apart from the small minority, the attitude of the Gentiles was also one of relative indifference both to Christ and to the Scriptures which testified to Him as the Son of God, and Savior of the world.  And Felix’ confinement of Paul has also its counterpart in the Gentiles’ response to Christianity: they will confine it to what they term the area of religion, but refuse it any place in any other part of society.

[Acts 24]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough