ACTS - CHAPTER 23
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
2001 James Melough
“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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“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?)”.
“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
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
“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
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.
“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.”
“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
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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:
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
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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
“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
“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
“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
“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
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).
“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.
“And he wrote a letter after this manner:”
“Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor, Felix sendeth
“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.
“And when I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought
him forth into their council:”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“On the morrow they left the horsemen to go with him, and returned to the
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
“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.
“And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he
was. And when he understood that he was
“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.