Humble Cleverness Acts 22:2-23:11


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Acts 22:2-23:11

To be frank, I’m not entirely sure what Luke would say if I were able to ask him why he included the narrative we are about to read. It is interesting, to be sure, and it carries the story along – explaining how it was that Paul was taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea – but the little vignettes that it contains are not crucial pieces of history. On the other hand, I am delighted that Luke did include this detail. In some ways it gives us the human Paul, Paul in a way we might not otherwise ever know him, Paul in another way he can be an example for us. He is such a titan it helps us when Luke brings him down to earth!

Text Comment

v.22     As we pointed out last time, what angered the crowd was this reminder of Paul’s pro-Gentile attitude, a highly unpopular sentiment in those days in Jerusalem. [Bock, 663]

v.23     The scholars wonder if throwing dust in the air was symbolic, like the act of shaking the dust of one’s feet off someone (as you remember, a gesture Paul himself had employed, 13:51) or, more simply, the most they could do under the circumstances since, the soldiers being there, they couldn’t throw rocks.

v.25     The theory was that such a person couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth without this persuasion! [Peterson, 607] Torture was a common legal device in the Roman system. The scourge itself (the Latin flagellum) was a whip of leather strips with a wooden handle; to the strips jagged pieces of bone or metal were attached. It had a gruesome effect on the victim’s back. Slaves and suspected criminals might suffer this fate, but a longstanding Roman law prohibited the scourging of a Roman citizen, at least until he had been tried and convicted.

v.28     You didn’t actually have to purchase citizenship, but many had to pay a bribe to get it. Paul did not disclose his Roman citizenship until he was forced to perhaps because it was his friendliness with Gentiles that the Jews so objected to. To identify himself publicly as a citizen of the hated empire would have only made matters worse. [Bock, 665] The exchange, not of much importance to the narrative, is clearly an eyewitness touch and an artful narrative device, relaxing the tension and humanizing the history. Though a Jew, Paul’s father, or grandfather, must have performed some valuable service for the state and been rewarded with citizenship, which was then passed down to his son.

Paul may well have had on his person the diptych – a small, wooden, hinged folding tablet that would be the proof of his registration as a Roman citizen – something like our passport today. In any case, for the second time in this episode Roman justice came to Paul’s aid.

v.30     The tribune still did not know what all the fuss among these Jews was about and, in an effort to get to the bottom of it, summoned the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Whatever the dispute, it had caused public disorder in what was already a tense and volatile situation, and he had to be sure that matters had been properly dealt with. No one who is familiar with the Gospels would miss the parallel between Jesus and Paul at this point, both brought before the Sanhedrin to answer trumped up charges.

v.1       In Luke’s narrative, Paul is the only one who speaks. In all likelihood the Sanhedrin presented its charges first, but since we know what they were, Luke omits that and gets quickly to Paul’s response.

v.2       The high priest at this time, Ananias – not to be confused with Annas, mentioned in 4:6, the man who dealt with Peter and John after the healing of the lame man in the temple – served in this office  from about A.D. 47 to either A.D. 58 or 59. Josephus tells us that he had reputation for being quick-tempered and insolent. He was pro-Romanthat, of course, aggravated many Jews, especially the Zealots and in A.D. 66 he was murdered by the Zealots.

v.3       “White-washed wall” is a metaphor for hypocrite. The idea may be that, once painted, a wall looks solid and secure, even if, in fact, it is rickety and near to falling down. The figure of speech is used in just this way in Ezekiel 13:10-11. Or it means that the white-wash is covering up the dirt. Jesus used the figure this way when he described the Jewish religious leadership as “white-washed tombs,” that is, clean on the outside, but unclean within.  Paul was, in effect, saying that Ananias was a hypocrite because he violated the very law he was claiming to defend, since slapping a defendant was contrary to the law.

v.5       There has been a great deal of speculation through the ages as to why Paul did not recognize the high priest. Suggestions include: 1) we know his eyesight was not good and perhaps he simply didn’t see clearly enough to recognize him; 2) he had been out of Jerusalem for a long time; perhaps he had never seen this Ananias; after all, it is possible that he had been effectively a stranger to the religious leadership for some twenty-five years (Hemer, 192-193); 3) it was an informal meeting of the Sanhedrin and Ananias was not wearing his high priestly robes; or 4) Paul didn’t believe or couldn’t believe that a man who gave such an order could actually be the high priest.

v.8       It is interesting to think of this, since the Pharisees have such a bad reputation among Christian readers of the Bible – when we call somebody a Pharisee we’re not paying them a compliment! that the apostle Paul should have stood to his feet and declared that he was a Pharisee. One could become a Christian and remain a Pharisee. A Sadducee, on the other hand, would have to abandon his party. The Pharisees were the theological conservatives of Judaism. As it happened, the Sadducees were generally wealthier and friendlier to Rome, since they were eager to preserve their status and not risk it with political agitation. For those reasons they were generally unpopular with the people, much less so than the Pharisees.

v.9       Note the “some.” Only some of the Pharisees came to Paul’s defense; by no means all of them; another of those human touches of which Acts is so full. The same sort of thing used to happen in some of our PCA presbyteries. There was such heated disagreement between the ministers and elders over various subjects – e.g. six twenty-four-hour-day creation – that as soon as a young man’s ordination examination began, it erupted into a dispute between the two warring parties and the young man could heave a sigh of relief because no one was much interested in him or his exam any longer!

v.11     This is the fourth time, so far as we know, that the Lord revealed to Paul what his plans for him were. The first was when he was converted and commissioned; the second, we read in 18:9, when, in the face of the fierce opposition he was facing in Corinth, the Lord told him to remain because he had many people in the city yet to call to faith; then we read in 22:17 of the vision he was given on a previous visit to Jerusalem, in which he was told to leave the city because the Lord intended to send him to the Gentiles. And now this: an assurance that he would survive his arrest and make his way to Rome, though take note that no timeline was furnished. It is doubtful that Paul thought it would be two years before he was to leave for Rome.

The Bible is a fabulously interesting book I never grow tired of it and I’m constantly learning new things from it and about it and full of the most unexpected and helpful teaching. We know its great themes, of course: God as the creator and redeemer of human beings, the fall of the human race into sin, the work of Christ to atone for that sin, the summons to faith and new life in the Lord Jesus, and so on. But scattered throughout its narrative we find so much more. In, under, around and through its historical narrative is artfully woven instruction in the life of faith, wonderfully human, wonderfully practical and helpful and timelessly relevant. And such is at least part of the value of the text we have read this morning.

How are believers to manage the opposition they will face in the world, the Devil’s world, a world full of people who take a visceral dislike to the beliefs and often the lifestyle of faithful Christians? We need more of this instruction nowadays as the hostility of the world for our convictions and, sometimes for our very selves, is growing more public and aggressive by the day. Well, we have a perfect picture of what the Christian life requires in such circumstances in Paul’s behavior in Jerusalem. He was among two populations, neither of which was agreeable to his convictions or his practices as a Christian. The Romans were scornfully indifferent to what they thought of as simply another form of Jewish superstition. But they were very concerned to maintain order and weren’t above torturing a man to find out what they needed to know. The Sanhedrin thought of the Christian movement the way you think of a pebble in your shoe. It had been an irritation for thirty years and they were sick and tired of it. Much more, the Christians’ friendliness to Gentiles was entirely unwelcome. They viewed it as unpatriotic as well as blasphemous, like someone in the colonies from 1766 to 1776 who spoke in favor of taxes imposed from parliament.

In both cases, Paul found a way to dodge the bullet. Now make no mistake. Paul was no coward. If you remember, he went to Jerusalem knowing full well that he was to be arrested and without any assurance that he wouldn’t be killed. He put his head in the noose willingly because he believed it his calling to do so. Only in that way could he fulfill his plan to bring Jews and Gentiles together in the church. Paul was a man who had braved death already a number of times for the sake of the gospel. He was no coward.

On the other hand, he wasn’t a man to allow his enemies and the enemies of the gospel an advantage if he were in a position to deprive them of it. And that is what he did here. It is interesting and important that in his speech to the Jews – the text we considered last time – he made no mention of the fact that he was a Roman citizen. He mentioned that he was a citizen of Tarsus, his hometown, but not a citizen of Rome, a very different and altogether more important fact. Mentioning his Roman citizenship would not have helped him with the Jews. They were deeply prejudiced against their Roman oppressors.

But as soon as he needed to disclose that piece of information to prevent him from being whipped, to prevent him from suffering as the Jews hoped he would suffer, he trotted out the fact that he was a citizen and, therefore, had certain protections in the law. As you know, he will assert his rights as a Roman citizen on a later occasion by appealing to Caesar, because he did not trust the legal processes underway in Caesarea, and it will be because of that appeal that Paul will eventually be taken to Rome. Paul was a clever man. He could identify his advantages and use them when necessary. He was always honest, but he remained quiet or spoke as the circumstances required.

In a still more striking illustration of Paul’s ingenuity, his knack for navigating troubled waters, Paul rescued himself from the hands of the Sanhedrin by setting Pharisee against Sadducee. Paul knew very well how significantly these two parties differed in viewpoint. He also knew – remember he had been a member of the party of the Pharisees himself – how bitterly the two groups hated each other. He knew what the hot button issues were and knew how to push the buttons. The reader of the New Testament can’t help but be startled by Paul’s ringing declaration: “I am a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee!” He had been a Pharisee, we know that. The viewpoint of the Pharisees was much closer to that of the Christians than that of the Sadducees. Both believed in resurrection. A faith built upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ was obviously fundamentally incompatible with Sadducee-ism, which denied the possibility of resurrection from the dead. In regard to the matter at hand, Paul was a Pharisee. In fact many Jewish Christians had been drawn from the ranks of the Pharisees.

But still, Paul had serious disagreements with what the Pharisees taught about the way of salvation. I think of this as not so unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer standing on a chair in an open-air café in Lithuania and cheering loudly the success of the German army in France, early in the Second World War, while his friends watched in confusion because they knew he thought the war evil and Germany evil for prosecuting it. But, said Bonhoeffer, if they were to resist successfully, they had to appear to be supportive. And in Paul’s case, in regard to the matter at hand, the resurrection, he could say in good conscience that he was a Pharisee. And he didn’t hesitate to make that confession knowing that it would throw a monkey-wrench into the Sanhedrin’s plans to condemn Paul as a trouble-maker and have the Romans punish him accordingly. He dangled the bait and the fish rose to it just as he knew they would!

Once the issue of resurrection had been raised, the Pharisees weren’t going to make common cause with the hated Sadducees to have one of their party be condemned by the Sanhedrin. The resurrection at the end of the age was far more important to them than one Christian trouble-maker and, frankly, so was poking the Sadducees in the eye with a stick! Paul knew how to inject bitter rivalry into their discussions and he did it to gain an advantage for himself at the moment. That was smart and it worked perfectly! This is the sort of savoir faire, these clever devices by which Christians have often extricated themselves from trouble through the ages. The Bible calls this wisdom, the skill of living a faithful Christian life.

One famous example of the sort of thing Paul would have understood perfectly was Thomas More’s refusal to answer “yes” or “no” in regard to the oath King Henry VIII required him to take, in effect affirming the legality of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his first queen. Everyone knew that More did not accept the legitimacy of the divorce, but in the law silence was considered assent. So long as More didn’t open his mouth, so long as he said neither “yes” nor “no” he was viewed in the law as actually agreeing with the divorce. The king couldn’t punish him for refusing to swear the oath since, legally speaking, his silence was equivalent to agreement, even though everyone knew he didn’t agree. He never voiced his agreement, but couldn’t be touched for having refused to give it! Clever.

Paul’s commitment to his ministry was such that he risked great danger by going to Jerusalem. He took a beating from the Jews and told no lies to make them stop. On the other hand, the importance of his ministry was such that he wasn’t about ready to throw it away without a fight. So long as he could keep a clear conscience, he was willing to employ strategies to get him safely out of the hands of his persecutors. God didn’t tell him to do this anymore than the Lord rescued him from the beating he had received, and this was hardly the only one Paul had suffered through the years. God gave us minds in order that we might use them. Paul had a powerful mind and used it to great effect! God gives us experiences so that we might gain wisdom from them and Paul gained much wisdom from his experiences of life.

You remember the Lord’s surprising and striking advice to his disciples in Luke 16:9, a verse almost never memorized, and a verse you probably have only once in your life, if ever, heard a sermon preached on: “Use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” Not exactly the verse we would quote if somebody asked us, “Tell us what the Bible is all about?” There is nothing wrong with being clever, even calculating to some degree. Both the Romans and the Sanhedrin met their match when they took on the Apostle Paul!

And we are to be like him. There are smart ways, wise ways to make friends for the gospel’s sake. Be interested in what they are interested in; care about what they care about. Do you realize how much people appreciate people who appreciate them? You do; you love people who appreciate you! There are also clever ways to give yourselves a leg up in dealing with your sins and temptations. Put Covenant Eyes on your computer; join with others in holding yourselves accountable. There are strategies to employ in managing disagreement and to reduce tensions between people. Make friends of those with whom you disagree. And on and on. And the more cleverly we put such strategies to use, the more useful we become to God and others. That was Paul, becoming all things to all men that he might win some. That too is the Christian life. That is the first thing here.

But there is something more; also a principle of great practical importance. Given that we are all sinners and that we continue to sin, in small ways and big ways every day, that we continue to say things and do things that are stupid, stupid, stupid; how are we to deal with that dismal fact? How are we to keep our failures from derailing our Christian lives, our service of the Lord, our ministry to others, our usefulness in the world? Every Christian wants to be useful. We want to have done something by the time our pilgrimage is finished. When we stumble as often as we do, how do we preserve our reputation as followers of Jesus Christ? Well Paul is our example in this too. We know about God’s forgiveness, we know about confessing our sins to him and to others, but what does all of that mean in the push and pull of daily life?

We are given a fascinating answer to such questions in this little episode at the beginning of Paul’s hearing before the Sanhedrin. Now, to begin with, let’s clear up a possible misunderstanding. There have been, through the years, some efforts made to absolve Paul of any error in his remark accusing the high priest of hypocrisy. Some Christians couldn’t believe that it would have been improper for Paul to speak as he did: to say what was, after all, nothing but the truth to this man. Ananias was a fake and he needed to hear someone tell him he was a fake.

But Paul obviously thought he had acted amiss. He not only apologized, but explained the nature of his error by citing Scripture. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion the most natural way to read vv. 2-5 is that Paul lost his temper. He was slapped and he flared up. He immediately realized that he had sinned, regretted that, after having taken so much abuse without losing his cool, he had lost control in public. And so he apologized.

The apology is all the more striking, coming as it does so soon after Paul having said “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” That sort of confession is found many times in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that Paul thought he didn’t sin. Paul was very candid about the remaining sinfulness of his life – “O, wretched man that I am” – as we read in Romans 7:14-25. What Paul meant was that he had served the Lord faithfully, which in a Christian context means, among other things, that he sought to live a righteous life and when he failed, he confessed his sins to God and sought forgiveness. An elder must be “blameless,” Paul says on another occasion. By blameless he doesn’t mean sinless, he means faithful as a Christian man with all that faithfulness entails for a sinful man striving to live a holy life in gratitude to God.

So what we find in this little episode is an important piece of what a good conscience entails and requires. Paul blundered. He acted impetuously and probably angrily. Did Paul have a problem with his temper? Was this one of the sins Paul was thinking of when he admitted that far too often the very thing he did not want to do was what he did? A number of great men, especially men with powerful intellects, have had this problem. Think of Jerome or Luther or Calvin. They would have been the first ones to admit that temper is a particularly ugly form of pride and of a lack of self-control. I’m no great man, but I know only too well how unmanly it is to lose one’s temper and how ashamed a Christian man can be for having done so. I have no difficulty believing that Paul was mortified that he has lost control in public and had done so when he was defending his gospel ministry! Don’t make Paul a man of stone. I’m sure he lay in bed that night reliving his failure to adorn the gospel, rebuking himself for being so stupid, wishing he had better sense. He had given his enemies a reason to think poorly of him at exactly the wrong moment; just what he did not want to do!

But, what did he do? He admitted his error, he apologized, and he moved on. That’s what Christians do and all they can do. No doubt he also confessed his sin to God and sought and received forgiveness from him. But in the moment, he acknowledged, he confessed, and then he moved on with the task at hand. Isn’t that the Christian life? Blow it, acknowledge our failure, confess it to others and to God, and then get back to work. Given the fact of our sinfulness, given the reality of God’s forgiveness, this is all that can be done and all that should be done. Sin must be acknowledged and confessed – there can be no repentance without acknowledgement and confession but it is not to hinder a Christian from doing God’s will; it is not to paralyze us; not to deter us from the obedience that lies at hand. And, as it happened, handling his blunder this way freed Paul to use his wits effectively to persuade the Sanhedrin to do his work for him!

It would be nice, of course, if our apology and God’s forgiveness took the sting of our failure away. But it is not so and cannot be so. The gospel is too authentically human for that. We could not really repent of our sin if we thought so little of it that we didn’t remember it or mourn it or beat ourselves up over it. But God’s forgiveness does enable us to escape its paralyzing effects. The real blessing of God’s forgiveness is not that you can always feel good about yourself, but that God does not, in fact, hold your sins against you and so they don’t at this moment prevent you from serving him faithfully in the next!

I like this very much in Acts 23. The reality, the humanity, the worldliness of it all, in the best sense of that word. Paul was clever and got himself unstuck from trouble; then he blew it in public and had to confess his sin before getting on with his duties. How very like what your life and mine ought to be!

Remember, when Acts was written Paul was still alive. The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. It is a virtual certainty that the apostle was all along well acquainted with Luke’s narrative and, indeed, had contributed his own editorial advice to his assistant as Luke wrote up the narrative we know as the book of Acts. I suspect they talked over every line. It is hard for me to believe that Paul didn’t know precisely what Luke was including here. What is more, how would Luke know what happened in the meeting of the Sanhedrin? No Gentile would have been welcome in the room. Well, obviously Paul told him. I’m of a mind to think that the reason we have the record of Paul’s stumble is because Paul insisted on Luke’s putting it in!

“Don’t protect my reputation,” he told Luke. “If you’re going to put in my success in extricating myself from danger, put in the stupid thing I did in the middle of all of that.” In fact, I’m pretty sure Paul knew very well just how helpful all of this would be to future generations of Christian readers, who needed to be encouraged to use their heads and needed not to be deterred by their sins from doing the next thing the Lord gave them to do.