Paul: Clever and Impetuous

Acts 22:23-23:11

Text Comment


Commentators discuss whether their flinging dust in the air was an action tantamount to shaking the dust of one’s feet off against someone — in this case, then, it would amount to their publicly saying that they did not regard Paul as a Jew anymore — or, contrarily, it ought to be taken simply as the action of someone who is throwing dust at Paul because, with the soldiers there, they couldn’t throw rocks.


The scourge was used by the Romans as a type of torture by which to get at the truth. The scourge was made of leather thongs to which jagged pieces of bone or metal were attached. It had a gruesome effect on a victim’s back. Slaves and other suspected criminals might suffer this fate, but not Roman citizens. A long tradition of Roman law prohibited the beating of a Roman citizen, unless he had first been tried and convicted. In fact, they couldn’t be bound either, as we will be reminded in v. 29.


It is hard to know exactly how to read v. 28. The printed word itself does not tell you in what tone of voice the words were spoken. Some suggest that the Roman commander, in replying to Paul’s claim that he was a Roman citizen, was being sarcastic and that his remark about paying for his citizenship amounted to the implication that anyone could become a citizen "these days." Paul may still have been looking quite disheveled and the Centurion may have meant, "Boy, the cost of a citizenship must be going down!" His paying for his citizenship does not mean that there was an actual fee for citizenship; it is a reference to the bribes that would have been paid to officials to get the request approved. The exchange, which is not important to the narrative, is obviously an eyewitness touch and a brilliant narrative device, relaxing tension and humanizing the history. [It has long been a matter of great interest, by the way, and a demonstration of Luke’s reliability as an historian, that his knowledge of Roman legal matters is so accurate and so precise.] No one knows how Paul’s family obtained Roman citizenship.


It was perfectly obvious that Paul was unpopular with the Jews and a cause of public disorder. But the commander still did not know why. Paul’s speech hadn’t illuminated him on the point. And so he called a meeting of the Jewish leadership to try to get to the bottom of what was for him a matter of public disorder and political instability. No one who knew the gospels would miss the parallel between Paul’s situation and the Lord’s who was also brought before the Sanhedrin on trumped up charges.


Paul is the only one who speaks. In all likelihood, the Sanhedrin presented its charges first, but since we know what they are already, Luke leaves that part out and concentrates on what Paul said and did and the aftermath of that.


The high priest at this time was a man named Ananias, not to be confused with the Annas mentioned earlier in 4:6, the man who dealt with Peter and John after the healing of the crippled man in the temple. He had been appointed in A.D. 47 and would be dismissed in A.D. 58-59, very soon after these events in fact. In fact, he was assassinated in A.D. 66 by pro-Jewish guerrillas who viewed him as pro-Roman. He ordered Paul cuffed on the mouth as a sign that he was telling them a lie. Josephus confirms that Ananias was an insolent and quick-tempered man (Ant. 20:199) He seized tithes that were due the common priests. His action in slapping Paul was completely contrary to Jewish justice.


"White-washed wall" is a metaphor for "hypocrite." The first use of this image in the Bible is in Ezekiel 13:10-11, where Ezekiel mocks the false prophets who are prophesying "peace" by saying that they, as it were, painted a rickety wall, as if the paint would make it sturdy. Here is a high priest who is supposed to be upholding the law and violates it himself in the very legal proceeding he is in charge of.


This statement by Paul has long been thought a problem. How was it possible that Paul did not know who the high priest was, especially in such a public proceeding. All sorts of explanations have been offered. You remember that there is evidence in the NT that Paul’s eyesight was bad and that he might not have recognized who it was who gave the order that he be struck. The high priest was not perhaps the same one that had been serving when Paul last laid eyes on a high priest in Jerusalem. Paul had not been physically present in Jerusalem for some five years and his preceding visits to the city as a Christian had probably been discrete and private. He had been effectively a stranger for 25 years to the religious leadership of the Jews. [Hemer, 192-193] Others argue that Paul is, in effect saying that he couldn’t believe or didn’t believe that a man who gave such an order could possibly have been the high priest.


It is interesting to think of this. A Pharisee could become a Christian and remain a Pharisee. A Sadducee would have to abandon his party. The Pharisees were the theological conservatives of Judaism and the Sadducees the liberals. As it happened the Sadducees were also friendly with Rome, as they were the party in power and the Romans were useful in maintaining the status quo.


Note "some" not "all."


The commander hadn’t made much progress in getting to the bottom of the dispute.


Twice before the Lord had come to Paul to counsel him in such dangerous circumstances (22:17 on his first visit to Jerusalem; and 18:9: in the face of Jewish opposition to Paul’s ministry in Corinth, "stay in Corinth for I have much people in this city."

I want to draw our attention to two details of this history this evening.

The first is not, perhaps, in and of itself, of great moment, but Luke clearly intended to record this part of Paul’s history and it is worth our thinking at least briefly about it. I am referring to the stratagems that Paul employed to protect himself in the face of the Jewish persecution that threatened his life.

Let there be no mistake. Paul is no coward. If he were he would not have gone to Jerusalem in the first place. He had been warned not to go and told that should he go there he would be arrested and mistreated. One has only to read 2 Cor. 11 and Paul’s account of what he endured as a minister of Christ to settle one’s mind on that score: Paul was no coward.

But, he was also not a man to give the enemies of the gospel and his enemies an advantage that he was in a position to deprive them. And that is what he did here. It is interesting that in his speech to the Jews he made no mention of his being a Roman citizen. That would not have helped with them. But, as soon as he needed to disclose that piece of information to prevent him from a beating — to prevent him from suffering as the Jews wanted him to suffer, he trotted out the fact that he was a citizen and had the protection of Roman law.

And, then, in a still more striking tactic, Paul rescues himself from the hands of the Sanhedrin by cleverly setting Pharisee over against Sadducee. The reader of the NT can’t help but be surprised and startled by Paul’s ringing confession in 23:6: "I am a Pharisee." After all, he certainly didn’t agree with everything the Pharisees stood for. His understanding of the law of God was very different from theirs. But in the matter at hand, the resurrection, he could say in good conscience, "I am a Pharisee," and he didn’t hesitate to do so in order to gain an advantage for himself at the moment.

This sort of thing has often happened in church history and it can sometimes be a very delicate distinction that must be made. (Thomas More refusing to speak in regard to the oath that the King required him to take, because in the law silence was construed as assent, even though everyone knew that More did not agree. But, so long as he didn’t open his mouth one way or the other the law viewed him as in agreement and so not guilty of refusing to say "yes" to the King’s oath.)

The question has also surfaced, and been discussed in terms of such tactics as these that Paul employed, in times when the question was whether flight was justified in the face of persecution or whether true loyalty to Christ required believers to stand fast and face the music as loyal followers of the Lord. When Mary Tudor was returned to the throne, John Knox and many others fled to the continent to avoid imprisonment and execution. They were encouraged to flee by the leaders of the Reformation, Cranmer especially, though Cranmer felt that he must remain in England, fearing that the rank and file would be discouraged and more easily scattered if their leader fled and on the grounds that he could do more as a martyr in England than as an exile in Europe. Latimer, given six hours warning that the Queen’s officers were coming to arrest him, refused to flee, and, in fact, rode out to meet those coming to arrest him.

Clearly it troubled Knox’ conscience that he had fled and he long worried that he had acted as a coward. But, the Lord did say, when they persecute you in one city, flee to another. Knox’ enemies may have thought his flight cowardly, but he lived to fight another day and brought those enemies down at the last, completing the Reformation in Scotland some years later. In that he was a true follower of Paul.

But, here is Paul — I think God put this in his narrative, as an example for men and women in such times. Here is Paul bobbing and weaving and using various strategies to get himself out of the fix he was in. It was not cowardice; it was cleverness. And, to me, it is wonderfully important to see how this is presented as Paul’s doing. God doesn’t tell him to do this; nor does God rescue him from the beatings and the threat of death in any obvious way. Paul uses his wits and God uses those wits to get Paul safely out of harm’s way. It is a wonderful celebration of cleverness we have in these verses and an encouragement to use our resources so long as we use them in faithfulness to God.

It is like the striking statement the Lord makes in Luke 16:9: "Use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings." There is nothing either wrong or unchristian in being clever.

Second, I want to direct your attention to Paul’s blunder. This may be the only place in the narrative of Paul’s life and work in the NT where we actually see the great man doing something wrong. No doubt he did many things, thought many things, and said many things, that he should not have. He speaks forthrightly about his still raging sinfulness in Rom. 7:14-25. No one can listen to Paul there and think that he was sinless. He was an apostle, but like all the other apostles, he was a sinner still. Peter could chicken out before the wilting stare of judiazers in Antioch. And Paul could lose his temper and curse the man who happened to be the High Priest of Israel at the time. Something that Paul himself admits the law forbade and he should not have done.

This particular indiscretion is all the more striking for coming so soon after Paul’s statement, in v. 1, about his good conscience concerning his serving the Lord these many years. This is the kind of claim one gets not infrequently in the Bible. Ps. 26:1. It is a claim we are, to be sure, often unable to make, but sometimes too timid or too confused to make. It is not a confession of sinlessness (Rom. 7:14-25). It is a statement that he has lived and served the Lord faithfully, — which in a Christian context, of course, includes the seeking of forgiveness through Christ when we have failed and the striving after holiness even if we never obtain it in any completeness. An elder must be "blameless" Paul says, indicating that such blamelessness is not sinlessness and is altogether possible for Christian folk.

And now, immediately, we have the proof of what is meant by a good conscience. He blundered. He acted impetuously. And, no doubt, he felt himself, that he had hurt his cause and the Lord’s cause.

Don’t make Paul into a man of stone. What do you think he was thinking about that night as he lay in his bed? He was regretting what he had said to the High Priest. Any Christian can tell you that is what he was doing. He was beating himself up for being so stupid, for speaking without thinking, for having spoiled the effect he had wanted to produce, for giving his enemies and the gospels’ enemies an argument against him, a reason to dispense with what he said. He was slapping himself in the forehead with the palm of his hand.

So what did he do? He apologized, he acknowledged his error and he went on. Later that night he may have despised himself for having been so stupid, so unthinking, so petulant; for giving in to his flesh, for not having risen above it and turned the other cheek as the Lord told his followers to do. But, at the moment, there was nothing else to do but confess, acknowledge the wrong, and move on. That is what he did.

And, that, my friends, like it or not, is the Christian life. Blunder after blunder, acknowledgement, confession, the judgment of oneself, and, then, moving on. Given our constant sinfulness, and given the reality of God’s forgiveness, this is all that can be done and all that should be done.

Paul tells us in Rom. 7 how bitterly he felt about his failures, how wretched he was that he so often did not live up to his calling or live worthy of the grace he had received. That confession of bitterness, and that cry he makes there — "Who shall deliver me from this body of death" — tells us all we need to know about how Paul was like us and how, so often, he would be miserable for days over particular sins he had committed. God’s wonderful forgiveness did not necessarily take the bitterness of failure away, but it made it possible to move on, to keep going, to leave the past behind at least so far as our action is concerned. That is what Paul did and, in so doing, he left us an example that we should follow in his steps. He could take his comfort from those daring words — "It is not I, it is the sin that is within me" — but that didn’t make him any less bitter or make him long any less for his deliverance from the sinfulness of his life.

And that will be your experience — I know it has — as it has all too often been mine. You cannot — much as you think about it in bed at night — you cannot go back and undo what you did, unspeak those words. Even the knowledge of your forgiveness does not free you from the shame and the sense of defeat, but, what it does is teach you your duty — to make a full acknowledgement of your sin as Paul does here, making it even worse by citing the very law he had broken in front of his enemies — and gives you the sure and solid foundation for going on.

It would be nice that the sense of divine forgiveness just took the sting of our sins away altogether. We may feel that that is the way it is supposed to be; that somehow we diminish God’s forgiveness if it doesn’t make us feel as if we had never sinned at all. But it is not so; it cannot be so. And it has not been so for the saints from the beginning. The gospel is too human, too real, too authentic for that. There will be regrets in heaven itself, in a certain way and of a certain kind, because we will always be reckoning with the truth about our lives. God’s free forgiveness will take the sting away in time, perhaps, for most of our sins. But God’s forgiveness does help us to get up right away and keep going even after we have stumbled and fallen. I find that consoling, I know some of you do too. You don’t have to get past the self-disgust right away. Just confess and seek forgiveness and get on with life and work for Christ. The real blessing of forgiveness is not that you feel good about yourself but that God does not, in fact, hold your sins against you!

I didn’t even remember that in our Book of Church Order in the PCA there is a service, a formula for the restoration of those who have been excommunicated but who subsequently repented. There are questions put to the person in front of the congregation to which he or she gives the answer "I do."

Do you, from a deep sense of your great wickedness, freely confess your sins in thus rebelling against God, and in refusing to hear His Church; and do you acknowledge that you have been in justice and mercy cut off from the communion of the Church? And so on.

A few weeks ago such a service was held in a PCA church in North Carolina for the daughter of a good friend of mine. She had rebelled, terribly, and been alienated from her family and her church and then excommunicated as was absolutely proper and necessary. And for several years they waited upon the Lord for her repentance. And it was finally and wonderfully given.

And after the questions were asked and answered before the church the minister put his arm around this young woman and told her, now this is what this means. It means that I will never hold what you have done over these last two years against you. The elders here will never hold that against you and this congregation will never hold that against you, because God does not hold it against you!

Regrets? Terrible regrets. Lots of sorrow still and worry about the future? Absolutely. But a solid, sure basis for moving on? Absolutely! And God’s grace will set the past further and further behind her as he set it further and further behind the Apostle Paul.

I like this very much in Acts 23. The reality, the worldliness of it all — in the best sense of the word. Paul being clever and getting himself unstuck from trouble. And blowing it in public and confessing his sin and moving on! How like the ordinary Christian life!