In this chapter, Paul is brought before the chief priests of the Jews and their council, a group commonly known as the Sanhedrin.
“And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day” (Acts 23:1).
The expression, “earnestly beholding” means that Paul “fixed his eyes intently” upon the prejudiced council. That is, he looked them squarely in the face with much meaning in his very look. He addressed them as “men and brethren,” then declared that he had “lived in all good conscience before God” until that very day.
The Jews had accused Paul of walking and teaching contrary to the law of Moses and to the writings of the prophets (Acts 21:21-24). In making his defense before this governing body of the Jews, he declared that, before God, his conscience was clear. He was not claiming for himself sinless perfection. The meaning of verse 1, in this chapter, is much the same as that of Acts 24:14-16—”But this I confess unto thee, that after the way they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets: and have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offense toward God, and toward man.”
We also call attention to the emphasis which Paul placed upon the “this day” of verse 1. That is, the fact that he said “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” He meant the very day on which he was being tried. The same thought was brought out by the apostle when he stood before Agrippa, (Acts 26:22), “Having therefore obtained help of God, I continue unto this day, witnessing to both small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come.”
It seems clear that the apostle wanted both the Jews and the authorities of the Roman government to know that, so far as his ministry to national Israel was concerned, he had given them nothing contrary to the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets even up to the very day on which he was being tried. He continued this same type of ministry and behaviour, among his kinsmen according to the flesh, until the day that they, as a nation rejected for the last time the Spirit’s appeal “concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets” (Acts 28:17-28).
Paul Tricked by Satan for a Moment
“And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wish not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people” (Acts 23:2-5).
These verses reveal the fact that, on the spur of the moment Paul was tricked by Satan to “speak evil” of one of the rulers, or dignitaries of his people. This was contrary to God’s order, as is revealed in Exodus 22:28. If Paul had not corrected himself in this matter he could be classed with the “filthy dreamers” of Jude 8, and those who “walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness” referred to in II Peter 2:10.
Since Paul had been away from Jerusalem so much, and since, in those days, both the Roman government and the Jewish Sanhedrin appointed and discharged high priests at will, it is entirely possible that Paul did not even know that Ananias was a dignitary. However, Paul made no effort to justify himself on this ground. He frankly and humbly confessed his wrong, and he did it immediately. The scriptural way in which the apostle corrected himself was honoring to Christ whom he preached and represented. The entire council was made to know in their hearts that Ananias, the high priest, was wrong and unscriptural and that Paul was right and Biblical, in that he immediately judged himself.
In this case of self-judgment, Paul again proved himself a good “pattern” for us to follow (I Timothy 1:16). This is in keeping with his instruction to the church at Corinth—”For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world” (I Corinthians 11:31-32).
Was Paul a Pharisee?
“But when Paul perceived that one part” of the council “were 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. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both. And there arose a great cry: and the scribes 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. 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” (Acts 23:6-10).
The doctrinal distinction between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is clearly set forth in verse 8. Doctrinally, Paul stood with the Pharisees, and in that sense was a Pharisee. However, he had no part with them in their attitude of self-righteousness and religion. While it was clever of Paul to cry out at this particular time that he was a Pharisee, that is not the only reason he made this claim. We must remember that he was steadfastly contending for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, therefore, knowing that there was both Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection at all and Pharisees who did believe in a resurrection, it was necessary for him to express himself as standing with the Pharisees on this question. Even though the Pharisees did not believe in Christ’s resurrection, they did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and this gave Paul another opportunity to stand with those who were contending for Biblical truth, even though they did not have all the light on the subject. He upheld their doctrine concerning the resurrection, but he was not a Pharisee religiously.
The Lord Stood by Paul
A very beautiful thought stands out in verse 11—”And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou halt testified of Me in Jerusalem so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” The apostle’s faithfulness to testify in Jerusalem had brought him nothing but trials and suffering. Men did not understand, even his own co-workers did not understand. It must have been very heartening to Paul when the Lord stood by him and spoke these words of cheer. Paul must have been like most other servants of God in that he needed encouragement. He was perhaps, at this particular time, growing tired in the flesh and weary of the constant rejection on the part of his people. He was also facing the most outspoken and determined threat that had yet been sworn against him. “Certain of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul” (Acts 23:12). The Lord knew Paul’s need and supplied it when He let him know that He was still with him and that his testimony would not be cut short until he had witnessed in Rome.
Paul Leaves Jerusalem
Acts 23:12-22 explained the subtle scheme of more than forty Jews who conspired to kill Paul. These verses also bring to our attention God’s method of using Paul’s nephew whose name is not given to make known this conspiracy to the chief captain.
The chief captain immediately ordered two centurions to “make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred.” These armed men of the Roman government were made responsible for Paul’s safe deliverance unto Felix the governor (Acts 23:23-24). The chief captain also sent along a personal message explaining the circumstances surrounding Paul’s case (Acts 23:25-30). The governor received Paul as a prisoner, had him committed to Herod’s judgment hall, and promised to hear his testimony before his accusers when they arrived (Acts 23:31-35). The following chapter gives a detailed account of the accusation against Paul and his powerful defense before Felix.