Acts 23 Bible Commentary

B. W. Johnson’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Acts 23)
Paul's Defence Before the Sanhedrim.

SUMMARY.--The Insult of the High Priest. Paul's Rebuke. His Appeal to the Pharisees. Their Favor. The Dissension. Paul Removed. The Vision of the Lord in the Night. The Plot of the Sicarii. Revealed to the Chief Captain by Paul's Nephew. Paul Sent Under an Escort of Soldiers to Cæsarea. The Letter of Claudius Lysias to Felix.

      1. Paul, earnestly beholding. Attentively studying his audience, and no doubt seeking whether there were old acquaintances among the members of the Sanhedrim. He probably knew at least a part of the body. Many years before he had been its trusted agent, to execute its orders against Christians; now he is on trial before it for being one of that body which it formerly employed him to destroy. They regarded him a renegade, much as our countrymen regard Benedict Arnold, and their hate was so vindictive that they were utterly unable to listen calmly to his defence. Hence, as soon as he began by declaring that he had acted in all good conscience until this day, the high priest ordered that he be smitten in the mouth.

      2-5. To smite him on the mouth. The high priest flamed up in an instant at the statement of Paul that he had acted in good conscience. "How could such a renegade from Judaism be conscientious?" It is common in the despotic East to order the mouths that are supposed to have spoken falsely to be smitten. Ananias was high priest at this time, but was removed on a charge brought by King Agrippa (25:13) in A. D. 59. He was at last assassinated. God shall smite thee, thou whited wall. These words, spoken by the prisoner, indignant at the mockery of justice, were rather a prediction than an imprecation. I have just stated that this violent man came to an untimely death. The insult to Paul reminds us of a similar one to his Master before the same body (John 18:22). By whited wall Paul means a hypocrite. See note on Matt. 23:27. I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest. It was contrary to the law of Moses (Exod. 22:28) to revile one in high authority. Paul's reply to the charge that he had violated the law has been variously explained. Howson gives what appears to me the most probable view: "I did not take thought, at the moment, in my indignation over the command to smite a defenceless prisoner on trial, that he was the high priest. I am well aware that it is said, 'Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.'" His words were an apology for his hasty speech. I wist not is used in the sense of "I did not bear in mind."

      6-10. Perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees. When the Savior was condemned, the Sanhedrim was composed of both parties, and now, nearly thirty years later, we find it the same. The chief priests, as a rule, were Sadducees, while the scribes were mainly of the Pharisees. It was the doctrine of the resurrection that especially inflamed the Sadducees against the gospel (see Acts 4:2). This was the ground of battle between the two sects, and Paul, himself once a Pharisee, now preaching a gospel of which the great fact is the resurrection, not only avails himself of the opportunity to proclaim the fundamental truth of Christianity, but in so doing divides his enemies. Alford, says, concerning his declaration, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question, that, "All prospect for a fair trial was hopeless. Paul well knew from experience that personal odium would bias his judges, and violence prevail over justice. He therefore uses in the cause of truth the maxim so often perverted to the use of falsehood, Divide and conquer." There arose a dissension. The Pharisees were at once reminded that Paul was with them in their great ground of contention with the Sadducees. His appeal to them makes them at once his champions against the rival sect. 8. The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection. See notes on Matt. 22:23 for the doctrinal view of the Sadducees. The statement here is fully confirmed by Josephus. See Wars of the Jews, 2:8, 14. The scribes . . . arose. These were mostly Pharisees, and were a learned class. We find no evil in this man. There was more to them in common with him than with the materialistic Sadducees. If a spirit or an angel. See the Revision. They throw this out as a defiance to the Sadducees who denied both angel and spirit. The clause "Let us not fight, etc.," is not found in the best MSS. There arose a great dissension. One party took Paul's side, the other opposed; one sought to lay hands on him, the other to defend him. The chief captain interposed and removed Paul to the castle.

      11. The night following. Paul's conditions seemed most forlorn. He was even suspected by the church in Jerusalem. He was a prisoner to the Romans. His own nation was thirsting for his life. He had twice, within two days, narrowly escaped death. He needed comfort, and hence the Lord stood by him, cheered him, and gave him encouragement concerning his future work. It not doubt was like a ray of light, as he passed a sleepless night in his prison cell, to learn that the dear Lord still had work for him.

      12-24. Certain of the Jews banded together. Perhaps these Jews were of the bitter enemies from Asia who had laid hands on him in the temple. They may have belonged to a wild fanatical association of Jewish assassins, who, a few years later, played a prominent part, called Sicarii. The Talmud says that those who took such a vow were released from it, if it was impossible to carry it out. Their purpose was to induce the chief priests, who were Sadducees, to have Paul appear before the Sanhedrim the next day, and then they would murder him. Paul's sister's son heard. This is the only mention in Acts of any of Paul's relations. It is possible that this nephew was studying in Jerusalem, as Paul had done many years before, and heard of the plot from those who did not know that he was in any way related to Paul. Whether he was a Christian or not, he took pains to inform his uncle. There was no difficulty of access, for Paul was a Roman, and would be treated with courtesy. Paul, at once, sent him to the chief captain with his information. 19. Took him by the hand. To show how carefully he was listening to the story. Called unto him two centurions. These were told to prepare four hundred and seventy soldiers for an escort, a large force, but the country was in a disturbed condition, and all the occurrences connected with Paul confused and alarmed the commander. Bring him safe unto Felix. Of this man, then governor, we will hear more. He was originally a slave, but had risen by base arts to a high position. His brother Pallas was the emperor's favorite, and secured the important post of governor for Felix in A. D. 52. In A. D. 60 he was removed.

      25-30. He wrote a letter. Roman law required that when a prisoner was sent by a lower official to a higher for trial, a letter should be sent stating the charges. That of Lysias states his understanding of the case. I rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman. Like many modern officials, he prevaricates. He found out he was a Roman after he rescued him. I sent him straightway to thee. "Though I held him to be innocent, hearing of the plot against his life, I thought it best to send him to thee." Had he released Paul in Jerusalem, the conspirators would have murdered him.

      31-35. Brought him by night to Antipatris. They departed by night so that the Jews would know nothing of Paul's departure until the next day. Antipatris was about thirty-eight miles from Jerusalem. The march was not probably made by night, but begun at night and was completed the next day. On the morrow. The morrow after they reached Antipatris, all returned but the horsemen. Cæsarea was now only twenty-six miles distant, and the danger was over. He asked of what province he was. Felix was governor of Judea under the proconsul of Syria. Had he found the prisoner to be of some other province under the proconsul, he would probably have turned him over to its governor (compare Luke 23:6, 7), but when he found he was of Cilicia, a distant part of the empire, he retained him. Kept in Herod's judgment hall. The palace built by Herod the Great in Cæsarea for his own residence, but now occupied by Felix.