Acts 23 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Acts 23)
Verses 1, 2.   No sooner had the prisoner and the Sanhedrim come face to face, than the chiliarch must have perceived that he was again to be disappointed in his efforts to understand the case; for, instead of preferring formal charges against Paul, the proceedings were opened by calling upon him to defend himself: (1) "Then Paul, looking earnestly on the Sanhedrim, said: I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. (2) Then the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him, to smite him in the mouth." No doubt the blow was as prompt as the word. The interruption was as unexpected as it was exasperating.

Verses 3-5.   For once in the history of his persecution, the provocation was too great for Paul, and found vent in a burst of anger. (3) "Then said Paul to him, God shall smite thee, thou whitewashed wall. And do you sit to judge me according to the law, and command me to be smitten contrary to the law? (4) But those who were standing by said, Do you revile God's high priest? (5) Paul said, I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people." The flash of anger was but momentary. No sooner were the words spoken than his habitual self-control regained its ascendancy. He frankly admits that he had done wrong, but excuses himself by the fact that he knew not that it was the high priest. If he had been disposed to further excuse himself, by urging that the high priest deserved all he had said of him, his plea would have been true, but insufficient. For how can we return good for evil, if we return to men their deserts? It were well if his example should be imitated by all disciples who meet with injustice at the hands of their rulers.

Verses 6-10.   The presence in which Paul stood was not unfamiliar to him. He doubtless remembered the faces of many in the Sanhedrim, and was intimately acquainted with the party feelings which often distracted their councils, and which had been known to stain the streets of Jerusalem with blood.{1} Seeing that they were determined not to do him justice, he resolved to take advantage of their party feuds in order to secure his own safety. (6) "But when Paul knew that one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the Sanhedrim, Brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. Concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead I am called in question. (7) And when he had said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the multitude was divided. (8) For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit. But the Pharisees confess both. (9) And there arose a great outcry; and the scribes, who were of the Pharisees' party, arose and contended, saying, We find no evil in this man. And if an angel or a spirit has spoken to him, let us not fight against God. (10) And there being a great dissension, the chiliarch, fearing that Paul would be torn in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from their midst, and lead him into the castle." It will be observed, that in stating the difference between the two parties, Luke uses the term both when the reference is to three specifications, viz.: resurrection, angel, and spirit. This arose, no doubt, from the fact that the three specifications are really combined in two, as the existence of angels or spirits involves but the one question of the existence of purely spiritual beings.

Under ordinary circumstances, it is not probable that so violent a dissension could have been so easily excited. The circumstance is indicative of an unusual exasperation of the parties just preceding this event. Such a state of things, combined with the complete agreement declared by Paul with the Pharisees on the points at issue, naturally inclined them to favor this release. He declared this agreement in strong terms, asserting not only that he was a Pharisee, but the son of a Pharisee, and that it was for the hope peculiar to the party that he was arraigned as a criminal. They saw that the establishment of his doctrine would certainly be the ruin of the opposing sect, and losing sight, for a moment, of its effects upon their own party; forgetting, too, the ill-founded charge against Paul, in reference to the law and temple, they declared that they could find no fault in the man. Perhaps, also, the awkward position they were in with reference to the proof of those charges rendered them somewhat willing to find an excuse for admitting his innocence. But the slightest hint, on their part, of his innocence, was sufficient to arouse the Sadducees, because they saw that it was prompted chiefly by hatred to themselves. On the part of the Sadducees, the two most violent passions to which they were subject, hatred toward the disciples and jealousy toward the Pharisees, combined to swell the uproar which broke up the deliberations of the assembly. Paul was near being a victim to the storm which he had raised, when the Roman soldiery came to his rescue. Lysias was once more disappointed in his efforts to learn the truth about his case, and must have been in greater perplexity than ever, as he commanded the soldiers to lead him back into the castle.

Verse 11.   If we had some epistle from Paul's pen, written at this time, it would tell of great distress and despondency; for such a state of mind is clearly indicated by an event which now transpired. (11) "And the night following, the Lord stood by him and said, Take courage, Paul, for as you have testified concerning me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." It is not to be presumed that this personal appearance of the Lord to encourage him occurred when it was not needed, or when encouragement could be supplied in an ordinary way. It is quite certain, therefore, that Paul's spirit was greatly burdened that night. The long-dreaded bonds and afflictions, which had hung like a dark cloud before him on his journey from Corinth to Jerusalem, had now at last fallen upon him. Thus far, since his arrest, he may have been cheered by the hope that the fervent prayers of himself and many brethren, which, in anticipation of these calamities, had been urged at the throne of favor for months past, would prove effectual for his deliverance, and for the realization of his long-cherished desire to visit Rome.{2} But his speeches before the mob and the Sanhedrim had only exasperated his enemies, who were now, more than ever, intent upon his destruction; and his jailer, though disposed to do justice, knew not what to do but to keep him in prison. In whatever direction he could look, prison walls or a bloody grave stood before him, and hedged up his way, either to Rome or to any other field of future usefulness. But just at the proper moment to save him from despair, the solemn assurance is give, that his long-continued prayers would yet be answered, and he should preach the Word in Rome as he had done in Jerusalem. In tracing the fulfillment of this promise, we shall witness a remarkable illustration of the workings of providence in answer to prayer.

Verses 12-16.   The light did not immediately dawn upon his prospects, but the darkness continued for a while to grow deeper. (12) "And when it was day some of the Jews made a conspiracy, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. (13) And there were more than forty who made this agreement. (14) They went to the high priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing till we have killed Paul. (15) Now then, do you, with the Sanhedrim, notify the chiliarch to bring him down to you to-morrow, as though you would inquire more accurately concerning him, and we, before he comes near, are ready to slay him. (16) But the son of Paul's sister heard of their lying in wait, and came and entered into the castle, and told Paul." It is difficult for a conspiracy for this kind, requiring the consultation of so many persons, to be concocted and executed with perfect secrecy. Especially is it so when the intended victim is one about whom the whole community is, at the time, intensely excited. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that some of Paul's many friends heard of it, and that his nephew undertook the dangerous task of communicating it to him. He at once saw, that, notwithstanding the assurance of safety given the night before, the danger of his situation was more alarming than ever. The chiliarch could not well refuse to grant so reasonable a request; and if it is granted, his doom is sealed. If the Pharisees who had befriended him in the Sanhedrim had not become indifferent to his fate, they had been outwitted, so that the Sadducees were about to make the request in the name of the whole Sanhedrim without consulting them.

Verses 17-22.   A moment's reflection was sufficient to show Paul that his only hope of safety was in the chiliarch, and, therefore, he at once had the facts communicated to him. (17) "Then Paul called to him one of the centurions, and said, Lead this young man to the chiliarch; for he has something to tell him. (18) He then took him and led him to the chiliarch, and said, The prisoner, Paul, called me to him and requested me to lead this young man to you, who has something to say to you. (19) The chiliarch took him by the hand, and drawing aside in private, asked him, What is it that you have to tell me? (20) And he said, The Jews have agreed to request you that you bring down Paul into the Sanhedrim to-morrow, as though they would inquire more accurately concerning him. (21) But do not be persuaded by them; for there lie in wait for him more than forty men of them, who have bound themselves under a curse neither to eat nor drink until they have slain him. And they are now prepared, expecting a promise from you. (22) Then the chiliarch dismissed the young man, charging him to tell no one that you have made known these things to me." The injunction of secrecy was prompted in part by a desire for the young man's safety; but chiefly by an unwillingness that the Jews should know the real cause of the steps he was about to take. If they should discover that their machinations could influence his policy, they might be emboldened to give him further trouble.

Verses 23-30.   There were at least three lines of policy between which the chiliarch could have chosen. If he had been disposed to gratify the Jews, he might have given Paul up to their malice, without probability of being known to his superiors as accessory to the murder. If he had preferred to defy their power, and display his own, he might have sent him down to the Sanhedrim under a strong guard. Or if he desired to protect Paul, yet to avoid giving unnecessary offense to the Jews, he might send him away that night before their request was laid before him. It reflects credit upon his character that he chose the course which both justice and prudence dictated. (23) "And he called to him two of the centurions, and said, Make ready two hundred soldiers, and seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen, to go to Cæsarea at the third hour of the night, (24) and provide beasts, in order that they may mount Paul and take him to Felix the governor. (25) And he wrote a letter in this form: (26) Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor Felix, greeting. (27) This man was seized by the Jews, and was about to be killed by them, when I came with the soldiery and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. (28) And desiring to know the cause for which they accused him, I led him down into their Sanhedrim, (29) and found him accused concerning questions of their law, but having nothing laid to his charge worthy of dead or of bonds. (30) And it being disclosed to me that a plot against the man was about to be executed by the Jews, I immediately sent him to you, commanding his accusers to say before you what they have against him. Farewell." But for one misrepresentation in this letter, there would be nothing discreditable to Lysias in this whole affair. He had acted like a just and prudent man in managing a difficult case; but in reporting to his superior, he so states the facts as to give himself credit to which he was not entitled. He states that his first rescue of Paul was prompted by the fact that he was a Roman citizen; whereas, in truth, he knew nothing of Paul's citizenship till after he had seized him and had prepared to scourge him. Thus a motive was claimed which was not real, and a fault which he had committed was suppressed. When we remember, however, that it is a common fault with military commanders to make the most favorable reports of their achievements, we are not disposed to give Lysias a low rank among his compeers for veracity.

The statement that he had commanded Paul's accusers to say before Felix what they had against him, was not strictly true; for, at the time of writing, he had given no such command. But it was not intended to deceive the governor; for he intended to issue the order before the letter could be received. When this order was issued, the Jews were bitterly disappointed, and the forty conspirators had a prospect of a good long fast. They naturally felt some ill-will toward Lysias, as we shall see manifested hereafter,{3} for snatching their victim out of their hands.

The letter also shows, that though Lysias could not understand the exact nature of the charges against Paul, he knew that they had reference to the Jewish law, and was satisfied that what they accused him of was not worthy either of death or of imprisonment. Under this conviction, if he had not been constrained to send him away for safety, he would, probably, have released him.

Verses 31-35.   (31) "Then the soldiers, according to what was commanded them, took Paul and conducted him by night to Antipatris, (32) and, on the next day, they returned to the castle, leaving the horsemen to go forward with him. (33) They went to Cæsarea, delivered the epistle to the governor, and presented Paul before him. (34) And when the governor read the epistle, he asked of what province he was, and, learning that he was from Cilicia, (35) he said, I will hear you when your accusers are also come. And he commanded him to be kept under guard in Herod's palace." This was a palace erected by Herod the Great, who built Cæsarea.{4}

When the troops guarding Paul has passed beyond the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem, there was no further use for the powerful force of infantry; hence the return of the four hundred soldiers and spearmen. The distinction between these two classes is, that those called soldiers belonged to the regular Roman legions, while the spearmen were light-armed troops attached to the legions.

This incident in Paul's history has been made to bear a part in the controversy as to whether military service is compatible with Christianity. It is urged that Paul could not consistently accept the services of an army of four hundred and seventy men to protect his life from a Jewish mob, unless he acknowledged the rightfulness of military service. But the facts in the case are not suitable to the argument. He did not, in the exercise of his freedom, voluntarily call for military interference; but the military had already interfered, without consulting his wishes, and taken violent possession of him; and his request was, that they should exercise the power which they had chosen to assume, for his safety rather than for his destruction. If a man were confined within the den of a gang of robbers, he might, with all propriety, request them to keep him out of the reach of another gang who were seeking his life. Such a request would be no more an indorsement of highway robbery than Paul's request, expressed through his nephew, was an indorsement of military service. There is not an instance on record in which the apostles ever called for military interference in their times of suffering and persecution.

      {1} Raphall, Post-Biblical History of the Jews, vol. 2, p. 132.
      {2} Rom. xv: 30-32.
      {3} Acts xxiv: 7.
      {4} Jos. Ant. xv: 9. 6.