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Paul's Arrest in Jerusalem: Acts 23:1-11

Acts 23:1-11

Central thought: the resurrection from the dead is Christianity's central focus.

The Setting

After an extensive ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19) and a visit to Greece (Acts 20:1-6), Paul returned to Jerusalem in the Spring of A.D. 57. This was the conclusion of Paul's third missionary journey.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, James asked Paul to assist four brothers in fulfilling certain vows (Acts 21:17-26). Paul complied with the request and found himself in the temple the next day. However, several Jews from Asia recognized him and stirred up the multitude against Paul. As they were dragging him out of the temple (they intended to kill him), the Roman commander of the local garrison intervened and took Paul into custody (Acts 21:27-36).

After the commander learned that Paul was a Roman citizen, he decided to investigate the cause of the disturbance. He decided to call the Jewish Sanhedrin together to discuss Paul's case (Acts 22:29, 30). No doubt he hoped to understand the problem.

The Text

Verse 1. As Paul faced this supreme Jewish court, he at first intended to state his case much like he had done in Acts 22:1ff. He would recount his Damascus experience and how God had called him. Accordingly, he begins his defense by announcing that he has always lived in good conscience before God. Paul had never knowingly violated God's will, but had consciously obeyed God as he had seen his will (see Acts 24:16). Even though Paul had sinned in the past, he had not violated his conscience.

Verses 2-3. Apparently, the high priest Ananias was upset by this opening remark or perhaps Paul spoke out of turn. Whatever the reason, Ananias responded with an act of violence. This was in character for Ananias. He had been appointed high priest in A.D. 47 and would remain in office for only one more year (A.D. 58). He was known for his greed and ruthlessness. Indeed, in A.D. 66 when Jewish nationalists led a revolt against Rome, Ananias was summarily executed by Jewish guerrillas. Paul's response was prophetic of this event -- God did strike this man. Not only was he killed in A.D. 66, but the next year he was removed from his office. Paul's reference to a "whitewashed wall" is as allusion to Ezekiel 13:10-16 where the prophet refers to rulers who are like walls that are ready to fall but the whitewash hides their decaying condition. Paul sees Ananias for the corrupt high priest he is.

Verses 4-5. Paul's response upset the Sanhedrin. They perceived that Paul had been disobedient to the very law that Paul quotes in verse 5 (see Ex. 22:28). However, Paul quickly points out that he is aware of the Mosaic injunction. Paul's problem was that he did not know that Ananias was the high priest. Is this an expression of Paul's ignorance? Some account for the ignorance on the basis of a long absence from Jerusalem, some on bad eyesight, and some on the basis that the high priest may not have been wearing his distinctive robes in a hurriedly called session. These explanations are unsatisfactory since his reference to "whitewashed wall" indicates he knew that he was talking to a ruler. It is best to understand this declaration by Paul as stinging irony: "I did not know he was the high priest since one would not expect God's high priest to act in such a manner."

Verses 6-8. Paul perceives that he must change his tactics. He cannot expect justice from this Jewish court. Consequently, he must divide and conquer. Recognizing the theological differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he introduces a topic which he knows will divide them. He aligns himself with the Pharisees (after all this was his training, see Phil. 3:5). The topic he introduces is central not only to the differences between the two Jewish sects, but to Christianity itself! The resurrection of Jesus is the ground of our hope in the resurrection. Paul has used a clever ploy but a truthful one.

Verses 9-10. Paul's tactic was successful. The Pharisee's could see no wrong with this central dogma of their faith. They explained Paul's Damascus experience as perhaps the communication of an angel or spirit. Of course, the Sadducees could not accept this explanation. The debate became so fierce that the commander had to remove Paul from the court.

Verse 11. The next few days were a tense time for Paul. He did not know what was going to happen. He had some dedicated enemies who sought his life. The Roman commander could not possibly understand his situation. What was Paul to think or do? Just as in Corinth (Acts 18:9), God spoke to Paul and assured him of his safety. Paul will go to Rome!

The Lesson

First, the importance of a clear conscience cannot be overestimated. While conscience is never an infallible guide (as Paul's life demonstrates), it is something which must never be violated (see Rom. 14:22-23; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). However, our conscience needs to be educated so that it more and more approximates God's infallible word.

Second, the focal point of Christianity is the conquest of death. Jesus has abolished death (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 2:14-15) and secured the hope of the resurrection. This is our earnest expectation. It is the uniqueness of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. The whole Christian religion can be laid at the feet of God's act of resurrection -- Jesus' and ours.

Third, in Paul's life this was a crucial turning point. God has informed him that he will go to Rome and there he will testify for God before kings. The book of Acts now has only one goal: to get Paul to Rome. This will fulfill Paul's ultimate mission: to preach in the imperial city of the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15; 19:21; Rom. 1:8-13).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe in summary fashion the events of Acts 21 and 22.

2. Why do you think Paul changed tactics between 23:1 and 23:6, or did he changed tactics at all?

3. Discuss the explanation of Paul's ignorance. Do you agree with the lesson writer?

4. Look up "Ananias" in a Bible Dictionary. What else can you learn about this high priest?

5. Look of "Pharisee" and "Sadducee" in a Bible Dictionary. What else can you learn about these sects?

6. Was Paul wrong about the reason for his trial?

7. Why would the Pharisees so stoutly defend Paul after Paul's statement about the reason for his trial?

8. What kind of violence could the court have displayed that forced the commander to remove Paul from the court?

9. What kind of encouragement did the Lord give to Paul? Why did Paul need it at this time?

10. Why do your think Luke even recorded this story for us? What is important about it?


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