Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (here and here).

Acts 23:1-5

23 And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

————————————————————————————————————

Last week’s entry concluded with the Roman tribune putting Paul before the Jewish hierarchy so that he might know the real reason the Jews in Jerusalem were so angry at him.

John MacArthur sets the scene well (emphases mine below):

the apostle Paul is drawn before the Sanhedrin. They have hastily convened in Fort Antonia, called into session by Claudius Lysias – who is the commander-in-chief of the Roman forces – and they have been called in order to try to ascertain what this man has done. The Romans saw the riot. They saw the crowd trying to murder Paul; and, they didn’t really know what the accusation was. They’ve tried several ways to find out, without success; and so now Claudius Lysias figures, “If I can get the Sanhedrin together, they can judge the case. They can hear the evidence. They can come up with a crime for which he can be sent to Caesarea and tried.” He assumed there must be a crime, or they wouldn’t have been trying to kill him in the temple court.

So, as we approach verse 30, the session of the Sanhedrin is called together. As we come to verse 1, we see four major points in this flow of text: the confrontation; the conflict; the conquest; and, the consolation.

We will be looking at the confrontation today.

Paul, bloody and achy, stood before the Sanhedrin, addressing them as ‘brothers’ and saying that he had lived before God with a clean conscience up to that day (verse 1).

This was bound to raise hackles immediately, because there was a formal greeting to be said to the Sanhedrin, and ‘brothers’ was not it. MacArthur explains:

The proper way was Acts 4:8, “Then Peter filled with the Holy Spirit said to them, ‘Ye rulers of the people and elders of Israel’.” Now, you see, the formal title “You rulers of the people and elders of Israel,” gave them their dignity; it put them up where they belonged, and so you were supposed to acquiesce to that.

However, recall that, as a young man, Paul, a Pharisee, had studied under Gamaliel in Jerusalem and was also the chief persecutor of the first Christians in the city, so he would have known these men:

Some of them were the students of Gamaliel, who had studied with him when he was younger. Many of them were Pharisees, and the camaraderie and esprit de corps of the Pharisees was really amazing; and they were buddies. They all knew who he was.

In fact, he had been the arch persecutor of the church and had worked in association with those people in that Sanhedrin.

They were also rankled because Paul had converted to Christianity:

And now they thought he was a traitor; they thought he was an apostate; they thought he was a blasphemer.

They were angry that he rightly claimed to have lived his life ‘before God’ but left the Jewish faith.

MacArthur says that Paul stared at them ‘intently’. MacArthur tells us this is because Paul knew he was innocent:

It’s a very strong word. Atenizō means to stare at, to gaze at, to fix your eyes on. I mean, you could imagine him sort of twiddling his thumbs behind his back and rocking from foot to foot with his head down saying “Uh, er, I, well, I don’t know how I got into this mess, uh, er.” That isn’t him …

He stood up; looked them eyeball-to-eyeball. You might be able to call this kind of thing the look of conscious integrity. You see, he knew he was innocent, and he knew God was with him, and so he was completely confident.

MacArthur and Matthew Henry differ in their interpretation of what ‘up to this day’ means. Matthew Henry’s commentary says that Paul was speaking of the time from his conversion to that point:

He seems rather to speak of the time since his conversion, since he left the service of the high priest, and fell under their displeasure for so doing; he does not say, From my beginning until this day; but, “All the time in which you have looked upon me as a deserter, an apostate, and an enemy to your church, even to this day, I have lived in all good conscience before God; whatever you may think of me, I have in every thing approved myself to God, and lived honestly,” Hebrews 13:18.

MacArthur, on the other hand, thinks that Paul meant his entire life, which then put the onus on the council:

He says to them, “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” That is bold. He says “You know, all through my life, until now, I have done what my conscience has told me God wanted me to do.” Now, you see what that does to them? Now, they’re not judging Paul; they’re judging whom? God, you see. So he really puts them in a corner. “Now, my conscience is clear,” he says.

The high priest Ananias was furious and ordered those nearby to strike Paul on the mouth (verse 2). I’ll get to Ananias’s life story in a moment, but, first, there was no reason for him to order Paul to be struck on the mouth. Both commentators agree that this was either a fist punch or that some instrument was used, such as a club (MacArthur) or a rod (Henry).

Mosaic law put restrictions on a Jew smiting a fellow Jew. MacArthur tells us:

Jewish law said, “He who strikes the cheek of an Israelite, strikes, as it were, the glory of God.” That’s Jewish law. Jewish law said, “He who strikes an Israelite strikes the Holy One.” The Jewish law safeguarded the rights of a man, and he was innocent until proven guilty. And Ananias had no business touching him by way of the Jewish law; he had no business touching him by way of criminal punishment, either. He wasn’t even accused of anything, let alone judged of it to be guilty.

Although St Luke, the author of Acts, does not say that one of the men struck Paul, both MacArthur and Henry say that Paul did indeed receive a blow to the mouth.

Paul, full of righteous indignation, compared Ananias to a whitewashed wall, warning the high priest that God would strike him and pointing out that he had also broken the law (verse 3).

One can imagine the tense atmosphere. It would only get worse.

Now to Ananias. He was not a good man. In fact, the ordinary Jews did not like him at all. Many thought he was a usurper of the high priest position. They also thought he cosied up to the Romans too much. Hence, Paul’s use of the term ‘whitewashed wall’, not dissimilar to Jesus’s use of the words ‘whited sepulchre’.

Matthew Henry tells us what happened to Ananias afterwards:

Paul did not speak this in any sinful heat or passion, but in a holy zeal against the high priest’s abuse of his power, and with something of a prophetic spirit, not at all with a spirit of revenge. 1. He gives him his due character: Thou whited wall; that is, thou hypocrite–a mud-wall, trash and dirt and rubbish underneath, but plastered over, or white-washed. It is the same comparison in effect with that of Christ, when he compares the Pharisees to whited sepulchres, Matthew 23:7. Those that daubed with untempered mortar failed not to daub themselves over with something that made them look not only clean, but gay. 2. He reads him his just doom: “God shall smite thee, shall bring upon thee his sore judgments, especially spiritual judgments.” Grotius thinks this was fulfilled soon after, in his removal from the office of the high priest, either by death or deprivation, for he finds another in that office a little while after this; probably he was smitten by some sudden stroke of divine vengeance.

MacArthur relates a worse history:

in verse 2, “And the high priest Ananias” – not to be confused with Ananias and Sapphira, and not to be confused with Annas, who was the former high priest at the time of Jesus’ trial; this is a new one, the son of Nedebeus who started in 47 AD and went about 11 or 12 years after that, and then was assassinated.

But, anyway, “The high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.” Boy, the high priest lost his cool. Now, this Ananias was really just a profane, foul, filthy character; one of the most disgraceful and foul profaners of the office of high priest. The historians, the ancient historians, have all bad to say about him.

Josephus says “he took all the tithes that were to be distributed for the living of the common priests and stole all of it.” He kept it for himself. He assassinated anybody and everybody who got in his way. He lined his own pockets every way possible. In fact, he started a war; at least was in on the beginning perpetration of a war, and Rome got upset with him; and so Rome hauled him over to bring him to trial, and they couldn’t get anything against him. He was clever, and they had to let him go, and that was five years before this account. He came back, and he was still ruling – very, very evil, tyrannical man.

He became very pro-Roman, however, and really bowed and scraped to Rome, so much so that his own people began to hate him. Imagine a Jewish high priest who is pro-Roman. They hated him. And finally, when in 66 AD – four years before the destruction of Jerusalem – a group of Jewish insurrectionists started a war against Rome, one of the people they wanted to get was Ananias. They found him hiding in an aqueduct, dragged him out, and murdered him and his brother. So he had a rather hasty demise.

Wow.

The council — the Sanhedrin — was the elite of the Jewish religious class. They were not going to tolerate disrespect from anyone, especially Paul. So, those standing nearby asked Paul if he would verbally abuse — revile — the high priest (verse 4). Mosaic law laid out protocol for addressing people in authority, be they religious or secular.

MacArthur tells us how it worked:

When God set up His economy, His theocracy – you can go back to Deuteronomy chapter 17; … “God ordained authority in Israel.” There has to be authority. You know, that even a bad government is better than no government? The worst government is better than no government.

God has leaders. A bad leader is worse than no leader? No. No leader is worse than a bad leader. God ordains authority and submission, and God knows that there are going to be bad leaders, and bad governments and bad high priests, bad judges, and God still said to Israel, “You submit,” because submission is the principle that keeps the thing together. And that judge, or that priest, or that leader, will pay for his own failure. He is accountable to God. You’re accountable to be submissive to him – unless, of course, he makes you do something in direct violation to God.

But here, interesting thing; in Deuteronomy 17:8, God first gave the pattern, “If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, then come to this place which I will choose.” Now verse 9, “And come to the priests, the Levites, and the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment.” God set up a court, a law where they could go and resolve the problems they couldn’t resolve among themselves. “And thou shalt do according the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall show thee; thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee.” Obey them. “According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do. Thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall show thee to the right hand or the left. And the man who will do presumptuously, and not hearken to the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and you shall put that evil away from Israel.”

You can stone the man if he disobeys the decision of the court. You don’t speak a word, and you don’t disobey the one God has set up to be judge or priest. Both judge and priest came together in the high priest, who was the ruling man in the Sanhedrin. He was both judge and high priest.

Paul was in the wrong:

So, when Paul spoke that way to the high priest, he did stand in violation. The high priest had no right to inflict punishment on him, but he had no right to react the way he did because he was taking an action that violated the principle that God had ordained, the principle that goes with that office. You say, “But the man was a crumb. The guy was no good. He was a terrible person.” That’s not the point. The office was God-ordained.

I think you’d find it interesting sometime if you’ll look up Exodus 21:6, Exodus 22:8 and 9, and Psalm 82:1. You’ll find that name of God, Elohim, is also the title of the judges in those passages. God actually called certain judges in His land gods, because they stood as His place of authority and representation of the law; and in that sense, represented Him.

So, a man who held a sacred position was not to be desecrated or slandered or cursed. But a man was to submit to that, because it was a God-ordained place, even though the man was satanic.

Paul knew that because he cited that divinely-ordained rule and said he was unaware that Ananias was the high priest (verse 5).

It seems to be a bit strange to read that Paul said he did not know who the high priest was, but MacArthur gives two reasons why. First, the council had been hastily convened and, secondly, Paul had poor eyesight.

Let’s look at the first reason:

Now, it’s interesting I think to see that Paul said, “I didn’t know he was the high priest.” You say, “Well, how ignorant can a guy be? What do you mean you don’t know it’s the high priest?” I told you last week that I thought it was important that they convened the session in Fort Antonia, and I don’t think that Claudius Lysias wanted to turn Paul over to the Jews and have them take him over to where they usually met because it could start another riot. So, he wanted to keep custody, so he brought the Sanhedrin to Fort Antonia

And so here they wouldn’t be in their normal configuration. They wouldn’t be seated with the high priest in his special seat. They would just be together in a mass milling around. And since it was an informally-called session, the high priest wouldn’t have his special robes on. So it is very likely that, because of that, he was unrecognizable, and that the voice just came out of the mass of 71 people there.

Now to the second factor, Paul’s eyesight:

In addition to that, it is very possible that Paul had poor eyesight, isn’t it? You remember in Galatians, he writes about how large a letter I have written unto you, and the Greek is with what “large letters”? One of the possibilities of that is that it could refer to poor eyesight, among others.

But he says in Galatians 4:15; he says, “You and I had such a good relationship that you would’ve plucked out your eyes and given them to me.” That may be an indication that he had a eye problem, and had there been transplants possible, they would’ve afforded him the eyes. So it may have been that he had an eye problem. He just couldn’t see that well. I think it’s probably best to assume that that’s possible, but that likely they were mixed together. Without their formal robes on, he wouldn’t have been able to tell who it was.

Despite this tense situation, Paul hadn’t finished stating his case. Next week, we’ll look at what happened.

Next time — Acts 23:6-11