Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe 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.

Acts 23:6-11

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

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Poor Paul. In last week’s entry Ananias the high priest illegally ordered him struck on the mouth — a painful punch or blow with a club or rod — for saying that he had lived his life in good conscience before God. The Sanhedrin then accused Paul of showing disrespect to Ananias, whom he said he did not recognise as the high priest. This was because they were hastily called to Fort Antonia and were not in their usual ceremonial robes. It could also be that Paul did not wish to recognise a scoundrel of a high priest and/or he was affected by bad eyesight, a real possibility.

Under Mosaic law, Paul was wrong and Ananias was wrong in equal measure. Both had violated the law of Jewish conduct.

I cited John MacArthur’s four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation. Last week’s verses showed the confrontation.

Today’s verses show the conflict as the tension briefly moves away from Paul to a dispute between the Pharisees, of which Paul was one, and the Sadducees, who were not at all spiritual in their theological outlook.

Matthew Henry summarises this beautifully (emphases mine):

Many are the troubles of the righteous, but some way or other the Lord delivereth them out of them all. Paul owned he had experienced the truth of this in the persecutions he had undergone among the Gentiles (see 2 Timothy 3:11): Out of them all the Lord delivered me. And now he finds that he who has delivered does and will deliver. He that delivered him in the foregoing chapter from the tumult of the people here delivers him from that of the elders.

Did Paul deliberately cause the division when he announced that he was a Pharisee to take the heat off himself (verse 6)? Matthew Henry answers in the affirmative:

The great council was made up of Sadducees and Pharisees, and Paul perceived it. He knew the characters of many of them ever since he lived among them, and saw those among them whom he knew to be Sadducees, and others whom he knew to be Pharisees …

So does John MacArthur:

So you know what Paul did? He just turned the whole Sanhedrin on itself. Revolution. Civil war. He just calmly stood there while they started the fight. You see, the real issue at stake was Paul had given his testimony, and Paul declared in his testimony that he was going down the Damascus Road and who spoke to him? Jesus of Nazareth. Well, if Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him, that meant Jesus of Nazareth was alive, right? So what was that saying? Resurrection.

Paul further triggered the Sadducees by mentioning that he believed in the resurrection of the dead, which the Pharisees did. With that, the quarrelling between the two religious groups began (verse 7).

Luke, the author of Acts, summarised the theological differences concisely (verse 8), so that the reader would understand.

The dissension escalated when some of the scribes — who were Pharisees — posited that Paul might have received a message from an angel or a spirit (verse 9). Hearing that enraged the Sadducees, who believed in neither. This does not mean that the scribes became Paul’s defenders after this: far from it, as we see in Acts 24. Despite this, Henry thinks that some of the Pharisees seriously thought about Paul’s defence of his faith:

We will hope that some of them at least did henceforward conceive a better opinion of Paul than they had had, and were favourable to him, having had such a satisfactory account both of his conversation in all good conscience and of his faith touching another world …

The arguments between the Sadducees and the Pharisees became so violent that the Roman tribune — commander — was concerned for Paul’s life, so he had his soldiers remove Paul by force and return him to the barracks (verse 10).

MacArthur sees this as providential:

The Romans to the rescue; the second time in two chapters. Amazing, God has superintended them. The whole of the nation of Israel is thrown into confusion, and he’s got the whole Roman army on the side of Paul.

As Henry points out, Paul was truly alone during this prolonged ordeal, with none of his Christian convert friends coming to his aid. Perhaps they were too afraid or perhaps they tried, but were not allowed admittance to see him:

The chief captain had rescued him out of the hands of cruel men, but still he had him in custody, and what might be the issue he could not tell. The castle was indeed a protection to him, but withal it was a confinement; and, as it was now his preservation from so great a death, it might be his reservation for a greater. We do not find that any of the apostles or elders at Jerusalem came to him; either they had not courage or they had not admission.

None of that mattered, because the Lord was with Paul. The next night He stood beside Paul and said that his work in Jerusalem was complete. Rome was to be the Apostle’s next destination in His Holy Name (verse 11): ‘Take courage’.

Henry provides this useful analysis:

Christ bids him have a good heart upon it: “Be of good cheer, Paul; be not discouraged; let not what has happened sadden thee, nor let what may yet be before thee frighten thee.” Note, It is the will of Christ that his servants who are faithful should be always cheerful. Perhaps Paul, in the reflection, began to be jealous of himself whether he had done well in what he said to the council the day before; but Christ, by his word, satisfies him that God approved of his conduct. Or, perhaps, it troubled him that his friends did not come to him; but Christ’s visit did itself speak, though he had not said, Be of good cheer, Paul.

In closing, MacArthur reminds us that our Lord revealed Himself to Paul five times in total. His awe-inspiring appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus was the first. This passage mentions another one of the five:

Always at times of crisis, the Lord stood by him. He was alone in the cell. Maybe he was saying, “Carest Thou not that I perish?” Maybe he was saying, “Lord, seems as though You’ve been all gone a while. Lord, have You forgotten me?” You know, you can have those kind of moods when you’ve been through something like that easily.

It wasn’t enough for the Lord to just remind him of a few principles. Jesus came to him. Jesus came and stood by him and He gave him three little words: consolation; commendation; and, confidence.”

Knowing this, we can better understand why Paul was so optimistic in his letters to the faithful. He understood that the Lord does not forsake His people. Even if we cannot physically see Him, our Redeemer does not forsake us, either.

As MacArthur says:

Do you think God cares for you? God came to Paul and He gave him thanks for the past; comfort for the present; assurance for the future. He’s the God of all comfort. I’ve seen Him comfort many people. I’ve seen Him comfort in my own life and give consolation. I know you have. In the midst of any trial, He cares. Cast your care on Him.

Paul’s ordeal continued with yet another murder attempt against him.

Next time — Acts 23:12-15

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