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Bible treehuggercomThe 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 24:1-9

Paul Before Felix at Caesarea

24 And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul. And when he had been summoned, Tertullus began to accuse him, saying:

“Since through you we enjoy much peace, and since by your foresight, most excellent Felix, reforms are being made for this nation, in every way and everywhere we accept this with all gratitude. But, to detain[a] you no further, I beg you in your kindness to hear us briefly. For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. 6 He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him.[b] By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.”

The Jews also joined in the charge, affirming that all these things were so.

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Last week’s entry discussed Paul’s safe arrival in Caesarea, thanks to an impressive Roman military escort. There he lodged in an apartment in Herod’s praetorium, which Felix the Roman governor used. God achieved His goal for Paul by working through unbelievers.

Jerusalem’s Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias, had escalated Paul’s case upwards to Felix the governor, who wanted to convene members of the Sanhedrin to hear their complaint against Paul.

Five days after Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem, the high priest Ananias, accompanied by religious elders — akin to religious Supreme Court justices — and a spokesman, Tertullus, appeared before Felix in Caesarea to state their case (verse 1).

Tertullus was a slick orator for hire, a go-between between non-Romans and Roman authorities. He would charge a fee to help plead a case or to butter up Roman authorities. He could twist the truth convincingly.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

his speech (or at least an abstract of it, for it appears, by Tully’s orations, that the Roman lawyers, on such occasions, used to make long harangues) is here reported, and it is made up of flattery and falsehood; it calls evil good, and good evil.

John MacArthur tells us Tertullus was a (emphases mine):

professional case reader; a guy who could come in there and read this deal off, and figure it all out, and then could go and plead the thing. This is a man who probably was versed in legal procedure as far as Rome went. He probably spoke eloquent Latin; and, he was the guy they were going to have plead the case. It says at the end of verse 1 that, “He informed the governor.” The high priest and the other people from the Sanhedrin just stood there while Tertullus did the talking.

BibleHub says we should not make too many assumptions about Tertullus’s religious identity or nationality:

Although he bore a Roman name, he was not necessarily a Roman; Roman names were common both among Greeks and Jews, and most orators were at this time of eastern extraction. Nor is it definitely to be concluded from the manner of his speech (Acts 24:2-8) that he was a Jew; it has always been customary for lawyers to identify themselves in their pleading with their clients.

Tertullus began presenting the Sanhedrin’s case by first flattering Felix, lauding his peaceful rule, his foresight and his reforms (verses 2, 3).

In reality, that was untrue. Even Roman historians and the Jewish historian Josephus attested that Felix’s tenure was characterised by disordered violence, which he put down with too much force at times, resulting in more revolt. The Jewish Encyclopedia states:

Felix exercised, as Tacitus says, “the royal prerogative in a slavish sense, with all manner of cruelties and excesses”; it was he who excited the bitter feelings of the Jewish patriots to the highest pitch, and for this even his patron Jonathan reproached him in the end.

When Paul was there:

A fierce contest arose at that time between the Jewish and Syrian citizens of Cæsarea, and as Felix acted unjustly toward the Jews, he was recalled by Nero about 60 C. E. (“Ant.” xx. 8, §§ 7-9; “B. J.” ii. 12, § 7). At the intercession of Pallas he escaped punishment (“Ant.” l.c.).

Pallas was Felix’s brother. Both were Greek freedmen. By rights, Felix could have been severely punished for not only allowing, but possibly contributing, to local unrest. Romans in positions of authority, from governors down to prison guards, were expected to maintain order at all times. Depending on the offence, the death penalty was also in force for those who did not do their jobs properly.

He lured his second wife, Drusilla (Herod Agrippa I’s daughter), away from her then-husband:

Related to Claudius by a former marriage, Felix, immediately on entering office, alienated the affections of the Jewish princess Drusilla, sister of Agrippa II., from her husband, King Azizus of Emesa (Josephus, “Ant.” xx. 7, § 2; comp. Acts xxiv. 24).

Felix, Drusilla, their son Marcus Antonius Agrippa and daughter Antonia Clementiana returned to Rome in 58 AD. (Therefore, this episode with Paul took place around two years earlier.) His wife and son died when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. He married for a third time, although details are scarce.

Back now to Tertullus, who went on to make the Sanhedrin’s case ‘briefly’ against Paul (verse 4). He truly put himself in the Sanhedrin’s shoes rhetorically, by calling Paul ‘a plague’, one who ‘stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world‘ and a ‘ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes’ (verse 5). Well, one couldn’t get much stronger verbiage than that. Remember that Tertullus might not have believed what he was saying but that he was paid handsomely to make his clients’ case.

As Henry says, Tertullus had:

a saleable tongue (as one calls it) …

Therefore, we should not be angry with him but rather angry with the Sanhedrin:

those dignified men that had such malicious hearts as to put such words into his mouth.

Note Tertullus’s half-truths. Paul did not stir up riots; Jews were angry at his preaching the truths of the Good News. He was not a ringleader; he was a preacher and a teacher who came in peace and love wherever he went.

MacArthur explains that, even though Tertullus was talking about matters religious, he was simultaneously trying to make a case that Paul was a seditionist — a potential civil charge which might have swayed Roman opinion against the Apostle:

… there was the potential that this could stick if the right twist on the truth could be brought to bear. So they accuse him of being a man of sedition, and one who moves people to riot, and The Romans did not tolerate it. They were paranoid about revolution. They were paranoid about insurrections and riots, because they had managed to conquer; they had placed all their rulers and soldiers in these areas to keep the peace; and this is the one thing they feared.

This is why Tertullus made the Sanhedrin’s claims carefully in order to keep the case under Felix:

Now, he doesn’t name any riot. You know why? If he had named a riot in any area, it would have immediately removed the responsibility from Felix because they would have had to transfer Paul into that area to be tried under whoever had the jurisdiction over the area

So they accuse him, then, of leading sedition among all the Jews throughout the world; an accusation of treason. And it isn’t true. He was accused, of course, of creating dissention everywhere he went, but that was only because people created the dissention in response to what he was preaching.

Then, Tertullus returned to the religious aspect of the argument: the Sanhedrin prevented Paul from trying to profane the temple (verse 6), which was a bald-faced lie. Paul was completing his Nazirite vow, but the Jews were so incensed, they couldn’t think straight (Acts 21:28-29):

28 … “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

By the way, if Trophimus had been with him, the Jews were allowed under Roman law to kill him, because he was a Gentile. Paul, a Jew, would have lived.

Eagle-eyed readers will have observed that the ESV goes from verse 6 to verse 8. Some translations have the following, which makes the narrative much clearer:

and we would have judged him according to our law. 7But the chief captain Lysias came and with great violence took him out of our hands, 8commanding his accusers to come before you.

Tertullus concluded, saying that, ‘by examining him’, Felix would find out that the Sanhedrin was telling the truth (verse 8). I thought that Tertullus meant examining Paul, but MacArthur posits that ‘him’ referred to Claudius Lysias, as we will find out later in Acts 24:

Now they say it, “And if you want to know what happened, you just ask Claudius Lysias.” You say, “Well, they told lies, though.” Sure, but Claudius Lysias wasn’t going to get in a fight with them.

And, if you look at verse 22, it says, “Felix heard these things,” etc., etc. He deferred them and said, “When Lysias the chief captain shall come down, I will determine your case.” It seems as though the indication of 22 is that the reference was to hearing from Claudius Lysias

And so later on, in 22, Felix says, “I’ll check with him.” You know something? He never did

The Jews present affirmed what Tertullus had said (verse 9). MacArthur says that each accuser probably presented a short statement of assent:

So, so-and-so took the stand, and then another elder – and whatever else – and they all said, “Oh, everything he says is true.” They just perjured themselves up one side and down the other, lying right through their teeth. In the name of God, “servants of God” they called themselves, “lovers of God,” “lovers of the law,” they called themselves. And here they are, blatantly lying in order to preserve their religion and to execute a man they didn’t want around.

Paul was experiencing the same type of false accusations that Jesus had. Through the ages, especially today, Christians are going through the same persecution.

MacArthur says that if believers aren’t persecuted in some way, they’re not living a godly enough life:

Now listen; this is a very, very clear illustration of what a Christian should expect. How many times have we seen that, if a Christian really lives his life in the face of an ungodly world, he’s going to make waves? Is that right? 2 Timothy 3:12 says, “Yea, and all that will live godly in this present age shall suffer persecution.” If you’re going to live a godly life in the midst of an ungodly society, you’re going to get some flack. I mean, that’s expected; that’s how it will be. If you’re not getting any flack, you’re not living a godly life in the midst of an ungodly world. They can’t handle it.

Listen to what Peter said in 1 Peter 3:14. “…if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are you. Don’t be afraid of their terror, neither be troubled, but sanctify the Lord God always in your hearts, be ready to give an answer to every man that asks you the reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” In other words, stand up there and give an answer boldly, meekly. Listen, “Having a good conscience,” which means you can stand up there with a clear conscience and give your answer. “Whereas they speak evil of you as evildoers, they may be ashamed to falsely accuse your good manner of life in Christ.”

What is he saying? Two things. One, have a blameless life. Two, have a clear testimony and let happen what happens …

Jesus put it this way in Matthew 5. He said, “Blessed are you when men shall revile you…and speak all manner of evil against you falsely. Blessed are you.” What do you mean “blessed”? That I made enemies? Jesus made enemies.

MacArthur isn’t advocating provoking hostile arguments with people about faith — not at all — but, in life, some unscrupulous people will naturally take issue with us. That might well include fellow church members — possibly even the clergy! Look at how the Jewish leaders took against Jesus and Paul.

Next week, we’ll look at Paul’s response.

Next time — Acts 24:10-21

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Bible readingThe 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 23:16-22

16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”

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Paul’s status at this point in Acts is ‘Paul the prisoner’, which is ongoing throughout the rest of the book.

In my last post before Christmas, I wrote about the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Paul.

Paul’s nephew — his sister’s son — found out about this cold-blooded conspiracy, went to the barracks and told him (verse 16).

Information about Paul’s family is scant. John MacArthur gives us a few possibilities about this lad and his parents. Also note the providential aspect to this (emphases mine):

Do you realize that the Bible says nothing about Paul’s family at all? All we know is his father was a Pharisee because he made that statement earlier. We don’t know anything else. We do know that in Philippians 3:8 he said that because of his faith in Christ, he had suffered, “The loss of all things.” And, most Bible teachers assume that “the loss of all things” included being disinherited from his Jewish family because from then on, you hear nothing at all about his family, nothing at all.

How, then, all of a sudden does Paul’s sister’s son come to Paul’s rescue? What is he doing in Jerusalem? Did he live there? Was he there studying to be a rabbi, as Paul had been when he was a boy? Was Paul’s sister really one who cared about Paul even though he had been disinherited? Had Paul’s sister become a believer? Interesting to think about. I can’t imagine the apostle Paul not trying to convert his family, can you? I’m sure he gave it everything he had.

An interesting thing pops up in verse 16, “When Paul’s sister’s son heard of the ambush” – the verb “he went and entered the barracks,” that aorist participle there could be translated “having been present,” and it is possible that the boy was present when the plot took place. It is possible it means he was present at the prison. It is possible that it means he was present at the plot. It seems sensible to say he was present at the plot or he wouldn’t have known the plot. Can you imagine how God worked the circumstances to have that little boy hanging around the conspirators and to get the right message, and then to have the presence of mind to go warn his uncle?

But, that is what happened. You can see that this is no less supernatural than if God had reached a big sky-hook out of Heaven and pulled Paul right up.

I think it’s interesting to add a point, and I’ll take a minute to do that. There is a word in Romans 16 that is translated in the English Authorized Version “kinsman.” Sometimes it means countryman; sometimes it means relative. It is an interesting thought, if you look at Romans 16 in verse 7, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, who are in Christ before me.” That’s interesting. The possibility is there.

Then he says, in verse 11, “Greet Herodion, my kinsman who are in the Lord,” with another individual. Verse 21, “Timothy my fellow worker” – or work fellow – “and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipater, my kinsmen.” Now, it may have been that Paul did have some fruit in his own family. We don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Well, so the boy heard about the plot and he came to the barracks and told Paul. Now, maybe the family was high, kind of high class. You know, Paul had been a member of the Sanhedrin and his father a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, and the whole ball of wax, zealous for the law. It could have been that his father was kind of a sharp guy, up there, and we don’t know – it’s possible – that he may have been even in the leadership of Israel. But whatever, the boy heard it, went, and told Paul about it. How exciting!

Matthew Henry’s commentary simply says:

… some how or other, we are not told how, he heard of their lying in wait, either overheard them talking of it among themselves, or got intelligence from some that were in the ploy: and he went into the castle, probably, as he used to do, to attend on his uncle, and bring him what he wanted, which gave him a free access to him and he told Paul what he heard.

I particularly liked this, which points out that God had a plan for Paul:

Note, God has many ways of bringing to light the hidden works of darkness; though the contrivers of them dig deep to hide them from the Lord, he can made a bird of the air to carry the voice (Ecclesiastes 10:20), or the conspirators’ own tongues to betray them.

To understand Paul’s relationship with the centurion — commander of 100 soldiers — who did his bidding (verse 17), it is worth noting that a) Paul informed the tribune that he was a Roman citizen from birth and b) the tribune and his centurions thought the Apostle was someone pretty important if the whole city of Jerusalem wanted to kill him. Because no one, including the Sanhedrin, enlightened the Romans about their hatred of Paul, they had to work on assumptions.

Also, Paul, having been not only well educated but also doing the Lord’s work, was a model prisoner, thereby earning the centurion’s respect. So, when Paul asked him to take the lad to the tribune, Claudius Lysias, there was no objection. (St Luke, the author of Acts, never mentions the tribune by name.)

The centurion duly took the boy to Claudius Lysias, explaining that he had something to tell him (verse 18).

Henry offers this analysis, which further indicates that divine providence was at work:

The centurion very readily gratified him, Acts 23:18. He did not send a common soldier with him, but went himself to keep the young man in countenance, to recommend his errand to the chief captain, and to show his respect to Paul: “Paul the prisoner (this was his title now) called me to him, and prayed me to bring this young man to thee; what his business is I know not, but he has something to say to thee.” Note, It is true charity to poor prisoners to act for them as well as to give to them. “I was sick and in prison, and you went on an errand for me,” will pass as well in the account as, “I was sick and in prison, and you came unto me, to visit me, or sent me a token.” Those that have acquaintance and interest should be ready to use them for the assistance of those that are in distress. This centurion helped to save Paul’s life by this piece of civility, which should engage us to be ready to do the like when there is occasion. Open thy mouth for the dumb, Proverbs 31:8. Those that cannot give a good gift to God’s prisoners may yet speak a good word for them.

Paul’s nephew must have been young, because the tribune took him by the hand to ask him about his news privately (verse 19). The boy was probably nervous and, by holding his hand, the tribune reassured him. Henry says that, too, was significant, reminding us that the tribune acted illegally in having a fellow Roman citizen — Paul — bound for scourging. That carried a huge penalty, if his superior had found out. Recall, too, that the tribune bought his Roman citizenship, whereas Paul was a natural born Roman. Claudius Lysias was obliged to be nice to Paul, even indirectly:

The chief captain received the information with a great deal of condescension and tenderness, Acts 23:19. He took the young man by the hand, as a friend or father, to encourage him, that he might not be put out of countenance, but might be assured of a favourable audience. The notice that is taken of this circumstance should encourage great men to take themselves easy of access to the meanest, upon any errand which may give them an opportunity of doing good–to condescend to those of low estate. This familiarity to which this Roman tribune or colonel admitted Paul’s nephew is here upon record to his honour. Let no man think he disparages himself by his humility or charity. He went with him aside privately, that none might hear his business, and asked him, “What is it that thou hast to tell me? Tell me wherein I can be serviceable to Paul.” It is probable that the chief captain was the more obliging in this case because he was sensible he had run himself into a premunire in binding Paul, against his privilege as a Roman citizen, which he was willing now to atone for.

Paul’s nephew told the tribune that the Jews planned on obtaining the tribune’s consent to see Paul in the council on the pretext that they had more questions for him (verse 20), when, in fact, they, having taken an oath, were going to murder him in cold blood (verse 21). The boy said:

do not be persuaded by them

The tribune asked the boy not to say anything about their private exchange, and dismissed him (verse 22).

Consider the Lord’s work here. A subject of the Romans — a boy, at that — tells the Roman tribune what to do. MacArthur says:

Now, here is a little kid commanding the Roman commander. Now, you can see how God is superintending this thing. “Do not thou yield to him, for there lie in wait for him.” There is an ambush of more than 40 men who have anathematized themselves with an anathema. In other words, they have devoted themselves to destruction. They will neither eat nor drink until they have killed him, and they are now ready, and “The whole thing depends upon the promise from you to deliver the prisoner.”

Henry points out that the boy never mentioned which of ‘the Jews’ were plotting against Paul:

he does not say who, lest he should invidiously reflect upon the chief priests and the elders; and his business was to save his uncle’s life, not to accuse his enemies

As for telling the boy to say nothing to anyone, Claudius Lysias knew that if this conspiracy against Paul did not work, the Sanhedrin would come up with another. Even worse, if the Sanhedrin knew the Romans had actively prevented their plot from going ahead, there could have been a huge revolt in Jerusalem. John MacArthur explains:

I don’t think that that commander wanted an argument with those Jews, and I don’t think that he wanted them to know that he knew their plot, because if they knew he knew their plot, and he wouldn’t let it come off, then you would begin to see potential revolution and sedition.

And Jerusalem and Judea w[ere] volatile. It was only a few years after this that the whole place exploded in a revolution. And, he knew the past history of what other commanders had run into in that place, and he did not want to butt heads with them.

John MacArthur laid out four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation.

Today’s passage shows the beginning of the conquest, with God working through Paul’s nephew and the Romans to defeat the Sanhedrin’s evil, murderous conspiracy.

Next time — Acts 23:23-30

Bible croppedThe 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 23:12-15

A Plot to Kill Paul

12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”

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Last week’s entry was about the heated row the Pharisees and the Sadducees had over their faith beliefs, which Paul had purposely triggered.

The next day, however, the Sanhedrin’s focus returned to Paul. More than 40 plotted to kill him and went on a hunger strike until they accomplished their mission (verses 12, 13).

John MacArthur’s four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation. Last week’s verses showed the conflict. However, Paul saw some of the consolation, as our Lord stood beside him in prison (emphases mine):

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.”

The conflict continues this week with these plotters. Both our commentators say that Satan was working through them. Here is Matthew Henry’s analysis. Older translations use ‘curse’ instead of ‘oath’ in verse 12, which adds to the gravity of the sitaution:

(1.) They bound themselves to it. To incline to do evil, and intend to do it, is bad; but to engage to do it is much worse. This is entering into covenant with the devil; it is swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness; it is leaving no room for repentance; nay, it is bidding defiance to it. (2.) They bound one another to it, and did all they could, not only to secure the damnation of their own souls, but of theirs whom they drew into the association. (3.) They showed a great contempt of the providence of God, and a presumption upon it, in that they bound themselves to do such a thing within so short a time as they could continue fasting, without any proviso or reserve for the disposal of an overruling Providence. When we say, To-morrow we will do this or that, be it ever so lawful and good, forasmuch as we know not what shall be on the morrow, we must add, If the Lord will. But with what face could they insert a proviso for the permission of God’s providence when they knew that what they were about was directly against the prohibitions of God’s work? (4.) They showed a great contempt of their own souls and bodies; of their own souls in imprecating a curse upon them if they did not proceed in this desperate enterprise (what a woeful dilemma did they throw themselves upon! God certainly meets them with his curse if they do go on in it, and they desire he would if they do not!)–and of their own bodies too (for wilful sinners are the destroyers of both) in tying themselves out from the necessary supports of life till they had accomplished a thing which they could never lawfully do, and perhaps not possibly do. Such language of hell those speak that wish God to damn them, and the devil to take them, if they do not do so and so. As they love cursing, so shall it come unto them. Some think the meaning of this curse was, they would either kill Paul, as an Achan, an accursed thing, a troubler of the camp; or, if they did not do it, they would make themselves accursed before God in his stead. (5.) They showed a most eager desire to compass this matter, and an impatience till was done: not only like David’s enemies, that were mad against him, and sworn against him (Psalms 102:8), but like the servants of Job against his enemy: O that we had of this flesh! we cannot be satisfied, Job 31:31. Persecutors are said to eat up God’s people as they eat bread; it is as much a gratification to them as meat to one that is hungry, Psalms 14:4.

John MacArthur’s Bible also says ‘curse’. He explains:

They were serious about it as indicated by the fact that it says, “They bound themselves under a curse.”

The Greek is “they anathematized themselves with an anathema.” They devoted themselves to destruction. This was not an uncommon thing. They placed themselves under a divine judgment, as it were. They invoked the vengeance of God. It would go something like this: if any of the other Jewish vows would be similar to this, this would be a typical one, “So may God do to us and more, if we eat or drink anything until Paul is dead.”

Now, they were serious. They wanted this man dead, and the most stringent way they knew was to take this kind of a vow which sort of bound them and sort of told everybody the seriousness of it. And, they invoked the vengeance of God if they didn’t accomplish it. Of course, that’s dumb, because God may or may not be involved in it. That’s why Jesus said, “Swear not at all, don’t do that. Don’t say, ‘God, strike me dead if I don’t do this,’ or, ‘God do this if I don’t do that’.” Let your conversation be “yes and no” and forget that.”

Jesus said, “Swear not at all neither by Heaven or Earth.” But they were doing that, and they wanted to drag God into it and appear very holy. See? “We’ll kill him or God strike us dead,” feeling they were really going to defend God. They wanted God in on the murder plot …

You say, “Well, why would they react to such a man like this? Why not just say, ‘Oh, well. Let him go.’ Why so hostile? Why so violent?” Because of this, folks: to simplify it, they were the dupes of Satan, and that is the simplest way to look at it. They had been so subjected to the power of Satan by this time, existing so long in a false system of religion based on ego and hypocrisy, that they were Satan’s tools. And Satan wanted Jesus and the Gospel done away.

MacArthur tells us why 40+ were involved:

Well, apparently, they felt that the Romans would not bring about Paul’s death; they couldn’t procure the death at the hands of Rome. And, they realized that they didn’t want Paul in front of the people making another speech, or he might wind up persuading too many of them.

And so they saw they had to get rid of him, but they didn’t want any one individual to bear the brunt. So they realized if they had 40 or more (and that’s maybe an arbitrary figure; they may have called together all those who were interested), but if they had enough, no one person could be blamed for it. Plus, that many could accomplish it without Paul escaping. So they bound themselves by a blood oath, swearing to God that they would assassinate Paul, or they would be willing to take the vengeance of God, knowing all the time that they could get out of it.

They then went to the chief priests and elders stating that they had made this oath (verse 14), and what they expected Ananias and the elders to do: pretend they wanted to interview Paul further, and the conspirators would murder Paul when he approached (verse 15).

It is difficult imagining that going on in a religious setting, but MacArthur gives us the background to the Sanhedrin:

Now, the chief priests of the Sanhedrin were the Sadducees. The Sadducees party was the most antagonistic to Paul. Do you remember for what reason? Because Paul taught the resurrection and they were anti-resurrectionists. And so, these conspirators went to the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the top guys, and they said, “Look, we have bound ourselves under a great curse that we will not eat anything until we have slain Paul.”

Now, why would they bother to tell the Sadducees? Because they could get a hearing. They’d get somebody to listen to them who would agree, and they wanted to enlist the support of the Council.

It’s interesting, I think, to just note the fact that the conspirators, the 40-plus, knew that the leadership of Israel was so morally rotten that they were willing to advertise a murder. Can you imagine going and taking a group of murderers up to the Supreme Court and telling them that you’d like their cooperation in a murder?

Well, that’s part of it. But, they were not only the judicial heads of the country; they were the spiritual leaders, so corrupted that justice was corrupted, and spiritual truth was corrupted to the place where they could be enlisted in a murderous assassination. And they knew they’d get a hearing, and had no fears that they would be prosecuted for such a thing as attempted murder – or whatever.

Even knowing that, the plotters were bold as brass dictating to their superiors. What a den of vipers the Sanhedrin was.

Forbidden Bible Verses continues in the New Year.

Next time — Acts 23:16-22

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

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