Paul has been detained by the Romans and is currently being tried by the Sanhedrin. That is where we are in Acts 23 (link). What’s a Sanhedrin? If you took and mixed Congress and the Supreme Court, a little bit, and then added a twist of state religion, you would have something like the Sanhedrin. They were the primary deliberative body through which the Jews self-governed. The Romans did not have to accept the Sanhedrin---or even allow it, but giving the people a sense of self-determination kept the revolts at bay. Some of the time.
Odd how people will settle for the illusion of freedom.
Back to Paul: he stands, unjustly accused, before a group of people who do not have the proper authority to try him. Why? Because he’s a Roman citizen and they cannot execute any form of sentence upon him. Further, he has accepted the Christian faith, placing himself under the authority of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Add to that the reality that he has done nothing wrong.
Yet he stands before them to make his defense. He opens with a line that should challenge us: “I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” (Acts 23:1).
Oh, the sermon material this is: a good conscience but not one informed by man, rather one before God! A man who has done all that he can, in every way he can, to honor God by his doings and not doings throughout all of his days. How would that change our lives if we would need that statement? Is that a statement you can make? That your conscience is good before God?
Leaving that aside, Paul speaks that sentence and the High Priest, Ananias, orders him struck on the mouth. Probably intended as an immediate punishment for what Ananias thought was untruth, it was nonetheless an injustice: whatever the law may allow, striking a prisoner without considering guilt is wrong.
And Paul speaks out about it. He calls it like it is, that God will strike Ananias and alludes to the preaching of Ezekiel and of Jesus Himself when he calls Ananias a white-washed wall. Paul is then informed that Ananias is the High Priest and Paul shifts from confronting Ananias’ behavior to stirring up the whole Council.
What do we make of the situation here?
1. Religious leaders need to watch their behavior. Consider that Paul states he “was not aware that (Ananias) was high priest.” Really? Not aware? It is one thing for someone to be unaware that you are a great and mighty whatever-you-are religious leader because you do not mention it. It is another matter for one to find your behavior completely unbecoming of who you claim to be.
If you are going to claim the title, behave the title. Do not let someone be surprised to find out you were supposed to be God-honoring.
2. Sometimes, we do not respond like Jesus did. Compare the trial of Paul to the trial of Jesus and you see that Jesus said nothing, even when struck for not speaking. Paul, on the the other hand, opens his mouth and fires back. What should be normative for us?
Well, let’s consider this: Jesus came to live, preach, teach, heal, die for our sins and be resurrected. He knew the outcome of His trial because He willed the outcome. His death was necessary for our salvation. Paul? His death puts him into the presence of God but beyond that, it’s not necessary for anything. It stops his preaching and cancels his plans to go to Rome, Spain, and points beyond.
So Paul speaks up for himself. In doing so, he also speaks up for any others who are tried by the Sanhedrin. He speaks clearly that what they are doing is wrong. That is valuable for us: we need to take that same tack when we have the opportunity. Speak up and act out against injustice when we are aware of it. Admittedly, that’s often only when it comes calling at our door, but any starting point is better than never starting.
Why take Paul’s response and not Jesus’? Are we not to be like Christ and not like any man? Certainly, except for one detail:
Jesus already died for your sins. You are not dying to save anyone.
So use your voice and speak out.
Today’s Nerd Note: It is worth noting that Ananias is killed by the Jews who start the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66. He was, apparently, not exactly beloved by his own people and was actually pro-Rome.
Also of note is the ease in which Paul dodges this trial by stirring up the dissension between Pharisee and Sadducee. You could picture the same thing today: “I am on trial for being a Republican (or Democrat)” and you immediately divide the room. Enemies are not dealt with; problems are not solved; failures are not fixed. Why?
Because all we can think about are our own interests and those who wish to stir us up can do just that. Play to the dividing issue. We can keep this up as a nation or we can have a future. But within a decade of this event in Acts 23, the Jews were in open revolt and the Temple and much of the country was destroyed by the Roman Army in response. The deep factionalizing destroyed their nation.
What will it do to ours?