The Lord's Day Evening
July 22, 2007
To the Ends of the Earth
“Brothers, I Am a Pharisee”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me, if you would, to The Acts of The Apostles. We come this evening to a consideration of the opening verses of Acts 23. We’re going to read together the closing verse of Acts 22; but before we read this passage together, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His blessing in the reading of the Scriptures. Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word. We are such a needy, hungry people. Though we are constantly fed by Your word, we come again tonight in need of sustenance. We need Your direction, we need Your guidance, we need Your words to shine a light within our hearts to show us the way of truth and eternal life, and fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ. Come, then, O Lord, by Your Spirit. Enable us now to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now turn with me to Acts 22, and we are going to pick up the reading at verse 30. Paul, you remember, has been arrested, or at least brought into some form of incarceration in the Antonia Fortress. A riot had taken place, you remember, in the temple courts. The Jews had tried to accuse him of disrespecting the Law of Moses and of bringing a Gentile into the Court of Israel, by the name of Trophimus. You remember the Roman garrisons who are in the Antonia Fortress on the northwest section of the temple have rushed in. They have rescued the Apostle Paul, and brought him to the steps of the fortress. Paul has given something of a defense there before the Jews. He was then brought inside and ordered to be flogged. At that time, Paul tells the commander, a man by the name of Lucius, that he is in fact a Roman citizen and that it would be illegal for him to be flogged — no charges having been made and his guilt certainly not yet been ascertained.
And now, having spent the night in the fortress, as we see in this section Paul is now going to be brought out before a court — a hastily gathered court of the Sanhedrin.
Now this is God's word:
“But on the next day, wishing to know for certain why he had been accused by the Jews, he…” [that is, the commander, Lucius] “…released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Council…” [or Sanhedrin] “…to assemble, and brought Paul down and set him before them. Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.’ And the high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?’ But the bystanders said, ‘Do you revile God's high priest?’ And Paul said, ‘I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’’ But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’ As he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks.
“But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, ‘Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.’”
Amen. And may God add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Paul is in custody. He is in the Antonia Fortress. This is a large building overlooking the temple. It's where the Roman garrison, the Roman legion would be stationed. The main body of Roman soldiers were not in Jerusalem, they were in Caesarea and other places. They dare not bring an entire regiment of soldiers to the city of Jerusalem, but they did have this fortress overlooking the temple. No formal charges have yet been made against the Apostle Paul. Paul has claimed that he is a Roman citizen and that he is a Roman citizen by virtue of birth. The commander, who is also a Roman citizen (who had purchased his Roman citizenship), now realizes that he is in trouble. He has perhaps falsely arrested a citizen of Rome, violated his Roman rights. He must now proceed with extreme caution, and one of the things he has yet to ascertain is — why is Paul here in the first place? What was it that would cause such a ruckus in the temple that required Lucius the commander to send his men and rescue the apostle and bring him in?
Now before that trial therefore can proceed, something by way of pre-trial hearings must take place. This is not technically yet a trial. The trial will take place in chapter 24, before His Excellency, Governor Felix. But all you lawyers here–and there are a lot of you here tonight–you understand that this is just something of a pre-trial hearing. They’re simply trying to ascertain what the facts are. Is there a viable charge against the Apostle Paul, or is there not?
Now in what ensues, there are several tableaus, if you like, as Luke describes the event–as Paul the next day, having spent a night in the Antonia Fortress, is released from his chains. He is brought probably to the steps of the Antonia Fortress, and perhaps into the Court of the Gentiles. Perhaps it was in some other part of the temple. One thing we know for sure is that the commander and his men would not have been present in the Sanhedrin court as it met. No Gentiles would have been allowed. But they were certainly within hearing distance of this court, and as soon as trouble ensues, as it does at the end of our passage, the commander immediately sends his men in once again to rescue the Apostle Paul.Paul before God.
I. Paul before God.
The first thing I want us to see is Paul, as it were, before God. He comes before a number of people. He comes before the Sanhedrin court. He comes before what are technically Pharisees and Sadducees. He comes, as it were, before, in the end, a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But first of all, it's important for us to see– because Luke, I think, makes it important for us to see–what the ultimate point of this story is. And right at the end of the section that we were reading, in verse 11 we read that Jesus comes to him and says to him, “Take comfort, for as you solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also.” He's using a technical word, to witness. It's a Greek word that has a very specific connotation in the New Testament. It's one of the words for preaching or for evangelizing, or for gospelling, if you like…for telling the gospel. And Luke wants us to see that whilst there's something of a pre-trial hearing going on here and Paul is speaking to Sadducees and Pharisees, and scribes and Roman soldiers, ultimately what he is doing here, he is witnessing to Jesus Christ. The charge, for what it was worth, that had been brought back in chapter 21:28 was that he was showing disrespect to the Law of Moses and that he had brought a Gentile into the Court of Israel.
Now, the latter was entirely false, and Paul is there to defend this accusation that has been made against him that he has in some way disregarded or disrespected the Law of Moses. But above all of that, Luke is telling us — Jesus is telling Paul–that what he was actually doing was testifying to the lordship of Christ. In his defense, what does he do? He talks about the resurrection. Now, he has a reason why he raises the resurrection, but in talking about the resurrection and in talking about Jesus and in talking about the Messiah, he's evangelizing! He's spreading the good news. He's declaring the whole counsel of God. He's there as God's ambassador, the one whom God has set apart to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ.
You know, from one point of view some of the audience that was before him were the equivalent of what Jesus said ‘Don't cast your pearls before swine.’ We don't read in the New Testament of any of the Sadducees being converted. They didn't believe in the resurrection, for a start. We do read in Acts 15 of some of the Pharisees who were converted. We know of Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee. But no matter what the results may have been (and the results in this case may have been minimal and may have been even non-existent), we don't know whether perhaps some of the soldiers who overheard Paul in these days witnessing in the temple…perhaps some of them were converted. We just don't know. But God wants us to see, and God wants Paul to see, that what in fact he had been doing was doing what Paul had always been doing. “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel,” he said. He's “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew and also to the Greek.” So first of all, then, Paul is, as it were, before God. He's a witness. No matter in what circumstance he finds himself, no matter what the conditions may be, he's always testifying to the grace of God in the gospel.
II. Paul before the Sanhedrin.
Secondly, I want us to see Paul before this Council, before this Sanhedrin Council. The Sanhedrin Council consisted of scribes who were also Pharisees. They were the keepers and interpreters of the Law. And there were Pharisees and there were Sadducees. There were seventy of them. The high priest was ex-officio chairman, if you like. He was the one who led the proceedings of the Council. This was probably not an official meeting of the Sanhedrin. (The Sanhedrin didn't need the authority of the Roman Empire to convene meetings. Now later, probably ten years from the time that we're thinking of here, after the Jewish revolt in A.D. 68-69, the Sanhedrin would require Roman authority in order to meet. Actually, they didn't stay in Jerusalem any more, they moved to Jamnia on the coast, a little further down from Joppa on the Mediterranean coast.)
Paul is brought now before the highest religious court and, in some ways, civil court in Israel, in Judea, in Palestine. Now I want you to notice several things about what happens. Some are more important than others.
One is that Paul immediately begins to speak. There's no introduction. There's no formal charge. There's not a defense lawyer and a trial lawyer. There are no formal legal proceedings. He immediately begins to speak. Is this why the high priest was angered? Perhaps. Notice that no formal charge is made here in these proceedings against the Apostle Paul. Because this was a hastily convened court of the Sanhedrin, they were probably not in formal dress. The high priest, for example, is there, but he probably was not wearing his high priestly regalia. You notice the way he begins to address: he calls them ‘brothers.’ You remember when he had addressed the Jews the day before on the steps of the Antonia Fortress, he had said, “Brothers, fathers.” Now he simply says “Brothers.” Perhaps because of the legal nature of these proceedings, he wants to make a point that he is an equal with these men in this court.
You notice that Paul immediately begins by saying that he isn't guilty; that his conscience is clear before God. Now he's not saying that he has no sense of guilt. He's not saying that as a Pharisee, which is what he was by birth, that he has no sense of guilt. Paul, as we've already seen, has referred to his own complicity in the death of Stephen. It was something that he bore with him for the rest of his days. He's simply answering here the cobbled charge that was made in the Court of Israel the day before that he was violating and showing disrespect to the Law of Moses. And what he's saying is he hasn't broken any Law of Moses, nor had he taken a Gentile into the Court of Israel. He has a clear conscience.
Ananias, the high priest, orders that the Apostle Paul be cuffed on the mouth. Now, Ananias is a troubled figure. He's worthy of some psychological scrutiny, I imagine. His stability in power in Jerusalem was somewhat in abeyance. He had been accused…probably five or six years before the time we are considering, he had been accused of a Jewish revolt and a Jewish uprising. And then within a few years of the time we are considering, he will actually be assassinated by Jewish guerillas for being pro-Roman. So this man is somewhat of an unstable character, and he orders that the Apostle Paul be struck on the mouth.
You notice what the Apostle Paul says in the very opening verse — 23:1. “Brothers,” he says, “I have lived my life before God.” Now that's an English translation of a word that only occurs one other place in the New Testament, and it's a very significant place. It's in Philippians, chapter one. I don't think Ligon has come to verse 27 in chapter one yet, but it's the verse that is translated at least in the King James Version, “My citizenship is in heaven.” My citizenship is in heaven…and Paul begins by talking about his spiritual citizenship: that his manner of life, the way he has lived his life…his worldview, if you like (no, his other-worldview). He lived his life in such a manner that he held the Lord always before him. He lived, if you like, just as the Puritans were wont to say, sub specie eternitatus; that is, in the light of eternity, in the light of the world to come. He viewed the world, and he viewed his own life, and he viewed his own circumstances from the perspective of eternity, rather than from the perspective of time. He wasn't so much concerned whether he would live or die, because he knew where he was going. He was a citizen of heaven. “I have lived my life….” He has this worldview, this other-worldview.
It's an amazing insight, isn't it, to a man who is on trial? Not technically, as I said, but to all intents and purposes his life is in the balance. If, for example, the commander of the Roman legion were to let him go, it is doubtful that the Apostle Paul would live. He would probably be taken to a side street somewhere and assassinated, and Paul is aware of that. He's a man whose sole purpose and sole determination is to live out and out for God and for the gospel, and for the glory of God.
III. Paul before the high priest.
And then, in the third place, not just Paul before God, and not just Paul before the Sanhedrin, but Paul before this high priest — before Ananias. Why did Paul not recognize the high priest? The high priest orders that he be struck on the mouth, and Paul utters this curse. He calls him a whitewashed wall. It may not sound too impolite in English, but it wasn't polite in Hebrew Aramaic! It's probably a reference from the thirteenth chapter of Ezekiel, a wall that may look solid, but it's just whitewashed, you understand. And you engineers, you know: inside there's all kinds of things going on — crumbling and decay — and it's not a solid wall, and if you lean against that wall, it's going to crumble. And that's what this man is: a whitewashed wall. But as soon as somebody reprimands him, “Don't you know that you’re speaking against the high priest?” Paul seemingly immediately apologizes and says, “I didn't know he was the high priest.”
Now there are lots of possible answers here. One is that the Council, the Sanhedrin, was gathered hastily and they weren't wearing formal robes. The high priest wouldn't have been wearing his robe, so Paul didn't recognize him as the high priest. That's a possible explanation. Another is that in the confusion of voices, one is shouting one thing and someone else is shouting another thing, Paul didn't know who it was who had ordered that he be cuffed, or now to whom he was speaking.
Calvin thinks this is just sarcasm on Paul's part when he says, “I didn't know that you were the high priest” (because he doesn't act like the high priest, he doesn't deserve to be the high priest…I don't see a high priest here. Where is the high priest?).
John Stott thinks it's all to do with his eyesight. You know at the end of Galatians Paul says, “See in what large letters I have written to you,” and some think that this is the thorn in the flesh of which he speaks — that he can't see very well and has to write in large characters. And when he says “whitewashed wall” that's all he could see. [You know, if I didn't have my contacts in, you’d just be whitewashed walls!]
Some say that Paul had been away from Jerusalem for many years. He didn't know the man, had never seen him, never spoken to him, never set eyes on him before. Some think (more plausibly than any of those explanations) that what Paul is actually doing here is bringing down an Old Testament covenant curse, because the high priest has disobeyed the very Law of which he is now accusing Paul of disobeying, because he has ordered him to be struck when no formal charges have been made against him. He has violated the Mosaic Law, and he's bringing down then, this Old Testament curse upon him.
Some think that Paul just lost it. That he just lost his temper. That in the strain and confusion of the moment — and understandably, even if you don't accept that interpretation, it is perfectly understandable, is it not, that in the strain of the moment he blurts out this word, that he is just a whitewashed wall?
Well, I don't know which one is right. I suspect that it may be the covenant curse that Paul is bringing down upon this high priest Ananias. But I want you to note how quick the apology was. Now, if Paul was being cynical, then the apology of course wasn't really an apology. But assuming the apology was a real apology, it was immediate. It was without hesitation, it was without equivocation.
And then you see Paul…well, the strategist. Paul before the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He knows the constitution of the Sanhedrin. There are Pharisees and Sadducees. Now I don't have time to go into all of the details here, but the Pharisees were open to the doctrine of resurrection. The Sadducees definitely were not. They did not believe in the resurrection, they did not believe in angels, they did not believe in spirits. Now what is Paul doing by raising the resurrection? Well, of course he's preaching the gospel, but he's also doing something else. It's an age-old strategy in politics and everything else: it's divide and conquer. Where does Paul's safety lie? Well, certainly not with the Jews in the temple. His safety lies with the Romans. His safety, if there is to be any safety at all, lies in Roman law and Roman justice. So what does he do? He divides the Sanhedrin. He sets them up against themselves, Pharisees and Sadducees, and in the hubbub and noise that develops the Romans come rushing in to save him! It's a marvelous ploy, and one that worked.
IV. Paul before Jesus.
And then, and perhaps the most significant of all–and it's certainly the one I want you to go home thinking about tonight. It's Paul before Jesus. How beautiful a thing it is, isn't it, when Paul is brought back? It's the next night now; he's spent a day or so again in the Antonia Fortress. A day has passed. You know, what's going through the apostle's mind? You know, is he perhaps thinking, “Will the commander set me free?” Because if he's set free, there's going to be trouble. Is he pondering…? You remember the issue — should Paul have been in Jerusalem at all? Should he have listened to Luke and the others at Caesarea and Antioch who had urged him not to go to Jerusalem in the first place? Is he now beginning to reflect on providence? Is he beginning to reflect on his own mission? Is he beginning to second guess? You know how it is. When we find ourselves in a corner and we second guess — if only I'd done this, and if only I'd done that. Paul has this longing and desire to take the gospel to Rome. He had expressed it several chapters before, that he would go to Rome. And isn't it a beautiful thing that Jesus would come to him now, and appear to him now and tell him to take courage and not to be afraid? And in a sort of way, perhaps the Apostle Paul might have been second guessing whether he had been wise in coming to Jerusalem at all; and wondering now if, having made a mistake, God would not put him on the shelf, and that whatever future of ministry law before him was only second-best. And Jesus comes and says, ‘Paul, I've seen your witness. I've seen your heart. I've seen your longing for Jesus. I've seen your longing for the gospel. I've seen your intent. And you will go to Rome. You will go to Rome.’
You know, you might have perhaps expected Jesus to come to Paul and say, ‘I'm going to release you, but I'm going to take you away. Ravens are going to come and carry you to northern Judea somewhere, and I'm going to plop you down, and it's all going to happen in a flash, and you can retire and live in luxury and ease for the rest of your life.’ You know, what did Rome mean? Rome in some ways was no better than Jerusalem. At least it was going to be legal. At least he could count on justice. But his intention to go to Rome was a gospel intention, and Jesus comes to him and reassures him, and says to him that no matter how weak he may now feel, however cornered he may now feel, that God's power would be made strong in him, in his weakness and through his weakness.
Isn't that the way God deals with us time and time again? That in our weakness and in circumstances where we find ourselves in a corner, we remember the promises of God to us: He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for this continuing story of the life of the Apostle Paul. We are constantly amazed by him and his courage. We pray that You would write this word now upon our own hearts and bless it to us, we pray. And all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.