Paul's Defense before the Council
We’re at the second of five occasions where Paul defends himself. While I’ve been very blessed by this last portion of Acts, I’ve also been somewhat stumped. It’s not so much the details, but the overall purpose of chapters 21-28 that’s more difficult to discern.
Paul’s Roman custody and these five defense episodes happen within 2 and half years. But roughly speaking, they get the same attention by word count as Paul’s three missionary journeys combined, which cover more than a decade, cover way more territory, and involve way more people. Why is that? I don’t know fully.
But a few things have begun standing out. One is that Luke wants to vindicate Paul before Roman authorities. That’s where Paul winds up in Acts 28. While Paul ministers in Rome, any Roman authority (perhaps the most excellent Theophilus) could read Acts and see that Christianity was no direct threat to Rome. It was actually right to let Christians continue preaching the gospel without government intrusion.
In the process, though, Luke also does something much greater. He sets Paul’s ministry within the broader story of God’s saving work. He writes not just to vindicate Paul, but to exalt the risen Lord Jesus Paul preaches. Therefore Luke begins with a Gospel, tethering the events of Christ’s life with the Old Testament. What God promised, Jesus fulfills through his life, death, and resurrection. Then Luke continues with Acts to show the risen Jesus continuing God’s work in and through his apostles and church. It’s not so much about what Paul is up; it’s about what the risen Lord Jesus is up to and whether your life squares with his kingdom.
But something else is this. Luke’s Gospel also focuses on five trials at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus stands trial before Annas, the Sanhedrin, King Herod, and then Pilate twice. Likewise Paul stands before the crowd, the Sanhedrin, Felix, Festus, and King Agrippa. Could it be that Paul’s sufferings before Jews and Rome parallel Jesus’ sufferings? That’s not to say Paul’s sufferings were redemptive like Jesus’ sufferings. But could it be that the Spirit, working through Luke, writes in such a manner that we make that connection? Those who follow Jesus will have lives that image Jesus.
In that sense, Luke also presents an example in Paul for us to imitate. As we’ll see today, Paul’s example wasn’t always perfect. Nevertheless, Luke’s account of Paul’s next defense reveals three crucial truths for our discipleship. Richard Wurmbrand once said, “The role of preparation for suffering…must start now. It’s too difficult to prepare yourself for [suffering] when the Communists put you in prison.”[i] To that end of preparing you, let’s look at three crucial truths for our discipleship…
Truth #1. When facing enemies of the gospel, God uses our faithfulness to his word to expose their hypocrisy.
Paul’s last defense sent the Jews into a frenzy. To maintain peace, Roman officials intervene. Paul then utilizes his rights as a Roman citizen to escape a flogging. Still, the tribune doesn’t know what’s going on. That’s where we pick up in verse 30…
But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why [Paul] was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them. Looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I’ve 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?” Paul said, “I didn’t know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it’s written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
Notice Paul’s primary concern. It’s not what these Jewish leaders think of him. It’s what God thinks of him: “I’ve lived my life before God in all good conscience…” Since he met the risen Jesus—if Paul honestly assesses himself before God, he has a good conscience. That doesn’t mean his conscience is the ultimate judge. He knows God’s verdict matters most (1 Cor 4:4). But in terms of his own awareness of what God requires in his role as apostle, he’s innocent. None of their charges will stick.
Well, the High Priest doesn’t like that. He orders them to strike Paul. Paul then issues a prophetic rebuke: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Growing up, I’d help my Granny repair boards on her house. I’d always laugh when I’d run across a board that looked fine on the outside, but when you gave it a little tap, your hammer went right through it. The idea is that these leaders pretended on the outside to uphold God’s law, but inside they were rotten to the core.
Ezekiel and Jesus use this imagery. In Ezekiel 13:10, he rebukes false prophets who speak peace when there is no peace. In Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who appear righteous, but inwardly were hypocrites and lawless. Paul aims that same language at the High Priest. Ananias’s lawlessness is evident in that he sits to judge Paul according to the law; yet contrary to the law he orders Paul to be struck.
Paul likely has Leviticus 19:15 in mind: “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Oh how we need that verse nowadays! “You shall do no injustice. You shall not be partial…” That’s not Ananias. Ananias judges Paul before listening to the evidence. He’s more interested in power than truth, more interested in his agenda than justice; and Paul calls him on it.
The question, of course, is whether Paul should’ve spoken that way to the High Priest. Sure, he deserved every bit of it. But was it right to revile someone holding that particular office? Some of them object that Paul is out of line. Then Paul himself tries to recover lost ground. He acted in ignorance: “I didn’t know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it’s written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” You get the impression that while the rebuke was warranted, he wouldn’t have done so against Ananias, at least in that way, had he known he was High Priest. Why’s that? Because the Law teaches not to speak evil of a ruler of your people. Paul conforms his life to God’s word.
Not everybody reads it that way. There’s another take on this passage dating back to Augustine. Some don’t take Paul’s words at face value. They say there’s no way Paul was ignorant. He had to have known who the High Priest was. Therefore, we must read this as a profound use of sarcasm, while honoring the spirit of the Law. When Paul says, “I didn’t know he was the High Priest…for it’s written,” the sense goes something like this: “Oh he is, is he?! By the way he’s acting, it’s awfully hard to tell. Otherwise I’d be glad to honor him as the law says.”
That’s a viable reading; and if you take it that way, you’ll likely end up using it to justify how prophetic rebukes are necessary when religious leaders abandon justice in the name of God. But I don’t think we have to read such irony into Paul’s words. The irony is already present in Luke’s words, and it stands out far more sharply when we take Paul’s words at face value. That is, somehow he was truly ignorant.
Had Paul known Ananias was the High Priest, he wouldn’t have spoken that way. Why? Because he seeks to honor the law. Luke intentionally sets Paul’s example of honoring the law beside these Jewish leaders disregarding the law. When Paul brings up God’s law, the leaders deflect. When they bring up God’s law, Paul humbles himself. Who’s the hypocrite? Who’s unjust? Anybody reading Acts will conclude, the Council.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a day of mob politics, a day when authorities are hungrier for power than they are truth, a day when leaders pursue popularity rather than justice. It’s a day of pragmatism that will abandon principled reasoning and sound moral judgment, as long as it means silencing Christianity. When we face such opposition to the gospel, it’s easy to feel entitled to respond with power plays that resemble the way the opposition acts.
But that shouldn’t be. Our first priority before enemies of the gospel must be faithfulness to God’s word. Paul so esteemed God’s word, that he was even willing to humble himself before that word when his enemies pointed out new information. Likewise, we must humbly submit to God’s word in all circumstances.
How does God’s word teach me to respond to injustice? How does God’s word teach me to speak when opponents hate? How does God’s word teach me to image Jesus when trials come? How does God’s word teach me to honor the Emperor, to respect authority, to bless when reviled and not curse, to return good for evil, to not bear false witness, to patiently endure evil and not become quarrelsome? Is the word so much a part of you that such a text would not only spring to mind before a ruler like Ananias, but you’d also humbly submit to it before him?
The word must saturate us and guide us. It’s hard to be faithful when you’re itching for revenge. Live your life before God in all good conscience; and trust that he will use your faithfulness to his word to expose the enemy’s hypocrisy. You be faithful to his word, and trust him with the results. When you’re faithful to his word in trial, your life will teach the world that Jesus is Lord, not your inner passions; that his law is supreme, not you.
Truth #2. Rather than hindering the gospel, persecution gives opportunity to (re)center people’s focus on the gospel.
Paul’s arrest and trial are no accidents. As Jesus warned, “[They’ll] deliver you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Luke 21:12-13). Paul counts it another opportunity; and tries to do just that. Verse 6…
Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I’m a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It’s with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I’m 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?” 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.
The tribune already witnessed how Paul upheld the law. But it’s still unclear why Paul offends them so much. So Paul clarifies that. They hate him not for moral or social or political reasons; they hate Paul for theological reasons.
Paul knows he shares common ground with the Pharisees. That’s how Paul grew up. So he attempts to win their ear. He also knows the Pharisees believe in the resurrection of the dead. They didn’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But they did believe in the general resurrection of all people at the end of history. Texts like Daniel 12:2 taught them: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Paul knows this about Pharisees, and he uses it to build an inroad to the gospel. That’s his intent. We know that because Paul will later look back on this event in 26:6-8; and there he reiterates why he’s on trial: “I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers…and for this hope I’m accused by Jews, O king! Why’s it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
Then he continues like this in 26:22-23: “…I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” That’s how he planned for the general resurrection to become an inroad to Christ’s resurrection. Basically, “Many of you here accept the resurrection of the dead. I do too. Only, here’s the kicker: Jesus was the first to rise from the dead.” That’s where Paul was heading.
This is what the Bible usually means when it says that God raised Jesus from the dead—meaning, from all the dead ones. It’s not just saying that Jesus beat death, but that he also beat everybody else out of the grave. He’s the firstborn, the firstfruits; and therein lies our hope of a future resurrection to life and not to contempt. That’s where he wants to go. He wants them to see how preaching the resurrected Jesus isn’t contrary to the hopes of Israel; the resurrected Jesus actually fulfills the hopes of Israel.
But apparently, Paul doesn’t get to say much more than “I’m on trial with respect to the hope and resurrection of the dead.” Then Pharisees and Sadducees start debating each other and all chaos breaks loose. Nevertheless, what do we see as readers. We find that Paul wasn’t really doing anything against Rome. Paul wasn’t leading Jews to revolt. Paul wasn’t the cause of their fanaticism. Even the Pharisees say, “We find nothing wrong in this man.” Which means the real reason they all hate Paul is that he preaches the crucified and now risen Lord Jesus. These otherwise theological enemies become friends when it means opposing Jesus.
Paul has re-centered the conversation around the good news that God will fulfill his people’s hope in Christ and raise them from dead. Again and again the apostles return to resurrection hope in their preaching. Resurrection is a fundamental truth, without which there is no good news. But with the resurrection, there’s much good news. It means Jesus’ death truly forgives sins. It means the risen Christ is taking everything to the judgment and new creation. Our enemies will be held accountable and judged for their hypocrisy and injustice. But for those united to Christ, for those who’ve already had their sins judged and washed away in Christ, he will raise us to reign with him forever.
That’s the message that sets people free. That’s the message our enemies need to hear. Opposition shouldn’t mean we close up and keep quiet about the gospel. Just the opposite. Opposition gives us the opportunity to center everyone’s attention on the main offense: the crucified and risen Jesus. When given the opportunity, center people’s focus on the good news. Find common ground that you share with others. Build inroads to the gospel, so that you can share the hope of resurrection with them.
Truth #3. Take courage, the risen Lord Jesus stands by us; and enemies of the gospel can do nothing without his permission.
As Christians, one of the most remarkable promises we have comes from Jesus at the end of Matthew 28: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The promise is remarkable because just prior to it, Jesus declares that he has all authority in heaven and on earth. That risen Lord Jesus will be with us always.
Paul faces extremely difficult circumstances—beaten, arrested, misunderstood, nearly flogged, shifted from barracks to an unjust council then back to the barracks, smacked in the mouth, misjudged, nearly torn in two. How did Paul keep going? Not because he was a tough guy. He says in 2 Corinthians 1:8 that he was once so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he despaired of life itself.
What gave him the courage to keep going, to keep being faithful to Jesus? He endured because the risen Lord Jesus kept his promise, “I am with you always.” He stood by Paul. Look at verse 11: “The following night the Lord stood by [Paul] and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.’” Two things we should take away from that statement.
One is that our Lord stands by us, beloved. We may not receive a vision like Paul received in 18:9. We may not hear a word like Paul hears in verse 11. But the Lord has taught us and promised us in written revelation that he will stand by us. Paul’s life is yet another confirmation that Christ stands beside his beloved. It’s another confirmation that Jesus is alive and actively present with his people, giving them the courage needed in trial. Read this and be reassured, that whatever you walk through in the path of obedience, no matter how painful, lonely, and dark it may get, the Lord will stand by you.
The other takeaway is this: if Jesus wants you to deliver the gospel to someone, enemies can do nothing to hinder that from happening without Jesus’ permission. The next part—and really the next 4 chapters—prove that. If the risen Jesus says, “You’re going to testify also in Rome,” nothing will stop that from happening. Not even forty men who make it their one aim in life to kill you. Look at the conspiracy hatched in verse 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. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 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. 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’re ready to kill him before he comes near.”
That’s the conspiracy. Over 40 men conspiring to kill Paul. Only, they don’t see who’s really in charge. If Jesus said Paul will go to Rome, he will get Paul to Rome. One step in that process is using Paul’s nephew to expose the conspiracy and then using a self-serving Roman official to frustrate the conspiracy. Verse 16…
Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 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.” The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 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. But don’t 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’re ready, waiting for your consent.” So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”
What are the odds? Paul’s nephew just happened to be there? The centurion just happens to obey a prisoner? The tribune just happens to grant some random boy this privilege, and believes him? Proverbs 21:1 comes to mind: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” Verse 23…
Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” And he wrote a letter to this effect: “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen.”
Notice how he spins that, by the way. That’s not exactly what happened, was it? He didn’t act on Paul’s behalf because he knew he was a Roman citizen. He learned about Paul’s citizenship after he was about to flog Paul. But here he spins things to make himself look like this upstanding Roman official who defends his citizens well. The Lord even uses self-serving people to achieve his will. He carries on in verse 29…
“…and desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” So the soldiers, according to their instructions, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. And on the next day they returned to the barracks, letting the horsemen go on with him. When they had come to Caesarea and delivered the letter to the governor, they presented Paul also before him. On reading the letter, he asked what province he was from. And when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, “I’ll give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.” And he commanded him to be guarded in Herod’s praetorium.
Those involved with Paul’s escape don’t know it, but this is leg one in Paul’s journey to Rome just as the risen Lord Jesus said. The story is meant to be read in light of verse 11: “Take courage, for as you’ve testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” This story falls right after that to say, “…and nobody will stand in the way of the risen Lord Jesus. Take courage in that, beloved.
I’ve mentioned him before, but Josef Tson is an evangelist. He also pastored in communist Romania in the 80s, suffering a great deal for his faith. He once encouraged an audience to make the sovereignty of God the first pillar in your theology. Then he tells a story of how a robust vision of God’s sovereignty helped him through suffering.
At one point in his ministry, the authorities decided to put him on trial for preaching the gospel in Romania. Before the trial is the statement to the police. He said, imagine a long table with six senior officers and the prosecutor. They deliver the indictment; and then proceeded with a speech about how grave his actions were. Then to his amazement the colonel says, “You know, after all, isn’t it written in Romans 13 that we are of God and you challenge us?” Pastor Tson then says, “Sir, will you let me explain how I understand Romans 13 in this situation? Sir, yes, you are God’s instruments. No doubt about that. But what happens here is not between you and me. What happens here is between my God and myself. God has some dealings with me here…Maybe he wants to teach me a few lessons. But sir, you will not do to me anything but what God decided you to do, because you are only my God’s instruments.” Then he says, “You know, he didn’t like that interpretation. If all your enemies are God’s instruments, why are you afraid?” he asks.
Enemies of the gospel can do nothing to thwart the gospel from advancing wherever Jesus wants it to go. He may use all kinds of surprising means to get the gospel where he wants it to go. But nothing will stop him from getting it there. He works everything to finish the work of flooding the earth with a knowledge of his glory. Therefore, be bold in your witness, brothers and sisters. Be bold because he is sovereign. Be bold because he stands by you and cares for you.
[i]Wurmbrand, “Preparing,” 46.