The Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, felt sure Paul had done something truly reprehensible, otherwise why the city-wide upheaval? Why the melee, right there on the temple steps? Why the great bronze gates slammed shut? Now, he had Paul in chains standing before the Sanhedrin. It was his only recourse, for Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, from an important city. He was untouchable. This could be the tribune’s only way of getting to truth.
It was 57 AD, Paul was 53 years old, and the past twenty-five years had been hard on him. Just two years before, he had written to the churches in Corinth about what he had endured for the sake of Christ and the good news of salvation. He had undergone countless floggings and was often near death.
- Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
- Three times I was beaten with rods.
- Once I received a stoning.
- Three times I was shipwrecked.
- For a night and a day I was adrift at sea.
- On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers.
- Danger from bandits.
- Danger from my own people.
- Danger from Gentiles.
- Danger in the city.
- Danger in the wilderness.
- Danger at sea.
- Danger from false brothers and sisters.
- In toil and hardship.
- Through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty.
- Often without food.
- Cold and naked.
And, besides all those other things, he had told them, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.
Perhaps he thought of that letter now, as he faced these men who had once lauded him with such approval. Their approbation had turned to censure and condemnation. Who is weak, Paul thought, and I am not weak?
It must have seemed a lifetime ago when Paul had stood in silent support of Stephen’s stoning for speaking of Christ in seeming dishonor of the temple and traditions of his people. Soon after, Paul had approached this very ruling body for official papers permitting him to persecute the church, to imprison and have executed all those who subscribed to the Jesus sect.
Were some of the men sitting there now ones Paul had known as a young man? Would they remember he had been a Pharisee, the son of Pharisee, schooled in the most elite seminary available, Gamaliel’s Jerusalem University?
While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.”Acts 23:1 (NRSV)
Ananias, the high priest, was so incensed that a Jew could claim a clear conscience after devoting himself to offering spiritual privileges to Gentiles, that he ordered Paul be struck on the mouth.
Jewish law was scrupulous about how a Jewish prisoner was to be treated. God had lain down strict rules that unless the prisoner was proven guilty, he was to be considered innocent. Remember that Jesus had been struck, too, for saying something the high priest didn’t like to hear. Paul knew the law and was deeply offended, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?”
But, when he was told Ananias was the high priest, even though the high priest had been brazenly unjust, Paul immediately bowed to God’s law in full, Christ-like submission. Nevertheless, just as Jesus had done, Paul got to the heart of the matter at hand: “I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” It was a canny move. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, or angels, or the Holy Spirit, or accept any of the Hebrew Bible as scripture except the books of Moses. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of it.
A heated debate immediately ensued, a theological fracas that swiftly grew violent. Strident voices rose up from scribes in the Pharisee faction, shouting, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.Acts 23:10 (NRSV)
Paul must have felt so discouraged after two days of seemingly utter failure, his vows left incomplete, the Jerusalem church distanced from him, his missions team of largely Gentile Christians left without an emissary within the conservative Jerusalem atmosphere. Paul himself was badly beaten up, bereft of companions, legal counsel or mediator of any kind, hated by his own people whom he loved so much, God’s holy city in an uproar during Pentecost, and no fruit whatsoever, the gospel totally rejected.
Maybe that’s why the Lord Jesus came Himself to encourage Paul.
That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”Acts 23:11
Jesus fortified Paul’s resolve, and his courage, reassuring him he wasn’t alone, Jesus was standing by him. He approved what Paul was doing, and promised him he was going to survive all this because he had important work to do in Rome.
Jesus’ coming to Paul didn’t make the problem go away.
I think there’s something important in that. For Paul, believe it or not—especially considering everything he’d already been through—the ordeal was only beginning. I think we expect God will either aspirin our circumstances (make it stop being uncomfortable) or sitcom our situation (fix it with a few laughs, a nice, pithy slogan or two, and move on).
But the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to do things that way very often. Sometimes, yes, a miracle. But, have you noticed that even the miracles come in the midst of great suffering, and often only in the nick of time? What God is doing, and has been doing all along, takes time, and requires patient, enduring faithfulness.
In fact, matters would get worse, far worse, for Paul would not have such a close sense of Jesus’ presence again for the next two or three years.
[The Sanhedrin in Session | User:Wrongkind707 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]