Quite a lot has taken place in Paul’s life to this date. As recorded in chapter 20, his followers and fellow workers didn’t want Paul to go to Jerusalem where he was intending to go. His response, even though they pleaded for him not to go, was “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem."
Chapter 23 opens with the Apostle Paul before the High Council, or the Sanhedrin as it came to be known. The Sanhedrin was made up of about 70 men. As we saw at the end of the previous chapter, because Paul was a Roman citizen, he was protected by the Roman laws and not allowed to be beaten to death by the angry mob. At least not without having a proper trial, which every Roman citizen was entitled to under the law. Therefore, the Roman commander ordered the Jews to assemble the Sanhedrin. Since the commander wasn’t an expert on Jewish law and ways, he thought the Sanhedrin might shed some light on the riot he was having to deal with. The commander, being ignorant of the Jewish ways and religion, didn’t envision there would be any problem.
At first blush you might see this as the end of Paul’s teaching about Jesus. His goose is cooked, then passed through the legal system of the day for who knows how long - the typical "he said, she said" kind of thing you might see on court tv. As we will see there is so much more to this event.
Paul was held in the fortress until the next morning to be on trial before the Sanhedrin. It is interesting to note where all of this is taking place. The initial riot took place on the temple steps as Paul spoke to the Jews about his call to share Jesus with the gentiles. The fortress was where the Commander kept Paul under arrest for his safety. The actual trial took place before the Sanhedrin. All of it is all taking place on the temple mount. All within a short walking distance of one another. While the temple as well as the place of the Sanhedrin was destroyed in 70 AD the fortress is still there on the northwest corner of the temple mount.
Before the High Council
So, Paul goes before the high counsel, some of them his peers. It had been many years since he was involved with them, but he most likely recognizes some. He doesn’t immediately speak to them or is he spoken to. This is an amphitheater type setting, with Paul in the center. He looks at each of them for a moment before he says his first words. He addresses them, “Brothers, I have always lived before God with a clear conscience!”. Paul isn’t claiming a sinless life, but that he had, by the Holy Spirit, responded to his conscience when he had done wrong and set things right. The reaction of the high counsel to this was immediate. The high priest ordered those close to Paul to slap him on the mouth. Some translations read more like a backhand or a literal punch. It was intended to be punishment for sure. It was insulting to them that someone being charged with crimes could have a clean conscience. Not to mention that Paul spoke without being spoken to. Paul’s immediate response was to call into question the corruption and hypocrisy of these religious leaders. Jesus had pointed to their hypocrisy many times while on earth. Paul was doing much the same, with a little less tact than Jesus did, and all while he was in their house. We know Paul was bold and he replied that God would slap them because of their actions. Paul was speaking more of their day to day lives and hypocrisy in teaching rather than the slap he received.
Paul was always bold in his witness of Christ and here, before all the religious leaders, he was going to be no different. However, after being reminded by those around him who he was speaking to, he apologized saying he wasn’t aware the man was the high priest, citing scriptures saying, “you must not speak evil of any of your rulers”. Paul hadn’t been active as a Pharisee in quite a while, but his years of training as a Pharisee and knowledge of the scriptures were ingrained within him. Paul was aware that the members of the high council were both Pharisees and Sadducees. He again addressed them as brothers to enlighten them of the fact that he was Pharisee himself, just like his ancestors, and that he was on trial for his hope in the resurrection of the dead. Since the Roman Commander had ordered this meeting, most of the religious leaders weren’t aware of the specific charges against Paul. The commander himself didn’t know exactly what to hold Paul for.
Paul’s announcement immediately divided the counsel, the Pharisees against the Sadducees. Verses 7 – 9 paint a picture where the two factions were more interested in convincing the other side of their stance on God’s word. In their arguing with one another they completely forgot why they were there in the first place. The Pharisees on the council were shouting, “We see nothing wrong with him”. Some even shouted, “Perhaps a spirit or angel spoke to him”, which didn’t help matters at all - fuel to the fire if you will - and the Sadducees wouldn’t hear of it.
Notice that, not unlike any political system, there are at least two sides or parties in that system. Here there are also two sides of the same coin, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. The Sadducees say there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, but the Pharisees believe in all of these. An easy way to remember this difference is:
The Sadducees were “sad you see” because they did not believe in in the resurrection and the Spirit and angels. The Pharisees were “Fare you see” because they believed in all of them.
You can see why Paul’s announcement of his Jewish education and beliefs went nuclear. Verse 10 records that as the disagreement grew more violent, the Roman commander, who was standing there the whole time, was concerned they would tear Paul apart. Because of the turmoil, he ordered his soldiers to go and rescue Paul by force and take him back to the fortress. Again, they were standing right there the whole time this was happening.
The Lord Encourages Paul
That night while Paul was held in the fortress the Lord came to him to encourage him. The Lord told him that just as he had been a witness of Him here in Jerusalem that he must also preach the good news of Him in Rome too. God always has a plan, even when we don’t see it. This was a fulfillment of what the Lord said to Ananias back in Acts chapter 9 when the Lord told Ananias to go and pray for this man Paul who Ananias knew was the chief persecutor of the followers of Jesus. The Lord told Ananias that Paul was His chosen instrument to take His message to the Gentiles and to Kings. That was more than 20 years ago and that prophecy from Jesus was about to be fulfilled.
The Plan to Kill Paul
The next morning the fervor from the previous day at the Sanhedrin hadn’t ceased and a plan was set into motion that would put Paul exactly where the Lord wanted him. A group of more than 40 Jewish men hatched a plan whereby they vowed by an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. They spoke to the high priests to have the commander bring Paul back for a more thorough questioning by the Pharisees. Then as he made his way back to the Sanhedrin, they would ambush and kill Paul.
Paul’s nephew heard about the plan and rushed to the fortress to speak to the commander and tell him what he heard about the plan. When he got to the commander, he heard the young man’s story in private of how the men were ready to kill Paul and all that was needed was the consent of the commander to allow the high priests to question Paul further. The commander warned the young man to keep this conversation secret.
Paul Sent to Caesarea
The commander is now even more set on protecting Paul as his charge and making sure he wasn’t killed before having a proper trial. After all, he’s a Roman citizen. You can see the Lord’s hand in this from start to finish. The commander then ordered some soldiers, 470 men in all, and arranged to have horses for Paul to ride on. They were to leave at 9 pm that night. They were to get Paul to Governor Felix in Caesarea for safety, as well as to have a proper trial.
Verses 26 through 30 record a letter written by the Commander to the Governor in Caesarea that accompanied Paul. The letter told the governor about the uprising over this Roman citizen, Paul, and how they now wanted to kill him because of some of their religious laws. He trusted the governor to oversee this case there in Caesarea.
The next morning Paul was introduced to Governor Felix for questioning. Felix asked Paul where he was from, and when Paul answered he was from Cilicia, the governor said he would hear the case himself when his accusers arrived. Paul was then kept in prison at Herod’s headquarters until trial.
This account of the trial of the Apostle Paul for starting a riot was a farce as any legality or truth went. It started by men without full understanding and teaching of God’s word. It was then perpetuated by more men who were responsible for the teaching and handing down of God’s word to those men. A perfect environment for a direct attack on a follower of Christ.
Paul knew that his decision to follow Jesus and to stand as a witness of Jesus, anywhere or anytime would be a bumpy road. Much of it was prophesied to him even before this trial. Paul was intelligent, educated, and bold in all things. That is just his personality. What brought him through everything was that he leaned on Christ Jesus in all things, and was Holy Spirit filled and Holy Spirit led. He knew the road would have some bumps and twists even though he couldn’t fully understand just how and when he would hit one.
Because Paul stayed steady in Jesus, he could take the bumps. Standing on the promises told to him by the Lord, he was willing to take whatever might come up on the very path the Lord put him on. He did so because he trusted the Lord Jesus' every word. We may never find ourselves in this exact situation but, as a witness of Jesus, we will all have a similar experience. Maybe not before a High Council, but when put to the task of claiming Jesus as our Lord it may feel a little like it. Can we be bold and stand firm as Paul did?
If you listen to Christian music, do you find yourself turning it down or maybe off when someone gets into your car? When coworkers, friends and neighbors ask where you are going to so early on a Wednesday night, do you hesitate just a bit when answering that you are on your way to church? Is it difficult to share your faith in Jesus with friends, neighbors, strangers, or even family, when the perfect opportunity comes? The answer is often yes. We’ve all felt it or are feeling it now. Those little situations and many like them are those bumps and twists in the road ahead. We can take it though because Jesus has equipped each believer with the same Holy Spirit that He gave Paul. To put it in a Texas type highway setting, the Holy Spirit is the 4-wheel drive feature needed for this road the Lord has put us on. We have had “Driver Assist” all the time and simply not utilized it. Why not start now?