“And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have 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?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'” Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am 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 following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (Acts 23:1-11 ESV)
It isn’t uncommon in today’s culture to live quite a bit of our lives “online.” We seem to crave the approval and attention we receive from our posts, snaps, tweets and memes. In many ways, I’m not very different. I often watch, with great interest, the stats for my latest blog post on this site. I am fascinated by the different countries represented by those who read my posts and I always watch for comments and questions so that I can respond. I suspect you aren’t very different, given the fact that you are reading this post. In many ways, we live out our lives in front of family, friends in a digital format.
To be honest, I am very glad for many of the digital ways we are able to interact since my brothers and I live miles and miles from one another. But, in other ways, I really despise the ways that our digital interactions have isolated us and seem to be driving so many of our youth and children towards depression and anxiety. You might wonder what my ramblings about living online has to do with today’s focal passage, but I want you to notice how Paul describes his life: “I have lived my life before God…” This is, in essence, the same way many of the Old Testament patriarchs are described, they walked with God (see Gen. 5:22, 6:9, Micah 6:8, and 2 Chron 6:14 as examples). So, today I want us to focus on Paul’s statement regarding his walking with God and the outrageous contrast that Luke gives us with Ananias, the High Priest. Let’s take a look…
The Roman Commander has brought Paul before the Sanhedrin Council in an attempt to determine the truth regarding the riot and their attempt to kill Paul. The Commander had begun the process of “interrogating Paul with stripes” by using the Roman scourging as a means of extracting the truth from him. However, Paul has shocked the soldiers and their Commander by appealing to his right as a Roman citizen to a fair trial. The Commander responded that he “purchased this right” with great sums of money and Paul contrasts that with, “I was born a citizen.” I don’t want to spend a great amount of time on this. Suffice it to say, Paul utilized his citizenship rights to prevent a brutal and unnecessary beating. This illustrates Paul’s expectation that a Godly government and governmental officials will protect the innocent and vulnerable (see Rom. 13) of any culture.
A Biblical Response
In our focal passage, Paul’s initial appeal to the Sanhedrin Council is that he had lived his life before God in good conscience, to this day. In other words, he had sought to walk with God and diligently obey God’s word and abide by His commandments. There’s little doubt that these men knew him and that they knew of the radical change of direction that had happened in Paul’s life. In response, the Hight Priest ordered that one of the men standing near Paul should “strike him on the mouth.” This is not a mere “slap” but is the same word used when someone is beaten or pummeled. Paul’s response is immediate and direct, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall.” Paul responds with the same word but makes his appeal to God as the one who would “strike” back against his opponent.
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19 ESV)
It is important to understand what our focal passage says as well as what it doesn’t say regarding Paul’s response. Let me start by pointing out that it doesn’t say that Paul wasn’t physically hurt, personally offended or outright angry because of the punch in the mouth he had just received. In fact, his response does seem to be full of these emotions while still being biblical and obedient to Christ’s commands. Paul was hurt and he was angry, yet, he remained faithful to God’s word in his response. I know just how hard it is to do that, I’m sure you do, too. It IS hard to be obedient to God because it flies in the face of our natural human response – albeit, our sinful human nature. That’s why it takes a changed heart and committed obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the Word of God – and that’s precisely Luke’s point in this story.
Now, I want you to notice what the passage does say and the stark contrast that Luke is drawing between Paul and Ananias. Paul is the one being accused by the people of “walking away” from God and the High Priest is the very one whom everyone assumes is “walking with” God. Yet, notice the contrast in their obedience to the Word of God as seen in their actions towards one another. Paul calls Ananias a “whitewashed wall” and this is clearly an allusion to Jesus own words towards this same group (see Matthew 23) and to the words of the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 13). In essence, obedience to God and His word has not resulted in Paul being welcomed by the so-called religious elite and devotees of his culture but that has not deterred Paul from remaining steadfast and obedient in his response and leaving the “vengeance” to God.
Next, Paul’s response to Ananias is scrutinized and criticized by one of the bystanders. Paul has “reviled” the High Priest and someone challenges him on this account. Pay close attention to Paul’s response as he retracts his statement and, in essence, apologizes because he did’t realize that Ananias was the current High Priest. He acknowledges that God’s Word gives clear instruction regarding this issue and the error on his part as he cites the relevant passage. So, what’s my point? Regardless of Paul’s personal feelings about Ananias or his injured mouth, he determined he would be obedient to the Word of God.
Often in today’s culture, our feelings are the driving factor in our response to those who have injured us and even to God and His Word. I would expect this kind of response from non-Christians but Christians should always seek to respond in a way that is consistent with God’s character, will and His word. Unfortunately, many so-called Christians respond more like Ananias than like Paul. We lash out with angry words or just punch them in the mouth. Sometimes our responses are digital, like a response on social media, but are still full or venom, anger and virtual violence. I intentionally used the phrase “so-called Christians” because I fear that many today who claim that name do not submit to His authority and, thus, their responses are not consistent with His character, will and word.
This is what that phrase, walked with God, is all about and what Luke intends for us to understand when he quotes Paul as saying, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God..” I know Him, I know His ways, I know His word(s) and I’m going to walk with Him because He knows what’s best for me. Do you recognize that in every relationship someone must take a leadership role? If you’re going to walk with God then you must recognize that HE will always take that leadership role. Always. This walking with God is contrasted by Paul’s description of Ananias as a “whitewashed wall.” To whitewash something is to “cover up” the real condition of the item. In this instance, what is being covered up is the moral filth of the High Priest’s thoughts, feelings and actions. He pretends to “walk with God” but his words and actions reveal the truth – that he is far, very far from pursuing the character of God, the will of God and of humble obedience to God.
Finally, Paul makes an appeal to the Pharisees. He recognizes that the Council is divided between Sadducees (who don’t believe in a resurrection) and Pharisees (who do believe in a resurrection) and he tries to use this to his advantage. He appeals to the Pharisees by stating that the root of the charges against him are based on his belief in the resurrection. In reality, his claim is true. The basis for the charges against him is his belief in the resurrection of Jesus and, thus, his belief and trust in the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God. I want to be very, very clear on this issue. The resurrection of Jesus IS the key issue in the charges against Paul and also in the challenges you face. Why? Because, if the resurrection is true then it changes EVERYTHING! Let me explain…
Most people today embrace and even laud some of the principles taught by Jesus as recorded in the gospels. These are generally summed up as; 1) judge not lest you be judged (moral and religious tolerance); 2) love one another (social concern and ethnic equality). While some may embrace a few other teachings of Jesus, these are generally accepted by most in our modern culture as universally beneficial. So, they are willing to accept Jesus as a good, moral teacher. However, that’s NOT what He claimed to be. He’s not just a good, moral teacher. He put it this way…
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again. But as I told you, you’ve seen Me, and yet you do not believe.” (John 6:35-36 HCSB)
“Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 HCSB)
“But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am? ” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God! ” And Jesus responded, “Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven… And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah.” (Matthew 16:15-17, 20 HCSB)
C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “He [Jesus] told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.”
So, the resurrection is the proof for the claims of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (see Romans 1:4) and that’s why Paul references it and appeals to the Pharisees in his defense. Why is the resurrection the key? Because our experience tells us that people who truly die stay dead. Nobody has the ability to overcome death. Yet, Jesus did and that is the proof for his claims regarding Hir origins, purpose and destination. As the Son of God, He has full authority and power to direct our lives and that brings me to the final factor in today’s focal passage…
Paul’s appeal to the Pharisees and their belief in the resurrection results in a divided Council and a violent response and Paul must be rescued again by the Roman Commander and his troops. The following night, the Lord appears to Paul and offers assurance regarding Paul’s future. We often seek assurances from God, but I suspect that the primary assurance we seek is that God will get us out of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. However, notice that Jesus’ assurances for Paul are not a removal of his difficulties but that his difficulties are a part of God’s eternal plan. Paul is assured that he will not only bear witness of Christ before this Council in Jerusalem, but that he will also bear witness of Christ in Rome. He has been before the Council, now he will bear witness before the Emperor in Rome.
Paul need not fear an earthly king, because he walks with the King of Kings. In reality, that is the assurance we also need. Not that our circumstances will, necessarily, change, but that Christ walks with us through these circumstances, the normal and the not-so-normal circumstances. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11 HCSB) Walking with God doesn’t mean we will avoid the pain of a cross, but it does mean that we walk with the one who uses the pain of our cross to perfect our redemption – to experience the fruit of peace and a life of righteousness.
So, let me end by asking – Do you walk with God? Walking with God is NOT pursuing your own path and then hoping that God will bless you. Walking with God is seeking His path, knowing that He is blessing you because you walk with Him. How do you begin to walk with God? Jesus said, “Follow me.” To follow Him is to acknowledge His Lordship over your life, to confess your sin, to ask His forgiveness and then to pursue an intimate relationship with Him and obedience to His Word with everything that’s in you. Find a church that teaches and preaches the truth of God’s Word, have them baptize you and then get involved learning and ministering to others. Let me know how I can pray for you…