Jewish High Court hears Paul
Paul gets a slap in the face1 Paul looked hard at the council. Then he said, “Brothers, I stand before you with a clear conscience. God knows I’ve lived that kind of life all the way up to this very moment.” 2 Ananias the high priest ordered someone standing near Paul to hit him in the mouth. 3 Paul said to Ananias, “Hey, God’s going to slap you in the face you purple-robed sack of sewage. Do you really have the chutzpah to condemn me for breaking the law? You just broke the law yourself when you ordered me slapped.” 4 People standing beside Paul said, “How could you trash talk God’s high priest like that?” 5 “High priest?” Paul said. “Brothers, I didn’t realize he was the high priest. Our scriptures teach that we shouldn’t say anything disrespectful about our rulers.” 6 Paul could see that some on the council were Sadducees and some were Pharisees. So he said, “My brothers. I’m a Pharisee. I’m from a family of Pharisees. You want to know why I’m here? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I believe in the resurrection and life after death. That’s why I’m on trial.” 7 That’s all it took to split the council. Suddenly the Pharisees and Sadducees were arguing with each other. 8 Sadducees say there’s no such thing as a resurrection, or angels, or a spirit inside the body. But Pharisees teach all of that. 9 The council meeting started getting out of hand. All of a sudden, some scholars from the Pharisee group stood up and yelled, “We don’t see anything wrong with this man. Who knows? Maybe a spirit talked to him. Or maybe it was an angel.” 10 The Jewish leaders started yelling at each other so violently that the Roman commander thought they might turn on Paul and tear him apart. He ordered his soldiers to go into the council chambers and take Paul out of there, by force if necessary. They brought Paul back to the army barracks. 11 The Lord appeared to Paul that night and said, “Stay brave. You spoke up for me in Jerusalem. You’re going to do it in Rome, too.”
Jews plot to murder Paul12 The next morning, some Jews hatched a plot to kill Paul. They made a promise to each other. They agreed they wouldn’t eat or drink again until they killed Paul. 13 More than 40 souls joined this conspiracy. 14 They went to the top priests and other Jewish leaders and told them about the plot: “We have made a pact with each other. We have agreed not to eat another thing until we have killed Paul. 15 Here’s what we want you to do. Send a message to the Roman commander. Tell him to bring Paul here to you, as though you’re going to investigate his case more thoroughly. We’ll be ready and waiting to kill Paul when he gets here.” 16 Paul’s young nephew heard about the ambush. He was the son of Paul’s sister. He went to the army barracks and told his Uncle Paul about it. 17 Paul called in one of the officers. Paul said, “Would you take this young man to the commander? He has something to report to him.” 18 The officer took Paul’s nephew to the commander and said, “The prisoner Paul asked me to bring this young fellow to you because he has something to tell you.” 19 The commander took Paul’s nephew by the hand, walked him away from the others, and said, “What do you have to tell me?” 20 Paul’s nephew said, “The Jews have a plan to kill Paul tomorrow. They agreed to ask you to bring him to the council so they can investigate his case some more. 21 But you shouldn’t let them talk you into it. More than 40 men will be waiting there to kill Paul. They have taken a vow not to eat or drink anything until they have killed him. They’re ready to kill him now. They’re just waiting for you to give your approval to send Paul in.” 22 The commander gave the young man an order: “Don’t tell anyone you told me about this.”
Romans rush Paul off to a Caesarea jail23 The commander called in two of his officers, each one the commander of a unit of 100 soldiers. “By 9 o’clock tonight I want 200 soldiers, 70 cavalry on horseback, and 200 spearmen ready to go to Caesarea. 24 And I want you to take horses for Paul to ride. I want to make sure you get him safely to Governor Felix.” 25 The commander wrote a letter to the governor.
“From Claudius Lysias, to the Honorable Governor Felix. Hello. I wish you the best.
28 I wanted to know what crime the Jews were charging him with, so I took him to the Jewish council.
29 I found out they were accusing him of something that had to do with their religious law. But it wasn’t anything that warranted prison or execution.
30 When I found out about a plot to kill him, I immediately sent him to you. I’ve ordered the people accusing him to take their accusations to you.” 31 The soldiers did as ordered. They took Paul as far as the city of Antipatris. 32 The next day the soldiers headed back to Jerusalem. The cavalry finished the job of escorting Paul to Caesarea. 33 When the cavalry got to Caesarea, they handed Paul over to the governor. And they delivered their commander’s letter. 34 Felix read the letter. Then he asked Paul what Roman province he came from. When he found out Paul came from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I’ll hear your case when your accusers get here.” Then he ordered Paul kept under guard in the prison that Herod the Great built into the governor’s headquarters.
Paul was referring to the Sanhedrin council, which functioned a bit like a Jewish Congress/Supreme Court or a Parliament. See note for Acts 5:21.
Ananias served as high priest for over a decade, from AD 47 until about AD 58, according to first-century Jewish history writer Josephus. The man had a quick temper, Josephus said. Ananias was reportedly assassinated in AD 66 for being too pro-Roman. His killer was said to be a Jewish zealot—a freedom fighter who fought like terrorists, murdering Romans who occupied their homeland. They also killed fellow Jews who collaborated with the Romans.
Literally “whitewashed wall.” Paul may have been referring to something Jesus compared the religious leaders to: “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27 New Living Translation). The tombs look good on the outside. But on the inside, they’re full of stink and rotting corpses.
Ananias presumably broke Jewish law by treating Paul as guilty even before a hearing: “Be fair in your judging” (Leviticus 19:15).
“You must not speak against God or curse a leader of your people” (Exodus 22:28 New Century Version).
The writer may mean that Paul saw Jesus in a dream or perhaps in a nighttime vision. Bible folks often reported God appearing to them in vivid dreams (Genesis 20:3; 28:12; Numbers 12:6).
The officer was a centurion, commander of about 100 soldiers.
Paul’s nephew is described in this story as though he might be a teenager.
Caesarea was a port city that King Herod the Great built on the Mediterranean coast about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Jerusalem. Romans used Caesarea as their capital of the entire region. The march from one town to the other would take three or four days.
A jerk of a governor, by most ancient reports, Felix ruled the Roman province of Judea as procurator for half a dozen years, from AD 52-58. Roman history writers say he was a rotten governor who eventually got fired for abusing his power. Charged with murdering a high priest who disagreed with him, among other capital crimes, he was nearly executed by Emperor Nero. He escaped only when his brother, Palias, appealed to Nero for mercy. Nero had a lot of respect for Palias.
Antipatris, a city built by Herod the Great in what is now the West Bank, was about 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Jerusalem. That’s according to Josephus, a first-century Jewish history writer. And that put the city about halfway between Jerusalem and Caesarea.
“The next day” might mean the very next day or possibly the day after that—that is, the day after they arrived in Antipatris. In one day’s time, the army could normally travel a little more than half the distance to Antipatris, roughly 20 miles (32 km). But they could have traveled the entire 30 miles (48 km) to Antipatris by marching all night and into the next day. The infantry likely peeled off the patrol and returned to Jerusalem because the most dangerous part of the trip was over: getting Paul out of the reach of Jerusalem Jews. The commander may have thought he might need those soldiers back in Jerusalem to control the angry Jews.
Cilicia was a Roman province (a bit like a state) in what is now south Turkey, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Herod the Great ruled the Jewish homeland as king when Jesus was born, from 37-4 BC. (Yes, most scholars say Jesus was born in one of the years BC, possibly 6 or 7 BC.) Herod is most famous for ordering the execution of all baby boys age two and under in Bethlehem. It was an attempt to kill Baby Jesus. Herod was a swaggering dictator who built a lot of magnificent cities. He built the last Jerusalem temple the Jews ever had. Romans leveled it in AD 70, while crushing a Jewish revolt.
The prison was located in Herod’s Praetorium.
High priest Ananias had a temper, according to the footnote for Acts 23:2. He showed it by ordering Paul slapped for speaking without permission. What do you think Paul’s response in 23:3 says about Paul?
We might think Paul looks pretty bad, given what he said in anger to the high priest. He gets worse. Later, upset with Jewish Christians who insisted that even non-Jews had to get circumcised to become Christians, he said, “Why don’t these agitators, obsessive as they are about circumcision, go all the way and castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12, The Message). Does that temperament in Paul bother you?
Paul didn’t defend himself by telling the story of his encounter with Jesus and the ministry that followed. He apparently decided to get the council of Pharisees and Sadducees arguing among themselves instead of with him: “I’m a Pharisee…I believe in the resurrection….That’s why I’m on trial” (23:6). He knew the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. Does that sound like a strategy Jesus would have used? Also, do you think it worked?
The top religious leaders apparently did more than sign off on the plot to lure Paul into the council chambers under the guise of a hearing. It seems they were willing to take part in the assassination. Their job: ask the Roman commander to send Paul to the council. What do you think of religious leaders who would do something like that? Did they have an obligation—by all means necessary—to assassinate Paul? After all, as far as they were concerned, Paul dissed God by saying God had a human son who died and rose from the dead. For Jews who taught that “God is the only LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4 New Century Version), it would have seemed like blasphemy to suggest there were two Gods—three when we count the Holy Spirit.
Who knew? Paul had a sister. His sister’s son, it seems, saved Paul’s life by reporting the assassination plot to the Roman commander (23:20-21). Do you find it odd that Paul never mentioned this story in any of his surviving letters—or never mentioned his family in any way?
Why do you think Felix asked Paul where he came from? The question seems to come from out the blue and then goes nowhere just as fast. Is it possible Felix considered passing Paul off to the governor in Cilicia, Paul’s home province? If so, why do you think Felix decided against it?
LIFE APPLICATION. The Sanhedrin Council acted like a combo Congress and Supreme Court, or perhaps a parliament. For Jews, this council represented the top authority on earth. Yet it seems these spiritual leaders not only started yelling at each other, they got violent. What topics seem to get religious people that worked up today? Do you think there’s a place for this kind of behavior in the church?
LIFE APPLICATION. There are plenty of people acting good or bad in this story. What character traits do you see that you most respect? What character flaws do you see that you can’t stomach?