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As this chapter of Acts opens we are reminded that Paul was standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin. There they were, all these religious leaders, the seventy elders of the people of Israel waiting to pass judgment on him. “And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” That was a tremendous claim to make. Observe, he did not say, “since I became a Christian,” but he looked back over his whole life-his life as a Jew before he knew Christ, as well as his life as a Christian since he came to know Him.
“Why,” you say, “surely that could not be. How could he have persecuted the church of God with a good conscience?” His conscience lacked instruction. There was a time when Paul thought it was the right thing to do to try to destroy Christianity. He said in another place, “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 26:9).
People sometimes say, “If we follow our consciences, everything will be all right. There are many different ways, but they all lead to Heaven. We can each take our own way as our conscience leads us.” But conscience uninstructed by the Word of God may lead people to do the most unscriptural and even evil things. For example, a poor Hindu mother makes her way to the filthy Ganges river. She holds in her arms a darling child. She waits a minute or two, mumbles a prayer and then hurls that little baby into those foul waters. She does that in all good conscience, for she has been told that it is the way to appease her vile gods and to find peace. And so people, led by an uninstructed conscience, may do a great many things that are thoroughly wrong.
The important thing is that we come to God’s own Word and ask “What saith the Lord?” Find out what the mind of God is, and then act accordingly. You say, “I endeavor to keep the ten commandments and to live up to the sermon on the mount, and I think if I do these things it will be all right with me.” Have you always kept the ten commandments and have you always lived up to the sermon on the mount? Is it not a fact that you have broken those commandments over and over again? Is it not true that often you fail to fulfill the injunctions of the sermon on the mount? Why then talk about being saved by trying to keep the law or live up to the golden rule or something like that? Where is your good conscience? Already you have violated the law of God; and if you are honest before Him, you will have to confess that you have a bad conscience and it needs to be purged by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So far as Paul knew, he was doing the right thing in persecuting the church of Christ, until he learned the truth, and he learned it in the presence of the Son of God that day on the Damascus road. So he could make this declaration: “I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”
We read then that the high priest, Ananias, forgetting the responsibility that rested on him as the leader of the people to be perfectly just and maintain the law in that high court of the Jews, in his indignation “commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.” Then Paul lost his temper. You say, “Paul, that holy man of God?” Yes, Paul got thoroughly stirred up that day. Paul was filled with anger, and he turned to the high priest and said, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?” This was pretty strong language for him to use, and immediately somebody spoke up and said, “Revilest thou God’s high priest?” In other words, “Do you turn to God’s high priest and call him a whited sepulcher? Do you dare use language like that in addressing the high priest?”
Oh, how I love the spirit that Paul exhibited next! He did flare up a little and say something he should not have said, yet when it was called to his attention, he immediately condemned himself: “I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.” And so he used God’s own Word to condemn himself. The next best thing to never having failed at all is to confess it the moment you find out you have done wrong and not to try to justify yourself. So Paul immediately acknowledged that he should not have spoken in that manner to the high priest.
Why did he not know that he was addressing the high priest? Well, you may consider me a bit imaginative about this, but I think Paul had defective vision. Several things in Scripture have led me to that conclusion, and I believe that as he stood there before the council he was not able to recognize those at some distance from him. The high priest may have been standing at the other end of the long room or in the galleries. Therefore he did not realize it was the high priest who had spoken. I think that this visual difficulty is suggested in the letter to the Galatians, “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand” (6:11). But as we see, the moment Paul found out his mistake, he calmed himself and was ready to apologize for what he had said.
The Hope of the Resurrection (Acts 23:6-11)
But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both (Acts 23:6-8).
There were two rival sects in Judaism nineteen hundred years ago. The Sadducees were materialists. They did not believe that man existed in another world after death. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were entirely Scriptural and orthodox and believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed in the conscious existence of the spirit of man between death and resurrection. They also believed in angels created by God and sent forth to be ministers to men.
Paul, seeing that there were men of both parties in that group sitting in judgment on him, took advantage of the situation to get the help of the Pharisees. You might ask, “Well, is that fair?” I think I may have done the same thing, and so I am not going to condemn him. He knew that the Pharisees confidently believed in the resurrection of the dead, and this gave him an opportunity to testify regarding the hope of the resurrection.
Is there a resurrection from the dead or does death end all? Paul, if they had given him an opportunity to reply, would have said this: “I have met the One who died and rose again. I have looked into His face; I saw Him in the Glory; I heard His voice; and I received from Him, the risen Christ, the commission to go out into the world and proclaim the gospel to needy men and women. Everything for me rests on the truth that you Sadducees refuse to believe-the truth of the resurrection of the dead. I stand with the Pharisees today for the hope of the resurrection.”
Every Christian can take his stand with the apostle Paul. We believe in the hope of the resurrection, and we rejoice today to know that Christ who died lives again. Has He not said, “Because I live, ye shall live also”? That is why we join with all Christendom in commemorating the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ every Easter Sunday.
Alas, there are tens of thousands of people who observe Easter yet know nothing of the risen Christ as their own personal Savior. These Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, but they denied the resurrection of the Son of God. You may believe in your mind all the things we have been speaking of, but perhaps you have never rested your soul on the fact that Jesus died and rose again. Remember, that is the fundamental Christian confession, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).
I have often called attention to the fact that Romans 10:9 commences with uncertainty-that little word If-and ends with glorious certainty- saved. What a wonderful thing it is to be able to say, “Thank God, I am sure that my soul is saved.” This verse can be best illustrated by the fingers of one hand, thus making it easy to remember. If-there is the thumb. In between the thumb and fourth finger there are three shalts: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus”-there is the first finger; “and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead”-there is the second finger; “thou shalt-the third finger; and now the fourth finger- “be saved” Now you have the gospel at your very fingertips! Think of it! It is not enough to believe in resurrection; it is not enough to believe in Christ’s resurrection. What we need to know is that we have trusted the risen Christ as our personal Savior.
When Paul insisted that the reason he was called in question was because of his faith in the hope and resurrection of the dead, “there arose a great cry, and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.” You see, these Pharisees realized that it was best for them not to be too insistent now in persecuting a man who was such a strong defender of the very truth they believed-the truth of resurrection.
And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle. And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.
The blessed, living, loving Savior appeared to His poor, tried, discouraged, imprisoned messenger to encourage his heart as he continued proclaiming the hope of the resurrection!
God’s Overruling Providence (Acts 23:12-35)
It is important to remember that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” I would emphasize that truth when reading a portion such as this one in Acts. For in this particular instance we have absolutely no mention of God or of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the way of salvation, of redemption by His blood, or of any other great truth of Scripture. We simply have a historical incident, and we might well ask, “Of what profit is it to us?” But it is part of Holy Scripture, and God by the Spirit caused Luke to write it and preserve it for a definite purpose. I think it brings before us in a very special way God’s providential care of His people.
God is never nearer to His people than when they cannot see His face; He is never closer than when they do not hear His voice; he is never undertaking for them more definitely than at the very times when His own name is not even mentioned. We see this truth in the Old Testament in one little book that is distinctly the record of God’s providential care, the book of Esther. It is a book that brings before us some of the most thrilling experiences in the history of God’s earthly people, the Jews. And yet in that little book we do not have the name of God or any pronoun referring to God; we do not have any reference to any Bible doctrine. We do not even read anything of prayer even though it records a time of tremendous stress. Yet God worked providentially for the deliverance of His people.
Somebody has well said that God is often behind the scenes, but He moves all the scenes that He is behind. It is well for us to remember that. There are times in all our lives when we seem to be forgotten by God. We find it difficult to pray, so we grope in the darkness and we can’t understand God’s way with us. But He is always near at hand. He is waiting to undertake for us, and He is watching over us, even when we are so weak and sick that we cannot remember His promises. In the book of Psalms we read, “He remembered for them his covenant” (106:45, italics added). That is a wonderful thought. When His people forgot, He remembered still and remembered it for them.
Here we find the apostle Paul in a very precarious situation. There is no outward evidence of any manifestation of divine power, and yet God is watching over him through it all. When his enemies demanded his death, the Roman chief captain took him in custody and put him in prison. Now in the opening verses of the section before us we read of a conspiracy entered into by over forty desperate men who evidently hated the gospel of God above everything else in the world. They thought they would be doing God service if they could put Paul to death. We read that they had bound themselves with an oath to carry out this mission. This in itself is suggestive. What a wicked thing it is for men to enter into a curse like this, to bind themselves with an oath to do anything, whether good or evil!
Our Lord Jesus Christ has distinctly forbidden His followers to take oaths of any kind, and yet how recklessly people talk today and how even ungodly men call God to witness as to what they intend to do. I am not speaking merely of profanity, awful as it is. I never can understand how even self-respecting men, not to speak of professing Christians, can stoop to profanity. Yet I fear there are many who actually think it is an evidence of an independent spirit and of manliness to dare to use oaths and profane language. Unconverted men sometimes do it so often that they are not even conscious of it as oath after oath comes from their lips. God’s Word says, “Swear not at all”; and in the Law we read, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This refers not only to profanity but also to taking such an oath as these men took, for doubtless they bound themselves in the name of God that they would not eat or drink until they had taken Paul’s life.
One wonders what became of the poor wretches when they were not able to carry out their oath. They must have had a terrible time until at last, I suppose, they simply broke down and violated their oath. It generally ends up that way.
Is it necessary to say a word to real Christians as to the wickedness of taking God’s name in vain? One shudders sometimes to hear the language that professing Christians use. The Lord Jesus told us, “Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth, for it is his footstool.” And yet what a common thing it is today to hear people use the word heaven in a careless, profane way. Do you ever use it that way? How often you will hear a Christian exclaim, “Oh heavens!” or “Good heavens!” or something like that. Do you realize that this is just as profane, just as wicked in the sight of God, as if we were to use other vile expressions that ungodly men use? Because you are taking in vain that which speaks of the throne of the Majesty of the universe. You are doing something expressly forbidden by our Lord Jesus who said, “Let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” When you feel it necessary to add any kind of oath or give strong expression to any statement you make, you are simply departing from the simplicity of speech that should characterize believers. For we read, “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”
These men had bound themselves with an oath that they would kill Paul. I take it they believed it was their religious duty to get rid of him. When you can get a man to believe that it is his religious duty to do something, he will go to any length to carry it out. Saul of Tarsus must have remembered those days when, under the guise of loyalty to God and church, he sought the lives of those who trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ. So we can be sure that he now would not have any hateful feelings toward these men who were avidly seeking his life.
We find these conspirators coming to the priests and elders of the people in order to have their scheme sanctioned by these religious leaders. They told them of the oath that they had taken, and said in effect, “Now won’t you act as if you wish to inquire something further concerning him? And we will be waiting nearby, and when they bring him, we will kill him.” It was a diabolical plot and one might have thought of Paul as totally helpless. He knew nothing of it, and there seemed to be no way by which he could learn of it, imprisoned as he was. But there was One who knew all about it, and although unseen, He was watching over His servant all the time. When we speak of God’s providential care, we mean God’s unseen interference in the affairs of men.
These men did not realize it, but knowledge of their plot came to Paul in a most interesting way. Paul had a sister living nearby (we might never have known it except for this incident) who had a son, and her son became aware of this plot. Perhaps the conspirators did not think that it was necessary to keep the thing so secret since Paul was shut up in prison. At any rate this lad heard of it, and he went to the prison and asked the guard to take him to see his uncle Paul. When he told Paul what he had learned, the apostle immediately called one of the officials, the centurion, and said, “Will you take this man in to see the chief captain? He has something to tell him.”
Notice the level-headed way in which Paul acted. He did not say, “I am afraid of this, but God is able to protect me. He is still able to work miracles.” God does not use miracles when it is not necessary. He would have us use good common sense and not count on His interfering or intervening in some miraculous way.
I remember years ago when I was a Salvation Army officer, we used to say that there were three things that should characterize every saint of God: “Now abideth these three: grit, grace, and gumption; but the greatest of these is gumption.” Gumption is just good, common, ordinary sense, and I know many Christians who do not use good sense. Some way or other they have an idea they are God’s favored people and it is not necessary to use good judgment and wisdom in regard to the affairs of life; the Lord will undertake for them. If you are hungry and a good dinner is put before you, God is not going to put the food in your mouth in some miraculous way. And so God isn’t turning upside down the universe in order to please people who happen to be in difficult circumstances. He expects us to use common sense.
So Paul used his head, and he sent the young man in to the chief captain. When the lad came in to him and gave him his message, “The chief captain then let the young man depart, and charged him, See thou tell no man that thou hast showed these things to me.”
The captain must have thought he had a very important prisoner, for see what he did! He called two centurions and said, “Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred.” That is seventy cavalrymen, two hundred infantrymen, and two hundred spearmen. Just think of it! Four hundred and seventy Roman soldiers, all to protect this Christian servant of God and keep him from his foes who were seeking his life! God saw that he was protected. Did He need the Roman soldiers? No, He could have sent several legions of angels; but God doesn’t work in miracles unless it is necessary, and so He used soldiers instead.
The chief captain thought he had a good opportunity to get into the favor of the Governor down at Caesarea, so he wrote a letter which was partly true and partly false. He said, “Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them: then came I with an army, and rescued him.” Well, that is all true, but the next part of the letter was absolutely false: “Having understood that he was a Roman.” He did not understand anything of the kind. He thought he was an Egyptian. He told Paul that. He said, “Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?” (21:38) And it was not until they were about to scourge Paul, and Paul said, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?” that the chief captain came to his rescue and said, “Are you a Roman?” And Paul said, “Yea.”
You see, Claudius Lysias was in a tight fix, for if that lash had come down on the back of Paul, a Roman, and word of it got to the ears of the governor, Claudius Lysias himself would have been arrested for violating the law of the empire. So now he wants to make it appear that it was his zea! for the Roman government that led him to save Paul’s life. That was what some people would call a “white” lie, but every white lie is absolutely black in the sight of God, and “all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone,” All lies are lies in God’s sight.
Claudius continued, “When I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council” (which was quite true), “Whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee, and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee what they had against him. Farewell.” So much for the letter.
And so the soldiers went on with Paul, taking him away at once to be sure that these conspirators did not hurt him. They took him by night as far as Antipatris, and then on the following day the infantrymen returned, but the cavalrymen went on to Caesarea, which was the seat of Roman government for that district. They delivered the epistle to the governor. “And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was. And when he understood that he was of Cilicia” (Tarsus, where Paul was born, was the chief city in Cilicia), “I will hear thee, said he, when thine accusers are also come.” So now Paul was in the hands of the Roman government, in prison at Caesarea, waiting for his accusers to come down from Jerusalem and plead against him. “And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall.”
Now notice the position in which Paul was found. He had gone up to Jerusalem because he loved his Jewish brethren so tenderly, though they did not understand him, and he hoped that God would use him to bring them a knowledge of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead they rejected his message and wanted to put him to death. Now he finds himself in a Roman prison, first in Jerusalem and then in Caesarea. Later we read that from there he was sent over land and sea, still a prisoner, to Rome. We remember that he had written some time before to the church of Rome that he hoped to visit them and he asked them to pray that he might have a prosperous journey. He attains his objective at last, but he reaches Rome in chains.
In all this God was overruling. In all this He was having His own way. It is a wonderful thing to realize that in spite of our mistakes and our blunders we have a blessed Father in Heaven who is working everything out for good. Paul could write, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
Surely these experiences of God’s gracious overruling providence ought to speak comfort to the troubled hearts of many of us. We are conscious, perhaps, of sin and failure in our own lives, or we realize that in our ignorance and shortsightedness we have missed our path. The natural tendency in such instances is to conclude that we can no longer count on God’s loving care, that we have forfeited all right to His fatherly consideration. But it is not so. He loves us still, and He is ever ready to undertake for us when we put all in His hands. He will overrule even our sins and blunders for our blessing and His glory.
He is never more concerned about us than at the very time that all seems to be darkness and confusion. Let us not doubt His love because perplexities abound on every hand. Be it ours to look up in faith and say with Isaiah, “I will trust and not be afraid”; or with David, “What time I am afraid I will trust in thee.” He has given a promise that can never be broken: “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.”
Let us then ever remember that His is a love unfailing, a love that no mistakes of ours can alter. And He is working all things according to the counsel of His own will, ever having our blessing in view
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Acts 23". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany