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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 7

Paul's debate with the Jewish leaders

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 22:30-23:11

The Roman commander organises a debate between Paul and the Sanhedrin to clarify the situation. It causes more problems as the High Priest and Paul get angry and the Sanhedrin argues with itself - between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Paul is taken back into prison.

The Roman commander organises a debate between Paul and the Sanhedrin to clarify the situation. It causes more problems as the High Priest and Paul get angry and the Sanhedrin argues with itself - between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Paul is taken back into prison.


I hope you have listened to the episodes just before this one because it is a continuing story and we are still only part way through a very dramatic incident that is taking place in Paul’s life.

Background and Introduction

He is on his third missionary journey having travelled far and wide in Greece and Turkey, and he is now back in the city of Jerusalem. When he arrived in the city, a conflict arose very quickly and we have described this conflict in the last two episodes. It arose from the fact that he came into the Jewish Temple and some people who had seen him in other contexts, in Asia Minor and southern Turkey and then saw him in Jerusalem, started making false accusations against Paul about him disrespecting the Jewish religion, the Jewish Law and the Jewish Temple. This produced a riot in the Temple which caused the intervention of Roman soldiers who came and prevented Paul being beaten up and possibly beaten to death. Then the Romans were wanting to interrogate and punish Paul but they hesitated to do that when they found that he was a Roman citizen.

The situation we find in this episode is a very tense and complex stand-off between different groups in Jerusalem, concerning Paul and his Christian faith. Paul has asked the Roman soldiers to allow him to speak to the crowd having arrested him, which he did and he gave his story about how he became a Christian, through encountering the risen Jesus on the Damascus road. Then that provokes a really strong reaction from the crowd becoming hostile to Paul, and the Roman commanding officer is trying to work out what to do with Paul next. The Romans were always concerned to keep law and order and were worried that the Jews were very argumentative; there could be rioting and civil conflict very easily. They were always worried about people starting rebellions in the province of Judea. That is why they are nervous about Paul. What sort of leader was he? What sort of agitator was he? What was he representing? Was he a military threat? Was he going to raise some rebels? Was he going to cause a big conflict with other Jews? They weren’t really sure. The commander is left in a very puzzled frame of mind at the end of the events that we have described in the last two episodes.

A Debate with the Sanhedrin

This is what we find in the first verse that we are going to read as we introduce this episode, Acts 22:30,

‘The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. So, the next day he released him and ordered the Chief Priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.’

Acts 22:30, NIV

The commander is puzzled; he doesn’t really know what is going on and he decides to release Paul. He is no longer going to be in the custody of the Romans formally. The commander is not going to punish him at that point. He doesn’t know what is going on. He realises he is a Jew, a Roman citizen a and religious leader of some sort, and he is in an argument with his fellow Jews. He decides the best thing is to have a debate between Paul and the religious ruling authorities. The commander thinks that he will sit in on this debate and be able to work out what’s going on. That sounds like a very sensible idea, doesn’t it?

We need to think about what we mean by this organisation known as the Sanhedrin. If you have been following this study of the book of Acts, or if you are familiar with the material, you will know about the Sanhedrin but to remind you briefly: the religion of the Jews, Judaism, was led by the High Priest and the priestly group, who ran the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The High Priest chaired a committee, or a council, of seventy members that had ruling authority over the conduct of the Jewish religion. They met regularly and made decisions about all sorts of different things. They were based in Jerusalem. The High Priest was in charge and there were some Pharisees, some Sadducees, some religious teachers on board and some other priests; there were seventy men in this group. The Romans recognised that it was a very powerful organisation, much respected by the Jews. They recognised how much the Temple meant to the Jews, which is why they allowed the Sanhedrin to rule over the geographical area of the Temple and the immediate area surrounding it in the middle of Jerusalem. The Roman soldiers rarely went in there and the Sanhedrin were able to run things exactly as they wanted. They had their own currency; they had their own regulations and there were certain places that non-Jews weren’t allowed to go, in the Temple compound.

The Roman officer, of course, knew all this and he witnessed what was going on in the Temple, day by day, because he was stationed in the fortress next door, overlooking the Temple compound. He thought, ‘We need to have a proper conversation about this.’ The discussion between Paul and the crowds in the Temple earlier on had been very emotional, very spontaneous, very disorganised and hadn’t led anywhere. So, he thought, ‘Let’s have a responsible conversation. Let’s get Paul to talk to the High Priest. I’m going to listen in and I’ll decide what I’m going to do with Paul and if there’s any issue to follow up or not. It sounds to me as though this is a bit of a religious conflict that probably has nothing to do with the Roman authorities.’ That is what the commander was thinking when he released Paul and arranged for this discussion to take place between Paul and the Sanhedrin.

Heated Exchanges

What we must remember is that Paul was remembered by the Sanhedrin because he used to be associated with them and on their side, serving their cause before he got converted to Christianity. There are some bad memories of Paul because he was somebody who switched sides and no longer supported what they were doing. When Paul came in front of them, that memory was in their mind and would have influenced their thinking. And so, they met. What happens is described in Acts 23:1 - 10,

1 ‘Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” 2 At this the High Priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” 4 Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s High Priest!” 5 Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the High Priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’” 6 Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.) 9 There was a great uproar, and some of the Teachers of the Law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.’

Acts 23:1-10, NIV

The commander hoped for some kind of peaceful resolution but it didn’t happen. In fact, you can see how complicated the situation became and the commander had to intervene yet again, because disputes kept flaring up. What is going on in this story? Paul starts out by proclaiming his innocence. He has served God in good conscience to this day. He is basically saying, “I’m innocent of any wrongdoing. I’m a whole-hearted server of the living God, the God of Israel.” Then comes the first surprise. The High Priest, who is chairing this meeting, immediately orders for Paul to be struck on the mouth. This is an insult. It is a symbolic action to tell people to shut up and be quiet. The High Priest is an interesting character. You will remember that when Jesus was crucified, the High Priest’s name was Caiaphas. This is one of his successors, Ananias, who was High Priest for 10 or 12 years. It is interesting to note that the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote about this man, said that he had a very quick temper; he got angry very easily. That is a fascinating insight. This is written by an author describing his behaviour in many other circumstances unrelated to this incident, but it is exactly what happened here. He became angry very quickly, and he tried to silence Paul and humiliate him by getting several people to strike him on the mouth, cancelling out his words and his testimony. Paul responded as strongly as the High Priest, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Then people said, “Do you realise that’s the High Priest?” and Paul realises that he too has overreacted emotionally and he steps back, acknowledging that one shouldn’t speak evil of the person who is the respected community leader.

This is a very remarkable incident. We can assume that Luke, the author, is also an eyewitness. It is described very vividly, as if he’s there with Paul. He has been an eyewitness all the way through the story up to this point, so there is no reason to doubt that Luke didn’t actually see this happen himself. The whole event started out really badly. The Roman commander’s hope for some rational discussion to try and work out what is going on, was completely unfulfilled. They couldn’t get a rational discussion going.

Pharisees v Sadducees

It is interesting to see what Paul does next. He takes the conversation in a different direction and in verse 6:

“My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”

He said this very deliberately, because he knew that this ruling Council was divided on the issue of belief in the physical resurrection of the dead. Although the Pharisees and the priests, generally speaking, believed very much in the resurrection of the dead, which is spoken of in the Old Testament in a few instances but not in a developed way, one group - the Sadducees - did not believe in the bodily, physical resurrection from the dead of those who believe. This is exactly what Luke explains. Many of the supernatural things about the Jewish faith, they were doubtful about. They saw it more as a faith for this life. We see the same belief system in place when the same group of Sadducees questioned Jesus all those years before. Just before Jesus was executed, the Sadducees asked Jesus a question about the resurrection to try and trip him up. I wonder whether you’ll remember this, Matthew 22:24 - 28

24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having any children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?”

Matthew 22:24-28, NIV

This was a trick question. They didn’t believe in the resurrection. They thought it was absurd and they thought they could demonstrate the absurdity of the idea of the physical resurrection by explaining the situation, “Who could she possibly be married to during the resurrection - which of these seven brothers?” But Jesus replied to the Sadducees,

“You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”

In other words, they didn’t believe what the Old Testament said about the resurrection and they didn’t believe in God’s miraculous power to raise people from the dead. That is the way the Sadducees thought which Paul encounters in this episode in the Sanhedrin. What happens immediately when Paul raises this question is that it provokes an argument amongst the members of the Sanhedrin. The focus comes away from Paul and onto them. They are in disagreement about the doctrine of the resurrection. It is almost as if Paul has done this deliberately to show the weakness of the Sanhedrin. He is dividing the opposition. They enter into a period of time where they are not debating with Paul, they are debating with each other.

The commanding officer is looking on thinking, ‘What on earth’s going on here? I thought this was between Paul and the religious authorities, but now they are arguing amongst themselves!’ He decided that this could get out of hand because once they finish arguing amongst themselves, they might then turn together against Paul and say, “It’s all your fault that we had this argument in the first place.” The commander could see this could happen, so he said to his men, “Go and get Paul from down there in the debate and let’s put him in prison again.” He has only just released him but now he has taken him back into prison because he can’t get any sense out of this discussion; he can’t get any clear answers to his questions. The Romans continually were puzzled about Jews and they often noticed how argumentative they were. Here is a classic example of that argumentative situation.

The Lord Was With Paul

At the end of the story, Paul is back in the barracks where he was before; he is back in prison. What is going to happen next? This episode ends in a very moving way, because all the time as Paul has been heading to Jerusalem, everybody along the journey was saying, “Be careful, Paul, it is going to be difficult in Jerusalem. Be careful.” - Agabus the prophet, church groups, possibly the unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist in Caesarea, all prophetically communicating with him about the dangers, and yet Paul felt, “I’ve got to go through with this.” Have you ever had that feeling in life, something difficult you have just got to go through? God is saying, “You’ve got to go through it. Don’t avoid it.” God might be speaking to you about that right now as I am talking about this. That was the feeling that Paul had. His faith was that God would protect him, even in a difficult situation. That is why the way this episode ends is most moving. In Acts 23:11, we have this amazing statement,

‘The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”’

Acts 23:11, NIV

I think that is amazing! He is in prison and he has no idea what is going to happen to him. Will the Romans ever let him out? Will they punish him? Will they try him? Will they hand him over to the Sanhedrin? Hand him over to the Jews? Will they expel him from the country? He is in a position of complete vulnerability and yet God speaks to him.

This might be a dream or a vision, but whichever it was, there was this feeling that God himself was there, the Lord was speaking and saying, first of all, “Take courage!” That is one of the most common things that God says to his disciples, 'have courage, don’t be afraid'. That is a message for you as you’re listening to this, the Holy Spirit may well be speaking to you in your circumstances which might be difficult. Paul is in very difficult circumstances. You might be in very difficult circumstances. “Take courage!” says the Holy Spirit. “Take courage! Paul, as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” This means your life isn’t going to end in Jerusalem. This isn’t a wasted experience. Paul might have thought it a wasted experience because he was free to travel and move around for the previous period of time, being very fruitful; going to different churches and visiting churches; planting churches; and preaching. Now he is confined in a prison cell in the fortress of the Roman soldiers in Jerusalem. Surely that is a waste, isn’t it? But no; from there, will come another opportunity. He will fulfil his great ambition to go to Rome. This ambition has been the driving force behind the events of this whole Series 6, because Paul said, when he was in Ephesus in Acts 19: 21, which I have quoted several times in previous episodes, ‘Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.”’ He had a sense of conviction that he needed to get to the centre of the Roman Empire and exercise influence by being there. That was his conviction and now God is saying to him, “No one’s going to stop you. You’re going to get there. You’re going to get to the place that you need to go.” That didn’t mean it was going to be easy. As we will see in the next episode, things go from bad to worse, because there is a plot to kill Paul - to assassinate him. But that is the next episode and we will come to that next time.


Meanwhile, we pause now and think, ‘What can we learn from this episode?’ First of all, my number one reflection is to reaffirm, God is sovereign over our lives. Even when things are totally out of control, and you might feel things are totally out of control in your life, he is sovereign. Paul was saved from death here because there was more for him to do. God will always preserve your life and energy if there is more work for you to do.

The second thing that I learn from this passage is the risk of strong emotions, and particularly of anger. This is a very interesting episode of anger, because the High Priest is very angry, and we know from other evidence that he’s quick-tempered and very quick to get angry. But we also noticed that Paul is quick to get angry and he regrets it; he over-responded. He acknowledged he shouldn’t have attacked the High Priest which reminds me of his own teaching later on, in Ephesians 4:26 - 27:

26 ‘“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.’

Ephesians 4:26-27, NIV

Deal with anger effectively and quickly. Don’t let it simmer and don’t let evil powers use long-term anger as a means of undermining your Christian life.

My third reflection is about the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul emphasises it here. Christianity is built on two very important foundations concerning this idea. The first one is that Jesus himself rose again from the dead physically; it is a physical event. This is not a ghost, a spirit, a hallucination or anything like that. This is a physical event and the Gospels describe the resurrection of Jesus as a very powerful, physical event. But the second thing that Christianity affirms, is that those who believe in Jesus will experience a physical resurrection in the same type of reality that Jesus had himself. Paul is focusing on the doctrine of the resurrection here, which divided the Jewish people, but unites the Christian Church fundamentally. I end with a reminder of what Paul really believed about the resurrection of the body, by just quoting three verses from 1 Corinthians 15:42 - 44. This is Paul’s briefest and simplest description of the resurrection, and the difference between the resurrection body and our current physical body.

42 ‘So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonour, but it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

1 Corinthians 15:42-44, NIV

Let us reflect on these words for a moment. Physical life now, says Paul, has four characteristics. Perishable, that means prone to decay, disease, decline, ageing and death. It is in dishonour, that means it is tainted by sin. Our bodies are affected by the sinful actions that we carry out. It is a body in weakness; in other words, we are limited in strength and capacity and it is a natural body, in other words, it is an ordinary human body like an unbeliever; an unbeliever’s body is just like a believer’s body in this life. But the resurrection body has these four characteristics. Imperishable, that is in a state of permanent, physical wholeness. It is in glory, that means filled with God’s glory, his presence is going to fill our bodies in a miraculous way. It is in power, that is, filled with supernatural power; it goes from strength to strength, in eternal life. It is a spiritual body, meaning empowered by the Holy Spirit. There is much more we could say on that subject but Paul focused on the resurrection as a key belief of Christianity in this episode.

This particular story isn’t finished. There is another dramatic development that takes place in the next episode and I hope you will join us for it.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What is wrong with anger as an emotion?
  • Discipleship
    1. In Acts 23:11, God gives a promise to Paul. What has God promised you?
    2. Re-read 1Corinthians 15:42 - 44. Think about the meaning of this passage in the light of this episode.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body. Do you? Use tagging to find out more about the Sadducees
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