Paul’s travelling missionary career abruptly ended when he came to Jerusalem. He had been pleaded with and warned against going [e.g. 21:4,11], but he went nevertheless, saying, “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the Name of the Lord Jesus.” [21:13] We saw that when Paul was in the temple he was recognized by some Jews from Asia, who then stirred up the whole crowd in the temple against him (21:27). As they were seeking to kill him a band of Roman soldiers from the adjoining Fort Antonia came to rescue him. The Romans thought that they might have found a political agitator in him and were ready to deal with him in form of torture, but when he was given a chance to speak to the people (21:39 – 22:22) they saw that he was in fact a Roman citizen (22:26-29) protected by the Roman law.
After this, in Chapter 23 follows another opportunity for Paul to speak in public. It was a hastily convened meeting with the Jewish Council also known as the Sanhedrin – a group of 70 scholars, scribes who were the revered keepers and interpreters of the Law. Among them were members of the party of the Pharisees and the Saducees. The high priest was the leader of this council and so Paul is brought before this group, which is the highest religious court of the Jews.
Now observe what happens here.
Paul begins to speak immediately (23:1). There appears to be no formal introduction, no protocol observed. Perhaps this is so, because as we already said, this court is hastily convened, and because of this they were probably not in formal dress. The high priest, was not wearing his high priestly outfit. More about that in a moment...
And so we read in 23:1 that as the court meets somewhat randomly, Paul takes charge. We read that Paul is looking intently at the council and at once he begins to speak, and his opening words are these: ”Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”
This phrase needs some context and explanation. He is not saying that he has never sinned and that he never has had any sense of guilt about anything. We know that he has, for instance, prior to his conversion in Acts 9 had a hand in the persecution of Christians. He represented the authority that put Stephen to death. That must have weighed heavy on his conscience all the days of his life. What he is saying here however relates to the charges brought against him. Remember, that he is charged for violating and showing disrespect to the Law of Moses and even for bringing a gentile into the Jews-only part of the temple (21:28). This is what Paul denies, saying that he has not broken any Law of Moses, nor had he taken a Gentile into the Court of Israel. He has a clear conscience with regard to these charges. All these charges are trumped up. They are plainly wrong, but the problem is that he is the company of a council and of men who will hear nothing of what he has to say – just as was the case of Jesus. This was going to be a complete waste of time …
Furthermore notice that Paul in taking charge of the conversation clearly infuriates the high priest Ananias (23:2).Ananias orders those that stand close to Paul to strike him on the mouth.
A word about Ananias the high priest: Josephus, called him "Ananias ben Nebedeus" – Ananias, son of Nebedeus. He officiated as high priest from about AD 47 to 52, and he was a very controversial character. I quote from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia : “In 52 AD he was sent to Rome by Quadratus, legate of Syria, to answer a charge of oppression brought by the Samaritans, but the emperor Claudius acquitted him. On his return to Jerusalem, he resumed the office of high priest. He was deposed shortly before Felix left the province, but continued to wield great influence, which he used in a lawless and violent way. He was a typical Sadducee, wealthy, haughty, unscrupulous, filling his sacred office for purely selfish and political ends, anti-nationalist in his relation to the Jews, friendly to the Romans. He died an ignominious death, being assassinated by the popular Jewish zealots (sicarii) at the beginning of the last Jewish war.”
To this high priest, who has Paul slapped on the mouth, Paul responds, “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?” (Paul knows the law!) Paul utters this curse against him. He calls him a whitewashed wall – looking all good on the outside but rotten on the inside – that’s the implication here, and he is accusing him rightly for disregarding the law in a session of the court by having him struck. But as soon as somebody reprimands him, “Don't you know that you’re reviling the high priest?”, Paul immediately apologizes and says, “I didn't know he was the high priest.”
Here is a question: Why did Paul not recognize the high priest? As indicated earlier, the most likely answer is that the Sanhedrin gathered hastily and they weren't wearing formal robes. The high priest wouldn't have been wearing his robe, so Paul didn't recognize him as the high priest. John Stott thinks that it may have to do with Paul’s eyesight. In his letter to the Galatians Paul says, “See in what large letters I have written to you,” and some think that this may be the thorn in the flesh of which he speaks in his second letter to the Corinthians — so it is thought that he can't see very well and has to write in large characters. And when he says “whitewashed wall” that's literally all he could see.
Add to this the fact that, by now, Paul had been away from Jerusalem for many years. He was no longer familiar with the Jewish hierarchy which changed every few years. Whatever the case and reason may have been – as soon as he hears that he has spoken harshly to the high priest, he apologises. Note how quickly the apology was made. And note the reason given. He bows to the authority of Scripture: It is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” [reference to Ex. 22:28].
Here is something that our modern world has generally forgotten. In our age of naming, blaming and shaming it is hard to be a leader, and leaders in turn also become hardened in response to constant criticism and battering. Have you ever thought through and pondered a biblical response to dealing with our leaders? If the governing authorities (whether state, church, home) are instituted by God [Rom. 13:1-7], how do you deal with them except through God's eyes and by His Word and by faithfully praying for the political rulers [1 Tim. 2:2]?
- Do we really believe that, “the King’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD, he turns it wherever he will?”
- Do we really believe that God can remove evil leaders in response to our prayer?
- Do we really believe that we are not at liberty to gossip and tear down the authority of our church leaders in an underhanded manner? [1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 13:17].
- Do we really believe that men (even unconverted men) are fundamentally instituted by God to be the rulers and heads of their households? How many women really believe that an unbelieving husband can be best dealt with by means of a respectful and pure conduct, by a gentle and quiet spirit, in prayer hoping in God [1 Peter 3:1-6]. All this is Paul’s fundamental understanding of authority and leadership, and it forms the basis of his apology.
But Paul is not finished as he pleads his good conscience. As he stands before the Sanhedrin he knows that he is standing before a theologically divided group consisting of Pharisees and Saducees.
In a nutshell the Pharisees believed in the doctrine of resurrection and the Saducees did not. Neither did they believe in the existence of angels or demonic spirits [23:7,8]. The Pharisees were in a sense the theological conservatives, and the Saducees were the theological liberals.
Now what is Paul doing here by raising the issue of the resurrection [23:6]?
1. Paul is testifying here to the grand work of the Lord Jesus, who is ultimately the prime exhibit from God, and living proof that men do rise from the dead. This Jesus said that He was in fact the resurrection and the life, and by believing in Him men would receive eternal life and thereby enter into the Father’s heaven [John 11:25]. Jesus' exhibit was the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The hope of the resurrection is a huge feature in the Christian faith and hope. It is Paul who wrote to those Corinthians who doubted the resurrection [1 Cor. 15:12], “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” [1 Cor. 15:19]. Paul 's hope in the resurrection was much more profound than that of the Pharisees. He not only believed with the Pharisees in the resurrection, but in Christ's example he had seen the resurrection exemplified! So, in the first place Paul would have had an opportunity to remind the whole council of the Sanhedrin that behind His faith there stood the grand doctrine of the resurrection. of Jesus Christ Himself! The Christian faith proved that the resurrection was true. What business do they have to condemn him then, when he believed in a central tenet which was held by most Jews? Incidentally, the Pharisees were a majority party in the council of the Sanhedrin.
2. Paul is getting more time for the gospel by getting an escape from the hostile Jews! Notice the confusion and dissension that now ensues in verses 7-10. Now you may say that Paul used an age-old strategy in politics –the divide and rule technique to confuse his enemies, but in a far higher sense it is this doctrine that the Holy Spirit now used to help Paul from being killed. If he was going to land up in the hands of a united Sanhedrin, he would be killed and his voice would be silenced. But now, as chaos ensues between Saducee and Pharisee, over this doctrine of the resurrection, God uses the Romans once more to rescue Paul [23:10]. God has been known to do this before. God preserved the life of David from Saul through the Philistines. This does not mean that the Philistines or the Romans or the Egyptians are just in God’s eyes. It simply means that God used them as an escape route for his greater purposes. Paul needed to stay alive for a little longer. He still needed to testify before governors, counsels and kings.
Paul With a Good Conscience before Jesus [v.11]
Let’s close with this thought. After Paul has been literally rescued by the Romans and brought back to the holding 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 also testify in Rome.” It is a beautiful thing that the Lord Jesus would now come to him and tell him to take courage and not to be afraid. What an encouragement the vision of our dear Saviour provides when we begin to wonder whether all that we have done and said in our gospel labours was in in fact the will of God? Here the Lord assures Paul, ‘I have seen how you testified concerning the facts about me… and you will indeed complete the work I gave you to do in Rome.'
Truly, brothers and sisters, in that sense we are immortal until our work is done! Stand then with a clear conscience before men and regardless, testify to the work of our Lord Jesus. He will keep you from the wolves until He calls you home to your eternal reward. Oh what a homecoming and what a rest that will be!
 Antiquities xx. 5. 2,