Thursday of Week 7 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 22:30; 23:6-11

We are now coming to the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. Events are moving very fast as we have to finish Acts in the next three days! And a great deal is happening, much of which will have to be passed over. To fully understand, it might be a very good idea to take up a New Testament and read the full text of the last eight chapters of Acts.

As we begin today’s reading let us be filled in a little on what has happened between yesterday’s reading and today’s. After bidding a tearful farewell to his fellow-Christians in Ephesus, Paul and his companions began their journey back to Palestine, making a number of brief stops on the way – Cos, Rhodes, Patara. They by-passed Cyprus and landed at Tyre in Phoenicia. They stayed there for a week, during which time the brethren begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. They knew there would be trouble. But there was no turning back for Paul and again there was an emotional parting on the beach.

As Paul moved south, there was a stop at Ptolemais, where they greeted the community. Then it was on to Caesarea where Paul stayed in the house of Philip, the deacon, now called “the evangelist” (earlier we saw him do great evangelising work in Samaria and he was the one who converted the Ethiopian eunuch). Here too there was an experience in which Paul was warned by a prophet in the community of coming suffering. Again they all begged him not to go on, but he replied:

…I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.

This was accepted as God’s will, and they let him go.

When they arrived in Jerusalem they received a warm welcome from the community there and went to pay a formal visit to James, the leader in the Jerusalem church. They were very happy to hear of all that Paul had done, but they were also concerned (and their concern would seem to indicate that there were some in the city who had not fully accepted the non-application of Jewish law for Gentiles).

The local Jews (including, it seems, the Christians) would have heard how Paul, also a Jew, had been telling Jews in gentile territory to “abandon Moses”, that is, not requiring them to circumcise their children or observe other Jewish practices. Some suggested a tactic for Paul to assuage the feelings of these people. On behalf of four members of the Jerusalem community, he was to make the customary payment for the sacrifices offered at the termination of the Nazirite vow (see Numbers 6:1-24) in order to impress favourably the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem with his high regard for the Mosaic Law. Since Paul himself had once made such a vow (when he was leaving Corinth, Acts 18:18), his respect for the law would be publicly known. Paul agreed with this suggestion and did as he was asked.

However, as the seven days stipulated were coming to an end, Paul was spotted by some Jews who had known him in Ephesus. A mob rushed into the Temple and seized him, and might have harmed him, if the Roman commander had not seen the riot. He rescued Paul, then arrested him and put him in chains and thus out of the reach of those wanting to harm him.

It was only after the arrest that the commander realised the Greek-speaking Paul was not an Egyptian rebel. Paul then asked to be allowed to address the crowd and, in a longish speech, told the assembled Jews the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus (the second time the story is told in Acts; it will be told again in chap 26). At the end of the speech, the crowd bayed for his blood and Paul was about to be flogged in order to find out why the Jews wanted him executed. At this point, Paul revealed to the centurion that he was a Roman citizen and that, unlike the garrison commander who had bought his citizenship, he had been born one. This created great alarm among his captors and he was released.

The Roman commander then ordered a meeting of the Sanhedrin to be convened so that Paul could address them. While those of the high priestly line were mainly Sadducees, the Sanhedrin also now included quite a number of Pharisees. This council was the ruling body of the Jews. Its court and decisions were respected by the Roman authorities. Roman approval was needed, however, in cases of capital punishment (as happened in the case of Jesus). Paul’s being brought before the Sanhedrin was already foretold by Jesus to his disciples (see Matt 10:17-18). Paul, in time, will appear before “councils, governors and kings”.

He began by telling them that everything he had done was with a perfectly clear conscience. On hearing this, the high priest Ananias ordered that Paul be struck in the mouth. It was not unlike his Master being struck on the face during his trial. Paul hit back – verbally:

…God will strike you, you whitewashed wall. (Acts 23:2)

He said this because, although Ananias was supposedly sitting in judgement according to Mosaic Law, he was breaking the law by striking the accused. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Ananias was actually assassinated in AD 66 at the beginning of the First Jewish Revolt. When Paul is accused of reviling the high priest, he said he did not realise Ananias was the high priest and apologised.

It is at this point that today’s reading begins – and it is one of the most dramatic scenes in the Acts. Paul knew his audience and he decided at the very beginning to make a preemptive strike. He professed loudly and with pride that he was a Pharisee, knowing that his audience consisted of both Pharisees and Sadducees.

Addressing his words specially to the Pharisees, he said:

I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.

That was not quite the whole story, of course, as he made no mention of Christ, but it immediately put him on the side of his fellow-Pharisees. As Paul had told the Corinthians in one of his letters, if Christ was not risen from the dead, neither could we rise and there would be no basis for our faith. The hope of a future life was at the very heart of his Christian preaching.

That, of course, is not what the Pharisees heard. They immediately latched on to the fact that Paul, as a fellow-Pharisee held a belief that was denied by the Sadducees. The Sadducees only accepted as divine revelation the first five books of the Bible, what we call the Pentateuch. The resurrection of the body (in 2 Maccabees) and the doctrine of angels (in the book of Tobit) did not become part of Jewish teaching until a comparatively late date. On both these issues, however, Paul (a Pharisee himself) and the Pharisees were full agreement.

In the first five books of the Old Testament, there is no mention of a future resurrection, nor spirits, nor angels. It was on the basis of this belief that the Sadducees had challenged Jesus about the fate of a woman who had married seven brothers (see Luke 20:27-38 and Matt 22:25-32). If there is a resurrection, which of the seven would be her husband? For those who did not believe in life after death, the question was nonsense.

Paul’s words on resurrection immediately diverted attention from him to this contentious dividing point between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

All of a sudden the Pharisees made an about-turn saying:

We find nothing wrong with this man.

And, in a deliberate provocation to the Sadducees who also did not believe in angels, the Pharisees said:

What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?

This could be a reference to Paul’s account to them earlier of his experience on the road to Damascus.

All objectivity was forgotten and the Pharisees, despite their earlier protestations, sided with Paul, ‘their man’, and a brawl ensued. It got so serious – and, remember, these were all ‘religious’ men! – that the tribune, fearing Paul would be torn to pieces, came to his rescue and put him back in the fortress.

That night, Paul received a vision in which he was assured that he would be protected in Jerusalem because it was the Lord’s wish that he give witness to the Gospel in Rome.

Perhaps Paul’s behaviour in this situation is a good example of Jesus’ advice to his disciples to be simple as doves and as wise as serpents! Paul was more than ready to suffer for his Lord, but he was no pushover.

While we, too, are to be prepared to give witness to our faith even with the sacrifice of our lives, and never to indulge in any form of violence against those who attack us, we are not asked to go out of our way to invite persecution or physical attacks. That is not the meaning of the injunction to carry our cross. Jesus himself often took steps to avoid trouble.

Joan of Arc defended herself as did Thomas More and, indeed as Jesus himself did during his trial:

If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (John 18:23)

But, like them, we will try never to evade death or any other form of hostility by compromising the central teaching of our faith.

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