THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART FORTY-ONE

                                          SERMON DELIVERED ON 11-23-19 

       Last time we were together we left Paul in the custody of Roman soldiers who were protecting him from a mob of Jews in Jerusalem who were out to kill him. These Roman soldiers initially treated Paul rather harshly but when Paul identified himself as being a Roman citizen they virtually treated him with tender loving care. Wanting to find out why it was that the Jews were in such an uproar about Paul, the Roman authorities ordered the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to assemble and have Paul stand before them and plead his case.

       Acts 22:30: The next day, since the commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them. 

       Paul began his defense before the Sanhedrin by saying that he had fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience to that day.  Apparently this didn’t set well with the high priest Ananias.  Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Historically the high priest Ananias was known for cruelty and violence. When the war with Rome broke out, Ananias was assassinated by his own people.

       The first century historian Josephus, in his antiquities, writes that Ananias confiscated for himself the tithes given the ordinary priests and gave lavish bribes to Romans and also Jews. Josephus reveals that Ananias was a brutal and scheming man, hated by Jewish nationalists for his pro-Roman policies. Josephus records that when the war with Rome began in A.D. 66, the nationalists burned Ananias’ house and he was forced to flee to the palace of Herod the Great in the northern part of Jerusalem.  Ananias was finally trapped while hiding in an aqueduct on the palace grounds and was killed along with his brother Hezekiah.

       So after being hit in the month at the order of the high priest Ananias, here is how Paul responded:

       Acts 23: 3: "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!" 

       It is interesting that Paul used the term whitewashed wall. This is very similar to language used by Jesus when he was laying into the religious leaders as recorded in Matthew 23.

       Matthew 23:27:  "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.

       Calling someone a whitewashed wall or characterizing them as a whitewashed tomb is akin to calling them a hypocrite. A hypocrite is one who behaves one way publicly while behaving quite differently in private or when with those who share in their hypocrisy.  To outsiders they look good but their real character or lack thereof is often hidden from view.  Such hypocritical behavior was apparently common among the religious leaders of Christ’ and Paul’s day as unfortunately has been true to one extent or another throughout human history.

       Now we have seen throughout our journey through Acts that Paul was not one to take a back seat to anyone when he felt he was in the right. It probably was in part because of his feisty nature that Paul got himself in trouble with those who opposed him.  However, when he was wrong about something he owned up to it. When he reacted the way he did to the high priest, some standing by advised him it was the high priest he was addressing and said to him "You dare to insult God's high priest?"

       Apparently Paul didn’t know it was the high priest that ordered him to be struck.  When this was brought to his attention he responded by saying, "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.' "

       It’s been questioned how it could have been that Paul didn’t recognize that Ananias was the high priest. Being the high ranking Pharisaic Jew he had been it appears rather odd he won’t know it was the high priest that addressed him. One possible reason that has been offered is that it is believed Paul had poor eyesight as suggested in Galatians 6:11 where he writes “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”  It’s possible he didn’t properly see the man who ordered him to be struck.  Another reason is that Paul had been away from Jerusalem for a number of years and may simply have been unaware of whom the high priest was at the time.

       At any rate, Paul admitted his error and publicly brought his behavior toward the high priest into line with Mosaic Law.  He quoted from Exodus 22:28 where it is written "Do not blaspheme God or curse the ruler of your people.”   So here we find Paul referencing Old Covenant Law as the basis for proper behavior toward the high priest.

       Now we know that the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New Covenant. We also know that a number of regulations found in the Old Covenant are no longer extant under the New Covenant. I covered that issue in some detail earlier in this series when we discussed    the decision made at the Jerusalem conference as to what was required of Gentile converts to Christianity.

       However, it must be understood that many regulations contained in the Old Covenant had to do with how we morally and ethically are to behave toward God and man.  Such moral/ethical behavior is valid for us under the New Covenant as it was under the Old.  We are as obligated to not blaspheme God or curse those in rulership today as was true in Paul’s day and as was true in ancient Israel.

       While the overriding law of the New Covenant is often seen as the Law of Love. That Law of Love has many dynamics.  It covers a wide range of behaviors toward God and man. Jesus covered many of these behaviors in His Sermon on the Mount.  Paul covers many of these behaviors in his writings.  When you carefully read about these behaviors, you will often find they are taken from the very moral/ethical law found in the Old Covenant.

       An overriding require under the New Covenant is to love your neighbor as yourself.  Well guess what. This was an overriding requirement under the Old Covenant as well.  In Leviticus 19:18 we find instruction not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but to love your neighbor as yourself.  When you read of moral/ethical law under the New Covenant, you will invariably find its parallel in Old Covenant Law.

       When I am through with this series on Acts, I just may begin a series on Old Covenant moral/ethical law and show how it applies to us today.

       Getting back to Paul we find that after his dust up with the high priest, he decided to practice some politics.  He perceived that some in the audience were of the religious party of the Sadducees and the others were of the religious party of the Pharisees. He knew that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection from the dead or in angels nor spirits whereas the Pharisees believed in all three.

       Acts 23:6: Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." 

       When Paul said this, it is recorded that a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the assembly was divided.

       Before going on with the narrative in Acts 23, let’s here insert a little information as to groups we see mentioned in the narrative of Acts 23.  We see Paul appearing before the Sanhedrin.  Who were the Sanhedrin? 

       The Sanhedrin was the supreme governing body of the Jewish religious system at the time of Christ and also in earlier Jewish history. From the dozen or so times this word appears in the NT, it is evident that the Sanhedrin consisted of chief priests, various elders, scribes, lawyers, and others learned in Jewish law.  This group was usually made up of 71 individuals and represented a mix of those belonging to either the religious party of the Sadducees or Pharisees.

       Sadducees were the aristocrats of the ruling Jewish hierarchy. They were known as much for their wealth and corruption as for their religious devotion.  Archaeologists have uncovered a few ancient Sadducee homes and have described them as the most opulent discovered to date in Jerusalem. 

       In the first century, Sadducees were in control of the Temple and the Sanhedrin. The leader of the Sanhedrin was almost always a Sadducee. Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas are two High Priests named in the New Testament who were Sadducees.

       Sadducees saw only the first five books of the Torah as canonical. They rejected the Pharisee’s teaching that oral tradition was equal to Scripture in authority. They were very exacting as to Levitical practice.  They didn’t believe in resurrection of the dead or in an afterlife.  They didn’t believe in the existence of angels, demons heaven or hell.  They firmly believed in free will and that God is not at all involved in human lives. They believed that this life was all there was.

     In contrast to the Sadducees, Pharisees believed in resurrection of the dead and an afterlife. According to first century historian Josephus, they believed in the immorality of the soul.  They believed in angels and demons. Not only did they accept the Torah as authoritative, they also believed in the authority of oral law which is the various interpretations of the Torah that had come down over the centuries.  They had a mixed view of predestination and free will.

       We know that Paul was of the party of the Pharisees and as such would have embraced the theological views of that group.  As already noted, the Pharisees believed in the immortality of the Soul. Josephus wrote that  the Pharisees believed "that every soul is imperishable, but that only those of the righteous pass into another body, while those of the wicked are, on the contrary, punished with eternal torment" -Josephus Wars 2.8.14.

       When Paul became a Christian, it is very likely he examined his Pharisaic beliefs and had to make some changes. One area of change involved the apparent Pharisaic belief in the immortality of the soul. This change is seen in a number of comments Paul made regarding mortal and immortal.

       In Romans 2:7 Paul see immortality as something we seek.  In Romans 8:11 Paul writes of God giving life to our mortal body. In 1 Corinthians 15: Paul writes that it is through resurrection that the mortal puts on immortality.  He says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 5.  In a letter to Timothy, Paul writes that God has brought immortality to light through the Gospel.

       So it is apparent that Paul did not continue to believe in the resident immortality of the soul but as something we can attain to through the Christ event. Since the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pharisees likely picked it up from pagan philosophy.  The well known pagan philosopher Plato taught this doctrine in his work the Phaedo.       

Other religious/political sects:

       In addition to the Sadducees and Pharisees who are referred to often in the NT Scriptures, there were several other religious/political groups not mentioned in Scripture but who were extant at the time of the developing Christian community.  There were the Essenes.  This group was extremely strict in their observance of the Torah. They were noted for communal ownership of property.  Marriage was permissible but not encouraged. They attributed everything to fate.  It is believed it was the Essenes who lived at Qumran and authored the dead seas scrolls that were found in the caves above Qumran between 1946 and 1956.

       Finally, there was the religious/political group known as Zealots.  These folks were very committed to the Torah and very hostile to the Roman governance over the Jews.  They opposed paying taxes to Caesar.  They were opposed to the use of the Greek language in Israel.  Some Zealots turned to terrorism and the killing of fellow Jews who were perceived as friendly to Rome. These terrorist became known as dagger men.  The Zealots played a leading role in the war against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the temple in AD 70.  It is believed it was primarily Zealots who committed suicide rather than be taken prisoners by Rome at Masada in AD 73

       One of the twelve disciples of Jesus was called Simon the zealot.  Very little is know about this disciple and it is unclear whether being called zealot meant he was a member of the party known as Zealots or just a person very zealous about what he believed.

       At any rate these are the religious/political parties extant among the Jews during the first century AD.  Here in Acts 23 we see Paul using to his advantage the differing beliefs between the Sadducees and Pharisees.  He virtually pitted these two religious parties against each other.  When Paul identified himself as a Pharisee and a believer in the resurrection of the dead, here is what happened.

       Acts 23:9-10:  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?" 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.

       So Paul’s appearance before the Sanhedrin didn’t last long. As a side note here, it is rather interesting that the Pharisee Paul was chosen by God to be a prime mover in the creation and development of the Christian community. It was with the Pharisees that Jesus seemingly had the most conflict.

       In reading through the Gospels, it is largely the Pharisees who are challenging Jesus and were so incensed by what Jesus taught that they are seen as out to kill Him.  The Gospels show Jesus had many adversarial interactions with the Pharisees. Jesus calls them hypocrites and white washed tombs in Matthew 23.  Yet now we see the Pharisee Paul become a Christian convert and mightily used by God to advance the Gospel.

       Going on in Acts 23, it is recorded that while Paul was being held by the Romans he had a vision of the Lord saying to him, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome."  It is then recorded that some 40 Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.  They worked out a scheme with the Sanhedrin to have Paul brought to the Sanhedrin by the Roman Commander but planned to ambush and kill him before he got there.

       However, the son of Paul's sister heard of this plot, and went into the barracks and told Paul.  So apparently Paul had relatives living in the area.  Upon getting this information, Paul called one of the centurions and asked that the young man be taken to the commander.  Upon hearing about the Jewish plot, the commander ordered that a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen take Paul to Caesarea at 9:00 that night.

         This was a big deal.  For the Roman commander to order a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to take Paul to Caesarea by night reveals that this commander saw this situation with Paul and the Jews as a major threat to the peace and security of the region.  Since the Roman commander was responsible for the stability of the area under his command, he wasn’t taking any chances. Furthermore, he knew Paul was a Roman citizen. Therefore, he had the legal obligation and responsibility to protect him at all costs.  Along with the Paul, the following letter was sent to Governor Felix of Caesarea.      

       Acts 23:26-30: Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment. When I was informed of a plot to be carried out against the man, I sent him to you at once. I also ordered his accusers to present to you their case against him.

       Acts 23 ends with Paul being handed over to Governor Felix along with the letter.  The Governor read the letter and agreed to hear his case once his accusers arrived.  He then ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod's palace.  This was one of several palaces that had been built by Herod the Great who was the king over Judea when Christ was born.  

       Acts 24 begins with recording that five days after Paul had arrived in Caesarea, the high priest Ananias came from Jerusalem to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus.  Paul was called in and attorney Tertullus proceeded to lay out the charges against Paul before Governor. Felix.  They began by trying to butter up Governor Felix.

       Acts 24:2b-3:  "We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude.

       Tertullus then proceeds to lay out the case against Paul.  He informs Felix that they have found Paul to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world and that he is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple and that is why they seized him.

       I have always found it strange how a speaker, no matter what he may be saying, can be accused of starting a riot. Isn’t it the people listening to the speaker that start the riot?  If I am listening to a speaker and don’t agree with him, I can choose to walk away and leave it at that or I can choose to peacefully engage the speaker with a response.  If I choose to be rambunctious and become abusive toward the speaker, isn’t it I and other like me who am starting a riot?  Riots are generally the result of people violently reacting to what a speaker is saying.  When Paul is accused of stirring up riots, it was the people’s reaction to Paul that caused the riot.  Paul wasn’t going about trying to create a riot. 

       Paul is accused of being a ringleader of the Nazarene sect.  Because Jesus had grown up in Nazareth, he became known as Jesus of Nazareth and his followers became known as a Nazarene sect.  When Joseph and Mary and the Christ child returned from their escape to Egypt they found out that a relative of Herod the Great was reigning in his stead and decided it was best not to return to Judea and moved to Nazareth in Galilee instead.  Jesus being called a Nazarene is seen by Matthew as prophesied.

       Matthew 2:23: and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

       Now there is nothing in the prophetic writings where it is prophesied that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. The word Nazareth or Nazarene doesn’t appear in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Matthew employs the plural word prophets as though more than one prophet said this. From where did Matthew get this information?  Some have conjectured that Jesus being called a Nazarene was a sarcastic term applied to Him.

       There is evidence that first century Galilee was considered a second rate city and its residents as backward.  When the disciple Philip found Nathanael and told him that they had have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael answered,   "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" 

       However, Nazareth has been identified as possibly being home to a Roman garrison in the first century.  Several years ago archaeologists uncovered an almost perfectly preserved giant Roman bathhouse from 2,000 years ago, the time Jesus lived in Nazareth. It is believed this giant bath house could only have been built for a Roman city or to service a significant garrison town.  This discovery is making scholars reconsider their previous belief that first century Nazareth was a small backwards town.

       Some have proposed that Jesus was a Nazirite which means he took a vow to be set apart for God. The matter of taking a Nazirite vow is seen in Numbers chapter six.  It is seen as a vow of separation to YHWH.  The person taking such vow could not drink any fermented beverage, could not cut their hair for the duration of the vow and could not go near a dead body.  There nothing in the NT indicating Jesus ever doing this.  We see Jesus drinking fermented beverages and going near dead bodies. It is apparent Jesus being called a Nazarene has no relationship to He having taken a Nazirite vow.

       In an attempt to make sense out of Matthew’s statement about the prophets predicting Jesus would be called a Nazarene when such prediction is not seen in the prophets, some NT scholars believe Matthew was seeing prophecy being fulfilled that spoke of Jesus being despised and not respected as seen in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. In other words the moniker “Nazarene” is believed to be seen by Matthew as being used as derogatory of Jesus.  Whether or not this is the case is questionable.  It is evident Jesus was commonly seen as a Nazarene or as being from Nazareth.

       After being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin to be tried.  Peter followed him into the courtyard of the high priest and was warming himself in front of a fire when a servant girl said to him; “You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus."  When Jesus was resurrected an apparent angel said to the women at the tomb, "Don't be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

       Jesus is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth 17 times in the NT Scriptures. When Jesus was crucified, Pilate had the sign above the cross read “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”  Now, Pilate probably had this posted derisively to get the goat of the Jews. The chief priests protested to Pilate and said the sign should say that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews whereupon Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

       It is interesting that Jesus apparently identified Himself to Paul as Jesus of Nazareth.  When Paul rehearsed his conversion experience before the Jews as we covered in Acts 22, he relates how upon asking who it was that was speaking to him the response was “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”  When Peter was confronted by the cripple at the temple gate he said “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."

       This all being said, it appears the moniker Nazarene or the virtual title “Jesus of Nazareth” was not being used in a pejorative or derogatory manner which still leaves open the question as to where Matthew got the information that Jesus being called a Nazarene was prophesied.  Such prophecy could have been recorded in documents that did not become part of the canonized OT.  It could have come down orally.  We just don’t know.  

       Next week we will return to the trial of Paul before Governor Felix.