What is the Meaning of Acts 21.17–23.35

“Paul in Jerusalem”

Acts 21:17–23:35

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For this section, Luke slows down the narrative time. He dwells on the events in this section. He narrates them in detail. This section is the longest episode, but it only covers less than two weeks (from Acts 21:18, 26, 27; 22:30; 23:11, 12, 23, 31–32)

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Chapters 20:1-21:16 recounts weeks perhaps months of Paul’s travels. Chapters 24-26 is two years. Luke takes his time narrating these events in Jerusalem so as to focus on the hope of the resurrection from the dead, Acts 23:6.

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Paul arrives and is arrested in Jerusalem (21:17–40)

In verses 17-40, Paul visits with the Jerusalem elders and then he is arrested in the temple area.

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Paul and the Jerusalem elders (21:17–26)

Acts 21:17–26 17 And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 When he had greeted them, he [Paul] told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. [Acts of the risen Christ]

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Elders and brethren respond: Glorify the Lord, apostolic decree repeated. James and the elders now respond to the speech with action, counsel, and a rationale.

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First, the action.

20 And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; 21 but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come.

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These Jewish believers had been told that Paul taught Jews living among Gentiles to forsake Moses and Jewish customs.

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This is the third Jew-Gentile issue. Acts 11, the issue of baptizing and eating with Gentiles was solved. Acts 15, should Gentiles be circumcised for salvation? And here in Acts 21, this is the problem of… Should Jewish Christians forsake Jewish customs? Remember, Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), took a Nazarite(?) vow (18:18), and attended Jewish feasts (20:16). Paul is not telling Jews to forsake their Jewish customs. But he has taught Gentiles not to be troubled with the law of Moses. So this does create social pressure. As the Gentile mission is successful, the Jewish percentage of Christians decreases and creates this social pressure to forsake Jewish customs.

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And the brethren realize that Paul is not telling Jewish Christians to forsake Jewish customs. There is confusion as to what Paul has really taught. Gentiles don’t have to trouble themselves with the law of Moses, but Jews can observe their days.

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Colossians 2:16 16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths,

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If you want to go to that Jewish feast day, go for it.

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The solution is for Paul to physically show his support for Jewish Christians to keep their customs.

Second, the counsel.

23 Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. 24 Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.

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Paul is to join these four men and pay their expenses to keep their vow, likely a Nazarite vow. This will help shoot down the rumors that Paul is saying that Jews should forsake their customs. They go on to argue, this doesn’t contradict what the Jerusalem conference agreed on…

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25 But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”

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Again, Gentiles are not to trouble themselves with the Law. That’s still true; what Paul would do here doesn’t contradict what was decided then. Paul agrees…

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26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them.

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Paul seeks the unity of the church, particularly in this Jew-Gentile issue.

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Paul’s arrest in the temple area (21:27–40)

Luke reports the reaction of this, not of the Jewish believers, but of the Jewish community at large.

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Since Paul has arrived in Jerusalem, he was gladly welcomed (21:17), cautioned by James/elders (21:19-25), and now violence from the Jews (21:27-40).

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Acts 21:27 27 Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him

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Paul is never a free man in Acts.

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28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

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Reminds us of the charges against Stephen, Acts 6:13. According to Philo, bringing foreigners in the temple grounds for death. The temple even had a warning on it, “No one of another nation may enter within the fence and enclosures round the temple. Whoever is caught shall have himself to blame that his death ensues.”

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Did Paul really do this? No.

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29 (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)

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We’re used to certain results when there is mob violence…Acts 7:54–59 (stoning of Stephen); 13:50 (persecution against P+B); 16:19–23 (beaten); 17:5–6 (persecution of Jason); 18:17 (beating of Sosthenes); 19:29 (the seizing of Gaius)

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And so it’s no surprise …

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30 And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut.

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And never again to be opened to Paul in Acts. Paul narrowly escapes death…

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31 Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander (Claudius Lysias) and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

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He is arrested, just as Agabus predicted, 21:11, before ascertaining his identity…

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33 Then the commander came near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and he asked who he was and what he had done.

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And he could not learn his identity because of the confusion by the crowd…

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34 And some among the multitude cried one thing and some another. So when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be taken into the barracks.

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And the mob became so violent against Paul, that he had to be ushered away by the soldiers…

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35 When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob.

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Paul is rescued from the mob, but the point of the commander was to avoid a riot and to determine who Paul is and what exactly is going on.

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Similar to Luke 23:18 now, Luke records Paul’s persecution…

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36 For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him!”

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Jesus had no defense, but Paul requests to make a defense.

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37 Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

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The commander had jumped to some conclusions, but Paul corrects this and seeks permission to speak to the crowd…

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39 But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean [insignificant] city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.”

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Tarsus was a cultural and philosophical center in the Roman world.

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40 So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language [likely Aramaic], saying,

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Paul addresses the crowd and the tribune (Acts 22:1-29)

This is Paul’s first of three defense speeches in Acts 22-26. What does Paul defend? He defends himself and the gospel.

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Introduction 22:1-3

A story summarizing past events/facts about the issue 22:4-21

Responses 22:22-29

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Introduction

Paul attempts to gain the favor of his audience…

Acts 22:1–3 1 “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.”

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This language of the family, “brothers and fathers” is particularly striking to gain their attention and favor. But also when he speaks to them in the Hebrew language…

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2 And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent.

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Paul next chooses to speak of himself…

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3 “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia (origins), but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel (a well known Pharisee scholar), taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law (training), and was zealous toward God as you all are today (expresses virtue and identifies with his audience).

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This further gains favor with his audience…though he probably says under his breath … a “zeal without knowledge.”

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A story summarizing past events/facts about the issue 22:4-21

Here, Paul addresses four topics:

(1) His persecution of Christians (22:4–5)

(2) His vision on the road to Damascus (22:6–11)

(3) His conversion and Ananias’ role (22:12–16)

(4) His vision in Jerusalem (22:17–21)

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(1) His persecution of Christians (22:4–5)

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Acts 22:4–21 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, 5 as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.

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Paul’s persecution of the Way still identifies with his audience. Paul even received orders to travel to Damascus to continue his persecution.

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Ironically, Paul is now in chains!

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(2) His vision on the road to Damascus (22:6–11)

Paul recounts his conversion experience, his testimony.

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The setting…

6 “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, (vision…) suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 8 So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 “And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. 10 So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’

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This is nearly verbatim of his testimony story in chapter 9. The emphasis is Paul’s persecution of Jesus in particular. It’s interesting that Paul is persecuting Jesus as he persecutes the church. Why would that be? [church as body, complete sufferings of Christ; Col. 1:24]

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11 [Paul’s response…] And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus.

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(3) Ananias’ role in his conversion (22:12–16)

First, Ananias restores his sight.

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12 “Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, 13 came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him.

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Paul focuses on the Jewishness of Ananias rather than his being a Christian. This further helps Paul to identify with his audience and to give credibility to his testimony and preaching.

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Ananias now tells Paul his mission…

14 Then he [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. 15 For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.

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Here is the central portion of the speech. Ananias simply reports that God chose Paul: v14.

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Ananias next exhorts Paul to receive baptism…

16 And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’

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There are differences here with Acts 9, but this should not cause a problem. Paul is not the all knowing narrator. He simply retells the story as he understood it. [similar to your testimony; you may not get all the facts right]

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(4) His vision in Jerusalem (22:17–21)

the story parallels his vision on the road to Damascus.

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17 [setting…] “Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple,

the fact that Paul is praying in the temple emphasizes himself as being an observant Jew

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[vision proper…]

that I was in a trance 18 and saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.’

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This is the first time Paul reveals Christ’s prediction that those in Jerusalem would not accept his message about Christ.

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Paul continues by once again retelling how he participated in the persecution of Christians… This time in dialogue with Jesus.

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19 So I said, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You.

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And he also tells of his role in the persecution and martyrdom of Stephen.

20 And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’

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Through the mention of Stephen’s persecution, we’re prepared for what will happen to Paul next…

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Christ responds with a command…

21 Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’ ”

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to the Gentiles!? What’s wrong with that! Well, the Jews here don’t like it! They were listening just fine up until this point…

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Responses 22:22-29

Acts 22:22–29 22 And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!”

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Why? Because Paul is seen as forsaking Moses. Notice the frenzy! …

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23 Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air,

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Paul proves his Jewishness but they lost it when they saw his conviction to be an apostle to the Gentiles. It makes sense for Paul, but not for the crowd. While this was going on…

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24 the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him.

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They might not of been able to understand Aramaic so didn’t know what happened. Now they are going to beat the answers out of Paul. For having been brought into the barracks, it was a safe haven. But now, a place of torture.

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But wait…we as readers know this is unlawful…to beat a Roman citizen, uncomdemned…Paul mentions this outright this time …

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25 And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned [untried]?”

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Alarmed…

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26 When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.”

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27 Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” 28 The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.”

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Paul’s inherited citizen evidently gives him superiority to the commander, “but I was born….”

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29 Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.

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So the commander is going to seek a different way to find out what the problem actually is between the Jews and Paul.

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Paul before the Sanhedrin (22:30–23:11)

Wanting to end this, the commander brings Paul before the Sanhedrin.

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We have two parts: Paul confronts the high priest in verses 22:30-23:5 and Paul addresses the Sanhedrin 23:6-11.

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Acts 22:30–23:5 30 The next day, because he [the commander] wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him [Paul] from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them. 1 Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”

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Paul is saying that he’s been obedient to God by carrying out his calling to the Gentiles. High priest does not accept that.

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2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?” 4 And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” 5 Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”

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The repetition of the word “strike” draws attention to how offensive (and illegal, “contrary to the law”) this act is. Paul is being very frank with the high priest, calling him a “whitewashed wall.” Paul refers to him as a hypocrite (“whitewashed wall”), since the high priest seeks to judge Paul according to the law but breaks the law by commanding that Paul be struck.

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Paul is not to be treated as a criminal even before his case is heard, this too is against the law (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).

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Deuteronomy 1:16–17 16 “Then I commanded your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear the cases between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the stranger who is with him. 17 You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man’s presence, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.’

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Paul didn’t know?

1. He really didn’t know who that guy was. And apologizes.

2. Sarcasm, “I didn’t know that you were high priest, how could anyone tell!” but remorseful and apologizes.

3. Paul is probably not unaware of who the high priest is; since Paul had worked within this group before. It was more likely a statement of “I don’t recognize/acknowledge you as being high priest since you aren’t acting in accord with that office” but the OT does say not to do what I just did…, but you’re no high priest! [oida can mean “recognize”]

4. Paul’s been out of the loop for a while, high priest doesn’t have high priest clothes on, isn’t sitting on a high priest chair of sorts, and so Paul messes up and apologizes.

5. He’s blind? But would he not have recognized his voice?

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Now, Paul attempts to shift the focus from Paul’s Jewishness to the theological issue of the resurrection.

Acts 23:6–11 6 But when Paul perceived that 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; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”

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With this, Paul starts a controversy among the members of the Sanhedrin. But he does more than that. He will continue this theme later as well. It is important in its own right. (Acts 24:15, 21; 28:20).

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The debate begins however: the Sadducees deny it, but the Pharisees affirm it.

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7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. 8 For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.

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This is speaking specifically of resurrection as a doctrine, not the resurrection of Christ in particular. And it is successful, the Pharisee’s side with Paul …

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9 Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”

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Perhaps an angel or spirit did speak to him. And so the Pharisees provoke the Sadducees. Paul is now whisked away to the barracks for safety…

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10 Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.

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This scene, Paul before the Sanhedrin, ends with Paul receiving another vision…

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11 But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.”

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Paul is to be encouraged and Paul is to know that he will eventually testify of the gospel in Rome.

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Avoided Ambush (23:12-25)

the rest of this chapter tells of a failed plot to kill Paul.

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1. The plot plan (Acts 23:12-15)

2. The plot discovered by Paul’s nephew (23:16-22)

3. Roman official intervention to save his life (23:23-35)

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1. The plot plan (Acts 23:12-15)

Acts 23:12–15 12 And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy.

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Just because Paul is whisked away to the barracks, doesn’t mean the Jews are thinking, “ok, we’re good.” So these unnamed Jews approach the chief priests and elders, Sadducean, with a plan to kill Paul…

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14 They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, “We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul. 15 Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”

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They conspired together, but the plan is thwarted by Paul’s nephew (his sister’s son…)

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2. The plot discovered by Paul’s nephew (23:16-22)

Acts 23:16–22 16 So when Paul’s sister’s son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Then Paul called one of the centurions to him [Paul is a prisoner, he still may call a centurion to his aid…] and said, “Take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the commander and said, “Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to bring this young man to you. He has something to say to you.” 19 Then the commander took him by the hand, went aside, and asked privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?”

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20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more fully about him. 21 But do not yield to them, for more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him; and now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you.” 22 So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him, “Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me.”

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The nephew rats out the conspirators and the commander commands him to secrecy.

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3. Roman official intervenes to save his life (23:23-35)

Acts 23:23–35 23 And he called for two centurions, saying, “Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; 24 and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.”

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There is no question as to the response of the Roman officials. Seems like a huge operation! The letter contains information concerning previous attempts at getting to the bottom of the matter along with reasons for their action.

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25 He wrote a letter in the following manner: 26 Claudius Lysias, To the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. 28 And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. 29 I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. 30 And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him. Farewell.

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This is the second letter in the book of Acts. Remember the letter in Acts 15 about the Jerusalem Council. What does this show about Claudius Lysias?[1] He acted for Paul’s benefit 3 times (21:31–36; 23:10; 23:23–25). He clearly wants to know the facts about Paul. He knows that he’s not an insurrectionist from Egypt, that he’s a Roman citizen, and that there was a Jewish conspiracy to kill Paul. He knows he shouldn’t be in prison. Lysias omits the part about how he almost had him flogged. That he’s protecting his own self image is clear.

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The secret plot to kill Paul ends with his secret escape…

31 Then the soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris.

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Paul goes to the Roman governor, who makes a decision…

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32 The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. 33 When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. 34 And when the governor had read it, he asked what province he was from. And when he understood that he was from Cilicia, 35 he said, “I will hear you when your accusers also have come.” And he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium.

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So Paul is under house arrest at Herod’s headquarters.

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Go to BibleTrove.com Home Page from What is the Meaning of Acts 21.17–23.35

Go to New Testament Books Page

Go to Acts Main Page

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  1. Commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem who wrote a letter to the Roman procurator Felix concerning the apostle Paul (Acts 23:26) Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Claudius Lysias,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 478.

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