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03 March 2024 // Acts 23

When Ministry Gets Tough
When Opposition Comes – vs. 1-11
When Opposition Gets Worse – vs. 12-22
God Provides – vs. 23-35

  • What did the message teach me about God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?
  • What did the message teach me about the human condition?
  • Is there anything I need to confess, repent, or be grateful for, because of this passage?
  • How do I need help in believing and applying this scripture to my life?
  • How can I encourage others with this passage?

 Miracle at Cape Finisterre
This chapter describes intervening providence, the way God can use a Roman commander and an unknown relative to protect a life. In The Bible in Spain, George Barrow tells of the miraculous deliverance he experienced aboard a ship fast driven toward the dangerous coast of Cape Finisterre:

We were now close to the rocks when a horrid convulsion of the elements took place. The lightning enveloped us as with a mantle; thunders were louder than the roar of a million cannons; the dregs of the ocean seemed to be cast up, and in the midst of all this turmoil, the wind, without the slightest intimation, veered right about and pushed us from the horrible coast faster than it had previously driven us to it. The oldest sailors on board acknowledged that they had never witnessed so providential an escape. I said from the bottom of my heart, “Our Father, Hallowed be Thy name” (Robertson, 441).

At the risk of overemphasis, let’s notice one more time the two very different types of “miracles” God used to deliver Paul. Claudius Lysias represents a visible and obvious intervention. God works through civil government which he has ordained not only to save Paul’s life, but to send him on his way to Rome. Paul’s nephew seems a less obvious touch of God’s hand, but surely Luke intends us to see it that way nonetheless.

In a world under the control of a sovereign God, things do not “just happen.” At least not things which represent life and death deliverance. Let’s not push the point too far. If we go to the grocery store and select 1 percent milk instead of 2 percent, we should hardly attribute that decision to a revelation from God or his power guiding the hand that picked up the carton. Events of this chapter hardly deal with such minimal consequence. Paul’s life was constantly at stake during the latter chapters of Acts, and surely the Holy Spirit intends us to see the prevailing winds of verse 11 blowing over the entire chapter: Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome. [1]

A.  Paul’s Astonishing Response (v. 5)
We join other Bible scholars for a moment to ponder what Paul could possibly have meant when he said, Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest. Let’s list the options and briefly discuss each one.

  1. Ananias was not dressed in his priestly robes. Remember, a quickly called meeting of the Sanhedrin was not official. All the council members may have attended dressed in “street clothes” so they all looked somewhat alike, especially since Paul started speaking before any presiding officer took charge of the meeting.

  2. Paul meant, “He doesn’t behave like a high priest so I won’t treat him as such.” Marshall takes this view when he says, “Paul was speaking in bitter irony: ‘I did not think that a man who could give such an order could be the high priest.’ This is the most probable solution, even though the ironic tone might have been conveyed more clearly” (Marshall, 364).

  3. Because of poor eyesight, Paul could not see far enough down the room to recognize Ananias. Teachers and preachers have made much of Paul’s eyes, much more than the Scripture tells us. Paul talks about some kind of illness in Galatians 4:13–14, and in verse 15 says, You would have torn out your eyes and given them to me, which has led many to believe he suffered from some form of eye disease. Certainly possible, but hardly enough of a case to support this view of our problem in Acts 23. Furthermore, Luke’s pen was quite ready to excuse his hero whenever possible, and it’s unlikely he would not have mentioned the eyesight problem here had that been the deciding issue.

  4. Paul spoke to Ananias as a person ignoring his office. This is possible, but certainly seems a bit stretched in the text. The Greek of verse 5 contains no tricky words, except that the definite article (the) does not appear. In reality, this view sounds like number 2, depicting Paul as saying something other than what he really meant.

  5.  Paul really did not recognize Ananias. At first glance it’s difficult for us to imagine a rabbi who did not keep up with changing events in the Sanhedrin, but this was no ordinary rabbi. He had maintained a rigorous travel schedule for twenty years, visiting Jerusalem only occasionally. During that time the high priestly office had passed not only from one person to another, but to different families. Even if Paul would have known the name of Ananias, he would have no occasion to recognize him by sight.

In a media age we find this conclusion difficult, but imagine yourself for a moment without television, newspapers, or news magazines. You know from letters or word of mouth who is majority leader in the House of Representatives, but you have never seen this person on television; you have never seen a picture in a newspaper or magazine; you only know the name. Now we gather seventy-one people in a room, and somebody tells a person near you to hit you in the face. Would you immediately conclude the order came from the Majority Leader?

We should know by now from C-Span that our Senate and House of Representatives, like the British Parliament, are scarcely more orderly than the Sanhedrin. People can shout anything at any time—and usually do. I take Paul at his word; I believe he did not recognize or realize that the first person who spoke in that meeting was the high priest. As soon as he did, he apologized and quoted Scripture to acknowledge his wrongdoing.

B.  Types of Vows (v. 12)

From the information Luke gives us we could picture these forty plotters dying of dehydration, starvation, or both. In fact they had taken a vow which need not be fulfilled. Longenecker explains:

The rabbis allowed four types of vows to be broken: “Vows of incitement, vows of exaggeration, vows made in error, and vows that cannot be fulfilled by reason of constraint” exclusions allowing for almost any contingency. The conspirators’ plan, though violating both the letter and the spirit of Jewish law pertaining to the Sanhedrin … was in keeping with the character of the high priest Ananias (Longenecker, 533–534). [2]

      1.   What testimony can you give to a nonbeliever that God is in control of your life?
      2.   What have you done for God that would cause anyone else to oppose you? How do you respond when people oppose you because you are a Christian?
      3.   Do you know people so dedicated to false beliefs or wrong religion that they are willing to kill people who oppose them? What causes people to be so fiercely loyal to falsehood? What would make you so fiercely loyal to the truth of Christ? [3]

[1] Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, vol. 5, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 394–395.
[2] Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, vol. 5, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 395–396.
[3] Kenneth O. Gangel, Acts, vol. 5, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 397.