Acts 23

Acts 23 Devotional
by Pastor Lawrence

When Jesus sent out the disciples two by two into the towns and villages throughout Israel to preach that the kingdom of heaven was near, he told them: “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Well, the apostle Paul has already been brought before local councils and synagogues, but now it is time for him to appear before governors and kings, before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and then before the Roman Empire itself. And he will be required to speak in their presence and to rely upon the Lord for help, for he would be like a sheep among wolves. And in our text this morning, he is learning to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.

After rousing the contempt of the Jews in giving his testimony unto Christ the Roman commander steps in in order to avoid another riot in Jerusalem. The official doesn’t really even know what Paul was saying since he spoke in the Hebrew tongue, but he thinks it must have been pretty bad to cause such a ruckus in the city. Because the crowd was so unruly, he couldn’t get a clear word out of them, so he orders his men to flog Paul to get some answers out of him. This flogging was to be done with a leather whip studded with sharp pieces of bone and lead, the same type of whip that was used on Jesus. Very few men survived this type of flogging and if they did, they would have permanent injuries. Thus, Paul acting wise as serpent but innocent as a dove questions the centurion as he is tying him to the whipping post, saying, ““Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”

Certainly, it was legal for them to flog a Jew, but not a Roman citizen. Cicero had said that it was a misdeed to even bind a Roman citizen, but it was an actual crime for him to be beaten. So, when Paul stated his citizenship, the centurion was alarmed and immediately reported it to the commander. “What are you going to do? He said, “this man is a Roman citizen.” At first the commander took this in stride, thinking perhaps the apostle Paul had bribed his way into Roman citizenship just as he had. For, he told Paul that he had to pay a big price for his citizenship. But Paul replied, “I was born a citizen.” And immediately the armed guards withdrew and the commander himself was afraid, for he had put Paul in chains, and was preparing to flog him.

So, instead, the commander assembles the Sanhedrin that Paul might stand before them. And Paul begins his opening statement to them declaring his own righteousness saying, “I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” This declaration did not sit right with the high priest at all so he ordered those standing nearby to strike Paul in the mouth. Yet, once again, Paul was aware of his rights, not as a Roman citizen this time, but as a Jew. The Law itself stated that “He who strikes the cheek of an Israelite, strikes, as it were, the glory of God.” So, Paul responds, saying, “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!” But Paul did not know that he was speaking to the high priest and so repented of his hasty words.

But even with this setback, Paul was still seeking to be as innocent as a dove while still acting as wise as a serpent. For Paul, knowing his audience well, understood what divided the Sadducees from the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in the oral traditions of the law, whereas the Sadducees only accepted the written law of the Pentateuch. The Pharisees believed in angels and spirits, but the Sadducees did not. And most importantly, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees were agnostics in this regard. So Paul claimed to be a Pharisee, even the son of a Pharisee and that he was standing on trial because of his hope in the resurrection of the dead, particularly, the resurrection of Christ, though he did not state it at the time. He knew that this could only help his cause. And rightly so, for a dispute broke out between the two parties and the Pharisees began shouting out, “we find nothing wrong with this man. What if an angel or a spirit has spoken to him?” Again, the situation turned to anarchy. The holy priests and elders became so violent with each other that the commander was afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them. And since he was a Roman citizen still under their protection, he ordered the troops to go down and take Paul once again into the barracks. Keep in mind, this is now the third time, the Roman commander has saved Paul’s life. But he still does not know what Paul is accused of and he still is responsible for this Roman citizen.

Then, once again, the Jews are seeking to kill him with a secret plot and Paul finds out about it through his nephew, so Paul, wise as a serpent, immediately has the boy inform the Roman commander who quickly ushers him out of the city under the protection of his soldiers.

What is really interesting about these events is how the apostle Paul continues to use the law of the land in his favor. Surely, he knows God’s Law but he also knows his rights as a Jew and as a Roman citizen as well, as uses those rights to his advantage whenever there is an opportunity of doing so. Of course, God was helping him and comforting him during this particular time of persecution, but the Lord had also given him the mind of Christ and as a result, he was enabled to stand freely before his enemies all along the way to accomplish all that the Lord had entrusted to him. Satan could not outwit him in these moments, for through the help of the spirit he not only had the innocence of a dove but better wisdom than that of the serpent.