These later chapters of Acts are almost reminiscent of a movie plot, with intrigue, conspiracies, and much more. But often the truth is far more profound than any art that we could think up on our own.
At this point, the action of Luke-Acts is narrowing again back towards Jerusalem, focusing not so much on the spread of the Gospel through Paul and his companions (which was indeed becoming more widespread as God continued to be at work in the early Church), but on the earthly consequences to Paul for his ministry work.
In some ways, though the accounts are full of interesting things, we may find it harder to relate to, since in our day and corner of the world we’re unlikely to be pulled before religious councils or civil governments simply for preaching the resurrection of Jesus. (Of course, others around the world are facing just that.) So we need to understand these last chapters of Acts not so much as devotional materials for our daily lives (though we certainly can learn from them!) but as descriptions of what missionaries have and can encounter because of Christian mission work, and how God works even (and, dare we say it, even especially) through the trials and tribulations of Christians who boldly proclaim the name of Jesus.
It’s helpful to look back one verse (10:30) to get the immediate context: after facing a mob, Paul is brought to the Sanhedrin (san-HEE-drin), the Jewish ruling council. Remember that the Roman government oversaw the country. Though the Jewish people had their own rules, regulations, customs, and leaders, they were bound to Roman rule. And so here the Roman authorities prevail upon the Sanhedrin to hear the case and give an opinion.
It’s likely that the Roman tribune was trying to decide how far to go with this. If the Sanhedrin didn’t think anything was wrong, then perhaps the tribune would simply release Paul and be done with it. We might think of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus; the Roman rulers maybe wanted to “wash their hands” of Paul. History records—even outside of the Bible, though we see it in the Bible as well—show that they had regular clashes with Jewish people and leadership.
23:1-2 Paul is struck because he dared to claim he had a clean conscience; maybe the high priest thought he was lying. Whatever the reason, it seems out of place, and Paul quickly confirms that.
23:3 Paul’s retort is swift and strong, accusing the person of hypocrisy. Paul wasn’t wrong in the content of his speech, though he was less than gracious in delivering it, especially since it seems like he may not know exactly who he was addressing. (More on that below.)
23:4-5 There’s debate among commentators over this whole exchange, wondering exactly what Paul knew and what he didn’t about who he was talking to. Various theories have been given, including Paul having poor eyesight (which we know he did from some of his letters), or this being a hastily arranged and more informal council (ref. 10:30) so official dress and custom may not have made it clear who was whom, or Paul simply not seeing who gave the order to strike him. In any case, Paul is immediately repentant for his overzealous reaction.
The larger point also stands: from just this opening exchange, it seems evident that Paul isn’t going to be given a fair hearing, and that the matter isn’t going to just go away. As we shall see, it’s going to go the other direction.
23:6-8 Paul was indeed not perfect, as we’ve just seen. But he was wise. Knowing that some of the council members were Pharisees like him, and that some were Sadducees who denied the possibility of a resurrection from the dead, Paul specifically points out that he’s on trial because of the idea of resurrection. Though he here doesn’t specifically mention Jesus, Jesus is still the foundation of the hope of resurrection that Paul does mention.
23:9 Whether Paul could have known the full extent of the reaction, his provocative response has its effect: to split the council members. The Pharisees allowed that Paul could be right, but the Sadducees couldn’t. And then actual physical violence breaks out. We might think that’s a huge stretch in a dignified chamber among mature leaders, but we’ve seen it happen throughout history, even in recent times.
23:10 The tribune, who’s watching over this, rescues Paul, and has his answer about whether this matter would be over soon or not.
23:11 God comes to Paul to bring him encouragement and strength. What Jesus spoke about Paul previously (9:15-16) is being fulfilled, and it’s not over yet.
23:12-15 We’ve heard about this many times before, that some are ready to kill Paul over this, and make efforts to make that happen. We get more detail here about the resolve of these particular people: they make an oath to kill Paul before even taking any more food or drink.
23:16-22 Paul’s nephew brings word of the planned ambush to him, and the word gets to the tribune. The tribune’s desire to protect Paul likely stems more from the fact that Paul is his prisoner and a Roman citizen and therefore his responsibility than any personal desire to protect Paul. But in any case we’ve seen the tribune generally act as a responsible leader in this case, wanting actual justice to be done.
23:23-24 The tribune provides for Paul’s safety, getting him out of Jerusalem with a huge armed guard and sending him to Rome. Though Paul never would have planned the journey to happen this way, it is what God told him would happen, that he would go to Rome to testify to the facts of the resurrection there as well (23:11).
23:25-30 We hear a summary of the happenings from the perspective of the tribune Claudius, addressed to the Roman governor in Caesarea, Felix. He’s doing his best to give Paul a fair hearing, which he would not get in Jerusalem. At the same time, he’s making himself look good by not being altogether truthful about exactly how and when he came to know Paul was a Roman citizen.
23:31-35 Arriving in Caesarea, Paul has a brief appearance before Felix and then is held under guard until the Jewish leaders, Paul’s accusers, arrive to present their case.