Acts 23Here we have observable the apostle's sober and ingenuous profession and protestation, Ananias's insolent and injurious injunction, St. Paul's zealous answer and contestation.
Observe, 1. The apostle's sober and ingenuous profession and protestation, ver. 1. I have lived in all good conscience unto this day: that is, during his continuance in the Jewish religion, and since his conversion to the Christian religion, he had walked uprightly, and according to his knowledge, and the light of his conscience.
But had Paul a good conscience when he persecuted the Christians?
Answ. He went according to his conscience when he persecuted: he verily thought he did God service in so doing, and it was not any selfish end or sinister design he propounded to himself, but zeal for his religion provoked him to persecution, Phil 3:6. Concerning zeal, persecuting the church. It is certainly a man's duty to follow his conscience; but then it is as much his duty to inform his conscience, as it is to follow it; I have lived in all good conscience until this day.
Here note, The apostle sets forth the goodness of his conscience; these four ways.
1. From the goodness of his conversation: I have lived. A good conversation is the best evidence of a good conscience. God doth not measure men's sincerity by the tides of their affections, but by the constant bent of their resolutions, and the general course and tenor of their conversations. Every man's conscience is as his life is.
2. From the generality of his care and obedience: I have lived in all good conscience: if it be not a conscience all good, it is no good conscience at all. Herod had some good conscience, he did many things; but the apostle went farther, he lived not in some, but in all good conscience.
3. The apostle sets forth the goodness of his conscience from the integrity of it towards God: I have lived in all good conscience before God. Many a man's conscience passeth for a good conscience before men, and perhaps before himself, which yet are not good before God, the judge of conscience.
4. From his continuance and constancy, Until this day; I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.It is not sufficient to begin a good life, and to have a good conscience; but we must keep it too, and that all our days, even to our last day.
Happy man! that can truly say at his dying day, I have lived in all good conscience until this day.
Observe, 2. As the apostle's solemn protestation, so the high-priest's injurious injunction: Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.
Here note, What is the reward and portion of a good conscience from the world: to be smitten either on the mouth, or with the mouth; either with the fist, or with the tongue. There is nothing so enrages men of wicked consciences, as the profession and practice of a good conscience doth: but better ten blows on the face than one on the heart; better a thousand blows for a good conscience, than one from it.
Observe, 3. St. Paul's zealous answer and contestation, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall.
Where note, 1. That although the apostle doth not smite again as he was smitten, though he did not smite Ananias on the cheek, as he smote him on the mouth, yet he gives him a check and sharp reproof for his violence and injustice.
Thence learn, That Christian patience, though it binds a man's hands, yet it doth not always bind his tongue; though it lays a law upon a man to forbear violence, yet it lays not a law upon him to enjoin him silence. St. Paul though he did not strike, yet durst speak; though he held his hands, yet he did not hold his peace. Though religion pinions a man's arms from striking, yet it doth not seal up a man's lips from speaking; but we may declare both our own innocency, and others' injustice.
Note, 2. St. Paul doth not say, God shall judge thee: or God shall plague thee; but God shall smite thee: denoting, that as there is always equity, so sometimes a retaliation in the executions of divine justice, or a recompensing like for like. God sometimes returns smiting for smiting, so that the sinner is forced to cry out, As I have done, so God hath requited me.
God punishes sometimes in the same kind, sometimes in the same manner, sometimes in the same place; that sinners are forced to cry out, Righteous art thou, O Lord! and just are thy judgments!
Observe here, That Ananias the high-priest having commanded the apostle unheard and uncondemned to be smitten, the apostle denounces the just judgments of God upon him for the same; yet not in a way of imprecation, but prediction; rather foretelling what would come, than wishing or desiring that it should come,; not in a way of revenge, or recompensing evil for evil, but in a way of ministerial reproof, which the standers-by call reviling. Revilest thou God's high-priest?
Thence learn, That profane sinners look upon the faithful reproofs which the ministers of God give them for their lewdness, to be no better than revilings; they think we revile them, if we do but rebuke them; whereas, though we chasten sinners with the rod of reproof, we dare not sting them with the scorpion of reproach.
Several interpretations are given by expositors of these words, I wist not, brethern, that he was the high-priest.
1. Some think that St. Paul did not really know the high-priest, having been gone so long from Jerusalem; and the high-priest being made yearly.
Others say, 2. That there being a great throng about him, the apostle could not distinctly hear who it was that spake to him.
3. Some understand it of absolute denial, that any such office as that of high-priest ought then be in being. As if the apostle had said, "I do not own any man to be a lawful high-priest now, that function being abolished and disannulled at the coming of the Messias."
Again, 4. Others understand the words, as if the apostle denied him to be the lawful high-priest, and one of God's appointing, he being one of man's making, having purchased the place with money; for the power and coveteousness of the Romans put a new high-priest every year to officiate: accordingly, St. Paul, knowing this man to be none of the posterity of Aaron, but brought in by sordid gain, might justly disown him to be the high-priest.
Lastly, there are who affirm, That the apostle did not certainly see and know the high-priest; and that his meaning is, "That having received such unjust usage in the court as to be openly smitten in the time of hearing, he did not know, that is, he did not consider who it was that spake to him, and therefore spake hastily and unadvisedly."
The scripture will not bear us out to use ill words to magistrates, should we be, as St. Paul here was, ill used by them; yet are magistrates no more to be flattered than they are to be reproached. The greatest may be reproved, and with a gracious severity told of their faults; and St. Paul did no more. It is no sin to tell the judgments of God, which will certainly come upon injurious and unjust oppressors.
Observe here, The innocent policy which the apostle uses for his own preservation: he, perceiving that the council before whom he stood were not all of a piece, but patched up of Pharisees and Sadducees, he publicly professes himself a Pharisee by education, and of that persuasion now in point of the resurrection.
Thus at once he cast in a bone of contention between the Sadducees who denied the resurrection, and the Pharisees who owned it; and obliged the Pharisees, at least as to that opinion, to take his part, and so by pious prudence he turned their opposition against him upon one another: that by setting them at variance he might the better escape.
Learn hence, that an innocent and prudent policy may warrantably be made use of by the members and ministers of Jesus Christ, without any blemish to their holy profession, in order to our preservation from the hands of persecutors; a serpentine subtilty may be made use of, together with a dovelike innocincy. Thus did St. Paul here: when he perceived that one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out, &c.
Observe here, 1. How sad a state, and how bad a condition, was the Jewish church now in, when in the Sanhedrin, or great council, men had power and authority, who believed in no life but this; and what hypocrites were the Pharisees, who could thus incorporate and embody with damnable heretics, the Sadducees, and yet at the same time hated and persecuted the Christians. The Sadducees were so far from believing that there was any spirit, that they blasphemously maintained, that God himself was no spiritual, but only corporeal being. When men sin with obstinacy against supernatural light, God justly withdraws from them even natural light, and suffers them to fall from one degree of error to another.
Observe, 2. How partiality will change men's judgments, according to the interest of a party or faction. The Pharisees were bitter enemies to the apostle; but, because he owned himself of their sect, they instantly took part with him, and cry, We find no fault with him. The feuds about religion are commonly the sharpest feuds; men are more fond of the notions of their brains, than they are of the issue of their bodies. Odia Religiosorum sunt acerbissima; "Religious hates are hottest."
Observe, 3. How the dissensions of God's adversaries oft-times become the deliverance of God's servants. Thus here the Pharisees and Sadducees quarrel about the resurrection: the Pharisees justify St. Paul, and tell them that oppose him, "They are in danger of fighting against God." Thus God when he pleaseth, can find or make patrons of his people, and raise up friends from amongst his very enemies, to defend his cause.
St. Paul was now in the midst of difficulty and danger; but observe how seasonably God steps in for his succour and deliverance: First, he stirs up that heathen tribune, the chief captain Lysias, who was present at the trial, to see his prisoner have fair play; the Lord stirs up this man to rescue the apostle from the hands of violence, by which he was in danger of being pulled in pieces, and he is returned safe unto the castle again.
O how God's encouragements evermore accompany his commands! His faithful servants, when they suffer for him, shall certainly be delivered by him, either in trouble or out of trouble.
Secondly, God comforts the suffering apostle with his own presence, and with the gracious manifestations of his special favour; The Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul.--
Where note, That if the Lord stand by, and be graciously present with his servants, in a suffering hour, it is no matter how many and how mighty they be that do withstand them, and appear against them. No doubt these words, Be of good cheer, Paul, turned the apostle's prison into a palace, and enabled him to bid a bold defiance to all the devilish designs of the Jews in Jerusalem against him; having got such good security for his safety, even from God himself, in the faith of which our apostle holily triumphs, saying, If God be for us, who can be against us: Rom 8:31. That is, none can be against us, either safely or successfully. The presence of God with his suffering servants outweighs all their discouragements.
Observe here, 1. A barbarous and bloody plot, a cursed combination and conspiracy, against the life of the innocent and useful apostle: no sooner was it daylight, but the wicked Jews bind themselves by an oath, never to eat or drink more, until they eat the apostle's flesh, and drink his blood. Thus the wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth, Ps 37:12.
Observe, 2. The numbers which were engaged in this conspiracy: more than forty, they all agreed as one man.
Lord, how numerous, how unanimous, how resolute and outrageous, are the enemies of thy holy religion, to carry on their cursed contrivances for the extirpation of it!
Thus it was here; these enemies were numerous, more than forty. The devil's designs never miscarry for want of fit instruments: he has a party ever ready to oppose the gospel in every place.
And as they were unanimous, as well as numerous, they combined together in one cursed bond: here was unity, but not an unity in the truth, but a conspiracy against it; here was the agreement and friendship, but it was like that of Herod and Pilate against Christ, and not for him; and they were resolute and outrageous, They bound themselves under a curse, under a bloody vow, to pursue their purpose of murdering the apostle. It has been the old policy of the enemies of the church to oblige and bind themselves by oaths and execrations, by leagues and associations, to carry on their wicked and bloody designs against the church. They were more than forty which made this conspiracy.
Observe, 3. The quality of the persons which were engaged in this bloody purpose: they were the Sadducees, who denied the immortality of the soul, and a life after death. And they apply themselves to the high-priest, and Sanhedrin or great council, not doubting of his and their readiness to join with them.
O what a low ebb was the Jewish religion now at! What an high-priest and priesthood was there, that must head a conspiracy of murdering Sadducees! How great was the degeneracy of the Jewish church, when their chief priests were thus ready to comply with, and contribute their best assistance to, such a cruel crew of cut-throats and bloody assassins! but they had almost filled up the measure of their sins, and their final destruction was near approaching.
Observe, lastly, What craft and cruelty, what fraud and force, are here found and combined together in the church's enemies. The council must court the captain, that he bring down his prisoner, as though they would enquire something more perfectly concerning him. Thus was the plot against the apostle's life laid craftily as well as cruelly: under a pretence of having the prisoner re-examined, they contrive to have him brought down from the castle, and in his way to the council they combined together for his destruction.
Lord, abate the power of the church's enemies, since their malice cannot be abated!
Note here, 1. That no conspiracies are or can be kept secret from God, who can both detect them, and defeat them at his pleasure.
Note, The remarkable providence of God in bringing this conspiracy to the knowledge of St. Paul's sister's son: he was perhaps by, when the conspirators were contriving the mischief, and overheard them. It is happy for the innocent, that the malicious cannot keep their own counsel. God oftentimes causeth the tongues of his people's enemies to fall upon themselves, and they discover the wicked purposes of their hearts, which none but themselves were privy to.
Note, 3. How the hearts of all men are in the hand of the Lord, and how he turneth them as he pleaseth. This is evident from the chief captain's great humanity towards St. Paul, and his courteous humility towards his sister's son, taking the youth by the hand, and as readily giving him both audience and dispatch; such a sovereignty and dominion has God over the hearts of men, that he can instantly incline them as he pleaseth, and make even enemies become benefactors at his pleasure.
Observe here, 1. How wonderfully God overruled the heart of the chief captain, in that he took care both of St. Paul, and the young man also: he bids the young man depart; for had it been known that he had discovered the conspiracy, they had conspired against his life; and had not the chief captain conveyed away the apostle, his enemies, who had been disappointed in this, would have made further attempts against his life. Thus wonderfully doth the good providence of God work for his servants' preservation.
Observe, 2. What a strong guard does God raise and set round the apostle for his defence and safety, even a guard of heathen soldiers, to secure him from the Jewish rage; two hundred soldiers, threescore and ten horsemen, and spearmen two hundred.
What a royal life-guard was here raised for the apostle's safe-conduct to Cesarea! None of all these soldiers intended him any good; but God can make bad persons show kindness to his good servants, and do his will by them who know nothing of his mind and will.
When God has work to do, he will find instruments to do it by. And though we see them not, yet are they never the farther off.
The chief captain Lysias having sent St. Paul under a strong guard to Cesarea by night, where Felix the Roman governor resided, he writes a letter to acquaint Felix with the accusation laid to the prisoner's charge.
In which letter observe, 1. The title given to the Roman governor, Most excellent: Claudius Lysias to the most excellent governor Felix, sendeth greeting.
Titles of civil honour and respect given to persons in place and power are agreeable to the mind and will of God. There is an honour which belongs to men, with respect to their internal qualifications. He that is very honourable as to his place, may not deserve any honour as to his worth; yet ought he to be honoured so far as his place requireth.
Observe, 2. How God overruled the heart and pen of this captain, Lysias, to do the apostle right, in representing his case fairly and indifferently: that he found nothing brought against him that was punishable, either with death or bonds, by the Roman law.
Observe, 3. How triflingly he speaks of the great things in question concerning our blessed Redeemer's death and resurrection, as also of the whole gospel: he calls them, under-valuingly, questions of their law.
As the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God, so the manifold wisdom of God is accounted and esteemed folly by the ignorant and blind world.
Yet observe, 4. How God overruled his very slighting of these controversies in dispute for the apostle's advantage: he being by that means preserved from the rage of the Jews. When this man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed by them, I came with an army and rescued him.
Behold how God accompolishes his own designs for the preservation of his servants, by the hands of those from whom destruction could rather have been expected.
Thus here, God made use of a heathen captain, to rescue and defend the apostle from the enraged Jews, who sends him under a strong guard, with a friendly letter in favour of him, to Felix the governor at Cesarea, where he gives notice to his accusers to implead him face to face.
Blessed by God, that our times are in hands, not in our enemies' hands, nor yet in our own; until we have finished the work which God designed us, neither men nor devils can take us off.
The apostle being brought before Felix the Roman governor, although he was an heathen, yet he showed the apostle far more favour than his own countrymen the Jews: for, observe, 1. His affability to St. Paul, in asking him of his country.
2. His justice; he would not judge him till he had his accusers face to face, I will hear thee when thy accusers are come. If it be enough to accuse, who can be innocent? and if it be sufficient to deny, who would be found guilty? Magistrates must know a cause, before they give sentence or judgment about it; otherwise, though they pronounce a right sentence, it is not in judgment, but by accident. Magistrates must be stars, as well as ministers; they must do nothing blindfold, or blindly.
Observe, 3. His great favour towards the apostle, in committing him a prisoner, not to the common gaol, but to Herod's palace; a fair prison, if a place of confinement may be so called. The Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, though of his own country, and of his own religion, yet were not so kind to him as Felix the heathen governor.
Thus the chapter concludes with an account of the apostle's wonderful deliverance from the Jews at Jerusalem, who conspired his destruction; together with the instrumental means and manner of it.
In the next chapter we find him brought to Cesarea, tried before Felix, making a defence for himself, and so reasoning that Felix trembled.
Behold a prisoner at liberty, and his judge in bonds.
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