Perhaps when Paul was brought, as he often was (corpus cum causa—the person and the cause together), before heathen magistrates and councils, where he and his cause were slighted, because not at all understood, he thought, if he were brought before the sanhedrim at Jerusalem, he should be able to deal with them to some good purpose, and yet we do not find that he works at all upon them. Here we have,
I. Paul’s protestation of his own integrity. Whether the chief priest put any question to him, or the chief captain made any representation of his case to the court, we are not told; but Paul appeared here,
1. With a good courage. He was not at all put out of countenance upon his being brought before such an august assembly, for which in his youth he had conceived such a veneration; nor did he fear their calling him to an account about the letters they gave him to Damascus, to persecute the Christians there, though (for aught we know) this was the first time he had ever seem them since; but he earnestly beheld the council. When Stephen was brought before them, they thought to have faced him down, but could not, such was his holy confidence; they looked stedfastly on him, and his face was as that of an angel, Acts 6:15. Now that Paul was brought before them he thought to have faced them down, but could not, such was their wicked impudence. However, now was fulfilled in him what God promised to Ezekiel (Acts 3:8, 9): I have made thy face strong against their faces; fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks.
2. With a good conscience, and that gave him a good courage.
--Hic murus aheneus esto, Nil conscire sibi-- Be this thy brazen bulwark of defence, Still to preserve thy conscious innocence.He said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God unto this day. However I may be reproached, my heart does not reproach me, but witnesses for me.” (1.) He had always been a man inclined to religion; he never was a man that lived at large, but always put a difference between moral good and evil; even in his unregenerate state, he was, as touching the righteousness that was in the law, blameless. He was no unthinking man, who never considered what he did, no designing man, who cared not what he did, so he could but compass his own ends. (2.) Even when he persecuted the church of God, he thought he ought to do it, and that he did God service in it. Though his conscience was misinformed, yet he acted according to the dictates of it. See Acts 26:9. (3.) He seems rather to speak of the time since his conversion, since he left the service of the high priest, and fell under their displeasure for so doing; he does not say, From my beginning until this day; but, “All the time in which you have looked upon me as a deserter, an apostate, and an enemy to your church, even to this day, I have lived in all good conscience before God; whatever you may think of me, I have in every thing approved myself to God, and lived honestly,” Heb. 13:18. He had aimed at nothing but to please God and do his duty, in those things for which they were so incensed against him; in all he had done towards the setting up of the kingdom of Christ, and the setting of it up among the Gentiles, he had acted conscientiously. See here the character of an honest man. [1.] He sets God before him, and lives as in his sight, and under his eyes, and with an eye to him. Walk before me, and be thou upright. [2.] He makes conscience of what he says and does, and, though he may be under some mistakes, yet, according to the best of his knowledge, he abstains from that which is evil and cleaves to that which is good. [3.] He is universally conscientious; and those that are not so are not at all truly conscientious; is so in all manner of conversation: “I have lived in all good conscience; have had my whole conversation under the direction and dominion of conscience.” [4.] He continues so, and perseveres in it: “I have lived so until this day.” Whatever changes pass over him, he is still the same, strictly conscientious. And those who thus live in all good conscience before God may, like Paul here, lift up their face without spot; and, if their hearts condemn them not, may have confidence both towards God and man, as Job had when he still held fast his integrity, and Paul himself, whose rejoicing was this, the testimony of his conscience.
II. The outrage of which Ananias the high priest was guilty: he commanded those that stood by, the beadles that attended the court, to smite him on the mouth (Acts 23:2), to give him a dash on the teeth, either with a hand or with a rod. Our Lord Jesus was thus despitefully used in this court, by one of the servants (John 18:22), as was foretold, Mic. 5:1; They shall smite the Judge of Israel upon the cheek. But here was an order of court for the doing of it, and, it is likely, it was done. 1. The high priest was highly offended at Paul; some think, because he looked so boldly and earnestly at the council, as if he would face them down; others because he did not address himself particularly to him as president, with some title of honour and respect, but spoke freely and familiarly to them all, as men and brethren. His protestation of his integrity was provocation enough to one who was resolved to run him down and make him odious. When he could charge him with no crime, he thought it was crime enough that he asserted his own innocency. 2. In his rage he ordered him to be smitten, so to put disgrace upon him, and to be smitten on the mouth, as having offended with his lips, and in token of his enjoining him silence. This brutish and barbarous method he had recourse to when he could not answer the wisdom and spirit wherewith he spoke. Thus Zedekiah smote Micaiah (1 Kgs. 22:24), and Pashur smote Jeremiah (Jer. 20:2), when they spoke in the name of the Lord. If therefore we see such indignities done to good men, nay, if they be done to us for well doing and well saying, we must not think it strange; Christ will give those the kisses of his mouth (Song 1:2) who for his sake receive blows on the mouth. And though it may be expected that, as Solomon says, every man should kiss his lips that giveth a right answer (Prov. 24:26), yet we often see the contrary.
III. The denunciation of the wrath of God against the high priest for this wickedness in the place of judgment (Eccl. 3:16): it agrees with what follows there, Eccl. 3:17; with which Solomon comforted himself (I said in my heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked): God shall smite thee, thou whited wall, Acts 23:3. Paul did not speak this in any sinful heat or passion, but in a holy zeal against the high priest’s abuse of his power, and with something of a prophetic spirit, not at all with a spirit of revenge. 1. He gives him his due character: Thou whited wall; that is, thou hypocrite—a mud-wall, trash and dirt and rubbish underneath, but plastered over, or white-washed. It is the same comparison in effect with that of Christ, when he compares the Pharisees to whited sepulchres, Matt. 23:7. Those that daubed with untempered mortar failed not to daub themselves over with something that made them look not only clean, but gay. 2. He reads him his just doom: “God shall smite thee, shall bring upon thee his sore judgments, especially spiritual judgments.” Grotius thinks this was fulfilled soon after, in his removal from the office of the high priest, either by death or deprivation, for he finds another in that office a little while after this; probably he was smitten by some sudden stroke of divine vengeance. Jeroboam’s hand was withered when it was stretched out against a prophet. 3. He assigns a good reason for that doom: “For sittest thou there as president in the supreme judicature of the church, pretending to judge me after the law, to convict and condemn me by the law, and yet commandest me to be smitten before any crime is proved upon me, which is contrary to the law?” No man must be beaten unless he be worthy to be beaten, Deut. 25:2. It is against all law, human and divine, natural and positive, to hinder a man from making his defense, and to condemn him unheard. When Paul was beaten by the rabble, he could say, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do; but it is inexcusable in a high priest that is appointed to judge according to the law.
IV. The offence which was taken at this bold word of Paul’s (Acts 23:4): Those that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? It is a probable conjecture that those who blamed Paul for what he said were believing Jews, who were zealous for the law, and consequently for the honour of the high priest, and therefore took it ill that Paul should thus reflect upon him, and checked him for it. See here then, 1. What a hard game Paul had to play, when his enemies were abusive to him, and his friends were so far from standing by him, and appearing for him, that they were ready to find fault with his management. 2. How apt even the disciples of Christ themselves are to overvalue outward pomp and power. As because the temple had been God’s temple, and a magnificent structure, there were those who followed Christ that could not bear to have any thing said that threatened the destruction of it; so because the high priest had been God’s high priest, and was a man that made a figure, though he was an inveterate enemy to Christianity, yet these were disgusted at Paul for giving him his due.
V. The excuse that Paul made for what he had said, because he found it was a stumbling-block to his weak brethren, and might prejudice them against him in other things. These Jewish Christians, though weak, yet were brethren, so he calls them here, and, in consideration of that, is almost ready to recall his words; for who is offended, saith he, and I burn not? 2 Cor. 11:29. His fixed resolution was rather to abridge himself in the use of his Christian liberty than give offence to a weak brother; rather than do this, he will eat no flesh while the world stands, 1 Cor. 8:13. And so here though he had taken the liberty to tell the high priest his own, yet, when he found it gave offence, he cried Peccavi—I have done wrong. He wished he had not done it; and though he did not beg the high priest’s pardon, nor excuse it to him, yet he begs their pardon who took offence at it, because this was not a time to inform them better, nor to say what he could say to justify himself. 1. He excuses it with this, that he did not consider when he said it to whom he spoke (Acts 23:5): I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest—ouk edein. “I did not just then think of the dignity of his place, or else I would have spoken more respectfully to him.” I see not how we can with any probability think that Paul did not know him to be the high priest, for Paul had been seven days in the temple at the time of the feast, where he could not miss of seeing the high priest; and his telling him that he sat to judge him after the law shows that he knew who he was; but, says he, I did not consider it. Dr. Whitby puts this sense upon it, that the prophetic impulse that was upon him, and inwardly moved him to say what he did, did not permit him to notice that it was the high priest, lest this law might have restrained him from complying with that impulse; but the Jews acknowledged that prophets might use a liberty in speaking of rulers which others might not, as Isa. 1:10, 23. Or (as he quotes the sense of Grotius and Lightfoot) Paul does not go about to excuse what he had said in the least, but rather to justify it; “I own that God’s high priest is not to be reviled, but I do not own this Ananias to be high priest. He is a usurper; he came to the office by bribery and corruption, and the Jewish rabbin say that he who does so is neither a judge nor to be honoured as such.” Yet, 2. He takes care that what he had said should not be drawn into a precedent, to the weakening of the obligation of that law in the least: For it is written, and it remains a law in full force, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. It is for the public good that the honour of magistracy should be supported, and not suffer for the miscarriages of those who are entrusted with it, and therefore that decorum be observed in speaking both of and to princes and judges. Even in Job’s time it was not thought fit to say to a king, Thou art wicked, or to princes, You are ungodly, Job 34:18. Even when we do well, and suffer for it, we must take it patiently, 1 Pet. 2:20. Not as if great men may not hear of their faults, and public grievances be complained of by proper persons and in a decent manner, but there must be a particular tenderness for the honour and reputation of those in authority more than of other people, because the law of God requires a particular reverence to be paid to them, as God’s vicegerents; and it is of dangerous consequence to have those any way countenanced who despise dominions, and speak evil of dignities, Jude 1:8. Curse not the king, no not in thy thought, Eccl. 10:20.
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