Paul Before the Sanhedrin: Part 2 of 4 (Lessons on Acts)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

2 And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.

Paul did not attempt to answer specific charges; instead, he based his defense on his relationship with God. He had a perfectly good conscience before God. Paul was more concerned about how God would judge him than the Sanhedrin. Though he was a Jew who followed Jesus, he had done nothing to dishonor God. So Paul could claim that he had lived{1] in all good conscience. The high priest, knowing something of Paul’s career as a Christian, was infuriated by his arrogance and mode of address—“Men and brethren” was not respectful enough to the chairman—and he gave orders for someone nearby to smack Paul across the mouth: this was no mere slap on the face, but a vicious blow. Jesus in his trial had also been struck in the face (John 18:22) and had challenged the propriety of this blow.

This high priest was Ananias (not to be confused with Annas of 4:6), the son of Nedebaeus. He had been made high priest by Herod Chalcis in a.d. 47 and had ruled for about a dozen years. His Roman sympathies kept him in office longer than most but made him an object of hatred to the Jewish nationalists. By all accounts Ananias was a violent and unscrupulous man, and a member of the sect of the Sadducees. He was noted for his bribery and allowed his servants to plunder the tithes designated for the common priests. He was summoned to Rome for his part in a Jewish ambush of a number of Samaritan Pilgrims. He was one of the most mercenary men ever to bring dishonor on what had once been a noble office. He was extremely wealthy and very influential. His famous career of greed and craft continued so long as he was in office, and when he was replaced as high priest he continued to use “Mafia” methods to advance his interest. When the war with Rome broke out in a.d. 66, he was assassinated by nationalists for his pro-Roman stand. This was the man, a man without conscience, who ordered Paul to be slapped in the mouth for saying that he had lived in good conscience. Ironically, at the beginning of Paul’s ministry another Ananias helped him receive his sight.

{1] The Greek word translated “lived” means “to live as a citizen.” It gives us the English word politics. Paul affirmed that he was a loyal Jew who had lived as a good Jewish citizen and had not broken the Law. His conscience did not condemn him even though the Jews had condemned him.

3 Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?

It was both offensive and an offense for one Jew to order another to be struck in this way. Paul’s temper flared. He turned on the Jewish official with anger and scorn and rebuked him for taking advantage of his position to abuse a prisoner contrary to Jewish law, which protected the right of the accused; unjust treatment administered before the accused was proved guilty was forbidden. His “knee-jerk” response was to declare that God would strike the high priest (literally, “God shall smite thee”), and then he called Ananias a “Whited wall,” a proverbial saying meaning that he was a hypocrite, like the prophets of Ezekiel 13:10, who covered a wall of loose stones with whitewash so that it appeared to be something other than it was (Isaiah 30:13; Matthew 23:27; Luke 11:44).

This should dispel the idea that Paul was some sort of pantywaist sissy. The concept that humility makes a person a sort of Mr. Milquetoast is all wrong. Actually, humility and meekness mean that you submit yourself to the will of God, regardless of the cost. Paul is a meek man and a humble man, but he is not about to take injustice lying down. Meek and humble certainly fit the apostle; however, there is a point beyond which the human spirit cannot be stretched. Paul had a violent temper to begin with. It was the temper of a passionate man. It was controlled only by the most severe training and discipline.

The only other time the word whited occurs in the New Testament it is used by the Lord Jesus in His denunciation of the leaders of Israel to describe the scribes (i.e., the students of the law) and Pharisees (Matthew 23:27). Sepulchers were traditionally whitened a month before Passover time so that people might avoid them and save themselves from ritual uncleanness caused by accidental contact with a place of death. Paul’s use of the word was somewhat different. He likened his judge to a shaky wall, one made to look sound by a liberal application of whitewash. Paul could see right through the man’s pretentious exterior to the rottenness within. Did Paul imply a comparison of the high priest’s life to a tomb which was beautiful on the outside but rotten within? More than likely the apostle meant that the high priest was a hypocrite and a sham.

When Paul said to Ananias,“God shall smite thee,” he was definitely speaking prophetically, because God did indeed smite this wicked man some eight years later. When the Jews revolted against Rome in the year 66, Ananias had to flee for his life because of his known sympathies with Rome. The Jewish guerrillas found him hiding in an aqueduct at Harrods’s palace, and they killed him. It was a humiliating death for a despicable man.

4 And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God's high priest?

Paul had right on his side, but his angry response only aroused the indignation of the council. Some of its members reminded him that it was improper (that is, against the law) to speak to God’s high priest in this way. Whether or not Paul knew that Ananias was the high priest, he certainly would not have known him by sight. Moreover, this was not a regular or formal meeting of the Sanhedrin, but one formed in haste at the command of the Tribune. It is possible that Ananias, though doubtless richly dressed was not arrayed in his official robes. The last thing Paul suspected was that a man who could act with such arbitrary malice could be God’s high priest. The man’s bad testimony proclaimed him anything but that.

5 Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.

After putting Ananias in his place, the apostle realized that he had gone too far with his sarcasm; therefore Paul replied that he did not realize that he was the high priest. This has sometimes been taken to mean that Paul had literally failed to recognize Ananias, either through weakness of sight or because he did not know him by sight. But more likely he had resorted to irony as much as to say “I did not recognize the high priest due to the behavior and speech of this man. His conduct contradicts him being God’s representative” (which is what the phrase “God’s high priest” means). But the moment of anger passed, and as soon as he was apprised of the facts, Paul apologized quoting from Exodus 22:28 “You must not blaspheme God or curse a leader among your people.” as his reason for doing so; at the same time, he let the council know that he knew the Law on respect for rulers—although an evil man, Ananias still held a God-ordained office, and was to be granted the respect that position demanded.

The man Ananias was despicable, but the office was respected. Paul, showing his own instinctive knowledge of the law and his willing submission to the law, paid his respects to the position if not the person. Paul made it clear that he did respect God’s representative in accordance with the Torah. He was a law-abiding Jew in every respect. His example might well be noted by people today who, in our democratic society, think nothing of vilifying people in office for those policies with which they happen to disagree. God always robes government and its officials with dignity.

6 But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.

Paul was undoubtedly rattled. He had been assaulted by the mob, threatened with scourging by the Romans, and bullied by the high priest. It was evident to him there was no chance of his receiving a fair trial in a court headed by such a man as Ananias. His inability to suppress his emotions and the abusive words against the high priest could hardly ingratiate him with the priestly class or even gain the favor of Lysias. If he said, “I am a Christian,” and made his defense along that line, he could expect to be shouted down. In his depression, he acted politically though not spiritually. Indeed what he did troubled him afterwards—“Either let these men here state what wrongdoing they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin, or about this one statement I cried out while standing among them, ‘Today I am being judged before you concerning the resurrection of the dead.’” (24:20-21).

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