Scripture

Acts 23:1-11

23 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “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!”

Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’[a]

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

Reflection

Paul continued to maintain that he was still a good Jew, even though he had become a Christian. Apparently, the high priest didn’t agree, or maybe he didn’t appreciate Paul using the divine name in support of his actions. Ananias ordered those standing nearby to slap Paul on the mouth. Caught off guard, and stung by the command, Paul lashed back. “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” Paul had not been tried and found guilty of any infraction of Jewish law, nor had he even been charged officially. For him to be struck as though he was guilty of a crime violated the very law the high priest claimed to uphold.

The phrase “whitewashed wall” referred to a person who was a hypocrite. Jesus used a similar term in Matthew 23 when he referred to the teachers of the law and Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs.” In this interaction, we see a rare glimpse of Paul’s humanity. He was so dedicated to Jesus that he rarely let his temper or concerns for his own safety get in the way of his duty to share the gospel.

In the next moment, however, Paul regained his composure. He demonstrated his knowledge of the Law and apologized. And instead of going on with a pointless defense, Paul utilized a different strategy. He knew the differences of belief between the Sadducees and Pharisees, and he used that to pit the council against itself. A dispute broke out and some even came to Paul’s defense. It wasn't enough, though. Paul ended up a prisoner in Roman custody.

This must have been a dark and despairing time for Paul. He had been warned against all of this. Many tried to stop him from returning to Jerusalem. They knew he would face trouble. And now here he was, a prisoner, again. I imagine Paul wondered where God was in these moments. I suppose he doubted his decision to return to Jerusalem. He probably even doubted his whole mission. I know that’s how my brain works when things don't go how I thought they would, especially when I think I am following God.

In fact, there is debate amongst biblical scholars as to whether Paul should have returned to Jerusalem. Was he following God’s plans or his own? But here is what I think - it doesn't really matter. Because God was there with Paul in the midst of his actions, his imprisonment and everything else Paul did. And God used it for God’s purposes in the end. As much as we all try, we will not always follow God’s exact direction for our lives. We will take the wrong path and make mistakes along the way.

Paul was doing his best to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Did he make a mistake in returning to Jerusalem or was that God’s plan for him all along? I don't know. But I do know that God continued to work in and through Paul for many years to come. The next time you doubt God’s plan for you, or whether or not you are following the right path, remember Paul. God took this persecutor of Christians, a man who didn't heed warnings and landed in jail on multiple occasions, to impact the world permanently through his evangelism. Certainly, God can do something with you and me. 

Prayer

Dear God, Give me the wisdom to take steps toward you and your plans for me. Give me insight when I need to change paths, and strength to endure hardships along the way. Share your vision with me and let me join you in your work. I offer all I am and all I have to you for your purposes. I know you are with me every step of the way, even if it is not the right step. Thank you for your daily grace and mercy, Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.