Before the Sanhedrin

May 4, 1997 / Acts 22:30ó23:11

Life sometimes puts us in strange situations. It is not always so much that we are in unfamiliar surroundings as we are cast in new roles and placed in uncomfortable or strange relationships. Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean.

As children, almost all of us saw our moms and dads as strong providers. We looked to them as infants for everything ó food, protection, security. As we got older, we believed they could answer our deepest questions and tell us the "why" of everything that puzzled us. Even though we probably fought them during our adolescent years, many of us came full circle as young adults to see them again as the people to whom we could most safely go for good answers, sound advice, practical wisdom. They became a primary source of security for us again.

For some of you, though, that role has changed dramatically now, and you are terribly uncomfortable with things as they have come to be. The surroundings may be much the same. Your dad or mom may still be living in the same house with the same familiar furniture. Your dad may still be wearing some of the same ties he was wearing when you were in high school, preferring them to the new ones you have given him on Fatherís Day or Christmas. Your mom may still have the same housecoat she was wearing on cold evenings when you lived at home. But things are definitely not the same anymore. Instead of you looking to them for answers, they are coming to you. Instead of them making sound decisions, you are having to step in and make calls for them.

We call it "role reversal." People live much longer now than they did a hundred years ago. Many more adult children are having to assume a parental role for their moms and dads. You are having to get them to the doctor. You are handling their bank accounts. You have their powers of attorney. And your worst fear is that one or both of your parents will ó because of Alzheimerís Disease or some other degenerative conditions that takes away their decision-making competence ó get to the point that you have to decide to sell their house, move them into your home or into a nursing home, or feed and diaper them in their last days as they did you in your earliest days.

Understand what I mean now? Life has a way of putting us in familiar settings to fill unfamiliar roles. It is hard on all parties concerned. It creates a special type of stress that is difficult to handle. A physician becomes a patient. A teacher goes back into the classroom as a student ó perhaps in the classroom of someone ten years younger who was once his own student. An employee walks in on a distraught boss and winds up being a confidant-counselor to an alcoholic whose life is spinning out of control. The possibilities of such role reversals are practically endless.

Today we witness Paul as he is put in one of those awkward situations before the Jewish high council. Twenty years earlier, he had been the fair-haired boy of the Sanhedrin. He seemed clearly destined to hold one of the seats of the Pharisees in that august body before too many years passed. He was a faithful errand boy for the council. More than that, he had even acted on his own initiative to get letters from the authorities in Jerusalem, seek out Christian "heretics" in synagogues outside the city, and bring them before the Sanhedrin to defend themselves. Now the tables are turned. Paul is not part of the prosecution team today. He is required to defend himself before the body he had once served and in which he had once seemed destined to hold membership.

The Situation

On the day previous, Paul had been set upon by a mob in the temple precincts. Some of the enemies he had made in Asia Minor had followed him to the city and stirred up a crowd of people against him. They whispered that Paul was speaking disrespectfully of Moses and the Law. They spread the lie that he had brought a Gentile into the restricted areas of the temple where only the circumcised males of Israel could enter. The charges were untrue, but they spread like wildfire and incensed the people who were there to worship according to the strictures of Jewish law and tradition.

When somebody pointed to him and a crowd rushed Paul to rough him up, it caught the eye of the Roman commandant at the Fortress Antonia. Claudius Lysias and his men were stationed strategically on the north side of the temple grounds just so they could watch for such events. They rushed down, rescued the man who was being pummeled, and brought him into the fortress. Ascending the stairs, Paul asked and received permission to speak to the crowd. What he did is something of a model for anyone who wishes to bear witness to Christ before unbelievers who could be easily offended by a Christian speaker. While some evangelists have thought it a proof of their devotion to Christ to wade flat-footed into the sensitivities of their hearers and to challenge them directly, Paul used a different method.

First, he spoke to them in their own language. He spoke the Aramaic of Palestine (21:41b; 22:2) rather than the Greek of the larger Roman Empire. That should remind some of us to speak the language of the unchurched when we try to talk to them about Christ. Church jargon doesnít communicate with outsiders. Talking about "justification," "atonement," or even "repentance" likely sails right over their heads. Put the message of the love of God into the everyday language of the people who need to hear it. Why do you think we made this church building look so "un-churchy"? Why do you think I try to tell the story of Jesus in terms of non-King James Version language, USA Today, or breaking news stories? Why do you think we deliberately mix contemporary Christian music with traditional church music?

Second, Paul spoke respectfully to his unsympathetic audience. "Brothers and fathers" (22:1), he began his speech. "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city" (22:3). He was an Israelite. He shared their background in the faith of Israel. He had no reason to insult them or their faith.

Third, Paul granted them the same sincerity in their beliefs he claimed for his own. "Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today" (22:3). He could have told them that he was once like them but learned better. He could have said he was once as "misguided" as they were still. What would that have done, except slam the door of possible communication in his face?

Fourth, Paul admitted that he hadnít always been a believer and that he could understand most of their negative feelings about Christianity. "I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify" (22:4-5). Even when you havenít been in the same life circumstances as the person with whom you are attempting to share Jesus, try to understand why she is where she is. Alcoholics Anonymous has proved that alcoholics are best helped by people who understand them rather than by pontificating prudes. The church must understand that sinners are best helped by recovering sinners who understand them than by pious pretenders.

Fifth, Paul shared the story of his own conversion by putting the emphasis not on himself but on Christ. It is often helpful to tell "your story" to someone who is searching for meaning and hope in life. But your story must always lead to Christís story of good news if it is to have a saving effect.

The speech was going well until Paul mentioned the Gentiles and claimed that Yahweh had sent him to preach the message of Jesus to them (22:21). When he said that, the crowd degenerated into a shouting mob again. Claudius Lysias hustled Paul into the fortress for his own protection. Although he was initially of a mind to "beat the truth" out of his prisoner, the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen put an end to that plan. It would have been a major violation of Roman civil procedure to do such a thing and could have resulted in serious charges against the commandant.

So Claudius Lysias kept Paul under arrest overnight and hauled him before the Sanhedrin the next morning. Lysias didnít speak Aramaic, so he hadnít been able to follow Paulís speech the day before. He did know, however, that the issue was one involving the religion of the Jews. Since the Sanhedrin was the high court of that religion, it made sense to a practical-minded Roman to get them to hear the case and advise him on how to proceed.

Paulís Mistake

Paul appears at first to be ready to make a version of the same speech he had made the day before. He begins with the respectful address "my brothers," and wants to explain to them how he had lived in "all good conscience to this day" as a follower of Moses. But the apostle did not have control of the situation, and the Roman commander would not have been present in the Sanhedrin chambers.

The man in charge of this ad hoc hearing was Ananias ó the high priest since A.D. 48. He was an unscrupulous man who had schemed and bribed his way into power and who was never hesitant about using force to keep the peace or get his way among the Jews. When Paul affirmed his "good conscience" before God, Ananias gave someone standing near the apostle an order to strike him on the mouth. It was a violation of Jewish law to strike or otherwise punish a man before he was found guilty of a crime, but the niceties of law never intimidate people such as Ananias.

In a scene reminiscent of Jesus before Caiaphas, a blow was struck against an innocent man. In violation of the Sanhedrinís own procedural rules and in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Torah, Jesus and his faithful advocate were wronged. But Jesus and Paul handled the situation differently. Composed before his accusers, Jesus took the blow and formally protested that the law was being violated in his treatment. "If I said something wrong," he said, "testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" (John 18:23). By contrast, Paul lost his composure and shot back at Ananias, "God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!" (22:3). Paul hurt himself in that moment of anger, just as we hurt ourselves before others when we strike out with rage and temper. He prejudiced the room against himself in that outburst and cut off the possibility of bearing witness about Jesus to those men.

Iím not telling you I would have acted differently, mind you! I can be provoked too. But ideally a Christian is to follow Jesusí example of restraint before provocation rather than giving way to some form of counter-punching. Peter reminds us, for example, "When they hurled their insults at [Jesus], he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats" (1 Pet. 2:23; cf. 3:9). This reminder was given to Christians living in a hostile environment and needs to guide all of us who wear Christís name and who are put under challenging circumstances.

Someone in the room rebuked Paul for his behavior, and he apologized. Only partially in self-defense did he explain that he had not realized who had spoken to give the order. Then he proceeded to acknowledge that he had done wrong, for the Law of Moses commands that people not speak against their rulers. By the way, it might be of some interest to you to follow the story of Ananias a few years beyond this episode. He was high priest until A.D. 58 and left office altogether unloved by his own people. When the war with Rome broke out in A.D. 66, he had to flee the Jewish nationalists who were on a rampage against collaborators with the Romans such as himself. They burned his house and eventually chased him down and trapped him in a sewer. When they found him and pulled him out of his hiding place, they killed him. Whether Paul was speaking prophetically or merely in anger about God striking Ananias, this evil and brutal man did eventually wind up being hunted down like an animal.

Getting back to the hearing, Paul evidently sensed that he was not going to be able to take his defense anywhere productively. So he immediately went to the heart of the issue by saying that the controversy surrounding him ultimately reduced to his conviction about the resurrection of the dead. At that point, the Sanhedrin got into an uproar among its own members. The secular-humanist Sadducees and the supernaturalist Pharisees were fundamentally opposed to each other on the point of spirits, angels, and life after death. They got into such a heated debate among themselves that the Roman commander had to intervene again to keep Paul from being torn limb from limb by an unruly mob.

What We Learn

As different as these two situations look on the surface and as differently as they were handled by the apostle, I think there are four things we should learn about bearing witness to Christ in our own time. Are there hostile settings in which Christians find ourselves? Are we sometimes in the awkward situation of having to defend our faith before people who "knew us when" and find it hard to say anything?

Some of you have stopped drinking only to be confronted by old drinking buddies. Some of you are trying to break off affairs, stop some dishonest practice in your work, or get out of a crowd of friends where Christian values about sexual chastity and fidelity are openly mocked and flouted. When you stand in some familiar setting to fill an unfamiliar role, here are the four things you must do.

First, be different. If something about you hasnít changed, you have no story to tell. If you are the same person youíve always been, no explanation will be asked or needed. Doctrinal formulations you may wish to share about the resurrection, baptism, or Christian theology are meaningless without an observable difference in you. The people who knew you before your conversion will have no interest in knowing why you have changed your mind about Jesus unless they have seen the evidence that Jesus has changed your life.

John the Baptist charged the people coming to his baptism to "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" in their lives (Matt. 3:8). Paul would soon tell Herod Agrippa II that he preached a gospel that called men to "repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds" (Acts 26:20b). The people to whom you wish to bear witness about Jesus require the same thing of you.

Second, be humble. Nothing is more easily rejected than the arrogant spirit of someone who walks back into his old haunts ó a bar, an office, a family, a neighborhood ó with a smug air of self-righteousness about him. It is a major turn-off that justifies everything non-Christians want to believe about Christians. Nothing helps them excuse their desire to stay right where they are to keep on doing whatever it is they have been doing like a brassy believer who can be dismissed as a self-righteous Bible-thumper.

Paul confessed his past unbelief and persecution of Christians. Maybe Matthew confessed his money-grubbing spirit, Peter his arrogance, and Thomas his skepticism. Maybe it will help you to acknowledge your pre-Christian life as a means to establishing credibility with the person to whom God has led you. Donít go parading your past in some self-serving way, but it is perfectly appropriate to let someone in on your own struggles in order to let them know how Christ met you at your point of need. That may encourage him or her to believe that he can do the same thing in one more life.

Third, be fearless. When someone does ask you to account for the change they see or to say what you believe, donít blush to speak the name of Jesus. Donít talk about "my religious awakening" but Godís pursuing grace. Give Jesus the credit for the difference in your lifestyle. Talk about the resurrected Christ who breathed life into your spiritual deadness. Donít blush to confess the central-but-scandalous event of the Christian faith, saying without embarrassment that it was his death for your sin that gives you confident hope, his resurrection from the dead that guarantees your future with the Lord.

Fourth, be willing to pay the price of your convictions. If you are rejected because of your new lifestyle or convictions about Christ, so be it. Some people will shut you out of their lives rather than accept the rebuke it brings to them. People who are still determined to live in impurity canít celebrate purity. People who are still reveling in their use of drugs canít rejoice that you are drug-free. People who are still living as addicts to anger, greed, or lust will reject you lest you become a constant irritant to whatever degree of conscience they have left. Peter warned his readers: "They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you" (1 Pet. 4:4). People who want a god made in their own image will not grant the truth of an authoritative Christ who calls people to repentance as a prelude to faith in him.

If someone makes it clear that your choice is to renounce (or compromise the effects of) your faith in Christ or lose them, you have the opportunity at that moment to prove the legitimacy of your faith. What do you think Jesus meant when he said, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away" and "If your right hands causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away"? (Matt. 5:29-30). If you care more about someone elseís approval than Jesus, you donít love him enough to be saved. "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37-38).


A couple of evenings ago at the Pepperdine Lectures, I heard Rick Atchley tell the story of Billy Ben. Billy was a drug-using biker for ten years. Then the Lord confronted, captured, and changed Billy Ben. So every Sunday Rick looked out on a guy in his congregation with a Harley-Davidson shirt and a big bushy beard.

Billy Benís favorite song is "On Bended Knee." And when the church came to the line about "lifting holy hands to you," guess what Billy Ben would do? Heíd reach for the throne of God! So somebody called an elder and asked, "What are you going to do about Billy Ben?" To their credit, first one and then another shepherd of that church said, "Billy Ben is doing something scriptural and holy when he raises his hands to the Lord." After the shock began to wear off, Billy Benís presence became contagious. People started getting to church early to sit in the "Billy Ben section" ó so they could raise their hands in worship too.

One day Billy told Rick, "I want to quote the Book of Ecclesiastes to the whole church." Rick thought to himself, "Oh, no. Billy Benís back on drugs." But he had the presence of mind to say, "Sure, Billy. You let me know when youíre ready." A month later, he was. And he did! And several months later, he memorized and quoted the Book of James perfectly before the church. Then, last year when Rick was about to preach 1 Peter, he asked Billy Ben about quoting it to the church. Billy said, "Give me a month, and Iíll be ready" ó and he was.

Then, on Wednesday after he had recited the entire epistle to the church, a call came to the office that Billy Ben had been hospitalized in a diabetic coma. Nobody even knew he was a diabetic. He died the next day. When his funeral was held in the church building the next Sunday afternoon, five hundred of Billy Benís brothers and sisters sang, "On bended knee I come / With a humble heart I come / Bowing down before your holy throne / Lifting holy hands to you / As I pledge my love anew" ó and they all raised their hands to the Lord in honor of Billy Ben.

God saved Billy Ben, made a notable difference in his life, and touched others through him. God saved Paul, changed him from all he had been before, and used him to bear witness to kings. If God has saved you and transformed your life, you are the perfect instrument for him to use for reaching someone that perhaps no one else can. Consider it his purpose for your life to be faithful to that task.

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