July 19th, 2015


Every part of the Bible is given for our instruction.

Acts 23:1-11

In need of encouragement

Pause for a moment and think about a time in your life when you most needed encouragement. Maybe it’s now.

Pastors sometimes need encouragement. Years ago I heard a story about a poor pastor serving a small rural congregation. There was little money for salary, and even less for maintenance. But the church building needed a coat of paint.

The pastor decided to buy some paint out of his meager wages. All he could afford was one gallon. He divided the white latex paint into two buckets, then thinned it with water. He worked from the bottom up, and as he got about halfway up the sides he realized he would still be short. So he thinned his paint with more water. He had only a quart left when he reached the steeple, but he figured a little paint was better than nothing. So he thinned it again figuring from the ground it wouldn’t make much difference. It looked like rain was on the way, but he just needed to get it done.

He climbed down and was proud of the improvement. Just then a heavy rainstorm fell and washed every bit of paint from the entire church building. He walked out into the rain, looked up, and cried out, “God, why? I’ve served you in this Godforsaken place and all I wanted was to brighten the building a little. Why did you send the rain?”

A voice thundered back, “Repaint, you thinner, and thin no more!”

There was a time in my ministry where I felt I needed to begin every sermon with a joke. You should be glad those days are past.

The days are not past when Linda and I need encouragement. Or Paul or Bill or Lori or Peter or our other hard-working church staff. I’ve had some encouragement lately reading through the Strategic Planning Survey comments. Sure there was some constructive criticism. But the overwhelming feedback was very positive and affirming about Corinth, about my leadership and about the staff. My favorite write-in, which I posted on Facebook, was, “The monsters are awesome!” (We think it was an autocorrect for ‘ministers.’)

Where I feel like I need constant encouragement is in the wider church, particularly the United Church of Christ. People who are more liberal or progressive don’t always say they’re glad I’m at the party, and people who are more conservative think I’m wasting my time – or their money. But I’ve had a number of moments recently that encouraged me, including an e-mail from a fellow Faithful & Welcoming pastor in Pennsylvania just yesterday: “(I) just wanted to affirm all you’ve been doing for the ECOT[1] churches/pastors and FWC. You are the perfect spokesperson and representative and communicator.” That’s encouraging and humbling.

When have you needed encouragement? Where do you need encouragement today? Do think of the Apostle Paul as someone who needed encouragement? I do. It’s not just because of today’s reading in Acts, but let’s start there.

Chaos in the Sanhedrin

We tend to view people, especially public people, as either good or bad. They either get the benefit of all doubt or no benefit at all. When I mention certain names, you either think “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” – Obama, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, for example, as Presidents. In the sports world – Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, LeBron James. Public people can go from thumbs up to thumbs down in a flash. Think Bill Cosby.

One of my guiding principles in life is that every person, every institution, and every era is a blend of insights and blind spots, of strengths and weaknesses. I try to find something positive to take away from each one, but I also try to stay aware that there will be negatives as well. I’m never surprised when a great person exposes a great flaw.

In my view, Acts 23 is where we see Paul with that blend. As I read and listened this week, it seemed to me that both biblical scholars and ordinary Bible readers either feel like they need to defend everything Paul said and did, or criticize it all. Maybe Luke the writer of Acts wants us to see that he has both strengths and weaknesses.

Let me remind you of the backstory. From birth Paul seemed destined to shatter the ancient wall between Jews and Gentiles. He was born into a Jewish family but in a Gentile city. He was born a Roman citizen because his father had earned his citizenship. He had a Roman name, Paulus, and a Jewish name, Saul.

His early life included Gentile influences and education, but he was sent to Jerusalem to learn the Torah. There he applied his passion to know and keep God’s law. Saul rejected the Messianic claims of Jesus of Nazareth, and persecuted his followers. Then one day Jesus appeared to Saul in a vision. Saul’s life was changed, and he was commissioned to expand the reach of the Gospel of Jesus ethnically and geographically to Gentiles living in Asia Minor and Greece. From a home base in Antioch of Syria, he went on three primary journeys using the Roman name Paul.

He had a desire to cross at least one more body of water from Greece to Italy, so he could work in the capital of the empire, Rome. But first, he had a strong desire to return to Jerusalem to observe the Passover, to encourage the Christians there with a financial gift from their Gentile friends in Greece, and to continue reinforcing his life’s passion that the church of Jesus must not be confined to Jewish people.

Paul was warned by the Holy Spirit multiple times that he would face difficulties in Jerusalem. And difficulties he faced. As he walked through the city with his missionary team, made up of Jews, Gentiles, and half-Jews, he was noticed… then falsely accused of the capital offense of taking a Gentile into the temple. For this he was beaten by a mob and would have been killed had the Roman occupying army not come to his defense. He was allowed to speak to the crowd, and shared the story of his conversion. When he came to the part about his mission to the Gentiles, the crowd again shouted him down.

The Roman commander didn’t know what to do at this point. He didn’t understand this controversy. He was charged with keeping the peace, and Paul was obviously a troublemaker. He decided to beat the truth out of Paul – to flog him until he admitted why the crowd hated him so much. As the whip rose into the air, Paul objected: “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t been found guilty?” That was news to the commander, and he stopped the flogging before it began.

He still didn’t know what to do, so he decided to allow the Jewish high court to question Paul in his presence. He figured that by listening in he would be able to discern what all this ruckus was really about. Acts 23 begins with Paul before the Sanhedrin. He realizes this is a chance to connect with an audience he understands.

You would think Paul would begin by saying, “I did not bring a Gentile into the temple. That’s a false charge.” He does, in a sense, but with a broader self-defense: “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day” (1). That’s an interesting contrast to what Paul says elsewhere, that he is “the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). But that’s Christian language, and Paul is now speaking to an audience of Jewish leaders, and in the sense that they understood “duty to God,” Paul was accurate and honest. (See Philippians 3:4-6).

They would have agreed with Paul’s self-assessment 25 years earlier when he was on the fast track to be one of them, when he was approving of the stoning of Stephen and persecuting the church. Now they considered him a turncoat, a traitor of the worst kind. Ananias, the high priest, had a particularly strong desire to put Paul in his place. Ananias had a reputation for power and greed. He received and kept his position by a political cunning that kept him in favor with Rome. The first century Jewish historian Josephus said that Ananias would seize for himself the tithes that were paid to support common priests. Before Paul ever stood before this group, Ananias had decided this hearing would not go well for him. For Paul to begin with this crap about his innocent conscience before God was not to be tolerated.

So Ananias ordered that Paul be slapped in the face (2). Paul was mad. He had hoped this was a chance for a fair hearing. He shot back: “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (3a) In other words, “Repaint, you thinner!” Whitewash is a solution of lime and water that covers flaws and decay only until the next rainstorm.

Why did Paul say this? He continues: “You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (3b) Paul is likely alluding to Leviticus 19:15, which says, “Do not pervert justice.” Jewish law safeguarded the rights of the accused until they were proven guilty.

Paul soon learned that those who dish out Bible principles can expect to receive the same. Those who had slapped Paul now say to him, “The high priest of God you insult?!?” (4, literal translation). Paul answers that he didn’t know the speaker was the high priest, and adds a quote from Exodus 22:28, which says, “Do not curse…the ruler of your people.” Essentially Paul apologizes.

One of the pro-Paul, anti-Paul debates is why Paul said, “I didn’t know he was the high priest.” Was he (a) lying, (b) being sarcastic (“You’re not acting like a high priest!”) or (c) telling the truth? After all, the high priest wasn’t on television or in the paper, and Paul hadn’t been in Jerusalem for a while. In this rushed hearing, Ananias may not have been dressed in his priestly garments. Or maybe Paul had his back to him. I’m not sure I can answer that. But Paul clearly knows he was out of line, and he admits it.

The next pro-Paul, anti-Paul debate is about what happens in verses 6-10. Luke’s explanation is about all we need to say. Pharisees and Sadducees were kind of like Democrats and Republicans – or maybe more like the House of Lords and House of Commons in Great Britain – only all in one deliberative body. The Sadducees were the high-brow aristocrats. They were people of privilege and money, and primarily secular in their outlook. They believed in the Jewish law, but it was mostly a this-world belief. What mattered to them is what they can see. They didn’t believe in an afterlife, nor, Luke says, in the world of invisible spirits and angels. Pharisees were more middle class people who made it their business to study and apply God’s law to themselves – and to others. And they did believe in resurrection and in spirits and angels.

What Paul says divides the body in two. He makes the conversation no longer about whether he personally has kept God’s law in good conscience. He says, “I’m on trial for my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” The anti-Paul view is that Paul was just wiggling out of his embarrassing insult of the high priest, or that he was devious and conniving in diverting this important hearing. The pro-Paul view is that Paul was starting over with the key doctrine of the Christian faith. If there is no resurrection, Jesus was not raised from the dead. If Jesus was raised from the dead, they should listen to Paul.

Whatever the case, the Pharisees jump to Paul’s defense. Theologically, Paul is much closer to them than Sadducees are. Further, they don’t think much of Ananias and would love to embarrass him publicly and in front of the Roman commander. So a verbal volley commences, and a brawl follows. It seems both sides of this “dignified body” (sorry for my sarcasm) are literally grabbing Paul and pulling him like a tug-of-war rope. The commander steps in with force for the second time in as many days to save Paul from a lynch mob, and places him back in protective custody (10b).

Verse 11 begins, “The following night….” Hold it right there. Another 24 hours passes. In less than 48 hours, Paul went from a free man giving his friends a tour of Jerusalem to having his head beaten by a crowd that threatened to kill him to coming within a whisper of 39 lashes by metal-tipped leather straps to having his limbs torn from their socket by angry Jewish “brothers” to sitting in a guarded cell not knowing his fate. Paul had been abused and even imprisoned before on his journeys, but this was different. This was supposed to be a temporary stop, a refueling among friends on his way to Rome and then Spain. He had been warned of difficulties and imprisonment here, but now it was so real. He has 24 hours for his sore joints and throbbing head and wounded soul to get discouraged. Is this going to be the last stop?

Then the Lord shows up and speaks to him: “Take courage.” The Greek word (tharseo) is the same one Jesus used with his disciples in the upper room the night before he died. “In this world you will have trouble. But take courage! I have overcome the world” (John 16:13). The verb translated “take courage” implies an inner attitude that results in an outer boldness. It’s literally a warm feeling that radiates confidence. Sitting in what was almost surely a damp, cool cell, Jesus tells Paul, “Warm up on the inside and let it show on the outside.”

The Lord goes on to say, “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (11b). That was what Paul wanted to hear. That would keep his chin up for a while. And he would need it. He would need it when some people swore an oath not to eat or drink until they killed him (23:12). He would need it when he was transferred to Caesarea with almost 500 soldiers under cover of darkness (23:23). He would need it when he appeared before Governor Felix with the Ananias has his chief accuser, accompanied by the best legal counsel money could buy (24:1-9), and he would especially need that encouragement when the trial before Felix ended with no verdict because Felix was hoping for a bribe and Paul languished in jail for two years (24:26-27).


Just because you see someone do something in the Bible, it doesn’t mean God approves of the behavior. This passage is not about the “courage” of doing what Paul did. He was “human,” but he let the moment get away from him. I think part of what he sat in that cold dark cell and pondered was, “Maybe I blew it. I had a chance to tell the mob my story and they listened, but what if I had said it another way. I completely lost my cool with Ananias. I missed my chance with the whole Sanhedrin because even though I spoke of the resurrection I didn’t speak of Jesus. I did not represent my Lord well.”

But every part of the Bible is written for our instruction. Paul frequently needed direct divine instruction and encouragement. Look at how often the Lord spoke to Paul directly or in a vision. (Red letters indicate Jesus’ direct words.)

  • On the Damascus Road: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.” (Acts 9:5-6).
  • When the road to Bithynia was blocked by the Spirit of Jesus: “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9 – vision of a man)
  • In Jerusalem, when he was praying at the temple: “Quick! Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” (Acts 22:18).
  • At Corinth, after mixed results in ministry: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” (Acts 18:9-10).
  • In Jerusalem, after the fiasco in the Sanhedrin: “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” (Acts 23:11).
  • On the storm-tossed ship: “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.” (Acts 27:24 – the message is delivered through “an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve”).

It’s not that we should seek God’s encouragement in the same way. It’s rather arrogant to expect or demand of him that he does for me what he did for Gideon, Mary, Jesus, or Paul. Their messages were due to unique circumstances at pivotal points in God’s story. But they are written for our encouragement. We can learn from their experience how God encourages and guides. Look again at Acts 23:11.

He knows your name. He calls him “Paul.” He knows your name as well. He knows everything about you. It’s personal with Jesus and you. Don’t ever forget that.

He knows what you’ve been doing for him. Jesus says, “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem.” Paul may have blown it, but his heart was set on serving God. The Lord affirmed what Paul had been doing and why. He knows that about you as well.

He will finish what he called you to do. Jesus’ final word on this occasion is, “so you must also testify in Rome.” Paul, I’m not done with you yet. This is not the end of your story. Hold on. No matter what comes, hold on. It’s my prerogative to redirect you or take you where you think you’re going. Leave that up to me. But know that as you look to me and trust me, I’ll finish every one of my good purposes in your life. Amen.

[1] ECOT is an acronym for “Evangelical, Conservative, Orthodox, or Traditional.”

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