Let Conscience Be Your Guide? (Acts 23)
Clear Conscience (Verse 1)
The conscience is the function of the mind with regard to a known standard. Paul is saying here that his actions have lived up to known, revealed truth. Unless the conscience is informed by God’s revealed will, and unless His truth is the known standard on which our conscience is based, it’s possible to have a clear conscience, and yet be acting out in evil. The more hostile our hearts and minds are towards God, the easier it is to have a “clean” conscience about acts of unrighteousness. Our conscience alone cannot be our guide because it is fundamentally misleading when left to itself. Instead, God must be our guide, and the way He guides His people is through a sanctified conscience aligned with His word. Paul’s conscience was clear because he acted in accordance with the gospel and in agreement with his calling as a minister of the gospel.
Righteous Rebuke (Verses 2-5)
The command from Ananias to strike Paul was both illegal and arrogant. Paul pronounces judgment on him by speaking the truth plainly and directly. First, he says that God is going to strike Ananias, which happened a few years later when Ananias was assassinated by Jewish zealots. Second, he tells Ananias that he is a “whitewashed wall,” similar to the way Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees that they are whitewashed tombs (Mt 23:27). Ananias is like a crumbling mud-brick wall cleaned off to make it appear better than it actually is. His life is marked by hypocrisy. Like Jesus with the Pharisees, Paul cared enough to state the seriousness of Ananias’ problem in an earnest fashion, leaving no doubt about the gravity of his situation. When Paul expresses that he was unaware that Ananias was the high priest, he is not really offering an apology, but arguing that he was not guilty of a crime. He’s asserting that Ananias was an illegitimate ruler of God’s people. Using irony for emphasis, it’s as if he was saying, “A true high priest would never give an order like that!”
Council Conflict and Courage from Christ for His Cause (Verses 6-11)
The Sanhedrin were to be the defenders of the truth of God’s word, and yet they were divided on the major points of truth. Really, they only had one thing in common: their rejection of Christ. Paul takes advantage of the opportunity to point out their differences, which results in a dispute. By revealing their division, he gets attention off himself and evades harm. Giving proof that Paul has spoken nothing other than the truth of God, Christ assures him that just as Paul has “solemnly witnessed” in Jerusalem, so also he will “witness” in Rome. The assurance that Paul experienced from this visit from Christ cannot be overstated. He would have three more trials, two years of imprisonment and a precarious voyage before he even reaches Rome.
Conspiracy Concocted and Conspiracy Countered (Verses 12ff)
Immediately following, the promise to Paul from Jesus is put to the test. The encouragement offered was needed by morning. This group of fanatic Jews—representing the desire of most Jews—intended to murder Paul as he was brought in for more questioning. As a demonstration of how sinful humanity can make even outright wickedness a religious duty, these zealots bind themselves in a religious oath before God until they deceive the Roman commander, break the law, and commit murder. However, no matter how much planning and strategizing is done, if God opposes the schemes, they will not succeed (Is 54:17). When the commander considers the potential consequences of losing a well-known Roman citizen to a gang of Jewish zealots, he makes extraordinary over-provision for Paul’s protection. He orders the escort of 470 soldiers and 70 horses, compared to only 40 conspirators. God allows Paul’s enemies to conspire, but prevents them from carrying out any harm.
- Should we be guided by our conscience? How should we define a “good conscience”? What role should the conscience have in the life of a believer?
- How is God’s sovereign protection seen in this passage? What is worrying you in life? What encouragement can you find in God’s provision for Paul in this account?