Relying on The Lord – Acts 22:23-23:22

by Roger McCay
22 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 22:23-23:22
Link to Audio Version

It is said we live in a chaotic world. Do we? Francis Schaeffer spoke to this in his book, He is There and He is Not Silent:

The external world is there and it has form and order. It is not a chaotic world. If it were true that all is chaotic, unrelated, and absurd, science as well as general life would come to an end. To live at all is not possible except in the understanding that the universe that is there—the external universe—has a certain form, a certain order, and that man conforms to that order and so can live within it.[1]

Christians, of course, know the why of this from the Scriptures. We know the why because we know the answer of the primary question, “Who?” [2] We know the One first revealed in Gen. 1:1, “In the beginning God ….” Knowing the answer of the “who,” we can then know his work. Without knowing the who, we cannot know his work and the answers to why and how.

Thus, we have the testimony of God’s ordering all things in the first chapters of Genesis. Thence, the Scriptures reveal and demonstrate his sustaining providence (Heb. 1:3). We also know why disorder and chaos exist in the world: sin from the fall; rebellion against God, in Genesis 3 onwards. But the chaos does not overthrow order. Why? The answer is found in the who. The Lord overcomes chaos, working it into his order, as Joseph said to his brothers in Gen. 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

The Scriptures reveal to us reality. We learn of the one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s working from before history through the consummation of history and beyond. Thus we are shown the order in the midst of chaos, God’s providential hand working all things towards the good of his people (Rom. 8:28).

At the center of all things we find Jesus Christ. He is the center of all reality. Col. 1:15-18:

15 He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

The Lord Jesus overcomes sin, chaos, tribulation (John 16:33), bringing redemption to his people (Eph. 1:7), reigning over the heavens and the earth, the unseen and the seen (Matt. 28:18). He is the author and perfector of our faith, the very center of a child of God’s life, our primary love, the one whom we follow (Heb. 12:1-2; Mark 8:34), our Lord and Savior.

When one does not have this perspective, or, in the midst of chaos, we lose our Christ-centered perspective, we move into delusion—living and thinking according to a non-reality. And there lies despair.

In our passage today, Paul could have easily found himself falling into despair. Yet, he found comfort, hope, and deliverance, while yet a prisoner. When we understand Paul’s grasp of reality, Jesus Christ as center, we find insight into why he said and did what he did. We also have a framework to understand how and why events unfolded like they did—order over chaos, the Lord Jesus in control and triumphant. From this, we see how we can rely on Jesus in the midst of chaos, relying on his providence, righteousness, and comfort.

We see God’s providence (his guiding hand) actively at work in this passage, in a couple of obvious ways. First, in Claudius Lysias (the tribune), and also with Paul’s nephew. Lysias, in many ways was, after Christ, the hero of this whole ordeal. He was not perfect, but he showed to be a solid military officer of sound character, committed to his duty: justice, order, and the defense of Rome and its citizens.

Lysias, after making a couple of initial wrong assumptions about Paul, displayed a dogmatic drive to get to the truth of the matter. Confused by the conflicting answers of the crowd to his questions as to why they were attacking Paul, what he had done wrong, Lysias somehow came to the assumption that Paul was an Egyptian rebel. Yet, he adjusted his view of Paul when facing the facts, even letting Paul speak to the crowd. Then (assuming Paul was not a citizen) Lysias ordered Paul flogged seeking to get the facts out of Paul as to what he had done to make them riot. Yet, he cancelled the order when he discovered that Paul was a Roman citizen, for whom, in such a case, it was illegal to flog. At this point, Lysias’ view of Paul shifted. He now saw Paul as a Roman citizen first, detained for unsubstantiated reasons. Thus, Lysias took responsibility for Paul’s welfare, seeking justice in the matter: his duty to Rome. In a further attempt to find out what the whole matter was about, Lysias called together the Sanhedrin, to get an answer from them. Yet, all he found there was, like with the mobs, chaos and a violent riot. Thus, Lysias once again rescued Paul, the Roman Citizen, from the violently deranged Jews.

Lysias was no dummy. He had figured things out in Jerusalem. He could discern agents of chaos from agents of order. We see this in his initial evaluation of Paul. We see it further in his wisely listening to Paul’s nephew, and keeping hush-hush the plot on Paul’s life so that he might save Paul from the Jews for the third time.

All this is in harmony with the Lord’s established order (his mandate of Government) and his providential working within the governmental structure, over which he (the Lord) has ultimate authority. We see this in various forms throughout Scriptures, with Pharaoh, with the Jewish Kings, with Nebuchadnezzar, and so on. In Claudius Lysias (an unbeliever, as far as we know), we find an example of a God ordained sword-bearer of government, indeed a minister of God (Rom. 13:4) working within the limits set by God for the government and towards the government’s very purpose for existing. This is all according the Lord Jesus Christ’s order and rule. He is at the center of what was going on with Lysias, providentially working through the established order. We don’t have time to go into the weeds on this, but we can sum it up with a theological statement based on Rom. 13:1-4: “The governing authorities are God’s servant accountable to him with the mandated responsibility to protect the good through the restraint of evil and the ministration of justice with the sword.”[3]

Paul’s nephew is our other example. We see God’s active providence at work through this young man, knowing only that he was Paul’s sister’s son (Acts 23:16). But we also get a picture of his mettle here in this passage. As it is, the whole account brings up a lot of how and why questions, as Luke just doesn’t tell us. Yet the theological answer to all the questions is the answer to “who,” found in the term “providentially.”

Providentially, Paul’s nephew heard of the plot of 40 assassins, working with the Sanhedrin, to kill Paul. Providentially, Paul’s nephew was able to visit Paul. Providentially, the centurion listened to Paul, when Paul told him to take his nephew to the tribune. Providentially, the tribune was willing to listen and believe Paul’s nephew. Providentially, the tribune kept it secret. And, providentially, Paul was saved, once again, from the violently deranged Jews. That’s a Christ-centered perspective, my friends.

When chaos seems to be about to overwhelm you, bringing you to the brink of despair, think on Jesus. Center yourself, while in the storm, upon the Lord of the Storm—Jesus Christ. He is sovereign. He is all-powerful. He is in control. He loves you. He has ordered the cosmos, the world around us, and he is actively involved in it. He is working all things towards your good, despite whatever is going on, no matter how bad, how evil, how chaotic, how seemingly hopeless. In God’s providence we find hope. Let us rely on Jesus, relying on the Lord’s providence.

Another aspect of a Christ-centered view is the Lord’s attribute of righteousness. True believers, followers of the Way are justified (Rom. 3:24-25; Phil. 3:9) and sanctified (Rom. 6:22). We are a holy people, infused with Christ’s infinite righteousness (Rom. 4:5-6). Thus, Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness is our perfect righteousness (Rom. 3-6)

It’s like a bank account. Consider sin like a debit to your and my account. Outside of Christ, as an unbeliever, our account was in a perpetual and unfixable-by-us negative balance. Original sin put us in hock from the time of our conception, and every sin after just dug a deeper hole. No number of righteous deeds on our part could ever bring us into a positive balance, making us righteous. However, when God gracefully credited Christ’s infinite righteousness to our account, which we received by faith, your and my sin was forever cancelled out. What is a negative one billion plus infinity? Infinity. Infinite righteousness.

Christ’s righteousness imputed to us means that believers are perfectly righteous before God, with our sins forgiven and forever done away with on the cross of Christ. We have become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul operated according to this reality in Acts 23:1-10, speaking to the Sanhedrin.

First, Paul says, in v. 1: “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” How can this be true?

Well, I think 1 Jn. 1:8-9 gives a good synopsis of the answer. It says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But v. 9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Only a person who has no sin can have a good conscience before God. The Sanhedrin, of course, would have understood Paul saying he was a righteous man, blameless, who had kept the law his whole life. But, does this mean Paul had never violated the God’s law, never had a sinful thought, and never sinned? Were his motives always perfect and in-line with God’s will? Of course not. Paul himself says “no-one is righteous” in Rom. 3:10. He also admits to coveting (Commandment #10) in Rom. 7:8. So we know he’s broken the law. And we have to ask: How can someone identify himself this way when he also identifies himself as the worst, the foremost, the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)?[4]

The answer to this question of how is found in the answer to the question, “Who?” Paul’s conscience was good because he was united with Christ, justified, and holy. All his former and future sins were forgiven. He strove to follow the Lord, as he says in Acts 24:16 & Philippians 3:14), and although he did not do it perfectly, he persevered with the help of God’s Spirit, even being pulled back onto the Way when he strayed.

This is true for every believer. In Christ, God’s wrath has been satisfied, our sins paid for, our guilt purged, and we stand holy before the Lord. A true believer strives to follow the Lord, living a life of repentance. And though we don’t do it perfectly, we do it steadily, persevering with the help of God’s Spirit, even being pulled back onto the Way when we stray. Thus with Paul, all followers of Christ should be able to say, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience, up to this day.” Christ took our guilt. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). In Christ, from conception to eternity, all our sins are washed away by the blood of Christ. What right do we have to condemn ourselves, when we are not condemned by God? Uncondemned by the highest judge (Rom. 8:33-34), we have a good conscience. This is a Christ-centered view of reality, contra a self-centered view.

Then there is this incident with the Roman-appointed, Jewish high-priest, Ananias. Ananias was a piece of work, a Sadducee and corrupt in his ways. Josephus tells a bit of his corruption, which we can’t delve into today. But we see him in action here. After Paul’s statement in v. 1, Ananias has Paul struck, which was a clear violation of the law (Lev. 19:15). Paul responds, by saying in v. 3: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?”

Now, some view Paul’s response as an angry curse. But don’t his words sound more like the words of a prophet of old? Not a sinful curse, but a Spirit led prophecy? Of course. And that was exactly what it was. Paul prophesied truly, calling Ananias a white-washed wall, using imagery found in Ezek. 13:10-16, similar to Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23:27.

Ananias held the highest priestly position in Judaism, displaying a righteous image under the law. Yet, here he proved false, violating the law with a pretense of pious rage. Rotten wood under shining veneer, Ananias was of the same ilk as those on this same council years before, who attacked Jesus with lies, having Jesus killed. His attack against Paul, Christ’s ambassador, was due to his hatred and rage against Jesus. Ananias would continue to prosecute Paul before Felix in Caesarea (Acts 24:1). Just a few years later, though, in AD 66, the judgment of Paul’s prophecy would come to pass, as Ananias was murdered by a group of Jewish zealots just before the last Jewish War. And, as the Lord, the righteous Judge has said, “Vengeance is mine” (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19).

Rebuked for speaking ill of “God’s high priest,” Ananias, in 23:4, Paul responds in v. 5, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” Now, Paul very well may not have recognized that the one who ordered him to be struck was the high-priest, equating the position with a ruler of God’s people, quoting Ex. 22:28. He may have been truly apologetic, an appeal to innocence based on ignorance. If so, perhaps he was merely acting consistent with his own command in Titus 3:1. And many see it that way, interpreting his words at face value, as a placation of the council. The council itself seems have understood it that way. In this case, Paul was coming across as a pious man who was mistaken, and properly apologetic.

Yet, does not Paul’s statement seem ironic, even sarcastic? That’s my take on this, along with the majority of commentators, including Calvin and Augustine (Calvin calling it a “taunting excuse”). [5] Paul recognized who Ananias was. Thus, Calvin interprets Paul’s ironic response, in light of his ordering Paul to be struck, as saying, “Brethren, I acknowledge nothing in this man which belongeth to the priest.”[6]

Indeed, from a Christ-centered view, the apostle Paul knew quite well that God’s people, the Christians, have only one high-priest, Jesus Christ (Heb. 4:14-16). The true high-priest of God is the Lamb of God, always ministering before God on our behalf, having atoned for our sins once for all by his own blood, from whence we are forgiven and made righteous. As such, the role of high-priest for the Jews was abrogated, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The position Ananias held was done, in line with Jesus’ prophetic, judgmental curse on the fig tree (Mark 11). The position was just lingering out there, a dead limb needing to be cut. Anyone claiming to be God’s high priest in authority over God’s people was and is illegitimate (Col. 1:18), as Christ is the only true High-Priest.

Following his masterful riddle, in 23:6-10, Paul strategically threw the whole council into chaos by appealing to the Pharisees. He knew their politics well, so he used that knowledge to his advantage, appealing to the Pharisees on theological grounds, saying he was on trial for beliefs to which they held—“the hope and resurrection.” Paul, of course, had a deeper view of this than the Pharisees, knowing the hope and resurrection was fulfilled in Christ and secured in Christ. But resurrection was a touchy issue between the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees, which included Ananias, did not believe in resurrection, angels, or spirits (v. 8). So, Paul stoked a flame under an old fight, pulling some Pharisees to his defense, leading to the whole council erupting into violence.

It was a brilliant move, really. Paul knew he would get no justice before the Sanhedrin—Jesus sure didn’t. They were unjust and violent. He had no obligation to ensure orderly proceedings in a mocked-up judicial hearing. It was not in the interest of the gospel nor in Paul’s best interests to let them go about their self-important villainy.

My friends, attacks of the world upon the people of God are in vain. Even if we suffer, even if we die, as believers in Jesus (followers of Jesus), we have true hope in Christ. In Christ, we are righteous before God and will forever be acknowledged by God, as his beloved children. Nothing can change this, not even our sin. The promise in Rom. 8:38-39 is ours: “… neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As the inheritors of the earth, resurrection, glorious eternity, and life forever in perfect joy await us (Matt. 5:5, Rom. 8:16-17; 1 Thess. 4:16-17). Therefore, let us rely on Jesus, relying on the Lord’s righteousness.

In v. 11, we find, perhaps the key verse to this whole course of events:

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

Did you catch that? Jesus didn’t appear in a dream or a vision or a trance to Paul. Jesus appeared in-person, standing by Paul where he was being held. The Lord of all was physically right there face-to-face with Paul, for the purpose of encouraging him.

And, if you think about it, Paul was probably a mess. Recovering from a brutal beating; having suffered the slander and vitriol of raging hatred; abandoned, apparently, by the Jerusalem church; in the custody of the Romans; Jews everywhere determined to kill him; having been providentially stopped at the temple before going too far into gospel compromise; probably lamenting not obeying the Spirit of God and not listening to the wise counsel of believers not to go to Jerusalem; while considering the likelihood of a painful death approaching, Paul was at a pretty low point.

But Jesus had not abandoned Paul. Thus he visited him and encouraged him, reinforcing his center. He spoke the word only voiced by Jesus in the NT (Θάρσει), “Take courage,” “Take heart.”[7] Why? Well, most importantly, Jesus’ presence is a bolstering proof of the Lord being with him. Even more, Jesus tells Paul he’s got a lot more to do, and that, providentially, he would do it according to God’s orderly plan. This would sustain Paul for years, during his time of imprisonment, strengthening him, knowing his life and calling were in the Lord’s hands.

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus promised to always be with his people (Matt. 28:20). He wasn’t lying or exaggerating. Jesus is with you and I, right now and always. It’s in his name, Immanuel, “God with us.” The fact that you and I are breathing means he’s not done with us yet. He’s got work for you to do, faithful service to Christ in accordance to your Spiritual gifts and obedience in following him daily. He’s called you, equipped you, and provided his Spirit to help you along the way.

Look to the reality, the who, in the midst of chaos. Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, let us trust in Jesus, encouraged by his presence and his loving care. And let us rely on Jesus, relying on the Lord’s comfort.

My friends, when we maintain a Christ-centered worldview, we keep a perspective of reality as it is. Let us keep our eyes on the Lord, our whole being centered on him. Let us rely on the Lord’s providence, righteousness, and comfort. The Lord is not distant and unconcerned. He is actively present. And he is faithful. Since the Lord is with his people, we should rely on Him.


[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 280.

[2] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. Edwin Robertson (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009); also my sermon on Acts 3:11-26.

[3] From my ThM Thesis abstract.

[4] NIV, ESV, KJV respectively.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2, trans. Henry Beveridge (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 317. Cf. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 3279.

[6] Calvin, 318.

[7] Matt. 9:2, 22; 14:27; Mark 6:50; 10:49; John 16:33; Acts 23:11.