Ever feel surrounded by an enemy? Ever wished you had eyes in the back of your head? Who’s got your back in such situations? The answer to that last question is what this teaching is all about.
When I first went to college I had hopes of becoming a lawyer. My only problem was, how was I going to afford going to the undergraduate and graduate education and law bar requirements necessary to practice law? As I was crossing the student center on campus one day my eye caught a trim Marine in full dress standing at a table. Always having an appreciation for the military I was naturally drawn to his table. Once there, I learned that if I enlisted, they would provide a way for me to get my law degree. Now this was in the mid to late 1970s and the Vietnam War was just finishing up so, while I was always patriotic, I didn’t know if that was the route for me to take to achieve my goals. The reason I share this is because I’ve always and still do have a deep appreciation for anyone who has or is serving in the military. I came very close to being drafted into the military in the final stages of the Vietnam conflict. Military stories and documentaries have always been of interest to me. Knowing soldiers or veterans and interacting with them had led me to pick up on some of their nomenclature or ways of communicating.
One of the ways soldiers communicate with one another in the field is to use the clock to indicate direction. For instance, twelve o’clock is straight ahead, three o’clock is to the right or east, 9 o’clock is to the left or west, and six o’clock is behind you. When on patrol of in enemy territory it’s always important to know that someone “has your six,” or has your back, that someone is looking out for your blind spots. For us, in this spiritual war, God has our six. God looks out for us and covers our back. God takes care of our blind spots; those attempts by the enemy to attack us and blindside us. As we live through the enemy territory of this life, it’s a comfort to know, God’s got your six.
The Apostle Paul always had a burden to share the gospel with his brethren the Jews (cf. Romans 9 and 10). This was a fervent desire for Paul. One day, the Lord provided an opportunity for Paul to fulfill his heart’s desire, to share the gospel with his brethren. Paul bravely and boldly and in the Spirit shared his testimony and gospel (Acts 22). But the response from his brethren was not what he must have hoped for. They not only rejected Jesus and the gospel, but they also rioted and tried to tear Paul apart. So great was the tumult caused that the Roman military intervened to save Paul and put down the disturbance. It must have been a heart-breaking experience for Paul.
Sometimes you can do all the right things in sharing your testimony and the gospel and it still results in an uproar. Just because we obey God and follow His plans doesn’t necessarily mean people will receive the gospel and get saved. Sometimes sharing the gospel leads to conflict. No matter the outcome, if we, like Paul, stay calm and trust the Lord, He will not only use the situation, but will protect us through it.
How should we handle rejection or religious riots? How should someone led by the Spirit respond when people reject Jesus and the gospel? How should we respond when our lives are put in danger? Turn with me to Acts 23 to answer those questions.
Acts 23:1 – “Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.”
Paul doesn’t address the council with formalities. He does not formally recognize the members or head of the council. Instead Paul opts for an earnest heartfelt response. “Men and brethren,” communicate a familiarity and equality. This is a council that Paul once likely belonged to himself.
Being earnest is a mark of the Spirit. Paul was a spirit-filled and empowered Apostle. As we look at him, we can see characteristics of what the Spirit-filled minister looks like. One of the marks we see here is that of earnestness.
It’s always a good idea to speak “earnestly.” “Earnestly” (Greek atenisas – Aorist/Active/Participle of the verb atenizo) means to look intently, fix one’s eyes upon. Paul’s gaze at the council communicated the seriousness with which he was addressing them.
Having a good conscience before God. Another mark of the Spirit-filled person is having a good conscience. A good conscience is one that is sensitive to the direction of the Spirit as well as one that relies on the leading of the Spirit. A good conscience is not one that is wracked by guilt due to self-reliant shortcomings that result in us feeling guilty about the way we’ve done something.
Your conscience is that part of you built by God which tells us if we are inside or outside of God’s will. The word “conscience” (Greek syneidesis) refers to inner moral consciousness, that which distinguishes between moral rightness and moral wrongness. Everyone has a conscience (cf. Romans 2). Our conscience is part of the image of God created in each one of us. Our conscience is used by God to show us where we stand with Him. The Holy Spirit uses our conscience to draw us to Jesus as He convicts us of sin and points us to Jesus as the means of dealing redemptively without sin.
Having a “good conscience,” one that is free from guilt or conviction that sin is present in life, is evidence that one is living rightly in the Spirit. It should be said that sometimes a person has an overly active conscience that paralyzes them from living as they are stifled by the thought of whether they are right before God. That is a type of fleshly or carnal condition. When we are right with God and our conscience good, we are balanced and assured by the Spiri that that is the case. When the Spirit is in control and our conscience is good, we will be at peace with God even though false accusations and upheaval may be all around us like it is here with Paul.
That Paul testifies of his “good conscience before God until this day,” and is not contradicted by those he was addressing, is a testament to his character. Paul was a man who said what he meant and meant what he said. He was honest and true and sincere in all he did. How about you, can you say you have a “good conscience before God”?
2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth.
The high priest Ananias was known historically for being a corrupt, a scoundrel. He was devious and corrupt, a devilish man. The high priest Ananias was described by the Jewish historian Josephus as, “as insolent, hot-tempered, profane, and greedy.”  And so, when he commands Paul to be struck even though Paul is speaking earnestly it probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone in attendance.
3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?”
Even Spirit-filled servants can react with anger to injustice. Paul reacts to the unjust action against him. Just because you are Spirit-filled does not mean you won’t react in anger to unjust actions against you. Righteous indignation is a valid Spirit-filled response to injustice. That doesn’t mean we go into a rage. Paul doesn’t go into a rage here. But he does not back down or let this blow of the corrupt go without a response.
A “whitewashed wall!” refers to the practice of painting sepulchers with whitewash to help Jews to not defile themselves by stepping on them. One of the things said about the Pharisees when he was indicting them was that they were “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). In other words, Jesus was calling the pharisees out for their hypocrisy. Paul was calling them out for their hypocrisy of sitting as symbols of law and justice and then unjustly having him struck.
4 And those who stood by said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” 5 Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ”
How could Paul not know he was in the presence of the high priest? Some refer to this verse as evidence that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9-11) was an eye ailment like conjunctivitis that clouded and blurred his vision so that he did not know the high priest was there. Possible. But Paul would not knowingly accuse the high priest of hypocrisy and then himself act hypocritically.
Why hadn’t Paul recognized Ananias as the high priest? The Bible Knowledge Commentary states:
This could hardly be because of poor eyesight because Paul had “looked straight (atenisas, lit., looked intently¯) at the Sanhedrin” (Acts 23:1). Paul’s words could be irony in which he was saying he could not recognize such a violent man as priest. However, the word “brothers” (v. 5) renders this interpretation improbable. Possibly there was such confusion the high priest was not identifiable. Certainly he was not wearing his priestly garments. It is also probable Paul did not know Ananias personally because the apostle had not had contact with the Sanhedrin for many years. The high priesthood changed hands frequently . . . At any rate, Paul recognized the position of the high priest even if he did not respect the priest as a person.
Respectfulness is a mark of the Spirit. Be respectful. Paul showed respect even to those who did not deserve it. The minister of God is not to show disrespect to even the opposition. If we disagree, we should do so respectfully. Respectfulness is a mark of the Spirit.
Humility is evidence of Spirit-filled servants. Notice, Paul was human and may have reacted angrily toward those who struck him (23:1-3), but he was humble enough to admit he was wrong and apply the word of God to himself in self-correction, and that even before his enemies. Paul came around to being polite and showed respect for even his enemies. There is no place for belligerence and harshness in the Spirit-filled disciple. We are called to walk as Jesus walked and follow in His steps (1 John 2:6; 1 Peter 2:21). Jesus spoke the truth in love, sometimes forcefully, but always constructively and in the Spirit. This is the pattern we should follow.
6 But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided.8 For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.9 Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”
Spirit-filled servants are perceptive and cunning. To be Spirit-filled is to be alert and aware of your surroundings. Paul was not devious or deceptive, but he was aware of his opponents and wise enough to use their tendencies against them.
Paul was perceptive. He was cunning. He was aware of those he was speaking to, especially how they were grouped. He used this to his advantage. Paul used his identification as a Pharisee to raise confusion in the council ranks. Pharisees believed in the resurrection and an afterlife. The Pharisees were the religious conservatives of the day. They believed in the scriptures and adhered to the law legalistically. The Sadducees were the liberals of the day, humanists, and did not believe in resurrection or miracles. They didn’t believe in an afterlife; for them, when a person died, that was it, they stopped existing. Unfortunately the Sadducees were the ruling class at this time in history and the high priest was a Sadducee.
As soon as Paul mentioned his affiliation as a Pharisee and that he believed in the resurrection “a dissension arose.” Naturally the Pharisees sided with Paul who they saw as one of their own. The Sadducees didn’t accept this one bit. A conflict arose.
Paul had been away from Jerusalem for about sixteen years. His heart had always burned with a desire to share the gospel with his brethren. The opportunity had come, but it ended in disaster as we see in Acts 22. Paul’s testimony was rejected by his brethren. Here in Acts 23 Paul has the opportunity to share with the ruling council, before many men who no doubt had attended the school of Gamaliel with him. They knew Paul’s zeal and intellect. But all his testimony achieved was a riot among the Jewish people and a riot among the ruling council members. It was an apparent total abject failure. This was probably a low point fo the Apostle Paul.
10 Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.”
The Spirit has our back. The Holy Spirit is in control of Paul and this situation and is influencing those involved to protect Paul. When we are serving the Lord, the Spirit will protect us. Sometimes He will do this through arranging circumstances or allies he brings our ways, sometimes he does this like here, through third party factors that serve to protect us.
Also notice that, even though Paul doesn’t get the favorable response hoped for, the Spirit still has his back. Even when we fail or people reject us and the message we share, the Holy Spirit still is watching out for us. That’s because we have His favor and are not earning His favor by whether we are “successful.” More on this later. But you can always count on the Spirit to be with you when you are sharing Jesus and the gospel.
This was no little disturbance. Those of the council did not assail Paul with words alone but “the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them,” indicates they were outright violent. So the commander “commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them and bring him into the barracks.” The Roman commander’s prime responsibility was keeping the peace and especially protecting Roman citizens (which is what Paul was). And that is what he did.
Your testimony is not going to always be accepted. Many times your testimony will be rejected. Don’t be surprised if your testimony results in not only rejection, but conflict, maybe even a riot. When that happens, take heart, Jesus is nearby.
Acts 23:11 – “But the following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.”
Jesus is always with us, even when we fail. Jesus promise to those seeking to fulfill the Great Commission is that “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). Jesus spoke to Paul on the Damascus Road at his conversion (Acts 9). Jesus also comforted Paul when he was in Corinth. “Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night vision, ‘do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Now Jesus may not speak audibly to us like He did Paul (or He might), but we have the word of God through which Jesus speaks to us to assure us and comfort us and direct us in difficult situations.
In addition to the voice of Jesus, Paul might have also remembered God’s word as well. It doesn’t say, and this would only be speculation, but perhaps some of the following words were brought to Paul’s mind by the Spirit, and might be helpful for us as well in a similar situation:
Psalm 27:1 (NKJV) – The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid?
Psalm 44:3–8 (NKJV) – For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, Nor did their own arm save them; But it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, Because You favored them. 4You are my King, O God; Command victories for Jacob. 5Through You we will push down our enemies; Through Your name we will trample those who rise up against us. 6For I will not trust in my bow, Nor shall my sword save me. 7But You have saved us from our enemies, And have put to shame those who hated us. 8In God we boast all day long, And praise Your name forever.Selah
Psalm 46:1 (NKJV) – God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.
Proverbs 18:10 (NKJV) – The name of the Lord is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe.
Isaiah 41:10 (NKJV) – Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’
Be aware of the temptation to test God’s protection. We should be cautioned though. Satan will at times tempt us to test God by putting ourselves in unnecessary danger just to see if He will protect us. Satan did this with Jesus and even quoted Psalm 91 in the temptation (cf. Matthew 4:5-7). Jesus’ response to Satan’s temptation was to rebuke him affirming that “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.”
Be aware sometimes it is God’s will to suffer. We should also acknowledge that sometimes suffering and difficulties and pain are part of God’s plans and may serve a greater purpose of the LORD. We see this in the Book of Job and Peter speaks of the occasions when suffering is part of God’s will for us. “Therefore let those who suffer according ot the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (cf. 1 Peter 4:19).
Be assured God’s grace is always sufficient. Even when we suffer, God has our back. His grace is always sufficient and is indeed perfected in our weakness. Therefore, our attitude should be like that of Paul when he was inspired to write:
2 Corinthians 12:8–10 (NKJV) – 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
This was the low point in Paul’s life. His heart’s desire to win his brethren to Christ had crashed and burned. His hope for a revival among his brethren was squashed. In the face of fanatical opposition the Lord comforted Paul by telling him he wasn’t finished with Paul yet, He still had work for Paul to do in Rome (23:11). The comforting words of the Lord confirmed that it was God’s will for Paul to have gone to Jerusalem (compare with 21:4 discussion). Paul had three other such visions (9:4-6; 16:9; 18:9-10).
The temptation for Paul was to wallow in rejection. We often turn inward when defeated. But that is not the way of Jesus. Jesus has a better way for us. Jesus is in control, even when we are rejected.
Don’t dwell on the past, press on. Jesus is always there in our lowest valleys. Jesus is always there in our darkest nights. When we feel most alone, Jesus is there to say, “Be of good cheer Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” In other words, it’s as though Jesus is saying, “Paul, don’t let the rejection of your testimony get you down, I’m not finished with you. I have work for you to do.” Jesus always meets us when we need Him most, and He always comes with the perfect words. And His message to us is not to dwell on our defeats or rejections. Instead we need to listen to His call and move forward. Life is not about how many times we get knocked down. Life is about how many times we can get knocked down, and still rise to press on. Victory awaits the one who takes strength in Jesus, and even though pummeled, presses on with His Savior.
Jesus has our six! We don’t need to go through life fearing a back stab, ambush, or surprise attack. Jesus is watching out for us. And even if we are taken by surprise, with Jesus by our side, we will come through to victory. Yes, Jesus has our six, He has our six, our twelve, our three and our nine. Jesus has us covered in very direction. His grace is sufficient. Trust Jesus for the blind spots and just keep following Him. Amen!
Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.
Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.