While Paul was looking intently at the council he said,
‘Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’
Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. At this Paul said to him,
‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?’
Those standing nearby said,
‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’
And Paul said,
‘I did not realise, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council,
‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’
When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) Then a great clamour arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended,
‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’
When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.
That night the Lord stood near him and said,
‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’
The back story:
There’s a lot going on in this passage, and little of it is actually about Paul!
The Pharisees and Sadducees are political and religious rivals locked in a perpetual power struggle for control of what is orthodox.
The Sadducees are the traditionalists, the elites, the ruling class. Historically they control the Sanhedrin and the temple. Politically, (for expedience sake), they are often in collusion with Rome. Religiously, they reject newer traditions (the Prophets) and therefore they are not only against the idea of angels, the spirit, and resurrection – but what they regard as Scripture does not contain the traditions of restorative justice for the oppressed.
On this analysis it would seem the Sadducees (and not so much the Pharisees) are diametrically opposed to Jesus, the Gospel, and the ministry of Paul.
Paul will of course know all of this. He is on trial at the hands of vested interests and powerful people.
So Paul does what Paul, and the Gospel he proclaims, does best – holds a mirror to those in power, and declares them a ‘whitewashed wall’, implying to the high priest that he does not follow his own laws and hides behind a thin veil of respectability.
At such a cutting remark I doubt it is simply Paul’s insolence which prompts the high priest to lash out. Paul has spoken the truth to power, which always provokes a response, usually a violent one.
Paul speaks this truth in the name of Jesus Christ, who could not be silenced, and if Paul is correct about the Resurrection, this truth could not be silenced even by death! If Jesus is raised from the dead the Sadducees have a lot to lose, indeed for Paul, they have already lost. Resurrection is the beginning of the end of the status quo, God is setting the world to rights, it has already begun.
So what began in Jesus, (or as Paul uses elsewhere in his defence, began with the Prophets) is proclaimed in word and deed by Paul, has been passed on to us. Not only to worship the God of Jesus and Paul in song, prayer, and preaching. Not simply to build a Church with open doors, hearts, and minds. But to hold a mirror to those in power, and proclaim justice not as punishment of transgressors, but as an equal sharing of the good things of the earth.
Not easy, so ‘keep up your courage’.
God who stands with us and speaks through us whenever we speak truth to power, we commit ourselves to standing with the weak, the powerless, the poor, the abandoned, the sick, the old, the young, and those who, by victim of circumstance and oppression of the elite, bear the heaviest burdens.
We commit ourselves to work and pray for the time where everything will be reversed, where the first will be last and the last will be first, and all will be well.
In the name of Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection.
The Rev’d Mike Walsh is a pioneer minister in Chorlton, South Manchester.