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When Paul Lost His Temper

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 22:30; 23

Acts 23 presents a great lesson from the life of the apostle Paul, and it is this: God never works with perfect people, because they do not exist. He works with those who know, love, and follow Him and accomplishes His purposes in spite of their human failings.


Decades ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “If.” It is written as fatherly advice to a son on what it takes to be a man. The opening—and most famous—line presents one necessary quality: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

If there was anyone who could keep his head when all around him were losing theirs, it was the apostle Paul. But as we set sail now into Acts chapter 23, we are going to learn that even the great apostle lost his cool on at least one occasion.

Remember, Paul had been misunderstood and maligned by believing Jews in the church. Then, in the temple, Jewish opponents made false accusations against him. A mob formed, and a riot broke out. Paul was beaten before eventually being rescued by Roman soldiers.

Now as chapter 23 opens, the Roman commander has decided to deliver Paul to the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel, for a hearing. Paul begins his defense before the council in verse 1, saying, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” Paul is not saying, “I’m perfect,” but simply, “I have kept a short account with God—my conscience is clear.”

Beloved, as you serve the Lord and encounter hardships, you will find that there is no softer pillow to lay your head on at night than a clear conscience.

At this point Paul is suddenly and rudely interrupted by the high priest, Ananias, who orders a nearby soldier to literally punch Paul in the mouth. More than likely, he was offended that Paul referred to them as his brothers—speaking to them as peers.

Well, that punch is the match that lights Paul’s fuse. The last twenty-four hours have been grueling for Paul—he has probably gone without any sleep or much to eat—and now he has a bloody lip. He responds in verse 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?”

Paul is correct that the high priest has violated the law by delivering a blow during a hearing. And when Paul says, “God is going to strike you,” that is actually a prophetic warning. In fact, we know from history that this high priest will eventually suffer a violent death.[1]

Bystanders say to Paul here in verse 4, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” For some reason Paul had not recognized Ananias, and he quickly apologizes for his angry words against the highest spiritual office in the land. He acknowledges that he had not responded correctly—his own pride had been hurt.

Do not forget that Paul was not perfect. His halo could get crooked just as fast as yours and mine. In fact, one of the proofs of the Bible’s inspiration is that it does not put makeup on mistakes. It reveals heroes of the faith as being made of the same clay we are. But let us be sure to follow Paul’s example in quickly apologizing for his wrong reaction.

Now verse 6 tells us Paul “perceived that one part [of the Sanhedrin] were Sadducees and the other Pharisees.” The Sadducees rejected many biblical teachings, including the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels. The Pharisees believed these doctrines but were trying to keep the law as a way of salvation.

So, Paul does something interesting here. He declares in verse 6 that he is a Pharisee and on trial for “the hope and the resurrection of the dead.” That is true, but Paul’s statement immediately ignites a debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees over the resurrection, with some of the Pharisees even defending Paul. When it appears they are going to start a civil war right there in the courtroom, the soldiers remove Paul and return him to the Roman barracks.

Some Bible scholars believe Paul was using a clever tactic here to create chaos since he was not going to get a fair hearing anyway; others believe he was appealing to the Pharisees, at least, to understand the basis of his teaching.

Frankly, Paul could have been doing both—we do not know for sure. But in either case, Paul was certainly disappointed. He had looked forward to making a defense of his faith in front of the Sanhedrin, but his angry outburst had derailed the hearing, and eventually everybody was shouting at each other.

So, a very discouraged apostle sits in Roman custody that night, perhaps unable to sleep. But we read this in verse 11:

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.”

In essence, He tells Paul, “Your mission is not over.” The Lord affirms Paul’s testimony here in Jerusalem and now promises that he will also testify in Rome. This is a good reminder, beloved, that Paul’s ministry—like yours—is not about perfect responses and consistent witnessing; you are going to fail at times. Paul’s ministry is not about his faithfulness but God’s faithfulness. Yes, God wants us to be faithful, and when we are not, it is discouraging, isn’t it? But the good news is that no failure is fatal; and even when we are not faithful, God always is.

Verse 12 then informs us that some Jewish men “bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.” Imagine that. They make a vow that they will not eat another meal until they can get their hands on Paul and kill him. Well, they are about to lose a lot of weight!

Here is the plot: The Roman commander will be asked to bring Paul over to the Sanhedrin for more questioning, but on the way there, these assassins will ambush them and kill the apostle Paul. 

The verses that follow describe how through certain apparent coincidences, as some people call them, Paul’s life is protected. But these are not coincidences. What we see here is the hand of God working behind the scenes to keep His word to Paul, to bring him to Rome.

The first so-called coincidence is seen in verse 16. Paul has a nephew in town, and he just happens to be at the right place at the right time, and he overhears this plot. He quickly relays the information to Paul.

A Roman centurion just happens to be available and willing to take Paul’s nephew to speak to the commander (verses 17-18).

Then beginning in verse 19, we read that this commander, Claudius Lysias, actually takes the information seriously. Instead of brushing off Paul’s nephew, he believes him and then decides to protect Paul at all costs, which is another unusual event. He foils the plot by taking Paul that night to Caesarea under the protection of 400 Roman soldiers. That’s a fifty-mile journey! This commander even takes the time to write a letter to Felix, the Roman governor, explaining Paul’s situation and even sympathizing with him.

Paul arrives the next day in Caesarea. Governor Felix reads the letter and tells Paul, “I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive” (verse 35). In other words, “I will keep you safe and give you a fair trial.”

Through all these events, God is at work. He is moving people and circumstances in order to see that Paul accomplishes his ministry for Jesus Christ.

What all this reveals to us is that God’s work cannot be stopped—even when we fail. He knows the enemy’s secret plots, but nothing can derail the ultimate plans of God. And let me add, beloved, that nothing and no one can take your life without God’s permission and being in accord with His perfect plan.

Our role is to walk with God today and let Him take care of everything else.

[1] D. Edmond Hiebert, “Ananias,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. Merrill Tenney (Zondervan, 1975), 1:154.

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