"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!' And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection--and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. 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 spoke to him, let us not fight against God.' 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" (Acts 23:6-10).
Paul was very observant before the Sanhedrin council. He perceived that the council was composed of both Sadducees and Pharisees. Since they were not there to do him justice, he decided to turn them against each other to secure his own safety (which was not a difficult task due to their extreme philosophical differences). The Pharisees, as Luke explains, believe that there is an afterlife; angels and spirits are real being, and there will be a resurrection. These points are fundamental to Pharisees, but the Sadducees (who were the materialists of their day) reject all of these notions. Paul affirmed that he was a Pharisee (as was his father). Did he lie here? I don't believe so. Although we know Paul had become a Christian, he was still a Hebrew (descendant of Abraham) and still held the fundamental principles the Pharisees advocated regarding angels, spirits, and the afterlife.
Paul truthfully declared to the council that he was being judged pertaining to his conviction about "the hope and resurrection of the dead." Paul believed and preached that Jesus was the risen Christ and that He was "the firstfruit of those who have fallen asleep" (I Cor. 15:20). In other words, Paul believed in a general resurrection of the dead (cf. John 5:28,29). He knew this statement would earn him sympathy with the Pharisees and further agitate the Sadducees. That is precisely what happened and the assembly that had gathered against Paul was now itself divided.
The Pharisees quickly resort to advice similar to that which Gamaliel had offered decades earlier (cf. Acts 5:38,39). "We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God." The Pharisees are willing to admit the possibility that Paul has been following the direction of a spirit or angel from God in his life. If so, then to fight against Paul was to fight against God Himself! This is one thing they do not want to do. This statement further provoked the Sadducees and resulted in a great dissension. Paul's life was in danger now, so Lysias removed him by force to protect him and took him back to the barracks. Once again Lysias is disappointed in his efforts to learn the truth about Paul's case.
"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.' And when it was day, some of the Jews banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. Now there were more than forty who had formed this conspiracy. They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, 'We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul. Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near'" (Acts 23:11-15).
There is no reason to think that the Lord did not literally appear and stand next to Paul to deliver these words of encouragement to him directly. Jesus explained that God had a plan for Paul, specifically that he "must also bear witness at Rome" (which was a desire Paul had prayed for prior to his recent trip to Jerusalem; cf. Rom. 15:30-32). No doubt Paul had become deeply discouraged by his incarceration, feeling helpless that he was wasting precious time and seeing no future for himself except prison walls or a bloody grave. Certainly the Lord lifted his spirits from despair by this visit and promise. We will trace the fulfillment of this promise throughout the rest of the book of Acts. In so doing we shall see an amazing illustration of the divine workings of providence in answer to prayer. Although it is never easy, Christians can and should rejoice in difficult situations (cf. James 1:2-4; Phil. 4:4).
The remainder of Acts 23 deals with a conspiracy of the unbelieving Jews against Paul's life. More than 40 men had made an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had murdered Paul! This provides insight into just how despised Paul was by many. They didn't think he had the right to life, and they intended to take matters into their own hands. Their plot is to get Lysias to bring Paul out again for more questioning. If Lysias did not suspect their devious intent, he may have only had a few dozen soldiers present instead of hundreds. The Jews hoped to be able to overpower the guards and take Paul's life before he ever made it back to the council.
"So when Paul's sister's son heard of their ambush, he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. Then Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, 'Take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him.' So he took him and brought him to the commander and said, 'Paul the prisoner called me to him and asked me to bring this young man to you. He has something to say to you.' Then the commander took him by the hand, went aside, and asked privately, 'What is it that you have to tell me?' And he said, 'The Jews have agreed to ask that you bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire more fully about him. But do not yield to them, for more than forty of them lie in wait for him, men who have bound themselves by an oath that they will neither eat nor drink till they have killed him; and now they are ready, waiting for the promise from you.' So the commander let the young man depart, and commanded him, 'Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me'" (Acts 23:16-22).
Other than this context, we have little knowledge of Paul's physical family. We learn here he had a sister and a nephew. It is unknown how the nephew was able to learn of the nefarious scheme, but he did and he reported it to Paul in the barracks. Paul then requested that one of the centurions take the young man to the commander. Lysias was kind to the young man and willing to receive his message. He believed it to be true and instructed the young man not to speak about the matter to anyone else (for the young man's safety and also so the angry Jews would not learn the real reason for the transfer). Although Paul is a prisoner, he is still a Roman citizen and Lysias would not allow him to be murdered under his watch. He will make arrangements for Paul to be transported safely elsewhere. This shows wise judgment and good character on Lysias' part. The commander had four basic options and he made the best choice for the situation. He could have chosen to turn a blind eye to the Jews' plot and probably would not have been held accountable as an accessory to murder, or he could have sent Paul back to the council under heavy guard to defy their power and display his own, or he could have said "No," to their request, but he needs to do something with Paul and the best choice is to transport him elsewhere safely.
"And he called for two centurions, saying, 'Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearman to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night; and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.' He wrote a letter in the following manner:Claudius Lysias,
To the most excellent governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him.
Farewell" (Acts 23:23-30).
The reported threat is taken very seriously by Lysias. He orders nearly 500 men (soldiers, horsemen, and spearmen) to be ready to safely transport Paul under the cover of darkness to governor Felix (about 60 miles away). Lysias also composed a letter explaining the situation to Felix. His letter does contain one lie. He affirmed that his men first rescued Paul, "having learned that he was a Roman." Lysias did not learn this until later--until he was preparing to have him scourged illegally! Of course, that information did not make it into the letter. Men in all walks of life have an uncanny knack for stating a case so they look good, while covering their blunders or leaving out the parts where they are at fault. It is interesting to see Lysias state that he does not believe Paul has done anything worthy of death or chains. Yet, he did not release Paul (which was probably best for the apostle's safety) but turns him over to Felix to conduct a proper trial.
"Then the soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. The next day they left the horseman to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him. And when the governor had read it, he asked what province he was from. And when he understood that he was from Cilicia, he said, 'I will hear you when your accusers also have come.' And he commanded him to be kept in Herod's Praetorium" (Acts 23:31-35).
After getting far enough away from Jerusalem, there is no need for the foot soldiers to continue accompanying the group. Their purpose--to protect Paul in the event of an ambush--was fulfilled. There is no record of any attack along the way, which suggests the angry Jews had no knowledge of Lysias' command. The horseman eventually arrived at Caesarea and delivered both the letter and Paul to Felix. He will judge between Paul and his accusers (once they are notified and arrive). In the meantime, Paul would be held in Herod's Praetorium.
Every time I read this chapter I am left wondering, did the conspirators keep their word? Since they were unable to take Paul's life, did they forfeit theirs by dying of dehydration and starvation? My guess is that they broke their vow after learning of Paul's safe transfer to Felix and the hopelessness of their plot. Those who judge unrighteously and make hasty, sinful vows typically do not possess strong enough character to follow through with such a drastic course against self. One thing is for certain, their rage increased dramatically after learning that Paul had been transported while they slept unaware!
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.