Listen to what the apostle Paul proclaims before the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem.
“Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” (Acts 23:1)
I want us to think about those words. I have lived my life before God in all good conscience. In the text we are looking at in this lesson we are going to see that the apostle Paul will say this again. Look at Acts 24:16.
“So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” (Acts 24:16)
We are being given a window into the mind of Paul who is explaining how he looked at his life before God. His goal and his effort was to live life with a clear conscience before God and all people. In our lesson we are going to look at how Paul could say this and what living such a life looks like for us today.
Paul is in Jerusalem and the Jews from Asia also came to Jerusalem so that they could persecute Paul. They have stirred up the crowd to such a degree that they were beating Paul to death. The Roman commander intervened and carried him into the barracks. But Paul wanted to clear up the misunderstanding because what the Jews were saying about his was not true. So Paul gave an explanation for his life change. But the response did not settle the crowd as Paul had hoped. Rather, the crowd was stirred up all the more, shouting that Paul should not be allowed to live. The Roman commander orders for Paul to be scourged because it seems clear that he must have done something wrong. But as he is being stretched out to be whipped, Paul asks the centurion if it is lawful to flog an uncondemned Roman citizen (Acts 22:25). The answer is that it was not lawful under Roman law. But the Romans want to know why Paul is causing such a commotion in Jerusalem. So the Romans command the Jewish leadership to convene for a trial so they can learn the reason for the accusations against him (22:30). This sets the scene for Paul occasion to explain himself before the Jewish leadership and Roman authorities in Acts 23.
Handling Oppression (23:1-5)
Paul begins by declaring that he has lived his life before God in all good conscience. Now what did Paul mean? We know that Paul did not mean that he had lived a sinless life before God. Paul proclaimed that he was the foremost of all sinners (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15). Rather, Paul is speaking about living a life of integrity. Paul has devoted his life to be pleasing to God. Paul has devoted himself to doing what is right before God and all people. He has not been perfect. But that has been his life effort.
After saying these words, the high priest orders for those standing near Paul to hit him in the mouth. Paul has barely said anything and immediately the high priest has Paul smacked in the mouth, which was completely against the law. This is exactly what Paul proclaims in verse 3. God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You are judging me according to the law while you are sitting there breaking the law. This is why Paul calls the high priest a whitewashed wall. The picture is that the wall is full of filth, but you just cover it over with paint to make it look like you are pure and good. Paul does not retaliate. Instead, he declares that God is going to judge the high priest for breaking the law.
Now those standing by challenge Paul. “Would you revile God’s high priest?” Please listen to Paul’s answer. “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest.” Why is this a problem? This is a problem because the law in Exodus 22:28 taught that you were not to speak evil of a ruler of your people. Think about this moment. Was the high priest wrong? Yes. Was the high priest breaking the law? Yes. Was the high priest breaking God’s law? Yes. Was the high priest a whitewashed wall? Yes. Is the high priest carrying out injustice? Yes. But none of that nullified the law and Paul acknowledges that he should not have said it and would not have said it if he knew that this man was a ruler.
Friends, I am shocked at how Christians have behaved and spoken about leaders and those in authority over the last few years. It is terrible that Christians engage in this kind of talk. We do not speak against those who are in authority. The apostle Paul himself tells us why when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.
The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13:1 NIV)
Now listen to what Paul says next.
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (13:2 ESV)
So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who opposed it will bring judgment on themselves. (13:2 CSB)
Wicked rulers do not give us the freedom to speak evil about them. Further, we do not see Jesus or Paul resisting human authorities. Our words and actions must still reflect Jesus even if the rulers and authorities are acting contrary to God and his law. This is what Paul is exemplifying. If you do not like this president, the last president, the president before that, or the president before that, we do not speak against authorities because they have been instituted by God. It does not matter if the leader is wrong. We are not justified to revile a leader because he is there because God put him there. Living in good conscience before God and others means that we do not engage in this behavior.
God’s Plan Through Pain (23:6-35)
After this, Paul proclaims that the reason he is on trial is because of his belief in the resurrection of the dead. This is true. Paul is proclaiming Jesus is the Christ because he rose from the dead and spoke directly to Paul and told him to proclaim what he witnessed to the Gentiles. Proclaiming this statement causes an uproar among the Jewish leaders because the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection of the body while the Pharisees did. When the dispute turned violent, the soldiers have to remove Paul by force from the hands and bring him back to the barracks (23:10). But look at verse 11. The Lord comes to Paul and tells him to have courage because Paul is going to do God’s will by giving his testimony in Rome just as he had in Jerusalem.
Now think about this because here is what I would be wondering. Lord, if you want to me to take this message to Rome, why did you have me come to Jerusalem where you repeatedly told me this kind of violent uprising was going to happen? Why not just send me there for Corinth in Acts 17 because I was most of the way there? This is a hard truth to grasp but it is important that we understand it. God can accomplish his plan through the suffering, hardships, violence, and imprisonment that may happen to us. Living in good conscience before God means that we are ready to take the hard path that he leads us on. Remember what the Lord through Moses told Israel about why God takes us the hard path.
Remember that the LORD your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (Deuteronomy 8:2 CSB)
God is going to take us through the greatest pains in life to humble us and to test our hearts. God is going to take us down some really hard roads because God is accomplishing his plan through our pain. God is testing us. God is being glorified through us. We must be ready to be used as God’s instruments in this work. Paul is going through a very hard way. But it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. Paul is yielding himself to God’s will.
So Paul is going through hardships. A conspiracy is revealed where more than 40 Jews took an oath that they would not eat or drink until they had killed Paul (23:12-13). So have the Romans bring him back out and we will kill him on his way to the council. But God’s hand is at work. Paul’s nephew hears about this conspiracy, tells Paul, and that news is taken to the Roman commander. So rather than keeping Paul in Jerusalem, they send him to Caesarea for his own protection (23:23-35).
Living a Controlled Life (24:1-27)
This brings us to chapter 24 where now Paul is going to be brought to trial under the authority of the Roman governor over Judea, Felix. History records that Antonius Felix was governor of Judea from AD 52-59. So the trial begins. The charges begin in Acts 24:5-6. This man is a plague who stirs up riots all over the Roman Empire and tried to profane the temple. Paul’s defense is equally clear. Paul cannot be causing problems in Jerusalem because he has only been there 12 days. They did not find me disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd. They cannot prove any of the charges they brought against me. I am on trial because I believe everything written in the scriptures and have a hope in the resurrection of the just and unjust. Look at verse 16. “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
Now I want us to think about what Paul was able to say before the Roman courts. Not only can Paul say that he has lived his life in good conscience before God, but also before people. Notice what Paul is proclaiming. I am not a troublemaker. I do not stir up trouble. I do not incite riots. I am not trying to bring down the system. I was not causing a disturbance nor was I even arguing with anyone (24:12). Paul understood that the way of the gospel was not through disturbances, riots, clamor, or societal upheaval. Paul could say before the Roman authorities that his whole life has been about try to also have a clear conscience before people. Paul did not decry the Roman authorities or the Roman system as evil. He did not even decry these Jewish leaders as evil. Paul just says that he is talking to people about his hope in the resurrection and has not participated in nor attempted to create any uproar in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the Roman world. We are to live as Paul instructed us to pray in 1 Timothy 2.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1–2 ESV)
Paul lived a controlled life. He is living a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way as he teaches the world the gospel of Jesus. In fact, you will notice in verse 22 that Felix puts off making a decision about Paul’s fate until a later time. Look at what Paul does with his time. In verse 24-25 the scripture records that Paul was talking to Felix and Drusilla about faith in Jesus, and reasoned with them about righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment.
Do we think that this is something that we can do? Living in good conscience before God and people means that we can talk to people about faith in Jesus, and reason with them about what is right and wrong, about concepts regarding living our lives with self-control, and about the coming judgment. What Paul talked to the Romans about are the same things we can talk to people in our culture about.
So think about what Paul has shown us about living with a clear conscience before God and people. We do not speak evil of others. We understand that God is going to bring us through hardships and pain to accomplish his will. We are not promised an easy life path. We live a life that is defensible to the world. We are not troublemakers. We are just telling people about the hope we have, speaking to them about faith, righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment. What will you say to people this week to show that in your life? How will you live this week so that it is full of integrity? What will you do so that you can say like the apostle Paul, “I have lived my life in good conscience before God and all people?”