Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee,descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”
Acts 23:6 (NIV)
One of the things I’ve observed along my journey is our human penchant for thinking our current events and circumstances are somehow unique in human history. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes wisely said, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” As a student of history I can usually find times and events in recorded history which were much worse than whatever it is that’s happening in the headlines today.
There is no doubt that we are living in a time of polarization in political thought and the results have been tumultuous. The time of Jesus and the following decades of Paul’s ministry that we’re reading about in Acts were also tumultuous times in which there was polarization of both political and religious thought. Conflict, terrorism, and riots were a part of their landscape just as they are in ours today.
In today’s chapter, Paul uses this polarization of thought and the rabid, inherent conflict as part of his chess game with the religious Jewish leaders and their local Roman occupiers. Paul is standing before the same religious council that condemned Jesus to death and he knows they’re just as thirsty for his blood to be spilled. Paul, however, holds a trump card with his Roman citizenship (see my previous post). Standing next to him is a Roman military commander, known as a Tribune. Paul needs the Romans to take over his case.
It’s important to remember that Paul was raised and trained in Jerusalem as a lawyer. He would have known some of the men on this council. He knew their polarized religious beliefs as well as their corresponding hot button issues. Once again I find that Paul is not a random victim of circumstance. Paul is on a mission. He is driving the action.
Paul knows that the two rival parties within the council were the Pharisees and Sadducees. These two parties were just as opposed to one another as the far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats are in the U.S. today. The watershed issue that divided these two religious, political parties was the concept of resurrection, or life after death. The Pharisees believed that there was a resurrection as well as an unseen spirit realm where Angels and spirits dwelt. The Sadducees believed the exact opposite. There was no resurrection, no life after death, this physical life and reality is all there is. When you die there is nothing else. Paul uses this hot-button, polarizing issue for his own purposes.
Paul loudly proclaims to the entire council his pedigree as a life-long, card-carrying Pharisee, and accuses the Sadducees of the council of putting him on trial because of his belief in the resurrection. Resurrection is the powder-keg issue (think Roe v. Wade today). Paul just lit a match and threw it into the middle of the room.
Watch what happens next. A bunch of Pharisees, who moments ago were critical of Paul, now jump up to defend him. As I’ve been watching current events it’s easy to notice that in polarized systems anyone on your team is good and must be defended at all costs, while anyone on the other team is all bad and must be destroyed at all costs. There is no middle ground. Paul successfully diverts the council’s attention from himself to the hot-button issue. In the riot that followed, the Roman Tribune responsible for Paul had no choice but to evacuate him from the situation because he was responsible for Paul’s safety as a Roman citizen and he would be held personally liable (and perhaps executed) if he allowed the Jews to kill Paul, a Roman citizen.
By pushing the council’s political buttons Paul ensured that the Roman Tribune would witness for himself what a volatile group the Jewish council was and the threat they posed to both of them. Not only this, but Paul knows these Jewish leaders. He could easily anticipate that their next move will be a conspiracy to assassinate him. It’s what they did with Jesus. It’s what Paul himself did with Stephen, and Paul himself has been on the run from Jewish assassination attempts on all of his journeys. If there is a plot to kill him Paul knows that the Roman Tribune will have no choice but to place Paul in protective custody and get him out of town. And, that is exactly what happens.
In a few minutes I will join Wendy in our dining room for breakfast and we will read the paper together. It will be filled with news and opinions of current events in our polarized, politicized times. This morning I am reminded that nothing is new under the sun and that I can only control my own motives, thoughts, words, and actions. Reading about Paul’s motives, Paul’s words, and Paul’s actions, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ more obscure and oft-forgotten commands to His followers:
“Be shrewd as serpents; gentle as doves.”