What Does Acts 23:1-5 Mean?
By David J. Stewart
Many Bible scholars and pastors ignorantly use Acts 23:1-5 in an attempt to teach that Christians ought to obey even criminally abusive government; but nothing could be further from the truth . . .
“And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written,Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”
The phrase, “Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people,” is often quoted out of context by ignorant ministers, to criticize upset Americans who cry out against the criminals who have stole our government. God clearly never meant for anyone to lay down and succumb to tyranny and abuse of government authority. This is plainly seen in Daniel’s refusal to stop praying. This is plainly seen by the refusal of Meshach, Shadrach and Abed-nego to bow down to king Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. Those men deliberately broke the law, and rightfully so.
The reason why Paul repented of his threat against the ruler was because he had threatened violence. However, Paul did nothing wrong by asserting his rights, and pointing out that his rights had been violated as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-27,29; 23:27; 25:16). For anyone to teach that Christians ought to remain silent in the face of blatant crimes and tyranny being committed by OUR government is retarded. OUR leaders do what they do with OUR money, and with OUR children, in OUR name, so it is very much OUR business. If your pastor disagrees, find a Biblical church.
The following is a lengthy, but thorough exegesis of Acts 23:1-5 by Carson C. Day, and is the best I’ve read . . .
Most Christians have read Romans 13, which commands obedience by all to the authority of the state. But it leaves them wondering just how we are supposed to relate to it in this or that situation, since no state, and no minister of any state is perfect. Many are given to abuses, and even when they do carry out the law as the law dictates, since no legal code but one is perfect (the Law of the Lord), this leaves many injustices committed.
Particularly, here Christians need to know that Romans does not require absolute obedience to any authority except to that of the Lord Jesus directly — the Word of God. The Bible is replete with examples of Christians who disobey the state faithfully, as with the case of Daniel, who refused to stop praying to God, and with his three friends who would not bow to the state idols. Christians to whom the apostles wrote in fact died by the thousands for their unwillingness to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and swear, “Caesar is Lord.” Instead, they made their public baptism formula a direct insult to this requirement, commanding all novices to violate this precept, uttering instead, “Jesus is Lord.”
Given that that canon of Scripture qualifies its claims found in any part, how then are Christians supposed to relate to their authorities? In this article, I will consider only one small part of an answer to this question, having given a broad overview, and then I will move on to dispel a common misunderstanding regarding the command, “Do not speak evil against the ruler of your people.”
First, Christians must disobey the state when it commands them to do what God forbids (e.g. bow to our idols or else).
Second, Christians must not do what the Bible forbids but the state allows (e.g. abortion).
Third, Christians must disobey the state when it forbids them to do what God commands them (e.g. Do not pray to God; do not preach the gospel. Hate crime legislation in effect forbids the preaching of the Gospel, and thus violates the right to freedom of religion in the first amendment. Ministers should preach the law of God and Gospel — and Christians must always speak the relevant truth in society from the Word — without fear of any man.
Fourth, Romans 13 treats in effect only the executive branch of government, speaking in particular of the “minister” (KJV) or in Greek “Deacon” of the state. The law of this land has built-in protections against tyranny which the Bible invites Christians to use to protect themselves from abuse. Paul did this when he was unjustly whipped by civil magistrates who did not bother to find out in advance whether Paul was a Roman citizen or not. He used Roman law to compel the magistrates to do their duty to make up (publicly) for the injustice by escorting them in broad daylight safely out of the city.
The other two branches of government allow for the use of authority — which is ALSO given by God — to all U.S. citizens to leverage against abuses for the cause of justice — the redress of just grievances. This means you can sue those who take advantage of you or your situation unlawfully. You can make petitions to courts, start referenda to have incompetent or corrupt officials removed and the like. You can also file complaints, make phone calls to higher-ups, and find out what your rights are online even.
In other words, in the U.S.A. citizens have rights (authority) too, not just civil magistrates — though they have more rights in the commission of their duties than the average citizen does. They have to in order to do their jobs without undue interference. Criminals cut corners on rights (which is what makes them criminals), so the police, for instance, have to have greater leverage against them to cause them to “cease and desist” their criminal behaviors.
But onto the topic of specific speech-acts, one of which the Bible plainly forbids. We find this topic raised by an incident with the apostle Paul in Acts 23: 1-6, which reads:
“And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?
And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not [Did not know], brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. But when Paul perceived that the 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: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.”
This often misunderstood passage — and very badly handled — has many good exegetical cues built into it for our edification and admonition.
First, we need to know precisely what Paul said that caused him to repent of what he had said just prior. Then we will look for immediate synonyms and parallels in the local context. Third, we will look briefly at the source being cited here from the Older Testament to make the case for the proper NT interpretation of the sense and proper application of this commandment.
First, we have Paul’s saying after being stricken — punched — at the command of the high priest. He says, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?”
The first part of this utterance is that which brought the infraction challenged by those standing near the high priest (likely the temple body guards appointed to his specific protection). For the Temple had its own guard (a small armed force), not appointed by the Romans.
“God shall smite thee [in like manner],” — the implication of what He has said amounts to invoking a curse upon the chief ecclesiastical authorities within his nation. Notice that Paul understood that God administers justice in reciprocal fashion — Lex talionis. Well had Paul studied the law of the Lord under Gamaliel.
Second, we note synonym for Paul’s action used by his detractors, “Do you REVILE God’s high priest?” Third, Paul had acted in ignorance, meaning that the high priest was not wearing his formal vestments, and the time of the incident was not near the time of sacrifice. This was not required of the high priest — or chief priests since there were by the time of the apostles more than one. This came about at the time of John Hyrcanus in the second century B.C., but bears little on our present study meriting more than simple notation.
So we have the example of speech “God will smite you [also]” — (a curse in the Name of God)
We have the verb “revile” used as a synonym for the curse, and we have the citation “Do not speak evil against the ruler of your people” from the first testament. This shows clearly that Paul does not forbid simple criticism or any kind of speech, whatsoever that may been seen to detract from the honor of the office. That is not the point. The point was VIOLENCE, first of the fist, and then of Paul’s retaliatory VERBAL violence, the invoking of a curse with God’s title (which is included in the Biblical sense of God’s Name or reputation).
Repeatedly the Proverbs speak of wicked men saying, “Violence covers their lips,” or “their mouths feed on violence.” These expressions refer specifically to CURSING others in the Name of God, with the attending hope that God will in fact bring about the curse from their lips, since they themselves may not be strong enough or in the right position to do it with their own fists.
Cursing is verbal violence, invoked in God’s Name in the hope that the Lord will honor the curse. This does not mean it is always inappropriate, just that it is covenantally specific, and highly regulated in the Bible. Now the fact of Paul’s curse is not questioned even by Paul; only the object of the curse is in question, and whether the invoked curse was proper. Paul, upon learning his error, retracts it, and reproves himself from the law.
But what of the verse he cited? Exodus 22:28 reads,
“Thou shalt not revile the gods, *nor curse* the ruler of thy people.”
Here, “gods” [elohim] simply means “judges.” The point is that the judge must be free from pressure of any kind to impose the sanctions specified in the law of God without fear of retribution or intimidation, lest he pervert the law and justice. Thus, no man is allowed to retaliate against the judge for issuing a judgment with which he disagrees. This does not mean that no appellate courts existed in Israel. They did. But the man was not free himself, apart from due process of biblical law (taken as a whole), to retaliate against the judge issuing an unfavorable judgment, whether by physical or verbal violence (cursing or reviling).
This has nothing to do with criticizing a nation’s foreign policy, or voicing one’s dissent let us say from Clinton’s known adulterous relationship in the Whitehouse. That is not the imposition of a curse, but the repeating of public information one may (and should) strongly disapprove of.
The U.S. Constitution itself provides for free speech so that citizens may issue in public speech, or else in writing, their grievances against the abuses of power in government. The Bible does not dispute this right, but it does add qualifications, such as gracious speech and taking care not to incite insurrection by what one says — using speech to arouse violence or incite crimes.
By noting the original source of Paul’s quote, and the parallels in its immediate context, we may conclude with confidence that the saints do have the right and duty to speak out against abuses in places of power, so long as they do so carefully and “seasoned with salt, so that they may know how to answer everyone.”
Those ordained as ministers of the Gospel have a special duty to resist wickedness, providing something of a system of checks and balances between church and state. But the relationship between these two specified in the Word is another post — or series of them — altogether.
Speaking violence against a ruler is simply not permitted. Even Paul reproved himself for ignorantly invoking such against one of the chiefest of judges among his people, even when that judge has plainly abused his power. I have no doubt, however, that Paul was right, since striking an apostle was likewise an extraordinary offense which the high priest committed without repentance (unlike Paul). This is not something you want on your resume.
“Had one of Jesus’ — the Judge of all men — favorite people struck on the mouth”
This was an extremely bad idea, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, Paul conducted himself within the limits of his office to the best of his knowledge. And obeyed the law of Exodus in the New Testament period — insert theonomy sermon here — even when reproved by the wicked properly citing it against him. Paul was a humble man.
This was not one of the ten commandments, but a case law, or ordinance in Israel, whose authority continued into the Newer Testament simply because there was no retraction of it stated or implied in the Newer. Paul was clearly a Theonomist in modern terms. Apart from this hermeneutic – and Theonomy provides both a hermeneutic as well as an objective moral standard — one cannot make sense of Paul’s actions here. For when he spoke of food and dietary laws, he freely urged that one can eat what he likes, for his freedom in the Lord. Not so with Exodus 22:28 and many other laws which continue for the single reason that they were nowhere countermanded later.
For the Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. This does not mean, only a small part, but the whole, of the law of the Lord, since no qualification attends the affirmation. This is what the judges are to impose in pronouncing sentence. Any other standard would necessarily be unjust, since God has but one standard of justice.
NOTE: Mr. Day is a Presbyterian. I do not agree with The Westminster Confession that Mr. Day adheres to, but I do believe he is 100% accurate in his exegesis of Acts 23:1-5.
It is clear that Paul’s preaching of the Gospel was making people angry, which is what got him into trouble in the first place. We read in Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Paul quickly realized his mistake of threatening violence against the high priest; but there certainly was nothing wrong with Paul’s argument that his “rights” were being violated as a Roman citizen.
In Acts 22:25, Paul stood up for his “rights” as a Roman citizen, questioning why he was being punished without due process of law. In Acts 22:28, Paul affirms his right to freedom by birth as a Roman citizen. The Apostle Paul knew his legal rights, and you can rest assure that if Paul lived in the United States today that he would fully know and defend his Constitutional rights. The average Christian today couldn’t explain their First Amendment rights even if their life depended on it. It is your freedom of religion, speech, press, to peaceably assemble and petition your government.
It is unbiblical for any so-called “Bible scholar” to teach blind submission to government. As believers, we ought to take an uncompromising stand against evil, waste and corruption in government (Psalm 94:16). Thank God for Christian leaders like Dr. John R. Rice who understood this…
“So, as an honest Bible preacher, obeying the plain commands of God, I must speak out against corruption and immorality. Waste, corruption, the taking away of men’s freedom and the seizing of men’s property, these sins every honest preacher must condemn and every honest Christian must disavow.”
SOURCE: Dr. Rice… Here Are More Questions; Question: Should politics and religion be mixed?; by Dr. John R. Rice, pg. 249, Sword of the Lord Publishers; 1973, ISBN: 0-87398-157-X
The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights don’t give us our rights; but rather, simply outline our God-given rights. Yet, these “legal” documents ought to be precious to every U.S. citizen who enjoys and cherishes their freedom. The Bible does not prohibit Christians from exposing evils working within our government; such as: criminal leaders, the theft of trillions-of-dollars of taxpayer money, naked body scanners, forced vaccinations, cruel and unusual punishment, blatant crimes being committed by The White House, treasonous acts of betrayal against America’s citizens (such as the open Mexican border and the outsourcing of America’s jobs), warmongering, et cetera.
America today is headed for the dust. The American people are to blame, because of their tolerance of wickedness and love for sin. Tragically, America has become the land of the cowards and the home of the slaves. Freedom is not free. All tyranny needs to thrive is that good men do nothing. And so it is.