Only a narrow space of the Great Temple Court intervened between the steps which led down from the tower Antonia and those which led up to the hall Gazith, the Sanhedrin's accustomed place of meeting. If that hall was used on this occasion, no Heathen soldiers would be allowed to enter it; for it was within the balustrade which separated the sanctuary from the Court.
But the fear of pollution would keep the Apostle's life in safety within that enclosure. There is good reason for believing that the Sanhedrin met at that period in a place less sacred, to which the soldiers would be admitted; but this is a question into which we need not enter. Wherever the council sat, we are suddenly transferred from the interior of a Roman barrack to a scene entirely Jewish.
Paul was now in presence of that Sanhedrin council, before which, when he was himself a member of it, Stephen had been judged. That moment could hardly be forgotten by him. He looked steadily at his inquisitors, among whom he would recognize many who had been his fellow-pupils in the school of Gamaliel, and his associates in the persecution of the Christians.
That unflinching look of Paul's conscious integrity offended them, and his confident words, "Brethren, I have always lived a conscientious life before God, up to this very day," so enraged the high priest, that he commanded those who stood near to strike him on the mouth.
This brutal insult roused the Apostle's feelings, and he exclaimed that God should strike him down. If we consider these words as an outburst of natural indignation, we cannot severely blame them, when we remember Apostle Paul's temperament, and how they were provoked. If we regard them as a prophetic denunciation, they were terribly fulfilled when this hypocritical president of the Sanhedrin was murdered by the assassins in the Jewish war.
In whatever light we view them now, those who were present in the Sanhedrin treated them as profane and rebellious. "Revilest thou God's high priest?" was the indignant exclamation of the bystanders. And then Paul recovered himself, and said, with Christian meekness and forbearance, that he did not consider that Ananias was high priest; otherwise he would not so have spoken, seeing that it is written in the Law, "Thou shalt not revile the ruler of thy people" (Exodus 22:28).
But the Apostle had seen enough to be convinced that there was no prospect before this tribunal of a fair inquiry and a just decision. He therefore adroitly adopted a prompt measure for enlisting the sympathies of those who agreed with him in one doctrine, which, though held to be an open question on Judaism, was an essential truth in Christianity.
Paul knew that both Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin were among his judges, and well aware that, however united they might be in the outward work of persecution, they were divided by an impassable line in the deeper matters of religious faith, he cried out, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, and all my forefathers were Pharisees: it is for the hope of a resurrection from the dead that I am to be judged this day" (Acts 23:6). This exclamation produced an instantaneous effect on the assembly. It was the watchword which marshalled the opposing forces in antagonism to each other.
The Pharisees felt a momentary hope that they might use their ancient partisan as a new weapon against their rivals; and their hatred against the Sadducees was even greater than their hatred of Christianity. They were vehement in their vociferations; and their language was that which Gamaliel had used more calmly many years before (Acts 5:39). "We find no fault in this man: what, if (as he says) an angel or a spirit have indeed spoken to him . . . " (Acts 23:9). The sentence was left incomplete or unheard in the uproar.
The Sanhedrin judgment hall became a scene of the most violent contention. Claudius Lysias received information of what was taking place, and fearing lest the Roman citizen, whom he was bound to protect, should be torn in pieces between those who sought to protect him, ordered the troops to go down instantly, and bring him back into the soldiers' quarters within the fortress.
So passed this morning of violent excitement. In the evening, when Paul was isolated both from Jewish enemies and Christian friends, and surrounded by the uncongenial sights and sounds of a soldier's barrack, can we wonder that his heart sank, and that he looked with dread on the vague future that was before him?
A Vision from God
Just then it was that Paul had one of those visions by night, which were sometimes vouchsafed to him at critical seasons of his life, and in providential conformity with the circumstances in which he was placed.
Now on the following night, the Lord stood beside him and said, "Be of good courage, Paul; for as you have fully testified the things concerning Me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness in Rome" (Acts 23:11, HBFV).
The last time when we were informed of such an event was when he was in the house of Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth, and when he was fortified against the intimidation of the Jews by the words, "Fear not: for I am with thee." (Acts 18:9 - 10).
On the present occasion, events were not sufficiently matured for him to receive a prophetic intimation in this explicit form. Paul had, indeed, long looked forward to a visit to Rome but the prospect now seemed farther off than ever. And it was at this anxious time that he was miraculously comforted and strengthened. In the visions of the night, the Lord himself stood by the Apostle Paul and comforted him (Acts 23:11).
The contrast is great between the peaceful assurance thus secretly given to the faith of the Apostle Paul in his place of imprisonment, and the active malignity of his enemies and the Sanhedrin in the city.