And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.” And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God's high priest?” And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
(Acts 23:1-11 ESV)
The story is told of a man who stood up at a Presbyterian meeting somewhere in Scotland, pounded the pew in front of him and said, “Brethren, all I want is me rights!” An old brother sitting nearby spoke up and said, “Your rights, brother? If ye had your rights, ye’d be in Hell.”
Jesus said (Matthew 11:12), “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
What a painful, horrifying scene it must have been when the Chief Priest, the man who was supposed to be God’s foremost ambassador on earth, ordered men of the Sanhedrin to strike Paul on the mouth. How the Holy Spirit must have grieved that day. And how many of us have sat in church meetings so divided or so threatening that violence was in the air?
Here was a man on trial because he claimed there had been a resurrection. The account in Acts 23 testifies that it nearly tore the leadership of the church apart. Today we might say, “Well, at least it was a matter of doctrine they were arguing about and not some of the petty things that destroy our churches today.” But doctrinal arguments are the petty arguments. It takes a whole lot more arrogance to tell God there is no resurrection of the dead, or that healings don’t take place, or that tongues are the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, or that baptism must be by full emersion, or that infants should (or shouldn’t) be baptized than it does to have a disagreement over whether the church needs a new piano or an addition and what color to paint the sanctuary.
The passage says that the dissention became violent. Oddly, these men were attacking each other and not Paul. It took a Roman guard to suggest they take Paul out “forcefully” before the violence fell upon him. And what was a Roman Tribune doing at a Jewish church meeting anyway? That’s the equivalent of one of our churches today calling in the National Guard to keep peace at a meeting.
What a shame that the church should ever have come to that. We look back and excuse ourselves because this was the Jews and not “the Christian Church.” But the Christian Church has executed more violence in the world in the past 20 centuries than you can imagine. More than that, how often, and in how many ways has the church brought violence to its own?
Samuel J. Stone, and English churchman wrote of a doctrinal controversy in 1866,
“Though with a scornful wonder Men see her sore opprest,
By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distrest,
Yet saints their watch are keeping, Their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping Shall be the morn of song.”
The opening line of his hymn is, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” If only we could always remember that. When mocked, he never answered back. When reviled, he had a kind word. When abused and beaten, he was as silent as a lamb. The only time Jesus ever raised a hand in a forceful way he overturned the tables of those who sold merchandise in the Temple court. And that day he never laid a hand on a person, but rather made the point that the Temple was a place for prayer, not trade.
And we should pray for peace in our churches today. We should make peace in our churches. We should pursue peace in our churches. We should love peace in our churches and protect it with the jealous love that Jesus had for his Father’s house.
The last line of Stone’s poem should be our rally cry:
“O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, On high may dwell with Thee.”