The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
A Plot to Kill Paul
12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and Bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”
Last week’s entry was about the heated row the Pharisees and the Sadducees had over their faith beliefs, which Paul had purposely triggered.
The next day, however, the Sanhedrin’s focus returned to Paul. More than 40 plotted to kill him and went on a hunger strike until they accomplished their mission (verses 12, 13).
John MacArthur’s four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation. Last week’s verses showed the conflict. However, Paul saw some of the consolation, as our Lord stood beside him in prison (emphases mine):
11 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.”
The conflict continues this week with these plotters. Both our commentators say that Satan was working through them. Here is Matthew Henry’s analysis. Older translations use ‘curse’ instead of ‘oath’ in verse 12, which adds to the gravity of the sitaution:
(1.) They bound themselves to it. To incline to do evil, and intend to do it, is bad; but to engage to do it is much worse. This is entering into covenant with the devil; it is swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness; it is leaving no room for repentance; nay, it is bidding defiance to it. (2.) They bound one another to it, and did all they could, not only to secure the damnation of their own souls, but of theirs whom they drew into the association. (3.) They showed a great contempt of the providence of God, and a presumption upon it, in that they bound themselves to do such a thing within so short a time as they could continue fasting, without any proviso or reserve for the disposal of an overruling Providence. When we say, To-morrow we will do this or that, be it ever so lawful and good, forasmuch as we know not what shall be on the morrow, we must add, If the Lord will. But with what face could they insert a proviso for the permission of God’s providence when they knew that what they were about was directly against the prohibitions of God’s work? (4.) They showed a great contempt of their own souls and bodies; of their own souls in imprecating a curse upon them if they did not proceed in this desperate enterprise (what a woeful dilemma did they throw themselves upon! God certainly meets them with his curse if they do go on in it, and they desire he would if they do not!)–and of their own bodies too (for wilful sinners are the destroyers of both) in tying themselves out from the necessary supports of life till they had accomplished a thing which they could never lawfully do, and perhaps not possibly do. Such language of hell those speak that wish God to damn them, and the devil to take them, if they do not do so and so. As they love cursing, so shall it come unto them. Some think the meaning of this curse was, they would either kill Paul, as an Achan, an accursed thing, a troubler of the camp; or, if they did not do it, they would make themselves accursed before God in his stead. (5.) They showed a most eager desire to compass this matter, and an impatience till was done: not only like David’s enemies, that were mad against him, and sworn against him (Psalms 102:8), but like the servants of Job against his enemy: O that we had of this flesh! we cannot be satisfied, Job 31:31. Persecutors are said to eat up God’s people as they eat bread; it is as much a gratification to them as meat to one that is hungry, Psalms 14:4.
John MacArthur’s Bible also says ‘curse’. He explains:
They were serious about it as indicated by the fact that it says, “They bound themselves under a curse.”
The Greek is “they anathematized themselves with an anathema.” They devoted themselves to destruction. This was not an uncommon thing. They placed themselves under a divine judgment, as it were. They invoked the vengeance of God. It would go something like this: if any of the other Jewish vows would be similar to this, this would be a typical one, “So may God do to us and more, if we eat or drink anything until Paul is dead.”
Now, they were serious. They wanted this man dead, and the most stringent way they knew was to take this kind of a vow which sort of bound them and sort of told everybody the seriousness of it. And, they invoked the vengeance of God if they didn’t accomplish it. Of course, that’s dumb, because God may or may not be involved in it. That’s why Jesus said, “Swear not at all, don’t do that. Don’t say, ‘God, strike me dead if I don’t do this,’ or, ‘God do this if I don’t do that’.” Let your conversation be “yes and no” and forget that.”
Jesus said, “Swear not at all neither by Heaven or Earth.” But they were doing that, and they wanted to drag God into it and appear very holy. See? “We’ll kill him or God strike us dead,” feeling they were really going to defend God. They wanted God in on the murder plot …
You say, “Well, why would they react to such a man like this? Why not just say, ‘Oh, well. Let him go.’ Why so hostile? Why so violent?” Because of this, folks: to simplify it, they were the dupes of Satan, and that is the simplest way to look at it. They had been so subjected to the power of Satan by this time, existing so long in a false system of religion based on ego and hypocrisy, that they were Satan’s tools. And Satan wanted Jesus and the Gospel done away.
MacArthur tells us why 40+ were involved:
Well, apparently, they felt that the Romans would not bring about Paul’s death; they couldn’t procure the death at the hands of Rome. And, they realized that they didn’t want Paul in front of the people making another speech, or he might wind up persuading too many of them.
And so they saw they had to get rid of him, but they didn’t want any one individual to bear the brunt. So they realized if they had 40 or more (and that’s maybe an arbitrary figure; they may have called together all those who were interested), but if they had enough, no one person could be blamed for it. Plus, that many could accomplish it without Paul escaping. So they bound themselves by a blood oath, swearing to God that they would assassinate Paul, or they would be willing to take the vengeance of God, knowing all the time that they could get out of it.
They then went to the chief priests and elders stating that they had made this oath (verse 14), and what they expected Ananias and the elders to do: pretend they wanted to interview Paul further, and the conspirators would murder Paul when he approached (verse 15).
It is difficult imagining that going on in a religious setting, but MacArthur gives us the background to the Sanhedrin:
Now, the chief priests of the Sanhedrin were the Sadducees. The Sadducees party was the most antagonistic to Paul. Do you remember for what reason? Because Paul taught the resurrection and they were anti-resurrectionists. And so, these conspirators went to the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the top guys, and they said, “Look, we have bound ourselves under a great curse that we will not eat anything until we have slain Paul.”
Now, why would they bother to tell the Sadducees? Because they could get a hearing. They’d get somebody to listen to them who would agree, and they wanted to enlist the support of the Council.
It’s interesting, I think, to just note the fact that the conspirators, the 40-plus, knew that the leadership of Israel was so morally rotten that they were willing to advertise a murder. Can you imagine going and taking a group of murderers up to the Supreme Court and telling them that you’d like their cooperation in a murder?
Well, that’s part of it. But, they were not only the judicial heads of the country; they were the spiritual leaders, so corrupted that justice was corrupted, and spiritual truth was corrupted to the place where they could be enlisted in a murderous assassination. And they knew they’d get a hearing, and had no fears that they would be prosecuted for such a thing as attempted murder – or whatever.
Even knowing that, the plotters were bold as brass dictating to their superiors. What a den of vipers the Sanhedrin was.
Forbidden Bible Verses continues in the New Year.
Next time — Acts 23:16-22