The tower of Babel is the Bible’s true story of a very ancient and very arrogant human empire, which God pulled apart through a confusion of language (Ge 11:1-9). Later, the Bible records other sinful societies brought down by God, in confusion and disunity. Acts is part of one such record, showing us the Lord’s final confrontation with old Israel before his predicted judgement (Lu 21:20-36) destructively falls upon her. In Acts 23, that ruin lies just a few years off in 70AD.
Previously, Acts showed Paul travelling up to Jerusalem, despite knowing the danger he faced there (Ac 20:22,23). He went not as a church planter but to testify, as a final key witness, to the reality that Jesus is God’s king (Ac 22:14). He must do this in Jerusalem, more widely in Israel (Ac 23:31-33) and, ultimately, to the Jews in Rome (Ac 28:16,17; see also Ac 2:38-40). Then this particular task will be done and he can return to his gospel mission (Ac 28:17-28).
There are times when Christians find themselves in a place which is hard against the gospel, like Paul here. But though that may make us sad, it should not leave us with feelings of failure or despair. The Lord has placed us in this position and remains close at hand, to sustain us. Our words may see no-one saved, but they are still valued as bringing honour and glory to the Lord.
Well, in Acts 22 Paul spoke clearly of Christ but was hated for it, so now he is ready to move on. Hence, before the rulers of the Sanhedrin who treat him with contempt (v1-5), he speaks not of Christ but of himself, in order to cause chaos in the court (v6). Why does he do this? To expose their sin through confusion and disunity. How does he do it? By calling himself a faithful and long-standing Pharisee who has the hope of resurrection. It’s a stunning line to take, but Paul knows only too well that this topic is one of strong disagreement within the Sanhedrin. Indeed, intense antagonism immediately breaks out between the factions present (v7). The Lord, through Paul, is mocking this godless council with a mini-Babel moment of confusion and disunity.
Very quickly the bickering spins out of control, as the argument extends into angels and spirits (v8). Some Pharisees defend Paul ardently, saying that maybe an angel has spoken to him (v9) despite the fact that Paul himself has only talked of the resurrected Jesus (Ac 22). But that reflects how crazy this argument has become, as Pharisees move to defend Paul as one of their own! This stokes the fires of anger higher and higher, until the Roman commander fears that Paul will be ripped to pieces like carnivore prey (v10). Thus is seen the reality of this high council. It may be packed with intelligent, educated, sophisticated men who think of themselves as the upholders of law, but the truth is that it is actually a den of feral creatures. Paul’s words have created chaos in the group, like a cat among pigeons, and exposed the truth of their hearts. Which means Paul’s work is now done and he can move on. The Lord promises that he will soon do so (v11).
The Lord judges proud societies who feel confident in their own strength and wisdom. When he does so, he often pulls them apart in confusion and disunity. We see something of this within our own place and time. Divisions scar the country at various levels, with no obvious leader to unite people. Morality is in a constant state of flux. Public figures once respected are now despised. Rival cultures and tribes battle for their place in society. Where will this all end up? It’s hard to see. But it’s certainly no surprise to Christians to see an arrogant secular society, sure of its knowledge and abilities, finding itself in angry chaos like the Jerusalem Sanhedrin of Paul’s day.
Yet, we need not despair. In the midst of the storm, the Lord assured Paul that he was with him and that his plans would be completed. Nothing can separate us from Jesus (Ro 8:38,39). We may not know whether to laugh or cry when we look around us, get angry or make fun, but we can be at peace. Our risen Lord sits upon the throne of heaven, from where he will return to make all things right. Christians can, like Paul, live in the calm of v11. Though we do not know what plans the Lord has for us, as citizens of God’s kingdom we need not be dismayed about the future.
What should we do then? Pray for wise words. Some in our damaged society need to hear the tender words of the gospel. Others need words to shake them up, like the Sanhedrin. Will our words change things? Not necessarily. But they will bring glory to the Lord, and that is good.