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Acts 23:1-5

1. And Paul beheld the council steadfastly, and said, Men and brethren, I have served God until this day in all good conscience. 2. And the high priest Ananias commanded those that stood by him to smite him on the face. 3. Then Paul said to him, God will smite thee, thou painted wall; and thou sittest judging according to law, and transgressing the law, commandest thou me to be smitten? 4. And those which stood by said, Railest thou on God’s high priest? 5. And Paul said, 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.


1. Looking earnestly. Paul beginneth with the testimony of a good conscience, that all the whole multitude may understand that he is unjustly charged with such an heinous offense, as if he had gone about to overthrow the worship of God. It may be, indeed, that a man may offend of ignorance, who will not otherwise be a contemner either of God or of religion; but Paul meant at the first, only with this excuse, to mollify their nettled minds, that he might the better be heard; for it had been in vain for him to have defended himself, so long as that opinion did stick in the minds of the priests, that he was a wicked revolt, [apostate]. Therefore, before he enter the cause, he excuseth himself of that crime, not only that he may purchase favor by that desire which he had to live godlily, but also that he may prevent false accusations, or at least that he may refute unjust prejudices which might have made against him, wherewith he saw the whole multitude infected and corrupted. We know not what he meant to say besides. Notwithstanding, this preface teacheth that no man can rightly handle the doctrine of godliness, unless the fear of God reign and bear the chief sway in him. And now, though he give not the priests so honorable a title here as he did a little before, when he stood upon the steps of the fortress, yet he calleth them brethren, giving them that honor, not because they deserve it, but that he may testify that he is not the cause of the breach of friendship.

2. And the chief priest. Luke’s narration seemeth not to agree with the usual history; for Josephus writeth thus concerning the high priests of that time, that Quadratus, deputy [proconsul] of Syria, deposing Cumanus from the government of Judea, commanded him to answer for himself before Caesar, and sent Ananias, the highest priest, bound with him, into whose place who was chosen he maketh no mention, saving that it is likely that Jonathas had the honor given him, who, as he reporteth, was afterward slain by the subtilty and treachery of Felix, deputy [prefect] of Judea, who succeeded Cumanus; for when he had oftentimes told Felix part of his mind, and he could not away with the constancy of the man, he made a compact with one Doras, that he should privily convey in murderers to slay him. Then, as the same Josephus doth witness, king Agrippa made Ismael, the son of Phebeus, priest. But when he was sent by the people to Rome about a certain suit, and was kept there by Popea, wife to Nero, Agrippa putteth in his place one Josephus, whose name was Chabus, the son of Simon. But immediately being also weary of him, he appointeth Ananus, the son of Ananus, to be high priest.

Furthermore, he saith that this last thing happened at such time as, after the death of Festus, Albinus did succeed him. And I see not why some call this Ananus Ananias. That hath indeed some color, in that he is called a Pharisee; also in that it is said that he was bold and stout, who, without any lawful authority, caused James, the Lord’s brother, to be stoned. But if we give credence to Josephus, he could not be that Ananias of whom mention is made in this place by Luke, who was then made priest, when many years were past and gone, after that Felix departed out of the province.

I have another conjecture in my head. For there flourished during all that time one Ananias, an high priest, who, excepting the title of honor, was almost chief in the order. And because Josephus leaveth some void time between Ananias and Ismael, it may be that this man had the room of the highest priest in the meantime. 522522     “Intermedio illo tempore,” during the intermediate time. But though this were not so, it appeareth out of Josephus, that Ananias, who died when the city was besieged, was, in the reign of Claudius Caesar and Nero, equal in dignity with the chief priests which were then.

Yea, his authority is so highly extolled, as if he had the chief government, howsoever other men did bear the ensigns of honor. Again, he is called αρχιερευς confusedly, 523523     “Promiscue,” indiscriminately. as those who were the highest priests. Now, let the readers ponder and consider, whether the word αρχιερευς doth not rather signify in this place chief than highest, as it doth in many other places. For the Evangelists do everywhere call the priests who were of the course of Aaron αρχιερεις, that they may distinguish them from the Levites, who had a more inferior degree of priesthood. Moreover, it may be that that Ananias, who was counted stout and courageous, did supply the high priest’s room in his absence. Those things which we have recited out of Josephus are recorded partly in the Twentieth Book of Antiquities, from the third chapter until the eight; partly in the Second Book of the Wars of the Jews.

He commanded him to be smitten. We see that there was in this assembly great distemperature. For whereas the high priest was in such rage, that he commanded Paul to be smitten for nothing, he did it undoubtedly with the consent of all the rest; yea, to the end he might win the favor of mad men. The Lord doth suffer the wicked to be so carried away by Satan, that they fall from all show of equity and temperance. For hypocrites would fain bear some show of moderation; and undoubtedly this high priest went about to pretend such gravity as did beseem his person. But the Lord did pluck this visure [mask] from his face, so that there was not found in him so much as the modesty of a mean man, but he poured out his furious force like a beast.

In the mean season, we see what horrible and filthy disorder there was at that day in the Church. Ananias, who was the chief of the council, whereas he ought to have stayed others by his gravity, forgetting all modesty, he enforceth them unto violence and savageness. Therefore they had at that day no regard of discipline, but there remained among them confused barbarism. And no marvel, for they had estranged themselves from God; they had most reproachfully rejected Christ; all their religion was set to sale. Therefore it was meet that they should run headlong into furious madness, which might be loathsome even among profane men, that they might be punished in their own shame for their ungodliness.

3. God shall smite thee. Paul cannot put up that injury, but he must, at least, with sharp words reprehend the high priest, 524524     “Silentio... quin saltem expostulet graviter verbis cum pontifice,” in silence, without at least sharply expostulating with the high priest. and denounce God’s vengeance unto him. For it is no curse, as appeareth sufficiently by the Greek text, but rather a reprehension, joined with the denouncing of a punishment. If any man object, that Paul did not use that modesty which Christ commandeth his to use, when he commandeth them after they have received a blow on the left cheek to turn the right cheek also, (Matthew 5:39) we may readily answer, that Christ doth not in these words require silence, whereby the wickedness and frowardness of the wicked may be nourished; but he doth only bridle their minds, that they may not take that injury, which they have already received, impatiently. Christ will have those that be his to be ready to suffer another injury after that they have already received one; and by this means he represseth all desire of revenge. This is a brief and true definition of patience which beseemeth all the faithful, that they break not out into wrathfulness, that they do not one evil turn for another; but that they overcome evil with goodness. But this is no let but that they may complain of those injuries which they have suffered, but that they may reprove the wicked, and cite them to the judgment-seat of God; so they do this with quiet and calm minds; and, secondly, without evil will and hatred; as Paul appealeth, in this place, unto God’s judgment-seat, that the high priest may not flatter himself in his tyranny. Therefore he accuseth him, because he breaketh the law, from which (as he pretendeth) he hath his authority; whence he gathereth, that he shall not escape unpunished.

If any man, being overcome with impatience, do but murmur, he shall not be blameless. But a manifest and sharp accusation, if it proceed from a quiet mind, doth not pass the bounds set down by Christ. If any man say that it is mixed with railing, I answer, that we must always mark with what affection the words be uttered. Christ pronounceth that man to be worthy to be punished by the council who shall only say to his brother raca; and as for him who shall say thou fool, he maketh him subject to a more heavy judgment (Matthew 5:22). But if opportunity be offered to reprove, we must oftentimes reprehend sharply. Whereby it appeareth, that this only was Christ’s drift to keep back his, first, from all indignation, secondly, from speaking anything in despite 525525     “Contumelia,” with contumely. of any man. Therefore, let us beware of railing, and then we may not only note in our brethren foolishness, but also it shall be lawful for us to express their offenses by their names when need shall be. So Paul did not speak for his own sake, that he might, with sharp words, requite the injury done to him by the high priest; but because he was a minister of the word of God, he would not wink at an offense which did deserve sharp and serious reprehension; especially seeing it was profitable to bring to light the gross hypocrisy of Ananias. Therefore, so often as we have any dealings with the wicked, if we be desirous to handle a good cause well, we must beware that there break out in us no motion of anger, that no desire of revenge provoke us to break out into railing. But if the spirit of meekness reign in us, we may handle the wicked according to their deserts, as it were out of the mouth of God; yet so that it may appear that we be rather prophets, than that we blunder out anything rashly through immoderate heat.

4. Those which stood by said By this it appeareth that they were all sick of one disease. 526526     “Eadem omnes intemperie laborasse,” that they all laboured under the same intemperance, For why do they not rather blame Ananias, when they saw that he had quite forgotten all modesty, and that he brake out into violence and stripes after a barbarous manner? for even this did turn to the reproach of them all. 527527     “In commune illorum dedecus,” to their common disgrace. But this is a solemn [marked] thing among hypocrites, they look narrowly into other men’s faults and wink at their own. Again, this pride is coupled with tyranny, so that their subjects, and those who are under them, may do nothing, but as for themselves, they may do whatsoever they will. So fareth it at this day in Popery, the more liberty that impure clergy doth grant to itself, and the more carelessly it waxeth wanton, and polluteth the whole world with the sins which flow thence, the more straitly do they rule and stay the tongues of the people. Therefore, if any man dare be so bold as once to whisper, a little liberty doth cause them to make outrageous outcries as it were heinous sacrilege.

5. I knew not, brethren. Those who think that this excuse of Paul hath in it no figure, do not well mark the contrary objections wherewith their error is refuted. They say that Paul knew not the high priest, because he had been absent long time; as if he were ignorant that he was chief priest, who is the chief in the council, and hath the uppermost room. Neither was Ananias so base and obscure that Paul was ignorant of his degree. But his words cut off all occasion of disputation, when as he chideth him, because, occupying the place of a judge, under color of the law, he doth, in his rage, that which is contrary to law. Therefore Paul knew what place he had, when he said that he abused his power. Other some invent a more subtle answer, that he spake not here of the mail, but of the office and public person. But, first, the exposition is far fet, [fetched] because, if Paul did reverence the priesthood, he must needs have given some honor to the man which had the same. And now it is not to be thought (forasmuch as the majesty of the priesthood was abolished by the coming of Christ, and that there followed such filthy profanation) that Paul did honor those as he was wont, (as if their perfect and lawful authority did continue) who, under the title of the high priests, did reign as lords without any law or right.

Therefore, subscribing to Augustine, I do not doubt but that this is a taunting excuse. Neither doth that any whit hinder, because plain speech becometh the ministers of the word. For seeing there be two sorts of ironies, one which is covered with subtilty and means to deceive, another which doth so figuratively note out the thing which is in hand, that it doth prick sorer; in this second, there is nothing which doth not well beseem the servants of Christ. Therefore, this is the meaning of the words, Brethren, I acknowledge nothing in this man which belongeth to the priest. Also, he added a testimony of the 22nd chapter of Exodus, (Exodus 22:28) in which place, though Moses speak of judges, yet the sentence is extended properly unto any lawful order. Therefore all dignity, which is appointed for maintenance of civil government, ought to be reverenced and had in honor. For whosoever he be that rebelleth against or resisteth the magistrate, or those who are appointed to rule, and are promoted unto honor, he would have no government. 528528     “Anarchiam appetit,” he longs for anarchy. And such desire tendeth to the disturbing of order. Yea, it shaketh and overthroweth all humanity. Therefore Paul purgeth himself of this crime; yet so, that he denieth that Ananias is to be counted a priest of God, who hath corrupted and perverted all the order of the Church.

But here riseth a question, whether we ought not to obey a ruler, though he exercise tyranny? For if that man be not to be deprived of honor which executeth his office amiss, Paul offended in robbing the high priest of his honor. Therefore I answer, that there is some difference between civil magistrates and the prelates of the Church. For though the exploiting [administration] of earthly or civil rule be confused or perverse, yet the Lord will have men to continue still in subjection. But when the spiritual government doth degenerate, the consciences of the godly are at liberty, and set free from obeying unjust authority; especially if the wicked and profane enemies of holiness do falsely pretend the title of priesthood to overthrow the doctrine of salvation, and challenge to themselves such authority, as that they will be thereby equal with God. So it is not only lawful for the faithful at this day to shake off from their shoulders the Pope’s yoke, but they must do it of necessity, seeing they cannot obey his laws unless they forsake God.

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