“Paul stared at the council and spoke. ‘Brothers, I have always lived my life to this very day with a clear conscience before God.’ Ananias the High Priest signaled those standing near Paul to hit him on the mouth” —Acts 23:1-2
Paul looked directly at the council and said, “Brothers, I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God to this day.” Well that went over like the proverbial “lead balloon” because Ananias, the high priest, ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth.
Now why Ananias reacted the way he did, we do not know. There could have a few reasons. It is also not clear in the text if he ordered someone standing close to Paul to strike him (once) on the mouth, or for several people to strike Paul, and this is certainly more than a slap on the face. The fact that they struck him on the mouth tells us that it was what Paul said that was so offensive. (Some of you might remember having your mouth washed out with soap because you said something you shouldn’t have said). What was so offensive to the high priest? Well again, it could have been several things.
For one thing, Paul seems to have spoken before he was asked to defend himself. Theyhad not read the charges ywr, and you would expect that charges would first be read before he said anything in defense. We know that the accused was entitled to offer a defense, and it would seem reasonable that they would read the charges first, so the accused would know what to say in his defense. Paul seems to have spoken first. So maybe the high priest (who surely wanted to be at least perceived as being “in charge”) was offended by Paul’s quick defense.
On the other hand, maybe it was because Paul addressed the entire Council (and used the term “brothers”) instead of just the High Priest. Everyone watching this scene may have thought that Paul looked at these men as his peers. There is no title of honor used here. They certainly did not intimidate Paul, although, I am sure he recognized that this was a kind of “kangaroo court,” and Paul’s words might have touched a nerve in this regard.
Paul also appears to claim more than just “innocence” regarding the current charges (whatever they are). Paul was not claiming to be innocent of some specific charge here; he was claiming to be innocent of any charge. While Paul may be claiming to have a clear conscience with regard to his conduct “as a citizen,” he seems to be saying more than this. The only reason I say that is a marginal note in the New American Standard Bible says that Paul’s expression may specifically refer to his “conduct as a citizen.” Paul is standing in front of a religious body, not a Roman judge. The charges are (or would almost certainly should be) religious in nature.
Paul is claiming something that no Jew could claim who was trying to be righteous by keeping the law:
“The Holy Spirit is making clear that the way into the holy place had not yet appeared as long as the old tabernacle was standing. This was a symbol for the time then present, when gifts and sacrifices were offered that could not perfect the conscience of the worshiper. They served only for matters of food and drink and various washings; they are external regulations imposed until the new order came. But now Christ has come as the high priest of the good things to come. He passed through the greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation, and he entered once for all into the most holy place not by the blood of goats and calves but by his own blood, and so he himself secured eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” —Hebrews 9:8-14
“And since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” —Hebrews 10:21-25
I think this is the real reason Ananias reacted so strongly to Paul’s claim. Paul, as a Christian, could claim to possess a clean conscience before God. This is due to the saving work of Jesus, which is vastly superior to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament law. No good Jew could ever be good enough to claim a clean conscience before God, and Ananias wasn’t a good Jew. This man was a scoundrel, and an embarrassment to the Jews. He used his office for material gain, and he didn’t hesitate to use violence to achieve his goals. He was so hated by the Jews that he was violently killed in the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem a number of years later.
Ananias sat in judgment on Paul for alleged offenses that could cost him his life. But rather than cower before this group (and especially Ananias himself), Paul boldly proclaimed his innocence in a way that no law-keeping Jew could ever hope to do. If Ananias had any conscience left at all (see 1 Timothy 4:2), he would have been pricked by the words Paul spoke. So the high priest ordered that Paul be slapped on the mouth.
If interested, you can download the previous posts on this study of The Story of Acts