Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.” The high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” But the bystanders said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?” And Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘YOU SHALL NOT SPEAK EVIL OF A RULER OF YOUR PEOPLE.’” Acts 23:1-5
After praying for wisdom, what are the first 3 rules for proper interpretation of a passage? Context, Context, Context!
This is definitely one of those passages (such as Matthew 5:39; Luke 16:1-9) that if we are not careful, we find ourselves with not just a bad, but a fatal exegesis. Not working properly with Luke 16 can easily leave a person with a justification for extortion, misappropriation, and ‘cooking the books’. Enron could have skated on less. The theology must be wrung out from it within its context, both culturally/historically as well as its immediate biblical situation. Otherwise, we find ourselves attempting to shoehorn its meaning into our own immediate circumstances (i.e. politics!) as opposed to letting its timeless principle, found within the theology, shape us.
As a quick aside, many conservative scholars interpret Acts 23 as a sarcastic response from the apostle Paul to Ananias – why so? Because any biblical historian knows that at that time Ananias was not the true high priest – he was a prop high priest, appointed by Herod, king of Chalcis. This is in the same vein as when Jesus was led in front of Annas (similar name, a different man) in John 18 and was chastised and struck by one of the officers who said, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” What made this odd was that Caiaphas was the ‘official’ high priest (as revealed within the same context in verses 13 and 24). However, the Jews were obviously doing their own authority thing behind the backs of the Romans with their mock trials. Back to Paul’s address in Acts 23 – J. Munck, in ‘Acts AB’, (223), states, “Did he (Paul) not know who gave the command to strike him or was Paul being ironical: one would not expect a high priest to transgress the law?” And what chances would it be that Paul, an expert in Judaism, would not know who the high priest was at the time – or even having not met him, could he not easily identify him by his mode of dress/adornment? Even where the man would be seated in the council would direct one’s attention to understand his position. Consider also that Paul calls him a ‘whitewashed wall’, which is also the very address used in Ezekiel 13:10ff concerning God’s wrath against His leaders and how He will ‘strike them down’ as well. Therefore, it is plausible that Paul is not actually apologizing, but rather indirectly stating that a true high priest would not behave as he (Ananias) just did (vrs. 3).
Anytime a verse is quoted from what we refer to as the ‘Old Testament’, we must also bind ourselves to interpret the usage of the sentences based within their context. Exodus 22 is clearly addressing the nation of Israel – which means that the rulers would be their judges, high priest, priests, prophets, and eventually, kings. This is a far cry from what we may attempt to extrapolate and apply across the board today. Consider that even United Nations authority has gained traction in the Unites States. Now consider all of the rulers who hold authority at that particular table. You should see my point.
While there is no excuse for a moment of ‘unkindness’, it would be important to require the definition (of unkindness), especially in our current hostile political climate. A mere disagreement does not constitute unkindness, because unkindness is not necessarily defined by the feelings of personal infringement (offense because they are disagreed with) of one person or another. Consider the scathing rebuke given by our Savior to the leaders/authority of His day in Matthew 23. Words like ‘hypocrite, vipers, whitewashed tombs, unclean,’ and even reference to being murderers was shot their way. Is this unkind? Perhaps living in ‘the land of the offended’ has dulled our sense of truthfulness and letting it stand on its own – no matter how ‘unkind’ it may sound. This is no license for unnecessary rudeness; nor is it a reason to allow a culture to squelch us from calling darkness out into the light.
Moreover, if any passage appears to conflict with another, the culprit lies in our misunderstanding – and in just one example, the people of Ezekiel that bothered to ‘object’ against their governing authorities (in the context of the authorities being ungodly), are the ones that God blessed and declared He would preserve.
Romans 13:1-4 then appears to be the kink. But once again, context – even in the whole of the canon, must prevail. Anytime a passage is interpreted, if it appears to conflict with another, it is our misunderstanding – and I contest that it is 90% contextual error on our behalf in Romans 13. If we are to attempt to apply Romans 13 ‘across the board’ as given in the article, what shall we do with Revelation 13:16-18 (given that the governing authorities command alignment to justify commerce, etc – vrs. 17)? What of the very readers immediately post Paul’s time when the Caesars decided they were deity (‘Augustus’) and commanded all people to worship them? Of course, we then would state that the people should not do so. But is not that ‘resisting authority’ as stated in Romans 13:2? Did not Daniel resist the authority of Nebuchadnezzar when he refused to bow before the golden image in Daniel 3? And I would call to your memory the example of Jesus’ address to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. God would never command His people to break His very command against idol worship, and yet rulers continually command people to do so. Therefore, total submission to a wicked ruler cannot stand the test of the law of non-contradiction here. However, if we read Romans 13 within the grand context of Scripture as a whole, then we see very quickly that we are to never align ourselves with ungodly statutes from any authority. Paul assumes that we would never consider such things (i.e. embracing and endorsing any leader who promote abominable things such as abortion and homosexuality). Our challenge is to carefully separate that which we must resist from that which we would rather resist, but are given the imperative to submit to otherwise (taxation, extraneous laws, etc).
Unkindness cannot be equivalent to a complete lack of the ability to object – especially concerning wicked authority. After all, Satan is even referred to as “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Otherwise, we would simply roll along with any ‘wind of doctrine’ and set God aside while we obey earthly rulers.
Keep the Faith,