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Scriptural Conscience

Acts 23:1-5
Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, 'My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.' At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, 'God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!' Those who were standing near Paul said, 'How dare you insult God's high priest!' Paul replied, 'Brothers, I did not realise that he was the high priest; for it is written: "Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people."' (NIVUK)

It was very odd. Paul, the Apostle, under Roman guard was about to be questioned by the Supreme religious court – in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem, under the orders of the military Commander for the city (Acts 22:30). Paul's arrest had been provoked by rioting traditional religionists, trying to kill him because he said that God had sent him to the Gentiles, who they despised (Acts 21:30-32).

The Sanhedrin might have expected an apology from Paul. But he could not do that. He had proclaimed Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles because God had sent him (Acts 9:15). His conscience was clear. He had been obedient to the Lord Jesus and would continue to do so; which is what he said in his own defence. But the high Priest, Ananias, who was known to have a violent temper, illegally ordered that Paul be hit in the mouth. The Roman guards did not intervene, but Paul pronounced God's judgement on him using words which Jesus used (Matthew 23:27). Jesus was also hit in the mouth at his trial, and He also protested that it was illegal (John 18:22-23).

Paul's words were taken as insulting the highest religious authority: to challenge him, people thought, was like challenging God – a form of blasphemy. Unlike Jesus, Paul did not have authority over the High Priest, and so he apologised on the grounds that God forbade putting a curse on the national leadership (Exodus 22:28). It is not clear what Paul meant by saying that he did not know that the order had come from the High Priest; but Paul accepted that his responsibility was to bless his enemies and not curse them (Romans 12:14). His conscience had been formed by Scripture, and he was willing to apologise.

Our view of right and wrong is initially implanted by God, but our conscience can soon be distorted by sin, and by accepting the wrong behaviour of others as our guide to what is normal. How do we get our conscience sharpened again? Only through taking the Scriptures seriously and being willing to allow God's Word to define what is right and wrong. As we practise being repulsed at what offends God, confessing and repenting of our sin, our conscience will be recalibrated. Otherwise we will take the advice and example of those who we love and admire, even though they may be wrong, and our conscience will be pulled away from what is true - like a magnet pulls a compass and risks the whole ship going on the rocks.

Father God. Thank You for giving me a conscience, my 'on board' guide to right and wrong. But I am sorry for allowing my conscience to be pulled away from what is true. Please help me to let Your Word speak to me so that my conscience is re-sharpened, giving me the grace to apologise for what has been wrong, and strengthening me to do what is right. In Jesus' Name. Amen.
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© Dr Paul Adams