Acts 23:12-15 – The Plot Against Paul

In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.

Paul on TrialThe group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).

It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.

Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.”

Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.

As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!

It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James or his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.

Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?

26 thoughts on “Acts 23:12-15 – The Plot Against Paul

  1. It’s possibly not fair to be so harsh on James and friends for their silence. Anyone who has ever lived in a fragile atmosphere like this will recognise all the signs.

    The people who live there all the time would have been walking a tightrope: proclaiming the gospel, making disciples, while not getting themselves or their new disciples lynched for nothing. Then this bloke Paul comes in from out of town and stirs everything up. He means well, and he might indeed be called by God to do it, but it’s very inconvenient.

    On top of that, Paul already has a history with the locals of changing sides. The local Jews might not have been too forgiving of that.

    And anyway, maybe James and friends already know Paul is doomed, so to speak, from the various prophecies people had given Paul on his way there. So speaking up in Paul’s favour might have been pointless.

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  2. Paul’s early life sheds light onto the fact that he would be separated from Jerusalem. Having been a Pharisee and involved in the deep religious practices and beliefs of Judaism, his conversion to Christianity (whether you believe it was a conversion or not) only grew stronger as his ministry continued. More and more Paul ministered to the Gentiles over the Jews, although Paul never broke from sharing the truth with the Jews living inside and outside of Jerusalem. This is reminiscent of our discussion about whether or not Paul’s choice to minister in the synagogues first was a matter of theology or strategy. Thus, this uprising of the mobs in Jerusalem, does not necessarily spark a breach between Paul and Jerusalem. Paul would have continued to minister in Jerusalem if that had been where God had wanted him to minister, but rather he was arrested and sent to Rome to be put on trial. It was through this trial and being put on house arrest that Paul was able to be fruitful in ministering to the Gentiles. It’s interesting to see that Paul’s longest bondage became a time of great proclamation and furtherance in the Gospel.

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  3. I think that, although we might not like to think of a separation occurring between the Jewish Christians and Paul’s ministry, there was likely some kind of separation taking place. Yet this may not have been a division because of a difference of belief or conviction, but just because of a difference in commission.

    Paul had been commissioned to be a light to the Gentiles, whereas James was made the leader of the Jerusalem church. Although both groups were part of the same body of Christ, their ministries took form in vastly different ways. Because of this, it likely just didn’t make sense for James and his group to make more enemies among the Jews by trying to defend Paul.

    While it seems like the Jewish believers should have stood up for him, perhaps Paul’s understanding of his calling was so deep that he realized he was intended to suffer persecution and trial for the sake of the gospel. Certainly by the end of his ministry Paul was well aware that things had come about just as they were intended by God, to bring glory to Himself.

    “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. The important thing is that in every way, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:12,18).

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  4. Paul himself was “Gentile.” Even though by nature he was raised up in the Jewish culture, he was still considered as a Gentile. While still proclaiming the gospel in the Jerusalem temple, with the Sicarri arising to a volatile state of power, Paul needs to know that his life is now in jeopardy, but as with what was said in Acts 9 after his conversion, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16). Paul thought before he was in a thick of trouble… now especially in Jerusalem where he must find a good outcome to escape, and continue to spread the good news of Christ.

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  5. Paul knew of the danger that he was getting into when he decided to go to Jerusalem. His mission was to reach the Jews and to tell them about the error in their ways. People warned Paul about what he was getting into but Paul responded in Acts 21: 13 “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul’s suffering was meant for good when people warned him of the bad that would happen. Paul was able to reach more people by being arrested because he told them about Jesus’s death and resurrection. Paul was clever to notice that when he was before the council, there was two different groups: Sadducees and Pharisees. When he addressed the resurrection, the Sadducees got upset which caused Paul to be removed from the room otherwise there would some great repercussions. Paul knows that he did not do anything wrong which gives him more boldness to preach before the people. It helped that he grew up Jewish because he would know what to say and what not to say. It is an effective tool for ministry because you have to know your enemy in order to reach them.

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  6. When thinking about this story, the first thing that comes to my mind is Paul’s determination and faithfulness. I say that because of the statement that Anna makes in her post. She says, “Paul knew of the danger that he was getting into when he decided to go to Jerusalem” (Veldink 2015). With Paul being considered a Gentile, of course it would cause problems if he went to a different country and was teaching against what they believe. You have to be careful by doing that. That would be kind of similar to me going to another country and teaching against their religious values. The plan for Paul was to travel to different cities and reach as many as possible. I think that even though Paul did not go the safe route, he was able to reach more people that he would have if he went the safe route. Being arrested and going through all the other trials that he went thru, more people were able to hear the gospel and Paul was able to reach more people. A scripture that comes to mind when thinking about Paul facing what he did is 2nd Corinthians 11: 24-28. It talks about what Paul went thru and how he was still determined to complete his work for Christ.

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  7. Paul indeed was warned of the danger in Jerusalem before he departed there. The Disciples attempted to warn him but because he was driven by the spirit he decided to go there. The fact that this young boy who is also known as Paul’s nephew comes to warn the commander, shows that God had a plan for Paul. Even when things seemed be the end for Paul, God used other people to rescue him. In life sometimes we go through trials and horrible things happen to us. We sometimes think that God is not with us and has forgotten about us. However, like Paul we must remember that God always has a plan for us and will rescue us from anything.

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  8. Even though Paul knew of the dangers that awaited him in Jerusalem, he still had the courage to continue on his journey. This shows that Paul had courage and a huge amount of trust in the Lord. God called him to be a light to the Gentiles and to correct those who were living their lives in error according to God’s Word. People warned Paul and his response to their warnings are impressive. In Acts 21:13, Paul replies “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” I believe that God knew how devoted Paul was and in order to reach more people, he would have to endure many trials. Paul was obedient and even though he did suffer at times, there was good that came out of his suffering. There is the saying that “God will never give you more than you can handle” but I think that God does give us more than we can stand because it is in our weaknesses that we lean on his strength and his guidance. I feel that Paul had to rely so much on God to supply all of his needs that no matter what he went through, he knew that God would be by his side.

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  9. It is interesting how very passionate the people who plotted against Paul were. They so strongly believed what Paul was doing was wrong that they were willing to not eat or drink until they had killed him. Another interesting aspect of their desire to kill Paul was that his death would most likely include Roman casualties if they were successful. Because Paul would have been accompanied by Roman soldiers at this point, the people plotting against him would have had to get through the Roman soldiers to kill Paul. Even if this group caught the soldiers off guard, it most likely would not take them long to gain the upper hand as the soldiers were trained to fight. In The Book of The Acts by F.F Bruce he says concerning these zealous Jews, “But their plan bespeaks their fanatical devotion, for Paul would be guarded by Roman soldiers, and an attempt to assassinate him, whether it succeeded or not, would inevitably involve the assassins in heavy loss of life” (Bruce 431).

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  10. They may have not stepped in because Paul told them God’s plan for him to preach to the gentiles. Anna is right in that Paul knew the danger that was in his future when he decided to go to Jerusalem, but he went anyway, despite the apostle’s warnings. Paul knew that he was going to suffer, and that he was going to preach to the gentiles, so perhaps the apostles did not want to interfere with God’s plan (if they did know he was arrested).
    I would argue that perhaps James did not know what happened to Paul at the temple when it happened, and that once he did realize it, it was too late. As the Bible Blogger has commented on, it might have been a delicate time where James could not do anything about it once he knew. James and the other apostles knew that there were lies being spread about Paul (Acts 21:20-22) and that he was in danger, and did what they could by instructing him to contribute to the vow by paying for the men’s expenses (Acts 21:24). Perhaps he could not do anything else at the time because it was so delicate.

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  11. The startling lack of protest from the Jerusalem church does raise a few red flags here, but in their defense, silence may have been a wise option for their own sake. In the first instance, they face a mob attempting to lynch Paul on the authority of mere assumption. In the second, they face a large group of zealots making irrational oaths on the life of a man, again, based purely on assumption. For Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21) but perhaps the Jerusalem church did not see it quite this way. Paul was a “zealot” in everything that he did, but it’s very possible that his followers valued their earthly lives a little more than Paul did. Perhaps this silence was not an act of contempt against Paul, but merely an act of cowardice.

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  12. Prior to this attempt to assassinate Paul the Jews at the temple had already tried to arrest him according to Acts 21. In Acts 23:23 Paul is said to have been sent to Felix the governor with a group about 400 soldiers. I believe that the threat and the fact that he was escorted away with hundreds of men would have been an indication that Paul was not welcome in Jerusalem. Although there could have been reasons as to why Paul was brought to Felix along with so many others. This blog post also alludes to the idea that no one is try to defend Paul I believe there could have been reasons why no one was there. It mentions how Paul’s nephew could have held an important political stance at the time if had overhead the men making an oath to kill his uncle. Acts 23:16 does not give us a lot of details on the matter but, I believe that is a more likely idea to this situation rather than saying no one had cared to defend Paul.

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  13. 4/17
    When reading this blog post I am left in awe thinking about how faithful and brave Paul was in his ministry. Paul goes back to Jerusalem despite the knowledge from the apostle that he would have great persecution there. The words that he states to his fellow believers is one that leaves me with my mouth open and with a convicted heart. Acts 21:13-15 states the following: “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem.” Paul is unafraid to go back to the place where he knows he will receive harm for his preaching. Despite this he knows that he must go and has courage because his ultimate goal is to serve the Lord in any way. Upon reaching Jerusalem there are individuals who plot to kill him. He is warned and taken into Roman custody. It is evident that the Romans keep him safe and make sure he is comfortable. It is so cool to see how when we have faith in the Lord he will protect us and that we should not be afraid to live our lives boldly for God. He has a plan and a purpose for each of out lives and we need to come to the realization that to sufferer for Christ is one of the best things that can happen to us.

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    • I agree that this message and blog was something that was very impactful. Paul did show some truth and actions throughout his journey. I wonder if he ever doubted himself or doubted his purpose that God was calling him to do. Roman backed up Paul and proved him with comfort and safety that was required to get his mission done.
      Paul is an encouragement to us Christians today to be faithful to God no matter what situation may come our way. We should not fear the future or fear what things God has in store for us. We will suffer just as Jesus suffered, so we should not be afraid to suffer but have open hearts and eyes to look for growth.

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  14. When Paul was in his ministry all throughout all the countries that he proclaimed the Gospel to, he displayed large qualities that humans should desire to possess and display. He showed boldness, courage, and confidence all for the sake of the Gospel. Paul knew that people hated him. Paul knew that people wanted to kill him. And Paul knew that a plan for his death was being or already made. But he desired to put his life on the line all for the sake of Christ.
    The purpose of our life is to serve God and serve God with full and loving hearts. We will face hardship and struggles. We will face something that will try to push us and lead us away from Christ. We need to keep our eyes on our purpose and understand that this life that we are serving in and living in is not what is important. But our eternal life in heaven is the life we should keep our eyes on.

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    • Hi Miranda, Yes, people did hate him. he also was persecuting people before his conversion and after conversion, it took awhile for people to realize he changed. Because of the change, he did put his life out on the line several times. I agree, our purpose is to serve.

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  15. I find it interesting to read about the volatility of the Jews during this time period and how it seemingly differed in different locations. For my major paper, one topic I wrote about was the Jews in Ephesus while Paul was ministering there. From what I understood, the Jews in Ephesus were more liberal than the ones in Jerusalem and areas surrounding it. I made mention that the further from Jerusalem, the more and more liberal these Jews became. There are two specific examples that I mentioned about the Jews in Ephesus. The first being, Paul was worshiping and teaching in the temple for a period of three months before the Jews kicked him out. Ordinarily, Paul would have only lasted in the temples for a few days or weeks, but not in Ephesus. This could indicate that they were less aggressive against teaching that they didn’t agree with in the temple. A second example of how liberal the Jews were in Ephesus was that there was some evidence that the Jews there believed in and practiced magic to some extent. I could be wrong, but from what I understand, the Jews closer to Jerusalem would have viewed magic extremely negatively, yet, because it was so common in Ephesus, the Jews there didn’t seem to care.

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  16. It is crazy to think about how faithful and determined Paul was in his ministry. Paul knew the danger that was waiting him in Jerusalem, and yet he continued to go where God was calling him. Paul had so much trust in the Lord. He knew that God was calling him to reach the Gentiles and he was not going to let persecution stop him from going where God was calling him. This is definitely convicting for me because I know that I am working on not letting fear of sharing the gospel stop me from sharing it with others. I cannot imagine having to face persecution in the way that Paul was going to face it. Paul is such a great example for us as Christians to not be afraid to follow God’s call for our lives. He may call us into rough situations and we must not be afraid to follow His call and to share the gospel.

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    • I really like how you talk about how Paul was strong in his ministry. I think Paul knew what that he had to be brave in his ministry because he knew what people were capable of doing to Christians. Remember that Paul would have Christians put to death because of their religion. Paul sacrifices himself several times in Acts and puts his self in several dangerous situations where it him verse everyone. I think Paul’s boldness in his faith is some thing to example ourselves on because even though we are against the majority we have to continue to trust and praise the Lord and not give into the sinfulness that is becoming the norm.

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  17. I do find it strange that there were most likely friends or acquaintances of Paul nearby, yet no one ever showed up at his side to defend him. The more I think about it though, the more I try to apply myself in the situation. If the charge for breaking the laws or committing a ‘crime’ that Paul is being accused of is death, then I can’t imagine what the cost would be of standing up for him when a crowd of angry Jews is going to extreme measures to see him dead. It would be quite intimidating as a friend of Paul’s to jump into the situation without stirring up even more trouble. You would almost have to anticipate that you were going to be killed alongside Paul. Especially since Paul didn’t actually do anything wrong, and the Jewish people are just angry with him and are telling lies in order for him to be killed. If someone stood up for Paul, the crowd could easily make up something about that person as well in an attempt to get them killed too. So with that, I assume that anyone who could have potentially stood up for Pau was erring on the side of caution in anticipation that they could very well potentially be killed, or even worsen things by opening their mouths and speed up the process of Paul’s death!

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  18. Of course a plot normally means a plan and to have that amount of angry people who are more than ready to kill him had to have been scary for Paul to be apart of. I found it quite interesting that “The group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694) (Reading Acts). Knowing this is interesting as it shows that violent motifs were present at this time. What we today can gain from this is that Paul’s zealous love for Christ had no fear. because the Lord Jesus Christ was on his side. Paul’s mission was to reach the Jews and bring forth the gospel to them by correcting their error in rejecting Jesus. Paul later in Acts 26 testifies of his radical conversion and how the Lord Jesus had called him to bring forth the gospel. The fact that there was nobody that was trying to defend Paul could indicate that there was a breach between Paul and Jerusalem but at the end of the day, Paul’s faith was the thing that protected and sustained his ministry. Not man.

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    • I agree with you here Troy and what you said! Yes, knowing that there was a large group of people coming after you with the plan of killing you definitely would be a scary situation for anyone to be in. Even though that was the case, Paul still had no fear about the whole thing, and he still fulfilled the mission that he was being called by God to do and complete. I like how you brought it up that because of his strong faith in God and his trust that helped to keep the mission for his ministry stay as strong as it was.

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  19. the thing that caught my attention in this article is the idea that Paul could have had relatives who were more on the radical side of Judaism ( and not the radical Christian side) and also the idea that James could have possibly rather easily cleared up the misunderstanding. first with the relatives it would certainly make Paul more relatable. everyone today knows what it is like to have a political radical family member and we know how hectic it can be to have to deal with them. luckily for Paul blood was apparently thicker than water and his nephew did not remain silent about the plot to kill him or Acts may have ended very differently. as for James and speaking up for Paul’s defense it does seem odd that nothing is said but perhaps James was frustrated enough by Paul that it would have been unsurprising to him when he heard such an accusation of Paul bringing a gentile into the temple. if James were to stick his neck out for Paul and be wrong then its James whos neck would have likely been on the line instead of just Paul’s.

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  20. While there is no evidence of the other disciples or early church members being present or absent, I do not think it is unlikely they would have steered away from Paul’s situation. It is no secret that mobs are unruly. Paul knew the risks of Jerusalem and it’s volatility at that point. As you said, that this wasn’t that long before the uprising in Jerusalem. Any upsetting of the Temple ways would more than likely elicit an extreme reaction from the crowd. Paul did just that, preaching the gospel was upsetting the Temple. This would, and did, arise the crowd to act, and in a mob mentality, whoever joins the accused becomes the accused. They would have known that Paul knew what would come from this, and also have known that if it were not God’s will to have him killed then , he would be protected. Which, by him ending up in Rome, we know he was.

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  21. Just like we all know about Paul, he likes to come into certain situations and make a mess. But a good mess, he wants people to change even if that gets him into trouble, which it obviously is in all of these cases. So many people wanted to stop Paul though, plots against him, numerous attempts to put him into jails. The faithfulness that Paul has to do all of this is so extraordinary. If we had this level of faith we could legit move mountains across the whole earth yet we are held back. Paul even knew of these plots yet he still continued to do what he was supposed to do.

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