Jesus once observed that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Shrewd people are astute and clever. If we have right goals, we should be wise in reaching them.
Paul was shrewd. He trusted God. He had right goals, and he used sharp-witted means to reach those ends. The fact that he waited until the end of his speech to Jewish zealots before speaking well of Gentiles illustrates his shrewdness.
What unifies Acts 22:22–23:10 is a Roman tribune’s varied attempts to understand the Jewish crowd’s opinion that Paul “should not be allowed to live” (Acts 22:22). Whether facing torture or on trial, Paul demonstrated the important skill of Christian shrewdness.
A Shrewd Question
After rescuing Paul from the Jewish mob, the Roman tribune couldn’t conscientiously release Paul to a murderous crowd. And the crowd’s anger must have raised suspicions of Paul’s guilt. Perhaps he did need to be punished. The tribune could hardly have guessed that Paul was merely “guilty” of following Jesus and believing that God’s grace was for all kinds of people, including Gentile soldiers.
Not knowing the truth, the tribune ordered Paul to be “examined by flogging” (Acts 22:24). A trained soldier prepared to whip an outstretched Paul with leather straps to which metal or bone were often attached. The purpose of flogging was to inflict punishment or extract answers to questions. But Paul asked a question of his own: “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” We know that Paul put more stock in his heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20), but he shrewdly used his rights as a Roman to promote justice and protect his life. Paul’s question halted the proceedings.
It isn’t hard to see in this story echoes of Jesus’s arrest and trial, probably on the same stone pavement where Paul stood. But, whereas Paul wisely found a way to stop the flogging, Jesus embraced it. Jesus could have asked Pilate, “Is it lawful to flog a man who is also the eternal Son of God?” His question was different: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). But the Scriptures had to be fulfilled. So “Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (John 19:1; cf. Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15; Ps. 129:3). For us this is good news. “And with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5 KJV).
Since the tribune could not gain the truth by torture he made preparations for Paul to stand trial before the Jewish ruling council.
A Shrewd Comment
Paul started the trial by defending his conscience—that independent witness to human behavior (cf. Rom. 2:15; Acts 24:16). Paul strove to “act honorably in all things” (Heb. 13:18) and settle accounts when he fell short. Paul’s accusers were not impressed. How dare this heretic boast of a clear conscience! The high priest Ananias had Paul struck on the mouth.
Paul’s response was swift and strong. Like Jesus before him, Paul cursed the high priest for his hypocrisy (cf. Matt. 23:27). Jesus, too, was rebuked and struck for his judgment (John 18:20–24). Unlike Jesus, the great high priest, Paul apologized. He hadn’t recognized Ananias as high priest and God’s law demands reverence for his anointed (see Exod. 22:28). But Paul didn’t retract his judgment. What he said was true.
So Paul changed tactics: When he saw that the court was comprised of Sadducees and Pharisees—rival religious parties—he sided with the Pharisees and announced his hope in the resurrection (Acts 24:6). Why did he say this? First, Paul shrewdly divided the court. The Pharisees were separatists and theological traditionalists. By old covenant standards, their theology was sound. The Sadducees were materialists who believed that the soul died with the body. By his comment, Paul gained at least some support.
Second, Paul showed that Christianity is a natural outgrowth of Judaism. Pharisees—or anyone who believes Scripture—can trust Jesus. Christian hope aligns with traditional Jewish beliefs.
Third, Paul isolated Christianity’s main point: the resurrection. If the dead are not raised then life only matters in the moment. And the dead are not raised if Christ is not raised. But Christ is raised! (cf. 1 Cor. 15:17–19). The Christian creed is captured in these few words: I believe in the resurrection of the dead! Because sin has ruined God’s good world, I am going to die. But God has sent a Savior to taste death for me. If I am united to Christ by faith, my death will transfer me to eternal glory.
Christians must be shrewd. Jesus sends his disciples out as “sheep in the midst of wolves.” They will be hated by men as they testify about him. So they must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). But the clever and resourceful Paul didn’t rely only on his shrewdness; he trusted in his Savior who was wounded and resurrected for him. And Jesus is worthy of trust. The Lord graciously stood by Paul during what could have been a terrifying post-trial evening (Acts 23:11). Paul’s calling to testify had not yet expired! Someday it would, and Paul would be resurrected with Christ. All believers look forward with this same hope.