A Threefold Example of True Greatness
Acts 23:1-5
And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brothers, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.…

Every careful reader of the Testament is aware that there is obscurity present to a certain degree in this passage. The obscurity is of a nature not very likely to yield to timid treatment. It does not seem likely that there remain facts of history which would clear it up, for instance. Rather would it seem the preferable course to face at once the difficulty, to narrow its dimensions to the smallest compass, and to admit that it is not evident how it was that Paul failed to know the thing that he said he did not know - whether this were that Ananias was the high priest, or whether it were that it was Ananias who uttered the command to smite him on the mouth. For this is one among many instances of the sort of difficulty that offers no impossibility of reaching a very feasible explanation, but only perplexity and uncertainty, as to which among several may have been the actual explanation. All, however, that is now incumbent on ourselves is to accept in all good faith Paul's statement, and the lessons which may be suggested by what is before us will not be prejudiced. We have in the passage a threefold exemplification of the greatness that is open even to human character and life.

I. THE GREATNESS OF A GREAT IDEA AND RULE OF LIFE. There is no reason to think that Paul said what exceeded in the least degree the facts.

1. He owned to a conscience.

2. He owned to the principle that conscience ought to be accepted as guide.

3. He owned to the duty of accepting the governance of that conscience in things great and small - in "all things."

4. He glanced, to say the least, and very significantly, at the fact that conscience, too, had its Superior, its Master, its Judge - the living "God himself. A life led through the length of its intelligent period in obedience to conscience is a life that will have steadiness, consistency, strength, about it. Equally noticeable is it that human greatness, where it may most really touch the mark, will own, as it did notably in the case of Saul, to much mixture of imperfection, to much possibility of error, to grand oversights, even if conscience be its guide, unless that conscience is informed, is divinely informed, and is refreshed by the light of the Spirit of all true guiding.


1. Paul feels an intense scorn of the thing that Ananias does.

2. Though by exposing it, and trenchantly, in the face of open court, he exposed himself also to have it thought and said that personal resentment partly accounts for his conduct, yet Paul was content to run the risk of this. Many do now think that the conduct of Paul and his language here contrast unfavorably with what might have been, and detract something from the force of his righteous indignation-on a righteous occasion. Them is, however, such a thing as a noble disregard of fair fame, that a purer offering may be made to one thing - the hit fame of truth. Igor do we think that anything less than this is the truth here of Paul. If his utterance were the result of personal resentment simply, it certainly could not have had the remotest chance of working well for him personally. If the utterance were the child of personal resentment exclusively, the suppression of it would have been the suppression of an actual and legitimate instinct. But there is no evidence of this, nor even looking this way. For

(1) Paul's remonstrance is worded so as to exhibit the insult done to righteousness, not to himself. And

(2) not only is there not a trace of temper, but there is abundant indication immediately succeeding that Paul had himself under perfect control.

3. Paul expresses no wish for the punishment of Ananias, but he firmly declares the abundantly likely retribution of God. He certainly leaves his own case in the hands of him to whom judgment belongeth." And his language is no bitter retort, invective, or imprecation. It is no sign of either humility or greatness to hide out of sight our own strong convictions or our strong faith in God's moral government, just because the instance in question may arise in our own history. Therefore, while on the one hand the actual words employed by Paul receive unimpeachable justification from those of Jesus himself (Matthew 23:27), the spirit he manifested does not expose itself to censure in comparison with even that of Jesus (John 18:22, 23), for the simple reason that it does not offer to come into comparison with it, the occasions having their material points of difference as well as of resemblance. The wonderful and divinest meekness of Jesus is indeed ever imitable, but it does not follow that every possible occasion of meekness is a right occasion for it. It may be that stern duty shall allow no option, and its more painful behest be the word of crushing rebuke (as here) rather than the tones of mercy and meekness.

III. THE GREATNESS THAT WAITS, READY TO ADMIT THAT A THING DONE BY ONE'S SELF MIGHT HAVE BEEN BETTER LEFT UNDONE. There are many things that may aggravate or diminish the blame of error. Rare as they are, there are such things as genuine explanations of error, which leave no fault with the person who nevertheless has been the perpetrator of it. Possibly Paul may be justly credited with some blame in not knowing to whom he spoke before he spoke, just as the language which he used may possibly be liable to some censure. But, anyway, the occasion is a fit one to remind us of these things:

1. That it is one sign of a great disposition - other things being equal - to be open to acknowledge error.

2. That this is a much more effectual sign, when all the circumstances of an occasion (as now) make the admission one of peculiar difficulty.

3. That worth is added to any such acknowledgment when, after all, the error is one in manner only, and emphatically not in matter, and. when it lies in the accidents rather than in the merits of the subject. Though it were only such an error, Paul publicly admits it, and quotes chapter and verse, as it were, to his own disadvantage.

4. That this virtue is especially the growth of Christian teaching, Christian principles. The germ of this virtue so rare lies in the truth, the sincerity, the purity to which Christianity invites our supreme homage. - B.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.

WEB: Paul, looking steadfastly at the council, said, "Brothers, I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day."

A Good Conscience Towards God
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