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A Wall That Will Stand

When Paul calls Ananias a “whitewashed wall,” why did he say that, particularly? Related to Jesus’ insulting the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs,” Paul is drawing on the prophet Ezekiel, who rebuked both false prophets and the leaders who believed them. The leaders of God’s people were supposed to hear God’s Words, and build a “wall” around the city in response so that when the Day of the Lord came, God’s people would be saved. But Ezekiel’s complaint in chapter 13 is that Israel’s leaders haven’t been faithful wallbuilders. They’ve listened to lies and built a flimsy wall, covered it with whitewash, and glibly promised the people that God would keep everyone safe behind it. Because of this, Ezekiel says, God will not only smash through that wall, but He will destroy the false prophets, the one who lie about having encountered God, who spoke peace when there was no peace.

Back to Acts 23. Here is Paul’s position: He claimed in chapter 22 to have seen a vision of the resurrected Christ, and has spent his life ever since going everywhere building up the walls of the church. According to Paul, Jesus is the wall. Hide behind Christ, and when the day of judgment comes, you will be safe! Here is Ananias’ position: Jesus can’t give you a clean conscience. Only keeping the law can do that. The wall Ananias builds is meant to keep Christ out. Supposedly serving as Israel’s shepherd, Ananias herds the sheep behind the crumbling wall of Judaism without Jesus.

This is why, when Ananias breaks the law by ordering Paul to be struck, Paul responds: “You whitewashed wall!” Paul isn’t just spitting venom. He’s sending one of Ezekiel’s prophetic hailstones against Ananias’ cardboard bunker. God has already promised to knock down whitewashed walls, and so Paul lets Ananias know to expect it soon.

This helps us to interpret verse five, after Paul is rebuked for giving this answer. Verse five isn’t an apology, it’s a further attack: “I’m sorry, brothers, how was I supposed to know that this lawbreaker was the high priest? If there had been any way to tell, I would have kept the law that says ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people!’” “I know the law,” Paul says. “Does he?”

In this clash with Ananias, Paul has shown that he himself is a faithful Jew who honors the law. His activities in Jerusalem are not a rejection of Jewish life, but an embrace of the Jewish messiah, who, it turns out, is also the world’s messiah, which is why it’s okay to fellowship with Gentiles like Trophimus (who, after all, never entered the temple!).

Ultimately, obeying the law means loving the Lord your God. That’s the first and greatest commandment! The Christian confession was that Jesus is Lord. This means that Paul is the one who obeys the Law. By building a wall of faith in Jesus, he is keeping the law, and all Jews who want to be saved in the battle of the Day of the Lord need to listen to Paul.

For you, this means that you need to ask yourself this question: “What wall have I built?” What will keep you safe when judgment comes? And what if your wall actually keeps Jesus out? The Jewish leaders kept Jesus out by means of a wall they called “keeping the law.” They thought they were loving God, and they ended up killing His Son, breaking the law many times over.

So what would that look like for you? The lesson of the Jewish leaders is that often, our greatest strength is our greatest weakness. So maybe your wall is obedience, good behavior, attending church, doing Christian activities, reading the Bible, helping people. But if you think that these things are strong enough to stand up to God’s judgment, you are trusting in whitewash.

Only Jesus Christ is a wall that can stand against God’s judgment, because Jesus already faced that judgment, all the way to death and back to life. This is what Paul is centrally concerned to tell you: Jesus was raised to life again. He made it through the judgment. Put your trust in Him; let Him be your wall, and you too will be able to stand in the day of the Lord!

Posted on Wednesday, May 13, 2015 by CJ Bowen