Three quick reactions to this passage:
20:24 | Firstly, Paul speaks here in what I see as the proper humility of a Christian. He eschews a results-oriented view of his ministry in favor of a role-based one. By this I mean that Paul does not define his work for Christ as that of establishing a certain number of churches, converting a certain number of people, writing a certain number of letters, etc. Paul, instead, conceives of his ministry procedurally, in that he plays a role, but the substance, the results, are up to God. There’s much more here worth talking about, but suffice it for now to say that, while there is certainly a danger in letting the procedural view diminish your motivation or even justify inaction, I think that it’s more common to err on the opposite side of seeing our role in spreading the Kingdom as one of accomplishment and results.
Secondly, this is just a vague impression from the whole passage, but I was struck by what I saw as parallel’s between Paul’s ministry and Jesus’. Specifically, Paul gets into similar trouble with the Jewish authorities and also gets caught up in the jurisdictional interaction between the Jews and the Roman authorities. I don’t know that this parallel means anything (leaving open, of course, the possibility that it does), but this is the first time I noticed that, for what it’s worth.
23:10 | Lastly, Paul shows his savvy in playing off the Pharisees against the Sadducees in order to create a ruckus by which he can escape immediate harm.
But beyond giving Paul props, I think the latter portion of the passage illustrates just how passionately people hold their religious beliefs. Now, it turns out that both parties in this particular dispute are getting the incarnation wrong, but I still want to defend this passion, even though it can be wielded against the work of the Spirit.
Having shunted our ‘religious beliefs’ into the private sphere (a completely understandable response to the ferocious sectarian conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), we now live in a culture that reacts with something between bemusement and abject horror at the idea of being violent in the name of those beliefs. I’m not advocating religious violence, but it seems out of tune with human nature as displayed through almost all of history to deny that there are fundamental beliefs worth fighting (and dying) for. How man relates to the metaphysical is not a private hobby; it’s the framework through which a limited human soul can interact with the huge and mysterious world in which it exists.
Despite our cultural attempts to compartmentalize our beliefs and thoughts and values into discrete boxes, the human mind is a messy thing. You cannot deny or oppose (or marginalize or trivialize) my theology without challenging my understanding in other areas, such as property rights or the value of a human life or the appropriate relationship between the sexes, etc.
Ultimately, even the belief that religion belongs behind closed doors is a religious belief, insofar as it proposes a construct in which people interact with each other and with the world they encounter. That construct carries with it implications for those ‘other boxes’ from the previous paragraph. So if I go to a devout Christian and tell him that his opinions about God should be kept to himself, I’m challenging not just those opinions but the world that he understands. I’m challenging his understanding of his relationship to property and resources, of his moral framework, and of his concept of family and procreation. While I still believe there are moral limits to how he can respond to that challenge, I shouldn’t be surprised or disdainful that his response is a passionate one.
The same applies in Acts 23. Whether it’s Paul challenging the worldview of the Jews or the Sadducees challenging the Pharisees, the reaction of violence isn’t bizarre; it’s completely natural. Again, I’ll caveat that natural does not mean right. Based on the merit of the beliefs in question and the specific actions taken in response, there is still a standard of holiness and love that I think applies. So I don’t think we can excuse the violence in Acts 23 (or any other relevant situations), but I think we must understand and respect it.