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Tempest in the Temple (Acts 21:17-22:29)

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17 When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly. 18 The next day Paul went in with us to see James, and all the elders were there. 19 When Paul had greeted them, he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law. 21 They have been informed about you – that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What then should we do? They will no doubt hear that you have come. 23 So do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law. 25 But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality.”

26 Then Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them. 27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him in the temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary! Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner courts of the temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” 29 (For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him previously, and they assumed Paul had brought him into the inner temple courts.) 30 The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple courts, and immediately the doors were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, a report was sent up to the commanding officer of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He immediately took soldiers and centurions and ran down to the crowd. When they saw the commanding officer and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the commanding officer came up and arrested him and ordered him to be tied up with two chains; he then asked who he was and what he had done. 34 But some in the crowd shouted one thing, and others something else, and when the commanding officer was unable to find out the truth because of the disturbance, he ordered Paul to be brought into the barracks. 35 When he came to the steps, Paul had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob, 36 for a crowd of people followed them, screaming, “Away with him!”

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commanding officer, “May I say something to you?” The officer replied, “Do you know Greek? 38 Then you’re not that Egyptian who started a rebellion and led the four thousand men of the ‘Assassins’ into the wilderness some time ago?” 39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please allow me to speak to the people.” 40 When the commanding officer had given him permission, Paul stood on the steps and gestured to the people with his hand. When they had become silent, he addressed them in Aramaic, 1 “Brothers and fathers, listen to my defense that I now make to you.” 2 (When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter.)

Then Paul said, 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today. 4 I persecuted this Way even to the point of death, tying up both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as both the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I was on my way to make arrests there and bring the prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. 6 As I was en route and near Damascus, about noon a very bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. 7 Then I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Those who were with me saw the light, but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 So I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told about everything that you have been designated to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brilliance of that light, I came to Damascus led by the hand of those who were with me. 12 A man named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who live there, 13 came to me and stood beside me and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ And at that very moment I looked up and saw him. 14 Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has already chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear a command from his mouth, 15 because you will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’ 17 When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 I replied, ‘Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat those in the various synagogues who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” 23 While they were screaming and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust in the air, 24 the commanding officer ordered Paul to be brought back into the barracks. He told them to interrogate Paul by beating him with a lash so that he could find out the reason the crowd was shouting at Paul in this way. 25 When they had stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing nearby, “Is it legal for you to lash a man who is a Roman citizen without a proper trial?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commanding officer and reported it, saying, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the commanding officer came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” He replied, “Yes.” 28 The commanding officer answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” “But I was even born a citizen,” Paul replied. 29 Then those who were about to interrogate him stayed away from him, and the commanding officer was frightened when he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had had him tied up.1

Introduction2

“I’ll never do that again!” These words, though spoken nearly 50 years ago, are still fresh in my mind. When I was a boy, our family took a vacation trip to California. While we were there, we visited my father’s long-time college friend, Bob, and his family. This friend had several young children. On one occasion, we were all crammed into Bob’s station wagon when his young son, Chris, began to misbehave. Since Bob was at the wheel, he attempted to bring his son under control with mere words. It didn’t work. I don’t know whether Chris got away with this behavior at other times, but this time there was a carload of witnesses listening to his father’s threats. Sooner or later Bob was going to have to do something. When Chris boldly crossed the line (of tolerable behavior), his father suddenly pulled the car to the side of the road, walked to the back of the car, and opened the tailgate. It was then that Chris spoke those words that we have all said at one time or another: “I’ll never do that again!”

After reading our text in Acts 21 and 22, we might wonder if after going to Jerusalem Paul ever said to himself, “I’ll never do that again!” Will Paul regret his decision to press on to Jerusalem, in spite of the prophecies he had received and the urging of his friends not to go? Let’s take a look at the consequences of Paul’s decisions regarding Jerusalem and then consider what these events have to teach us.

The Context

You will recall that Paul had purposed to go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21). On his way, he collected the offerings of the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for the saints in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17-18; Romans 15:25-27). He also met with believers in the cities where his ship made port on the way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:17-36; 21:3-6, 8-14). In each of the cities where Paul stopped, the Holy Spirit revealed that imprisonment and persecution awaited him at his destination – Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-24; 21:4, 10-14). Convinced that God had called him to suffer for the name of Jesus, Paul pressed on until he arrived in Jerusalem. In our text, we find Paul having just arrived in Jerusalem, along with a number of his companions.

Paul’s Meeting with the Jerusalem Jewish Leaders
Acts 21:17-25

17 When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us gladly. 18 The next day Paul went in with us to see James, and all the elders were there. 19 When Paul had greeted them, he began to explain in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law. 21 They have been informed about you – that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What then should we do? They will no doubt hear that you have come. 23 So do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself live in conformity with the law. 25 But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality.”

On his second day in Jerusalem, Paul and some of his companions met with James and the Jewish leaders (elders) of the church. In considerable detail, he reported to them how God had used his preaching of the gospel to save many Gentiles (21:19). These Jewish brethren rejoiced when they learned that many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus. But they also wished to convey to Paul a matter of serious concern. Paul was a well-known celebrity in Jerusalem. He had received much of his training from Gamaliel, who apparently lived in or near Jerusalem (Acts 5:34-39; 22:3). Jerusalem seems to have been Paul’s base of operations when, as an unbeliever, he opposed the gospel and persecuted the church (Acts 26:9-11). Thus, Paul was well known to both believing (Acts 9:13-14, 26) and unbelieving (Acts 22:17-21; 26:4-5) Jews alike.

The elders in Jerusalem knew that distorted accounts of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles had already reached their city:

20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all ardent observers of the law. 21 They have been informed about you – that you teach all the Jews now living among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (Acts 21:20-21).

Enemies of the gospel were eager to believe the worst about Paul and his ministry. Unsaved Jews gladly believed the reports that Paul had turned against Judaism, the Old Testament Law of Moses, and the temple (see Acts 21:28), something that was far from the truth (see Acts 26:5-8, 22-23). Even believing Jews in Jerusalem were being persuaded that Paul was teaching Jewish believers who lived in Gentile lands that they should not circumcise their children or continue to observe Jewish customs.

James and his colleagues were deeply concerned that these false reports about Paul might do harm to the church, and even hinder Paul’s ministry among them. It seems evident that they had already agreed among themselves concerning their words of counsel. They asked Paul to publicly participate in temple worship, along with four Jewish men who had taken a vow. He was to take these four men and go through a purification ritual with them, paying their expenses to do so. This symbolic action would demonstrate that he continued to worship as a Jew. It would also prove that he had no reservations about encouraging other Jews to do likewise. Without debate or delay, Paul set out to comply with this request.

Before we move on, it would be helpful to pause for a moment to take note of several observations regarding the events described in verses 17-25:

First, note the genuinely warm welcome Paul and his companions are given by the Jerusalem church leaders. I believe that identifying with Paul was not the safest option for the Jerusalem church leaders. Paul was a “lightening rod” for opposition, and yet his Jewish brethren in Jerusalem gladly embraced Paul when he arrived. There is no hint of division or of hostility here, but only warm brotherly love.

Second, there was rejoicing on the part of these Jewish church leaders over the salvation of Gentiles. One need only read Luke 4:23-30 and Acts 22:21-22 to see how strongly opposed unbelieving Jews were to the evangelization of Gentiles. James and his colleagues praised God for the success of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles.

Third, Paul’s arrival raised some legitimate concerns on the part of the Jerusalem church leaders. While some are inclined to view the counsel of James and the elders of the church as unwise or unbiblical, Luke leaves me with the impression that these concerns were legitimate. There were false reports about Paul’s ministry, and these had negatively impacted the church. The church leaders were right to be concerned.

Fourth, the request of Paul’s Jerusalem brethren was a reasonable one. They did not ask Paul to do something that was contrary to his faith or practice. Indeed, they did not ask Paul to do something he had not already done on his own. We simply need to recall what Luke told us in chapter 18:

Paul, after staying many more days in Corinth, said farewell to the brothers and sailed away to Syria accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. He had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because he had made a vow (Acts 18:18).

Later in chapter 20, we read:

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so as not to spend time in the province of Asia, for he was hurrying to arrive in Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost (Acts 20:16).

It seems quite evident that Paul continued to worship as a Jew, and that the request of his brethren in Jerusalem was merely a petition to make his practice public enough to dispel any false information circulating about him. This was for the good of all.

Fifth, the Jerusalem church leaders made it very clear to Paul that their request was in no way to be understood as contradictory to their previous decision at the Jerusalem Council:

But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we have written a letter, having decided that they should avoid meat that has been sacrificed to idols and blood and what has been strangled and sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25).

The relationship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians needed clarification. The first step had been taken at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). There, essentially the same men as were now gathered had determined that Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism in order to be saved. That decision is reaffirmed by the Jerusalem church leaders here in our text (Acts 21:25). Now, in the light of charges that Paul taught Jewish Christians (living abroad in Gentile territory) to forsake their Jewish culture and traditions, the Jerusalem church leaders deal with the other side of the equation: Jewish converts do not need to forsake their Jewish heritage because they have become Christians.3 Thus:

Gentiles do not need to become Jews in order to be saved.
Jews who are saved do not need to completely forsake their Jewish heritage.

Sixth, if these Jewish brothers were wrong to counsel Paul as they did, and if Paul was wrong to follow their advice, I find it very difficult to explain what happened in Acts 23:11:

The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Have courage, for just as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

Paul has been falsely accused of taking a Gentile into a restricted part of the temple and was nearly beaten to death (Acts 21:27-32). He was allowed to speak to the Jewish throng that had tried to kill him, but this did not end well either (Acts 21:39—22:29). Then Paul appeared before the Sanhedrin, where his statements (at least one of which he acknowledged to be improper – Acts 23:1-5) led to further chaos. Paul was obviously discouraged, and yet our Lord stood by his side. He told Paul that just as he had testified about Him in Jerusalem, so he would also do in Rome. If Paul was so wrong to go to Jerusalem and to take the advice of his Jewish brethren, then why does our Lord speak so well of what Paul has done in Jerusalem?

Seventh, Paul defends his actions in Jerusalem by linking his worship in the temple with presenting the gifts he had collected from the Gentiles in Macedonia and Achaia:

11 As you can verify for yourself, not more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship.

. . . 17 “After several years I came to bring to my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings, 18 which I was doing when they found me in the temple, ritually purified, without a crowd or a disturbance” (Acts 24:11, 17-18).

Paul was being accused of defiling the temple by bringing a Gentile into its forbidden precincts. He was accused, therefore, of acting contrary to Judaism. Actually it was worse than that. Paul was accused of acting against Judaism. This fit perfectly with the rumors that had been circulating about Paul and his ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 21:21, 28). Paul’s defense to Felix was that he had not come to defile the temple but to be ceremonially purified there. And contrary to the charge that his ministry among the Gentiles was hostile to Judaism, Paul called attention to the fact that he had come from the Gentiles in order to present a gift to the needy saints in Jerusalem. Paul’s presence at the temple in Jerusalem was something for which all Jews should have been grateful. And yet his adversaries had twisted his actions into something horrifying and evil.

Doing Right Causes a Riot
Acts 21:26-36

26 Then Paul took the men the next day, and after he had purified himself along with them, he went to the temple and gave notice of the completion of the days of purification, when the sacrifice would be offered for each of them. 27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him in the temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary! Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner courts of the temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” 29 (For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him previously, and they assumed Paul had brought him into the inner temple courts.) 30 The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple courts, and immediately the doors were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, a report was sent up to the commanding officer of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He immediately took soldiers and centurions and ran down to the crowd. When they saw the commanding officer and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the commanding officer came up and arrested him and ordered him to be tied up with two chains; he then asked who he was and what he had done. 34 But some in the crowd shouted one thing, and others something else, and when the commanding officer was unable to find out the truth because of the disturbance, he ordered Paul to be brought into the barracks. 35 When he came to the steps, Paul had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob, 36 for a crowd of people followed them, screaming, “Away with him!” (Acts 22:26-36)

Without debate or any apparent hesitation, Paul promptly set out to comply with the counsel that his Jerusalem brethren had given. When the story takes up in verse 26, the week-long purification process was nearly complete (verse 27). It was a group of Hellenistic (Asian) Jews who started all the trouble. In Acts, it is the Hellenistic Jews who took up the cause of opposing the gospel. They led the opposition against Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew (Acts 6:8-14). Likewise, they opposed Paul, a Hellenistic Jew who had now come to faith in Jesus (Acts 9:29). And now these Asian Hellenistic Jews accuse Paul of committing one of the highest crimes in Judaism – defiling the temple. This was a crime punishable by death.

Why would these men be so opposed to Paul? For one thing, Paul was once one of them. He had formerly opposed Christianity more strongly than they (Acts 9:1-2; 22:3-5). Paul was now viewed as a traitor and as a dangerous threat to their cause. Since these men were Asians, it is likely that they not only heard Paul preach the gospel there, they may well have been among those who opposed him while he was in Asia:

8 So Paul entered the synagogue and spoke out fearlessly for three months, addressing and convincing them about the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were stubborn and refused to believe, reviling the Way before the congregation, he left them and took the disciples with him, addressing them every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:8-10, emphasis mine).

These Asian Jews were likely from Ephesus, because they recognized Trophimus the Ephesian who was with Paul. Trophimus was not with Paul in the temple; rather he had previously been with Paul in the city (verse 29). And so seeing Paul in the temple with four men, they assumed that he had brought Gentiles with him, thereby defiling the temple.

This is an incredible leap of logic. The “dots” they try to connect are miles apart.4 They had seen Paul in the city of Jerusalem with one Gentile from Ephesus several days earlier. Now, days later, they see Paul in the temple with four Jewish brothers, and they assume that these Jewish men5 must be Gentiles, and thus they conclude that Paul has defiled the temple. How could intelligent people make such a foolish mistake? Let me suggest that sin isn’t really as logical as it seems. We work hard at rationalizing our sin, but that doesn’t make sin rational.

Think, for example, about the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. In particular, think about Eve. The Scriptures make it very clear that she was deceived (see Genesis 3:13; 2 Corinthians 11:3; 1 Timothy 2:14). How did Satan deceive Eve so that she chose death, thinking it would enhance her life? First, Satan succeeded in focusing her attention on what God had prohibited, causing her to think of it as being something good which He withheld. In this way, Eve became discontent with what God had graciously given. By enticing her to think this way, she became discontent with God. Then Satan created a desire for that which God had forbidden. She now looked on the forbidden fruit as desirable (Genesis 3:6). After this, the decision to disobey, foolish and deadly as it was, was easy. She was not driven by logic, but by her desire.

Let me illustrate this overthrow of reason by sharing a tragedy that affected our family. A neighbor lived in a mobile home along the driveway leading to my grandmother’s house. One day this neighbor got into a violent argument with another man. The neighbor used a weapon to threaten the fellow and to force him to leave. The man left, but threatened to return (with a weapon, as I recall) and get his revenge. Some time later, my uncle drove up the driveway to visit my grandmother. Unfortunately for him, he drove a car that was the same shape and color as the one driven by the man who had left in anger, threatening bodily harm to the neighbor. Seeing this car coming his way, the neighbor wrongly assumed that it was the man who had threatened him earlier. And so he got out his gun and fired into the oncoming car, killing my uncle. The evidence was slim indeed; in fact, the evidence was misleading. The heart can easily overrule the head, so that a decision to sin may require very little hard evidence.

We like to think of ourselves as intelligent people who act wisely on the basis of the facts. The truth is that most people are driven more by their desires than by facts and logic. Look at the advertisements in the media. Those who are marketing their wares know why people “decide” to purchase them. “Discontent” would be too mild a description for the unbelieving Jews’ response to Paul and the gospel. They hated the gospel, and they wanted to kill Paul. Their desire (to kill Paul) was so strong that they needed only the hint of misconduct on Paul’s part. Here is the Supreme Court of Israel, a court that is supposed to make wise judgments, and yet they are completely driven by their discontent and their desires. No wonder sin is described as a seductive woman in the Book of Proverbs. “Wisdom” is described as a woman as well, but her appeal is to the mind, not to fleshly lusts.6

Note how the Hellenistic (Asian) Jews state their case against Paul in such a way that it incites the crowd to act emotionally. They do not accuse Paul of defiling the temple with Gentiles until after they have repeated the same rumor that troubled James and the elders:

“Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary! Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner courts of the temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” (Acts 21:28, emphasis mine)

The Hellenistic Jews called upon their fellow-Jews, including their Hebraic Jewish brethren, to come to their aid, and they did. While some act on the basis of false evidence and flawed logic, others seem to blindly follow the crowd without really knowing why (Acts 21:34).

But some in the crowd shouted one thing, and others something else, and when the commanding officer was unable to find out the truth because of the disturbance, he ordered Paul to be brought into the barracks (Acts 21:34).

The charges against Paul should sound familiar, for we have heard them before:

57 Some stood up and gave this false testimony against him [Jesus]: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’” 59 Yet even on this point their testimony did not agree (Mark 14:57-59).

11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man [Stephen] speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:11-14).

Likewise, when the Jews shouted, “Away with him!” (Acts 21:36), we should recall that we have also heard these words before:

Then they shouted out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” The high priests replied, “We have no king except Caesar!” (John 19:15; see also Luke 23:18)

Paul’s Skillful Use of Language
Acts 21:37—22:2

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commanding officer, “May I say something to you?” The officer replied, “Do you know Greek? 38 Then you’re not that Egyptian who started a rebellion and led the four thousand men of the ‘Assassins’ into the wilderness some time ago?” 39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please allow me to speak to the people.” 40 When the commanding officer had given him permission, Paul stood on the steps and gestured to the people with his hand. When they had become silent, he addressed them in Aramaic, 1 “Brothers and fathers, listen to my defense that I now make to you.” 2 (When they heard that he was addressing them in Aramaic, they became even quieter.) (Acts 21:37—22:2a, emphasis mine)

The Roman commander had no idea who Paul was when he extracted him from the hands of those at the temple who sought to tear him to pieces. He bound Paul with chains and asked him who he was and what he had done. All this took place while the crowd was screaming for Paul’s blood and making contradictory accusations. He could not even hear because the roar of the crowd was so great, so he brought Paul into the barracks to question him. When they were almost to the barracks, Paul asked to speak to the commander, in Greek. The commander was taken aback because of the possibility (likelihood?) that Paul was the Egyptian revolutionary who had started a rebellion and led 4,000 assassins into the wilderness. It would seem that Paul’s skillful use of the Greek language caught the commander completely off guard (pardon the pun), and set his mind at ease that Paul was not a revolutionary.

Paul assured the commander that he was not the Egyptian revolutionary; he was a Jew from the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, a most important city. Paul took advantage of the moment and asked the commander if he could speak to the crowd. Perhaps this seemed like a good idea to the commander because he would be able to hear what Paul had to say, and in doing so, perhaps he could make a determination as to what the charges against him, if any, should be.

Was this poor fellow ever in for a surprise. When the commander granted him permission, Paul signaled to the crowd that he wanted to speak. When a hush fell over the crowd (a lot of them wanted to know what this was all about) Paul began to speak – in Aramaic. That silenced the crowd even more, but it surely caught Claudius Lysias by surprise. How could he possibly understand Paul and thus be able to discern what the issues were? This was also true of the Hellenistic Jews. Many (perhaps most) of them would not have been fluent in Aramaic, and so they would have to listen very carefully if they were to understand anything he said. Paul now had everyone’s attention.

Paul’s Defense
Acts 22:3-21

Then Paul said, 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated with strictness under Gamaliel according to the law of our ancestors, and was zealous for God just as all of you are today. 4 I persecuted this Way even to the point of death, tying up both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as both the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I was on my way to make arrests there and bring the prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. 6 As I was en route and near Damascus, about noon a very bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. 7 Then I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Those who were with me saw the light, but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 So I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told about everything that you have been designated to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brilliance of that light, I came to Damascus led by the hand of those who were with me. 12 A man named Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who live there, 13 came to me and stood beside me and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ And at that very moment I looked up and saw him. 14 Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has already chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear a command from his mouth, 15 because you will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’ 17 When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 I replied, ‘Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat those in the various synagogues who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (Acts 22:2b-21).

Comparing Paul’s Speech with Stephen’s

It is interesting to compare Paul’s speech, addressed to this mob, with that of Stephen earlier in Acts (Acts 6:8—8:1). One similarity is that in both instances it was Hellenistic Jews who made the accusations. Another similarity is in the charges that were leveled against the two:

8 Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 But some men from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and the province of Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 Yet they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. 11 Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard this man speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 They incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law; then they approached Stephen, seized him, and brought him before the council. 13 They brought forward false witnesses who said, This man does not stop saying things against this holy place and the law. 14 For we have heard him saying that Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us (Acts 6:8-14, emphasis mine).

    27 When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from the province of Asia who had seen him in the temple area stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this sanctuary! Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the inner courts of the temple and made this holy place ritually unclean!” (Acts 21:27-28, emphasis mine)

But now notice the contrasts between the two incidents. Stephen indicts (or prosecutes) his audience, while Paul gives a defense. Stephen identifies himself with the Old Testament prophets and his opponents with their stiff-necked forefathers. Paul identifies himself with Judaism and with his opponents. He was not so different from them in that he was also a devout Jew, looking for the hope of Israel. Stephen goes back in time to survey Old Testament history, thus showing that his opponents were rebellious, just like their forefathers. Paul goes back in time, reviewing his own history, and specifically how he was brought from unbelief to faith. Stephen is put to death by an angry mob; Paul is delivered from the angry mob.

Comparing Paul’s Testimony with Luke’s Account of Paul’s Conversion in Chapter 9

Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is (predictably) in the third person. Paul’s account of his conversion in Acts 22 is in the first person. Here, in chapter 22, Paul is giving his testimony in his own words.

Two things stand out in Paul’s personal testimony in our text. First, Paul very clearly identifies with his audience. (Strangely, Paul identifies more with the native Hebrews than with the Hellenistic Jews. You will remember that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, although he was trained in Jerusalem by Gamaliel.)

Second (and most significant), Paul includes an account of the vision he received in Jerusalem, something not found in the other two conversion accounts.

17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 I replied, ‘Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat those in the various synagogues who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing nearby, approving, and guarding the cloaks of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then he said to me, ‘Go, because I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (Acts 22:17-21, emphasis mine).

It is Paul’s reference to this vision which triggers a massive reaction from the crowd.

When Paul returned to Jerusalem from Damascus after his conversion, he went to the temple to pray. It was while he was praying that he fell into a trance and received a vision. In the vision, the Lord instructed Paul to get out of Jerusalem quickly because the Jews there would not accept his testimony about his conversion. Paul was unwilling to accept this. He reminded the Lord that he was the ringleader of the opposition to Christianity. Why would they not listen to him? In spite of Paul’s protests, the Lord instructed him to go (to flee, that is, from Jerusalem), because He was sending him to the Gentiles.

Nothing could be more distressing and offensive to the unbelieving Jew than the content of Paul’s vision as he reported it here. Paul was told that the Jews would not believe him and that because of their unbelief, the gospel was to go to the Gentiles. The crowd exploded when they heard Paul say these words. Nothing was more abhorrent to a Jew than to hear that God was taking their “Jewish gospel” to the Gentiles, and this because of their (Jewish) unbelief. Our Lord received the same reaction when He presented Himself as the Messiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30, especially verses 24-29).

Another Riot
Acts 22:22-29

22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” 23 While they were screaming and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust in the air, 24 the commanding officer ordered Paul to be brought back into the barracks. He told them to interrogate Paul by beating him with a lash so that he could find out the reason the crowd was shouting at Paul in this way. 25 When they had stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing nearby, “Is it legal for you to lash a man who is a Roman citizen without a proper trial?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commanding officer and reported it, saying, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the commanding officer came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” He replied, “Yes.” 28 The commanding officer answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” “But I was even born a citizen,” Paul replied. 29 Then those who were about to interrogate him stayed away from him, and the commanding officer was frightened when he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had had him tied up (Acts 22:22-29).

You have to feel sorry for that Roman commander. He let Paul talk him into addressing that mob, hoping that what he heard Paul say (in Greek) would explain what all the trouble was about. Instead, Paul addressed that mob in Aramaic, so that the commander could only guess what Paul was saying. In the beginning, he may have experienced a measure of relief when the crowd quieted down to hear what Paul had to say. But then the crowd suddenly erupted in great anger, and the commander had to put down another riot.

Claudius Lysias (for that was the commander’s name – Acts 23:26) seems to have been a very disciplined soldier and a rather patient man. But Paul has just pressed his patience beyond his limits. More intent than ever to find out what is going on, the commander orders that Paul be taken into the barracks and interrogated (beaten) with a lash. There was more than one way to get to the truth. Claudius Lysias had tried the “easy way” (letting Paul speak), but now he would get to the truth the hard way.

As they were stretching Paul out for a lashing, Paul turned to the centurion standing nearby and asked if it was lawful for them to treat a Roman citizen in this manner. Of course it was not! You can almost see the soldier holding the lash dropping it like a hot potato. No one wanted to face the wrath of Rome for ill-treating one of its citizens. The centurion informed the commander, who questioned Paul regarding his citizenship. The commander was a Roman citizen too but he had to pay a high price for his citizenship. Paul, on the other hand, was born a Roman citizen. That was the end of this “interrogation.”

Once again the commander’s attempt to get at the truth was foiled. Did the commander think he would frighten Paul so badly that he would finally explain the hostility of the crowd? The commander and his men are the ones who are frightened now. Will Paul press charges against them for what they were in the process of doing?

Conclusion

There are many lessons to be learned from our text. Let me suggest a few of them.

(1) We find further clarification of the decision reached at the Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council determined that Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism in order to be saved. Salvation is not about law keeping, but about trusting in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. Those who have believed in His death, burial, and resurrection in the sinner’s place are saved. They do not have to become Jewish to become a Christian. On the other hand, Jews who come to faith are free to continue to observe Jewish cultural and ceremonial rituals and traditions, so long as they do not deny the gospel.

(2) God is in control, even when we are not. The Roman commander doesn’t really seem like such a bad fellow, does he? I find myself feeling sorry for him. He was, as we Texans say, “caught between a rock and a hard place.” Here was a man who wielded considerable power, and yet it is becoming clear to him that he is not really in control of the situation. Have you ever felt that way? My wife and I have felt that way as parents. We quickly learned that we could instruct and discipline our children, but we could not control their hearts.

The beauty of this text is that while it shows us that Claudius Lysias is not really in control, it emphatically informs us that God is. Everything that is happening in Paul’s life is being used by God to fulfill His purposes and promises. Paul is going to bear witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is alive, and that His death, burial, and resurrection are the only means by which sinful, hell-bent people can find forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life. Claudius Lysias is continually being surprised, but God is not surprised by anything. His plans and purposes are sure because He is sovereign. Nothing is beyond His control. Isn’t that good news in a world that seems to be spinning out of control?

(3) God often uses earthly means to accomplish His purposes. God had saved Paul so that he could bear witness to the gospel before “Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Soon, God will make it clear that Paul is to bear witness in Rome (Acts 23:11). God also promised to protect Paul from anything that would keep him from fulfilling his calling (Acts 26:16-17). While God may use supernatural means to protect His saints,7 He will often use natural means. In our text, God used Rome to protect Paul, and of course it worked. God does not need to do the spectacular when the mundane will work just as well. Remember that this is the divine purpose for government, and the reason why Christians should submit to it:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment 3 (for rulers cause no fear for good conduct but for bad). Do you desire not to fear authority? Do good and you will receive its commendation, 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath of the authorities but also because of your conscience. 6 For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. 7 Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:1-7).

(4) We learn from our text that Christians (Jews and Gentiles) can worship God differently – in a way that is consistent with their culture. Our text illustrates the fact that culture plays a part in our worship. Where Christianity and culture do not conflict, worship can be done within one’s culture. I have been privileged to participate in worship with fellow-believers in various parts of the world. The musical instruments may be very different, as well as the language and style of the songs that are sung. In some places, a Sunday gathering is considerably longer than here in the United States. (I have also experienced worship with a different cultural flavor in the United States, particularly with my African American brothers and sisters – and frankly, I enjoy it.)

We need to be willing to allow others to worship in ways that are more closely tied to their culture. We need to be careful not to impose our cultural tastes or preferences on others. Cultural diversity can also occur on a generational level. The older generation in a church may want to sing only hymns and a few familiar choruses, while the younger generation may prefer worship songs that are unfamiliar (and even annoying) to some of us older folks. The older folks may prefer the piano and organ; the younger generation prefers guitars, drums, and synthesizers. Let’s be careful to be gracious in showing sensitivity and grace with regard to the musical tastes and convictions of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This principle of toleration for cultural differences also needs to be observed on the mission field. In former days, if not today, missionaries not only took the gospel to the heathen, they also took our Western culture. Let us be careful not to alienate folks from their culture where it does not conflict with the gospel. This is the spirit I see in Paul, and I believe that we may need a bit more of it ourselves.

(5) I see in our text a practical example of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9.

19 For since I am free from all I can make myself a slave to all, in order to gain even more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew to gain the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) to gain those under the law. 21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law. 22 To the weak I became weak in order to gain the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some. 23 I do all these things because of the gospel, so that I can be a participant in it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

In the larger context (chapters 8-10), Paul is dealing with the issue of foods offered to idols.8 Paul teaches that even if one had the liberty to eat foods offered to idols, it would be a sin for him (or her) to exercise that liberty at the expense of a fellow-believer.9 A “right” is “wrong” when it causes a weaker brother to stumble. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul sets out to illustrate how this works in his life. Even though he has the undisputed right to be supported in his ministry, Paul has chosen to set this right aside in order to advance the gospel. So also while Paul has the freedom to live as a Jew or as a Gentile (culturally – such as in the foods he eats), he gladly foregoes his rights whenever doing so will enhance the gospel.

Is that not what we see illustrated in our text in Acts 21? When Paul was ministering among the Gentiles, I have little doubt but what he lived like a Gentile. Among other things, this means that he would have eaten Gentile food. But now that Paul is back in Jerusalem, he makes a point of worshipping as a Jew, so that his ministry to Jews (saved and unsaved alike) can be enhanced. Paul gladly forsakes his cultural liberties in order to advance the gospel. I wonder how much we give up for the advance of the gospel. What should we give up? These are questions that are surely worthy of our consideration.

(6) Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee that we will experience immediate blessing or that we will avoid suffering. Sometimes doing the right thing can have adverse consequences:

Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

20 For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. 21 For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:20-21).

12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:12-17)

I think of Joseph as a man who suffered because he decided to do what was right. You remember that while Joseph was the “senior slave” for his master, Potiphar, Mrs. Potiphar attempted to seduce him. Joseph refused her advances. But in her anger, she accused Joseph of wrongdoing, and he was thrown into Potiphar’s prison in the basement of his home. Doing what was right didn’t keep Joseph from suffering, but his suffering glorified God, and it ultimately led to God’s blessings in his life as well.

7) Our text illustrates the fact that some unbelievers reject the gospel because of its social implications. This Jewish crowd does not want to acknowledge their own hardness of heart (i.e., that they will not listen), nor are they willing to have the gospel preached to the Gentiles. A gospel which is all-inclusive (that is, which does not exclude people strictly on the basis of race, color, or culture) is not appealing to those who wish to “own it exclusively.” Some people reject the gospel because they can see where it leads, and they don’t want to follow that path. Faithful preaching makes it clear where trust in Christ leads. Some folks just don’t want to go down the path of equality in Christ.

26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female – for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).

(8) Our text illustrates Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel to lost sinners. Surely Paul knew that preaching the gospel to this hostile crowd would lead to more trouble. But here they were, all the unbelievers, gathered about him. How could he not take advantage of this opportunity? How could he not share the good news with them that had changed his life? My friend, I know what Paul would say to you at this moment. He would ask if you have acknowledged that you are a sinner, destined for an eternity in hell. He would tell you that Jesus came to this earth to save guilty sinners like you. He died to bear the penalty for your sins, and God raised Him from the dead. He now dwells in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. One of these days, He is coming back to this earth to punish the wicked and to reward the righteous. Have you trusted in Him for the forgiveness of your sins, and for the gift of eternal life? Trust Him now. Don’t delay. You have heaven to gain, and nothing but your sin and guilt to lose.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

2 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 29 in the Studies in the Book of Acts series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on July 30, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

3 Some have objected, based upon the false assumption that to continue to observe certain Jewish ceremonies (for example, to offer a sacrifice) was to deny the person and the work of Jesus Christ. Let us remember that these same Jewish rituals were, as Paul wrote elsewhere, “. . . only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ!” (Colossians 2:17). Thus, a believing Jew could now celebrate Passover (for instance), seeing its fulfillment in the sacrificial death of Christ. Temple worship during the Millennium (as described in Ezekiel 40ff.) appears to do the same thing. Celebrating Old Testament ceremonies as having been fulfilled in Christ is legitimate; observing Old Testament rituals instead of Christ is quite another matter.

I believe there is yet another dimension to this issue. Paul’s Jewish opponents accused him of forsaking or perverting Judaism – in effect, of not being a Jew (See Acts 18:12-13; 21:27-28; 24:5-6). Elsewhere (Acts 22:3ff.; 24:11-21; 25:8), but especially in Acts 26, Paul strongly argues that he is a true Jew. He has not forsaken Judaism but has embraced its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. To forsake all Jewish practices and customs would only buttress the accusation of the Jews that Paul was no Jew.

4 Their “logic” worked something like this: “People should give to those who are in need. I am in need. The store owner left a twenty dollar bill on the cash register, and he is looking away. He must have meant for me to have it.”

5 It took me a while to see that Paul’s adversaries accused him of bringing “Greeks” (note the plural) into the temple. They accused Paul of bringing several Gentiles into the temple, not just one. Paul was with his four Jewish brethren throughout this purification ritual. It had to be these four men who were mistakenly identified as Gentiles. They saw Paul in the city with one Gentile earlier in the week. Now they see Paul with four men in the temple, and they assume that all four are Gentiles. Amazing!

6 Contrast Proverbs chapter 7 with chapter 8.

7 See Acts 5:18-20; 12:1-17.

8 See 1 Corinthians 8:1.

9 See 1 Corinthians 8:7-13.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life