Acts 21:17–23:35. Paul Survived Jerusalem Chaos.
Key Notes: Caught between Jewish fanatics, Jewish Christians, Pharisees and Sadducees, and Roman peace offiicers. Critique of his actions. Paul's nephew.
Paul knew that trouble awaited him in Jerusalem, but he had been through many riots before, and he knew death would not be the outcome. He could not have imagined the chaos he would encounter.
21:17–26 Paul's group was well-received by the Jerusalem Church elders and Paul was able to relate "one by one" all that God had done among the Gentiles. They glorified God, but went on at once to try to get Paul to quiet their anxieties. Paul was believed to be trying to undermine Judaism by teaching Hellenistic Jewish Christians to forget about circumcision, the Law of Moses and the customs. To them, he was a loose cannon.
They asked Paul to make a demonstration of his adherence to Judaism by supporting four men who had taken Nazarite vows. People under this vow practiced holiness and purity in part by not drinking wine or any grape products, and not going near a dead body. The hair of the head was not to be cut until the vow was completed. Then the head was shaved, and sacrifices were made. (Num.6). Paul agreed to their request.
Paul has been criticized for "being under the Law" instead of under grace. Some have noted that he did not complete the seven days of the vow, which was normally concluded with a sacrifice, and believe that God prevented him from sinning against Christ's atoning sacrifice.
21:27–40 Their attempts at placating the Jews were not successful. Jews from Asia, who had already caused Paul much trouble (13:50; 14:5,19; 17:5,13; 20:3), were enraged to find Paul in the Temple. They also assumed that he had brought Trophimus, a Greek, into the Temple, an offense punishable by death without Roman interference. A riot began. The soldiers quartered in the tower at the corner of the Temple grounds, came out and rescued Paul, at one point carrying him over the heads of this seething mass of violent fanatics. Paul asked to address the mob, speaking Greek to the tribune, commander of troops of the Roman army. The tribune had assumed Paul was an Egyptian renegade.
22:1–21. Paul gave his personal testimony in Hebrew before a hushed crowd on the steps of the barracks. Before his conversion he was a zealous Jew, persecuting the Christians. Jesus of Nazareth arrested him on the way to Damascus, and blinded him. He was healed and baptized and had his sins washed away, God using the hand of Ananias, "a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there." When he returned to Jerusalem, the Lord told him to leave Jerusalem because Jews there would not accept his testimony. Paul argued back that the Jews knew of his violent opposition to the Gospel, but God told him that he was to go to the Gentiles ("ethne", nations).
22:22–29 At the mention of "Gentiles" the crowd went wild again. The tribune brought Paul into the barracks and was tying him up to torture a confession from him by the lash. Paul asked if it was lawful to scourge a Roman citizen. The tribune was taken aback, and Paul's citizenship led to new admiration. The tribune had paid dearly to win this status. His name was Claudius Lysias (23:26) and he may have taken the name of the emperor who granted his citizenship.
Should Paul have mentioned the Gentiles?
The fury at the mention of Paul's mission to the Gentiles is ironic since Isaiah had prophesied that ..."they shall declare my glory among the nations" (Isa.66:19). But Paul's Gospel put Jews and Gentiles on a level field before God. Previously the Jews had insisted that one could only come to God through Judaism and the Law. And Jesus told the Samaritan woman "...salvation is from the Jews." (Jn.4:22)
But Paul adds
"Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin." (Rom.3:9)
"For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law." Rom.3:28
This puts Jews and Gentiles on the same level before God, a gross offense to Jewish nationalism. They are the chosen people; they are the people of God.
"...to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs...."(Rom.9:5) as Paul himself had said.
Salvation necessarily comes from the Jews, but Jews are not automatically saved.
22:30–23:10 The tribune was interested in justice. He tried to get the Sanhedrin to clarify the charges against Paul. Paul began his case by professing a clear conscience before God. The high priest ordered him hit on the mouth. Paul [his mouth bleeding] cursed the high priest without knowing who he was. He did not apologize to the high priest, but admitted to the audience that the law forbids speaking evil of a ruler. Ex.22:28
Paul realized that he would never get a fair hearing from the Sanhedrin. Jesus (Lk.22:66), Peter and John (Acts 4:8), the Apostles (Acts 5:18) and Stephen (Acts 6:12) were already on record as failing to get justice there. Paul decided to thwart the proceedings by pitting Pharisees against Sadducees, saying that he was on trial because of the resurrection. That ended the session and the tribune had to rescue Paul once again and take him to the barracks.
23:11 That night the Lord affirmed His servant and promised that he would also testify in Rome.
23:12–35 Forty Jews made a vow to kill Paul by ambushing him on the way to the Sanhedrin's second meeting. Paul's nephew got wind of the plot, told the tribune and the tribune dispatched 470 (!) soldiers to spirit Paul away to Caesarea at night. The tribune sent a letter to governor Felix explaining Paul's situation to the best of his knowledge. Plainly, the Romans had a distinguished prisoner on their hands.
They have tried to kill Paul five times in these chapters, mauling him several times--possibly in the space of a week. His physical and emotional endurance is amazing.
He has been criticized in this phase of his life for a number of perceived errors.
- He should have listened to the advice of the churches that urged him not to go to Jerusalem.
- He was wrong to give in to Jewish legalism. However, he had previously made a vow on his own initiative. (Acts 18:18). His life-style dictated his actions: "To the Jews, I became as a Jew in order to win Jews; to those under the law, I became as one under the law--though not being myself under the Law--that I might win those under the law." (I Cor. 9:20)
- His friends were doubtless wringing their hands when he mentioned the Gentiles in his testimony, cursed the high priest, and played off Sadducees against Pharisees in the Sanhedrin.
But Paul gave his testimony in Jerusalem, as God had planned, and God encouraged him in a vision in case he had any doubt. Paul has addressed the Sanhedrin and is on his way to witness to three groups of politicians. He will have access to the guards of Caesar's palace in his house-arrest in Rome.
Paul was not perfect. He had a knack for provoking riots. He just had to get the job done and he did. We are not going to be perfect either. "Don't make waves?" Let us get the job done.