A Common Background
By using Aramaic, the daily language of ordinary Jews, Paul established a bond with the crowd, and they settled into attentive quietness. Greek would have been a poor choice. The crowd was already seething with resentment at his willingness to consort with Greek gentiles. To hear him speak the common gentile language may have riled them up again.
Paul proceeded to emphasize his Jewishness. He pointed to his childhood in Jerusalem, his education under the great rabbi Gamaliel, and his zeal in keeping the law. He noted that when he was young, he was a leading opponent of "this way," which, as we have seen (Acts 9:2; 18:25–26; 19:9, 23), was an expression generally used to label the religion of Jesus. He had persecuted Jesus' followers even unto death, and not content with the havoc he wrought in Judea, he gained letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest Jesus' followers in Damascus and bring them for trial in Jerusalem. Lest the crowd disbelieve him, he said that his story could be corroborated by no less a figure than the current high priest, as well as by "the estate of the elders." The phrase is a single Greek word, presbuterion, basis of the English word presbytery. With the literal meaning "body of elders," presbuterion would have been understood by Paul’s hearers as referring to the Sanhedrin, whose members were known as "the elders of the people" (Luke 22:66). Paul was saying that his youthful zeal for Mosaic religion was well known to all the Jewish leaders.
Paul so far was trying to convince the crowd to view him as a fellow Jew who, to begin with, was exactly like themselves. He must have reasoned that if he could make them identify with him, they might believe his testimony. Therefore, he built his testimony on common ground. The crowd surging in the courtyard was zealous for the law and antagonistic to the way of Jesus, just as he had been in his youth.
Then Paul moved on to tell about his dramatic encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. He underscored the miraculous character of the vision and its aftermath: the unearthly light that burst upon him, the voice of a man who had died but had risen again, the strange blindness that descended on Paul, and his instant recovery at the bidding of Ananias. All these happenings made it hard to dismiss Paul’s story as mere imagination. An imagination far adrift from the real world does not become blind as a result. Nor do others participate in its flights of fancy. Yet the men with Paul when the vision occurred told him later that they saw the light as well. Before the incident, they shared his hostility to the way, so they had no reason to confirm any claim he made afterward unless it was true.
Next, Paul tried to show that his life's ministry also had a supernatural basis. During his vision on the road to Damascus, Christ had revealed that Paul would be given a special work to accomplish. Later, in Damascus, the same Ananias verified the words of the vision when he prophesied under the influence of the Spirit that Paul would be a witness to all men of what he had seen and heard.
The Lord's Direction for His Life
A few years after his conversion, Paul came to Jerusalem and visited the Temple. There, while praying, he fell into a trance and heard the voice of Christ. In his recollection of this incident, Paul was again trying to show the crowd that his faith in Christ arose from divine intervention in his life. He had actually spoken with the risen Christ on more than one occasion.
Christ commanded him to leave Jerusalem. He said that to stay and share his testimony with the Jews would be futile. They would simply reject him. Paul protested that the Jews knew how bitterly he had opposed the way, even to the point of imprisoning believers and applauding the stoning of Steven. It was obvious that his complete turnaround could only be explained as a work of God. But Christ declined to debate with Paul. He simply repeated His command, saying emphatically, "Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles."
We cannot help wondering why Paul told the crowd about Christ’s earlier instruction to leave Jerusalem. The clearly implied reason he should not stay was that its people were too hard-hearted and obstinate to receive good preaching. This turn in Paul’s speech hardly seems a good line of argument if he was trying to win the crowd’s support. He must have been simply saying what came to mind. Christ's warning of rejection filled his thoughts when he saw its fulfillment in the sea of faces before him, all seething with passion to take his life.
Paul was hoping that when the Jews heard his testimony from his own mouth, they would perceive his sincerity and recognize truth. Surely, they would understand that he would not be putting his life in constant jeopardy by preaching Christ unless he had sound reasons for believing he was right. Surely, when they heard his reasons, resting on firsthand experience of heavenly things, they would believe him. But no, Paul's first mention of the gentiles rekindled the madness of the mob, and they exploded in hateful denunciations of Paul, shouting that he deserved to die. To show how scandalized they were by Paul's testimony, they cast off their outer cloaks and threw dust in the air.
A Narrow Escape from the Lash
When the Roman officer saw that Paul's speech to the crowd merely incited them to greater wildness, he lost patience with Paul and ordered his soldiers to carry him into the fortress. He ordered further that they examine him by scourging. He meant they should beat him with a lash until he was so desperate to escape from further pain that he would tell them everything they wished to know. This method of extracting a confession from a suspected criminal was standard procedure for Roman rulers when dealing with their non-Roman subjects, and Claudius naturally assumed that Paul was an ordinary subject without special rights.
But as they prepared Paul for the lash by binding him with cords and perhaps by tying him to a post so that he could not move, Paul protested. He called out to the centurion nearby that he was being treated illegally. He was a Roman citizen, and Roman law protected a citizen from punishment if he had not been adjudged guilty in a proper trial. Moreover, it declared that a citizen could not be subjected to any punishment so humiliating and brutal as scourging.
The centurion recognized the impropriety in what they were doing and immediately informed his superior that Paul was a Roman citizen. He cautioned his superior against torturing the prisoner. Seeing the wisdom in this advice, the captain went to question Paul personally. He asked whether Paul was indeed a Roman, and Paul answered, "Yes." The captain was astonished. The man before him did not look like a Roman. He was obviously a Jew. The captain blurted out that he himself had been able to obtain citizenship only by paying a large sum of money. Implicit in his words was disbelief that Paul was wealthy enough to obtain citizenship in such a way. After being manhandled by the mob, he did not cut an imposing figure. His clothing was in tatters, and his face was covered by dirt and blood. Moreover, if the captain was able to discount the effects of the beating, he could see that what Paul wore to the Temple was hardly the ostentatious dress of someone who was rich. Wealthy men normally wore expensive rings and other badges of their wealth (Jas. 2:2-3). Also, as the captain heard Paul’s speech to the crowd, he may have understood enough to surmise that Paul was a man devoted to a religious life rather than to business or other worldly affairs. Perhaps he even recognized that Paul was a rabbi. Therefore, it came as a great surprise when he learned that Paul was a Roman. How could he have afforded such a privilege?
Paul replied that he had not bought citizenship. He had inherited it from his father. History records that many Jews in Asia Minor were granted Roman citizenship long before. There is evidence that Tarsus received Jews as citizens of their city as early as 171 BC. Later, when Asia Minor fell under the control of the Roman general Pompey in about 60 BC, the descendants of these Jews received Roman citizenship.
As soon as the captain was satisfied that Paul was telling the truth, he called off the scourging and pondered what to do. He was afraid of mistreating Paul. The Romans were successful as a conquering nation in part because they believed in the rule of law and treated any breach of their own law as a serious matter. If a lower official like Claudius failed to carry out due process, the result might be the end of his career. Claudius was especially fearful because he had already broken the law by putting an uncondemned Roman citizen in bonds. As we will see, the realization that he was at fault shaped his later conduct toward Paul, the result being greatly to Paul’s benefit.
Claudius did not know what to do with his prisoner. The reason for the tumult surrounding Paul was a great mystery. What did the Jews have against him? Before he could deal with Paul properly, he had to know what kind of threat he posed to public order and safety. At last, determined to gain the information he needed before he could dispose of the prisoner, the officer resolved to take Paul before the Sanhedrin. He wanted to hear from Jewish leaders exactly what accusations they had to bring against Paul. So, he ordered them to convene the Sanhedrin in a full session. When they gathered, he went to the meeting himself, taking Paul along so that he might speak in his own defense.
Paul took a seat in front, with Jewish guards surrounding him. Who presided over the meeting is a matter of some dispute. It may have been the Roman officer, or it may have been the high priest. In either case, the high priest had a place in front of the assembly. Yet Paul did not recognize him. He spoke earlier as if he knew the high priest (v. 5), but perhaps well more than twenty years had gone by since he last saw the man, and in that period someone may change to the extent of being no longer recognizable. That was especially likely in the case of the high priest presiding over the session attended by Paul. History records that he was unusually overweight, no doubt a condition that had greatly worsened over time. It may well have left him with a much different appearance than Paul remembered.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.