Reception at Jerusalem

Acts 21:15-25

When all of Paul's friends could not dissuade him from going to Jerusalem, they resigned themselves to what would surely happen. From the Holy Spirit they knew that he would meet trouble and become a prisoner of the Romans. But since he was determined to go, they accepted it as God's will and prayed for the best.

Luke says that when the time for departure came, "we took up our carriages." The phrase means that they packed their baggage, probably a reference to saddle bags. Very likely they went to Jerusalem on horseback.

A large company of disciples traveled with Paul, including Luke (whose presence is implied by his use of the terms "we" and "us"), the delegates from Greece and Macedonia who were bearing contributions to the church in Jerusalem, and a group of disciples from Caesarea. Along the way they added a certain Mnason of Cyprus, identified as an "old disciple." The meaning is not that he was aged, but that he had followed Christ since the early days of the church. He was the one who would provide lodging in Jerusalem. It would have been hard after their arrival to quickly arrange accommodations for such a large party, including many gentiles, so they made preparations beforehand. Mnason was probably a Jew who had no qualms about putting gentiles under his roof.

In Jerusalem, Paul received a warm welcome from all the brethren who saw him. The next day he went for private consultations with James and the elders of the church. James had established himself as the leader of the Jerusalem church many years earlier, probably even before the first church council. Then, Peter was still present in the city, but now he was gone. Now, none of the original twelve apostles remained. This we surmise from Luke's failure to mention any of them.

Pondering a Question

What happened to the original Twelve?

In obedience to Christ's command to evangelize the "uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8), they probably scattered far and wide. We know that Thomas went eventually to India. Church tradition tells of other apostles reaching remote places elsewhere.

James and the elders were delighted to hear Paul's report of all the gentiles who had been brought into the church through his ministry. They glorified God for the great increase of redeemed souls. The church in Jerusalem was prospering also. Its membership had not shrunk since the apostles left, but still numbered many thousands.

Yet the leaders voiced a particular concern. A story was circulating that Paul was being false to his Jewish heritage—that he was encouraging Jewish believers in the churches he founded to forsake the law and live like gentiles. The believers in Jerusalem found the story scandalous, for they were all zealous to keep the law and uphold the traditions rooted in Moses. The story went so far as to accuse Paul of teaching Jews that they should give up circumcising their children. James and the others were therefore afraid that Paul's coming might trigger conflict in the church. They said, "What is it therefore?" In other words, "What should be done?" They cautioned Paul that they did not have much time to avert a crisis. Soon everyone in the church would hear that Paul had arrived and would gather to see him. Then, unless Paul defused the explosive charges against him, there would be contention and division.

James and the elders recommended that Paul take steps immediately to prove that he respected and observed Jewish traditions. In the church there were four men who had taken a Nazirite vow, which we discussed in an earlier lesson. Such a vow normally was binding for thirty days. But apparently they had in some unstated manner defiled themselves, whether by partaking of food or drink derived from grapes or by touching something dead. To purify themselves they must wait seven days (Num. 6:9-12). Then on the seventh day they must shave their heads, and on the eighth they must present an offering at the Temple consisting of two turtledoves or two young pigeons, along with a lamb of the first year. The church leaders asked Paul to pay the expenses of these men and to join with them in the purification rite at the Temple. He could participate and contribute his own offering even though he himself had not suffered any defilement.

Paul raised no objection to their request. Among the Jews, he always behaved like a Jew so as not to offend them, in keeping with his policy of being all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:19-22). The issue that racked the church years before was not whether the law was binding on Jews, but whether it was binding on gentiles. Paul at that time strongly defended his practice of exempting gentiles from the law, and the entire church leadership at Jerusalem, including James, agreed with him. Now James reaffirmed his support for the ruling years before. But he said, in essence, that although he stood with Paul in granting gentiles freedom from the law, he expected Paul to stand with him in maintaining the law as a rule of life for the Jews. He spoke of a Jew who kept the law as walking orderly. By implication, he thought that a Jew who broke the law was walking disorderly.

Getting Practical

In Paul's last visit to Jerusalem, we see all the dangers in disregarding the clear leading of God. He had not been there more than a day or so when he found himself under pressure to compromise his own convictions. He did not quarrel with Jews who wanted to keep the law, but he did not feel that he was personally obliged to maintain all rituals of the Old Covenant and all Jewish traditions (Rom. 14:5-6; Col. 2:16-17). Yet James asked him to put on a show suggesting that he did regard these things as binding. By going along with James, he entered a compromising position which was in some measure hypocritical. On another occasion Paul criticized Peter for making a similar pretense (Gal. 2:11-14).

The lesson for us is that one step away from God leads us irresistibly to another. We soon find ourselves lost in a maze of compromises that are hard to escape.

Riot and Arrest

Acts 21:26-30

The very next day, Paul took the four men and went to the Temple. There, the men announced that they were embarking on the seven days of waiting required before purification, and Paul declared himself their partner in the process. Evidently they then returned daily to the Temple with the intent of continuing these visits until the seven days were accomplished. But the city was filled with foreign Jews who had come to observe the Feast of Pentecost. Toward the end of the seven days, some Jews from Asia Minor spied Paul. These were Jews hostile to Paul because they had rejected the gospel he preached. In their eyes, Paul was a traitor to his religion and nation. They believed passionately that he was promoting a false messiah, and they hated his teaching that entrance into the Kingdom of God came through Jesus and not Moses. Therefore, when they found Paul defenseless in their midst, they saw an opportunity for vengeance. They cried out accusations against him and, gaining the backing of a mob, they grabbed hold of him. The accusations are revealing. They said that in his teaching he attacked the Jews, the Jewish law, and the Jewish Temple.

Pondering a Question

Was there any grounds for the charges brought against Paul?

The charges were preposterous! They were a smokescreen for the real grievance. What the Jews resented was that Paul offered a way of salvation that did not require men to become Jews, or keep the Jewish law, or attend the Jewish Temple. He did not attack anything. He merely offered a religion that ignored every grounds for Jewish pride. He put all men on an equal footing before God—in essence, declaring that God loves gentiles as much as Jews.

Whereas these accusations were all distortions, The Jews brought another that was simply a lie. They shouted that Paul had desecrated their beloved Temple by bringing in uncircumcised gentiles. Although gentiles were admitted to the Outer Court, known as the Court of Gentiles, they were denied entrance to the Inner Court. Signs posted at the steps warned gentiles not to go farther, lest they suffer grievous punishment. Even the Romans acknowledged that the Jews had the right to impose the death penalty on any gentile who violated their Temple, not excluding Romans.

The only basis for the lie was that some of the rabble-rousers had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus, a gentile from Ephesus. Trophimus had come with Paul all the way from Macedonia (Acts 20:4), and he remained his faithful helper until the end of Paul's life (2 Tim. 4:20).

The excitement at the Temple quickly spread to the whole city. People heard that the precious seat of their religion had been profaned by wicked men, and they rushed from all quarters to vent their wrath on the perpetrators. In their unreasoning fury they wanted blood. So, the multitude that soon gathered must have roared with approval when men dragged Paul out of the Temple for the obvious purpose of killing him. To restore order within the Temple, the authorities shut the doors, thereby forcing the crowd to remain outside. The mob holding Paul made no effort to guarantee justice. There was no pretense of a trial. Yet they did not kill him outright. They delayed giving him fatal wounds so that their wrath might have the pleasure of beating him up.

Getting Practical

Paul's course of disobedience has now brought him into serious trouble. The lesson for us is that when we walk outside God's will, we leave the envelope of his protection. We expose ourselves to attacks of the evil one that we could have avoided. God gives us many promises of protection, but they are all contingent on remaining close to him, as close as a nestling to its mother when it lies under the shadow of her wings (Psa. 91:1-4).

Except for going to Jerusalem, Paul would never have become party to an unnecessary vow, implying a devotion to the Mosaic law that he did not share. Except for joining in the ritual required by the vow, he would never have been caught by murderous hands.

Soldiers to the Rescue

Acts 21:31-40

The Romans kept a close eye on the Temple, because there was always the danger of a riot. The Jews were a discontented people, resentful of the Roman presence and brimming with desire for independence. They were easily aroused to passion in defense of anything Jewish. So, the Romans had sentries patrolling the tops of the colonnades that crisscrossed the Temple compound, whose job was to keep a lookout for any disturbance that might erupt below. Such vigilance was based on experience. In the past, many riots had originated among the crowd of worshipers. Security was especially tight during festivals, because not only were the crowds larger, but they were filled with foreign Jews on pilgrimages to the holy city. Their religious zeal ran high, so any call to lash out in defense of the things they held sacred found them receptive.

The sentries posted at the Temple saw the uproar centered on Paul, helpless in angry hands, and immediately they informed their superiors. The news went straightway to the commander of local forces. As we learn later, he was Claudius Lysias, identified in our English translation as "chief captain of the band." The band refers to a Roman cohort, a military contingent of substantial size, containing a thousand men when fully staffed. Claudius's actual rank was "chiliarch," somewhat higher than a mere centurion. Indeed, he had centurions under his command, each responsible for about a hundred men. When Claudius responded to the alert, he called out the contingents under several centurions and led them into the Temple compound.

The text informs us that the Roman force entered the compound by coming down. They were no doubt stationed in Antonia, a fortress on the north side of the Temple. Although the fortress was elevated above the Outer Court, two downward flights of stairs furnished ready access.

The soldiers raced to the center of the disturbance and found a mob in the act of beating up Paul. When Paul's angry tormentors saw the soldiers coming, they let go of him immediately and retreated from superior force. They knew that when it came to crowd control, the Romans meant business. Resisting Roman arms was suicidal.

Claudius took custody of Paul and ordered that he be bound in chains, assuming that he was some ordinary criminal or nuisance. But to be sure he understood the nature of the trouble, he asked the bystanders who Paul was and what he had done. The answer was a chaos of voices offering conflicting and confusing explanations. At last, convinced that he could not get a satisfactory answer from the crowd, the commander ordered his men to take Paul to the fortress. There he would investigate the matter and find out the true cause of the uproar.

When the soldiers started off for the fortress, they found that to make progress was difficult. The mob pressed them on all sides, and they had to use brute force to push their way through. To protect Paul, they picked him up and carried him. Yet they could not escape from the mob, who followed behind, screaming with fury, "Away with him."

When they reached the stairs, Paul asked the commander if he could speak with him. Claudius was greatly surprised to hear his captive use Greek. He had assumed that Paul was a lower-class Jew of the sort who could speak only Aramaic. Then, by a process of elimination, Claudius quickly offered a guess as to Paul's identity. If he was a Greek speaker, perhaps he came from the colony of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt. Perhaps he was even that Egyptian Jew who was number one on the Roman list of wanted men, a distinction he earned by recently fomenting a revolt against Rome. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this Egyptian had come to Jerusalem in AD 54 and presented himself to the people as a prophet with miraculous powers. He said that if they followed him to the Mount of Olives, he would command the city walls to fall down, much as the walls of Jericho had fallen down at Joshua's command, and his followers would then be able to march into the city and take it from the Romans. According to Josephus, he assembled a force of 30,000, who waited on the mount for the walls to collapse, but nothing happened. Instead, the Roman ruler Festus sent his troops outside the city and crushed the revolt, killing 400 and capturing 200. But the leader of the revolt escaped, and at the time of Paul's arrest, the Romans were still looking for him.

Claudius's version of the incident is no doubt more accurate than Josephus's. The followers of the Egyptian probably numbered 4000 rather than 30,000. Claudius called them "murderers," literally, "assassins." He meant that they belonged to a group known as the Assassins, a secret society pushing the nation toward the full-scale rebellion a few years later that provoked the Romans to destroy Jerusalem. We today would call this society a terrorist organization. They specialized in assassination, targeting Romans or Roman sympathizers. Their favorite ploy was to find their victim in a crowd and stab him unobserved.

When the commander tried to draw from Paul an admission that he was a notorious rebel, Paul vehemently denied it. He said that he was a respectable Jew from an honorable place, the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. He then respectfully sought permission to address the crowd. The commander, who was in all probability a good judge of men, could see that Paul did not look like a villain. He seemed rational and kindly, not wild and fierce. Very quickly Claudius decided that Paul was likely a good man worthy of his trust. So, on the chance that Paul himself might be able to quiet and disperse the crowd, Claudius let him speak.

Paul stood forward on the stairs and motioned to the crowd to be silent. In this incident as well as in several others recorded in the Book of Acts, we see that many popular pictures of Paul are not true-to-life. His enemies in Corinth said of him that "his bodily presence [was] weak, and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). But we need not accept this as a fair judgment. Perhaps they were comparing him with Greek orators boasting a splendid physique honed in the gymnasium and a flashy delivery refined in courses on rhetoric. We discover the real Paul by watching him on the steps of the fortress. There he was anything but weak. To bring an unruly crowd of thousands to silence and then to command their attention for a prolonged speech required strength of both presence and voice.

After succeeding in gaining silence, Paul addressed the crowd in the language known to all, Aramaic.

Paul's Defense

Acts 22:1-21

By using 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," a common designation for 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 all the other 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 supernatural character of the vision: the unearthly light seen by the whole company, the voice of a man who had died but had risen again, the strange blindness visited upon Paul, and his instant recovery at the bidding of Ananias. All these happenings made it hard to dismiss Paul's story as mere imagination or hoax. An active imagination does not become blind as a result. The men with Paul when the vision occurred were not sympathizers with the way, and yet they could not deny that Paul had seen something.

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. Some time afterward, when Paul came to Jerusalem, he was praying in the Temple and fell into a trance. Then Christ spoke to him again and 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 repeated the command, saying emphatically, "Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles."

Delving Deeper

This earlier encounter with Christ provides further evidence that Paul was out of God's will when he went back to Jerusalem. Christ rejected Paul's arguments for further witness to the Jews. He commanded Paul to leave Jerusalem, and He told him clearly that his mission in life was to reach the gentiles.


Acts 22:22-23

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.

Pondering a Question

Did Paul use the right approach in his speech to the crowd?

Paul found himself in peril of his life because he had been walking outside the Lord's will. If the Lord's will had been that he come to Jerusalem, his speech and its outcome might have been different. His speech was skillful in many respects. It was logical, well-constructed, full of references calculated to draw sympathy, replete with strong evidence of the supernatural, and in all respects a fine piece of extemporaneous argument.

But it was a little short on common sense. Paul wanted the Jews to hear his testimony of conversion, because personal testimony is always the strongest form of witness for Christ. But he moved directly to his testimony with no mention of the immediate charges against him. The crowd was incensed because they believed he had desecrated the Temple. Paul evidently found the charges so ridiculous as to be unworthy of reply. But he might have created a more receptive atmosphere to his testimony if he had simply reassured the Jews that he never introduced a gentile to the Temple, never contemplated it, and looked on callous disregard of Jewish law with as much horror as they did. If he had been walking in the Lord's will, his speech might have been wiser and more effective.

A Narrow Escape from the Lash

Acts 22:24-29

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 brutal punishment like 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 a rich man. Perhaps also the captain understood enough of Paul's speech to the crowd to surmise that Paul was some sort of a rabbi—that he was a man devoted to a religious life rather than to business or worldly affairs. 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 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.

Getting Practical

Paul spared himself from a beating by claiming his rights as a Roman citizen. Was he in this matter also straying from divine direction? I think not. It was a tactic he had used before with results helpful to his ministry. Not only the Romans, but also God Himself believes in the rule of law. He has given us human government with its law-making powers to suppress evil in the world (Rom. 13:1-6). Upholding the rule of law, if only for his own protection from injustice, falls within a believer's responsibility to act as salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16).