As Paul went to Jerusalem against the advice of his friends, he knew he was headed for trouble. The Lord had not only revealed to him that trouble lay in store but he was prophetically told that he would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles.
And this is exactly what takes place in Acts 21. The fact that Paul is handed over to the Gentiles is sort of a mixed blessing. The Jews legally couldn’t do anything to Paul and were more or less powerless to stop him even though they strongly disagreed with his preaching. On the other hand though, the Jews couldn’t care less about the law of the land and they were ready to kill Paul regardless of whether he was tried or convicted of anything. So Paul is ultimately saved by the Romans.
Where we left off last week, Paul had to be physically carried into the barracks because of the mob that was trying to kill him. This was undoubtedly not only for his own safety but also because of the beating he had already received as they tried to kill him before the soldiers arrived.
Paul will use this as an opportunity to present the gospel as he does in so many other situations. And like so many other situations you can probably guess how it goes over with most of the crowd.
37 As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
When Paul speaks to the Roman commander, the commander is shocked that Paul is able to speak to him. Apparently there had been an Egyptian who led a revolt a few years back. Due to the amount of trouble Paul had caused in Jerusalem, the commander assumed that Paul was that Egyptian who had returned to lead another revolt. When Paul speaks to him in Greek, the commander wasn’t expecting it.
39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”
40 After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:
Paul informed the commander that he was from Tarsus and not an Egyptian. When he received the commander’s permission to speak to the crowd he most likely shocked him again when he spoke to the people in Aramaic.
In your Bible you might have a footnote that says “or possibly Hebrew” with regard to the language that Paul spoke in. It’s not a big deal but Paul most likely spoke to them in Aramaic and not Hebrew. Hebrew was the language that the Israelites spoke when they were their own nation. It is the language that most of the Old Testament is written in. When the Israelites were carried off to Babylon in 586 BC, their language was lost to most of the population. When they returned from exile, most of the people spoke the language of their rulers which was Aramaic. Only the scribes and scholars would have been able to understand Hebrew.
The common language of the Roman Empire at this time was Greek. It would have been the language the Roman commander spoke and it would have been a language that Paul knew as a Roman citizen of Tarsus. As a Jew, Paul would have spoken Aramaic as well as it was the language of his people. And in all likelihood, as a scholar Paul would have understood Hebrew as well. It is possible that he didn’t speak Hebrew however as the Old Testament had already been translated into Greek by this time and thus wouldn’t have been a requirement for Paul to study in Hebrew.
What Paul recounts next is his testimony of being raised as a Pharisee, studying under Gamiliel, and even persecuting Christians. He then recounts his conversion to Christianity. I’ll read the verses without any further commentary.
1 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
2 When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
12 “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14 “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to seethe Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 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 wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
The people might have been listening to Paul up until this point. He made a good argument for being like them. He grew up among them, had a common history, and was very fervent for their laws. But the moment that Paul mentions the Gentiles he loses the people.
22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air,24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
When Paul mentions about God sending him to the Gentiles, he has blasphemed in the eyes of the Jews. Now, we all have our own likes and dislikes. We stereotype different groups of people. We have preconceived notions about rednecks, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and every other group that isn’t our own. And certainly there are people who have horrible prejudices about different groups.
All of that said, it would be tough to rival the Jews’ view of Gentiles. The Jews viewed the Gentiles as unclean dogs. There were religious reasons why the Jews were not to associate with the Gentiles. The main reason was that they would be a corrupting influence on them. One needs to look no further than how King Solomon’s many foreign wives drug him away from the Lord so see how even someone so wise can be pulled away from God.
Even if the Jews were to keep from being corrupted by Gentile practices, they weren’t taught to treat them like something that was less than human. That is the biggest disconnect that takes place when Paul mentions about going to the Gentiles. The Jews were and are God’s chosen people. Going back to Abraham, God chose them specifically to bless them. But salvation was never meant to be a plan that was just for the Jews.
Jesus was a Jew. He was born as a descendent of David. He has the legal right to David’s throne. All of those things are important to the Jews. But Jesus is for the entire world. The verse of the Bible that more people know than any other, John 3:16 – For God so loved the world… It wasn’t God so loved the Jews or the descendents of David, or the Pharisees, or the righteous.
What the Jews didn’t understand was something that they should have known from the book of Genesis, in the very first chapter. We are all created in the image of God. Yes, the Jews were chosen by God but that doesn’t change the reality that the rest of humanity is made in the image of God as well.
The terrible things that men do to each is enough to make us sick to our stomachs if we dwell on it too long. I’m sure that most of you have developed ways of ignoring the worst atrocities like I have because otherwise it would probably paralyze us mentally and emotionally. But as bad as the things are that we do to one another physically and emotionally, the worst thing is that we are able to dehumanize one another. We can look at someone else who was made in the image of God and consider them worthless. We can intentionally inflict harm upon them and not care that we are all them same in the eyes of God.
When Paul mentions that God sent him to preach to the Gentiles, it is such a disgusting thought to the Jews who were present that they wanted to kill him just for mentioning it. This is not a mere disagreement, there is so much hatred that they declare Paul is not fit to live for even suggesting something that is so disgusting in their eyes.
As all of this takes is taking place, the Roman commander has no idea what is going on. He doesn’t speak Aramaic so he doesn’t know what Paul has said. All he knows is that Paul said something to throw the crowd into a frenzy. The commander is ready to beat the truth out of Paul in order to find out what is really going on.
And that’s when Paul finally speaks up that he is a Roman citizen. As a Roman citizen Paul was guaranteed certain rights much like the citizens of any nation are. There were different ways of becoming a citizen of the Roman empire and just being under Roman rule did not mean that you were a citizen. The area of Israel was a territory of Rome but the people there were not Roman citizens for instance.
One protection that Paul has is that he cannot be beaten before being found guilty of a crime. Given the fact that Paul had already been beaten by the crowd earlier, he doesn’t want to endure another beating at the hands of the Romans and it’s possible that he couldn’t even endure one. So he must stand up for his rights in this instance.
26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
One way that a person could become a Roman citizen was to buy their citizenship. This was an expensive thing to do. Another way they could become a citizen was through military service. A person who was faithful to the empire could be granted their citizenship after a period of time.
We think of ourselves are being very modern and protecting human rights and obviously we have advanced as a society in a number of areas. In this case though, Rome’s criminal justice system might have been superior to our own. The commander is alarmed that he just about beat a Roman citizen. Today if such a thing happens, a police officer could be reprimanded, demoted, or fired depending on the severity of the offense. In the most egregious of times he could face criminal prosecution. If this commander was found to have beaten a Roman citizen, he himself would be beaten and thrown in prison. It was an important thing to uphold in the eyes of the government so the penalty for not adhering to it was severe.
Still, the commander needs to know exactly what is going on, so he orders the Sanhedrin to assemble the following day.
30 The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. So the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.
We had a lot of narrative this morning and there will be more again next week. It’s hard to bring out a lesson from these types of stories but I think the most relevant one from this passage hinges on what caused the uproar.
The gospel is offensive to people. People do not want to be told that they are sinful. They don’t want to be told to change their lifestyle. They don’t want to be told that they are wrong. Ordinarily the Jews rejected the gospel of Jesus because they rejected Jesus as the Messiah they were awaiting.
In this instance, the trouble comes because of their hatred for the Gentiles. That’s not to imply that they were accepting of the gospel otherwise, but the Jews can’t stand the thought of their God showing mercy to a group of people that they considered to be less than themselves.
We are always going to have people and types of people that we feel the most comfortable being around. That’s not sinful. What we must be careful about is that we don’t think of anyone as being less worthy of God’s love or any less deserving of the gospel. We are all sinners saved by the same grace of Jesus Christ. We are all children created in the image of God.
A riot almost broke out in Acts 22 because the Jews couldn’t accept this idea. Let’s not make the same mistake and instead treat each other as equals the way that God intended.