It is Friday, the end of the workweek for many of you. We continue our passage by passage journey through the New Testament by reading Acts 21:37 - 22:22. After you have read Scripture I'd invite you to come back and think with me about the Scripture we've read.
The passage began with Paul just having been arrested by the Roman commander. The commander of the troops garrisoned in Jerusalem is a Tribune - a Roman officer who has both the military leadership role but is also the one charged with enforcing Roman law. He arrested Paul both to protect him from the mob that wanted to kill him, and also because he thought he might be an Egyptian who had previously stirred up a revolt, leading a group of "assassins" (ESV), from the Greek word, "sikairioi" - "dagger men". Interestingly, the event the Tribune speaks of is, is documented by the first-century historian, Josephus as he recounts how an "Egyptian false prophet" raised up an army of assassins who came to Jerusalem intent on overthrowing Rome. The Romans intervened and killed a large number of them. The Egyptian leader disappeared into the desert. Josephus sets the timeline for this to be the late 50's a.d. This is who the Roman commander assumed Paul might be.
On the surface, this continues the theme of yesterday, that much of what takes place is based on human assumptions and misunderstandings. It would, therefore, be easy to say "it's all a mistake, this should have never happened to Paul"! Yet, we are witnessing God's Sovereign hand at work, and Paul is exactly where God wants him to be.
Paul spoke to the Tribune, giving his own background as one raised in the Roman Empire, his home is Tarsus, not Jerusalem, and he is a Roman citizen, not an insurrectionist. He concludes by asking him if he might be permitted to speak to the Jewish people - the same ones that were trying to kill him!
Paul now begins a "defense" (ESV) - literally, an "apologia" - an apologetical rendering of accounts to the Jewish crowd. He some to the Roman Tribune in Greek, but now he speaks to the crowd in the native language of Aramaic, and as he speaks the crowd quiets down as they hear their own language coming from Paul.
Paul's defense is based on his past - how God interrupted his life, his presumptions of what was the truth, and how God then changed his life's purpose and meaning. We can break it down into several parts in order to catch the point he makes.
First, his background, or "who am I and where did I come from"? Paul opens with the statement that he is a kindred Jew. While he was not raised as a child in Jerusalem, but in Tarsus, he came to Jerusalem as a young teen to sit under the teaching and training of his Master, Rabbi Gamaliel. Gamaliel is the same man who spoke to the council (Sanhedrin) in Acts 5, to caution the Jews to not act hastily in dealing with the Christians. He told the Jewish leaders that if these early Christians were of God, they would not be able to stop them; and if they were not, they would soon disappear (Acts 5:34ff). Paul explains to the crowd that he was trained under Gamaliel, "according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day" (ESV). Later in one of the epistles, Paul will write, "I was a Pharisee of the Pharisees" (Phil. 3:5), i.e., he outdid all of them in learning to be a strict adherent to Jewish traditions and obedience to the law.
Many in the crowd probably knew of Paul by his reputation. He had been a rising personality in Judaism as he set out as a young Pharisee to "persecute the Way". He was zealous in believing that God wanted him to stomp out the church - thus he "persecuted the way". Paul reminded them that he was given permission to seek out the people of "the Way" in Damascus, arrest them, and bring them back to Jerusalem to stand trial.
The next part of his defense is the revelation of Jesus to him on the road to Damascus. We know the story from Acts 9, and a reading of both accounts is uniform. The main point Paul makes is that a blinding light - which the Jews would understand as God's Shekinah glory - struck him down, and the voice that spoke to him was Jesus. To Paul, it was clear: "I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting" (22:8). Paul referred to this event by using his Hebrew name "Saul", and how he responded to Jesus was in saying: "What shall I do Lord?" (22:10). It had been thirty years before, but it was still a vivid reality in Paul's mind - he had personally met the risen Lord.
Lastly, he tells them of what he was "called" or commissioned by God to do. He spoke to them about the role of Ananias, a respected Jewish elder from Damascus, and that Ananias came to him, touched him and his sight was restored. Ananias also made Paul understand what God was appointing him to do, saying:
"The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard (22:14-15 ).
Paul is clear - he acted out of direct revelation from God. If he had wanted to, he could have ended his defense at this point and may have quieted the crowd's animosity, but he didn't.
The most important part of Paul's identity is his call from God to carry the Gospel to "the uttermost parts of the earth". He ends his defense to tell the crowd that after he was baptized, he eventually returned to Jerusalem. He skips over the time he lived in Damascus, and how he was forced to leave the city. Later on, he will include these details. Now, though, he tells the crowd that he returned to Jerusalem, changed by God's revelation. He tells them that "God came to me, telling me: ' and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly because they will not accept your testimony about me’ ( 22:18).
I cannot help but wonder how the crowd shifted their interest at that moment. Up until now they probably had listened with interest, even curiosity, as Paul recounts his conversion experience. Yet, when Paul tells them that God warned him to leave Jerusalem, I cannot help but think many would find that an odd command. After all, Jerusalem was considered to be the place of God's presence. The Temple was the meeting place of the Jews with God. Everything in Judaism revolved around the Temple and Jerusalem. They wondered, "why would God ever tell a man to leave Jerusalem?"
Paul himself was confused at that time, and he even spoke to the Lord at that time, to remind him -as if he needed reminding - that he had been zealous for him, and certainly the Jewish leaders and people in Jerusalem would know that and want to receive what happened to him. Paul assumed he could straighten things out between the Jewish leaders and the people "of the Way". It was a naive assumption and not God's commission for him.
The next statement Paul made changed everything:
"... He (God) said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles’” (22:21).
It is the truth of what happened, but when the crowd heard Paul say he was sent by God to the Gentiles, they erupted.
"Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, 'Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live'” (22:22). It is the end of today's Scripture, but it is not the end of Paul's life changed. It is just the beginning of the rest of the story - that Paul is now going to live the rest of his life (probably, I'll explain later) under the custody of Rome. He will not do any more missionary travels for God has a different purpose for how he will live out the rest of his life. While Paul is under arrest he will write letter after letter - the same letters that we hold so dearly in the New Testament.
Paul's apology is a before-and-after defense. Many believers have this - before I was like this, and after I met Jesus my life's purpose, meaning, and direction were completely changed. It's not just Paul who experienced this - it's countless millions down thru Church History also.
It's my story too. I was 20 years old when I realized, through God's word, that God loved me personally - not just all of the world (John 3:16) - but me, personally. He loved me so much that he sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to die for my sins. I remember it so clearly as I tried to sleep, and in the middle of the night in my pitch-black bedroom, I knew I needed Jesus. I asked him to be my Savior and then fell asleep. I awoke and knew immediately something was different. Soon I got a bible and began reading it.
God's revelation began to open my heart and pour into it the identity, purpose, and meaning for living I previously had not known. My story is also a before and after - like so many before me, and many who come after me. I want that so much for everyone - to know the living Savior, Jesus Christ as Lord. Will everyone love your story? NO! Coming to Jesus as Savior and Lord stirs up many feelings among people who do not understand, even misunderstand. Yet, if Jesus is "THE Way, The Truth, The Life" as he said himself - then there is no other Way! If I can ever help you discover this for yourself, do not hesitate to message me.