Acts 21:37 - 22:29
How we got to now,
There was a TV show on the ABC earlier this year, called “How we Got to Now.” It was a documentary series that took some aspect of modern life, some everyday thing we’re very familiar with, and looked back through history, at the ideas and discoveries that led us to this point.
It examined all the things that have come to pass, that brought us, now.
How we got to now.
It’s a question we need to stop and consider as we jump into the book of Acts, where we left off, about a year or so ago.
What’s gone on, to bring us to now?
Well, let’s quickly get our bearings.
In the preceding chapters, the Apostle Paul and his companions have been travelling across the Roman world, teaching people the good news of Jesus, and returning to cities, where they’d already established churches, to make sure that they were progressing well
Time and time again, we see Paul’s ministry working towards the fulfilment of Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples in Acts chapter 1 verse 8, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Many of you will know that this book of Acts is actually part 2 of a 2 volume work. The writer, Luke, who we know was a medical doctor who accompanied Paul on some of his travels, wrote both what we call Luke’s gospel, and this book, Acts.
The opening verses of Luke’s gospel serve as an introduction to both volume 1 and volume 2, and in that introduction, Luke tells us that he has been a very careful historian, carefully investigating everything about Jesus and the church, so as to write what he calls a well-ordered account for his reader.
And Luke’s careful approach is still highly regarded by historians today.
But Luke is not just an historian, and I have a book on my shelf in fact, called “Luke, Historian and Theologian.”
See Luke does not merely record history, though, he does, of course, record history, he also gives us the theological significance of the history.
He’s not content to simply record historical facts, but he wants us as his readers, to understand those facts in the light of God’s plans and purposes to bring all things together under Jesus Christ;, God’s great plan for his creation which we saw in Ephesians a few months ago.
Our task, as we either come back to this story, or pick up the story, whichever the case may be, is to ask the theological questions that the history raises.
What is God teaching us?
What do we learn?
About God’s world,
About his church.
Paul’s Jewish credentials (v 3 – 5)
As we pick up the story, Paul has travelled to Jerusalem, with a gift of money for the poor, from the churches in Macedonia.
He’s been travelling with 4 other Jewish Christian men who were taking part in a Jewish religious ritual, and so Paul joined in with them, in what they were doing, so that his fellow Jews would know that he was by no means opposed to the Jewish religious rituals or the Old Testament Law.
But there were some from the province of Asia, chapter 21 verse 27, who stirred up opposition to Paul and he was seized by the crowd, and they began to beat him.
The commander of the Roman army in the city sent troops to arrest Paul, which is the point at which we find ourselves today.
Chapter 21 verse 37, Paul asks for permission to speak to the commander, and on hearing him speak, the commander does a bit of a double-take.
Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness?
He thought he knew who Paul was, an Egyptian terrorist who had tried to take the city of Jerusalem once before, had failed, and had escaped when the Roman army killed hundreds of his followers.
The historian Josephus records this uprising in 54 AD.
The terrorists were known as Dagger Men, because they’d walk down the streets like ordinary citizens, and just quickly stab their victims as they walked past!
Not a very nice group of people!
The commander thinks Paul is the leader of this gang, but quickly realises, it’s a case of mistaken identity. Not some terrorist from Egypt, Paul is a Jew, and a citizen of one of the leading intellectual cities of the Roman Empire.
And so the commander allows Paul to speak to the crowd.
This is rather unexpected.
This isn’t a page out of the Roman Army’s handbook for the treatment of prisoners! Allow them to address the raging mob!
Already we see God’s sovereign hand at work in these events.
And so Paul addresses the crowd.
The crowd gathered here seem to think that Paul didn’t care at all, for the traditions and history of the Jewish people, and that he encouraged other people to trample on the heritage and traditions of Judaism too.
So notice how he presents his Jewish credentials, how he explains that, far from being a rebellious Jew, he’s actually a true Jew, and how what he believes, is very much a continuity of what God has made known in the past.
“Brothers and fathers” he starts. Good and proper and respectful.
And he speaks in Aramaic, the language of the Jews of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and this gets the crowd’s attention.
He’s one of them.
He’s a real Palestinian Jew.
There were lots of Jews who didn’t speak Hebrew or Aramaic, and so Paul shows that he’s not some ring-in from far away, he has as much claim to be a true Jew, as the crowd gathered there do, more in some cases, as he goes on to explain.
Although he was born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, Paul was brought up in Jerusalem, and was trained as a Pharisee, under one of the leading religious instructors of his day, a man named Gamaliel. Thus Paul can say that he was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.
“I’m just like you,” he says. “You think you’re zealous for God, I was exactly the same.
In fact, he says, I was so zealous for God, that I persecuted Christians, not only here in Jerusalem, I even went on hunting trips to other cities. Verse 5, I even obtained letters from the high priest and the ruling council, to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
Paul’s spoke the language that was so Jewish, some in the crowd wouldn’t have even understood it,
He’s outlined his early life, which really leaves no question about his obedience to the Old Testament law.
He’s shown that he was a precise and careful Jew.
See, the assumption lying behind the accusations against Paul, that to be a Christian, means being a bad Jew, or abandoning your Jewish heritage,
Paul says “don’t believe that rubbish for a moment! I’m as Jewish as any of you.
This is about understanding where Jesus fits in.
Paul meets Jesus (v 6 – 11)
Because that’s what Paul came to understand one lunch time, on the road to Damascus.
This is the second of 3 times in the book of Acts that Luke our historian gives us the account of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus. But remember that Luke is also our theologian, and so he highlights different aspects, and includes particular elements here, that he skips over in the other accounts.
Let’s pick it up in verse 6, 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?’
Notice Paul says, verse 9, my companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. So even though they didn’t get the full picture, something of this interaction between Jesus and Saul, as he was known then, is apparent to the others in the group.
And quite naturally, when hearing a voice he thinks comes from heaven, Saul cries out to God, verse 8 ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied
Out of the 3 accounts of Saul’s encounter with Jesus, this is the only one where the detail that Jesus is , of Nazareth is included.
Jesus was a pretty common name.
More common than Clayton!
So Paul doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding;,
His encounter on the road to Damascus, was with Jesus of Nazareth, the man who’s life and teaching, his death and resurrection had turned the city of Jerusalem upside down.
In Paul’s religious zeal, he had tried to rid the world of followers of this Way, that is Christianity. The way was the term used to describe Christianity in its earliest years. And you might recall that Jesus described himself in that same language, The Way, . the truth, and the life
Do you see the irony?
Saul is trying to wipe out this way, the people who believe that Jesus is God’s chosen king,
And yet so closely does Jesus identify with the suffering of his followers, that in persecuting followers of this way, it turns out that Saul is in fact persecuting the one who called himself the Way, Jesus.
Friday night in the Young Adults Bible Study, we were saying that this has got to be one of the most comforting assurances in all of the Scriptures.
So close is the relationship between Jesus and his followers, that he describes persecution of Christians, as an offence against himself.
Next time you feel all alone in the middle of your sufferings,
Or think that no one knows what you’re going through,
How badly people are treating you,
Think of these words. Because Jesus says he is there taking the hits himself.
But it’s a response that must have terrified Saul.
Jesus is speaking from heaven, implying that he is God himself. The God whom Saul had thought he was serving.
For all those years, Saul had thought he was pleasing God, by arresting both men and women, verse 4, and throwing them into prison
But far from pleasing God, Saul had been persecuting God.
You can’t really get it more wrong, can you?!
And so realising the enormity of his mistake, Saul responds to this shocking revelation, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
This is the moment in his speech, where Paul begins to draw a distinction between himself and his listeners.
He calls Jesus of Nazareth, his Lord.
Saul understands that he’s speaking to the risen Jesus, in heaven, and he calls him Lord, that is, the same title that he had applied to God, all his life.
Saul recognises that Jesus is his Lord, is God.
Do you see what Paul’s done in sharing this story?
He painted himself as a faithful Jew,
Not a renegade,
Not a rule-breaker, but someone concerned for God’s plans and purposes. Now he demonstrates that it is entirely appropriate, for a faithful Jew like that, to confess Jesus as Lord.
“If I can do it, so can you”, is the implication.
But Paul’s question, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’, which again is unique to this account, it reminds us that coming to trust Jesus as Lord,
Coming to realise that Jesus acts with God’s authority, requires a change of life.
Paul didn’t need to turn his life around before he met Jesus.
It’s not a matter of getting your house in order, to be good enough for Jesus.
This episode shows us that that’s absolutely not how we come to Jesus;, on our own merit,
Because we’re good enough,
Paul was off the scale at the other end from good enough, he was persecuting God.
But having come to Jesus,
Having understood that Jesus is Lord, Paul knows that he can’t simply continue with the mission he was on, so he asks what to do next.
It’s the same pattern we find throughout the New Testament; An encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, a real encounter,
When you come to understand who Jesus is, and what he’s done for you, even if it’s nowhere near as spectacular as this,
An encounter with Jesus leaves a person changed.
If you’re with us today, and you’re not really sure what Christianity is all about, if you wonder what might happen to you, if you became a Christian, if you trusted in Jesus as the way to God,
It’s a great question to ask! And maybe here’s part of an answer;, don’t expect to encounter Jesus, and remain unchanged!
God sent Paul to the Gentiles (v 12 – 21)
But let’s come back to Paul’s defence, and if you’re thinking that it seems an odd way to defend himself against the charges, you’re right, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.
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
Hearing that description, the crowd would think, “hey this guy is a good bloke!”
Well thought of.
He probably drinks fair trade coffee, and supports lots of charities!
The description leads us to think, he’s a reliable witness.
The fact that when he speaks, Saul can see again, also underscores the fact that he’s delivering a message from God.
See, I can go around telling blind people “receive your sight!”, but nothing will happen, will it?
In fact it would be incredibly cruel and tasteless to say that to someone who can’t see. Except of course, if you know that God is going to work through your words, and restore someone’s sight.
Loved by everyone,
Fair trade coffee drinker, charity supporter, the crowd have got no reason to doubt Ananias’ testimony.
He says, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the 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.
, In continuation with his Old Testament works
Notice that both Saul and Ananias, stand in continuity with the heroes of the Old Testament.
Numbers of us probably went to Sunday School as a kid, and even if we know nothing else about the Bible and Christianity, we might remember the names of Noah,
David, of David and Goliath fame,
Solomon, the wise king.
Ananias is saying, those Old Testament characters, who would be even more well-known to the crowd in Jerusalem than they are to us, it’s their God who’s doing the talking,
Who’s doing the sending,
Who’s commissioning Paul to witness to all people verse 15, what he has seen and heard.
I get, that sometimes the Old Testament can seem pretty strange and foreign to us.
It’s even in the name!
It all took place half a world away, and yet if you’re a Christian, Ananias’ statement to Saul, is also true of you.
The God of Abraham, and Moses, and David, has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth.
Our experience of that is different. We don’t see Jesus in a blinding flash,
We don’t his words first hand,
But we have the eye-witness accounts, Luke’s carefully recorded history. We have the words of Jesus recorded for us in the Bible.
The God who spoke in the Old Testament,
Is the God who called Paul to be his witness,
Is the God whose Word we hear in the Bible today.
Paul wants the Jewish crowd to realise the continuity between the revelation of God in the Old Testament, and the revelation of God in Jesus.
Of course, Paul is distinct from us in some ways, God had a particular task in mind for him, verse 21, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’
The cricket fans among us might remember the 2005 ICC Super Series, when Australia played, the rest of the world. All of humanity, was divided into those 2 categories; Australia, and not Australia, everyone else.
That was the division between Jews and Gentiles. But of course, not just in cricket, but in everything!
There was Jews, and there was everyone else, Gentiles.
And while Israel was supposed to demonstrate to all the everyone else around them, what it was like to live in relationship with God, the privilege they enjoyed, actually made them generally look down on the other nations, and so the Jews came to dislike Gentiles, and the Gentiles learnt to despise Jews.
But here, verse 17, in the Jewish temple, the God of the Old Testament commissions Paul as his special messenger, to the Gentiles.
If Paul had been trying to win friends for himself, he probably would have chosen a different climax for his speech! His description of his vision in verses 17 to 21 has deliberate parallels to the call of Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the nation of Israel;
Both have a vision of the Lord in the temple in Jerusalem,
Both are given a call, a commission to ministry,
Both are told that the people will not accept their testimony,
Isaiah was told to remain in the city even despite the resistance to his message, Paul is told to leave the city.
It’s like describing being fired from your job, but doing it in language that echoes Gough Whitlam’s dismissal,
Or saying you’ve written a bit of poetry, and so you really understand what life was like for Banjo Patterson.
It’s like, “Who do you think you are?” The affront, of describing your own experience in those terms, of drawing a parallel between that massive historical event, and what’s happened to you.
Not only is Paul claiming that the God of the Old Testament commissioned him as a missionary for the Gentiles, but he claims is happened in their temple, in way that echoes one of the most well-known calls to ministry in all of the Scripture.
But the crowds have had enough. 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!”
It seems to them, that drawing the Gentiles into relationship with God is disloyal to everything Jewish. Of course what Paul’s trying to show is that it’s not. It’s the fulfilment of everything God had been working towards,
But for God to throw open the gates of relationship with him to all nations on earth,
For God to demonstrate that the fulfilment of Isaiah’s ministry, is the ministry of people like Paul, telling the good news of Jesus, is just too much for the crowd to handle.
And maybe there’s something about how God works that we don’t like, that doesn’t seem right to us,
Maybe the fact that God will allow anyone to come to him, no matter what their life has looked like,
Maybe the fact that we can’t work our way into God’s good books, like we think we ought to be able to.
Is there something about how God works that rubs us up the wrong way?
It’s OK to admit that, we just need to make sure that our assumptions about how God ought to work, don’t blind us to how God is working.
Which is what happens here.
When is a defence not a defence?
And so that’s the end of what Paul calls his defense.
But perhaps as we read it, you didn’t really think it was much of a defense.
You might remember the joke book I had as a kid! I like quoting from it, so some of you will remember it, I’m sure!
It was compiled by Bennet Cerf founder of Random House publishers, who was known a big fan of verbal puns, and so my joke book was filled with gems like,
“When is a door not a door?”
“When it is a jar”
When is a defence, not a defence?
The charge against Paul in chapter 21, is that he speaks against the Old Testament Law, against the Temple, and that he defiled the temple.
But actually, none of that really comes up in Paul’s defence, does it?
Nowhere does he specifically defend himself against the charge of speaking against the Law of Moses,
He doesn’t set the record straight on speaking against the temple.
And he doesn’t make any attempt to clarify the situation about Trophimus the Ephesian who he was accused of taking into the temple illegally.
But Paul’s not particularly interested in laying out a point by point defence to the accusations against him. He’s much more interested in presenting the truth about Jesus.
Instead of his first thought being trying to save his own skin, which would probably be my reaction if I was in this situation, Paul speaks mostly about Jesus, and tries to show that what he’s done is entirely consistent with the plans and purposes of God, that centre on Christ.
Paul doesn’t want anyone to miss the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus.
He wants people to hear that encountering Jesus changes lives.
Instead of saying, “I’m innocent of this,
I’m innocent of that”, he demonstrates that he’s a faithful follower of Judaism, someone who followed the Old Testament Scriptures where they pointed, to their fulfilment in Jesus.
This speech, and the others that follow, give us as Christians, a good example to follow, at how to respond when we face opposition,
When false accusations are levelled against us.
The only offence that a Christian person should cause, is the offence that the gospel of Jesus necessarily causes, as it calls people to repent from a life of sin and rebellion against God.
There should be no other accusation that can be levelled against us.
There is no excuse, Christian, for being obnoxious!
For being so convinced that you’re right, that no one wants to be around you.
The Christian who always harps on about how hard done by they are, has probably lost all sense of the mission that is driving Paul.
Sure, you and I are not Paul,
We’re not God’s chosen instrument to drive the good news of Jesus into the Gentile world,
But still, Paul’s example here is a good example for us.
I think we need to work especially hard, whenever we find ourselves accused of things,
Whether it be for our standing on sexual ethics,
Our stand on issues that become political hot potatoes, like asylum seekers, issues of justice,
We need to be deliberate in ensuring our primary goal is not to defend ourselves,
Clear our own name,
Have people think well of us.
But to see the good news of Jesus, change people’s lives.
An unlikely rescue (v 22 – 29)
But Paul’s defence, shows just how far the crowd are, from understanding God’s work in the world. They get so angry, that, verse 24, the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks
The Roman commander still hasn’t figured out what’s going on, so he orders that Paul be flogged so they can work out why this very crowd is so angry at what he has to say.
But just as they’re about to flog him, Paul asks “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
These soldiers were about to unknowingly commit a terrible crime. The commander himself was alarmed verse 29. It was very well established in Roman law that a citizen must not be chained,
Must not be flogged,
There were certain circumstances where it was allowed, but then only after a properly constituted trial.
To flog a citizen of the empire would be a career-ending mistake for these soldiers, and we see in verse 30, the commander releases Paul, still wondering quite what’s going on.
It’s an unlikely rescue.
Paul is saved from the lynch mob, by the Roman army,
And he’s saved from flogging, and receives better treatment from this point on, because of his citizenship.
Because of the country written on the front of his passport, Paul gets yet another opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus, before the city’s religious leaders, in the next chapter.
An unlikely rescue.
Who would have thought, that the Roman army, same military machine that executed Jesus, would be used to save Jesus’ messenger, Paul, from a crazed mob that wanted him dead?
Who would have thought, that some event, probably in the life of Paul’s father, that we know nothing about, that resulted in him being rewarded with citizenship in the Empire, would mean that many years later, his son, Paul, could avail himself of the protections that citizenship afforded?
And would therefore be able to speak the gospel of Jesus?
Who would have thought?
Who would have thought, that being a citizen of the occupying empire, would give Paul the opportunity to stand among the leaders of Israel in chapter 23, and speak of the resurrection of the dead?
Who would have thought?
Well, really, we should have thought!
That is, it shouldn’t surprise us, that God sovereignly rules over the affairs of the world, and uses them for his purposes.
It’s an unlikely rescue on the face of it.
But do we trust that this is how God can work?
Do we believe that God can overrule in any and every situation, to bring his purposes about?
Do we believe that God can use something as simple as the country printed on your birth certificate, to achieve his ends?
Do we expect God, to be active in his world?
Do we expect God to answer our prayers?
Do we think that God can do what we need him to do?
Or have we relegated God to one tiny part of our life where he doesn’t really have much impact?
At the height of the Vietnam War, Roger Locher, a US serviceman, was shot down deep behind enemy lines, in fact only about 60 kilometres from Hanoi. No one had ever been rescued from so deep in enemy territory.
But after evading capture for 3 weeks, Roger Locher finally made contact with US forces, and General John Vogt, commander of the 7th Air Force decided to rescue him.
The General called off all other missions, re-routing one hundred and 50 aircraft, to take part in the rescue, and Locher was retrieved safely.
General Vogt later explained why he ordered such an unlikely rescue. He said, “the one thing that keeps our boys motivated, is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out.
If that is ever in doubt, morale would tumble”
I wonder, if you’re a Christian, if there’s times when your morale tumbles,
When it doesn’t look like God is in control,
When it seems you’re too far behind enemy lines for anything good to happen,
You struggle to maintain your witness for Christ,
It feels like there’s a crowd calling for your blood!
Well, here we’re reminded of the certain belief, that God is absolutely in control, that there is nothing that he is not sovereign over, and able to use for his purposes.
And that he will use his people, to bring about his plans and purposes.
When you see what God is able to do,
The extraordinary lengths God can go to achieve his ends,
The unlikely rescues, he’s able to pull off,
There’s no need at all, for morale to tumble.
He doesn’t always promise the dramatic rescue,
But he does assure us that he’s in control of all things.