Paul's Arrest and Imprisonment
We left off where Paul, having completed his third missionary journey, was making his way back to Jerusalem. He had been warned by several people that trouble, in the form of arrest awaited him there, but despite these cautions the Apostle would not be dissuaded from going.
This then brings us to the section in the book of Acts dealing with his arrest and imprisonment beginning in Jerusalem.
Paul at Jerusalem - Acts 21:15-26
15After these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge.
17After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard it they began glorifying God;
- Acts 21:15-20a
Note, once again, that Luke includes little details about the short trip from Caesarea (where he says they stayed with Philip, one of the original seven deacons, and his four daughters - verses 8-9), and then names additional people they saw and another place where they stayed overnight (Mnason of Cyprus). These are not important doctrines or theological insights but rather simple details that give Luke's account a proper historical, social and cultural credibility for his reader then and readers now. Spectacular things like miracles, tongues and healings took place but these were surrounded by the everyday type of events (how they travelled, where they stayed, etc.) that make Luke's writing sound and feel like what it was meant to be: an orderly narrative describing the life and ministry of both Peter and Paul in establishing the early church.
Another point of interest here is the pattern established for the work and cooperation between the missionary, the congregation that sends him, and the new congregations that he establishes:
- The Church Sends: Note that in Acts 13 it was the church that sent Barnabas and Paul into the mission field (Acts 13:1-3). Even though Paul had received his calling directly from God, he did not act on it until the church sent him.
- The Missionary Plants Churches: Whether it be one missionary or a team of missionaries, the goal of those sent is not to do benevolence work, teach languages or provide medical care; the role of missionaries is to plant churches. These other activities can be part of a larger strategy but are not the goal of mission work.
- The Church That Sends Also Oversees: Note that Paul returned and reported on his work in the field to the church in Antioch which had originally sent him, and this time also to the church in Jerusalem because the leaders there had given their blessing for his work among the Gentiles. The churches that Paul planted were equipped with their own leaders as they grew in maturity (Titus 1:5), but Paul himself continued to report on his work to the churches that originally sent and blessed his mission.
Luke describes the scene where Paul is carefully detailing the ministry he has done among the Gentiles. At this point the leaders in Jerusalem bring up an issue that has come up among Christians who have been converted from Judaism.
20band they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.
- Acts 21:20b-21
Many of the early Jewish converts to Christianity continued to keep Jewish customs and religious practices: they maintained dietary restrictions (i.e. refrained from eating pork), practiced circumcision, went to the temple, etc. These activities were permitted in the early church since Jewish religion and culture were so intertwined. The only restriction, by order of the Apostles (Acts 15), was that these things could not be imposed on other Jewish or Gentile believers as conditions for salvation (as the Judaizers had attempted to do). After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, Christianity was increasingly seen as a distinct religion apart from Judaism, and the keeping of Jewish customs by converts from that faith eventually ceased.
However, as this passage indicates, this practice was quite alive during the time of Paul's ministry. The problem seemed to be that there were some who were spreading malicious accusations against Paul charging that he required Jewish converts to abandon their traditions and customs in order to become Christians. He was being accused of teaching the very opposite of what the Judaizers had taught:
- Judaizers: Must keep Jewish customs (i.e. circumcision) to become a Christian.
- Accusation against Paul: Must abandon Jewish customs (i.e. circumcision) to become a Christian.
The truth, of course, was that to become a Christian you needed to believe that Jesus was the Son of God and express that faith in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). Whether you kept Jewish customs after that was irrelevant because in becoming a Christian you became acceptable to God because of your faith in Christ, not what religious customs you maintained or abandoned. Paul explains this in detail in Romans 14.
However, at this particular time these accusations were causing problems in the churches that were predominately made up of these Jewish Christians (especially congregations in and around Jerusalem), and so the leaders proposed the following solution. Their suggestion was for Paul to join four Jewish Christians from the Jerusalem church who had, according to Jewish Law and custom, taken vows which were about to be completed.
Those who took vows did so as a way to thank God for answered prayers or blessings received or to ask for certain things. They were voluntary in nature but the Law regulated how they were to be carried out (Numbers 6:1-21). During the time of the vow, usually three months, a person would let his hair grow, would not drink alcohol and would be careful not to be in contact with a dead body (even that of a close relative). If one broke the vow in some way, even by accident, they had to renew that vow from the beginning. Once the time for the vow was ended, the person would shave off his hair and burn it on the altar along with an animal sacrifice of some kind (Lenski, Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p.882).
The proposal of the elders, therefore, was that Paul join these Jewish Christian men for the last week of their vow and then complete it by paying for and offering the necessary sacrifice required for each of them. Since he was well known and being watched closely, Paul's participation in these Jewish customs would put to rest the gossip and accusations being made against him about these things. Of course, this action would be in keeping with Paul's attitude concerning such matters written about in his letter to the Corinthians.
19For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; 21to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.
- I Corinthians 9:19-21
It is during the completion of these vows at the Temple that he is arrested.
Paul's Arrest and Imprisonment - Acts 21:27-40
27When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, 28crying out, "Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place." 29For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut.
- Acts 21:27-30
Despite his best efforts, Paul is seized by the crowd and falsely accused of desecrating the Temple. Gentiles converted to Judaism could enter into the court of the Gentiles but not further into the temple area which was reserved for Jewish men and women. There were signs posted warning Gentiles that to cross the threshold into the Jewish area would be punishable by death. As a Jew, Paul would naturally go into the Jewish section along with the four Jewish Christians to offer sacrifice and complete their vows.
Jews from Asia (Ephesian Jews who had caused trouble there) recognized the Gentile Christian, Trophimus, who was also from the Ephesian church and accompanying Paul in Jerusalem (he was not one of the brothers who had taken a vow) but was seen with him in the city. They use this as a pretext for accusing Paul of not only disrespecting Jewish Law and custom, but actually bringing a Gentile into the forbidden area of the Temple. Luke describes the seizing of Paul and the riot that ensues (Acts 21:31-36). They begin beating the Apostle, but he is rescued by Roman soldiers who arrest him and lead him away to safety. Paul, not wanting to miss an opportunity to speak/preach to his fellow Jews, asks the Centurian's permission to address the crowd.
37As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, "May I say something to you?" And he said, "Do you know Greek? 38Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?" 39But Paul said, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people." 40When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,
- Acts 21:37-40
When the Centurion realizes that Paul is not some Jewish trouble maker but a Roman citizen (who could not be arrested or punished without due process according to Roman law), he permits Paul to speak.
Paul's Defense Before the Jews - Acts 22:1-30
Paul's speech is a recounting of his past life as a well educated Pharisee bent on destroying the Christian faith and those who pursued it. He goes on to describe his meeting with the Lord on the road to Damascus, his baptism and later on the vision he had in the Temple where God renewed the original mission for which he was called: the bringing of the gospel to the Gentiles. As a Jew, Paul naturally returned to Jerusalem after his conversion in order to preach to his countrymen, thinking that his past life and conversion would be a strong witness in bringing these people to Christ. God, however, tells Paul that the Jews will not accept him so he must, therefore, bring the gospel to the Gentiles who will.
It is at the mention of the Gentiles that the riot breaks out once again.
22They listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!" 23And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, 24the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way. 25But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?" 26When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and told him, saying, "What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman." 27The commander came and said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman?" And he said, "Yes." 28The commander answered, "I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money." And Paul said, "But I was actually born a citizen." 29Therefore those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains.
30But on the next day, wishing to know for certain why he had been accused by the Jews, he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the Council to assemble, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
- Acts 22:22-30
We see the importance of Paul's Roman citizenship here as the commander over the centurion halts the questioning and illegal torture they were about to inflict on him. Paul's citizenship was probably inherited from his father who was a citizen of a city (Tarsus) located in the Roman province of Cilicia. Paul's father would have obtained his citizenship as a result of his or his city's service to Rome.
Declaring his citizenship is enough to stop the proceedings. The commander takes Paul at his word, since a false declaration of this kind would be punishable by death according to Roman Law, and the soldiers had time to verify his claim since he was already in their custody. If they were wrong about him, then their arrest and torture of a true Roman citizen would make them guilty of a serious crime.
A compromise is found when they decide to release him from his chains and turn him over to the Jewish leaders for questioning since this seemed to be a religious matter concerning the Jews and their beliefs. The soldiers knew that Paul had not committed any crime against Roman law so allowing the Jews to question him might resolve the matter and also shed some light on why the Jewish mob wanted to kill him.
Paul Before the Jewish Council - Acts 23:1-11
1Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, "Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day." 2The high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth. 3Then Paul said to him, "God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?" 4But the bystanders said, "Do you revile God's high priest?" 5And Paul said, "I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, 'You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.'"
- Acts 23:1-5
Note that Paul is not treated as well by the Council (he is struck in the face) as he was by the Romans, and beaten in violation of Jewish Law at that! His response is to point out the hypocrisy of the one meant to uphold the Law using his position to violate the Law with impunity. Paul's charge is that God will judge this action. When it is pointed out that the order was given by the High Priest, Paul apologizes for speaking out against the office, not the man, because the Law said that if an offense was committed by one in office, you had to bear it out of respect for the office and trust that God would administer justice in a proper way and time in the future (Exodus 22:28).
Luke only records the beginning and end of the inquiry (this was not an official trial, only an inquiry called and organized by the Roman commander to find a possible charge that could be made against Paul that would be legal in a Roman court). He provides no details about the questions, answers or comments made during the inquiry.
6But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!" 7As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, "We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" 10And as a great dissension was developing, the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them and ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force, and bring him into the barracks.
- Acts 23:6-10
Luke describes how this meeting ended in chaos. I have previously pointed out the major theological differences between the Sadducees (who only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as authoritative and thus rejected prophecies, spirit beings, miracles and life after death) and the Pharisees who accepted and believed in all of these. Luke describes how Paul, previously a Pharisee, cleverly exploits these differences in order to disrupt the meeting and disarm his Jewish enemies. The clash between the two groups that ensues threatens to once again harm Paul so the soldiers rescue and detain him for his own safety, thus giving them time to consider their next move.
But on the night immediately following, the Lord stood at his side and said, "Take courage; for as you have solemnly witnessed to My cause at Jerusalem, so you must witness at Rome also."
- Acts 23:11
Luke provides information that could have only come from the Apostle concerning a vision or revealing that he received directly from the Lord concerning his present and future ministry of the gospel.
Be Patient With the Process
A. Even though the Bible explains the gospel in few words:
- Jesus was God made man.
- He died for the sins of all mankind.
- He was resurrected to prove that He was God.
- Forgiveness and eternal life are offered to those who believe in Him.
- Faith is expressed through repentance and baptism.
For most people, however, understanding and responding correctly to these things can be a long process that may take years.
B. Even if the Bible describes the mature Christian in just a few strokes:
- Full of the Spirit.
- Knowledge of the Word.
- A humble and loving attitude.
- A life full of service and good deeds.
- Faithful and confident in salvation and eternal life to come.
These characteristics, however, take a long time to cultivate and be ingrained in our personal lives.
Paul, taking vows and submitting himself to the maturity level of those weaker than himself, demonstrated his willingness to be patient with the process of growing other Christians.
Our natural and fleshly reaction to other people's immaturity is usually to be angry at them, gossip and ridicule them or avoid them altogether. Being patient with others as they go through the process of growing up in Christ will guarantee that the Lord will continue to be patient with us as we move through the same process but work at some other level.
God's Ways Are Not Our Ways
Paul wanted to appease those in the church who were causing his ministry trouble. If he could calm the rumors and gossip he could then have the opportunity to reach out to his own people (fellow Jews) in the city at the center of Judaism: Jerusalem. With this problem settled he could then go from preaching to his own countrymen in Jerusalem to proclaiming the gospel in the city at the center of the Gentile world: Rome. The riot and his arrest must have been discouraging because this setback defeated his plan.
God, however, appears to Paul and reminds him that the goals he had were still intact (preach at Jerusalem and Rome), but this would be done with His plan and way, not Paul's. For example, Paul managed to preach to a large crowd in the Temple but did so because of a riot and his arrest. He will also preach at Rome but as a prisoner, not a free man.
Sometimes God uses trouble and pain in order to advance His will not only for our lives but also for the lives of others. We must not become angry and discouraged when bad things happen, better to be still, be faithful and be listening so that we can discern what God is accomplishing through our suffering or inconvenience. Sometimes, simply maintaining our faith while the storm in our lives rages on, is itself the objective that God has in mind.
We need to remember that God's ways of achieving spiritual things in us is not always, if ever, our way of achieving spiritual things in ourselves.
- Share your own experience when you denied yourself something simply to not cause another to stumble. Did it work? How did you feel when doing this?
- In your opinion, what are the dangers of "self-appointment" to ministry roles such as elder, deacon or preacher? Share a story about a religious leader you admire and one for someone you feel did not fulfill his ministry. What was the difference between the two?
- Have you ever been accused unjustly? How did the Lord help you during this time?