Fellow citizens can become so angrily opposed to one another. Beyond politics and health policies, religious faith can also cause major divisions. Sometimes even the best oral arguments don’t hold up. ◊
If you’re human, you’ve had disagreement with other people. Recently, it might be over politics, healthcare policies, or educational curriculum for your children.
Perhaps you stay away from that one. Best to let people have their own faith beliefs and just let it be. No need to cause any more uncomfortable conversations, right?
As we’re seeing in the Book of ACTS, that’s not Paul’s bent. He lunges headlong into religious discussions with tact and sensitivity, but nonetheless, boldly and courageously.
Why? Because he was confronted physically with the Living God! Believe it or not, Jesus spoke to him directly on the road to Demascus from a blinding light and an audible voice.
And Paul never forgets it the rest of his newly directed life.
Paul Gets a Chance to Defend Himself
At the end of ACTS 21, Paul’s presence has stirred the ire of fellow Jews in Jerusalem who accuse him of sacrilege:
“Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” – Acts 21:28
Paul is attacked and beaten by the crowd but is allowed by a Roman commander to make a statement directly to the mob in their own language in ACTS 22. He starts his defense with a listing of his credentials as a zealous Jew:
“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel [a respected rabbi] and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way [Christianity] to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 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. (Acts 22:1-5)
Then Paul describes in detail his spectacular encounter that took place on the road to Damacus and the aftermath (see Biblical Viewpoint The Conversion in ACTS 9)
“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
“‘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.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
“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. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
“Then he said: ‘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. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 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.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” (Acts 22:6-21)
The crowd listened intently until he mentioned the Gentiles. Then they turned on him, no longer interested in his compelling story. But Paul is saved by his Roman citizenship:
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!”
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 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. 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 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.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
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 [this was illegal].
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. (Acts 22:22-30)
Paul is protected but now has to appear in front of the Jewish ruling authorities in Jerusalem. Their reaction and Paul’s next steps are presented in ACTS 23.
Why Didn’t the Crowd Support Paul?
While Paul’s story is pretty compelling, the crowd still turns on him. Like anyone in opposition, sometimes the facts are unheeded or do not matter. Paul’s story could be backed up and supported, but the mob is triggered by his mentioning his work with the hated Gentiles.
Sometimes, sincerity, reason, and facts are no match for emotional triggers and biases.
How would you have responded to Paul’s story?
As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?” – Acts 21:37