RPM, Volume 17, Number 51, December 13 to December 19, 2015

To the Ends of the Earth:
Fathers and Brethren

Acts 21:37-22:30

By Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now if you have your Bibles with you, turn with me once again to The Acts of The Apostles. And this evening we are in chapter 21, and we'll be reading through into the twenty-second chapter of The Acts of The Apostles.

Paul, as you remember, had gone to the temple. He had succumbed to James' advice that he pay for the sacrifice of the four men who had taken a Nazarite vow. He had himself taken on a rite of purification, and somewhere towards the end of that week-long act of purification, Paul is in the temple. Some Jews from Asia Minor (probably from Ephesus) suddenly begin to shout in the Court of Israel that Paul has brought into that court a Gentile, called Trophimus. Now, this of course is an out and out lie. Paul has done no such thing. Trophimus was indeed part of the party that had followed the Apostle Paul — nine of them, at least — that had come to Jerusalem. In addition to that charge, these Jews from Ephesus had also charged that Paul was disrespectful to the Law and to the traditions of Moses. A ruckus, a tumult, breaks out in the midst of the Court of Israel and Paul is dragged from that inner court to the outer court (sometimes known as the Court of the Gentiles). The door into the Court of Israel is shut and locked, and Paul is being beaten—no doubt, if he hadn't been rescued, beaten to death.

In the northwest corner of the temple there was a structure known as the Fortress of Antonia…the Antonia Fortress. It had been built by Herod the Great, and paid for by a friend, Anthony, and this fortress was built in such a way that the Roman garrison in Jerusalem could look down into the courtyards of the temple and ensure that any trouble that would break out — as occasionally it did — they could immediately go in and deal with it.

The commander of the troops, a man by the name of Lucius, takes a few of his soldiers to rescue the Apostle Paul, and Paul has now been brought from the Court of the Gentiles in the temple to the steps of the Antonia Fortress. These steps led right down to the very beginning of this outer court of the temple, and it's at that point that we pick up the reading this evening, at verse 27 of Acts 21. Before we read this passage together, let's look to God in prayer.

O Lord our God, we bow once again in Your presence. We come before You as the sovereign God of heaven and earth, the creator and maker of all that is, the sustainer of everything. We come to You, O Lord, as the one who not only caused the world to come into being, but as the one who also caused the word to come into being. And we pray, O Lord, as we read and study the Scriptures together this evening, come, Holy Spirit; shine a light upon our naturally darkened minds and affections. Give us understanding, we pray; and in understanding, help us also to be not just hearers of Your word, but also to be doers of it. And this we ask for Jesus' sake. Amen.

We take up the reading at verse 37 of Acts 21:

And as 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? Then 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?" But 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." And when 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, "Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now offer to you."

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet; and he said, "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in the city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today. And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished. And it came about that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' And I answered, 'Who art Thou, Lord?' And He said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.' And those who were with me beheld the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me. And I said, 'What shall I do, Lord?' And the Lord said to me, 'Arise and go on into Damascus; and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.' But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. And a certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, 'Brother Saul, receive your sight!' And at that very time I looked up at him. And he said, 'The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.' And it came about when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, and I saw Him saying to me, 'Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me.' And I said, 'Lord, they themselves understand that in one synagogue after another I used to imprison and beat those who believed in Thee. And when the blood of Thy witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the cloaks of those who were slaying him.' And He said to me, 'Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"

And they 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!" And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, the 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. And 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?" And when 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." And the commander came and said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman?" And he said, "Yes." And the commander answered, "I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money." And Paul said, "But I was actually born a citizen." Therefore 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.

But 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.

Amen. And may God bless to us now that reading of His holy and inerrant word.

The Apostle Paul has been rescued from this angry Jewish mob in the temple. He has been brought to the steps of the Antonia Fortress. False charges have been alleged and made against him: a charge that he'd brought a Gentile into the Court of Israel, a man by the name of Trophimus from Ephesus (a charge that had absolutely no foundation to it whatsoever, and interestingly enough, a charge that Paul doesn't even attempt to respond to); and, perhaps the more serious charge, a charge that Paul had been disrespectful to the laws and traditions of Moses. And Luke wants us to understand in the defense that Paul makes here on the steps of the Antonia Fortress, and in a similar defense he will make later in chapter 26 before King Herod Agrippa, that this charge of the Jews, whilst leveled against the Apostle Paul, was actually a charge that was being made against Christianity itself. It wasn't simply the Apostle Paul that is on trial here. It is the very gospel of Jesus Christ that is on trial here. It is the gospel that offers forgiveness of sins, apart from the works of the law; and that gospel that offers free and sovereign grace to whosoever believes in the Lord Jesus Christ is being offered not just to Paul's brethren according to the flesh — the Jews — but also to the Gentiles. And there is, as you read this narrative as Luke describes it, more than just a charge that is being made against the civil authority. It is the Romans who are going to try the Apostle Paul as the civil authority, but it is the Jews as a religious authority that is making this charge and allegation against the Apostle Paul.

And I want us, as we look at this narrative that is before us tonight, to consider it along the three natural divisions that Luke tells the story. First of all, in Paul's request that he might address the people; and, secondly, in the defense that the apostle makes; and, thirdly, in the response of the mob in the temple to that defense.

I. Paul's request to address the people.

In the first place, then, Paul makes this request that he might defend himself before this angry, murderous mob in the temple. He speaks initially in Greek, and that because (Luke records this) it had been the assumption of the commander of the Roman forces in Jerusalem — this man by the name of Claudius Lucius — it had been his assumption that Paul might be this Egyptian terrorist, this Egyptian insurrectionist.

He is referring to an incident that had taken place about three years previous. A Jew from Egypt had come to Jerusalem. He claimed to be a prophet. He had to some extent some messianic expectations. He had led this huge band of men out of the city of Jerusalem and onto the Mount of Olives, and there he had told them to wait—to wait for the deliverance of this city (that is to say, from their occupiers, the Roman Empire). On that occasion it had been the Procurator of Judea, a man by the name of Felix, who had dealt with that insurrection. But the Egyptian had managed to escape. History records that many people died in the course of that event, but the Egyptian himself escaped. And this commander of the Roman forces has made now this assumption in his mind that Paul might be in fact this Egyptian insurrectionist. But hearing him speak Greek, he immediately realizes his mistake.

II. Paul's defense.

And Paul now makes this request that he might address the people, that he might speak to this angry crowd and give something by way of a defense, an apologia, an apology for his position and beliefs. And so Paul begins to speak, and he speaks in the Hebrew tongue — and probably Luke means by that, Aramaic. And that means that whilst the crowd can understand him — it was the currency language of the temple, to be sure — everyone in the temple would have understood immediately what Paul was saying, but the commander of the forces probably didn't understand a word of what the Apostle Paul was saying.

And so Paul begins his defense. And he begins, "Brethren and fathers…." And perhaps he's addressing them in that way because the chief priest is probably now out in the courtyard…the Sanhedrin, the Council of the Elders…the seventy elders are probably also now out in the courtyard, but out of respect he addresses his brothers and fathers according to the flesh. There's no mention of Trophimus. That had been a scurrilous lie from the very start.

At issue here, and it's important for us to understand it, is Christianity. At issue here is the gospel. At issue here is who is Jesus Christ? "Who do men say that I am?" It's the same question today, isn't it? It's the prevailing question. It's the issue: Who is Jesus Christ? What do you make of Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus Christ to you? What is it that has caused and motivated Saul of Tarsus to do and say what he has said? And what follows now is an account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. It is the second of three recordings of Paul's conversion: one that we've already looked at in chapter nine, and there's going to be another one again in chapter 26. Paul begins to tell this crowd, this Jewish crowd, his conversion, and he tells it along a five-fold line of thought.

He begins by telling them of his conservative Jewish upbringing. He was the son of parents who had lived in Tarsus, but at an early age he had been brought to Jerusalem to study under the feet of this notorious Jewish scholar, Gamaliel, the leader of a certain section of Jewry, the so-called school of Hillel. We've already come across it in Acts 5. He talks about his zeal for Moses, his zeal for the Law of Moses, his zeal for the traditions of Moses. He talks about his conversion on the Damascus road. He mentions the fact that he went to Damascus and spoke with and was given instruction by Ananias — a devout Jew, a man known in Jerusalem and well-respected for his Jewishness. And then, as he comes back to Jerusalem, as he's praying in the temple in the very precincts in which these accusers of his are standing, that he sees a vision and hears a voice from heaven that commands him to become the apostle to the Gentiles.

Do you see what Paul is doing? He's virtually doing two things at the same time. He's first of all, of course, answering the charge that he's disrespectful to Moses and to the traditions of Moses, and he's saying 'I'm a Jew! Actually, I was a strict Jew.' In all likelihood, Saul of Tarsus had been a better Jew and a stricter Jew than his accusers were standing before him. He'd been raised in this notorious school of rabbinic Judaism in Jerusalem, under the teaching and leadership of Gamaliel. He'd studied and adhered to the strictest interpretations of the law. He had studied the Pentateuch; he'd studied the traditions of Moses; he'd held to them. He had been a persecutor of the church. This man that they're accusing was a man who had put men and women in prisons. He'd gone up and down the land of Judea. He was on his way to Damascus with letters from the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem in order to arrest even more men and women and bring them into prisons. He'd consented to the torture and death of those who had followed the Way—the way of Christ, the way of the gospel, the way of Christianity.

Do you see what he's doing? He's actually doing what Paul will write down once he gets to Rome in the epistle that Ligon is taking us through in the mornings. [It will be a while before we get to chapter 3 of Philippians at the rate we're going, so let me take you to chapter 3…and you will have forgotten all about it by the time we get there!] But you remember in Philippians 3, Paul makes that astonishing boast. He, as it were, placards his Jewish credentials before the people. 'If anyone has confidence in the flesh,' he said, 'I have. I can boast of more confidence in the flesh than anyone out there.' He was circumcised on the eighth day; he was of the people of Israel; he was "of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, a persecutor of the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless." That's what he considered himself to have been: blameless. 'You talk to me about Moses, you talk to me about the Law, you talk to me about the traditions of Moses, I can boast about more than any one of you.'

I sometimes meet folk…I actually met one here last Sunday evening…I think he was a visitor, so I don't think he is here tonight. But he was telling me about his Celtic roots, and he was proud to tell me that he was a fifth-generation Welshman. I meet people all the time, and they say 'I'm a sixth or seventh generation Scot.' Well, I'm a thousand-generation Celt! My genes go back as far as you could possibly trace them. As a Thomas, they have been there forever. If you want to boast about the flesh, I can outdo all of you!

That's what Paul is doing. He's placarding his Jewish credentials. There are some today in the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" that want to try and say to us that we've misunderstood Paul; that Paul was not a man bowed down with a sense of guilt about sin and the wrath of God; that that's a mistake…that's an interpretation that has been imposed on the Apostle Paul by the likes of Augustine and Luther. 'Doesn't Paul here in Philippians 3 say he was blameless? There's no sense of guilt.' But that's precisely the point! That's precisely the point! As a Pharisee, he had no sense of guilt. As a Pharisee, he believed he was obeying the law. It was only when he came face to face with Jesus Christ that he saw that all of his righteousness, his works, his obedience to the law and traditions of Moses, that they were all…. Do you remember what he says in Philippians 3? "I consider them all dung." I consider them all refuse. All his attainments, all his obedience, all his punctiliousness and scrupulosity to the Law of Moses, they amounted in the end to nothing. They were less than worthless. That's what he came to see. As a Pharisee, he wasn't aware of that. It was the experience on the Damascus road that brought him face to face with his sin.

Paul, you see, is not only placarding his Jewishness. He's actually doing two things here, and he's doing it in a very subtle and astonishingly clever way, and Luke is recording it faithfully. You notice in verse 14 of chapter 22—look at the text with me. He said, "The God of our fathers…." [This is Ananias, now, speaking to him when he gets to Damascus.] He says, "The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One…." The Righteous One…it's actually a reference that has already been alluded to in The Acts of The Apostles. Where was it alluded to in The Acts of The Apostles? It was alluded to at the time of the martyrdom of Stephen…at the time of the martyrdom of Stephen. And what is being brought to the surface here is that in Paul's complicity with the death of Stephen, he came to see what true righteousness actually is: that true righteousness is that which belongs to Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. It's actually a reference to the Servant Song in Isaiah 53: "The Righteous One shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquity."

Saul of Tarsus had come to see that the one that he was really persecuting was not just Stephen and not just the Christians that he had imprisoned, but the One that he was really persecuting was Jesus Himself, who had laid down His life on behalf of sinners like Saul of Tarsus on the cross of Calvary. And what Saul of Tarsus, this incredibly violent man…. And you know, some of you here tonight can testify as psychologists that violence is often an expression of repressed guilt; that actually the violence that pours out of Saul of Tarsus is actually indicative of what Paul later came to see: that he was a guilty man; he was a foul sinner in the eyes of God; and that the only basis of salvation and peace with God is faith in the Righteous One, in the substitute, in the One who stands between God and men. Because "there is no other good enough to pay the price of sin; He only can unlock the gates of heaven and let us in."

And it seems instructive to me that Luke records for us in Paul's testimony that when he came to see that, when he came to see who Jesus really is, when he came to see that righteousness can only be obtained by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by our obedience to the Law, that Ananias bid him be baptized for the remission of sins. Baptism is a symbol of the washing away of sins. That's what he had come to see and appreciate, that he was a sinner — a sinner in the hands of an angry God. [It seems appropriate that I should just quote those words, because Brister Ware (who knows these things) was reminding me this morning that today is in fact a very notorious anniversary of the sermon that Jonathon Edwards gave on Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God, delivered on this very day, in fact.] And it seems to me that Saul of Tarsus came to appreciate—and that's what he's saying now in his defense—he came to appreciate that by his obedience to the Law of Moses, by his boasting according to the flesh, he was nothing but a sinner who needed the grace of God to wash away his sins and make him a new creature in Jesus Christ.

And in this testimony, Paul actually does a number of things. If you study it closely, there are allusions here to Moses and the burning bush, and if you study it even closer there are allusions here (particularly when he's praying in Jerusalem and he sees this vision, and a voice speaks to him and bids him to leave because the people are not going to appreciate and obey what it is that he's going to say to them—there are allusions of course to Isaiah in that famous vision in Isaiah 6). And Paul, you see, in answering the charge of his anti-Jewishness, is actually putting himself on a par with Moses and Isaiah…with Moses and the prophets. He's more Jewish than any of them! But he's come to see the Jewish Messiah. He's come to faith in Jesus Christ. He's come to realize that he's a sinner who needs the grace of God, and he's called to be an apostle to take this gospel far and wide to the Gentiles. And it's at that point, at the mention of the word Gentiles, that this angry mob begins to shout again, "Away with him!"…that he doesn't deserve to live.

There's an irony here, of course…that they are disrobing themselves and laying their robes at the feet of the Apostle Paul, where Paul once received the robes of those who were stoning Stephen.

The commanders understood none of it, and in order to understand…in order to get out of the Apostle Paul what it is that had caused this mob now once again to begin to shout at the Apostle Paul, he orders his men that they scourge him. They will flog him, using the Roman instrument, the flagellum; leather strips into which would sometimes be put knuckle bones and bits of lead that would tear and lacerate the flesh, and sometimes expose inner organs, and from which some sometimes died as a result. And as the apostle is being stretched out with thongs ready to receive this flogging, he suddenly asks, 'Is it right…is it lawful for a Roman citizen who is uncondemned to receive this treatment?' And of course he knew the answer…that it wasn't.

In the course of the discussion with the commander, we learn that the commander bribed his way into Roman citizenship, a thing that was possible in this period of Roman history. Nero would outlaw it later. But Paul was born a Roman citizen, meaning his father had been a Roman citizen. Out of the fifty million Romans at this point in history, only about five million had Roman citizenship—about one in ten. And the commander realizes immediately that one of the consequences of his Roman citizenship was that that which he was about to do was entirely illegal and would get him into severe trouble with the emperor. And so Paul's beating is stopped and prevented.

III. Application.

Now what do we learn from this? As we think together this evening about this incident, what is it that we learn, you and I?

Well, this, at least. If you look at the first verse of chapter 22, what does he ask the commander to be able to do? To give a defense. To give an apologia. It's a technical word. It's a word that Luke employs several times in the course of The Acts of The Apostles. But this is no customary defense, is it? Paul hasn't really been defending himself. What has Paul been doing here? Paul has been doing what Paul is always doing, because Paul is a man with only one thing on his mind, and that's Christ. Because what he's actually been doing here before this angry mob is preaching the gospel. He's been exalting Christ. He's been talking about sin. He's been talking about guilt. He's been talking about conversion. He's been talking about God's wonderful gospel that is for Jews and Gentiles alike. He's actually been doing what Jesus had said: that when you are taken on trial, don't be concerned about what to say in your defense [the same word]. The Holy Spirit will help you. And what we see here, my friends, is a man whose heart and soul is out and out for Christ, and out and out for the gospel, because he's a man of one thing. And, oh! that we catch just a little glimpse of that…just a little glimpse of that…that you and I would be out and out for Christ.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. We bless You for this description of the Apostle Paul. We would not be here tonight apart from him. We thank You more than that for the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, to whom he pointed. And, oh, may we by Your Spirit catch a little glimpse of it in our own hearts, and that as a consequence we, too, may live with Christ in the very top of our minds, and the very center of our hearts. We ask it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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