A Pastor’s Commentary
Studies in Acts
Lesson 42 Paul’s Defense”
Acts:21-37 through 22:30
Throughout history the most acceptable proof has been the testimony eyewitnesses. This was as true in Biblical times as it is in our own. Old Testament law said that a man could not be put to death for murder except at the witness of two eyewitnesses to the murder, and there were many other crimes that could not be punished unless there was one eyewitness. In the New Testament, one of the most frustrating situations for Jesus’ enemies was the one in which Jesus had healed a blind man on the Sabbath and when he was questioned about it, all he would say was “whether he is a sinner I do not know; but one thing I know, whereas I was blind, now I can see.”
A very similar situation takes place in the passage to which we now come in our study of the book of Acts. In chapter 21 Paul had come to Jerusalem and tried to demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism by participating in a Jewish ceremony. But while he was still in the temple a group of unbelieving Jews tried to have him arrested for bringing a Gentile into the temple. It was a trumped-up charge, but nonetheless they were able to get a riot going. So as we come to the last few verses of this chapter and move on into chapter 22, Paul takes the opportunity to make a defense of his faith. This becomes the first of six “testimonies” that Paul will give in the next six chapters – each one at a higher level of government. But this is the one that sets the ball rolling toward the end of the book.
The overview of the chapter goes like this:
- The Request for the Defense – 21:37-39
- The Reasoning in the Defense – 22:1-21
III. The Rejection of the Defense – 22:22
- The Reevaluation of the because of the Defense – 22:23-30
So lets begin our study by looking at The Request for the Defense which Paul makes in verses 21:37-39
And the first thing we see in this regard is the identification of Paul in verses 37 through 39. First we see the guard’s assumption about Paul’s identity in verses 37 and 38
Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? (38)Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led four thousand assassins out into the wilderness? This commander and his men remind me of the old movie “The gang that couldn’t shoot straight.” This is probably explains why the Roman centurion had quickly gotten involved in the riot of the previous verses. He thought he had caught himself an insurrectionist. The Jews thought Paul was a blasphemous teacher; now the Romans think he is a dangerous Egyptian political operative. It is truly amazing how the more things change, the more they stay the same, isn’t it? But now, just by the use of language, Paul clears up the mistake. So in verse 39 Paul gives his accurate identity:
But Paul said I am a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.”
But in spite of the ridiculous charges, Paul still wants to speak to the people. His trust in Christ soothes his fears and frustrations and he is able to face his enemies with open arms and an open heart. So after getting his identity straightened out with the centurion, Paul begins his defense by giving the interaction that we find in 21:40
So when he had him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people and when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language saying, “Brethren and fathers hear my defense before you now.”
“The Hebrew language” mentioned in verse 40 was actually Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect used by the Jews of Palestine. So in this way immediately began to interact with his listeners. By speaking with them in their own language and calling them “brethren and fathers.” He put them at ease and got their attention.
Then, beginning with 22:1 and going through 22:21 Paul gives the reasoning in his defense:
And the first part of that is the introduction in verses 2 through 5 in which he tells them about his background:
And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, the kept the more silent. Then he said (3) I am indeed a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our father’s law and was zealous toward God as you are today. I (4) I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women (5) “as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were to Jerusalem who were there to be punished.
Then the actual instruction is found in verses 6 through 21. And the first part of that is about his encounter with Christ in verses 6-9
Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. (7) “And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?(8)”So I answered,” who are you Lord?(9) And He said “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”(9) And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.”
This is the crucial point in Paul’s presentation, because now the mob has to come to grips with the fact that Jesus Christ is still alive. They thought they had nailed him to a cross and shut Him in a tomb, but now Paul is saying “I saw Him alive and He changed my life.” And this is the key aspect of any witness: direct explanation of Jesus Christ and His forgiveness of sin!
The next aspect of Paul’s testimony is the instructions that he received from Christ as Paul relates them in verses 10 through 21. First there were the instructions in Damascus in verses 10 through 16
So I said, what shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said to me, “arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you.’” (11) And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus. (12) “Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there (13)” came to me and he stood and said to me, “brother Saul, receive your sight.” And at that same hour I looked up at him (14) “Then he said, “the God of our fathers has chosen you that you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth (15) “For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard (16) ‘And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
He continues his story about how the light blinded him and he went to Damascus. There he waited until Ananias came to him, healed his eyes, and gave him his new commission. Then in verses 17 through 21 he receives further instructions in Jerusalem.
Now it happened that when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance (18) And I saw him saying to me, make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning me.” (19) So, I said, Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on you (20) And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed I also was standing by consenting to his death and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.
Here is what Paul did in his old life: imprisoned, beat, and approved of the stoning of Christians. But the Lord directly interrupted that course and changed its direction. The most radical shift in Paul’s thinking occurred when God explained His new plan for the world – that He would use Paul to reach out to Gentiles! So Paul next recounts to his Jewish listeners what the Lord had told him. Look at verse 21:
(21) Then He said to me, Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.”
Right there the buzzers went off and the sirens shrieked in the minds of these zealous Jews! Gentiles?!
You can tell from the text that Paul wasn’t quite through with his talk, but as far as they were concerned he was through.
And so in verses 22 and 23 we see the rejection of Paul’s defense.
(22) And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!” (23) Then they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air.
They were so enraged that they would have torn Paul apart had it not been for the soldiers protecting him.
In their way of thinking, all others in the world except God’s chosen Jews were unworthy of salvation. Yet, in the Jews reaction to Paul’s words, notice what was absent : they shouted, they stamped their feet, they threw dirt in the air – but no one contradicted Paul’s statements! And that’s because his argument was unanswerable. By this time they knew that that same risen Christ had changed thousands of other people who, along with Paul were turning their world upside down. All this evidence was simply too much for them to handle.
But when the Roman commander saw them become violent he knew that he had to do something. This put a whole new perspective on things for him. And so in verses 24 we see the reevaluation of Paul’s defense. Now the Greek speaking commander had not understood a word that Paul said in Hebrew – as far as he knew something criminal must have happened. So he came up with the plan that is described in verse 24.
The commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks and said that he should be examined under scourging so that he could know why they had shouted so against him. This was not a punishment, it was
Why did the commander order scourging? This was not a punishment, it was just an effective way of extracting the truth or a confession from someone. However, there was a small problem with this method which Paul wasted no time in bringing to their attention.
And as they bound him with thongs Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?
Knowing that it was illegal for a Roman citizen to be bound and beaten (probably to death,) Paul stops the soldiers in their tracks. Even though Christ had told Paul that he would suffer for His name that didn’t include needless suffering. And Paul knew that his task wasn’t completed yet – he still must go to Rome, so he wisely guarded his life.
The value and the power of Roman citizenship is clearly demonstrated in verses 26 through 29.
(26) When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” (27) Then the commander came and said to him, “tell me, are you a Roman? He said, “Yes” (28) the commander answered, with a large sum I obtained this citizenship. “And Paul said, But I was born a citizen. “And Paul (29) Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman and that he had bound him. Incidentally, here is a little lesson about how easy it is to take things for granted. The commander was duly impressed with Paul’s citizenship, because he had had to pay for his own citizenship. But he was even more impressed when he heard that Paul was a natural born citizen of Rome. Think how many blessings we take for granted!
Finally, the progression of the case is described in verse 30.
The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
In effect, what the commander was doing here was releasing Paul to the Sanhedrin because there was nothing more that the Roman government could to do to him. And that leads directly into the next chapter, which we will talk about in our next study. But there are several important points to be sure of before we leave this passage. The first thing we should learn is that when giving our testimony, experience alone might be questioned, but a testimony based on facts is unanswerable. The second thing to remember is that the focus of our witnessing should be Jesus Christ – His life, death, and resurrection. Without these facts, our experiences can easily be rejected by the unsaved.
The second thing we can learn from Paul’s experiences in this chapter is that humility is one thing, but indignity is something else entirely. When the soldiers were preparing Paul for scourging he could have thought, “this suffering is God’s will, I shouldn’t defend myself.” But he knew that being victimized is not the same as humbly suffering for Christ. The suffering of a battered wife or an abused child or a mistreated employee are not examples of Biblical submission. There is time to claim our rights as citizens of God’s kingdom and defend ourselves. The difference is in the source and the reason for the suffering. If you are in a situation in which you think is not the biblical kind, you need to ask God for His wisdom in how to proceed. Seek out your pastor or other church leaders for guidance and prayer. No doubt there are several good churches in your zip code and most of them will have Websites on which you can find out all about them.