A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 21:27-36. Paul is assaulted and arrested. a). Paul is assaulted by the Jews. (21:27-32)
It was in connection with the seven-day purification ritual, and near its end, that Paul was in the temple. He was recognized by some Jews from proconsular Asia, probably from Ephesus itself. They seem also to have recognized Trophimus the Ephesian (29). They provoked the worshipping crowd to frenzy by two accusations. The first of these was a misunderstanding, for they represented Paul as teaching everybody everywhere ‘against our people and our law and this place’ (28a). ‘It is ironical’, Howard Marshall justly comments, ‘that this should have been the charge against Paul at a time when he himself was undergoing purification so that he would not defile the temple!’. The charge was similar to that laid against Stephen, who was accused by false witnesses of ‘speaking against the holy place and against the law’ (6:13). But the Jews misunderstood both Stephen and Paul, just as they had misunderstood Jesus. Jesus spoke of himself as the fulfillment of the temple, the people and the law, and Stephen and Paul followed suit. This was not to denigrate them, however, but to reveal their true glory.
The second accusation, that Paul had brought Greeks into the temple area and so defiled it (28b), was simply untrue. It was not a deliberate lie, Luke charitably adds, but rather an assumption on their part (29). They had seem Trophimus (whom they knew to be a Gentile) with Paul in the city, and had jumped to the conclusion that Paul had also brought him into the temple’s inner court, which was forbidden to Gentiles. Gentiles were permitted to enter only the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles. Beyond this, and preventing access into the Court of Israel, there was ‘a stone wall for a partition’, four and a half feet high, ‘with an inscription which forbade any foreigner to go in under pain of death’. This is Josephus’ description, and he added that there were many such inscriptions, written in Greek and Latin, at equal distance from each other. F.F.Bruce adds: ‘Two of these notices (both in Greek) have been found – one in 1871 and one in 1935 – the text of which runs: “No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the temple and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.”’ Titus, (the Roman general and later Emperor) reminded the Jews that the Romans had even given them ‘leave to kill such as go beyond it (sc. the barricade), though he were a Roman’. Paul was surely thinking of this barrier when he wrote of ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ between the Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14).
The combination of these two accusations – the one a half-truth and the other an untruth – was enough to bring people ‘running from all directions’ (30), who proceeded to seize Paul, drag him out of the inner court, and try to kill him. Fortunately, soldiers of the Roman garrison, always on the lookout for public disorder in Jerusalem, saw what was happening and rescued him in the nick of time. Their barracks were in the fortress of Antonia, which Herod the Great had built in the north-west corner of the temple area. The garrison usually consisted of a thousand men. In charge of them was a *chiliarchos*, which can be translated ‘military tribune’, ‘commander of the Roman troops’ (NIV) or ‘colonel of the regiment’, (JPB). At this time we know that he was Claudius Lysias (23:26). Hearing that the city was in an uproar, he rushed down personally with some officers and men, and the rioters at once gave up beating Paul.
b) Paul is arrested by the Romans. (21:33-36)
It is noteworthy that the same verb *epilambanomai* is used both of the mob ‘seizing’ Paul (30) and of the commander ‘arresting’ him (33), although they had opposite objectives. The crowd were bent on lynching him, and the military tribune on taking him into protective custody. It is a striking example of Luke’s aim to contrast Jewish hostility and Roman justice. When the commander failed to discover who the prisoner was and what he had done, because of the hubbub, he had him taken, indeed (owing to the mob’s violence) carried, into the barracks. Meanwhile, the crowd was shouting, ‘Away with him’. just as nearly thirty years previously another crowd had shouted about another prisoner (Lk. 23:18; cf. Acts 22:22).
Tomorrow: Acts 21:37 – 22:22. Paul defends himself before the crowd.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.