A Commentary by John Stott
Acts. 21:18-23:25. b). Roman justice.
Luke’s second and corresponding theme is Roman justice. He consistently presents the Roman authorities as friends of the gospel, not foes. We have already had occasion to notice this. It is not just that the first Gentile convert was a Roman centurion, Cornelius, or that the first convert of Paul’s missionary journeys was the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus (13:12). It is rather that, whenever they had the opportunity, the Roman authorities defended the Christian missionaries. For example, in Philippi the magistrates actually apologised to Paul and Silas for having beaten and imprisoned them, Roman citizens, and came personally to the prison to escort them out of it (16:35ff.); in Corinth Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, refused even to listen to Jewish accusations against Paul and dismissed the case (18:12ff.); and in Ephesus the town clerk declared the Christian leaders innocent, rebuked the crowd for public disorder, and sent them home (19:35ff.). Now, in Jerusalem and Caesarea, Claudius Lysias, the military tribune, took Paul under his protection. He twice rescued him from being lynched by bringing him into custody (21:33ff.; 22:24); he quickly exempted him from a brutal examination by torture, on discovering that he was a Roman citizen (22:25ff.); and he protected him from the murder plot by transferring him to the procurator’s jurisdiction in Caesarea (23:23ff.).
This protection by Roman justice is even more clear in Paul’s trials. Although he was accused by the Jews, he was tried and exonerated by the Romans. The same had been true of Jesus. Luke finds a third parallel here. What he is at pains to demonstrate is that, although the Jews brought accusations against Jesus and his apostle Paul, the Romans could find no fault in either. In the case of Jesus, Luke records a threefold statement of Pilate that in his opinion Jesus was innocent. To the chief priests and the crowd he said. ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man’ (Lk. 23:4). To the same people, after Jesus had been tried by Herod, Pilate said: ‘I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod…’. (Lk. 23:14-15). And when the crowd kept shouting, ‘Crucify him!’, Pilate spoke to them for the third time: ‘Why? what crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty’ (Lk.23:22).
The parallel in the case of Paul is impressive. Luke is not pronouncing Roman justice to be perfect (for he mentions the readiness of Felix to be bribed, 24:26), but asserting that Paul had not offended it. It is not only that he declared his own innocence (‘I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.’ 25:8), but that his judges agreed with him. Claudius Lysias, in his letter to Felix, affirmed that ‘there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment’ (23:29). The procurator Festus told King Agrippa: ‘I found he had done nothing deserving of death’ (25:25). And Agrippa, when the series of trials were over, summed up in these words: ‘This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment…. This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar’ (26:31-32).
Thus three times in the case of Jesus, and three times in the case of Paul, the accused was declared not guilty in a court of law. Sir William Ramsay made much of this in his *St Paul the traveller and the Roman citizen* (1895): ‘It is beyond doubt that, on our hypothesis, the amount of space assigned to Paul’s imprisonment and successive examinations marks this as the most important part of the book in the author’s estimation.’ Ramsay went on to argue that, when eventually Paul stood before Caesar, he was acquitted, as the Pastoral Epistles indicate, and that his trial, with its ‘formal decision by the supreme court of the Empire’, ‘was really a charter of religious liberty, and therein lies its immense importance’. He concluded that Luke attempted a third volume documenting the trial in Rome, the acquittal, the apostle’s resumed missionary labours, and his subsequent arrest, imprisonment and death under Nero. For Ramsay believed that Luke was writing during the reign of Domitian, ‘when Christians had come to be treated as outlaws or brigands, and the mere confession of the name was recognized as an offence’. In such a situation, the Acts was ‘not an apology for Christianity; it was an appeal to the truth of history against the immoral and ruinous policy of the reigning Emperor’.
Whether or not we can accept all the details of Ramsay’s reconstruction (including the date of Acts and Luke’s intention to write a sequel), we must surely agree over Luke’s objective. He deliberately sets out to demonstrate the innocence in the eyes of Roman law of both Jesus (Luke’s Gospel) and Paul (the Acts), and to draw attention to the precedent which the outcome of their trials had established for the legality of the Christian faith. Luke’s purpose has shown the church of all subsequent times and places how to behave under persecution. It must be able to show that accusations of crimes against the state and against humanity (which were often alleged in the early centuries) are groundless; that it is innocent of offences against the law; and that its members are conscientious citizens, that is, submissive to the state in so far as their conscience permits them. Then the freedom to profess, practise and propagate the gospel will, inasmuch as it lies with the church, be preserved, and the only offence which Christians give will be the stumbling block of the cross.
Tomorrow: Acts 21:18-26. 1). Paul meets James and accepts his proposal.
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.