A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 21:18-23:35. Paul’s arrest and self-defense.
So far Luke has portrayed his hero on the offensive, taking bold initiatives under the leading of the Holy Spirit to evangelize most of Asia Minor and Greece. But when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, his whole career abruptly changed. He was assaulted, arrested, bound and brought to trial. He found himself on the defensive. Following his three epic missionary journeys Luke describes the five trials he had to endure. The first was before a Jewish crowd at the north-west corner of the temple area (22:1ff.), the second before the supreme Jewish Council in Jerusalem (23:1ff.), the third and fourth in Caesarea before Felix and Festus, who succeeded one another as the procurator of Judea (24:1ff.; 25:1ff.), and the fifth, also in Caesarea, before King Herod Agrippa II (26:1ff.).
These five trials, including in each case Paul’s defense speech, together with the circumstances of his arrest (21:18ff.), take up six chapters in our bibles or nearly 200 verses. Why did Luke consider it necessary to go into such detail? Of course the material was readily available to him, since he was there throughout. He arrived in Jerusalem with Paul (21:15). and the next ‘we-section’ (27:1ff.) shows that he sailed with Paul to Rome. During the two years of Paul’s custody in Caesarea (24:27), Luke was a free man, and it is natural to assume that he remained in Palestine, gathering information for his two-volume work and personally interviewing some of its chief actors.
But Luke had a better reason for giving such a comparatively full account of Paul’s trials than the mere circumstance that he had firsthand material at his disposal. For, we remember, Luke was more than a historian; he was a theologian too. One of the major themes which he has been developing concerns the relations between Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic community. He has shown how Paul, called and commissioned to be the apostle to the Gentiles, has by now on three solemn occasions, in Pisidian Antioch, Corinth and Ephesus, left the synagogue and exchanged Jewish for Gentile evangelism (13:46; 18:6 and 19:8-9). It is not an accident that Luke’s story begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome.
In Acts 21-23, therefore, to which we have now come, Luke depicts the reaction to the gospel of two communities – of the Jews who were increasing hostile to it, and of the Romans who were consistently friendly to it. The two themes of Jewish opposition and Roman justice are interwoven in Luke’s narrative, with the Christian apostle caught between them, the victim of the one and the beneficiary of the other.
a). Jewish opposition.
Jewish opposition had been evident from the beginning. Luke shows no signs of anti-semitism; he is simply recording facts. So he documents how the Sanhedrin imprisoned first Peter and John, then all the apostles, and forbade them with threats to preach or teach in the name of Jesus (4:1 – 5:42), although he also draws attention to the caution, wisdom and justice of Gamaliel (5:34ff.). Then came Stephen’s martyrdom (7:54ff.), and the Jewish persecution of the church in Jerusalem (8:1ff) and the erstwhile persecutor Saul of Tarsus (9:23ff.), which kept erupting during his subsequent missionary journeys (e.g. Acts 13:50; 14:2, 19; 17:4ff., 13; 18:6ff., 12ff.; 19:8-9; 20:3, 19). In Jerusalem, however, what had been sporadic outbursts became an implacable determination to get rid of him once for all, beginning with an attempt to lynch him (21:27ff), continuing with a hysterical demand for his death (22:22-23), and concluding with a secret plot under oath of more than forty men to murder him (23:12ff.). Luke’s statement that, when the mob dragged Paul out of the temple, ‘immediately the gates were shut’ (21:30), was surely more than a statement of fact. The slammed gates seemed to symbolize the final Jewish rejection of the gospel. Paul’s policy of turning to the Gentiles had been justified.
Luke seems also to be drawing a deliberate parallel between the sufferings (‘passion’) of Christ and the sufferings of his apostle Paul. We saw in the last chapter the similarity between their respective journeys up to Jerusalem. Now Luke takes it further, although of course Paul’s sufferings were not redemptive like Christ’s. Nevertheless, both Jesus and Paul (1) were rejected by their own people, arrested without cause, and imprisoned; (2) were unjustly accused and wilfully misrepresented by false witnesses; (3) were slapped in the face in court (23:2); (4) were the hapless victims of secret Jewish plots (23:12ff.); (5) heard the terrifying noise of a frenzied mob screaming ‘Away with him’ (21:36; cf. 22:22); and (6) were subjected to a series of five trials – Jesus by Ananias, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Antipas and twice by Pilate; Paul by the crowd, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Agrippa II and by the two procurators, Felix and Festus.
Tomorrow: b) Roman justice.
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.