Paul’s Defense before the Jews
Pretend with me for a minute. You’ve been a hardworking employee for years. You’re loyal to company goals. The boss doesn’t always recognize your efforts. No bonuses. But that doesn’t matter; you’re just grateful to have a job that pays the bills. You work heartily as unto the Lord and not to please men.
But over time, your faithfulness starts annoying the others who complain a lot. They start distancing themselves. Then, out of nowhere, you get a letter from PR. To your discovery somebody fabricated a story saying you’re opposed to company goals, you slack on the job, and you complain of your boss’s stinginess. The next offense means you’re fired. You’ve been slandered and misrepresented. With all your fellow employees against you, how would you respond?
The world would crack its knuckles and say, “It’s time to get even.” But in our passage today, we find a much different response. The apostle Paul has been slandered by his own kin, misrepresented, even misunderstood. The Romans get involved and think he’s some anarchist starting a revolt. Not only was he beaten in the streets. He’s also arrested when he’s done absolutely nothing wrong.
How would you respond? What defense would you give? What does it look like to follow Jesus when facing unjust treatment like this? Paul’s response offers much wisdom for the Christian who suffers for righteousness. Our passage also reassures us of how Jesus provides at such difficult times. These aren’t merely the Acts of the Apostles. Ultimately, these are the Acts of the risen Lord Jesus. Jesus himself strengthens Paul to respond in a way that vindicates truth and loves his enemies with the gospel.
1. The gospel spreads not through political revolt but through our patient, truthful witness before enemies.
The first point I want us to see is this: the gospel spreads not through political revolt but through our patient, truthful witness before enemies. Verse 37...
“As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” Paul replied, “I’m a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language…”
The Jews stir up quite a riot. They chase Paul from the temple. They beat him in the streets. All Jerusalem gets roweled up. Rome controlled Jerusalem; so this becomes a bad deal for them. They don’t want the peace disturbed. So they intervene. The mob is so violent they take Paul to the barracks to get to the bottom of this fiasco.
In the process, Luke clarifies a few things about Paul’s mission. Part of Luke’s purpose in these defense narratives is to vindicate Paul. Any pagan authority could read Acts and see Christianity posed no direct threat to Roman peace. If anybody exemplifies a peaceful, reasonable, respectful attitude toward Rome it’s Paul. He respects authority: “May I say something to you?” He asks permission instead of making demands. He actually brings a hush over the crazy crowd.
Moreover, it becomes evident that Paul isn’t some self-identified prophet trying to stir up a revolt. Some of them thought he was. Apparently some Egyptian guy tried to lead a revolt. They think Paul is that guy. Then they’re thrown for a loop when Paul knows Greek. He’s proficient enough that they know he can’t be that guy. Then Paul reveals his true identity: “I’m a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city.”
In scenarios like this, it’s important to clarify who you are and separate yourself from those who would compromise your gospel witness. He’s not an Egyptian revolutionary. Paul doesn’t want some false assumption to compromise his missionary work. Far better would be an opportunity to continue speaking about Christ. So he helps the Roman authorities understand his true identity to better serve the gospel.
But how does that little exchange fit Luke’s larger purpose? He’s drawing a comparison for his readers. Paul’s mission isn’t like that of others who use political power and one-upmanship and mob-like revolt to spread their cause. Christianity isn’t a human uprising. It’s not a man-made attempt to overthrow the world. We follow Jesus, who said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would’ve been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36-37).
How, then, does Jesus’ kingdom advance? Through patient, truthful witness before enemies. These people just beat Paul in the streets. They want him dead. Yet Paul begs for an opportunity to speak. Would you be that eager? Wouldn’t it be easier just to write them off and move on? That’s not to say there’s never a point to move on. Paul often turned to the Gentiles in the face of Jewish rejection.
But even before that turn, look what efforts he makes to speak the truth to his enemies. Look how patiently he endures evil. He practices what he preaches in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
Paul isn’t cantankerous. He patiently endures evil, while also speaking truth. He corrects his opponents with gentleness. Let’s learn from Paul how to follow Jesus in the face of unjust treatment. Let’s ask the Lord to help us respond to our enemies with truth and with patience. Let’s even ask the Lord to give us the eagerness to speak to them. You may hate what they stand for. You may hate how they treat you. How they mock Christ will make you want to vomit. But we can’t forsake patiently speaking to our enemies the gospel we heard when we made Christ want to vomit.
2. Persecution gives opportunity to share how Jesus transforms enemies of the gospel into emissaries for the gospel.
Second, persecution gives opportunity to share how Jesus transforms enemies of the gospel into emissaries for the gospel. Back in his first volume, in Luke 21:12-13 Jesus says this: “…they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you’ll be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness.” Persecution for righteousness doesn’t hinder the gospel; it just gives us a new audience.
With Jesus’ help, Paul takes advantage of this opportunity. He defends his ministry. He shows why it’s legitimate. But before he goes there, he first identifies himself with the crowd. Before Christ, Paul was much like them. Verse 1…
"Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said: “I’m a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.”
So Paul identifies with them in kinship—“brothers and fathers.” In language—he speaks Hebrew. He scores more points being raised in Jerusalem. The renowned Gamaliel discipled him (cf. Acts 5:34). Paul had a zeal for God, and his was so great that he persecuted Christians. Even more, the high priest and council of elders approved him. If anybody had rights to boast as a Jew, it was Paul. If they’re going to listen to anybody, it ought to be him. He was just like them. Then Paul encountered Jesus Christ. Verse 6…
“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone 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 are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you’re persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but didn’t 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, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you’ll be told all that’s appointed for you to do.’ And since I couldn’t see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.”
Notice, this isn’t a mere subjective experience. Yes, Paul is affected by the events differently than the others around him. He discerned Jesus’ words, but the others didn’t. The great light blinded Paul, but not the others. Yet the others still heard something, even if they couldn’t discern the words. The others still saw the light, even if they couldn’t discern it was the risen Jesus. The others still led Paul by the hand, since he was blind. Paul grounds his testimony in objective reality, verified by other eyewitnesses.
But that’s not all. Paul’s encounter with Jesus leads to Paul proclaiming Jesus. Verse 12: “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there…” See what he’s doing? “Here’s another Jew that you all respect. Listen to him if you don’t believe me.” Verse 13…
“[Ananias] came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you’ve seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
Here’s Paul, a murderer of Christians, an enemy of Jesus. Yet Jesus meets him in his rebellion. Jesus washes away his sins. Jesus appoints him to know God’s will and to see the Righteous One and to be a witness to everyone.
The “Righteous One” isn’t a title you find very often in Scripture. Very likely, though, it alludes to Isaiah 53:11, speaking of the Suffering Servant: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
Paul was once an enemy of the gospel. But then he sees the Righteous One. The Righteous One, Jesus Christ, took away Paul’s sins and gave Paul his righteousness. Now Paul knows God’s will in Christ. Jesus reveals that will to Paul. Galatians 1 says he received the gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ. Paul knows who the Suffering Servant is and what the Servant’s mission is: he will make many to be accounted righteous. That only happens, though, through witnesses telling others about him.
So Jesus transforms Paul, an enemy of the gospel, into an emissary for the gospel. Paul even continues in verse 17 to justify his mission further. He gives yet another vision of the risen Jesus, only this time it comes in the temple. Jews considered the temple sacred ground. It’s the place where God meets with them. It’s where Isaiah saw God and received his prophetic commission. Paul basically says, “Let me tell you what happened to me in that very temple of yours.” Verse 17…
“When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw [Jesus] saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they won’t accept your testimony about me.’ And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Again, this enemy of the gospel has become Jesus’ emissary for the gospel: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” That’s his defense: “I was once just like you, but I am what I am today because of Jesus. I preach to Gentiles because of Jesus.” You can almost hear echoes of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:12-17…
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy since, being ignorant, I acted in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
That’s why Jesus saved Paul; and that’s why he saves any of us. He takes enemies of the gospel and makes us into emissaries for the gospel. He takes our wretched and rebellious lives, and he transforms them into theatres to display his mercy. Yes, Paul’s conversion and commission to be an apostle was unique—he actually saw the risen Lord Jesus in all his glory. But in other ways, Paul’s story is much like ours.
You were once an insolent opponent. But you received mercy. The grace of our Lord overflowed for you. We’ve received mercy for this reason: that in us, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. Our message isn’t how well put-together we are. Our message is, “Before Christ, I was just like you. But then I encountered Christ. I am what I am because of his grace, which I also announce to you in the cross.”
Beloved, if you’re in Christ, you are theatres to display his mercy. He saved you when he did to show the world what kinds of people he saves—sinners. If you’re not in Christ, call on him today. Whether you’re a self-righteous prig or licentious hooligan, call on him and have your sins washed away. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That’s the message we tell our enemies.
3. The gospel is for all peoples without distinction, including those we, in our flesh, may despise or consider beyond God’s reach.
Third, the gospel is for all peoples without distinction, including those we, in our flesh, may despise or consider beyond God’s reach. In verse 19, Paul thinks he’s got a better plan. Basically, “Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to stay? They understand who I am. They know that I persecuted Christians.” But Jesus says, “Not only will they not accept your testimony about me…Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”
This word sends the people into a murderous frenzy. Verse 22, “Up to this word [the word about Gentiles] they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he shouldn’t be allowed to live.”
Why do they get so mad? It was the pattern in Jesus’ ministry also. In Luke 4, the Jews listen to Jesus teach. They marvel. They speak well of him, until he points out their stubbornness and how God turned to Gentiles instead of them. Luke 4:25-29,
“I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah…and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. They rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.
What’s with this anger? Why this rage when it came to reaching Gentiles? Because it struck at the heart of their pride. It was like taking an axe to their tree of Jewish pride. For them, Israel was first; Israel was entitled to God’s blessing; Israel had the prophets; Israel was near to God; Israel was better than those Gentiles lost in their idolatry. But then, one by one, the blows from God’s axe come. Jews weren’t first anymore. God’s blessings aren’t for Jews who reject Christ. Israel wouldn’t listen to God anyway, so God sends Paul far away to the Gentiles. By the way, “You’re rejection of Christ and their reception of Christ actually shows that you’re worse than Gentiles, not better.”
In other words, going to the Gentiles exposes the depth of their pride for thinking they’re any better or more deserving of God’s salvation, and that Gentiles were just beyond God’s reach. The gospel says, “No, you’re all alike in your sin. You need Christ just as much as the next guy. The nations aren’t beyond God’s reach.” How prone we are to honor Jesus for saving us from our rebellion and then dishonor Jesus by not believing he can save others from theirs.
God’s grace isn’t contingent on people’s goodness. Nor is it bound by people’s sinfulness. God’s grace is able to save anybody among the nations—he saved us, wretched as we are. We must hold out that same hope for others; and then do what we can to join the Lord on his mission to save the nations. Let’s repent of any fleshly thoughts like, “He’s just too far gone,” “She’s just strayed too far from God,” “There’s just no hope. Why even bother?,” “I don’t really want them here.”
O how the flesh whispers lies. Don’t listen to it. Our Father draws near to those who are far away. Indeed, he enjoys saving the very people that make us squirm. He enjoys saving those whom he then uses to expose our pride and self-righteousness and prejudice. Nobody can despise another at the foot of the cross.
4. Sometimes the state offers just protections that we may utilize to gain a public hearing for the gospel.
Lastly, sometimes the state offers just protections that we may utilize to gain a public hearing for the gospel. Verse 24…
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I’m a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
This isn’t the first time Paul utilizes his Roman citizenship. In 16:37 he does it after being jailed in Philippi. Now he does it again. Taking these instances together, we learn a few things about the way Paul views his Roman citizenship.
For starters, Roman citizenship isn’t where Paul finds his primary identity. It’s useful. It has its benefits. But his primary identity is with Christ and his kingdom. We know this, because Paul doesn’t utilize his rights as a Roman citizen because he fears suffering for the gospel. He said in 21:13, “I’m ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Also, he doesn’t insist on his rights universally, the same way in every situation. We know that because, in some instances, he doesn’t use his rights at all when he could’ve. Other times he delays using them, as he did in chapter 16 after they beat him with rods and imprisoned him. Then here he does utilize them, the result being that he escapes an unnecessary flogging. So we can’t say Paul insists on his rights universally, but only selectively and strategically when it serves the gospel. Paul was eager to forgo his rights and suffer when necessary to serve the gospel’s advance. Yet Paul was also strategically insistent on his rights when that best served the gospel.
See, it doesn’t really serve the gospel, or even the Roman soldiers, if he receives a mere flogging. Paul would suffer flogging if they were flogging him for preaching Christ. But that’s not why they want to flog him. They just want “to find out why they’re shouting against him.” Remember, the Romans still have no clue what Paul is up to and why he’s doing what he’s doing. They couldn’t understand his testimony. Paul said everything in Hebrew. Paul would rather them understand his mission and understand his gospel first.
In other words, if there’s going to be a flogging, let it be over the offense of the cross and not just pretense. Paul’s not into suffering just for suffering’s sake; he suffers for the gospel’s sake. To make the gospel known, then, he utilizes his citizenship strategically. And as we read more, we’ll find that he gains a public hearing with several persons of high rank. Let me close by saying this.
In America, it’s not uncommon for Christians to insist on their rights universally verses strategically for the gospel’s sake. It’s even to the point where, sometimes, it’s difficult to tell what citizenship they love more—their citizenship here or their citizenship in heaven. Don’t get me wrong. I believe we have rights, and rights governments should aim to protect. But when we were baptized into Christ, those rights must now serve the King of kings and his agenda.
I don’t know what changes that means for you individually. All of us are in different places, facing different challenges, and even interacting with different enemies of the gospel. I’d be more than happy to sit down and speak with you about what challenges you face. But you could also make it part of your care group discussions this week. What are some ways you could utilize your citizenship or the just protections under our laws to gain a hearing for the gospel?
You could also discuss ways that universally insisting on your rights has perhaps hindered the gospel’s progress. Then learn from one another how to live differently. Whatever we do, though, let’s not allow our insistence to communicate that our hope is in this country. It’s not, beloved. We’re looking to a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Let’s use our rights strategically, such that the cross of Christ is held high. He is the message; his cross is the offense; he is the one we want our enemies to know.
So how will you follow Jesus in the face of unjust treatment? Let’s respond to unjust treatment very much the same way Paul does here. Let’s learn to speak in ways that vindicate truth and loves our enemies with the gospel. For once we were enemies of the gospel, but because of Jesus, we’re now emissaries for his gospel.