Paul Bible Study, Lesson 7.
Paul Under Fire
The last thing we are going to look at in this study is the trials of Paul. As Paul spread the good news around the known world, he experienced the joy of fellowship as well as the bitterness of persecution. We can learn a lot about Paul by examining the stories surrounding his trials and testimonies before the religious and secular ruling bodies, from Jerusalem to Rome.
We will start in Acts 21, where Paul is going to Jerusalem. His plan was to get there in time for Pentecost (Acts 20:16), which is the Greek name for the Biblical Appointed Time of Shavuot. This was one of the “pilgrimage feasts,” that is, one of the appointed times which God said every male from Israel needed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on (Deuteronomy 16:16). It was not a coincidence that Paul wanted to be in Jerusalem on Shavuot. First of all, as an observant Jew he would have felt an obligation to observe the commandment to make pilgrimage. Second of all, it would provide an opportunity to spread the message of Yeshua and the in-grafting of the Gentiles to people who would be gathered to Jerusalem from all over the world. Foreshadowed in the verses leading up to his arrival at Jerusalem is the fact that Paul will be undergoing some type of persecution, such as he has not yet endured (Acts 20:22-24, 21:4, 10-13).
Upon arrival in Jerusalem, Paul meets with the believing community there, sharing that his missions have brought many Gentiles to belief: “The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry” (Acts 21:18-19). Responding to Paul’s testimony about the Gentiles, the elders in Jerusalem share how God has granted them success among the Jewish people: “Then they said to Paul: ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the Torah’” (verse 20). The word “zeal” implies a fiery desire for a particular cause or object (Psalm 119:139, Isaiah 37:32, Ezekiel 38:19). One can have improper zeal when it is directed on a cause or object which is displeasing to God, but being zealous for the Torah is not presented here in Acts, or anywhere else in Scripture, as a negative. On the contrary, zeal for the things of God is something that we are all called to be driven by (John 2:17, Titus 2:14).
Combined with the zeal of the Jewish believers, however, are rumors which have followed Paul as he spreads the gospel to the Gentiles: “They have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (verse 21). These would be very serious claims if it was true that Paul was preaching these things. As he went around preaching to the Gentiles, evidently some people had twisted his message to mean that circumcision, the Torah, and the oral customs had all been canceled and done away with. As we have seen, and will continue to discover, this was never Paul’s message or his goal. According to Paul, Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or keep certain oral traditions, and by nature some Torah commandments did not apply to the Gentiles. But this did not change the relationship between the Jewish people and the Torah (Galatians 5:3). It is easy to see how some could deliberately or unintentionally confuse Paul’s words.
In order to prove to everyone that these are just lies and rumors, the elders come up with a plan: “Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Torah” (Acts 21:23-24). The first thing we should notice is the purpose for this plan. It is not a deceptive plot to trick the Jews into thinking Paul is something he is not. If Paul was indeed preaching to his fellow Jews that “they should not circumcise their children or walk according to the customs,” then this would have been a wonderful opportunity for him to hold fast in his convictions and boldly preach that to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But on the contrary, we see that this plan is a way to prove that there is no merit to these claims that Paul is teaching Jewish people not to keep Torah, for by going through with the plan they will see that he himself is a Torah-keeping Jew. The elders did not question Paul’s Torah-observance, because they knew him personally and they knew his message. They did not believe the rumors, and neither should we.
What exactly was this purification ritual, and how would it prove the false rumors as incorrect? The phrase “so that they may shave their heads” gives it away. There is only one vow in the Torah which requires the shaving of the head to complete it, and that is the Nazirite vow. Note that there is a difference between Nazirite (type of vow) and Nazarene (name for the followers of Yeshua). The Nazirite vow is detailed in Numbers 6. According to tradition, a typical vow lasted thirty days, but some were longer, even up to a lifetime (Judges 13:2-5).
From the passage in Acts, it is obvious that believers were accustomed to taking this type of vow at the time. Paul himself had taken a Nazirite vow at one point (Acts 18:18), and some have suggested that he was completing another one here with these four men. Another possibility is that after having his head shaved outside of Jerusalem in chapter 18, he was now going up with the others to go through with the rest of the requirements of completing the vow, which included the sacrifices. So according to the plan, Paul would pay for these men’s sacrifices, which could be quite expensive, in addition to purifying himself (Acts 21:26). All of this would show that Paul did not believe that the Torah was done away with, but that he himself was living according to it, even going so far as to take on voluntary vows that required heightened levels of obedience. One could even say that he was zealous for the Torah.
Not everyone realized this, however, and when they see him, they begin to stir up trouble:
When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Torah and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. (Acts 21:27-29)
Recognizing Paul from his travels abroad, some men who had been opposed to him start a ruckus. The time of Shavuot was now at hand, and Jews from all different countries had gathered, some who had likely heard of Paul, others perhaps not. When they hear the fervent plea of the false accusers, they act in one accord, laying hold of Paul and dragging him away (verse 30). The plan to show that Paul did not “preach to all men everywhere against our people (the Jews) and the Torah and this place (the Temple),” had backfired. In fact, a new accusation is added: the false accusers had seen Paul with a Gentile earlier, and assumed that he was one of the men who Paul had accompanied to the Temple. Whether they actually thought this or it was just an excuse is immaterial.
Because of the commotion, the Roman guards come down on the crowds as they are beating Paul (verses 31-36). The Romans were especially watchful around the pilgrimage festivals because of the large numbers of people, many of whom were strongly opposed to the heavy-handed Roman governance and military presence in Israel. Paul’s arrest here is partially for his own safety and partially to prevent chaos from breaking out. The Romans didn’t even know if he had done anything wrong at this point. Many in the crowd were not aware whether Paul had done anything wrong either, but had joined in due to a mob mentality.
Paul doesn’t want this uproar to continue, and I’m sure he recognized that the Romans only wanted to end the commotion as soon as possible as well. The commander permits him to speak to the crowd, and he begins to defend himself. He addresses them in his and their own native tongue, Hebrew or Aramaic, at which the people quiet down (Acts 21:40-22:2). Perhaps the crowds had assumed that Paul was only some foreign troublemaker, but when they heard him speaking in their language, it gave them pause so that he may speak.
Beginning to address his accusers, he first asserts his credentials: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). The original goal of Paul was to show that he was not acting blasphemously, and so the first words he speaks to the crowd are meant to prove that in no uncertain terms. He then goes on to speak of how he persecuted the Way, and begins to speak of his experience on the road to Damascus. He mainly keeps to the facts, except for his brief description of Ananias as “a man who was devout by the standard of the Torah, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there” (Acts 22:12). The reason he included this was again to show that neither he nor the Way were teaching against “our people and the Torah.” He also addressed the accusations that he was speaking against the Temple: “It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance” (verse 17). Just like our Master Yeshua, the apostles were zealous for their Father’s house (Luke 24:52-53, John 2:14-17).
Through all of this, the people are listening attentively. His defenses had successfully addressed the false claims levelled against him. All is well until this point, but things would not stay that way for long, as he continues to share what God told him as he prayed in the Temple:
And He said to me, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” They listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” (verses 21-22)
So we see that the message that Yeshua was the Messiah was not enough to trigger their anger, but the fact that He had sent Paul to the Gentiles was enough to send them into a rage.
Through all of this, the Roman commander was standing by, unable to understand what Paul was saying, since Paul was speaking in Hebrew. As soon as the crowd starts getting riled back up again, the guards haul Paul inside and plan to scourge him in order to get some answers (verses 23-24). Here is where Paul’s citizenship comes in handy: “But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?’” We learned earlier that a Roman citizen could not be scourged, and so they released him immediately (verses 26-29). The commander still wants answers, however, and so he arranges for Paul to appear before the Sanhedrin (verse 30).
Before the Sanhedrin, Paul now needs to defend himself again. His opening words again tell us about what he believed: “Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day’” (Acts 23:1). The literal Greek of Paul’s words says, “I in all good conscience have lived as a citizen to God.” The word translated as “to live as a citizen” is politeuomai, which in Jewish contexts has been used to imply obedience to a set of laws (as a citizen would do), namely the Torah. Paul is asserting that this trial is unjust on the basis that the purpose of the Sanhedrin was to litigate on matters of Torah, and Paul is letting them know that he is innocent, for he has not transgressed the Torah in any way worthy of a legal trial.
The high priest, Ananias, orders Paul to be struck on the mouth for this comment (verse 2). It is hard to say exactly why he ordered this, but we know that this high priest was not a righteous man. Ananias was a member of the Sadducees, and had been appointed to his position by Rome. He was greedy and corrupt, and generally despised by the common Jewish people and the Pharisees. After war broke out in Israel preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, a group of Jewish assassins killed him, although he was no longer the high priest at that time.
Paul knew that this punishment was against the rules which the court had bound itself by, and he chides the one who struck him: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Torah, and in violation of the Torah order me to be struck?” (verse 3). His language is severe, and Paul has to put his foot in his mouth: “But the bystanders said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’ And Paul said, ‘I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people”’” (verses 4-5).
A question arises: why didn’t Paul recognize the high priest? The most widely accepted response is that the priesthood had changed since Paul was last made aware. The high priest did not wear any distinguishing clothes while seated in the Council, so it is likely that he truly didn’t know that he was the high priest. Another claim is that Paul had vision problems and thus couldn’t see who was speaking to him. People back up this claim with verses like Galatians 4:13-15 and 6:11. Regardless, we can be sure that Paul would not intentionally curse the high priest, for his goal was to prove that he himself was not walking in opposition to the Torah or his brothers the Jewish people.
Realizing that he has not made a good impression, Paul needs to change the focus of the proceedings: “But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’” (Acts 23:6). Some have said that this was Paul just playing the crowd to his advantage. And that is partially true, but it is not a deceptive act. The Sanhedrin was composed of both Pharisees and Sadducees. Some of the Pharisees had likely been old peers of Paul, and he relies on them here to get out of a difficult situation. Notice that he says, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.” We discussed earlier the importance of this quote. If he was simply trying to stir up the Sanhedrin, he would not need to preface the fact that he was on trial for his belief in the resurrection with this bold claim of identity. It was the truth: Paul still considered himself a Pharisee who was on trial because of his belief in the resurrection of Yeshua and the implications it brought for the Gentiles.
While a fuller testimony is not recorded here, some have asserted that this claim about the resurrection was part of a longer testimony that is not recorded. They point to verse 9: “And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’” The only way they would know that an angel or spirit had spoken to him was if they had heard Paul speaking about his experience on the road to Damascus or his calling in the Temple, similar to what he had spoken of in the previous chapter. These Pharisees, after hearing Paul’s testimony, realize that he is not acting in disobedience to the Torah, but that the main issue is whether his experience with Yeshua was genuine, which had no bearing on Paul’s relationship with Torah and was therefore beyond the arm of the Sanhedrin. Another verse which points to the idea that Paul had made a more drawn-out testimony during this council hearing is verse 11.
These events were not what Paul’s enemies were hoping would happen. Since they discovered that Paul was innocent in regard to the Torah, they realize they will have to kill him outside of the legal arena. Verses 12-15 detail the actors and the plot. Forty of the Jews had bound themselves to the idea, and they came to the chief priests and elders with their plan. It is likely that the priests and elders mentioned here were the Sadducees, who Paul had most angered during his trial. The allegiance of the forty men is not stated, but some have ascertained that they were a political group called the Zealots, that is, Jews who were strongly opposed to Rome. Since Paul was a Roman citizen in the custody of the Roman army, they perhaps wanted to send a message.
Paul’s nephew somehow discovers the plot and informs the Roman commander (verses 16-22). The commander wisely decides to send Paul away to avoid any more disorder. He sends him to the governor of the region, Antonius Felix, who was living in Caesarea (verses 25-30). The governor houses Paul for five days until his accusers arrive. The entourage of his accusers includes Ananias, some of his trusted elders, and a Roman lawyer named Tertullus, who was likely hired by Ananias to bring the case before the governor (Acts 24:1). They did not want to bother the governor with what seemed like only a matter of the Torah, which he would not likely be interested in, so they needed to make the case something Felix would have to involve himself with, something political (verses 2-9). They accuse Paul before Felix of stirring up trouble all over the world, being the ringleader of the Nazarenes, and of desecrating the Temple, all of which were very serious crimes.
Felix gives Paul an opportunity to speak in order to defend himself. Paul’s goal in his defense is to prove that he was not stirring up trouble, that being of the Nazarenes was not a danger, and that he had not desecrated the Temple. He begins refuting their claims by saying, “No more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. Neither in the temple, nor in the synagogues, nor in the city itself did they find me carrying on a discussion with anyone or causing a riot. Nor can they prove to you the charges of which they now accuse me” (verses 10-13). Here he addresses the first and last point brought against him, in regard to stirring up trouble and desecrating the temple. Next he tackles his opponents’ claims about the Nazarenes:
“But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Torah and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. In view of this, I also do my best to always maintain a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” (Acts 24:14-16)
Paul’s point to Felix is that the Jewish sect known as the Way or the Nazarenes is not a subversive group, but one that is not very different from mainstream Judaism in practice. Saying that his opponents also cherish a hope in the resurrection may be a jab, because as we have mentioned, Ananias was a Sadducee, and it is likely that his close companions he brought with him were Sadducees as well. It may have also been an attempt to prod them into arguing with Paul about the resurrection, delegitimizing their case in the eyes of Felix as merely a religious quarrel.
The remainder of his defense before Felix consists of how he got to this point, and why the case had been brought here, reiterating that he regarded the temple and the customs of his people with reverence and obedience (verses 17-21).
Upon hearing both sides of the story, Felix can tell that Paul is not in the wrong. Verse 22 tells us that he had “a more exact knowledge about the Way.” Since he was governor of the region, it was his responsibility to know what was going on among the civilians, and so he was familiar with this sect. He would have known that they were peaceful and law-abiding and that they had been unjustly persecuted by some of the religious rulers. Instead of releasing Paul, possibly back into another trap, he decides to keep him in custody, although with a certain measure of freedom (verses 22-23).
While in custody, Paul is summoned before Felix on many occasions to discuss his faith in the Way (verses 24-26). When the touchy topic of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come” is brought up, Felix is less interested. In this regard, not much has changed from then until today. For two years Paul is kept in custody under Felix in Caesarea. Then he loses his position as governor due to claims that he used a certain conflict for personal gain. About twenty years later, his wife Drusilla, mentioned in Acts 23:24, along with their son Marcus Antonius Agrippa, died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
Felix is succeeded by Porcius Festus. Immediately the religious leaders who had been opposed to Paul want to know what he is going to do with him. They request a hearing in Jerusalem, but plan to kill Paul as he is on the way there (Acts 25:1-3). Festus decides to hear a preliminary trial at Caesarea in order to determine what the best course of action will be. The tactics of Paul’s enemies have not changed: “After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove” (Acts 25:7). It is likely that the charges remained the same as they had been previously, as we can tell by Paul’s response: “Paul said in his own defense, ‘I have committed no offense either against the Torah of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar’” (verse 8). His message was clear and straightforward, declaring that he had not transgressed the Torah nor any civil laws worthy of punishment, and his accusers had no proof saying otherwise.
Since Festus was very new to his position, however, he wanted to solidify good relationships with the influential religious leaders, so he encouraged Paul to go back to Jerusalem to stand trial before his accusers (verse 9). It is likely that Paul remembered what happened the last time he was supposed to be sent back for trial in Jerusalem, so he is not quick to go along with them. He again proclaims that he has done nothing wrong according to the Torah, but he adds that if he has done something wrong against Roman law, he is willing to be tried. In closing, he appeals to Caesar (verses 10-11).
The appeal to Caesar was a right of a Roman citizen. Just as in our own justice system a person can appeal to a higher court if they feel they are being treated unjustly, it was a similar case in Rome at that time. Perhaps Paul saw it as the only way to keep from being on the wrong end of an injustice, or perhaps he recognized that this was his opportunity to fulfill the words that Yeshua had spoken to him in Acts 23:11.
He did not get his request right away, however. Festus is visited by King Agrippa and his sister Bernice, most likely coming to congratulate him on his new position and to discuss some of the political and diplomatic issues that Festus may face as governor (Acts 25:13). Festus takes advantage of this opportunity and brings up the case with Paul (verses 14-22). Agrippa is intrigued, and so Festus arranges for Paul to give testimony before him amid much celebration and grandeur (verse 23). This would not be a legal trial, but was simply a way for Agrippa to hear Paul and give his opinion on the case. Since Paul had already appealed to Caesar, that was where he was going to go. But for now, he had the audience of a high-ranking Roman leader.
His testimony begins,
In regard to all the things of which I am accused by the Jews, I consider myself fortunate, King Agrippa, that I am about to make my defense before you today; especially because you are an expert in all customs and questions among the Jews; therefore I beg you to listen to me patiently. (Acts 26:2-3)
As part of his duties, Agrippa was in charge of the temple in Jerusalem. He was the one who chose who the high priest would be, as well as handling any managerial issues regarding the temple. Because of this and his other leadership roles in the region, he would have been familiar with many of the intricacies of the Torah.
Paul continues on to explain that he has a history of following the Torah and being a prominent figure within Judaism, “according to the strictest sect of our religion” (verse 5). He again reiterates that the reason he is on trial is because of his hope in the resurrection from the dead, the same hope which he says all of Israel maintain: “The promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews” (verses 6-7). Paul is pointing out the irony of his situation, in that the very hope all of faithful Israel professes is the reason Paul is now being accused by his own countrymen. He wants Agrippa to see that any claims saying he was walking contrary to the Torah or the people of Israel were false. Since Agrippa was familiar with the sectarian conflicts within Judaism, he would have understood where Paul was coming from.
He continues to describe his earlier ways of persecuting the believers:
Not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme. (verses 10-11)
Paul painfully recounts how he used to go through the synagogues rooting out the believers, casting his vote to put some to the death, torturing others until they blasphemed the name of Yeshua. He goes on to tell of his vision on the road to Damascus and how afterward, he began preaching all throughout the world that Jews and Gentiles alike should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (verses 19-20). These words are reminiscent of John’s words in Matthew 3:8: “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” as well as the good news that Yeshua and his disciples brought (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 8:1).
“For this reason some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to put me to death” (Acts 26:21). This reason is twofold: first, that he was preaching repentance (John 3:20), and second, that he was preaching repentance even to Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22). But Paul knows the truth as revealed to him through the Scriptures, “that the Messiah was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23).
Festus ridicules Paul and all his talk about resurrection from the dead. But Paul was primarily directing his testimony toward Agrippa, who had more knowledge of the Scriptures. Paul’s words through the Holy Spirit are so convincing that Agrippa has to balk at his questioning (verses 24-30). Because of his knowledge on these types of matters, he knows that Paul was not teaching anything contrary to the Torah, let alone the government of Rome, and declares that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar he would be a free man (verses 31-32). It was all part of God’s plan, however, so that the message of the Kingdom might spread even further.
Because of his appeal, the Romans need to send Paul to Rome so that he can stand trial before Caesar. On the way there, he experiences many problems and life-threatening situations, but God brings him through it all, saying, “‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar” (Acts 27:24). Paul finally arrives in Rome and is confined by himself.
Three days go by, and Paul is evidently tired of waiting for things to happen. The journey to Rome had taken much longer than Paul had anticipated, and who knows when he would get a chance to testify before Caesar. He takes this opportunity to bring his case before the Jewish community in Rome (Acts 28:17-20). If he can get them on his side, his case may go easier. It turns out that they haven’t heard of him or about the case the religious leaders in Jerusalem had brought against him (verse 21), giving Paul the opportunity to make his own first impression. The only thing they know is that he is a member of the sect known as the Way, and so they are curious what he actually believes (verse 22).
So the Jewish leaders in Rome set a date for people to come hear what Paul has to say. Large crowds come to hear him speak, and Paul boldly proclaims his belief that Yeshua is the Messiah, backing it up with Scripture. This wasn’t just a meet and greet: Paul speaks “from morning until evening” (verse 23). How many of us could debate Yeshua’s Messiahship for twelve hours straight against a crowd of learned scholars using only the Old Testament as proof, which was the only canonized Scripture during Paul’s time? All of his time spent locked away had not been squandered, but he spent it diving deep into the Torah and the Prophets, finding Yeshua in every verse. This is what is meant when it is said that Yeshua fulfilled the Torah (Matthew 5:17). The Torah is the very word of God, his will and desire, and Yeshua not only perfectly obeyed the legal requirements of the Torah, but He was the Word made flesh (John 1:14).
As with in any case, some of the people believe him, but others do not. They begin to discuss among one another and debate whether the things Paul was saying were true. Could it truly be that the Messiah has already come? Due to their disagreement, they begin to file out of Paul’s presence (verses 24-25). It was getting late, and Paul’s arguments had given them much to think about. The exit flow increases after Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, applying it to them for not believing after all of his arguments.
In the other places Paul went to, he began preaching to the Jewish people, and then when he was rejected by the majority, he announced that he was now going to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46). He does the same thing here (Acts 28:28). Now, this is not to say that none of the Jews believed, and it does not indicate that the Jewish people as a whole were now rejected in favor of the Gentiles. But Paul could tell that all who were willing to believe in that place had believed, and anyone who hadn’t was too hardened to accept his message regardless of how convincing his arguments were. One can only believe in Yeshua whose heart is soft and open. Reason alone will not convince anyone, but the Holy Spirit is the one who convicts (John 20:29, 1 Peter 1:8).
The Jews in Rome do not respond quite so harshly to Paul going to the Gentiles as those in Jerusalem did: “When he had spoken these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves” (Acts 28:29). The corrupt religious leaders in Jerusalem were not willing to hear anything of what Paul was saying, but the Jews in Rome were more split on the issue. Those who believed were likely reasoning from where Paul left off, but others were having none of it. Even those who disagree with him evidently don’t believe he is saying anything heretical or opposed to their own expression of Judaism, since they don’t try to make it difficult for him to spread his message: “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Yeshua the Messiah with all openness, unhindered” (verse 30-31).
It is likely that some of those from among the crowds who had come to hear Paul speak returned to hear more about this Yeshua and the mystery of the Gentiles. The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching the message of the Kingdom, urging Jew and Gentile alike to repent from wickedness and put their faith in Yeshua the Messiah.
But what about Caesar? Even though Paul’s reason for going to Rome was to testify before Caesar, nothing of that trial is spoken of here in Acts. It is clear that he did testify before Caesar, as Acts 27:24 tells us. If his mission was only to go to Rome and testify before the Jewish community there, the angel would not have specifically said that Paul must stand trial before Caesar. Regardless of when or how that took place, it was all spoken of beforehand (Matthew 10:18).
In conclusion, we have seen Paul’s trials tell us a lot about him and his beliefs. We have seen that those who were spreading lies about Paul tried to paint a picture of him as one who broke Torah, abhorred the Temple, and encouraged Jews to forsake these things as well. Paul is clear that this is not who he was, but asserted that he prayed and offered sacrifices in the Temple, lived according to the Torah according to the Pharisaic beliefs, and encouraged both Jews and Gentiles to repent and trust in Yeshua the Messiah. That last point is the reason many of the Jews were opposed to Paul: not because he was actually preaching against Torah-observance, but because he condemned their lawlessness and was teaching that Gentiles could join themselves to Israel without becoming Jewish.
In this study, we have tried to realign who Paul was with our perception of him today. Because of how Paul has been interpreted over the years, his words have also been shifted to mean something he never meant. By examining the most frequently misunderstood passages in their correct context, we feel that a much closer image to the true Paul has been clarified. The Paul so often portrayed in Christianity is one who fought hard against Torah observance and the Jewish people, but as we have seen he was actually a proud observant Jew himself, yearning for the day his countrymen would know the truth. In the meantime, he brought his message to the Gentiles just as God had instructed him.
The message he brought to the Gentiles was a different message than the one he brought to the Jews in regard to things like circumcision, the reason being that Paul wanted to make sure they didn’t place their faith in their race. This didn’t mean that he wanted Gentiles to be Torah illiterate, but he expected that they would learn their role as grafted into Israel alongside the Jewish believers in Yeshua as they studied Torah and worshiped together. Today in Christianity, too often Jews who recognize that Yeshua is the Messiah are forced to give up their beliefs about the Torah in order to be accepted. It would do us well to remember that we as Gentiles are grafted into Israel through the Messiah Yeshua, not the other way around.
While it is true that Gentiles and Jews have different roles in the body of Messiah, we are one body of believers, all saved by faith in Yeshua when we put our trust in Him. The same message applies to each person, regardless of time, location, or ethnicity: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). While Paul’s words are often misapplied in order to proclaim a cheap, easy form of following Yeshua, we see that instead he spread this same message of self-sacrificing repentance (Acts 17:30-31, 26:19-20, Philippians 2:12, 2 Timothy 2:19).
Just as in our time, during Paul’s day some people misunderstood him to mean that Jewish people should forsake circumcision and that the Torah was done away with. Paul proved himself time and again through his testimonies in Jerusalem and Rome that he himself was a Torah-observant Jew, zealous for God and His Torah. Some have claimed that this was just Paul being “all things to all men,” but if this was the case then we would also expect to see Paul engaging in pagan rituals when he went to the Gentiles. We see throughout the New Testament that Paul is not afraid to speak his mind, and we would hardly expect him to compromise on such a key issue as Torah or worshiping at the Temple if he was as adamant against them as some claim.
This study is by no means exhaustive, and the variety of controversies and various beliefs arising from Paul’s teachings would take many volumes to fully address. In these few brief pages, our goal is to bring to light not just a few misapplied verses, but a dangerous worldview that undermines the election and calling of God’s chosen people Israel and the place we as Gentiles share with them in the Messiah. As you further dive into the Scriptures, may your eyes be opened as the Spirit leads and guides you in all truth.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Yeshua the Messiah. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Yeshua the Messiah with incorruptible love. (Ephesians 6:23-24)