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 amounts 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 gives 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 release 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.