Paul, Part 9: Paul’s Trials
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 his testimonies before the religious and secular ruling bodies, from Jerusalem to Rome.
In Acts 21, Paul is heading 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 on which God said every male from Israel needed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 16:16). It was not a coincidence that Paul wanted to be in Jerusalem on Shavuot. As an observant Jew he would have felt an obligation to observe the commandment to make pilgrimage. Not only that, but it would also provide an opportunity to spread the message of Yeshua (Jesus) to people who would be gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world.
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with the community of believers in Yeshua who live there, sharing that his missions have brought many Gentiles to belief (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, saying that thousands of Jews have believed and that they are “zealous for the Torah” (verse 20). Their zeal is not presented as a negative, but rather as a sign of their devotion to God which is combined with their belief in Yeshua. Tainting this zeal, 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). As Paul went around preaching to the Gentiles, he brought the message that was relevant to them. That message was that Gentiles didn’t need to be physically converted to Judaism to receive salvation (Acts 15, Galatians 6:15). This did not diminish the value of the Torah in the believer’s walk nor did it remove the necessity to obey the commands of circumcision or tradition for the Jewish believers (Matthew 23:2-3, Acts 22:12, Galatians 5:3).
Evidently some people had misunderstood and twisted Paul’s message to mean that circumcision, the Torah, and the oral customs had all been canceled and done away with. This was never Paul’s message or his goal. In order to prove to everyone that these are only lies and rumors, the elders tell Paul: “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 plan was for Paul to purify himself in the Temple, which he would have done anyway as it was necessary after travelling out of Israel, and to pay for the sacrifices which were necessary to complete the Nazarite vows these four men had taken (Numbers 6). This would prove to everyone that Paul himself was walking according to the commandments and honoring the Temple. Any claims saying that he taught against the commandments or the Temple would have many witnesses to prove otherwise. 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. Unfortunately, some men who had been opposed to Paul recognize him from his travels abroad, and they start a ruckus before he can go through with the plan (Acts 21:27-29). Soon the Roman guards come down and arrest Paul for his own safety and to hopefully settle the crowds. Paul, hoping to redeem himself, asks the commander if he may speak to the crowd. Even though the circumstances have changed, Paul’s goal is still the same: to prove that he has not taught or acted in any way contrary to the Torah. 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). Paul explains that he is Jewish just like them, and that he is well-educated in regard to the commandments, having just as strong of a desire to live according to God’s ways as they have. Paul tells them about his experience with Yeshua, and also addressed any accusations that he was opposed to the Temple by telling them that even after this experience with Yeshua, he worshipped and prayed there (verse 17).
The crowds have been listening attentively. His defenses have successfully addressed the false claims laid against him. Then 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). The fact that Gentiles could share in the blessings of Israel was unacceptable to the crowd, yet this was Paul’s main message throughout his ministry. Just as is seen in Acts 15, many Jews thought Gentiles were unable to share in God’s blessings. The inclusion of the Gentiles was the stumbling block in Paul’s teachings, not anything about the Torah being cancelled.
In order to get more answers about his behavior, Paul is summoned to stand before the Sanhedrin. His opening words again tell us about what he believed: “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 has not transgressed any commandment worthy of legal punishment. “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). Recognizing that this trial won’t go well, Paul aims to divide the Council on sectarian lines. Some have said that Paul’s claim that he is a Pharisee is just him playing the crowd to his advantage. If he was 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. On the contrary, he was speaking the truth: Paul is still a Pharisee, and he is on trial because of his belief in the resurrection of Yeshua and the implications it brought for the Gentiles.
Paul is now brought before the Roman governor Antonius Felix. The High Priest Ananias and an entourage of hand-chosen priests bring various charges against Paul, accusing him of stirring up trouble, being the ringleader of the Nazarenes, and of desecrating the Temple. Paul goes on to prove that he was not stirring up trouble, that being of the Nazarenes was not much different from the other sects of Judaism, and that he himself honored and worshipped in the Temple. He says, “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 maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men.” (Acts 24:14-16). At that time, those who believed in Yeshua were known as the Way or the Nazarenes, and this movement was still a sect within Judaism. Paul explains that the Way is not just another sect, but is the true form of Judaism, obeying everything in the Torah and Prophets including the essential acceptance of Yeshua as the Messiah. Although the governor believes Paul is innocent, he holds him in custody until eventually he loses his position and is succeeded by Porcius Festus, at which time Paul’s enemies request another trial. Paul once again testifies, “I have committed no offense either against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar” (Acts 25:8). He had not transgressed or taught against the Torah nor any Roman laws in any way worthy of punishment, and his accusers had no proof saying otherwise. After the governor wishes to send him back to Jerusalem, likely into a trap, Paul appeals to Caesar (verses 10-11). When he finally arrives in Rome, Paul recognizes that it will be some time before he will have an opportunity to testify before Caesar. He takes this time to reach out to the Jewish community in Rome, explaining that although he has done nothing wrong against the Torah, the nation of Israel, or Rome, he is unjustly bearing his chains for the hope he has in God (Acts 28:17-20). The leaders are intrigued, and set up a meeting between him and an audience of fellow Jews.
Large crowds come to hear him speak, and Paul boldly proclaims his belief that Yeshua is the Messiah. He would need to back up these claims with Scripture and reasoned arguments, and Paul ends up speaking “from morning until evening” (verse 23). Some came to belief, but when it becomes evident that a large portion will not, he tells them that he is now going to the Gentiles (verse 28). At this, the people leave, having a great debate amongst themselves (verse 29). Once again the fact that the message of the Messiah is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews causes a great amount of discussion and backlash. 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.
In conclusion, we have seen Paul’s trials tell us a lot about him and his beliefs. 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’s own words tell us that he prayed and offered sacrifices in the Temple, lived according to the Torah in line with the Pharisaic interpretation, and encouraged both Jews and Gentiles to repent, trust in Yeshua the Messiah, and obey His commands. The main cause of his persecution was his belief, as revealed to him by Yeshua Himself, that Gentiles could join themselves to Israel without converting to Judaism through Yeshua the Messiah. Paul did not believe that following Yeshua was in any way opposed to Torah-observance, and he fought hard to show his own innocence in regard to his observance of the commandments.