February 11, 2016

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV: The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                    

Subtopic E: Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 21:15-23:22)                                       

                

                          

Lesson: IV.E.2: ARRESTED BY THE JEWS (21:27-40)

 

 

 

ACTS 21:27-40 (KJV)

 

27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,

28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.

29 (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)

30 And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut.

31 And as they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.

32 Who immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down unto them: and when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul.

33 Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done.

34 And some cried one thing, some another, among the multitude: and when he could not know the certainty for the tumult, he commanded him to be carried into the castle.

35 And when he came upon the stairs, so it was, that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the people.

36 For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him.

37 And as Paul was to be led into the castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak Greek?

38 Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?

39 But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.

40 And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,

 

 

 

THE UNPLEASANT INCIDENT IN A NUTSHELL

 

The scheme of James and the elders (Lesson IV.E.2) proved to be ineffective, and ended in disaster for Paul.  Just before the termination of the seven days, some Jews from Asia who were attending the feast of Pentecost saw Paul in the Temple with Trophimus.  They knew Trophimus, one of the apostles traveling companions, because he was a citizen of Ephesus.  Thinking that Paul had brought Trophimus, a Gentile, into the Temple, they stirred up a mob with the charge that Paul had defiled the Temple with the presence of his Greek friend. The people seized Paul and dragged him outside the sanctuary and closed the doors so that he could not seek refuge in the inner courts.  They intended to kill him but they did not want to spill his blood in the sanctuary for fear that it would defile the Temple.

 

While the people were beating Paul, a report of the uproar came to Claudius Lysias, the Tribune of the Roman cohort garrisoned in Jerusalem. Lysias took some soldiers and hurried to the scene.  When the Romans put in their appearance, the Jews suddenly regained their composure and stopped beating Paul.  The Tribune arrested Paul and ordered him to be bound with two chains.  He then decided to move Paul away from the people and take him to the barracks located inside the Tower of Antonio.  When the soldiers reached the steps leading up to the Tower, they had to carry Paul in order to keep him out of reach of the angry crowd.

 

Up to this time it seems that Paul had not been able to say anything.  When he was brought into the barracks, he asked the Tribune if he could speak.  The officer was surprised to hear him use the Greek language.  He was under the impression that Paul was the Egyptian who came to Jerusalem in a.d. 54 and claimed that he was a prophet.

 

Paul quickly set Lysias straight about his mistake in opinion and informed him that he was a Jew from Tarsus in Philistia.  He then asked to be granted permission to speak to the people.  Lysias consented.  The apostle stood on the steps of the Tower of Antonia and motioned with his hand to the people.  When they became silent, he spoke to them in the Aramaic language which was the language spoken in the land of Palestine.

 

 

 

COMMENTARY

 

27 And when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him,

 

James had the idea that the Apostle Paul should go through a purification process to show the Jewish people that he still followed Jewish laws and customs, and to prove his enemies wrong, who said he taught against circumcision and Jewish tradition. The purification process required a cleansing on the third and on the seventh days [They must purify themselves on the third and seventh days with the water of purification; then they will be purified. But if they do not do this on the third and seventh days, they will continue to be unclean even after the seventh day. (Numbers 19:12).]  It is likely that on the prescribed seventh day Paul returned to the temple to complete the ritual.  He was spotted there by some Asian Jews, who immediately began to stir up a crowd against him: like Paul, they had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Not surprisingly the opposition to Paul came from Asian Jews, probably some from Ephesus.  Earlier they had seen him in the city with Trophimus, and knowing Trophimus (an Ephesian) to be a Gentile, concluded that Paul had now brought him and possibly the whole Gentile delegation (note the plural, “Greeks,” v.28) “into the inner courts” where no Gentile was permitted to go (v. 29) (This was one offense for which the Sanhedrin was allowed by the Romans to execute the death sentence.  However, as far as we know, Trophimus was not in the temple, much less in the inner courts.  But Paul was their enemy.  That was enough.  And in any case the second charge was the real heart of the matter (See 24:17-21 for Paul’s own account of the incident).

 

Paul had spent three years in Ephesus and part of the time in their synagogue [“Then Paul went to the synagogue and preached boldly for the next three months, arguing persuasively about the Kingdom of God” (19:8).].  They knew him well.  In his Miletus speech Paul alluded to plots the Ephesian Jews had already directed against him.  Often Diaspora{1] Jews were exceedingly strict in their observance of the Jewish rituals [But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia” (6:9)], and it may have been some of these same Asian Jews who had spread the rumors about Paul throughout Jerusalem—But the Jewish believers here in Jerusalem have been told that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn their backs on the laws of Moses. They’ve heard that you teach them not to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs” (21:21).

 

 

28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place.

 

The accusations they began to make against Paul were very serious.  Two were the same charges leveled against Stephen (6:13): He speaks against “our law and this place”; i.e., against Torah and Temple.  The third charge was less specific but perhaps the most valid—that Paul taught “against our people,” because in a sense Paul did.  His leveling gospel of oneness of all in Jesus Christ, Greek as well as Jew, could ultimately do nothing other than reduce the significance of the Jews as God’s chosen people.  In this instance they charged him with temple violation.  They accused Paul of having violated the temple by taking a Gentile beyond the court of the Gentiles into the sacred precincts that were open to Jews only; i.e., into the area of the temple proper.  The large outer courtyard, known as the court of the Gentiles, was open to all.  The temple proper was not.  In fact, there was a stone barrier that separated the court of the Gentiles from the first courtyard of the temple proper, the court of the women.  Perhaps Paul had this barrier in mind when he wrote Ephesians 2:14—For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (NLT).According to Josephus, there were warning stones set at regular intervals along this barrier, some in Greek and some in Latin, forbidding non-Jews access beyond this point.  Two of these have been excavated, both with a Greek text and both with a message to the effect that any foreigner proceeding beyond the barrier did so, on pain of death. 

 

There is some question whether the warnings are of a common ancient taboo type, i.e., a warning that the divinity will strike down any violator.  From the testimony of Josephus, it seems more likely that the Jews themselves enforced the prohibition.  A speech attributed to Titus indicates that the Romans allowed the Jews to execute violators; even if the violators were Roman citizens.  There is no evidence in the existing literature of anyone ever being executed for this offense.  Whether Josephus’s testimony on this matter can be trusted and whether the warnings were actually enforced, the stones have been found and are a vivid testimony to the exclusiveness of first-century Jewish religion: “NO GENTILE TO DEFILE OUR TEMPLE ON PAIN OF DEATH.” This barrier with its warning stones is likely the “wall” between Jew and Greek to which Paul alluded in Ephesians 2:14: Christ is the reason we are now at peace. He made us Jews and you who are not Jews one people. We were separated by a wall of hate that stood between us, but Christ broke down that wall. By giving his own body.” Paul certainly was familiar with it. He had experienced it firsthand.

 

29 (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)

 

The Asian Jews had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus, one of the Ephesian representatives in the collection delegation [Several men were traveling with him. They were Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea; Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica; Gaius from Derbe; Timothy; and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia” (20:4).].  They were looking for something to pin on Paul, and they quickly jumped to the conclusion that Paul had taken the Gentile into the inner area of the temple beyond the warning stones.  Paul had in fact been there himself.  He would have gone there in connection with his “purification.”  He had not taken Trophimus there. Trophimus, apparently a convert through the ministry of Paul, when he was in Jerusalem with Paul, would have no inclination to go to the temple or take part in any ritual in the temple.  That was not part of his background.  Under grace, he could have if he had wanted to.  This is what I mean by our freedom under grace. 

 

The charge made against the apostle was unfounded and, like most mobs they had not verified their allegations; Luke made that clear.  They must have known full well, from even the most casual acquaintance with him, that Paul would never do such a thing. Paul was the very soul of honor.  He knew all about the barrier, what he later called in his letter to the Ephesians “the middle wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:14). On an occasion when he was trying to establish his jewishness, it was the last thing he would have done!  It was an instance of sheer irony.  In the temple for his own purification, Paul was accused of having defiled it. 

 

 

30 And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut.

 

Luke could be accused of exaggerating for saying that “all the city was aroused.”  But one must recall that the temple area was like a “town square.” The court of the Gentiles was a large area, and great crowds would gather there.  When all the hubbub started, people came running from every direction.  Paul was dragged out of the temple proper into the court of the Gentiles.  The gates to the sacred precincts were slammed shut, perhaps to protect the area from any “further” defilement from the unseemly mob action taking place outside.

 

Notice their bitterness and hatred aimed at Paul.  They hate him because he is teaching that one does not need to go through the Mosaic system to be saved.  Paul is right in following one of the customs of his people if he wants to do it. He is trying to win his own people.  Although it didn’t accomplish the purpose that he had in mind, I think it accomplished a God-given purpose.

 

Nobody can reason with a mob.  The Asian Jews had achieved their purpose.  With malicious satisfaction they saw the whole city now ablaze with religious passion and Paul the focal point of its hate.  The apostle had indeed run his head into a noose.  He had often been in peril before, and he would be in peril again, but it is doubtful that, until the time of his final arrest by Nero, he was ever in such a danger as this.

 

The intention of those in the mob who had instigated the riot seems to have been to kill him then and there.  As soon as the crowd was clear of the inner courts, their doors were closed (by the temple police), perhaps to prevent Paul from claiming sanctuary or perhaps to prevent further pollution, for the crowd was about to add murder to the alleged defilement by Gentiles (2 Kings 11:4-16; 2 Chronicles 24:21).

 

You and I may wonder, “What did James and the others think of themselves?”  They heard the uproar, they suspected and then learned that Paul was being mobbed—thanks to their advice.  They apparently did nothing to secure his release, nothing to speak on his behalf, nothing to appeal to the Jews of Jerusalem to be fair and impartial toward Paul.  They sent no one to the Roman authorities to assure the commander of the garrison that Paul was innocent of the charges leveled against him.  It was part of Paul’s fellowship in suffering with Christ.

 

 

31 And as they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.

 

But along the northwest corner of the wall that surrounded the whole temple complex stood the Tower of Antonia, a fortress built by Herod the Great for defense of the temple.  The Roman troops were garrisoned there.  Antonia had several high towers, one which is said to have been 100 feet high, allowing a full view of the entire temple area.  Perhaps it was a sentry posted there who first caught sight of the gathering mob and sent word to his commander, the Roman Tribune in charge of the Jerusalem cohort. The report was vivid and accurate and delivered in the proper manner, according to military regulations.  It would reach him in the Tower of Antonia, which overlooked the temple at its northwestern corner.  Some have suggested that the report was sent by the Christians.  Luke’s expression, however, suggests an official report, either from the temple authorities or from the guards patrolling the roofs. 

 

This Tribune, whose name is later disclosed as Claudius Lysias (23:26), would play a major role in the following two chapters.  As a Tribune he was a high-ranking Roman military officer in charge of a cohort, which consisted of 1000 soldiers (760 infantry and 240 cavalry).  Since the procurator (in ancient Rome, an administrative official with legal or fiscal powers) resided in Caesarea and only made periodic visits to Jerusalem, Lysias had the prime responsibility for the Roman administration and peace-keeping within the city. Not accidentally the barracks were located in Antonia adjacent to the temple.  Stairs led from Antonia directly into the court of the Gentiles.  The Romans were well aware that should any unrest arise in the city, it would most likely begin in the temple area. There was no question about the intention of the mob.  The people were determined to kill Paul, and they would have accomplished their purpose if it had not been for the commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.

 

 

32 Who immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down unto them: and when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul.

33 Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done.

 

Lysias lost no time in dealing with this riot.  He evidently took a considerable contingent of soldiers with him.  Verse 32 indicates that he took along “centurions” (“officers”).  Since a centurion commanded a hundred soldiers, and since more than one centurion is indicated, Lysias’s force on this occasion consisted of at least two hundred. It must have been a significant show of force, for the crowd immediately stopped beating Paul.  Since Paul was the obvious object of the crowd’s ire, Lysias immediately arrested him, binding him with two chains.  It was a most timely intervention for Paul, who was in danger of being torn in pieces by the mob.

 

No mob, regardless of the extent of their rage, is a match for disciplined troops.  With shields in place and swords drawn, the Roman soldiers deployed into the outer court.  The rioters saw them coming and backed away, leaving Paul much the worse for his mauling, but still not seriously injured.

 

The significance of the “two” chains is not altogether clear.  Paul may have been handcuffed on both arms and chained to a soldier on each side, or he could have been bound hand and foot, as Agabus had predicted he would be (21:11).  In any event, from this point on Paul was “in chains,” if not always literally so, at least in the sense that he was a prisoner to the very last word of Acts.

 

 

34 And some cried one thing, some another, among the multitude: and when he could not know the certainty for the tumult, he commanded him to be carried into the castle.

35 And when he came upon the stairs, so it was, that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the people.

36 For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him.

 

The Tribune naturally assumed that Paul was a criminal (v. 38).  He then attempted to find out what crime he had done.  It is not clear whom he was questioning.  It may have been Paul himself (but verse 37 may tell us) or the crowd.  In any case Paul could not have made himself understand, for the people in the crowd were shouting, some of one thing, some another.Lysias was totally unable to ascertain any substantive accusation against Paul because of the chaos and uproar created by the crowd. As with most mobs, many of the participants probably did not know what the commotion was all about: “Inside, the people were all shouting, some one thing and some another. Everything was in confusion. In fact, most of them didn’t even know why they were there” (19:32).  Lysias’s only recourse was to take the prisoner into the Tower and question him there.  The original troublemakers must have escaped during the great commotion, knowing that they could not actually substantiate their charges.

 

The mob had fallen back upon catching sight of the soldiers but it had not gone away. So Lysias ordered that Paul be taken to the barracks.  As the troops withdrew to the steps, the crowd became increasingly violent, angry at seeing Paul snatched from their grasp.  When they reached the steps of Antonia, the soldiers had to lift Paul up and carry him to protect him from the violence of the mob.  Why this was necessary is not immediately clear.  Paul may have been somewhat incapacitated from the severity of his beating.  If he was bound at the feet, this would certainly explain why the soldiers found it more expedient to carry him.  As they hastened up the steps, the crowd milled around below, shouting, “away with him!”— (to execution) the same words the mob had screamed at Jesus (Luke 23:18; John 19:15) in this very place some twenty-seven years earlier (Luke 23:18; John 19:15; also see Acts 22:22).

 

 

37 And as Paul was to be led into the castle, he said unto the chief captain, May I speak unto thee? Who said, Canst thou speak Greek?

38 Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?

 

As they reached the top of the stairs and were about to enter the barracks, Paul asked the tribune for permission to make a request.  His language was in polite, polished Greek, and the Tribune was amazed that he would speak Greek in the first place.  This seemingly insignificant incident, due to Paul’s good education and cultured manner, is one of the turning points of history. From this moment on, the Tribune took more than a passing interest in Paul, and protected him from his enemies.  Yet to Paul it was the most natural thing in the world that he should address his captor in Greek and in a gentlemanly way.  Thus God uses the everyday things of life to carry on His purposes in the world.

 

Lysias had assumed that Paul was a Palestinian with no education.  He then disclosed that he had suspected Paul of being a revolutionary, perhaps the Egyptian who had stirred up a considerable following in about a.d. 54.  Josephus also spoke of this Egyptian.  According to him, the Egyptian was a false prophet who stirred up a following of some 30,000 “dupes,” led them into the wilderness and from there to the Mount of Olives, where he promised that the walls of Jerusalem would fall at his command and allow them to easily defeat the Roman force.  Instead of Jerusalem’s walls falling, Felix arrived on the scene with heavy troops, killed 400 of them, took another 200 captive, and put the Egyptian and the rest to flight.  This was just one of the many incidents of unrest and political discontent Josephus related as having occurred during the tenure of Felix.  The difference between Luke’s 4000 and Josephus’s 30,000 is most likely evidence of Josephus’s tendency to give exaggerated figure’s.

 

In Acts the followers of the Egyptian are described as sicarii meaning “Dagger men.”Josephus also spoke of this terrorist group among the more zealous Jewish freedom fighters.  Arising in the time of Felix, they derived their name from the Latin word sica, meaning dagger.  Their practice was to mingle in large crowds on special occasions, plunge their curved daggers into their pro-Roman political enemies, and then quickly disappear into the crowd.  One of their better-known victims was Jonathan, the former high priest, the son of Annas.  It is easy to see how Lysias might have confused Paul with these fanatics.  He had witnessed many of them rise and fall.  He naturally associated them with crowds and riots like the one surrounding Paul.  In this instance perhaps he thought the Egyptian had returned and some of his former “dupes” were now repaying him.

 

 

39 But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.

40 And when he had given him licence, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying,

 

Paul was no terrorist.  He was not even an Egyptian.  He was, in point of fact, a Jew (a Jew, in case the commander should think he was a Gentile and guilty of profaning the temple), and a citizen of the proud Hellenistic city of Tarsus (a Tarsian, to distinguish him from the Egyptian), “no ordinary city” as he described it.  The reference at this point is to his Tarsian citizenship, not his Roman citizenship, which is not divulged to Lysias until later (22:25-29).  Ordinarily it was impossible for a Roman citizen to hold dual citizenship, but by the time of the emperors this evidently became quite common.  The Jews of Tarsus appear to have enjoyed full civil rights under Roman law, something of which the Tribune was either ignorant or too preoccupied for the implications to sink in.  At the moment he was simply trying to say that he was not the man he had been taken for. But the crowd was not interested in the truth, hence, they had accused him of teaching against the Jewish people, the law, and the temple. 

 

Paul’s exchange with Lysias was relevant to his request to address the Jews.  The fact that he was a Jew obviously gave him some grounds for addressing his fellow Jews.  He was obviously cultured which assured Lysias that he was not one of the rabble and deserved to have his request honored.  Permission was granted, for Lysias may have hoped that he would get enough information for an official report.  He never did (see Acts 23:23-30).

Paul’s sudden reappearance at the top of the steps of the Antonia and his characteristic and authoritative wave of his hand, produced the desired effect—it brought a hush over the crowd.  Gradually the tumult died away until only a voice or two here and there still called out angrily, but soon, these, too, died away and silence fell.  There is no stillness, no silence in the world as awesome as the hush of a mighty crowd that moments before had been lifting its united voice in a roar.  It says much for the power and authority of Paul that a gesture of his hand at the right moment could call down such a hush on that maddened multitude.  The moment would not last, but Paul knew how to capitalize on it.  He addressed them in their own native tongue (probably Aramaic).  His choice of language was aimed at gaining the people’s attention and, if possible, winning their hearts (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). 

 

The whole episode has been questioned by a small group of commentators on two grounds: first, whether Paul would have been physically capable of speaking and, second, whether permission for him to speak would have been granted.  There is no evidence, however, that he was actually hurt in the fracas. 

 

In the next lesson, his speech was his defense against these charges.

 

 

 

 

NOTES

 

{1]Diaspora: The scattering of the Jews to countries outside of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity.

 

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