To the Gentiles – Acts 21:37-22:22

by Roger McCay
15 November 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 21:37-22:22
Link to Audio Version

The recent riots in our country are inexplicable to most of us. We look at them and wonder, what is wrong with these people? In a discussion on this topic, someone mentioned a quote from Alfred in the Batman movie The Dark Knight, concerning the Joker. He said, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Perhaps, although I think we know there are underlying reasons for the riots and violence that are much more complicated, including sponsors of chaos towards political ends.

Frustration at the inexplicable rage and violence of the Jews was probably how the tribune, Claudius Lysias, felt in our passage today. Why are these nutcases rioting now? I say “now,” because apparently this was not too of an unusual thing. I’m reminded of the incident recorded by Josephus, contemporary to the time of our passage today, when, during the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a Roman soldier mooned the Jews (you know, exposing his backside to them), calling out “such words as you might expect upon such a posture,” which resulted in rioting and 10,000 people dead.[1]

As it was, there were deep-seated reasons for the Jewish rage, including taxation, anger at being subjugated by a foreign power, bruised ethnic pride, Roman derision (they whole-heartedly despised the Jews), and an extreme fanatical sensitivity when it came to the Jewish religion. It was a time when anti-Roman Jewish nationalism was getting worse and worse, reaching critical mass less than 10 years from the events in our passage today. In AD 66, The Great Revolt of the Jews would take place, ending with Jerusalem and the temple utterly destroyed by the Romans, in AD 70. At this point, however, rage was boiling under the surface, looking for outlet, and the Apostle Paul found himself the focal point of that rage.

Why? Well, in a nutshell, it came down to anti-revelatory, Jewish religious exclusivity tied up with racial prejudice (Don’t worry, I’ll unpack that statement). And while it’s easy to beat the Jews up for their sin, Christians need to consider the Jews example as a warning against going down a similar path, putting up dividers and barriers where no dividers or barriers exist, or have been abolished, in the Lord’s revealed will.

We saw last week how Paul was trapped by the Jerusalem church into a compromise of the gospel but was providentially stopped by God before he could go too far. Jews from Ephesus, who had recognized Paul and Trophimus in the city, started a riot based on lies, saying Paul was the man “teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and [the temple]” and had even taken a Gentile with him into the temple (the latter in violation of Ezek. 44:6-9, and punishable by death). Yet, Paul had done no such thing. In fact, Paul was, at the time, being a very pious Jew, in total contrast to their accusations. Yet the Jews, not bothering with the facts, physically attacked Paul in extreme mob form, with confusion being their watch-word (v. 31). Their rioting was so out of control the Roman tribune, posted in the barracks right next to the temple, had to send in a couple of hundred soldiers in an attempt to re-establish order. Unable to determine why the Jews had been beating Paul, because the crowd was confused on this issue (v. 34), the Roman soldiers saved Paul from further beating by arresting him. Even more, the violence of the mob was so bad, while crying out “Away with him!” demanding Paul’s death, the Romans had to physically carry Paul to the Roman barracks in order to save him.

And so, we come to our passage today in v. 37. When the tribune and Paul had arrived at the steps of the barracks, Paul spoke to the tribune in Greek, with a request. This surprised the tribune, because his assumption that Paul was some radical Egyptian rebel did not fit with the man speaking to him. Paul spoke fluent Greek and identified himself as a Jew from a distinguished city in the Roman world, Tarsus. So, the tribune reassessed, concluding that whoever he was, he wasn’t the Egyptian rebel. He even allowed Paul to address the people, perhaps hoping it would calm them down. Thus, in 22:1 Paul called out to the people, in order to give his defense, and surprisingly, they stopped to listen.

Now, Paul’s testimony is found in five places in the Scriptures—three times in Acts (chs. 9, 22, and 26), then in Philippians 3 and 1 Timothy 1. In each case, his testimony is provided with a little different slant, relevant to the context (who’s addressed and the purpose of giving it). Here, his testimony is given with a Hebrew slant, in order to appeal to the Hebrews who stood listening. Paul’s method is respectful to his listeners and to Judaism. And the form is in three parts. He gives his Jewish credentials (vv. 1-5), relates his conversion in Jewish terms (vv. 6-16), and then testifies to God’s Word and call given to him, in the temple (vv. 17-21). Our focus today will be mostly on Paul’s call (vv. 17-21) and the “why” of the religious rage of the Jews in v. 22. But first, let’s briefly look at the first two parts of his testimony.

In vv. 1-5, Paul appeals to two commonalities he has with his audience. First of all, speaking in their own language, he testifies that he is a Jew. Even more, his religious knowledge and educational qualifications are impeccable, having studied under the highly esteemed rabbi, Gamaliel (which, for the Jews, was like a respected advanced ivy-league degree). Then, speaking to his zeal for the Lord, he compares his zeal with theirs (v. 3) “being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” Thus, he established their common bond of race, heritage, religion, and passion for the Lord (displayed in his fanatical persecution of the Christians – v. 5). Paul was saying, “I’m one of you.”

In vv. 6-16, Paul relates the Lord Jesus’ appearance to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). He also ties in Ananias, who was a respected Jew, as a confirmation of his experience, miraculously restoring Paul’s sight—a sign towards the veracity of the Lord’s appearance to Paul and Ananias’ status before the Lord. Notice too, Paul identifies Jesus Christ as “the righteous one,” a Jewish phrase referring to the promised Messiah in the Scriptures (Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15; Zech. 9:9). Ananias, this respected Jew, then relates and confirms Paul’s calling from the “God of our fathers” (Yahweh, the Lord; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), commissioning Paul to testify to everyone about what he’s seen. Paul relates his baptism into the Way of Christ Jesus and how he now calls upon the Lord’s name, identifying Jesus as the Lord God (Joel 2:32).

Now, understand what Paul was saying. Paul was saying he was supernaturally converted by the Lord God himself. He was not saying he abandoned Judaism, but that he was moved into its prophesied fulfillment—in Jesus Christ. God supernaturally brought Paul from vainly laboring to establish his own righteousness, by trying to keep the law, rejecting the salvation God had provided, to resting in God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

It’s interesting that the Jews don’t erupt at this point. Perhaps it’s because they were very familiar with the Christian sect among them, and their beliefs. The gospel of the Lord Jesus was nothing new to them; there were thousands of Christian Jews in Jerusalem. Only Paul’s testimony was new. Or, perhaps, their fervor had fogged their brains to a point where they didn’t catch Paul’s nuances.

Look again at vv. 17-22.

17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”

Paul’s gospel call came with a mission from God. You may remember how, when Paul first got back to Jerusalem, after his conversion, he boldly preached the gospel and disputed with the Hellenists Jews. As a result, he had to flee Jerusalem, as they sought to kill him (Acts 9:28-29). Paul, here, in Acts 22:17-22 is referring to that time. The Lord himself warned Paul, when Paul was praying, having fallen into a trance, at the very temple he was accused of defiling. The Lord told him “to make haste and get out of Jerusalem.” The Lord knew the Jews would not accept Paul’s testimony about him, and that Paul’s life was in danger. Paul, however, obstinately posed the argument that he thought he had credibility with the Jews because of his proven zeal for the Lord, in his persecution of Christians. Gracefully, brooking no argument, the Lord gave a “do what I say” command. Acts 9 and our passage today prove that Paul was wrong, anyway, thinking the Jews in Jerusalem would accept his testimony due to his former zealous actions. As it was, Paul’s calling was not to proclaim the gospel to the Jews in Jerusalem. The Lord’s call was “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (see also Acts 9:15; Rom. 11:13).

Now, at the word, “Gentiles,” the Jews erupted into a mob rage once again (vv. 22ff). So, should it be any surprise to the Jews that the Lord God, the God of their fathers, would send the message of salvation that comes by the “Righteous One,” the Messiah (the gospel) … should it be a surprise that God would send it to the Gentiles? Of course not. Their very own Scriptures promise God’s full blessing upon the Gentiles, just like the Jews. Paul’s calling was consistent with God’s covenant and the prophets. This goes all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham in Gen. 12:3, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” something Paul points out in Gal. 3:8. It was through God’s covenant fulfillment that blessings to all the nations would come. In the Prophets, Isaiah speaks to the one who would come and be “a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation will reach the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6, also 42:6 and Luke 2:32). This passage proclaims God’s intent for his covenant of grace to be extended to the Gentiles, by the work of his chosen servant—the coming Messiah. Paul quotes this passage to the Jews of Psidian Antioch, who had rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ, saying, “We are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 13:46-47). Other proofs include Hosea 1:10; Joel 2:28; Amos 9:11-12; and Micah 4:1-3 (among others).

It’s all right there in the Jewish Scriptures, the OT. Yet, the Jews had a selective memory (among other things).

So we come to v. 22 and the renewed rage of the Jews:

22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”

Why the rage at the word “Gentile”? Well, in short, the rage of the Jews towards Paul was because he was saying that the Lord, the God of their fathers, put the Jews and the Gentiles on equal footing. They were fine with Gentiles becoming Jews through proselytization—because they became Jews under the Law. Yet, Paul was saying the Lord God wanted to save Gentiles, bringing them into the Kingdom of God with all its benefits through the work of the promised Messiah, without making the Gentiles first become Jews.

It’s like this. We all know of the ill-treatment Vietnam veterans received upon their return from doing their duty for their country. My Uncle Doug has shared his experience with me. I’ve heard others tell the tale, and there is a lot of literature out there detailing it. Perhaps some of you even saw it happen. These soldiers called by the government, including thousands who were drafted, did their duty, fighting according to their nation’s purposes in alliance with the South Vietnamese against the communist North Vietnamese. The war was not popular in the U.S. The combined media propaganda campaign against the war and people’s strong disapproval of the war in general brought their frustrations and anger with the government’s politics, concerning Vietnam, to a fever pitch, so they carried out their rage upon the returning soldiers.

In a similar way, the Jews’ rage was not truly against Paul. They were raging against Almighty God. Paul was just a soldier, faithful to his duty, telling them how it was.

By the Lord’s grace, there has been and always will be a remnant of faithful Jews (2 Kgs. 19:4; Rom. 9:25-33; Rom. 11:5). Yet this rage against Almighty God was an apparent norm for a certain large element of the Jews, including among some of the most devout Jews. It’s as Paul wrote in Rom. 9:6, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” As such, these Jews had a stubborn, dogmatic, consistent, historically proved tendency to react violently against men who were doing the Lord’s bidding and will. The OT is full of stories of Jewish violence against God’s prophets. As Jesus lamented in Luke 13:34, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” In the NT, Jesus, of course, presents the prime example of their rage against God, in his own suffering and death. John the Baptist was killed by a Jewish King (Mark 6). Stephen was killed by a Jewish mob (Acts 7). Then the apostles were relentlessly persecuted. James the brother of John was killed by a Jewish King, seeing it pleased the Jews (Acts 12). Then there were the apostles’ various imprisonments and beatings related in Acts at the hands of the Jews, plus multiple attempts on Paul’s life by Jews. Thus Paul, in 1 Thess. 2:14-16, justly refers to “the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved.”

So, as I said earlier, and I hope you understand, the Jewish rage was fueled by their “anti-revelatory (i.e. anti-God’s revelation), Jewish religious exclusivity tied up with racial prejudice.”

Paul’s testimony in our passage today basically tossed the pride of the Jews, their religious exclusivity, what made them special in their own minds, out the window. And what made it worse was that he said the Lord, their God, sent him on this mission to the Gentiles. That was unacceptable to them. It was a violation of the sacred box they had selectively, subjectively, and carefully constructed around God towards their own advantage. Never mind God’s whole counsel. But, how could they attack God and maintain a veil of piety? So, they attacked his apostle in a base, animalistic rage—a vivid illustration of the insanity of sin.

Now, there is an exclusiveness found in God’s revealed Word. I spoke to this when I preached on Acts 13:14-52, saying, “The Word of the Lord, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is divisive, exclusive, and yet inclusive” (and feel free to go listen to or read the sermon, called “The Victorious Word” on my website). Such exclusiveness is not what we are talking about here in our passage today. We are talking about religious exclusiveness that ignores God’s revelation, which includes manmade restrictions.

So, lest we not notice the log in our own eye, we need to recognize there are forms of anti-revelatory religious exclusivity within the Christian church. For the church in Jerusalem, it was keeping Jewish laws and traditions in addition to faith (like we saw last week), dividing them from Gentile believers and those who didn’t hold to their strict requirements. Certain denominations, even churches, do not believe people are saved unless they are baptized in their church. Certain denominations exclude Christians from the Lord’s table, if one is not a member of their denomination. There are so many examples we could go into: anti-revelatory exclusivity over controversial issues of doctrine that do not strike at the heart of the true faith; or over the sacraments, cultural and ethnical differences, race, socioeconomic differences, styles of worship, even over which version of the Bible you use. Anti-revelatory religious exclusivity insists on requirements being met, when grace is the Lord’s way. It divides rather than unifies.

That’s what religion does in contrast to the gospel. Religion confounds things. Religion without gospel is about what you bring, who you are, what you do, in order to be saved. The gospel is about what the Lord did, about receiving the Lord’s grace through faith, about living in obedience to the Lord, following Jesus, because he already saved you.

Sometimes religion apart from gospel can even sneak up on true believers. Worldly divisions and values can sneak their way into the church, taking us off guard, blinding us to our sin.

My friends, Jesus said, “You [You!] are the light of the world.” Let us be that light to the nations we have been called to be. Perhaps you or I are blind to something right before us. Let us not block the light of the gospel to the nations with requirements not found in God’s revealed will. Let us not divide the Lord’s body with worldly divisions. Rather, let us joyfully love one-another, unified in the love of God and neighbor, united in Christ, not because of what we’ve done, or who we are, or what we bring. Let us joyfully love one-another, united as one, in the gracious love and labor of Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about what the Lord does, bestowing salvation as a free gift, received by faith. Let us remember the gospel call, and so keep us from religious rage.

Because the gospel is simple and free, Christians must avoid confounding it with religion.


[1] Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem, 2.12.1, in The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 612.