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.
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.