Paul’s Defense

PAUL’S DEFENSE (ACTS 21:37-22:22). Just as they reached the Fortress steps, Paul asked to speak to the commander. Lysias was surprised his prisoner spoke Greek. He had assumed that he had captured the Egyptian guerrilla leader who had escaped after a battle in which four hundred of his four thousand followers were slain by the Romans. Josephus cites the figure of 30,000, but this may include all of his sympathizers, while 4,000 refers to his militia. The prisoner identified himself: “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”

Paul spoke to the riotous Jews in Aramaic, the common language of Palestinian Jews. They expected to hear cosmopolitan Greek and Aramaic took the crowd by surprise—all were silent when they heard him address them as “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense” in their tongue. Besides the crowd being mixed in age, there were people of dignity, members of the Sanhedrin as well as teachers of the law. This accounts for his use of “fathers.”

First, Paul used psychology. Instead of accusing them of participating in a riot, he commended them for being zealous toward God. He identified himself with the crowd, explaining that he was a Jew, whose orthodox background was impeccable. Even though he was foreign born, he had been educated in Jerusalem under the celebrated Gamaliel. His zeal for Jewish traditions had been unquestioned, as his persecution of the Way attested.

Next Paul gives the second of three recitals of his amazing conversion recorded in Acts, and the first to be related by Paul himself. There is no contradiction; it is the same story from a different point of view. The whole point Paul makes is that he did not want to leave the Jews. When God told him to do so, he argued. But God said the Jews would never listen to him, he must go to the Gentiles. There is a parallel with Jesus here:

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:11-12).

Acts 22:14-16 is a summary not only of the life of Paul but also of the Christian life:

The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.

It is the first aim of the Christian to know God’s will and to obey it—to walk in the presence of the Righteous One. The Christian is always saying, “Sir, I would see Jesus.” The Christian is ever listening for the voice of God above the voices of the world to tell him where to go and what to do.

Paul probably had much more to say, as at Athens. He had laid the foundations for a skillful apologetic for his ministry to the Gentiles. However, his defense came to an abrupt end. “Then the Lord said to me, `Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” His words struck like a match to dry straw. The silence exploded with the shout, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”

For the first time in his life, Paul had preached to a vast crowd of Jews. In the difficult days to come, he must have rejoiced that he had this opportunity. Yet, the response must have torn him apart for he had written while in Ephesus:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel (Romans 9:1-4).

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