In an attempt to placate the Jewish believers in Jerusalem who have heard that he advises Jews in Gentile lands to forsake the Law, Paul enters into purification rites to show that he still respects the customs of his people. Ironically, it is this attempt at placating the Jews that enables his enemies to see him in the temple and accuse him of defiling it. His days of purification end with a riot and his arrest at the hands of the Romans. Thus Paul’s righteous and sincere acts result in beating and imprisonment. He knew when he came to Jerusalem that arrest awaited him, but he could not know it would happen under such unjust circumstances. It is a testament to his unshakable belief in the sovereignty of God that he does not become bitter as a result.
To better understand the events of this story it is helpful to know some facts about Herod’s temple (also known as The Second Temple). The temple has several courts that are open to different groups of people. The outermost court is the Court of the Gentiles which is open to any and all who want to come in. This is where the moneychangers and vendors set up their tables so people entering the temple to worship can buy sacrificial animals (which can only be purchased with temple currency – Gentile currency is unclean and not allowed – hence the presence of moneychangers). Beyond the Court of the Gentiles is the Court of Women (open to Jewish men and women), the Court of the Israelites (open only to Jewish men), and the Court of the Priests (or Court of the Levites). Within the Court of the Priests is the actual temple building containing the Holy Place and – separated by an enormous curtain – the Holy of Holies. [The Holy of Holies does not contain the Ark of the Covenant or the Mercy Seat, as the Ark was never recovered after the Babylonian exile. The high priest actually sprinkles blood on the Foundation Stone (the rock that – according to tradition – the ark sat on in Solomon’s Temple) on the Day of Atonement (this rock is also sacred to Muslims and gives the Dome of the Rock – built on the temple mount in 691 AD – its name)].
In between the Court of the Gentiles and the inner courts is a wall – called the soreg – that is roughly 4½ feet tall. The wall is a divider that separates the areas the Gentiles can enter from the areas that only Jews can enter. On the wall – written in both Latin and Greek – are signs that warn, “No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the temple and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” The Romans have actually given permission to the Jews to carry out executions for this violation (even if the violator is Roman). [It is this wall that many commentators believe Paul refers to figuratively in Eph 2:14 as the barrier of the dividing wall between Gentiles and Jews that Christ broke down.]
We do not know the specifics of what ceremony Paul joins when he takes the suggestion of James and the elders to go along with and pay the expenses of four men who had taken a vow (vss 23-24). Whatever it is, it apparently involves seven days of purification that end with a sacrifice (vs 26) in the temple (they may have asked him to purify himself because he has lived in Gentile lands for the last several years). Paul is in the temple observing the last day of the rite when some Jews from Asia – probably from Ephesus – see him and begin to stir up all the multitude.
These Jews are not the believers James referred to earlier who have doubts about Paul because they heard he preaches against the Law (vss 20-21). These men are quite possibly the ones who spread the rumor to begin with (based on what they say in vs 28), and who became hardened and blasphemous in Ephesus when Paul proclaimed the gospel in the synagogue there (19:9). They are likely in Jerusalem for Pentecost (20:16).
The Jews from Asia see Paul in one of the inner courts and begin yelling, “Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place.” They repeat the rumor that brought Paul to the temple in the first place. This points to them as the ones who made the accusation and stirred up the Jewish believers. They take Paul’s teaching that Gentiles do not need to observe the Law and say that it is what he preaches to all men everywhere.
They also make a second accusation about the temple itself. They say, “…and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” They say this because they earlier saw Paul with Trophimus – a Greek from Ephesus (20:4) – and assume Paul brought him into the temple with him (past the Court of the Gentiles and into the forbidden inner courts). [It is interesting that the Ephesian Jews did not raise a ruckus when they initially saw Paul in Jerusalem. It is apparently his presence in the temple that enrages them.]
The two accusations are serious. The first paints him as a hypocrite who teaches against the temple while entering it to observe purification, while the second paints him as a defiler worthy of death. It is no wonder that the entire city becomes stirred up and many rush into the temple and drag Paul out of the inner courts and into the Court of the Gentiles. As soon as the mob leaves the inner courts, the gates are closed so as not to allow any of the violence to spill back into the restricted areas and defile the temple (and also not allow Paul to seek refuge in the inner courts).
The mob brings Paul to the outer court and begins to beat him with the intent of killing him for his crimes. This is not an orderly or sanctioned execution – it is effectively a lynching. The disturbance is such that it attracts the attention of the Roman soldiers in the nearby fortress and they alert their commander that all Jerusalem is in confusion. He immediately reacts and brings down two centuries (approximately 160 to 200 soldiers) to quell the riot. When the people see the Romans, they stop beating Paul.
The barracks the soldiers rush down from is the Tower of Antonia, a fortress on the northwest corner of the temple wall. The tower is 75 feet high and affords a view of the entire temple complex (which explains the quick report to the Roman commander). The steps from it lead into the Court of the Gentiles. The fortress was built by Herod the Great and named for Mark Antony. [Josephus describes the splendor of the tower with spacious apartments, elaborate baths, and beautiful courtyards. The tower served as an official residence for the Roman procurators. Capable of accommodating at least a Roman cohort (500-600 men), the tower housed portions of the Roman army used to guard the Jews inside the Temple court. Herod required that the vestments of the high priest be kept in the tower to maintain control over the worship festivals of the Jews. (Holman Bible Dictionary)]
The commander (named Claudius Lysias – 23:26) and the soldiers grab Paul – who they very quickly see is the man getting all the attention – and bind him with two chains (which likely means they shackle him to two soldiers). The commander then asks who Paul is and what he has done. People in the mob begin shouting one thing and then another to the extent that the Commander cannot tell anything about Paul or why the people were beating him.
Since there is nothing to be gained by staying in the midst of the mob, the commander orders the soldiers to bring Paul back to the fortress. As they get to the stairs the mob becomes violent again to the point that the soldiers actually pick Paul up and begin to carry him up the steps. The people in the crowd shout for his death saying, “Away with him!” [This scene is similar to what Jesus faced by a similar mob – see Lk 23:18.]
As the soldiers bring Paul up the steps, Paul addresses the commander and asks, “May I say something to you?” The commander is surprised because Paul addresses him in Greek. He tells Paul that he assumed him to be Egyptian because some time ago an Egyptian stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness. This is a reference to a story Josephus records (Antiquities, 20.169-172; Wars, 2.261-263) about an Egyptian false prophet who gathered thousands of men (the text says 4000, Josephus says 30,000) to the Mount of Olives and told them the walls of Jerusalem would fall flat at his command and the men would be able to go into the city and overpower the Romans and set up the Egyptian as ruler. The Roman governor Felix interceded, however, and defeated the Egyptian and killed or arrested many of his followers. The Egyptian himself escaped. The commander may have excitedly assumed he just found the man who eluded Felix. He may be somewhat disappointed to now hear from Paul that he is not the one.
What is interesting is that Paul’s use of Greek makes the commander realize he is not the Egyptian. This is hard to understand since Greek is spoken regularly throughout Egypt. Thus it could be that he is not surprised Paul uses Greek as much as he is by how he speaks it. Perhaps Paul’s accent shows him to be different from an Egyptian or perhaps he comes across as a man of learning and refinement rather than an insurrectionist like the Egyptian. The point is not that Paul speaks Greek; it is that he speaks it without an accent, like someone educated and fluent in the language, which the tribune assumes the Egyptian Jew who had caused problems would not be. (Craig S. Keener, The Bible Background Commentary – New Testament; 388)
Paul responds to the commander – perhaps with some resentment at being called an Egyptian – that he is a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia. He is obviously proud of his home as he describes it as no insignificant city. He does not at this point divulge that he is also a Roman citizen but the fact that he is a citizen of Tarsus says something about his family and its standing in the city. Citizenship is not automatic for residents of a city and his possession of it means he comes from a background of some means.
He asks the commander to allow him to speak to the people. The commander – who may be totally shocked at who Paul is versus who he thought he was – gives him permission. Paul – still standing on the steps and so in a good position to address the people – raises his hand and quiets the crowd.
The great hush that falls over the mob is hard to understand since the people were just trying to kill him and have been yelling for his death to the Romans. And remember that the commander himself was not able to quiet them when he asked for information on what caused the riot to begin with (vs 34). Perhaps the people are taken aback by Paul’s composure after his beating (the text does not address his condition) or maybe seeing the commander on the steps gives them a full view of his authority and his tacit endorsement of Paul’s speaking makes them quiet. It could also be that their silence is supernatural. Whatever the reason, Paul begins to address the crowd in its own language – likely Aramaic – and establishes a connection with the people who may have thought up to this point that he was an outsider bent on defiling the temple.
Think about Paul’s situation. He comes to Jerusalem to deliver an offering for the relief of the Jewish believers. Once in Jerusalem he hears that the same Jewish believers he has come to serve resent him because they have heard he advises Jewish Christians in Gentile countries to forsake the Law – something that is not true. To placate these Jewish believers – even though what they believe about him is not true – and show that he does in fact respect the Law, he agrees to undergo purification rites in the temple. While in the temple observing the last day of his purification, Jews from Asia – where he tirelessly ministered for three years – discover him and start a riot. They accuse him of the same thing that brought him to the temple in the first place – teaching all men everywhere to forget the Law – and also of defiling the temple by bringing a Greek into its restricted areas. Both accusations are completely false. Nevertheless, a mob drags him out of the temple and tries to beat him to death. The Romans rush down and rescue him but do it by arresting him and taking him to prison.
Thus Paul works very hard to bring an offering to suffering saints; humbly undergoes a religious rite strictly to counter a false rumor; and sincerely enters the temple to show his respect for it and the Law. Yet the reward for his hard work and sincere motives is beating and imprisonment. He has done everything right and nothing wrong – and the result has been everything wrong and nothing right.
Paul knew bonds and afflictions awaited him in Jerusalem. He did not know, however, that they would come as a result of so many unjust circumstances. The Jewish believers doubted him with no cause, the Asian Jews accused him falsely, and even the Romans arrested him strictly because he was being beaten and they assumed him to be an outlaw. Every single thing that has happened to him since he entered Jerusalem has been unjust.
Yet nothing in the text – absolutely NOTHING in the text – alludes to any bitterness on his part. He has every right from a human standpoint to resent the Jews and the Romans and – to a certain extent – James and the elders for suggesting he enter the temple in the first place. But he does not. He looks at all of his circumstances as being from God. This does not mean he will not mount a defense – as the next chapter will show – but it means that he is not embittered and vengeful. He trusts God who judges righteously and knows without a doubt that he is where he is because God wants him there.
And that is the key. The key to responding well to unjust circumstances and living free of bitterness and anger is an unshakable belief in the sovereignty of God and a trust in the wisdom and love of our heavenly Father. Why do events happen as they do? Why do people unjustly accuse us or unfairly attack us? Why do circumstances go against us or so many take advantage of us? Ultimately it is because God allows them to. Is God the Sovereign of the universe? Is God in control? Can anything happen outside of His will? If He is in control then we have no right to become bitter at the instruments He uses to shape us. Bitterness at people and circumstances is ultimately bitterness at the God who controls them. We either trust God to act righteously or we bitterly resent the injustice that affects us. We can hate the sin that brings suffering into this world but as trusting children we cannot resent our circumstances. There is no such thing as a vengeful and thankful believer. There is no such thing as a bitter and trusting follower of God.
For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (I Peter 2:19-25)
Pilate therefore said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11a)