After being almost killed by the mob and arrested by the Romans, Paul gets the chance to defend himself against the charges of defiling the temple and teaching against the Law. While standing on the steps of the Roman barracks, he addresses the Jews with the hope that they will understand he has not forsaken his Jewish roots nor asked anyone else to. His defense is ultimately unsuccessful as the crowd continues to demand his execution. His testimony, however, gives us another picture of his conversion and serves notice to the Romans that he is innocent of any violation of Roman law.
The Roman commander allows Paul to address the crowd. Paul stands on the steps of the Roman fortress that is next to the temple. The crowd that has just been trying to kill him has become quiet after he motioned that he was about to speak. He now addresses them in the Hebrew dialect (either Hebrew or Aramaic) which quiets them even more (they may assume he is a Greek speaker and are surprised to hear their native tongue). They were shouting and trying to kill him earlier but now are amazingly hushed (maybe supernaturally so?) as he speaks.
The specific charges he will now refute are that he teaches Jews to forsake the Law and that he defiled the temple by bringing a Gentile into the inner courts (16:28). Neither charge is true but the mob is convinced that he deserves death – just like Stephen. He speaks now to defend his ministry and perhaps to save his life.
Paul begins by establishing his Jewish and Pharisaic credentials. He was born in Tarsus but raised and educated in Jerusalem. He learned at the feet of one of the foremost teachers of the day – Gamaliel. He was taught strictly, according to the law of our fathers, and was zealous for God. His credentials are impeccable – he truly is a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:5). He also connects with the audience by telling them his zealousness for God matches their own (just as you all are today).
Something to note throughout Paul’s speech is how he tailors his defense to his audience and to address the specific charges against him. Nothing says we should not be shrewd in how we confront our persecutors, or that we should not defend ourselves to the fullest. We just have to understand that ultimately God is in control of all circumstances.
To prove his zeal he tells them he persecuted this Way to the death. He put men and women into prison for claiming to follow Jesus. Paul did not always believe as he does now and was so committed to Judaism that he was willing to persecute and even execute those he felt blasphemed or defiled it. Paul can sympathize with his listeners – just as they want to kill him for defiling the temple and the Law, so he pursued and killed others who did the same. If the people want proof of his former actions, they can ask the high priest and members of the Sanhedrin who worked with him to persecute the new movement.
After testifying to his zeal for God Paul now transitions to the story of his conversion. This is the first time we hear his version of the events on the road to Damascus. He fills in some of the gaps in Luke’s account in Chapter 9 and gives his perspective of all that happened.
In his pursuit of Christians, Paul decided to go to Damascus to bring believers back to Jerusalem for punishment. On his way there – about noontime (new information) – a very bright light flashed all around him and he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Saul asked the speaker who He was and the reply was, “I am Jesus the Nazarene” (“the Nazarene” is not included in other accounts of Paul’s conversion – Paul may include it here because of his Jewish audience).
It is interesting that Jesus used Paul’s Hebrew name to address him instead of his Greek name (the crowd presumably understands that Saul is his Hebrew name). It is also worth noting that with His question Jesus gave credence to His earlier words that anything done to the brotherhood is actually done to Him (Matt 25:40). Jesus IS the church and persecution of the church is persecution of Him (there is great comfort in this – when we hurt HE hurts and when we suffer HE suffers).
[Notice that the crowd does not seem to react to the story of the risen Jesus speaking to Paul. We would think that hearing that Jesus is alive and ministering would provoke a response. Perhaps the crowd begins to get restless here and then erupts later. It is telling, however, that what eventually causes them to react – hearing that God told Paul to go to the Gentiles – seems much more benign than hearing that Jesus is the Son of God and is alive. They are ultimately all about the Law and the temple and not about thinking through what Jesus speaking to Paul means for their lives.]
Paul was blinded by the great light and had to be led by the hand to Damascus. Once there he was visited by a man named Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there (note the pains Paul takes to explain Ananias’ reputation to the crowd). Ananias gave him his sight back and told him that God had appointed him to be a witness for Him to all men. God Himself commissioned Paul to take the gospel to all men (not just the Jews).
Paul goes on to tell the people that after the Damascus incident he returned to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he was praying in the temple (nice fact to include to counter the charge that he preaches against the temple and defiled it) when he received a message from God to leave Jerusalem immediately because he and his testimony would not be accepted.
Paul protested to God that the Jews should accept his testimony because he was so adamant in persecuting the new movement. If he – a man who approved of Stephen’s execution and who persecuted and killed other believers – now believes, should not all who hear him accept that what he says is true? He sincerely persecuted what he thought was wrong and now has had a total change of heart. Is that not proof that his conversion story is true and that God truly commissioned Him to spread the gospel?
God’s answer to Paul was to send him to the Gentiles. God said, “Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Paul did not leave Jerusalem because he wanted to or because he wanted nothing to do with Judaism. He left because God sent him, and he preached to the Gentiles because God appointed him to that ministry. The problems the Jews have with Paul are ultimately with God if they think he should have stayed in Jerusalem and continued to persecute the Way or should have worked only among the Jews.
When the Jews hear him relate the words from God that he was supposed to go to the Gentiles they stop listening and start shouting again. They begin throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air. The picture is one of people wanting to lash out and not having a way to do it because of the Romans holding Paul. The Jews likely want to stone him – maybe this is why they take off their cloaks (7:58) – but since they can’t they throw what they can, which is the dust from the ground. Perhaps they throw the dust at Paul to signify what they would like to do. They also begin crying out, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!” Apparently Paul’s words about going to the Gentiles remind them of why they wanted to kill him in the first place. He is not worthy to live because he has forsaken the Law and taught others to do the same. He is a Jew who lives as a Gentile and deserves death.
As the crowd becomes more and more out of control the Roman commander – who may not have understood anything Paul said as he may not speak Aramaic or Hebrew and so only knows that Paul said something to incite the crowd again – orders him to be brought into the barracks. He then orders that Paul be examined by scourging to get to the bottom of what is going on (the meaning of verse 24 is somewhat vague and could mean that the commander informs the crowd that Paul will be scourged). This is somewhat hard to understand from the standpoint of our western culture, but from the commander’s perspective Paul is a Jew with no rights and his guilt or innocence is secondary to understanding why he caused a riot that upset the whole city (21:30). Scourging him may kill him (this is the brutal method of using a whip with pieces of metal and bone on the ends that rip off the skin), but if he has no rights then that is a risk the commander is willing to take to keep the peace.
As the soldiers stretch Paul out to prepare him he asks the centurion if it is lawful to scourge a Roman citizen who has not been charged. The centurion is alarmed because it is certainly not lawful. If Paul is a Roman citizen then he has rights and what they are about to do could lead to their own capital punishment.
There is no way to know why Paul did not mention this before now. When he was first arrested it seems he would have been wise to tell the commander immediately. That way there would have been no possibility of suffering corporal punishment. However, perhaps he did not want to highlight his Roman citizenship while he was in front of the Jewish mob. Maybe he decided to keep it to himself until he absolutely had to declare it so he would not damage his Jewish credentials further in front of the violent crowd.
This is the second time Paul has strategically used his citizenship in the midst of persecution. The first instance was when he and Silas were arrested in Philippi (16:16-40) and he did not tell his jailers he was a Roman citizen until after he spent a night in jail. There he likely did it to raise the reputation of the Philippian church. Here he does it to protect himself from harm.
The centurion immediately goes to the commander and tells him Paul is a citizen. The commander comes to Paul to verify it and finds out that not only is Paul a citizen but he was actually born a citizen. The commander himself purchased his citizenship (meaning he either was a former slave who purchased his freedom or he was a non-citizen who paid a bribe – it is worth noting that his name is Claudius Lysias (23:26), which could mean he took his name from the emperor who was in power when he purchased his citizenship). That Paul was born a citizen puts him at a higher social rank than the commander. The commander likely is horrified to find out that he was about to scourge someone of such standing. The soldiers immediately release Paul from where he was bound and stop the preparation for scourging.
The next day the commander orders the Sanhedrin to assemble and takes Paul down to appear before them. He wants to establish once and for all what the real problem is. Why do the Jews want to kill Paul? What has he done to deserve execution? It is likely that he is already skeptical of the Jew’s charges. He now knows more about Paul and that he is a man of some standing from Tarsus. He is not a common criminal or a rabble rouser. Whatever the problems are that the Jews have with him most likely do not concern Rome.
It is interesting to read Paul’s defense in light of Peter’s words about suffering unjustly. Peter says when we suffer for doing what is right – as Paul does here – we should suffer as Jesus did who while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously (I Pet 2:23, see also 4:12-19). Peter says the key to enduring persecution as a follower of Christ is to entrust ourselves to God. Those who persecute us do not judge righteously but the One who ultimately controls our destiny DOES. We can endure what is unjust because we serve the ultimate Judge who is sovereign over all things.
In this text Paul shows that Peter’s words do not preclude defending ourselves against unjust persecution. It is OK to defend ourselves as long as we do so entrusting ourselves to God. Paul mounts a vigorous defense but does it all the while knowing that God told him he would be bound in Jerusalem (21:11). He came understanding that whatever happened is in God’s hands and is somehow best for the gospel and therefore good. So he defends himself, but does so entrusting the final outcome to God. But he does defend his integrity and the purpose of his ministry. He truly is innocent of the charges the Jews have brought against him and he tries to explain that they have misunderstood his ministry or have been deceived about what he has done.
Another aspect of his defense cannot be missed, however. As he defends himself he effectively gives the gospel. By telling the story of his conversion, he tells the crowd that Jesus truly is the Messiah and is alive. He even explains what a man must do to be saved – arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name (vs 16). Paul never forgets the gospel and never misses an opportunity to proclaim it. It is such a part of him that even in defending himself in a life or death situation he preaches it. The people may have just tried to kill him and may still want to kill him, but that is no reason to withhold the gospel from them. Paul bleeds the gospel and he speaks about it whether he is in a synagogue or a marketplace or the Areopagus or facing down a murderous mob while standing in the midst of pagan Romans. He lives and breathes the gospel, and his commitment to it and his passion for it and his overwhelming sense of the love behind it overcome any sense of resentment or antipathy toward anyone he meets. This is what it means to live out the gospel every day – every circumstance and person pale in comparison to what God has done for us and the need that every man has for redemption.