26. Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them.
We in our first message on this chapter came to the close of the third section of the book of Acts, which is the ministry of Paul. Now, we have begun the study of the fourth and final section of the book, which has to do with the imprisonment and trials of Paul. The point of this fourth section is to lead us up to Paul’s final Acts period ministry in Rome, and the great pronouncement of Acts 28:28. From this point on, we will follow Paul’s movements very closely, as this will display exactly what happened to him, and what led up to the momentous declaration which closes out the book of Acts.
Last time, Paul had arrived in Jerusalem, and been advised by the elders there to prove he walks orderly and keeps the law by fulfilling a Nazirite vow himself, and by paying for four other men they had with them to fulfill their Nazirite vows as well. This would prove Paul was a dedicated law-keeper, for paying for this many sacrifices for five men would involve no small expense on his part.
Another proof that this whole thing is in line with the will of God and not some backwards command by disobedient Jews who did not acknowledge the truth of the gospel is the fact that Paul readily goes along with it. Can we really believe that the great apostle Paul, with all his boldness and all his zeal for the gospel, would have acquiesced to this suggestion if he believed it contradicted the very gospel he had been proclaiming? Can we truly imagine that the writer of Galatians would have meekly knuckled under to Judaisers telling him to do something contrary to what he knew to be the truth? Let us not think so! Paul himself testified at the end of his ministry, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” In the light of his own testimony, let us acknowledge that he finished his race faithfully. He did not stumble aside at the instigation of these men here.
So Paul takes the four men, and the very next day he purifies himself with them. This would have been done as a ritual purification at God’s temple right there in Jerusalem. Then, he goes into the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification. In other words, he announces that he and these four men whose way he was paying had all completed their Nazirite vow, and that in seven days the offering to close that vow should be offered for each one of them. Again, this is all according to Numbers 6 and the vow of the Nazirite, as we have already examined it.
27. Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him,
Time passes, and the seven days of purification are almost ended. Perhaps this next event happened even while Paul was entering the temple to perform the sacrifices necessary to complete the vow of the Nazirite. At any rate, at this time, we see that there are certain Jews from Asia in the temple courts. No doubt these men had traveled so far from their homeland in a desire to see the city of God and the temple of God, and to celebrate one of His feasts there. This was something many of the Jews from outside the land would have loved to do, had they been able. No doubt there were always some Jews there from many places in the Roman Empire there at the temple, but this would be especially so at one of the feasts.
So these Jews have traveled to the temple from Asia, the Roman province containing the city of Ephesus, where Paul had conducted his most recent campaign, and where he had met so much opposition, particularly at the end. These Jews, moreover, are not among the great multitude who had believed the gospel there, but are from those who rejected the Word of God as they heard it from Paul (the “some” of Acts 19:9.)
These Christ-rejecting Jews, seeing Paul in the temple, stir up the whole crowd. In other words, they start a riot. Seeing Paul here at the capital of the God-given religion of Israel incenses them, and they take the opportunity to capture him, something they had never been able to do back in their home country of Asia.
28. crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”
These are the words that these Asian Jews used to stir up the crowd, and they are good words for that purpose, for they are words designed to foment the anger of any loyal Israelite. They call out for help from their fellow men of Israel. This was an untruth, since these men were Asians, having no citizenship in the land of Israel, though they were Jews by lineage. Yet these are the words they used. Then, they claimed that Paul teaches all men everywhere against the people of Israel, the law, and the temple. Of course, Paul did no such thing. These were all just boldfaced lies, as Paul himself is demonstrating by his actions here in the temple, fulfilling this Nazirite vow. Finally, they finish with another lie. They claim that Paul has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled that place which was meant to be kept as a sacred, set-apart place to God. This, Paul had not done either. All their charges are completely untrue.
29. (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.)
Here we are told why they make this last charge. They had previously seen Paul with Trophimus the Ephesian. They had been together in the city of Jerusalem, though not in the temple courts. Yet these Asian Jews, in their haste to condemn Paul, merely assume that, if Paul was with Trophimus in the city, he must have also brought Trophimus into the temple. These men show by every word they speak here that they are not concerned with accuracy or truth in the charges they are making, and they are more than willing to make this charge. On our part, we insist that the clear implication of the verse is that Paul had not brought Trophimus into such a situation. To cause a man to so break the law would have rightfully been signing his death warrant, and Paul would have known better than to do this to poor Trophimus. We do not believe that Paul ever took Trophimus a step past where he was supposed to take him in the temple.
As for this Trophimus, we see that he was a Greek, and known to be a Greek. Yet as we showed from Acts 19, the Greeks in Ephesus were not Gentiles as such, but were ancestral Israelites who had given up on the way of their fathers and were living a Greek lifestyle. Trophimus would therefore not be circumcised, would not be clean, and therefore could not enter the temple beyond the court of the nations. He had not done this. These enemies of Paul made the claim, but Trophimus was not there.
30. And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut.
The rumor of this event spreads like wildfire, and the whole city is disturbed by this report. The thought that a Greek would have defiled the temple was enough to disturb any faithful Israelite. The result is that the people are all running together to the site of the disturbance. Most in the crowd now have no idea what the reality of the situation is, and Paul is identified in the minds of many as the Greek who supposedly did the defiling. The troublemaking Asians are probably content at this point to stand back and let things take their natural course, which they would have done if no one had stepped in to disturb them. The result of that course would have been the death of Paul, for the enraged Israelites at this point would have executed first and asked questions later.
So Paul is seized by the vengeful crowd and dragged out of the temple. The first matter of business is to see to it that the defilement ends immediately. As he is dragged out, the temple doors are shut behind him, probably to ensure that no one else can get into the temple, so no further defilement can take place. The temple will have to be cleansed of its imagined defilement before anyone else can worship there anyway.
31. Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.
Now the crowd prepares to execute Paul. This was the inevitable outcome for anyone not a Jew who entered the temple courts beyond where Gentiles and Greeks were allowed to go. One of the warning plaques posted throughout the temple has been discovered by archaeologists, and reads, “No foreigner is to go beyond the balustrade and the plaza of the temple zone. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” The Jews here were being true to this rule, and were preparing to execute the man they thought was the trespassing foreigner.
However, before this execution can take place, word comes to the commander of the Roman garrison. In Greek this is “news went up,” for the Castle of Antonia overlooked the temple. This commander was the chiliarch, which means he was over a thousand soldiers. He was the man who had been tasked by Rome with the responsibility of keeping peace in the city. This could have been no easy task for him in a city like Jerusalem! He probably had men throughout the city keeping watch at all times, and from one of these he quickly hears the report of this disturbance, and that all Jerusalem is in an uproar.
32. He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
This soldier was a man of action, and he knows that his response to this crisis has to be immediate. Rome took a dim view of their officials when they allowed riots in the city where they were tasked to keep the peace. So this commander calls for his soldiers and centurions to accompany him, and runs down to the place where the uproar is taking place. Of course, this leads them right to where Paul is being held by his captors.
Now though the Jews generally resented the Roman occupation of their country, no one could help but respect the might of Rome, and so the sight of all these soldiers running toward them is enough to stop these would-be executioners in the midst of beating Paul. It seems that executing him was not enough for them. They wanted to punish him first, and so they had been beating him. They were probably eager to show their zeal for the temple, and how much they despised any Greek who dared to defile it.
33. Then the commander came near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and he asked who he was and what he had done.
When the commander comes near, he finds Paul at the epicenter of the uproar, probably somewhat the worse for wear after the beating he has received. He takes Paul and commands his soldiers to bind him with two chains. This could be for his hands and feet, or it could be that each of his hands was bound to a soldier. It seems the commander assumes that the man against whom all the crowd had such malice must be the troublemaker, and so he is the one he arrests. Of course, we know that the troublemakers were actually the Asians who had falsely accused Paul, but by this time they might have long since left the scene of their crime.
The commander’s mistake is not such an unusual one. Many assume, in the case of one man against a multitude, that the many must be right. Yet we can see from this story how wrong that kind of thinking is. Sometimes, it is the one man who is right. Of course, that will always be the case, when the one man is the one standing upon the truth of God.
34. And some among the multitude cried one thing and some another.
So when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be taken into the barracks.
The multitude is greatly excited, but they cannot provide the commander with any good account of who Paul is and what he has done that is so terrible. Many had probably just run together to this enraged mob, and seeing the anger on their faces and perceiving that it was directed against Paul, had assumed he must have done something terrible, and just joined in with the crowd. Therefore, there are few who even know what he is supposed to have done. Thus, the commander cannot learn the truth of the matter by questioning the multitude, for there is just too much tumult, he commands Paul to be taken back to the Roman’s barracks to be kept there away from the mob. Again, these barracks would have been the Castle of Antonia, from which he and his soldiers had come. Probably, he hoped when these infuriated people can no longer see Paul, they will calm down somewhat and become more reasonable, not to mention coherent.
35. When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob.
When the soldiers reach the stairs up to the castle, they are forced to pick Paul up bodily and carry him because of the violence of the mob. These people are dead set on executing the man they are so certain has done something terrible, whatever it might be, and so they are trying to catch him and drag him away from the soldiers so they can kill him. Since Paul was probably chained to soldiers, this would have involved dragging them away along with him. It was not a very good idea to try to do this to a Roman soldier this way, yet these people were beyond all reason. Probably many of them looked at the risk they were taking as worth it to show their zeal for their God. So the soldiers have to carry Paul, perhaps even up above their heads, to keep him out of the reach of the mob.
36. For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him!”
The multitude continues to follow after the soldiers and Paul. They are furious that they have not been allowed to execute him, and they are crying out for his immediate death, shouting, “Away with him!” It is clear that they wanted nothing more than to see Paul die, and to see him die immediately. They hated to see him in the hands of the Romans, and the thought that their lust for his blood might not be fulfilled.
37. Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?”
He replied, “Can you speak Greek?
The soldiers arrive at the barracks, and are about to take Paul inside when he speaks to the commander. He first asks for permission to speak to him. Up to now, Paul has merely been jerked around by whoever decided to lay hold on him. God’s apostle has had little choice in what has happened to him. But now he speaks up, and he has a request of the Roman commander who rescued him and who now holds him.
The Roman commander, upon hearing Paul speak to him, is surprised, the reason being that Paul is speaking to him in Greek.
38. Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”
It seems the Roman has been thinking and trying to figure out who Paul is and what he must have done to raise the ire of the people to such a fever pitch. On the march back to the barracks, it seems he has had an idea, and decided he has figured it out. He thinks that Paul must be a certain Egyptian, who some time ago had stirred up a rebellion. He had gathered a following of up to four thousand assassins who sided with him. These assassins were known as the Sicarii, who were a band of bandits and assassins that infested Judea at the time. They used a desire to overthrow the Roman occupation as an excuse for their crimes of thievery and murder. This Egyptian the Roman chiliarch mentions was a leader of a band of four thousand of these, not an insignificant number. However, his plan to foment rebellion had failed. The Companion Bible suggests that he had taught that the walls of Jerusalem would fall down before him and his men. This did not take place, and he had been driven out into the wilderness. This must be who Paul is, the commander decides. A rebel. An assassin. What else could have stirred the people up to such rage and hatred against Paul? It seems this man, though he is in charge of Jerusalem, still has no idea of the level of religious fervor to which the people of that city can be raised over a much smaller infraction than this!
Some have suggested that Paul must have been black since the commander mistakes him for an Egyptian here. There are a couple of problems with this suggestion. First of all, we know that Paul was a Jew, and there is no indication that Jews were black. In fact, the implication of Jeremiah 13:23 is clearly that the Ethiopians had a different skin color from the Jews.
23. Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.
Not only this, but we do not know that the Egyptians were all black. Drawings from ancient Egypt show a population that is about a third black. That might have increased at the time of the Acts, but there is no reason to think that all the inhabitants of Egypt were black. And finally, we know that there was a huge Jewish population in Egypt, and the Egyptian this commander mentioned doubtless was one of these. How else could he command a following of four thousand in the land of Israel? Would these have followed a man who wasn’t even a Jew? This seems doubtful. So there is no reason to think that there is any implication that Paul had black skin. This seems to be a claim made to try to make as many people in the Bible be black as possible, and is not based on an honest examination of the facts.
39. But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.”
Paul denies the charge that he is this troublemaking Egyptian. Instead, he explains his real identity to the commander. He is a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia. He points out that Tarsus is no mean city, in other words, no town without distinction. Paul is not from a backwater burg. There may be some pride in his birthplace involved here, but more likely Paul makes this claim for practical reasons, because this commander is more likely to respect him if he knows he comes from a large, well-known city rather than some small town of little significance.
Now, Paul makes a request of the commander. He wants permission to speak to the people. God yet had things to say to these Israelites. He wants to give them one more opportunity to hear and believe the truth.
40. So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying,
The commander, apparently sufficiently impressed by Paul’s well-spoken mastery of the Greek language, as well as his notable birthplace, gives Paul the permission he seeks. Probably he hopes that Paul can use his speech skills to quiet this angry mob, and save him the trouble of having to figure out how to get them to disperse.
So Paul stands on the stairs, with the angry crowd below him, and motions with his hand that he wants to speak. It is interesting that this angry mob, lusting for his blood, actually quiets down to listen to him. Perhaps the fact that he wants to speak arouses their curiosity. But we certainly cannot discount the possibility that the Lord wanted Paul to be heard, and so He had something to do with the fact that this great silence took place. He wants His words to be heard, and so He sees to it that they will be, and silences the mob. It took the city clerk two hours to quiet the angry mob in Ephesus, but it takes God no time at all.
Now Paul speaks to them in the Hebrew language. Although this is what the Greek says, the fact is that the language we call Hebrew had long since ceased to be spoken by the common people, and was known only to scholars who wished to study the Bible in that language. The people spoke Aramaic, and that had become the language of the Hebrew people at this time. Therefore it could well be that Aramaic is what is meant here. Paul could doubtless speak Hebrew, but if he did, only the highly educated in the crowd could have understood him, and this seems unlikely, since God seems to want to communicate with this crowd, not just the elites. There can be little doubt but that his words here were originally in Aramaic. Moreover, the word is “dialect” here, so the point is that he was speaking it in their very dialect, probably meaning with no accent which would mark him out as not a native speaker.
Now there are a couple of things about Paul speaking his address here in Aramaic. First of all, this would have impressed the people, much as his being able to speak Greek had impressed the commander moments before. Many of these people did not even know what was going on or who Paul was when they joined this mob. All they knew is they were executing someone who had supposedly defiled the temple. They probably assumed Paul was a Greek, which would mean that he could not speak the language of Aramaic native to Israel, or at least not well or without a heavy accent. When Paul could not only speak Aramaic but speak it flawlessly, their impression of him as a horrible Greek blasphemer must quickly have dissolved.
Secondly, the fact that Paul starts speaking Aramaic means that it will be difficult for the Romans to understand him. Though some of them might have been working on learning something of the native language of the land in which they are now stationed, few would have had a very good grasp of it, and Greek probably usually served them quite well anyway, at least in Judea. So the commander has asked Paul to speak, but since Paul is speaking Aramaic he will have no idea what he is saying. All he will be able to go off of is the reaction of the crowd to Paul’s words. This will become significant as Paul’s address continues in the next chapter.