17. “Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance
Paul skips over multiple years of history here to the time when he finally returned to Jerusalem. He relates an incident which happened to him while he was praying in the temple. Again, we see here Paul worshipping God in His house in Jerusalem, as any good, law-keeping Israelite would have done. Paul and the rest of the believers at this time did not at this time separate the worship of Jesus Christ from the temple and the religion God had given to His people of Israel.
Now Paul relates that during this prayer in the temple, he was in a trance. Of course, the implication here is that God put him into this trance, since he was praying to Him in His temple. God had a message for Paul to hear upon this return visit to Jerusalem.
18. and saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.’
In this trance, Paul sees the Lord Jesus Christ, and hears Him giving this message. The Lord tells Paul to move quickly and get out of Jerusalem. The reason He tells Paul this is that He assures him that the people of Jerusalem will not receive his testimony concerning Jesus Christ.
19. So I said, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You.
Paul argues with the Lord a bit here. He is somewhat disappointed by this news, as it seems he has been thinking just the opposite. Paul points out that these Jerusalemites know that when he was there formerly, he imprisoned and beat those who believed on Jesus Christ.
20. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
Paul also recalls the fact that when the Lord’s witness Stephen was murdered, he was there standing by consenting to his death, and even guarding the clothes of those who were killing him, indicating that Paul was the primary witness that the trial and execution were done legally and orderly.
It seems that Paul’s point is that these Jerusalemites know well how Paul used to be the last time he was among them. He was absolutely opposed to Jesus Christ, giving himself wholeheartedly to the persecution of those who loved and followed him. Won’t seeing the complete change in Paul and his now unswerving loyalty to the Lord he once fought against make these people sit up and take notice, and maybe even listen to Paul, when perhaps they would have listened to no one else? This seems to be what Paul was hoping, though now the Lord has dashed his hopes. The Lord knows all things, and He knows that the people of Jerusalem will not respond this way. They will not listen to Paul because of his past as a persecutor. Rather, they will refuse the testimony Paul wants to offer.
Also, it could be that Paul was hoping to minister in Jerusalem in an attempt to make up for some of the evil he had done the last time he was there. When he was a persecutor, he had tried to provoke believers to blaspheme, and had done everything he could to hurt the cause of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, perhaps, he is hoping that by proclaiming the Lord and serving Him in this city, he can make up for some of the damage he did before.
21. Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’”
The Lord is not swayed by Paul’s reasoning. He has, of course, already considered all the things Paul has mentioned here. Yet He knows the Jerusalemites, and He knows that, for whatever reason, they will not listen to Paul’s testimony at this time. Therefore, He has in mind a much different mission for Paul. He is planning to send him far away from Jerusalem to the nations. Indeed, looking back on the last ten chapters of the book of Acts that we have studied, we know quite well the truth of this. Paul did go out to all the other nations outside the land of Israel, and many did receive his testimony wherever he went. Thus God’s work was accomplished through Paul, as he did the task God gave him to do.
22. And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!”
The crowd has listened to Paul, as we saw back in verse 2, with a great and even somewhat respectful silence up to this point. However, when they hear these last words of Paul, they keep their silence no longer, but speak up in absolute rejection of him and everything he has been saying.
By “this word,” Luke does not mean the single word “Gentiles,” though that is the last word in our English translation. First of all the word is not “Gentiles” but the Greek word ethne, which means “nations.” We know it was not to the non-Jewish population or “Gentiles” to which Paul was sent, for mostly his ministry was to Jews outside the land. Also, the last word in Greek is not “nations” but “you,” as the Greek reads literally “I into nations far out-commission you.” So Luke does not mean a single word, for “you” didn’t make them angry, but rather this last statement, which was the “word” or expression of truth they rejected.
Yet at the same time, it certainly was the mention of the nations that riled them up so much. The thought that God would think them unwilling to hear a message from Him that other nations far off would hear and respond to insulted and infuriated them. The people of Israel knew they were God’s people in God’s land, and for this reason thought they were superior to all other people. Even their fellow ancestral Israelites living outside the land they thought to be inferior to them, as they were not in the land God had given them, and so were not where God wanted them to be. So the Israelites in the land were quite certain of their own superiority to other nations, and far more the Jerusalemites, who lived in the one city on earth that God had chosen to place His name there. Certainly they thought they were the very cream of the crop of people on earth, and the thought that God would bypass them to send a message somewhere else was unthinkable to them.
So when these people heard Paul say this, it filled them with rage. They absolutely rejected the idea that God would send His messenger to the nations rather than to them. So they absolutely reject Paul, calling with great passion for his death. They want to rid the land of such a man, thinking that he stains it by the very fact that he is alive upon it.
The question must arise, then, what kind of people these were who so rejected Paul? Since we learned in Acts 21:20 that there were tens of thousands of Jews that believed, so much so that Paul could see it, but that they were informed bad things against Paul, we might wonder if there were any such in the crowd. Could it be that some who hated Paul so were among this crowd that called for his blood? I do not believe that it was so. First of all, we can confirm that it was the unbelievers in Judea who were a danger to Paul. He speaks of this in Romans 15:30-31.
30. Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, 31 that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints,
So Paul knew that he would be in danger from those in Judea who did not believe when he dared to set foot in Jerusalem. Also, it was not the believers, but the unbelievers that Paul wanted to testify to in Acts 22:19-20, and it was these the Lord assured him would not receive his testimony concerning Him in Acts 22:18.
The gospel had spread throughout Judea almost three decades before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. It had been heard by all, and had become either an aroma of life or an aroma of death to them, according to II Corinthians 2:15-16.
15. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. 16. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?
Those who had rejected the gospel had been given over by God to death, and so had become hardened in their hatred for Christ and His gospel. Since in the Acts period it was impossible to renew to submission one who had thus fallen away from the truth he had heard and understood, Hebrews 6:4-6, these people had been given up by God, and so had fallen totally under the control of Satan. As such, they were very dangerous to a man like Paul, though outwardly they still appeared to be religious Jews worshipping at the temple. It was these who rejected Paul so violently here, and who tried their hardest to have him put to death.
It does seem strange to us that, while ministering in the common temple, that Paul would only be encountered by unbelievers. Well, clearly it was unbelievers who first started the trouble in Acts 21:27, and so it was likely that it was unbelievers who were controlling the crowd throughout. While some believers might have come together to see what was going on, they were not leading this mob, and so perhaps had little control over it. Remember, too, that Paul had persecuted the believers in Jerusalem very harshly. It may be that none of them were too eager to help Paul out anyway, and were more or less content to let circumstances take their course against him.
Yet ultimately, there is nothing in the passage to make us think anything but that those from whom Paul was in danger were the ones mentioned in Romans 15:31, those in Judea who did not believe.
23. Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air,
We see the uproar this word threw these people of Jerusalem into. They are crying out with rage, tearing off their clothes, and throwing dust in the air. This seems extreme to us in our western culture. Yet these actions were not quite so foreign to those living in an oriental land. The crying out shows the passion of their rage. The tearing off their clothes probably means their outer garments, which would be removed before doing any physical labor. Probably this was done to indicate that they are all ready to stone Paul themselves, something which did require great physical exertion. The Greek also indicates that they were tossing them up in the air, in a sign of their rage and agitation. The throwing of dust into the air was also symbolical for their great perturbation of mind and excess of emotions at the things Paul has said.
Yet we cannot help but wonder at the ferocity of the actions of these people, and ask ourselves if such a reaction could really be caused by nothing more than jealousy and pride. I would point out that it was the word of God to them that had disturbed them to such a great extent. God had spoken through His messenger Paul, and they have utterly refused to hear His message. In fact, it is very likely that these are people who have been rejecting the Word of God all along through the Acts period. Remember that the gospel had first been proclaimed to these people some thirty years or so before this. They have had ample opportunity to choose a side, and these have chosen to side against Jesus Christ. As such, their very minds and consciences have been defiled, so that they reject the good word of God and are willing to only hear lying words of error. These things should not surprise us, for Jerusalem would have been very polarized around the Lord Jesus Christ at this time. Throwing Paul into the mix was a spark to light off this fire storm.
Some have accused Paul of making a mistake in what he said, considering the violent reaction of the people to it. Yet this expression was not a mere slip of the tongue by Paul, who should have read his audience better and known using language like this would incite them. Rather, these were the carefully chosen and inspired words of the living God, and every one of them was truth, and truth these Jerusalemites needed to hear and obey. By responding with total rejection, hatred, and rage like this, these people are not so much showing their attitude towards Paul as they are showing their attitude towards the word of God. These men have rejected Him, and it almost seems as if He leaves them to become little more than brute beasts here, screaming out their hatred and the bile of their hearts toward the God they hate and despise, tearing off their clothing and flinging dust like animals. A frightening thing indeed to see the hatred of unbelievers for the pure truth of the living God!
24. the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him.
The chiliarch, who could not understand a word of what Paul had been saying, knows only what he can see in the reaction of the crowd. He must have been watching Paul as he spoke, and watching the faces of his audience. Suddenly, he sees the faces of the crowd contort with fury, and watches them become, if anything, even more violent and crazed than they were before. He does not know what it is that Paul said that stirred up this fresh bout of rage, but he intends to find out. He orders Paul to be brought on into the barracks, where he plans to examine him under scourging, hoping in this way to get the truth out of him. Again, notice that the commander assumes that the crowd must be in the right, and Paul must be the one causing all the trouble and be in the wrong. Yet God has recorded for us the truth here: that it was the crowd, with their unreasoning hatred for the truth, that was really at fault here. All God’s apostle Paul did here was speak the truth that God gave him to speak.
Now examination by scourging might seem unfair to us, but this is how the Romans often did it. They would beat a man until he confessed to his crime. They would get a lot of confessions that way, though the accuracy of those confessions might honestly be questioned. However, that is the way they did it, and the commander plans on using that method. He needs to find out what is going on here, and why the peace of Jerusalem had been so disturbed. Remember, it was his job to keep the peace.
25. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?”
The commander is off somewhere, perhaps watching the crowd to make sure they don’t try to storm the barracks. Paul’s scourging he has placed in the hands of a centurion. As Paul is being bound in preparation for scourging him, he speaks to this centurion. He asks him this question, though his purpose is not to get an answer. Paul well knew that it is not lawful to scourge a man who is a Roman unless he has been properly condemned to be beaten. We saw him use this fact to his advantage in Philippi back in chapter 16. Paul asks this question rather to inform the centurion of his status. Until Paul spoke up, they had no idea that he was a Roman. Now that they know, they will have to treat him very differently.
No Roman could ever be examined by scourging. This fact shows that the Romans understood the inherent unfairness of this practice. They would not allow this to be done to them, yet to the people under them, they would not extend this right. In some ways, we suppose, they looked at all non-Romans as possible enemies to the Empire, and thus if they appeared to be guilty of anything, they thought it justifiable to find out the truth by whatever means they had to use to discover it. Thus they could justify the mistreatment of those they had subjugated.
26. When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.”
Upon learning of Paul’s status as a Roman, the centurion immediately stops the proceedings, and goes to tell his commander the chiliarch. He uses words of warning, advising his commander to use great care with Paul, since he is a Roman.
27. Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?”
He said, “Yes.”
This discovery is important enough that the chiliarch attend upon it immediately. He comes to Paul, and asks if he is indeed a Roman. Paul answers in the affirmative.
We might wonder if in something like this they would really take a person’s word for it. After all, if it got you special rights and privileges, like getting out of a beating, why would every prisoner not claim to be a Roman? We do admit that they had no “passport,” or anything like that to prove their citizenship status. At first, yes, they had to take a person’s word for it. Yet these things could and would eventually be checked, and a person’s citizenship confirmed. To claim to be a Roman when you were not would get you in even more trouble. The beating that followed would more than make up for the time you bought in delaying it. Moreover, you would have just one more charge against you. It is unlikely that many would be interested in making this claim falsely, and getting themselves into even more trouble.
Moreover, we have to believe that Paul had that about him that made his words ring true. Paul has already demonstrated to the commander that he is cultured enough to speak Greek, and the commander cannot doubt but that he is saying the truth when he claims citizenship. As I said, we have every reason to believe the commander would have checked up on Paul’s claim afterwards, yet the commander has little doubt here that Paul is telling the truth, and of course his checking up on that would have done nothing but confirm it.
28. The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.”
And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.”
The commander compares notes with Paul here, it seems. He himself is a Roman citizen, but he did not start out that way. He had to buy his citizenship, and to do that, he had to pay a large sum. Paul responds that he, on the contrary, was born a citizen. Since the commander already knew that Paul was born in Tarsus, since Paul told him so, this would reveal to the commander that Paul’s parents must have been citizens for him to have been born free. We can see from this that the commander is getting the information he will need to confirm Paul’s claim.
Yet this information also tells him that Paul was born a citizen, which might give him more status than the commander. Though Rome claimed you could buy citizenship and was happy to take the money of those willing to purchase the extra rights and privileges that provided, it is questionable whether a “bought” citizen was really viewed as completely interchangeable with a “born” citizen. The commander will have to be even more careful with Paul, since he now knows this is true. He doesn’t want to jeopardize his own status by trampling on the rights of one who may be more privileged than he is.
29. Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him.
When they hear this, those who had been about to try to beat a confession out of Paul withdraw. It seems they are afraid, so they cannot get out of there fast enough. It is clear they are convinced of the truth of Paul’s claim, and they want nothing to do with denying the rights of a Roman citizen. The chiliarch himself is afraid. Though he is in charge of all Rome’s soldiers in Jerusalem, he is himself under Rome’s authority, and he knows his own citizenship is somewhat second class. The very fact that he had bound Paul to scourge him, even though the scourging never actually took place, could be charged against him as a traitorous act. He is not so secure in his own position as to not be a little afraid upon realizing that he has done this to a free-born Roman.
30. The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
Though he now will be treating Paul with something like kid gloves, this does not let the commander off regarding his other duties. He is still in charge of keeping the peace in Jerusalem, and that peace has been greatly disturbed. He needs to learn why the Jewish officials were beating and planning to execute Paul, and what had caused this uproar in the first place. To him, the most reasonable place to go is to the very top, and the way to do that would be to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin itself. Thus, he looses Paul from his imprisonment, and commands all the chief priests along with the Sanhedrin to convene together. Then, he brings Paul down from the castle to the temple and presents him before them.
Now we will read about Paul’s trial before the Sanhedrin, and learn what he said and what occurred at this very interesting event. Paul now stands where, before him, first the Lord first, then Peter and John, and finally all the twelve had stood. God has already spoken his piece to these men through his apostles, and they have rejected it. We will see what He has to say to them now through His man Paul.
We can also be sure that this time, the chiliarch will not be caught so helpless and unawares as he was before. We can be certain he has brought a translator with him this time, and he will be very interested to learn exactly what is said in this session of the Sanhedrin. We too will examine with interest what went on at this meeting in the next chapter.