Acts 21 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Arrested in the Temple
"Will we survive?" is the pressing question for Jews in every generation. Twentieth-century Jews in the shadow of Hitler's holocaust vow "Never again!" First-century Jews saw Paul's Gentile mission as equally a threat to their survival, for it effectively erased the line between Jew and Gentile within the people of God. The eternally decisive issue, however, is, Which "people of God" does God intend to survive?
Toward the end of the seven-day purification process (Num 19:12)--probably the seventh day, when he will receive the "water of atonement"--Paul is in the temple. Jews from Asia see him there--to them this is an unusual sight (theaomai; compare Acts 1:11; 22:9). From the time of his witness in the Ephesian synagogue, Paul has faced constant opposition from Asian Jews, and now, under cover of a Pentecost pilgrimage, they have dogged his steps to Jerusalem (19:9; 20:19; compare 6:9; 20:29). They stirred up the whole crowd, so that a mob scene ensues (19:32). Paul is seized by his persecutors as they broadcast the charges against him (compare Lk 21:12; Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:1).
Agitation, confusion and physical violence are the hallmarks of persecution. For the disciple of Christ they are neither a surprise nor beyond God's providential control and saving purposes (Lk 21:15, 18).
Whereas the Gentiles of Macedonia asked for help in hearing the message of salvation, the Jews of Jerusalem request help for destroying the messenger (Acts 16:9). The Asian Jews raise a general charge against Paul's teaching: it opposes our people [laos] and our law and this place, that is, the temple (compare 6:11, 13-14; 24:5-6; contrast Paul's understanding of his stance toward Judaism, 24:14-16). Acts does not record Paul's views on the temple (but compare 7:48-50 and 17:24). He does say the law is unable to free from sin or bring forgiveness (13:39). Paul does not teach against the people. Rather, the Jews who oppose Paul and his gospel--the good news of the fulfillment of the promises made to their forebears--reveal by their opposition that they are not part of the true people of God. So it is with any opposition to the gospel. It is a revelation of the persecutor's error, not a valid judgment against the message.
The specific charge is that Paul has brought Greeks into the temple and thus defiled it. The Asian Jews have seen the Asian Trophimus in Paul's company (Trophimus is part of the delegation bringing the collection--20:4; 2 Tim 4:20). They assumed, wrongly (compare 14:19; 17:29), that this apostle whose preaching so effectively has torn down barriers between Jews and Gentiles would not hesitate to take a Gentile beyond the court of the Gentiles into the court of women, even the court of Israel.
Though Gentiles were welcome to worship in the outermost court, they were forbidden on penalty of death to enter beyond the balustrade into the two inner courts (m. Kelim 1:8). Josephus informs us, and archaeological evidence confirms, that at intervals there were signs posted in Greek and Latin saying "No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the Sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death" (Segal 1989:79; Polhill [1992:452] has information on the present location of such an inscription; Josephus Jewish Wars 5.193). This prohibition enforced Numbers 3:38.
It is ironic indeed that Paul is arrested while doing the very opposite of what he is accused of. In the process of seeking to show his respect for Jewish ethnic identity within the church by practicing ritual purification, he is arrested for allegedly defiling the temple. All this occurs because Paul is committed at one and the same time to the unity of all through their identity in Christ, no matter racial and ethnic background, and to the respect of cultural diversity in the body of Christ. Any Christian who insists on standing in such a tension will probably be similarly misunderstood as both too free in associations and too strict in ethnic loyalties.
Luke graphically takes us from the panoramic view of a whole city aroused (kineo; literally, "moved, shaken"), to the people (laos) becoming a mob (syndrome tou laou; compare v. 36), to the man at the vortex: Paul seized (18:17) and dragged (16:19) out of the temple's sacred courts to the court of the Gentiles. And immediately the gates were shut.
In these few brief details of the Jerusalem Jews' final rejection of the Christian gospel, we see the last major spiritual and geographical turning point in Acts. Never again will Paul return to Jerusalem for worship or witness. By shutting out the messenger and the message of salvation, Paul's opponents have sealed the city's doom (Lk 13:34-35; 21:6, 20). Israel's ethnic pride, which constantly fueled its determination to survive, prevented it from fulfilling its divinely intended mission as "a light for the Gentiles" (Is 49:6). It robbed the temple of the universal glory God planned for it as "a house of prayer for all nations" (Is 56:7; compare Lk 19:46). May every "people of God" (church) in every nation and culture heed Jerusalem's negative example, lest it too find itself under God's judgment for failing to reach out with the gospel to those beyond its own kind.
When we understand the Jewish view of Paul's alleged crime, we will know the mortal danger he was in as the temple police proceeded to beat him. As implied by the wording of the last phrase of the inscription--"whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death"--the penalty for defiling the temple sanctuary was summary execution, "death at the hands of heaven." This applied as much to a Jew who brought a defiling person into the sanctuary as to the unclean person himself (b. Erubin 104b). No trial was required. The charge alone was sufficient to warrant being delivered into the hands of the temple police, dragged into the outer court, the court of the Gentiles, and beaten to death (for example, having one's brain split open with clubs--m. Sanhedrin 9:6; Philo Legatio ad Gaium 212). The Romans normally did not interfere with such executions (Josephus Jewish Wars 6.124-26). Such summary justice was demanded not only by the nature of the crime but by its consequences. The Jews believed the temple remained profaned until the trespasser had been executed by the priestly authorities on behalf of God. This background not only explains the bloodthirsty reaction of the crowd now and as they interrupt Paul's speech but also supplies an understandable motive for the curse vow of those who subsequently conspire to murder him (21:36; 22:22-23; 23:12). If the commander of the Roman garrison had not arrived, Paul would have been beaten to death.
Adjacent to the temple area, at the juncture of the western and northern porticoes that formed the outer boundary of the court of the Gentiles, was the Antonia fortress. It was headquarters of the Roman garrison stationed at Jerusalem. Herod the Great reinforced it for the safety and protection of the temple and named it for Antony. This spacious sixty-foot-high building had the general appearance of a tower; turrets stood at its four corners, the one on the southeast being 105 feet high. From it Roman soldiers commanded a view of the whole temple area. Stairways into the northern and western porticoes gave direct access to the court of the Gentiles (see Josephus Jewish Wars 5.192, 238-247; Jewish Antiquities 15.409). A cohort stationed in Jerusalem had, at least on paper, 760 infantry with 240 cavalry (Lake and Cadbury 1979:275). During festival times they would be on guard at the porticoes of the outer court, alert to any signs of insurrection (Josephus Jewish Wars 5.244). The decade and a half before the outbreak of the Jewish war against Rome was marked by constant disturbances against the Roman political order (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.160-72; Jewish Wars 2.254-65).
It is not surprising, then, that when the commander of the garrison heard that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar, he himself, with some centurions and soldiers, ran down the steps of the fortress into the court of the Gentiles to restore order. The commander's arrest (which was a rescue), his interrogation of the crowd (though unsuccessful) and his removal of Paul to the barracks, away from the crowd's murderous intent, all model what Luke sees as the state's proper role toward the Christian. The state's order must protect Christians against anarchic persecution. State justice must be exercised based on getting at the truth based on the facts (22:24, 30). By affirming these values through his positive portrayal of Roman military officials, Luke certainly gained a hearing among his Roman audience, whom he would encourage to follow the same example by getting at the facts of the gospel (Lk 1:4).
By contrast, the Jews are thoroughly discredited, for all they want is to do away with the gospel messenger (Lk 23:18; Acts 21:36; 22:22). When ethnic survival in this life is the highest priority, one is bound to miss salvation for eternity (9:23-26).
What's a Jewish Christian to do? He feels very comfortable in his new faith with its Old Testament roots. At the same time this faith has radically transformed him into a "world Christian." He is now at home in the ethnically diverse body of Christ. Misunderstandings, even opposition, are bound to arise. How do you explain that following a universal gospel does not mean surrendering one's Jewishness, especially one's piety? In Paul's defense he declares that the risen Christ is the key.
At the top of the stairs, just as the Roman soldiers are about to take Paul into the Antonia fortress barracks, away from the tumult of the pursuing mob, the apostle asks permission to speak with the commander. Paul's polite and polished Greek catches the tribune off guard; he replies, Do you speak Greek? He had expected the cause of such a disturbance to be a Jew of rough character and no education. Now he tries to place him among foreigners who were potential troublemakers. Is he that Egyptian false prophet who, some four to five years earlier (A.D. 54), had raised up a large following, four thousand terrorists, taken them into the desert and returned to the Mount of Olives? From there, he had promised his band, he would command the walls of Jerusalem to fall flat. The Roman garrison would then be an easy conquest, and the Egyptian could be installed as ruler (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.261-63; Jewish Antiquities 20.169-72). Governor Felix's troops, however, took preemptive action, slaying four hundred, taking two hundred prisoner and scattering the rest, including the Egyptian. Has he now returned to Jerusalem, and is the populace venting its anger on him for the failed revolt and its aftermath?
Paul answers that he is a Jew, not a foreign false prophet. This also explains why he is in the temple. He is citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, not an Egyptian; a person with civic status, not a disenfranchised revolutionary. Tarsus of Cilicia, southeastern Asia Minor, was ten miles from the Mediterranean Sea on the Cydnus River, population 500,000 at the height of its prominence. It was of strategic importance, for it commanded the Cilician Gates, a pass through the Taurus Mountains which led to the central Asia Minor plateau and trade routes to the west. It was not an idle boast to call it no ordinary city. From the early days of the Empire, the life of Tarsus had been closely intertwined with that of the highest levels of Rome. Julius Caesar visited the city in 47 B.C., and Antony granted it the status of a free city in 42 B.C. Augustus sent Athendorus, his former tutor, a Stoic philosopher, back to his native Tarsus to reestablish just administration. Nestor, tutor to Marcellus, Augustus's intended heir, continued the Rome-decreed line of "philosopher-governors." The people of this university town had a zeal for learning and philosophy beyond that of Athens and Alexandria, though it did not attract as many students as the latter centers. Tarsians were known for finishing their schooling abroad and finally settling in Rome or elsewhere (Hemer 1988).
What Theophilus and we should learn from this interchange is not to confuse the gospel's liberation with political revolution. The Lord Jesus and his kingdom present a more radical challenge than that.
Paul asks and receives permission to speak to the crowd. His courage and determination are at once remarkable and readily understandable. What would cause him to want to address a crowd that had slandered him, given him an executioner's beating and, only minutes before, so violently rushed on him and called for his death that Roman soldiers had to physically pick him up so they could make a hasty exit? It is a total commitment to his Lord and his calling (20:23-24; compare Lk 21:13). This perspective gives the gospel its integrity. It's a stance we must all adopt.
With the stairs as his platform and the crowd below as his ready-made congregation, Paul stood . . . and motioned to the crowd with his hand (Acts 12:17; 13:16; 19:33). Miraculously, they become silent. Here is not simply the force of personality or even of a courageous character. Here the power of God is at work to gain a hearing for the battered, arrested, faithful apostle. Paul addresses the people in Aramaic (better, as the NIV margin states, in Hebrew--te Hebradi dialekto, literally, "in the Hebrew language"; see notes).
Paul's address, Brothers and fathers, together with his use of Hebrew, is a proper and effective exordium or opening. He shows respect to the dignitaries, priests and Sanhedrin, the older members in the crowd. He identifies with his audience in the use of their sacred language. They quiet down and listen.
Paul's brief narratio, a statement of the facts adapted to persuade his listeners that the charges are groundless, follows the common ancient pattern for describing one's formative years: birth, rearing, education. He is a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia. Hence he is not against the Jewish people. He was brought up in Jerusalem. One can hardly expect the son of Diaspora Jews, returned to Jerusalem for his formative years, to be against the temple. Under (literally, "at the feet of") Gamaliel Paul was trained "according to the strictness of the law of the fathers." How could one who had allowed himself to "be dusted by the dust" of such an eminent scholar's feet now teach against the law (Pirqe Abot 1:4; see comment at Acts 5:34)? Would one who is as zealous for God (see comment at 21:21) as any in the crowd bring a Gentile into the temple's sacred courts and defile them? Paul prizes his Jewish heritage, and so should every Jewish Christian. Such loyalty will get Theophilus's attention.
Paul's probatio (body of proof section) offers four scenes from his conversion and its aftermath. They provide evidence, substantiated by witnesses, that his life of Jewish piety and his calling to preach the universal gospel are compatible.
Scene one portrays Paul as the persecutor of the followers of the way. The extent of his persecution (women as well as men) and the outcome (sometimes death--7:58; 8:1; 26:10) proved Paul's zeal for the Jewish God (Phil 3:6). They were also a silent witness to his sin and rebellion against God. Luke consistently portrays sinful ethnic Israel as the persecutors and murderers of God's true apostles and prophets (Lk 11:49; Acts 7:52; compare Lk 21:12). Paul never recovered from the shame of what had been for him a badge of honor (1 Cor 15:9; 1 Tim 1:13-15).
At this point Paul simply wants his audience to know his zeal, and he appeals to the records or the memory of high priest and Sanhedrin as testimony to the fact. One of the most exasperating things about self-righteous rebellion against God is that it can appear in the guise of zeal for God.
Scene two, the risen Lord's encounter with Paul on the Damascus Road, places under judgment his life of persecuting believers out of zeal for God. Luke highlights the overpowering nature of the divine encounter by noting that in the brightness of the midday sun a divine light flashed around Paul. Blinding at noontime and being cast to the ground picture the spiritual judgment under which Paul found himself (Is 25:12; 26:5; 29:4). Jesus' haunting question Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me? reveals that Jesus of Nazareth, in his resurrection power, is the key for distinguishing between proper and misguided zeal for God. And it is the same today for Jew and Gentile alike. Jesus is the litmus test. Any zeal for God that turns a person against the followers of Jesus is misguided.
Paul makes sure that this supernatural event can serve as a sign and undeniable proof in his probatio by describing the experience of corroborating witnesses, his companions. Paul's encounter with Christ was objective yet personal. His companions saw the light surrounding Paul but not the risen Lord who appeared to him (Acts 22:9, 14; 9:7). They heard a voice addressing Paul but were not privy to its message (9:7; 22:9).
Paul's enlightenment concerning his guilt led to enlistment in Christ's cause. Neither as a good Jew responding to divine revelation (contra Longenecker 1981:525) nor as one simply stupefied, realizing he must change (contra Marshall 1980:355), but like the Pentecost crowd, realizing it was under judgment, Paul asked, What shall I do, Lord? (2:37). The Lord did not answer directly but called for trust and allegiance as he directed Paul to the city. Paul's blindness was another sign that something supernatural had indeed happened to him on the Damascus Road. Luke's phrasing, brilliance of the light (doxa tou photos, "glory of the light") leaves little doubt in the reader's mind that this is the splendor of the exalted Lord Jesus appearing from heaven (Lk 24:26; 21:27; also see 9:26, 31-32; 2:9; Acts 7:2, 55).
Scene three, in Damascus, expounds, possibly by reverse parallelism, the meaning of Paul's conversion in terms of divine and human initiative (vv. 13, 16) and relates his calling to preach the universal gospel (vv. 14-15). Paul's witness to all this was Ananias, whose piety according to the law was attested by all the Jews of Damascus. He embodies the continuity and discontinuity of Jewish Christianity, for the man of such renowned piety was also the Lord's instrument and mouthpiece for equipping Paul in the first steps of his newfound faith and mission.
The acted parable of the Lord's saving work, moving from blindness to sight, was completed as Ananias stood beside Paul and said, "Brother Saul, receive your sight!" (anablepo, "to see again" or "to look up"; when Luke describes the restoration he uses the same verb with Ananias as the object, so that possibly both meanings are meant here--Paul saw again as he looked up at Ananias). The key role Ananias played in Paul's conversion demonstrates to the audience that being a pious Jew and being a Christian convert are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
As Ananias interpreted to Paul his calling on the Damascus Road, the continuity was emphasized. It was the God of our fathers who had appointed him (3:13; 5:30; 7:32; Ex 3:13). God had chosen Paul to know his will. From the Damascus Road encounter Paul had the haunting realization that his persecution had been actually directed at Jesus of Nazareth, the risen and exalted Messiah. From this he knew that God's will must have something to do with his saving purposes and their implementation through the gathering of a body of believers called followers of the Way. But God had chosen Paul for more. He was privileged like the other apostles, though "as one abnormally born" (1 Cor 15:7-8), to see the risen Lord (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33).
Ananias used the messianic title the Righteous One (Jer 23:5-6; 33:15; Zech 9:9; Acts 3:14; 7:52). This points to the heart of the gospel: the risen, exalted Jesus of Nazareth, whom Paul sees, is the vindicated victim of an innocent death. And Paul was destined to hear from the voice of his mouth the gospel message, to which he was called to bear lifelong witness. This full-orbed revelation of the gospel would both fulfill and supersede the document of promise, the law.
Paul's responsibility was to be Christ's witness to all men of what [he had] seen and heard (Lk 24:46-48; Acts 1:8; 9:15). The universal scope of the gospel's offer of salvation is stated in general terms here. In the end it will prove to be the stumbling block to those who hear this speech (22:21-22). Note how much of the gospel message (Lk 24:46-48) is stated or implied in Acts 22:7-10, 14. Ananias rightly contended that Paul's gospel was revealed to him from heaven (compare 26:14-18; Rom 10:9-10; 1 Cor 15:1-4; Gal 1:12, 15-16).
Either as a mild rebuke (so the NIV) or possibly as a simple question (Marshall 1980:357), Ananias completed his mission by encouraging Paul in the next step: fulfilling his responsibility in response to his conversion. He was to "get himself baptized," picturing in that outward purification the inward cleansing from his sins that had resulted from his calling on the name of the Lord for salvation (Acts 2:38, 21; 9:14, 21).
Paul is a model for all those who become disciples in answer to the call of those who are fulfilling their Lord's commission (Mt 28:18-20). For identification with the church through public profession of faith and baptism is not only a matter of obedience, it is a matter of spiritual health, now and in eternity (Lk 12:8). We need the outward sign of our salvation applied to us like a stake in the ground.
In the last scene Paul himself models the tension of continuity and discontinuity in a Jewish Christian's life. He remained loyal to the Lord's holy place, exercising piety in worship in the temple upon his return to Jerusalem. Even after conversion, then, he practiced a piety that gave the lie to the recent charges that he taught against the temple and cavalierly defiled it by bringing Gentiles into its sacred precincts.
During worship, in a trance, Paul saw Jesus, the Lord of the temple (Lk 19:45-48; compare 2:46-49). The Lord directed him, Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me. This heavenly command and rationale declared the scandalous proposition that the risen and exalted Messiah would direct his messengers of salvation tidings away from Israel. Its rationale was an indictment of Israel's unwillingness to receive the gospel.
Paul showed his zeal for the people by remonstrating with the Lord. Surely his life as a persecutor and his service as an accomplice to Stephen's death would be enough evidence of his Jewish loyalty and would gain him a hearing (7:58; 8:1, 3; 9:2; 22:4). The Lord did not argue with Paul. He had already given his rationale: Israel did not oppose the messenger but the message, your testimony about me. All that remained was for the Lord to repeat the command and for Paul to obey. Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles (2:39; 13:46; Eph 2:13, 17). The Gentile mission was the focus of Paul's ministry, yet always within a "to the Jew first" strategy (Acts 9:15; 13:46; 14:27; 15:3, 12; 21:19).
In the divinely commanded mission to the Gentiles and the Jewish people's refusal to accept the gospel we have the explanation of the Jews' opposition to Paul. The charges are false, but the opposition is real. Should our Lord's directive to Paul become a paradigm for church-growth strategy today--for example, "hold resistant fields lightly; concentrate harvesters where the response is greatest"? The Jewish people's unique position in relation to the Gentiles in salvation history (Rom 11:25-26) prevents us from extrapolating principles about responsiveness and concentration of forces. The momentum, however, always seems to be toward the frontiers, toward those who have never heard the gospel.