When people react to gospel preaching, they are either glad or mad. Luke wants Theophilus, his contemporaries and us to see this again as he presents the various reactions to Paul and his witness. In the process we will learn the two aspects of Paul's gospel that excite Jewish opposition: the offer of salvation to Gentiles, on the same basis as Jews, and the resurrection of the body.
That a supposed heavenly vision in the temple would send Paul to the Gentiles was an unthinkable, blasphemous notion. The crowd reacted to this "red flag" vocally, even turbulently. Raising their voices to drown Paul out, they took up again their cry "Away with him!" (21:36; Lk 23:18). Their reason: the proclaimer of such apostasy is not fit to live! Screaming excitedly, throwing off (better shaking out) their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the crowd shows that they want to have nothing to do with Paul. To them he is as repulsive as an unclean Gentile.
The Jews show themselves to be unfit evaluators of Christianity. Their ethnic pride and prejudice are a warning to us all. We have our own "red flags" that cause the same paralysis of mind and hearing. They put an immediate stop to reason and substitute a blind, violent mob spirit or a granitelike imperviousness to gospel truth (Ogilvie 1983:311).
The tribune has to determine why the people were shouting against Paul (21:34). He decides to interrogate the apostle, using torture to bring out the truth. The NIV rendering flogged and questioned leaves the impression that the flogging is a separate punishment, not an instrument of interrogation (the literal phrase is "interrogate with lashes"). Though Paul had been beaten five times by the Jews and felt the Roman lictors' rods three times, this flogging would eclipse all these in its severity and potential for permanent physical damage, even immediate death (Acts 16:22-23; 2 Cor 11:24-25). In flogging, a whip of thongs studded with pieces of bone or metal, attached to a wooden handle, was applied repeatedly to the back of a person positioned on the floor, at a pillar or suspended from the ceiling. He was stretched out with bound arms secured so he could not deflect the blows.
As the soldiers are stretching their prisoner out with thongs about his wrists to secure him for the scourging, he asks a question that transforms him from victim to master of the situation. Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty? Though from the Augustan age the Lex Julia contained an absolute prohibition on binding or beating a Roman citizen, Paul's qualified statement accords with later practice (Sherwin-White 1963:72-73; compare Acts 16:37). The centurion is dismayed and immediately reports Paul's Roman citizenship to the tribune. The tribune verifies it by a simple question to Paul, which the apostle answers in the affirmative. To wrongly claim Roman citizenship was a serious, even capital offense (Suetonius Claudius 25.3; Epictetus Discourses 3.24.41). Because most citizens did not travel far from their hometown, they did not normally carry with them proof of citizenship. But a traveler such as Paul may have carried with him a copy of his birth registration (Sherwin-White 1963:148-49). Paul's bearing and his previous cultivated interaction with the commander, in which he had revealed his Tarsian citizenship (21:39), may be enough to assure the commander that he is telling the truth.
The tribune responds, possibly sarcastically, I had to pay a big price for my citizenship. He is referring to the bribes he paid to intermediaries in the imperial secretariat or provincial administration to ensure that his name would appear on the list of candidates for enfranchisement. Given his name, Claudius Lycias, he had probably received his citizenship recently, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, his benefactor, whose name he took as his nomen. He may have worked his way up through the ranks and moved from centurion to tribune rank.
Paul responds simply, But I was born a citizen. Paul is at least the tribune's social equal, if not his slight superior by longevity of Roman citizenship in his family.
The declaration of citizenship has its desired effect: the military interrogators withdrew immediately. Paul, though still a prisoner, will be viewed differently from now on. In fact, alarm or fear grips the tribune as he realizes that he violated one of the basic rights of a Roman citizen when he put Paul . . . in chains (21:33). As the Roman orator Cicero exclaimed, "To bind a Roman is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to slay him is almost an act of murder" (Against Verres 2.5.66).
Paul's use of his Roman citizenship teaches us that as an expression of God's moral order, and when the laws governing its exercise of power are just, the state may be appealed to for protection of the physical well-being of law-abiding citizens. The Christian's appeal must always be in the interest of the advance of the gospel.
Though at this point the tribune is no closer to knowing why Paul caused the city to be in a tumult, his integrity in subordinating his methods of interrogation to the laws of Rome is an admirable quality which at least will allow the investigation to continue. He also becomes a silent witness to Paul's innocence.
The commander faces a dilemma. To preserve the life of this Roman citizen, he should probably keep him in custody. And in order to keep him in custody, he should at least have charges. Yet these he has not yet uncovered. His desire is to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. He decides to assemble the chief priests and the Sanhedrin and listen to Paul's defense before them.
Though the tribune is just doing his job in a case of public disorder, he becomes a model for Luke's readers and for us. Just as he persists in his pursuit to know the certain facts of the case (gnonai to asphales; compare 21:34), Luke's readers should study his works to know the certain truth of the gospel (epignos . . . ten asphaleian; Lk 1:4).
With the same spiritual intensity that accompanied God's miraculous work through him, Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin (Acts 14:9; 13:9). He confesses that he has lived a blameless life. Fulfilled my duty to God means, literally, "lived as a citizen before God" (Phil 1:27; 3:20). As the Jews appropriated this term for describing a life of piety, they expanded its scope of reference to the whole conduct of life (3 Macc 3:4; 4 Macc 5:16). Probably the Old Testament concept "to walk before the Lord" is the best equivalent (Gen 17:1). When Paul says that he has all his life, to this day, "walked before God" in all good conscience, he means that he is conscious of no wrongdoing (1 Cor 4:4; Phil 3:6; 2 Tim 1:3). Though he is very much aware of his sinful pre-Christian actions, these he did in ignorance and unbelief, while at the same time being blameless before the law as far as he knew (Rom 7:9-12; Phil 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). He has lived as a Christian through a renewed mind and cleansed conscience (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Tim 1:3; compare Heb 9:14).
What triggers the high priest's physical response? Is it (1) Paul's manner of speaking (his simple form of address [Lake and Cadbury 1979:287] or impolite speaking out of turn [Haenchen 1971:637]), (2) the content of Paul's confession (the arrogant, even blasphemous, assertion that he can be a good Jew though now he is a Christian [Stott 1990:351]) or (3) the high priest's frustration with Paul's holy boldness as he bears witness to the truth, leaving the Jewish cleric at a loss for words? Ordering Paul to be slapped is very much in character for high priest Ananias, son of Nedebaeus (or Nebedaeus), who served A.D. 47-59. He was both greedy and ruthlessly violent, using beatings to extort tithes from common priests' allotment and leaving them destitute (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 20.205-7).
With his cheek still burning from the slap's sting, Paul fires back, God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Paul's predictive curse follows proper Old Testament form (Deut 28:22; m. Sebuot 4:13). He uses an image for hypocrisy that Ezekiel invoked against false prophets who prophesied peace but could no more stand against the onrushing judgment of God than a stone wall held together only by whitewash can withstand an oncoming flood (Ezek 13:10-16). Paul's rationale is that in a judicial system where one is innocent until proven guilty, to punish before the verdict has been rendered is not to judge fairly (Lev 19:15). Paul's prediction came true: Ananias met a violent death at the hand of brigands in A.D. 66 (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.441). But despite all that seems right about Paul's response, it is, as Paul will quickly admit, still wrong. It is blessing, not cursing, that is to be on our lips. The Lord Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek (Lk 6:28-29).
The servant's remonstrance, either as a question (so the NIV) or as a complaint, reveals the high tension of the moment. Here is God's high priest, Israel's chief leader since it has no king, and Paul has declared God's judgment on him!
Paul pleads ignorance, declares the Old Testament law's requirement and in so doing subordinates himself to the authority of the Word of God. He does not speak ironically: "I didn't know he was the high priest, because he was certainly not acting like one" (contra Marshall 1980:364). Nor was his curse a simple sin of ignorance because Paul did not know from whom the command came or did not understand that he was the high priest (contra E. F. Harrison 1986:367). Rather, it was a sin of omission. Paul did not take into consideration the man's position when he made the declaration (Polhill 1992:469). Paul's prophetic curse, given in hasty anger, had violated a basic biblical precept lived out by David in his dealings with Saul. Though an officeholder dishonors the office through his conduct, one does not have liberty to dishonor him (1 Sam 24:6; 26:9-11). Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people (Ex 22:27 LXX).
How do we cope when a sophisticated cynic's punishing rejection of our integrity drives us to lash out in anger? Like Paul, we must respond in humility, quickly admitting our fault and subordinating ourselves again to the authority of God's Word. "It is not our mistakes that do us in; it's our pride that keeps us from admitting them" (Ogilvie 1983:316).
Paul now called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." Is this only a clever diversionary ploy? Is Paul simply trying to divide the assembly, so that they cannot agree to request and be given this prisoner for trial and certain execution? No, Paul's confession focuses on that aspect of the gospel that will be central to his apologetic throughout his trial witness (24:15; 26:6-8; compare 28:20). It tells the truth about the ultimate reason for his arrest by the Jews. For Paul and Luke, resurrection, especially the resurrection of Messiah Jesus, is the key issue that determines the nature of the continuity and discontinuity between Jews and Christians as part of the true people of God. Hope in the resurrection of the dead (literally, "hope and resurrection of the dead") as a hendiadys is better rendered "hope, even the resurrection of the dead." Paul specifies Israel's future hope of messianic salvation by the event that inaugurates it. This was indeed Israel's understanding, and as Christians affirmed it they stood in direct continuity with the Old Testament people of God (Dan 12:2; 2 Macc 7:14; 1 Enoch 51:1-5; Psalms of Solomon 3:11-12). But the belief that the foundational fulfillment of that hope had occurred in the raising of Jesus created the discontinuity. The Jews, on the whole, did not embrace this truth.
Paul finds himself on trial because of the Messiah's resurrection and the new realities it introduced. For if Jesus had not risen from the dead, he could not have appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road, or in the temple, and commissioned him to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 22:15, 21). Paul would, then, not have promulgated a message or lived a lifestyle that his fellow Jews would have opposed.
And today, when many have contented themselves with pinning their hope on social or material progress in this life, we need to declare the good news of a true hope at the end of history, a resurrection to eternal life.
The Sanhedrin was composed of the priestly and lay nobility of the Sadducean theological persuasion together with scribes of the Pharisee faction. An uneasy peace existed between them, for though the Sadducees were the council's majority, the Pharisees had the good will of the people and were able to get their way regarding regulations for Israel's religious life (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 18.16-17).
As Luke points out and Josephus and other ancient Jewish literature document, the Sadducees and Pharisees differed on what happens to human beings after death. The Pharisees affirmed both an intermediate state as "angels and spirits" and a final resurrection (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.163; Jewish Antiquities 18.14; see 2 Baruch 51:5, 10 for evidence of Jewish belief in an intermediate state as angels; 1 Enoch 22:3, 7; 103:3-4 for postdeath existence as spirits; Daube 1990). The Sadducees affirmed neither (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.165; Jewish Antiquities 18.16; compare Lk 20:36).
These social, political and theological factors more than account for the dispute that breaks out, the great uproar that follows and the violence that might well leave Paul torn to pieces (Acts 23:7, 9-10). The debating point leads to a division--a number of the Pharisees argue vigorously that Paul is innocent. Their worldview enables them to admit the possibility that an angel or spirit had spoken to him on the Damascus Road or in the temple. They are not confessing Jesus as risen Messiah, let alone exalted Lord, but they are on the way.
The gospel's worldview assumptions will always challenge the givens in any of today's myriad cultural, religious, philosophical and ideological outlooks. Like Paul, we need to so know our audience's worldview so that we may communicate the truth in love, where possible identifying common ground yet knowing there is always bound to be disagreement.
Things are getting out of hand. The commander sends word for more troops to come down from the Antonia fortress and "snatch" Paul out of the midst of the Sanhedrin. With this second rescue by the Romans, Agabus's prediction has come to its complete fulfillment (21:34, 11): Paul is now fully in the Romans' custody.
Paul believed that it was God's will--at least he purposed "in the Spirit"--to bear witness in Jerusalem and Rome (19:21). He admitted that he did not know whether he would succeed, for the divine guidance he received also included warnings that affliction and imprisonment awaited him in Jerusalem (20:23; 21:4, 11). On more than one occasion he stated his readiness to face death, even in Jerusalem, if that was what faithful witness demanded (20:24; 21:13).
As he is violently opposed by the Jews, an enigma to his Roman protectors, what must be racing through his mind? What's next for him? Though we do not know Paul's mind and heart at this point, the Lord does. The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." This word of comfort, assuring Paul that it is God's will (dei, "must"; 19:21; 27:24) that he bear witness in Rome, is also a word of guidance. Directed by this knowledge, Paul will avoid death by ambush on the way to or in Jerusalem (23:12-35; 25:1-12).
From this vision and subsequent events we learn that because martyrdom is never suicide, the gospel witness can be assured of divine guidance and protection, in the midst of life-threatening circumstances, so that his mission is not cut short.
About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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