We have here Paul brought into a captivity which we are not likely to see the end of; for after this he is either hurried from one bar to another, or lies neglected, first in one prison and then in another, and can neither be tried nor bailed. When we see the beginning of a trouble, we know not either how long it will last or how it will issue.
I. We have here Paul seized, and laid hold on.
1. He was seized in the temple, when he was there attending the days of his purifying, and the solemn services of those days, Acts 21:27. Formerly he had been well known in the temple, but now he had been so long in his travels abroad that he had become a stranger there; so that it was not till the seven days were almost ended that he was taken notice of by those that had an evil eye towards him. In the temple, where he should have been protected, as in a sanctuary, he was most violently set upon by those who did what they could to have his blood mingled with his sacrifices—in the temple, where he should have been welcomed as one of the greatest ornaments of it that ever had been there since the Lord of the temple left it. The temple, which they themselves pretended such a mighty zeal for, yet did they themselves thus profane. Thus is the church polluted by none more than by popish persecutors, under the colour of the church’s name and interest.
2. The informers against him were the Jews of Asia, not those of Jerusalem—the Jews of the dispersion, who knew him best, and who were most exasperated against him. Those who seldom came up to worship at the temple in Jerusalem themselves, but contentedly lived at a distance from it, in pursuit of their private advantages, yet appeared most zealous for the temple, as if thereby they would atone for their habitual neglect of it.
3. The method they took was to raise the mob, and to incense them against him. They did not go to the high priest, or the magistrates of the city, with their charge (probably because they expected not to receive countenance from them), but they stirred up all the people, who were at this time more than ever disposed to any thing that was tumultuous and seditious, riotous and outrageous. Those are fittest to be employed against Christ and Christianity that are governed least by reason and most by passion; therefore Paul described the Jewish persecutors to be not only wicked, but absurd unreasonable men.
4. The arguments wherewith they exasperated the people against him were popular, but very false and unjust. They cried out, “Men of Israel, help. If you are indeed men of Israel, true-born Jews, that have a concern for your church and your country, now is your time to show it, by helping to seize an enemy to both.” Thus they cried after him as after a thief (Job 30:5), or after a mad dog. Note, The enemies of Christianity, since they could never prove it to be an ill thing, have been always very industrious, right or wrong, to put it into an ill name, and so run it down by outrage and outcry. It had become men of Israel to help Paul, who preached up him who was so much the glory of his people Israel; yet here the popular fury will not allow them to be men of Israel, unless they will help against him. This was like, Stop thief, or Athaliah’s cry, Treason, treason; what is wanting in right is made up in noise.
5. They charge upon him both bad doctrine and bad practice, and both against the Mosaic ritual.
(1.) They charge upon him bad doctrine; not only that he holds corrupt opinions himself, but that he vents and publishes them, though not here at Jerusalem, yet in other places, nay in all places, he teaches all men, every where; so artfully is the crime aggravated, as if, because he was an itinerant, he was a ubiquitary: “He spreads to the utmost of his power certain damnable and heretical positions,” [1.] Against the people of the Jews. He had taught that Jews and Gentiles stand on the same level before God, and neither circumcision avails any thing nor uncircumcision; nay, he had taught against the unbelieving Jews that they were rejected (and therefore had separated from them and their synagogues), and this is interpreted to be speaking against the whole nation, as if no doubt but they were the people, and wisdom must die with them (Job 12:2), whereas God, though he had cast them off, yet had not cast away his people, Rom. 11:1. They were Lo-ammi, not a people (Hos. 1:9), and yet pretended to be the only people. Those commonly seem most jealous for the church’s name that belong to it in name only. [2.] Against the law. His teaching men to believe the gospel as the end of the law, and the perfection of it, was interpreted his preaching against the law; whereas it was so far from making void the law that it established it, Rom. 3:31. [3.] Against this place, the temple. Because he taught men to pray every where, he was reproached as an enemy to the temple, and perhaps because he sometimes mentioned the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and of the Jewish nation, which his Master had foretold. Paul had himself been active in persecuting Stephen, and putting him to death for words spoken against this holy place, and now the same thing is laid to his charge. He that was then made use of as the tool is now set up as the butt of Jewish rage and malice.
(2.) They charge upon him bad practices. To confirm their charge against him, as teaching people against this holy place, they charge it upon him that he had himself polluted it, and by an overt-act showed his contempt of it, and a design to make it common. He has brought Gentiles also into the temple, into the inner court of the temple, which none that were uncircumcised were admitted, under any pretence, to come into; there was written upon the wall that enclosed this inner court, in Greek and Latin, It is a capital crime for strangers to enter.—Josephus Antiq. 15. 417. Paul was himself a Jew, and had right to enter into the court of the Jews. And they, seeing some with him there that joined with him in his devotions, concluded that Trophimus an Ephesian, who was a Gentile, was one of them. Why? Did they see him there? Truly no; but they had seen him with Paul in the streets of the city, which was no crime at all, and therefore they affirm that he was with Paul in the inner court of the temple, which was a heinous crime. They had seen him with him in the city, and therefore they supposed that Paul had brought him with him into the temple, which was utterly false. See here, [1.] Innocency is no fence against calumny and false accusation. It is no new thing for those that mean honestly, and act regularly, to have things laid to their charge which they know not, nor ever thought of. [2.] Evil men dig up mischief, and go far to seek proofs of their false accusations, as they did here, who, because they saw a Gentile with Paul in the city, will thence infer that he was with him in the temple. This was a strained innuendo indeed, yet by such unjust and groundless suggestions have wicked men thought to justify themselves in the most barbarous outrages committed upon the excellent ones of the earth. [3.] It is common for malicious people to improve that against those that are wise and good with which they thought to have obliged them and ingratiated themselves with them. Paul thought to recommend himself to their good opinion by going into the temple, he had not been so maligned by them. This is the genius of ill-nature; for my love, they are my adversaries, Ps. 109:4; Ps. 69:10.
We have Paul in danger of being pulled in pieces by the rabble. They will not be at the pains to have him before the high priest, or the sanhedrim; that is a roundabout way: the execution shall be of a piece with the prosecution, all unjust and irregular. They cannot prove the crime upon him, and therefore dare not bring him upon a fair trial; nay, so greedily do they thirst after his blood that they have not patience to proceed against him by a due course of law, though they were ever so sure to gain their point; and therefore, as those who neither feared God nor regarded man, they resolved to knock him on the head immediately.
1. All the city was in an uproar, Acts 21:30. The people, who though they had little holiness themselves, yet had a mighty veneration for the holy place, when they heard a hue-and-cry from the temple, were up in arms presently, being resolved to stand by that with their lives and fortunes. All the city was moved, when they were called to from the temple, Men of Israel, help, with as much violence as if the old complaint were revived (Ps. 79:1), O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance, thy holy temple have they defiled. Just such a zeal the Jews here show for God’s temple as the Ephesians did for Diana’s temple, when Paul was informed against as an enemy to that (Acts 19:29): The whole city was full of confusion. But God does not reckon himself at all honoured by those whose zeal for him transports them to such irregularities, and who, while they pretend to act for him, act in such a brutish barbarous manner.
2. They drew Paul out of the temple, and shut the doors between the outer and inner court of the temple, or perhaps the doors of the outer court. In dragging him furiously out of the temple, (1.) They showed a real detestation of him as one not fit to be suffered in the temple, nor to worship there, nor to be looked upon as a member of the Jewish nation; as if his sacrifice had been an abomination. (2.) They pretended a veneration for the temple; like that of good Jehoiada, who would not have Athaliah to be slain in the house of the Lord, 2 Kgs. 11:15. See how absurd these wicked men were; they condemned Paul for drawing people from the temple, and yet, when he himself was very devoutly worshipping in the temple, they drew him out of it. The officers of the temple shut the doors, either, [1.] Lest Paul should find means to get back and take hold of the horns of the altar, and so protect himself by that sanctuary from their rage. Or rather, [2.] Lest the crowd should by the running in of more to them be thrust back into the temple, and some outrage should be committed, to the profanation of that holy place. Those that made no conscience of doing so ill a thing as the murdering of a good man for well-doing, yet would be thought to scruple doing it in a holy place, or at a holy time: Not in the temple, as Not on the feast-day.
3. They went about to kill him (Acts 21:31), for they fell a beating him (Acts 21:32), resolving to beat him to death by blows without number, a punishment which the Jewish doctors allowed in some cases (not at all to the credit of their nation), and called the beating of the rebels. Now was Paul, like a lamb, thrown into a den of lions, and made an easy prey to them, and, no doubt, he was still of the same mind as when he said, I am ready not only to be bound, but to die at Jerusalem, to die so great a death.
III. We have here Paul rescued out of the hands of his Jewish enemies by a Roman enemy. 1. Tidings were brought of the tumult, and that the mob was up, to the chief captain of the band, the governor of the castle, or, whoever he was, the now commander-in-chief of the Roman forces that were quartered in Jerusalem. Somebody that was concerned not for Paul, but for the public peace and safety, gave this information to the colonel, who had always a jealous and watchful eye upon these tumultuous Jews, and he is the man that must be instrumental to save Paul’s life, when never a friend he had was capable of doing him any service. 2. The tribune, or chief captain, got his forces together with all possible expedition, and went to suppress the mob: He took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. Now at the feast, as at other such solemn times, the guards were up, and the militia more within call than at other times, and so he had them near at hand, and he ran down unto the multitude; for at such times delays are dangerous. Sedition must be crushed at first, lest it grow headstrong. 3. The very sight of the Roman general frightened them from beating Paul; for they knew they were doing what they could not justify, and were in danger of being called in question for this day’s uproar, as the town clerk told the Ephesians. They were deterred from that by the power of the Romans from which they ought to have been restrained by the justice of God and the dread of his wrath. Note, God often makes the earth to help the woman (Rev. 12:16), and those to be a protection to his people who yet have no affection for his people; they have only a compassion for sufferers, and are zealous for the public peace. The shepherd makes use even of his dogs for the defence of his sheep. It is Streso’s comparison here. See here how these wicked people were frightened away at the very sight of the chief captain; for the king that sitteth on the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes. The governor takes him into custody. He rescued him, not out of a concern for him, because he thought him innocent, but out of a concern for justice, because he ought not to be put to death without trial; and because he knew not how dangerous the consequence might be to the Roman government of such tumultuous proceedings were not timely suppressed, nor what such an outrageous people might do if once they knew their own strength: he therefore takes Paul out of the hands of the mob into the hands of the law (Acts 21:33): He took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains, that the people might be satisfied he did not intend to discharge him, but to examine him, for he demanded of those who were so eager against him who he was, and what he had done. This violent taking of him out of the hands of the multitude, though there was all the reason in the world for it, yet they laid to the charge of the chief captain as his crime (Acts 24:7): The chief captain Lysias came with great violence, and took him out of our hands, which refers to this rescue as appears by comparing Acts 23:27, 28, where the chief captain gives an account of it to Felix.
IV. The provision which the chief captain made, with much ado, to bring Paul to speak for himself. One had almost as good enter into a struggle with the winds and the waves, as with such a mob as was here got together; and yet Paul made a shift to get liberty of speech among them.
1. There was no knowing the sense of the people; for when the chief captain enquired concerning Paul, having perhaps never heard of his name before (such strangers were the great ones to the excellent ones of the earth, and affected to be so), some cried one thing, and some another, among the multitude; so that it was impossible for the chief captain to know their mind, when really they knew not either one another’s mind or their own, when every one pretended to give the sense of the whole body. Those that will hearken to the clamours of the multitude will know nothing for a certainty, any more than the builders of Babel, when their tongues were confounded.
2. There was no quelling the rage and fury of the people; for when the chief captain commanded that Paul should be carried into the castle, the tower of Antonia, where the Roman soldiers kept garrison, near the temple, the soldiers themselves had much ado to get him safely thither out of the noise, the people were so violent (Acts 21:35): When he came upon the stairs, leading up to the castle, the soldiers were forced to take him up in their arms, and carry him (which they might easily do, for he was a little man, and his bodily presence weak), to keep him from the people, who would have pulled him limb from limb if they could. When they could not reach him with their cruel hands, they followed him with their sharp arrows, even bitter words: They followed, crying, Away with him, Acts 21:36. See how the most excellent persons and things are often run down by a popular clamour. Christ himself was so, with, Crucify him, crucify him, though they could not say what evil he had done. Take him out of the land of the living (so the ancients expound it), chase him out of the world.
3. Paul at length begged leave of the chief captain to speak to him (Acts 21:37): As he was to be led into the castle, with a great deal of calmness and composedness in himself, and a great deal of mildness and deference to those about him, he said unto the chief captain, “May I speak unto thee? Will it be no offence, nor construed as a breach of rule, if I give thee some account of myself, since my persecutors can give no account of me?” What a humble modest question was this! Paul knew how to speak to the greatest of men, and had many a time spoken to his betters, yet he humbly begs to leave to speak to this commander, and will not speak till he has obtained leave: May I speak unto thee?
4. The chief captain tells him what notion he had of him: Canst thou speak Greek? I am surprised to hear thee speak a learned language; for, Art not thou that Egyptian who made an uproar? The Jews made the uproar, and then would have it thought that Paul had given them occasion for it, by beginning first; for probably some of them whispered this in the ear of the chief captain. See what false mistaken notions of good people and good ministers many run away with, and will not be at the pains to have the mistake rectified. It seems, there had lately been an insurrection somewhere in that country, headed by an Egyptian, who took on him to be a prophet. Josephus mentions this story, that “an Egyptian raised a seditious party, promised to show them the fall of the walls of Jerusalem from the mount of Olives, and that they should enter the city upon the ruins.” The captain here says that he led out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers—desperadoes, banditti, raparees, cut-throats. What a degeneracy was there in the Jewish nation, when there were found there so many that had such a character, and could be drawn into such an attempt upon the public peace! But Josephus says that “Felix the Roman president went out against them, killed four hundred, and took two hundred prisoners, and the rest were dispersed.”—Antiq. 20. 171; Wars 2. 263. And Eusebius speaks of it, Hist. 2. 20. It happened in the thirteenth year of Claudius, a little before those days, about three years ago. The ringleader of this rebellion, it seems, had made his escape, and the chief captain concluded that one who lay under so great an odium as Paul seemed to lie under, and against whom there was so great an outcry, could not be a criminal of less figure than this Egyptian. See how good men are exposed to ill-will by mistake.
5. Paul rectifies his mistake concerning him, by informing him particularly what he was; not such a vagabond, a scoundrel, a rake, as that Egyptian, who could give no good account of himself. No: I am a man who is a Jew originally, and no Egyptian—a Jew both by nation and religion; I am of Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, of honest parents and a liberal education (Tarsus was a university), and, besides that, a citizen of no mean city. Whether he means Tarsus or Rome is not certain; they were neither of them mean cities, and he was a freeman of both. Though the chief captain had put him under such an invidious suspicion, that he was that Egyptian, he kept his temper, did not break out into any passionate exclamations against the times he lived in or the men he had to do with, did not render railing for railing, but mildly denied the charge, and owned what he was.
6. He humbly desired a permission from the chief captain, whose prisoner he now was, to speak to the people. He does not demand it as a debt, though he might have done so, but sues for it as a favour, which he will be thankful for: I beseech thee, suffer me to speak to the people. The chief captain rescued him with no other design than to give him a fair hearing. Now, to show that his cause needs no art to give it a plausible colour, he desires he may have leave immediately to defend himself; for it needed no more than to be set in a true light; nor did he depend only on the goodness of his cause, but upon the goodness and fidelity of his patron, and that promise of his to all his advocates, that it should be given them in that same hour what they should speak.
7. He obtained leave to plead his own cause, for he needed not to have counsel assigned him, when the Spirit of the Father was ready to dictate to him, Matt. 10:20. The chief captain gave him license (Acts 21:40), so that now he could speak with a good grace, and with the more courage; he had, I will not say that favour, but that justice, done him by the chief captain, which he could not obtain from his countrymen the Jews; for they would not hear him, but the captain would, though it were but to satisfy his curiosity. This licence being obtained, (1.) The people were attentive to hear: Paul stood on the stairs, which gave a little man like Zaccheus some advantage, and consequently some boldness, in delivering himself. A sorry pulpit it was, and yet better than none; it served the purpose, though it was not, like Ezra’s pulpit of wood, made for the purpose. There he beckoned with the hand unto the people, made signs to them to be quiet and to have a little patience, for he had something to say to them; and so far he gained his point that every one cried hush to his neighbour, and there was made a profound silence. Probably the chief captain also intimated his charge to all manner of people to keep silence; if the people were not required to give audience, it was to no purpose at all that Paul was allowed to speak. When the cause of Christ and his gospel is to be pleaded, there ought to be a great silence, that we may give the more earnest heed, and all little enough. (2.) Paul addressed himself to speak, well assured that he was serving the interest of Christ’s kingdom as truly and effectually as if he had been preaching in the synagogue: he spoke unto them in the Hebrew tongue, that is, in their own vulgar tongue, which was the language of their country, to which he hereby owned not only an abiding relation, but an abiding respect.