|Topical Bible Study||July 1958|
The People of the Bible
Article XXXV—Acts 21:20 – 25:12
Paul in Protective Custody—Part 1
ARRIVING in Jerusalem at the close of his third missionary tour, Paul at once reported to the elders of the ecclesia in the home of James. They rejoiced and glorified God when they learned of the many Gentiles who had responded to the Gospel message. They realized, however, that having Paul in their midst posed a problem for them—even a threat of danger—due to the reports which had been brought to Jerusalem by enemy Jews from the territories just visited by the apostle.
Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religious life. Their temple was there, visited periodically by Jews from all over the then known world. If heresy and heretics were to be stamped out, Jerusalem was the logical place in which to do it. Doubtless the disciples in Jerusalem found it difficult enough at any time, and to have the notorious Paul in their midst would surely increase the danger of outward violence against them.
We can therefore understand their concern, and why they proposed a course for Paul to follow which, to say the least, was not obligatory upon him as a follower of the Master. See Acts 21:20-27. Whether it was right or wrong, this attempt on Paul’s part to prove that he was not opposed to the Law, and was not working against it, failed of its intended purpose. Instead of pacifying the Jews by being in the temple for purification, he was charged with defiling the temple, dragged out by an angry mob of religious zealots, who would have killed him but for the interference of the Roman “captain of the band,” who, hearing of the uproar, appeared on the scene with soldiers and protected the apostle.—vss. 28-32
The Holy Spirit had testified that bonds and imprisonments awaited Paul at Jerusalem, and already that prophecy was being fulfilled. He was arrested by Roman soldiers, not because the “captain of the band” knew of anything wrong the apostle had done, but largely to protect him from the Jewish mob and the riotous condition thus created.
The “chief captain” demanded of Paul’s persecutors that they state who this man was and what crime he had committed. There was a conflict of opinion on the part of those who had seized Paul and were beating him as to just what they held against him. Then the “captain of the band” commanded his men to carry Paul into the castle, and away from his accusers.—vss. 33-35
Paul, ever alert for opportunities to bear witness to the truth, asked the Roman officer to allow him to speak to the mob from the steps of the castle, and this permission was granted. His witness was largely in the nature of a personal testimony as to the reason he had become a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. He reminded his hearers that at one time he felt the same way about Jesus’ disciples as they, and that he had been zealous in his efforts to stamp them out.
He told of the miracle on the Damascus road by which he came to realize that the One whose disciples he was persecuting was indeed the “Just One,” the Messiah. He related some of the principal events in the early days of his discipleship, including a former visit to Jerusalem and the temple. At that time, Paul testified, he had been given a vision in the temple, a vision in which the Lord had instructed him to leave the city because the Jews would not receive his testimony.
As Paul explained it, he apparently felt at that time that if the Jews knew how zealous he had been in persecuting Christians they would give him a more favorable hearing. He told the Jews that he had participated in the stoning of Stephen. His impression was that under such circumstances reason would certainly tell them that there must have been some very convincing cause for the complete reversal of his position.
Paul himself had been wholly sincere in his persecution of Christians. He had reasoned the matter out thoroughly, and was convinced that he was acting logically and wisely. His opposition to Jesus and his disciples was not a frenzy of emotion or a mad passion. Apparently in the beginning of his walk in the narrow way he supposed this was true of all the Jews who were so opposed to Jesus and to those who followed in “this way.”
But the Lord knew better than this; and as Paul now explained to his persecutors, he was again told by the Lord to “depart, for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” Hearing this, the mob would listen no longer, and in a frenzied outcry shouted that this man was not fit to live. We wonder if Paul, when hearing this clamor for his life, did not think of Jesus, and of the time when a similar mob, also in Jerusalem, cried, “Crucify him, crucify him.”—ch. 22:1-23
Realizing that Paul accomplished nothing in the way of pacifying his accusers, the Roman officer ordered him taken into the castle, giving instructions that he should be scourged in an effort to force from him some sort of confession. As they proceeded to carry out these instructions, “Paul said unto the centurion that stood by, Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?”—vss. 24,25
The centurion reported this to the “chief captain” and said to him, “Take heed what thou doest: for this man is a Roman.” (vs. 26) The “chief captain” was skeptical, but when Paul convinced him that it was true, that he was born a Roman citizen, immediately the situation changed. The “chief captain” now knew that the only thing he could lawfully do was to find out from Paul’s accusers, if he could, just what it was that they had against him.
The chief priests and all their council were ordered to appear in the castle, and Paul was brought before them to plead his own cause. His first statement was, “Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.” (ch. 23:1) With this “the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth.”—vs. 2
Paul displayed, shall we say, a bit of “righteous indignation” at this sudden outburst of religious madness, and said to the high priest, “God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the Law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the Law?” (vs. 3) But if Paul was caught “off balance” he quickly recovered himself, for when he was reminded that he had reviled God’s high priest, he said, “I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.”—vss. 4,5; Exod. 22:28
This was a noble reply. In it Paul acknowledged his wrong in the remark he had made to the high priest, and quoted a scripture to prove that he was wrong. This should have helped the council to realize that here was a man of God, one who knew God’s Law, and was endeavoring to live in harmony with it. But when men are blinded by intolerance and prejudice they are unable to reason correctly.
Paul was quick to perceive that this council was made up partly of Pharisees and partly of Sadducees. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in angels; the Sadducees did not. In this Paul took his stand with the Pharisees, explaining that he was a Pharisee himself, and the son of a Pharisee. Then he explained that he was being called in question concerning his belief in the resurrection.
When the two groups composing the council heard the word resurrection they began to argue among themselves. Then the “scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.” (vs. 9) There is no reason to suppose that these men were not sincere in saying this. It does not mean that they accepted Christ as the Messiah, but it was at least a reasoned position similar to that taken at an earlier time by Gamaliel in connection with Peter and John.—Acts 5:38-40
The strife between the Pharisees and Sadducees on the council that was trying Paul must have been bitter, for the “chief captain” feared that Paul would be “pulled in pieces,” so he ordered his soldiers to take him away from them by force and bring him into the castle. (vs. 10) Paul was surely going through an ordeal, but soon he was given a compensating portion, for “the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.”—vs. 11
If prior to this there was any question in Paul’s mind as to the meaning of these trying experiences, it was all clear now, for he realized that the Lord wanted him to go to Rome. It is probable that long before this the great apostle had received some such indication from the Lord. It will be recalled that during his last missionary journey the thought was expressed more than once that he must go to Jerusalem and then to Rome.
We need not suppose that he knew in advance just why a visit to Jerusalem would be so vitally connected with his going to Rome. Perhaps up to this point he was simply trusting the Lord without knowing just how the details of his will might be worked out for him. But there is little doubt that when the Lord “stood by” him in the castle that night and assured him that he would go to Rome, the whole picture opened up before him.
Paul was a Roman citizen, and as a lawyer he knew his rights as a Roman citizen. He knew also that with the tide of opposition that was rising against him in essentially the whole territory through which he would have to travel in order to arrive in Rome, he would never reach there alive unless more adequate protection was afforded him than could be given by a handful of the brethren who might volunteer to make the journey with him. Even on his last trip from Greece he had to change his route to elude enemy Jews who were lying in wait for him.—Acts 20:19
It is not unreasonable to suppose that there in the castle in Jerusalem that night when the Lord spoke to him, Paul realized just what he had to do. Already he was being held in protective custody by the Roman guard. According to the Roman law he had done no wrong, but the “chief captain” in Jerusalem did not have the authority to decide this. His duty was limited to protecting a Roman citizen against the mob violence of the Jews. And Paul knew this.
The Lord had said to Ananias that Paul was a “chosen vessel” to bear his name before the Gentiles and kings. (Acts 9:15) There is little doubt but that Ananias relayed this information to Paul. Perhaps he now began to realize how this would come about, for he knew that if he pressed his rights as a Roman citizen he would be brought before rulers to be heard. And he knew also that he would use every such opportunity to testify concerning his Master, Jesus Christ. He knew that as a Roman citizen he had the right to appeal his case to Caesar, and that by doing so he would be taken to Rome and protected all the way by the Romans.
A whole new vista of opportunities and experiences must have opened up to Paul that night in the castle when the Lord “stood by” him. Nor did he have long to wait before the new action began. Paul’s nephew learned of a plot by the Jews to seize him away from his guards and kill him, The ruse was that they would ask for another hearing before the council, and use this opportunity, while the guard was relaxed, to make away with him.
The young man informed Paul of what he had learned. The apostle called a centurion and asked him to take his nephew to the “chief captain” that he might report to him what he had heard. Upon receiving this information the “chief captain” acted quickly. “He called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night. And provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor.”—vss. 12-24
Thus a small army—a total of 470 men—was provided to escort Paul out of Jerusalem and away from his accusers. Swiftly the providences of the Lord began to work, first for his deliverance from the Jews, and also to take him on the road to Rome. With such a formidable escort it was inevitable that he should reach Caesarea and Felix, the Roman governor, safely.
The “chief captain,” whose name was Claudius Lysias, sent a letter to Felix by the soldiers who escorted Paul, explaining in considerable detail just what had happened, and why he was sending Paul to him. In this explanation the fact was made plain that Paul claimed to be a Roman, and that he was, therefore, no ordinary prisoner. (vss. 26-33) Felix read the letter, and after learning from Paul what province he was from, “he commanded him to be kept in Herod’s judgment hall” until his accusers from Jerusalem put in an appearance.
It was not a long wait, for “after five days Ananias the high priest descended with the elders, and with a certain orator named Tertullus, who informed the governor against Paul.” (ch. 24:1-9) This “orator” had nothing new to say, but of course the high priest and the elders hoped that his oratory would persuade Felix either to punish Paul or release him to their charge, neither of which the Roman governor was prepared to do.
Instead, Felix called upon Paul to reply to his accusers, which he gladly did. Paul denied that he had done anything to disturb the peace, but at the same time acknowledged that he had a “confession” to make. And what a marvelous “confession” it was for an accused man! “I confess unto thee,” Paul said, “that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the prophets: and have hope toward God which they themselves also allow. that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.”—vss. 14,15
Actually, Paul had not been charged with teaching the resurrection of the dead, yet he understood full well that this, in reality, was the real point at issue—not the mere fact that the prophets had foretold a resurrection of the dead, but that, as Paul preached it, the resurrection would come through Jesus of Nazareth, who, indeed, was the “firstfruits” of them that slept in death. The situation was the same as with Peter and John. With them also the religious rulers were “grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”—Acts 4:2
Felix had a fair knowledge of Jewish viewpoints and prejudices, and could see that Paul’s accusers really had no just cause for complaint against him; nothing, that is, that would justify him in punishing the apostle, especially since he was a Roman citizen. So he told the high priest and the elders that he would seek further information of the “chief captain,” and when he was prepared, would send for them again.
Felix commanded a centurion to hold Paul as a prisoner, but to give him “liberty,” and to “forbid none of his acquaintance” to visit him. What this meant was that Paul was to be protected from his Jewish enemies by the Roman government, Two years passed before anything else happened. Meanwhile Felix summoned Paul to appear before him on various occasions. The apostle doubtless used these visits as further opportunities to testify concerning his faith in Christ. The record is that when Paul reasoned of “righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled.”
Luke explains further that Felix “hoped also that money should be given him of Paul, that he might loose him: wherefore he sent for him the oftener, and communed with him.” (vs. 26) With this selfish motive in mind, it is little wonder that Felix trembled when the apostle, instead of being willing to bargain with him for his release, reasoned concerning righteousness and judgment.
Paul Appeals His Case
After Paul had been under guard for two years, Felix was succeeded by Festus as governor. Before going to his headquarters in Caesarea, Festus spent some time in Jerusalem, where he was approached by Paul’s accusers and requested by them to bring the apostle to Jerusalem to appear before their council. Their plan was to kidnap him from his guards while on the way and kill him.
Probably Festus recognized this, so instead, he invited Paul’s enemies to visit Caesarea and there state their case. He explained that under the Roman law no one could be legally put to death without a hearing, that the condemned must be given a full opportunity to answer any accusations which might be made against him.—ch. 25:1-5,13-16
This led to another hearing, at which Festus sat as judge. Festus, even as Felix, discerned that Paul had committed no crime, that the charges against him were simply a matter of religious prejudice. Being perplexed as just how to handle the case, he asked Paul if he would be willing to return to Jerusalem and stand trial there before his accusers.—ch. 25:9,10
Paul was not willing to do this! He knew full well what the result would be. He knew that he would be “judged” worthy of death. Paul was quite willing to die in his Master’s cause. He had said so when his friends tried to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem. But now he knew that the Lord wanted him to go to Rome, not to die in Jerusalem; so he did that which assured him of getting to Rome. He said, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews I have done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I have been an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.”—vss. 7-11
Festus, evidently taken somewhat by surprise, conferred with his advisers, and then replied to Paul, “Hast thou appealed unto Caesar? unto Caesar shalt thou go.” (vs. 12) Probably Paul had been waiting for this opportunity, and he knew how to make effective use of it when the proper moment came. Now he would be taken to Rome, and under protection all the way. Truly, “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”