Acts (Part 32) - A Plea to the Jews
One additional note must be made concerning the trip to Jerusalem resulting in Paul’s arrest. We learned in 19:21 that while in Ephesus, Paul, compelled by the Spirit, planned to “go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” From our vantage point we understand that the “must” in seeing Rome would be because he’d be taken there as a prisoner. His trip to Jerusalem, then, is that which will lead to the accusations, arrest, and trials. And we are repeatedly told that it is the Spirit that compels Paul to this end. In fact, Paul not only plans to go to Jerusalem, but he is urged by the Spirit to get there with haste. According to 20:16, Paul decides to sail past Ephesus, avoiding his friends of the past 3 years, to save time so that he could get to Jerusalem by Pentecost. The question, then, is why Paul is intent on getting to Jerusalem by Pentecost. There is no planned old covenant ritual of vow-keeping that he must fulfill. He is bringing an offering for the church in Jerusalem, but they will be there whether or not he arrives by Pentecost.
The only hint we have as to the reason for Paul’s Pentecost plan is in the action in Jerusalem that follows—action directed by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s accusers in the temple were “Jews from Asia” (21:27). These were Jews, probably from Ephesus and the surrounding area. What were they doing in Jerusalem? They were there because of the feast of Pentecost—a time when many Jews traveled from surrounding regions to be in Jerusalem for the important feast. Apparently, therefore, the Holy Spirit’s urging Paul to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost was for the very purpose of coordinating events with these Asian Jews so that Paul’s arrest would indeed occur. This provides additional support to the argument that Paul’s participation in the vow (and his trip to Jerusalem) was no act in opposition to the Spirit and New Covenant understanding, but was exactly the orchestrated activity by which the Spirit would have Paul continue his ministry both in Judea and in Rome.
Because of the beating by his accusers and other zealous Jews of the Law, the Roman officials, housed in the Fortress of Antonia that stood just outside but appended to the temple’s northwest corner, could see down into the Court of the Gentiles. Soldiers from the fortress were dispatched to quell the near riot. Paul was arrested by the Romans and was being brought back to the fortress when he turns to the commanding tribune and asks whether he may speak with him.
The tribune is surprised both at the politeness of his prisoner and the fluency of his Greek. He had imagined Paul to be some local trouble-maker who could, perhaps, have strung a couple of Greek words together. But Paul speaks fluently, making the tribune wonder whether Paul is, then, from some other place—perhaps, he thinks, Paul may be that Egyptian (Greek was the language of the northern, Mediterranean region of Egypt) that had led 4000 of his followers in revolt. But Paul (perhaps offended at the suggestion) explains that he is a Jew of Tarsus. Status was gained based on your home city. The greater the city was, the greater was your individual status. Paul appeals to this status. The tribune, weighing Paul’s politeness, educated speech, and home city status, grants Paul’s request to speak to the crowd.
Paul changes from Greek to Hebrew (or more probably, Aramaic) as he addresses the Jews. Part of their displeasure with Paul was that they saw him as a Hellenist, intent on casting off covenant practices and Jewish tradition. But when he spoke to them in Aramaic rather than Greek, it pacified them enough to listen to him.
Paul begins his speech exactly as Stephen began his defense back in Acts 7, addressing them as brothers and fathers. Paul’s appeal is to show them that he was just like them. He was a Jew. He was raised in Jerusalem. (Apparently Paul’s family had moved to Jerusalem when he was very young. Note that in chapter 23, Paul’s sister is also mentioned as living in Jerusalem.) He was educated in the Law, and was, in fact, very zealous for it. He tells them that he was so zealous an old covenant Jew that he went about persecuting those of the Way (Christians). But it was on a trip to Damascus to round up more Christians that the Lord appeared to him, letting him know that Jesus was not anti-covenant but the Messiah fulfillment of the covenant. This changed (corrected) Paul’s view.
Through this speech Paul’s intent is to step the Jews through what happened to him so that they could appreciate the emphasis, not on abandonment of covenant, but rather fulfillment. Paul delays speaking of the Gentiles, knowing that that is the issue of unrest at hand. But he finally comes to it to try to explain that he was commissioned to take this fulfilled covenant message to the rest of the world. But the Jews won’t have it. They break off from their listening posture and begin shouting and accusing once again.
Paul is brought into the fortress. No doubt the tribune questions Paul as to what he has done to enrage the Jews. Paul didn’t really do what he was accused of—taking Gentiles into the temple or urging Jews to set aside circumcision. So Paul’s answer to the tribune must have been a denial of any wrong-doing. Of course, that is what all prisoners say. So the tribune orders that Paul be stretched out and whipped until he decides to tell the truth. Paul then plays his ace in the hole. He asks (knowing full well the answer) whether it is legal to torture a Roman citizen before trial. It actually was illegal even to bind and arrest a Roman citizen without first having a proper hearing. The tribune attempts to find out whether this citizenship was valid by suggesting that Paul might have simply paid for papers. But Paul claims actual birthright citizenship. Immediately, the plans for torture are laid aside, and Paul no doubt is loosed from any chains.
It is important to note that although held by the Romans, they were not the antagonists in all of Paul’s imprisonment. The Roman custody moves the story along, but the real antagonists were Paul’s accusers—the old covenant Jews. In fact it was old covenant Jews that persecuted Paul all through his ministry, having him thrown in jail, run out of town, and otherwise maltreated during his missionary journeys. The trial chapters—21 through 26—are bounded by speeches before Jews, revealing that Jesus fulfilled the old covenant. But the rejection by Jews runs throughout the book.
Preterists are those who believe all biblical prophecy has been fulfilled. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 was the end of biblical prophecy fulfillment. Thus, they insist that Revelation was written in the AD 60s during Nero’s persecution rather than the traditional late 80s to early 90s during Domitian’s persecution. But besides the lack of greeting both in Ephesians and the Timothys to John the apostle who was living in Ephesus for several years prior to his banishment to Patmos, another looming problem emerges related to an early date for Revelation. From Acts we understand that the antagonist to Christianity in the apostolic, covenant transition period is old covenant Judaism. But Revelation’s antagonist is understood by Preterists to be Rome. Thus, there is an unequal focus and emphasis between the books if they were indeed, as Preterists contend, written for and about the same time period.