Acts 25:13-27

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This is the last ‘waiting’ section before we get to Paul’s longest discourse in the Book of Acts. I was tempted to skip over it today and just focus on the more meaty Chapter 26, but I think Luke is doing this to us with a purpose, to build up the tension before the final climactic speech. Having thought in the previous section that Paul could finally move out of Caesarea and onto Rome, we discover that still several more days had passed. I find it amusingly ironic that in the context of these chapters, Festus tells Agrippa in verse 17 that he ‘did not delay’. But back to the beginning of our story, and the introduction of today’s characters.

Festus, we know, is the new Roman governor of Judea. Agrippa is the Jewish ‘puppet-king’, son of the Herod Agrippa I who persecuted the early church (12:1-3) and then died during a public ceremony (12:23), and great-grandson of Herod the Great, who persecuted the Jews during the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt 2:1-16). Agrippa II would have been yet a young man, just 17, when his father, Agrippa I, died in Judea in 44 AD. He was raised and educated in the imperial court in Rome, but was always interested in the welfare of the Jews and their state. In the late 40s and early 50s, he moved to the area as ruler, doing all he could to keep the peace between Rome and the Jews. Berenice is an interesting character; she was Agrippa II’s sister, but suspected of being his lover also, along with many other leaders of the time. Luke doesn’t mention any of this romantic political soap opera, however.

So, here we have Agrippa and Berenice coming to stay with Festus for ‘many’ days, learning about what is going on with the Jews in Judea. Festus tells them about Paul, left as a prisoner by his predecessor, Felix. We already know the story which Festus explains in verses 15-21. The main sticking point seems to be this contention that Jesus died and yet, according to Paul, lives. Agrippa wants to hear Paul for himself.

So the next day, the meeting is arranged in the auditorium, with all pomp (the Greek word is actually phantasia) and circumstance, with the commanders – that is, of a thousand soldiers each – and the prominent men of the city of Caesarea. And believe it or not, Luke trots out the context again (!) via Festus’ speech before the court in verses 24-27. Bored as we may be to hear it once more, take a moment to picture the scene: a great hall, the king and queen of the region, the governor, all the local area commanders, and other important men. In comes Paul. Look at him, says the governor, about whom all the Jews in Jerusalem and Caesarea are crying out, passionately, that he must no longer live. And yet the governor has found in him nothing worthy of death. Festus is going to send him to the Emperor, Nero, but he doesn’t know what to write, or what charges he can lay against the prisoner. He asks all the assembly, especially the king, for advice.

Luke is asking his readers to sit in that hall and get ready to respond to Paul’s self-defense. What should Festus write about him?

Prayer: Lord God, give me a heart of discernment. Help me to hear and judge wisely.

Acts 25:1-12

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In the previous passage we heard about how Paul was stuck in the governor’s palace in Caesarea, not exactly under arrest but also not free to go. He was still there when the governorship transitioned from Felix (who was interested in hearing about faith in Jesus) to Festus. In this passage we learn more about the new governor.

The Roman political capital of Judea was Caesarea, but its cultural and religious capital, in the hearts of the Jewish people who populated the province, was always Jerusalem. Only three days after arriving in his provincial palace in Caesarea, Festus went up to Jerusalem. The chief priests and other Jewish leaders are still trying to get Paul into a vulnerable position – after two years, really? – so that they can ambush and kill him. But Festus takes them at their word, that they are prosecuting a case against him, and suggests that they accompany the governor back to Caesarea to hold the trial there.

Having spent just over a week in Jerusalem, the new governor travelled back to Caesarea. The next day he had Paul brought in to stand trial and the Jews from Jerusalem again accused him, this time of many weighty charges, but nothing stuck. Paul’s defense was that he had done nothing against the Jewish law, nor the temple, nor Caesar. Festus tried to curry favor with the Jews by asking Paul whether he wanted to go back to Jerusalem to have another trial there; did he suspect the ambush plot? It may have been tempting for Paul to get out of Caesarea where he had basically been a prisoner for two years, but he did not take the bait. Instead, he once again protests his innocence, even volunteering to die if he is genuinely guilty. Probably fed up with this treatment which has gone on for two years, Paul appeals to Caesar. It is equivalent to having his case heard in the supreme court. After conferring with his council, Festus agrees. However, it will be some time before Paul actually gets there.

There is a dreary sameness about these chapters, and there is going to be another chapter of it before we finally get out of Caesarea. I suppose Luke’s intent was to have his audience experience this drag on in the same way that Paul himself did. How I wish Luke had dragged on a bit more in Ephesus or Corinth instead, where the ministry was more exciting! But ministry can be somewhat of a drag during some periods of our life, right? There are seasons of sameness, of paperwork, of writing, of doing the same thing with the same people for week after week, month after month, year after year, and very little to show for it. Was Paul bored of it? Maybe he was, but he didn’t give in to the lure of a change or seeing his family in Jerusalem (he probably had at least one sister there) again. Next time you are feeling that dragging feeling, remember Paul in Caesarea and hang on for a bit longer.

Prayer: God, sometimes it feels like nothing is happening in my life or in my ministry. Help me not to be discouraged. Fill me with your Spirit so that I might prove faithful.

Acts 24

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Reading this chapter, I can’t imagine how frustrating this period of Paul’s life might have been. It is not unlike life for some of us right now, under lockdown.

The first twenty-two verses detail the trial before the governor, Felix. It’s taken the Jewish leaders five days to get to Caesarea from Jerusalem, and they have brought a prosecutor. As readers rooting for our hero Paul we might start to get a bit nervous, seeing this slick professional open his gambit with high praise of the occupying enemy leader. Is Paul the pest going to get it in the neck? The Jews seem pretty happy with how Tertullus has begun. Governor Felix then gives Paul his opportunity. He doesn’t resort to cheap flattery as his opponent had, though he does acknowledge the governor’s long service as judge in the Jewish province. There is not a hint of anxiety in Paul’s speech. He confidently presents the facts: that after many years away he came to Jerusalem with alms for the poor of his people, purified himself for worship in the temple, and did not stir up any riot or trouble, nor even had a discussion with anyone there. He acknowledges that there may be some Asian Jews who might have something against him, but they are not there in this court. Paul’s behavior in Jerusalem, in the temple, and in the Sanhedrin has no scent of unrighteousness. Paul confesses only that he believes the Law and the Prophets (shorthand for the Jewish Bible), and that he worships the Jewish God according to the Nazarene ‘Way’. The only contentious thing is that he believes in the resurrection, and perhaps this is why he is on trial.

Felix’ response is fascinating. Luke notes that he already knew about the Way. Felix essentially puts off making a decision, primarily by saying he would wait for the commander to come. He then orders the centurion to ‘guard’ or ‘keep’ Paul – the word is ambiguous, not clarifying whether he is guarded from others or guarded from escaping. Whichever it is, Paul clearly has a measure of freedom and is able to receive visits. Don’t forget he is staying in the governor’s palace, not in a prison cell. He ends up in this place for at least two years, when the governor was replaced. During this time, Felix frequently called for Paul and listened to him talking about faith in Jesus, righteousness, and self-control. Not unlike the people of today, Luke tells us that Felix did not like to hear about the coming judgment.

Did Paul perceive his 2+ years in Caesarea as prison or opportunity? Luke gives nothing away here about his attitude. How would you have felt? Many of us are in a comparable situation right now, not uncomfortable and yet not free to travel as we wish. Two years seems like a very long time to live like that. All we can conclude from this passage is that Paul used the time as an opportunity to speak about Jesus with his captor and benefactor, the governor of Judea. Perhaps he also wrote letters – potentially Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians – and who knows what else. If you are stuck somewhere, I encourage you to press into the Lord to know how you can make the most of this time.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, use me where I am to do your will. Forgive me for my impatience. Let me live in this moment for your glory.

Acts 23:12-35

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We left Paul in our last reading, safely ensconced in the Roman army barracks, having a vision of Jesus standing by him to give him courage. The next day, however, the plot thickens. Slowly we as readers see that this is not the same kind of pericope as the Gentile riot and jailing of Paul in Philippi (Acts 16:19-40), nor the Jewish accusations against Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17), both of which have pre-echoes of what we are reading here. Instead, this is a story which is driving the whole narrative from Asia to Jerusalem and onto Rome.

Luke repetitively uses a fascinating word about the Jews’ plot against Paul: anathema. Today this word has a different meaning; however, for Luke, with a background in the Septuagintal (Greek Old Testament) scriptures, it is about the cursed object devoted to destruction (cf Deut 13:12-18; Josh 6:17-21). The Jews see Paul in this way, as a cursed man whom they must destroy in order to save Israel from idolatry. More than forty men put themselves under a curse if they do not destroy this curse, Paul; note that they are not part of the Sanhedrin or the chief priests and elders. They go to see these leaders and tell them about their curse-oath, instructing them to tell the Roman commander to bring Paul back to the Jewish Council, and then they will kill him. This seems hubris to me. What right does this mob have to tell the elders what to do? What right do the elders have to instruct the Roman commander? Even if it did come to pass, could the mob have overcome the Roman centurions who would have escorted Paul? Whether the Jewish elders did what was asked of them is a mystery – Luke does not report on whether their request was fulfilled – and what happened to the men is also unknown. Did they really not eat or drink? Did they die under their self-imposed, foolish curse?

Paul’s nephew heard about the plot and was allowed into the barracks to see Paul and tell him about it. Huh! All this crazy plotting, when one of them could have just pretended to be a relative, come in and killed Paul in his cell! In the barracks, we see that the social order has been somewhat upended. Paul summons the centurion, as if the centurion is his servant, and orders him to take the young man, his nephew, to the commander. The centurion dutifully obeys, and the commander willingly takes the young man by the hand and draws him into a private space. He then listens carefully to the report, releases the young man, entrusting him to silence, and acts immediately. Who is in charge here? The centurion does what the prisoner requests, and the commander does what the young man requests. More and more, the commander seems to be another Cyrus, a Gentile enemy doing the will of God.

The commander orders two centurions to gather a company of almost five hundred men, including horses and weapons – that is, half a legion – to go in the middle of the night accompanying Paul to Caesarea. Paul is to go mounted, demonstrating that he is honored, to be safely delivered to the governor, Felix. The commander also writes a letter to Felix explaining the whole situation. He states categorically that he found that none of the accusations leveled against Paul are worthy of death or even imprisonment. Thus we understand that keeping Paul in the barracks, and sending him to Caesarea, are not to keep him in prison, but to protect him from the Jews. However, the commander is not making a final decision about this, as he has instructed the Jews to once more present their case against Paul, this time before the governor as judge.

The commander’s orders are followed and Paul arrives first in Antipatris (a full day’s journey of about 40 miles in itself), from which most of the army delegation returns to Jerusalem, and then another day’s journey on horseback brings them to Caesarea. The governor reads the letter, ascertains Paul is from Cilicia, and then has him kept under guard (in the sense of protecting him, not stopping him from escaping) in the praetorium – that is, the governor’s official residence, not a jail, which had probably been occupied by the Romans after being built by the Jewish king Herod.

This is quite a story. Our narrative’s hero, Paul, is very much passive here. He is protected by a young man, his nephew, then the might of Rome, personified by the commander, Claudias Lysias, the governor, Felix, and 470 soldiers. Where were they when Jesus stood accused? We can’t avoid noticing the parallels, but with vastly different end results. God wills what he wills. For Jesus, it was death on the cross; for Paul, it was testifying in Rome. Sometimes Paul rotted in jail, this time he slept comfortably in a palace. Sometimes God protects, sometimes he doesn’t. He has his own purposes in that. It is hard to hear, especially when I am, you are, the person who doesn’t get protected. In Paul’s case, this time, God’s protection surrounded him, and sometimes it will for you and me too. God can use anyone to accomplish his purposes, whether a brave young Jewish man or a massive idolatrous army.

Prayer: Thank you for your protection, Father. You are the Lord, and you can use anyone to achieve your purpose. Sometimes, though, I know you don’t protect because you have another purpose in mind, and sometimes we suffer; help me in those times to trust in you.

Acts 23:1-11

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While this is quite a serious scene, I can imagine a smile lurking in the eyes of both Paul and Luke as they recount what happened. This meeting with the Sanhedrin was orchestrated by the Roman commander (cf 22:30), not Paul, and yet there is a sense in which Paul is stage-managing the whole event.

Why do you think Ananias has him struck when Paul speaks? For starters, he fixes his gaze on them, no sense of shame or dishonor, despite the fact that he is the defendant-prisoner and they are his accusers. Then he calls these men who hate him “brothers”. And then the cracker, which is obscured in most translations: Rather than simply saying “I have conducted” or “I have lived”, using the Greek word peripato which would be the normal way, Paul actually says, “I have been a citizen (polit-eumai), before God, in good conscience”. They must have known by this stage that Paul had saved himself from punishment by flaunting his Roman citizenship to come to this meeting, so this is something of a kick in the teeth.

The order of the words in verses 2-3 is also amusing, again hidden in the translation. Woodenly (or Yoda-like): ‘Ananias orders to strike him … “To strike you about to is God!”.’ And Paul continues, “you white-washed wall, sitting there judging me according to the law and transgressing-the-law as you order me to be struck!” When told that this is the high priest he has insulted, Paul immediately says he didn’t know, and that somewhere (where? not in the Old Testament, is it?) it is written that you should not speak evil about the ruler of your people. Do you think Paul really didn’t know he was the high priest? Did you notice he never actually apologized or retracted his statement?

Paul’s next move is the master-stroke, and quite possibly planned ahead. While he already has them on the back foot, Paul cries out (not just ‘says’) that he is a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee, and that he is on trial because of his hope and the resurrection of the dead. Paul knows very well that this will create a conflict between the two groups of Pharisees and Sadducees, the latter of which do not believe in angels, spirits, or resurrection. Now the Pharisees side with Paul, their brother, against the Sadducees, wondering exactly whether an angel or a spirit has spoken to him. Essentially, Paul has turned them against one another, and we all remember what Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Luke 11:17). The dispute between the two groups becomes so violent that the commander has Paul removed for his own protection.

Paul won the victory in the Sanhedrin by cunning. The Jews were defeated, and the commander’s desire to understand what Paul was accused of was also thwarted. Safe and sound in the Roman army’s barracks, Paul received a night-time visit from Jesus (cf Acts 18:9), who encouraged him and also charged him that it is necessary for him to testify in Rome also. Paul’s plan to go to Rome (Acts 19:21) is confirmed by the Lord, but we will see in the coming narrative that it is an all-expenses paid trip. Again Luke has drawn us readers into this story with humor, and shown Paul to be the hero, vindicating himself against his enemies with wit and wisdom. His gospelling adventure continues.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to trust you for courage in scary situations. Give me presence of mind to use wise words and to win your battles.

Acts 22:23-30

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In this scene Luke takes us away from the noise and mess of the Jewish crowd, and inside the barracks and even the minds of the Roman soldiers. It seems from the introduction (verse 24) that this is going to be another intense and violent moment, with flogging and interrogation ordered by the commander, but suddenly everything becomes very still and quiet.

As the soldiers are stretching Paul out with the straps to prepare for flaying him, Paul simply asks the centurion who is standing by, “If a man is a Roman and has not been tried, is it lawful for you to flog him?” I love the sweet irony in the fact that he doesn’t tell, but politely inquires. The centurion must have stopped the soldiers (although Luke does not record this) as he went to report the situation to the commander. The centurion asks the commander: “What are you going to do?”

Just a quick note here, while we wait for the commander to decide, about the cultural context of these characters. Centurions (literally ‘hundred-ruler’) were fighting men who worked alongside those they led; they could rise from the ranks of ordinary soldiers, or they might be slightly more upper class men who chose a career in the army because it suited them. They were somewhere between the sergeants and captains of today. The commander (literally ‘thousand-ruler’ or tribune) was always from an upper class background, and may have chosen this post to advance his military or political career, aiming for a position in the senate or even beyond. They were the ancient generals who plotted in their tents, using their minds and hearts, but rarely had to get their hands dirty. An ordinary soldier could not rise to be a commander because they were a different class of person.

So the commander, this upper class man, goes and asks Paul, his prisoner who is strapped to a bench waiting to be flogged, whom he has heard speaking both perfect Greek and perfect Hebrew, “Tell me: are you a Roman?” Keep in mind that the commander has no idea what Paul told the crowd, because it was in Hebrew. He knows only that this man is a Jew from Tarsus in the province of Cilicia, to the west of Syria, and that he has apparently caused a riot amongst the Jews in Jerusalem, for some reason that he doesn’t yet understand. On hearing Paul respond to his question affirmatively, he is suspicious. The commander paid a lot of money to become a citizen of Rome; probably he has his hopes set on high career advancement, maybe to become a governor or a senator. How could this poor Jew be a Roman citizen too? Where could he have gotten the money? When he hears that Paul was born as a citizen, immediately all the soldiers draw back and the commander is afraid. They almost got themselves into huge trouble for punishing a citizen without a fair trial.

But the commander still wants to understand: what were the Jews accusing him of? How did this man – a Jew, a scholar, a Roman citizen – make them so furious? So he calls together the high priests, and the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), and releases Paul to stand before them. We will hear the next part of the narrative tomorrow.

As I read this story, my main reaction is outrage at the injustice. It’s not actually racism, because it seems people could buy Roman citizenship or be born into it even though they were of a different race. Why was it alright for non-citizens to be beaten without a trial? Why was the commander so scared about mistreating a Roman? What made the Romans so special and why weren’t all people of the empire treated equally? It was not Luke’s intent to raise these questions; for him it was just the way things were and he could not see outside of his own cultural situation. For Paul, his Roman citizenship was simply a tool he could use when he wanted to (cf Acts 16:35-39). He never mentions it in his letters, but the equality of all is a point he stresses frequently (eg Rom 10:12; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).

The equality of all human beings before God and one another is a point that we must stress too, especially in the face of rampant racial and social injustice. It is easy to point the finger at others, like white American police officers, but let us check our own selves too. Do we always think about and act towards others consonant with our beliefs that all are equal? Or is there occasionally a subtle questioning whether someone can or can’t do something because of their ethnicity?

I would take as another point of application from this small section that we should respectfully use what we have to our advantage, if it is to advance the gospel. Paul knew he was a Roman and used that to gain another audience. If you are a white-skinned person and can use that to gain respect in your context, without putting others down and with decent motives, go for it. Or if you are a yellow-skinned person in a yellow-skin context, take advantage of the lack of suspicion people may have of you. In Jesus’ words, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

Prayer: Lord God, grant me wisdom and grace to appropriately use the gifts that you have given me to advance your kingdom. May I be one who sows peace and understanding in every situation.

Acts 22:1-22

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Paul is standing on the steps of the Roman army barracks, having just received permission (in Greek) to speak to his own people in Jerusalem. The crowd is waiting silently, as are we readers. The fact that he addresses them in Hebrew, standing there next to the Roman commander, gains him even more attention from the Jews. What is he going to say?

Paul begins by labelling his own discourse an ‘apology’ (in the theological sense of intelligent reasoning), or more appropriately in our current cultural context, a defense. He then goes on to tell the crowd his background: a West Asian Jew, but raised and educated in Jerusalem by the great Rabbi Gamaliel. He has lived in strict obedience to the law and is zealous for God – just like his listeners. In fact, Paul himself persecuted Christians to death, taking both men and women prisoner (cf 8:1-3), just as the crowd had witnessed happened to Paul himself in the minutes gone past. There were witnesses, probably in that crowd itself, who could testify that what Paul was claiming was true.

Now Paul relates the ‘road to Damascus’ tale (cf 9:1-16). Commissioned by the high priest, Paul was on his way to Damascus to capture Christians to be returned to Jerusalem to be punished for their apostasy. As he approached the Syrian capital, he encountered Jesus in a blaze of light. The Lord asked Paul why he (Paul) was persecuting him (Jesus), then told him to go into Damascus, where he was cared for by the Jewish disciple of Jesus, Ananias. Paul notes at this point that Ananias was also a devout observer of the law, which could be testified to by all the Jews in his home town. Ananias granted Paul his physical sight, but he also gave him spiritual insight: that the God of their Jewish fathers had appointed Paul to know his will, to see and hear his righteous one (Jesus), and to be his (i.e. Jesus’) witness to every person of what he saw and heard. Ananias also told Paul to be baptized and call on his (Jesus’) name.

The third part of Paul’s defense re-echoes what he has already told and also explains why he went away from Jerusalem and to the Gentiles. He says that while praying in the Jerusalem temple – we can imagine him pointing to it just down the street – he went into a spiritual trance and saw the Lord – that is, Jesus – commanding him to leave Jerusalem quickly because the people there would not receive Paul’s testimony about him. Paul’s response to Jesus in the trance is somewhat mysterious: he reiterates that everyone in Jerusalem knew that he persecuted the Christians and even supported the death of the first martyr, Stephen. Is he trying to reassure Jesus that he has nothing to worry about because Paul should be safe here? Or is he agreeing with Jesus that people will be confused by his turnaround? It seems probably the latter, although I do detect a strange non sequitur. Whatever the case, Jesus tells him again to get out of Jerusalem and go far away, to the Gentiles.

I find it interesting that Paul does not trot out all the scriptural reasons for mission to the Gentiles here, which Luke has at hand from James’ speech in Acts 15:14-17 (cf also Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch in 13:47 // Is 49:6). Maybe he is about to go there in his defense, but doesn’t get the chance when the crowd starts to shout and demands his execution.

What can we learn here? We will never, ever be in the same situation as Paul was at that moment. But we will be in situations where we are on trial before our peers and have the opportunity to give a defense of our own faith. At that time, let us learn from Paul to talk honestly about our own personal experiences, both the bad and the good, calling on witnesses to testify that what we say is true. May we share about the conversations we have had with Jesus, and how he has led us to serve him in our own ways, according to his will and purpose. We might not have had a dramatic conversion like Paul, but each of us has turned towards God and has a story to tell. And may we speak it in a language the people understand!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, give me opportunities to share about how I met you and how you turned my life around to serve you. Help me to speak in a language that people understand and that makes them want to listen.

Acts 21:27-40

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In this passage we get to the climax to which Luke has been building since 19:21. James and the elders were absolutely right: the Jews from the province of Asia (think Ephesus, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra) who were zealous for the law were gunning for Paul, and they took their opportunity while he was at the Jerusalem temple during the period of purification for his vow. There are narratorial reminders of Peter and John being arrested in the temple (4:2), accusations against Stephen (6:13-14), and the more recent disturbances in Ephesus (19:29-32), Thessalonica (17:5-8), and Philippi (16:20).

The whole city is disturbed by the news that this man, Paul, has taught against the law, the people of God, and his temple. They also accuse him of defiling God’s holy place by bringing Gentiles into it. Paul is dragged out of the temple and is suffering a severe beating, when a report goes up to the Roman commander that Jerusalem is in an uproar. When he appears, along with soldiers and centurions, the crowd stops beating Paul. The commander – a ‘tribune’ or chiliarchos, ruler over a thousand men in the Roman army – takes charge of the situation, arresting Paul and having him bound with chains, just as Agabus had predicted (21:11).

However, it is unclear to the Romans just what it is that Paul has done to receive such treatment from his own people. When the commander asks, he cannot hear the facts due to the crowd shouting confusing statements. He decides to remove Paul from the rioting mob, presumably so he can get some distance and clarity. The crowd is so violent and desperate for Paul’s death that he needs to be carried by the soldiers for his own protection.

While going up the steps to the Roman army’s barracks, the commander was apparently surprised to hear this half-dead Jew speaking perfect and polite Greek. Now we discover the commander thought Paul was an Egyptian insurrectionist. But Paul identifies himself clearly: a Jewish citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia. This evidently has a profound effect on the commander, who allows Paul to address the crowd. We will hear the speech in our next reading.

What does Luke want his readers to learn in this section? We have here a defense of Paul. According to this narrative of events, Paul and the Christians never wanted to cause trouble. Paul did not bring a Gentile into the temple, he did not teach against the law, he continued to live as a Jew, following the customs of Moses. His presence in Jerusalem even at this moment was to celebrate the Jewish festival of Pentecost, and he was in the very act of fulfilling a Nazirite vow. Any disturbance of the peace created by this new sect was created by its enemies, not its proponents. As in his Gospel, we see that Luke’s attitude towards Roman officials was positive and respectful (cf Luke 7:1-10; 23:13-24,47; Acts 10:1-7). Jesus was a man of peace (cf Luke 22:51), and his followers should be likewise. Note that Paul, as in Philippi (Acts 16), at no point defends himself to the Roman soldiers, even though all the facts are in his favor; he simply states his identity and requests permission to address the crowd. Can we learn from this to be similarly non-self-defensive people of peace?

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be a person of peace, like Jesus. Help me not to be defensive, even when someone unfairly thinks wrong of me. Give me wisdom to know when and how to speak.

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Acts 21:17-26

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In this section, while continuing the current narrative, Luke also gives a subtle summary of what has happened throughout the last ten chapters. You may remember that Paul did not receive a joyful welcome when he first came to Jerusalem (9:26), but many things have changed over the past decade. After being received by the brothers, Paul goes to visit James, the leader of the church (cf 15:13), who had sent him north and west with the message which resulted from the Jerusalem Council which Paul attended in 51 AD (his second visit to Jerusalem). This message is repeated in verse 25, just in case we readers forgot.

During this third visit to James, at which all the other church elders were also present, Paul told them all about his ministry to the Gentiles in Syria, Asia (= Turkey), Macedonia, Greece, and Achaia. The hearers glorified God for the amazing things God had done. But then a tension falls over the scene.

The elders tell explicitly what we had inferred from the previous section: that thousands of Jews in Judea and Syria have come to faith in Jesus. These Jews never stopped following the law when they became Christians; in fact they are zealous for it – they may have been the ultra orthodox Hasidic Jews of their day. As such, they are highly suspicious of Rabbi Paul, the champion of the Gentile Christians. They have been informed, probably wrongly but we can’t be sure, that Paul has been teaching the Jews of Gentile lands ‘apostasy’, or turning from following the law of Moses. The specific example given is circumcision (which Paul railed against in Galatians). In fact, Paul had circumcised the young adult disciple Timothy for the sake of the Jews in Asia (16:3), but perhaps the Jerusalem elders and other Jewish Christians in Judea hadn’t heard about this act.

The elders counsel Paul to make sure he looks Jewish enough, that he is following the Jewish customs and keeping the law. They advise him to join four other men who have taken some kind of vow – possibly a Nazirite vow, or something similar. Paul had no problem doing this; he himself had performed a similar vow not long ago, as reported in 18:18. The five of them ritually purify themselves, and Paul goes into the temple to inform the authorities there about their vow, the date of its completion, and when the financial offering will be made. Everything is going according to plan. But … we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens.

The first thing I want to point out from this passage is that a person can be both Jewish and Christian. I may have mentioned this some months ago. I remember seeing some Sunday School material which talked about how Paul changed from being a Jew to being a Christian. But the truth is that Paul never stopped being Jewish. This may not seem important to you if you are a Gentile, but it is transformational for Jewish people who want to believe in and follow Jesus. The main thing that would hinder them is that they do not want to abandon their culture and faith; they don’t have to. Being a Christian does not stop someone from being Jewish. It would be interesting to explore whether the same principle could apply to Muslims.

The other point is that Paul was living out his message in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. He was willing and able to be a Jew to the Jews, surrendering his rights for the sake of the gospel, so that people might be saved and share in blessings. How can I make myself a servant to others today?

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for this lesson in history, that your word brings growth to your church through your power. Help me to be a vessel, and to be all things to all people.

Hasidic Jew 2 by Cole Riccio Makeup, via Flickr | Jewish men, Mens  hairstyles, Orthodox jewish

Acts 21:1-16

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This passage is another travelogue (see map below), quite similar to the beginning of Chapter 20. It also involves a stay of seven days; however, its little anecdotes are not amusing like the story of Eutyches falling out of the window, but rather frightening, as Paul’s troubles are predicted once again.

This time Paul and his companions, including Luke again, are traveling for the most part by sea, from Miletus to Cos to Rhodes to Patara, and then on a larger vessel for the more open sea journey to Tyre in the region of Syria, in lee of Cyprus. There they stopped for a week with the disciples. These Tyrean disciples warned Paul, through the Spirit, not to go to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, after prayers and farewells, Paul and his companions continued onto Ptolemais, not far away. The next day they went to Caesarea and stayed for several days with Philip, whom we had met initially back in Acts 6:5 and then observed in evangelistic ministry in Acts 8. Luke conspicuously mentions that Philip had four unmarried (literally ‘virgin’) daughters who prophesied; again, just as a side observation, note the casual remark that women were involved in ministries of the word in the first century church (cf 1 Cor 11:5).

It happens again in Caesarea that the Holy Spirit speaks through his people that Paul will be in danger in Jerusalem, this time through the prophet Agabus (cf Acts 11:28). Agabus uses a physical demonstration of the word, similar to some of the Old Testament prophets (cf Ezek 4, for example), to show how Paul will be literally bound and delivered over the the Gentiles. As a result of this acted-out prophecy, Luke and his friends exhorted Paul not to go to Jerusalem. But Paul was adamant; knowing what would befall him, Paul insisted he was ready for it (cf Acts 20:22-24). Thus they acquiesced, and the journey continued, this time with some of the disciples from Caesarea also, to the home of Mnason, a disciple from Cyprus but presumably staying just outside the city of Jerusalem.

This part of the story is fascinating to contemplate for understanding and doing God’s will. Everyone hears the same message, but they interpret and act on it in different ways. It is clear that something bad is going to happen to Paul when he gets to Jerusalem; he knows it, the Holy Spirit knows it, the disciples know it. The disciples interpret their knowledge to mean that Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem, because they are concerned for his life. But Paul interprets the knowledge to mean that he should be prepared for something bad to happen. Paul doesn’t think the knowledge that something bad is going to happen means that he shouldn’t go to Jerusalem. He is committed to this course, because, as he noted in his speech to the Ephesian elders, the Holy Spirit himself bound Paul to it. Paul is committed to doing the will of God; he is not committed to self-preservation. How confronting that is for me! It flies in the face of what I have learned about discerning the will of God; he ignores the direct warning from God’s word via the prophet; he rejects the advice of his friends; he overlooks what the circumstances are pointing to. Paul is just going on the feelings of his heart, what he believes to be the right thing to do. I doubt I would have made the same decision had I been in Paul’s place.

We have to wait for the rest of the narrative to know whether Luke thought Paul was doing the right thing or not. The warning not to go is repeated to build tension and set up this Passover visit to Jerusalem as a climax to the story.

Another interesting thing Luke is doing in this part of Acts is showing us how the gospel has spread over the decade since we shifted our geographical focus in Acts 11. As Paul and his companions visit these towns in Syria and Judea, there are disciples everywhere to offer them hospitality. Ending this short passage with the early Cypriot disciple (remember Barnabas was from Cyprus too), who perhaps was in Jerusalem for Pentecost ten years ago, is probably intended to remind us of this. How the family of God had multiplied!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for the encouragement of seeing how your church grows. Help me to discern the will of God, and act rightly on it. Forgive me for my self-centeredness and make me ready to suffer anything for your name.

Map: Paul's return to Jerusalem at the end of his Third Missionary Journey (Acts 21:1-17; Spring 57 AD)