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Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 21:27-36

Paul Arrested in the Temple

27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”

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Last week’s entry described the Nazirite vow that James and the elders in Jerusalem ordered Paul to take in order to pacify Jews in Jerusalem who were lying about Paul’s preaching.

Paul did so, but, as we see here, all the Spirit-led prophecies about the dangers that he would face in Jerusalem came true. From this point, the Book of Acts shows Paul no longer as a free man founding and building churches, but as a prisoner of Christ. John MacArthur explains (emphases mine below):

…. beginning here in chapter 21, he becomes a prisoner. And as a prisoner, we find that he gives six separate defenses of his actions

Now, you’ll notice that these six defenses are given before the mob; the first one; before the council the second; the third and fourth before the governors who are Felix and Festus; the fifth one before the king, and the last before the Jews. And you’ll notice, also, that there are three cities involved, the first two came in Jerusalem, the next in Caesarea and the final in Rome. And the result of the first accused, the next absolved, and the last awaiting trial

I think, just to add a footnote, as a prisoner from here on out, we ought to get some idea of how Paul viewed his imprisonment. And just to give you a point of reference at which you can make contact, I would call your attention to Ephesians chapter 3, and verse 1 … Paul says, “For this cause, I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ, for you Gentiles.” Now keep this in the back of your mind: Paul never viewed his situation as anything other than God authored, okay? He never viewed his imprisonment as an imprisonment of men. He doesn’t say, “I write unto you, Paul, a prisoner of Rome.” He’s always a prisoner of whom? Jesus Christ. It was Christ who brought him into such predicaments.

In Philippians he says, “My bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace.” He never saw himself as a prisoner of men. He saw himself only as a prisoner of the will of Jesus Christ. And so consequently, his imprisonment represented nothing but a new ministry. It didn’t mean the end of anything. It meant the beginning of something. He says to them, “My bonds in Christ are made manifest in all the palace.

And at the end of Philippians, he says, “The saints greet you chiefly that are of Caesar’s household.” It’s just a question of winning people to Christ who were available to be reached through prison. And I love what he says when he says, “I may be bound, but the Gospel is not bound.” And so he never says his imprisonment as having anything to do with men, but always with God. And God uses him to give a glorious testimony; positive witness in every one of those trials, even though they were all negative situations.

Jews from Asia Minor stirred the crowd in Jerusalem against Paul when he appeared at the temple at the end of his Nazirite vow (verse 27). He was to pay the sacrifices of himself and four other men whom James and the elders of the church in Jerusalem had designated.

These ‘Jews from Asia’ called out to the ‘men of Israel’ — observant Jews — calling for ‘help’ against Paul, about whom they circulated lies regarding  his preaching (verse 28).

They also falsely accused him of bringing Gentiles past the point where only Jews were allowed.

Verse 27 uses the words ‘stirred up’ the crowd, which MacArthur says means ‘confused’ the crowd in the original Greek that St Luke, the author of Acts, used:

The word stirred up, though there are other English statement stirred in the New Testament, the actual Greek word used here is only used here, and it means confused. “They confused the mob.” Mobs are always confused, as I just said, and they confused the mob, and they laid hands on Paul. Here’s Paul in there finishing up his Nazarite vows, and a whole bunch of these Jews from Ephesus descend on him, grab him, and they stir up the confusion of the mob, and this crying and yelling, verse 28, “Crying out, men of Israel, help.”

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that the Jews of Jerusalem had not accused Paul of wrongdoing, only the Jews who probably knew him from his preaching in Asia Minor, specifically Ephesus. He also explains that their ranting rhetoric was to agitate true Jews into action, as if Paul were a thief or a traitor:

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.

They falsely claimed to have seen Trophimus, a Gentile convert from Ephesus, in an inner part of the temple where only Jews were allowed, intimating that Paul was to blame for that (verse 29).

By now, those readers who are still learning the New Testament are wondering why there was such a commotion at this particular time. Recall that Paul was on his way to Jerusalem, along with his companion Luke and a group of Gentiles — among them Trophimus — to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 20:1-6). Acts 20:6 mentions that Luke and Paul had celebrated the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, the first seven days after Passover. Jewish tradition was still part of Paul’s and other Jewish converts’ lives at that time.

Most people will have observed that the main Jewish and Christian festivals occur around the same timeframe: Hannukah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, the Feast of Weeks and Pentecost.

The Feast of Weeks is the celebration of the Jews receiving Mosaic Law 50 days after the Exodus. The Exodus is commemorated at Passover, and the Feast of Weeks comes 50 days after that. To remember these laws being handed down is a highly important time for a Jew. At that time, the Jews from other nations would have returned to Jerusalem, as they had done for Passover. MacArthur explains:

Historians tell us it could be 2 million people there. Two million people milling around that city at feast time. Now the term Pentecost, and it was the feast of Pentecost as we’ve seen in past study, Paul wanted to get there at Pentecost, and that was a time when people really moved in Jerusalem from everywhere. That’s why those Asian Jews were there. It signifies the 50th. Penta means 50. This is 50 days after Passover. And it was the Old Testament feast of harvest sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, and sometimes called the Day of First Fruits.

It celebrates the first fruits of the wheat harvest, does Pentecost. And so it was that celebration. But after the exile, it had become kind of a different celebration. It was said that the Torah, the Law, the Law of Moses, was given 50 days after the Exodus. So the feast of Pentecost then became associated with the celebration of the birthday of the Law. Now, mark that because that’s very important, because it helps us to understand the attitude of the people. They were in the midst of a celebration of the Law, which means they were celebrating Jewishness to its nth degree. At this particular celebration, the concentration on the Law leads me to conclude two things: One, the fact that Paul wanted to be there indicates that he does revere the Law. In fact, in Romans 7, he said, “I delight in the Law of God.” So he wasn’t anti-Jewish Law. He wasn’t anti-law. In that sense, he delighted in God’s Law. But the fact, also secondly that it was a Jewish celebration of the law, means that the crowd was hyper concerned about the Law and its sanctity.

And so anybody who stood in blatant opposition would be the most flagrant kind of violator of the very thing they were celebrating, and that tends to create the kind of antagonism that this group uses to really try to kill Paul. So they stir up the crowd and the headless mob, and they start yelling, “Help.” And of course, that’s just as if some blasphemy has occurred, or some terrible defamation of the character of God, or the character of Moses. This is some slander that has occurred, desecration of the sanctuary, and they cry out, ‘Men of Israel, Help.” And then they announce the problem. “This is the man,” and they’ve got him by now, “that teaches all men everywhere against the people and the Law and this place.”

Now on to the reason why Paul would not have brought Trophimus, a Gentile, beyond the boundaries of the temple. First of all, Paul would not have challenged the boundaries, because part of him still respected the traditions and laws in which he had been raised a Pharisee. Secondly, the Romans took the temple boundaries seriously as well, because a) they knew they were paramount for the Jews and b) they did not want any disorder on Roman territory. I wrote at length in my commentary on the latter part of Acts 16 — where Paul and Silas were freed from prison via an earthquake — that the prison guard watching them feared for his life. One of the penalties for allowing prisoners to escape was the death penalty. Therefore, if people were running riot in Jerusalem, governors in Rome would have called the authorities in Jerusalem to account.

MacArthur tells us more:

I’ll tell you something else: If he had dragged Trophimus in there, he would’ve dragged him in there at the cost of his life, and he wouldn’t have done that to his friend. No, of course Paul didn’t take Trophimus into the temple; sacred place. They just _____ it out. Trophimus was a Gentile. It says in verse 29, “He was an Ephesian.” And for a Gentile to enter the temple was terrible. The Gentiles could only go to the outer court. In fact since that was true, it became known as the Court of the Gentiles. And between that and the inner court, the next court was called the Court of the Women, and it got that name because the women could go into that court. And then further on in the men went, and then of course the priest and the high priest all the way into the holy of holies. But in the outer court, the Gentiles could go.

Now, between the outer court and the inner court, the Court of the Women, the temple treasury, was a barricade. And periodically, along pillars on the barricade were placed signs. And they were written in two languages, Latin and Greek, so that all the pagans could read them. This is what they said, and interestingly enough, we have found two of those from Herod’s temple. Archaeologists discovered one in 1871, another one in 1935, and they both said the same thing: “No man of alien race is to enter within the barricade that goes around the temple. And if anyone is taken in the act, let him know that he has himself to blame for the penalty of death that follows.”

Now, anybody who went in there as a Gentile died, and the Romans honored that law. They knew how sacred it was to the Jews. And in fact, it was a way of keeping Gentile religion and Gentile gods and idols out of the temple. It was sort of a stopping point for the intrusion of the system of the world. And they didn’t let it be violated. Well, when these guys said they took Greeks into the temple that was just enough to stir up everybody, and give a justification for the murder of Paul.

Now what’s interesting in this: Even if Paul had taken Trophimus in there, it would not have been Paul that died, it would’ve been Trophimus. So it shows that the whole thing was out of whack all the way down the line. Paul couldn’t be killed for going in there; he was a Jew. If anybody got killed, it would be the Gentiles who violated it. So the whole thing was a pretense and in all the confusion, the mob had no idea what they were doing, which is like any mob.

The whole city ran amok and a mob dragged Paul — there to complete his Nazirite vow (oh, the irony) — out of the temple and shut the door (verse 30).

Note that these Asian Jews never went to either the religious or secular authority with their complaint against Paul. They were insistent on making real trouble, relying on lack of reason. Matthew Henry observes:

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.

MacArthur points out:

“And they all ran together, took Paul, drew him out of the temple, and at once the doors were shut.” They wanted to make sure they got him out of there so they could go on worshipping God, while they killed God’s anointed. Amazing how they did this. This is what they did at the trial of Jesus. They wanted to make sure they didn’t violate the Sabbath while they executed the Messiah: Made sure they didn’t violate any of the things that were going on at that particular time. Didn’t want to enter into the house of the Gentiles at all, because they would defile themselves. They stayed outside and screamed for the blood of the Messiah.

Then, the tribune of the Roman troops — the cohort — found out what was going on (verse 31). MacArthur says it was highly important to quell this riot quickly. Also, contrary to the dictionary definition of cohort being several hundred men, he says that there were 1,000 men in the garrison:

The one great thing that the Roman Government wanted in its colonies and its possessions was civil order. They didn’t tolerate civil disorder. They didn’t tolerate it from the people, and any commander who allowed it was in real trouble. And so they had an observation tower to watch because most of what went on in terms of congregating went on in the temple courtyard, and the garrison of at least 1,000 men in the temple right there on the northwest wall of the temple yard.

Well, the soldiers looking down saw what was going on. Verse 31, “As they went about to kill him, tidings came unto the chief captain of the band.” That’s not a musical band, that’s the band of soldiers, “that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.” Man, they could see that a big deal was going on. They had to get the riot squad ready. These were highly trained men. They were ready to move out.

A commander of a garrison was known in Greek as a chiliarch. The word ‘millennium’ replaced ‘chiliasm’. There was also a Christian movement called chiliasm. The root of all three words means ‘one thousand’:

The Greek word is chiliarch or chiliarc, and it means a thousand. In fact, the old designation of the millennium was chiliasm, because it’s a thousand-year kingdom. Chiliasts were those who believed in the thousand-year literal kingdom. Chiliarch means a thousand, so here was the head of the whole thousand. It’s always easy to tell the Roman structure of soldiers just from that. There are centurions. How many would they be over? One hundred; chiliarch, a thousand.

The tribune — the chiliarch — got the centurions and their subordinates, the soldiers, down to the mob, which, for obvious reasons, stopped beating Paul (verse 32). Then the tribune arrested Paul and bound him with two chains, exactly as Agabus had prophesied when Paul was in Caesarea a few days beforehand (Acts 21:7-14).

As the tribune could not get a coherent answer from the mob as to Paul’s identity or his crime, he ordered his men to take Paul to the barracks (verse 34). The mob were still up in arms, so the soldiers had to carry Paul — a short man — away (verse 35).

The mob said something reminiscent of the one pardoning Barabbas and condemning Christ (verse 36): ‘Away with him!’

Matthew Henry makes an excellent observation about verse 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.

This is the reason that the display of strong emotion was largely looked down upon until 20 years ago.

For this reason, the expression of strong emotion is a very bad thing. It can lead good people astray, into mob violence. It’s time for modern society to rein it in. Strong emotion serves no positive purpose and can actually lead to harm.

Next time — Acts 21:37-40 through Acts 22:1

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