Bible openThe 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 (here and here).

Acts 21:37-40 and 22:1

Paul Speaks to the People

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language,[a] saying:

22 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”


Last week’s post was about the riot that took place in Jerusalem, instigated and agitated by Ephesian Jews who had spread lies about Paul’s preaching.

The Roman chiliarch — tribune, garrison commander — could make no sense out of the mob’s shouts, so he had Paul arrested.

Paul humbly asked the tribune if he could say something to him (verse 37). The tribune was astonished that Paul could speak Greek. Matthew Henry’s commentary expresses it another way:

I am surprised to hear thee speak a learned language …

John MacArthur has more (emphases mine):

Greek was the language of the culture. Greek was the language of the educator. Greek was the language of those who had been outside Jerusalem and educated elsewhere. He was surprised. You say, “Why?” Because in his mind, he thought Paul was nothing but a common r[abble] rouser. He even had an idea who he was. He had no concept at all that this man was an intelligent, cultured, educated man with Greek upbringing.

The tribune revealed why he was so surprised. He thought that Paul was the Egyptian who had instigated a violent insurrection and had never been caught (verse 38). The insurrection had taken place around that time. Two historians, Josephus and Eusebius, wrote about it. Henry explains:

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.

MacArthur’s take is somewhat different: that the Egyptian and his men killed people in the crowd, then vanished. As the Egyptian’s intent was to kill Jews, he waited for major feast days when maximum numbers would gather in Jerusalem:

And of course, his [inten]t, this Egyptian, was to murder Jews. He was anti-Jewish. And what’s interesting about it is that … they captured and killed a total of 600. And when they had done that, the rest escaped, including this leader. And what is fascinating is the whole thing went underground. And this Egyptian continued to lead a band of assassins, who appeared in Jerusalem at feast times, mingled among the crowds carrying daggers, and assassinating people, and then fading into the crowd. Then killing somebody else, and then fading into the crowd.

And always when the feast days occurred, there was the threat of the assassins moving among the people to slaughter the Jews one at a time. Now, when this soldier saw them grabbing Paul, his first assumption was they’ve caught one of those assassins that mingles in the crowd, maybe that Egyptian himself. Well, that’s the conclusion, but of course when Paul said to him in Greek, “Can I speak to the people?” he was shocked because he knew that such an Egyptian r[abble] rouser would not be cultured enough to speak Greek.

Paul explained his origins, stating that he was a Jew and that he came from part of the Roman Empire, Tarsus in Cilicia, mentioning that Tarsus was no obscure city (verse 39). Tarsus had a university. MacArthur tells us:

In fact, Tarsus was ranked anciently with Athens and Alexandria as a city of culture, art and education.

Paul politely asked for permission to address the mob, whom he graciously referred to as ‘the people’.

The tribune duly granted permission, so Paul — a man of short stature — stood on the steps to be better seen by all and made a hand gesture to get their attention (verse 40). Imagine how he must have looked at that point: bloody and dishevelled. When they quietened down, he spoke to them in Aramaic (their Hebrew dialect). He knew the language because he had studied in Jerusalem.

MacArthur discusses how Paul viewed that moment as a grand opportunity, despite the circumstances:

Paul got into this situation, didn’t try to run from it, he accepted it. Why? It was a God-ordained situation. You say, “You mean God let this happen?” No, God made this happen. God put Paul in this place, because it was a positive testimony that He wanted in a negative situation. You see, a positive testimony in a negative situation means there’s potential for change; and so that’s what God wanted. So, number one, if you’re ever going to do anything in a negative situation, if you’re going to do anything confronting the system at all, you’ve got to accept that as a God-allowed or God-ordained opportunity.

The second principle was turn it into an opportunity. Accept it as a God-ordained situation; turn it into an opportunity. Paul did that. He didn’t say, “Oh, I hope something happens so I can talk. Lord, I’ve opened the door.” You know, some people are sitting around waiting for the Lord to do something. They’re going to be sitting around a long time.

As bad as Paul must have looked, he must have felt even worse. Yet, he felt motivated to speak to hundreds of people in Christ’s service.

He addressed them charitably — ‘brothers and fathers’ — and urged them to hear his defence (Acts 22:1).

Next time — Acts 22:2-21