bible-wornThe 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 28:17-22

Paul in Rome

17 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. 18 When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19 But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. 20 For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” 21 And they said to him, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.”

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In last week’s entry, Paul had arrived in Rome at long last, greeted by Christians who met him along the way and journeyed with him into that great city.

Three days after his arrival, Paul sought to speak to the Jews to discuss his case (verse 17).

Wherever he went during his ministry, he sought his fellow Jews first. Not only were the Jews God’s chosen people, but Paul also wanted to set out to explain why Jesus is the Messiah.

Before delving into these verses further, it is worth looking into the history of Jews in Rome around this time in history. Nero was emperor when Paul was in Judea and in Rome. Before Nero, Claudius ruled.

Claudius had banned all Jews from Rome, but now that Nero had succeeded him, they returned.

Matthew Henry says they probably were not allowed synagogues yet, even though there were religious congregations of sorts with rabbis (emphases mine):

It was not long since, by an edict of Claudius, all the Jews were banished from Rome, and kept out till his death; but, in the five years since then, many Jews had come thither, for the advantage of trade, though it does not appear that they were allowed any synagogue there or place of public worship; but these chief of the Jews were those of best figure among them, the most distinguished men of that religion, who had the best estates and interests. Paul called them together, being desirous to stand right in their opinion, and that there might be a good understanding between him and them.

John MacArthur, on the other hand, thinks that there were synagogues at the time of Paul’s stay:

He introduces himself, first of all, to the Jews. “And it came to pass, that after three days” – you’ll notice he doesn’t ever let any grass grow under his feet – “Paul called the chief of the Jews together.” Now, that is not one person; that is many of them. All of the important leaders of the synagogues, and historians have told us there’s anywhere from 12 down to 7 synagogues operating in Rome at this time in history. Each of those synagogues would have some chief men.

MacArthur also says that there were laymen who were wealthy and influential among the Jewish communities. Paul addressed them as ‘brethren’, and in older translations, ‘men and brethren’:

There were also wealthy trade merchants and other people who were of an official character in the city of Rome who were Jewish, who would have been in on this. So, “Paul called the chief of the Jews together: and when they were come together, he said unto them, ‘Men and brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet was I delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.’” And here is Paul’s pattern, as always; we see that whenever he has gone to a city previously, to whom did he go first? To the Jews.

Paul began by stating that he had never done anything against the Jews. Yet, the Jews in Jerusalem had him taken prisoner by the Romans.

Paul went on to say that the Romans found him guilty of no crime, therefore, no punishment — including the death penalty (verse 18). Now Paul was a Roman citizen, but when the Romans took him prisoner, the Jews had accused Paul of being an infiltrator from Egypt, one who had stirred up riots in Jerusalem. This, of course, was false, but took time for the Romans to establish and for Paul to set straight himself directly to the Jews afterwards.

Paul then said that the Jews objected to the Romans’ intention of setting Paul free and, because of that, he wanted to appeal to Caesar (verse 19). Once again, he said he had no complaint against the Jewish people, or ‘nation’.

Henry says:

It is true Paul did not impose the customs of the fathers upon the Gentiles: they were never intended for them. But it is as true that he never opposed them in the Jews, but did himself, when he was among them, conform to them. He never quarrelled with them for practising according to the usages of their own religion, but only for their enmity to the Gentiles, Galatians 2:12. Paul had the testimony of his conscience for him that he had done his duty to the Jews.

MacArthur rightly points out that if the Romans had freed Paul in Judea, the Jews would have retaliated violently. A Roman governor did not want disorder in the territory he governed, because he could be recalled.

MacArthur provides this analysis:

… even though he was innocent all the way down the line, here he is a prisoner in Rome. It is not because he is guilty that he is a prisoner; it is because the Romans were being blackmailed by the Jews. In other words, if the Romans did not keep him in prison, if they did not prosecute him, the Jews would lead an insurrection against Rome in Judea, and that would be very bad. So, the Roman governor succumbed to the pressure of the Jewish leaders, and kept Paul a prisoner.

Now, verse 18 takes us a little further into his introduction, as he talks to the elders of the Jews, the chief ones. Talking about the Romans, “Who, when they had examined me” – the Romans examined him; repeatedly they examined him, Felix, Festus and Agrippa – “Who, when they had examined me, would have let me go, because there was no cause of death in me.” He establishes right at the very beginning that in the eyes of Roman government, he is innocent. What he is saying is, “This is a Jewish problem. The Jewish people have sent me here, but in the eyes of the Roman law, as I faced it there, I am innocent.”

Through all that series of examinations – in chapter 24 with Felix, in chapter 25 with Festus, and in chapter 26 with Agrippa – he was innocent. Why was he not freed? Verse 19: “But when the Jews spoke against it” – or against me – “I was constrained to appeal unto Caesar.” In other words, he says, “Even though I was innocent, the Jews kept the pressure on me. So much so that my only escape was to appeal to Caesar and have this thing transferred to Rome, with the hope that I might get a fair trial.”

They recognized, you’ll remember, that he wasn’t going to get any justice in Judea because of the Jewish pressure, and so he did what every Roman citizen had the right to do: he appealed his case to Rome. And he was then transported to Rome, where his case was to be heard; and he felt, perhaps, that justice could be attained there. Now, having said all of this might be kind of a bad thing, because he really lays the onus on the Jews, and he may be just sort of X-ing himself out of any ministry.

So, in order to kind of neutralize what he’s just said, he adds the bottom half of verse 19. “Not that I had anything to accuse my nation of.” Now, notice, this is really a very important thing. He hastens to show that his defense is only that. It is only a defense. It is not offensive against the Jews. He’s saying, “I’m not condemning the Jews. I’m not attacking the Jews. I’m only defending myself. I have nothing against them. I’m not attacking back,” is what he’s saying.

He was no traitor to the natural cause of Judaism; he was a Jew in nationality, and he was a Jew in interest, certainly he was a Jew in his special love for them. You’ll notice that he says, “I have nothing to accuse my nation of.” What he’s saying is, “I am the accused, not the accuser. I have no bitterness toward Israel. I draw no accusation against them. I only defend myself.” And you remember back on all five of the defenses that we have heard of Paul, Paul has leveled no accusations against them. He has merely defended himself.

In verse 20, Luke, the author of Acts, cites Paul, giving us a mention of chains. The ‘hope of Israel’ to which Paul refers as the cause of said chains is Christ Jesus — the Messiah — and the resurrection of the dead, with the life of the world to come.

So why did the Jews not want to believe that Jesus was the Messiah? Henry answers the question perfectly, which is why we must not get caught up in today’s social justice warrior (SJW) Christianity — a huge theological error:

Because he preached that the resurrection of the dead would come. This also was the hope of Israel; so he had called it, Acts 23:6,24:15,26:6,7. “They would have you still expect a Messiah that would free you from the Roman yoke, and make you great and prosperous upon earth, and it is this that occupies their thoughts; and they are angry at me for directing their expectations to the great things of another world, and persuading them to embrace a Messiah who will secure those to them, and not external power and grandeur. I am for bringing you to the spiritual and eternal blessedness upon which our fathers by faith had their eye, and this is what they hate me for,–because I would take you off from that which is the cheat of Israel, and will be its shame and ruin, the notion of a temporal Messiah, and lead you to that which is the true and real hope of Israel, and the genuine sense of all the promises made to the fathers, a spiritual kingdom of holiness and love set up in the hearts of men, to be the pledge of, and preparative for, the joyful resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

They responded that they had no written or oral remarks from Judean Jews about Paul (verse 21).

That sounds amazing, but MacArthur gives us two possible reasons why.

Here is the first:

You say, “How could this possibly be?” Remember this: Paul’s ship was probably the last ship, right? to come from Judea to Rome. Why? Because it left really later than it should have left. And by the time it got through all of the terrible storms, and was smashed on Malta, and everything, there wouldn’t have been any other ships but that one, very likely. Why?

Because when Paul was finally going to be sent to Rome, it was only a matter of days before he grabbed the first ship and was on his way. So, Paul would have been on the first ship to Rome from that area. There couldn’t have been anybody getting there any sooner. And of course, then when they had to spend the winter, he probably picked up the closest ship, and would have been there, again, before any messenger could have come; that’s very possible. 

Now the second:

But in addition to that, I think it’s important to remember, too, that the Jews were probably not real anxious to pursue the case to Rome, because they didn’t have a case, right?

And they were probably somewhat satisfied just to have him out of Judea, and so, they didn’t bother to send anybody with any word about it. And the attitude of these Jews is very diplomatic. They deny any knowledge of his case. No one had come and told them these things, and they were saying, “We’re open to hear what it is that you have to say.” The leaders of the Sanhedrin, as I say, probably didn’t bother to come. They had been such miserable failures in front of the provincial rulers, they weren’t about to come across as a total flop in front of Caesar.

And, incidentally, I think that an interesting thing to note is that the Roman government looked very, very harshly on somebody who prosecuted a case without strong evidence. And it would have been a very difficult thing to prosecute Paul, who was a Roman citizen, in the city of Rome, especially when they didn’t even have a case. And then, to add to that, a favorable information from Festus and Felix; there was no way they were going to come to Rome. There was no way they were going to make a stand against this man.

But, then, they wanted to know more about Christianity — ‘this sect’ — because it came in for so much criticism (verse 22).

Both Henry and MacArthur see the Roman Jews’ views as being suspect.

Henry tells us that they were both right and wrong:

“We desire to hear of thee what thou thinkest–ha phroneis what thy opinions or sentiments are, what are those things which thou art so wise about, and hast such a relish of and such a zeal for; for, though we know little else of Christianity, we know it is a sect every where spoken against.” Those who said this scornful spiteful word of the Christian religion were Jews, the chief of the Jews at Rome, who boasted of their knowledge (Romans 2:17), and yet this was all they knew concerning the Christian religion, that it was a sect every where spoken against. They put it into an ill name, and then ran it down. (1.) They looked upon it to be a sect, and this was false. True Christianity establishes that which is of common concern to all mankind, and is not built upon such narrow opinions and private interests as sects commonly owe their original to. It aims at no worldly benefit or advantage as sects do; but all its gains are spiritual and eternal. And, besides, it has a direct tendency to the uniting of the children of men, and not the dividing of them, and setting them at variance, as sects have. (2.) They said it was every where spoken against, and this was too true. All that they conversed with spoke against it, and therefore they concluded every body did: most indeed did. It is, and always has been, the lot of Christ’s holy religion to be every where spoken against.

MacArthur sets us up for next week’s passage:

So, they say – “We haven’t heard anything of you, and we’re interested in what you have to say about this sect, that we hear everywhere spoken against. It has a bad reputation among us Jews.” And I think they moderated that; I think they could have said, “which we despise and hate,” because they knew all about Christianity, believe that, folks. The church had already been established in Rome. They were playing a little diplomacy here.

All right, that leads us to the third section in our paragraph, or really two paragraphs, and that is the invitation. Having seen their openness and interest, Paul then proceeds to give them a message and an invitation. He establishes a time for a great meeting, a day to make his presentation. All the Jewish leaders gather to hear him speak. And I think it’s kind of the fulfillment of Romans 1, where he said in verse 14, “I am debtor to the Greeks, and the Barbarians; to the wise, and to the unwise.

This is a more complex set of verses than it first appears. The story unfolds further next week.

Next time — Acts 28:23-27

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