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Bible boy_reading_bibleThe 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 23:23-30

Paul Sent to Felix the Governor

23 Then he called two of the centurions and said, “Get ready two hundred soldiers, with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea at the third hour of the night.[a] 24 Also provide mounts for Paul to ride and bring him safely to Felix the governor.” 25 And he wrote a letter to this effect:

26 “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. 27 This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. 28 And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. 29 I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. 30 And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.”

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In last week’s reading, Paul’s young nephew informed the Roman tribune of the Sanhedrin’s plot to murder Paul. The Jewish leaders involved had taken an oath to not eat or drink anything until they had accomplished their evil deed.

The tribune decided to despatch Paul at 9 p.m. to Caesarea in Gentile territory (verse 23). Students of Acts will know this was the town where Cornelius — a centurion and the first Gentile convert — lived.

Paul received ‘first class’ transportation, as John MacArthur describes (emphases mine):

Caesarea was a Gentile-dominated town and a Gentile-dominated territory. And, there was less likelihood of a real problem, or revolution, or an assassination. So, he calls his forces in verse 23. ““He called to him two centurions.” Each of those, of course, would be commanding 100 men. “Make ready 200 soldiers to go to Caesarea.”

So, each man would take the 100 troops that were under him, and this is the heavily armed infantry. The Roman armies moved in three parts. First of all, the heavy-armed infantry. These would be the guys with the swords and the shields who could set up the defense – the phalanx – where they would line up with shields, and this would be the front-line kind of thing. And, this was really an armed group.

Then, “In addition to that, 70 horsemen.” This is the cavalry. Important in Roman armies that they had the cavalry.

The third thing, 200 – and the Greek says “graspers by the right hand,” 200 graspers by the right hand. But, it’s translated here “spearmen.” Obviously, you know, it would be difficult to say, “All right, all you graspers by the right hand; fall out.” What it means is “javelin throwers,” the men who carried the javelin. This is the light-armed troops.

Very often, as the army moved, the cavalry might be reconnaissance or flank troops. The heavy-armed would be out front, and the spearmen in the back throwing these javelins. And so here [are] 470 soldiers armed to the gills to escort one apostle out of town. You know, when the providence of God goes into action and God takes care of His saints, they usually go first-class.

Verse 24 tells us that Paul received his own mount — steed — which must have been a luxury for him as he travelled on land by foot.

Why was the Roman tribune going to such an extent to transport Paul out of Jerusalem?

There were two reasons.

First, this was at the time when the Jews in Jerusalem were becoming restless about Roman rule in general. MacArthur says this took place in 61 AD, nine years before the destruction of the temple. Any further disorder in the city — another riot over Paul — could have landed the tribune in hot water with his superiors, to say the least. The Romans expected their leaders in other territories to maintain orderly rule.

Secondly, with regard to Paul specifically, the tribune knew he had treated him wrongly, binding him up for scourging, which was against the law as far as Roman citizens were concerned. The tribune could have lost his position, were it ever discovered by his superiors.

Of course, the tribune wanted to protect his own position, and this passage describes how he did it. He sent an interesting letter to Felix the governor (verse 25).

He began the letter by announcing himself by name (verse 26). Although the name of Claudius Lysias has appeared in my past few posts, this is the first time Luke identifies the tribune as such.

Our commentators differ in concluding how Luke knew the tribune’s name.

MacArthur says it was divine inspiration:

What is interesting about it is this: Luke records for us this letter verbatim.

You say, “What is interesting about that?” Luke never read it. Now, you know what I’m saying? This is a good illustration of divine inspiration. The Spirit of God told Luke, by the miracle of revelation, the words of that letter, and he wrote them down with his own hand. That’s inspiration in the Bible. That’s how the whole Bible has been written – the inspiration of God; verbal inspiration. And incidentally, the letter was probably written in Latin, so the Spirit of God had to give it to Luke in Greek. But the Spirit does well at translation, believe me.

On the other hand, Matthew Henry’s commentary says that Luke accompanied Paul out of Jerusalem with the Roman troops and could have had a copy of the letter:

This letter is here inserted totidem verbis–verbatim, Acts 23:25. It is probable that Luke the historian had a copy of it by him, having attended Paul in this remove.

There is no right or wrong answer, because we have no way of knowing what happened. Personally, I agree with Henry, because Luke had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem for Pentecost.

Claudius Lysias covered his tracks by saying that he rescued Paul from the baying mob for his protection, having learned he was a Roman citizen (verse 27). The reality was that he had Paul bound for scourging until Paul informed him he was a free-born Roman citizen. Interestingly, Claudius Lysias had purchased his own citizenship.

The tribune said that he sent Paul to the Sanhedrin to find out more (verse 28). As he discovered their vehement objection to Paul was based on a point of Jewish law, it was nothing that deserved death or imprisonment under Roman law (verse 30).

Claudius Lysias concluded by saying he discovered the plot to murder Paul, and, thereby requested that Felix put Paul before the Sanhedrin so that he could find out what the specific accusations are (verse 30).

Claudius Lysias pushed the matter upward to his immediate superior.

Paul was living through a trial situation similar to Jesus’s own, as MacArthur explains:

Jesus went to Pilate first and Pilate pushed Him up to Herod. And here, Claudius Lysias, the commander, doesn’t want to side. He wants him out of town, in protection, really, for his life and for Claudius’ position; and, he wants to turn him over to Felix and let him deal with it.

John MacArthur laid out four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation.

If one can think of it as such, this dramatic episode will now move from conquest to consolation. The Romans, again under divine intervention, moved Paul securely out of Jerusalem to a Gentile area, where he would be safe.

Next time — Acts 23:31-35

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Bible readingThe 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 23:16-22

16 Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. 17 Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the tribune, for he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him and brought him to the tribune and said, “Paul the prisoner called me and asked me to bring this young man to you, as he has something to say to you.” 19 The tribune took him by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” 20 And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. 21 But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.” 22 So the tribune dismissed the young man, charging him, “Tell no one that you have informed me of these things.”

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Paul’s status at this point in Acts is ‘Paul the prisoner’, which is ongoing throughout the rest of the book.

In my last post before Christmas, I wrote about the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Paul.

Paul’s nephew — his sister’s son — found out about this cold-blooded conspiracy, went to the barracks and told him (verse 16).

Information about Paul’s family is scant. John MacArthur gives us a few possibilities about this lad and his parents. Also note the providential aspect to this (emphases mine):

Do you realize that the Bible says nothing about Paul’s family at all? All we know is his father was a Pharisee because he made that statement earlier. We don’t know anything else. We do know that in Philippians 3:8 he said that because of his faith in Christ, he had suffered, “The loss of all things.” And, most Bible teachers assume that “the loss of all things” included being disinherited from his Jewish family because from then on, you hear nothing at all about his family, nothing at all.

How, then, all of a sudden does Paul’s sister’s son come to Paul’s rescue? What is he doing in Jerusalem? Did he live there? Was he there studying to be a rabbi, as Paul had been when he was a boy? Was Paul’s sister really one who cared about Paul even though he had been disinherited? Had Paul’s sister become a believer? Interesting to think about. I can’t imagine the apostle Paul not trying to convert his family, can you? I’m sure he gave it everything he had.

An interesting thing pops up in verse 16, “When Paul’s sister’s son heard of the ambush” – the verb “he went and entered the barracks,” that aorist participle there could be translated “having been present,” and it is possible that the boy was present when the plot took place. It is possible it means he was present at the prison. It is possible that it means he was present at the plot. It seems sensible to say he was present at the plot or he wouldn’t have known the plot. Can you imagine how God worked the circumstances to have that little boy hanging around the conspirators and to get the right message, and then to have the presence of mind to go warn his uncle?

But, that is what happened. You can see that this is no less supernatural than if God had reached a big sky-hook out of Heaven and pulled Paul right up.

I think it’s interesting to add a point, and I’ll take a minute to do that. There is a word in Romans 16 that is translated in the English Authorized Version “kinsman.” Sometimes it means countryman; sometimes it means relative. It is an interesting thought, if you look at Romans 16 in verse 7, “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, who are in Christ before me.” That’s interesting. The possibility is there.

Then he says, in verse 11, “Greet Herodion, my kinsman who are in the Lord,” with another individual. Verse 21, “Timothy my fellow worker” – or work fellow – “and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipater, my kinsmen.” Now, it may have been that Paul did have some fruit in his own family. We don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Well, so the boy heard about the plot and he came to the barracks and told Paul. Now, maybe the family was high, kind of high class. You know, Paul had been a member of the Sanhedrin and his father a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, and the whole ball of wax, zealous for the law. It could have been that his father was kind of a sharp guy, up there, and we don’t know – it’s possible – that he may have been even in the leadership of Israel. But whatever, the boy heard it, went, and told Paul about it. How exciting!

Matthew Henry’s commentary simply says:

… some how or other, we are not told how, he heard of their lying in wait, either overheard them talking of it among themselves, or got intelligence from some that were in the ploy: and he went into the castle, probably, as he used to do, to attend on his uncle, and bring him what he wanted, which gave him a free access to him and he told Paul what he heard.

I particularly liked this, which points out that God had a plan for Paul:

Note, God has many ways of bringing to light the hidden works of darkness; though the contrivers of them dig deep to hide them from the Lord, he can made a bird of the air to carry the voice (Ecclesiastes 10:20), or the conspirators’ own tongues to betray them.

To understand Paul’s relationship with the centurion — commander of 100 soldiers — who did his bidding (verse 17), it is worth noting that a) Paul informed the tribune that he was a Roman citizen from birth and b) the tribune and his centurions thought the Apostle was someone pretty important if the whole city of Jerusalem wanted to kill him. Because no one, including the Sanhedrin, enlightened the Romans about their hatred of Paul, they had to work on assumptions.

Also, Paul, having been not only well educated but also doing the Lord’s work, was a model prisoner, thereby earning the centurion’s respect. So, when Paul asked him to take the lad to the tribune, Claudius Lysias, there was no objection. (St Luke, the author of Acts, never mentions the tribune by name.)

The centurion duly took the boy to Claudius Lysias, explaining that he had something to tell him (verse 18).

Henry offers this analysis, which further indicates that divine providence was at work:

The centurion very readily gratified him, Acts 23:18. He did not send a common soldier with him, but went himself to keep the young man in countenance, to recommend his errand to the chief captain, and to show his respect to Paul: “Paul the prisoner (this was his title now) called me to him, and prayed me to bring this young man to thee; what his business is I know not, but he has something to say to thee.” Note, It is true charity to poor prisoners to act for them as well as to give to them. “I was sick and in prison, and you went on an errand for me,” will pass as well in the account as, “I was sick and in prison, and you came unto me, to visit me, or sent me a token.” Those that have acquaintance and interest should be ready to use them for the assistance of those that are in distress. This centurion helped to save Paul’s life by this piece of civility, which should engage us to be ready to do the like when there is occasion. Open thy mouth for the dumb, Proverbs 31:8. Those that cannot give a good gift to God’s prisoners may yet speak a good word for them.

Paul’s nephew must have been young, because the tribune took him by the hand to ask him about his news privately (verse 19). The boy was probably nervous and, by holding his hand, the tribune reassured him. Henry says that, too, was significant, reminding us that the tribune acted illegally in having a fellow Roman citizen — Paul — bound for scourging. That carried a huge penalty, if his superior had found out. Recall, too, that the tribune bought his Roman citizenship, whereas Paul was a natural born Roman. Claudius Lysias was obliged to be nice to Paul, even indirectly:

The chief captain received the information with a great deal of condescension and tenderness, Acts 23:19. He took the young man by the hand, as a friend or father, to encourage him, that he might not be put out of countenance, but might be assured of a favourable audience. The notice that is taken of this circumstance should encourage great men to take themselves easy of access to the meanest, upon any errand which may give them an opportunity of doing good–to condescend to those of low estate. This familiarity to which this Roman tribune or colonel admitted Paul’s nephew is here upon record to his honour. Let no man think he disparages himself by his humility or charity. He went with him aside privately, that none might hear his business, and asked him, “What is it that thou hast to tell me? Tell me wherein I can be serviceable to Paul.” It is probable that the chief captain was the more obliging in this case because he was sensible he had run himself into a premunire in binding Paul, against his privilege as a Roman citizen, which he was willing now to atone for.

Paul’s nephew told the tribune that the Jews planned on obtaining the tribune’s consent to see Paul in the council on the pretext that they had more questions for him (verse 20), when, in fact, they, having taken an oath, were going to murder him in cold blood (verse 21). The boy said:

do not be persuaded by them

The tribune asked the boy not to say anything about their private exchange, and dismissed him (verse 22).

Consider the Lord’s work here. A subject of the Romans — a boy, at that — tells the Roman tribune what to do. MacArthur says:

Now, here is a little kid commanding the Roman commander. Now, you can see how God is superintending this thing. “Do not thou yield to him, for there lie in wait for him.” There is an ambush of more than 40 men who have anathematized themselves with an anathema. In other words, they have devoted themselves to destruction. They will neither eat nor drink until they have killed him, and they are now ready, and “The whole thing depends upon the promise from you to deliver the prisoner.”

Henry points out that the boy never mentioned which of ‘the Jews’ were plotting against Paul:

he does not say who, lest he should invidiously reflect upon the chief priests and the elders; and his business was to save his uncle’s life, not to accuse his enemies

As for telling the boy to say nothing to anyone, Claudius Lysias knew that if this conspiracy against Paul did not work, the Sanhedrin would come up with another. Even worse, if the Sanhedrin knew the Romans had actively prevented their plot from going ahead, there could have been a huge revolt in Jerusalem. John MacArthur explains:

I don’t think that that commander wanted an argument with those Jews, and I don’t think that he wanted them to know that he knew their plot, because if they knew he knew their plot, and he wouldn’t let it come off, then you would begin to see potential revolution and sedition.

And Jerusalem and Judea w[ere] volatile. It was only a few years after this that the whole place exploded in a revolution. And, he knew the past history of what other commanders had run into in that place, and he did not want to butt heads with them.

John MacArthur laid out four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation.

Today’s passage shows the beginning of the conquest, with God working through Paul’s nephew and the Romans to defeat the Sanhedrin’s evil, murderous conspiracy.

Next time — Acts 23:23-30

We are now in the season of Epiphany, which takes us to Lent at the beginning of March.

The following readings are for the First Sunday after Epiphany — also known as the Baptism of the Lord — in Year C of the three-year Lectionary.

Themes are jubilation and rejoicing in God the Father for sending His Son to save us and bring us to life everlasting.

Emphases mine below.

First reading

We recall how God historically delivered His holy people from captivity, despite their many sins.

Isaiah 43:1-7

43:1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

43:2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

43:3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.

43:4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.

43:5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;

43:6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth

43:7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Psalm

We rejoice in the Lord God, Creator of the universe and giver of life.

Psalm 29

29:1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

29:2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.

29:3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.

29:4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

29:5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

29:6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.

29:7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.

29:8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

29:9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”

29:10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.

29:11 May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

Epistle

The Apostles ministered to the Samaritans, half-Jews, whom the Jews of the time despised. St Luke wrote the Book of Acts, by the way. His Gospel account of Jesus’s baptism follows.

Acts 8:14-17

8:14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.

8:15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit

8:16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).

8:17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Gospel

John the Baptist baptised Jesus. Heaven opened, bringing the dramatic confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,

3:22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Several years ago, I read a Bible commentary that said that we are under no obligation to be baptised. It seems the author did not know his New Testament very well, because there are many references to baptism therein.

If Jesus was baptised, should we not follow His holy example?

In closing, a warning about baptism follows. Child baptism is very important. I know a number of people who returned to the Church in their later years. They raised families while they were not attending church.

Those who did not have their children baptised deeply regretted it.

Those unbaptised children did not want to be christened in their adulthood.

Not one is a believer, either.

I’m not saying that baptism is salvific in and of itself, but it is an important first step in belonging to a church community and, more importantly, is one of the two universally agreed upon Sacraments.

Bible croppedThe 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 23:12-15

A Plot to Kill Paul

12 When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. 13 There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. 14 They went to the chief priests and elders and said, “We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food till we have killed Paul. 15 Now therefore you, along with the council, give notice to the tribune to bring him down to you, as though you were going to determine his case more exactly. And we are ready to kill him before he comes near.”

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Last week’s entry was about the heated row the Pharisees and the Sadducees had over their faith beliefs, which Paul had purposely triggered.

The next day, however, the Sanhedrin’s focus returned to Paul. More than 40 plotted to kill him and went on a hunger strike until they accomplished their mission (verses 12, 13).

John MacArthur’s four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation. Last week’s verses showed the conflict. However, Paul saw some of the consolation, as our Lord stood beside him in prison (emphases mine):

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

The conflict continues this week with these plotters. Both our commentators say that Satan was working through them. Here is Matthew Henry’s analysis. Older translations use ‘curse’ instead of ‘oath’ in verse 12, which adds to the gravity of the sitaution:

(1.) They bound themselves to it. To incline to do evil, and intend to do it, is bad; but to engage to do it is much worse. This is entering into covenant with the devil; it is swearing allegiance to the prince of darkness; it is leaving no room for repentance; nay, it is bidding defiance to it. (2.) They bound one another to it, and did all they could, not only to secure the damnation of their own souls, but of theirs whom they drew into the association. (3.) They showed a great contempt of the providence of God, and a presumption upon it, in that they bound themselves to do such a thing within so short a time as they could continue fasting, without any proviso or reserve for the disposal of an overruling Providence. When we say, To-morrow we will do this or that, be it ever so lawful and good, forasmuch as we know not what shall be on the morrow, we must add, If the Lord will. But with what face could they insert a proviso for the permission of God’s providence when they knew that what they were about was directly against the prohibitions of God’s work? (4.) They showed a great contempt of their own souls and bodies; of their own souls in imprecating a curse upon them if they did not proceed in this desperate enterprise (what a woeful dilemma did they throw themselves upon! God certainly meets them with his curse if they do go on in it, and they desire he would if they do not!)–and of their own bodies too (for wilful sinners are the destroyers of both) in tying themselves out from the necessary supports of life till they had accomplished a thing which they could never lawfully do, and perhaps not possibly do. Such language of hell those speak that wish God to damn them, and the devil to take them, if they do not do so and so. As they love cursing, so shall it come unto them. Some think the meaning of this curse was, they would either kill Paul, as an Achan, an accursed thing, a troubler of the camp; or, if they did not do it, they would make themselves accursed before God in his stead. (5.) They showed a most eager desire to compass this matter, and an impatience till was done: not only like David’s enemies, that were mad against him, and sworn against him (Psalms 102:8), but like the servants of Job against his enemy: O that we had of this flesh! we cannot be satisfied, Job 31:31. Persecutors are said to eat up God’s people as they eat bread; it is as much a gratification to them as meat to one that is hungry, Psalms 14:4.

John MacArthur’s Bible also says ‘curse’. He explains:

They were serious about it as indicated by the fact that it says, “They bound themselves under a curse.”

The Greek is “they anathematized themselves with an anathema.” They devoted themselves to destruction. This was not an uncommon thing. They placed themselves under a divine judgment, as it were. They invoked the vengeance of God. It would go something like this: if any of the other Jewish vows would be similar to this, this would be a typical one, “So may God do to us and more, if we eat or drink anything until Paul is dead.”

Now, they were serious. They wanted this man dead, and the most stringent way they knew was to take this kind of a vow which sort of bound them and sort of told everybody the seriousness of it. And, they invoked the vengeance of God if they didn’t accomplish it. Of course, that’s dumb, because God may or may not be involved in it. That’s why Jesus said, “Swear not at all, don’t do that. Don’t say, ‘God, strike me dead if I don’t do this,’ or, ‘God do this if I don’t do that’.” Let your conversation be “yes and no” and forget that.”

Jesus said, “Swear not at all neither by Heaven or Earth.” But they were doing that, and they wanted to drag God into it and appear very holy. See? “We’ll kill him or God strike us dead,” feeling they were really going to defend God. They wanted God in on the murder plot …

You say, “Well, why would they react to such a man like this? Why not just say, ‘Oh, well. Let him go.’ Why so hostile? Why so violent?” Because of this, folks: to simplify it, they were the dupes of Satan, and that is the simplest way to look at it. They had been so subjected to the power of Satan by this time, existing so long in a false system of religion based on ego and hypocrisy, that they were Satan’s tools. And Satan wanted Jesus and the Gospel done away.

MacArthur tells us why 40+ were involved:

Well, apparently, they felt that the Romans would not bring about Paul’s death; they couldn’t procure the death at the hands of Rome. And, they realized that they didn’t want Paul in front of the people making another speech, or he might wind up persuading too many of them.

And so they saw they had to get rid of him, but they didn’t want any one individual to bear the brunt. So they realized if they had 40 or more (and that’s maybe an arbitrary figure; they may have called together all those who were interested), but if they had enough, no one person could be blamed for it. Plus, that many could accomplish it without Paul escaping. So they bound themselves by a blood oath, swearing to God that they would assassinate Paul, or they would be willing to take the vengeance of God, knowing all the time that they could get out of it.

They then went to the chief priests and elders stating that they had made this oath (verse 14), and what they expected Ananias and the elders to do: pretend they wanted to interview Paul further, and the conspirators would murder Paul when he approached (verse 15).

It is difficult imagining that going on in a religious setting, but MacArthur gives us the background to the Sanhedrin:

Now, the chief priests of the Sanhedrin were the Sadducees. The Sadducees party was the most antagonistic to Paul. Do you remember for what reason? Because Paul taught the resurrection and they were anti-resurrectionists. And so, these conspirators went to the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the top guys, and they said, “Look, we have bound ourselves under a great curse that we will not eat anything until we have slain Paul.”

Now, why would they bother to tell the Sadducees? Because they could get a hearing. They’d get somebody to listen to them who would agree, and they wanted to enlist the support of the Council.

It’s interesting, I think, to just note the fact that the conspirators, the 40-plus, knew that the leadership of Israel was so morally rotten that they were willing to advertise a murder. Can you imagine going and taking a group of murderers up to the Supreme Court and telling them that you’d like their cooperation in a murder?

Well, that’s part of it. But, they were not only the judicial heads of the country; they were the spiritual leaders, so corrupted that justice was corrupted, and spiritual truth was corrupted to the place where they could be enlisted in a murderous assassination. And they knew they’d get a hearing, and had no fears that they would be prosecuted for such a thing as attempted murder – or whatever.

Even knowing that, the plotters were bold as brass dictating to their superiors. What a den of vipers the Sanhedrin was.

Forbidden Bible Verses continues in the New Year.

Next time — Acts 23:16-22

Bible penngrovechurchofchristorgThe 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 23:6-11

Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”

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Poor Paul. In last week’s entry Ananias the high priest illegally ordered him struck on the mouth — a painful punch or blow with a club or rod — for saying that he had lived his life in good conscience before God. The Sanhedrin then accused Paul of showing disrespect to Ananias, whom he said he did not recognise as the high priest. This was because they were hastily called to Fort Antonia and were not in their usual ceremonial robes. It could also be that Paul did not wish to recognise a scoundrel of a high priest and/or he was affected by bad eyesight, a real possibility.

Under Mosaic law, Paul was wrong and Ananias was wrong in equal measure. Both had violated the law of Jewish conduct.

I cited John MacArthur’s four themes for Acts 23: the confrontation, the conflict, the conquest and the consolation. Last week’s verses showed the confrontation.

Today’s verses show the conflict as the tension briefly moves away from Paul to a dispute between the Pharisees, of which Paul was one, and the Sadducees, who were not at all spiritual in their theological outlook.

Matthew Henry summarises this beautifully (emphases mine):

Many are the troubles of the righteous, but some way or other the Lord delivereth them out of them all. Paul owned he had experienced the truth of this in the persecutions he had undergone among the Gentiles (see 2 Timothy 3:11): Out of them all the Lord delivered me. And now he finds that he who has delivered does and will deliver. He that delivered him in the foregoing chapter from the tumult of the people here delivers him from that of the elders.

Did Paul deliberately cause the division when he announced that he was a Pharisee to take the heat off himself (verse 6)? Matthew Henry answers in the affirmative:

The great council was made up of Sadducees and Pharisees, and Paul perceived it. He knew the characters of many of them ever since he lived among them, and saw those among them whom he knew to be Sadducees, and others whom he knew to be Pharisees …

So does John MacArthur:

So you know what Paul did? He just turned the whole Sanhedrin on itself. Revolution. Civil war. He just calmly stood there while they started the fight. You see, the real issue at stake was Paul had given his testimony, and Paul declared in his testimony that he was going down the Damascus Road and who spoke to him? Jesus of Nazareth. Well, if Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him, that meant Jesus of Nazareth was alive, right? So what was that saying? Resurrection.

Paul further triggered the Sadducees by mentioning that he believed in the resurrection of the dead, which the Pharisees did. With that, the quarrelling between the two religious groups began (verse 7).

Luke, the author of Acts, summarised the theological differences concisely (verse 8), so that the reader would understand.

The dissension escalated when some of the scribes — who were Pharisees — posited that Paul might have received a message from an angel or a spirit (verse 9). Hearing that enraged the Sadducees, who believed in neither. This does not mean that the scribes became Paul’s defenders after this: far from it, as we see in Acts 24. Despite this, Henry thinks that some of the Pharisees seriously thought about Paul’s defence of his faith:

We will hope that some of them at least did henceforward conceive a better opinion of Paul than they had had, and were favourable to him, having had such a satisfactory account both of his conversation in all good conscience and of his faith touching another world …

The arguments between the Sadducees and the Pharisees became so violent that the Roman tribune — commander — was concerned for Paul’s life, so he had his soldiers remove Paul by force and return him to the barracks (verse 10).

MacArthur sees this as providential:

The Romans to the rescue; the second time in two chapters. Amazing, God has superintended them. The whole of the nation of Israel is thrown into confusion, and he’s got the whole Roman army on the side of Paul.

As Henry points out, Paul was truly alone during this prolonged ordeal, with none of his Christian convert friends coming to his aid. Perhaps they were too afraid or perhaps they tried, but were not allowed admittance to see him:

The chief captain had rescued him out of the hands of cruel men, but still he had him in custody, and what might be the issue he could not tell. The castle was indeed a protection to him, but withal it was a confinement; and, as it was now his preservation from so great a death, it might be his reservation for a greater. We do not find that any of the apostles or elders at Jerusalem came to him; either they had not courage or they had not admission.

None of that mattered, because the Lord was with Paul. The next night He stood beside Paul and said that his work in Jerusalem was complete. Rome was to be the Apostle’s next destination in His Holy Name (verse 11): ‘Take courage’.

Henry provides this useful analysis:

Christ bids him have a good heart upon it: “Be of good cheer, Paul; be not discouraged; let not what has happened sadden thee, nor let what may yet be before thee frighten thee.” Note, It is the will of Christ that his servants who are faithful should be always cheerful. Perhaps Paul, in the reflection, began to be jealous of himself whether he had done well in what he said to the council the day before; but Christ, by his word, satisfies him that God approved of his conduct. Or, perhaps, it troubled him that his friends did not come to him; but Christ’s visit did itself speak, though he had not said, Be of good cheer, Paul.

In closing, MacArthur reminds us that our Lord revealed Himself to Paul five times in total. His awe-inspiring appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus was the first. This passage mentions another one of the five:

Always at times of crisis, the Lord stood by him. He was alone in the cell. Maybe he was saying, “Carest Thou not that I perish?” Maybe he was saying, “Lord, seems as though You’ve been all gone a while. Lord, have You forgotten me?” You know, you can have those kind of moods when you’ve been through something like that easily.

It wasn’t enough for the Lord to just remind him of a few principles. Jesus came to him. Jesus came and stood by him and He gave him three little words: consolation; commendation; and, confidence.”

Knowing this, we can better understand why Paul was so optimistic in his letters to the faithful. He understood that the Lord does not forsake His people. Even if we cannot physically see Him, our Redeemer does not forsake us, either.

As MacArthur says:

Do you think God cares for you? God came to Paul and He gave him thanks for the past; comfort for the present; assurance for the future. He’s the God of all comfort. I’ve seen Him comfort many people. I’ve seen Him comfort in my own life and give consolation. I know you have. In the midst of any trial, He cares. Cast your care on Him.

Paul’s ordeal continued with yet another murder attempt against him.

Next time — Acts 23:12-15

Bible kevinroosecomThe 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 22:22-30

Paul and the Roman Tribune

22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips,[a] Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

Paul Before the Council

30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.

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Last week’s entry was about the testimony — apologia — that Paul gave to the mob in Jerusalem, who had calmed down long enough to hear him until he said:

21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’

At the mention of the Gentiles, the mob went mad again, clamouring for his death (verse 22), not unlike the mob clamouring for Jesus’s death two decades earlier.

The crowd shouted, took off their garments and threw dirt at Paul (verse 23).

Matthew Henry’s commentary states they acted out — much like today’s leftists do — in order to persuade the Roman tribune (commander, chiliarch) to accede to their demands. Might makes right, in other words. So wrong:

All they intended was to make the chief captain sensible how much they were enraged and exasperated at Paul, so that he could not do any thing to gratify them more than to let them have their will against him.

These people had taken leave of their senses (emphases mine):

They went stark mad against Paul, and against the chief captain for not killing him immediately at their request, or throwing him as a pry into their teeth, that they might devour him (Acts 22:23); as men whose reason was quite lost in passion, they cried out like roaring lions or raging bears, and howled like the evening wolves; they cast off their clothes with fury and violence, as much as to say that thus they would tear him if they could but come at him.

They threw dirt at Paul, signifying it was blasphemy to link Jews with Gentiles. The removal of garments meant that they could get a better handful of dirt to throw at him and/or to stone him, were they able to do so:

rather, they thus showed how ready they were to stone him; those that stoned Stephen threw off their clothesOr, they rent their clothes, as if he had spoken blasphemy; and threw dust into the air, in detestation of it; or signifying how ready they were to throw stones at Paul, if the chief captain would have permitted them.

So the tribune ordered that Paul be brought into the barracks and be tortured — examined — by scourging so that he would confess his crime (verse 24).

There was one problem with that. The tribune assumed that Paul did not have Roman citizenship, even though Paul had already told him he had been born in Tarsus, Roman territory (Acts 21:39):

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.”

Paul waited to say something until after he had been bound up for scourging. Binding was more than just securing a person to a whipping post. The Romans stretched the skin to the point that the scourge — best depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (watch it and don’t look away) — which was a cat o’ nine tails with sharp and irregularly sized stone bits on the ends to gouge the skin from first contact.

John MacArthur explains:

Verse 25: “And as they bound him with thongs,” – and the word “bound” has the implication of stretching. That’s what they did. They would stretch the man’s body to all extreme, so that his body would be drawn to attention, and so that all the lashes would cause the skin to separate immediately, and cut right into the flesh and the muscle and tissue… 

Now the scourge, if it didn’t kill him would cripple him for life.

Bound yet calm, Paul asked the centurion supervising this if it was lawful for a Roman citizen to be flogged, especially uncondemned (verse 25).

That question was a game-changer, because, if the Romans tortured Paul, they could be in serious trouble, even subject to the death penalty. MacArthur tells us:

… it was a crime to scourge a Roman. The Portion law and the Valerian law forbid any Roman from ever going through punishment by flagellum.

To add to that, Suetonius the lawyer said, “Any Roman who violates or any man who violates the rights of a Roman citizen will be executed of Esquiline Hill in Rome.” So when Paul said, “Is it lawful to do this to a Roman, uncondemned?” panic struck.

The centurion immediately went back to the tribune to ask what to do (verse 26).

The tribune approached Paul and asked him if he had Roman citizenship. Paul answered in the affirmative (verse 27).

The tribune said he had purchased his Roman citizenship. Paul replied that he was a free-born Roman (verse 28), one better.

Hearing that, the tribune and his men were afraid. Their having bound Paul was illegal. They were at risk of punishment, possibly losing their commissions. Roman law was not to be trifled with, especially with regard to citizenship.

Still wanting to get to the bottom of the matter, the tribune decided to turn him over to the Jewish court (verse 30).

MacArthur has information about the tribune:

Verse 26: “When the centurion” – that’s the captain of a hundred men – “heard that, he went and told the chief captain” – that’s the captain of a thousand men, the chief commander, Claudius Lysias – “he said, ‘Take heed what you do. This man is a Roman.’” Boy, when the news got there, panic.

“The chief captain came and said unto him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ He said, ‘Yes.’” Do you see how God had equipped Paul for every trial?

You know, that reminds me of 1 Corinthians 10. When Paul said it, he knew what he was talking about: “God will never allow you to suffer above that you are able, but will, with every trial or temptation, make a way of escape that you may be able to bear it.” God fits every man for everything He takes him through.

“He said, ‘Yes,’ and the chief captain answered, ‘Oh, with a great sum obtained I this freedom.’ He said, ‘Man, I bought my Roman citizenship. It means a lot to me. You realize what I almost did? Almost lost my citizenship or my life.’”

Paul quietly says, it’s interesting, “I was free born,” which just drives the nails in a little deeper. He wasn’t a second-class citizen, he was a first-class citizen. And here was a second-class citizen going to flagellate a first-class citizen. Bad news. The first guy was on thin ice anyway.

You say, “How did he get his citizenship?” He bought it. You say, “Who’d he buy it from?” Probably under the rule of Emperor Claudius, because his name is Lysias, a Greek name, he’s a Greek guy. Where did he get the Roman name Claudius? Well, people used to take the name of the emperor, so he probably took Claudius’ name, because during the reign of Claudius, Claudius had a wife named Messalina, and Messalina had a bunch of court favorites that hung around her, and they all thought they’d line their own pockets, so they started selling Roman citizenships for exorbitant prices; and what happened was Claudius Lysias bought one of them, took the name of Claudius.

So he was a purchased citizen in that sense; Paul was born a citizen. You say, “That’s interesting. How did Paul’s father become a citizen?” We don’t know, but God made sure it happened.

Well, “Then immediately” – verse 29 – “they departed from him who should have examined him.” Everybody left. “The chief captain was afraid after he knew that he was a Roman, because he had bound him.” He was scared. Chief captain said, “Everybody out; it’s all over with. And the next day, they turned him over to the Jews for due process.”

As to how Paul’s family had free-born status, Henry has this explanation:

Some think he became entitled to this freedom by the place of his birth, as a native of Tarsus, a city privileged by the emperor with the same privileges that Rome itself enjoyed; others rather think it was by his father or grandfather having served in the war between Cæsar and Antony, or some other of the civil wars of Rome, and being for some signal piece of service rewarded with a freedom of the city, and so Paul came to be free-born …

This could explain Paul’s exhortations to obey secular law, as it did not preclude being devoted to God.

In closing, note that the tribune took a different tack to Gallio in Corinth, when Paul appeared before him (Acts 18:12-17). Gallio told the Jews that their argument was a religious one and that he would not permit it in a Roman tribunal. Then, again, as my post explains, Gallio, being son of Seneca the Younger and grandson of Seneca the Elder, was a far wiser man than Claudius Lysias.

Next time — Acts 23:1-5

Bible boy_reading_bibleThe 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 22:2-21

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language,[a] they became even more quiet. And he said:

3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel[b] according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.

6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand[c] the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.

12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’

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Last week’s passage discussed the aftermath of the riot in Jerusalem, centred around lies Jews from Ephesus told about Paul. The Roman tribune’s (commander’s) men had to carry Paul away from the crowd. They then bound him, as Agabus had prophesied only days before. Paul then asked the tribune in Greek if he could address the mob. The tribune, surprised and impressed that Paul knew Greek, allowed him to do so.

Paul presented his bona fides in an address — actually, an apologia (defence) of his journey in faith — to the Jews in Jerusalem. Not only did Paul speak Greek, but he also spoke Aramaic, their Hebrew dialect. Consequently, they were quiet (verse 2).

Verse 3 is the beginning of his testimony, where he mentioned his place of birth, Tarsus, home to a notable university at the time, and adding that he came to Jerusalem to study at the feet of Gamaliel, one of Judaism’s greatest teachers, who had also warned the Jewish hierarchy against persecuting Christians in case they (the hierarchy) were opposing God.

Paul was also careful to say that he was as ‘zealous for God’ as they were. How gracious of him, considering that this was the same mob that had bloodied him a short while before.

He went on to say that, at an earlier time, he persecuted followers of the Way — Christians — unto death (verse 4). The Way was a commonly used term for Christianity mentioned in other parts of Acts and New Testament letters. The term comes from Jesus (John 14:6), emphases mine below:

Jesus said to him,“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

One of those who met his death at Paul’s instigation was Stephen, one of the first deacons (see here and here). Near the end of his apologia, he admitted his guilt by mentioning Stephen by name (verse 20).

Paul said these things to show that he really had been steeped in the Jewish faith. However, if that weren’t enough for some in the crowd, he indirectly invited them to check with the high priest and the elders (verse 5), as he was on his way to do their bidding in bringing back Jewish converts from Damascus to Jerusalem for punishment.

He then went on to describe what happened just outside of Damascus (verses 6-13), which I wrote about at length in the following posts:

Part 1 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion

Part 2 of Acts 9:1-9: Saul’s — St Paul’s — conversion (includes interesting info from John MacArthur on his own conversion)

Acts 9:10-19 — when scales fell from the eyes of Saul of Tarsus (final part of St Paul’s conversion story)

Note the emphasis that Paul puts on God in quoting the words of Ananias (verse 14). ‘The God of our Fathers’ had appointed Paul to know His will, to have a blinding (literally) encounter with His Son and to be His witness (verse 15). Paul concluded his conversion experience by telling the crowd how Ananias urged him to rise (since his sight had been restored) and be baptised so that his sins could be washed away, calling on His name (verse 16).

Then, Paul discussed his return to Jerusalem. St Luke, the author of Acts, wrote about what happened to Paul after his conversion. Paul stayed in Damascus to preach, then continued his ministry for three years in Arabia, after which time he returned to Jerusalem. At that point, he was praying in the temple when he fell into a trance (verse 17). He had a vision of Christ telling him to leave the city post haste (verse 18). That exit is in Acts 9:26-31; Paul went home to Tarsus for a time.

Matthew Henry’s commentary has more on Paul’s vision and our Lord’s message:

In this trance he saw Jesus Christ, not with the eyes of his body, as at his conversion, but represented to the eye of his mind (Acts 22:18): I saw him saying unto me … Before Christ gave him a commission to go to the Gentiles, he told him it was to no purpose for him to think of doing any good at Jerusalem; so that they must not blame him, but themselves, if he be sent to the Gentiles. Paul came to Jerusalem full of hopes that, by the grace of God, he might be instrumental to bring those to the faith of Christ who had stood it out against the ministry of the other apostles; and perhaps this was what he was now praying for, that he, having had his education at Jerusalem and being well known there, might be employed in gathering the children of Jerusalem to Christ that were not yet gathered, which he thought he had particular advantages for doing of. But Christ crosses the measures he had laid: “Make haste,” says he, “and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem;” for, though thou thinkest thyself more likely to work upon them than others, thou wilt find they are more prejudiced against thee than against any other, and therefore “will not receive thy testimony concerning me.” As God knows before who will receive the gospel, so he knows who will reject it.

Paul says he responded to Jesus by saying that the Jews in Jerusalem knew his past of persecution (verse 19), especially with regard to Stephen (verse 20).

Paul ended his apologia by saying that our Lord told him to go far away from Jerusalem and take his ministry to the Gentiles (verse 21).

As Henry says, God answers our prayers according to His will, not ours:

So Paul here prays that he may be an instrument of converting souls at Jerusalem: “No,” says Christ, “but thou shalt be employed among the Gentiles, and more shall be the children of the desolate than those of the married wife.” It is God that appoints his labourers both their day and their place, and it is fit they should acquiesce in his appointment, though it may cross their own inclinations. Paul hankers after Jerusalem: to be a preacher there was the summit of his ambition; but Christ designs him greater preferment. He shall not enter into other men’s labours (as the other apostles did, John 4:38), but shall break up new ground, and preach the gospel where Christ was not named, Romans 15:20. So often does Providence contrive better for us than we for ourselves; to the guidance of that we must therefore refer ourselves. He shall choose our inheritance for us. Observe, Paul shall not go to preach among the Gentiles without a commission: I will send thee. And, if Christ send him, his Spirit will go along with him, he will stand by him, will carry him on, and bear him out, and give him to see the fruit of his labours. Let not Paul set his heart upon Jerusalem, for he must be sent far hence; his call must be quite another way, and his work of another kind. And it might be a mitigation of the offence of this to the Jews that he did not set up a Gentile church in the neighbouring nations; others did this in their immediate vicinity; he was sent to places at a distance, a vast way off, where what he did could not be thought an annoyance to them.

Here Paul was in a precarious situation, not only with the Jews but also the Romans. Yet, he boldly gave this dramatic testimony, all of which points to God working through him. John MacArthur has more:

Look at Paul’s greeting, in verse 1 of 22: “Men and brethren and fathers.” Look in verse 3 how he maximizes similarities. He maximizes the way they are the same, then he says, “I understand your motives. Boy, I understand how you feel, I used to be exactly like that”

The next point in giving a positive testimony is to tell what God did when He invaded your life. “And then you know what happened? I was going about doing what I was doing. All of a sudden, God began to move in my life.” See?

So, number one, accept the situation is from God. Number two, create an opportunity. Number three, when you get that opportunity, be loving and conciliatory, and do everything to win their confidence. And number four, when you begin to talk about the transformation, talk about it from God’s side. “Here is what God did.” Well, may the Lord give us opportunity for that.

Unfortunately, as we shall see next week, the word ‘Gentiles’ triggered the crowd, which, once again, turned into a mob.

Next time — Acts 22:22-30

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.”

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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

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

The 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 21:19-26

19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled,[a] and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them.

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Last week’s entry was about Paul’s preliminary meeting with a small group of Jewish converts from the church of Jerusalem. The following day’s events, described in today’s passage, were with a larger group, led by James (the Just and/or the Less), who wrote the eponymous Epistle. This James was not the Apostle James, brother of the Apostle John, both the sons of Zebedee.

John MacArthur describes the backdrop to this meeting. Also recall that Paul was delivering a sizeable monetary contribution from the Gentile churches (emphases mine):

So there they arrive, and it’s Paul’s time to report. They had the fellowship, passed out the money, though it doesn’t say anything about that. I’m sure they did, and I’m sure that’s what contributed to the gladness, and I know that they accepted it, because the Lord doesn’t have those kind of purposes at that kind of expense without good results. So I’m sure it was a great reception, though the text says nothing about it.

And then they were going to listen to Paul, because Paul was going to report. And so they got together, and the wonderful fellowship; and ol’ Paul had set churches together in Syria, and in Cyprus, and Galatia, and Macedonia, and Achaia, and Asia Minor; and he had had so many fantastic experiences; and Jews were saved, Gentiles were saved, and this and that and the other. And you can just imagine they were all anxious to find out all the details of what had gone on in his ministry, and so he reports to them all this information.

Note how Luke, the author of Acts, expresses the achievements (verse 19). He — nor Paul, for that matter — said that Paul did all these wonderful things. He says that God was responsible. Both commentators — John MacArthur and Matthew Henry — point this out.

MacArthur says:

That’s what I like about Paul. “He declared particularly what things God had wrought among the Gentile by his ministry.” Now notice he declared particularly. He didn’t speak in generality. He told them incident after incident after incident of what God had done.

Luke was careful to give us examples throughout Acts of God’s work in building the Church:

Acts 14: “He came back from his journey, his first journey.” Listen to his report, I like this: “And when they had come together and gathered the church together, they reviewed all that God had done with them,” – that’s so good, because they see themselves as tools and God’s doing the work“all that God had done with them, and now He had opened the door of faith under the Gentiles.” Isn’t that good?

Chapter 15, verse 12, when they came to Jerusalem, “Then all the multitude kept silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul.” And you know what they did? They declared what miracles and wonders God had wrought.

And, you know, Peter was the same way. He came back. Peter had won a Gentile to Christ. He actually led Cornelius to Christ. Now Peter could’ve come back and said, “I led a Gentile to the Lord. I did.” No, he came back, and he said, “You’ll never believe this. You know what God did? God granted unto the Gentiles life.” God did it.

Always the godly man gives God the credit, right? It’s a simple point, but it’s there. So important. That’s what Peter meant when he said, “If any man speaks,” – 1 Peter 4:11 – “let him speak as of the oracles of God. If any man ministers, let him do it as of the ability which God gives, that God in all things may be glorified.” That’s why the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 3, “I pray that you be filled of the fullness of God, and then you exceeding of all you can ask or think according to the power that works in us,” – and then what? – “that in the church, God may be glorified.” Always the glory is His, always His; and Paul had that kind of mind. The mind of Christ, friends, is the mind of humility; and he gave God the glory. So we see the communion.

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that there was no envy among the church leaders in Jerusalem because God received the credit:

Paul ascribed it all to God, and to God they gave the praise of it. They did not break out into high encomiums of Paul, but left it to his Master to say to him, Well done, good and faithful servant; but they gave glory to the grace of God, which was extended to the Gentiles. Note, The conversion of sinners ought to be the matter of our joy and praise as it is of the angels’. God had honoured Paul more than any of them, in making his usefulness more extensive, yet they did not envy him, nor were they jealous of his growing reputation, but, on the contrary, glorified the Lord. And they could not do more to encourage Paul to go on cheerfully in his work than to glorify God for his success in it; for, if God be praised, Paul is pleased.

After glorifying God for these church successes, the church leaders told Paul about the many thousands of converts in Jerusalem (verse 20). Older translations use ‘myriads’; a ‘myriad’ means ‘tens of thousands’. Luke stopped giving us a count of converts early on in Acts, because so many in Jerusalem came to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah.

Then they told him of Judaisers, those ‘zealous for the law’ (verse 20). These were men who believed all converts needed to be circumcised first. They believed a Gentile had to observe Mosaic law and ceremony before he could become a Christian. They were spreading the word that Paul had been preaching against Moses and against circumcision (verse 21).

The Judaisers featured earlier in Acts. In Acts 11, they were angry that Peter, through God’s help, converted Cornelius, a Roman centurion and Gentile, to the faith.

In Acts 15 (here, here, here, here and here), the Jerusalem Council convened to discuss the Gentile question. Peter spoke eloquently, as did Paul, Barnabas and James. The Holy Spirit inspired the church in Jerusalem to unanimously agree on not obliging Gentile converts to follow Mosaic law. They issued a letter to sister churches under the supervision of the one in Antioch (Syria) to that effect (Acts 15:28-29):

2For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” 

Jude Barsabbas and Silas travelled with Paul and Barnabas to deliver that news. The letter from the Jerusalem Council to the Gentiles went via Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Judas Barsabbas to the church in Antioch (Syria). The members of the church in Antioch rejoiced at receiving the news.

MacArthur surmises that the Judaisers knew Paul was coming to Jerusalem and began spreading untruths about his teaching. Recall that the truth was that Paul had been converting many Gentiles. That said, he personally still kept with some Jewish traditions himself. The Judaisers wanted to make Paul out as an apostate. As they were in Jerusalem, this had the potential for provoking much tension, which it duly did. MacArthur explains how the Judaisers were stirring the pot:

You see, these things were precious things to these Jewish people. They were their life, their culture, their tradition. And what these people, these Judaizers were doing, was undermining Paul by saying he doesn’t want anything to do with Judaism. He’s a heretic. He’s apostatized. And the word “apostasy” is the word “forsake” right here. He’s apostate. He’s teaching that you should be apostate from Moses. And, boy, Moses was sacred stuff to them.

Believe me, people, Satan is the father of lies. Did you know that? He is a liar from the beginning. The first time he opens his mouth, he’s lying in Genesis; and he doesn’t stop, and he lies incessantly. Even when he sneaks up and tells the truth, it’s for a lying reason. He’s a liar; that’s who he is. You want a good definition of Satan? He is a liar. And you ought to know that, because he lied about everything; and he lies about Paul.

You know something? Paul never taught Jews to forsake Moses, he taught Gentiles not to think they had to become Jews. See the difference? He taught Gentiles not to be circumcised. Why? Because they didn’t need that. He taught Gentiles you don’t need the ceremonies of the law. He did not teach Jews not to be circumcised, and he did not teach Jews not to follow those traditions.

Paul himself wrote that he maintained Jewish traditions in order to convert more Jews. We see this in today’s passage. He wrote about it more at length in 1 Corinthians 19:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

MacArthur reminds us that Paul also had Timothy, a half-Jew, circumcised for the same reason:

In fact, in the case of Timothy, he actually had Timothy circumcised, didn’t he, Acts 16:2 and 3. The reason he had him circumcised was he was a Jew; he was at least half Jewish, which qualified him; and he said, “If you’re circumcised, you’ll be much more effective in reaching other Jews, because they’ll accept you as a Jew.” He did not teach Jews to avoid circumcision, he did not do that at all. This was a lie, flat out.

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem said that something must be done (verse 22). They commanded Paul — ‘do what we tell you’ — to take a Nazirite vow along with four other men who were undertaking one (verse 23). They also told Paul to pay for the required sacrifices involved at the temple, believing that the Judaisers would see this public act and be convinced that Paul was no apostate (verse 24).

I have written about the Nazirite vow before. Three men in the Bible lived their lives as Nazirites: Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. Most Jewish men of those eras, however, took short-term Nazirite vows.

Paul had already taken a Nazirite vow before — Acts 18:18-23 — to give thanks for the church in Corinth. He probably did that in Jerusalem.

The Lord gave Moses the protocol for the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6, well worth reading. Nazirite has nothing to do with Nazareth or Nazarenes, by the way. ‘Nazir’ means ‘to separate’; the Nazirite is commanded to separate himself from the world. He grows his hair, takes no strong drink, eats modestly and wears the simplest of clothing. John the Baptist exemplified the Nazirite life perfectly.

The sacrifices at the temple must have cost Paul dearly. MacArthur thinks that Paul probably kept a lot of what he earned in making tents for emergency expenditures. Along with more commonplace sacrifices, expensive animal sacrifices — a one year old male lamb, one ewe of the same age and a ram — were required of each Nazirite (Numbers 6:14). Paul had to pay for five sets of these animals: for himself and for the four men.

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem then explained that Gentiles did not have to follow these rules and they repeated to Paul the text of the aforementioned letter from the Jerusalem Council (verse 25).

Paul duly followed the orders of the church leaders and took the Nazirite vow with the four other men (verse 26).

Next week’s verses continue the story. For those unfamiliar with it, MacArthur has this:

A riot started out, and I mean it was one full-scale riot.

But what is interesting – and I just want to draw this quickly. Listen, what was interesting in this whole deal about the riot was that everybody was screaming their heads off. In fact, the Romans finally came running down the steps of Fort Antonius, and scooped Paul out of the middle of the gang, and tried to save his life. It was such a big mess; they couldn’t get him out of the crowd, they had to lift him up and carry him. They tried to get through the steps, the people were all screaming.

So the Roman chiliarch – the guy who was the commander of the thousand, the head man – he starts yelling out, “What did he do? What are you killing him for?” And he got so many answers, he was so confused, he couldn’t understand anything. He just hauled him off and put him in the barracks. The mob was so messed up and confused, and they were yelling all kinds of things that nobody knew what was going on. And the interesting thing about it is through the entire thing, from beginning to end, Paul never says a word; he doesn’t say anything. He wasn’t standing there screaming, “I didn’t do anything.” He didn’t say anything.

You say, “What does that prove?” I think it just adds support to our overall theme. And what’s our overall theme? The measure of the man is – what? – humility.

You say, “John, how do you see the humility in a man?” I’ll just give you those three things I gave you at the bottom of the outline, listen to them. I see in this beautiful passage the humility of Paul three ways. Number one, verses 19 and 20: his submission before God. He was humble before God. When he came to give his report, he said, “This is what God has done.” That’s humility.

Secondly, he humbled himself before Christian authority. The elders said, “Do this.” He did it. Thirdly, he even humbled himself to suffer the pain of persecution. Why? Because it was God’s will, was it not? Didn’t the Holy Spirit say, “It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.” When it happened, he was silent.

Beloved, humility is when I am humbling before God, humbling before the leaders of the church who are an authority over me, and humbling myself before the persecution of the world, because my Lord said it would happen if I lived a godly life. That’s true humility. That’s the measure to the man.

Acts is one of the best books in the Bible. Something powerful happens in every chapter. We can be grateful to the Holy Spirit for inspiring Luke to write it.

Next time — Acts 21:27-36

 

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