Acts 21:27–40 . . .
“Arrested Paul Speaks to the Crowd”
Looking back a few studies, we recall that Paul had planned to go to Jerusalem (19:21). On his way, he collected offerings of the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for the saints in Jerusalem (24:17–18; Romans 15:25–27). He also met with believers in the cities where his ship made port on the way to Jerusalem. In each city where Paul stopped, the Holy Spirit revealed that imprisonment and persecution awaited him at his destination, Jerusalem (20:22–24; 21:3–6, 10–14). Convinced that God had called him to suffer for the name of Jesus, Paul pressed on until he arrived in Jerusalem.
The believers were welcomed by the Jerusalem church and their pastor James. Reports about Paul's efforts seemed fine until James revealed a rumor that had spread over the city, alleging that Paul had been telling Jews all over that the Law of Moses didn’t matter anymore. To prove the rumor false, Paul agreed to go through temple purification rites with four men who'd made a vow and to pay their expenses so they could complete their Nazirite vow and have their heads shaved. Having done that, Paul had demonstrated that he lived in obedience to the law. Our passage today begins with the seven days of purification being nearly complete (v. 27). So begins Luke's account of how Paul was falsely accused and charged, and how God used some unlikely people to rescue him.
The Riot (21:27–29)
While Paul waited in Jerusalem, assisting the four believers who'd taken the Nazirite vow, many Asian Hellenistic Jews who'd come to observe the feast were roaming the streets and temple precincts. It was the Hellenistic Jews who took up the cause of opposing the gospel. They led the opposition against Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew (6:8–14). Likewise, they opposed Paul, a Hellenistic Jew who had now come to faith in Jesus (9:29). Now these Asian Hellenistic Jews were accusing Paul of committing one of the highest crimes in Judaism — defiling the Temple, which was a crime punishable by death.)
Yet Paul had promised to go to the temple, daily for seven days. He escaped notice, however, until the last or nearly last day when some Jews from Asia Minor spotted him. They were Jews hostile to Paul, hating him because they'd rejected the gospel he preached. In their eyes, he was a traitor to his religion and nation. It was their passionate conviction that he was promoting a false messiah. They deplored his teaching, i.e., entrance into the Kingdom of God was made through Jesus, not Moses. Therefore, when they found Paul defenseless in their midst, they saw an opportunity for vengeance. They cried out accusations against him and, gaining the backing of a mob, grabbed him. They alleged that, in his teaching, he attacked the Jews, the Law, and the Temple.
Why would these men be so opposed to Paul? For one thing, he was once one of them. He'd formerly opposed Christianity more strongly than they did (9:1–2; 22:3–5). Paul was therefore viewed as a traitor, a dangerous threat to their cause. Since these men were Asians, it's likely that they not only heard Paul preach the gospel there, they may well have been among those who opposed him while he was in Asia. These Asian Jews were likely from Ephesus, because they recognized Trophimus the Ephesian who was with Paul. Trophimus was not now with Paul in the temple; rather he had previously been with Paul in the city (v. 29). And so, seeing Paul in the temple with four men, they assumed that he'd brought Gentiles with him, thereby defiling the Temple. Illogically, although they'd seen Paul in Jerusalem with one Gentile from Ephesus, several days earlier, now, days later, they saw Paul in the temple with four Jewish brothers, and they mistakenly assumed that these Jewish men must be Gentiles; thus they concluded that Paul had defiled the Temple.
Paul’s Arrest and Unlikely Rescue (vv. 30–36)
The entire city had been aroused! People ran into town, likely screaming and shouting in mass chaos and confusion! Amid the hysteria, they grabbed Paul and started to beat him, dragging him from the temple. The temple police shut and locked the gates of the sanctuary to preserve the sanctity of the sacred space. They were also concerned about protecting the holy place from being desecrated by ensuing crowd violence.
While the angry mob was fiercely attacking Paul, beating him to a bloody pulp, news of the riot somehow reached the commander of the Roman garrison who was stationed at the Antonia fortress. It was connected to the northwest side of the temple's outer courts. Within minutes, officers and soldiers arrived and began breaking up the riot. When the Jews who were beating Paul saw the approaching soldiers, they immediately stopped because they knew that their riot was unlawful. Seeing in v. 32 that the mob stepped back and stopped beating Paul, it's evident that God's plan was being acted out. Even though the commander initially arrested him, and bound and chained him to two soldiers (v. 33), he was obviously safer with them than than at the hands of the Jewish mob.
The commander probably thought that Paul was a criminal who'd committed a horrible crime. But regardless of what Paul might have done, the commander had to deal with Paul legally. When we now see Paul with chains on his hands and feet, we might remember what the prophet Agabus had presented to us in last week's summary when we learned that he'd taken Paul’s belt and wrapped it around himself as a visual prediction of what would happen to Paul. And it happened just as Agabus had predicted!
As today's video clip highlights, the commander asked Paul who he was and what he'd done to cause so much chaos. Paul was still trying to recover from the brutal beating he'd sustained. Before he had a chance to respond, the crowd started shouting insults, vulgarities, and more false accusations. Since the commander couldn't get the truth out of anyone, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks.
When the crowd heard the commander’s orders and realized that their chances of finishing off Paul were slipping through their fingers, they threw aside their fear of the Romans and made one more push to get him. The soldiers had to lift Paul over their heads to get him up the steps and away from the crowd. They barely got him inside!
It's ironic seeing that the soldiers had to carry Paul into the barracks. God used the most unlikely people to rescue Paul. It's amazing to think that Roman soldiers would rescue a Jewish missionary from the clutches of his own people; but that's how God works. He's always used unlikely people to accomplish his will on earth.
With Luke's account of Paul disappearing into the barracks, hearing the crowd chanting something such as, “Away with him!” think about another unlikely rescue that occurred in this same city, twenty-five years earlier. The scene was very similar. There was a man who entered the city and was welcomed warmly. A few days later he was the victim of vicious false accusations. Those lies led to a false arrest and mob violence. He, like Paul, was beaten to a bloody pulp. And the Romans came for him too, but instead of doing the right thing and standing up for justice, they caved into political pressure and nailed his hands and feet to a cross, leaving him to die. Instead of the crowd shouting “Away with him!” they shouted “Crucify him!” Sadly, no one came to his aid; no unlikely person tried to rescue him. Instead of the soldiers lifting him over their heads to safety, they lifted him onto a cross to die.
Paul Speaks Skillfully to the Crowd (vv. 37–40)
Remember: The Roman commander had no idea who Paul was when he extracted him from the hands of those at the temple who sought to tear him to pieces. He bound Paul with chains, asking him who he was and what he'd done. All this took place while the crowd screamed for Paul’s blood and made contradictory accusations. He couldn't even hear because the roar of the crowd was so great, so he brought Paul into the barracks to question him. When they were almost there, Paul asked to speak to the commander, in Greek. The commander was taken aback because of the possibility that Paul might be the Egyptian revolutionary who'd started a rebellion and led 4,000 assassins into the wilderness. Seemingly, Paul’s skillful use of the Greek language caught the commander off guard. He was relieved to realize that Paul wasn't the infamous revolutionary.
Paul assured the commander that he wasn't that Egyptian revolutionary; he was a Jew from the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, a most important city. He took advantage of the moment and asked the commander if he could speak to the crowd. Perhaps this seemed like a good idea to the commander because he'd be able to hear what Paul had to say, and in doing so, perhaps he could determine what the charges against him, if any, should be. Was this poor fellow ever in for a surprise! When the commander granted him permission, Paul signaled to the crowd that he wanted to speak. When a hush fell over the crowd (a lot of them wanted to know what this was all about) Paul began to speak . . . in Aramaic. That silenced the crowd even more, but it surely caught the garrison commander, Claudius Lysias, by surprise. How could he possibly understand Paul and thus be able to discern what the issues were? This was also true of the Hellenistic Jews; many of them wouldn't have been fluent in Aramaic, and would have to listen very carefully if they were to understand anything he said. Paul now had everyone’s attention.
Closing consideration: Paul has provided us with a hearty example of how to do ministry today. Like him, we should take every opportunity we have to testify about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of us will never experience a beating or the danger that Paul did, yet we're hesitant, shy, albeit unwilling to introduce the gospel to people. Every single day, opportunities to testify about Jesus Christ arise. Whether it's with family or friends, coworkers or classmates, or strangers, make the effort to use the opportunities that God makes available for you to be his witness. And like Paul, realize that in every pain or persecution, you have an opportunity to proclaim Christ; in every trial and tribulation, you have an opportunity to testify about Christ; and in every danger you have an opportunity to declare Christ.
- Q. 1 Can you think of an unlikely person who has ministered to you?
- Q. 2 This week you'll have opportunities to testify about Christ? Will you make the most out of one or more opportunities, or will you let them slip through your fingers?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 21.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 21:6–22:17, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
27When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29(They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)
30The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
33The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. 34Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. 35When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. 36The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”
Paul Speaks to the Crowd
37As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38“Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
39Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”
40After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic: . . . [Next week we'll learn what Paul said to the crowd.]