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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 6

Paul’s message in Jerusalem

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 21:37-22:29

The story of Paul in Jerusalem is continued. Paul is allowed to address the crowd and tells the story of his conversion. The crowd listens and then rise up against him. The Romans imprison him and threaten punishment until Paul claims his Roman citizenship.

The story of Paul in Jerusalem is continued. Paul is allowed to address the crowd and tells the story of his conversion. The crowd listens and then rise up against him. The Romans imprison him and threaten punishment until Paul claims his Roman citizenship.


This episode is halfway through a very dramatic story, and if you didn’t listen to the previous episode, I will summarise roughly where we have got to in order to explain the situation.

Introduction and Background

Paul and his companions are in the city of Jerusalem. He has been travelling for some time from Greece and Turkey, to get to the capital city, Jerusalem, in order to bring a financial gift to the church there.

In the last episode, we described how he actually arrived in the city of Jerusalem, entered into the Jewish Temple in order to be involved in a religious ritual with a number of other men, and was seen by some Jews who had seen him when he was planting churches in Asia Minor, the area of Galatia in southern modern-day Turkey, and had taken offence at his speaking. They stirred up a riot in the Temple. They started to beat Paul and would have killed him but for the sudden and timely intervention of the Roman army, who were stationed nearby and were able to move in very quickly. The Roman soldiers rescued Paul from death. He was taken into Roman custody and the last we saw, at the end of the last episode, was that the crowd was still very hostile to him but he was in the hands of the Romans who were trying to decide what they were going to do with him next. The last words from the crowd that we heard were the words, “Get rid of him!” They wanted him executed.

The background to this is a tension between religious Jews and the new-found Christian faith, which was moving away from Judaism and forming a different community, with a different belief based on Jesus as the Messiah. It is a dramatic story and it is very hard to know what is going to happen next. But the story unfolds, and Luke the author is an eyewitness; he has been travelling with Paul at this stage. Luke describes in some considerable detail, the things that happen in Jerusalem and we have quite a long narrative here.

Mistaken Identity

Let us take up the story in Acts 21: 37 - 40,

37 As 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?” 39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.” 40 After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd.

Acts 21:37-40, NIV

The Roman officer in charge of this operation was very unclear about who Paul was. The Romans knew that there had been various uprisings in this area. That is why he tried to work out Paul’s identity - trying to work out whether he was an Egyptian, or a Jew, or came from some other place. He quotes an example of an Egyptian who raised up a group of rebels against the Romans, and came from the south and attacked Jerusalem. This incident is recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus, and is probably the same incident. This was a well-known story at the time. The commander was worried, ‘Is Paul some kind of a rebel leader and has he got an objective of raising up an army against the Romans?’ Paul, of course, is nothing of the sort, but the commander really knows nothing about Paul whatsoever. Paul explains, “I’m a Jew”, and he explains he is not from Egypt, he is from the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia, and he emphasises ‘a citizen of no ordinary city’. Tarsus was a highly respectable city with a considerable reputation in education, commerce and civilised values. He is trying to explain to the Roman officer that he is a very respectable person.

Then he says that he really wants to speak to the people and that is what he does. It is a tense situation because this crowd is very agitated and Paul could have said to the Roman officer, “Just take me into the barracks. Let’s just calm everything down” But as is so often with Paul, he wants to speak to people even in tense situations. There was a similar situation in the city of Ephesus where the whole city was in uproar and they gathered in the stadium in the middle of the city, in the amphitheatre, and Paul wanted to go and address them, but his friends said, “No, you can’t go and address them. You’re going to create even more of a riot.” But here the guards allowed him to speak to the crowd. He has got Roman soldiers to his left and his right, he has got the crowd in front of him, who had recently been trying to kill him, and he wanted to share his story with them. He wanted them to know from him who he was because the people in the Temple who had stirred up trouble, in our last episode, had misrepresented him as someone who did not respect Judaism, was speaking against Judaism, and had even brought a Gentile friend into a forbidden place in the Temple. All these were untrue things said about Paul. So, he wanted to give his side of the story to this crowd.

Paul’s True Identity

Luke thinks this is so important that he reports this speech in detail because it captures the heart, the message and the testimony of Paul in a beautiful way. Acts 21:40 through to Acts 22:21,

40 When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic, 1 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence.” 2 When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became quiet. Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the Law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the High Priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. 6 About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ 8 ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. 10 ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. 12 A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the Law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. 14 Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’ 17 When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the Temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately because your people here will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ 21 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles.

Acts 21:40 - 22:21, NIV

This is most remarkable. Paul is so courageous. He could easily have taken the route of just disappearing off with Roman soldiers into the barracks, avoiding conflict, but he chose the risky path of open communication with the people. He chose to speak to them in Aramaic - the common language of Israel - not Greek, which was the language he generally used, the language he was using when talking to the Roman soldier. He used Aramaic, and he approached them in a really friendly way, “Brothers and fathers, listen to my defence”. He is trying to win them, and the crowd, having been so agitated, calmed down. He managed to persuade them to calm down and listen to his story. His story has two parts. Paul was a Jew who had a tremendously good religious background and education. Although he had grown up in the Greek city of Tarsus as a young man, probably as a teenager he had been chosen to have a special education in Jerusalem. He had probably been spotted as a talented and zealous young religious student, and he went to one of the main teachers in Jerusalem, Gamaliel - a well-known religious leader. He was thoroughly educated and he joined the group known as the Pharisees. In that sense he was, as he says, as zealous for the religious life of Israel as anyone in the crowd. He also had a track record of opposing the Church when it started, which he refers to here, and which has been described very fully, earlier on in the book of Acts. He was one of the key people who led the persecution against the Early Church. He was very pleased when Stephen, that great speaker and evangelist, was stoned to death, and he approved his death. That was the first Christian to die, and Paul was very happy that he had died. He immediately started going house to house around Jerusalem arresting people, intimidating them, and trying to get them punished. He tells this story here again. But he is not afraid to tell the dramatic story of his conversion. He tells it very clearly. It is interesting that Luke records the story of Paul’s Damascus road conversion three times during the book of Acts. This is the second time. The first in Acts 9 was on the occasion that it happened. Now Paul is retelling the story, how he was heading to Damascus to find the Christians there, to take them into custody and bring them back to Jerusalem to be punished and how, as he was approaching the city, a great, bright light in the sky came, he was blinded and fell to the ground and he heard this voice from heaven, which turned out to be the voice of the risen Jesus, challenging him not to persecute the believers any more, and calling him to follow him. Paul is quite willing to say to the crowd, “I had a radical conversion. I had a miraculous encounter with the living God that changed everything for me.” He was willing to say how he had been baptised as a Christian, how his sins had been washed away, and even how he had left Jerusalem in a hurry shortly afterwards because the Jewish people were going to turn against him. He was even willing to say to the crowd that his primary mission was to go far away from them to the Gentile nations. Paul gives his testimony. He doesn’t debate the Scriptures or try to persuade them about some particular prophecy from the book of Isaiah, which proves that Jesus is the Messiah. He tells them his story. He believes that storytelling is important, that testimony is important. That’s something we’ll come back to in a moment.

The Crowd Turns

The crowd, amazingly, have settled down. They are listening. They are very interested to know what this man is going to say. They are fascinated by his story; they are intrigued. But it reaches a certain point where their patience runs out, where they get really angry with Paul. That point is right at the end, when he says that God had told him, “Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Let us read what happens next, Acts 22:22 - 29:

22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” 23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.” 27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered.

28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied. 29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

Acts 22:22-29, NIV

The drama continues.. The crowd suddenly change their mood as soon as Paul says that God sent him far away to the Gentiles. That makes them really annoyed because they believe that Paul is focusing on the Gentiles, and turning away from the Jewish people. That is the very thing they were sensitive about in the beginning. The fact that he spent all these years travelling around all sorts of other countries, telling about Jesus, is very offensive to them. Suddenly, they get stirred up again and want to take Paul out of the control of the Roman soldiers and basically beat him to death, as they had started to do just a few minutes earlier.

The Roman commander could see what was happening and knew what he needed to do. He needed to diffuse the situation by taking Paul away. The barracks of the Antonia fortress were right next to the Temple. It wasn’t far to go. Paul is taken into the barracks. It was common practice amongst Romans to mix together two things - one is a beating and the other is an interrogation. This is what we would call torture in the modern world. Flogging, using leather whips and other implements, is an incredibly painful and risky punishment and if it is continued for too long could kill a person. The interrogators and the person to administer the flogging came. They wanted to put pressure on Paul so that he would answer truthfully any question they had. They had a suspicion that there was some secret or conspiracy that he was involved with, so they wanted to put torture pressure upon him - something that happens regularly in the modern world in many of the countries represented by the audience for this talk. But this was a common practice amongst the Romans.

Roman Citizenship

However, there is one thing they didn’t know about Paul and that was that he was a Roman citizen. In the days of the Roman Empire, only a small percentage of the inhabitants of the Empire had the status of citizenship. It was not something you inherited naturally from where you lived. It was something you had to be granted or given. Many long-standing Romans from Italy and elsewhere and their families all had citizenship, but for people in the provinces there were very few who were citizens. You could purchase it, as indeed the Roman commander had done, or, as in Paul’s case, he inherited the citizenship. He was born a citizen, which means his father must have been a citizen. We don’t know how, but maybe his father obtained it through military service or through purchasing it. But Paul had this status. If you were a citizen, it meant you couldn’t be punished without a trial. It also meant that you had the right to appeal to the Imperial legal court in Rome, at any point in a legal process. In this case, it is the first point that matters. Paul legally could not be punished without a trial. He had not had a trial. They were just going to flog him. As soon as the centurion administering the flogging heard about this, he went to the commander who before they had even started, stopped this action, recognising that he was in a dangerous situation if he broke the regulations of the army and punished a Roman citizen without a trial.

This is really one of the most dramatic parts of the book of Acts, isn’t it? The story moves very fast between different scenarios and the constant theme is that Paul is in danger, from the crowd and now from the Roman authorities - to be flogged and interrogated - falsely accused, imprisoned, and executed. We don’t know what they would have done to him. They were always concerned about getting rid of people who were a threat to law and order. The commander is faced with a very difficult situation. He has rescued Paul from the crowd, but what is he going to do with him now? What is the next move? What is the legal position? What is the right thing to do? We have got the Jewish people very agitated in the city, so he can’t just forget about that. They are going to be bringing him questions and challenges about what he is doing. The commander is going to have to make a decision about the best way to deal with Paul. But that comes in the next episode.


What matters for now, in a few moments of reflection, as we come towards the end of this episode, to think, What can we learn from this? What reflections can we bring from this story? The first reflection for me, is that this story reminds us again about the power of personal testimony about conversion to Jesus Christ. You have a story if you are a believer today. I have a story even though it was 45 years ago and more when I became a believer. But as I read this, I am reminded that storytelling matters. God uses our testimony for his glory. Paul was a great one for sharing his story, even though he was an intellectual, even though he could have had long debates with the Jews about all sorts of Bible texts in the Old Testament, he chose simply to tell his story, how he met Jesus, or how Jesus confronted him, and how his whole life was changed by an encounter with Jesus Christ. I am encouraged by this. To think that one of the best ways there is for me and for you is to share our faith, in the right circumstances to tell your story about how Jesus has changed your life and how you met him in the first place. If you are not experienced at doing that or you don’t regularly do it, can I encourage you to learn from this episode, that it is a great thing to do. Paul was willing to do it without any preparation whatsoever. He stood up and just told his story. It is great if we can tell our story to family and friends, about Jesus in our lives. Keep retelling your story. Luke gives Paul’s story three times and there is a reason for that.

The second thing that I learned from this is the fact that God can break through any level of unbelief. Paul was as unbelieving and hostile to Jesus as you can possibly imagine at the time when he was going to Damascus. He had set his face totally against Christianity, totally against Jesus, totally against the Church and yet God reached him and changed him. We need to take encouragement from that fact. God can reach and change people, even when they are very hostile. We can experience Damascus road stories in the 21st-century. They are happening all around the world, where people are suddenly encountering Jesus, and their lives are being changed. Let us believe that can happen in our countries, our towns and cities, our churches and our communities, and even in our families, which is sometimes the hardest area of all.

The final reflection I want to bring, as we come to an end, is that there is something we can learn here about legal rights. Paul was very aware of his legal rights as a Christian. He was aware of the significance of his citizenship. He considered it to be something God had given him, in a sense, to help him with his mission and protect him in certain vulnerable situations. It was his citizenship here that protected him from a severe, even potentially life-threatening flogging. Legal rights really matter in the modern Church. In every country represented by those listening to this episode, there are different legal rights of Christians. Some of us have hardly any legal rights in our countries. We are living in real oppression and darkness and injustice and I am aware of that. Many of us are living in partially free countries and some perhaps in very free countries. But it is always good for Christians to know what their legal rights are, and to use them in our defence when our faith is attacked. That might have a relevance for you, or people you know, your church, or other Christian believers in your country.

Thank you for listening to this episode. This story isn’t finished, it is continuing because there is going to be another dramatic turn of events taking place in the next episode, and I hope we will see you then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Do you know your legal religious rights? Are you ready to use them?
  • Discipleship
    1. Practise giving the story of how you came to faith
    2. Are there people in your community who need to have a Damascus Road experience? Pray for them by name.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Paul tells his story on several occasions. Look at these and notice who the audience is each time and the main points Paul always includes.
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