Read: Acts 21:27-36
Paul was received well but given a task to go through some purification ritual to appease the Jewish Christians (see Part 1). Trouble finds him before he gets to finish the process. In this part, we’ll focus on the few verses that turn the corner in the story. Paul was warned by his brothers and sisters that Jerusalem would not turn out well. He did not know, however, from which direction trouble would come. There’s a lot more to this story than a few simple verses. May the Spirit speak to you as you dwell on this passage.
Luke is careful not to point fingers at those who caused problems. They are nameless and are not the point of the story. The fact that the crowd is so easily swayed should get our attention.
When 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… Acts 21:27
Before we chalk this up as another, “that’s what those crazy people did back then” experience, take a look at how the argument is constructed. Paul is accused of two things, the latter of which is worth a bit of a study. Here are their main points:
- Paul is teaching everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place and
- he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place
The first point doesn’t seem to get much traction. Perhaps even in ancient times, such overarching accusations are quickly dismissed. Anytime I see a post, whatever the platform, that suggests “everyone” or “everywhere” I’m quick to move on. I’d rather see a picture of a family playing dominoes!
The second point escaped me as significant until I did some research. The NIV Study Bible includes this note:
Any Gentiles found within the bounds of the court of Israel would be killed. But there is no evidence that Paul had brought anyone other than Jews into the area. NIV Study Bible, p.1870
The NIV Application Commentary explains this even further (see note below). The point I’m trying to make is that one who wants to create dissension, those who want to cause a riot, “they” who want to divide the church will keep looking until they find that which will create the reaction they want.
Remember how the Jewish leaders kept looking for ways to crucify Jesus. Time after time they tried to find an angle that would work until they finally won. They manipulated Pilate and the crowd to gain what they wanted.
Whole City Aroused
We only read two items of accusation, but the second one was the key. Luke tells us the whole city is aroused. With large numbers of people encouraging immediate action, they grab Paul, drag him from the temple where he was simply trying to fulfill the requirements of purification. He’s accused and beaten by people who feel their temple has been desecrated. This is important to me. I’m not about to suggest their actions were right, but consider what this means to them and their understanding of the temple.
This was the place where they met God. I believe there were many devout Jews who studied the prophets, knew the tainted history of their ancestors and wanted to remain pure. They remembered how Jeroboam misled the people and how his actions ultimately divided Israel. The temple was the one thing that remained. Hear me on this. They had become so entranced by their own zealousness that they lost sight of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with all people. There were scores of people in agreement, that’s why the crowd was easily stirred.
These were not ignorant men and women. I think we like to discount their intellectual capacity because they didn’t know then what we know now. Please don’t jump on that train. They were wrong, without a doubt, but I will maintain they were wrong for good reasons–that is my point. Wrong is still wrong even if it is for reasons we can justify.
The Roman commander got involved to squelch the riot.
He 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. Acts 21:32
After binding Paul in chains he asks the rioters for some explanation. It was quickly apparent that they had no rational reason for killing this man. For the sake of maintaining good order and discipline, the commander took Paul to the barracks for further investigation.
When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!” Acts 21:35-36
The scene is one of great turmoil. Recent riots in this country come to mind. It’s sad to see people moved beyond rational behavior, yet I sympathize with a desire to want to scream out at injustice when I see it. How do we maintain a fighting spirit while being objective?
I know I’ve used the term, “they” way too many times in this post. Forgive me. I am trying to make a point. They are anonymous. It’s safe to be hidden in the crowd, but we were not called to safety. Nor are we called to incite riots. If anything, the riot I would endorse is one of radical love as Jesus demonstrated and Paul taught. I would like to be a part of “they” who love with kindness and patience and without reservation or qualification.
The story doesn’t end here for Paul and it’s just beginning for us. I pray that we will learn how to be a people who are willing to speak out for the love of Christ in a way the honors and draws people to Jesus.
NIVAC Note: Bruce explains the seriousness of their charge: “The Roman authorities were so conciliatory of Jewish religious scruples in this regard that they authorized the death sentence for this trespass even when the offenders were Roman citizens.” Citing evidence from Josephus and Philo, Bruce says that notices in Latin and Greek were fixed to the barrier between the inner and outer courts, warning Gentiles that death was the penalty for going any further. 8 “The whole city was aroused” (v. 30a), and the people dragged Paul out of the temple. The gates of the temple were shut (v. 30b), possibly to avoid defiling the temple from the chaos.
Wilkins, Michael J.; Garland, David E.; Bock, Darrell L.; Burge, Gary M.; Fernando, Ajith. NIVAC Bundle 6: Gospels, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 86293-86298). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.