The Lord's Day Evening
July 1, 2007
To the Ends of the Earth
“Paul Chained in the Holy City!”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now we continue in our studies in The Acts of The Apostles, and we come to chapter 21. And last Lord's Day evening we were seeing and determining — and questioning, perhaps, a little — of what on earth the Apostle Paul was doing in the temple in Jerusalem. You will remember that Paul had made his way from the province of Macedonia and crossed over into the region of Ephesus and the port city of Miletus. He has taken a boat journey — actually, two boat journeys — that eventually would take him all the way to Tyre. There he spent a day meeting with the church, the believers there who tried to persuade him not to go to Jerusalem. From there he sailed down the coast to a city called Ptolemais, and then to Caesarea. And again at Caesarea, as was Paul's custom and burden, he met with the church of Christ in that city once again. And now, joined it seems by Luke himself, once again they endeavor to persuade him from making his journey to Jerusalem. You remember Paul's steadfast response that he was ready to die for Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.
Well, last Lord's Day evening we followed the apostle as he made his way up from Caesarea to the city of Jerusalem to a meeting with James and the elders in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. It was by any standards a tense meeting.
Paul, you remember, has brought with him sacks of money — probably literally sacks of money. This collection has been Paul's burden for at least the last three years of his ministry. He has gathered a collection in the churches in Galatia, in the churches in Macedonia and Achaia, in places like Philippi and Thessalonica and Corinth, as well as the city of Ephesus. And this was Paul's great plan to try and bring a sense of harmony between Jewish Christians in the church at Jerusalem who were deeply suspicious of Paul, of his message, and his motive. And out of a burden for the unity of the church of Jesus Christ, Paul saw this collection as being the means to soften the hearts of his brothers and sisters in the church at Jerusalem.
Well, I think as we were reading the passage last Sunday evening you can almost sense Luke's…well, embarrassment…the way in which he tells the story, leaving out any mention of the collection. As Paul is sitting there with James and the elders and the collection probably sitting in the middle of the room, Luke makes no mention of it, and neither does James. And neither do the elders. It was a stunning blow to the Apostle Paul. Not a word of thanks, but instead what looked like a preconceived plan on James’ part suggesting that the Apostle Paul pay for the expenses of four impoverished Jewish brothers who have taken a Nazarite vow, a vow that would last for thirty days and would end by an offering of a lamb, and a ram, and some grain offerings, and the drink offering at the end of this Nazarite vow. An expensive process, let alone the issues of conscience relating to taking part in a ritual involving sacrifice in the temple, where Paul has been saying in other parts — in Galatia and Macedonia and Achaia and elsewhere among his Gentile brothers — that the temple and its significance, as far as the Christian faith was concerned, was no more.
Well, we left it last week on something of a cliff-hanger. But you've read ahead; you know the end of the story. But let's pick up the reading now in verse 27 of Acts 21. And before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Once again, O Lord, in the sanctity of this location as we meet together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we meet beneath Your word. We need the Holy Spirit, Lord, to come and teach us and instruct us, and cause a light to shine in our darkened minds that we might understand, and that we might know Your will, Your way, Your Law, Your precepts. And, Lord, we pray that above everything else we might see Christ and the gospel, and Your glory. And this we ask for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“And when the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the multitude and laid hands on him, crying out, ‘Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people, and the Law, and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy lace.’ For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. And all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together; and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut. And while they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. And at once he took along some soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he began asking who he was and what he had done. But among the crowd some were shouting one thing and some another, and when he could not find out the facts on account of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. And when he got to the stairs, it so happened that he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob; for the multitude of the people kept following behind, crying out, ‘Away with him!’
“And as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, ‘May I say something to you?’ And he said, ‘Do you know Greek?’”
Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
I. Paul's problem.
Well, Paul is caught between a rock and a hard place. He contrived to appease his Jewish Christian brothers in the church in Jerusalem. These were Jews by birth, Jews by ethnicity who had now been converted. They had received the Holy Spirit. They had believed in Jesus Christ. But they were in Jerusalem. It was one thing for a Jew to become a Christian when you lived hundreds of miles away from Jerusalem and the temple; it was another thing to become a Christian as a Jew in Jerusalem itself, with the holy temple and all of its trappings. And many of these Jewish Christian brothers were of course still attending the temple. Some, no doubt, were taking part in acts of ritual obedience in the temple. It's hard to know for sure to what extent. Some perhaps had now forsaken the temple and were attending the many synagogues in the city of Jerusalem.
But James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, James and the brothers and the elders, especially, have made this suggestion that Paul pay for the expenses of this Nazarite vow taken by these four men. And Paul has agreed. Not only that, but he has entered into a rite of purification. This was a rite that Jews who had been out of the country (and therefore in contact with Gentiles) would need to do when they came back to Jerusalem and intended to take part in one of the festivals associated with the temple.
Paul has agreed not only to paying for the expenses of these four men who have taken this Nazarite vow, but he is going to be compliant in an act of sacrifice involving a lamb and a ram, and drink offerings. The throat of these victims will be cut, blood will be caught; it would be sprinkled; there would be a ritual; there’d be words and actions that would be said. And some interpret that as Paul saying that once Christ came, once the Holy Spirit came down at Pentecost, all of these things associated with the temple were no more than ethnic cultural badges. They were the trappings of a race of people called Jews, with no religious significance whatsoever. Paul could engage in this with a clear conscience, because he now knew better. And all he was doing was acting in accord with the rituals and customs of the Jews.
We've seen some of that in some of the things that Paul has done. It looks as though Paul took a Nazarite vow in a place called Cenchrea. He probably took the vow before that. You remember he shaved his head on his way from Corinth. He was making his way on that occasion to Antioch. He landed in Caesarea, made his way up to Antioch. Some believe that Paul actually went to Jerusalem, because to finish a Nazarite vow, you would have to go to the temple. There is no mention of that in The Acts of The Apostles. Some believe that Paul could very well have done that.
We've seen how Paul can be of two minds with regard to circumcision. In the case of Timothy, who was part Jewish anyway, Paul has Timothy circumcised. But he refused, you remember, to have Titus circumcised. In the case of Titus, men were clamoring for his circumcision in order that he fulfill it for religious purposes. And Paul would say no, absolutely not. In the case of Timothy, no one was asking these questions, and so for the sake of evangelism, for the sake of becoming all things to all men in order that by all means he might save some, Paul circumcised him. Some think that's all that's taking place here in the temple.
Others think Paul has made a catastrophic error. He should never have been in Jerusalem. He should have listened to his brothers in Tyre and Caesarea — and for that matter, Luke. They, too, were claiming that the Spirit was telling them not to go to Jerusalem. You can almost sense as you read this passage Luke saying ‘I told you so. Going to Jerusalem was always going to be trouble.’ How in the world could Paul, who has written the Epistle to the Galatians that circumcision counts for nothing, and neither does uncircumcision, but faith in Jesus Christ — how could that Paul now find himself taking part in these ritual sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem? It is a catastrophic error. It is compromise. He has denied what he once was preaching; namely, faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
Well, what had led him to do this in the first place? A belief that the collection, first of all, would have worked, and it didn't. And a belief now that an attempt to appease the Jewish Christian brothers would bring peace and harmony and stability into the church of Jesus Christ.
One of our dear elders, one of our dear friends here in the congregation sent me an email on Monday morning. He's a lawyer, sitting in the congregation; I won't name him and embarrass him. [That's what you do — you send me emails on Monday morning, I cite them on Sunday evening!] And I read the email, and I laughed for about thirty minutes. It was a wonderful, marvelous lawyer's take on this issue in Jerusalem, what Paul should have done was to take both sides to some amphitheater, some place in Jerusalem, and there talk it through and lay everything on the table, and be absolutely clear. If there was anything that was unclear — and there's a whole lot of things that are unclear here — that Paul would just spell it out in black and white. Well, that would be an interesting thing, if that indeed had taken place.
What happens is this act of purification that Paul has undertaken would last a week. Luke tells us it's somewhere towards the end of that week, maybe five or six days now have taken place.
II. Paul accused.
Paul is in the temple and two things happen: one, accusations are made; and, two, an arrest is made. Towards the end of that week some Jews from Asia — probably from Ephesus… they’d given Paul trouble in the past…they had probably followed him to Jerusalem. They recognize him. Paul had been in Ephesus for three years. He would easily be recognizable, as well as this character called Trophimus. He's one of the nine people that have accompanied the apostle on this journey. Trophimus was from Ephesus. They recognize him, too. But he's a Gentile. And they bring an accusation that Paul has brought a Gentile into the temple.
Well, it's not quite as simple as that. The temple is divided into various sections, and what Luke is trying to say to us is it would have been OK for a Gentile to find himself in what was called the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court. But the inner court, the Court of Israel, where the two courts were divided by a wall three and a half to four feet high….along the wall at regular intervals, posted in Greek and Latin, were dire warnings that anyone bringing a Gentile into the Court of Israel would face death. And the Romans had granted the Jews the right to exercise that penalty in the temple. The Romans themselves had no access into the Court of Israel.
It's a scurrilous charge: there's no basis whatsoever to this charge, as Luke is trying to tell you. There is no way that Paul would have brought Trophimus into the Court of Israel. Now the irony is, and it's the horrible mess that Paul finds himself in, he is trying to appease his Jewish Christian brothers. He is saying elsewhere that the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and he's now engaged in a rite where he can't bring his Gentile brother along with him. That's the irony of it. These Jews from Ephesus begin to shout to the rest of the Jews in the temple, and possibly those outside — Luke says the whole city was in an uproar — that a Gentile…Paul had brought a Gentile into the Court of Israel.
And then there's another charge, a charge we've heard before, and we've heard it from the lips of James: that there were certain people who are of the opinion that Paul was teaching men not to obey the laws and customs of Israel. Now here's the irony. Paul is obeying a custom of the Jews. He is undergoing a rite of purification. He has made notice that he will pay for the expenses of these four men undertaking a Nazarite vow. And he's being accused of not being obedient and of teaching a lack of obedience to Jewish laws and customs.
It's all so reminiscent, isn't it, of another story in Acts — of Stephen. Charges…in fact, the same charge was made against Stephen. The charge was made by Jews from outside the city, with Stephen and with Paul. When Stephen begins his speech to his accusers, he’ll begin it in exactly the same way as Paul begins his speech to his accusers: “Fathers and brethren…” And Luke is saying to us here Paul has got himself into exactly the same position now as Stephen had found himself in, and we all know what happened to Stephen. Stephen was killed. Stephen was put to death. And there is every possibility now that the Apostle Paul would find himself put to death here. If it hadn't been for the scrupulousness of the Jews in dragging him from within the Inner Court of the temple to the Court of the Gentiles, the Romans would never have got him. The Romans would have had no access into the Court of Israel. He is dragged outside; the doors into the chambers of the Court of Israel are locked.
It's interesting that some commentators say that God in His providence is saying to the Apostle Paul, ‘You must not go back in there again.’ And we all know, of course, that Paul never did go back into the temple again. He’ll never be in Jerusalem again. From now on his journey will take him to Rome. This is the end of Paul's free-lance missionary work. From now, at least to the end of The Acts of The Apostles, he will always be in prison and in chains and in bondage.
And so he's arrested. The commander of the cohort of soldiers, Roman soldiers…. On the northwest corner of the temple there is to this day a fortress. It's called the Antonia Fortress. It was built in 35 B.C. by Herod the Great, paid for by a benefactor, Marc Anthony; hence the name, the Antonia Fortress. It was built right up to the very line where the Court of the Gentiles begins. It had towers from which soldiers could look down and see what was going on within the temple. It was a difficult time. We’re in the middle of the fifties. The Jewish war is about to begin. There are already insurrections not only in the city of Jerusalem, but some have been operating within the temple itself. The Roman soldiers were always on the alert for trouble. You have to imagine: the Apostle Paul is being dragged into the Court of the Gentiles; he's being beaten. They’re pulling his hair, they’re pulling at his hands and feet, they’re kicking him, they’re throwing things at him. If these soldiers hadn't rescued him, he would most certainly have died.
The commander of the soldiers is a man by the name of Claudius Lucius. (Now, we’ll pick him up in the next chapter.) He has Paul chained — two chains. Probably one to his ankle and chains to a soldier on either side, for his safety as much as anything else. And Paul wants Lucius…he had failed to ascertain the nature of the difficulty, because part of the crowd is saying one thing and part of the crowd is saying something else. Paul is taken to the steps of the Antonia Fortress — carried, at a certain point — and he is arrested. And Luke says…you know what the crowd, the Jewish crowd in the temple, are saying? “Away with him!” The very same words that they had used when Pilate brought out Christ and Barabbas — “Away with Him!” meaning, kill Him.
III. Paul's response.
Now what does this tell us tonight? What is this story saying to us tonight? I want to suggest to you at least three things. It's surely saying something about courage. Paul was ready to die.
Whatever you make of Paul's decision to go to the temple, whatever you make of Paul's decision to pay for those Nazarite offerings, whatever you think of Paul's decision to engage in a rite of purification, whether you’re on this side or that side — and I sort of ascertained that you are on one side more than another last week. You've had a week to think about it; maybe you've come to another conclusion now. I'm still of the same opinion. He should not have gone. Whatever you think of that, you can't deny his courage. Even when he's being beaten, even when he's being arrested, he says to this commander, “May I say something to you?” The commander realizes that he's not an Egyptian insurrectionist. He speaks in Greek. (He's actually going to be a Roman citizen.) You get the sense — do you not get the sense? — that there's something courageous about what Paul is doing here. He is ready to die, because the love of Christ is controlling him. He is doing what he's doing because he loves the Lord. He loves the church of Jesus Christ. It suggests a man who is at peace with God. He's a man who is at peace with his surroundings and his circumstances, because he knows that his life is held in the very palms of God's hands. That's why he said in Caesarea, ‘I'm ready to go up to Jerusalem. I'm ready to suffer whatever comes in Jerusalem. I'm ready to die in Jerusalem.’
Isn't that what you were thinking about this morning in Philippians? “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Paul had no fear of death. He was ready to die. He lived his life like it was said of the Methodists in the eighteenth century, that they died well…they knew how to die. They lived their lives packed up and ready to go. There's a certain courage that comes from the gospel. It comes from being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It comes from knowing Christ. It comes from knowing that your sins are forgiven, that you’re at peace with God, that you’re a new creation in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul lived for. He lived for the gospel. He lived for Christ.
Now we can talk about it–‘I want to live out and out for Christ’–we can talk about that. We can say that. We can sing it, and we've sung some really beautiful, beautiful hymns in the last couple of weeks that have said just that: “Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.” What does that mean? Because we’ll go out of here, and within an hour we're complaining about trivia. [I'm complaining about the humidity in Mississippi! My genes are not yours!] But here's Paul, and Paul is living his life where his decisions might cost him his very life. Those prayed for this evening…did you hear him mention the numbers whose lives are taken? Christians, believers like you, like me! For doing what we're doing here tonight — listening to the gospel, saying Jesus is the only way. And it might cost you your life. What's it going to cost you? Some inconvenience on a Sunday morning? Or a Sunday evening? And we read this story, and doesn't it grip you? Here's a man who's out and out for Christ. He's out and out for Christ.
There's a…well, there's a courage, but there's a calmness there. There's no sense of panic. He says, “May I say something?” I don't know what's going through Paul's mind right now as he's being arrested. He was an intelligent man. He knew he was a Roman citizen. He knew that a certain form of jurisprudence would now have to be carried out in all likelihood. It might take him to Rome. In all likelihood it might lead to his death, his execution. And he's calm, and there's a serenity. Ligon cited this morning [you see, I was listening!]…he cited Romans 8:
“Nothing can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not life nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor anything in all of creation…nothing can separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And I suppose like me, we sat in these pews and we said that's wonderful. That's nice. But Paul is saying here ‘I really, really mean what I'm saying.’ When he wrote that to the Romans (and by this time he's already written that to the Romans), he is saying to us tonight this is what believing in Jesus Christ means.
But turn with me–and we're going to spy ahead…you know, a little foretaste of what's coming down the road. I just want to see one verse, verse 21 of chapter 22. Paul is now going to give a defense; he's going to give a sermon there on the steps of the Antonia Fortress. And do you notice what he says on the end, in verse 21?
“And He said to me,” [God said to him] “‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Now, you have to smile. He's been accused by the Jews of being too fond of the Gentiles. He's been accused by the Jews of disobeying the traditions of the temple. And what is Paul saying in his defense? God has called me to preach to the Gentiles.
You know, I wonder if Paul realized it was all over. There was no more appeasement between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians any more. He has to come clean now. There's no mincing of words here. His life is on the line, and what is he saying? ‘God has called me to preach to the Gentiles.’ He has a clear vision of his calling, and you've got to love that. Whatever you've made of Paul's decisions to this point, you've got to admire his stand there; and hang the consequences, because he's kept in the palm of God's hand and no one and nothing can pull him and extract him from the palms of God's hands. He's reminding his listeners, ‘This has been my message. You’re not saved by the temple, and you’re not saved by these rituals. You’re not saved by these sacrifices, but in Christ alone.’
“In Christ alone, who took on flesh,
the fullness of God in helpless Babe;
this gift of love and righteousness;
scorned by the ones He came to save…
Till on that cross of Jesus died,
the wrath of God was satisfied,
for every sin on Him was laid.
Here, in the death of Christ, I live.”
Oh, my friends, if we could catch just a little bit of that. If we could catch just a little bit of that to live as Paul lives here, out and out for Christ.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word. Thank You for this demonstration of commitment on the part of the Apostle Paul. We pray that You would steel every nerve and fiber in our being that we, too, might live out and out for Christ. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.