Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Acts 21:27- 36 ”Away with Him!“

It is  providential that we come to this passage   in the book of Acts  on this Palm Sunday. On this day we remember  that time when a  crowd welcomed Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem  with the word ‘Hosanna’ (Save we pray). In the course of the week  they would  shout, 
“away with him- crucify him!”  

The apostle  Paul, having now arrived  in Jerusalem  also  receives a welcome from the church in Jerusalem, but  soon he will be  in trouble. Soon they will shout, 'Away with him!' He  will, like the Lord Jesus whom he loved and served be   falsely accused  and rejected by the mob in the temple, as they shout, ‘away with him’  (21:36 cf. 22:22).


Paul had come to Jerusalem from the gentile territories in Asia and Macedonia and Greece with a generous collection of the gentile churches for the poverty stricken Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  It was a part of his strategy to unite the hearts of Jewish and Gentile Christians   who had become one family in Christ.  However, upon arrival he faced a problem. The Jewish Christians in the church at Jerusalem were deeply suspicious of Paul, thinking that he was subverting the law and traditions of Israel.  And so instead of gratitude expressed for the thoughtfulness and love and kindness of the gentile churches, and for Paul who initiated this action on behalf of the impoverished church in Jerusalem, we find James and the Jerusalem elders busy with another agenda.

Since it was believed and said that Paul was teaching the converted Jews among the gentiles (i.e. in the province of Asia where he had just come from) to forsake the law of Moses (21:21) they were eager for Paul to clear himself of these charges. They suggest is that   he should   join, and also pay for the expenses of four Jewish Christians, members of the Jerusalem church who had taken a Nazarite vow[1]. The Nazirite vow would last for a specified period and would end by offering a lamb, a ram, grain offerings, and a drink offering.  This would not be a cheap undertaking for an average man on the street. Furthermore you have to imagine what was going through Paul’s mind. His purpose was to be an ambassador for unity between Jew and gentile, for they had indeed become one church.  And for now it seems that all his plans had been derailed, but  we note  that Paul decided not to  protest. He had decided to obey the Jerusalem elders and in vv. 26 – 27 we take note of his submission to them.  We are also reminded that Paul had undertaken such a vow before in Acts 18:18[2].  We must always remember  that  Paul was a true Jew, and  truly committed to his Jewish community, and he did not,  as a rule,  go against the Jewish ceremonies in as far as they did not detract from the centrality of Christ, for  in truth, if  sincerely  undertaken all these OT ceremonies would point the true Jewish believer to Christ. In this case it is shown that Jewish Christians subscribed to OT practises such as the Nazarite vow.  James and the Jerusalem elders subscribed to these practises.  So when James and the elders make this suggestion, Paul did not argue, because he did not see this as a major hill to die on.  Paul   was far more concerned about the greater issues, such as the unity of the church of Jesus, consisting now of Jew and Gentile.

So then in v. 27  we read that  the purification  notice was almost completed when more trouble arose, such as was prophesied  on a number of occasions. It all began when  Jews from Asia saw him and recognised him  in the temple. They obviously had come  for the feast of Pentecost. These Jews  now began to stir  the whole crowd in the temple up against Paul, accusing him (see 21:28,29 for accusations).

They  had previously  seen him in the city company of Trophimus,  a native  of  the city of  Ephesus, and they supposed, they inferred, they guessed  that  Paul had brought him, a gentile  into the temple. The temple was divided into various zones. There was the outer court known as the Court of the Gentiles.  And then there was the inner court, the Court of the Jews.  The two courts were divided by a wall on which warnings in Greek and Latin were posted, indicating that if any gentile was found in the Court of the Jews or anyone  brought a gentile  into the Court of the Jews they would face death.  
It would have been highly unlikely that Paul would have brought Trophimus into the Court of Israel, but that is what he is charged with.   This is the nature of the satanic battle which true believers face so very often. False charges (Note: this is the second false charge in this chapter) are frequently devised against believers. This was the case of the Lord Jesus with the trumped up charges against him. This was the case also of Stephen the first martyr of the Christian church.  In Acts 7:13 we read, ‘they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law.’”  And Paul now finds himself in the same position as Stephen had found himself in.  It is interesting to see how Paul uses the same language in his opening defence as Stephen did (‘Brothers and fathers, hear me…’cf. 7:2 à 22:1).  And Paul could have well been put to death there and then, and we read that they were in fact in the act of killing him (21:31). But he isn’t killed and from now on and for the rest of his life will take a radical turn. He will be imprisoned.  He will never see Jerusalem and the temple again.  He will be taken to Rome.

So then in the midst of this upheaval, and  when he is almost  killed (21:31), word comes to  the Tribune[3]  (Claudius  Lysias  cf.23:26) of the Roman cohort in Jerusalem and  Paul is rescued. He is arrested and taken away in chains whilst the mob shouts many contradictions: ‘some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another (21:34)… and eventually they shouted ‘away with him’! (21:36, 22:22). These are  the  very same words that they had used when Pilate brought out Christ and Barabbas and concerning Christ they said  “Away with Him!” meaning, kill Him.

How did the Roman troops get there so quickly to rescue Paul?  From the geography and history   of  Jerusalem  we  learn that  adjoining the NW corner of the temple there  was  a  Roman  fortress – the Antonia Fortress[4]. This fortress was actually bordering the Court of the Gentiles of the temple. It had towers from which soldiers could look down and see what was going on in the temple precincts. The Roman soldiers were always on the alert for trouble, for the political times were of such a nature. In 21:38 we shall see that the Roman tribune initially thought that they had arrested  an Egyptian prophet who had stirred up a revolt against the Romans.[5]   In times of chaos Satan thrives and fuels  the fire with misinformation.

21:37-  22:21   PAUL'S  RESPONSE 

Here we see  that  Paul takes this opportunity to correct  the mistaken assumptions:

(i)              In 21: 37-39  he corrects  the Roman tribune’s  false  assumption concerning him.  He says to this military Tribune, “May I say something to you?” The Tribune  realizes that  Paul is not an Egyptian troublemaker. He speaks in Greek, and he finds out that Paul is actually  a Roman citizen.

(ii)         In 21:40 - 22: 1-21  he seeks to clarify his own  position  before the angry mob – his history of conversion and  of his call, and we will  consider this  next time.


And so we find that everything that was prophesied concerning Paul’s sufferings in Jerusalem comes true. And we know that despite the Holy Spirit’s warnings Paul chose this road of suffering against all counsel and advice. Was he foolish and therefore wrong? Was he stubborn and unteachable? There are many people who have many opinions on this, and I think that such speculations are essentially unfruitful. The fact is that   Paul chose this road and so it stands recorded for us by the Holy Spirit. And the verdict is now  'AWAY WITH HIM!'  

Paul knew what awaited him, and still he trusted God for the ultimate outcome. Paul certainly did not love his life more than he loved the Lord Jesus and the church (made up of converted Jews and Gentiles)  which Jesus died for.

I believe that Paul was ultimately sent by God to test the Jews once again. And again we learn that the Jews (as was the case in the ministry of the Lord Jesus) reject the gospel.  It seems to me  that at this  point in the Acts narrative  Christian Jews  were also  beginning to  turn  away from Christ and they are returning back to the law. James and the Jerusalem elders were in real danger in this regard. There is plenty of internal evidence that Christian Jews  were  turning  back to the law.  Almost 30 years after Christ’s death (the Acts 21 timeline here is AD 59) they were losing their focus on Christ and His work for the global church.

I believe that the letter to the Hebrews was written to Christian Jews such as these. The letter of Hebrews teaches such about the superiority of Christ and His gospel, and it warns backsliding Jewish Christians of the severe consequences of turning away from the salvation which Christ has offered. For reasons such as this I believe that Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews. Paul of all apostles  knew the danger that  converted Jews were facing in this regard. 

Others who hold to Pauline authorship  of the letter  to the Hebrews  were the church fathers Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150 – 215) and Origen (AD 185 – 253). They claimed a Pauline association (i.e. written with the help of Dr Luke) for the book. Augustine (354 AD) held to Pauline authorship. A modern theologian like the well-known Dr R. C. Sproul and a trusted preacher like Stuart Olyott concur.  Professor Eta Linnemann (a former disciple of Rudolph Bultmann and later a  true convert of Jesus)  in her  respected work, “A Call for a Retrial in the Case of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” [6]  is essential reading for those who doubt Pauline authorship. She takes to task many arguments advanced against Pauline authorship and largely demolishes them.

From chapter 22 onwards we shall now enter into Paul’s fruitful last phase of life and ministry and it shall be to the gentiles (cf. 22:21).  And as a representative  of Christ  he shall lay down his life not among the Jews in Jerusalem, but among the gentiles in Rome.

Oh how challenging, despairing and exciting is a committed walk with God. Never a dull moment!

[1] Numbers 6:  This was a rite that Jews who had been out of the country (and therefore in contact with Gentiles) would have undergone when they came back to Jerusalem,  and when  they intended to take part in the festivals associated with the temple.  
[2] It looks as though Paul  had  taken  a Nazarite vow in  Cenchrea (18:18). He had shaved his head on his way from Corinth. On that occasion he was travelling back  to Antioch. He landed in Caesarea, made his way up to Antioch. It is likely  that  Paul first  went to Jerusalem, to finish the Nazarite vow at  the temple.
[3] A military tribune (Latin tribunus militum, "tribune of the soldiers", Greek chiliarchos, χιλίαρχος) was an officer of the Roman army who ranked below the legate and above the centurion.
[4] built in 35 B.C. by Herod the Great, paid for by a benefactor, Marc Anthony; hence the name, the Antonia Fortress.
[5] This incident is confirmed by Josephus : Jewish Antiquities 20.8.5-6 (War 2.13.5-6 ) “At this time there came out of Egypt to Jerusalem a man who said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lay a distance of five furlongs from the city. He said that he would show them that at his command the walls of Jerusalem would fall down, through which he promised that he would procure them an entrance into the city…”
[6]  Faith and Mission, vol. 19, Issue 2, 2002, p.37.

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