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Early Church History: Part 16--Paul's Arrest

Aug 14, 2007

When Paul left Philippi to begin his round-about trip to Jerusalem, Luke became one of his travel companions. And so, beginning with Acts 20:5, Luke uses the term "us" and (in the next verse) "we" when speaking of Paul's companions. Up to that point, Luke had been narrating, not as a witness of most of these events, but as a scribe from the conversations that he had heard from the witnesses. And so, from this point on, the narrative takes on greater detail.

When Paul went into the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, he was recognized by some Jews that had opposed the Gospel during his ministry in Asia. Their blood pressure suddenly increased, and they incited the mob to take Paul out of the temple grounds and kill him (Acts 21:30). We are not told, but it is likely that Luke, Trophimus, and perhaps other Greek believers were witnesses to this event as they stood on the other side of the dividing wall in the Court of the Gentiles.

" (31) And while they were seeking to kill him [Paul], a report came up to the commander of the Roman cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. (32) 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.

The commander arrested Paul and began questioning the crowd to find out what had happened. But because everyone was talking at once and giving too many stories, he "ordered him to be brought into the barracks" (vs. 34, 37). Once safe inside the barracks, Paul addressed the commander in Greek: "May I say something to you?"

Lysias, the commander, was surprised and asked, "Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins (Sicarii) out into the wilderness?"

"No," Paul told him, "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people."

The commander, of course, was always watchful for revolts. He had heard about this "Egyptian," presumably an Egyptian Jew. Josephus tells us the story behind Lysias' question:

Felix had been appointed Procurator of Judea in 52 A.D. by the emperor Claudius. As political conditions got worse in Judea, "the country was filled with robbers and imposters who deluded the multitude. Yet did Felix catch and put to death many of these imposters every day, together with the robbers." (Antiquities of the Jews, XX, viii, 5).

The high priest at the time was Jonathan, who took it upon himself to offer some helpful criticism of Felix, so that he would understand the mentality of the Jews. Felix apparently resented this, and Josephus tells us that he bribed one of Jonathan's friends (named Doras) into murdering him. Josephus writes:

"Certain of those robbers went up to the city as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments; and by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan; and as this murder was never avenged, the robbers went up with the greatest security at the festivals after this time." (Ant., XX, viii, 5)

Josephus tells us that these "robbers," or Sicarii, as they were called (from the Greek word for "dagger") began a regular assassination program of their own, killing anyone that disagreed with their war against Rome. Felix caught these Sicarii daily and punished them. In that setting, we read:

"Moreover, there came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem, one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the mount of Olives . . . . He said further that he would show them from hence, how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down.

"Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and come against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen, from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more."

And so, seeing how that Egyptian had escaped capture, Lysias was keenly interested in knowing if Paul was that Egyptian or not. Paul informed him that he was a Jew of Tarsus, not one of the Sicarii trying to assassinate people in the temple.

Lysias then gave Paul permission to address the people, and Paul's testimony is recorded in detail in Acts 22. He identified himself and told how he once had persecuted the Christians. He told of his conversion on the Damascus road and the vision of Christ that had changed his life completely. He told how "Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law and well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there" had performed a miracle to heal his blindness.

Paul was careful even to tell them that Ananias bore witness that Jesus was the Messiah, as well as prophesying that Paul would become a witness for Christ. Verse 21 records Paul's final words in this address: "And He said to me, Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles [ethnos, the nations]."

That was the point where the people refused to listen any longer. It was bad enough that Paul had been converted to Christ. They did not interrupt him at that moment. It was only when He talked about God's acceptance of non-Jewish people that they went into a frenzy, demanding the death penalty.

" (22) And they listened to him up to this statement, and then they raised their voices and said, 'Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live! (23) And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air, (24) the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks. . ."

The commander did not seem to understand the Jewish mind and how they could demand Paul's death over such a simple statement that God wanted a covenant relationship with ALL MEN, and not just Jews. And so, since waterboarding had not yet been invented, the commander decided to use a simple whip to beat the truth out of Paul.

Paul then asked him, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?" In those days the Romans had not invented the term "enemy combatant," which might deny citizens the right to a fair trial before being tortured. So this stopped the centurion in his tracks, and he informed Lysias that Paul was a Roman citizen.

The commander came and questioned Paul personally. When he was convinced that Paul was a Roman citizen, "the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains" (Acts 22:29). Lysias then ordered the chief priests and the Council to assemble the next day, and he brought Paul before them for questioning. Lightfoot tells us:

"The president of the Sanhedrin at this time was Rabban Simeon Ben [son of] Gamaliel: his father Gamaliel having been dead about two or three years before. Paul knew Simeon, and Simeon very well knew him, having been fellow disciples, and both sat together at the feet of Gamaliel." (Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, 1859)

When Paul gave his opening statement, Ananias told a subordinate to slap him on the mouth for no real reason at all. Paul then prophesied to him, "God is going to strike you," a point that is usually missed unless one knows subsequent history.


This is the sixteenth part of a series titled "Early Church History." To view all parts, click the link below.

Early Church History


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