Paul defends the truth before angry mobs and the Sanhedrin
Based on Acts 21:18–23:10
1, 2. What brings the apostle Paul to Jerusalem, and what challenges will he face there?
JERUSALEM! Once again, Paul is walking along its narrow, bustling streets. No city on earth is so steeped in the history of Jehovah’s dealings with his people. By and large, its inhabitants revel in that glorious past. Paul knows that many Christians here are putting too much stock in the past, failing to progress with Jehovah’s advancing purposes. Paul thus sees a case of spiritual need in addition to the material need that moved him—back when he was still in Ephesus—to decide to revisit this great city. (Acts 19:21) Despite the prospect of danger, he has held fast to his purpose.
2 What, now, will Paul face in Jerusalem? One challenge will come from Christ’s followers, some of whom are troubled by rumors about Paul. Greater challenges will come from Christ’s enemies. They will launch false accusations against Paul, beat him, and threaten to kill him. These tumultuous events will also give Paul an opportunity to make a defense. His humility, courage, and faith in handling such challenges provide a sterling example for Christians today. Let us see how.
“They Began to Glorify God” (Acts 21:18-20a)
3-5. (a) What meeting did Paul attend in Jerusalem, and what was discussed? (b) What lessons may we draw from Paul’s meeting with the elders in Jerusalem?
3 The day after their arrival in Jerusalem, Paul and his companions went to see the responsible older men of the congregation. None of the surviving apostles are mentioned in the account; perhaps by then they had all left to serve in other parts of the world. However, James the brother of Jesus was still there. (Gal. 2:9) Likely, James presided at the meeting when “all the older men were present” with Paul.—Acts 21:18.
4 Paul greeted the older men “and began giving in detail an account of the things God did among the nations through his ministry.” (Acts 21:19) We can only imagine how encouraging that was. We today are likewise thrilled to hear of the progress of the work in other lands.—Prov. 25:25.
5 At some point, Paul likely mentioned the contributions he had brought from Europe. The concern manifested by the brothers in far-flung places must have warmed the hearts of Paul’s listeners. Why, in response to Paul’s report, the record says: “They [the older men] began to glorify God”! (Acts 21:20a) Similarly, the hearts of many today who endure disasters or grievous sicknesses are deeply moved when fellow believers offer timely help and words of encouragement.
Many Still “Zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20b, 21)
6. What problem did Paul learn about?
6 The elders then revealed to Paul that there was a problem in Judea that involved him personally. They said: “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the solemn customs.”*—Acts 21:20b, 21.
7, 8. (a) What mistaken view did many Christians in Judea have? (b) Why did the mistaken thinking of some Jewish Christians not amount to apostasy?
7 Why were so many Christians still zealous for the Mosaic Law, well over 20 years after it had been abolished? (Col. 2:14) In 49 C.E. the apostles and older men meeting in Jerusalem had sent a letter to the congregations explaining that believers from among the nations did not need to submit to circumcision and come under the Mosaic Law. (Acts 15:23-29) However, that letter had not mentioned Jewish believers, many of whom did not understand that the Mosaic Law no longer applied.
8 Did that mistaken thinking disqualify such Jewish believers from being Christians? No. It was not as if they had once been worshippers of pagan gods and were now continuing to follow the religious customs of their former faith. The Law that was so important to those Jewish believers had originally been given by Jehovah. Nothing in it was demonic or wrong in itself. But that Law had to do with the old covenant, whereas Christians were now under the new covenant. The observances of the Law covenant were now obsolete as far as pure worship was concerned. Hebrew Christians who were zealous for the Law lacked understanding and confidence in the Christian congregation. They needed to bring their thinking into line with the progressive revelation of truth.*—Jer. 31:31-34; Luke 22:20.
“There Is Nothing to the Rumors” (Acts 21:22-26)
9. What did Paul teach regarding the Mosaic Law?
9 What about the rumors stating that Paul was teaching Jews among the nations “neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the solemn customs”? Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, and to them he upheld the decision that Gentiles did not have to submit to the Law. He also exposed the error of any who tried to persuade Gentile believers to undergo circumcision as a sign of submission to the Mosaic Law. (Gal. 5:1-7) Paul also preached the good news to Jews in the cities he visited. He certainly would have explained to responsive ones that Jesus’ death had made the Law obsolete and that righteousness was attained by faith, not by works of Law.—Rom. 2:28, 29; 3:21-26.
10. What balanced attitude did Paul have in matters pertaining to the Law and circumcision?
10 Nevertheless, Paul showed understanding toward those who felt comfortable observing some Jewish customs, such as abstaining from work on the Sabbath or avoiding certain foods. (Rom. 14:1-6) And he did not set down rules about circumcision. Indeed, Paul had Timothy circumcised so that the Jews would not be suspicious of Timothy, whose father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3) Circumcision was a matter for personal decision. Paul told the Galatians: “Neither circumcision is of any value nor is uncircumcision, but faith operating through love is.” (Gal. 5:6) However, to get circumcised so as to come under the Law or to present the practice as being necessary in order to obtain Jehovah’s approval would betray a lack of faith.
11. What counsel did the elders give Paul, and what would have been involved in carrying it out? (See also footnote.)
11 Hence, although the rumors were gross distortions, Jewish believers were still disturbed by them. For that reason, the older men offered Paul this direction: “We have four men with a vow upon themselves. Take these men along and cleanse yourself ceremonially with them and take care of their expenses, that they may have their heads shaved. And so everybody will know that there is nothing to the rumors they were told about you, but that you are walking orderly, you yourself also keeping the Law.”*—Acts 21:23, 24.
12. How did Paul show a flexible and cooperative spirit in his response to the counsel of the Jerusalem elders?
12 Paul could have objected that the real problem was, not the rumors about him, but the zeal of those Jewish believers for the Mosaic Law. But he was willing to be flexible, as long as he did not have to compromise godly principles. Earlier he had written: “To those under law I became as under law, though I myself am not under law, that I might gain those under law.” (1 Cor. 9:20) On this occasion, Paul cooperated with the Jerusalem elders and became “as under law.” In so doing, he set a fine example for us today to cooperate with the elders and not insist on doing things our own way.—Heb. 13:17.
“He Was Not Fit to Live!” (Acts 21:27–22:30)
13. (a) Why did some Jews cause a tumult in the temple? (b) How was Paul’s life saved?
13 Things did not go well at the temple. As the days for the completion of the vows drew to a close, Jews from Asia caught sight of Paul, falsely accused him of bringing Gentiles into the temple, and incited a riot. If the Roman military commander had not intervened, Paul would have been beaten to death. As it was, the Roman commander took him into custody. From that day, it would take more than four years for Paul to regain his freedom. And the immediate danger to Paul was not yet over. When the commander asked the Jews why they were attacking Paul, they shouted different accusations. In the tumult, the commander could understand nothing. Eventually, Paul had to be physically carried away from the scene. When Paul and the Roman soldiers were about to enter the soldiers’ quarters, Paul said to the commander: “I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” (Acts 21:39) The commander consented, and Paul went on to defend his faith courageously.
14, 15. (a) What did Paul explain to the Jews? (b) What steps did the Roman commander take to learn the reason for the Jews’ anger?
14 “Hear my defense,” Paul began. (Acts 22:1) Paul addressed the crowd in Hebrew, which quieted them down. He gave a forthright explanation of why he was now a follower of Christ. In doing so, Paul skillfully mentioned points that the Jews could verify if they wished. Paul had studied at the feet of the famous Gamaliel and had persecuted the followers of Christ, as some present likely knew. However, on his way to Damascus, he had a vision of the resurrected Christ, who spoke to him. Paul’s traveling companions saw a bright light and heard a voice, but they did not “hear understandingly” the words. (Acts 9:7; 22:9, ftn.) Afterward, the companions had to lead Paul, who was blinded by the vision, into Damascus. There Ananias, a man known to the Jews of that region, miraculously restored Paul’s sight.
15 Paul went on to relate that after his return to Jerusalem, Jesus appeared to him in the temple. At this point, the Jews became very disturbed, and they clamored: “Take such a man away from the earth, for he was not fit to live!” (Acts 22:22) To save Paul, the commander had him taken into the soldiers’ quarters. Determined to discover the reason for the Jews’ anger at Paul, the commander ordered him to be prepared for interrogation under scourging. Paul, though, took advantage of a legal protection at his disposal and revealed that he was a Roman citizen. Jehovah’s worshippers today have similarly used legal protections available to them to defend the faith. (See the boxes “Roman Law and Roman Citizens” and “Modern-Day Legal Battles.”) On hearing of Paul’s Roman citizenship, the commander realized that he would have to find another way to get more information. The next day, he brought Paul before a specially convened meeting of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews.
“I Am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:1-10)
16, 17. (a) Describe what happened when Paul addressed the Sanhedrin. (b) When he was struck, how did Paul set an example of humility?
16 Beginning his defense before the Sanhedrin, Paul said: “Men, brothers, I have behaved before God with a perfectly clear conscience down to this day.” (Acts 23:1) He got no further. The record says: “At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing by him to strike him on the mouth.” (Acts 23:2) What an insult! And what a revelation of prejudice, to brand Paul a liar before any evidence was heard! No wonder Paul responded: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall. Do you at one and the same time sit to judge me in accord with the Law and, transgressing the Law, command me to be struck?”—Acts 23:3.
17 Some standing by professed shock—not at the one who struck Paul but at Paul’s reaction! They demanded: “Are you reviling the high priest of God?” In answer, Paul gave them a lesson in humility and in respect for the Law. He said: “Brothers, I did not know he was high priest. For it is written, ‘You must not speak injuriously of a ruler of your people.’”* (Acts 23:4, 5; Ex. 22:28) Paul now adopted a different strategy. Taking note that the Sanhedrin was made up of Pharisees and Sadducees, he said: “Men, brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. Over the hope of the resurrection of the dead I am being judged.”—Acts 23:6.
18. Why did Paul call himself a Pharisee, and how might we use similar reasoning in certain circumstances?
18 Why did Paul call himself a Pharisee? Because he was “a son of Pharisees” from a family belonging to that sect. Hence, many would still view him as such.* How, though, could Paul associate himself with the Pharisees’ belief in a resurrection? Reportedly, the Pharisees believed that a conscious soul survived death and that the souls of the righteous would live again in human bodies. Paul did not believe such notions. He believed in the resurrection as taught by Jesus. (John 5:25-29) Still, Paul did agree with the Pharisees that there was a hope of life beyond death—as opposed to the Sadducees, who did not believe in a future life. We might use similar reasoning when discussing matters with Catholics or Protestants. We could say that like them, we believe in God. Granted, they may believe in the Trinity while we believe in the God of the Bible. Still, we do share the belief that there is a God.
19. Why did the meeting of the Sanhedrin break up in disorder?
19 Paul’s statement split the Sanhedrin. The record says: “There broke out a loud screaming, and some of the scribes of the party of the Pharisees rose and began contending fiercely, saying: ‘We find nothing wrong in this man; but if a spirit or an angel spoke to him,—.’” (Acts 23:9) The very suggestion that an angel might have spoken to Paul was anathema to the Sadducees, who did not believe in angels! (See the box “The Sadducees and the Pharisees.”) The tumult became so great that the Roman military commander once again rescued the apostle. (Acts 23:10) Still, Paul was hardly out of danger. What would happen to the apostle now? We will learn more in the following chapter.
There must have been many congregations meeting in private homes in order to care for the spiritual needs of such a large number of Jewish Christians.
A few years later, the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Hebrews, in which he proved the superiority of the new covenant. In that letter, he clearly demonstrated that the new covenant made the old covenant obsolete. In addition to providing convincing arguments that Jewish Christians could use to answer their Jewish detractors, Paul’s powerful reasoning doubtless strengthened the faith of some Christians who were putting too much emphasis on the Mosaic Law.—Heb. 8:7-13.
Scholars suggest that the men had made a Nazirite vow. (Num. 6:1-21) True, the Mosaic Law, under which such a vow would have been made, was now obsolete. Still, Paul might have reasoned that it would not be wrong for the men to fulfill a vow made to Jehovah. Therefore, it would not be wrong for him to pay their expenses and accompany them. We do not know exactly what type of vow was involved, but whatever it was, it is unlikely that Paul would have supported the offering of an animal sacrifice (as Nazirites did), believing that it would cleanse the men of sin. The perfect sacrifice of Christ had stripped such sacrifices of any sin-atoning value. Whatever he did, we can be sure that Paul would not have agreed to anything that would have violated his conscience.
Some have suggested that Paul had weak eyesight that prevented him from recognizing the high priest. Or perhaps he had been absent from Jerusalem for so long that he could not identify the current high priest. Or maybe Paul just could not see through the crowd who it was that gave the order to strike him.
In 49 C.E., when the apostles and older men were discussing whether Gentiles had to submit to the Mosaic Law, some among the Christians present were identified as “those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed.” (Acts 15:5) Evidently, those believers were still identified in some sense with their Pharisaic background.