Not many of us like coming back from holiday do we? No one likes going back to work after a good time away, and speaking personally I always have a slight sense of dread about what will be waiting in my inbox when I get home. What pastoral problem, church hall crisis or diocesan demand will await me I wonder?!
In Acts 21 this morning we join the apostle Paul as he returns ‘home’ to Jerusalem after his missionary journeys overseas. Paul had travelled thousands of miles around the Eastern Mediterranean, stopping off at places like Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and many more. Everywhere he went, he’d been preaching the Gospel, establishing new churches and encouraging Gentile Christian believers. But now the time had come to return home, back to Jerusalem and his fellow Jews.
But Paul made his journey home with some trepidation. Paul was unsure how he would be received by his fellow Jews back in Jerusalem. Many of them - like Paul himself - had become Christian believers. But the majority (including their leaders) remained opposed to the Christian faith. Paul had especially good reason to worry, because during his journey home a prophet called Agabus had told him that he would soon be “tied up by the Jews of Jerusalem” and “handed over” to the Roman authorities.
If that prediction came true, Paul’s return to Jerusalem was going to be tough. He must have travelled home with some trepidation. And so it proved to be. Because after an initially warm welcome, he found himself subject to a false accusation and an interrogation. But wonderfully, his time in Jerusalem ended with a word of encouragement from the Lord.
1. A welcome and a warning (21:17-25)
If you’ve ever been in the arrivals hall of an international airport, you’ll have seen some emotional reunions. It’s the place where family and friends who have been in different parts of the world first get to see each other again – perhaps after months or years apart. The arrivals hall is often a place of hugs, kisses and excited conversations!
Wonderfully, Paul and his travelling companions experienced something similar when they arrived back in Jerusalem after their missionary adventures overseas. Verse 17 tells us that their Christian brothers and sisters “received them warmly”. And verses 18 to 20 tells us that James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem Church “praised God” when they heard about all that God had done among the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry. It was the kind of warm welcome from the Jewish Christians that Paul must have been praying for.
But as well as a warm welcome, James and the other elders gave Paul a word of warning. Apparently a rumour had gone around Jerusalem that Paul had been telling Jews “to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” If you know your New Testament you will know that this was a false rumour. Paul had not told Jews to abandon their customs, including circumcision. The truth was that Paul had told Jews that their customs could not save them. He had told them that only faith in Christ can put us right with God, whether we are Jew or a Gentile. (The same principle applies today – our culture, customs, nationality, even church service, cannot save us. Only faith in Christ can.) So Paul had said Jewish Christians could keep their culture and customs, but they should not trust in them for salvation - nor impose them on Gentile Christians. Like most gossip, the rumours about Paul in Jerusalem were a distortion of the truth.
To disprove this false rumour, James and the elders gave Paul some wise advice. He should join with four other men and undergo some Jewish purification rites, to publicly prove that he still follows Jewish custom and culture. They even advise him to “pay their expenses” - because money talks! No one would be left in any doubt about Paul’s Jewish credentials.
Paul clearly took their advice, because in verse 26 it says: “The next day he took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.” So far so good. But a week later things took a turn for the worse. Seven days later Paul faced false accusation and arrest.
2. False accusation and arrest (21:26-36)
To be subject to false accusation is a terrible thing. When the innocent are accused of guilt, justice is under threat. If you have ever experienced a false accusation you will know how painful it can be. And if that’s been your experience, please know you are in good company. Even the Lord Jesus himself was falsely accused of blasphemy and rebellion. On the first Good Friday he was executed for crime he didn’t commit.
And in our passage today, the apostle Paul gets his own personal experience of false accusation. In fact, there are several similarities between Paul’s experience in Jerusalem and what Jesus went through twenty years earlier. As we see in Acts 21 and 22, Paul too was falsely accused, placed under arrest, interrogated by the high priest, and faced calls for his death from a baying crowd.
So what was Paul falsely accused of? In short, he was accused of bringing a Gentile into the inner court of the Jerusalem Temple. He was alleged to have brought a non-Jew into the most sacred space of the Jewish nation. Listen again to what happened, from verse 27: “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, shouting, ‘Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.’
As we’re told in verse 29, they had mistakenly assumed that Paul had brought a Gentile called Trophimus into the Temple, when in fact he had not. But now it was too late, and the untrue allegation started a riot. Verse 30 says “The whole city was aroused, and people came running from all directions” Paul was then seized, dragged out of the Temple by the crowd, and brutally beaten. The angry mob wanted him dead.
It must have been a terrifying experience for Paul, and it was only the swift intervention of Roman soldiers that saved his life. A garrison of around a thousand troops was permanently stationed alongside the Temple complex (in the Antonia Fortress) and they quickly intervened to quell the riot and rescue Paul. The commander of the garrison took Paul into protective custody, ignoring the crowd’s demand for him to be killed. If we had read all of Acts 22, we would have seen that neither the commander nor Paul could get the crowd to calm down and see sense.
But for now at least Paul was safe from the violent mob. By God’s grace, the Roman army provided Paul had some hope of justice – for the time being he was away from his false accusers.
So if you ever experience false accusation as a Christian, please remind yourself that you are in excellent company. The Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul endured it too. They both know what its like.
Above, all have confidence that our great God can use injustice to do good. He can use evil to achieve good. Above all, God used Jesus’ death to save sinners from hell. It was all part of his plan. And, as we shall see, the Lord also used Paul’s arrest to help spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In fact, history has shown that the Church often grows fastest where it faces the stiffest persecution. God can achieve great things despite the evil intentions of his enemies.
3. An interrogation (22:30-23:10)
Well, after Paul’s false accusation and arrest came his interrogation. Its clear that the Roman commander wanted to get to the bottom of things and find out what Paul was being accused of. Because the following day he ordered the “Sanhedrin” (the Jewish ruling council) to assemble - and brought Paul before them.
Once again, things quickly turned ugly. The high priest Ananias took objection to Paul’s protestations of innocence and “ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth” (23:2).
So to save his skin, do you notice how Paul adopts a strategy of ‘divide and conquer’? Chapter 23 verse 6 tells us Paul realised that his inquisitors were both Pharisees and Sadducees. Both groups were Jewish, but the Pharisees believed in angels and life after death, whereas the Sadducees did not (That’s why they were sad-you-see?!). They had no hope.
So Paul managed to successfully split the room by claiming that he was on trial “for his hope in the resurrection of the dead.” As Acts tells us in verse 7 “When Paul said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously.” In fact, “the dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces”, so brought him back to the barracks.
However, we shouldn’t think that Paul’s words about resurrection were simply a strategy designed to divide his enemies. Paul’s claim to believe in the resurrection of the dead wasn’t just a tactic – it was also the truth.
You see, hope in the resurrection of the dead should be central to every Christian’s faith. Belief that God can - and will – give us new bodies in a new world is at the heart of the Christian hope. Our current bodies deteriorate and die. But the Bible promises that Christian believers will have new bodies - glorified bodies - in the world to come.
If you were admiring the physiques of the athletes at the World Athletics Championship last week, just wait until you see the bodies Christians will get in the new creation - in the new heaven and new earth we will inhabit one day. Maybe we will all be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, and we will certainly never need to retire!
And the reason why we – and Paul – can have this hope is the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is proof that God does have the power to raise the dead. The first Easter Sunday shows us that God is willing and able give new life to all who die in Christ. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, Jesus’ resurrection was the “firstfruits”, a foretaste of the resurrection that every Christian will enjoy after death. You see, the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just God’s ‘seal of approval’ on the life and words of Jesus. It was more than just that. Jesus’ resurrection was a magnificent ‘declaration of intent’ by God – a down-payment, a prototype for the future. What God did once for Jesus on Easter morning, he will one day do for every Christian who’s ever lived.
I wonder, do you realise that there are thousands of modern-day Sadducees on the streets of Gidea Park? Thousands of people in our parish who have no hope beyond the grave. Thousands of people who either don’t know about, or don’t believe in, the resurrection of the dead?
When you meet them this week, as you surely will, what will you say to them? What reason will you give for the hope that you have? Well, tell them about that great Easter morning 2,000 years ago when everything changed:
- Tell them that a man who had been dead for forty-eight hours was seen alive again by his closest friends and five hundred others.
- Tell them that Jesus ate food in front of their eyes and let them touch him with their hands to prove he was alive.
- Tell them how the living Lord Jesus has changed your life since you began to follow him.
- And tell them about our Christianity Explored course next month, where they can find out more for themselves.
As Christians today we have the same hope as the apostle Paul had. So let’s make sure we share it with every ‘Sadducee’ we know among our family, friends and colleagues!
4. A word of encouragement (23:11)
Let me end this morning with a final word of encouragement – not from me, but from the Lord! After all he’d been through the Lord came to comfort Paul. In his prison cell it seems the risen Jesus appeared to Paul and spoke to him. “Take courage”, he said, “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome!”
With those words Jesus gave Paul confidence and renewed hope. With those words the Lord reassured Paul that his suffering was not in vain. His hardships were being used to get Paul and his Gospel to the capital of the Roman Empire. Paul’s persecutions weren’t pointless, they were purposeful.
I don’t know what problems or persecutions you personally may be experiencing at the moment. In such times please let the Lord’s words to you in the Bible reassure you and encourage you. Become familiar with his great promises in Scripture:
- Promises that he is in control of our life.
- Promises that life is purposeful not pointless.
- Promises that he is always with us, wherever we are and whatever we’re going through.
I love the fact that verse 11 says the Lord “stood near” to Paul. He was not distant. He was not aloof. He was not absent. He was near. And he remains near now. By his Word and his Spirit he remains with us today, even in the darkest hours. That what Paul discovered in his prison cell, and I pray it will be our experience as well.
Let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you that you are near to all your people, dwelling in our hearts by your Holy Spirit. Help us to hold onto you in the face of hardship, and keep alive our faith in the resurrection of the dead. In your name we pray, Amen.