In Acts 21, we saw Paul being dragged out of the temple to be killed. His crime? None! Some Jews from the province of Asia had accused him of preaching against the Jewish people, telling everyone to disobey the Jewish laws, speaking against the Temple, and worst of all of bringing Gentiles into the Temple. On the brink of summary death, Paul is rescued by the Roman commander who arrested Paul; binding him in two chains.
As Paul was about to go into the fortress, he requested from the Commander permission to speak to the crowd. Paul is going to take this opportunity to tell the very people who were just trying to murder him the good news about Jesus. He wants to explain to the people of Jerusalem that he has done nothing wrong; that he is simply obeying God.
And it’s there at the end of Acts 21 that we learn something interesting: the Roman commander had no idea that Paul was even Jewish. He had assumed that Paul was “the Egyptian who led a rebellion some time ago and took 4000 members of the Assassins out into the desert.” Sounds like a fascinating story. This Egyptian must have done something terrible for the Roman commander to assume that the crowd would get into such a frenzy about him. But the Bible (obviously!) doesn’t go into details about the Egyptian. This is the story of God’s gospel – not that of violent men.
When Paul motions for silence – preparing to speak, we find the crowd grow silent. What, they must have been wondering, was this man going to say? Who was he anyway? What exactly had he done? Did he have some valid defence? Had they been about to make a terrible mistake?
Their silence grew deeper, we’re told, as Paul began to speak in Aramaic. How many in the crowd, like the commander, had assumed that Paul was some foreigner who had invaded the temple.
That’s the issue here: the separation of Jew and foreigner. The crowd has no qualms with what Paul says in his defence. They hear of Paul’s life as a rabbi in training, of his zeal for persecuting the church, of his encounter with Jesus and his 180 degree turn to follow God and share the gospel with all. None of this ruffles their feathers. There were many followers of the Way (I love that term for Christians!) in Jerusalem; after the persecutions in Paul’s day died down, there must have been some sort of fragile peace between Christians and Jews.
But then Paul says the magic word: Gentiles. He claims that Jesus – God – has sent him to the Gentiles. And the crowd goes mad. This is what they were afraid of: Paul was making hazy the dividing lines between those who are the people of God and those who aren’t. They might not agree that Jesus is the Messiah, but they could not tolerate the idea that the Messiah was for everyone.
What can I draw from this passage? A lot of the gospel, I think, is perfectly inoffensive. It sounds nice to hear that Jesus loves us and died for us. It sounds nice – if implausible to some – that Jesus rose from the dead. But add in that Jesus is the only way to the Father? Add in the demand of Jesus that we follow him with all of our being? With that, people start having a problem. Why? Because it impinges on our life as we know it. We might like the idea about Jesus – but don’t actually want our comfortable lives upset. So here in Jerusalem. They didn’t seem to mind most of the gospel, but couldn’t stand the idea of their traditions and insularism being upended. They had their fixed ideas about God – that he was only for them, that he wasn’t interested in anyone else (surely he’d look after them before others, they might think… which is actually what Jesus did!) And when this was challenged, they wanted nothing to do with it.
Jesus, help me not to shy away from any part of your gospel to make it more palatable. Please, open hearts and minds to your truth. And open my heart and my mind to your word. Lord, where there are places where I find the gospel offensive; where I would rather keep my old traditions and habits and lifestyles over those of the kingdom – Lord: take control. Have all of me, I pray. Have all of me.
And Lord, please make me bold to speak and loving to share your word even with those who are bitterly opposed to you and what you are doing.