November 10, 2011

Paul-citizen in chains

In our journey through the Book of Acts, and the life of Paul, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of Paul as a man of God. When we read just his letters to the churches, the Epistles, without an undergirding of Paul’s personal life and struggles, his challenges and his delights, we can think of him as a very stern and legalistic man. Taken out of their context as letters to places he had been and to people he knew, addressing issues important to their life and faith as part of the newly forming Christian church, some of Paul’s comments can sound narrow to our ears two millennia later. Understanding Paul, the man, can help us understand his writings, too, as encouragement and teaching to the people he loved in the cities he had visited.

Paul was even misunderstood by the Jewish people of his time. Over and over again, he preaches to the Jewish synagogue first, only to have them reject his radical message. Then he turns to the more receptive Gentile population. Even when he returns to Jerusalem, Paul is rejected by the leaders of the Jews. Rather than being discouraged, he uses his arrest as an opportunity to proclaim the Good News.

From the steps of the Temple, under arrest by the Roman tribune, Paul speaks. “Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you…I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today…” (Acts 22:1-20) Paul is indeed a man zealous for his God, both before and after his conversion. His fire of faith is worthy of emulation.

The crowd listens quietly, until Paul announces that Jesus sent him to the Gentiles. Then, “they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’ And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air.” (Acts 22:21-23)

The tribune has Paul brought into the barracks, (part of the Roman Fortress of Antonia, which overlooked the Temple grounds-see model at left) to be “examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.” As he has in the past when arrested by Roman authorities, Paul tells the centurion the he is a Roman citizen. The centurion “went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’ Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” (Acts 22:26-29)

The tribune is in a sticky place. He cannot question Paul by torture because Paul is a citizen. There is no record in Acts that he tried to find out from Paul directly why the Jews hated him. However, he wants to “find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews.” So, “the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.” (Acts 22:30)

Some of us, at this point, would have backed down and tried to appease the Jewish leaders. Not so with Paul. Rather than facing their charges directly, he “noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, [so] he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided…Then a great clamor arose…When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.” (Acts 23:6-10)

The Jews do not want to give up with their plan to get rid of this troublesome former Pharisee. In fact their rage seems rather excessive against Paul. It is very easy to become defensive and angry when our basis for faith is challenged. Paul's preaching of Christ risen and his preaching to the Gentiles were both a threat to the established religious order of the Jewish priests and leaders. Paul's claim that Jesus Christ was Messiah and risen from the dead and Son of God might seem to fulfill the greatest desire of the Jews. Instead, the leaders felt threatened. The prophet Malachi had warned, "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covanant in whom you delight...but who can stand when he appears?"

Forty men told “the chief priests and elders and said, ‘We have strictly bound ourselves by an oath to taste no food until we have killed Paul.Now then, you and the council must notify the tribune to bring him down to you, on the pretext that you want to make a more thorough examination of his case. And we are ready to do away with him before he arrives.’” Fortunately, “the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush…and told Paul.” Paul sends his nephew to the tribune who “took him by the hand, drew him aside privately, and asked, ‘What is it that you have to report to me?’ He answered, ‘The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow…more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him. They have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they kill him’…the tribune dismissed the young man, ordering him, ‘Tell no one that you have informed me of this.’” (Acts 23:12-22)

The tribune (Claudius Lysias) sends Paul to Caesarea under the protection of “two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen...[to] take him safely to Felix the governor.” It would seem that the tribune is taking no chances on having an ‘incident’ involving a Roman citizen on his watch. Much better to send the problem to the governor who has more resources to deal with such difficulties!

The letter he sends to Antonius Felix, the Roman Governor, puts a spin on the events that emphasizes the tribune’s part in a rescue of a Roman citizen. “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them, but when I had learned that he was a Roman citizen, I came with the guard and rescued him…I found that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but was charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. When I was informed that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” Two days later, Paul and his escort arrive at Caesarea. “On reading the letter, he asked what province he belonged to, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia, he said, ‘I will give you a hearing when your accusers arrive.’ Then he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s headquarters.” (Acts 23:23-35)

It would seem that Paul’s vision of Jesus saying, “Take courage, for as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome” is coming true. (Acts 23:11) As a story-teller, I wonder what Paul’s thoughts were as he waited for ‘his accusers’ to come to Caesarea. We know he probably spent time writing to the churches he established. Based on his previous imprisonment experience, he probably gave very little thought to what he would actually say when it was time to give his defense. This defense was always the same-his testimony of God’s saving acts in Christ and his own conversion experience.

What more do we need to say when someone asks us about our faith??? With Malachi we can announce "the Lord has come" and like Paul share our experience of the Living Lord.  Sometimes that takes courage, esp. if we have to speak up against the established order of things. Learning of Paul's experiences and his steadfast faith should give us inspiration.

Next week we’ll see what happens when his accusers come to Caesarea.

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