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When a Difficult Day Opened a New Door

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Acts 21:37–40; 22:1–29

Our focus should not be on the difficulty of our circumstances, our vindication, or even the conversion of others to Christ. We should be centered on being faithful followers of Christ and witnesses for Him. God will take care of those other matters.


Maybe you have been a Christian long enough to realize that some of the most difficult times in life often give you the greatest opportunities to present your faith in Christ to others.

As we sail back into Acts chapter 21, that is exactly what we find happening in the life of the apostle Paul. He has been accused of slandering Moses and desecrating the temple by bringing Gentiles into the inner courts. These charges were absolutely false, but the crowd in the temple believed them. Frankly, people tend to believe bad news a lot faster than good news.

Roman soldiers headquartered in the Fortress Antonia, which was adjacent to the temple and overlooked the temple grounds were able to see this mob start beating Paul, and they rushed into the temple and rescued Paul from the crowd.

Now as we pick up the account, Paul is being led into the Roman fortress to be kept under lock and key. Paul asks the tribune, the Roman commander, “May I say something to you?” (verse 37). The commander is surprised because Paul asks him in the Greek language. He had thought Paul was an Egyptian revolutionary. We read his shocked response in verse 38:

“Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus, the first-century historian, informs us of an Egyptian Jew, a false prophet, who had gathered a following and planned to take Jerusalem by force. The Roman army had crushed the revolt, but the Egyptian leader had escaped.[1]

Well, this Roman commander thought he had caught the rebel leader. But Paul responds fluently here in Greek in verse 39, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.”

The commander agrees, and Paul turns and speaks to the crowd from the steps of the Roman fortress. And Paul delivers a masterful defense of his actions and his ministry.

He begins in Acts 22 with a personal testimony. Paul gives us a great example here for testifying before people who might be angry and confused about Christ. The first thing Paul does is speak graciously. In fact, he speaks to the people, not in Greek, but in their native Hebrew language. Verse 2 tells us that this immediately quiets the mob.

Second, Paul shows them respect. Keep in mind he is addressing people who have just been beating him up. But Paul calls them here in verse 1—probably while holding a bloody nose—“Brothers and fathers.” He is practicing the principle of Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath.”

Third, Paul recognizes the gospel cannot be forced; it can only be offered. Nobody is ever argued into the kingdom of God. Paul simply asks the people to listen to his “defense,” which they agree to do.

The apostle begins by informing them that even though he has been accused of trampling on the law, he is a faithful Jew. In verse 3, he says he was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers.” Gamaliel was a leading rabbi of this day.

Paul then does something amazing. He excuses their desire to kill him by saying that he was “zealous for God as all of you are this day” (verse 3). They had just tried to kill him, but Paul attributes their actions to zeal for God. He effectively says that he understands by declaring in verse 4, “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women.” That is, “I know your zeal for God.”

But then Paul begins to share his conversion to Christ:

“As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’” (verses 6-8)

Here Paul uses the term “Lord” (kurios), a title for God, in reference to Jesus. Imagine how shocking this testimony is to this Jewish crowd. God—Jehovah, the Lord—is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul goes on to talk of being blinded and then receiving his sight back when a follower of Jesus named Ananias came to him. Ananias instructed him, Paul says, to “rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (verse 16).

Some take verse 16 as proving baptism is necessary for salvation. However, in the original language, this phrase “wash away your sins” should be connected to “calling on his name,” not “be baptized.” In other words, you could translate it more clearly, “Having called upon the Lord and your sins having been washed away, arise and be baptized.” Water baptism is simply the outward sign of the inward cleansing that already took place at your salvation.

Now beginning at verse 17, Paul reveals something not mentioned anywhere else in Scripture. He says that when he returned to Jerusalem he was praying in the temple, and the Lord spoke to him in a vision, telling him to leave the city because his testimony would be rejected. Then he says the Lord told him, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (verse 21).

Oh, my! When Paul mentions going to the Gentiles, that does it. Beloved, eventually your testimony, your sharing of the gospel, is going to hit a nerve. It is going to confront someone’s sin and that person’s need to be saved.

Well, this crowd erupts:

They . . . said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” . . . they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air. (verses 22-23)

Although the Jews accepted proselytes, or converts, from among the Gentiles, they required these converts to adopt Jewish law and customs. They essentially became practicing Jews. But Paul is clearly indicating here that Gentiles have equal access to God as Jews. And that is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

The Roman commander does not know what to do. He assumes there has to be more going on here for the mob to act like this, so verse 24 describes his solution:

The tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this.

Essentially, he is saying, “Let’s torture Paul until he admits what he has really done to offend the Jewish people.” But just as Paul is about to be flogged, he reveals he is a Roman citizen.

A Roman citizen could not be punished without being tried and convicted in a court of law. So

Paul is questioned about his citizenship, and he confirms that he is “a citizen by birth” (verse 28). The commander immediately withdraws any threat of punishment for Paul.

Now step back and look at this scene. What a day it has been for Paul; he has been falsely accused, attacked, beaten, and rejected. But can you see how this difficulty opened a door? It allowed him to speak to hundreds, if not several thousand people, who had come from all over to celebrate Pentecost in Jerusalem (see Acts 20:16). Paul was able to tell them that Jesus Christ is the God of heaven.

You might notice there were no conversions here. There was only anger and rejection. That is a good reminder for us that the measure of success in serving the Lord is not the number of converts but the faithfulness of the messenger to deliver the truth about Christ.

[1] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2.13.5.

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