“A Minister and a Witness” Acts 22–28 #BCCSundaySchool2019

Saint Paul (source)

When we left Paul in Acts 21 he was in a tight spot. He had disregarded the warnings and pleas of the disciples through the Spirit (Acts 21:4), a prophet named Agabus (Acts 21:11), his travelling companions and the locals (Acts 21:12) to travel to Jerusalem to testify to the good news of God’s grace, declaring that “The will of the Lord be done.” But Paul’s efforts to show that he is no rebel but lives in conformity with the law by ritually cleansing himself at the temple go awry when he is spotted and a mob—incited by claims that Paul is teaching against the Law of Moses and defiling this holy place—drag him out of the temple, going so far as to try to kill him. The Roman authorities catch wind of the disturbance and rush to the scene. Unable to determine the facts due to the competing claims made by the crowd, the commanding officer takes Paul into custody to figure out who this man is and what is going on. In the concluding chapters of Acts covered by this lesson, Paul testifies in his defense to various audiences that range from actively hostile to indifferent to his message.

Before we get to the substance of his testimony, however, I’d like to underline that Paul’s first big break here is that he was allowed to testify at all. The stakes were high, after all—the officer’s first assumption is that Paul is an Egyptian terrorist with a track record of rebellion. We know from other New Testament accounts that less serious charges could result in death. Moreover, the officer’s role is to preserve the peace, not provide platforms to people who, for whatever reason, are obviously causing a stir. Normally, Rome’s representative would be the one asking the questions, not allowing a suspect to speak freely. But Paul was able to quickly establish, by speaking Greek rather than Egyptian to the officer, that he was not the rebel he was initially believed to be but a Jewish citizen of an important city. It was on these grounds that he was allowed to speak.

I mention this because my sense of the lesson is that it aims to encourage otherwise reluctant disciples to bear testimony at all, and when they do, to do it well. This is a worthy outcome for a Sunday school lesson, of course, but being in a position to speak and to be heard is a privilege that ought not to be taken for granted. In this case, and repeatedly throughout chapters 22 to 28, Paul appeals to his lineage, record of devotion and citizenship to establish credibility with his audiences. He is in essence saying that he has the right to speak and should be heard because of who he is. And this identity is multi-faceted—in addition to being a disciple of Christ, Paul is Jewish, a Pharisee (this is significant because Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, a bit of common ground that Paul will rely on later), a student of the respected rabbi Gamaliel (who is mentioned in Acts 5 as someone who urged restraint in the Sanhedrin’s (the highest legal, legislative and judicial body among the Jews) treatment of the apostles) and, perhaps most significantly for the outcome of Acts, a Roman citizen. Paul is thus able to identify with his various Jewish and Roman interrogators. So while the stakes were high, Paul had a lot going for him that resulted in relatively deferential treatment that allowed him to speak before angry crowds as well as rulers and more sympathetic gatherings, even though this didn’t necessarily mean his message would be well received.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the several testimonies Paul delivers through the end of Acts.

Testimony before the Crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22:1–23)

In Acts 22, Paul addresses the crowd in Jerusalem that minutes before had been trying to kill him. Speaking in Hebrew—another means of identifying with his audience—Paul begins with “Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence,” echoing Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7. I suspect this was a calculated rhetorical strategy; what purpose might it have served to link himself with Stephen? Recall that Stephen’s testimony resulted in his death at the hands of an angry mob, a grim demise that Paul himself had aided and approved of (Acts 7:58, 8:1, 22:20). Unlike Stephen, however, Paul survives his testimony to the people—why?

Maybe Paul was better at reading the room. Where Stephen spoke to his audience in less than flattering terms—”Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”—Paul was at pains to find common ground: “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.” But persuasion needs fertile ground to fall on, and as we see in verses 22 and 23, the mob was as bent on Paul’s destruction at the end of his testimony as they were before he addressed them.

In my view, the decisive difference between Stephen’s and Paul’s fate was the intervention of the state. It was the Roman envoy—not the assembled people—who gave Paul a chance to speak. It was in Roman custody that he was spared mob violence. This episode suggests a legitimate role for the (secular) state to guarantee tolerance and religious freedom, and I’m not talking about the freedom to discriminate on religious grounds here but the free exercise of religion. Whatever Paul might have thought of the state of the bureaucrats’s souls who were in charge of keeping the peace, he looked to them for—and they provided—protection when his life was in danger. It’s probably reading these chapters against the grain to view Acts as a ringing endorsement of the modern secular state, but I think there’s something positive to be said for a neutral arbiter of competing claims, even religious ones.

Another element of Paul’s testimony to the crowd in Jerusalem that I’d like to address concerns zeal. Paul began his testimony to the crowd by saying that he was much like them, as ” zealous toward God, as ye all are this day” (22:3). His zeal led him to behave much as the crowd had that day—he “persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (22:4), and with the approval of his religious leaders (22:5) had set out to Damascus to bring prisoners being held there to “justice” in Jerusalem. So Paul of all people can relate to the drive to persecute Christians.

In verse 20 he acknowledges that “when the blood of thy martyr [other translations render this as “witness”] Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.” Here Paul is recounting his conversion story. After his supernatural experience on the way to Damascus, Paul fell into a trance at the temple and Jesus spoke to him. In verse 20, Paul is replying to Jesus. Paul now realizes that Stephen is no enemy of the devout deserving of death but “your [e.g. Jesus’] witness.”

I suspect that the rhetorical effect of this recounting was intended to be something along the following lines: “Look, if even I can be persuaded of the truth of the gospel message, then you can too.” While Paul’s is indeed a powerful conversion story, there is a part of me that remains skeptical of the zealous person he once was. I simply lack the capacity to imagine killing someone over religious beliefs—or texts, for that matter—and it is difficult for me to appreciate the zeal that would lead someone to do such a thing. Prior to his conversion, Saul was as convinced of the rightness of his ways as Paul is now. But Saul was wrong—God did not actually want him to persecute Christians. So how do you know what God really wants you to do? I don’t have an answer, but my general approach is to allow for the possibility that my beliefs might be mistaken to some degree or another and, as a first step, try to avoid doing harm—particularly of the irreversible kind—to others. Put another way, I would prioritise the bird in hand of mortality over the two in the bush of a yet largely unknown immortality. Perhaps this is just one reason that no books of scripture are going to be written about my life and times.

Anyway, let’s get back to Paul. A final element of this first testimony that you might want to discuss in your class are the parallels in the supernatural experiences described by Paul and Joseph Smith. This post is already too long and we’re still on the first chapter so I won’t go into detail, but Joseph Smith was quite explicit in his comparison. Plus there are fun things like multiple accounts (in chapters 9, 22 and 26) that link the two witnesses together. Perhaps this will be fertile ground to explore in your class.

Interlude with the Roman Commander (Acts 22:24–29)

In response to Paul’s testimony, the crowd once again riots. The commanding officer brings Paul back to the relative safety of the barracks to have him interrogated with a lash to find out why the crowd is responding in such a manner. But Paul interrupts the proceedings by noting that he is a Roman citizen. As such, Paul was protected from punishment absent a trial. This declaration sets into motion a legal process that will play out—and ultimately remain unresolved—throughout the rest of Acts as Paul is shuttled from one venue to another in an effort to determine his crimes, if any, giving him ample opportunity to testify before various audiences. What seems remarkable to my modern sensibilities is that the legal protections that kept him alive and witnessing were invoked on the strength of his word only—he did not have to produce corroborating witnesses or documentation on this account. At any rate, his Roman citizenship is a key that will open many doors.

Testimony before the Sanhedrin (Acts 22:30–23:11)

Still trying to find out why the people of Jerusalem are bent on killing Paul, the commanding officer brings his prisoner to the Sanhedrin, the ultimate authority in the Jewish community, to determine what Paul was accused of. And so Paul receives an opportunity to address Jerusalem’s elite. The people have proven to be short on patience and understanding; maybe this group of influential men will be more receptive to Paul’s message.

Well, things go south right out of the gate. Paul declares that his conscience is clear, and for his pains is punched in the face on the orders of the high priest, which in turn prompts Paul to exclaim that “God shall smite thee, thou whited [whitewashed] wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?” (23:3). Paul’s accusation of hypocrisy sits about as well as you can imagine with members of the supreme governing body and could have landed him in even hotter water. But he backs down, pleading ignorance of the stature of the man who ordered his beating and thus not guilty of speaking evil of a ruler, and changes tack.

Paul notices that the council was divided: “that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees” (23:6). And so he proceeds to exploit this division by noting that he is a Pharisee and that what he is really on trial for is the “hope [of the] resurrection of the dead” (23:6). This predictably results in an argument between the two groups and even expressions of support from the Pharisees (23:9). Great commotion ensues and once again Paul is removed and placed back in Roman custody.

So far about the best that can be said of Paul’s efforts to testify is that he has managed to escape summary execution. Both addresses to two very different audiences have ended in failure. Deep divisions about closely held views prevented some from giving Paul’s message a fair hearing. But Paul’s reaction to the punch in the face no doubt soured the mood as well. This must have been a disappointing—if expected—outcome, and I imagine that many of us can relate to the feeling of putting a lot on the line only to have it come to nothing. Paul may have even wondered if this was the end of his ministry. But in verse 11, the Lord visits Paul, comforting him and promising him even greater things to come: Paul will testify in Rome as he has in Jerusalem.

First, however, Paul has to survive two assassination attempts, several more interrogations, years of confinement and a stormy boat ride across the sea. But he would be protected and able to carry out his commission.

Testimony before Felix (Acts 24:10–21)

The Roman commander hears about a conspiracy to kill Paul (23:12–22) and decides to make Paul someone else’s problem, sending him under heavy guard to Felix, the Roman governor in Caesarea. In a letter to Felix accompanying Paul, the commander notes that he has found nothing that warrants death or imprisonment. Felix decides to give Paul a hearing with his accusers present. This episode is significant in that it marks the fulfillment of the prophecy in Acts 9:15 that Paul would bear the Lord’s name not only to Gentiles and the children of Israel but also to kings.

The Jewish leadership sends a highly-ranked delegation to state their charges: in their accounting, Paul was guilty of sedition and profaning the temple (24:5–6). Paul responds by arguing that, having been in Jerusalem just 12 days, he has had hardly time to organize a revolt; he was there simply to worship and they cannot prove otherwise. All he is guilty of is worshiping the God of his father and “believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets” (24:14). Paul has not abandoned his ancestors and the Law of Moses; he is acting in fulfillment of them by believing in the resurrection and otherwise living a devout life by giving alms and attending the temple.

One lesson that might be drawn from Paul’s testimony before Felix concerns the source of one’s determination to follow a particular path. While I remain skeptical of zeal as an inerrant motivator of behavior as outlined above, I appreciate that Paul insists on living the gospel on his own terms, resisting the interpretations regarding orthodoxy and orthopraxy of even the highest religious leaders of his times. I realize that in a hierarchical organization such self-determination may not always be welcome, but it’s not your bishop, stake president or the president of the church that is going to make the multitude of daily decisions and sacrifices that your discipleship entails—that’s up to you. We of course have the responsibility to support each other—or at a minimum refrain from placing stumbling blocks in each other’s way—but the decision to follow Jesus is ultimately an individual one that I hope we can be at peace with.

After all, the people in our lives will come and go, and it’s worth considering to what extent we rely on others to support and or define our paths along the Way in the interest of enduring to the end. For me, the challenge is remaining true to what I actually know/believe/hope rather than overextending myself in fits of aspiration to please others. I wrote here, for example, about second guessing the call to serve where I initially turned down a mission call after deciding that I just wasn’t ready yet and then happily served a year and a half later when I was ready. That was a defining moment for me, but I haven’t always been consistent. A few years ago I was travelling quite a bit and missing church up to twice a month. I started to get the sense that I was becoming a reactivation project, so in order to preempt the bishopric I decided to be super active and skipped a relative’s 90th birthday party to attend an out-of-town stake priesthood meeting. When I arrived, I was dismayed that not a single member of the bishopric was in attendance. In fact, I think I was one of just three members of my ward to attend. Although attending meetings is probably never a terrible idea, I was annoyed that I had prioritised the appearance of saintliness over an important family event to impress people who weren’t around to be impressed.

Testimony before Festus (Acts 25:8–12)

Felix runs out the clock, delaying a decision about Paul’s guilt or innocence for two years, apparently hoping Paul would bribe himself out of detention, but to no avail. The Lord’s promise that Paul will testify in Rome is aging and Paul remains stuck in Caesarea with no obvious way out. Eventually Felix is replaced by Festus and another hearing is held.

One of Festus’ first orders of business is to travel to Jerusalem where Jewish leaders bring formal charges against Paul, asking the governor to bring him to Jerusalem, which would give them another chance to ambush and kill Paul (25:1–5). Paul of course has his own checkered past when it comes to the killing of testifying Christians, but these religious leaders have given up on the law and are relying entirely on the arm of the flesh to resolve a religious dispute. Obviously there is a certain irony to accusing Paul of profaning the temple while they entertain conspiratorial thoughts of murder for years on end. I see this as one of the pitfalls of zeal, where one’s enthusiasm for something abstract—a principle or a particular way of life, for example—lead one to inflict tangible harm on someone in violation of the principle or way of life one intends to protect.

At any rate, the leaders have no chance to execute their murderous plans as Festus declines to bring Paul to Jerusalem and tells them they can bring charges against him in Caesarea. They do, but are unable to prove the charges. In his defense, Paul testifies that he is innocent with respect to the law, the temple and Caesar—the three pillars of authority that mattered in his world and that early Christians were routinely charged with violating. That his accusers’ conspiracies would put them in violation of all three—though unlike Paul and other Christians they would not be charged—was surely not lost on the audience of Acts.

Despite the lack of evidence of Paul’s crimes, however, Festus is inclined “to do the Jews a pleasure [favor]” and asks if Paul is willing to face charges in Jerusalem. Paul notes that he is standing before Caesar’s judgment seat and asked to be tried before Caesar himself, which was the right of a Roman citizen. Festus replies, “Hast thou appealed unto Cæsar? unto Cæsar shalt thou go” (25:12). Finally, it seems as though the Lord’s promise that Paul will testify in Rome will be fulfilled. But first Paul has several hurdles to clear.

Testimony before Agrippa (Acts 26:1–29)

The first obstacle to his mission to Rome is an appearance before King Agrippa. As noted above, Festus is keen to cultivate the favor of his subjects and so he asks Agrippa, who is loyal to Rome and has firsthand knowledge of local customs and controversial issues, for advice. King Agrippa summons Paul to hear from Paul directly.

Paul gives testimony similar to that in chapter 22 to the crowd in Jerusalem, which makes sense because both are Jewish audiences. He appeals to the widespread knowledge of how strictly he had led his life as a Pharisee from the time of his youth (4–6); reiterates that he is only on trial because of the hope he has placed in the promise made by God to the Jews, a promise the twelve tribes strive to attain by serving God night and day (6–7); acknowledges that he did “many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth,” including imprisoning and forcing Christians to blaspheme and supporting the death penalty (9–11); and relates his conversion story, including his divine commission to serve as a minister and witness of what he has seen to the Gentiles in order “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (12–18).

Paul then declares that he was “not disobedient unto the heavenly vision” (19). Rather, he has been arrested for being true to the heavenly direction he has received from the resurrected Jesus, consistent with the hope of his ancestors, by preaching repentance (20–21). Moreover, his testimony is consistent with what the prophets and Moses have said; namely: “That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles” (22–23).

Paul’s witness strikes me as quite powerful, but it only prompts Festus to exclaim that Paul has lost his mind. One lesson that can be drawn from this exchange is that a testimony is not a magic spell of truth that can be cast on someone to convince them of the error of their ways. You might be wondering, “Well, who thinks it is?” Maybe nobody, but it’s worth remembering in our interactions with others that the expression of a testimony will not necessarily result in its acceptance. This may help avoid discomfort, disappointment and awkward interactions.

At any rate, Paul has successfully diverted attention from crimes he may have committed to belief in the prophets and the message that God’s promise was fulfilled in Christ. And his witness has fallen on fertile ground with King Agrippa who declares Paul innocent of anything deserving death and punishment (31). Paul is finally free to set sail for Rome to make his appeal to Caesar.

But first let’s consider King Agrippa’s famous line: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” in response to Paul pushing him to declare his belief in the prophets (27–28). The lesson manual characterizes this response as a “warning” for us today, implying, I suppose, that King Agrippa should have known better but failed to recognize and or act on truth when it was poking him in the eye. King Agrippa may well have been a deeply flawed person, but aren’t we all, including bearers of testimony? It took a visit by Jesus Christ Himself to convert Paul, so why look askance at King Agrippa who had to make do with the testimony of a mere mortal? Besides, Paul himself is more hopeful, praying to God that no matter how long it takes, he hopes King Agrippa and all present will develop a testimony in Christ as he has (29).

Interlude at Sea (Acts 27)

There is plenty to talk about here, but given how long this post has become already I’m just going to summarize the following: Paul and his shipmates are caught in a storm and shipwrecked. But throughout Paul remains confident in God’s promises and calls on his companions to trust in God. In the end it turns out that belief in Paul’s message saves people, not just their souls in some abstract way but also their lives from immediate mortal danger—the blessings of faithfulness can be reaped in the here and now.

Testimony before the Jewish Community in Rome (Acts 28:17–28)

Acts concludes without Paul ever appealing to Caesar. But he does convene a meeting with local Jewish leaders and recounts the events of the past several years, emphasizing once again that he had “committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers” (17) and explaining that he arrives bound in chains because of “the hope of Israel” (20). Another meeting with more attendees is convened later on at Paul’s house, where he spends the day testifying about the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus, relying on both the law of Moses and the prophets (23). And although the results are mixed, for the first time in these chapters, Paul’s testimony results in conversions: “And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not” (24).

In light of the agency with which we believe God has equipped His children, this is not a bad outcome. Still, it is striking how difficult it was for even Paul—someone who came face to face with Jesus (then again, the reception of Jesus was hardly overwhelming during His own lifetime)—to persuade others to believe. Over a number of years he repeatedly bore testimony to various audiences, yet on only one occasion do we have a record of anyone changing their beliefs. Which isn’t to say that Paul’s testimonies to other audiences were in vain—they have been heard by untold numbers over thousands of years, perhaps inspiring them to gain and strengthen their own testimonies of the risen Jesus.

I think this is something we can aspire to—to live a life consistent with our beliefs, adapting as we receive greater light and knowledge and sharing what we know and have experienced with others in an effort to bless their lives.

Comments

  1. William Dixon says:

    I really enjoyed this. Thank you.

  2. You’re welcome, and thank you for the kind words, William.

  3. Not a Cougar says:

    Is it just me or do we as a church give short shrift to the Book of Acts? I think we’re fairly comfortable with the Gospels, and the epistles are considered useful for cherry-picking quotes that support our doctrines, but rarely do I hear speakers make reference to Acts. I have my unsupported suspicions as to why that might be but would love to hear from the crowd.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    An excellent treatment of the material; thanks.

    Here is a post about a contradiction in the reading that some folks might enjoy:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/10/25/did-pauls-companions-hear-the-voice/

  5. FWIW, I didn’t read the “men and brethren” as an echo of Stephen in particular, but as a sort of conventional form of address, like “may it please the court.” I think Peter also uses it in the beginning of acts when addressing the council and other groups of Jewish men.

  6. Thanks, Kevin.

    Jared, I only found the phrase “men, brethren, and fathers” in Acts 7 and 22, but Paul addresses “Men and brethren” in chapter 28 as well, so you’re probably right that I’m asking the phrase to do too much work.

  7. I can understand why Agrippa declared Paul as mad. If you started believing everyone who said that a heavenly being appeared to them, and you have to listen to them, a lot of con men would take advantage of that. Also, something that can get a person declared as mad is when they talk about being visited by supernatural beings.
    I do wonder if modern day apostles have seen Christ, but don’t talk about it because they don’t want non-believers declaring them mad.
    The reactions that people have when having missionaries recite the First Vision to them are all across the board. Some people will say that’s the most amazing and important thing they’ve never heard, and yet make no progress in conversion to the gospel; and other people declare it as ridiculous but come around and join the church. And many people are in between. It really takes the Spirit confirming that what they’ve heard is true to determine if someone takes stories of Heavenly visitors as true or not.
    Great post.

  8. Indeed, jader3rd. The line between a prophet and a crank can be an ambiguous one, that’s for sure. Sometimes I think we forget how fantastic the foundational claims of Christianity really are, probably due to practice. When it comes to being a Mormon (angels, golden plates, divine visits and interventions, etc.), I’m reminded of the Queen’s famous line in Through the Looking Glass : “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

  9. An excellent post, dealing with a part of Acts particularly dense in unspoken social and political background material. I’m going to have a hard time tomorrow keeping a spiritual focus, as you’ve managed to do.

    (Forgive my being a little prolix here, yea, even zealous. I love this section of Acts, and the more one knows about the background, the more impressive a tapestry it becomes. The Church tends to approach the Scriptures like someone ushering a tour group through the Louvre, hoping to cover it all before lunch. “Okay, here’s the Mona Lisa, isn’t it pretty? And over there is the Venus de Milo, and it’s quite nice, too, just don’t look at it too long. So, where do you want to go to eat?” This really sells poor Luke short.)

    The thing that impresses me the most is Luke’s skill as a storyteller, particularly his ability to add subtle bits of characterization. Paul briefly loses his temper when the high priest’s attendant slaps him. Low-born Felix is true to his reputation by hoping for a bribe from Paul. Upper-class Festus is totally out of his depth having to deal with this case as soon as he arrives in Judea. There’s the little one-upmanship over status in 21:27–28. Paul cleverly forces his examination before the Sanhedrin to be inconclusive by turning the Pharisees against the Sadducees. (As you point out, Paul is very good at manipulating the system to his own advantage.) Lysias bends the truth a bit in his report to Felix. Herod Agrippa II tries to counter Paul’s zeal with a lame joke. Festus sends Paul to Rome dangerously late in the sailing season to forestall the Jews getting a complaint to Nero before he has a chance to explain himself. Luke even adds a very human touch about himself. He can’t resist his chance to detail his own big adventure: getting caught in a storm at sea and shipwrecked. My very favorite is Paul’s “I told you so” in 27:21.

    One thing. Herod Agrippa II’s “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” is quite probably a mistranslation. The Greek is difficult to construe, but the intent seems to be more, “Do you think you can make me a Christian so quickly?” In any event, the remark was not intended seriously. Herod Agrippa II was far too worldly to be genuinely on the verge of conversion. He made a pretense of being a good Jew, like the Herods generally, but really was more Roman or Greek in outlook than Jewish. You’re right, of course, that Paul refuses to be put off and holds out hope for Agrippa’s conversion. We definitely shouldn’t write people off.

    Also, a bit of King James Version trivia: Acts 21 is the only chapter in the KJV that doesn’t end with a period. This week’s lesson therefore picks up in the middle of a sentence.

  10. Thanks for your reply, John. This is a rich part of the scriptures, and I definitely agree that Agrippa was deflecting Paul with that famous line rather than indicating that Paul had almost persuaded him to become a Christian. I’d never noticed the lack of a period at the end of chapter 21, so thanks for point that out too!