Paul’s arrest and trials: Acts 21-25

Reading: Acts 21-25

What is often called “Paul’s third journey” is something that both needs read completely in one sitting, and also something that deserves to give individual attention to a number of the details. The details run from Paul’s return to Jerusalem until they end with Paul in Rome. Our Sunday School lesson has us studying some points that we can learn from, but it also leaves out important details that help us understand what is going on. Today, I will summarize the narrative.

During the second missionary journey, Paul brought some Greek Christians with him. When they got back to Jerusalem, there was a bit of a controversy, because there were rumors going around that Paul was teaching people to ignore the details of the law. James and other elders in the Christian community suggested that Paul go through a purification ritual, and sacrifice in the temple to demonstrate that he had not abandoned the customs of the Jews.

When Paul went to the Temple, he was recognized by Jews from Asia, and who also knew that he traveled with Greeks. These Jews from Asia accused Paul of defiling the Temple by bringing his Greek companions inside of the temple. Between the rumors that Paul was teaching people to abandon the law, the rumors that Paul brought Greeks into the temple, against the law, and the known facts that seem to support these rumors, a riot developed and people sought to kill Paul.

The Roman soldiers, needing to keep peace found a riot in progress, and Paul was in the center of it. Paul was, unsurprisingly arrested. Paul had a few words to say in his defense, but the mob was calling for Paul’s death. The officer in charge ordered Paul to be taken to the barracks, whipped, and interrogated. When Paul was tied up to be whipped, he pointed out to the centurion that he was a Roman citizen, and that it was illegal to beat a citizen who was not convicted of a crime.

The officer in charge of the occupying force was afraid because he ordered his forces to do something illegal, but he also still had to figure out what was going on, so he took Paul before the Sanhedrin and observed Paul’s trial before the local government. The officer listened to the members of the council arguing about the minutia of religion, and nothing that deserved punishment. Somebody informed the officer that there was a plot to kill Paul, and he already saw people trying to kill Paul in a public place, so he sent Paul to Caesarea where his case could be examined, and Paul could be protected.

Felix set up a hearing, and after a few days the chief priest, a prosecutor, and witnesses came to bring their charges. Felix ordered that Paul be held in Roman custody, but also that he be given a degree of liberty. Felix didn’t release Paul, because he did not want to offend Jewish leaders who accused Paul, but he also never convicted Paul of any crime. Paul remained in custody for two years before Felix was no longer governor and Festus replaced him.

When Festus became the new governor, representatives of the Sanhedrin requested that Paul be turned over to them so he could stand trial. Festus asked Paul if he was willing to do this, and Paul refused, appealing to the Emperor. Festus consulted with Herod Agrippa because nothing that the Sanhedrin accused Paul of was, in the eyes of Rome, crimes — and it seemed wrong to send a prisoner to Rome with no charges. Paul spoke to Agrippa offering his defense and telling about his conversion, and Agrippa reported back to Festus that Paul could be released if he had not demanded to see the Emperor.

At this point, Paul’s appeal to the Emperor has nothing to do with Paul’s crimes, but instead, it had to do with Paul’s grievances. Paul was, according to Acts, ordered to be beaten without being convicted of any crime, held for 2 years without being charged with a crime, and Acts 24:26 tells us that Felix sought a bribe from Paul.

One of the things that confused me the first times that I read Acts is why a prisoner such as Paul would have such good treatment when he was ferried to Rome; Romans are not known for their kindness to prisoners. When I realized that Paul was not the defendant, but the plaintiff in what was effectively a lawsuit it made much more sense. Paul had a valid complaint against the former governor, Felix. Paul was well treated in his journey to Rome because neither Festus nor the soldiers who took Paul to Rome wanted to be included in Paul’s complaint to the emperor.

Too often people talk about privilege like the word is an accusation, or that it means that nothing bad can happen, or if it is something to be ashamed of. Paul was very privileged; if the same thing happened to Peter or one of the other disciples the outcome would have been far different — another disciple could not have claimed the rights of a citizen to avoid being flogged without a conviction. Another disciple would not have been protected from the mob as Paul was protected from the mob. Another disciple’s grievances would not even be considered, let alone would another disciple have been allowed an audience with the Emperor himself.

Paul had privilege, and he used it. His privilege did not keep him from getting attacked by a mob, nor did it prevent the order to beat him without a trial, nor did it keep him from being falsely imprisoned. Paul’s privilege, however, prevented the unlawful beating with the mere words `I am a citizen’, it caused the Roman authorities to protect him from the local government rather than turning him over in order to improve relations with them, and it sent him to Rome, simply because he claimed the right to bring his case before the Emperor.

Paul used his privilege to continue to be a leader of the fledgling gentile Church; while he was in prison, he wrote letters, and these letters are an important part of our scripture. Paul also used his privilege to take himself to Rome, where he could talk with the Roman Christians. Between Paul’s trip to Rome and his audience with the Emperor, Paul was able to live in freedom, in a house that he personally paid for. On the trip, when the ship was damaged in the storm, Paul used his privilege to save the lives of the prisoners that he traveled with.

What I learn from this is that instead of arguing about who has which advantages, and which advantages are the most beneficial, it is better to use what I have for good. If we have any sense, we are not competing for who has the most interesting biography that tells the story of overcoming the most difficult odds. I would not wish an interesting biography on my worst enemy — those things that make an interesting read are quite unpleasant to live through. Paul had an unpleasantly interesting biography, and he also had many privileges that other Christian leaders did not have, these are not mutually exclusive.

The one thing that we must keep learning is community. We compare pains or argue about who has the most advantages because we want to compete with each other. It is too easy to always think about the individual without caring for the community. We need to think about things in terms of community and society rather than merely ourselves. Whatever privilege we have is something to share with those who don’t have it. If we have a voice, scripture teaches us that we are to speak for those who have none. This is what Paul did — he used his special voice to spread the gospel and defend not only himself but all those Christians whose voices would never be heard.

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