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ST. PAUL’S DEFENCE
‘Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defence which I make now unto you.,
We recall the scene on the stairs mentioned in the last chapter. The excited crowd, the crush, so great that the soldiers had to carry St. Paul, the people following, shouting ‘Away with him!’ Lysias, the captain, was perplexed—did not know how to act, because no distinct charge had been brought against the apostle ( Acts 22:30). But on the way to the castle St. Paul spoke to the captain saying who he was. He asked that he might speak; leave was granted and St. Paul made his defence.
I. St. Paul’s defence.—Notice how tenderly he begins his speech ( Acts 22:1).
( a) He told them about himself.—By birth and education he was a Jew. Born at Tarsus, and brought up ‘at the feet of Gamaliel.’ Taught after the manner of the law, was for a time a persecutor of the Christians, as the priests and elders could bear him witness, and from whom he received authority to carry on his designs against the brethren.
( b) The story of his conversion.—He then told them the story of his conversion ( Acts 22:6-1 Kings :), how the great change in him was brought about. [See Second Outline.]
( c) How he became a Christian. Being stricken with blindness, he was unable to do anything for himself. In his distress, ‘Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews,’ was sent to his assistance ( Acts 22:12-Nehemiah :), by whom he was baptized and received into the Church. By a Jew, whom the Lord had sent to him. It was the ‘God of our fathers’ Who had called him to ‘be His witness unto all men.’
( d) His call to be an apostle. The apostle now comes to the most difficult part of his subject. Had told them about his conversion and reception into the Church. Proceeds to tell them how he received the call to apostleship, and his mission to the Gentiles ( Acts 22:17-Ecclesiastes :). The message came to him in Jerusalem, while worshipping in the temple, and from the Lord Himself. Up to this point the people listened with patience. But when he declared that he had been sent on his mission to the Gentiles by the Lord, the storm broke forth with greater violence ( Acts 22:22). Again rose the cry, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.’
II. Imprisoned. All this was very puzzling to Lysias, the chief captain. He could judge only of the address by its effects. The sudden outcry and gestures of hatred by which it was met revived his old suspicions, and he concluded that St. Paul must be a dangerous offender against the state. He was taken to the castle and scourged, but his Roman citizenship saved him and he was released.
( a) St. Paul, apparently without a friend in the angry mob, which seemed eager for his death, retains complete self-possession and calmness. It was not the first time he had faced violent crowds: they had no terrors for him.
( b) His wise and happy choice of words. St. Paul’s aim was to win his countrymen for Christ. To this end, he was particular about what some persons would consider minor points. He spoke in the language they liked, and he was respectful in his manner. The effect was remarkable. The Jews were at once quiet and attentive.
(1) ‘Josephus tells us that “the Egyptian” referred to by Lysias was one of the many impostors of the time, who gave himself out as a prophet, and advanced at the head of a large army as far as the Mount of Olives, where he was defeated by Felix. Though he managed to escape with a portion of his followers, efforts were made for his apprehension, and Lysias seems to have concluded that nothing but the discovery of this impostor could have caused such an uproar. This, however, would be a political matter, to be judged according to Roman law, and the chief captain orders the apostle to be taken into the castle for further examination.’
(2) ‘The course of instruction which a Rabbi had to undergo consisted entirely of the study of the Scriptures and the comments of masters upon them. The words of the Scriptures and the sayings of the wise were committed to memory and discussed. St. Paul “learned at the feet of Gamaliel” much which was of great moment in his subsequent career. In the synagogues his knowledge of the Scriptures enabled him to adduce proofs from an authority which his hearers acknowledged to be supreme. Besides, St. Paul was the great theologian of Christianity and the principal writer of the New Testament. The new grew out of the old; the one the prophecy, the other the fulfilment. But it required a mind not only saturated with Christianity, but with the Old Testament, to bring this out; and the apostle quotes from all parts—the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms—with equal facility.’
THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL
‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’
The inquiry upon which I ask you to enter is this. What drew Saul of Tarsus to Jesus Christ? And what bound St. Paul throughout his whole life as the devoted slave of our Lord?
I. In order to understand this, we must consider the man, his origin and his training.—He was a Jew, not a Jew of Palestine, but a Jew, as it was called, of the ‘Dispersion.’ Though Palestine was the land of the Jews, and Jerusalem their sacred centre, yet there were more Jews outside the Holy Land than in it; they were dispersed over Asia Minor and Greece, and the other shores of the Mediterranean. They had settlements and synagogues almost everywhere throughout the Roman Empire, and even at Rome itself; they attained to firm positions of honour and prosperity, and gained in some cases the Roman franchise, which enabled a man to say ‘I am a Roman citizen’ and enjoy special privileges. Paul could say that he was ‘free born,’ for his father was a Roman citizen. He lived at Tarsus, ‘a city in Cilicia’—a Greek city of which he was proud; and so, though he was a Jew, he had a complete command of the Greek language. His father belonged to the strict school of Judaism, and therefore his son was sent to be educated under the most famous Jewish teacher of the day—Rabbi Gamaliel.
About this time strange things had been happening elsewhere. A young prophet had appeared in Galilee who had aroused a vast enthusiasm among the populace, whom the Pharisees were accustomed to count their own special sphere of influence. He had been caught, hurriedly tried, and sentenced to a horrible form of execution by crucifixion.
II. His hesitancy.—When Saul returned to Jerusalem he found that the matter was by no means at an end. Certain people declared that the young Prophet was alive again. Attempts were made by the priestly party to crush the new sect, especially because they proclaimed the resurrection of the dead, which was a doctrine rejected by the Sadducees, to whom the great priestly families mainly belonged. Gamaliel suggested that persecution of this sect was unwise; they might even find that they were fighting against God. We must not lose sight of this very instructive point in the story. Gamaliel was Saul’s teacher, and Gamaliel had not made up his mind. The little brotherhood were very devoted attendants at the Temple worship; they had a great following among the people; it was clearly a new religious movement within Judaism which should be watched and, if possible, guided—not crushed. We may reasonably think of Saul at this moment as noting and sharing the uncertainty of his master, wondering not with the old man’s wisdom, but with the young man’s eager anxiety, for here was a new situation from which he could not escape. His own future as a religious teacher must be influenced by these new facts as to which he at any rate must make up his mind. He had not very long to wait. Among those who had joined the new society was a man of exceptional force and ability, who, like Saul, was not a Palestinian, but a Greek-speaking Jew, with a Greek name—Stephen. We do not know exactly what Stephen said, we only know what his enemies said that he said, but clearly it was enough to raise a storm; he was accused of speaking against the law of Moses and against the sacredness of Jerusalem itself. At last the Pharisaic party were thoroughly aroused. We observe that those who argued with Stephen were not Palestinian Jews, but Jews of the Dispersion. They, who lived at a distance from the home country, were peculiarly anxious to show their patriotism toward the mother city. Some of those that disputed with Stephen were from Cilicia and Asia, and we may be sure that among them was young Saul of Tarsus. Stephen’s teaching was to them the deadliest heresy. So Stephen was hurried to his death. Those who bore witness against him were, by the Jewish law, bound to cast the first stone at him, and so we read: ‘the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet whose name was Saul.’
III. Saul the persecutor.—‘Saul was consenting unto his death.’ It was a sudden, a terrible transformation; the brilliant, attractive, tender-hearted, religious young student had in a moment become Saul the persecutor. He sprang to the front as a champion of religion, he would be ‘thorough’; and so having dispersed the sect in Jerusalem, he got a letter from the high priest and went to hunt out certain remnants of it in distant Damascus. What a journey it must have been! What thoughts came to him in his long rides: Gamaliel’s attitude of sympathetic hesitancy, Stephen’s face bright with the light of another world, Stephen’s vision of the Lord Jesus, Stephen’s dying prayer—all these would haunt him. ‘O God,’ he must have cried in the night watches under the Syrian stars, ‘O God, show me what is right, unravel the mystery, let me not be carried away, keep me true to Thee.’ But no answer came: and day followed night and night day; till at last the walls of Damascus came in sight and the journey was all but closed.
IV. The momentous question.—It was midday, when suddenly there was a blinding flash brighter than the sunlight, and Saul fell to the ground, and he heard a voice calling him by name, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’ Yes, why indeed? What a flash of light there was in that question! It was more wonderful than any outward miracle. You might explain away an outward phenomenon and say that Saul was overborne by the strain and fatigue of the journey and the heat of the midday sun, and swooned and fell from his horse. But you cannot explain away that question. It was not a question he could have asked himself. No doubt he did ask again and again, ‘Why am I persecuting these few feeble folk far away from home?’ But to Saul Jesus was dead, he could not persecute Him; and yet here was Jesus of Nazareth saying, ‘Why persecutest Me?’ Yes, why? If Jesus was risen from the dead, if He was indeed living again with His followers and feeling their sufferings as His own, what was Saul doing, why was he persecuting at all? The power of that question is clear. Think also of its tenderness: He does not smite the persecutor, He does not even upbraid him, but only asks this question. Of another young man we read that, ‘Jesus beholding him, loved him,’ and, so it is here—the same irresistible tenderness which we find so often in the Gospel story is at work still. ‘What wilt thou have me to do?’ is the only possible reply. ‘Go into the city and it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.’ The conquest was complete. The King of men had claimed another subject. It was one of the decisive victories of the world, and we thank God still for the conversion of His blessed Apostle St. Paul.
V. The answer to the inquiry.—So, then, we have begun to find an answer to the inquiry, What was it that drew Saul of Tarsus to Jesus Christ, and bound St. Paul the Apostle for his life as His devoted slave? It was a personal contact with the love of the living Christ. ‘I drew them with the cords of a man, with bands of love.’
VI. Have you come into personal contact with the love of the living Christ?—If not, why not? You must not wait for a special interposition, for a wonderful vision such as was granted to Saul of Tarsus; that was necessary for him; he could get no nearer without it: there were no Gospels written then for him to read about Jesus, and he was hopelessly prejudiced against all living Christian witnesses; he was certain that Jesus was dead; nothing but the voice of the living Christ could possibly reach him. But with you it is different. You have the Gospels, you have the living witnesses who plead in Christ’s Name. Why have you not felt His power? Will you ask yourselves the question? I will not put it in the form in which Christ put it to Saul—‘Why persecutest thou Me?’ though He Himself has said: ‘He that is not with Me is against Me,’ and so in some sense it might be applicable; but I will rather assume that you want to do right, as Saul wanted to do right, that you want to consecrate your life to the highest purposes, and yet you have not won your way to Christ, and so I ask, Why not? Why have you not come into contact with Jesus Christ? Why are you not in His service? It is the same question, only shaped to suit your case; and the tender, loving Holy Spirit which Christ sends to plead on His behalf shall press you for the reply.
—Dean Armitage Robinson.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 22". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18