If you had the kind of audience Paul had, they’re furious with you, they think you are dead wrong, they’re—literally—so enraged they would like nothing more than to throw rocks at you until you are dead, what do you think you would say?
I can hear your answer in my imagination, “Are you kidding me?! What kind of a situation is that? That is never going to happen to me!”
Yeah, I know, probably not to me either.
As a matter of fact, I get all knotted up inside if I even –think– I’ve offended someone, that something I’ve accidentally done or said might have angered someone, or hurt their feelings, or in some way displeased them. Sometimes, I even lie awake at night, when I’m supposed to be falling asleep, wondering if something I’ve said or done has annoyed someone. I mean, I am the master at sins done in ignorance. (Did you know God set aside a whole chapter in Leviticus to cover unintentional sins?)
A more realistic scenario for you and me would be a community of people we respect, maybe even love, whose opinion of us really matters to us, and with whom, up to recently, we’ve agreed with politically, or theologically, or philosophically. But now, we’ve undergone something of a change, a profound metamorphosis, really. We’re not the same person as we used to be. We see things differently, we’ve evolved, it’s a new iteration of us, and our lives are transformed, as a result.
And. They. Are. Not. Happy. About. It.
Might be our family, or our church, or our hangout group, or our coworkers, or the people we meetup with, or volunteer with, or … fill in the blank.
At first, like Paul, we needed some quiet to just get our bearings, because the change was so profound. Remember, Paul spent three days at Ananias’ house after Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. But then, we wanted others to know, especially those who knew us, to understand that something momentous has happened, a good thing! We want our community to embrace the change, to not only accept the new us, but to explore and receive the agent of change, to also be changed as we are.
Real life, though, right? Some people will get it and be delighted with us. Others will be circumspect, but their affection for us overrides objections, and they accept the changed new us, though they’re not too interested in the source of change.
And then, there will be those who are absolutely, diametrically opposed, who are offended right down to their roots, aggrieved in their very bones. If you’ve ever been on the other side of that conversation, where you’re the one who’s disturbed and shocked, then you can at least sympathize with their emotion.
And that is exactly where Paul was, twenty centuries ago, on the blindingly white expanse of marble steps leading up to Huldah’s Gates, the entryway into God’s Holy Temple. He empathized with the enraged mob assembled before him, because he understood their zeal for the Lord, the hot fire of their fury towards anyone who would dishonor God, or the things of God, or the people of God.
He, himself, had been where they were, as he had watched with quiet approval at the stoning of Stephen, for the very same reason.
A lot had transpired in a short amount of time.
The Jews from Asia had quickly incited a furious uprising. In the tinderbox of Jerusalem, that comes as no surprise. Luke gave his eyewitness report, “Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.
The tribune, a man named Claudius Lysias, had to act immediately, or there would be rioting, bloodshed, mayhem, and insurrection. If he could shut it down now, they could avoid the ruthless Roman legions having to come in lock down the city. The tribune actually thought Paul might be “the Egyptian” who had been stirring up a revolt in Jerusalem, and had led 4,000 “assassins” into the desert to create a terrorist army. Sure enough, Luke wrote, “Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.”
Imagine being that tribune! He had to think swiftly and sanely. It only made sense to arrest and restrain the one person who was at the center of trouble: Paul. Eerily, Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled as Paul was trussed up with two chains by the soldiers. Tribune Lysias tried to interrogate the crowd there, on the temple steps, no one could give a straight answer, and everyone was trying to talk at once. Finally, in frustration, the tribune order Paul to be taken to the barracks, where he could be questioned in a quieter environment.
But, “When Paul came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, ‘Away with him!’”
Paul had to be carried by the soldiers, over their heads, I imagine, the crowd was so roiled up, like a pot of boiling water, and so pressed in tight there was no room to move. Evidently, they had not gotten very far up the steps to the barracks (which were situated on the temple mount, next to the temple) when Paul asked if he could say something.
Evidently, Paul must have spoken in either Greek, or more likely Latin, because he got the tribune’s instant attention, with his curiosity piqued. However way Paul had posed his question, it became rapidly clear he was not from Egypt, and couldn’t possibly be the troublemaker the tribune had been concerned about.
Paul pulled out all his i.d. “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city.” It’s possible Paul even had his certificate of Roman citizenship hanging from his neck. And he had but one request—” I beg you, let me speak to the people.”
The arrest party must have stopped right there, halfway up the steps, set Paul down, and gestured for him to say his piece.
Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language.Acts 21:40 (NRSV)
What do you say to an angry crowd that wants to see you dead, that can’t bear the very sight of you, that hates what you have to say even before the words depart from your lips? Jesus foresaw such a moment, and said to His disciples (and surely through them to all the believers).
You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.
When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;
for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 10:18-20 (NRSV)
[Roman Legion | image courtesy Pixabay.com]