Acts 22:1-21: When we last left Paul he was beginning to speak to people using the Hebrew language after his arrest in Jerusalem. In the final seven chapters of Acts, Paul will give six speeches, five explicitly in defense of himself and of the Christian faith. They are different from the evangelistic speeches in which the gospel is proclaimed to outsiders. “Defense” here is a semitechnical term, apologia. The apologists of the second century were Christian leaders who explained the Christian faith to the Roman world in order to guard it from misunderstandings and to defend its right to exist as a legitimate religion. Luke is already moving in this direction…. The main line of defense is that Christianity is not a new and dangerous religion, but a legitimate outgrowth of Judaism. (Peoples New Testament Commentary)
So Paul’s speech begins with the simple words, “I am a Jew.” He then goes on to tell a part of his life story. Though he was born in Tarsus, he was brought up in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he studied under the great scholar Rabbi Gamaliel. He was “zealous for God” and notes that he shares this with his hearers. Out of that sincere religious conviction, Paul opposed this new Way – just as many of those listening to him. Paul’s persecution involved violence and imprisoning Christian men and women.
Then he traveled to Damascus where his life began to change. On the road, he was met by Jesus who asked Paul why he was persecuting him. His experience was something that others could attest to, though the details differ from chapter to chapter. In chapter nine, those with Paul hear the voice but don’t see anyone. Here they see the light but do not hear the voice. What matters to Luke is that Paul’s experience was something more than just his experience, that there was some public dimension to it. Paul’s experience blinds him temporarily. This is interesting metaphorically. Paul had considered himself secure in the light of his faith, but his encounter with the Jesus behind the Way moves him from sure-sightedness to blindness. Maybe there is something there for us and our spiritual lives. Though God’s Spirit through Christ wants us to see more clearly and truthfully, sometimes we will have transition moments when things are even less clear than they once were.
God uses Ananias, a devout Jewish man, to bring him sight and to help him take his first steps on this new Way. The God of this Way is not a new god, but “the God of our ancestors.” And God’s Righteous One is Jesus of Nazareth, to whom Paul will now become a witness, a witness to all the world.
From Damascus, Paul returns to Jerusalem where he has a vision of Jesus. It is Jesus who sends him out to witness to the Gentiles.
Acts 22:22-30: It was up to this point that the crowd had listened politely, but this remark stirs them up. To claim that God’s grace was being extended to the Gentiles was controversial. One is reminded of the crowds who opposed Jesus. The Roman authorities bring Paul to the barracks where he is to be interrogated by flogging. He is creating quite a stir and they will get to the bottom of this. Before they begin this ruthless interrogation, however, Paul asserts his citizenship. Even in the first century, the status of prisoners is more than just a philosophical point. One can’t but help be reminded of the current discussions about the status of prisoners at Guantanamo, and the debates about our own interrogation techniques. Citizenship protected citizens from arbitrary examination by torture. In his own letters, Paul never refers to either his citizenship nor to a period of study in Jerusalem. That does not mean these are not historical facts, it only means they are not corroborated. It also pushes us to ask why Luke would include these details. Luke is determined to demonstrate both that Christian faith is a legitimate development from Judaism, which has some protected status in the Roman Empire, and that it is compatible with citizenship.
The next day, Paul is released but asked to appear before the chief priests and the Jewish leaders (the council) in the presence of the tribunal.
Acts 23:1-11: Paul’s second speech is presented, this one to the Jewish leaders. He begins by asserting that he has lived his life with a clear conscience, that is, he sees himself as one who has not turned away from the faith in which he was raised (Judaism). Ironically, Paul had a clear conscience when he opposed the Christian way and when he became a part of it. Conscience needs to be heeded, but a sincere conscience by itself is not always a reliable guide. I think of a wonderful poem by Nobel-Prize winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska. It begins:
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The poem ends with these lines:
There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the Sun.
But Paul is defending himself as a faithful Jew to Jewish leaders, and on that score he is asserting that he still feels himself to be a faithful Jew. For his remarks, he get struck on the mouth by order of the high priest. He responds with some scathing words, calling him a whitewashed wall, a formulaic phrase that was a Jewish curse. Apparently Paul did not realize he was denigrating the high priest, and when he is told that is what he has done, he reigns himself in. Luke is making the point that Paul, indeed, maintains a good conscience toward Jewish tradition.
Paul then notices something about the makeup of the council and wisely gets them debating an issue that divided the Jews of the time. Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, but Pharisees did, and Paul is claiming that the root problem here, is that he has taken a side in this debate. For the Pharisees, and thus for Paul, God was able to raise persons from the dead as angels or spirits. One could understand the resurrection of Jesus in such ways, and thus see Christian faith as an outgrowth of Pharisaic Judaism. This is the way Luke wants the issue to be seen in his own time. Paul had recounted how the risen Jesus had appeared to him. The Pharisees categorize this within their understanding of believing in the general resurrection and the appearance of angels and spirits to human beings, thus making it possible to incorporate the basic Christian message of the resurrection of Jesus within the theology of Pharisaism and allowing the dispute about the Christian faith to be seen as an intra-Jewish dispute. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Paul’s tactic works, and the Pharisees on the council claim they see nothing wrong with Paul. The discussion turns heated and violent and Paul is taken into protective custody. In jail again, Jesus visits Paul and tells him to keep up his courage. Sometimes we need to hear those words for our own lives.
Acts 23:12-22: “The Jews” here is much too broad a phrase. We have already seen that some Jews found nothing wrong with Paul, but others now want to see him dead. Paul’s nephew catches wind of the conspiracy and tells the Roman tribune about the conspiracy to have Paul ambushed and killed.
Acts 23:23-35: Paul’s case moves up the chain of command, to the governor, Felix at Caesarea. The tribune sends a letter indicating that Paul seems to have done nothing deserving imprisonment or death, but that his presence in Jerusalem poses a danger and threat, to Paul himself and to the civil order.