A Study of Acts 21 and 22
Anthony Robbins said, “Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result they get better answers.”
Well today, I want to show you two questions that lead to a quality life unlike any other.
We’re continuing our series of studies called Unstoppable into the text and scriptures in the book of Acts, and today we’re coming to chapters 21 and 22. So if you’re able to grab your Bible and follow along, this is the time to do it. Here’s where we are. The apostle Paul finished his third missionary journey and he was eager to embark on his next one. But first, he wanted to go to Jerusalem to deliver the offering he had collected for the impoverished Jewish Christians in Judea. He thought that if the Gentiles of Asia and Europe sent a financial gift to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, it might heal the rift between the Jewish Church and the Gentile Church. Perhaps Paul didn’t fully realize the state of things in Jerusalem. The city was boiling with political and religious emotion. Rebellion was in the air. The Jews were tired of the brutality of Rome, and the Jews in Judea were frustrated with the growth of Christianity.
I was in Jerusalem during the intifada of some years ago, and I could feel the danger and tension as I walked through the Old City. As I walked through the streets and alleys, groups of children encircled me with toy guns, saying, “Pow, pow, pow.” It was a very gentle threat, but a threat, nonetheless. Perhaps some of you have been in cities or urban areas on the verge of rioting, when you can feel the anger as thick as fog. Well, Jerusalem was a powder keg, and Paul’s presence on the temple precincts sparked a riot. He was in danger of being torn limb from limb.
Let’s pick up the story in Acts 21:30: The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple and immediately the gates were shut.
The temple was on a hill, so the crowd was pushing and shoving Paul down some set of stairs, and undoubtedly people were falling and fighting and flailing about.
Verse 31 says: While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar.
The Roman Fortress Antonia was adjacent to the north side of the Temple Mount, so the troops mobilized very quickly.
Verse 32: He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed him kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”
37 As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
We find out later that the commander’s name is Claudius Lysias.
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
Interestingly, Josephus, who was a Jewish writer and historian from the first century, also wrote about an Egyptian who led a revolt of thousands of Jewish zealous terrorists or daggermen out into the wilderness. Both Josephus and the book of Acts date this event to about A.D. 54, so it’s another small indication that Luke’s story is historically reliable. Some Egyptian Messianic-like figure massed a group of thousands of followers in the desert to attack the walls of Jerusalem. He told his troops that the walls of Jerusalem would collapse before them, and he led them to the Mount of Olives. The Romans took preemptive action, killing 400 of the rebels and capturing another 200. But the Egyptian instigator got away. The Roman commander apparently thought Paul might have been that wanted outlaw.
So we have confirmation of this detail from contemporary history.
Notice also that Paul spoke Greek, which was the dominant language in the West, even though Aramaic was the dominant language in the Middle East.
39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city.” I am not an Egyptian. I am a Jew, a citizen of the great city of Tarsus. Then Paul said:
“Please let me speak to the people.”
40 After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:
22 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
At this point, Paul is going to do something we’ve not seen before in the book of Acts. He is simply going to give his testimony. He’s going to tell his story.
All of us who know Christ have a testimony. It may not be as dramatic as Paul’s, but we have a story of what Christ has done for us and what He has meant to us. We may never stand in front of a murderous mob, but we will have an audience of people in our lives: our grandchildren, our children, members of our ball team, friends, and coworkers in the factory or office. We should all practice and be able to share our stories of faith whenever we have the chance. Here is what Paul said, beginning in Acts 22:3
3 I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city.
That gives us some information we didn’t know about Paul. We call him Paul of Tarsus, because he was from the city of Tarsus (in what today we would call the southern coastline of Turkey). But apparently as a child or young person he was brought or sent to Jerusalem, and that’s where he grew up.
I studied under Gamaliel [the famous Rabbi we met in Acts 5] and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
The original account of Paul’s conversion was told in Acts 9, but here we learn some additional details. We learn that this incident occurred at noon when the sun was at its zenith. We also learn that those with Paul saw the light, but could not make out the words Paul heard. He said: My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
I’m convinced Saul of Tarsus quite literally saw the Lord Jesus Christ, that the heavens were parted and the Son of God, enthroned in His brilliance, bore down on Saul. He saw Jesus for a split second, but the brilliance of the searing light radiating from Christ burned his eyes and blinded him. I believe Jesus Christ is clothed with light, radiates light, generates light, and is wrapped in light. This is the self-manifestation of Christ. I believe the light of Jesus provides the illumination for New Jerusalem. After the resurrection, our glorified bodies will have glorified eyes so we can see Him face to face. But on this day on the Damascus Road, the brilliance of the person of Christ led to instant and total blindness.
Saul asked: Who are you, Lord?
The answer: I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.
In one sense, Paul was not literally physically persecuting the body of Jesus of Nazareth, but in another sense he was. The church is His body. Jesus took this personally. When His followers are persecuted, He is persecuted.
10 ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
12 A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14 Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
17 When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
19 ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
21 Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Well, that’s as far as Paul got. The word Gentiles was like a match thrown onto a pool of gasoline.
22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this.
Remember, Lysias had not been able to understand a word Paul had said in Aramaic, so he was a frustrated man, not knowing what was going on or causing the uproar. He determined to extract the information by torture.
25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
There was nothing worse than a Roman flogging. It was far worse than anything Paul had ever experienced—far worse than the Jewish beatings he had received in the synagogues and much worse than the whipping he’d received in Philippi. Paul was stripped almost bare, and his hands were tied above his head. He was stretched out, and the Roman whips were designed to rip the flesh off one’s body. For Paul, it would likely have been death by torture. But Paul asserted his Roman citizenship, for Roman citizens were exempt from this brutality.
26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
That tells us that Paul came from a prominent family in Tarsus, that both his parents had been Roman citizens.
29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
For the sake of time, I’m going to summarize what happens next. In trying to investigate the cause of the turmoil, Lysias assembled the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Ruling Council, and had Paul address them. That caused another riot, this one smaller and inside the Sanhedrin hall. Acts 23:10 says: The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him to the barracks.
And then we have another visit by the Lord Jesus. Verse 11 says: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
And this begins the process by which the apostle Paul made his slow but providential journey to the center of the Roman Empire and the story is told in the final chapter of Acts.
As I read and studied through our passage for today, my own mind zeroed in on the two questions Saul of Tarsus asked Jesus when he was blinded by His presence on the Damascus Road. Let’s go back and look at those in chapter 22, beginning with verse 6: About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute Me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” I asked.
“I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” He replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of Him who was speaking to me.”
“What shall I do, Lord?” I asked.
Who are you, Lord, and what do you want me to do?
As to the first question, entire libraries could be filled with the books written about Jesus of Nazareth. One of the very first theological descriptions we have of Jesus after the time of the apostles and the New Testament comes from the pen of a man named Ignatius, who was a bishop of Antioch (the same church that sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary tour). This occurs in AD 107, which was probably a decade or so after the life of the apostle John—that early! In fact, Ignatius was a disciple of John. As Ignatius was being transported to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts in the Colosseum, he wrote a series of letters. In one of them he wrote:
“I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise, for I observed that you are established in an unshakable faith, having been nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in both body and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ, totally convinced with regard to our Lord that He is truly of the family of David with respect to human descent, Son of God with respect to the divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled in Him, truly nailed to the cross in the flesh for us…in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through His resurrection for his saints and faithful people, whether among Jews or among Gentiles, in one body of His church.”
That was not something formulated hundreds of years after Christ. Jesus is the Almighty God who entered humanity through miraculous conception, lived righteously, died on the cross for us, and rose again to give us eternal life.
But because He is a real person, we have to have a personal relationship with Him. Jesus knew all about Saul of Tarsus. He was determined to turn his life around and to do something with him that would change history.
We have to know Jesus with theological accuracy, but we must also know Him personally.
And that leads us to the second question: What do you want me to do? Based on Psalm 139:16 and Ephesians 2:10 (among other verses), I have a deep conviction that the Lord has pre-planned each day of our lives, and He assigns our work in one-day increments. I write about this in my book: Mastering Life Before It’s Too Late.
Last year I spoke about this in Florida, and I said that every morning in my devotions, I say, “Lord, what do You want me to do today?” Then I prayerfully try to plan out my day and go about the Lord’s business as well as I know how.
That afternoon as I went for a walk, I met a man wearing a Navy hat. He was eighty years old and a veteran. He said, “I have never thought of asking that question before. You taught me something new and very important. Beginning tomorrow, I’m going to awaken and ask the Lord: “What do you want me to do today?”
The best kind of life on earth is knowing who Jesus is and what He wants you to do today. Those were Paul’s two great questions, and I recommend you ask them too. Those two quality questions will lead to a quality life!