If the material universe is the ultimate reality, then our concerns about right, wrong and justice are simply human inventions to make life more bearable; they have no bigger meaning since the universe ‘doesn’t care.’ We, however, cannot treat them that way. Our desires for fairness and justice run very deep. Why is that? The Bible tells us that it’s because the ultimate reality is actually God: a personal creator who cares deeply about what happens in the universe and in our lives, and who will bring it all to judgement. That’s why we can’t get justice out of our system.
Unsurprisingly, the gospel story of Jesus – God’s Son – has a rich element of justice within it. Its climax focuses on the trial, execution and vindication of Jesus, centred on the cross. Jesus’ life confronts us with questions about God’s justice. But then so does Acts. Read the final chapters from 21 onwards, and you find they are like a gigantic court case stretching across multiple locations. Two threads appear in the chapters. Firstly, you have the story on the surface of Paul in the hands of human justice. Read more carefully, however, and you are soon aware of God judging people. Like the gospels, Acts, in the end, makes us think about God’s justice.
Linking the story of Jesus’ cross to Acts helps us to see that. Large parts of all four gospels are devoted to Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and resurrection; the cross is key to understanding him and to our thinking as Christians (Lu 9:23). But what feature of the cross helps us, in particular, with appreciating Acts? It’s that in the cross, God shows his justice and proves that Jesus is his king. At his trial, Jesus’ opponents were especially offended by his claim to be God’s king (Lu 22:66-71). They did not accept this and when Jesus spoke of having God’s authority – sitting as his right hand – they were livid with rage and arranged his execution. However, though they were sitting in the highest court of Israel, a higher court reviewed the case: God’s. And God vindicated Jesus, showing his judgement by raising him from the dead. Thus God’s justice was displayed and Jesus was proven by it to be the king of heaven. At the start of Acts, Peter speaks in just that way. He preaches, as a witness to the resurrection, that God has overturned Israel’s judgement, that Jesus now sits at the Father’s right hand (Ac 2:32-37), and that his fellow Jews need to respond to this!
However, the message of the cross was not only for Israel but the entire world (Ac 1:8). Though it may sound ridiculous to think that telling of Jesus’ tortured death will affect people through space and time, it actually can because it contains the supernatural justice of God. The news of the cross can speak powerfully to hearts of every sort. Christians should have full confidence in it.
In the light of all that, however, what is happening in our verses? This is the story of Israel’s last chance to respond to what she has done, before God brings a terrible punishment (Lu 11:47-51). Paul is in Jerusalem as the final apostolic witness to the reality of Jesus as the Christ. But, sadly, he is rejected like his master. Jews who know him from Asia, stir up trouble (v27), accusing him of trampling over their culture and law (v28). Even worse, they believe he has brought Greeks into the temple, which they passionately love and protect with careful rules. It’s a false accusation (v29), but good enough for the mob to bay for Paul’s blood (v30). Barring him from the temple, they begin to beat him to death as once happened to Stephen (v31, Ac 7:57). God, however, has other plans for him and so he is rescued by the local Roman garrison (v32). Why doesn’t the Lord let him die like Jesus and Stephen? Because now it’s Israel who is on trial – this is her last chance to respond to the gospel. So Paul is kept alive to testify to the Jews, not only in Jerusalem but elsewhere in Judea (Ac 23:23) and even in Rome, which is how Acts will end (Ac 28:17). Hence, Paul doesn’t try to escape the mob. When arrested (v33) and removed towards the barracks (v34), and though his life is in such danger (v35,36), Paul insists on speaking (v37), to the surprise of the Roman commander (v38). Why does Paul insist? Because he must testify to Israel of Christ.
The passage must lead us to meditate on justice. Here we see horrible human injustice in Paul’s life, reminding us of the Saviour. But the crowds here are no different from us. Still today a mob in real life, or in the media, or on the Internet, will slander, accuse without evidence and destroy a person without a fair trial. Humanity wants justice yet is often unjust; the cross supremely exposes that. But it also shows God’s good justice and mercy, and in that we can find hope.