In the 1st century, Israel was a nation with a long history, embedded customs, strong bonds and great pride. To see such a nation radically changed is hard work; to see such a nation changed when all you can do is preach a message and then die seems hopeless. Yet Jesus did that and saw Israel reborn as the kingdom of heaven. How? Through the supernatural power of God, raising Jesus from the dead and transforming hearts. In our verses, Paul testifies to that from his own life.
Acts tells the story of how Jesus remakes Israel and, in particular, expands her to include folk from across the nations. But part of that tale is also the fall of old Israel, that section of the nation which opposes God’s king, thus bringing terrible judgement down upon herself. In Acts 22 – 28 that disaster is on the horizon: soon the old nation will be ripped apart by the hands of the Roman armies. First, however, the people have a final opportunity to repent. Jesus’ appointed man to call her to do this is Paul. Through these chapters, he will be put on trial in a variety of ways, giving testimony to all kinds of people, travelling from Jerusalem to Caesarea to Rome, where he will issue his final warning to his Jewish fellow-countrymen and Acts will close (Ac 28:25-28).
So which group is Paul facing here? Well, he’s been at the temple, carefully keeping the law, until Jewish enemies from Asia stirred up trouble from which soldiers had to rescue him (Ac 21:27-36). However, rather than escaping the crowd, Paul surprises the commander by asking, in Greek, to speak to them (Ac 21:37-38). The Roman had assumed his prisoner was an Egyptian terrorist, but Paul points out that he’s actually a respectable citizen of Tarsus (v39). So permission is given and the apostle addresses the crowd in their own language (v40), calling the mob ‘brothers and fathers’ and calming them (Ac 22:1,2). His example is a good one for Christians. In anger, Paul might have called down obscene curses on the slanderous crowd. But, instead, he speaks the truth in love to them, showing by his good deeds the reality of the gospel (Mt 5:16; 1Pe 2:11,12).
The mob itself reminds us of a common trait in humanity which can often turn sour. We like to cluster together in groups based on shared characteristics such as social class, education, skin colour or national background. This tendency can be positive since God didn’t design us to live a solitary life and such groups can be places of support and love. However, our tribal spirit can be sadly deformed by sins like evil pride, cruelty, selfishness, jealousy, bitterness or hatred, leading to vicious behaviour and, even, violence. We can also use the tribal spirit as an excuse for our sins, claiming that some behaviour in our life is simply part of our culture, or who we are, and therefore cannot be assessed ethically: it must simply be accepted by others and if they do not do so, then it is because they have a ‘phobia’ which makes them bigoted against our group. The Bible, however, reminds us that human behaviour is judged by the Lord who defines what is good and what is evil (2Co 5:10); we have to test our conduct against his words, not our traits. Yet, often we prioritise our group and that is what confronts Paul here in this Jerusalem mob.
So how does Paul respond to this crowd who believe him guilty of ‘Israelophobia’ (Ac 21: 28)? He shows them that he loves Judaism but has also learned to see her sins – a lesson learned in a painful, personal event. Though from Tarsus, Paul lived much of his early life at the heart of Judaism, learning from one of her wisest Rabbis (v3; Ac 5:34-40). But he was also hot-head and, in his zeal, persecuted followers of the ‘Way’ (v4 – possibly used for Christians due to Is 40:3/Lk 3:4), using his authority even to pursue them to foreign cities (v5). However, it was during a trip to Damascus in Syria that everything changed. Heavenly light suddenly flooded over him (v6) and his hatred of Jesus was exposed. The Lord then asked him a simple question: ‘why?’ (v7). Paul realised he had no answer. In that flash, his love of Israel was seen to be an excuse for his wickedness, to which he had been blind. Confused, all Paul could reply was ‘who are you?’, to which Jesus replied ‘the despised rabbi’ (v8), and Paul was transformed. No-one else heard the words (v9) but Paul submitted to the Lord (v10) and was sent on blind into Damascus (v11). So he knows exactly how the mob feel! But they have to see why it is and why it is wrong. If they do, then the grace of the Lord will transform them as it did him. For this is what the gospel does: forgives lost sinners and sees them reborn, all by the supernatural work of the living God.