Certain words, phrases or ideas can get us excited. Public speakers know this and make use of the trait. With a weak speaker that may be their way of masking the poverty of their words. The trait can also be problematic if it leads us not to listen properly to others. Paul faces the latter issue.
The apostle is in the first of a series of situations in which he must testify like a legal witness to Jesus as God’s king. Opposing him in this will be Jewish folk – Paul’s own people. Though he has plans to return to church planting (Ro 15:24), the Lord calls Paul to do this for now as He brings to a conclusion the story of ancient Israel. The nation long expected God’s king to come. When Jesus did, however, he was sinfully rejected by Israel. But God resurrected Jesus, who then gave his disciples the Holy Spirit and sent them to tell Israel of her sin (Ac 2). Since then, further proof of Jesus’ kingship has been given in the building of a spreading kingdom in which Jew and Gentile are united. So Paul has been sent back to Jerusalem by the Lord to declare that and call for repentance, before He brings the judgement He prophesied would come to Israel (Mk 13).
The testimony Paul brings is based upon his own striking conversion (Ac 22:3-15). As a faithful Jew (Ph 3:5,6), Paul thought of himself as ‘clean’ in God’s sight. Then he met the resurrected Jesus, who exposed the truth of his sinful heart and, thus, the actual ‘uncleanness’ of his life (Mk 7:15). However, he also discovered that he could be truly washed clean through baptism in Christ’s name (v16). Baptism as an action is simply the submerging of a person in ordinary water. But when undertaken in repentance and faith in Christ, the Lord honours from heaven what is done on the earth and washes the individual clean in God’s sight – all their sins are forgiven (Ac 2:38). It is the outward ritual the Lord has given to us to display the beginning of a new life of faith in Christ. Paul received that life and testifies to it to the Jerusalem mob. After conversion he continued to love Israel (v17). But he also saw the nation’s deep need of Jesus as Saviour.
So why after his conversion, 20 years ago, did he flee from Jerusalem? The Lord told him to go because his fellow Jews would not listen to him (v18). This shocked Paul: he thought the huge turnaround in his life would make an impact (v19,20). But it wouldn’t and, instead, the Lord sent him to preach to Gentiles since their conversion would be an even greater demonstration of the kingly power of Christ (Ro 11:13,14) – the very thing which now brings him back to the city. Yet, sadly, their spirit hasn’t changed. Indeed, if anything, it has hardened. Before he can say another word, Paul’s mention of his mission to the Gentiles triggers an angry response filled with murder (v22). Peter once saw thousands repent in Jerusalem (Ac 2:41); Paul sees none. Jesus warned that his message would see a variety of different responses (Lu 8:5-8). So it’s not that Paul has failed to speak as well as Peter; it’s simply that the audience has changed and will not listen.
What happens to Paul in Jerusalem tells us that the role a Christian plays in the kingdom may vary across time. Though he has spent years as a church planter, now Paul has to be a witness to judgement. He did not go to the city to set up a church but to be a part of closing one, since Jesus said his people would one day flee that place (Mt 24:15-21). Of course, the conclusion of ancient Israel’s long history was a unique moment, an unrepeatable event. Nonetheless, we can learn from Paul’s experience that Christians will find themselves in different roles in the kingdom. A church in one location may enjoy dramatic growth through conversions. Another finds itself filled with gifts which can be used to serve the wider church. A third in a different place struggles to keep going as no outside interest is shown in the gospel. Such variations are to be expected. We do not assess churches by the effectiveness of their evangelism but by the way they shine for God’s glory (1Co 10:31) in the particular circumstances in which he has placed them (Re 2,3)
We can also learn a second lesson here: human beings can be very bad listeners. The Jerusalem mob do not give Paul a fair hearing. We must expect to meet the same at times, no matter how carefully we speak. But we must also test ourselves: do we listen fairly? We should, for our God loves truth. That doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with another; but we should listen first. Jesus was regularly frustrated with people not listening properly (Lu 8:8). Christians must pray that the Lord would heal us from such deafness to hear others fairly and, especially, Him clearly.