Church leaders should be open to Christians raising concerns with them. Paul has shown himself to be like that on the way to Jerusalem (Ac 21:4). But if the leaders feel they must continue with a path despite advice, then the church should seek peace before the Lord (Ac 21:14), if possible. However, given Paul’s troubles in Jerusalem, was he foolish to ignore his friends’ warnings (Ac 22:23)? No: because Paul knew, from the Holy Spirit, that he would have a way out of the city.
When Paul landed in Judea and went to Philip’s prophet-filled home (Ac 21;8,9), he heard from the Jerusalem prophet Agabus that he would be bound and handed to Gentiles (Ac 21:11). It was a message which told Paul two things which prepared him well to handle Jerusalem.
Firstly, Paul learned that his testimony to Jesus’ kingship would be turned against him. That seems to be the point of Agabus’ little drama with Paul’s belt: something good of Paul’s would be used for a bad purpose. That certainly happened earlier in Acts 22. Paul spoke of his unexpected conversion and subsequent work among the Gentiles (Ac 22:1-21). However, the crowd were not challenged by that to show the repentance that Peter found at Pentecost (Ac 2:37). Rather, the mention of Gentiles sent the mob into a murderous frenzy (Ac 22:22). Paul’s good work for Christ became the reason to condemn him! Christians can face this problem. We do good for a child, a friend, a colleague but it’s used negatively, to put us down. That can be deeply upsetting. But we have to ask ourselves if we sought to do good and if we did, then be at peace about it. The fact is that Paul was right to go to the Gentiles and the mob was wrong to react as they did.
Then secondly, Paul learned from Agabus’ prophecy that he would be handed over to the Gentiles. Paul probably expected the opposite: the Jews would stone him just they once did to Stephen (Ac 22:20). From Agabus he discovered that they wouldn’t, which gave him an escape route out of the city. But why didn’t the crowd murder him? Well, it wasn’t for want of trying (Ac 21:31). However, the noise they made alerted the Roman authorities who put a stop to their violence (Ac 21:32). So the Jews unintentionally ‘handed’ Paul over to the Gentiles! Maybe the Lord worked this way to mock the powerlessness of rebellious Israel. Certainly it shows that the Saviour can turn situations round as he wishes. So though we will face terrible moments in life, they are never out of his control. The Lord has authority to do as he wills upon the earth (Mt 28:18).
But what was the escape hatch which Paul heard in Agabus’ prophecy? We discover it in our verses. When the crowd becomes deeply agitated (v23) about the Gentiles, the commander pulls Paul back into the barracks, with a plan to beat the truth out of him (v24). Before that happens, however, Paul plays a trump card: his Roman citizenship (v25; Ac 16:37). This means his status under Roman law is higher than others and that the soldiers could be seriously punished if he complains. The centurion urgently reports this news (v26), bringing the commander to speak with Paul in person. Citizenship costs so much money – how could this little Jew have gained it (v27, 28)? Answer: Paul didn’t pay, it’s been his since birth! That creates yet more panic with the soldiers (v29) so the beating is cancelled. Like Paul, Christians should keep the laws of the land where we live and may use those laws to protect ourselves (Ro 13:1-7; 1Ti 2:1-3). Of course, our first allegiance is always to God’s kingdom and so we will also disobey the law if that is required in order to be faithful to the Lord’s ways (Lu 20:25) – but only if that is the case.
Well, the commander seeks a way forward by calling the elite Jerusalem council to speak with Paul (v30). The apostle, however, no longer feels the need to testify: he has told them the truth about Christ. Instead, he simply declares his innocence (23v1). The High Priest, who leads the group, has no interest in the truth and so responds by having Paul struck (v2). Paul tells him that his court is dysfunctional, and he is a false leader (v3; cf Ez 13:10-16)! Those nearby condemn such an insult against the High Priest (v4). Paul admits that would be a crime (Ex 22:28) but he had failed to recognise him (v5): a comment which may be meant as a rebuke of Ananias’ wicked leadership. Even if not, Paul has been able to expose the court for the degraded failure it is. And he’s been able to do so, because the Lord prepared the way and gave him Agabus’ prophecy. But then Jesus promised always to help his people when they face such trials (Mk 13:9-13).