Paul traveled to Jerusalem despite his apprehensions and misgivings. The Spirit had warned him in many places through many Christians regarding the difficulties he might undergo. All had gone well with the Jewish Christians. But once Paul entered the Temple, and Jewish men of Asia saw him, the situation deteriorated quickly. Paul would have to stand firm and testify regarding what God had accomplished in Jesus, and what Jesus was accomplishing through him.
In the midst of his third missionary journey Paul resolved to go to Jerusalem (ca. 58-60; Acts 19:21). He would deliver a gift from the Gentile Christians of Macedonia, Achaia, and Galatia (Romans 15:22-33, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:13). He did not know how well he would be received in Jerusalem by either Jewish Christians or Jewish people who had rejected Jesus (Romans 15:22-33); the Holy Spirit warned him of the affliction and imprisonment awaiting him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-24, 21:10-13).
Paul arrived in Jerusalem and received a warm welcome from the Jewish Christians there; James the Lord’s brother exhorted him to go up to the Temple and pay a vow to reassure everyone that he was not rejecting the customs of his people (Acts 21:17-26). Paul went up to the Temple for many days without incident; toward the end of his period of purification Jewish men of Asia saw him and presumed he had brought Trophimus the Ephesian beyond the Court of the Gentiles (Acts 21:27-28). In truth, Paul had done no such thing; he had been with Trophimus earlier, but had not brought him into the Temple (Acts 21:29). Regardless, the Jewish people of Asia stirred up the crowds so that they almost beat Paul to death had it not been for the intervention of the Roman army (Acts 21:30-32). Paul was then detailed by the Roman guard for his own safety (Acts 21:33-36). When Paul had identified himself Jewish, a speaker of Greek, and a citizen from Tarsus, he was granted the opportunity to address the Jewish people (Acts 21:37-40).
Paul asked the people to hear his defense (apologias); they quieted down since they heard him speaking to them in Aramaic (Acts 22:1-2). Paul then described himself as a Jewish man, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, brought up in Jerusalem, taught by Gamaliel, zealous for God according to the ways of their fathers, and who had been a persecutor of the Way (Acts 22:3-4; cf. Acts 8:3). He told the story of what happened to him as he traveled to Damascus: he went to bring back any Jewish Christians in Damascus to Jerusalem to be punished, but on the way saw the Lord Jesus in a great light; those with him saw the light but could not make out the voice speaking to him (Acts 22:5-10; cf. Acts 9:1-16). Paul entered Damascus and found Ananias who told him of God’s intention of making him a witness of what he saw and heard about Jesus, and exhorted him to be baptized to wash away his sins in Jesus’ name (Acts 22:11-16; cf. Acts 9:17-18). Paul then related how he saw the Lord in a trance telling him to depart since the Jewish people would not listen to his testimony regarding Jesus: Paul protested on the basis of the drama of his conversion and how the Jewish people knew how he consented to Stephen’s death, but Jesus told him to go to the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21; cf. Acts 8:1, 9:26-31).
At this point the crowd refused to hear anything more, raising their voices and shouting that Paul did not deserve to live (Acts 22:22-23). The captain of the Roman army had gained no more information about what the cause of the difficulty was; he commanded Paul to be scourged to this end, but was frustrated in this design when he learned that Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 22:24-29). Thus the chief captain summoned the Sanhedrin the next day and brought Paul before them so as to learn what the commotion had been all about (Acts 22:29-30).
Paul began by declaring that he lived before God in good conscience to that moment (Acts 23:1). For it Ananias the high priest commanded him to be struck on the mouth; Paul railed at him as a whitewashed wall, having commanded him to be struck contrary to the Law while presuming to judge according to the Law (Acts 23:2-3; cf. Leviticus 19:35, m. Sanhedrin 3:6-8). He was then asked if he reviled God’s high priest; he answered that he did not know he was the high priest, and drew back, quoting Exodus 22:28 (Acts 23:4-5). He perceived the partisan divisions within the Sanhedrin, and cried out that he was a Pharisee, and on trial regarding the hope of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:5-6). This led to a great argument between the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection and the angelic realm, and the Sadducees, who denied it all; some among the Pharisees ended up protesting the proceedings, not only finding nothing wrong with Paul, but even wondering if a spirit or angel had spoken to him (Acts 23:7-9). The commotion might have led to Paul’s demise; the captain of the guard took him away by force (Acts 23:10). The next evening the Lord Jesus appeared to Paul and encouraged him: as he had testified about Jesus in Jerusalem, so he would testify of Him in Rome (Acts 23:11).
Thus Paul gave a defense in Jerusalem. He attempted to explain to them how it had come to pass that he proclaimed Jesus among the Gentiles: he had wanted to preach Jesus in Jerusalem based on the dramatic story of his conversion, yet Jesus had other plans based upon the intransigence of the Jewish people of Jerusalem. He artfully recognized the situation of the Sanhedrin, and emphasized his heritage as a Pharisee: he was a Jewish person among Jewish people, and understood how partisan loyalties might provide an opening to soften hearts to consider Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes of the Pharisees. All of this satisfied the Lord Jesus: Paul had testified about all Jesus had done in and through him to those in Jerusalem.
Many times we focus on Acts 22:1-21 in terms of how it bears witness to Paul’s conversion in light of related conversion narratives (Acts 9:1-18, 26:2-23); we can consider those parallels and contrasts profitably, but Luke did not record Paul’s defense in Jerusalem for this purpose primarily. We can see how Paul proclaimed the Gospel to Israelites who had not heard it in Acts 13:15-41. The Israelites in Jerusalem had heard of Jesus; Paul then testified to them about Jesus by setting forth what Jesus had done to and through him. The Sanhedrin had heard from the Apostles in years past; now Paul testified to them about Jesus by sharply focusing on the resurrection, a dividing wedge between Pharisees and Sadducees, and opened up the minds of some Pharisees in the process. The Gospel of the Kingdom thus includes what Jesus is doing in and through His servants; His servants do well to think shrewdly regarding how to encourage people to reconsider their frameworks, assumptions, and biases so as to hear His message. May we prove willing to testify regarding Jesus as Paul did, and share in life in God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry