Our hearts go out to the plight of law enforcement officers who have to respond to difficult situations, often of the domestic altercation variety. Entering a neighborhood, they find one handful of people fighting with another. Who are the victims? Who are the aggressors? What is the conflict all about? They somehow need to understand immediately what to do in order to stop the violence, and then they need to somehow calm the situation enough to sort out what is going on and where there might have been unlawful activity.
This is essentially the situation faced by the Roman soldiers who intervened in a riot instigated by Jews from Asia against the Apostle Paul in the Temple courtyards. Very nearby – just outside the Temple portico – was a Roman military installation called the Antonia Fortress. The soldiers there were quickly made aware of the uproar and descended (literally down a series of steps) upon the situation with force – the designations of the officers involved indicating that there was a bare minimum of 200 soldiers involved.
The “commander” (Claudius Lysias) is an officer called in Greek a “chiliarchos” … a leader of 1,000 men. Paul is rescued from the mob by being chained and arrested, being carried by the soldiers. On the way to the installation, Paul speaks to the officer in charge, surprising him that he could speak Greek …
Acts 21:37 – As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”
The commander presumes Paul to be a particular Egyptian insurrectionist the Romans had been unable to capture thus far. Assuring Lysias that he was himself a Jew, Paul requests the opportunity to speak to the crowd that just tried to kill him. That makes sense, right? The first thing that would come to your mind would be … “Hey, I want to preach a sermon to this mob that just attempted to beat the life out of me!” Yes, Paul is unique … he’s also multi-lingual and surprises others now that he is able to speak their Palestinian language rather than Greek. He does so from the steps that ascended up to the Antonia Fortress…
Acts 22:40 – After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic:
Acts 23:1 – “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
2 When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: 3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
12 “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13 He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
14 “Then he said: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
17 “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw the Lord speaking to me. ‘Quick!’ he said. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.’
19 “‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20 And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
21 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”
22 The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
Surely the crowd was skeptical, but they listened as Paul opened with his own history of zeal that led him to be a persecutor of Christians. They tolerated a few more sentences about Jesus and Saul losing his sight and being spoken to miraculously. He bought a few more seconds of attention by again referencing his zeal for Judaism and affirmation of the stoning of Stephen. But then came the intolerable moment and words quoted as from God, “I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” Die, you wretch!
Lysias the commander is little more informed but believes he’s only going to understand it if he gets Paul into a more secure and secluded place to gain information …
23 As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the commander ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and interrogated in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. 25 As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
27 The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
28 Then the commander said, “I had to pay a lot of money for my citizenship.”
“But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
29 Those who were about to interrogate him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
As a takeoff on the American Express commercial – “Roman citizenship: Don’t leave home without it!” … or, the Visa Card commercial – “Roman citizenship: It’s everywhere you want to be!” The scourging that was about to be given to Paul was a terrible thing, the same that left Christ unable to carry his cross.
The officers had no reason to presume that Paul was a Roman citizen – one who could not receive any such treatment without having been duly found guilty in advance. Even being put in chains was unlawful. And so we see these military dudes put everything into a quick reverse when they learn this information, fearful of repercussions against them should Rome learn of this.
Paul is such an interesting mix of gifts, personality, and circumstances … of education, boldness, and citizenship in the ruling empire while also being Jewish. God did this, preparing him for the service to which he was called.
You too are an interesting mix of gifts, personality, and circumstances – whatever it is. This is God’s preparation for you to uniquely serve Him through his Spirit working through you. Don’t discount that. It may not be as dramatic as Paul’s assortment, but it is what God has allowed for you to have to be able to serve him in the corner of the vineyard where you have been placed.
Ephesians 2:10 — For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So, yep, you’re a piece of work – God’s work. Just like the Apostle Paul was a piece of work!