Can Anything Good Come from Tarsus? (Acts 22, Philippians 3)

Most of us have a mixed bag of stuff from our past, from our formative years. We may possess both opportunities, perhaps in education, but possibly also some challenges from family dysfunction. Or perhaps it could be just the opposite. Just as a strong background can surely prepare a person for lifetime successes, there is no guarantee it will evolve in that direction. Likewise, a less than stellar upbringing can be overcome, as many rags to riches stories attest.

The Apostle Paul could boast a very strong background, especially in Jewish circles of association. His credentials could match just about anyone else. Even so, thinking ahead in the story, we know that this strict Jewish education did not position him to naturally gravitate toward the new teachings of a crucified and resurrected Messiah with a gospel message for all mankind. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

As we consider Paul’s background, it is rather certain that Paul was born relatively close to the same time as Jesus Christ (maybe about two years older?), and that he would therefore live into his upper 60s.

From the city of Tarsus (south-central Turkey), we can infer that Paul came from what must have been a relatively affluent family. Though ethnically Jewish, they met Roman citizenship requirements as land owners and were likely among the leading people of the city. Paul’s family could trace their lineage to the tribe of Benjamin, his name “Saul” being after King Saul of that tribe, with Paulus being a Roman name given him by his Roman/Jewish father.

He possessed the finest of educations, what we might consider like a Harvard/Princeton equivalent, sitting also under the most famous of instructors. In an uproar in Jerusalem during his ministry, Paul sought and received the soldiers’ permission to address the rioting Jewish crowd …

Acts 22:1-3 … “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “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.

So this is about as good as it can get in terms of a background for a Jewish boy in the Roman world. Paul gave a summary of it when writing to the church in Philippi – who were dealing with Jewish legalists and their proud lineage …

Philippians 3:4-6 … If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

So Paul would have grown up with an early Synagogue education, topped off by Gamaliel and graduating magna cum laude. He would have known Hebrew, Greek, and the Septuagint as well (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). And he could speak the common language of Aramaic. Tarsus was in fact one of the three great “university towns” of that age, along with Athens in Greece and Alexandria in Egypt.

Like all responsible Jewish families, boys were taught a trade – for Paul, tent-making. The area from which he came in Cilicia boasted a particular type of high-grade fabric from the prevalence of goat herds, and this skill would prove valuable for Paul in his travel years as a missionary.

Paul’s advanced education and his commitment to it would lead him to become a Pharisee and member surely of the Sanhedrin. He was on track to become one of the foremost Jewish leaders of his generation.

We first encounter Paul on the pages of Scripture in the book of Acts, in chapters 7 and 8, upon the occasion of the stoning of Stephen after his sermon …

Acts 7:54—8:3 — 54 … When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

For Paul to be a Pharisee, he would have had to be around the age of at least 30, and this works with the presumed timeline of his life.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

8:1 – On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

So this event was a sort of “coming out” event for Saul/Paul, where his Jewish zeal and faith moved him to radical action (that would not have been endorsed actually by Gamaliel). And it is a couple of chapters later that we see Paul’s incredible conversion story, and we shall study again over these weeks all that came from the new life he found in Christ.

So Paul was uniquely qualified to serve God as he did – combining the great Jewish background of theology, the education of the Greek culture, and the opportunities that Roman citizenship could open for him. But his ultimate success was not because of these things, not primarily. It is not as if God chose Paul because he was the candidate with the best resume to miraculously redeem from the other side. No, Paul ultimately was the great leader of the early church because, by God’s grace, he was empowered to accomplish all that he did. His fleshly credentials were not his best asset, and his liabilities (such as apparently not being the healthiest guy around nor the best orator) did not diminish his success or limit what God could do through him.

So education is grand! A wonderful and godly family is an asset. Having great natural skills of personal and professional interaction are resume builders for sure. But none of it matters for eternity without the empowering blessing of God working through you. And no lack of these natural skills and blessings can thwart what God can do through the life of a yielded Christian. When we are weak, He is strong… as Paul knew and wrote!

When Circumstances Don’t Make Sense – Acts 22:30 – 23:22

One of the age-old questions is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  I’m not going to answer that fully today. And it is not a question that finds a 100% final answer, as we are left at times to simply trust the truth stated in Scripture that God’s ways are higher than our ways

But I do mean to state it clearly today that there is not a one-to-one perfect correspondence to pleasant circumstances in our lives as perfectly representing God’s pleasure with us. And neither do all painful life circumstances correspond to God’s displeasure with us.

The passage today tells the story of the Roman commander’s total confusion with what truly comprised the story of this crazy guy named Paul. He determined to bring him before the Jewish leadership – the Sanhedrin – to gain some better information. They were not a part of the riot of the previous day, and surely they could help him understand the nuances of various Jewish or Church groups.

So Paul is brought before them to give a statement. His first sentence offends the high priest, who orders that he be slapped on the mouth. OK, you look at that and say, “Where’s the offense in that?”  I’m not sure I can answer that one for you! All I can do is report that it happened and Paul got whacked! Obviously, this irritates Paul and he reacts against the order with some pretty strong words. He is then made to realize that he is speaking to the high priest. For some reason, Paul did not realize this. There are two possible explanations: it might be that Paul’s eyesight was bad (this is speculated to be a physical condition from which he suffered – based upon a variety of Scriptures), or it may be that Paul simply did not know what the guy looked like and assumed he was not even there. In any event, Paul essentially apologizes.

This is off to a bad start!

So, Paul changes course rather rapidly by throwing the entire Sanhedrin into an uproar by saying that he was being judged for the hope of the resurrection from the dead. What a sly political move! The Sadducees were the theological liberals who did not believe in such things as the resurrection or angels, etc.  On the other hand, the Pharisees were the conservatives who affirmed these teachings, along with all of the Old Testament (and not just the writings of Moses). Paul’s move here would be sort of like someone yelling out in the U.S. House of Representatives that they were being excessively persecuted by the government because of a wrongful burden of unjust taxes!

It was quickly clear to the Roman commander that he was going to learn nothing from this gang, and in fact he had to again rescue Paul from being torn to pieces like an old sock being pulled apart by two dogs in a tug-of-war.

The second part of today’s reading speaks about the uncovering and reporting of a plot to kill the Apostle Paul. A pretense was to be made to have Paul again come before the Sanhedrin, and to kill him as he was being transported. This leads into tomorrow’s reading.

But to conclude today, look again at the statement of God to Paul in verse 11, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”  Paul’s unpleasant circumstances of gangs threatening to kill him, being beaten, and thrown into prisons … these events had nothing to do with Paul’s character or actions, but rather it related to a larger plan of God to use Paul in a bigger way. And so, not every bad event that arrives on our doorsteps has necessarily something to do with errant behavior on our part; it may rather be God’s sovereign intervention in our lives that finds its outworking in convoluted and circuitous paths – even some we don’t appreciate … some that seem like we are lost and alone in the dark. Take heart; be faithful; serve God; trust him for clarity another day.

Paul Before the Sanhedrin – Acts 22:30 – 23:11

30 The commander wanted to find out exactly why Paul was being accused by the Jews. So the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and all the members of the Sanhedrin to assemble. Then he brought Paul and had him stand before them.

23 Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

Those who were standing near Paul said, “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”

Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.)

There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.

11 The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

The Plot to Kill Paul – 23:12-22

12 The next morning some Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. 13 More than forty men were involved in this plot. 14 They went to the chief priests and the elders and said, “We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul. 15 Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here.”

16 But when the son of Paul’s sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.

17 Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, “Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him.” 18 So he took him to the commander.

The centurion said, “Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you.”

19 The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, “What is it you want to tell me?”

20 He said: “Some Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him. 21 Don’t give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request.”

22 The commander dismissed the young man with this warning: “Don’t tell anyone that you have reported this to me.”

Trump, and High Trump! – Acts 22:22-29

No, I’m not talking here about Donald.  Rather, the title is a reference to how many card games have one suit (the category determined by a symbol or color) that in the course of the playing of a hand will carry greater power than the others; and this is called “trump.” And then within that suit, there is the card with the greatest value that is called the “high trump.”

In the Roman era, those folks who were citizens of Rome had a special sort of “trump” over other people. Though they could be detained, it was strictly illegal for them to be scourged without trial and just cause for any harsh treatment.

So as Paul is being stretched out for a beating, he plays the trump card. The power of it is immediately evident in the way the entire mood in the barracks changes. The centurion, upon hearing this interesting information, immediately takes it to the senior officer. The commander himself goes to Paul to query about the truth of this assertion. They had all probably assumed that this ordinary fellow whom they had previously even thought was some Egyptian revolutionary was certainly no Roman citizen. These soldiers were in serious trouble if they violated this right. The commander reveals to Paul that he himself was a Roman – a citizenship that was only obtainable to him through a great price, presumably a bribe! But Paul was born with it from his parents – the circumstances of which are entirely unknown.

So what kind of trump do you have? American citizenship is certainly worth something in most places. People risk everything to come to this country in hopes of attaining it. But any trump of this world is merely a power of this world – therefore temporary. But through faith in Christ and adoption into God’s family, we not only possess the trump of the suit which is the most powerful in the game, we possess the highest of all trump – the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is this that gives us eternal life, the winning hand at the end of it all, even when earthly trump fades.

The knowledge of this “trump” made Paul the bold soul that he was. It was this perspective that made him able to say, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Today’s Reading

It is helpful to begin today’s passage with a quick restatement of the several verses leading into it. Paul was giving his testimonial speech to the throngs of Jews who had nearly beaten him to death. They were listening reasonably well … until … the last statement …

…. 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.’ ”

Paul the Roman Citizen – Acts 22:22-29

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!”

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.

Hey, Let’s Have a Riot! – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

Well, that title probably just got this post read by a whole bunch of folks at the National Security Administration (NSA). To them I say, “Hi guys – I welcome you to read through the book of Acts with us! Hah! You think you guys have got problems?! This passage even mentions an Egyptian revolutionary leader and 4,000 terrorists in the wilderness. See how relevant the Bible is!”

So, today we see again where the Apostle Paul gets arrested – thankfully – since he would have otherwise been beaten to death by the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jewish crowds were certainly confused about exactly who Paul was, but in some general way at least, many of them seemed to know he had a history as a trouble-maker. We can well imagine what the rumor mill was circulating about him. He was known to be too friendly with Gentiles – having been seen around town with a particular fellow from Ephesus. The crowd wrongly assumed that Paul had brought Trophimus into the Temple, but the accusation was more than sufficient to get the masses aroused. After all, who doesn’t like a good riot?

Well, the Romans don’t!! They rush into the crowd and “rescue” Paul by arresting him and putting him into chains. With the crowd chanting and the Romans hauling him off to the barracks, Paul gets the bright idea of giving a speech to the crowd! Hey, great speakers never like to pass up a big audience!

Granted the request, Paul motions to the crowd to become silent and listen to him. (And this is what amazes me…) They do! He begins a defense before them in the common local language of the day, rehearsing his experiences of being a former persecutor of “The Way” before his incredible conversion experience. It is a great testimony.

It all goes well until the final sentence: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to read what happens next!

The Scriptures tell us in several places that we should be ready at all times to share the story of our faith and to give an account for it and the hope that is to be found in Christ. Paul really lived this out! We probably usually think this will happen in a happy and positive place of good feelings amidst seekers who genuinely want to hear our story. But maybe it does not always have to be in that context … maybe sometimes there are also opportunities in the midst of criticism and opposition – even when it will not be popular. God can use it all.

Paul Arrested – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)

30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.

33 The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. 35 When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. 36 The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”

Paul Speaks to the Crowd – Acts 21:27 – 22:21

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.”

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:

22 “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.

Then Paul said: “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. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 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.

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 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.’ ”