Defensive maneuvers

Maybe you’ve experienced this: you’re arguing so passionately with someone, you’re so wrapped up in your anger, that you soon forget why you’re fighting in the first place. Imagine someone walking in and asking, “Hey, what’s this all about?” You’d have to stop and think. In the heat of the moment, all you know is that you’re mad and you have to win.

And let’s face it: you’re probably not in the frame of mind to listen to reason.

. . .

Luke doesn’t give us the psychology of the Jerusalem mob’s rage at Paul, nor of the defense Paul gives before them. But I find it helpful to imagine the human context beneath the action. As we’ve seen, Paul had been loudly accused of defiling the temple by bringing Gentiles into it, which was indeed a capital offense. The already combustible crowd quickly exploded into a murderous mob, despite the fact that Paul was innocent of the charge. I imagine that many of the people who jumped into the fray didn’t even know what everyone was mad about. They were riot-ready. The fuel of anger was already there, and one false accusation was all that was needed to set it ablaze. 

You’d think that if Paul had the chance to defend himself, he’d ask for hard evidence. He’d declare his innocence and insist that his accusers prove his guilt: You say I brought a Gentile into the temple. Okay, which Gentile? I want names. What, you mean Trophimus the Ephesian? I happen to know that Trophimus is back in his hotel room watching football. Go see for yourself. So, are we done here?

It should have been easy enough, assuming enough people in the crowd were ready to be reasonable (or the Romans could figure out what was happening). But Paul was less interested in defending himself against that patently false charge than defending his mission, defending the very idea that God would extend his mercy to the Gentiles. That’s what was at stake, and he knew it.

The crowd had already begun to settle down when Paul took to the steps leading into the Antonia Fortress and motioned for quiet. Earlier, he had gotten the Roman tribune’s attention by speaking cultured Greek; Paul now switched to Aramaic to address the Jewish mob. When they heard him speaking in their own tongue, they became even quieter. He began:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. (Acts 22:3-5, NRSV)

When he spoke to the tribune, Paul emphasized his status as a citizen of Tarsus. With this crowd, however, such a statement would only have deepened their suspicion that he was at heart a pagan who merely looked like a Jew.

So he altered course: I’m a Jew. Yes, I was born in Tarsus, but actually, I was raised right here in Jerusalem, having come here as a boy to study the law under the esteemed Gamaliel. I was as zealous for God and the law as anyone here today — in fact, even more so. After all, I hunted down followers of the Way of Jesus; I’d clap them in irons and drag them back to Jerusalem. If you don’t believe me, ask the high priest and the council yourself. They had so much faith in my zeal for God that they even wrote me letters giving me the authority to represent them in Damascus!

The message here is not simply, I’m one of you. It’s something more like, I’m even more you than you. That’s the foundation for what he wants to say next: And then something happened, something divine, something life-changing. Please, listen to my story.

And that story, as we’ll see, begins on the road into Damascus.