THE FIVE TRIALS OF PAUL
Part I - The Mob
37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:
1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”
2 And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said:
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. 4 I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.
12 “And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, 13 came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. 14 And he said, The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; 15 for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
17 “When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw him saying to me, Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ 19 And I said, ‘Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him.’ 21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
22 Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23 And as they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, 24 the tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging, to find out why they were shouting against him like this. 25 But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” 26 When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” 27 So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28 The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” 29 So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. 30 But on the next day, desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews, he unbound him and commanded the chief priests and all the council to meet, and he brought Paul down and set him before them.
— Acts 21:37-22:30, ESV
The Lord Jesus Christ endured five trials after His arrest. He appeared before Annas, then Caiaphas, then the Sanhedrin (Council), then Herod Antipas, then Governor Pontius Pilate. The death sentence the Jews sought was carried out by the Roman government, and the rest is the greatest history ever told.
Next to Jesus, there is no greater figure in church history than the Apostle Paul. Like the Christ he served, Paul was unjustly arrested and put through five trials. His judges in succession were a Jewish mob, the Sanhedrin (Council), Governor Felix, Governor Festus, then Herod Agrippa II.
Today we focus on the very first trial, an impromptu hearing held immediately after Paul’s arrest. It was a speedy trial with a quick, prejudiced verdict. The only good thing about it was the terrific testimony given when the defendant took the stand.
A Speedy Trial
The case of Paul versus the mob is a classic matchup of good versus evil. Paul’s good virtue has been evident throughout the book of Acts, at least since Saul became Paul. Mobs, on the other hand, never come off good, do they? No one ever comments on that wonderful mob. Only negative descriptions apply. There are lynch mobs, crime mobs, mob justice, or a mob at the store.
This mob, a lynch mob seeking mob justice, consisted of pharisaical jews (like Paul used to be) who took the law and Paul into their own hands with the intention of beating him to death. They felt justified because Roman law offered religious liberties allowing the Israelites to carry out capital punishment against anyone who profaned the Jewish Temple. This was the false charge made against Paul, for both the pre and post Christian Paul loved and respected the Jews and the Temple. He was even on a mission to prove it when he was arrested.
The other charges the mob made, however, were true. They accused him of being a Christian. Furthermore, Paul was seeking to convert Jews to Christianity, and some members of the mob had witnessed him doing it in the synagogues in Asia. Then to beat all, Paul was seeking to go all over the world and bring non-Jews to the heretofore-for-Jews-only God.
It was this last charge, and Paul’s very mention of God’s love for the Gentiles, that called for an abrupt verdict.
A Prejudiced Verdict
Some trials are over before they begin, if the jury is prejudiced enough. Tom Robinson never had a chance, even with Atticus Finch as his attorney. In more tragic, true life, Emmett Till’s murderers never feared conviction from that all-white jury in Mississippi. Prejudice plans the outcome before the facts are revealed.
This mob had made up its mind against Paul, too. Their prejudice inflamed their passions. Pharisaical Jews hated Gentiles in that era in the same way racist Whites hated Blacks in the worst pages of American history. Nothing would do for those Jews but for Paul to die.
And die Paul would have done, had it not been for the police captain who stood between him and the mob. Realizing Paul spoke at least three languages, and leaning that Paul hailed from the elite city of Tarsus, and upon hearing Paul was a Roman citizen, the police captain decided habeas corpus was due.
So he allowed Paul to speak (the main point we shall arrive at in a moment), heard the mob’s verdict of death, but overruled their prejudice. Paul’s citizenship saved him, because a Roman officer could not torture or kill a Roman citizen without due process, which means Paul was due another trial (and another, and another, and another).
A Terrific Testimony
Looking back on this trial leaves nothing good to say about the mob. We can commend the tribune, or police captain, for doing his duty in the face of adverse circumstances, and for saving Paul’s life, at least for the moment. But the best thing about this terrible trial was the terrific testimony given by Paul.
Paul had given his testimony before and would do so again on many occasions. Biographical sketches of Paul are splashed throughout Luke’s Acts and Paul’s epistles. But hardly will you find any finer and fuller testimony of Christian salvation than in this one.
Paul identified with the sinners. He let the mob know he was once one of them. He was candid, not condescending, confessing his own pharisaical nature and prosecutorial conduct towards “this Way” (a term used often to describe the early Christianity, probably taken from Jesus’ statement in John 14:6; see also Acts 9:2, 19:9, 24:14, 24:22).
Paul would soon write to one of his proteges that he was the chief of sinners (ref. 1 Timothy 1:15), because of his prior persecution of Christ and His church. Those who persecute Christians persecute Christ, and unrepentant persecutors will have Hell to pay. On the other extreme, those who simply ignore God’s word and Christ’s church actually ignore God, and ignorance will be no excuse on judgement day. We’ve all sinned in many forms and fashions (ref. Romans 3:23), and every salvation testimony begins with the honest and humble confession of sin.
Paul spoke of how God saved him. He recounted how Jesus came to him on the Damascus Road. He credited the bold witness of Ananias with helping him to understand the gospel, baptism, and the Christian life. There is not one mention of anything Paul did for God, except sin. Instead, his salvation story was about what God had done for him, choosing him, coming to him, changing him, saving him.
Few conversions are as dramatic as Paul’s, but every salvation story follows the same road. There is deep conviction of sin. There is a look to the Lord, who was already looking at us, and a total surrender to who He is and what He has done to save us. In repentance and faith, a new Christian is born, born to worship, serve, and obey the Lord.
Paul was baptized by the church in Damascus and eventually became involved with the church in Antioch. On a trip to Jerusalem he realized his life’s calling, missionary service throughout the Gentile world. Paul was on this mission when he was arrested and faced this first of his five trials.
The assurance of salvation is found in living a worshipful, obedient, mission-minded life for Christ. Paul’s testimony reveals that service is the reason that God saves us from sin. Such service is often costly, as Paul had discovered. But the price is nothing compared to the price Jesus paid for His people.
Paul will go on to four more trials, simply for being a Christian and broadcasting the gospel. He will live under some kind of arrest and imprisonment for most of the rest of his life. Only when his life is completely spent for Christ will he find true freedom. The same is true for you and me.
Can you testify of coming to grips with you own sin? Can you recount how the Lord saved you, and give yourself no credit in the process? Can you give testimony of how you have worshipped, obeyed, and served the Lord?
If you profess to be a Christian and seek to share the gospel, be sure your trials will come. Hopefully they will not be as severe as those Paul had to endure. But if you were put on trial like Paul, just for being a Christian and broadcasting the gospel, would there be enough evidence to convict you?