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.” – Acts 21:37-22:5 ESV
At the close of chapter seven and the beginning of chapter eight, Luke introduced us to Saul for the very first time. Luke indicated that Saul “was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:3 NLT). He was a man on a mission. He was obsessed. And he honestly thought he was doing God a huge favor by ridding the world of any and all Christians he could get his hands on. In fact, in today’s chapter, he explains the mindset behind his passionate persecution of the church.
3 I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. 4 And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT
He was highly motivated and demonstrated extreme eagerness to please and honor God through his actions. We know that when he had stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, he not only held the coats of those who threw the stones, he “agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” (Acts 8:1 NLT). He was convinced that the killing of Christians was a good thing. He saw them as dangerous heretics and criminals who opposed the Mosaic law and the Jewish religion. But something had happened to Saul. He had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus and his life had been dramatically transformed and the trajectory of his life had been radically altered. He was no longer the same man.
And as he stood in the Court of the Gentiles, having been rescued by the Roman cohort, from a beating at the hands of the Jews, he recounted to the crowd just what had happened to change his life. He asked the captain of the Roman soldiers if he could be given a chance to address the crowd, the very ones who had been attempting to end his life. Paul saw this as a unique and unavoidable opportunity to share his story. And when the captain, having learned that Paul was not the radical Egyptian revolutionary he supposed him to be, allowed him to speak. And Paul addressed the crowd of Jews in their own language.
Not only did Paul address the crowd in their own language of Aramaic, he let them know that he was one of them, a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia. He was a Hellenistic Jew, born in the Roman-controlled region of Cilicia. Tarsus was a major city, located in what is today southern Turkey. Paul wanted the Jews in his audience to know that he was a Jew, not some upstart Greek-speaking troublemaker. And he proceeded to give them his curriculum vitae, explaining that he had a significant Hebrew heritage and a formal education that was more than a little bit impressive. Paul wasn’t bragging, but he was attempting to get his audience’s attention by highlighting his religious and educational resumes.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.” – Acts 22:3 NLT
He wasn’t a newcomer to Jerusalem or some kind of country bumpkin from the sticks. He had been raised in the capital city and trained under one of the most revered of all the Jewish rabbis and teachers of the day. He was well-educated and more than familiar with the religion of his forefathers. Paul had been a Pharisee. and he would later describe himself as having been one of the best of all the Pharisees.
5 I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. 6 I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT
Paul had been a law-keeping, card-carrying Pharisee who had an impeccable record of human-based righteousness. He had Hebrew blood coursing through his veins and a no-holds-barred obsession with the Hebrew faith. If you looked up the word, “zealous” in the dictionary, you would have found Paul’s picture out beside it. In fact, Paul referred to himself as “being zealous for God.” The Greek word he used is zēlōtēs, and it refers to someone who burns with zeal for something, but also someone who defends and upholds something, vehemently contending for it with all his power. Paul had seen his pre-conversion mission as somehow God-ordained. But he had really appointed himself, having determined that he was doing the will of God, without having ever received his assignment from God. Paul was a self-appointed vigilante for God. He was kicking tail and taking names. His mission in life was to eliminate any and all Christians from the face of the earth – one at a time, if necessary. And Paul openly confessed, “I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). He had taken his job very seriously. And he had not been content to restrict his efforts to the city of Jerusalem. He had gone to the high priest and solicited formal documents that would allow him to take his little show on the road, seeking out Christians wherever he could find them.
Back in chapter eight, Luke recorded that “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:1-4 NLT). And he had received official papers giving him permission and power to search and destroy all Christians found in the city of Damascus.
I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. – Acts 22:5 NLT
And he challenged his listeners to fact-check his claim by talking to the high priest himself. He would corroborate the authenticity of his story.
But this is where his tale takes a dramatic turn. He had set them up. They were on pins and needles, having heard him share some insights into his life story that none of them would have ever guessed in a million years. Here was a former Pharisee and student of the famous Gamaliel, and he had just been accused of teaching against the law of Moses and of desecrating the temple by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the area reserved only for Jews. How could he have done such a thing? What had forced this Pharisee to abandon his Jewish faith and turn his back on his own people? At this point, the crowd is far less interested in beating Paul, as they are in hearing what he has to say. They were mesmerized and intrigued. And Paul was going to take advantage of their rapt attention to share the most dramatic and unexpected part of his story. He had been one of them. He had grown up in the same culture and under the same conditions as they had. He had been circumcised, taught in the synagogue, attended the various feasts and festivals, trained as a Pharisee, and emersed in the rights, rituals and religious rules of Judaism. So, what had happened? That’s where Paul will pick up his story:
“As I was on the road, approaching Damascus…” – Acts 22:6 NLT
Remember. He had been on a mission. He thought he was acting on behalf of God. He had truly believed he was doing God a favor. He was zealous and energetic in his efforts. He had been determined and disciplined to carry out his mission. And, like the people standing in the crowd, listening to his words, Paul had been convinced that he was right. He had fully believed that his agenda had been God’s agenda. But he was in for a big surprise and so were they.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson