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God’s Word for You

Acts 21:37-40 On the steps

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 11, 2021

37 Just as Paul was about to be taken into the barracks, he said to the commanding officer, “Is it permitted for me to say something to you?” He replied, “You know Greek? 38 Aren’t you the Egyptian who stirred up a rebellion some time ago and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city. Please let me speak to these people.” 40 Then, with permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. A deep silence fell, and he spoke to them in the Hebrew language,  saying,

Standing on the top of the stairs before the doors of the Fortress of Antonia, Paul turned to his captor and asked, in the politest possible terms (and in excellent, almost classical Greek), whether it was permitted for him to say anything. The response from the Colonel was an astonished, “You know Greek?” He was obviously surprised by Paul. He had assumed, based on the fury of the crowd, that he was one of “Jerusalem’s Most Wanted.” The man in question was an Egyptian who had led a rebellion (as the Colonel reports) and had taken some 4,000 sicarii or assassins into the desert. Lenski’s account is brief and informative: “They made the practice of mingling with the crowds on the Temple grounds, especially at the time of the Jewish festivals, when they would carry their daggers under their cloaks and suddenly whip them out to stab to death such persons whom they wanted to make away with. They were also hired to commit murder, and one of their victims was the high priest Jonathan who was killed at the instigation of the present procurator Felix” (Acts p. 895). The same Egyptian had also incited a riot of about thirty thousand against the Romans on the Mount of Olives. The Colonel hoped he had caught this man, and we can understand his shock (and disappointment) as he learned the truth. This shock is evident to us because the Colonel completely missed the significance of Paul saying that he was “a citizen of an important city.” Tarsus was the Roman capital of that province, and Paul was declaring himself to be a Roman citizen (which he’ll have to bring up again, Act 22:25).

Paul was standing at the top of the steps that led into the Roman fortress that butted up against the Temple. How often had Jews looked over to their right as they were entering through the gates with resentment, fear, or even hatred at those steps and what they stood for? A foreign power was in control of Judea, not any king of the Jews. Now Paul stood on those steps to proclaim something else, the true King of the Jews. Once again, Paul was in a position to defend himself as innocent, but in doing so he had another opportunity, which was to proclaim Christ to everyone who would hear him. So, surrounded by Roman soldiers, on the steps of the Roman fortress in Jerusalem, on the perimeter of the Temple itself and with permission from the officer in charge, Paul opened his mouth to speak. He could have continued on in Greek. We can safely assume that most Jews in Jerusalem were multi-lingual, and would have understood Greek and Hebrew, but Aramaic was what they spoke at home at the dinner table. This is the language Luke means when he says “in the Hebrew language.” Aramaic had been the everyday tongue of the Jews since the return from the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezra each have Aramaic sections in their books. So Paul was ready to speak to his fellow Jews in their own familiar tongue, even though they were the ones who had swarmed as a mob and tried to kill him. He wasn’t so much worried about his body as he was concerned about their souls. It was time to speak up, right here, right now. Before we look at Paul’s words, let’s remember his motive; his goal.

“He who wins souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30). This is what Paul was battling to do. Out on his missionary journeys, Paul battled and strove to rescue the lost souls of the Gentiles. Here on the steps leading up out of the Temple, he was battling and striving to rescue the lost souls of the Jews. He was in a very real sense offering them a hand to ascend the very steps that were leading spiritually up and out of the Temple, out of the sacrifices that only foreshadowed Christ, to the true worship of Jesus Christ himself. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,” he wrote, “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Romans 9:2-4). Israel had been chosen by God at a time when it was nothing, a tiny family touched by the grace of God while God rejected the Gentiles. But “the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith. But Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works. They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone.’” (Romans 9:30-32). That stumbling stone was Christ. While Paul was with the Gentiles, he preached Christ to people who knew nothing of Christ or Moses. But when he was with the Jews, he had to preach Christ to people who knew Moses and who hated Christ. But whatever their feelings or opinions, he had to preach Christ.

In Ezekiel’s strange vision of the Temple, a glimpse of heaven to a man who had trained to be a priest, he was shown an architectural miracle: “The structure surrounding the temple was built in ascending stages, so that the rooms widened as one went upward” (Ezekiel 41:7). This is a sermon showing that the grace of God increases and widens; it welcomes in more and more of mankind. Christ is the only entrance, but Christ is made available to all people. This is something that Paul’s countrymen were bigoted about, and racial hatred was commonplace. But God wants us to understand that the true house of Israel is no longer just one physical family, but all of those who put their trust in Jesus. As the Lord says through his prophet: “I will show myself holy through them in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God” (Ezekiel 39:27-28). Jew or Gentile, Paul shows that everyone has a place with God through the blood of Jesus. His forgiveness covers over the sins of all; his righteousness is offered to everyone who puts their faith in him. Trust him.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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