Sketches From The Life of Paul
by Ellen G. White
Chapter 20: Paul a Prisoner
On the following day Paul proceeded to comply with the counsel of the elders. There were among the believers in Jerusalem at that time [p. 215] four persons who were under the Nazarite vow, [* Numbers 6.] the term of which had nearly expired. Certain sacrifices for purification were yet to be offered, which were so costly as to be impossible for a very poor man. It was considered by the Jews a pious act for a wealthy man to defray the necessary expenses and thus assist his poorer brethren to complete their vow. This, Paul had consented to do for the four Christian Nazarites. The apostle himself was poor, working with his own hands for his daily bread, yet he willingly incurred this expense, and accompanied the Nazarites to the temple to unite with them in the ceremonies of the seven days of purification.
Those who had counseled Paul to perform this act of concession had not fully considered the great peril to which he would be exposed. At this season, strangers from all regions of the world thronged the streets of Jerusalem, and delighted to congregate in the temple courts. As Paul, in the fulfillment of his commission, had borne the gospel to the Gentiles, he had visited many of the world's largest cities, and was well known to thousands who came from foreign parts to attend the feast. For him to enter the temple on a public occasion was to risk his life. For several days he passed in and out among the worshipers, apparently unnoticed; but before the close of the specified period, as he was conversing with the priest concerning the sacrifices to be offered, he was recognized by some of the Jews from Asia. These men had been defeated in their controversy with him in the synagogue at Ephesus, and had become more and more enraged against him as they witnessed his success in [p. 216] raising up a Christian church in that city. They now saw him where they had not supposed that he would trust himself,—within the very precincts of the temple. Now he was in their power, and they determined to make him suffer for his boldness.
With the fury of demons they rushed upon him, crying, "Men of Israel, help! This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place." And as the people in great excitement flocked to the scene another accusation was added to excite their passions to the highest pitch,—"and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place."
By the Jewish law, it was a crime punishable with death for an uncircumcised person to enter the inner courts of the sacred edifice. As Paul had been seen in the city in company with Trophimus, an Ephesian, it was conjectured that he had brought him into the temple. This he had not done, and being himself a Jew, his act in entering the temple was no violation of the law. But though the charge was wholly false, it served to stir up the popular prejudice. As the cry was taken up and borne through the temple courts, the vast throngs gathered there were thrown into the wildest excitement. The news quickly spread through Jerusalem, "and all the city was moved, and the people ran together."
That an apostate from Israel should presume to profane the temple at the very time when thousands had come from all parts of the world to worship there, excited the fiercest passions of the mob. Only their reverence for the temple saved the apostle from being torn in pieces on the [p. 217] spot. With violent blows and shouts of vindictive triumph, they dragged him from the sacred inclosure. Now that they had him in their power, they were determined not to lose their prey. He should be stoned to death, as Stephen had been years before. They had already reached the court of the Gentiles, and the Levites had closed the gates behind them, lest the holy place should be polluted with blood, when they were interrupted in their murderous designs.
News had been carried to Claudius Lysias, the commander of the Roman garrison, that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Lysias well knew the turbulent elements with which he had to deal, and with his officers and a strong force of armed men he rushed down to the temple court. Ignorant of the cause of the tumult, but seeing that the rage of the multitude was directed against Paul, the Roman captain concluded that he must be the Egyptian rebel who had so successfully eluded their vigilance. He commanded that Paul be seized, and bound between two soldiers, a hand being chained to each. He then questioned those who seemed to be leaders in the tumult as to who their prisoner was, and of what crime he had been guilty. Many voices were at once raised in loud and angry accusation; but on account of the uproar the chief captain could obtain no satisfactory information, and he ordered that the prisoner be removed to the castle, where were the Roman barracks.
The rage of the multitude was unbounded when they saw their prey about to be taken from their grasp; and they surged and pressed so closely about Paul that the soldiers were compelled to bear him in their arms up the staircase [p. 218] which led from the temple. Priests and people were actuated by the same Satanic spirit that moved them thirty years before to clamor for the blood of the Son of God. From the staircase and from the crowd below again echoed the deafening shout, "Away with him! Away with him!"
In the midst of the tumult the apostle remained calm and self-possessed. His mind was stayed upon God, and he knew that angels of Heaven were about him. He could not leave the temple without making an effort to set the truth before his countrymen. He therefore turned to the commanding officer, and in a deferential manner addressed him in Greek, saying, "May I speak with thee?" In astonishment Lysias inquired if he was indeed mistaken in supposing the prisoner to have been the ring-leader of a band of robbers and murderers in the late rebellion. In reply, Paul declared that he was no Egyptian, but a Jew of "Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city," and begged that he might be permitted to speak to the people. The Lord had given his servant an influence over the Roman officer, and the request was granted.
"Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people." The gesture attracted their attention, while his bearing commanded respect. The scene changed as suddenly as when Christ drove the traffickers from the temple courts. Quiet fell upon the sea of heads below, and then Paul addressed the throng in the Hebrew language, saying, "Men, brethren, and fathers, hear ye my defense which I make now unto you." At the sound of that holy tongue, [p. 219] there was "a great silence," and in the universal hush, he continued:—
"I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day." None could deny the apostle's statements, and there were many present who could testify to their truthfulness. He then acknowledged his former zeal in persecuting "this way unto the death," and narrated the circumstances of his wonderful conversion, telling his hearers how his own proud heart had been brought to bow to the crucified Nazarene. Had he attempted to enter into argument with his opponents, they would have stubbornly refused to listen to his words; but this relation of his experience was attended with a convincing power that for the time seemed to soften and subdue their hearts.
He then endeavored to show that his work among the Gentiles had not been from choice. He had desired to labor for his own nation; but in that very temple the voice of God had spoken to him in holy vision, directing his course "far hence, unto the Gentiles." Hitherto the people had given close attention, but when he reached the point in his history where he was appointed Christ's ambassador to the Gentiles, their fury broke forth anew. Accustomed to look upon themselves as the only people favored of God, they could not endure the thought that the despised Gentiles should share the privilege which had hitherto belonged exclusively to themselves. National pride bore down every argument which [p. 220] could influence their reason or command their reverence. An outburst of rage interrupted his speech, as all with one voice cried out, "Away with such a fellow from the earth; for it is not fit that he should live!" In their excitement they flung off their garments, as they had done years before at the martyrdom of Stephen, and threw dust into the air with frantic violence.
This fresh outbreak threw the Roman captain into great perplexity. He had not understood Paul's Hebrew address, and concluded from the general excitement that his prisoner must be guilty of some great crime. The loud demands of the people that Paul be delivered into their hands made the commander tremble. He ordered him to be immediately taken unto the barracks and examined by scourging, that he might be forced to confess his guilt.
The body of the apostle was stretched out, like that of a common malefactor, to receive the lashes. There was no friend to stand by him. He was in a Roman barrack, surrounded only by brutal soldiers. But, as on a former occasion at Philippi, he now rescued himself from this degradation, and gained advantage for the gospel, by appealing to his rights as a Roman citizen.
He quietly said to the centurion who had been appointed to superintend this examination, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?" The centurion immediately went and told the chief captain, saying, "Take heed what thou doest; for this man is a Roman."
On hearing this, Lysias was alarmed for himself. A Roman might not be punished before he had been legally condemned, nor punished in [p. 221] this manner at all. The chief captain well knew how stringent were the laws protecting the rights of citizenship, and that if the statement were true he had, in his proceedings against Paul, violated these laws.
He immediately went in person to the prisoner, and questioned him concerning the truth of the centurion's report. Paul assured him that he was indeed a Roman citizen; and when the officer exclaimed, "With a great sum obtained I this freedom," Paul declared, "But I was free born." The preparation for torture went no farther, and those commissioned to conduct his examination left him. Paul was, however, still held in custody, as the nature of his offense had not yet been inquired into.
On the next day the chief captain summoned a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrim, with the high priest, and brought Paul down from the castle, under the protection of a sufficient force to guard against any attempt upon his life. The apostle now stood in the presence of that council of which he himself had been a member,—that council by which Stephen had been condemned. The memory of that scene, and of his own efforts to secure the condemnation of the servant of Christ, came vividly before his mind. As he looked upon those who were to be his judges, he recognized many who had been his associates in the school of Gamaliel, and who had also united with him in persecuting the disciples of Jesus. They were now as eager to put Paul to death as they had been to destroy Stephen.
The apostle's bearing was calm and firm. The peace of Christ, ruling in his heart, was expressed upon his countenance. But his look of conscious [p. 222] innocence offended his accusers, and when he fearlessly addressed them, "Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day," their hatred was kindled afresh, and the high priest ordered him to be smitten upon the mouth. At this inhuman command, Paul exclaimed, "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall, for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?" These words were not an outburst of passion. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Paul uttered a prophetic denunciation similar to that which Christ had uttered in rebuking the hypocrisy of the Jews. The judgment pronounced by the apostle was terribly fulfilled when the iniquitous and hypocritical high priest was murdered by assassins in the Jewish war. But the bystanders regarded the words of Paul as profane, and exclaimed with horror, "Revilest thou God's high priest?" Paul answered, with his usual courtesy, "I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people."
Paul was convinced that he could not hope for a fair trial and just decision at this tribunal. And his natural penetration and shrewdness enabled him to take advantage of the circumstances. The Sanhedrim council was made up of Pharisees and Sadducees, who had long been at variance upon the doctrine of the resurrection. Knowing this, the apostle cried out, in clear, decided tones, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question."
These words, appealing to the sympathies of [p. 223] those who agreed with him in regard to the resurrection, brought a change in the council. The two parties began to dispute among themselves, and thus the strength of their opposition against Paul was broken; for however well united they were in warring against the gospel, they were divided by an insurmountable barrier in other matters of religious faith. The Pharisees flattered themselves that they had found in Paul a champion against their powerful rivals; and their hatred against the Sadducees was even greater than their hatred against Christ and his apostles. With great vehemence they now began to vindicate Paul, using nearly the same language that Gamaliel had used many years before: "We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God."
The sentence was hardly completed before the judgment hall became a scene of the wildest confusion. The Sadducees were eagerly trying to get possession of the apostle, that they might put him to death, and the Pharisees were as eagerly trying to protect him. Again it seemed that he would be torn in pieces by the angry combatants. Lysias, being informed of what was taking place, immediately gave orders to his soldiers to bring the prisoner without delay back to the fortress.
Thus closed the scenes of this eventful day. Evening found Paul still in the Roman barrack, the rude soldiery his sole companions, their brutal jests and revolting blasphemy the only sounds that fell upon his ear. He was not now nerved up by the presence of his enemies, nor was he supported by the sympathy of his friends. [p. 224] The future seemed enveloped in darkness. He feared that his course might not have been pleasing to God. Could it be that he had made a mistake after all in this visit to Jerusalem? Had his great desire to be in union with his brethren led to this disastrous result?
The position which the Jews as God's professed people occupied before an unbelieving world, caused the apostle intense anguish of spirit. How would those heathen officers look upon their conduct,—claiming to be worshipers of Jehovah, and assuming sacred office, yet giving themselves up to the control of blind, unreasoning passion, seeking to destroy even their brethren who dared to differ from them in religious faith, and turning their most solemn deliberative council into a scene of strife and wild confusion such as Roman senators or magistrates would not stoop to engage in. The cause of his God had been reproached, his national religion brought into disrepute.
And now he was in prison, and his enemies, in their desperate malice, would resort to any means to put him to death. Could it be that his work for the churches was closed, and that ravening wolves were to enter in, not sparing the flock? The cause of Christ was near his heart, and with deep anxiety he contemplated the perils of the scattered churches, exposed to the persecutions of just such men as he had encountered in the Sanhedrim council. In distress and discouragement he wept and prayed. The Lord was not unmindful of his servant. He had guarded him from the murderous throng in the temple courts, he had been with him before the Sanhedrim council, he was with him in the fortress, and was pleased to reveal himself to his faithful witness. As on [p. 225] trying occasions several times before, Paul was now comforted and encouraged by a vision in the night season. Such as visitation had been granted him in the house of Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth, when he was contemplating leaving the city for a more safe and prosperous field. And now the Lord stood by him and said, "Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome." Paul had long looked forward to a visit to Rome; he greatly desired to witness for Christ there, but had felt that his purposes were frustrated by the enmity of the Jews. He little thought even now, that it would be as a prisoner of the Lord, that he would go to Rome.
In the peaceful hours of the night, while the Lord was visiting his discouraged servant, the enemies of Paul were eagerly plotting his destruction. "And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. And they were more than forty which had made this conspiracy." Here was such a fast as the Lord through Isaiah had condemned many years before,—a fast "for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness." The Jews thus sought to give to their diabolical plan the sanction of religion. Having fortified themselves by their dreadful oath, they came to the chief priests and members of the Sanhedrim, and made known their purpose. It was proposed to request that Paul be again brought before the court as if for a further investigation of his case, and that the assassins would lie in wait and murder him while on his way from the fortress. Such was the horrible [p. 226] crime masked under a show of religious zeal. Instead of rebuking the Satanic scheme, the priests and rulers eagerly acceded to it. Paul had spoken the truth when he compared Ananias to a whited sepulcher.
The next day the plot would have been carried into effect, had not God by his providence interposed to save the life of his servant. When Peter had been made a prisoner and condemned to death, the brethren had offered earnest prayer to God day and night for his deliverance. But no such interest was manifested in behalf of him who was looked upon as an apostate from Moses, a teacher of dangerous doctrines. It was not to the elders whose counsel had brought him into this dangerous position, but to the watchful sympathy of a relative, that Paul owed his escape from a violent death.
A nephew of the apostle, to whom he was strongly attached, heard of the murderous conspiracy, and without delay reported the matter to his uncle. Paul immediately called for one of the centurions, and requested him to take the young man to the commandant, saying that he had important information to give him. The youth was accordingly brought in before Claudius Lysias, who received him kindly, and taking him aside, inquired the nature of his message. The young man related the particulars of the conspiracy, and with deep feeling entreated the commandant not to grant the request which would be surely made, that Paul be again brought before the council. Lysias listened with close attention. He saw the difficulties of the situation, and instantly formed his plans. Choosing, however, not to reveal them, he dismissed the [p. 227] youth, with the single admonition: "See thou tell no man that thou hast showed these things to me."
When the young man had gone, the commandant "called unto him two centurions, saying, Make ready two hundred soldiers to go to Caesarea, and horsemen threescore and ten, and spearmen two hundred, at the third hour of the night; and provide them beasts, that they may set Paul on, and bring him safe unto Felix the governor."
Lysias gladly improved this opportunity to get Paul off his hands. He was the object of so great animosity, and his presence created so widespread an excitement, that a riot might occur among the people at any time, with consequences dangerous to the commandant himself. The Jews as a people were in a state of excitement and irritation, and tumults were of frequent occurrence. A short time previous, a Roman knight of far higher rank than Lysias himself, had been violently taken and dragged by the maddened Jews around the walls of Jerusalem, and finally beheaded, because he received a bribe from the Samaritans. Upon the suspicion of similar crimes, other high officials had been imprisoned and disgraced. Should Paul be murdered, the chief captain might be charged with having been bribed to connive at his death. There was now sufficient reason to send him away secretly, and thus get rid of an embarrassing responsibility.
It was important that no time be lost. At nine in the evening, the body of soldiers, with Paul in the midst, marched out of the fortress, and through the dark and silent streets of the city, and at a rapid pace pursued their journey toward Caesarea. At Antipatris, thirty-five miles [p. 228] from Jerusalem, the travelers halted. There was now little danger of attack, and in the morning the four hundred foot-soldiers were sent back to Jerusalem, while the horsemen continued their journey.
The distance from Antipatris to Caesarea was but twenty-five miles, and it was in the broad light of day that Paul, attended by "threescore and ten horsemen," entered the city. How unlike his present escort was the humble Christian company that had attended him on the journey from Caesarea but a few days before! Notwithstanding his changed surroundings, he was recognized by Philip and others of his Christian associates, whose hearts were shocked and saddened at the swift realization of their forebodings.
The centurion in charge of the detachment delivered his prisoner to Felix the governor, also presenting a letter with which he had been intrusted by the chief captain:—
"Claudius Lysias unto the most excellent governor Felix sendeth greeting. This man was taken of the Jews, and should have been killed of them; then came I with an army, and rescued him, having understood that he was a Roman. And when I would have known the cause wherefore they accused him, I brought him forth into their council; whom I perceived to be accused of questions of their law, but to have nothing laid to his charge worthy of death or of bonds. And when it was told me how that the Jews laid wait for the man, I sent straightway to thee, and gave commandment to his accusers also to say before thee what they had against him. Farewell."
After reading the communication, Felix inquired to what province the prisoner belonged, [p. 229] and being informed that he was of Cilicia, he ordered him to be kept in Herod's judgment hall, stating that he would hear the case when the accusers also should come from Jerusalem.
The case of Paul was not the first in which a servant of God had found among the heathen an asylum from the malice of the professed people of Jehovah. In their rage against Paul, the Jews had added another crime to the dark catalogue which marked the history of that people. They had still further hardened their hearts against the truth, and had rendered their doom more certain.
There are but few who perceive the full import of the words of Christ, when in the synagogue at Nazareth he announced himself as the Anointed One. He declared his mission to comfort, bless, and save the sorrowing and the sinful, and then, seeing that pride and unbelief controlled the hearts of his hearers, he reminded them how God had in time past turned away from his chosen people, because of their unbelief and rebellion, and had manifested himself to those in a heathen land who had not rejected the light from Heaven. The widow of Sarepta and Naaman the Syrian had lived up to all the light they had. Hence they were accounted more righteous than God's chosen people who had backslidden from him, and sacrificed principle to convenience and worldly honor.
It is impossible for the worldly and pleasure-loving to rightly value the messages of warning and reproof which God sends to correct the errors of his people. They cannot distinguish between the earnestness and zeal of the faithful servant, and the trifling, superficial spirit of him who is unfaithful. One declares that the sword [p. 230] is coming; the other puts far off the evil day. One faithfully reproves sin; the other excuses and palliates it. As the professed people of God depart from him and lose the simplicity of the faith, the words of his messengers seem to them unnecessarily harsh and severe. They cherish prejudice and unbelief, and finally place themselves fully on Satan's side. His suggestions seem pleasant and palatable; they are controlled, in spirit and opinion, by the arch-deceiver, and having permitted him to direct their thoughts, they soon permit him to direct their actions.
Christ presented before the assembly at Nazareth a fearful truth when he declared that with backsliding Israel there was no safety for the faithful messenger of God. They would not know his worth, or appreciate his labors. While they professed to have great zeal for the honor of God and the good of Israel, they were the worst enemies of both. They were by precept and example leading the people farther and farther from obedience to God and purity and simplicity of faith,—leading them where he could not reveal himself as their defense in the day of trouble. God sent Elijah to the widow of Sarepta, because he could not trust him with Israel.
These cutting reproofs, though presented by the Majesty of Heaven, the Jews of Nazareth refused to hear. They had but a moment before witnessed to the gracious words that proceeded from his lips; the Spirit of God was speaking to their hearts; but the instant a reflection was cast upon them,—at the first intimation that persons of other nations could be more worthy of the favor of God than they,—those proud, [p. 231] unbelieving Jews were frantic with rage. They would have taken the life of the Son of God, had not angels interposed for his deliverance. Those men of Nazareth manifested the same spirit toward Christ which their forefathers had manifested toward Elijah. Blinded by Satan, they could not perceive the divine character of the Son of God, or appreciate the truth and purity of his instructions.
The Saviour's words of reproof to the men of Nazareth apply in the case of Paul, not only to the unbelieving Jews, but to his own brethren in the faith. Had the leaders in the church fully surrendered their feelings of bitterness toward the apostle, and accepted him as one specially called of God to bear the gospel to the Gentiles, the Lord would have spared him to them to still labor for the salvation of souls. He who sees the end from the beginning, and who understands the hearts of all, saw what would be the result of the envy and jealousy cherished toward Paul. God had not in his providence ordained that Paul's labors should so soon end; but he did not work a miracle to counteract the train of circumstances to which their own course gave rise.
The same spirit is still leading to the same results. A neglect to appreciate and improve the provisions of divine grace, has deprived the church of many a blessing. How often would the Lord have prolonged the life of some faithful minister, had his labors been appreciated. But if the church permit the enemy of souls to pervert their understanding, so that they misrepresent and misinterpret the words and acts of the servant of Christ; if they allow themselves [p. 232] to stand in his way and hinder his usefulness, the Lord removes from them the blessing which he gave.
Satan is constantly working through his agents to dishearten and destroy those whom God has chosen to accomplish a great and good work. They may be ready to sacrifice even their own life for the advancement of the cause of Christ, yet the great deceiver will suggest doubts, distrust, jealousy, concerning them, that if entertained will undermine confidence in their integrity of character, and thus cripple their usefulness. Too often he succeeds in working through their own brethren, to bring upon them such sorrow and anguish of heart that God graciously interposes to give his persecuted servants rest. After the hands are folded upon the pulseless breast, after the voice of warning and encouragement is silent, then death may accomplish that which life has failed to do; then the obdurate may be aroused to see and prize the blessings they have cast from them.
The great work for us as Christians is not to criticise the character and motives of others, but to closely examine our own heart and life, to jealously guard ourselves against the suggestions of Satan. We should bear in mind that it is not the hearers of the law that are justified before God, but the doers of the law. If the principles of God's law rule in our hearts, we shall have the spirit of Christ; we shall manifest in our daily life that mercy which is better than sacrifice. Every Christian must be a learner in the school of Christ; and there is need of diligent and persevering effort to reach that standard of righteousness which God's word requires. [p. 233] Every one has a work to do to learn the lessons of justice, humility, patience, purity, and love. These traits of character are more precious in the sight of our Lord than offerings of gold or silver. They are more acceptable to him than the most costly sacrifice.
There is the same dislike of reproof and correction among the professed people of God to-day as in the days of our Saviour. There is the same disposition to lean toward the world and to follow its mocking shadows. The presence of ambitious, selfish, time-serving members is imperiling the church, whose greatest danger is from worldly conformity. Such members are constantly exerting an influence to unite the church more closely with the world. They are doing the work of Satan. When God sends his servants with words of warning or counsel, these traitors to their holy trust reject the Heavensent message, and thus not only slight the grace of Christ themselves, but lead others also to smother their convictions and lose the proffered blessing.
By resistance to the truth, the hearts of such are settling down into the fatal hardness of confirmed impenitence. They are deceiving themselves, and deceiving others. They are Christians by profession; they pay outward homage to Christ; they unite in the services of the sanctuary; and yet the heart, whose loyalty alone Jesus prizes, is estranged from him. They have a name to live, but are dead. They are left to the darkness they have chosen,—the blackness of eternal night.
It is a fearful thing for those who profess to be children of God, to cross the line of demarkation [p. 234] that should separate the church from the world. Such are Satan's most effective agents. He works through them with decision, zeal, and persistency, to devise and execute such enormities against those who are true to God, as the common sinner would seem incapable of. The very light they have slighted makes their darkness tenfold greater than it otherwise would be. When men refuse to accept the light which God in mercy sends them, they know not where they are going. They take only one step at a time away from the right path; but these successive steps lead directly to perdition. They place themselves on Satan's ground, and his spirit controls them. They cannot perceive the great change in themselves. None are transformed at once; but they enter Satan's school instead of the school of Christ, and the great deceiver educates them to do his work.Click here to read the next chapter: "Trial at Caesarea"