One may wonder why religious discussion and persecution provoke conflict on both a personal and often on an international level as well. The worst wars of all time have been those that have been fought over religion. The imprisonment of the apostle Paul provides abundant testimony concerning the real issues that result in the white-hot heat of human conflict.
It is very common for people in the world to be proud of their race or nation of their birth. That is not a problem unless because of our pride we begin to look down on other people of other races or other nations and believe they are inferior to us. Eventually, as a result of those feelings, animosity and hatred develop between the people of different nations and different races. This happened in ancient times and is still happening today.
Ethnic prejudice and hatred is what caused the animosity against Paul when he was sent by the Lord as the apostle to the Gentiles. If you are non-Jewish and a Christian today, you owe a great debt of gratitude to the apostle Paul, who originally took the gospel to the Gentiles all over the world. His opening the gospel to the Gentiles caused the Jews to hate him. Eventually, he was captured in the temple by the outraged Jews who intended to kill him.
The Roman soldiers were oblivious to this intent. Being instructed by the Jewish leaders, the Roman commander figured that this fellow, Paul, must be a terrible criminal because of the way the Jews acted. So, as was customary in the Roman government, they decided to find out who this fellow really was. They would torture him until he told them the truth about what he had done. They stretched out Paul’s body to be scourged, but he had something at his disposal that the Roman commander did not know: the apostle was a citizen of Rome. The Bible says, “As they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?’ When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, ‘Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman’ ” (Acts 22:25, 26).
Hearing that, the Roman commander was then very afraid. He knew that if Paul should report him to the authorities, he would be in trouble for even having bound an uncondemned Roman citizen. The commander asked Paul, “ ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ The commander answered, ‘With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.’ And Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen’ ” (verses 27, 28).
Paul was now safe in the Roman barracks, but the next day the Roman commander wanted to know why he was accused by the Jews. The Roman commander commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear. Paul was released from his bonds and brought down before the council so the matter could be settled. “Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, ‘Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day’ ” (Acts 23:1). When he said that, the high priest was livid and commanded those that stood by him to slap him on the mouth (verse 2). Now this was contrary, not only to Roman law, but also to Jewish law. Paul could not legally be punished as a Roman citizen and scourged when he had not been convicted of a crime.
The same is true in the law of Moses, recorded in Deuteronomy 25. A man could not be punished until he had been convicted of a crime. The high priest was acting contrary to the law of Moses in commanding that Paul be slapped when he had not been convicted of any crime. So Paul said, “ ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law’ ” (Acts 23:3)?
When Paul said this, “Those who stood by said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’ Then Paul said, ‘I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” ’ ” (verses 4, 5).
Paul’s prophetic denunciation that God would strike the high priest was not made because of human passion. It was made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The judgment pronounced by the apostle was terribly fulfilled when this hypocritical and iniquitous high priest was murdered by assassins in the Jewish war just a few years later. So now, as the apostle looked over the people who had come to question him, he was able to penetrate their minds and perceive the group he was dealing with and understood that there was nothing he could do to explain anything concerning his mission, and whatever he said would make them white-hot with anger.
Paul decided his best move was to let them fight among themselves instead of fighting with him. “When Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged’ ” (verse 6)!
Immediately at hearing these words a fight broke out among the people in front of him between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, as the former did not believe in the resurrection, while the Pharisees did. Why is it that religious discussion always stirs up such controversy and often passion? It is not only because of ethnic pride, but also because of the human tendency to say, “I’m right, and if you don’t think the way I do, you’re wrong.”
The Pharisees and the Sadducees belonged to the same Jewish faith, yet their beliefs were at the opposite ends of that spectrum of that faith. Today, the Pharisees would be called the conservative faction and the Sadducees would be called the liberal faction. The Sadducees did not believe in the inspiration of all the Old Testament, but only the Pentateuch or the law of Moses. The Sadducees claimed that there was no resurrection and also claimed that there were no angels or spirits. The Pharisees believed in angels and spirits and in the resurrection. When Paul said he was a son of a Pharisee and was there because of the resurrection which can only come through the grace and power of Jesus Christ, whom they were rejecting, it caused an argument between the two Jewish factions.
All Christians want to be in the first resurrection. The Bible says, “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). Dying is not a problem if you are a Christian. Death is just a moment of silence and darkness, a sleep until awakened at the resurrection to be taken to heaven with the Lord and with all the others who have died in Christ.
All of God’s children are going to be caught up together to meet the Lord in the clouds. Jesus made it very clear that everyone who dies is going to be raised at some time. John 5:28 and 29 say, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and will come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”
Now, there was a fight between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The religious discussion over Paul had progressed into a physical fight because some believed in the resurrection and some did not. The result was that the Roman soldiers looking on saw that in the midst of the fight Paul could get killed. So they intervened and pulled him out and brought him back again to the barracks ending the scenes of that eventful day.
Paul then was in essence in a Roman prison, a barracks with Roman soldiers. He had been rescued temporarily from the Jews and their contention, but he knew they were desperate to kill him and would do anything to put him to death. The question that arose in his mind was whether his work for the churches was now closed. Was it now the time that he had already predicted that ravening wolves were going to enter in and not spare the church? The cause of Christ was near to the heart of the apostle Paul. 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 Sanhedrin council.
The Lord was not unmindful of His servant. The Bible says that “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome’ ” (Acts 23:11). Now the Lord revealed that it was His will for Paul to bear witness to the gospel at Rome. At this time Paul had no idea that the way he would do that was by going to Rome as a prisoner. But the Jews had other things in mind for him. They decided that the very next day they were going to kill him. They had to find a way to get him out of the Roman barracks, for the Roman soldiers would not allow that to happen in the barracks. More than 40 men banded together and they said, “ ‘Now you, therefore, together with the council, suggest to the commander that he be brought down to you tomorrow, as though you were going to make further inquiries concerning him; but we are ready to kill him before he comes near’ ” (verse 15).
One question that needs to be asked is, “What was the church doing during this upheaval?” Remember, the reason Paul was in this predicament was because of the unwise course of some of the apostles and elders of the Christian church in Jerusalem. Were they praying for his release? When Peter was put in prison, the church prayed night and day for his release and the Lord answered their prayer. But there is no record of the church praying night and day for the apostle Paul, because many of the people, even in the Christian church, believed in keeping the ceremonial law and thought Paul was an apostate from Moses and a teacher of dangerous doctrines.
Paul did not owe his escape from violent death on this occasion to anybody in the Christian church except his sister’s son, his nephew, who heard about this plot, and came and told Paul about it. “Then Paul called one of the centurions to him and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander, for he has something to tell him’ ” (verse 17). The young man told the commander the plot that the Jews had in mind and the commander understood that they had an extremely dangerous situation. He instructed the young man, “ ‘Tell no one that you have revealed these things to me’ ” (verse 22). The commander then immediately made his plans. It says that, “He called for two centurions, saying, ‘Prepare two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at the third hour of the night (9 o’clock); and provide mounts to set Paul on, and bring him safely to Felix the governor’ ” (verses 23, 24). And then he wrote a letter to the governor:
“ ‘Claudius Lysias, To the most excellent governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them. Coming with the troops I rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman. And when I wanted to know the reason they accused him, I brought him before their council. I found out that he was accused concerning questions of their law, but had nothing charged against him deserving of death or chains. And when it was told me that the Jews lay in wait for the man, I sent him immediately to you, and also commanded his accusers to state before you the charges against him. Farewell’ ” (verses 26–30).
The apostle Paul was taken that very same evening to Caesarea. It says, “The soldiers, as they were commanded, took Paul and brought him by night to Antipatris. The next day they left the horsemen to go on with him, and returned to the barracks. When they came to Caesarea and had delivered the letter to the governor, they also presented Paul to him” (verses 31–33). Paul then was at Felix’s headquarters in Caesarea, dozens of miles away from Jerusalem to appear before Felix, the governor, and be accused by the Jews before him. We see in this story many of the reasons for religious persecution.
When Jesus was on earth, He presented before His hometown, 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 actually the worst enemies of both. These cutting reproofs that Jesus gave (see Luke 4), the Jews of Nazareth refused to hear. They had, but a moment before, acknowledged the gracious words which proceeded out of His lips. The Spirit of God was speaking to their heart, but the instant the possibility was cast upon them that persons of other nations, other religions, other races, could be more worthy of the favor of God than they, those proud, unbelieving Jews were enraged.
They would have taken the life of the Son of God right then had not angels interposed for His deliverance. The men of Nazareth manifested the same spirit toward Christ which their forefathers had manifested against Elijah. That same bigoted spirit was now being manifested against the apostle Paul. The same spirit is still in the world today. A neglect to appreciate and improve the provisions of divine grace has deprived God’s people of many a blessing.
O, friend, how is it with you? Are you looking to your own heart and asking yourself the question, “Am I really converted? Do I really love God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself?” Remember, your neighbor is the human being that needs your help. Or, are you a victim of religious prejudice, racial prejudice, national pride, looking down on others as not as good as yourself, so that eventually you have hatred in your heart toward certain groups, certain religions, certain races, certain nations?
It is easy to profess religion with the lips while the heart is contrary to the most basic principles of the Christian religion. We must not fool ourselves. We must ask, is my heart pure? Have I been converted? Am I filled with the Holy Spirit?
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: email@example.com, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.