You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
- An Introduction
- Augustine’s Two Cities
- Two Kingdoms in Luther
- The Reformed Confessions (Part I)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part II)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part III)
- Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper
- Redemption and Creation in Kuyper
- John the Baptist
- The Prophet Amos
- The Incarnate Lord (Part I)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part II)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part III)
- Introduction to the Book of Acts
- The Ministry of Peter and John in Acts
- The Ministry of Paul in Acts, Part I
In the previous blog, we began our discussion on the public theology of Paul in Acts by examining the events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys. We observed how Paul confronted the idolatry present in various Gentile cities from Lystra to Athens. We also observed how Paul’s ministry of preaching not only affected the individual lives of converts, but it also affected social activities within various cities such as Philippi and Ephesus. The last quarter of the book of Acts deals with Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome. Unlike his previous missionary journeys, Paul’s primary audience was not the crowds, but specific rulers themselves. This section gives us particular insight on how Paul interacted with authority and how Paul wisely took advantage of his Roman citizenship.
Paul Before the Roman Tribune and the Council
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, he is quite aware that he is going to face hostility from the Jewish people. When he enters the temple, he addresses the Jewish crowd in the Hebrew language, explaining his testimony and how the Lord commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:1-20). Once Paul mentioned his calling to the Gentiles, the crowd stopped listening and shouted for his death. The Roman 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. At this point, Paul asked a question to the officer, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (22:25) Since Paul was a Jew (who was currently in a low station in life), the Roman officer questioned how he obtained so valuable a distinction; Paul told him that he was born a Roman citizen (22:28-29). Clearly, this is part of God’s wise providence. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him privileges that many people did not have – namely he was exempted from all trials and punishments which might force him to confess himself guilty. Therefore, the Roman officer unbound him and brought Paul before the Sanhedrin.
Paul’s interaction with the Sanhedrin gives us insight into how one should interact with authority. When Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, the high priest commanded those who stood by to strike him on the mouth. Not knowing that he was addressing the high priest, Paul retorts in a very disrespectful way (22:3). Upon learning that he was addressing the high priest, Paul replies,” I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” Paul receives a firm rebuke for addressing the high priest in a disrespectful manner and Paul accepts this correction. This scene illustrates that Paul’s natural disposition towards leadership (whether godly or ungodly) is that of submission. Thus, when Paul seeks to defend himself for the sake of the gospel, he does so not out of defiance to authority, but by appealing to authority.
Paul Before Governors and Kings
When Paul is brought before Felix at Caesarea, the Jews laid their case against Paul as “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Giving due respect to Felix, Paul cheerfully makes his defense. He claims that no one found him disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd (24:12-13). Moreover, when Paul entered the temple, they found him purified in the temple without any crowd or tumult (24:17-19). After his defense, Felix gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody (with some liberty) in hopes that Paul would bribe Felix (24:26). In spite of this, it is said that Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” to Felix (24:25). In all, Felix left Paul in prison for two years.
When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Festus. As Paul is brought down to Caesarea, he continues to assert his rights as a Roman citizen by appealing to Caesar (25:6-12). After some days had passed since Paul’s appeal, King Agrippa greeted Festus and agreed to hear Paul’s case. Paul’s defense before Agrippa is an example of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:17-20:
“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (ESV).
In his appeal, Paul tells of his conversion and preaches the gospel. This indicates that Paul’s primary intention is not his own integrity, but the proclamation of the Word. He states directly that he stands on trial “because of my hope in the promise made by God to our Fathers” (26:8; ESV) – namely the resurrection of Jesus. In explaining his conversion, he concluded that he was disobedient to the heavenly vision, but first declared to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”
After hearing Paul’s defense, Festus is convinced that Paul has lost his mind, whereas Agrippa is persuaded to hear more of his case. These events lead to Paul’s trip to Rome in which he can make his appeal directly to Caesar. The book of Acts concludes with the following words:
“He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-31, ESV).
What conclusions can we derive from Paul’s interactions with Roman officials? The most important principle that we should derive concerns the principle of appealing to authority. Paul’s disposition towards authority is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 127:
Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.
In other words, men in authority ought to be given due honor and respect because of the position in which they hold. Thus, it would be considered sinful to stubbornly resist and to make any display that brings shame and dishonor to their person and authority. This is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 128:
Q. 128. What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?
A. The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.
This answer implies that our first response to any authority in which we may disagree should be to appeal to authority, not to defy or rebel against it. Appealing to authority implies that we have certain rights as citizens and to appeal properly, we must persuasively take our case to the authorities. This concept of respecting and appealing to authority will be elaborated on in much more detail as we discuss the public theology found in the Pauline epistles.