Acts Lesson Forty-six: Acts 21:26-36 – The Riot in the Temple Complex

Then the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering for each of them would be made. 27 As the seven days were about to end, the Jews from Asia saw him in the temple complex, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him, 28 shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place. What’s more, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has profaned this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple complex.

30 The whole city was stirred up, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul, dragged him out of the temple complex, and at once the gates were shut. 31 As they were trying to kill him, word went up to the commander of the regiment that all Jerusalem was in chaos. 32 Taking along soldiers and centurions, he immediately ran down to them. Seeing the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the commander came up, took him into custody, and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He asked who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the mob were shouting one thing and some another. Since he was not able to get reliable information because of the uproar, he ordered him to be taken into the barracks. 35 When Paul got to the steps, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the mob’s violence, 36 for the mass of people followed, yelling, “Take him away!” (HCSB)

Starting with this passage, the several following chapters of Acts are a running commentary. This week’s lesson won’t require separate sections.

As we look at this passage, verse twenty-six sets the stage for what will transpire over the following chapters. Let’s look at this verse in detail.

  • Paul had decided to take the advice of the Jerusalem elders in an attempt to prove his “Jewishness” to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.
  • We know from Paul’s epistles that the collection from the Gentile churches had brought him back to Jerusalem.
  • One of the major, if not the major, reason was to express unity between the Gentile and Jewish Christians.
  • Paul knew the dangers involved in traveling to Jerusalem. Romans 15:31 Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea, that the gift I am bringing to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints.
  • Paul was willing to participate in the symbolic act of ritual cleansing if that would help justify his evangelism to the Gentiles in the eyes of the Jewish Christians.
  • He began his purification the next day and announced in the temple the date when the Nazirite ceremony would be complete.
  • In seven days, Paul and the men would reenter the temple complex and make the prescribed offering.

The stage has been set, and we are now ready to move on to the riot that takes place after Paul enters the temple to complete the ritual.

  • The purification process required a cleansing on two separate days.
    • On the third day.
    • On the seventh day (Numbers 19:11).
  • It was on the seventh day that Paul entered the temple complex with the four other men to complete the purification ritual.
  • Once Paul was inside the temple complex, Jews from Asia saw him.
    • It isn’t surprising that the Asian Jews were the instigators of the riot.
    • It is likely that there were some from Ephesus.
    • Paul had spent three years in Ephesus and was well known in the area, both for sound teaching and for agitating some of the Jewish Christians.
    • Paul, in his Miletus address, alluded to plots hatched by the Ephesian Jews against him.
    • It was common for Diaspora Jews to be zealous in their observance of Jewish rituals.
    • It could be some of these same Asian Jews who had spread false rumors about Paul in the capital.
  • The accusations themselves were quite serious.
    • Two were the same that were levied against Stephen.
      • He speaks against our law – the Torah.
      • He speaks against this place – the temple.
    • The third charge was less specific but potentially the most valid – Paul taught against our people. Paul taught that the Gospel made all equal in Christ.
      • There is no Greek or Jew.
      • This implied that the Jews were no longer God’s chosen people.
    • The fourth charge was for temple violation.
      • The temple complex was divided into various sections.
        • There was a section for Gentiles – the large outer courtyard was open to all.
        • There was a section for Jews – this was the sacred section, the temple proper, open only to Jews.
        • There was a stone barrier that separated the court of the Gentiles from the first courtyard in the temple proper, the area for Jewish women.
          • There were warning stones placed along the barrier in both Greek and Latin, which forbid non-Jews access beyond the barrier.
          • Any non-Jew who went beyond the barrier would be sentenced to death. The inscription read, “No Gentile to defile our temple on pain of death.”
          • It is possible this barrier is the “wall” between Jews and Greeks that Paul mentions in Ephesians 2:14.
  • Luke makes it clear that the fourth charge against Paul is false in verse twenty-nine.
    • The Asian Jews had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus, one of the representatives from Ephesus.
    • Grasping for straws against Paul, the Asian Jews made the claim that Paul had taken the Gentile into the inner area beyond the barrier.
    • While it is true that Paul would have needed to enter the inner temple as part of his purification ritual, there was evidence that he had taken Trophimus with him. 
    • Since Paul was attempting to prove his “Jewishness” to his opponents, it would make no sense for him to include a Gentile.
    • It’s ironic that Paul, participating in a Jewish purification ritual, was accused of defiling the temple.
    • This is the sixth riot incited by Paul’s behavior and preaching.
      • Lystra – Acts 14:19.
      • Philippi – Acts 16:22.
      • Thessalonica – Acts 17:5.
      • Berea – Acts 17:13.
      • Ephesus – Acts 19:29.
  • It would be easy to accuse Luke of exaggerating how the crowd reacted. However, when we understand the setting of this event, Luke’s statement of “the whole city was stirred up” is quite fitting.
    • The temple area was, in effect, the town square of Jerusalem.
    • The court of the Gentiles was a large area, allowing a significant number of people to gather.
    • Once the riot began over the accusations levied against Paul and he was dragged out of the inner court, a very large crowd would have gathered.
  • Once the crowd had removed Paul from the inner court to the court of the Gentiles, the gates to the holy or “Jewish only” section were slammed shut.
    • This could have been done to protect against any further defiling of the inner courts.
    • Or this could have been a symbolic act by God.
      • This is the last time the temple is visited in the book of Acts.
      • The gates were closed.
      • With this final act of refusal of God’s messenger, the temple was now forever closed to God’s purposes.
  • The commotion had done more than attract the attention of the people in the temple complex; it also reached the ears of the commander of the Roman garrison located in Jerusalem.
    • Along the northwest corner of the wall that encircled the entire temple complex was the Tower of Antonia. The tower was a fortress built by Herod the Great for the defense of the temple.
    • Roman troops were now stationed in the tower.
    • Antonia contained several high towers, one allegedly 100 feet high, which would allow anyone in the tower a full view of the entire temple complex.
    • It’s possible a sentry in the tower was the first in the garrison to hear and see the commotion below.
    • Word was then sent to the commander of the Roman regiment.
      • In Acts 23:26, we find out the commander’s name is Claudius Lysias.
      • He was in charge of the military outpost located in Jerusalem.
      • As the commander of the regiment, Claudius was a high-ranking military officer in charge of a cohort.
      • A cohort consisted of 1,000 soldiers.
        • 760 infantry.
        • 240 cavalry.
      • The procurator resided in Caesarea and only made periodic visits to Jerusalem, much as Pontius Pilate went to Jerusalem during the Passover feast.
      • Claudius had primary responsibility for the Roman administration and peace-keeping within the city on a daily basis.
    • The barracks for the regiment were located in the Antonia, next to the temple.
      • Stairs led directly from Antonia into the court of the Gentiles.
      • The Romans knew that if any riot would occur in the city, it was likely that the temple would be the place where it would start. 
  • In response to the riot that was starting, Claudius took a sizable force of soldiers with him.
    • The text mentions “centurions” in the plural. There were at least two who went.
    • A centurion was in charge of 100 soldiers. 
    • The force that Claudius took was at least 200 men.
  • Once the mob saw the Roman soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
  • Considering the size of the crowd and their zealous behavior, it’s a miracle that Paul survived the beating.
  • Since Paul was the object of the crowds’ wrath, Claudius arrested him until he could figure out what was happening.
    • Paul was bound with two chains.
      • Luke doesn’t make clear why two chains were used.
      • Paul could have been handcuffed on both arms and chained to a soldier on each side.
      • Paul could have been bound hand and foot, just as Agabus had predicted would happen.
    • What is clear is that Paul was “in chains,” either literally or figuratively, until the very end of Acts.
  • Because of the behavior of the mob, Claudius was not able to determine what Paul had done to incite the riot.
    • As is typical with mob mentality, it is likely that most of the crowd didn’t know the specifics; they were just following along with everyone else.
    • Therefore, Claudius ordered his soldiers to take Paul into the barracks.
  • Once they reached the steps of Antonia, the soldiers had to carry Paul. There are a couple of logical reasons for this.
    • Paul may have been semi-conscious or otherwise injured after the beating.
    • If his feet were bound, it might have made walking up the stairs difficult.
  • As the soldiers carried Paul into the barracks, the crowd was shouting, “take him away.” These are the exact words the mob screamed against Jesus – Luke 23:18 and John 19:15.
  • Luke clearly highlights the hatred and ugliness of the crowd towards Paul in this passage.
    • Stirred up – verses 27 and 30.
    • Dragged – verse 30.
    • Kill – verse 31.
    • Beating – verse 32.
    • Uproar – verse 34.
    • Mob – verse 35.

Applications

  • As we immerse ourselves in Kingdom work, we will face trials along the way. Some will be minor, but some could be quite severe. We must prepare ourselves in advance, just as Paul did, to withstand those attacks. 
  • If we are involved in cross-cultural ministry work, we must be sensitive. Paul, a Jew, was heavily involved in work among the Gentiles. Having traveled back to Jerusalem, he was careful not to do anything to upset the Jews. In the same way, we need to be sensitive as we evangelize people from other cultures. At times, it can be a delicate balancing act to remain faithful to the Gospel while contextualizing it for others. We must never allow syncretism to invade our witness.
  • Although most of us will never be bound with physical chains, we may at times be bound figuratively. This could come from nonbelievers, or it could come from Christian brothers or sisters. There are times when jealousy among ministry workers or mission agencies creates friction or even competition. While we may have little or no control over the figurative chains of nonbelievers, we should never allow these to occur in the body of Christ. When we lose our unity in Christ, the enemy wins.

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