The Life and Times of Paul – Paul's Arrival and Arrest in Jerusalem

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Finally, Paul arrived in Jerusalem; not everyone was happy to see him.  Anti-Gentile sentiment was running at an all-time high. The leaders of the Jerusalem church were delighted with his success and praised God, but on the other hand they were very skittish about embracing a movement that threatened their survival as a distinct and unique group. So the warm smiles may have been limited to a very small number of devoted followers. Nonetheless, the next day, Paul and his entourage went to see James and the elders. They acknowledged his work, but added that thousands of Jews in Jerusalem believed, too. Rumors that Paul had been turning people away from Jewish customs had reached their ears, and they were not happy about it.  The people they were converting in Jerusalem were both Christians and observant Jews. 

Furthermore, it was Pentecost; Jerusalem was teeming with testy Jews, chafing under Roman oppression. What should the leaders of the church say to these people about Paul’s work with Gentiles? And what kind of a Jew is Paul? Word is going to get out that he’s in the city. He couldn’t have picked a worse time to come. James and company are certainly not very happy to see him. So they say, “What are we going to do?”

The following plan was proposed: It seems that there were four men who had taken a Nazarite vow. It lasted for 30 days, during which time they were to fast and pray and withdraw from society, following a prescribed ritual. At the end of that time, there was a celebration that included making sacrifices of lambs, a ram, cereal and drink offerings. It was a bit pricey. At the very least, these men needed a little financial aid. So the leaders asked Paul if he would agree to sponsor them. And, in the meantime, he could go through his own Levitical rite of purification. After all, he had been hanging around Gentiles a lot, and going to and fro across Gentile territory. Presumably, if he did that, their vow and his cleansing would end at the same time. A double ceremony, if you will. The whole purpose of this would be that people would know the rumors weren’t true. Paul, indeed, was living in obedience to the law. Paul agrees without hesitation. (This is also a hint that Paul has the collection money, though Luke says nothing about it in Acts.)

A few days later, Paul went to the temple to give notice. Maybe he had to reserve the space or order the animals. We don’t know what it was, but when Paul went to make the arrangements, some Jews from the Diaspora saw him and “seized” him, accusing him of violating the temple. (See Acts 21:27) Luke suggests in a little “aside” that they had previously seen Paul with Gentiles and had merely assumed he had taken them into the temple with him. Everything was based on this assumption.

Once the accusation had been made, news of it flew through the city like lightning. “The temple has been defiled! The temple has been defiled!” People came running from all directions. They seized Paul and dragged him out of there. They began beating him; their intention was to kill him.

But, in the process, they were making a lot of noise, which tipped off the Romans who had a garrison along the NW corner of the temple. In no time at all, a commander and a whole company of men ran to the scene. The very presence of the Romans was enough for everyone to take a step backwards. The astute commander sized up the situation almost immediately. It took no time at all to figure out that Paul was the problem; he didn’t have a clue why, but he knew that was where the problem lay. So he arrested him, saying, “Put him in chains.” He would figure out the problem later. The plan now is to get Paul away from these people.

As he was being carried out, Paul let the commander know he was a citizen of Tarsus; that gave him stature. All of a sudden this commander was very interested in Paul. Paul asked to speak to the crowd, and the commander allowed it. Paul had hoped to explain to them his mission to the Gentiles and the good work he had been doing. The crowd was not yet interested in reason, so they began throwing things at him, thereby rejecting all of his words. Worried that things were getting out of hand again, the commander yelled to get Paul out of there. He wanted to have him flogged, but then Paul mentioned that he was also a Roman citizen. Now the commander really didn’t know what to do with him. His job now was to protect him -- he just was not sure from whom.

He ordered the Sanhedrin to have an emergency meeting the next day. Unfortunately, they didn’t like Paul either. So when Paul began to defend himself, the chief priest ordered someone to slap him. Paul rebuked the high priest, and the meeting deteriorated rapidly, with the Pharisees and Sadducees trading insults.

It is not clear whether the Roman commander had remained with Paul or if he was just monitoring the proceedings. In either event, he watched his hopes for getting to the bottom of the matter evaporate as the assembly crumbled into chaos. And he realized Paul still needed protection – so he sent him back to jail! That night Paul received a vision from the Lord telling him to go to Rome.

Meanwhile, some of the more fanatical Jews plotted to assassinate him while he was in Roman custody. They needed the help of the Sanhedrin, who were only too willing to oblige. The Sanhedrin asked for another meeting the next day. The plan was to kill Paul on the way. It might have worked, except for one small problem. There was a spy -- Paul’s nephew. He managed to get word to Paul, and Paul informed the commander.

The commander gave orders for four hundred and seventy people to be prepared to escort Paul to Caesarea. They were to be ready to leave by 9pm. (The meeting with the Sanhedrin was scheduled for the following morning.) At 9pm there was a forced march out of town. They were able to leave secretly, under the cover of darkness. No doubt the fanatics were totally unaware that their security had been breached.

By the following morning, Paul was in Caesarea under the purview of Governor Felix. The commander had sent a letter of explanation along with Paul. He reviewed the past events and basically stated that he found no charge against him worthy of death or imprisonment, essentially pronouncing Paul innocent of any charge. But the commander’s main job was to keep peace in his city; he basically transferred Paul’s case to the Governor.

Within a few days, a contingency from the Sanhedrin appeared, hoping to get Paul back to Jerusalem. They testified against him; Felix then asked Paul for his defense. Paul didn’t hesitate and stated that they had no evidence against him. It was simply their word against his. Felix was smart enough to know that what Paul was saying was absolutely correct. Yet, he also needed to have good relations with the Jewish leaders. Rather than decide the case, he postponed it pending further information. The upshot is that Paul will spend two full years in prison (in the palace) in Caesarea.

Then, suddenly, Felix was replaced by Festus, who also wanted good relations with the Jewish leadership. The ink was barely dry on his reassignment before those leaders were pestering him about Paul. They wanted him returned to Jerusalem to stand trial. To satisfy them, Festus reopened the case, but kept Paul in Caesarea. And again, they could only verbalize charges; the Jews had no evidence. Festus asked Paul if he would be willing to stand trial on their charges, at which point Paul asked to be tried in Caesar’s court (in Rome). Festus declared that since he had appealed to Caesar, off to Caesar he would go.

But this posed another delicate situation. Festus needed a good reason to send someone to Caesar, but he also wanted to portray himself as a good administrator – one who could handle local problems. As it turned out, King Agrippa and his sister, Bernice, arrived in Caesarea to pay a state visit to the new Governor. After hearing the whole story about Paul’s fate, Agrippa was definitely interested. They agreed to give Paul an audience, which allowed Paul to give another speech. He was so persuasive that Agrippa told Festus Paul could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.

Nonetheless, arrangements had to be made for Paul to go to Rome. Paul, along with other prisoners, is placed into safekeeping in the hands of a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. Paul would finally get his wish.

Life and Times