Witness through trial: Paul in Acts, and the church in history

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation”, but the word used in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11 is the same as that translated as ‘trials’ in 1 Peter 1:6. Temptation, testing, trials for Jesus and for all God’s people are a regular feature of New Testament Christianity, and they come in different forms. While Christians have prayed that they would not have to face severe testing of their faith or literal trials, God has in his wisdom allowed it to happen, leading his servants into a “time of trial”; often before the court of the world, saving them through it, but also using for his glory the setting of the spotlight on his vulnerable representative.

The repeated trial scenes towards the end of Acts are fascinating, not least because Luke considers them so important that he devotes nearly 6 chapters to them. They are predicted by Paul himself in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders at Miletus (20:23); and then by the prophet Agabus in Caesarea (21:11). The trials begin in Jerusalem because of Paul’s reputation: his gospel to the Gentiles of inclusion among God’s people through repentance and faith in Christ, not through observance of Jewish laws and customs, has been misrepresented as a message to Jews to abandon their religion and culture. There is clearly tension between Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem – they find his presence an embarrassment; they arrange for him to symbolically display his Jewish piety at the temple; they are conspicuously absent in terms of providing support following his arrest, imprisonment and trials.

Paul is falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple; a mob forms and a riot breaks out, with Paul in danger of being beaten to death. A strong contrast is established between the murderous ‘summary justice’ of the religious fanatics (see also 23:12), and the calm, fair secular rule of the Roman authorities. The trials begin with Paul’s first interrogation by the Roman soldiers (end of 21), his first testimony of his encounter with the risen Christ before a predominantly hostile Jewish audience on the temple steps (22:1-21), and his second questioning at the hands of the Roman military (22:22-29).

From here Paul is brought before the Sanhedrin, as Jesus, Peter and John had been before him. Paul takes the initiative by changing the subject: it’s not about whether he has violated the Law – if he has, so has everyone else (23:3), but whether there is a resurrection from the dead. This brings out the existing tensions and divisions among the leaders of God’s people, the Pharisees who believe some key tenets of the Scriptures, and the Sadduccees who have no conception of the reality of the spiritual realm. They are united in their way of operating, preserving the power and status in control of the religious institution, in the context of submission to an alien secular authority.

The trial descends into uproar and Paul is removed from the scene. He is pictured later, alone in his cell but visited by the Lord. He’s told to be courageous, not because his trials will come to an end, but that this trial in Jerusalem is the beginning of a long process ending in Rome. The apostle of Christ is to use the set-piece trials as an opportunity to testify publicly to human power, religious and secular, and by implication to the spiritual principalities and powers behind them.

The story continues: Paul’s Roman guards are warned of a plot in which some members of the Sanhedrin are involved, to assassinate Paul on his way to further questioning in Jerusalem. In response, they take him to Caesarea, where he faces more trials: before the governor Felix, (with whom Paul forms a relationship used for evangelism), and then Festus who succeeded him two years later. Paul appeals to be judged in Rome- this is his right as a citizen, but also ensures that he would not be sent back to Jerusalem as the religious leaders were demanding.

Chapter 26 narrates the final great trial scene: Paul before Festus and the vassal king Herod Agrippa in Caesarea. In the speech for his defense, Paul explains the motivation behind his ministry, and in particular, the story of his conversion as the risen Christ arrested and spoke to him. Jesus gave him a commission, to “open the eyes” of the Gentiles “so that they may receive forgiveness of sins”. This was controversial and made him and object of hatred (v21), but was in keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament (v22-23). Paul’s response to the commission was wholehearted obedience (v19-20), and he began preaching the radical message of inclusion in God’s Kingdom through repentance and faith in Christ alone.

Luke uses the courtroom drama as writers have done in many traditions including contemporary film – a compelling set-piece where arguments for and against can be set out, and where interest is focused on an individual facing justice – either to elicit sympathy for the innocent, or condemnation for the guilty. There are parallels between Paul and his Lord as they stand accused of fomenting discord and being a threat to civil order, but while Jesus speaks few words in his defense, Paul is given opportunity to tell his story and speak publicly of the death, resurrection and universal Lordship of Christ.

Most of Luke’s readers would have been familiar with the Greek dramas which often incorporated trial scenes. Is Acts a kind of tragedy then, where an innocent man remains in prison, and as we know how the story ends, goes to further trials in Rome where he is executed? We see a powerless man bravely testifying in court before hostile powers who will crush him in the end. But on a cosmic level the trial dynamic is reversed – in fact, it is the world, and the rebellious spiritual powers, who are on trial before almighty God and judged by him. Psalm 82 and Isaiah 41 are just two Old Testament passages which show this clearly. So in using the form of the courtroom scene to show Paul’s trials, Luke hints at a dramatic irony: his accusers are the ones really on trial; Paul will be vindicated, and the ‘heavenly vision’ (Acts 26:19) of multi-tribal fellowship, worship and mission in God’s service is realised.

But there’s another lesson. The man of God, and by extension the church which bravely testifies publicly to the authorities of all nations and races, speaking truth to power, may face persecution, even death, but the result is much more fruitful than for those who keep their heads down, speaking to their own people only, looking to compromise with religious and secular authorities in order to avoid conflict. Anglican representatives from countries where Christians suffer persecution, who must sometimes feel like they are on trial every day, are preparing to gather soon for a special Gafcon meeting. If Luke was writing an ‘Acts’ for today, perhaps he would be telling their story for us to learn from?