So how do you handle times when you are misunderstood? Being misunderstood can be a pretty frustrating situation. It can cause a lot of problems when you are misunderstood in your marriage, your family relationships, or friendships. Misunderstanding can cause a lot of problems and can cause serious divisions in relationships that have to later be rectified. But it can really be a problem when the misunderstanding is over important issues. This is especially true when it comes to spiritual issues and biblical teachings. It is hard when people think you believe something you do not believe. Trying to clear up these kinds of misunderstandings can also be very difficult. There was a long period of time when our brethren were writing in magazines, declaring what other people believe and teaching, and then tearing those people down for believing what they believe. But sometimes they were wrong. Sometimes they would put a label on someone that was not what that person was teaching or did not believe. Trying to undo that label was very difficult and often led to conflicts between people who were trying to serve the Lord.
When I was in the training program in Arkansas, there were some preachers in the area who were making presumptions about our motives as we tried to reach the lost. Because we had neighborhood Bible studies on Wednesday nights and were working to remove artificial barriers keeping people from talking with us or visiting with us, we were charged with trying to be a community church who would have no doctrinal stand on the scriptures. One person even charged that we were certainly going to start putting $5 bills under the pews to get people to come to church. It was a really frustrating situation to be charged with things that we did not believe. But unfortunately, these preachers did not listen to our explanations.
The apostle Paul encounters some serious misunderstandings about what he is preaching and what his intentions are as he has been going through the Roman Empire preaching the gospel. Paul has arrived in Jerusalem, even though many have warned him about the troubles and imprisonment that is coming to him when he gets there. The events that unfold in Acts 21 set the direction for Paul’s life for years to come and is the direction for the rest of the book of Acts. Paul and his travel companions meet with the elders of the Jerusalem church and tells them about all that God had done among the Gentiles.
But now they tell Paul the problem. There are thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who have become believers in Christ and are zealous for the law. But they have been told that Paul teaches all the Jews to forsake Moses, telling them to not circumcise their children or live according to the customs of Judaism. Now think about all that we have seen in the book of Acts. Also think about the writings of Paul. Is Paul going around to the cities in the Roman Empire teaching the Jews to forsake the Law of Moses, to not circumcise their children, or to not follow any of the customs found in the Law of Moses? Not at all! Paul was not going around doing any of these things. But this is the news that the Jewish believers had heard. The elders of Jerusalem know that Paul is not doing this.
Clearing Up Misunderstanding (21:17-26)
So they have a way for Paul to try to clear up this misunderstanding. There are four men who have taken a vow that need to go to the temple for their purification rites. They suggest that Paul go with them and pay for them to fulfill their vows so that everyone will know that there is no truth about these reports. They want Paul to show that he has not been violating the law but are living according to the law.
But I want us to see that Paul agrees with the idea and does exactly what the Jerusalem elders suggest. Paul is going to try to clear up the misunderstanding that has been passed around Jerusalem about him. We should want the opportunity to explain ourselves. We should not have an attitude that thinks that it is someone else’s problem if they do not understand me. Paul does not say that he knows that he does not believe that so too bad for them. We have to be careful in our culture that is all about saying that, “I do not care what someone else thinks” that we do not adopt the same stance. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and the apostle Paul wrote that as much as depends on us to live at peace with all (Romans 12:18). This means have the humility to realize that we might be the reason for the misunderstanding. I know I have said things that I am grateful you coming to me and asking me if that is what I meant or intended. We should want to clear up misunderstandings. Relationships become fractured because we become unwilling to clear things up with each other. This was going to be a costly act for Paul to pay for the vows of these men. But it was worth doing to try to make clear that what the Jews thought about his teaching was incorrect.
Still Working To Clear Up Misunderstanding (21:27-22:21)
We are not told if this worked for the Jewish Christians. I am left with the assumption that it did since nothing more is said about it. But a new problem now comes up for Paul. Seven days pass by and some of the Jews from Asia come to Jerusalem. You might remember from reading Acts 14-18 that these were troublemakers in every city Paul was teaching the gospel on his journeys. So they come to Jerusalem, seize Paul, and proclaim that Paul has been teaching everyone everywhere against the Jews, against the Law of Moses, and against the temple (21:28). Not only this, they charge that Paul brought a Gentile into the temple to defile it. None of these charges were true either. But the Jews from Asia stir up the crowd, seize Paul, and drag him out of the temple courts. Please listen to verse 31. “As they were trying to kill him….” Can you imagine going through this? Paul is in the temple trying to show that he is not against the Jews or the Law. While doing this, they grab Paul, drag him out, and try to kill him. Seeing the chaos unfold, the commander of the Roman soldiers runs down with some soldiers to break up the crowd. Notice verse 32 that the Jews were beating Paul to death. Please imagine what that looked like. So the Romans arrest Paul and ask the crowd who he is and what he had done. The crowd is in total chaos and the commander cannot determine anything so he takes him into the Roman barracks. But the mob is so violent that the soldiers actually have to pick up Paul and carry him into the fortress (21:35). The mob is crying out, “Away with him!” When Jesus was on trial before the Roman governor, Pilate, the mob did the same thing. Pilate declared that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death. But the people shouted all the more, “Away with this man!” (Luke 23:18).
The rest of chapter 21 is the Roman commander trying to figure out who Paul is and what he did to cause this uproar. He first thinks that Paul is an Egyptian who started a revolt in the wilderness. But Paul clarifies that he is a Jewish man from Tarsus and a citizen of an important city. He asks for permission to address this mob that was beating him to death. Chapter 22 is Paul’s address to this mob that was trying to kill Paul. Who would not want to just say to forget these people? So what is Paul going to say to this mob that wants him dead?
I am with you and one of you (22:1-5).
I think it is important to see that Paul tells his story to this crowd. He is a Jew just like them. He was born in Tarsus but grew up in Jerusalem, educated by the great Jewish teacher Gamaliel. He is zealous for God just like all of these people. Do you see Paul trying to find the common ground with these people? I am one of you. I am with you. I have the same background as you. I have the same concerns as you. Not only these things, Paul says that he was a persecutor of this Christian sect called the Way. Paul was punishing them, arresting them, and putting them in jail. Paul says he even persecuted them to the death.
Friends, sharing the gospel is not non-personal, disconnected event. We need to connect our lives to the gospel story. We see the apostle Paul doing this. Paul starts by trying to connect to his audience, helping them understand that he is no different from them. He has the same understanding. He absolutely understands where they are coming from. Are we trying to do this with people? Are we trying to show that we care where people are coming from and having compassion for that background? The common ground is important for what happens next.
Why I changed direction (22:6-21).
So why did Paul stop persecuting? Why did Paul change his life direction? Paul explains what changed his life. What changed his life is that he saw the risen Jesus while on the way to persecute more followers of Jesus. Paul also experiences a miracle. He was blinded on the road to Damascus and is healed of his blindness when he comes to Ananias. Ananias is also a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews (22:12). Look at what Paul was told in verses 14-16. Paul was appointed to know God’s will and to be a witness to all people about what happened to him.
Now do not miss what Paul recounts in verses 17-21. After becoming a Christian and going to Jerusalem, Paul was praying in the temple. Jesus comes to Paul again and tells him to quickly leave Jerusalem because the people of the city will not accept his testimony. But Paul responded that these people know Paul’s life. They know he went into synagogue after synagogue imprisoning and beating those who believed in Jesus. They know that he gave approval to Stephen’s death. But Jesus tells him to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles.
What Paul has done is explain the change in his life direction. He is doing what God told him to do. Likewise, we must show people that what we are saying and doing is simply found in the scriptures. We are doing what God told us to do. But notice Paul declares his belief in these people to know him and understand why he changed and why he is teaching about Jesus to the whole world. His effort is that these Jews of Jerusalem would not be like those before who Jesus said would reject his message. However, this point about the Jews rejecting the message and the message going to the Gentiles is when the people are ready to kill him, just like Jesus said they would (22:22). Paul exposes their heart of rejection, just like Stephen did, and Paul received the same response that Stephen received.
Connecting To Others
What I want us to see in our scripture today is how Paul did exactly what he proclaimed to the Corinthians.
Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23 CSB)
Connecting to other people means that we are called to come to them, understand where they are coming from, connect to their lives, and share the gospel. Paul did the same thing in Athens, connecting to their religious concern. Notice that Paul does not highlight his different beliefs about the world, government, or some other point of difference. Paul finds a point of connection. We need to find points of connection with other people. We cannot look at other people and decide we will not connect to them because we do not like their politics, their points of view, their conservatism or liberalism, or whatever it is that stirs something up in us. We need to try to bridge the gap to make peace with others. Paul repeatedly does this. He goes to the temple and pays for the four men to have their vow fulfilled. Paul wants to speak to the angry mob that wants him killed, to show that he is no different than them and is only trying to do what God says. His life was changed because he learned what God wanted him to do.
The gospel has the power to connect to all people, regardless of political party, culture, background, upbringing, ethnicity, geography, or any other item that has the ability to divide. Paul says that he became weak in order to win the weak. Will we do the same? Will we become all things to all people so that we might by all means save some? This is what Paul is doing in this scripture that we have looked at in this lesson. We cannot demonize people on the other side if we are going to share the gospel with them. We need to correct misunderstandings and try to connect with others so that they can hear the gospel without any other obstacles. So who will you try to connect to and how will you go about becoming all things to that person so they can hear the gospel without misunderstanding. It is not about our rights but about saving people.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. (1 Corinthians 9:19 NIV)