And as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying, “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now offer to you.” And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet; and he said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today. “And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished. And it came about that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
If you have not read my last missive, you should, because we take the long view of Scripture and today’s text is part of the text before, and that text is part of the text before it, and so on. Ripping verses out of context is what has given us all of our dubious dogmas and presuppositions, leaving the Scripture CAGED. Here, we use a hermeneutical tool called the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where; context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions. Here, we use chapter and verse breaks only as they were intended by the translators–for ease of reference. Otherwise we will ignore the chapter and verse breaks that were imposed upon the text much later. For time’s sake we only examine several sentences at a time, considering the context, aspirations of author to his audience, examples and dividing rightly the word of truth; keeping every word within the continuing context.
The continuing context of today’s text is that after years of preaching the gospel to Jewish people and gentiles alike, Paul has returned to Jerusalem amongst angst by the brethren and anger by the bystanders. No one is truly happy that Paul is in Jerusalem because of the fear of exactly what has happened. Jews from outside of Jerusalem have come to Jerusalem and stirred up the crowds by accosting Paul, even to the point where the Romans had to step in. And this is where we find ourselves today, in Jerusalem, in the mid-first-century, under Roman rule, not simply occupation anymore.
“And as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, ‘May I say something to you?’ And he said, ‘Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?’” Why would Luke include this seemingly sundry conversation? It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the situation. Nevertheless, he did include it, despite leaving out other specifics as we have seen. For instance, Luke doesn’t tell us where the house was in which Paul and his companions are staying. He also leaves out many details about Paul’s third missionary journey, actually rushing through it to get to this point. We therefore wonder why Luke thought it necessary to include this exchange in Greek, between the Roman commander and Paul–it must be important. It goes to the cultural context.
A couple of things we see; the Roman commander, amongst the confusion, thought that Paul may have been a certain Egyptian who had caused a revolt in the city some time ago. This goes to show the utter confusion and chaos caused by the Jewish people from Asia Minor. It also goes to the instability of the city. Now officially annexed by Rome, we clearly see through history and today’s text, troubled times and rumors of wars, that of which Jesus had promised to this generation. Paul was not like this Egyptian of which we have read, he is not trying to stir things up but settle them down.
“But Paul said, “I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.’ And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying, ‘Brethren and fathers, hear my defense which I now offer to you.’ And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew dialect, they became even more quiet; and he said, ‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God, just as you all are today.”
By being bilingual, Paul is able to win over the Roman commander and the people present, at least for a short time. Unfortunately for Paul, the truth is what gets him in trouble; I have been there. Not to the degree and severity of Paul, obviously. Nevertheless, we still hold tightly our taught traditions and if I was living in some other place or time in this world, I would probably be burned at the stake. Notice that Paul, while being Jewish, has silenced the crowd and they are actually listening to him. Especially as he relates to them of his upbringing in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, being a strict follower of the Law and zealous as they were. In there own language, amidst Roman rule, Paul not only tells the truth but tells them what they want to hear. But this is only the beginning.
“And I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.”
This is all true and the elders can testify to this. Problem; it was all wicked and Jesus himself testified to this to Paul on the road to Damascus. But that’s jumping ahead. Nevertheless we know this because we have seen this. We know where Paul is going with this speech. We know that Paul is not about to say, “God has two distinct people with two distinct plans.” Paul is not about to say, “you are the apple of God’s eye but he has another parenthetical people as well.” Spoiler alert: rather than say this what Paul actually says is that God has sent him to the gentiles. And at this statement, the mob turned on Paul. Not because God has another parenthetical people but because they understood exactly what Paul was saying; the gentiles are fellow heirs. Replacement theology, dual-covenant theology and dispensationalism all miss the crystal clear teaching of Paul by his picture of the cultivated olive tree. Yet this is nothing new, the people present in today’s text make the same mistake, jumping to conclusions without reasoning things in the light of Scripture but by their taught traditions and presuppositions, which are completely ripped out of context. But again, I am getting way ahead of myself.
As for this very moment, in Paul’s speech, the people present stand in silence hanging on Paul’s every word because he is speaking to them in their own language and telling of his deeds as a Pharisee. We have to see the apsiration to Luke’s audience; Paul was describing his wicked ways and the people present, who moments ago were beating him and crying out for his arrest, are now hanging on every word as Paul describes his former manner of life as a Pharisee. They are not shocked into silence but in silence we see their approval. You can run on for a long time but sooner or later God is going to shut you down. With much patience and instruction; God has warned his people to seek justice and love mercy. By not only the prophets but he also sent his son. After they killed his son, he also, as promised, sent them a new round of prophets of whom they persecute and kill, like Stephen, where Paul was in approval, casting his vote against Stephan, holding the coats of those that stoned him.
Israel, not 21st century christians, should have seen the “signs of the time.” God has warned them over and over concerning their ways. But even before they were a unified Kingdom of twelve tribes, which lasted a mere 80ish years (look it up), God demonstrated his long-suffering but not unending patience towards the nations of which they were to disposed and utterly destroy, and it was recorded in their sacred Scriptures. But like us, they preferred traditions and teachings of men, expounding on the sacred Scripture, rather than an actual consideration of the context. But God is very patient, letting people run out to the end of their tethers. We remember reading; “Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” We also remember the flood. And while the composition reads quite quickly, it took Noah almost 100 years to build the ark. And yet even when the rain came, no one repented. And now we see Paul pulled out of the temple in Jerusalem, a temple that will topple in about 15 years, and the people present are listening with ears wide open about Paul’s persecution of the Way. By the way, the Way were 100 percent Jewish at the time of Paul’s persecution, either by birth or by conversion. When Paul persecuted them, they were a sect of Judaism. And not much has changed. The church is those who have the faith of Abraham, and participate in the sacrifice of the perfection of the flesh of Jesus, the only one who obeyed the commandments. The church is Israel, made up of believers from every tribe, tongue and nation, to the Jew first but then to all nations.
Let’s look again at the picture of a cultivated olive tree. “And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?”
This does not sound like two distinct peoples with two distinct plans. Nor does it sound like people can lose their salvation; context is king. While if taken out of context, this can sound like one can lose their salvation, in the greater context though, it can mean no such thing. We have to see it as a whole and understand it as a whole and not by the parts, because the parts make up the whole. Therefore, we start with the whole and then examine the parts. If you need to, read Paul’s description of the olive tree again; what is the olive tree? If you need to look at the parts to see the whole, that is understandable because the whole is made up of the parts but understand that the parts, by definition, are only parts of the whole. For instance, “don’t be arrogant towards the branches;” what are these branches, a part of the tree, the root or are they dead branches on the ground? We have to remember the historical and cultural climate of the context. Paul wrote this to the Romans knowing that he was going to Jerusalem to testify to the Jewish people–this is today’s text. They were living in the overlap between the two Covenants. It is in the continuing context of Romans, where Paul has so recently written, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” Therefore a dead branch on the ground cannot be representative of a reborn christian. Paul uses the metaphor as an example to not be arrogant to the branches on the tree, who are naturally part of the tree. At the time of his writing, the church was still mostly made up of Jewish people but was also mostly persecuted by Jewish people. Timing is–
Everything. Paul was the Hebrew of Hebrews and he persecuted the church, as he clearly states in today’s text, written after Romans. Was it fair to say that metaphorically speaking, Paul was a dead branch at the time of his persecution of the church? Was it fair to say that he was also predestined by Jesus to be the apostle to the gentiles? Therefore Paul was a natural branch, cut off from the rich root of the olive tree, but grafted back in again. Yet this is not Paul’s point. Paul’s point is that they were natural branches of the tree, but because of disbelief, they were broken off. Not that they will be broken off; that somehow every single Jewish person ever born is born into the tree but then broken off for unbelief; though I could make an argument for this.
Notice what Jesus said to Sardis; “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” This situation in Sardis sounds similar to what we have read in Romans, albeit a completely different metaphor but we see the significantly similar symbolism. But rather rip these symbolic statements out of context, we have to keep them in context, without contradiction.
Which wins in a contextual critique, a metaphor easily misconstrued or the plain explanation? Where is today’s text in redemptive history? Was Jesus’ threat of blotting one out of the book of life an empty threat? This is why one must take the long view of Scripture, carefully considering the context and not taking a short view, ripping verses out of the context. We can certainly zoom in but we also have to keep our wide-angle lens close by. Therefore while picturing the olive tree in our minds, we zoom out, seeing the sublime string of the continuing context and current cultural climate in the history of redemption.
Paul wrote, while most likely in Corinth, before today’s text, to the church in Rome, about ancient Israel, quoting Isaiah and then Elijah about the disbelief in Israel. Then he writes the following; “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s cgracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” Paul is writing in the present tense to the people in Rome about God’s gracious choice. Elijah has pleaded with the Lord and said, “I alone am left.” But notice God’s response; him? “I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL.”
Who is the root? Who is the trunk of the tree? Who are the grafted in branches? Who are the broken off branches? Who are the remaining branches? Can a broken off branch be grafted in again? The Bible cannot contradict itself and if we have a contradiction in our minds between a metaphor and a plain explanation, we have to re-examine the metaphorical meaning misconstrued in our minds, usually based upon taught traditions. In an irony of ironies, Paul uses a tree to demonstrate the people of God. Jesus was cursed by hanging on a tree. Placing said tree not only in the continuing context of Romans, but in its historical context, we see the tree representative of that time. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t represent any other time but we know that it is absolutely representative of the time in which Paul preaches in Jerusalem. Therefore, we must understand it in that light. Once again, we have to strap on our sandals and see this situation in a historical context.
“Russell P, you’re going around and around without saying anything!” On the contrary, I am priming the pumps of our minds, not with the water of traditions but with the living water, so that we will see the historical significance. Certain truths are eternal, others are temporal, the temple being a great example of both. The temple built twice, was temporary but the temple made without human hands is eternal. The time of the temporary temple is coming to a close, leaving only the eternal temple–Paul knows this. Jesus preached this to an adulterous, Samaritan woman. “The Samaritan woman therefore said to Him, ‘How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, “Give Me a drink,” you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.’ The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall you worship the Father. You worship that which you do not know; we worship that which we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.'”
Paul and the other apostles live in the time of which Jesus spoke; “coming, and now is.” We tend to place historical narratives in our current cultural climate rather than see the significance of their time. The Lord told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” He also told Noah, “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Was the command to be fruitful and multiply a temporal comand or an eternal command? Because I have many christian friends and relatives with many children and often they say, “God said to be fruitful and multiply.” But in both contexts, did God not also say to subdue the earth and rule over the animals? To Noah, did God not say, “every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.”
Yet to Israel God said, “You shall not eat any detestable thing. These are the animals which you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep. And any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof split in two and chews the cud, among the animals, that you may eat. Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these among those which chew the cud, or among those that divide the hoof in two: the camel and the rabbit and the rock-badger, for though they chew the cud, they do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you. And the pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you. You shall not eat any of their flesh nor touch their carcasses. These you may eat of all that are in water: anything that has fins and scales you may eat, but anything that does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you. You may eat any clean bird. But these are the ones which you shall not eat: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard, and the red kite, the falcon, and the kite in their kinds, and every raven in its kind, and the ostrich, the owl, the sea gull, and the hawk in their kinds, the little owl, the great owl, the white owl, the pelican, the carrion vulture, the cormorant, the stork, and the heron in their kinds, and the hoopoe and the bat. And all the teeming life with wings are unclean to you; they shall not be eaten. You may eat any clean bird.”
Why could Noah eat anything but Israel had to be Kosher? Why did Jesus declare all things clean? Will we eat meat in the new heavens and new earth? This is where I actually agree with the dispensationalists, that God deals differently with people in different dispensations, or, epochs. It appears that Adam and Eve were vegetarians but Noah was a carnivore of all kinds. Israel had a restricted diet but Jesus made all things clean. The apostles wrote to the early gentile converts to abstain from things strangled, sacrificed to idols and blood.
What is the single biggest event in all of redemptive history? Is it creation, the fall, the flood, the exodus, the Law, the coming of the Spirit, the toppling of the temple, the rapture or the millenial kingdom? Obviously it is none of these–notice that I left out the cross. Everything pivots on the cross. But what happened to the world the day after Christ’s crucifixion, in which he paid the price for sinners past, present and future? What major, earth shaking, historical events happened on earth as Jesus lay dead in the tomb? Nothing. The biggest event in redemptive history but the church wasn’t born on that day, judgment against apostate Israel doesn’t happen on that day, all things being made clean doesn’t happen on that day, the kingdom of God doesn’t come on that day, the Holy Spirit is not sent on that day. And yet, all of human history pivots on that day. Adam and Eve sinned on a single day but continued to live for a long time. Noah was almost a hundred years building the ark and it rained for forty days and forty nights, but he was on the ark for around a year. Israel didn’t inherit the land on the day it was promised to Abraham but over 400 years later. Israel was not banished from the land overnight; the northern tribes went first and slowly Judah was besieged. They didn’t return to the land overnight but waited 70 years and the temple took time to rebuild, and then the walls.
Therefore, seeing the long-view of redemptive history, and all that Jesus and the prophets have promised, Paul is preaching to this end. Stay tuned to see the sublime string if you haven’t already seen it.