What is the case for Paul “getting permission” from the Jerusalem church to go to Rome to represent them? It might be easier to work backward, […]
What is the case for Paul “getting permission” from the Jerusalem church to go to Rome to represent them? It might be easier to work backwards from Acts 28 to Acts 19 to answer that. When Paul explained to the Jews in Rome that he was “forced to appeal to Caesar” (Acts 28:19), they draw a natural conclusion. He was going to Rome to see that Christianity, which was reviled everywhere in that ancient world, might gain government protection. Hence the Jews in Rome testified, “we desire to hear from you what your views are; for concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere (Acts 28:22). They obviously understand Paul represents not merely himself but Christians everywhere. Hence Paul’s legal appeal to Caesar was not for himself, but for Christians everywhere. It was the vehicle he used to work the court system. Paul didn’t have to appeal to Caesar during those years of imprisonment; he had other legal options. He could have had his case adjudicated in Caesarea and likely have brought about his own release from prison. He could even have appealed to the Jews in Jerusalem for relief from persecution if he thought the dispute was merely religious. Or, he could have appealed for Roman regional protection of himself and others from his Roman judges Felix and Festus in Caesarea (Acts 24-26). Paul was aware of these options, for after he was unlawfully arrested in Jerusalem he used his status as a Roman citizen to protect him from torture: “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). But Paul was not all that interested in his personal freedom, as one of his Roman judges testified, “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Acts 26:32). What then was Paul interested in? When he first said, “I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11) he was keeping with the plan the Holy Spirit had laid on his heart several months earlier in Ephesus. Specifically, in Acts 20:21, “After these things were finished, Paul purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem after he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” Such was the call of God on Paul. Then three years in the making, the ministry in Ephesus was not only phenomenal in effect, but notoriously dangerous. It brought public riots and persecution. And lest we forget, there were problems in Corinth at that time as well. Hence the mention of going first to “Macedonia and Achaia” before Jerusalem (20:21). It also helps to recall Paul’s recent history. The ‘things’ (Acts 20:21) that had finished in Ephesus were the repeated cycle of ‘miracle public response riot church plant Roman persecution’ (Acts 13:50f, 14:5f, 14:19f, 16:19, 17:5, 17:13, 18:12f, 19:28). Roman Persecution was a severe reality for Paul and many others. Because of his missionary success, people under the aegis of the Roman government tortured Christians and hindered the propagation of the gospel. OK, back to Acts 20:21: “After I have been there (Jerusalem), I must also see Rome.” This verse doesn’t explain why Paul wants to go east to Jerusalem before he goes west to Rome, a plan that is arduous, costly, and inefficient. The explanation for this travel plan comes, I believe, by tying several threads of evidence together. The first thread is the money, or rather, the lack of its mention. Paul and his friends brought a gift of money from the Body of Christ churches planted by Paul in Asia and Greece to the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. These eight men traveled with Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4-5, cf. 1 Cor. 16:3, 2 Cor. 8-9). The gift of money was high on Paul’s priority list, for it was pressed upon him by James, Peter, and John in Gal. 2:10, “They only asked us to remember the poor-- the very thing I also was eager to do.” Thus, while Paul’s ministry to the Gentile originated in God, it was also authorized by apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:6-9). These ‘pillars of Jerusalem’ (Gal. 2:9) did not add to Paul’s divine call as an apostle, but did recognize that Paul’s apostolic ministry would take place among the Gentiles with their full support, while theirs should take place among the Jews. Alongside the gift of money runs another thread for traveling to Jerusalem, but it too is insufficient to explain the trip. It was Paul’s ‘body-of-Christ’ doctrine, stressing spiritual equality in the same church. Indeed, one could say this was the reason for the gift of money, at least as much as the alleviation of suffering, and perhaps more so. It shows itself in the counsel given to Paul by James and the elders (Acts 21:20-25). But little if any discussion of Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ doctrine appears in the following chapters, nor is there any mention of the money. Hence, when Paul returns to Jerusalem in AD 58 with the money and the Gentile co-laborers in Christ, it is about more than money. It is also about validating the human trust placed in Paul, and the divine stamp of approval the purity of his ministry: Gentiles love Jews for Christ’s sake. So that’s two threads: the gift of money, and love among the Body of Christ. But there are problems in making these threads the main reason why Paul traveled to Jerusalem. First, when Paul arrives in Jerusalem, no mention is made of the gift in Acts 21! Instead, all the discussion concerns a dilemma faced by the elders and the church in Jerusalem concerning Paul’s reputation. Surely if Paul’s goal was delivering money, he could have done so and left the same day without causing a stir. Or he could have sent it by others. Instead, Acts 21 details an elaborate plan that is unanimously decided upon by the elders of the church in order to assure confidence in Paul by the saints in Jerusalem. A second problem is more substantial. Luke never mentions anywhere in Acts the gift of money, much to the consternation of scholars. And Luke was in the nine-member delegation that went to Jerusalem. So obviously, Luke did not want his readers thinking Paul went to Jerusalem to give money, but instead he went for another, more important, reason. And it is this. The thread of evidence that explains Paul’s reasons is the biggest one. He will use the courts to seek permanent legal protection from persecution for all Christians in the Roman Empire. How do we know that? That’s the story Luke uses to explain the Holy Spirit’s prophecy: “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (Acts 21:11) Being in the “hands of the Gentiles,” a metaphor for arrest and imprisonment, is the last eight chapters of Acts. Thus Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21 is a compliment to the apostolic authorization he received prior to his first missionary journey from James, Peter, and John. While in Jerusalem at that time, Paul “submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but I did so in private to those who were of reputation, for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain” (Gal. 2:2). That same concern for ‘running in vain’ for the gospel undergirds Paul’s actions in seeking James and the elders of Jerusalem. Paul doesn’t want to run to Rome in vain. He wants ecclesiastical recognition from the first church of Christendom so that he can formally represent them, and by extension all churches that come from them, as Jewish Christians and as an ecclesiastical entity, in a court of law. Now, sadly, Paul’s mission was largely unsuccessful, if measured in merely legal terms. However, God used those two years in Paul’s life to write several letters we all treasure in the Bible. Paul also taught, by example, how to relate to the authorities of men: human government. Paul was always upright, patient, and respectful. And perhaps most important, Paul displayed an unafraid Christianity. He was willing to suffer for the name of Christ as he appealed to human government, in order to obtain relief and freedoms for others.