Last week we looked at Paul’s accommodation to the Council in Jerusalem – James, Peter and the other apostles and elders. Rather than confront them he agrees to take four men to the Temple for the rites of purification. As the elders say, “Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.” Paul takes them to the Temple and then waits almost seven days in Jerusalem with no incidents. But then there is a sudden storm and that is where we pick up this morning.
Let’s look at the story from several perspectives – the Asian Jews, the mob, the Romans, the Church itself and, finally, Paul.
1. We’ve met these Jews from Asia several times in Acts. They follow Paul and his friends from city to city and create dissension and hostility toward them. In Iconium they stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against Paul and Barnabas. In Lystra, they won the crowd over and turned them from worshipping Paul and Barnabas to stoning them. At the first meeting of the Council in Jerusalem they came and were teaching the brothers that there was no salvation without circumcision and obeying the customs of Moses. In Thessalonica they “rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city.” In Berea, they agitated the crowds and stirred them up. They opposed him in Corinth and other parts of Greece.
What’s important to notice is that these men were not simply rabble rousers or disrupters. They did not merely shout down Paul. They were exceptionally adept at stirring up and motivating crowds of people who were confused in their own minds and turning them into a mob.
Look at the phrase Luke uses here several time: stirred up. It doesn’t mean whip up with no purpose. The literal meaning is actually to constrain and control. There was a method to the way they exploited madness and ignorance and frustration. They stirred up without losing control. They stirred up but knew how to control what they created. Think of it as the difference between a bullet and a bomb. The bullet is the product of a highly controlled explosion and it is directed at a target with great accuracy. That is what Luke is describing here. Paul’s enemies were experts at creating an explosion and then controlling it for their purposes.
Of course, his enemies had an advantage in that it was Passover. What does Passover celebrate? The death of the Egyptian first-born. The release from Egyptian slavery. The uniqueness and exceptionalism of the Jews from everyone else on earth. It was a time to reaffirm their national identity, religious customs, and pride. The crowds were already at 211 degrees and all it would take was one more degree of heat to make them boil over – especially if even the Romans thought Paul was an Egyptian. Everyone was on edge and spoiling for a reason to take a step beyond beating their chests about being God’s special people. There was also the anger at the Roman occupation, the shame of defeat, the threats of Gentiles being allowed to enjoy the same privileges as real Jews, and the fear of all sort of imagined enemies and false friends. It was a festival with a strong undercurrent of something ready to break loose. A feast and a time bomb together.
Patriotism, group identity, religious fervor were all running high and Paul was about as welcome as Jane Fonda at the local VFW on July 4. Remember, Paul was not a heretic. He was an apostate. A traitor and one who had turned his back on and betrayed his countrymen. He had gone over to the enemy and now had come back to recruit more apostates and enemies. It was H.L. Mencken who said, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Nothing incites groups of people like fear and paranoia. All it takes is for someone to give them permission to react and then the herd instinct takes over. The mob takes on a life of its own. Carl Jung said, “Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.”
2. Perhaps the best description of a mob is that of Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities” because all the elements are there. Rage, permission, leadership stirring them up, and a focus.
“A tremendous roar arose from the throat of Saint Antoine, and a forest of naked arms struggled in the air like shriveled branches of trees in a winter wind; all the fingers convulsively clutching at every weapon or semblance of a weapon that was thrown up from the depths below, no matter how far off…People who could lay hold of nothing else, set themselves with bleeding hands to force stones and bricks out of their places in walls. Every pulse and heart in Saint Antoine was on high-fever strain and high-fever heat. Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it….With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into a detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack begun.”
So here was this raging sea of confused, fearful, angry and easily manipulated people fueled by religious fervor and patriotic pride converging from all over the city on a single target. The picture is one of an entire city being moved around, convulsed and shaken while being continuously stirred until they are brought to a boil and poured out into the streets toward Paul. It is a city in a sauce pan. The whole city was shouting and that unusual word means they were all croaking and screeching like ravens who have discovered a dead body. This one man was the source of all their problems and the there is always a simple solution proposed. The mob wanted blood. It always does.
This is often what happens in a time of change and uncertainty. How did the ancient pagans handle it? They sacrificed someone to the gods to appease them. The Old Testament Hebrews found a scapegoat to turn away the wrath and return things to normal. This is what uncertainty and fear do to people who are open to manipulation and stirring up. People turn to mobs for their own reasons but the mob gives them an excuse and permission to explode. Mobs are always looking for one of two things.
They want a savior to kill the enemy in triumph or a sacrifice to appease the gods and return things to normal. It’s not just the ancients, is it? We are even today – maybe more now than even a few years ago – susceptible to people stirring us up to look for a savior or someone to blame.
3. Three words describe the response of the Romans. They rush into the confusion to control it. They order and command. They give permission. This is the way the Romans operate. They are rational, in charge, quick to get in control and confused by all the emotion. Romans are always interested in restoring order and being in charge.
You might recognize this same dynamic today in the reluctance of some of our own elite to recognize that ISIS is motivated by religion and not by feeling dispossessed or jobless or lacking education. They cannot imagine anyone being this caught up in religion to not only risk their lives but to sacrifice themselves for it. They have trouble seeing the particular brand of hatred that is directed toward apostates and the unfaithful.
Graeme Wood in the March 2015 edition of The Atlantic writes:
“Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.
Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics…Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.
Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.
Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
That was the response of the Romans. They were only concerned about maintaining order and not getting involved in pointless and silly theological arguments that never made much difference in the real world of power and control “When would these people get over these superstitious notions and see the world the way it is? Religion is fine as far as it goes but only to bring people together and encourage peace and goodwill.”
The Romans wanted things to get back to normal as well but not with mobs or saviors and sacrifices. The rational and immediate use of power is the way to handle a threat.
4. Then there is the Church. Nothing is said about them here. The Church is totally absent and nowhere to be found. They neither defended Paul or joined the mob. They simply did nothing.
I quoted G. Campbell Morgan last week about Paul’s well-intentioned but mistaken giving in to the Council to assure everyone that he still observes the Law. In his commentary on Acts, Morgan says,
“Twenty years had passed away since the formation of the Church, and the arresting fact here is that the church in Jerusalem is not seen. Paul was alone, and would have been brutally beaten to death by an infuriated mob, he he not been rescued by the Roman power. When once the seventh chapter of this book of Acts has been passed, where the record of the first things in Jerusalem come to an end, whenever the Church emerges in her representative capacity, she is seen attempting compromise, pursuing the policy of accommodation….The issue is revealed in this page. The Church had no influence in Jerusalem. In this tragic hour, when this man, bearing in his body the stigmata of Jesus, ought to have been welcomed with open heart and arms by the Church; he stood alone in the midst of the pitiless scorn and brutality of an angry mob, and had to be protected by Roman power. The Church had neither power or protest. She had lost both by her policy of accommodation.”
It is the constant temptation of the Church. We want respect or influence and a place at the table or, in the words of Ray Bakke, we become chaplains to power and the useful idiots of politicians and others who stir up the crowds and turn them into mobs. C.S. Lewis said it about wealth but it is true of other things. “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.”
5. Finally, there is the perspective of Paul. In a sense, Paul was rescued from a fate worse than death – and not by the Romans but by the mob. He was in the greatest danger of his life – fitting in with the fears and careers of the Jerusalem Church. Who knows what would have happened to Paul had there not been a riot? He never had the chance to complete the deal he made with the Church leaders before the Jews from Asia recognized him and turned the hearts of the crowds against him. In a very real sense, God loved him enough to save him from that compromise.
I’ve sometimes compared it to that moment in the movie “Hook” with Robin Williams when the Lost Boys rediscover their faith in Peter Pan and shout “Rang A Dang” as Peter finds himself again. It’s like the movie “The Magnificent Seven” with the old heroes (Yule Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson) riding in from retirement and wasted lives to save a small village being brutalized by a Mexican bandit.
Like them, Paul is back in his element, in the middle of a riot, being dragged half-dead into the street, rescued by a Roman army, surrounded by lunging, screaming, blood-crazed maniacs. I find myself actually being grateful for those who stirred up the mob and forced Paul to recover his senses.
How does he respond to the rescue? With Paul it is often not what you would expect in the heat of the moment. Everyone around him is losing their heads except him. “May I say something to you?” “Please let me speak to the people.” Not the mob. Not the crowd. Not the riot. The “people.” Just as he had at Lystra when he runs into the middle of the mob or at the riot in Ephesus. “The whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and rush as one man into the theater. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him.” If you look at all the riots in Paul’s ministry in five of them he moves toward the middle. Toward the danger.
And with one motion of his hand he stills the crowd – that angry sea of a mob. You know what is interesting here? That same word for motion is the root word that is used in Exodus to describe what Moses did when he held out his hand over the Red Sea to part it. What an extraordinary gesture that must have been simply to raise a hand and a whole city becomes quiet. Why did the Asian Jews hate Paul so much? Because he could do just that. No matter what they did he could quiet people when he chose. He could create the storm one moment and calm it the next.
And he didn’t just still them but he created what Luke calls a “great silence.” It was not just quiet. It was an expectancy and a sense that something is about to be said that matters. Not just the absence of sound but the anticipation of what Paul will say.
We’ll save that for next week.
I want us to think about ourselves this week and our perspectives and applications.
What part of the mob do we see in ourselves?
Uncertainty, fear and anger
Croaking and screeching
Running in packs toward a perceived enemy of culture
Manipulated and stirred up
Looking for a sacrifice or a savior
What part of the Romans do we see in ourselves?
Command and control
The easy use of power
Secular misunderstanding of the power of belief
What of the Church do we see in ourselves?
Compromise for respect and influence
No spiritual power
No protest or protection for those who threaten our traditions and customs
What of Paul do we see in ourselves?
Tempted to accommodate
Returned to his senses
Courage and reason
The ability to create, with one gesture, a great silence and anticipation