Jerusalem’s Relentless March to Divine Destiny – Pt 9
“I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” Acts 5:38-39 NIV
Putting Jesus to death did not put an end to the challenges facing the Sanhedrin. Just fifty days later, on the feast of Pentecost, with Jewish pilgrims flooding Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” their problems were quickly multiplied. While a small band of Jesus’ followers were assembled in an upper room in the city for prayer, the Holy Spirit suddenly fell with the appearance of tongues of fire coming to rest upon each of them. Empowered with boldness and gifted to speak in the diverse tongues of all the nationalities gathering at the scene, the Apostle Peter with the other apostles began to preach about Jesus. Issuing a call to repentance, Peter concluded his message declaring “therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36 NIV). Before the day was up, there were three thousand converts. Jewish leaders now had to contend with more praising, praying, and preaching Christ followers populating their Temple courts. This is because for the early believers, all being of Jewish origin, the Temple was the focal point and daily gathering place for corporate prayer and worship. It would continue to be so for the next thirty five years. (Until the Temple’s destruction)
The apostles Peter and John complicated matters further when they healed a crippled man whom they met on their way to afternoon prayer at the Temple. The man, lame from birth, made it his daily practice to sit and beg at the entrance. Multitudes came running when they heard the man had been healed. The apostles, seizing the opportunity, proceeded to preach about Jesus and proclaim that He had been resurrected from the dead. When the Jewish religious leaders heard this they were deeply disturbed and had the two arrested and jailed overnight. The Sanhedrin met in the morning with the apostles. Having questioned them both, reckoning there was no way to refute the testimony of the healed man, they charged them to cease speaking about Jesus and released them.
Despite the opposition, the apostles continued to teach and perform miracles, the followers of Jesus continued to multiply, and their assemblies, now referred to as the church, continued to meet and make an impact upon the community. Not surprisingly, as the Peter and the apostles continued to preach and heal people, they were arrested and thrown into jail again. On this occasion however, an angel of the Lord came to them in the middle of the night and set them free. The guards and chief priests were perplexed when they found them preaching the next day at the Temple. They immediately had them arrested a second time and were now determined to put them to death. One of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee by the name of Gamaliel, stepped forward in their midst and offered some inspired wisdom that gave them pause. “I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39 NIV). Hearing this, the Sanhedrin thought it best not to execute them, but decided instead to have them flogged and released.
It was not long before another miracle working Christ follower, named Stephen, raised their ire. This time, the Sanhedrin was so incensed by his preaching, they dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death. He became the Christian faith’s first martyr. His death triggered a severe persecution in Jerusalem intent on destroying the church “and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 NIV). Gamaliel’s warning was proving to be true. The Jesus movement was unquestionably from God. Set ablaze by the Holy Spirit it could not be quenched, though the Sanhedrin and later the Roman government would try repeatedly to do so. Within a quarter of a century it would be rapidly expanding to the “ends of the earth” just as Jesus, at His ascension, had predicted (Acts 1:8 NIV).
Ironically, it was a Pharisee who had studied under Gamaliel named Saul, whom God would choose to carry the revival fire beyond Israel into the non-Jewish world. Saul, who consented to Stephen’s death and zealously took the lead in the persecution of Christians, had a dramatic conversion experience while in route to imprison believers in Damascus. With a blinding light from heaven, Jesus appeared to him. The course of Saul’s life changed. Called by God as an Apostle to the Gentiles, he spent nearly five years preparing in anonymity before officially being launched into ministry from the church in Antioch, Syria, in 43 AD. Paul, as he was now called, set sail from there with a companion named Barnabas. It was the first of three major church planting journeys that would take him into the heart of the Asia Minor. It should be noted that it was in Antioch where followers of Christ first began to be called Christians.
The stoning of Stephen and outbreak of persecution, coincided with other winds of change that were beginning to blow both in Jerusalem and the Roman Empire beyond. Growing dissatisfaction with Pontius Pilate’s brutal rule, particularly among the Samaritans, threatened to break into an open revolt in Jerusalem. In 36 AD, the Governor of Syria stepped in, and had both Pilate and Caiaphas deposed and sent to Rome. Tiberius, the Emperor since 14 AD, died in 37 AD. Caligula became Emperor in his stead, through a murderous plot to eliminate a rival claimant. One of his closest friends was Herod Agrippa, with whom he had grown up with in Rome. Herod Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, and nephew of Herod the “fox” Antipas and Philip, both who governed the regions northwest of Judea. In order to avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that royal descendants of Herod the Great usually took the family name of “Herod” as a prefix to their name. His descendants were also referred to as “Herodians.” Several years earlier when Philip died, Agrippa was granted the rule of his territory by Tiberius. Now, he convinced Caligula to depose Antipas, and give him that territory as well. Caligula exiled Antipas to Lyons, in what is now France, and there the fox died, a fitting end to the killer of John the Baptist and interrogator of Jesus. Caligula, an egotistical despot, ordered his image to be set up and worshiped throughout his domain, including in the Temple. When the Jews refused, protecting the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, Caligula sent the Governor of Syria to move in and crush the rebellion. Agrippa, a Jew by birth and convinced of the sacredness of the Temple, made a courageous appeal to his friend Caligula on behalf the Jews to rescind the order. Uncharacteristically, Caligula acquiesced.
Herod Agrippa’s influence would continue to rise, but like his friend Caligula, it would eventually go to his head and be his undoing. A few years later, in 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated. Agrippa took charge of the chaos that ensued. Through his counsel and persuasion, a reticent Claudius was appointed by the Senate as the new Emperor. Claudius, expressing his gratitude, gave Agrippa Jerusalem and virtually all of Herod the Great’s Kingdom, consolidating once again all the territories in the region under his supreme rule as King. When King Agrippa arrived to take charge, the Jews welcomed him with open arms. They were won over by his devotion to daily sacrifice at the Temple and commitment to enhancing the city of Jerusalem with building projects. By 44 AD, Herod was targeting the Christians in Jerusalem for persecution. In the process he arrested the apostle James and put to death by the sword. Seeing this pleased the Jews, he also arrested Peter, planning to put him on trial and execute him. But the earnest prayers of the church were answered when an angel appeared and delivered Peter from prison, reminiscent of his jail break with the apostles years earlier. By morning he was in safe hiding and a thorough search was being made for him. Lacking the prisoner and an explanation of what had happened, Herod had the soldiers who had been guarding him executed. Shortly afterward, Herod traveled down from Jerusalem to his imperial palace in Caesarea on the Mediterranean. Filled with pride at having resolved a regional dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon, he appointed a day to herald his triumph. As he sat upon his throne, arrayed in his royal robes, the people attending his address shouted “’This is the voice of god, not of a man!’ Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:22-23 NIV).
As the Jews mourned the King’s death, riots broke out in Jerusalem. News of the turmoil over who should rule in his place reached Claudius in Rome. While some lobbied for his son Agrippa II to ascend to the throne, Claudius ruled he was too young at seventeen to govern such a sprawling, volatile kingdom. He decided instead to institute a government ruled by procurators or governors, reverting back to a regime in which Rome exercised more direct control. With regard to the management of the Temple, Claudius authorized the late Agrippa’s brother, the King of Chalcis (Greece), a Herodian Jew, to appoint the high priests. This awkward balance of power shared between Roman governors and Herodian kings would endure for twenty-five years. It was not long before the young Agrippa II, like his father, began to find favor both with the Emperor Claudius and his successor Nero. When the King of Chalcis died, Agrippa II was chosen to replace his uncle and assumed the rule over the Temple in Jerusalem. Around 54 AD, Nero expanded Agrippa II’s kingdom to include Galilee, Syria, and Lebanon. In the meantime, a Greek named Antonius Felix was appointed the governor of Judea. Scandalous intrigue surrounded these two rulers in their relationships with Agrippa II’s two sisters Bernice and Drusilla. Bernice, having been the wife of her uncle King of Chalcis, moved in with her brother Agrippa II stirring rumors of incest. The other sister, Drusilla, known for her beauty and being unhappily married to an Arab king, left her husband for Felix when he began a passionate pursuit of her.
Meanwhile the church continued to grow and prosper in Jerusalem under the leadership of James who was the brother of Jesus, and the council of elders. Though a multiplication of house churches was taking place in the expanding Christian world, the Jerusalem church remained the preeminent church. Positioned in the city where Christianity was birthed and where the Temple continued to be the center of worship and prayer, it became the site of the first ever council on doctrinal matters. When Paul and Barnabas returned from their ministry trip they sought a ruling with regard to the adherence to Jewish Mosaic laws among Gentile believers. A council of apostles and elders was convened in 49 AD to seek the Holy Spirit for a resolution. Led by James they crafted a statement limiting the Gentiles to just four prohibitions: abstaining from food offered to idols, meat of strangled animals, blood, and sexual immorality. Shortly thereafter Paul embarked on a second church planting mission that would last three years and take him as far as Macedonia. Returning briefly to both Jerusalem and Antioch to greet the churches and give report he then launched out a third time in 53 AD to visit the churches he had established. Paul was becoming the most influential man in the Christian world through his indefatigable expansion of the faith through evangelism, church planting and letter writing. His epistles began to shape Christian doctrine and ultimately constituted half of the books in the New Testament.
When Paul returned to Jerusalem in 57 AD, he gave testimony to James and the elders of all God had done. As he was participating in a Jewish seven day ritual of purification in the Temple, some Asian Jews recognized him. Charging him with teaching things contrary to Jewish laws and bringing Greeks into the Temple, they stirred up a mob against him. They seized Paul, dragged him from the Temple, and proceeded to beat him. The entire city was in an uproar and only the arrival of the Roman troops saved him. The commander had Paul arrested and bound in chains, but at his request gave him permission to say some words to the crowds. Paul ever the preacher gave his testimony, but at the end when he mentioned his call to minister to the Gentiles the crowd went berserk again demanding his death. The commander had him whisked away to the military barracks and was preparing to have him flogged when Paul questioned their authority to proceed, given the fact that he was a Roman citizen. Being born a Roman citizen gave Paul the right for a trial and legal protection from unjust treatment. Hearing this the commander immediately put a halt to everything. Wanting to find out what the Jews were charging Paul with, the commander arranged to have him appear before the Sanhedrin the following day. A tumultuous and inconclusive meeting ensued due to Paul’s deftness in pitting the Sadducees against the Pharisees. The next day a conspiracy to have Paul assassinated was hatched by some Jews in concert with the Sanhedrin. When the plot was discovered, the commander immediately prepared a detachment of two hundred soldiers and in the middle of the night whisked Paul out of Jerusalem to take him to Caesarea. It was Paul’s final farewell to the Holy City, never to return.
In Caesarea, the seat of Judean government, Paul would embark on a two year process of imprisonment and legal appeals within the Roman judicial system that would eventually take him all the way to Rome. He began by defending himself against the Jewish accusations in the presence of Felix, the governor. After the proceedings were adjourned, Felix chose to delay his decision. He and his wife Drusilla, were intrigued by Paul and initiated an audience with him. Paul witnessed to them about Jesus, but when Paul spoke of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said ‘That’s enough for now!’” (Acts 24:25 NIV). Over the course of two years, Felix met frequently with Paul and even offered to set him free for a bribe, which Paul declined. A new governor, Porcius Festus replaced Felix in 59 AD and inherited Paul’s case because Felix chose to leave him in prison to placate the Jews. Festus reopened the case, and hearing the charges of the Jewish leaders against Paul, offered him a trial in Jerusalem. Paul, once again standing on his rights as a Roman citizen said “’I am now standing before Caesar’s court where I ought to be tried. . . . I appeal to Caesar!’ After Festus conferred with his council, he declared: ‘You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you will go!’” (Acts 25:10 NIV). Several days later King Agrippa II and Bernice came to Caesarea to visit the new governor. During their days together Festus shared Paul’s case with them and Agrippa II asked to meet with Paul. The following day the King and Queen convened their royal court with great pomp and circumstance, surrounded by all the preeminent officials of the city. When Paul was brought in Agrippa II invited him to speak. Paul’s address was so compelling, as he shared the Gospel and his testimony, the King replied “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 NIV). When the audience ended, all three of the Roman leaders agreed privately that Paul had done nothing deserving death or imprisonment. Agrippa II confided that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar he could have been set free. And so it was off to Nero, the ruling Caesar, Paul would go.
To be continued in my next blog post. Your comments and feedback are always welcome.