Paul was arrested as a result of an attempt by a Jerusalem mob to have him killed. Verse 27 says that this began because some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. Asia refers to the Roman province of Asia, what we call Turkey. Its capital city was Ephesus. Paul had spent two years in Ephesus and was well-known there.
If these Jews were from Ephesus, they had undoubtedly been exposed to Paul’s teaching and knew where he stood on Gentile observance of the Jewish laws.
This is an important part of what was going on. Paul had been asked to compromise his position for the sake of Jewish-Gentile harmony, and he seemed to have been willing to assume the ceremonial law of Israel again, contrary to his own teaching—even at the point of denying the finished work of Christ. But the Jews from the province of Asia knew him better than that. They had heard Paul teach. They knew where he stood and what he believed. So they said (and rightly), “We don’t care whether Paul is going through a purification ceremony or not. We know perfectly well that what he really believes is that the Gentiles can be saved apart from the law of Moses.”
When the Jews accused Paul, they gave the argument their own special twist, saying that Paul was teaching “all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place” (v. 28). Paul had not been doing that. He had great respect for the law of Israel. But it was true that he was teaching that the Gentiles could be saved apart from keeping it.
The mob fell upon Paul while he was in the temple area. It dragged him out of the inner area where only Jews could go and into the courtyard of the Gentiles where the rioters fell upon him in force. They would have killed him in a very short time if it were not that the Roman garrison was stationed next to the temple area.
Paul was taken into custody, keeping him from being murdered. The commander tried to find out from the crowd what it was Paul had done. But they were all shouting one thing and another. He was not able to understand them. So he concluded that the best thing was to take Paul inside and interrogate him. As he started to take Paul away the mob followed, shouting, “Away with him! Away with him!” These were the same words they had used of Jesus Christ at the time of the crucifixion. This hatred of Paul was so fierce that the soldiers had to protect him forcibly as they worked themselves out of the crowd and into the fortress.
At this point a detail that emerges later in the story is important. In Acts 23 we have a record of a letter the Roman commander wrote to the Roman Governor Felix, and the letter begins, in good ancient letter-writing style, with his name. His name was Claudius Lysias (v. 26). This is important because, although Claudius is a Latin name, Lysias is a Greek name. And it indicates that this Roman commander, this very able man, was actually of Greek background.
As these soldiers were leading Paul into the barracks, Paul spoke to the commander in educated Greek, saying, “May I say something to you?” (v. 37). We know it was in Greek because, although the entire New Testament is written in Greek, the language of Judah was Aramaic and therefore, when Paul spoke to the commander in Greek, the commander was surprised and immediately said to Paul, “Do you speak Greek?” Because Paul had been raised in Tarsus and spoke good Greek, the officer supposed at this point that he was dealing with a Greek of good education and bearing.1
Paul identified who he was. “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city” (v. 30). Then he asked permission to speak to the people. Under other circumstances this Roman commander would probably have said, “No.” But Paul had impressed him as a reasonable, cultured man, and he said, “Yes,” instead. He thought that there must have been some mistake, and he wanted to solve the problem. If Paul’s speaking to them could clear it up, he was willing to have him go ahead.
1E. M. Blaiklock notes how Paul was perfectly at home in three cultures: “His Greek first caught the tribune’s attention. He addressed the crowd in their Hebrew dialect. He was soon to claim his Roman privileges” (E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963], 173).