The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” (Acts 22:22)
The last passage ended with the Lord speaking these words to the recently-converted Paul: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (verse 21).
That is not what this crowd of hyper-charged religious patriots wanted to hear. They had gotten riled up in the first place because they believed Paul had taken a Gentile friend into the temple. Now hearing Paul’s report that in the very precincts of the temple the Lord himself had specifically commissioned him to reach the Gentiles was simply too much.
It goes to show the intensity of emotion that is stirred up by racial animosity. This crowd had already heard from Paul’s lips other loaded phrases that I would have expected to be equally explosive. But they weren’t.
Paul started his speech by declaring that he had previously “persecuted the followers of this Way to their death” (verse 4), but his narrative went on to clearly indicate he had come to embrace “the Way” fully for himself. He plainly recounts how he was confronted on the Road to Damascus by a divine voice, and that when he queried, “Who are you, Lord?,” the answer came back stunningly, “I am Jesus of Nazareth” (verse 8 ). One would have thought such a declaration would create fireworks in that crowd, but apparently they continued in rapt attention.
The story proceeded with a man named Ananias (coincidentally sharing the same name as the current high priest) confirming that in his encounter with Jesus, Paul had been chosen by God himself “to see the Righteous One” (verse 14). That designation is not one this crowd would easily have accepted for Jesus. Still, they remained attentive.
But when the Risen Lord spoke to Paul about taking his message “far away to the Gentiles”(verse 21), the dams broke. Enough was enough. “They raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’” (verse 22).
Such is the power of racial hatred.
We, of course, are not surprised. Such animosity is powerfully at work in our own day. Which then makes it all the more remarkable that the Gospel of Jesus Christ dissolves hostility. It’s surprising enough that Paul – “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee”(Philippians 3:5) – could enthusiastically embrace this mission for himself. But it’s even more remarkable that the community of the early church could actually be forged from such volatile raw material. Jew and Gentile coming together as one. How could it be?
The answer, of course, comes in the person of Jesus himself. Later, Paul will write: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
This was an absolute miracle in Paul’s day. It continues to be a miracle still. In a day when tensions between ethnic groups flare, when skin colour creates battle lines, when religious and cultural backgrounds stoke enmity, how desperately we need the miracle of Jesus’ peace.
How tragic when we don’t embrace it.
Dear Lord Jesus, thank you that you absorbed all the world’s animosity into yourself on the cross. You destroyed the barrier. You broke down the dividing wall. Please, by your Spirit, convict us of our own biases. Empower us with your peace. Strengthen us to live as kingdom sisters and brothers, regardless of how the world continues to reinforce divisions. Display your glory in your unified people. Let us not get in the way. Amen.
Reflect: Is there any grouping – ethnic, cultural, social – that raises your ire? Do those feelings get in the way of Christ’s love? Give them to Jesus. Receive his new perspective. Live it.