Have you ever prayed for God to open a door in your life? How about closed doors? Have you ever prayed for a closed door? We don’t like closed doors do we? And yet I believe that God can use closed doors.
Beginning in Acts 21:27 we read about a door that was slammed in the face of the Apostle Paul. Let’s read together about Paul’s closed door, and the new windows of opportunity God opened for him….
When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)
The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!” As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the desert some time ago?”
Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.”
The Closed Door of Paul’s Arrest
I find this one brief statement in our text today to be very dramatic and evocative: “. . . and immediately the gates were shut.” From Acts 9 all the way through to this point we have been reading about Paul’s virtually unhindered witness throughout the Roman Empire. Yes, Paul has been persecuted by his fellow Jews on numerous occasions. Yes, he has been arrested before. Yes, he has even been stoned and left for dead. But on this occasion when Paul is arrested he doesn’t get out of it. In fact, we will see Paul under arrest throughout the rest of the book of Acts. So let us carefully examine exactly how this happens to Paul.
You may remember from last Sunday’s reading that Paul agreed with James to join in the purification rites of four other Jewish believers and pay for their expenses. This compromise which Paul made is what led him into the Temple in Jerusalem in the first place. Now it also got him into hot water!
Some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul in the Temple. These were apparently some of the same Jews who had given Paul trouble as he traveled throughout Galatia. They stirred up the crowd with claims that Paul had been teaching against the Jewish people, the Jewish law and the Jewish Temple. Ironic isn’t it, that just when Paul had made a compromise in order to win the Jews of Jerusalem over, he is accused of doing just the opposite? Sometimes you just can’t win! These Jews also made a second untrue accusation. They accused Paul of bringing a Greek into the temple area. The temple precincts were divided into different areas. Non-Jews could only enter into a certain part of the temple area. In fact, there was a dividing wall between the area where the Gentiles could be and the area only Jews could enter. And there were signs posted all along this wall threatening the Gentiles with death if they violated the barrier. This is what Paul is referring to in Ephesians 2:14-15 when he writes: “For he [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jew and Gentile] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.”
The reaction to these accusations was that the whole city was aroused. A mob formed and they seized Paul, dragging him out of the more sacred portion of the temple precincts, and the gates to that portion of the temple were shut. While this mob was trying to kill Paul news of the lynching reached the commander of the Roman troops, stationed in the Antonia fortress adjacent to the Temple. The commander immediately brought a contingent of soldiers to check out what was going on, and when the mob saw the Roman soldiers they stopped beating Paul.
Bruce Larson describes the rest of the scene this way:
Imagine, if you will, that you are a film director doing the story of the life of Paul and shooting this scene. There is the legendary cast of thousands, crowded on Solomon’s Porch, the courtyard of the temple, yelling, ‘Kill Paul! Kill Paul!’ As this is about to happen, a group of Roman soldiers who are there to keep the peace, form a flying wedge and move into the crowd to rescue the source of the trouble, this wild little evangelist. They pick him up, carry him over their heads on their shields, and hustle him through the mob, who are all the while yelling, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ Meanwhile, Paul is lying up there on the shield trying to converse with the tribune in charge of this rescue operation. He addresses him in good Greek, which makes a very positive impression. The tribune thought he was an Egyptian, a well-known revolutionary. As they are carrying him up the stairs to the guardhouse, followed still by the angry crowd, Paul says, ‘Put me down. I’ve got to talk to them.’ From the steps of the barracks, he begins to give his personal witness. Our imaginary director would have a hard time making this scene credible on film. Paul’s holy boldness can only be accredited to God’s own Spirit in and with him.
What do you do when a door slams shut in your face, when you lose your job, or your spouse walks out on you, when all your hopes and dreams come crashing down? Do you sit there and cry about the closed door? Yes, we all do because we are human. But then if you are trusting in Christ you should be looking, even through tears, for the new door that God is opening for you, because, as the Reverend Mother says in The Sound of Music, “God never closes a door without opening a window somewhere.”
The story is told of an Irish boy who often roamed the hills outside his village. One day the path he was following led to a tall gate. The boy found the gate locked so that there was no going through. The gate was part of a high stone wall and there was no way the boy could go around the wall. The boy either had to forsake his journey or figure out a way to climb over the wall. To build up his own inner sense of commitment to the task the boy threw his much-loved cap over the wall.
Next, using his Irish common sense, the boy creatively found some foot-holds and hand-holds in the stone wall. He climbed over the obstacle, retrieved his cap and continued on his journey. The locked gate had forced him to consider another way of accomplishing his purpose.
When Paul was faced with the slammed door of his own arrest, he immediately started looking around for another open door for witness to his Savior Jesus Christ. And Paul found that open door, first in the very mob in front of him who had tried to kill him moments before.
The Open Door to the Mob
Listen to how Paul used the open door that was before him in Acts 22….
Having received the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”
When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.
Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
“‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
“‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.
“A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him.
“Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’
“‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
“Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
Paul has learned something from his experience in Athens. He doesn’t engage in any fancy intellectual discourse on this occasion. He simply tells the Jewish mob his story. As William Barclay has said, “. . . personal experience is the most unanswerable argument on earth.”
Paul starts basically by saying: “A funny thing happened to me on the way to Damascus....” He trots out his credentials as a very religious Jew. He notes how he studied under Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis in Jerusalem. Paul reminds his audience that he was just like they are, so zealous for the law that he persecuted the Christians.
But then Paul goes on to tell his audience how he has changed, how he has become different from them. The reason is his personal encounter with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Since meeting Jesus Paul has come to realize that Christ is the Savior of all people and God is the lover of all people, whereas he used to believe that God was the lover of the Jews only.
In verse 14 we have a wonderful summary of what the Christian life is all about. God has chosen us, as he chose Paul, to know his will, to see the righteous one [Jesus], and to hear the voice of his mouth. It was said of some great preacher that he often paused in his preaching as though he were listening for another voice. The Christian is one who must always listen for the voice of God behind him or her saying, “This is the way, walk ye in it.” Paul listened for the voice of God even as he faced the closed door of his arrest, and so he immediately saw a new, open door of opportunity for witness.
The Response of Paul’s Audience
How did Paul’s audience respond to his speech? Listen to what happened from Acts 22:22-29….
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!”
As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”
The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”
“Yes, I am,” he answered.
Then the commander said, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.” “But I was born a citizen,” Paul replied.
Those who were about to question him withdrew immediately. The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.
Luke shows us two responses to Paul’s message, that of the crowd and that of the Roman commander. The Jewish mob rejected both Paul and his message. As soon as he mentioned his ministry to the Gentiles they were ready to lynch him again. They believed that God loved the Jews pretty exclusively; they didn’t want to hear anything of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
It’s amazing isn’t it? But that is the way some people respond to the expansive love of God. Sometimes, as human beings, we are more interested in building walls. God is interested in tearing them down. I cannot imagine that when I stand before God someday that God is going to say to me: “Why did you draw your circle of inclusion so wide?” Rather, I think God may ask some of us: “Why did you draw your circle so small?”
Rejection wasn’t the only response Paul received to his message. The Roman commander wanted to know more. He wanted to know why the people were crying out for Paul’s death. Of course the commander did not go about getting an answer out of Paul in the right way. He was ready to have Paul flogged until he learned that Paul was a Roman citizen, and to flog a Roman citizen before trial was illegal.
But the bottom line is this: if we faithfully live and share the message of Jesus with others as Paul did, rejection won’t be the only response. We won’t always face a closed door. God will give us open doors of opportunity with some people whom he has prepared to respond positively to his message. God had more open doors of opportunity in store for Paul, and he will for each one of us and for our church as well.