The Roman tribune had assumed that Paul was a leader of a dangerous guerrilla movement. We are not told why the tribune thought this – perhaps someone had suggested it. He was willing to let Paul make his defence against the accusations of the crowd. In doing so, he was to discover that Paul served in another army, with a very different commander who knew where to send his soldiers and when to lead them away from danger, as he had done with Paul years before in Jerusalem. I suppose the reader is meant to ask if Jesus would rescue Paul again.
Luke describes Paul’s ability to interact with military leaders and religious people. He mentions Paul’s flexibility with languages, and that his voice was strong enough to bring a hush to the crown gathered in that large space. Yet the detail that is most striking is Paul’s earnest longing to be able to speak to his fellow-countrymen. We might imagine that he would have wanted to be taken to a place of safety away from the mob trying to kill him. Instead he wanted to speak to them about Jesus and the mission received from him. The concern of Paul was to explain his commission as well as his conversion, and not to have his opponents destroyed.
Paul reminds his listeners that he was once like them, opposed to Jesus and his message. Yet Jesus had intervened in his life and given him special guidance to serve among the Gentiles. When he mentioned the Gentiles, the crowd became enraged, especially as he had preceded that information by stating that the Lord had told him, while praying in the temple, that he would not have a receptive audience in Jerusalem. This is what he had been doing when the crowd became enraged with him on the present occasion. So he was saying that they were no different from the ones who had been in the temple twenty years before.
It is surprising to us that the crowd was prepared to listen to Paul until he referred to the fact that Jesus wanted him to go to the Gentiles. They did not seem to object as long as Paul remained within Israel. This means that they only wanted a Jesus that suited themselves, and were willing to tolerate his followers as long as they remained within Judaism. But they did not want a gospel that offered divine mercy to those beyond their ethnic group.
They imagined that the fact that they were Israelites was what mattered. Although they heard the gospel explained clearly, they rejected it while thinking they were serving God. Here we have a soldier of Jesus caught between two armies - the political power of Rome and the religious power of the Jews - and although it does not look like it he belongs to the victorious army.