From the safety of the Roman barracks, Paul requested of the commander that he be permitted to address the mob. This was agreed, and Paul wisely chose Aramaic as his language – the speech of the common man of the day. If you read the first 21 verses of this chapter – Paul’s testimony of his conversion – there are obviously big similarities with Acts 9, the first narrative of that same event. But now it is in Paul’s own words and in front of a fiercely partisan Jewish audience.
Paul therefore makes a big emphasis of the more orthodox Jewish aspects of his past life and recent behaviour; he also paints Ananias as a faithful orthodox Jew, as well as a believer in the Messiah. Ananias’ message is anchored strongly in Israel’s ancestry and culture, whilst keeping faithfully to the actual story. All this time that Jesus was portrayed as the Jewish Messiah, the crowd was quiet and attentive, probably quite convinced that Paul was speaking sense.
However, no sooner than were the words “…to the Gentiles” out of his mouth, than the riot began again. The commander, whose principal task was to keep the peace, had had enough: he ordered that Paul be tortured by scourging until he revealed why he was so hated by his own people. The scourge was a whip made of leather strands, each with pieces of sharp bone or metal attached to their ends. Many men died from scourging alone, it was so cruel. Paul realised that he needed to play his ‘get out of gaol card’ and declared his Roman citizenship, which protected him from all degrading forms of punishment or death, and from all punishment without a fair trial.
You could be awarded citizenship as a reward for great service to Rome, you could purchase it at a very high price, or you could be born a citizen, as Paul obviously was. His birthplace, Tarsus, was a Roman city. Paul’s actions make it clear that it is legitimate, as a believer, to make use of any civil powers that we have, in order to preserve our lives or to advance the gospel. Paul’s actions here did both.
As a reward, the commander placed Paul before the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court in the land – to bear witness to his actions again. Clearly, he hoped that Paul would either incriminate himself or would reveal why the Jewish authorities were so keen on punishing him. From Paul’s point of view, he counted himself as a dead man already and simply wanted to maximise the reach of the gospel into every part of the society of his day. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20).