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6 December. Acts chapters 20-22
These chapters cover the end of Paul’s missionary journeys, as he returns to Jerusalem where he knows (from his own revelation and the prophecies of others) that he will be arrested and tried. But he goes voluntarily, like Jesus on his own final journey to Jerusalem, believing that this is God’s will. In each place he goes along the way, where there are existing communities of Christians, he makes his farewell speech, sometimes (as at Troas, 20:7-11) lasting all night.
We can get an idea of what his farewell speech would have focused on from the episode in Miletus (20:28-35) where he summons the elders (whom he also addressed as “overseers”, the term for what became bishops) from the church in the region known as Asia (meaning part of what is now western Turkey, not the whole continent) and speaks to them, urging them to be pastors to the church members like shepherds with their sheep, to teach the message of God’s grace, and to watch out for charismatic leaders who might lead people astray by ‘false’ teaching. These remain the core responsibilities of bishops and other ministers today. They all face the tricky task of balancing these duties of pastoral Care, preaching and teaching, and making a public stand against any challenge to the Church.
In Jerusalem it happens just as predicted: Paul is arrested following a mob charge that starts with a false accusation that he has brought Gentiles into the temple. When brought before the tribune (a low level Roman official) he avoids being flogged by playing the “get out of jail card” of Roman citizenship that I mentioned a couple of days ago.
The sensitivity over who was entitled to use the Temple was nothing new, as it had been a sacred site for the Jews for centuries. Even in today’s news, there is controversy over Jerusalem because the United States wants to have an embassy there. This would apparently be seen by Palestinians as recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and therefore (though there is no apparent logic in this) denying their rights to a share of the city, in which the Temple site (now a Muslim holy place) stands.
Christianity, although regarding Jerusalem as a holy place because of Jesus’ death and resurrection there, makes no territorial claim to it. To visit the holy city as a pilgrim must be wonderful (I have yet to do it) but it must also be remembered that Jesus called the Temple “a house of prayer for all nations”. Jerusalem’s role now should be to welcome all who worship the God of Abraham, and to “pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) is a command that never ceases to be relevant.