Ya know, it’s really not good to categorize people—but we all do it. Subconsciously. Consciously. Instantaneously. It’s almost a cerebral reflex. I’m sure there’s a psychological term for it. Hmmm. That’s my 8th grade picture over there. Ugh. Who’da thunk that 8th grade girl woulda ended up a 48-year-old mama, grandma, wife, and author?
My hubby and I are swiftly approaching our thirtieth high school class reunion. We were reminiscing about the people in our class and those who were a few years younger. (Actually, Roy was trying to remember the name of a girl he kissed during his senior year. You know you’re getting old when you forget the names of people you kissed in high school!) So we pulled out our senior yearbook. Big hair. Frilly prom dresses. Short basketball shorts. Acne. Oh my.
But the real eye-opener? As we looked back on those individual pictures, some of the prettiest or handsomest faces weren’t necessarily the most popular kids. Appearance didn’t seem to be the deciding factor on social standing. Category was far more important. With nearly every face we recognized, we could name the category to which that person belonged: farmer, athlete, braniac, hoodlum, prep, mean girl, etc. How did these individuals join their categories? Were they assigned? Did they submit resumes or applications? I suspect they landed in their categories much the same way Paul arrived in his…through other people’s perceptions (true and false) and by his own self-disclosure.
Acts 21:37-22:2 – “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.’ 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.” (emphasis added)
The Roman commander’s opinion of Paul changed from a notorious Egyptian rebel to a mild-mannered Jew from Tarsus—a citizen of no ordinary city—when Paul showed humility in difficult circumstances. The commander’s new opinion won Paul the favor to speak, and by merely using a language familiar to the Jewish crowd, Paul silenced them. Sometimes people’s misperceptions can be cleared up with a humble spirit and well-chosen words.
Acts 22:3-16 – “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.”’” (emphasis added)
Paul categorizes himself—in effect shares his personal testimony—in a way that identifies with those to whom he’s speaking. Paul was a Jew, brought up in Jerusalem under the famous teacher, Gamaliel. Impressive credentials that make the rest of his testimony worth hearing. He then includes a description of his conversion experience, ending with concise, practical calls to action: Be baptized. Live for Jesus. Paul leaves no doubt in his hearers’ minds…he’s in a new category.
Acts 22:17-22 – “‘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.”’ 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!’” (emphasis added)
Paul reaffirms his Jewishness, but he leaves no doubt that his obedience to Jesus Christ overrides any loyalty he once felt to men’s rules. He has placed himself in the category of Preacher-to-Gentiles, but in doing so, Paul has also joined the Obedient-to-Christ club—a stellar membership list.
Acts 22:23-29 – “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.” (emphasis added)
In the commander’s eyes, Paul began as an Egyptian rebel and changed to a troublesome Jew. When he plummeted to downright annoying, the commander left Paul to be flogged—until they discovered Paul was a Roman citizen. Remember his earlier declaration? That he was, “…a citizen of no ordinary city”? Through godly wisdom, he reserved his citizenship for a crucial moment—a moment when he needed an elevation in category. Jesus told his disciples to be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves (Mt. 10:16). Paul took it to heart. So should we.
- Lord, I don’t like to be labeled, nor do I think it right to categorize people—but it’s a reality of the world in which we live. Teach me to react humbly, shrewdly, rightly when people place me in a category. And may I always live in such a way that declares my whole-hearted devotion to You. Let there never be a doubt to Whom I’ve pledged my love, my allegiance, my life.