Acts 21
Acts 21 Kingcomments Bible Studies

From Miletus to Tyre

After his impressive speech to the elders of Ephesus, Paul must head on again. The elders won’t let him go just like that. How much they would have loved to keep him with them. Paul and his companions have to part – this is an expression of effort, it implies force, in the sense of tearing themselves away. It indicates what a strong bond Christian affection is.

What follows is an ordinary travel account. God is interested in everything His servant does, also in the unspectacular things. In the same way, the Lord Jesus spent most of His life in secret as far as people’s eyes are concerned. All this time He was a pleasure to His Father. We may do the most ordinary things to the glory of God, such as eating and drinking (1Cor 10:31).

At the same time, we also see the hand of the Lord in the travel log. We read about ‘finding’ a ship that brings them to the destiny of their journey. Won’t Paul also have been grateful for a favorable wind and a quiet voyage?

What will have been going on in the apostle’s mind when they “came in sight of Cyprus”? That too is not said without reason. Will it not have raised in him the memory of Barnabas and Mark (Acts 13:4-5; Acts 15:39)? Tyre may also have reminded him of the old days, of the time when the Lord Jesus was there in the neighborhood (Mt 15:21).

The delay there, is as much from the Lord as is finding the ship in Acts 21:2. The reason for the delay is a very practical one, because the ship has to unload its cargo. Guidance from the Lord is usually by very natural means. The question is whether we have an eye for it.

With the Believers in Tyre and in Ptolemais

For Paul and his companions, the delay in Tyre offers a wonderful opportunity – not to admire the city, but – to look up the disciples. Once they have found them, they stay there seven days. As in Troas (Acts 20:6-7), this cannot but mean that they want to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week in Tyre as well. On every day Paul will have taught God’s Word there.

The disciples have not only listened to Paul, but they also have a message for him. They tell him not to go to Jerusalem. It is a message of which Luke tells us that it comes from “the Spirit”. We have already read in Acts 20 how the Holy Spirit is engaged with Paul about his purpose to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). What we read here goes beyond that. There it seems as if the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to think about his purpose to go to Jerusalem by certain directions. Here, however, it is no longer a reflection on whether he will go, but a clear warning not to go.

The highest way for Paul would have been not to go. Yet the will of the Lord is accomplished in his going to Jerusalem. He is the apostle of the Gentiles, but he cannot repress his love for his people. That love is so great that he deviates from the path of faith and chooses the path of natural love.

It remains difficult to say of a man like Paul that he consciously went against the will of the Holy Spirit. In my opinion there is no direct disobedience. Paul is driven by completely selfless motives. It is not a question of black and white, but of a choice between the good and the better. It does not suit us to criticize the apostle for this.

We read that the disciples “through the Spirit” tell Paul not to go to Jerusalem, but they do not say: ‘This is what the Holy Spirit says.’ Later Agabus will do so, however, not in a warning but in a foretelling sense (Acts 21:11). How often have we noticed that others have said something to us ‘through the Spirit’?

In the weakness of his love for his compatriots, he is willing to go to Jerusalem, despite the bonds and afflictions that await him there. He is even prepared to die for it, as he says further on (Acts 21:13). It is not to ignore an explicit command of the Holy Spirit, but to follow a natural love for his people. Nor is it overconfidence that does not know what he is doing if he does not heed the warnings of bonds and affliction. He knew these things only too well.

On top of all this, the Lord, once Paul is captured in Jerusalem, encourages him with the command that he, as he witnessed to Him in Jerusalem, must witness to Him at Rome also (Acts 23:11). There is no reproach from the Lord’s mouth. How, then, should we condemn Paul’s actions or blame him?

We can see that in his desire to go to Jerusalem, he does not walk on the heights of the faith he preaches among the nations. God did not send him to Jerusalem. We can also observe that he does not act at the height of faith when, in order to please his brethren according to the flesh, he submits himself to a law of purification (Acts 21:21-26). He preaches everywhere that the believer is not under the law. One would wish that all Christians would share Paul’s desire to bring the gospel to his people. However, it is to be feared that many do not even reach that level with regard to the people with whom they are connected by natural bonds.

The days of being together with the disciples in Tyre are coming to an end. The journey must be continued. All the disciples with women and children escort them out of the city. Also the children are present to say goodbye to ‘uncle’ Paul. The apostle will certainly have shown his interest in them, following the example of his Lord Who also had this interest (Mt 19:13-15).

The whole group kneels down on the beach and prays. It will have impressed the people who may have seen it. Those people also saw how they greeted each other when they said goodbye. Here we have the expressions of the new life. There is loving God and loving each other. One cannot do without the other. This beautiful testimony of the new life is given on the beach, in the open air.

After greeting each other the paths separate. Paul and his companions board the ship to continue their journey to Jerusalem. The others go home, to continue their testimony there.

From Tyre they sail to Ptolemais. Also in Ptolemais, where they stay only one day, they spend time with the brothers. Each time we see how Paul seeks fellowship with the local believers. He does not only preach about the church, but he also practices the church.

With Philip and the Believers in Caesarea

The sea voyage ends in Caesarea. From there, the journey will continue over land. In Caesarea, Paul goes to see the evangelist Philip, who was one of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5). After his preaching in Samaria and his meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip had come to Caesarea (Acts 8:5; 40). He continued to live there. He is married and has four unmarried daughters who all prophesy.

The house is explicitly called “the house of Philip the evangelist” and the prophesying of his daughters is related to this. This is how Deborah prophesied at home (Jdg 4:4-5). The Lord also gives the gift of prophecy to women. The daughters of Philip spoke for edification and exhortation and consolation (1Cor 14:3). They did this at home and not in the church, because women are not allowed to do so there (1Cor 14:34). Therefore it is not the daughters of Philip who have a message for Paul in the church. Therefore Agabus is sent by the Lord from Judea to Caesarea.

Agabus first visualizes his message. He takes Paul’s belt and binds himself with it, of course first his feet and then also his hands. The belt is a picture of service. Paul’s service to the Jews would lead him to be captured by them. Then Agabus pronounces as the mouth of the Holy Spirit what will happen to Paul in Jerusalem.

What the so-called prophets say today when they say ‘so says the Lord’, we do not find with any New Testament prophet, but only with prophets in the Old Testament. The so-called contemporary prophets with such a statement are certainly not New Testament prophets.

Agabus has a message that comes directly from the Holy Spirit. This message is not meant to persuade Paul to give up his plan to go to Jerusalem, but is a further interpretation of the earlier testimony given by the Spirit (Acts 20:23).

When the company accompanying Paul and also the local believers hear what Agabus says through the Holy Spirit, they want to stop Paul from going to Jerusalem. Paul’s response to their urgent request not to go is the response of an inwardly deeply convinced man. Where Paul has been warned in other places and has fled the danger, he does not do so here, because of his strong natural love for his people according to the flesh. God stands above this and uses all of this to achieve His purpose.

Their tears may affect Paul, but they do not change him in his purpose. His motives are good, he is not selfish, he is interested in his blind compatriots to whom he would like to present the Lord Jesus as Messiah. He does not think of himself. It suits us not to blame Paul, but to admire him. This admiration does not apply to man Paul, but to his dedicated love.

He talks about not only being bound, but even dying in Jerusalem, not for his people or his ideals, but “for the name of the Lord Jesus”. That is the only thing that drives him. That is why his determination is not to trust in the flesh, as it became visible with Peter in his denial of the Lord (Lk 22:33-34). His concern in everything is the Name of the Lord Jesus.

When it is clear that Paul will not change his mind, both the travel company and the local believers place the matter in the hands of the Lord. They remain silent. There is a time to speak, there is also a time to remain silent (Ecc 3:7). They realize that they cannot take matters into their own hands. God’s will is sometimes too complicated for us to understand. God’s will is always accomplished, but sometimes so much different than we would have thought. It is a testimony of wisdom especially then to say: “The will of the Lord be done!”

From Caesarea to Jerusalem

Everything is prepared for the last part of the journey. Although Paul’s companions tried to stop him from going to Jerusalem, they go with him. They are convinced that it fits the Lord’s will that Paul should go after all. Although in their opinion it is better that he does not go, they still go with him. They also see that there is no question of his own will. The same goes for the local believers. They too have urged Paul not to go. If he does go, some disciples from Caesarea go with him.

This shows great trust, not in Paul, but in the Lord of Paul. They see that the Lord is going with Paul and therefore they can go with him as well. It means that it is not a question of who is right, but of whether we acknowledge the will of the Lord in a matter.

If they see that they cannot convince Paul not to go, they surrender the matter to the Lord. This is a great example for us. We can sometimes see that someone in his love for the Lord and His own goes a way that we are convinced he should not go. We can even be instructed by the Lord to point out to others not to go that way. If we then see that the other person is going that way after all, while we also notice that there are really selfless motives behind it, we must be able to come to the sincere statement: ‘The will of the Lord be done!’

This is a test for our view of the matter. It may just be that we become irritated because the other does not want to listen. We do not notice this in the travel companions of Paul and the local believers of Caesarea. On the contrary, they accompany him further to Jerusalem. This means that they also expose themselves to the dangers that were foretold for Paul.

They go with him and bring him to Mnason of Cyprus. He is “a disciple of long standing”, which means that he is a disciple who has been a follower of the Lord Jesus for a long time. Paul and his travel companions lodge with him.

It is remarkable how Paul and his companions have received hospitable reception and accommodation from believers time and time again. This can only be worked by the bond of faith. Faith has gained access not only to the hearts of believers, but also to all their possessions that they have put at the disposal of the gospel. Thus, many believers unknown to us have contributed to the spreading of the gospel and to the promotion of the Lord’s work. This way of contributing to the gospel is still open to every believer today.

Paul Visits James

With his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul’s third missionary journey ends, as does his public service as a free man. Until the end of the book, Luke describes in detail what happens to Paul because of his desire to win his Jewish brothers over to the gospel, or at least to remove every obstacle to win them over to the gospel. For this he is willing to submit to some Jewish customs. In order to win the Jews, he wants to become as a Jew to them, and to those who are under the law, as under the law (1Cor 9:20). He does it all for the sake of the gospel (1Cor 9:23).

However, it seems that his purpose works the opposite. His desire to bring his compatriots the delivering gospel drives him into the hands of the hostile Jews and then into the hands of the Gentiles. This development ends with his imprisonment in Rome.

Paul took the first steps in this development in his heart some time ago and put them into practice by his journey to Jerusalem. This has set in motion an irreversible process. The steps that follow flow from the previous ones.

Paul is warmly received by the brothers in Jerusalem. That does not mean that they wholeheartedly agree with the course he is taking, but they accept him. The fact that they have their questions about Paul’s course of action is evident when he visits James the next day, where all the elders of the Jerusalem church have also come. James is the brother with the most influence in the church in Jerusalem.

God has sanctioned that there is a church in Jerusalem that has remained entirely Jewish. He even inspired James by His Spirit to write a letter to that special group of Jewish Christians which we have as the letter of James in the Bible. The Jewish Christians distinguish themselves from their unbelieving Jewish companions in nothing else but the acknowledgment of the Messiah in Jesus. Furthermore, they continue to hold on to all Jewish statutes and customs.

We should not condemn what God has endured for some time. Through James, these believers have freed the believers of the nations by the Spirit from putting themselves under the Jewish commandments and statutes. We have seen this in Acts 15 (Acts 15:1-31). But when someone joins them and enters the sphere of their experience and practice of faith, we notice how great their influence is on those who join them. This will be shown by the actions of the apostle of the nations, who knows for himself that he is not under the law and can also be as a Jew to win them over to the gospel.

After the usual greeting – which is more than a formality, it expresses connectedness – Paul opens things up completely. He speaks about God’s work among the Gentiles through his ministry. Undoubtedly the Lord wants to expand the hearts of Jewish believers through this. They are focused only on the development of Jewish Christendom and are hardly aware of what God works among the nations in their Gentile brethren.

Reactions to Paul’s Report

Paul’s account is received enthusiastically by James and the elders of Jerusalem. They glorify God. But then they immediately start talking about what worries them. They speak to him as “brother”, by which they consider him as one of them. Then they point out the large number of Jews who have believed. All these Jews are zealous for the law. All these Messianic Jews are unfamiliar with true Christendom and heavenly blessings because of their adherence to the law.

As has already been said, God endures this too, but for anyone who is familiar with true Christendom and heavenly blessings and nevertheless engages in how they experience faith, it is a danger. That is exactly what Paul does. Paul is now in the surrounding where all attention is focused on Judaism where the demands of the law apply. The atmosphere that prevails there does not correspond to the special mission given to him: to preach the glorified Christ. Nor can he do so, for this company is not open to it. Once again: God tolerates this Jewish Christendom. However, this does not mean that believers from the nations should behave in the same way, and certainly not the apostle Paul. But Paul cannot go back.

He is confronted with an accusation. In Jerusalem, the Jewish Christians have heard that he is teaching to forsake Moses. They also say what that forsaking consists of. Paul would teach that Jews among the Gentiles should not circumcise their children and that they should not walk according to Jewish customs. This means that he hits these Jewish Christians in the heart. He brings down the pillars of their faith.

Now these are evil rumors. Evil rumors have already caused a lot of trouble. They are uttered and passed on without questioning the truth. Many servants of God have already been put in a bad light because of this. Rumors are gladly listened to. Nehemiah, for example, has experienced this (Neh 6:6).

The Proposal to Paul

Nothing of the rumors about Paul is true. For example, we know that as far as circumcision is concerned, he himself circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3). James and the elders do not ask Paul if these rumors are true. They do know that those rumors are not true, but the “many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed” do not. They need convincing proof that Paul does not preach against the law and circumcision at all.

The many thousands of Jews who believe are eager to circumcise their children and maintain the law. Not that for them salvation still depends on circumcision, but they maintain it as a God-given institution. They are so bound by it in their conscience that they continue to do so. Because Paul does not preach circumcision to the Gentiles, the unbelieving Jews put him in a bad light. From the fact that he does not preach circumcision and the law, they have made out that he preaches against circumcision and the law.

To show the many thousands of Messianic Jews that none of these accusations are true, the brethren in Jerusalem make a proposal to Paul. If he does what they propose, he will show that nothing of those accusations is true. If he refuses to accept their proposal, he will give the crowd the impression that the rumors are true. However, if he accepts their desire, he will not accept the guidance of the Spirit in freedom and love as a rule. This problem arises because Paul did not get there based on a direct command of the Lord, but driven by his affection for his beloved Jewish compatriots. Paul has ended up in a situation that he can do no other than please the believing Jews.

Nevertheless, it will turn out that here too the Lord uses circumstances to achieve His purpose. Because Paul accepts the proposal, the persistent opposition of the unbelieving Jews will become so apparent that it will also make it clear to the Messianic Jews in what kind of system they still find themselves where the evil about the gospel is so persistently spread. The rest of the book of Acts makes clear how depraved the whole leadership of the religious and at the same time God-hostile Jerusalem is. It will help the believing Jews become inwardly detached from Judaism and fully conform to the new.

It will also make them receptive inwardly to the teaching of the letter to the Hebrews. Although the letter does not mention a sender, the contents show that it could not have been written by anyone but Paul, most likely from the prison in Rome (Heb 13:24). This letter is a consequence of this whole development through which Paul finally ends up in Rome.

The proposal of the brothers of Jerusalem, which also contains a certain element of coercion, is that Paul should join four men who made a vow. These four men are Jewish Christians. The vow they made seems to be the Nazarite vow, in which they committed themselves to do or not to do something for a certain period of time. In the time of their vow, something will have happened that has made them unclean and they will have to shave their heads and cleanse themselves (Num 6:8-12).

What is asked of Paul is not something sinful. He acts out of his love for the people. But does Paul, by agreeing to their actions, not give the impression that he is under the law and takes the law as the norm for his life?

Paul Accepts the Proposal

The brothers of Jerusalem make it clear to Paul that they realize that their attitude does not apply to the believers of the Gentiles. They repeat what they have written to the believing Gentiles. That remains valid for them. Nor do they try to impose the law on the Gentiles. The decision that was made about this in Jerusalem (Acts 15:19-20) was passed on to the Gentiles by Paul, among others (Acts 15:22-29). But through his return to Jerusalem, Paul is now forced to submit to the same law, no matter how well-intentioned the motive may have been.

Paul is so much a prisoner of his love for his kinsmen according to the flesh, that he does what they suggest to him without any response. He even takes the initiative. He takes the four men and purifies himself with them. He also announces when the days of their purification will be fulfilled, that is, when the sacrifice has been made for each of them.

Here we have the curious thing that the apostle takes upon himself to offer sacrifices, as if these sacrifices were not all set aside by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Paul moves into a position that David takes when he joins the Philistines to fight against his own people (1Sam 27:1). Fortunately, the Lord prevents Paul from really offering a sacrifice through the uproar that arises, just as He prevents David from really fighting against his people (1Sam 29:6-10).

Paul Seized the Temple

Paul spent the seven days of purification in the temple. When that period is almost over and he almost wants to sacrifice, things still go wrong. Jews from Asia, where Paul worked for so long, especially in Ephesus, through which many know him and have worked against him, recognize him. They are also present in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. When they see him, they stir up all the crowd. They seize their chance and also Paul. While Paul, by his actions, has just wanted to show that he is one of them, in order to gain access to the gospel, they turn against him en masse.

The uproar that takes place here is reminiscent of the uproar in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41). There it is about a pagan temple, here it is about God’s temple. There it is caused by idolaters, here it is caused by God’s old people. In both cases it happens with impure means.

While they hold him, they cry out for the help of the men of Israel. They have caught the man who teaches and also practices the most terrible things. In the eyes of these unbelieving Jews, Paul is an apostate Jew. He does not preach the exclusivity of Judaism and does not demand submission to the statutes of the law. He opens the door to God for the Gentiles by preaching the gospel to them, without obliging them to enter Israel and impose the law of Israel.

They accuse him that no man, “all”, and no place, “anywhere”, is safe from his evil teachings. His evil teachings concern “our people and the Law and this place”. His teachings against “our people” are evidenced by ignoring the exclusivity of Judaism, by offering salvation outside Judaism. His teachings against ‘the Law’ are evidenced by not imposing it on the Gentiles but, on the contrary, by saying that the believers of the Gentiles are free from the Law. His teachings against ‘this place’, that is the temple, are evident from his teaching about the church which he also compares to a temple (1Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21-22).

They make accusations that Paul, according to James and the elders, by submitting to the law, should just negate. His enemies, however, add to this by suggesting that he also led a pagan into the temple, not only in the court of the pagans, but in the part where only Jews are allowed to come. By doing so he desecrated the temple.

They do not limit themselves to one Greek in whose company they have seen Paul, but speak of Greeks he is said to have brought into the temple. They base their assumption or conclusion on the fact that they saw Paul in the city together with his originally pagan friend Trophimus. It is a foolish assumption, but it is nevertheless expressed. That accusation inflames the situation. A lot of people are present because of the feast, and because of their shouting, a popular uproar arises.

Feelings become more and more heated. Paul is taken hold of and dragged out of the temple. Immediately behind him the doors of the temple are shut. Outward holiness is everything. The temple is defiled in their eyes and must be cleansed before it can be used again. They may also do this to prevent Paul from loosening himself and fleeing into the temple to grasp the horns of the altar and escape his punishment (Exo 21:13-14; 1Kgs 2:28-29).

Paul Freed by the Romans

It seems that Paul’s time is up, that’s probably how he experienced it. The Jews, his people, are against him. We hear nothing more from his Jewish-Christian fellow-brothers. Then the Lord arranges for the commander of the Roman cohort to hear about it. He acts resolutely. He knows the highly inflammable Jews and certainly because of the hustle and bustle of the feast he will have put his soldiers in the highest state of readiness to intervene as soon as there would be an uproar. In the Antonia Fortress there was always a garrison of soldiers ready to act. From the fortress they had a good view over the temple square.

The commander takes a department of soldiers with him and goes to the place where the lynching is in full swing. When those who attack Paul see the commander and the soldiers, they stop beating Paul. Surely he must have had a lot of fists and kicks by then. The commander frees Paul, but not to release him. He gives the order to handcuff Paul with two chains. Someone who incurs the folk anger in this way must have had a lot on his conscience, he must have thought. He immediately saw that it was not an ordinary quarrel. He asks the crowd about the person of Paul and about the crime he must have committed. As so often, the crowd is not unanimous because many have become involved in this uproar without knowing what it is all about.

The commander does not learn anything from the crowd and orders that Paul be brought into the barracks of the Antonia Fortress in order to interrogate him there. This is done via the steps leading from the courtyard of the Gentiles to the fortress. These steps become the grandstand for Paul’s speech to the people. It is symbolic that he speaks to the people gathered here in the court of the Gentiles. By the way, the court of the Gentiles was made in response to the word that the house of God would be a house of prayer for all nations (Isa 56:7).

Paul may have been freed and captured by the commander and the soldiers, but that does not mean that the bloodlust of the crowd is stilled. They see their prey escape and try to get their hands on him again. The soldiers must protect him from the violence of the crowd by taking him in their midst and carrying him. While their prey escapes their hands, they shout: “Away with him!” This cry also sounded against the Lord Jesus (Lk 23:18). In this Paul experiences the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3:10).

Paul Wants to Speak to the People

Paul does not want to evade his persecutors just like that. He is not someone who gratefully takes advantage of his liberation from the hands of those who want to kill him. Because of his love for them, he wants to defend or justify himself for them. He is always out to win the Jews for the gospel. He asks the commander for permission to speak to them, thus recognizing the power of the one whose prisoner he is.

Paul speaks to the commander in Greek, the language of civilization. The commander is surprised about this, because he had a totally different impression of the man who was the cause of such a tumult. He thought he had scored big and got hold of the Egyptian who had managed to lead no less than the four thousand men of the Assassins out of the city into the wilderness in order to make new attempts among the people. The Assassins, or Sicarians, are the members of a fanatical Jewish party that mixed with the people during the festivities to secretly stab their opponents with a short sword, the sica.

Paul states that he does not belong to such a party. On the contrary, he has a respectable Jewish background and an equally respectable bourgeois status, coming from the famous university town of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia. The commander must have been surprised to learn that Paul is a Jew and wondered what these Jews boiling with anger would have against him. Also the place of origin of this Jewish man must have surprised him. In any case, the commander is satisfied with that information to allow Paul’s request.

After Paul has received the requested permission, he motions with his hand as a request for silence and with the purpose of saying something. A deep silence arises. Paul stands full of dignity on the steps of the fortress, while he must have been full of blood and wounds because of the mistreatment of the people he is about to address. He speaks to them in Hebrew, their own language, the language they used among themselves as members of God’s people.

© 2023 Author G. de Koning

All rights reserved. No part of the publications may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.

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