Acts 21

Acts 21:4

After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.

Through the Spirit. Paul had purposed in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21). Indeed, he felt bound or compelled by the Spirit to go (Acts 20:16). But the disciples of Tyre had a completely different take. Through the Spirit they warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Were they wrong? Or was Paul wrong?

These questions lead to discussions about the perfect will of God and how even great apostles can miss it from time to time. But maybe neither of them was wrong. Perhaps the disciples understood, through the Spirit, that trouble awaited Paul in Jerusalem and knowing this they counselled him not to set foot in the city. This is supported by Agabus’s prophecy. Through the Spirit, Agabus said that Paul would be bound and taken into captivity in Jerusalem (Acts 21:11). Yet Agabus never said that Paul should not go to Jerusalem.

Acts 21:11

And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”

What the Holy Spirit says. Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem but he did not know what awaited him in that hostile city (Acts 20:22). Now he knew. He would be bound by the Jews and delivered to the Gentiles, and this is what happened.

What Agabus said to Paul is just as significant as what he didn’t say. He said he would be bound in Jerusalem. He did not say, “The Holy Spirit says you should not go to Jerusalem” (see entry for Acts 21:4).

Acts 21:12

When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem.

Begging him not to go. Like the disciples of Tyre (Acts 21:4), the believers of Caesarea did not want Paul to go Jerusalem. They rightly feared that he would be imprisoned.

Acts 21:13

Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Jerusalem. Paul felt compelled in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22). He was not going to let the threat of captivity deter him.

Acts 21:20

And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law;

(a) Thousands. The original word (murias) is related to our word myriad and in classical military terms referred to a unit of 10,000. The gospel of grace was flourishing in the very place where Christ had been crucified. Not even the persecution of the church in Acts 8:1 could stop its growth. This was exciting news indeed.

(b) They are all zealous. But there was a problem. Many of the new believers were still living under law. Many of them were still priests in the Jewish religion (Acts 6:7), and some even identified themselves as Pharisees (Acts 15:5). These legalistic believers were confused about the covenants and were a divisive influence within the church. Against James’s wishes, some had even gone abroad spreading their message of religious works (Acts 15:24).

(c) The Law refers to the Law of Moses, the commandments, ordinances, punishments, and ceremonial observances given to the nation of Israel through Moses (Jos. 8:31, John 1:17). This law is sometimes referred to as the law of commandments (Eph. 2:15) or the law of the Jews (Acts 25:8). See entry for The Law.

Acts 21:21

and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.

Forsake Moses. The Jerusalem Jews were under the impression that Paul was telling the scattered Jews to forsake the Law of Moses. There was a measure of truth in this, for Paul had gone abroad preaching the gospel of grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. He discouraged circumcision and taught that no one could be made righteous through the works of the law (Rom. 10:3–4).

Acts 21:22

“What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

James and the elders anticipated that Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem would lead to trouble with the religious Jews (they were right; see Acts 21:27). Paul did not come to Jerusalem to start a riot; he came to preach the gospel (see Acts 19:21). Because his mere presence was inflammatory, James and the elders came up with a plan.

Acts 21:23–24

“Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.

(a) Do this that we tell you. At first glance, James’ plan for Paul to take undertake a religious ritual seems strange. Was James ignorant of grace? Was he mixing grace with law?

When James and the elders heard about the grace of God working among the Gentiles (verse 19), they responded by glorifying God (verse 20). Clearly they did not believe in justification by law. If James was pushing mixture here, Paul would have confronted him just as he had once confronted Peter (Gal. 2:11). Paul’s participation in James’ plan proves that they were on the same page when it came to the gospel of grace.

(b) Purify yourself. Since vows and rituals do nothing to improve our standing with God, why did the Apostle of Grace partake in these religious rituals? He did it to win Jews to Jesus (see entry for 1 Cor. 9:20). Paul had no interest in religion, but he had great love for religious Jews.

To reach the lost you have to identify a common ground and speak their language. To catch a fish you have to think like a fish. Both James and Paul wanted to win Jews for Christ and if that meant shaving your head, no problem. It was James’ idea, but Paul had done something similar before (see Acts 18:18).

(c) The Law refers to the Law of Moses, see entry for Acts 21:20.

(d) Keeping the Law. Some troublemakers were going around saying that Paul was anti-law, but Paul maintained that the law was holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12).

The Jews were sensitive to those who attacked their law, but Paul never did this. He honored the law and the purpose for which it was given. The law was not given to make you righteous, but to reveal your sin and your need for a Savior (see entry for Gal. 3:24).

Acts 21:38

“Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?”

(a) The Egyptian. If this was the same Egyptian false prophet that Josephus wrote about, hundreds of his followers were killed by the Romans. Despite this tragic outcome the Jews didn’t seem to learn, and the pattern of deception and death repeated itself again and again (Antiquities, 20.8.6).

(b) The wilderness. Jesus warned that false prophets would lead their followers into the wilderness (Matt. 24:26).

Acts 21:40

When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,

Hebrew dialect. Paul spoke in the native language of the Hebrews and not Greek (the language of the Romans) or Aramaic (the language of the Syrians). Although Aramaic was widely spoken in Judea in the first century, Hebrew was the language of the Jews’ religion and the Old Testament. See also Acts 26:14.

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