Acts 21:1-26

After Paul’s emotional goodbye to the Ephesian elders he begins the trip back to Jerusalem where the Holy Spirit has told him that bonds and afflictions (20:23) await.  As he travels back and talks to other believers along the way, they reinforce the Spirit’s predictions about what will happen in Jerusalem and more than a few urge him not to go.  Nevertheless, he proceeds to Jerusalem to give a report to the elders about his ministry to the Gentiles and also immediately deal with the accusation that he encourages Jews to forsake the Law.  Paul and the church leaders take steps to counteract the false charges, but the damage to Paul’s reputation is real and the building blocks of his persecution are now in place.

1-6
Paul and his party leave Miletus and the Ephesian elders and sail – after several stops – to Tyre.  They look up the believers in the city and stay there for seven days.  Tyre was evangelized as a result of the persecution that forced believers out of Jerusalem after Stephen’s death (11:19).  Paul has been here before when he and Barnabas traveled from Antioch to take relief to famine victims in Jerusalem (15:1-3).  Thus he and his group may renew old acquaintances during their stay.

The believers in Tyre urge Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.  The Spirit has apparently told them the same thing He told Paul – that imprisonment and possibly worse await him.  Interestingly, however, the text says they urge him through the Spirit not to go.  This seems odd since – according to 19:21 and 20:22 – it is the Spirit who compels Paul to go.  How can the Spirit give a message to the Tyrian believers for Paul not to go while at the same time compelling him to go?

There is no definitive way to answer this question.  One explanation could be that the Tyrians hear from the Spirit what awaits Paul in Jerusalem and so urge him on their own not to go.  Their urging is not from the Spirit but is the result of what the Spirit tells them.  This would mean the Spirit gives the same message to both Paul and the disciples in Tyre, but the disciples take from it that he should not go.  Verse 4 actually says, however, that they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.  This seems to mean their actual pleading is through the Spirit.  While this seems to contradict what the Spirit told Paul, there is nothing in the passage that implies Paul is bothered by the contradiction or that he does not believe the Tyrians actually heard from the Spirit.  In this case Paul hears their message but decides to abide by what the Spirit originally told him and continue on to Jerusalem.  A third explanation could be that the Tyrians misinterpret what they hear and so pass along the wrong message to Paul (this seems least likely since nothing in the text implies that Paul responds negatively to them).  The first explanation harmonizes the two messages of the Spirit but does not exactly line up with the text while the second lines up with the text but implies the Spirit gives contradicting messages.  Perhaps we should just be content that Paul acknowledges their concern but proceeds to Jerusalem and goes with God’s approval.

At the end of the seven days in Tyre the party leaves the city and heads to the ship.  All the believers accompany Paul’s group – the men along with their wives and children.  The seven days have apparently been sweet, and the understanding of what awaits Paul in Jerusalem likely makes the farewell very emotional.  The group kneels on the beach and prays together.  After the prayer Paul boards the ship and continues the journey.

Note the affection and fellowship of the believers after only seven days.  It is likely that Paul does not know most of the believers or only knows them from years before.  Yet they treat him like family as he leaves and bring their daily lives to a stop to accompany him to the ship.  The bond of Christ among believers is stronger than any other horizontal tie.  All through this chapter Luke shows that even people who do not know each other all that well have a connection because they share a Redeemer.  We are all sinners who have in common that we have received the greatest gift man can receive.  We all stand in the presence of God in spite of ourselves.  The love and mercy we share at the throne binds us to each other in a way that is stronger than time or blood.

These verses show the folly of thinking that we can be children of God living on our own without fellowship.  God means us to join with each other under the common bond of Christ.  In the brotherhood of faith is protection, love, acceptance, admonition, encouragement to persevere, and forgiveness.  We give up so much when we forsake the fellowship of the saints.  We are not meant to be alone in this world as Christ is always with us, but we are also not meant to live apart from other members of the redeemed.  The ability to join with other believers is an immense privilege granted to us by our loving heavenly Father.  We can have relationships that go beyond anything the world can know; thus we shortchange our lives when we do not take advantage of joining with our brothers and sisters in the faith.

7-14
The group continues to Caesarea and enters the house of Philip the evangelist.  Philip was a member of the seven – appointed when the apostles decided they needed to devote themselves to prayer and the word and so needed men to oversee the logistics of the Jerusalem church (6:1-6) – and the one who took the gospel to Samaria and witnessed to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:4-40).  Philip has apparently settled in Caesarea and now has four virgin daughters who have gone into the family business and are prophetesses.  Nothing more is said about them and the fact that they prophesy has nothing to do with the ongoing story.  Luke apparently just wants us to know an interesting fact about Philip’s family.

While they are in Caesarea a prophet named Agabus comes from Jerusalem.  This is the same prophet who came to Antioch years before and predicted a great famine(11:27-30).  His prophecy was what prompted Paul and Barnabas to take the first relief offering to Jerusalem.  Based on his past prediction of coming doom the group may be leery when they see him again.  He arrives and demonstrates to Paul – using Paul’s belt – that he will be bound hand and foot.  He says his message is from the Holy Spirit and while tying his own hands and feet 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.”  It is notable that Jews under Roman law cannot execute anyone, so for someone to suffer capital punishment they must be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles.

When Paul’s companions – including the local residents (note again the concern of the saints after such a short time together) – hear the prophecy, they implore Paul not to go.  It is interesting that this is the second occasion where people plead with Paul not to go and in both cases the pleading is caused by a message from the Spirit.  Paul responds with a plea of his own that they stop because they break his heart with their weeping and beseeching.  He says he is ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.  This echoes what he said to the Ephesian elders when he said his life was of no account to him (20:24).

When the group sees he will not be persuaded – he is after all obeying the Spirit by going – they fall silent and say, “The will of the Lord be done!”  They realize he is committed and ultimately accountable to God for his actions.  What they think must be secondary to God’s direction and they submit themselves to the will of God.  They will go with him and no longer try to stop him.

15-16
Some of the disciples at Caesarea accompany Paul to Jerusalem (yet another example of fellowship among believers – they have not been with him long at all and yet do not want to simply send him on his way).  They bring him to the house of Mnason of Cyprus where he and his group will lodge while they are in the city.  Mnason is a disciple of long standing who makes no other appearance in the New Testament.  He apparently is hospitable and has a house that can accommodate numerous visitors.

17-26
Paul and his group go into Jerusalem and meet with James – the head of the Jerusalem church and the half-brother of Jesus – and the other elders.  Paul gives them a detailed report of his ministry to the Gentiles.  It has been several years since he has been in Jerusalem – he came at the end of the second journey – and so has much to report.  He also likely presents to them the offering he gathered in Macedonia and Greece (24:17).  The scene of their meeting may be somewhat dramatic.  Paul is with his Gentile companions representing the ministry to the Gentiles, while James is alongside the elders of the church in Jerusalem representing the ministry to the Jews.  Each group is emblematic of the ministry of the two men.  The two men proclaim the same gospel but are the heads of two very different ministries.

James and the elders receive Paul warmly and glorify God as a result of Paul’s report (note that they do not glorify Paul – Paul relates the success of his ministry in such a way that all the glory goes to God – Paul is strictly the instrument of God and goes to great pains to make that evident to everyone he interacts with – this is the mark of a servant).  Though they are Jewish and work exclusively among the Jews, they are thrilled with God’s work among the Gentiles.  They are also likely thrilled with the offering Paul brings.

They do, however, relate a problem that Paul faces in Jerusalem.  The report on his ministry that has reached the many thousands of Jewish converts (note how large the church in Jerusalem has become) who remain zealous for the Law (this does not mean they think the Law saves them; it means they remain committed to its tenets as a mark of their Jewish heritage – they still circumcise their sons and abide by its dietary regulations) is that he teaches Jews who live among the Gentiles not to circumcise their children or walk according to the customs.  This report likely comes from Paul’s Jewish enemies – not believers – who have plagued him throughout his travels.

None of this is true, although it is understandable that his preaching could be misinterpreted to mean this.  Paul has gone to great pains to make sure the Gentiles know they do not have to abide by the Law.  He has argued vehemently against the teaching that Gentiles must become Jews before they become Christians.  He has never told a Jew not to abide by the Law, however.  As a matter of fact, he circumcised Timothy to make sure he would not offend other Jews since he was Jewish and uncircumcised (16:1-3).  It is easy to see how his teaching to the Gentiles could get twisted into a belief that he teaches everyone to give up the Law.  But the fact is that he has never told any Jew to forsake the customs of his people and has even said of himself that he abides by the Law in order to minister to those who abide by it too (I Cor 9:19-23).

The fact that the accusations are not true does not take them away, however.  For this reason James and the elders suggest to Paul that he do something that will prove he is willing to abide by the customs of the Jews and does not teach that they should be forsaken.  They tell him that they know of four men who are under a vow, and that Paul should join them and purify himself.  He should pay the expenses of the four men – who will need to buy and make an offering in the temple – and thus show his willingness to submit to the Law.

What James and the elders suggest is not entirely clear.  The four men who are under a vow have presumably taken a Nazirite vow wherein they cannot be unclean or cut their hair for thirty days.  It could be that they are at the end of the vow and so need to come to the temple and shave their heads and make a sacrifice per the Law regarding these vows (see Num 6).  It could also be that they have somehow become defiled during the thirty day period and need to purify themselves at the temple.  Regardless, Paul joins them the next day, pays for their expenses (which may have been significant),  and purifies himself for seven days (vs 27).

He does this so that 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.  Paul willingly submits to the proposal of the elders even though there is no truth to the accusations.  By submitting he proves what he has lived continually – his life and pride and respect and reputation are of no account.  It is only the gospel that matters.  And if by purifying himself in the temple he can restore unity within the church and ensure acceptance of the Gentiles and of his ministry to them, he will gladly do it.

James ends his charge to Paul by rehearsing what the council at Jerusalem had decided years before.  Gentiles who come to Christ need not abide by the Law but should avoid meat offered to idols and meat that was strangled or served in its own blood.  They should also abstain from sexual immorality – especially in pagan worship rites (15:22-29).  He may say this just to reinforce that though Paul will purify himself to show respect for the Law it does not mean that they are putting new burdens on the Gentiles.  Both sides – Jewish and Gentile – owe to each other the responsibility to be sensitive and respect the customs of each without putting unfair burdens on either.  There can be no compromise on the gospel, but each side must be willing to accommodate the other in some cultural respects.

Note the theme of fellowship that runs through this last event in the text just as it has throughout the chapter.  Paul and James – leaders of two different branches of the church – willingly do whatever is necessary to ensure the fellowship and acceptance of both sides.  The Jews must accept the Gentiles but must have confidence their customs will not be forsaken by their acceptance.  The Gentiles must feel welcome in the faith without having to first become Jews.  The two men have at the forefront of their intentions the goal of restoring unity and ensuring ongoing fellowship of the church at large.  Jewish and Gentile believers are meant to live in community under God and the two apostles show by their actions the priority they place on the brotherhood of the faith.

 

Conclusion

  • The Tyrian believers – and their families – spent only seven days with Paul and yet pleaded with him not to go to Jerusalem and wept at his departure.
  • The Caesarean believers only spent some days with Paul, and – after hearing the prophecy of Agabus – wept and pleaded with him not to go to Jerusalem.
  • The same Caesarean believers accompanied Paul to Jerusalem presumably just so they could prolong their time with him and ensure he made it to the house of Mnason safely.
  • James and the Jerusalem elders suggested to Paul that he undergo purification rites for the sake of unity within the church. Paul willingly acquiesced to their proposal – though he was completely innocent of the charges against him – for the sake of fellowship within the faith.

God does not wish us to go through life as High Plains Drifter believers (“What did you say your name was again?”  “I didn’t.”).  He has given us each other and bound us together through His glorious gift.  We have a bond with each other that the world cannot know or experience.  No matter what our situation is or how new to an area we are or how hard we think it is to make friends, if we have access to a group of believers we have a community of faith to join.  We give up much when we resist fellowship.  The gift of others is a wonderful present from our loving Father.

Note Paul’s conclusion to Romans and the many people he acknowledges:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; also greet the church that is in their house. Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first convert to Christ from Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and Stachys my beloved. Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ. Greet those who are of the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my kinsman. Greet those of the household of Narcissus, who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord. Greet Persis the beloved, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, a choice man in the Lord, also his mother and mine. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brethren with them. Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.  Romans 16:1-16

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