Visiting Jerusalem – Acts 21

Read the passage: Acts 21

Travels and Warnings (21:1–14)

Acts 21:1–14 records the travels of Paul from Miletus to Jerusalem. Note that this marks the end of Paul’s third missionary journey. This trip to Jerusalem would have taken several weeks. Recall that Paul was accompanied by Luke and at least six other brethren from Macedonia (cf. Acts 20:4). Luke reports that they originally traveled on board a ship that was hugging the coastline; however, likely because this vessel would not allow Paul to reach Jerusalem in time for Pentecost (cf. Acts 20:16), the traveling party boarded a different ship in Patara that was sailing for Phonecia. This ship arrived in Tyre, which is about 100 miles northwest of Jerusalem. In Tyre, Paul met some believers. Ironically, these believers may have been in Tyre on account of the earlier persecution, which Paul had a hand in facilitating, which surrounded the martyrdom of Stephen (cf. Acts 11:19).

An interesting part of this narrative are the warnings that Paul received during his trip to Jerusalem. Luke notes that the disciples in Tyre “told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Furthermore, when the travelers reached Caesarea, the last stop before Jerusalem, they lodged with Philip, one for the deacons from the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 6:5). While here a prophet named Agabus gave an object lesson, binding himself with Paul’s belt, and foretelling of Paul’s imminent arrest (cf. Acts 21:11). This, led the believers to plead with Paul to abandon his plans to travel to Jerusalem; an idea that Paul resisted. Of course, it was only natural for Paul’s friends to desire his safety. Yet, Paul already knew about his coming trials, being sent to Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 19:21), as he fulfilled the ministry given to him by Jesus (cf. Acts 9:16; 19:24; 23:11).

Arrival and Meeting (21:15–25)

Acts 21:15–25 narrates the arrival of Paul and his companions in Jerusalem. Luke reports that several of the Christians from Caesarea traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, including a man named Mnason, who may have been converted on the day of Pentecost. Paul had been in Jerusalem many times before, most recently at the beginning of his third mission journey and was well-known to the church (cf. Acts 18:22). Returning to Jerusalem, Paul was received by the church and the believers rejoiced at news of the spread of the gospel. Yet, James informed Paul that some believers were concerned, as they’d heard that Paul was teaching against the law of Moses. While the Jerusalem council had ruled earlier that the ceremonial law was not binding on believers (cf. Acts 15:19–21; 21:25), many Jewish converts still did observe the law as a cultural practice and expected the same from Paul.

Worship and Arrest (21:26–40)

In order to demonstrate that he had not forsaken his Jewish heritage, James suggested that Paul ceremonially cleanse himself in the Temple, along with four other believers who were fulfilling a Nazarite vow, which would entail the shaving of their heads (cf. Num. 6:1–21; Acts 18:18). The process of completing this vow was to take seven days. Luke records that towards the end of this period, certain Jews from Asia, who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, saw Paul in the Temple, likely with these other believers. These men then seized Paul and falsely charged him with teaching against the law of Moses, as well as bringing Gentiles into the Temple, thus defiling the Temple. The charge of teaching against the law of Moses is interesting, as it is the same charge brought earlier against both Jesus (cf. Matt. 26:61) and Stephen (cf. Acts 6:13).

Arguably, the Jews may have mistaken those whom Paul was with in the Temple as Gentiles, for they did have freshly shaven heads and most of those whom Paul had brought to Jerusalem were Gentiles. However, if this was an error on the Jews’ part, it—along with the other charges they leveled against Paul—was willful ignorance, at best. Indeed, it seems the act of accusing Paul in the Temple was calculated to start a riot and to kill Paul. Luke reports that the uproar that ensued resulted in Paul being beaten, bound in chains, and put under arrest by the Roman soldiers. This led to Paul imploring the Roman commander, whom we later learn was named Claudias Lysias (cf. Acts 23:26), to allow him to address the crowd. After discerning that Paul was not terrorist, Claudias Lysias permitted Paul to address crowd. Paul’s message to the Jews is recorded in Acts 22:1–21.

Application Questions:

  1. Given the sufferings of Paul, as well as those of Jesus, why do many modern Christians believe that following Christ will result in material prosperity?
  2. Was Paul correct in pressing on toward Jerusalem given the saints’ warnings about his impending trials and persecution?
  3. If the Jerusalem council had earlier ruled that the ceremonial law was not binding upon believers, why did James encourage Paul to observe Jewish practices?
  4. Do you think the charges of law-breaking and defiling the Temple, which the Jews brought against Paul, were a misunderstanding or intentionally deceitful?
  5. Should James and the other believers in Jerusalem have taken further steps to protect Paul? Was sending Paul into the Temple a wise decision?