First read Acts 21:1-12
1 After saying farewell to the Ephesian elders, we sailed straight to the island of Cos. The next day we reached Rhodes and then went to Patara. 2 There we boarded a ship sailing for Phoenicia. 3 We sighted the island of Cyprus, passed it on our left, and landed at the harbour of Tyre, in Syria, where the ship was to unload its cargo.
4 We went ashore, found the local believers, and stayed with them a week. These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem. 5 When we returned to the ship at the end of the week, the entire congregation, including women and children, left the city and came down to the shore with us. There we knelt, prayed, 6 and said our farewells. Then we went aboard, and they returned home.
7 The next stop after leaving Tyre was Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed for one day. 8 The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been chosen to distribute food. 9 He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.
10 Several days later a man named Agabus, who also had the gift of prophecy, arrived from Judea. 11 He came over, took Paul’s belt, and bound his own feet and hands with it. Then he said, “The Holy Spirit declares, ‘So shall the owner of this belt be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and turned over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
In Acts 19:21 Paul was already being led to return to Jerusalem, and then on to Rome. But as Paul seemed well aware, (Acts 20:22-25, 38) he would probably be going to his death. Now we find that the same Holy Spirit that was leading Paul, had also informed other believers of the dangers he will face.
In what way were their reactions different to those of Paul?>
Their response was simply: ‘don’t go’ (v4, 12), Paul was prepared to die for his faith.
13 But he said, “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
Self-preservation is part of our DNA. We naturally avoid danger and try to save others from it. The believers in verse 4, the prophet Agabus in verses 10 and 11, and the believers in verse 12, had been shown by the Spirit the likely outcome of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, so they all naturally assumed they should try to stop him.
What was wrong with that?
They were sincere, but they were sincerely wrong. When we offer advice we have to distinguish the difference between our will and God’s will and it wasn’t until the end of verse 14 that the believers recognised it: “The Lord’s will be done.” But as I read that verse again, I can sense their feeling of resignation: ‘we gave up’.
Even though the Spirit had shown them the way ahead for Paul, human nature would have none of it. They assumed that they knew better than God and they tried so hard to dissuade Paul that they burst into tears.
How can we know when is it right to dissuade a Christian from a course of action that seems wrong to us?
Paul’s response was ‘You are breaking my heart!’
15 After this we packed our things and left for Jerusalem. 16 Some believers from Caesarea accompanied us, and they took us to the home of Mnason, a man originally from Cyprus and one of the early believers. 17 When we arrived, the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem welcomed us warmly.
18 The next day Paul went with us to meet with James, and all the elders of the Jerusalem church were present. 19 After greeting them, Paul gave a detailed account of the things God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry.
Israel was occupied territory and you could not be certain who you could trust.
But at this time, it wasn’t the Romans who posed the greatest threat – it was the Jewish leaders who zealously guarded their religious power, and were actively on the lookout for any group, especially Christians, who might upset their fragile position of authority.
Having spent several days at Caesarea with the believers, some of them accompanied Paul and his party and introduced them to the home of Mnason, where some of the Jerusalem believers met them. From there it was arranged to meet the Elders of the church.
We need to remember that Paul had spent many years amongst Gentile believers. Now he had to re-adjust to strongly Jewish-influenced Christians.
20 After hearing this, they praised God. And then they said, “You know, dear brother, how many thousands of Jews have also believed, and they all follow the law of Moses very seriously. 21 But the Jewish believers here in Jerusalem have been told that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn their backs on the laws of Moses. They’ve heard that you teach them not to circumcise their children or follow other Jewish customs. 22 What should we do? They will certainly hear that you have come.
Jews in Jerusalem who had converted were still Jews and they naturally followed the customs they had been taught; the circumcision of male children was absolutely fundamental. To their mindset, all Christians were obviously Jews who had received their Messiah. So they would have found it hard to accept that Gentiles could be Christians without converting to Judaism also. They adapted the rumours they had heard to mean that Paul was instructing Jewish Christians to abandon their customs too.
Now read 23-24
23 “Here’s what we want you to do. We have four men here who have completed their vow. 24 Go with them to the Temple and join them in the purification ceremony, paying for them to have their heads ritually shaved. Then everyone will know that the rumours are all false and that you yourself observe the Jewish laws.
It is apparent that these men had taken a Nazirite vow, see Numbers 9:1-21 (copied at the end of this study) as had Paul himself in Acts 18:18. It wasn’t essential for Christians, but some felt that they wished to confirm their new purity in this way. But the closing ritual was costly, with several different sacrifices to be bought. Obviously, Paul wouldn’t offer to pay for these unless he agreed with what they were doing.
Again we see Christians doing what seemed right. Was it God’s will? Before the ceremony was completed we will see Paul arrested, never to be freed again. We know that God planned for Paul to go to Rome (Acts 23:11) but was this the way God intended?
25 “As for the Gentile believers, they should do what we already told them in a letter: They should abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality.”
The Jewish leaders accepted that Gentiles could become Christian without accepting Jewish customs, but there were some things so deeply entrenched in their culture that is was unthinkable that any Christian would wish to do these.
The next narrative is long but needs to be read as one piece:
Read verses 26-36
26 So Paul went to the Temple the next day with the other men. They had already started the purification ritual, so he publicly announced the date when their vows would end and sacrifices would be offered for each of them.
27 The seven days were almost ended when some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul in the Temple and roused a mob against him. They grabbed him, 28 yelling, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who preaches against our people everywhere and tells everybody to disobey the Jewish laws. He speaks against the Temple—and even defiles this holy place by bringing in Gentiles.” 29 (For earlier that day they had seen him in the city with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus, and they assumed Paul had taken him into the Temple.)
30 The whole city was rocked by these accusations, and a great riot followed. Paul was grabbed and dragged out of the Temple, and immediately the gates were closed behind him. 31 As they were trying to kill him, word reached the commander of the Roman regiment that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately called out his soldiers and officers and ran down among the crowd. When the mob saw the commander and the troops coming, they stopped beating Paul.
33 Then the commander arrested him and ordered him bound with two chains. He asked the crowd who he was and what he had done. 34 Some shouted one thing and some another. Since he couldn’t find out the truth in all the uproar and confusion, he ordered that Paul be taken to the fortress. 35 As Paul reached the stairs, the mob grew so violent the soldiers had to lift him to their shoulders to protect him. 36 And the crowd followed behind, shouting, “Kill him, kill him!”
Thinking back over the last few chapters what parallels have we seen between Paul and Jesus?
Jesus and Paul were both led to go to Jerusalem
They both knew the fate that awaited them
They were both persuaded by their friends not to go
The Jewish leaders aroused the crowds to Kill Jesus and Paul
They handed both over to the Romans.
They were both unhappy to suffer and die, but were prepared to follow God’s will to the end.
Now read to the end of the chapter:
37 As Paul was about to be taken inside, he said to the commander, “May I have a word with you?”
“Do you know Greek?” the commander asked, surprised. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who led a rebellion some time ago and took 4,000 members of the Assassins out into the desert?”
39 “No,” Paul replied, “I am a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, which is an important city. Please, let me talk to these people.” 40 The commander agreed, so Paul stood on the stairs and motioned to the people to be quiet. Soon a deep silence enveloped the crowd, and he addressed them in their own language, Aramaic.
Paul was given the opportunity to defend himself, to explain why ‘the Jews’ were stirring up trouble against him, and why as a Roman Citizen he should be protected by the soldiers, not arrested.
Instead Paul simply does what he was commanded at his conversion:
Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me
and so he gave his testimony . . . .
1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, 3 they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins.
5 ‘“During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.
6 ‘“Throughout the period of their dedication to the Lord, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. 7 Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. 8 Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the Lord.
9 ‘“If someone dies suddenly in the Nazirite’s presence, thus defiling the hair that symbolises their dedication, they must shave their head on the seventh day – the day of their cleansing. 10 Then on the eighth day they must bring two doves or two young pigeons to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 11 The priest is to offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering to make atonement for the Nazirite because they sinned by being in the presence of the dead body. That same day they are to consecrate their head again. 12 They must rededicate themselves to the Lord for the same period of dedication and must bring a year-old male lamb as a guilt offering. The previous days do not count, because they became defiled during their period of dedication.
13 ‘“Now this is the law of the Nazirite when the period of their dedication is over. They are to be brought to the entrance to the tent of meeting. 14 There they are to present their offerings to the Lord: a year-old male lamb without defect for a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb without defect for a sin offering, a ram without defect for a fellowship offering, 15 together with their grain offerings and drink offerings, and a basket of bread made with the finest flour and without yeast – thick loaves with olive oil mixed in, and thin loaves brushed with olive oil.
16 ‘“The priest is to present all these before the Lord and make the sin offering and the burnt offering. 17 He is to present the basket of unleavened bread and is to sacrifice the ram as a fellowship offering to the Lord, together with its grain offering and drink offering.
18 ‘“Then at the entrance to the tent of meeting, the Nazirite must shave off the hair that symbolises their dedication. They are to take the hair and put it in the fire that is under the sacrifice of the fellowship offering.
19 ‘“After the Nazirite has shaved off the hair that symbolises their dedication, the priest is to place in their hands a boiled shoulder of the ram, and one thick loaf and one thin loaf from the basket, both made without yeast. 20 The priest shall then wave these before the Lord as a wave offering; they are holy and belong to the priest, together with the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. After that, the Nazirite may drink wine.
21 ‘“This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the Lord in accordance with their dedication, in addition to whatever else they can afford. They must fulfil the vows they have made, according to the law of the Nazirite.”’