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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Acts 21



Verse 6


‘When we had taken our leave one of another, we took ship; and they returned home again.’

Acts 21:6

Within the compass of a few verses, taking the end of the last chapter and the beginning of this, we have the account of three somewhat touching scenes, in which the most prominent figure is that of the Apostle Paul.

The first of them occurred at Miletus. St. Paul, who was sojourning there, had sent to the elders of the Ephesian Church, begging them to come to him for a farewell interview. They came, of course. When the address was over, he kneeled down with them, and prayed; and on rising from their knees, the elders, in their impulsive Oriental fashion, clung round his neck, kissing him, and sobbing with genuine distress, and could hardly be prevailed upon at last to part with him at all. It was with an effort that he tore himself away from the group and got on board his ship.

The third scene lies in the house of Philip the evangelist, in the town of Cæsarea. There the Apostle has been abiding many days, in congenial Christian society. Presently, there comes from Judæa a prophet of the name of Agabus; and he—under a sudden impulse of the Spirit—foretells that the Jews in Jerusalem will seize the Apostle, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. The friends of St. Paul entreated him not to go, but what was his answer? ‘I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’

Between these scenes a second intervenes. It is that to which our text belongs. The ship which carried the Apostle and his friends touched at Tyre, and stayed there a week, for the purpose of discharging her cargo. Here again the disciples tried to dissuade him, but this appeal too was gently but resolutely put aside. And when the time came for re-embarkation, we find the Apostle accompanied to the water’s side by the whole Christian community of the place; men, women, and children—the children being expressly mentioned—all of them anxious to hear a parting word and to receive a parting blessing.

Now let us advance to the consideration of one or two thoughts, of a practical kind, which seem to be suggested by these narratives:—

I. Why was it that the Apostle so persistently turned a deaf ear to the earnest expostulations of his truest friends?—Was he actuated by a spirit of obstinacy? The fact rather seems to be this: that he had a more distinct view of the Divine will concerning himself than those around him. They were blinded by the affectionate regard which they had for him; by their apprehensions of losing such a friend, and such a worker for the kingdom of Christ: he was not. He saw clearly the mixture, so to speak, of the spiritual and the carnal, that showed itself throughout their dealing with him.

II. Sometimes we are called upon to decide between the pleadings of natural affection and the promptings and pleadings of the Spirit of God.—Our duty seems to pull us one way, our hearts pull us another; and the difficulty is, to ascertain between the two what the will of the Lord is. How is decision to be arrived at? As in the case of St. Paul, not by indifference to the pleadings of human affection, for the Apostle is obviously very nearly overcome by the loving importunity of his friends; certainly not by roughly putting aside their arguments and wishes as if they were utterly unworthy of consideration; nor by making no allowance, and blindly rushing upon a predetermined course: but by resolutely but gently turning away from man to God, and, by Divine help, opening the ear, amidst the hubbub and confusion, to hear what the Lord the Spirit has to say. And when the decision is arrived at, God’s people at least will be satisfied, although their wishes have been thwarted; and they will say, ‘The will of the Lord be done.’

III. A lesson in self-sacrifice.—When we think of those who go to the mission-field, and then look round on our many comforts, and enjoyments, and on the kindly faces of our friends, we can hardly help asking the questions, ‘What sacrifice do I make for Jesus Christ? Where is the cross-bearing? Where is the carrying of heavy burdens for the sake of His great name, and from the impulse of His exceeding love?’ But about the self-sacrifice of these servants of the Lord there can be no doubt. They go counter to their interests, to their inclinations, almost, I was going to say, to their great natural instinct, in order to follow the voice of Jesus, luring them away from England, to undertake His work in distant and uncongenial heathen lands. Shall we not wish the band of workers ‘Godspeed,’ and pursue them across the wild waste of waters—with our interest, our sympathy, our loving admiration, and with our earnest and persistent prayers? They take ship, and we return home again.

—Rev. Prebendary Gordon Calthrop.


‘Quite recently a group of missionaries going out to India, China, and elsewhere, were sent forth to their work amidst the prayers and benedictions of an assemblage of Christian friends. These missionaries were all ladies. These people who go forth from amongst us in the name of the Lord are worth thinking about, and praying for, and being thankful to God for. We are accustomed to consider it a grand and a noble thing for a man to quit his home and his country, his early associations, and his worldly prospects, and to journey to a foreign land, under the influence of the constraining love of Christ, for the purpose of preaching them the Gospel of the grace of God. A true missionary, heaven-sent and heaven-prepared, has always been, and always will be, the object of very profound respect. But the respect which we feel for a man who will go to the mission-field we extend, in a much greater degree, to a woman who will do the same.’

Verse 13


‘I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’

Acts 21:13

St. Paul’s conflict of feeling is suggestive of a very noble and comprehensive character. Some have strength and no tenderness; others tenderness and no strength. St. Paul had both: he felt the kindness shown, but he felt still more the constraining power of the missionary call. Notice—

I. Its absorbing power.—The prospect of the work that lay before him absorbed his every interest.

II. Its impelling power.—St. Paul was to go to Jerusalem in fulfilment of his mission. He who had said, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ was not likely to be turned aside through fear of difficulties. He was impelled to go forward, and the power within him was Christ.

III. Its assuring power.—Assurance comes when we are in the line of the Divine will. The Apostle’s calm and confidence are striking. In view of all possibilities, fetters, prison, death, he was composed. We can never go wrong with God as our guide. No trial is too great if we are resting on Him. In view of death itself the Christian has loftiest hopes.


‘Mr. George N. Gordon, a native of Prince Edward Island, went out to the New Hebrides under the L.M.S. in 1856, and settled at Erromanga. In 1860 he and his wife were murdered by natives. He had a brother, James Douglas Gordon, who at once resolved to carry on the work in which George N. Gordon fell. He reached Erromanga in 1864, and after a time was murdered as his brother had been.’

Verse 14


‘And When he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done.’

Acts 21:14

We are all conscious of the need of guidance. Some of us perhaps could say that we are conscious of the fact of guidance; most of us certainly are often greatly perplexed as to the instrument of guidance. It seems to me that St. Paul’s example may help us to discover a principle which covers our case.

I. Two conditions of Divine direction at least are common to the Apostle and to us.

(a) We no less than St. Paul must have as the governing motive of action the performance of the will of God, and

(b) We also, as the Apostle, must habitually seek in prayer the leading of the Spirit of God.

Given that motive, and given that spiritual habit, I do think that we, no less than St. Paul, shall receive the supernatural direction for which we pray, and to some of us at least as we attempt to follow that heavenly guidance the very trial of St. Paul will come. Our assurance of duty will be challenged from quarters deserving our reverent regard, and in the sequel we shall have to go against the warnings of admitted authority and the entreaty of disinterested affection. But in our case, as in the Apostle’s, the justification of our persistence will be in the inherent superiority of our own perception of duty. In the absence of any interior certitude, we may—nay, we must—be led by the lesser and lower leadings of circumstance, and I know no valid reason why we should demur to the sacred writer’s description of these leadings as also in their measure truly Divine, but when once that interior certitude is ours all the other instruments of guidance must be set aside in its favour. That is how I understand St. Paul’s behaviour. Up to a certain point in his history he was dependent from day to day on the indications of God’s will. But then was granted an immediate revelation of his personal duty. He saw the goal towards which his efforts were to be directed, he realised his purpose in life, he understood God’s will in him. Henceforward he was set free from the incertitude and inconsistencies that marked his course. His career became the steady and continuous working out of a definite project which made it intelligible.

II. The lesson for the average life.—Granting that extra-ordinary vocations which stamp on human careers a sublime aspect are but few, must we therefore conclude that from most Christians that interior certitude as to personal duty is withholden? Must the multitude of disciples live without the illumination of assured direction from God? I do not believe it. On the contrary, I hold that there is none of us who confesses that his true lot of life must be to do the will of God, and with that conviction surrenders himself wholly and deliberately to the control of God’s Spirit, who does not receive the guidance he seeks. We fail, brethren, not from lack of leading, but from lack of courage to obey the leading we have. There is most certainly a listless, jealous temper in our society which is wonderfully hostile to every kind of moral effort, and I think we all, in spite of ourselves, are affected by it, and we are tempted to lose the sense of urgency.

III. To whom guidance is given.—St. James tells us that God gives wisdom to those that seek for it, but not to those distracted seekers whom he likens to the wind-driven waves of the sea. ‘Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.’ That description is curiously just and apposite. We are so many of us who live in the distracted luxury of great cities double-minded, unstable, carried away by every new craze that relieves for a moment the chronic tedium of idle living, unanchored in any truth, unpledged to any cause, unclaimed by any duty. How can the voice, the Divine summons, pierce through this Babel of an unordered life? We have to begin to become serious by giving to the things of the Spirit the importance which belongs to them, by making the Divine claim on our lives the stand-point from which to regard them, by cultivating the opportunities of usefulness which come to us, by refusing to acquiesce in the idle and unordered course of living, by insisting at whatever cost on cleansing our lives from conscious insincerity. Then at least we have come within the sanctuary where oracles of guidance are vouchsafed, where watchfulness and obedience gain outward pledges of Divine leading.

—Rev. Canon Henson.


‘In the close resemblance which there is between these words and one of the petitions in the Lord’s prayer, some have thought that they find an evidence that that prayer was already in familiar use in the early Church. Whether or no there be in them this actual and intentional repetition of Christ’s language, there cannot be a doubt that the words are a reflection of His spirit—a spirit that, all life through, was always saying, “Not My will, but Thine be done.” “Father, glorify Thy name.” The thought which the words contain is an exceedingly valuable one—if it be only for this, that it gives a resting-place to the mind. It was exactly thus that it was used by the Christians of Cæsarea. They—together with St. Paul’s immediate companions, including, of course, Luke—had been urging St. Paul, in consequence of Agabus’s prophecy, “not to go up to Jerusalem.” They had done it with an honest feeling and with a good motive, although, as the result showed, with a mistaken judgment. They had done it very earnestly. St. Paul’s higher standard—his truer estimate of life—had impelled him to a passionate negative—“What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And then his friends gave way—“When he would not be persuaded, we ceased.” But mark the line at which they stopped. They do not say, “Paul wishes it; therefore it must be so”—that was the natural thought, the world’s way—but, “The will of the Lord be done.”’



The will of the Lord is divided into the ‘revealed’ and the ‘unrevealed’ will. The revealed will of God lies upon two pages—the page of Scripture and the page of Providence.

I. The revealed will in the Bible.—The Bible, of course, is nothing else but a revelation of the will of God, and everything which occurs in life is an opening of the will of God—for, if it were not after the will of God, it would not have taken place. Therefore whatever is written, and whatever is, is the revealed will of God. The revealed will of God in the Bible is twofold—

(a) The happiness of man, and

(b) The holiness of man

That in both He may be glorified. ‘It is not the will of God that any should perish; but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth.’ ‘Father, I will, that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me, where I am.’ ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification!’

II. But God’s revealed will is found also in providence.—I am not speaking now of all providences; but I will keep now to such declarations of God’s will as are in the providence illustrated by my text. There were three trials pressing upon the men of Cæsarea, when they meekly folded their hands, and said, ‘The will of the Lord be done.’

(a) There was defeat—for they were beaten in an argument into which they had evidently thrown all their power: consequently—

(b) There was disappointment—everything went contrary to their hopes and expectations; and

(c) There was grief—the bitter grief of a painful bereavement.

Here are three large classes of human distress!

III. Turn to the unrevealed will.—After all, this was the main thought of the company at Cæsarea. ‘We cannot tell which is right—St. Paul or we. The Lord will show in His own time. What He decides must be best. The will of the Lord be done.’

(a) There is a great deal of perplexity in life—it is a large part of its discipline. ‘What shall I do? What end shall I choose? Which way shall I prefer?’

(b) There is a great deal of mystery in life—it is a very shrouded thing. I cannot see a step. The real and the shadow are so ill defined. It is so vague and dreamy!

(c) There is a great deal of dread in life—dread of the unknown; events are pressing on upon me—I do not quite know of what; but there is such a sense of sin and ill-desert in my mind, that I have an apprehension of some retributive justice. I go out into the future, and it is all very dark!

But, all the while, far above all this—over the perplexity and over the mystery and over the dread—there is reigning the high will of God; and that will is bearing on to its own destined purpose, and it must prevail. And here is faith’s large field—that unrevealed will of God. Unite yourself with it—throw yourself upon it absolutely. Let it bear you where it will; it can only bear you home. ‘The will of the Lord be done.’

Rev. James Vaughan.

Verse 30


‘And all the city was moved.’

Acts 21:30

St. Paul is now at Jerusalem. What changes had taken place during the quarter of a century which had elapsed since his first introduction to the Church in this city!

I. St. Paul’s reception at Jerusalem.—On his arrival in Jerusalem he was—

(a) Received by friends. They were glad to receive him (Acts 21:17), and went to Mnason’s house to give him a warm welcome. The next day a public reception took place. St. Paul ‘rehearsed’ the things which ‘God had wrought.’ Told them how God had blessed his preaching in Corinth, Philippi, and other Gentile cities. No wonder that when the brethren heard it, ‘they glorified the Lord’ (Acts 21:20).

(b) Misrepresented by opponents.—But whilst the brethren rejoiced at this account of the Apostle’s work amongst the Gentiles, others looked upon him with suspicion (Acts 21:21). But besides these, there were large numbers of Jews who hated St. Paul, and looked upon him as a traitor to the Jewish faith and nation.

(c) The counsel of James. James said that whilst he and the brethren adhered to the decision to grant freedom to Gentile Christians, in the interests of peace he advised St. Paul to do what he could to remove these suspicions. That St. Paul should go to the Temple with four poor men who had taken a Nazarite vow. This meant that they had agreed to let their hair grow and abstain from wine for a month. It was a Jewish mode of thanking God for special mercies, and the Apostle himself had observed it after his first danger in Europe (chap. Acts 18:18). At the close of the month they shaved their heads, went to the Temple, if within reach, on seven successive days, and offered sacrifice (Numbers 6:13-21). It was a hard proposal to make to the Apostle, who had taught ‘in every city’ that such usages were indifferent, and preached that in Christ Jesus ‘neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcisiom. But he accepted the proposal. He would do all that was possible for peace. Whilst maintaining to the Gentiles freedom of grace, to show that he was still a loyal Jew, to disarm prejudices of Jewish Christians, he accepted the conditions—went with the four men for the seven days of purification, and paid the cost of their sacrifices.

II. The riot in the Temple court.—But further disappointment awaited the Apostle. What he had done for the sake of peace brought him into the greatest peril.

(a) The cause of the riot. He had almost reached the end of the ceremonies, when Jews from Ephesus, who knew the Apostle, saw him in the streets of Jerusalem with Trophimus, an Ephesian Gentile. It was the festival of Pentecost, and pilgrims were present from all parts. Meeting St. Paul in the Temple, they thought Trophimus was still with him, and shouted, ‘Men of Israel, help! This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place.’ It was the charge brought against Stephen (chap. Acts 6:13). Now a similar charge is brought against St. Paul. They said also that he had profaned the holy place by bringing Gentiles into the Temple.

(b) The seizure of St. Paul. The falsehood spread and led to a riot. St. Paul was dragged down the stairs into the Court of the Gentiles. The design of his enemies seemed to be to get him out of the Temple before proceeding to further violence. Then blows fell upon him fast, and the Apostle’s life was in danger. Only the sacredness of the place saved him from being torn in pieces.

(c) St. Paul rescued by the Romans. But the Roman guard had noticed the tumult from the Castle of Antonia. The captain, hurrying down, was just in time to rescue the Apostle from his peril. At the approach of armed soldiers the rioters paused, parted to right and left, and St. Paul was once more left in the custody of Roman soldiers.

III. The practical application.

(a) Observe how careful the Apostle is to recognise Church order. St. Paul was an Apostle, yet he not only respects the officers of the Church at Jerusalem, but he consults their feelings, submits to their judgment, and strengthens their hands. Sometimes, under the spurious statement that the work of God is the main thing, many speak disparagingly of Church organisation, as if it were not the proper way to do the work of God. God’s work is best done in God’s way.

(b) The earnest Christian must be prepared to meet with misrepresentation, and no form of opposition is more difficult to face than an anonymous misrepresentation like that contained in the words, ‘They have been informed.’ In this case, too, the slanderers hasten to spread the warning that St. Paul does not believe in the Old Testament.

—John Palmer.


‘The Castle or Tower of Antonia (named after Mark Antony, built by Herod the Great) was situated on the north-west corner of the Temple. Built on a rock, it overlooked the Temple, and was connected by two flights of stairs with the outermost courts. The Romans always kept the castle strongly garrisoned with troops. From the look-out on the Tower of Antonia the sentry saw the tumult and reported it to the chief captain.’m


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Acts 21:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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