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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Acts 21

 

 

Verse 1-2

‘And when it came to about that we were parted from them and had set sail, we came with a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara, and having found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we went aboard, and set sail.’

The suspense continues. The ship continued slowly down the coast of Asia Minor to Cos on the mainland and then across the strait to the island of Rhodes, and then back to Patara on the mainland, getting ever closer to Jerusalem. It was at Patara that large ships could be found for the sea crossing. From there they would cross the open sea for four hundred miles to Phoenicia which would require a larger sea-going vessel rather than a coaster. It was the regular route from that part of Asia Minor to Phoenicia. So at Patara they changed vessels and found one that was crossing over to Phoenicia. Going aboard this vessel they set sail.


Verse 3

‘And when we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left hand, we sailed to Syria, and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload her cargo.’

Soon they passed by Cyprus on their left, and then continued on to Syria, landing at Tyre because it was there that the ship was to unload its cargo. We are here reminded that much of what happened on the voyage had been partly determined by the ships’ schedules. Compare Acts 15:3 for a previous visit to the area.


Verse 4

‘And having found the disciples, we tarried there seven days, and these said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not set foot in Jerusalem.’

There at Tyre they spent the customary ‘seven days’ and it was here that Luke mentions for the first time the prophecies concerning what was to happen to Paul. But that these had been happening with alarming frequency we have already learned from Acts 20:23. Here certain disciples who were prophets said to Paul through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem. This must mean either that the Spirit had in prophecy warned them of what was to happen, and they then gave him the message that he should not set foot in Jerusalem, or that the message was given as a warning so that the churches would be aware of the situation, even though the Spirit knew that he would set foot in Jerusalem under His compulsion (Acts 19:21; Acts 20:22).

The seven days may have been the time necessary for the unloading of their cargo and the taking aboard of a new cargo. Either way it give opportunity for fellowship with, and teaching to, the Christians at Tyre.


Verse 5-6

‘And when it came about that we had accomplished the days, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, brought us on our way till we were out of the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed, and bade each other farewell, and we went on board the ship, but they returned home again.’

The seven days being ended they prepared to go on board, and the whole Tyrian church, including wives and children, came with them out of the city, and all kneeling on the beach, they prayed and bade each other farewell. It was a wonderful expression of Christian love and unity. If it was within sight of the ship it must have been a wonderful testimony to the amazed crew, which would give further opportunity of witnessing to them on what remained of the voyage.

We note how Luke is desirous of bringing out these examples of Christian love. Perhaps he had in mind the words of Jesus, ‘By this will all men know that you My disciples if you have love one another’. (John 13:35). He wants us to know the genuineness of the faith of these churches. The word has accomplished its work, and it is the same everywhere.


Verse 7

‘And when we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we saluted the brethren, and abode with them one day.’

The voyage from Tyre brings them to Ptolemais (now Acre) where they probably landed for the last time. From now on it will be on foot. Here again they greeted the brethren and remained with them for a day, before proceeding.

Some, however, consider that the one day stop was in order to unload some cargo and that they then sailed to Caesarea.


Verse 8

‘And on the morrow we departed, and came to Caesarea, and entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him.’

Leaving Ptolemais they arrived in Caesarea, where they went to stay with Philip the evangelist, one of ‘the seven’ of the early days (Acts 6:3-6). He had probably been ministering here for many years. (He was not the same as the Apostle).


Verse 9

‘Now this man had four virgin daughters, who prophesied.’

Luke then explains that Philip had four virgin daughters who were apparently official prophetesses (compare Acts 2:17; 1 Corinthians 11:5). This was probably to be seen as an indication of his continued godliness and flourishing faith. It had passed on to his daughters. Here were women who had kept themselves as virgins the better to serve Christ. It was also an indication that the promise at Pentecost (Acts 2:17) was being fulfilled. Luke is constantly stressing the signs of the power of the word, which has changed men’s lives, by his mention of the love constantly being shown to Paul, the praying on the knees and now this prophesying. Now it is seen in these daughters. They were wonderful indications of the new life that they all enjoyed in Christ.


Verse 10

‘And as we tarried there some days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus.’

Due to having made good time they were able to stay in Caesarea for a time and have fellowship with the church here. Perhaps Paul’s Gentile companions were able to have good fellowship with Cornelius and his household. And then from Judaea arrived the prophet Agabus. Predictive prophecy is relatively rare in the New Testament (it cannot be a coincidence that apart from the warnings concerning Paul little else is heard of predictive prophecy, except later by Paul and Peter, and of course John in Revelation), but Agabus appears to have been especially gifted in that direction. He was the one who had gone from Jerusalem to Syrian Antioch and had prophesied there the famine that was coming on ‘all the world’ (Acts 11:28).


Verse 11

‘And coming to us, and taking Paul’s girdle, he bound his own feet and hands, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, So will the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle, and will deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.” ’

Agabus deliberately sought them out and then took Paul’s belt and used it to bind his own hands and feet. And then he declared that the Holy Spirit had shown him that the owner of that belt would himself be bound in the same way by the Jews in Jerusalem, and would then be handed over to the Gentiles. This last would be seen as the worst possible fate for a Jew. He would be unable to maintain his religious cleanliness and would be cut off from Israel.

We note that this is the third time that Luke has mentioned these warnings, indicating completeness of warning (Acts 20:23; Acts 21:4). He was in fact warned any number of times (Acts 20:23). This acted out prophecy of Agabus relates him to the Old Testament prophets who regularly acted out their prophecies (1 Kings 11:29-31; Isaiah 20:2-4; Jeremiah 13:1-7; Ezekiel 4:1-17).


Verse 12

‘And when we heard these things, both we and they of that place besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.’

The result of the prophecy is that his companions, including Luke, together with the church at Caesarea pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem.


Verse 13

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

But Paul rebuked them. He knew that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and told them that their pleas were just making it harder for him. Indeed that their weeping was breaking his heart. But he wanted them to know that it was the Lord’s will, and that he was ready, not only to be bound at Jerusalem (which was what was prophesied), but also if necessary to die there. Neither he nor they realised the opportunities that his being bound would give him to testify before rulers, and to proclaim the word freely in Rome. Indeed in view of the hatred for Paul among the Jews, who were out to kill him, it may be that being in a kind of gentle captivity was the safest place from which to carry on his ministry.


Verse 14

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

One they recognised that he believed that it was God’s will for him to be bound in Jerusalem, and that nothing would change his mind, they declared ‘The will of the Lord be done.’ Compare Luke 22:42, ‘not My will, but Yours be done’. Paul was continually following in His steps.


Verse 15

‘And after these days we took up our baggage and went up to Jerusalem.’

Their time at Caesarea coming to an end they took up their baggage (which included the Collection) and went up to Jerusalem. The verb ‘took up our baggage’ may indicate that they used horses.


Verse 16

‘And there went with us also certain of the disciples from Caesarea, bringing with them one Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.’

They were accompanied by certain disciples from Caesarea, together with Mnason who was from Cyprus, but had a house where they could lodge. He was an ‘early disciple’, probably from Pentecost days. He had invited them to stay with him. In view of the fact that Paul was a marked man his bravery in doing this must be recognised. All these men were willing to hazard their lives and their futures for Christ.

The Jerusalem Visit

That in recording details of Paul’s fifth Jerusalem visit Luke’s mind was fixed on the main purposes of his narrative comes out quite clearly in the fact that he ignored the bringing of the Collection to the church in Jerusalem. The Collection for the people of God in Jerusalem and Judaea, in the circumstances in which they found themselves as a result of famine and the constant disturbances that were taking place, had taken up much of Paul’s time (see 1 Corinthians 1:1-5; 2 Corinthians 8-9), and he clearly considered it of prime importance as a means of cementing unity between the Jewish Christians and their Gentile counterparts. And yet Luke totally ignores it when describing the Jerusalem visit in Acts.

This is another of Luke’s ‘silences’, designed to ensure that the emphasis does not go in the wrong place (compare the deliberate lack of a direct mention of the Holy Spirit as such in Luke 13-24, even when approaching the hour of His coming). He was here rather concerned to demonstrate the spiritual oneness of the church (Acts 21:17-18), the success of the Good News (Acts 21:19-20), and the circumstances that led up to Paul’s arrest (Acts 21:21 onwards), in order to stress Jerusalem’s repeated and final rejection of the messengers of the Messiah. He was concerned to demonstrate that what was true in the early days after Pentecost was still true. Love of the brethren was still strong, fruitfulness and expansion were still taking place among both Jews and Gentiles, and the retaliation of Satan, which finally brings about God’s will, was still occurring. But above all he wanted to demonstrate that Jerusalem was no longer central in God’s purposes. These things are what Acts has been all about.

The rejection of its Messiah by Jerusalem, and of Jerusalem by its Messiah, had been made clear in chapter 12. Peter had then ‘departed for another place’. However, there was a sense in which Paul’s coming had given it another opportunity. But the Temple would now symbolically ‘close its doors’ against God’s messengers for ever, and the only Apostle left in Jerusalem would be transferred to Rome. Furthermore, in the parallel passage in Acts 26:28-32 (for parallels see introduction to Acts 19:21 and Introduction) King Agrippa II (son of the king in chapter 12) who even now controlled the appointment of High Priests and their vestments and had overall oversight over the Temple and its worship, would choose to do the same. Both Jerusalem and its King again said no to Jesus Christ. So while the church in Jerusalem welcomes Him, Jerusalem itself rejects Him once again and finally. All that remains for it is for it to be destroyed. Stephen had stressed the dual offer to Israel of its Saviours (see his speech), and especially of the Righteous One. Luke in Acts brings out His dual post-resurrection rejection, in chapter 12 and here.


Verse 17

‘And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.’

Arriving in Jerusalem Paul and his companions were ‘received gladly’ by the whole church. Their welcome was friendly and genuine as befitted fellow-Christians. It is probable that at this stage these people knew nothing about the Collection. They welcomed them for what they were. There is no hint here of opposition (which, of course, did not come from them). All was well with the church.


Verses 17-30

Paul Proves His True Dedication in Jerusalem and His Conformity With the Law And Does Nothing That Is Worthy of Death But the Doors of the Temple Are Closed Against Him (21:17-30).


Verse 18

‘And the day following Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present.’

On the next day the Gentile representatives arranged to meet James, along with all the elders. Paul also went with them. The fact that all the Jerusalem church elders also made themselves present meant that it was an official meeting. But the non-mention of the Apostles suggests that they were elsewhere obeying Jesus’ command to take the Good News to the whole world.

This majoring on ‘us’ confirms that the question of handing over the Collection was to be dealt with. Note that Paul went ‘with them’. He was not to be seen as the man in charge. These men came as individual and official representatives of their churches to fellowship with their brethren in the Jerusalem church. Yet both here and from this point on, as he has earlier, Luke still ignores the Collection, skipping over anything to do with that and moving on to Paul’s description of his Gentile mission (although he undoubtedly knew about it - Acts 24:17). He is more concerned to bring out the wonderful unity and love in the church.

For important though the Collection was it was not important to what Luke was trying to get over. Indeed it might have distracted attention from it. (We modern commentators equally ensure that it does obtain major attention and thus distract attention from Luke’s main purpose). He wanted the attention to be concentrated on what really matters, the success of the word around the world, the wonderful unity of the people of God, and the resulting arrest of Paul with its indication of Jerusalem’s rejection of the Good News.


Verse 19

‘And when he had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry.’

Then Paul greeted them and gave them a full account, item by item, of all that God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry (and that of his companions). This was what Luke wanted to get over rather than discussions about the Collection, that the word had been continually effective and had spread and prospered.


Verse 20

‘And they, when they heard it, glorified God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands (literally ‘tens of thousands’) there are among the Jews of those who have believed; and they are all zealous for the law.”

Their response was that they glorified God. They truly rejoiced to hear of what God had been doing. And they approved of it too. Then they pointed out to Paul that there were also grounds for glorifying God in the Jewish church. Here also many thousands, even tens of thousands, had come to believe in Jesus Christ. We need not restrict this numbering to Jerusalem. The reference is to the acknowledged Jewish church as a whole in the whole region, in contrast with Gentiles. The Jewish church too was multiplying. And because they were Jewish Christians they were zealous for the Law. A Jew who became a Christian became a better Jew.

So it is emphasised that among both Jews and Gentiles the word was being powerfully effective.

But the elders then went on to draw attention to a problem, and that was that among the Jewish Christians were those who were only too willing to believe the worst about Paul.


Verse 21

“And they have been informed concerning you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk after the customs.”

For some had been informed that Paul was teaching Jews who became Christians to cease being Jews, not to have their children circumcised and not to walk in the customs of the Jews. Such twisting of the truth, when men have been defeated in an argument, has been commonplace throughout the ages. It is amazing how thwarted men, even Christians, can so dishonour Christ, but it regularly happens. They had been told that he was teaching them to forsake Moses. (Do we detect the hand of the Christian Judaisers at work here? Defeated in their arguments they retaliate with lies). That this was untrue we know because Paul had had Timothy circumcised because he was half a Jew. And nowhere do we learn of Paul teaching Jews no longer to be racially, and by customary behaviour, Jews. He was not concerned with race and customs when he taught. He was only concerned with central truth. As long as their race and customs did not lead men astray from the truth they could hold to what they liked. And, as we have seen, we have reason to believe that Paul himself continued to observe Jewish customs. They had been his fashion of life from his youth up. What was good in them he wanted to retain (they were not a burden to Paul now that he saw that they were not an essential for salvation). And he knew that observance of them could aid the witness among Jews. What he would not do was impose them on others, or make them necessary for salvation.


Verse 22

“What is it therefore? They will certainly hear that you are come.”

These elders knew that it was inevitable therefore that some of these prejudiced Jewish Christians would hear of Paul’s arrival and probably become incensed, and angry at his presence in Jerusalem. It seemed therefore a good idea to these godly men that Paul should prove his Jewish credentials so that such people might recognise that they were wrong about Paul after all. It was a suggestion that was both sensible and helpful, taking into account the weaknesses of weaker Christians.


Verse 23-24

“Do therefore this that we say to you. We have four men who have a vow on them. These take, and purify yourself with them, and be at charges for them, that they may shave their heads, and all will know that there is no truth in the things of which they have been informed concerning you, but that you yourself also walk in an orderly way, keeping the law.”

So their suggestion was that he meet the costs of four young Jewish Christian men who were involved in a Nazirite vow. This would involve him purifying himself in the Temple for seven days with them for only then could his offerings be acceptable. And he would thus be sharing in their last week of consecration before they shaved their heads, and presented the hair to God with appropriate sacrifices. It would be a sharing in their consecration but not a strict participation. He would not be taking a Nazirite vow. Yet he would be offering sacrifices and thankofferings and rededicating himself and expressing oneness with these young men.

Bearing the costs of young Nazirites was a recognised form of showing generosity and giving to God among the Jews. King Agrippa I had used this method in order to make himself popular with the Jews. It was a regular practise among the more wealthy Jews who wanted to express their gratitude to God, and especially with those who wanted to be seen as pious. And it was a true kindness, for the offerings that had to be made by a Nazirite could be costly, and many had entered into their dedication in the hope that some noble benefactor would come forward at the end to meet their costs. No one would think it strange then if Paul did so, or consider that Paul was trying to muscle in on the dedication of the young men. All would see it as a good and noble and fully Jewish action.

And the result would be that all Jewish Christians would recognise that Paul was truly faithful to, and approved of, the customs of the Jews with regard to the Law of Moses. They would have their doubts laid aside.

Someone might cavil at the thought of Paul offering sacrifices. But we have reason to believe that he had observed the Passover at Philippi (Acts 20:6). And we must remember that the One Who certainly had no need to do so, regularly did participate in sacrifices, as we know for certain from the Last Supper. He did it in order to fulfil all righteousness, just as He was baptised for the same reason (Matthew 3:15). The full revelation of the end of all sacrifices was a truth which had not yet burst on the church. And we can be sure that all Jewish Christians within range of Jerusalem constantly offered sacrifices as worship and dedicatory offerings, and that the Apostles, including Paul, approved.


Verse 25

“But as touching the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, giving judgment that they should keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication.”

The repetition of these stipulations may well have resulted from something said by Paul, for the elders then immediately assured Paul that they did not expect this of Gentiles. Indeed they had written to all believing Gentiles that all that was expected of them was to keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication, just as had been decided earlier in Jerusalem (see on chapter 15). It would appear from this that they had circulated the decree wherever they knew of Gentile Christians being present. All that was asked of Christian Gentiles was that they would make it possible for pious Jewish Christians to have fellowship with them by avoiding the eating of blood, and that they would avoid all attachment to idolatry and sexual misbehaviour.


Verse 26

“Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them.”

It should be noted that there is no suggestion that Paul saw any objection to this at all. It would seem that he willingly and happily carried out the suggestion, joining the Nazirites in the Temple and purifying himself alongside them for their last seven days, so that his own offerings could be accepted, and covering all the costs of their offerings until their vows were satisfactorily completed. There is no hint at all of disapproval in Luke’s narrative.

‘Declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification.’ That is, declaring to those officiating at the Temple that he was entering into an official seven day purification, and the final seven days of the Nazirite vows. This would ensure that at the final point when the vows were finalised he would be seen as absolutely ‘clean’ from any pollution of any kind. It thus confirmed to all that to him being ‘clean’ was seen as being important. (This was not just a normal purifying from ‘uncleanness’. That would take place outside the Temple. Paul would not have entered the Temple if he had been ‘unclean’. This was a kind of double guarantee purifying)

There is no reason to doubt that Paul would be quite happy to do this when acting as a Jew among Jews. The previous visit that he had made to Jerusalem had been because of a similar vow (Acts 18:18; Acts 18:22). If he could win Jews to Christ by doing this, or ensure the maintenance of their faith in Christ as Jews, he would be only too pleased to do it, especially as it was so clearly of concern to the leadership of the church who were behaving in an exemplary fashion with regard to the decision made earlier in Jerusalem.

And indeed what happened next cannot really be laid at the door of this behaviour. The men involved were haters of Paul (some of them had been planning to kill him when he sailed from Corinth, and others had tried to kill him in Asia Minor), and they would have constantly been on the lookout for how they could trap him whatever had happened here. They had already revealed that they had an almost pathological hatred for him. Had they not caught him here they would no doubt have caught him this way some other time, unless he avoided the Temple altogether. We do not do well if we blame what followed on this perfectly admirable scheme of the elders at Jerusalem. To do so is simply to reflect our own prejudice. (It is interesting how many who criticise Paul for this expect everyone to be doing the same thing in some supposed Millennium when it would be far less acceptable).


Verse 27-28

“And when the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help. This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place, and moreover he brought Greeks also into the temple, and has defiled this holy place.”

The first few days went by perfectly satisfactorily. There would in fact have been no outcry had it not been that ‘the Jews from Asia’ saw him in the Temple. As they had recognised Trophimus elsewhere (Acts 21:29) some of them must have been Ephesians. These had already been spoken of as ‘hardened and disobedient’ and as ‘speaking evil of the Way’ (Acts 19:8-9). They had in fact probably been keeping their eyes open for him, and when they saw him in the Temple their evil surfaced. Out of total prejudice they just assumed the worst about him. They had no reasonable grounds for it. The truth was that they hated him and wanted him dead, and truth came second to that. There is nothing to be said which can soften the suggestion that they were wholly evil. They knew perfectly well that they were calling for him to be beaten to death, but did not take the trouble to ascertain the facts (which their own Law insisted that they must do - Deuteronomy 13:14). They would look into that once he was dead. It was his death they wanted, no matter how obtained. There was nothing pious about this but all that was wicked. They were nothing but would be murderers. And we can be sure that if they had not got him this way, they would have got him somehow. They were determined assassins, although they would have convinced themselves otherwise.

They sought to achieve their ends by rousing the people. They declared, totally untruthfully, that ‘this is the one’ who teaches all men everywhere ‘against the people, and against the Law, and against ‘this place’ (the temple)’. This was precisely the charge that had been laid against Stephen (Acts 6:13). How this suggestion could tie in with what he was doing in the Temple only they could explain. But they were not interested in truth. They were the worst kind of Jew.

The charge was not true. Paul certainly never spoke against the people as such. He showed continual respect for the Temple (as he makes clear in his speech). And he respected the Law and lived by it. His arguments concerning the Law actually upheld the Law (Romans 3:31). All he did when he appeared to speak against it was reveal as foolish certain misrepresentations of the Law as proclaimed by the Judaisers (who as far as we know represented no one but themselves).

But however heinous these things might have seemed to be to uninformed Jews, they were not punishable under Roman justice by death. There was only one crime that allowed instant execution. Bringing a Gentile into the inner courts. There were in fact notices warning of this, and one discovered by an archaeologist read, "No man of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple. And whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues." (The fence was a stone balustrade about four and a half feet/one and a half metres in height). So that was the crime that they now accused him of. And they compounded their sin by pretending that their complaint was for pious reasons, ‘this holy place’, as though they were really concerned about its holiness. They were revealing themselves to be the most despicable and hypocritical of people, for it was they who were defiling the holy place by their false and unreasonable charges. Yet they tried to accuse him of doing so. They were piling evil upon evil.


Verse 29

‘For they had before seen with him in the city Trophimus the Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.’

Gracious Luke then tries to find some excuse for them. He finds their total evil hard to understand. And he points out that they had earlier seen Paul with the Gentile Trophimus in the city. That is why they then ‘supposed’ that he had brought him into the inner courts when he was dedicating himself. But you do not kill a man in the basis of ‘supposes’. They certainly ‘supposed’ it, but it was totally without justification, and was simply the product of their own prejudiced and perverse minds. Furthermore it was unlikely, because all doors to the Temple were policed by Levites, one of whose duties was to ensure that no Gentile, whether accidentally or deliberately, entered the inner courts. And it was inexcusable because their own Law said that they must enquire carefully into such a situation before doing anything. Luke gives an explanation, but it is no excuse. There is no excuse for jumping to conclusions simply on the basis of prejudice, especially on so serious a matter (Deuteronomy 13:14).


Verse 30

‘And all the city was moved, and the people ran together, and they laid hold on Paul, and dragged him out of the temple, and straightway the doors were shut.’

The effect of the malicious cries of these people was to ‘move’ others, so that many people ran together and ‘all the city’ was involved (clearly not all in the city would be involved, it is hyperbole, but Luke intends us to see that it was so in effect. The whole of Jerusalem is rejecting Christ’s messenger), and when they gathered what seemed to be the situation they seized Paul and dragged him from the Temple (the shedding of such blood could not take place in the holy place). And ‘as soon as he was out the doors were shut’. What an ominous sound that has. Luke is bringing out that the doors of the Temple clanged shut on the messenger of God and on his suffering, as they had also shut out Jesus when He suffered ‘outside the camp’. Yet another was being driven ‘outside the camp’.

‘Immediately the doors were shut.’ Compare (of Peter), ‘and he departed and went to another place’ (Acts 12:17). Both statements were significant for the future of both the Temple and the city. We remember also Jesus’ words, ‘How often would I have gathered your children --- but you would not -- your house is left to you desolate’ (Luke 13:34). Note also that the verb ‘were shut’ is in the passive voice, often used to depict God’s actions. Not only did the Jews shut the doors, but God shut them. He was with Paul on the outside leaving Jerusalem for good.

We note here that in the parallel section in Acts 26:28-32 King Agrippa II (son of Agrippa I of chapter 12) also closes his heart against him. Both king and people once again confirm their rejection of their Messiah.


Verse 31

Paul Is Arrested And Speaks To The Crowd Giving His Own Testimony. They Reply ‘Away With Him’ (21:31-22:29).

At this point begins the remarkable account of Paul’s imprisonment, trials and treatment at the hands of men in Jerusalem and Caesarea (from Acts 21:31 to Acts 26:32). It could well have been said of him also, ‘you will be delivered into the hands of men’ (Luke 9:44; Luke 24:7). What follows can only really be understood by those who understood the situation in Palestine. Hyrcanus and Antipater had a century before supported Caesar when he was having a difficult time in possessing his empire and as a result the Jews were given special privileges, being looked on as allies rather than just as a conquered people. And the peculiarities of their religion were thus assured to them. Nevertheless the Jews saw themselves as God’s chosen people and could never be happy under Gentile control. Matters became worse when the failures of their rulers resulted in Judaea coming under direct Roman rule through procurators, although their ruling body the Sanhedrin continued to have authority in religious affairs, and in practise considerable control in political affairs as well because the people were more responsive to them. The wise procurator kept on good terms with the Sanhedrin if at all possible (it was easier said than done). There was an uneasy peace between the procurators and the Sanhedrin, and a love-hate relationship, and the procurators had to recognise that while they could enforce their decisions through the auxiliary legions quartered in Palestine, the people looked more to the Sanhedrin because they were Jewish and were more responsive to them. It was necessary, if peace was to be maintained and harmony achieved, that the Sanhedrin was kept in harness. On the other hand the procurators in the end were in total control, and had the armed forces which ensured it, as the Sanhedrin bitterly recognised. It was they who were responsible to Caesar for the peace of the realm.

The Sanhedrin was composed of the chief priests and influential Sadducees, leading lay elders of the aristocracy and leading Pharisees. The chief priests and Sadducees controlled the Temple and its revenues, but the Pharisees had the hearts of the people, and wielded their power through the synagogues, local places of worship where Jews congregated on the Sabbath and recited the Shema and the eighteen benedictions, together with formal prayer, listened to the reading of the Scriptures, and heard them expounded by their teachers, often Pharisees. The Pharisees did not control the synagogues, for they were controlled by appointed lay elders, but their influence through them was great because of the respect in which they were held. The Sadducees, to whom a large number of the priests belonged, including especially the Chief Priests who controlled Temple affairs, did not believe in the resurrection from the dead, nor in angels. They were very politically minded and believed in freewill and the non-interference of God in human affairs (which was very convenient) and accepted only the Law of Moses as Scripture, of which they emphasised the ritual aspect. The Pharisees accepted ‘the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms’ as Scripture, believed wholeheartedly in the resurrection from the dead, and in angels and predestination, sought by their lives to attain to eternal life, held to complicated rituals of cleansing and the need to observe the Law of Moses according to their tenets and were looked up to by the people.

Under the Romans the Sanhedrin had responsibility for religious affairs and could try cases related thereto, but they did not have the ability to pass the death sentence except probably in cases of extreme blasphemy. Civil justice was mainly in the hands of the procurator. And he was responsible to Rome and was expected to maintain Roman standards of law. But there were good and bad procurators who applied the rules in different ways, and they had considerable leeway. However, they always had to keep one eye open to the fact that complaint could be made about them to Caesar where they went too far.

By the time of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem described here Judaea was a hotbed of violence and insurrection, religious disquiet and extreme dissatisfaction, and continual ferment, which was kept in control by harsh measures on the part of the procurators. Outbursts of religious passion could burst forth at any moment. Judaea (and Galilee) was like a volcano waiting to explode.

The situation just described explains why the procurators, while not willing to give the Sanhedrin its way in respect of Paul without due evidence, were nevertheless hesitant totally to reject their concerns. It was simpler to keep them from getting too upset by keeping Paul in custody and giving the impression that something was being done. But they dared not release him because of the offence that it would cause to the Sanhedrin (and they probably believed, to the people as well). The concerns of one man, while they had to be taken into account, had to be subordinated to political expediency. Thus he was like a hot potato. He must not be dropped, but was painful to hold onto. Rome prided itself on its system of justice, but affairs of state also had to be considered. Add to this Felix’ greed and Festus’ naivete and we understand the background to Paul’s treatment. It saved him from death, and it nearly killed him. But, of course, behind all was God, as Luke continually wants us to understand. And God had His way in the end.

It is easy to get the impression that for Paul these were wasted years. But if we do this is to misunderstand the situation. It is very probable that in the two years in which Paul was held in custody the church in Caesarea had constant access to him, that he fed them and helped them to grow, that he was constantly visited by his companions, prayed with them and taught them, and that he was able to send them to do what he was unable to do. Furthermore during these two years he came before the Sanhedrin, before gatherings of leading Jews, before procurators and kings, and before a gathering of all the notabilities in Caesarea, and had ample opportunity to bring home to them all his essential message. And his behaviour under his trials and sufferings must have given a huge boost, both to the church in Palestine, and to the church around the world. He was kept very busy and yet given a necessary rest at the same time.

But above all he was able to give a testimony to the resurrection which has blessed all ages. Who can forget his vivid descriptions of how he met the risen and glorious Lord Whose commission to him, and to us all, was the foundation of his whole life, and his continual and unfailing testimony to the resurrection when he himself did not know what a day would ring forth.


Verse 31-32

‘And as they were seeking to kill him, news came up to the chief captain (chiliarch) of the band, that all Jerusalem was in confusion, and at once he took soldiers and centurions, and ran down on them, and they, when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, left off beating Paul.’

‘As they were seeking to kill him.’ This suggests that their intention was to beat him to death. The idea would be to ‘cleanse’ the temple by the destruction of what had defiled it. Fortunately for Paul, as they began the process of mortal beatings the situation was reported to the chief captain of the auxiliaries on duty in Fortress Antonia next to the Temple. It was Roman practise to have a strong force (an auxiliary cohort of about 1,000 men including a cavalry squadron) there at all seasons when there was likely to be trouble in Jerusalem, for they were only too well aware of how easily the Jews could ‘fly off the handle’. And Pentecost was one of those times. And the court of the Gentiles where Paul now was, was visible from the fortress.

As soon as the chief captain received the report he called on his centurions and their men (there would always be some on duty ‘at the ready’ for exactly such a situation) and running down the steps from the fortress they came down on the crowd. This was a well rehearsed action. It was required only too often. And the moment that the crowd saw the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. None would want to be caught in the act and be seen as personally involved. It could so easily result in a beating for themselves, even if only as witnesses (witnesses were regularly beaten in order to ensure that they told all).


Verse 33

‘Then the chief captain came near, and laid hold on him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains, and enquired who he was, and what he had done.’

Breaking through the crowd, and aware that he might be dealing with a dangerous criminal, the chief captain seized him and then commanded that he be put in ‘two chains’, one for the hands and one for the feet. (Compare the prophecy of Agabus - Acts 21:11). Then he enquired as to who he was and what he had done.


Verse 34

‘And some shouted one thing, some another, among the crowd. And when he could not know the certainty for the uproar, he commanded him to be brought into the castle.’

The inexcusable nature of the situation comes out in that most of the crowd quite frankly did not know why they were beating Paul. They had simply been caught up in the general fervour. So some shouted one thing, and some another. Each had different ideas about this man whom they were beating to death, and why they were doing it. We can compare the similar situation with the Ephesus’ crowd in Acts 19:32 where there is a parallel idea. Luke wants it to be quite clear to his readers that those involved in uproars against Paul usually had no good reason for it. At Ephesus it was evil Ephesian Gentiles who had raised the uproar, here it was evil Ephesian Jews. But in neither case were the crowds in agreement with them. The aims of the crowds were baseless. It would appear that Ephesians were adept at causing uproars. (And as we have seen Ephesians represented the Anti-God, the Satan).

Recognising that he was getting no sense from them the chief captain ordered that Paul be brought into the fortress. The first thing to do was to get this dangerous rogue to a place of safety, where he could be examined at more leisure.


Verse 35-36

‘And when he came on the stairs, so it was that he was borne of the soldiers for the violence of the crowd, for the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him.” ’

His strategy was necessary. For the incensed crowd,even though we have already learned that they did not know why, continued to cry for his death. They were caught up in blood lust. So the soldiers bore him to the stairs leading into the fortress. These stairs actually led down into the court of the Gentiles. They were for quick access in case of trouble.

‘Away with him (aire auton).’ Compare Luke 23:18, ‘aire touton’ (see also John 19:15). Luke wishes us to identify the two situations. Jerusalem which had rejected its Messiah, has now finally rejected His servant. As far as Luke was concerned it was a final seal on its rejection, evidence of the lesson that he had made clear in chapter 12. They had closed the doors of the Temple on him, now they wanted rid of him totally.


Verse 37-38

‘And as Paul was about to be brought into the castle, he says to the chief captain, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek?” Are you not then the Egyptian, who before these days stirred up to sedition and led out into the wilderness the four thousand men of the Assassins?”

Paul then paused on the steps of the fortress and spoke to the chief captain in articulate and sophisticated Greek. He asked, “May I say something to you?” It was always wise to ask a senior soldier for permission to speak to him. But the chief captain was taken by surprise at his articulate and cultured Greek for he had gained quite another impression of Paul, (we must assume from the crowd. He had asked the crowd who and what he was). That some of the crowd should have said what they did serves to demonstrate how little the majority knew the truth about the man whose death they had been seeking, even the false ‘truth’. They were simply a lynch mob, carried away by excitement and prejudice.

So he asked in surprise, ‘Are you not then the Egyptian, who before these days stirred up to sedition and led out into the wilderness the four thousand men of the Assassins?’ This was presumably what some in the crowds had told him. This character would later be spoken of by Josephus. It was a well known and infamous story. Three years prior to this an Egyptian Jew had claimed to be a prophet and had led a crowd of adherents out into the wilderness (patterning himself on Elijah and John the Baptiser), and then to the Mount of Olives, in order to Messianically attack Jerusalem declaring that the city walls would miraculously fall before him. He and his ‘assassins’ had been beaten off by Felix with much bloodshed, although he had escaped. The assassins (sicarii - ‘dagger men’) were strictly groups of Jews who carried daggers around with them hidden in their clothing so that at any opportunity that arose they could kill collaborators with the Romans, but the term no doubt became applied by the Romans to anyone who sought to slay them and their collaborators. After all they saw all who opposed them violently as little better than assassins.


Verse 39

‘But Paul said, “I am a Jew, of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city, and I beg you, give me leave to speak to the people.”

Paul then informed him of who he really was, and did so with the intention of impressing him, for he wanted an opportunity to speak ‘A citizen of no mean city.’ This was an expression of pride in the importance of the city from which he came, and of which he was a respected citizen. Tarsus was famed for its university and its prominence. Thus as a responsible person he asked permission to speak to the crowds. Paul could never turn down an opportunity of proclaiming the Good News (it would be to both the crowds and the arresting soldiers).


Verse 40

‘And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, beckoned with the hand to the people, and when there was made a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying,’

Recognising Paul’s quality, and deeply intrigued, the chief captain gave his permission. This was clearly no ordinary captive and he was interested to hear what he wanted to say. Perhaps it would also help to establish the truth. And he was not used to captives asking permission to speak to those who had attacked them.

So Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned to the people like an orator. A great hush came on the crowd. As they saw the bruised and bloodied figure, whose death they sought, quite unexpectedly turn to speak to them with the gesture of an orator, they were astounded. It was the last thing that they had expected. We may see this silence as the work of the Holy Spirit active through Paul. Or we may see it as the reaction of a people suddenly taken by surprise by an unexpected turn of events, and stunned to silence. Or indeed as both. We may well see that the sight of Paul and what they had done to him made many of them suddenly stop in their tracks, as the decent ones among them were made to consider what they had done.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Acts 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/acts-21.html. 2013.

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