In our study of Acts we have followed Paul from the days when he was a bitter persecutor of the church of God, through his conversion and dedication to the work of the Lord. We have accompanied him on his three missionary journeys as he carried the gospel throughout the Near East, and finally we saw him leaving Ephesus for the last time to continue his journey to Jerusalem.
The early verses of Acts 21 are very interesting if you read them with a map before you. You can trace Paul’s journey from Miletus right on to Jerusalem. In verse 4 we read that Paul and those traveling with him arrived in Tyre where they remained for seven days. While they were there a most unusual incident occurred in the life of Paul. There they found disciples who said to Paul—now observe this—“through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.” Now was this simply a test of his readiness to suffer, or was it really a warning word forbidding him to go? It may be a little difficult for us to decide, but the statement is plain. These disciples said to Paul through the Holy Spirit that he should not go up to Jerusalem.
Already the Spirit of God had intimated through various servants of His that this journey would not be as successful as Paul had hoped. As we previously noted, it is very evident that it was his deep love for his own people, the Jews, that led him to go to Jerusalem. He was bringing them alms that had been collected by the Christians in the Gentile churches to assist those in Judea who were suffering because of famine. He felt that this opportunity to minister in a temporal way to his people—both converted and uncoverted Jews— would enable him to show them how truly he loved them. Also he hoped that this outpouring of love would be used of God to break down the bigotry and the bitter opposition in the hearts of so many of them.
Paul knew exactly how his Jewish brethren felt. He himself had felt as they did. There was a time when he thought of Jesus as a deceiver, as one who was misleading the people, and he bound himself to do everything he could to hinder the work of the gospel. But the Lord had won his heart, and now he hoped by special kindness to his own people to be able to win them.
But we need to remember this. When God saved him. He especially commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Although wherever Paul went he invariably entered the synagogue and preached to the Jews first, yet it was always among the Gentiles that he found the most fruit.
With the apostle Peter it was different. The Lord seemed to have given Peter a special gift and ministry for the Jews. When Paul, James, Peter, John, and others met together in Jerusalem years before, they agreed among themselves that evidently Peter’s special mission was to the Jews and Paul’s to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-9). But he could not forget the blood ties that held him fast to his Jewish brethren, and he still hoped to be God’s special messenger to them. So he was determined to pursue his way toward Jerusalem.
Did he make a mistake in so doing? Did Paul really disobey the voice of the Lord? It is hard for us to say. We may be sure of this, that if he did make a mistake, he made it from the best of motives. If he blundered here, he blundered out of an overpowering love for the Jewish people. I am afraid that some of us cannot say of our mistakes that they have always been motivated by love.
If Paul was mistaken here, it should be a great encouragement to some of us. You see, we are apt to think of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ as though they were men of a much higher caliber than ourselves, and therefore there is no possibility of our being used as they were. But we learn as we study the book of Acts that these men were of like passions with ourselves. They had the same fallible judgment that we have. They could be misled as we are misled. The apostle Peter was clearly misled at Antioch when he withdrew himself from the Gentiles and refused to eat with them when Jewish brethren came down from Jerusalem (Galatians 2:11-13). We have already seen how Paul and Barnabas misunderstood one another and had a bitter quarrel over the case of young John Mark. All these things impress on us the fact that these were men like ourselves who needed daily to seek guidance from the Lord that they might be directed aright, and who had to confess their own sins and their failures. This is a great encouragement to me and I cannot help thinking it ought to be to others also. I realize that one blunders so frequently; one errs in so many ways. Even when one has attempted to do the very best thing, he often feels in looking back that he has made a mistake by going too far to the right or the left.
It is such an encouragement to know that all the work God has accomplished through His servants in this world He has done through imperfect instruments. He has never had a perfect instrument. The Lord Jesus of course was perfect, but He was more than an instrument. He was God Himself manifest in the flesh. But all the merely human servants that God has ever had have blundered somewhere.
Go back into the Old Testament. Noah failed terribly after the flood when he came under the power of wine. Abraham denied his wife. Isaac failed because of fleshly appetite. Jacob’s record was one of blundering and failure! Moses’ spirit was provoked at the waters of Meribah, as a result he was not permitted to enter into the land of Canaan. David had a great blot on his record, though he bitterly repented of his sin.
So one might go on through all the Old Testament, and find that even when we come to the New Testament the same thing is true. We think of John as the gentlest and most loving of the Lord’s disciples, and yet John and James would have called down fire from heaven and burned up the city of the Samaritans because they refused the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter denied his Lord. Thomas doubted. Over all of them Failure could be written. And yet God used these men in spite of their failures and lack of good judgment. He brought them to repentance and cleansed them from all unrighteousness, and gave them opportunity after opportunity to magnify His grace. So we are not surprised to read a record like the one found in Acts 21.
It is very evident that if this was a positive command given to Paul not to go to Jerusalem, he did not recognize it as such. He rather took it as a test of his readiness to endure, and so he went on. Luke, who was with him, said, “When we had accomplished those days, we departed and went our way; and they all brought us on our way, with wives and children, till we were out of the city: and we kneeled down on the shore, and prayed.” We had something similar to that in the previous chapter. There Paul kneeled down on the shore and prayed with the Ephesian elders, and now here is this little group. It is gratifying to notice the women and the little children all knelt together and prayed as they commended Paul to the Lord, and as he commended them to the grace of God.
Then Luke wrote, “When we had taken our leave one of another, we took ship…and came to Ptolemais…And the next day…came unto Caesarea.” There another interesting incident occurred. “We entered into the house of Philip the evangelist, which was one of the seven; and abode with him.” This is the Philip who years earlier was chosen to be a deacon and was called by the Spirit of God to go down to Samaria and preach Christ to the Samaritans. Many of the Samaritans believed and were saved. Then the Spirit of God took Philip out of what we might consider a great spiritual awakening and revival and told him to go toward the south to the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Without any question he obeyed and finding a man from Ethiopia reading from the prophecy of Isaiah, Philip took the opportunity to preach to him of Jesus Christ.
Now this was the Philip who was living at Caesarea. We are told that he had four daughters, and these young women, anointed servants of God, all had the gift of prophecy. But God did not use these young women to admonish Paul.
We read, “As we tarried there many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus. And when he was come unto us,” he did a most striking thing. He unloosed Paul’s girdle. The Easterners wore long, flowing robes, held together at the waist by a girdle. With Paul’s girdle Agabus bound his own hands and feet and solemnly declared, “Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”
Was that another warning, telling Paul not to go, or was it simply another test of his faith? We don’t know, but it will all come out clearly at the judgment seat of Christ. Certainly Paul’s companions took it as a warning not to go on, but he himself interpreted it otherwise. Luke wrote, “When we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.” They felt he was making a mistake. He was putting himself in unnecessary jeopardy, which might result in the cutting short of his great ministry, and so they pleaded with him not to go.
But Paul, unable to view it from their standpoint and moved by his great love for his Jewish people, answered, “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.” In other words, Paul said, “Bonds and afflictions do not terrify me; the thought of persecution and trial does not trouble me. I am ready to endure all these things for Christ’s sake.” Truly he did not take this as an intimation that he should not go to Jerusalem, though it may have been that. So when the others heard what he had to say, they simply added, “The will of the Lord be done.”
It is not incumbent on us to judge the apostle Paul. It looks as though he missed the mind of God here. Yet if he did, we realize that we too have often missed His mind. Still He has been so wonderfully patient and kind. Our hearts can only go out to Him in deep thanksgiving.
We need also to remember that there is not only God’s directive will, but His permissive will, and if Paul misunderstood the former he was in line with the latter. God was going to work out some special purpose in the experiences that His servant would have to undergo at Jerusalem.
In Acts 21:15(kjv) we have a curious instance of how a word may completely change its meaning in the course of time. The word translated “carriage” is better translated today “baggage,” that is, “We took up our baggage and went up to Jerusalem.”
“There went with us also certain of the disciples of Caesarea, and brought with them one Mnason of Cyprus, an old disciple, with whom we should lodge. And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.” When Paul had gone to Jerusalem some years before to have the apostles there decide whether or not Gentile believers must be subjected to the law of circumcision there had been some feelings of discord. Now Paul and his fellow travelers were received gladly, and apparently with true brotherly confidence.
But on the day following, something took place that fills us with perplexity. How could it be that the incident which is next recorded could ever have had Paul’s approval? After Paul recounted his ministry among the Gentiles, the elders rejoiced in what God had done. But something was troubling their minds in regard to Paul’s attitude toward Jewish Christians. James said unto him, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law.” The apostle Paul had written the Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans long before this, and he had told believers that they were not under law but under grace. To Jewish believers he wrote: “The law was our [child-leader] to bring us unto Christ”—our paidagogos (Galatians 3:24-25). The word translated “schoolmaster” in the King James version can be literally translated “child-leader.” In other words, the law directed Israel in the days of their minority; but, Paul said, after Christ came, “we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” But these Jewish Christians at Jerusalem had never learned this. They were still carrying out the various commandments given in connection with the Old Testament ritual.
James said to Paul, “And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs” (that is, the Jewish customs). He did not refer to what Paul taught the Gentiles because they were never under Moses, and Paul did not seek to put them under him. He gave them the truth of grace.
Then James devised a little plan that would put Paul right with his Jewish brethren at Jerusalem. It was what you might call an example of religious politics, and here again we see how easily a great man of God may fail and be misled, for James was certainly an outstanding servant of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was intimately related to Christ after the flesh, and he had the full confidence of the Christians in Jerusalem. And yet he put this plan up to Paul.
James told Paul of four men who had taken the Nazarite vows. In the book of Numbers we read that if a Jew took the vow of a Nazarite, he was to devote himself wholly to the things of God for a certain period of time. It might be a few days or a number of weeks, months, or years. A Nazarite had to let his hair grow, but at the end of the period of his vow he was to shave it off and bring certain sacrifices to present to God.
Paul himself was a Nazarite when he was converted (see commentary on Acts 18:18). But when Paul had concluded his vow, he did not bring a sacrifice. Why? He knew that Christ, by offering Himself, had perfected forever them that are sanctified, and he knew that the sacrifices under the law had no more place in the Christian economy.
But these Jewish Christians had not learned this. They were concluding their Nazariteship and were going to the temple to present their sacrifices. Sometimes men were poor and unable to buy proper offerings. Certain well-to-do Jews would purchase the lambs for the sacrifice, and so meet the need of their poorer brethren. That was considered a very meritorious thing.
James saw this as an opportunity for Paul to square himself with his Jewish brethren. He said, “Them take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges with them,” (that is, You pay for the sacrifices) “that they may shave their heads: and all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing.” You see, they were making a difference between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. But Paul himself had emphatically declared that there was no such difference before God.
Now what would you have expected of Paul in circumstances like these? What would you have supposed would be the attitude of the man who wrote Galatians and Romans? Surely you would have expected him to say, “I cannot do that. For me to go with those men to the altar in the temple and pay for their sacrifices would be the denial of what I have preached during all the years of my ministry.” But again I say that if Paul failed here, he failed because of his intense love for his Jewish brethren. He wanted to do something to win them, and so he agreed, for we read: “Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them.”
Just imagine if that rite had been consummated, what it would have meant! It would have nullified to a large extent the testimony of the apostle Paul in the years to come. Imagine him stepping up with them to the altar and offering animal sacrifices—a virtual denial of the one sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But God did not permit it. He so overruled that the very Jewish people that Paul wanted to reach misunderstood him entirely and took steps that led to his arrest. “When the seven days were almost ended, the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him.” They accused Paul of polluting the temple by bringing in Gentiles. That was not true. He had not brought Greeks into the temple, but the next verse explains why they said that: “For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.” How easy it is to get excited over suppositions and to go to extremes because of imaginary things without seeking to find out the truth!
As the mob prepared to kill Paul God intervened to take care of His dear servant. There may have been mistakes; he may have failed to ascertain the mind of God; but the loving heart of the Savior goes out to him still, and He is going to protect him. And so He does it through the Roman chief captain who, we read, “immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down unto them: and when they saw the chief captain and the soldiers, they left beating of Paul. Then the chief captain came near, and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done” (Acts 21:32-33).
It was absurd on the face of it. There was a mob in an uproar and instead of first inquiring the reason for the clamor, the chief captain took it for granted that Paul must be to blame. So he had him bound and then inquired what he had been doing.
“And some cried one thing, some another, among the multitude: and when he could not know the certainty for the tumult, he commanded him to be carried into the castle”—that is, the castle of Antonia that overlooked the temple court.
It is easy to stir up a mob. Half of them did not even know what the trouble was about, but mob spirit is infectious, and so this great host shouted for the death of the apostle Paul. As he was about to be led into the castle, he said to the chief captain, “May I speak unto thee?” He spoke in Greek, and the captain asked in amazement, “Canst thou speak Greek? Art not thou that Egyptian, which before these days made an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness four thousand men that were murderers?” There had been an uprising against the Romans some time before, and the chief captain supposed that Paul was the guilty man who headed that rebellion.
But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people. And when he had given him license, Paul stood on the stairs, and beckoned with the hand unto the people. And when there was made a great silence, he spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue (Acts 21:39-40).
Acts 22 records his speech to the crowd in Jerusalem in which he gave the testimony of his wonderful conversion.
Let us gather up a few thoughts in closing this chapter. How often you and I in our very effort to do the will of God are likely to miss His leading, sometimes through prejudice, sometimes through wrong information, sometimes through not being wholly surrendered to do His will. But oh, how wonderful the mercy of God that, even if we blunder, He never gives up on us. He is still looking after us in His lovingkindness. While we may have failed, God is going to see us safely through to the end. And when at last we reach glory land, we will look back over the path we have come and we will be able to praise Him for it all.
Oh, Lord, whate’er my path may be,
If only I may walk with Thee,
And talk with Thee along the way,
I’ll praise Thee for it all some day.