This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 21:18-40. These verses describe Paul’s troubles in Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey.
Trouble for Paul in Jerusalem.
1 Paul Meets with James and the Elders in Jerusalem
¶ "The day following our arrival in Jerusalem, Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he reported one by one the things which God had worked among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard it, they glorified God."(Acts 21:18-20a).
Arrival in Jerusalem. This is the fourth recorded visit of Paul to Jerusalem. The previous three visits are recorded in Acts 9:26-30,Acts 11:28-30,Acts 15.(More Info)
Greeted, reported. Paul had a good relationship with the Jerusalem church and its elders, and with the apostles. The church in Jerusalem and Judea had thousands of members and was very Jewish in its customs. Among its converts were some who were zealous for the law of Moses and believed Christians should keep it. Paul’s ministry was to Jews dispersed among the Gentiles, and to the Gentiles themselves who had no zeal for practising Judaism. This put a lot of tension in the good relationship, so Paul had to tread carefully. On this occasion he encourages the church by detailing the work of his third journey. He may also have brought and presented some of the money donated to the poor in Jerusalem by many Gentile churches at Paul’s urging (1Corinthians 16:1-5).
¶ "They said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been informed about you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children neither to walk after the customs. What is to be done then? They will certainly hear that you have come and will assemble. So you must do what we tell you. We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them, and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses for them, that they may have their hair cut. Then all will know that there is no truth in the tales they've heard about you, but that you yourself also observe the law."(Acts 21:20b-24).
You see brother. After Paul had done with the niceties, and had succeeded in his encouragement, the church refers to a serious problem of disinformation about his ministry, and Paul is confronted (as he probably expected to be) with the need to face this problem and fix it.
To forsake Moses. Paul had not, as rumoured, taught Jews dispersed among the Gentiles to abandon their customs or their observance of the law. He had rather insisted on four things:
(1) that these observances are not the way of salvation for anyone (Galatians 2:16,Galatians 3:23-29).
(2) that the law of Moses must not be bound upon Gentile Christians. Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with those who said that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1-2,5).
(3) that whether or not a person observes Jewish customs and rules must not be a subject for judging one another, but should be a matter of individual conscience which should not be injured (Colossians 2:16,Romans 14).
(4) that he himself should be "to those who are under the law as under the law, though not being myself under the law... to those who are without law, as without law, though not being myself without law but under the law of Christ"(1Corinthians 9:19-21).
Taken a vow. It wasn't proposed that Paul take a vow on this occasion, but only that he pay the costs for the four men who were under a vow. (Acts 18:18).
You also observe the law. It was not required of Paul that he be zealous for the law, but only that he be seen to observe it. The laws of Moses, and the associated customs and rules, were not merely religious laws but were the very threads of the social fabric of Jewish life, especially in Jerusalem. Paul had to be seen to respect these laws by his conduct.
¶ "But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have already written our decision that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from food offered to idols, from blood, from strangled things, and from fornication.”"(Acts 21:25).
The Gentiles. James repeats the terms of the resolution of the council in Jerusalem some years previously, between Paul’s first and second missionary journeys (Acts 15). It reinforced Pauls’s principles that the law of Moses was not the way of salvation, and that therefore Gentiles should not be made to keep it.
2 Paul Follows Strategy Advised by James and Elders
¶ "So Paul took the four men the next day, and purified himself and went with them into the temple to give notice of the days of purification, at the end of which a sacrifice would be made for each of them."(Acts 21:26).
Purified himself. Although Paul was not himself under a vow, he was associating himself with the four men who were, and going with them into the temple. In this circumstance it would be proper for him to undergo purification ritual.
A sacrifice for each. The sacrifices would be offered on behalf of the four men, and Paul was paying for the purchase of the things to be sacrificed (cf Matthew 21:12). It doesn't appear that any sacrifice was made on behalf of Paul, since he had not taken the vow.
Paul’s aim. Paul’s normal strategy was to be all things to all men. For a Jew under the law, Paul would conduct himself as a Jew under the law, even though he wasn't under the law. As we see in the passage mentioned earlier, the goal of this difficult balancing act was to save souls (1Corinthians 9:19-23).
3 The Strategy Fails —Paul in Trouble
¶ "When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, when they saw him in the temple, stirred up all the multitude. They seized 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. Worse still, he brought Greeks into the temple, and has defiled this holy place!” They had previously noticed Trophimus, the Ephesian, with Paul in the city, and they assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple."(Acts 21:27-29).
Stirred the multitude. The strategy failed which James and the elders suggested, and which Paul followed since it was according to his principles. The plan failed, not because it was a bad plan, but because prejudice made Paul’s enemies misconstrue what he was doing.
¶ "All the city was stirred, and the people converged on Paul and dragged him out of the temple. The doors were quickly shut. While the crowd was attempting to kill Paul, news reached the commander of the regiment that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. Immediately he took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to the rioters —who quit beating Paul when they saw the commander and the soldiers. The commander moved in and arrested Paul, ordering him to be bound with two chains. Then the commander inquired who Paul was and what he had done. Some among the mob shouted one thing, and some another. When the commander couldn't find out the truth because of the hubub, he ordered that Paul be brought into the barracks."(Acts 21:30-34).
Soldiers save Paul. The mob would have killed Paul had the soldiers not carried him to safety. Someone slammed shut the temple doors —perhaps that Paul’s blood should not contaminate the holy place. Whilst Jerusalem had its own culture and government, it was nevertheless under Roman occupation. One thing Rome didn't countenance was riot. This commander was a chiliarch, in charge of all the local troops and their centurions. The commander’s name, by the way, was Claudias Lysias (Acts 23:26). So Paul finds himself in the hands of a very powerful man.
4 Paul Speaks to Hostile Crowd
¶ "When Paul came to the stairs, he found himself being carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd that followed. They were shouting, “Kill him!” As Paul was nearly inside the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I speak to you please?” The commander said “Oh you know Greek do you? So are you that Egyptian, who lately stirred up sedition and led 4000 Assassins into the desert?” But Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of that important city. I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.” The commander gave him permission. Paul, standing on the stairs, raised his hand to the people. A profound quiet came over them as he began speaking to them in Hebrew."(Acts 21:35-40).
Paul permitted to speak. The commander had no idea who Paul was. Yet when Paul identified himself as a citizen of Tarsus, capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, the commander seemed to trust Paul, and gave him permission to address the crowd.