Paul returns to Jerusalem


Acts 21

Paul found leaving the elders of the church at Ephesus exceptionally difficult. He had spent about two and a half years living amongst them, explaining what new life in Jesus meant to them. When they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, he encouraged them in their faith and taught them how the word of God applied to their lives. This was only what we know as the "Old Testament" at that stage. The "New Testament" was still in the very early stages of being written. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

When we become Christians, it is important for us to understand the word of God as soon as we can. The Holy Spirit caused the Bible to be written just for us. It is not just any old book. The Bible contains God’s instruction manual on how to live successfully in the world and how to ensure that our Christian lives are prosperous in every sense of the word. We need to read it and to apply the principles we learn from it to everything that we do, including the way in which we treat people.

Acts 21:1-16

map journey3 study24 patara to jerusalem

Paul finally left Miletus (where he had met with the Ephesian elders) and set out for Jerusalem. His journey took him from Miletus via Cos, Rhodes and Patara, where they changed ship for one going to Phoenicia. (See the map for study 23.) They sailed south of Cyprus and landed at Tyre in Syria where the ship was to unload its cargo. Paul and his companions called to see the disciples here and stayed with them for a week. It is interesting to note that the good news had now been preached in almost every town and city of the Roman world and that believers were spread throughout the empire. These believers knew how to listen to the Holy Spirit, who told them what would happen to Paul if he set foot again in Jerusalem. On learning this, the believers told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. So, did Paul get it wrong? Did Paul disobey the Holy Spirit by going to Jerusalem? No. It is more likely that the Holy Spirit was warning these believers about the suffering that Paul would face in Jerusalem. They then drew the conclusion that he should not go there because of that danger. (This is supported by Acts 21:10-12, where the local believers, after hearing from Agabus the prophet that Paul would be turned over to the Romans, begged him to turn back.)

Thus, Paul hears their warning but is prepared, to continue his journey to Jerusalem. When it was time to go, Paul and his party head towards Ptolemais (the modern port of Acco) where they again met with the believers, before continuing to Caesarea. They were accompanied by the disciples, their wives and children (Acts 21:5-6). Paul, above all else, wanted to please God and be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ - whatever it cost him. (Acts 21:7-9) At Caesarea, they stayed with Philip. Now, Philip was one of the men who had been chosen, along with Stephen, to look after the widows of the Jewish people from Greece. (It was Stephen who had been tried before the Sanhedrin for blasphemy, had given his testimony and charged his accusers with betraying and murdering Jesus. He was sentenced to be stoned to death and became the first Christian martyr. See Acts, chapters six and seven.)

This Philip was the man who had held a series of meetings in Samaria, telling the people there about Christ. Crowds had listened intently to what he had to say because of the miracles he did and there was much joy in that city! (Read Acts 8:4-8.) Even though there had been much success in Samaria, the Holy Spirit then asked Philip to go down to the Gaza road, where he met the Ethiopian eunuch who was travelling that way. Philip told him the good news about Jesus, then baptised him in water. At this point the Holy Spirit took Philip away and he found himself in Azotus. He preached the good news there and in every city along the way, as he travelled to Caesarea. (See Acts 8:38-40.) Philip’s daughters all had the gift of prophecy. This comes from the Holy Spirit and takes two forms. The first is a gift given to a specific person in order for him or her to operate in the "office" of a prophet for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, preparing the people to serve God and the community in which they live. (See Ephesians 4:11-13.)

gifts of the spirit

These gifts (as described in Ephesians, chapter four) are often referred to as "the five-fold ministry gifts" or "gifts of structure" and it would be expected that people having these gifts would be involved in leading a church. A person with an apostolic gift would typically be involved in breaking new ground, establishing new churches, then moving on (just as Paul did as an apostle), leaving the new converts in the safe hands of the elders who were leaders or managers, who could teach them how to grow as Christian believers.

Prophets literally speak out the word of God. This can be in an explanatory sense - interpreting Bible passages for the times in which their own church is living - or it can mean speaking God’s word into a situation where God can provide leading to a church or to people within that church, for a specific instance or opportunity.

Evangelists have a gift for leading people to Jesus. Having done this, they move on to others who need to know Him. The new converts are handed on to the appropriate leaders in a local church, so that they can be provided with teaching, advice and guidance concerning their new lives.

A pastor is a person who has a gift for looking after a "flock" – a church comprised of Christians of all ages and levels of maturity. Pastors give their lives for their people and take on the responsibility to shepherd them into a relationship with Jesus like no other. But pastors share this responsibility with other people in a church who have complementary gifts of the Spirit.

Secondly, there is also a gift of prophecy referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. Here he is speaking to the whole church and lists various gifts for the body of Christ. These gifts are often referred to as "claimed gifts". These are gifts that are given to people for use at the time they need them, so that they can minister to others, believers or not, at a specific time and where there is a specific need. As a simple example, consider when someone is sick and needs healing. The gift of healing is available from the Holy Spirit for a believer to use to help another person at that time and for that purpose. These gifts are not exclusive and, whilst hearing of the results does encourage and build up the faith of the church, the person using them at that time is not a prophet in the "five-fold ministry" sense.

The gift of prophecy is given to both men and women. Throughout the Bible, women actively participated in God's work. (See, for example, Acts 2:17 and Philippians 4:3.) Other women who prophesied include: Miriam (Exodus 15:20); Deborah (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14); Noadiah (Nehemiah 6:14); Isaiah's wife (Isaiah 8:3) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38).

Fifteen years earlier, another prophet, Agabus, had predicted the famine in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:27-29) Paul knew that he would be imprisoned in Jerusalem but, although his friends pleaded with him to not go there, he also knew that God wanted him to go there. Sometimes, we may have to weigh our desire to please God against our desire to avoid hardship and suffering. When we really want to do God's will, we must accept all that comes with it - even the pain. Then we can say with Paul and Jesus: “The Lord's will be done". (Acts 21:13-14) Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied Paul and his friends to Jerusalem where they took him to the home of Mnason. He was one of the early disciples from Cyprus. The Bible doesn’t say if he had been one of Paul’s converts (during Paul's first missionary journey in the years 46-48 AD - Acts 21:15-16.) He may have been, but it is testimony to the fact that Mnason’s conversion was not just some passing fad – something to accept for convenience or because one day he felt like it. It was a solid and strong feature of his life. What about us? Do we have a faith that will stand the test of time? If we feel shaky about our lives, then perhaps it is time that we learned more about Jesus by studying His word. Indeed, now would be an excellent time to start! It was never Jesus’ intention that we should be introduced to Him then go our separate ways. Rather, His desire is that we should establish a growing and eternal relationship with Him. Let's start today!

Hospitality is a blessing and, as with any form of giving, it is more blessed to give than to receive. I am convinced that Mnason would have considered it as such. (Hebrews 13:2)

Acts 21:17-26. Paul arrives in Jerusalem and is put on trial

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, several important things happened. (We should take note of these for ourselves when we return from a journey where we have been working for the Lord, or when someone comes to tell us about what is happening in the church in a different location. Acts 21:17-20)

  • The brothers received them warmly.
  • Paul went to meet with James and the elders of the Jerusalem church.
  • Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
  • When they heard this, they praised God.
  • James and the elders reported what God had done in Jerusalem; how many thousands of Jews had believed and how all of them remained zealous for God's law.

Finally, they raised a problem with Paul. (Acts 21:21-22) The problem was that the Jewish believers were insisting that the Jewish converts should continue to follow the Jewish traditions and customs. A similar problem had arisen earlier (in Acts 15) when the question of whether or not Gentile believers should be circumcised had been settled at a big meeting of all believers (known as the "Jerusalem Council").

Keep Jesus first

Evidently, there had been a rumour that Paul had gone far beyond this decision, even forbidding Jewish people to circumcise their own children. It was known that the Gentile believers who had become Christians under Paul’s ministry were being taught that they did not have to adhere to the demands of the Jewish law and that, in Jesus, the demands of the law were fulfilled. Indeed, Paul set out this very teaching in his letter to the Christian believers in Galatia, explaining to them (and to all Christians down the ages) the doctrine of "justification by faith and faith alone".

Some people, called "Judaisers", resisted this teaching and followed in Paul’s footsteps in an attempt to turn believers back to what they believed still needed to be observed by Jewish believers. They attempted to combine the established beliefs and practices of what had become the Jewish religion with the teachings of Jesus which were pointing to a new covenant with God. As Paul was attempting to spell out in his teaching, the way of salvation by faith - and faith alone - was incompatible with attempts to live by the law that Moses had given. As a result, Christian believers were being led astray.

"I ask you again, does God give you the power of the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you as a result of your trying to obey the Jewish laws? No, of course not. It is when you believe in Christ and fully trust him." (Galatians 3:1-5)

We are still faced with a similar challenge today: not to compromise or dilute our Christian life (of faith) in any way.

So, James and the elders proposed a solution to the problem that they believed would face them, when it became generally known that Paul was in Jerusalem (Acts 21:23-26). Shaving the head was part of a "Nazirite" vow. Evidently, four men had made just such a vow and Paul was going to participate with them in keeping it. He would also need to take part in the purification ceremony for entering the temple. (Read Numbers 6:9-20 for an explanation of this.) Paul submitted himself to this Jewish custom in order to keep the peace in the Jerusalem church. Although Paul was a man of strong convictions, he was willing to compromise on non-essential points, becoming "all things to all people so that he might save some".

"When I am with those whose consciences bother them easily, I don't act as though I know it all and don't say that they are foolish; the result is that they are willing to let me help them. Yes, whatever people are like, I try to find common ground with them so that they will let me tell them about Christ and let Christ save them. I do this to get the gospel to them and also for the blessing I myself receive when I see them come to Christ." (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Often churches are split over disagreements about minor issues or traditions. Like Paul, we should remain firm on Christian essentials, but flexible on non-essentials. Of course, no one should violate his or her true convictions but, sometimes, we need to submit to one another for the sake of the gospel.

Read Acts 21:27-36

The plan must have seemed like a good one but it didn’t work! The "Judaisers" did not even wait for the seven days of the vow to expire in order to see what might happen next. Instead, they stirred up the crowd to start protesting straight away. We have seen this happen before. In fact, it happened almost everywhere that Paul went. He had previously been beaten, imprisoned and stoned for his faith so, in one sense, this was nothing new.

"The whole population of the city was electrified by these accusations and a great riot followed. Paul was dragged out of the temple and, immediately, the gates were closed behind him. As they were killing him, word reached the commander of the Roman garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar". (Acts 21:27-31)

The commander of the Roman garrison had to do something to stop the riot. To have let it continue would have been political suicide for the commander himself. He would have been summoned to Rome by the emperor and would have been lucky to escape with his life if he had not quelled the disturbance. Ruling a conquered foreign country was always difficult, but ruling Palestine was all the more difficult as they were so into their religion! In this case, he saved Paul from certain lynching, bound him in chains and then had him carried into the armoury – part of the Antonia Fortress that was accessible from the temple courts. The crowd was yelling "Away with him, away with him", but it wasn’t immediately obvious what the cause of the problem was.

There are two ways to think of the Jewish laws. Paul rejected one way but accepted the other.

  1. Paul rejected the idea that the Old Testament laws bring salvation to those who keep them. God is reconciled to us because Jesus died in our place. We are "saved" (from God's justice) through faith in Jesus. The laws do not help us to become acceptable to God - they simply show us the extent and seriousness of our wrongdoing (sin).
  2. Paul accepted the view that the Old Testament laws prepare us for and teach us about the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the law and released us from its burden of guilt, but the law still teaches us many valuable principles and gives us guidelines for grateful living. Paul did not observe the Jewish law in order to be saved. He was simply keeping the law - as custom required - to avoid offending those he wished to reach with the good news about Jesus. (Read Romans 3:21-31; Romans 7:4-6; Romans 13:9, 10. For more on the law, see Galatians 3:23-29 and Galatians 4:21-31.)

Read Acts 21:37-40

The garrison commander had jumped to the wrong conclusion. He had been under the impression that Paul was a rebel who had attained a major following, then had disappeared into the desert – what we might call today a terrorist. However, on hearing Paul speak Greek, a language that only educated people used, he decided that his initial thinking might have been wrong and so he allowed Paul to begin to speak to the crowd. To discover what Paul said (and the outcome), read on in the book of Acts. Then we will investigate it in the next study!

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