Stopover in Tyre
In his usual style, Luke gives a detailed account of the voyage from Miletus near Ephesus to Tyre on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The trip included a stop at the islands of Cos and Rhodes.
The harbor at Rhodes adjoined a famous picturesque city by the same name, which, about two hundred years earlier, had boasted a seaside statue over a hundred feet high known as the Colossus of Rhodes, recognized as another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It showed the sun god Helios wielding a torch and a javelin. The ruins left by an earthquake were still so impressive that it attracted sightseers from all over the Greco-Roman world.
From Rhodes, the company of travelers went to Patara, back on the mainland. Now they had a choice. They could continue their slow eastward progress along the coast, or they could go directly to Tyre in the southeast. Since Paul was in a hurry, he decided to take the faster but riskier route. They boarded a ship bound for Tyre and braved the dangers of a voyage across open sea. At last, after passing to the south of Cyprus, they came to their destination, where the ship found moorings and unloaded its cargo.
Paul and his party went into town and soon found fellow believers. Since Tyre was not far from Palestine, it is likely that a church had been founded there many years before. The believers in Tyre were overjoyed to see the great apostle and his companions, and they gladly hosted them for seven days.
During the visit, some of the disciples in Tyre were moved by the Spirit to repeat a warning that Paul had heard often before: that he could expect trouble in Jerusalem. As he said to the Ephesian elders, "The Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me"—literally, "await me" (Acts 20:23). The Spirit’s meaning was that in Jerusalem he surely faced opposition and imprisonment unless he took necessary precautions. But now the warning became even more pointed. The writer Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, reveals that the Spirit for the first time not only warned Paul about the danger in going to Jerusalem, but summarily ordered him not to go. The Lord must have judged that the certainty of trouble ahead had not persuaded Paul to proceed with great caution. Therefore, to protect Paul, the Lord issued him the simple command not to enter Jerusalem at all—a command with only two possible responses, either obedience or disobedience.
This was a critical moment in Paul's life. He came to a hard choice, and unless we understand his choice, we cannot understand what happened to him later. Notice the exact wording here. The disciples said to Paul "through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem." It could not be clearer. God told Paul not to go. But what did he do? After seven days, Paul and his company continued on their course to Jerusalem.
All the disciples in Tyre grieved at his departure. All of them, including whole families with their women and children, walked with him out of the city to the seashore. There they all knelt down and prayed for his welfare. But he was not deterred from his goal. He said goodbye and took ship toward Jerusalem.
Tarrying in Caesarea
We have come to a shocking moment in Luke’s account of Paul’s career. Paul is pushing on with plans exactly contrary to God’s clear command. God understood Paul's motivation, of course. He knew that the force pushing Paul to Jerusalem was self-sacrificing love. Therefore, as we will see, He was patient in dealing with Paul, to the extent of giving him the same command more than once. And after Paul chose to disobey, God never subjected him to the full extent of chastening that he deserved.
The ship carrying Paul and his companions went to Ptolemais. Here also there were believers who received Paul, and Paul remained with them one day. Then Paul went to Caesarea, another port further south. Whether he went by ship or by foot is unclear. In Caesarea, Paul was entertained by a leader since the early days of the church. He was Philip the evangelist, the same man who introduced the gospel to Samaria, who won the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ, and who evangelized other cities along the coast before settling permanently in Caesarea. There he had evidently devoted himself somewhat to family life, for now he was the father of four virgin daughters. These were renowned in the church for their gift of prophesying. Some ancient writers say that Philip’s daughters were authorities on the early history of the church.
The task of giving Paul a last warning, by far the most dramatic he ever heard, fell to a well-known prophet, Agabus, the same man who had stood up years ago in the church at Antioch and predicted a famine that soon came to pass (Acts 11:28). The Lord sent Agabus all the way from Judea to meet Paul as he was approaching Jerusalem. Luke no doubt recorded the earlier incident so that when Agabus reappears here in Acts 21 to confront Paul, we would view him as having the credentials of a true prophet—that the source of his message to Paul was not his own mind, but the mind of God.
When the prophet found Paul, he took Paul's girdle and bound Paul's hands with it. He said that the Jews would treat Paul in the same manner. They would bind him and hand him over to be a prisoner of the gentiles—that is, the Romans. The correct application should have been obvious. Many times during his career, the Lord had made Paul aware of some danger ahead, and Paul had responded correctly by sidestepping it somehow, usually by changing his course. He had understood that he should not allow the devil to cut short his fruitful ministry. At this time also, to protect the great work he could still accomplish through God's power, he should have taken necessary steps to avoid danger when he entered the den of vipers in Jerusalem. But he was refusing to exercise good judgment. His longing for a ministry to fellow Jews had made him careless of his own life. Therefore, God changed what He was telling Paul. Instead of urging caution, He simply made it clear that Paul should go no further.
After hearing the message of Agabus, all of Paul's company understood readily enough what God was telling Paul. So they turned to him and pleaded that he listen to God's command. Luke says "we . . . besought him not to go." He is informing us that he himself did his best to steer Paul from his course. Indeed, he adds that "they of that place"—that is, Caesarea—also joined in warning Paul against going to Jerusalem. The residents of Caesarea whom Luke has just mentioned are the four daughters of Philip as well as the great evangelist himself. Luke is emphasizing that the warning did not issue from one prophet alone, but was the consensus of all the prophets of God who were present on this occasion.
But Paul refused to listen. He told his friends to stop breaking his heart with their weeping. In his own defense, he said that he was ready to suffer more than bondage for Christ’s sake. He was willing even to die if that became necessary. We see here that Paul was not being completely honest with himself. He spoke of the certain outcome before him as suffering for Christ. Indeed he had for many years suffered many things for Christ. But what he would soon suffer would not be for Christ, really, but for his own misguided love of the Jews. He would be sacrificing himself on the altar of an unholy love—unholy because God did not approve of this love in the form and in the degree he proposed to express it.
When all of Paul’s friends could not dissuade him from going to Jerusalem, they at last gave up in their effort to change his mind. They accepted his determination as final and resigned themselves to what would surely happen. From the Holy Spirit they knew that he would meet trouble and become a prisoner of the Romans. But since he was determined to go, they accepted it as God’s will and prayed for the best. How can God’s will be opposed to God’s will? They meant that God had chosen to let Paul have his own way. He could have stopped Paul by circumstances, or He could have given Paul the grace to admit his error, but rather He gave Paul control over his own life, so that he might learn the lessons that he could only learn through disobedience.
Journey to Jerusalem
Luke says that when the time for departure came, "we took up our carriages." The phrase has left scholars perplexed. Some suggest that it refers to preparations to ride by horseback. But in Roman times, stirrups had not yet been invented, so for this and other reasons, long-distance travel by horseback was uncommon. Along major roads, some of the wealthy did travel by carriage, however. So it is possible that the KJV puts a correct slant on the text. The road for the remaining journey to Jerusalem was a major highway, and at stations en route, horse-drawn vehicles were probably available for rental. Doubtless Paul’s delegation had sufficient funds to take advantage of these for the sake of both speed and comfort.
A large company of disciples traveled with Paul, including Luke (whose presence is implied by his use of the terms "we" and "us"), the delegates from Greece and Macedonia who were bearing contributions to the church in Jerusalem, and a group of disciples from Caesarea. Along the way they added a certain Mnason of Cyprus, identified as an "old disciple." The meaning is not that he was aged, but that he had followed Christ since the early days of the church. He was the one who would provide lodging in Jerusalem. It would have been hard after their arrival to quickly arrange accommodations for such a large party, including many gentiles, so they made preparations beforehand. Mnason was probably a Jew who had no qualms about putting gentiles under his roof.
Reception at Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Paul received a warm welcome from all the brethren who saw him. The next day he went for private consultations with James and the elders of the church. James had established himself as the leader of the Jerusalem church many years earlier, probably even before the Jerusalem Council. Then, Peter was still present in the city, but now he was gone. Now, none of the original twelve apostles remained. This we surmise from Luke's failure to mention any of them.
James and the elders were delighted to hear Paul's report of all the gentiles who had been brought into the church through his ministry. They glorified God for the great increase of redeemed souls. The church in Jerusalem was prospering also. Its membership had not shrunk since the apostles left, but still numbered many thousands.
Although the leaders in Jerusalem gave Paul a warm welcome, they voiced a particular concern. A story was circulating that Paul was being false to his Jewish heritage—that he was encouraging Jewish believers in the churches he founded to forsake the law and live like gentiles. The believers in Jerusalem found the story scandalous, for they were all zealous to keep the law and uphold the traditions rooted in Moses. The story went so far as to accuse Paul of teaching Jews that they should give up circumcising their baby boys. James and the others were therefore afraid that Paul's coming might trigger conflict in the church. They said, "What is it therefore?" In other words, "What should be done?" They cautioned Paul that they did not have much time to avert a crisis. Soon everyone in the church would hear that Paul had arrived and would gather to see him. Then, unless Paul defused the explosive charges against him, there would be contention and division.
James and the elders recommended that Paul take steps immediately to prove that he respected and observed Jewish traditions. In the church there were four men who had taken a Nazirite vow, which we discussed in an earlier lesson. Such a vow normally was binding for at least thirty days. But apparently they had in some unstated manner defiled themselves, whether by partaking of food or drink derived from grapes or by touching something dead. To purify themselves they must wait seven days (Num. 6:9-12). Then on the seventh day they must shave their heads, and on the eighth they must present an offering at the Temple consisting of two turtledoves or two young pigeons, along with a lamb of the first year. The church leaders asked Paul to pay the expenses of these men and to join with them in the purification rite at the Temple. He could participate and contribute his own offering even though he himself had not suffered any defilement.
Paul raised no objection to their request. Among the Jews, he always behaved like a Jew so as not to offend them, in keeping with his policy of being all things to all men (1 Cor. 9:19-22). The issue that racked the church years before was not whether the law was binding on Jews, but whether it was binding on gentiles. Paul at that time strongly defended his practice of exempting gentiles from the law, and the entire church leadership at Jerusalem, including James, agreed with him. Now James reaffirmed his support for the ruling years before. But he said, in essence, that although he stood with Paul in granting gentiles freedom from the law, he expected Paul to stand with him in maintaining the law as a rule of life for the Jews. He spoke of a Jew who kept the law as walking orderly. By implication, he thought that a Jew who broke the law was walking disorderly.
A trap was being laid for Paul. If he had responded with true wisdom reckoning his own personal safety as a priority, he would have declined to remain in the city even for any good reason. The right option after delivering the money was to leave the city as soon as possible. But a very wise man failed on this occasion to be wise, for he lingered in a dangerous place just to make a hypocritical show of his Jewishness. It was huge folly, and he paid a dear price for it.
Riot and Arrest
The very next day, Paul took the four men and went to the Temple. There, the men announced that they were embarking on the seven days of waiting required before purification, and Paul declared himself their partner in the process. Evidently they then returned daily to the Temple with the intent of continuing these visits until the seven days were accomplished.
It was probably at this time that Paul wrote his epistle to Titus. Paul’s words to this young servant of God are full of stern exhortation to exercise strong leadership in a difficult field of ministry, for the Cretans were a people of proverbially low character. They were liars and manipulators, and many who made a profession of faith were insincere (Titus 1:10–13). The corrective was to insist that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts," they "should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world" (Titus 2:12)
While Paul tarried in Jerusalem to assist the four believers who had taken a Nazirite vow, many foreign Jews who had come to observe the feast were still roaming the streets and Temple precincts. Yet Paul had promised to go to the Temple daily for seven days. He escaped notice, however, until the last or nearly last day. Then some Jews from Asia Minor spotted him. It so happened that these were Jews hostile to Paul, who hated him because they had rejected the gospel he preached. In their eyes, he was a traitor to his religion and nation. It was their passionate conviction that he was promoting a false messiah, and they deplored his teaching that entrance into the Kingdom of God came through Jesus, not Moses. Therefore, when they found Paul defenseless in their midst, they saw an opportunity for vengeance. They cried out accusations against him and, gaining the backing of a mob, they grabbed hold of him. The accusations are revealing. They said that in his teaching he attacked the Jews, the Jewish law, and the Jewish Temple.
Whereas these accusations were all distortions, The Jews brought another that was simply a lie. They shouted that Paul had desecrated their beloved Temple by bringing in uncircumcised gentiles. Although gentiles were admitted to the Outer Court, known as the Court of the Gentiles, they were denied entrance to the Inner Court. Signs posted at the steps warned gentiles not to go farther, lest they suffer grievous punishment. As we said earlier, even the Romans acknowledged that the Jews had the right to impose the death penalty on any gentile, not excluding any Roman, who violated their Temple.
The only basis for the lie was that some of the rabble-rousers had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus, a gentile from Ephesus. Trophimus had come with Paul all the way from Macedonia (Acts 20:4), and afterward he remained his faithful helper (2 Tim. 4:20).
The excitement at the Temple quickly spread to the whole city. People heard that the precious seat of their religion had been profaned by wicked men, and they rushed from all districts to vent their wrath on the perpetrators. In their unreasoning fury they wanted blood. So, the multitude that soon gathered must have roared with approval when men dragged Paul out of the Temple for the obvious purpose of killing him. The probable meaning is that they removed him from the innermost courts, which were considered holy, to the Court of the Gentiles. The name Temple was often used with this more restricted meaning. To restore order within the Temple in a narrow sense, the authorities shut the doors, thereby forcing the crowd to remain outside. The mob holding Paul made no effort to guarantee justice. There was no pretense of a trial. Yet they did not kill him outright. They delayed giving him fatal wounds so that their wrath might have the pleasure of beating him up.
Soldiers to the Rescue
The Romans kept a close eye on the Temple, because there was always the danger of a riot. The Jews were a discontented people, resentful of the Roman presence and brimming with desire for independence. They were easily aroused to passion in defense of anything Jewish. So, the Romans had sentries patrolling the tops of the colonnades that lined the Temple compound, whose job was to keep a lookout for any disturbance that might erupt below. Such vigilance was based on experience. In the past, many riots had originated among the crowd of worshipers. Security was especially tight during festivals, because not only were the crowds larger, but they were filled with foreign Jews on pilgrimages to the holy city. Their religious zeal ran high, so any call to lash out in defense of the things they held sacred found them receptive.
The sentries posted at the Temple saw the uproar centered on Paul, helpless in angry hands, and immediately they informed their superiors. The news went straightway to the commander of local forces. As we learn later, he was Claudius Lysias, identified in our English translation as "chief captain of the band." The band refers to a Roman cohort, a military contingent of substantial size, containing a thousand men when fully staffed. Claudius's actual rank was "chiliarch," somewhat higher than a mere centurion. Indeed, he had centurions under his command, each responsible for about a hundred men. When Claudius responded to the alert, he called out the contingents under several centurions and led them into the Temple compound.
The text informs us that the Roman force entered the compound by coming down. They were no doubt stationed in Antonia, a fortress on the north side of the Temple. Although the fortress was elevated above the Outer Court, two downward flights of stairs furnished ready access.
The soldiers raced to the center of the disturbance and found a mob in the act of beating up Paul. When Paul's angry tormentors saw the soldiers coming, they let go of him immediately and retreated from superior force. They knew that when it came to crowd control, the Romans meant business. Resisting Roman arms was suicidal.
Claudius took custody of Paul and ordered that he be bound in chains, assuming that he was some ordinary criminal or nuisance. But to be sure he understood the nature of the trouble, he asked the bystanders who Paul was and what he had done. The answer was a chaos of voices offering conflicting and confusing explanations. At last, convinced that he could not get a satisfactory answer from the crowd, the commander ordered his men to take Paul to the fortress. There he would investigate the matter and find out the true cause of the commotion.
When the soldiers started off for the fortress, they found that to make progress was difficult. The mob pressed them on all sides, and they had to use brute force to push their way through. To protect Paul, they picked him up and carried him. Yet they could not escape from the mob, who followed behind, screaming with fury, "Away with him."
When they reached the stairs, Paul asked the commander if he could speak with him. Claudius was greatly surprised to hear his captive use Greek. He had assumed that Paul was a lower-class Jew of the sort who could speak only Aramaic. Then, by a process of elimination, Claudius quickly offered a guess as to Paul's identity. If he was a Greek speaker, perhaps he came from the colony of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt. Perhaps he was even that Egyptian Jew who was number one on the Roman list of wanted men, a distinction he earned by recently fomenting a revolt against Rome. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, this Egyptian had come to Jerusalem in AD 54 and presented himself to the people as a prophet with miraculous powers. He said that if they followed him to the Mount of Olives, he would command the city walls to fall down, much as the walls of Jericho had fallen down at Joshua's command, and his followers would then be able to march into the city and take it from the Romans. Josephus says he assembled a force of 30,000, who waited on the mount for the walls to collapse, but nothing happened. Instead, the Roman ruler Festus sent his troops outside the city and crushed the revolt, killing 400 and capturing 200. But the leader of the revolt escaped, and at the time of Paul's arrest, the Romans were still looking for him.
Claudius's version of the incident is no doubt more accurate than Josephus's. The followers of the Egyptian probably numbered 4000 rather than 30,000. Claudius called them "murderers," literally, "assassins." He meant that they belonged to a group known as the Assassins, a secret society pushing the nation toward the full-scale rebellion a few years later that provoked the Romans to destroy Jerusalem. We today would call this society a terrorist organization. They specialized in assassination, targeting Romans or Roman sympathizers. Their favorite ploy was to find their victim in a crowd and stab him unobserved.
When the commander tried to draw from Paul an admission that he was a notorious rebel, Paul vehemently denied it. He said that he was a respectable Jew from an honorable place, the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. He then respectfully sought permission to address the crowd. The commander, who was in all probability a good judge of men, could see that Paul did not look like a villain. He seemed rational and kindly, not wild and fierce. Very quickly Claudius decided that Paul was likely a good man worthy of his trust. So, on the chance that Paul himself might be able to quiet and disperse the crowd, Claudius let him speak.
Paul stood forward on the stairs and motioned to the crowd to be silent. In this incident as well as in several others recorded in the Book of Acts, we see that many popular pictures of Paul are not true-to-life. His enemies in Corinth said of him that "his bodily presence [was] weak, and his speech contemptible" (2 Cor. 10:10). But we need not accept this as a fair judgment. Perhaps they were comparing him with Greek orators boasting a splendid physique honed in the gymnasium and a flashy delivery refined in courses on rhetoric. We discover the real Paul by watching him on the steps of the fortress. There he was anything but weak. To bring an unruly crowd of thousands to silence and then to command their attention for a prolonged speech required strength of both presence and voice.
After succeeding in gaining silence, Paul addressed the crowd in the "Hebrew tongue," which might be translated, "Hebrew dialect." This was the usual way of identifying the language known to all, Aramaic. Very similar to Old Testament Hebrew, it was the common tongue of non-Greek speakers in the Roman world east of the Mediterranean, including Palestine and Syria. it was even widely used in the Persian (Parthian) Empire.