Stopover in Tyre

Acts 21:1-6

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

Acts 21:7-14

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.

Pondering a Question

How can we reconcile the fact that these women prophesied with the fact that Paul did not permit women to speak in church?

Here is a thorny issue indeed, but we must start off by acknowledging that in the nation of Israel before the coming of Christ, many women held the office of prophet (Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Isa. 8:3; Luke 2:36). At Pentecost, the same office became the common possession of all believers, both men and women. That is, anyone who is indwelt and filled with the Holy Spirit is able to prophesy. The proof is that on Pentecost, all 120 believers who had been waiting in the Upper Room, both men and women, prophesied in foreign tongues to the crowds drawn by the strange happenings.

Yet Paul clearly forbids women to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:34-38; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). We dare not ignore these passages, or dismiss them as expressions of antiquated prejudice. What does he mean? In my opinion, he is not referring to every kind of speech, but rather is singling out particular kinds of speech that lead to problems.

In the cited passage from First Corinthians, the earlier of the two epistles, we judge from the context (1 Cor. 14:1–33) that Paul is combating the disorder and confusion that troubled a worship service when it mainly consisted of people speaking as they felt led. Very likely, since women are more talkative than men, such a service was dominated by women expressing feelings and impressions arising at the moment of speech. Thus, forbidding their participation was initially a measure designed to move the Corinthians toward services that were more structured, under the control of male leaders with prepared messages.

But to understand how we today should apply Paul’s directions in First Corinthians, we must compare Scripture with Scripture. In First Timothy, a later epistle, Paul clarifies what he expects in all churches. He prohibits women from engaging in three specific kinds of speech during an assembly of the saints.

  1. They should not ask questions (compare 1 Tim. 2:11 with 1 Cor. 14:34–35), presumably of a male teacher. The danger is that they will, or will appear to, exalt him above their own husbands or fathers. In other words, he is cautioning against a male teacher or preacher usurping a husband’s or father’s place. The Holy Spirit who was guiding Paul was undoubtedly anticipating a problem that would plague the church throughout history. The downfall of many a pastor or church leader would be a scheming woman who captured his heart by showing admiration for his wisdom. Often she would proceed by seeking private counsel, but her opening gambit might be public questions or conversations.
  2. Women should not assume authority over men. In other words, Paul is excluding women from the role of pastor or deacon.
  3. Women should not teach men.

Yet these prohibitions leave room for many other kinds of public speech. In many historic churches women have been encouraged to give testimonies, to address the church with reports of their special ministries, to provide vocal solos and other kinds of special music (surely a prophetic ministry), and to join in prayer meetings.

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.

Pondering a Question

How could such a man of God so flagrantly disobey God? What was his motivation? Why was he not afraid of God's wrath?

It is beyond question that Paul went to Jerusalem in direct violation of a divine command. Among those we esteem as great saints, he was not the first who failed God. Abraham, the friend of God, said that his wife Sarah was his sister. Why? He lied to save his own skin. Moses, who spoke with God face to face, demeaned God through an impulsive display of temper and lost the right to enter the Promised Land. David, the man after God's own heart, lusted after Bathsheba. Peter, chief of the twelve disciples, denied Jesus three times when Jesus was on trial. The list goes on. The Bible is at great pains to show us the weakness that clings even to the best of men. It does not want us to turn mere men into objects of adoration. The only hero in the Bible is God. The Bible shows us that even Paul—Paul, the spiritual father of all gentile believers, the apostle unequalled in his selfless devotion to the work of God, the man who rose from unpromising beginnings as the chief of sinners to such heights of spirituality that he could say, "For me to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21)—even Paul at the climax of his years of ministry was, nevertheless, still imperfect. The chief of sinners was still a sinner.

A reader who comes in Acts 21 to Paul's sad decision to go forward into Jerusalem will remember that the same man had proved himself fallible on other occasions as well. He and Barnabas had fallen into sharp dispute over whether they should use Mark again (Acts 15: 36–41)—a dispute based on inattention to the Holy Spirit, who wanted these apostles to part company and undertake two missionary journeys instead of one.

Still, how was it possible for a man like Paul to pursue his own will in flagrant disregard of God's will? The key is in certain comments that Paul makes in his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 10:1; 9:1-3). These explain why Paul proceeded to Jerusalem. He was not content with taking the gospel to the gentiles. Even dearer to him than the lost among the gentiles were the lost among his own people, the Jews. We must remember that in Jerusalem he still had members of his own family (Acts 23:16). Perhaps also some friends and colleagues during his early years were still there. It is unlikely but possible that even his beloved teacher Gamaliel was still alive. He mourned at the terrible judgment that awaited all Jews who rejected their Messiah. He felt a deep kinship with them not only because he had the same blood and heritage, but also because he knew that except for the grace of God, he would stand in their place. He too would be a hater of the truth in Christ.

His love for the Jews was so great that he was willing, as he said, to take their condemnation upon himself. What did he mean? In other words, he was willing to suffer even unto death if, as a result, many Jews might be saved. He really meant it, and he proved that he meant it by going to Jerusalem over God's objections. Yet he probably did not believe that God would be angry with him. Perhaps he thought that God's command not to go was only to spare him from further suffering—that the prohibition came from a loving Father who thought that Paul had already suffered enough. And in such a prohibition, Paul saw an implied permission to go if he was willing to pay the price. He decided in favor of going because He truly believed that by sharing his testimony with the Jews in Jerusalem, he could bring many of them to salvation.

Yet, as he would learn later, he was mistaken in casting God's direction aside. It was not for Paul to guess at God's reasons and override God's command. If Paul had listened to the Lord, whether by taking necessary precautions or by canceling his visit altogether, he would have left a far greater legacy of gospel work. He would have gone to Rome sooner, preached there as a free man, stayed longer perhaps, and then proceeded to Spain for another round of fruitful ministry. His inspired words in Romans 15:28 show the Lord’s true direction for his life. He never realized his full potential because he stepped out of God’s will. His wrongheaded detour to Jerusalem was a clear setback for the early church.

Far from accomplishing any good purpose, this detour was nothing but an exercise in futility. He wanted to present a strong witness to Christ before the Sanhedrin, but instead, as Luke records in a later chapter (chap. 23), he embarrassed himself and the gospel when he appeared before them. Almost his first words were a fleshly outburst against the high priest, leaving him no alternative but to apologize for breaking the law.

Scripture reveals Paul's disobedience and omits any account of his martyrdom because it does not want us to exalt him overmuch. It wants us to view Christ as the only hero of the New Testament. The true story of Paul is useful as a corrective for hagiolatry (worship of human beings entitled saints in a special sense, like St. Paul or St. Peter), perfectionism, and other aberrations from sound teaching.

Getting Practical

Misguided love

How often has Satan used the same tactic to draw a good man or a good woman into folly! He exploits a misguided love. He persuades the person of tender heart to waste his energies on hopeless efforts to reform the incorrigible. The time comes when it is necessary to give up on a resolute sinner and adopt pursuits that will yield profit for eternity. Remember that the Lord rebuked Samuel for making himself miserable with continuing intercession for Saul, who had become a hopeless case (1 Sam. 16:1).

Journey to Jerusalem

Acts 21:15-16

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

Acts 21:17-20

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.

Pondering a Question

What happened to the original Twelve?

In obedience to Christ's command to evangelize the "uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8), they probably scattered far and wide. We know that Thomas went eventually to India. Church tradition tells of other apostles reaching remote places elsewhere.

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.

James's Proposal

Acts 21:21-25

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.

Getting Practical

Danger in disobedience

In Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, we see all the dangers in disregarding the clear leading of God. He had not been there more than a day or so when he found himself under pressure to compromise his own convictions. He did not quarrel with Jews who wanted to live according to Moses, but he did not feel that he was personally obliged to maintain all the rituals, dietary restrictions, and special days decreed by Old Testament ceremonial law. In the passage we have already cited from First Corinthians, written well before his last visit to Jerusalem, he said, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law” (1 Cor. 9:19–21). He meant that he threw Mosaic standards aside when he sought to win gentiles. Likewise Peter, when he moved in gentile company, abandoned strict observance of ceremonial law, although when ambassadors from James came to Antioch, he reverted to his Jewish identity in an attempt to avoid their censure. Paul publicly rebuked him for putting on a pretense (Gal. 2:11-14).

Not only did Paul himself ignore the ceremonial law when it hindered outreach to gentiles, but he also allowed Jewish converts to exercise their own discretion. In his epistle to the Romans, also written before his last trip to Jerusalem, he said, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks” (Rom. 14:5-6). Similar advice in his later epistle to the Colossians specifies that one optional day was the Sabbath (Col. 2:16-17). We can be certain that the expected readers of both epistles included Jewish converts. And he clearly told them that whether they maintained or forsook Jewish ceremonial law fell in the realm of personal freedom. Either course was permissible so long as their purpose was to honor the Lord.

Yet James asked Paul to put on a show suggesting that he did regard Jewish tradition as binding. By going along with James, Paul entered a compromising position which was nothing other than hypocritical.

The lesson for us is that one step away from God leads us irresistibly to another. We soon find ourselves lost in a maze of compromises that are hard to escape.

Delving Deeper

James's portion of guilt

In the same incident, we see not only Paul as blameworthy, but also James. By imposing upon Paul his own imperfect understanding of freedom in Christ, James made Paul an actual prisoner.

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

Acts 21:26-30

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)

Delving Deeper

Epistle to Titus

Although Titus contains few references to its larger setting, those we find are consistent with dating it soon after Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem.

  1. He speaks of having left Titus in Crete (Titus 1:4). Indeed, we have no evidence that Titus accompanied him to Jerusalem. We suggested earlier that when Paul took ship from Miletus, he parted from Timothy and Titus, giving each oversight of believers in an adjoining region. For Timothy, the sphere of responsibility would again be Ephesus. For Titus it would be Crete.
  2. He directs Titus to meet him in Nicopolis, where he intends to spend the coming winter season (Titus 3:12). Although other cities bear the same name, he probably intended the Nicopolis just north of Actium on the western coast of Greece. Just before leaving his three years of labor in Ephesus, “Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21). Although he spent perhaps a whole year or more in Macedonia and Achaia, he apparently did not feel that his work there was finished. The urgent need to deliver the money he had collected for the poor in Jerusalem forced him to leave sooner than he wished. After a short stay in Jerusalem, he meant to go back to Achaia, targeting a city on the southwest side of the peninsula that he had missed when he toured Macedonia to the northeast and Illyricum to the northwest. He had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, early in the summer. Sailing to Nicopolis before winter set in was therefore a realistic plan.
  3. He intended to send Artemas and Tychicus to take over the ministry in Crete (Titus 3:12). Artemas is otherwise unmentioned in the New Testament, but Tychicus was one of the church delegates who traveled with Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). Paul now intended to engage him in a new ministry.
  4. He asked Titus to help Zenas and Apollos move forward on their journey (Titus 3:13). It is possible that they too were bringing money for the poor in Jerusalem.

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.

Pondering a Question

Was there any grounds for the charges brought against Paul?

The charges were preposterous! They were a smokescreen for the real grievance. What the Jews resented was that Paul offered a way of salvation that did not require men to become Jews, or keep the Jewish law, or attend the Jewish Temple. He did not attack anything. He merely offered a religion that ignored every grounds for Jewish pride. He put all men on an equal footing before God—in essence, declaring that God loves gentiles as much as Jews.

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.

Getting Practical

Staying on safe ground

Paul's course of disobedience has now brought him into serious trouble. The lesson for us is that when we walk outside God's will, we leave the envelope of his protection. We expose ourselves to attacks of the evil one that we could have avoided. God gives us many promises of watch care, but they are all contingent on remaining close to him, as close as a nestling to its mother when it lies under the shadow of her wings (Ps. 91:1-4).

Except for going to Jerusalem, Paul would never have become party to an unnecessary vow, implying a devotion to the Mosaic law that he did not share. Except for joining in the ritual required by the vow, he would never have been caught by murderous hands.

Soldiers to the Rescue

Acts 21:31-36

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."

Urgent Discussion

Acts 21:37-40

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.

Further Reading

Lessons on Acts 1-14 appear not only on this website, but also in Ed Rickard's In Perils Abounding: Commentary on Acts 1-14. For further information, click here.