Acts 21(17–40)


The last time I took the midweek, we came to the end of Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders. He then knelt with all of them and prayed. And they wept and hugged and kissed one another. And then Paul set off by ship to continue his journey to Jerusalem. That’s how chapter 20 ended.

And then, last week, Roland was taking the midweek and he covered the first 16 verses of chapter 21 where Luke relates the rest of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem. And chapter 21 really marks the beginning of the final section of the book of Acts. And in the remaining chapters, Luke tells us about Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem and what happened to him there.

Now, some commentators have noticed that the end of the gospel of Luke and the end of the book of Acts are similar. The gospel of Luke ends with the Lord’s determination to go to Jerusalem despite the dangers; and in Jerusalem he was falsely accused by the Jews. Well, in the same way, the book of Acts ends with Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem despite the dangers; and in Jerusalem he was falsely accused by the Jews. The difference, of course, is that the Lord Jesus was crucified and rose again, whereas the book of Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome. But the suffering and persecution of the Lord Jesus and the suffering and persecution of Paul are presented to us as examples. As Paul said to his companions back in chapter 14:

through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

The Lord Jesus suffered much before entering glory. The Apostle Paul also suffered much before entering glory. And none of us should think that the opposition the Lord experienced and the opposition the Apostle Paul experienced was unique to them. This is something the Lord’s people can expect and we shouldn’t be surprised by it if it happens to us.

It’s also worth noting in verses 1 to 16 that Luke was there. We’ve noticed from time to time throughout the book of Acts that occasionally Luke refers to ‘we’. He writes: we did this and we did that. You see, sometimes he was with Paul on his journey and he was an eye-witness to the things Paul said and did. Well, Luke was with Paul when he travelled to Jerusalem. And look at the people he met on the way: Verse 8: he met Philip the Evangelist. Verse 10: he met Agabus the prophet. Verse 16: he met Mnason who was one of the early disciples. Why do I mention this? Well, remember that Luke is a historian and he wanted to write an orderly account of all that the Lord Jesus said and did while he was on the earth. And Luke also wanted to write an orderly account of all that the Lord Jesus continued to do from his throne in heaven. He wanted to write about the beginnings of the NT church and the extension of Christ’s kingdom throughout the known world. So, where did he get all his information? How did Luke find out what the Lord Jesus said and did? How did he find out about the early days of the church? He could talk people who were there at the time. He could talk to the disciples about the things the Lord Jesus said and did. And, for the early church, he could talk to Philip who was there in Jerusalem and was appointed one of the seven deacons in Acts 6. And he could talk to Agabus who featured in Acts 11. And he could talk to this man, Mnason who was one of the early disciples. On the way to Jerusalem, Luke met these early believers and he was able to talk to them about all they witnessed in the early days of the NT church. Luke knew these men personally and he got the information he needed and he could check his facts with them in order to write this orderly account of the things that happened.

Verses 17 to 26

In verse 17 we read that when Paul arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers — that is, the other believers — welcomed him and his companions warmly. That’s important to note: Luke wants to make clear that the Christians in Jerusalem didn’t have a problem with Paul. They regarded him as a Christian brother and they were glad to see him.

Luke also tells us that the next day he had a more formal meeting with James. James was mentioned back in chapter 15 where he was presented as the leader — or the Moderator — of the apostles and elders who met in Jerusalem. It’s worth noting once again the place of the elders: the elders have always been part of the church; and here, in this chapter, Paul the great Apostle met with them and reported to them about his work. The elders are key leaders in the church.

And look how Luke describes Paul’s work in verse 19. Instead of reporting to them all the things he had done, Paul reported to them all the things God had done through Paul’s ministry. It’s a reminder to us that it’s Jesus Christ the King who is building his church on the earth. He’s the one who works through the reading and preaching of his word. And so he’s the one we look to and trust in to make our witness effective. He’s the one we must rely on and pray to for help. And he’s the one who deserves all the glory and the praise whenever sinners are convinced and converted. He deserves the glory because we must always remember that anything we might accomplish is because of him and the power of his word which we proclaim.

Having heard about what God had done through Paul among the Gentiles, James and the elders in Jerusalem were able to relate to him that many thousands of Jews have come to believe as well. God was building his church among the Gentiles and he was building his church among the Jews, convincing them that Jesus really is the Christ and converting them to a true faith in Jesus Christ. But — Luke adds — these believing Jews in Jerusalem were zealous for the law.

What does that mean? Well, remember that we divide the Old Testament law into three parts. There’s the Moral Law, summarised by the Ten Commandments, which everyone everywhere is obligated to keep.

Then there’s the OT Civil Law which was for the people of Israel as a nation. Laws about what to do if your animal gets loose and kills someone. Laws about what to do if someone has an infectious skin disease. Laws about what to do if there’s mildew in your house. Laws about what to wear. And laws about what to eat. The Civil Law was for the nation of Israel; and, of course, Christians today are not obliged to keep those laws, because we’re not part of the nation of Israel.

And then there’s the Ceremonial Law which contains all the rules and instructions we find in the Old Testament concerning the ceremonies and rituals and sacrifices which the people of Israel were commanded to perform as part of their worship in the Old Testament. Those laws pointed forward to the coming of Christ, the true lamb of God who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for sins. And so we believe that those laws have been discontinued because they have been fulfilled by Christ.

So, we divide the OT law of Moses into those three parts. However, it seems that the Jewish believers in Jerusalem believed it was still important to observe the Ceremonial Law. That’s the background to what we read in verse 20. They were zealous about observing the OT ceremonies and rituals.

So, look now at verse 21: It seems that someone had had started a rumour that Paul had been teaching the Jews he had encountered on his missionary journeys to turn away from the law of Moses. Now John Stott helpfully explains the nature of this rumour. Firstly, it wasn’t about what Paul taught about the way of salvation because they all agreed that we’re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Instead it was about what Paul said about the way of discipleship and how believers should live their lives. Secondly, it wasn’t about what Paul taught Gentile converts. Instead it was about what he taught Jewish converts. Thirdly, it wasn’t about the Moral law. Instead it was about the Ceremonial Law and the customs of the Jews. There was this rumour going around that Paul was teaching Jewish believers to give up their old customs.

Now, there’s no evidence in the book of Acts or in Paul’s letter that he ever encouraged Jewish converts to do such a thing. So, that’s all this was: a rumour. But what should they do now to quash the rumour? What could they do to convince everyone that Paul didn’t teach these things? James proposes a solution in verses 23 and 24. There were four men with them who had taken some kind of vow which would be completed when they shaved their heads. Presumably it was some kind of temporary Nazirite vow which meant they would not cut their hair for a certain number of days. And whenever those days had passed, they would then cut off all their hair. We don’t know why they would make such a vow, but they did. And now James suggested that Paul should join them in what they were doing and should pay their expenses at the same time. You see, they would have to hand in an offering at the temple whenever they completed their vow; and Paul was asked to make the offering on their behalf. And James hoped that the Jewish believers would hear about it and they would be convinced by it that Paul was not trying to undermine the customs of the Jews, but was prepared to abide by them himself. And then, just at the end, James adds that the Gentile believers wouldn’t be affected by what he was suggesting to Paul because back in Acts 15 it had already been agreed what things believing Gentiles had to avoid so as not to cause any offence to believing Jews. So, we read in verses 26, that Paul did everything James suggested.

Verses 27 to 40

Let me be brief now. Some Jews from the Roman province of Asia saw Paul in the temple. Luke doesn’t say, but perhaps they had deliberately followed Paul to Jerusalem in order to oppose him. Whether they followed him or not, they now caused a riot by accusing Paul of seeking to destroy Judaism and of bringing a Gentile with him into the temple. Verse 30: The whole city was stirred by the things they said about Paul. People came running in all directions. They seized Paul and dragged him from the temple. And look at verse 31: They were trying to kill him. Fortunately, though, the Roman commander heard about the riot and sent his soldiers to put an end to the riot. Mistaking Paul for a well-known troublemaker, he arrested Paul and intended to punish him. But, of course, by arresting Paul, the Roman commander saved Paul from the crowd. And Paul was soon given a chance to defend himself. And more than that: as later chapters will make clear, Paul was given the opportunity to go to Rome where he would continue to make known the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


As we prepare to go out around the district in the coming weeks, we need to remember the following: Since the Lord Jesus and Paul encountered unbelief and opposition and even persecution in their day, we shouldn’t be surprised if we encounter the same today. The Devil still blinds men and women and children to the truth of the gospel. And he still stirs up opposition to the Lord and his church. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if we find the work hard.

However, let’s also remember that, while what happened to Paul seemed disastrous, good came out of it. It seemed a disaster: Paul had only arrived in Jerusalem and already he had been arrested. What a blow to the kingdom, it must have seemed. Their best preacher was now in prison. But here’s the thing: As a prisoner, Paul was brought before Roman governors and he was brought to Rome and to Caesar’s household. And wherever he went, he had the opportunity to tell the people he met about Jesus Christ. God is able to turn what seems like a disaster to us into a great victory for his kingdom.

And finally, remember what Paul reported to James and the elders: He told them about the great things God had done. Though we may encounter unbelief and opposition, and though we may appear weak and foolish to many, we nevertheless look to Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we trust in him to build his church here on earth. He might choose to do his work through us. Or he may choose to do his work through others. But we believe that he is building his church on the earth and we trust in him to help us.