TO JERUSALEM Acts 21–22
“Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way” (Acts 21:4–5).Sometimes we have to choose a course we know holds danger.
Paul set out for Jerusalem despite warnings (21:1–16). He was welcomed by Jerusalem Christians (vv. 17–20), but was asked to show his personal dedication to Old Testament Law by paying expenses for men discharging a Nazarite vow (vv. 21–26). Paul was accused by Asian Jews, and almost killed in the riot (vv. 27–32). Saved by the Roman army (vv. 33–40), Paul told the crowd of his conversion (22:1–20). When Paul mentioned his commission to go to the Gentiles, they cried for his death (vv. 21–24). Paul then asserted his rights as a Roman citizen (vv. 25–30).
Understanding the Text
“They urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” Acts 21:1–6. Luke seemed to draw a parallel between Jesus’ determination to accept the Cross, and Paul’s commitment to face danger in Jerusalem. Jesus knew what lay ahead. Paul too was shown by the Spirit what lay ahead for him. Like Christ, Paul refused to fear, but set out to do God’s will whatever the cost. Some have argued that Paul was willfully disobedient in going to Jerusalem. After all, wasn’t it “through the Spirit” that the disciples near Tyre urged Paul not to go on? It seems best to take the phrase “through the Spirit” as referring to the agency by which these believers learned Paul would be in danger. Their conclusion, “then don’t go on,” was their own. Let’s remember that danger alone is not a sufficient reason to turn back. Let’s also remember that each of us is responsible to determine God’s special will for himself or herself. Others can advise us. But we must respond to the Holy Spirit who speaks in us. “The Holy Spirit says” Acts 21:7–16. It’s only natural that after hearing this message, Paul’s Christian friends “pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.” That’s what was wrong with their response! It was only “natural.” This was one of those times when the message was not intended to change Paul’s mind, but to provoke intensified prayer support for him. Again there’s a parallel with Christ’s last days. When Jesus spoke of His coming death, His disciples were quick to say, “Never” (cf. Matt. 16:22). When others make a difficult decision, let’s not make it harder for them by urging them to take an easier course. Let’s give them our support, promise our prayers, and say as the Caesarean Christians finally did, “The Lord’s will be done.” “Thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the Law” Acts 21:17–28. Christian Jews were not expected to abandon Judaism, any more than Gentile Christians were to abandon their culture and heritage. But Paul’s mission to the Gentiles had stimulated rumors that he was anti-Judaism. To reassure the Jewish Christian community, Paul paid the expenses of four persons who were completing a Nazarite vow. This was considered a “good deed” in Judaism, and would show that Paul was not anti-Judaism. Some have condemned Paul for his act, holding that he compromised his convictions. Hardly. Instead the act shows that Paul was far more sensitive to the meaning of freedom than his critics! As the Gentiles were free to worship God apart from Jewish rituals, so Jewish Christians were free to worship within their heritage. You and I are likely to be criticized by others if we maintain a truly Christian view of freedom. That’s all right. Just as Paul was willing to suffer in Jerusalem under the Spirit’s guidance, he was willing to be criticized. So should we be. “He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd” Acts 21:27–36. Some Asian Jews visiting Jerusalem recognized Paul, and assumed he had brought a Gentile companion into a forbidden area of the temple. Their outcry started a riot and mob attack on an innocent Paul. Some might today call the Roman Empire a tyranny. In many ways it was. But when the commander of Roman troops in Jerusalem heard the uproar, he immediately dashed into the crowd and rescued Paul. Later events showed he thought Paul was a notable revolutionary. Even so, the Roman officer was committed to the rule of law. Our government, like that of ancient Rome, surely has flaws. But the rule of law is to be preferred to the mob rule that would certainly replace it. We can be especially grateful to those who take responsibility to maintain law and order today. “Listen to my defense” Acts 22:1–20. The mob was as confused as the Romans about why Paul was being attacked. No one had stopped to get the facts. Paul’s “defense,” made in Aramaic, the everyday language of the Jews, was biographical. Paul established his identity with his listeners in a common commitment to the God of Israel, and told of his conversion. In Judaism orthopraxy (orthodox behavior; keeping the ritual law) was at least as important as orthodoxy (orthodox belief). Also first-century Jewish religious literature abounds with stories of visions, so Paul’s report must have captured his listeners’ interest. As Paul’s hosts had said, there were “many thousands of Jews” who had believed in Jesus, “and all of them zealous for the Law” (21:20). In that society mention of Jesus was not enough to set the mob against Paul. Paul was a master at identifying with those to whom he ministered. He used this gift to share Christ all over the world. Let’s be sensitive to the beliefs and prejudices of others. They may take offense at the Gospel. But let it not be because we are offensive. “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” Acts 22:21–23. Sometimes truth itself is offensive to people. Should we try to avoid offensive truths? When Paul reported his commission to go to the Gentiles, the mob again shouted for his death. The notion that God accepted Gentiles on the same basis He accepted Jews was totally repugnant to this people who had for centuries thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. It takes real wisdom to know how to share God’s truth with others. The response to Paul’s defense in Jerusalem reminds us that however wise we may be, the truth will sometimes be rejected—and we will be rejected with it. “I was born a Roman citizen” Acts 22:22–30. When the Romans were unable to tell what the riot had been about, the commander ordered that Paul be examined under torture. This involved being beaten with a flagellum, a leather whip studded with sharp pieces of metal or bone. It was illegal to put a Roman citizen to this torture. When Paul claimed citizenship, the Roman commander hurried to release him. A verbal claim of citizenship was all that was needed in the first century: the penalty for lying about citizenship was death. Paul did not hesitate to claim his legal rights as he traveled through Empire lands. We can be proud of our citizenship too and should actively assert our rights under the law to practice our faith. Today these rights are in fact being challenged on many fronts. The American Legal Society has even begun to hold seminars on how to sue churches and religious organizations. The day may come soon when many legal challenges to our constitutional rights will be mounted, and all of us will be called on to make a stand. Paul had followed God’s leading and come to Jerusalem. He had been attacked. But God acted to protect His servant. God will protect us as we follow His leading today.
God’s Special Will(Acts 21:1–36)
My old Christian education professor at Dallas Seminary told of the woman who, when he was a seminary student, passed on some exciting information. God had told her that Mr. Howard Hendricks was supposed to marry her daughter! This exciting revelation was shared regularly, until Howie finally said, “Let’s wait until God tells me.” God never did, and later Howie married his lovely wife of many years now, Jean. The story illustrates some of the confusion that exists about knowing God’s special will. By “special will,” I mean His will for each of us as individuals, in contrast to His general will for all believers as revealed in Scripture. Guidance for who we marry, what occupation we pursue, when and whether to move on, are illustrations of that “special” guidance we want from God, but can’t get by turning to a verse or passage in the Bible. Several things in Acts 21 help us think more clearly about God’s special will for us. And the first is that God’s will for the individual is to be discerned by the individual himself or herself. Not by others. That was true for Howie Hendricks. Momma didn’t have any right to tell him it was God’s will for him to marry her daughter. It was true for the Apostle Paul. The believers at Tyre (vv. 1–6) and at Caesarea (vv. 8–12) didn’t have any right to tell Paul it was God’s will for him not to go up to Jerusalem. And it’s true for you and me. A second helpful principle is that God’s will can’t be determined by what seems wise or expedient. When Ella’s daughter began to do visitation in inner-city Chicago, the suburban mother was terrified. She had been ready to see her daughter go to Africa as a missionary. But to Chicago? That was too dangerous! Yet during her months in Chicago God not only kept the daughter safe, but gave her an effective ministry. Finally, even a “disastrous outcome” is no sure indication of God’s will. We can’t second-guess ourselves, or others. Paul was almost killed, and was arrested in Jerusalem. But God turned this disaster to Paul’s and His own advantage. In time the apostle was brought to Rome, and there won members of “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). We Christians believe in a God who is Sovereign, and in an indwelling Holy Spirit who guides us through life. Part of our responsibility is to be sensitive to the Spirit, and to seek His leading. To live a responsible Christian life means in part accepting responsibility for our own choices, and doing God’s will as we understand it.
Listen to others’ advice. But be led by God.
“The surest method of arriving at a knowledge of God’s eternal purposes about us is to be found in the right use of the present moment. God’s will does not come to us in the whole, but in fragments, and generally in small fragments. It is our business to piece it together, and to live it as one orderly vocation.”—F.W. Faber