Paul’s Decision to Go to Jerusalem, Acts 21
Acts 21, Third trip and Jerusalem Arrest–Ambiguities for Paul
Tod Kennedy, June 3, 2001
Not only must we know what we believe; we must also believe what we know.
Question 1, Was Paul right in going to Jerusalem?
- Why did Paul go to Jerusalem? Paul went to Jerusalem to continue his ministry (Acts 19.21; Acts 20.22-24), to deliver an offering given by the Gentile churches (1 Corinthians 16.3-4; Acts 24.17-18; Acts 20.4, with some who were carrying the gifts), and to celebrate Pentecost (Acts 20.16). Since Paul had such a longing for Israel to accept her Messiah along with his emotional attachment to Israel (Romans 9.1-3 and 10.1), some have thought that this emotional attachment so colored his thinking that he forged ahead to Jerusalem against God’s will. Kenneth Wuest in his commentary on Romans 15.30-33 expresses the view: “Ordered to stay away from Jerusalem as a sphere of his ministry and sent to the Gentiles by the Lord Jesus (Acts 22:17–21), forbidden to set foot in Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit (Acts 21:4), allowing his emotions to get the better of his reason, Paul entered Jerusalem against the will of God, was mobbed by the Jews, rescued by the Romans, arrested by the latter when charges were preferred against him, and sent to Rome in chains for his hearing before Caesar.” (Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Volume I, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966, Page 255.) An examination of Acts 22.17-21 shows that Paul gave this message to the Jewish crowd from the Antonia barracks stairs immediately after the Roman soldiers rescued him from the crowd. Paul was relating his testimony, specifically about when he returned to Jerusalem after his time in Damascus and Arabia. At that time the Lord had told Paul to leave Jerusalem because the Jews would not accept his testimony about the Christ. He was sending Paul to the Gentiles. The aroused Jews understandably reacted to this statement. Taken in the original context, the statements by the Lord do not forbid Paul from ministering in Jerusalem or to Jews in the future. That was a specific directive for that day in Paul’s life and then a statement that Paul’s ministry was to be primarily to Gentiles. As attractive as Wuest’s statement is, I think that he has overstated the case.
- What did Paul know was waiting for him at Jerusalem? Arrest and imprisonment. He had been warned by believers in Tyre (Acts 21.3-4) and by Agabus in Caesarea (Acts 21.8-11). The Lord had told Ananias that Paul would suffer for Christ’s name (Acts 9.15-16). The Holy Spirit had told Paul many times that suffering and imprisonment awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20.22-24).
- Did this promise of suffering and imprisonment deter Paul and what was Paul’s motivation to continue to Jerusalem? No, the promise of suffering and imprisonment did not deter Paul in any way. He was committed to finish his course and ministry (Acts 20.22-23; 21.13 with 2 Timothy 4.6-8).
- Trouble erupted due to Paul serving Christ in Jerusalem. Was this a very different situation from what happened in other cities during his missionary travels? No, this was the routine. Notice that in most of the cities in which Paul preached, a riot of some kind resulted. The riots did not happen because Paul said or did something that was wrong. In fact, most scholars recognize this and do not condemn Paul for going to the cities. Note the following confusions, riots, and attacks against Paul: Acts 9.23, Damascus right after Paul’s salvation; Acts 13.44-50, Pisidian Antioch; Acts 14.5-6, Iconium; Acts 14.19, Lystra; Acts 16.19, Philippi; Acts 17.1-10, Thessalonica; Acts 17.13, Berea; Acts 18.12-17, Corinth; Acts 19.23-34, Ephesus; and Acts 21.27-37, Jerusalem.
- Acts 21.4 says “and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.” Did Paul go against the guidance of the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit had revealed to the believers of Tyre that trouble was ahead in Jerusalem. The text reads “they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem.” The Greek text of Nestle Aland 26 edition and the Majority Text both read dia; tou` pneuvmato”. This phrase is found in five New Testament passages: Acts 11.28, where the Holy Spirit told Agabus about the coming famine; Acts 21.4, where the believers in Tyre were telling Paul, through the Holy Spirit, not to go to Jerusalem; 1 Corinthians 2.10, which says that God revealed, through the Spirit, the things he has prepared for those who love him; 1 Corinthians 12.8, spiritual gifts were give through the Spirit; and Ephesians 3.16, where Paul prays that believers will be strengthened through the Spirit. One can read Acts 21.4 to mean that the Holy Spirit, through these believers, told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. In that case Paul disobeyed the Holy Spirit. One can also read the text to mean that the believers knew, through the Holy Spirit, that Paul was to face great trouble in Jerusalem and therefore advised him not to go. The Lord showed them what was ahead for Paul, but did not reveal his will for Paul to them. That was a matter for Paul and the Lord. Their advice was a normal response by those who loved Paul. This latter is the best way to read the text in light the other warnings without commands to not go to Jerusalem, Paul’s willingness and commitment to do God’s will, Paul’s clear conscience, the Lord’s encouragement to him while in prison the second night after his arrest, and the cause of the riot in Jerusalem. Their statements, plus the warning by Agabus (Acts 21.10-11), caused Paul to think about his ministry and the personal cost to him if he continued. He chose to pay the cost of pain, imprisonment, and rejection, if that was necessary to complete the ministry to which the Lord had called him (Acts 20.24). Paul took their statements as warning and advice not to go to Jerusalem, not as a direct command from God.
- Did Paul disobey God by going to Jerusalem. One can argue either way, but on balance the evidence indicates that Paul was within God’s will to go on to Jerusalem. The reasons for this conclusion: 1. The warnings to Paul did not give any specific indication that God wanted him to bypass Jerusalem; they were simply warnings (Acts 20.22-23); 2. Paul was willing and committed to follow God’s will, to fulfill his duty, and to finish his course and ministry received from Christ (1 Corinthians 16.4; Acts 24.17; Acts 20.24; 21.13); 3. The trouble and the riots that erupted in many of the cities Paul visited demonstrated that this riot in Jerusalem was a somewhat usual pattern of opposition to Paul and his ministry (Acts 9.23, Damascus right after Paul’s salvation; Acts 13.44-50, Pisidian Antioch; Acts 14.5-6, Iconium; Acts 14.19, Lystra; Acts 16.19, Philippi; Acts 17.1-10, Thessalonica; Acts 17.13, Berea; Acts 18.12-17, Corinth; Acts 19.23-34, Ephesus); 4. Paul had a clear conscience about his ministry—though this refers to his general life and does not mean that he had never failed or sinned since he became a believer (Acts 23.1; 24.16); 5. The Jerusalem temple riot erupted, not because he went to Jerusalem, but because he was spotted in the temple by rabble-rousing Asian Jews (Acts 21.27-30); and 6. No other Scripture indicates that Paul was wrong in going to Jerusalem.
Question 2: Was Paul right in going into the temple in Jerusalem, and then by helping the men complete their vow?
Tod Kennedy, May 31, 2001
- Why did Paul decide to enter the temple to help the four men complete their vow—most likely a Nazirite vow? James and the elders of Jerusalem heard Paul’s report of his ministry to the Gentiles. The leaders told Paul that thousands of believing Jews were “all zealous for the Law” (Acts 21.20) and were worried that Paul was not upholding the Law before Jews to the Jews’ satisfaction (Acts 21.21-25). Now, many believing Jews in Jerusalem were followers of Jesus and the Jewish traditions, and many were weak believers who did not understand the change from the law to grace. Some were adamant that the Law was important for salvation and for Christian living—these were legalists, those who favored the religious regulations in spite of teaching to the contrary. Others—believers and non-believers—were very much against Paul’s grace gospel; and some—the Asian Jews in town for the holiday—were just looking for a fight (Acts 21.27). The leaders challenged Paul to demonstrate “that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the law” (Acts 21.24). They pressured Paul. The doctrinal issue was the place of the Mosaic Law in the life of a believer. The social issue was how much should Paul compromise in order to satisfy the contending parties. Paul agreed to the plea from the Jerusalem elders to prove his loyalty to the Law of Moses. He had a big chore on his hands. He wanted, if possible, to calm the fears of those zealous for the law, to satisfy the Jerusalem church leadership, and to avoid conflict between those zealous for the law (legalists) and those who, like himself, knew that the law was a non-issue in the Christian life. He ceremonially purified himself at the temple by offering the right Levitical sacrifices, and then paid the ritual expenses for the four men so that they may complete their Nazirite vows.
- Upon what Scriptural principles or doctrines did Paul make his decision? He likely applied the principle that he stated in 1 Corinthians 9.19-21: “19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law;21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” Paul was willing and able to be flexible in non-essential matters such as food, days, traditions, places, Jews and Gentiles, but he would be inflexible in essential matters—clear statements of Scripture—such as the person and work of Christ, grace, faith, living the Christian life, and legalism invading the Christian life. Paul had further developed this principle when he taught the principles of liberty, love, sacrifice, profit, restoration, and burden bearing in relation to weak and strong believers, carnal believers, and unbelievers in Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10, and Galatians 6.
- Were there any historical precedents in Paul’s life that he could draw upon to help him decide what to do? There seems to be a parallel between the Cenchrea (no issue raised) and Jerusalem vow (issue raised) incidents and the Timothy (no issue raised) and Titus (issue raised) circumcision incidents? Paul ended a vow of his own by having his hair cut in Cenchrea some three years earlier. If that was a Nazirite vow, he completed it when he arrived in Jerusalem a short time later (Acts 18.22). That incident caused no trouble with either Jews or Gentiles; No one apparently had made it an issue of doctrine or personal spiritual life (Acts 18.18). However, this time in Jerusalem, it was different. Many Jews were making the Law of Moses and the traditions an issue. Now the Jerusalem elders—Christians, to be sure—urged Paul to help in the completion of a vow by paying the final vow expenses for the four men. The Jewish elders feared the Jews who were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21.20). This was their way to keep the peace, yet their way ended up not helping the Jewish believers, and, unforeseen to them, eventuated in a riot. The second parallel was between Timothy and Titus. What about the circumcision of Timothy at Lystra in Acts 16? Paul, under no pressure, had Timothy circumcised in order to remove a false issue before someone made it an issue later on. At Jerusalem, he had refused to have Titus circumcised when legalists brought circumcision up as a part of their rejection of Paul’s ministry. To Paul, the circumcision of Titus had just become a forced false issue. Paul refused in order to teach spiritual liberty and grace. The vow that Paul ended in Cenchrea, like the circumcision of Timothy, apparently had no baggage such as pressure or false issues attached to it, so Paul made the choice under spiritual freedom and carried it out. The vow case in Jerusalem was made under pressure and false issues, like the earlier attempt, in Jerusalem, to force Paul to have Titus circumcised. In both the Titus circumcision case and the temple vow case Jews “zealous for the law” pressured Paul and therefore made the Mosaic Law a false issue for Christian living. Did Paul reverse himself in Jerusalem?
- Had Paul written anything, before this vow incident, about law and grace, the flesh and Holy Spirit, and works and faith? Yes. Many years earlier, after his first missionary trip, likely around AD 50-52, Paul wrote to the Galatians. In Galatians 3.2-3 Paul argued that the Holy Spirit was not given to believers through law works, but through faith, and very importantly, that the ministry of the Holy Spirit brings about spiritual growth and the control of the flesh. Mosaic law legal activities had nothing to do with spiritual progress and in fact provide no ability to live the Christian life. Then in Galatians 3.5 he continues by saying that the Father provided the Holy Spirit and actively worked miracles among believers, and he did all of this unrelated to the law works. Miracles in Galatians 3.5 stood for the function of the temporary spiritual gift of miracles; miracles were one of the spiritual gifts and part of Christian service. Paul wrote in Galatians 4.21 that the law produces spiritual bondage and persecution of those who believe God’s promise—live by faith not law—while faith in God’s word produces spiritual freedom. Paul continued in Galatians 5.1-4, saying that if one follows religious obligations in order to gain salvation or spirituality, he must then observe the entire law. Furthermore, while on the last leg of his third missionary trip and before he reached Jerusalem, Paul had written to the Roman believers in Romans 6-8 that we must live the Christian life by God’s power, which is the power of the Holy Spirit, and not by the flesh, which is our own ability. Any attempt to live by the law stimulates our flesh or human ability. When human ability takes over the Holy Spirit has been excluded. Spiritual failure results. Paul was in a bind. He had to be careful, in his ministry in and around Jerusalem, not to lend support the use of the Mosaic Law for Christian living, and yet at the same time he had a desire to bring Jews and Gentile believers together.
- What is legalism? Do we find legalism in this narrative? Was Paul able to correct the legalism practiced by those of Jerusalem? Legalism is the belief in and the practice of human religious regulations and taboos because one believes that is the way to gain eternal life, to please God, to become spiritual, and to live the Christian life. Legalism can then become the strict following of Scripture or of tradition by human ability. All of this, of course, is wrong. Those “zealous for the law” were legalists. The Law of Moses was their code of religious regulations and taboos; they were upset with Paul that he did not place high priority on living by the law. The entire context of Acts 21-23 demonstrates that Paul was unable to persuade Jews that Christ alone was sufficient for salvation and that the Christian life was lived by God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit and by faith.
- What were the effects of this episode on the Jerusalem church and those zealous for the law? Maybe this episode was a distraction from what Paul wrote earlier about what he wanted to accomplish wherever he went: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1.16), and “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you…Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?” (Galatians 4.19 and 21). We do not have any direct statements about this. What we do see is that Jerusalem was thrown into an uproar. Paul was not able to teach, encourage, evangelize, or begin churches in or around Jerusalem as a result of his decision. We do not know what happened to those “zealous for the law.” They likely gained few biblical answers to help wean them off the legal traditions. Few if any came to better understand God’s grace and that Christ was the end of the law. We wonder what Paul could have accomplished had he began teaching and discussing Christian life doctrine with those Jewish believers of Jerusalem. We do know that the Jerusalem church gave way to the church at Antioch and other churches to the west. In 10 short years the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem would rebel against Rome. Their punishment was so great that Josephus records that Titus had many crucified: “given as up to five hundred each day”…. “and their number was so great that there was not enough room for the crosses and not enough crosses for the bodies.” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book V, Chapter II.1, page 565. Translated by William Whiston, 1867. Kregel Publishers, Grand Rapids, 1960) By AD 73, the Roman army had destroyed the temple and city and cruelly killed thousands of Jews. Could Paul’s clear presentation of the gospel and Christian life doctrine forestalled this divine judgment? We can say with some confidence that a ministry of teaching the doctrines of grace, spirituality, and Christian growth would have helped the Jerusalem believers immensely.
- Did Paul disobey God by being in the temple, and then by helping the four men complete their vow? As with the question about going to Jerusalem, one can argue either way. And since we can argue either way, Paul probably considered both choices, too. It becomes a matter of perspective. We cannot get into Paul’s head. All we can do is look at what he had written and said, and then look at the events and circumstances. From our vantage point and without all the facts and spiritual evaluations that Paul made, we now might say that Paul likely would have helped the Jerusalem believers more had he not done what the Jerusalem leaders wanted him to do. Instead, he might have taught the Jewish believers what he had taught others with similar blind spots, legalisms, and wrong doctrine—the Galatians for instance. Paul had taught the Galatians that they had been freed from the law, even from circumcision, sacrifice, temple ritual, and the need for holy days. He taught them the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, the faith life, and God’s grace that resulted from Christ’s all complete work. But we are hard pressed to say that Paul sinned by the course of action he chose. The reasons for this conclusion: 1. We have nothing in Scripture to indicate that God forbade him from going into the temple, though this is an argument from silence. 2. Paul was willing and committed to follow God’s will, to fulfill his duty, and to finish his course and ministry received from Christ (Acts 19.21; 20.22-24; 21.13); 3. Paul had no control over the Asian Jews who spotted him in the temple and wrongly thought that he had brought a Gentile in with him (Acts 21.27-30). One might argue that they would not have seen him there had he not gone, but there was nothing to forbid him from visiting the temple and using the temple as a frame of reference from which to witness about Christ being the final sacrifice to which all the temple sacrifices pointed (Hebrews 5-10, especially Hebrews 7.25-27; 9.11-15, 25-28; 10. 1-14). 4. As noted on the first question—going to Jerusalem—the trouble and the riots that erupted in many of the cities Paul visited demonstrated that this riot in Jerusalem was a somewhat usual pattern of opposition to Paul and his ministry (Acts 9.23, Damascus right after Paul’s salvation; Acts 13.44-50, Pisidian Antioch; Acts 14.5-6, Iconium; Acts 14.19, Lystra; Acts 16.19, Philippi; Acts 17.1-10, Thessalonica; Acts 17.13, Berea; Acts 18.12-17, Corinth; Acts 19.23-34, Ephesus); 5. Paul had a clear conscience about his ministry—though this refers to his general life and does not mean that he had never failed or sinned since he became a believer (Acts 23.1; 24.16); 5. The Jerusalem temple riot erupted, not because he went into the temple in Jerusalem, but because the rabble-rousing Asian Jews thought he had brought a Gentile into the temple (Acts 21.27-30); and 6. No other Scripture indicates that Paul was wrong in going to Jerusalem. F.F. Bruce sums up the results of the temple episode: “Whether he was wise in doing so may well be doubted. There is no evidence that his action produced any such reassuring effect on the zealots for the law as James and his fellow-elders had hoped” (The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts, 432)
- Was what happened to Paul and how it all turned out similar what happened to any Old Testament believer? One person immediately comes to mind—Joseph. Joseph’s brothers reacted against him so they hatched a plot to get rid of him. They imprisoned him in a pit, and then sold him to traders. The traders took him to a foreign country, Egypt, and there sold him to be a slave. While in Egypt under these conditions, Joseph had many tests, but also many opportunities to serve God and present the one living God to the Egyptians. The Lord produced much divine good (God designed and produced good works) through Joseph while he was in Egypt. God even used his brothers actions to provide later blessings for them and the future nation Israel. In Paul’s case the Jews rejected Paul and his ministry. They joined a riot against him so that the Roman authorities arrested Paul, made him a prisoner, sent him to Caesarea, then to Rome where he was under arrest for two years. As with Joseph, the enemy meant it for evil, but God brought about good results (Genesis 50.19-20; Romans 8.28; Acts 28.30-31). Paul witnessed for Christ, encouraged many believers, and wrote the epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (Philippians 1.12-18).
What do these two episodes in Paul’s life teach us?
- For one thing, we often must struggle within ourselves to arrive at what we believe is God’s will. God usually does not send us an unambiguous note stating specifically to do such and such a thing at such and such a time at such and such a place with such and such people. We must take the biblical evidence we have, combine that with the inner compulsion that we sense is from the Holy Spirit, and take into account that God may be working events and circumstances to direct us. We make a decision in good faith and continue on. God is not waiting to smack us across the back of the head if we do not get it completely right. He wants us to think through decisions by combining doctrine with faith with willingness to do his will. This is living by faith, by the Word, by the Holy Spirit, and one day at a time. This pleases God. And, he has the power to work things together for good, even if we get it wrong.
- We cannot always say whether another person has disobeyed God’s will about where and to whom he ministers. In fact, that is not our responsibility. Paul addressed this issue in 1 Corinthians 4.1-7, where he responded to those attacking him and his ministry. Paul answered, “it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy,” (faithful). Paul did not introspectively examine himself. Others were not to examine him or pass judgment on him or on others in the ministry; the Lord will do that and his examination and judgment is enough. If you do judge others’ ministries, you are placing yourself above God and the Scripture and that is arrogance.
- We all need to learn as much Bible doctrine as possible so that when we find ourselves forced to make a divine guidance decision when we are between the proverbial rock and a hard place, we have a basis for making the right decision. Thinking through the word of God gives us truth upon which to draw and illustrations of others who had have to make decisions. Each of us, then, must apply the Bible doctrine that we know, and each must listen to the Holy Spirit guiding us. We will at times ask for the wisdom of others; but, ultimately we must make our decisions before the Lord and be willing to take the consequences.
- Do not forget that God wants willing servants—those who, like Paul, said “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.” (Colossians 1.10); “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20.24); and “I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21.13).
- We who have been blessed with outstanding Bible teaching may at times be ungracious toward those who do not take our advice or do something just the way we would do it. This episode in Paul’s life ought to remind us to think graciously toward other believers even when they disagree with our ministry; and not only be gracious, but continue to pray for and encourage them. As long as the gospel is clear and the teaching is accurate, leave their ministry in God’s hands.
- God does work good out of what we might think are bad circumstances. He brings honor to himself. He blesses other believers through us and through our suffering and testing. Paul endured much hardship and criticism, but God blessed him and untold millions of people through Paul after the events of Acts 21.
- How well do we apply the doctrines of spiritual freedom, love, sacrifice, profit, restoration, and burden bearing in the ambiguous and doubtful situations? Paul had to balance all of these biblical principles. He may not have done it just right at every point, but he did not beat himself up. He had the attitude that he wanted to please the Lord, fulfill God’s, and keep living the Christian life. Can we do the same?
- Finally, we do not ever want to lose the truth that God graciously uses each of us and blesses each of us and blesses others through each of us. God does not wait to use us until we always make the right decisions. If he did, he would wait until eternity. For that we can be eternally grateful to him. Furthermore, he wants us to take risks through the faith application of Bible doctrine; that means that we must at times make a decision based upon the doctrine that we know and believe instead of waiting for that proverbial note from heaven. Divine guidance requires trust in God and his word. It does not require absolute certainty by us at every point.
A few Bible doctrines to think about
- Divine guidance
- Grace giving
- Prayer support of others
- Flexibility in non-essentials
- Seeking God’s will in ambiguous questions
- Decision making by applying Bible doctrine from different portions of Scripture
- The place of law and tradition in the Christian life
- The completed work of Christ
- The ministry of the Holy Spirit
- Principles of Spiritual freedom, love, sacrifice, profit, restoration, and burden bearing
Questions to think about
- Can you think of any specific incidents that might illustrate what we learn from this episode?
- Have you ever found yourself in the situation of the believers of Tyre? or of Agabus? or of the believes of Caesarea? or of Paul? How did you resolve the situations?
- What Bible doctrines should we apply when we find ourselves in situations like Paul found himself?
- How has God brought good out of bad circumstances in your life? How has he blessed you and others through your suffering and testing?