We last left Paul in Acts 20 departing Ephesus by ship. Paul had been feeling called by the Holy Spirit to make it to Jerusalem in time for the day of Pentecost.
“And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me.” ~Acts 20:22-23
Acts 21:1-25 tell us about Paul’s trip, some discouraging words from his followers, his arrival in Jerusalem and his visit with James, the church leadership, and believers there.
As an example of Paul’s willingness to become all things to all people, he agrees to go to the temple to purify himself and take four men with him who were also under a vow. Verse 24 tells us they suggested he “be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads.”
Paul even talks about this in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 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, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you. ~1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Should we feel sorry for Paul?
Vs 26-30 Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each one of them. Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.) And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple; and immediately the doors were shut.
Paul’s own prophecy that he will be jailed and persecuted is about to come true. The believers surrounding Paul had, on several occasions, discouraged him from going to Jerusalem. Isn’t it interesting how they believed his prophecy that he would be persecuted, yet they didn’t believe his calling from the Holy Spirit to go!
The believers around Paul had finally come to the point of acceptance:
So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.”
We feel sorry for Paul or for any suffering believer, and we feel prompted by the Holy Spirit working on hearts to help. God wants us to feel compassion and to do compassionate things when we see suffering! So I don’t fault the believers around Paul for being concerned. Look at the situation of Pastor Saeed Abedini in this blog from his wife. He has been kept in an Iranian prison for 15 months now, and the prayers of the church all over the globe are being lifted up to heaven asking God for his release. But like Paul in his suffering, God is using Pastor Saeed in prison to spread the Gospel!
We don’t always understand God’s will. But we know that God is good – all the time.
“We must believe, and shall find reason to do so, that Paul in the prison… is as truly glorifying God, and serving Christ’s interest, as Paul in the pulpit was.” ~Matthew Henry
So while God wants us to have compassionate hearts, to act compassionately toward others, and to show them the love of Jesus; God also asks us to trust Him. He is doing His good work even in times of terrible persecution.
Follow Jesus’ Example
31-36 Now as they were seeking to kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and he asked who he was and what he had done. And some among the multitude cried one thing and some another. So when he could not ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be taken into the barracks. When he reached the stairs, he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. For the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, “Away with him!”
Once again we see Paul’s teaching turn into a riot among the Jews. I love how David Guzik compares Paul’s life to Jesus’ life, and then to our own lives:
Similarities between Jesus and Paul as shown in Acts 20 and 21:
a. Like Jesus, Paul traveled to Jerusalem with a group of disciples.
b. Like Jesus, Paul had opposition from hostile Jews who plotted against his life.
c. Like Jesus, Paul made or received three successive predictions of his coming sufferings in Jerusalem, including being handed over to the Gentiles.
d. Like Jesus, Paul had followers who tried to discourage him from going to Jerusalem and the fate that awaited him there.
e. Like Jesus, Paul declared his readiness to lay down his life.
f. Like Jesus, he was determined to complete his ministry and not be deflected from it.
g. Like Jesus, Paul expressed his abandonment to the will of God.
h. Like Jesus, Paul came to Jerusalem to give something.
i. Like Jesus, Paul was unjustly arrested on the basis of a false accusation.
j. Like Jesus, Paul alone is arrested, but none of the other followers of Jesus.
k. Like Jesus, Paul heard the mob crying out, Away with him!
l. Like Jesus, the Roman officer handling Paul’s case did not know his true identity.
m. Like Jesus, Paul was associated with terrorists by Roman officials.
n. In a way unique to most of us, Paul really did know the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).
Paul’s particular call and ministry make these similarities especially striking, but we are called to follow after Jesus also. We shouldn’t be surprised when events in our lives are like events in Jesus’ life. There may be a time of temptation in the wilderness, a time when people come to us with needs only God can meet, a time when we seem at the mercy of a storm, a time when we must cry out to God as in the Garden of Gesthemane, a time when we must simply lay down our lives, and trust God will gloriously raise us up. We, like Paul, are predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
(Taken from David Guzik: Study Guide for Acts 21)
Paul has a Heart of Boldness and Compassion!
Vs 37-40 Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?” He replied, “Can you speak Greek? Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.” So when he had given him permission, Paul stood on the stairs and motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, saying,
The boldness that Paul demonstrates to us all throughout his ministry makes me smile! What an incredible testimony to each of us to read this brief conversation. It brings such encouragement to my weak and simple soul to see Paul turn to this Roman commander and, with all courtesy and respect (“May I speak to you?”) he asks if he can address the crowd.
The other encouragement we see here is Paul’s incredible heart of compassion for those that want him killed. He feels so led the love of God toward this unbelieving crowd that he wants to take a few minutes to share his testimony with them!
Vs 1-22 “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.” And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said:
“I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.
“Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ “And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus.
“Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him. Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’
“Now it happened, when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I was in a trance and saw Him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, for they will not receive your testimony concerning Me.’ So I said, ‘Lord, they know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believe on You. And when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by consenting to his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ Then He said to me, ‘Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles.’ ”
Paul gives them the gospel truth here. He explains to the crowd how he was a sinner like them. His example was how he persecuted and murdered believers. The depth of his sin hit him like a ton of bricks when Jesus came to visit him on the road to Damascus. The he was led by the hand, like a small child, to someone who could explain to him our simple need to call on the name of the Lord to be saved, repent, and be baptized.
Jesus is our hope!
Paul is hoping and trusting in Jesus that He will reach their hearts and change them with the Gospel. Notice that Paul never misses an opportunity when he has a crowd to share the Good News of salvation!
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began. ~ Titus 1:1-2
So that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. ~ Titus 3:7
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. ~ 1 Peter 1:3
God promised us the hope of Christ from ages ago! I love that God planned ahead for my salvation from the beginning of time.
Vs 22-30 And they listened to him until this word, and then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!” Then, as they cried out and tore off their clothes and threw dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, and said that he should be examined under scourging, so that he might know why they shouted so against him. And as they bound him with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who stood by, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went and told the commander, saying, “Take care what you do, for this man is a Roman.” Then the commander came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman?” He said, “Yes.” The commander answered, “With a large sum I obtained this citizenship.” And Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Then immediately those who were about to examine him withdrew from him; and the commander was also afraid after he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had bound him. The next day, because he wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them.
Even though Paul knows he is called to be persecuted and he even senses that he may be executed, he doesn’t mind using his Roman citizenship to buy a little time and perhaps even a reprieve. There is nothing wrong with using the gifts that God gave us as long as we are surrendering them to His perfect will. Paul knows that as a Roman, he has certain rights they can’t violate.
God has granted each of us certain gifts in our lives. Some Christians are wealthy, some are movie actors, some are musicians, some are great dancers, others may be wonderful writers. God puts us where He wants us. He works in us and through us when we allow Him to. That’s exactly what Paul was doing here. It was an honorable thing to be a Roman citizen in this period, and Romans had rights that others did not. Paul claims those Roman rights that God gave him and because he does, God uses him to preach the Gospel again in chapter 23. What gifts has given given me that I can use for Him? What gifts has he given to you?
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. ~James 1:17
Also check out Questioning Without Doubt