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Bible Commentaries
Acts 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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1. Ministry on the way to Jerusalem 19:21-21:16

At this point in his ministry Paul began to focus his attention on taking the gospel to Rome. Luke recorded the events that led up to his arrival there to show how Jesus Christ extended His church to the center of the Roman (Gentile) world.

Verses 1-3

Cos was an island 40 miles from Miletus. Rhodes refers to the city on the island of Rhodes, "Rhodes" meaning "roses," another 90 miles farther. A gigantic statue of Apollo, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood astride the entrance to this harbor years earlier, but it was now in ruins. From there, Paul’s party continued east to Patara, a 60-mile journey. Paul could have made these trips in three days. In Patara the missionaries were able to transfer to a ship bound directly for Tyre 400 miles away, probably a grain or fruit ship. [Note: Robertson, 3:359.] They sailed to the south of Cyprus. Tyre was in ancient Phoenicia, then part of the Roman province of Syria.

Verses 1-6

The trip from Miletus to Tyre 21:1-6

The third "we" section of Acts (Acts 21:1-18) is of theological importance because it focuses on Paul’s recapitulation of Jesus’ passion. Note the similarities between Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem and Paul’s. Both stories involve a plot by the Jews and handing over to the Gentiles. There were triple predictions along the way of suffering in Jerusalem in both cases. Both Jesus and Paul steadfastly resolved to go there despite opposition, and both resigned themselves to God’s will. [Note: Longenecker, p. 515.] Luke probably told his story as he did to help the reader appreciate the similarities between Jesus and Paul to authenticate Paul’s ministry.

Verse 4

Refugees from the persecution that followed Stephen’s martyrdom had evangelized Phoenicia (Acts 11:19). Paul and his companions stayed in Tyre for seven days fellowshipping with the Christians.

"Sea journeys in the ancient world depended on finding shipping available, and accepting delays arising from loading and unloading. It is therefore not inconsistent that Paul was in haste to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost, yet had stopped for a week at Troas, and now spends a week at Tyre; he would have no choice." [Note: Neil, p. 216.]

There is ample evidence in the text that Paul was not disobedient to God in going on to Jerusalem (cf. Acts 9:16; Acts 19:21; Acts 20:22-24; Acts 21:14; Acts 23:1; Acts 23:11). Nevertheless some students of Scripture have criticized Paul for proceeding. It seems that one or more prophets in the church at Tyre also foretold His arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23) and they, anxious about his safety, urged him not to proceed.

"Paul, however, regarded it not as a prohibition but a divine forewarning so that he would be spiritually prepared for what would happen." [Note: Kent, p. 159.]

"Duty called louder than warning to Paul even if both were the calls of God." [Note: Robertson, 3:360.]

Verses 5-6

As they had done when leaving the Ephesian elders, Paul and his fellow missionaries kneeled down and prayed with these believers before they parted (cf. Acts 20:36). This reflects Paul’s ongoing commitment to and dependance on God. Then they reboarded the ship, and the Christians of Tyre returned home.

Verse 7

Ptolemais (Acco of the Old Testament and modern Acre, located on the north side of the bay of Haifa) lay 25 miles south of Tyre. It was the southernmost Phoenician port. There Paul also met with the local Christians as stevedores unloaded and loaded his ship.

"The man who is within the family of the Church is better equipped with friends that [sic] any other man in all the world." [Note: Barclay, p. 168.]

Verses 7-14

Paul’s advance to Caesarea 21:7-14

Verses 8-9

Caesarea (Meritima) was 40 miles farther south, and Paul’s party could have reached it by sea or by land. It was the capital of the province of Judea and the major port of Jerusalem. Philip may have settled in Caesarea after evangelizing the coastal plain of Palestine 20 years earlier (Acts 8:40; cf. Acts 6:5). This man was not the Philip of the Gospels, who was a disciple of Jesus and one of the Twelve. His four daughters had the prophetic gift. According to early Church tradition, Philip and his daughters later moved to Hierapolis in Asia Minor. There these women imparted information about the early history of the Jerusalem church to Papias, a church father. [Note: Eusebius, 3:39.] It seems unusual that Luke would refer to these daughters as prophetesses without mentioning anything they prophesied. Perhaps they gave him information as they did Papias. [Note: Longenecker, p. 517; Neil, pp. 216-17.]

Verses 10-11

Agabus previously had come from Jerusalem to Antioch to foretell the famine of A.D. 46 (Acts 11:26-27). Now he came down to Caesarea and prophesied Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem (cf. Mark 9:31; Mark 10:33; John 21:18). He illustrated his prediction graphically as several Old Testament prophets had done (cf. 1 Kings 11:29-31; Isaiah 20:2-4; Jeremiah 13:1-7; Ezekiel 4). "This is what the Holy Spirit says," is the Christian equivalent of the Old Testament, "Thus saith the Lord." His revelation came as no surprise to Paul, of course (Acts 21:4; Acts 9:16). Perhaps another reason Luke emphasized these prophecies was to prove to his readers that Paul’s arrest and its consequences were part of God’s foreordained will for the church’s expansion (Acts 1:1-2; cf. Mark 10:33).

Verse 12

It seemed clearer all the time to Paul’s companions and to the local Christians that Paul was going to be in great danger in Jerusalem. Consequently they tried to discourage him from proceeding.

Verse 13

From Paul’s response to their entreaty, he seems not to have known whether his arrest would result in his death or not.

Why did Paul avoid the possibility of death in Corinth (Acts 20:3) but not here? Paul’s purpose to deliver the collection and so strengthen the unity of the Gentile and Jewish believers would have failed if he had died on board a ship between Corinth and Jerusalem. However arrest in Jerusalem would not frustrate that purpose. For Paul, and eventually for his friends (Acts 21:14), the Lord’s will was more important than physical safety (cf. Luke 22:42). He believed the Spirit wanted him to go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21; Acts 20:22) so he "set his face" to go there (cf. Luke 9:51).

"Paul, aware of the suffering and danger ahead, must make the same decision in Caesarea that Jesus made in the prayer scene before his crucifixion. In the prayer scene Jesus expressed the two options himself in internal debate: ’Take this cup from me; nevertheless, let not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). In Paul’s case his companions and friends express the option of escape and appeal to Paul to choose it. Paul chooses the other option. The conflict finally ends when Paul’s friends recognize that they cannot persuade him and say, ’Let the will of the Lord be done’ (Acts 21:14)." [Note: Tannehill, 2:264.]

Verse 14

Unable to dissuade him, Paul’s friends stopped urging him and committed the situation to the Lord.

"Perhaps he regarded Caesarea as his temptation and Gethsemane. If so, the congregation, catching the thought, echoed the garden prayer of Christ: The will of the Lord be done . . ." [Note: Blaiklock, p. 168.]

"Paul is recognized and welcomed in Tyre and Caesarea as he was at earlier stops on his trip, and the disciples in these places show great concern for Paul’s safety. Widespread respect for Paul is also indicated by the attention that he receives from figures associated with the mission in its early days: Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8), Agabus the prophet (Acts 21:10; cf. Acts 11:28), and Mnason, an ’early disciple’ (Acts 21:16)." [Note: Tannehill, 2:262.]

Christians have developed a respect for Paul that is second only to Jesus Christ over approximately 20 centuries of church history. However when Luke wrote Acts, Paul was a very controversial figure in the church. Luke seems to have gone out of his way to put Paul in the best possible light so his original readers would accept and appreciate his ministry.

Verses 15-16

The last stage of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem 21:15-16

Jerusalem was about 65 miles southeast of Caesarea, a long two-day trip. Mnason evidently became a Christian early in the history of the church, perhaps on the day of Pentecost. He was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian being from Cyprus, like Barnabas. As such he would have been more open to entertaining a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile Christians than many Hebrew Jewish Christians in Palestine would have been. Apparently he lived about halfway between Caesarea and Jerusalem.

Paul finally achieved the first phase of his plan to visit Jerusalem and then Rome (Acts 19:21). In doing so, he brought one chapter of his ministry to a close and opened another. His return to Jerusalem was an essential part of God’s plan to send Paul to Rome. This plan unfolds in the rest of chapter 21. In all, Paul traveled about 2,700 miles on his third missionary journey (cf. Acts 14:28; Acts 18:22). [Note: Beitzel, p. 177.]

"Jesus too journeyed to Jerusalem, and during his journey prophesied concerning his impending sufferings; he was arrested and tried, appearing before the Jews and the Romans . . ." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 337. Cf. Rackham, pp. 403-4.]

Verses 17-19

As he had done before, Paul related to a group of elders what God had done on his missionary journeys among the Gentiles (Acts 14:27; cf. Acts 18:23). This undoubtedly helped the Jerusalem church accept the gift that Paul had brought from their Gentile brethren. I am assuming that the Jerusalem church leaders received the gift, but they may not have done so. Perhaps Luke did not comment on the giving and receiving of the gift because that was not something he wanted to draw attention to, even though by not explaining he left his readers with an unanswered question.

James, the Lord’s half-brother, was still the recognized leader of the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 12:17; Acts 15:13), but this church also had elder leadership (cf. Acts 11:30). Herod Agrippa I had killed James, the brother of John, earlier (Acts 12:2), not James the half-brother of Jesus. Luke mentioned nothing about Paul’s delivery of the monetary gift, Paul’s main reason for going to Jerusalem (cf. Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). His purpose was primarily to emphasize the spread of the gospel. The Gentiles had remembered the poor as Paul had urged them to do (Galatians 2:10).

Even though the third "we" section ends with Acts 21:18, Luke may have remained with Paul in Jerusalem. He could have stopped including himself in the narrative to stress Paul’s leadership. Alternatively he may have departed for some other destination.

Verses 17-26

The advice of James and the elders 21:17-26

Verses 17-32

2. Ministry in Jerusalem 21:17-23:32

The events that transpired in Jerusalem when Paul visited the city on this occasion proved crucial in spreading the gospel to Rome. The events that Luke narrated in Acts 21:17 to Acts 23:35 took twelve days, whereas those that follow in Acts 24:1 to Acts 26:32 took two years. Luke wrote these events partially to reveal God’s methods to his readers.

"The geographical extension of the church was not Luke’s main interest; it was rather the movement of redemptive history from the Jews to the Gentiles. In keeping with this purpose, Luke devotes considerable space to the record of Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, not because the visit was important in itself, but because it showed the final rejection of the Gospel by Jerusalem." [Note: Ladd, "The Acts . . .," p. 1164.]

Verses 20-21

Having rejoiced over Paul’s account of the Gentiles’ conversion, the elders also added that thousands of Jews had become believers, many of them in Jerusalem. Estimates of the population of Jersalem at this time range between 30,000 and 50,000. [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 646.] The elders explained that these Jewish Christians had some misgivings about Paul’s ministry about which they had heard. The word on the streets was that Paul was going beyond his actual practice of not requiring Gentile converts to undergo circumcision or to obey the Mosaic Law. They had heard he was telling Jewish converts not to practice circumcision or to observe the customs of Judaism. This was a false report. Paul did not teach that these customs were evil, just unnecessary for justification and sanctification.

"The Jerusalem elders were in somewhat of a bind. On the one hand, they had supported Paul’s witness to the Gentiles at the Jerusalem Conference. Now they found Paul a persona non grata and his mission discredited not only among the Jewish populace, which they were seeking to reach, but also among their more recent converts. They did not want to reject Paul. Indeed, they praised God for his successes. Still they had their own mission to the Jews to consider, and for that Paul was a distinct liability." [Note: Polhill, p. 447.]

From here to the end of Acts Paul argued before various audiences that he was a loyal Jew and that his mission to the Gentiles was not anti-Jewish. He insisted that he did not oppose the Jews or their keeping of the Mosaic Law.

Verses 22-24

The elders’ plan aimed to prove to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and to all the Jews there, that Paul had not abandoned the customs of the Jews. He had, of course, ceased to believe and teach that salvation came by obeying the Mosaic Law. He was no longer a Jew in religion, but he was still a racial Jew and as such observed Jewish cultural practices (e.g., a ritual of purification for those who came from foreign, unclean lands; cf. Numbers 19:12). Many commentators believed the vow in view here was a Nazarite vow, but that vow could not be taken for less than 30 days. [Note: Mishnah Oholot 2:3; 17:5; 18:6. See Haenchen, p. 612.]

The four men in question had taken a temporary vow, as Paul had done earlier (Acts 18:18). At the end of the vow each of them had to bring an offering to the temple (cf. Numbers 6:14-15). The elders suggested that Paul go with them to the temple, purify himself with them for temple worship, and show his support of the Jewish custom by paying for their offerings. Paul could do this, and did so, without compromising his convictions since the Jews did not regard taking a vow as essential for acceptance by God. It was strictly voluntary. They regarded circumcision, on the other hand, as essential. However, Paul did not even object to circumcision as a custom (Acts 16:3), though he did object to it as a rite essential for God’s acceptance (Galatians 2).

Verse 25

James and the elders repeated their former conviction regarding the instruction of Gentile converts. This was simply a point of clarification designed to emphasize that the decision of the Jerusalem Council still stood (cf. Acts 15:20; Acts 15:29). Their counsel to Paul on this occasion did not contradict their strong commitment to salvation by grace.

Verse 26

A Jew would announce the completion of his vow to the priest and then seven days later present his offerings (cf. Numbers 6:13-20). The Law did not prescribe this week’s wait, but it was customary. Paul accompanied the four men into the temple and underwent the rites of purification with them because he was paying the expenses of their vow. A few expositors believed Paul compromised his convictions here. [Note: E.g., Morgan, p. 485.] But this is a minority opinion that I do not share. The Jews considered paying the charges for votive offerings an act of piety and a symbolic identification with the Jews. Herod Agrippa I had previously done this. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 19:6:1.]

Verses 27-28

The Jews from Asia, possibly from Ephesus, were obviously unbelievers. They charged Paul with the same kind of crimes the unbelieving Jews had accused Stephen of committing (Acts 6:11; Acts 6:13-14). The Jews permitted Gentiles in the outer court of the temple, the court of the Gentiles. They could not go beyond the sacred enclosure into the women’s court, or into the court of Israel, much less into the court of the priests.

Jewish men like Paul who were not priests or Levites could go no farther than the court of Israel. The priests had posted notices prohibiting Gentiles from entering the sacred enclosure, the area that included the courts of the women, Israel, and the priests. These were in Latin and Greek and were on the barrier, the Soreg, at the foot of the steps leading to this area of the temple. Archaeologists have discovered two of these notices. [Note: See Riesner, p. 194.] One reads as follows.

"No man of another nation to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple. And whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues." [Note: C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, p. 50. See Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East, p. 81, or Kent, p. 163, for a photograph of this limestone block.]

The Romans allowed the Jews to execute any Gentile, even a Roman citizen, for proceeding beyond this low, stone barrier. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 6:2:4.]

Verses 27-36

The riot in the temple 21:27-36

Verse 29

Trophimus the Ephesian was Paul’s travelling companion from Asia (Acts 20:4) The Asian Jews had previously seen them together in the city and had assumed that Paul had brought this Gentile into the sacred enclosure of the Temple.

"The possibility that Trophimus might have wandered of his own freewill into the forbidden area is about as likely as that somebody should wander into private rooms in the Kremlin for the purpose of sightseeing." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p. 348.]

Verse 30

The rumor of Paul’s alleged capital offense travelled quickly throughout Jerusalem and brought a mob of zealous Jews into the Temple courtyard. "All the city was aroused" is probably hyperbole.

". . . the Temple was a fetish for all Jews, but for none more so than fanatically devout pilgrims from the Diaspora, who had travelled far to celebrate the festival of Pentecost in the holy city." [Note: Neil, p. 220.]

Evidently the priests dragged Paul out of one of the inner courts and into the court of the Gentiles. The doors that Luke referred to separated the court of the Gentiles from the inner courts that were accessible only to Jews. The priests now closed these doors to prevent the defiling of the inner courts by the tumult and bloodshed. [Note: Jeremias, Jerusalem in . . ., pp. 209-10.]

Verses 31-32

The Jews proceeded to beat Paul in the court of the Gentiles. News of this commotion reached the Roman commander of the Fortress of Antonia that connected with the temple area on the northwest. Herod the Great had built this fortress to house the soldiers of the Tenth Legion. The commander’s name was Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26). He was responsible for the 1,000 soldiers stationed there. When he saw the riot, he summoned soldiers and centurions (commanders of 100 soldiers each) and ran down the steps of the fortress and into the court of the Gentiles. Levites constituted the Temple police (cf. Acts 4:1), but these Roman troops were responsible to keep peace in the whole city. [Note: Ibid., pp. 211-12.] The Jews stopped beating Paul when they saw the commander and the other soldiers.

"One thing Rome insisted on-civil order. A riot was an unforgivable sin both for the populace who staged it and the commander who allowed it." [Note: Barclay, p. 172.]

This is the sixth time in Acts that Paul’s ministry had ignited a public disturbance (cf. Acts 14:19; Acts 16:19-22; Acts 17:5-8; Acts 17:13; Acts 19:25-34).

Verses 33-34

The commander arrested Paul assuming that he was a criminal. The two chains the Roman guards placed on Paul probably bound him to two soldiers (cf. Acts 12:6). When the commander tried to learn who Paul was and what he had done from some members of the crowd, he received conflicting information. So he ordered Paul brought into the "barracks," the Fortress of Antonia.

Verses 35-36

Stairs led up to the fortress from the city on its west side and from the temple courtyard on its south side. [Note: Foakes-Jackson and Lake, 4:136.] Probably the stairs in Acts 21:35 were one of the two south stairways leading from the temple courtyard into the fortress.

The anger of the Jews was evident in their desire to tear Paul apart immediately. Their cry recalls their words about Jesus some 27 years earlier (Luke 23:18; John 19:15; cf. Acts 22:22). Probably the Antonia Fortress was where the soldiers took Jesus for trial before Pilate. It was also the prison from which the angel had freed Peter (Acts 12:5).

Paul’s defense before the Jewish mob 21:37-22:22

"In this first of Paul’s five defenses, Luke’s apologetic interests come to the fore in highlighting the nonpolitical character of Christianity (contrary to other messianic movements of the day, cf. Acts 21:38) and in presenting Paul’s mandate to the Gentiles as being the major reason for Jewish opposition to the gospel (cf. Acts 22:10-22)." [Note: Longenecker, p. 523.]

Verses 37-38

The commander had assumed that Paul was a certain Egyptian who had appeared in Jerusalem three years earlier. This man claimed to be a prophet of God and announced that the wall of Jerusalem would collapse at his command. He further claimed that he would lead his followers from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem where they would defeat the Romans and throw off their yoke. The Romans, however, attacked this man’s followers first and killed many of them, but he had escaped.

The Egyptian’s followers came from the ranks of the Assassins (lit. dagger-men). These were radicals who mingled with crowds with daggers hidden under their cloaks and stabbed Romans and pro-Roman Jews stealthily in an attempt to gain Jewish independence from Rome. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 2:13:3, 5; and Antiquities of . . ., 20:8:5, 6, 10. See also Richard A. Horsley, "High Priests and the Politics of Roman Palestine," Journal for the Study of Judaism 17:1 (June 1986):42-43; and Mark A. Brighton, "The Sicarii in Acts: A New Perspective," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54:3 (September 2011):547-58.]

Claudius Lysias evidently thought this man had returned to the temple area to recruit more followers and the people who now recognized him as an impostor had turned against him.

Verses 37-40

Paul’s request to address the people 21:37-40

Verse 39

Paul explained that he was a Jew and so had a right to be in the temple court of Israel. He was not a resident of Egypt but of the respected Roman city of Tarsus. Tarsus was one of the three chief centers of learning in the ancient world, along with Athens and Alexandria. It had several hundred thousand inhabitants and was noted for its textile industry. [Note: Bock, Acts, p. 658.] It was also the capital of Cilicia and a free city in the empire.

"It is important to recognize that to a great extent in antiquity people were judged by the importance of the place where they were born. Their own personal honor and dignity was in part derived from the honor rating of the place from which they came." [Note: Witherington, p. 663.]

Verse 40

These credentials persuaded the Roman commander to let Paul address the mob.

"Paul had shown respect for the tribune’s authority, spoken an educated man’s Greek, and made considerable honor and status claims. On these grounds the tribune’s action is quite believable. He had no evidence that Paul was not who he claimed to be, and it was always very unwise to refuse or offend someone of equal or higher social status than oneself." [Note: Ibid., p. 664.]

Paul motioned with his hand to the crowd, a gesture designed to quiet them and rivet their attention (cf. Acts 12:17). Paul spoke to the Jews in Aramaic, the vernacular of Palestinian Jews, rather than in Greek. This would have helped his hearers realize that he was one of them.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/acts-21.html. 2012.
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