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Bible Commentaries
Acts 21

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-40

Chapter 21

NO RETREAT ( Acts 21:1-16 )

21:1-16 When we had torn ourselves away from them and had set sail, we sailed a straight course and came to Cos; on the next day we reached Rhodes; and from there we came to Patara. There we found a ship which was sailing across to Phoenicia and we embarked on her and set sail. After we had sighted Cyprus and had left it behind on the left hand side we sailed on to Syria and came down to Tyre, for there the ship was to discharge her cargo. We sought out the disciples and we stayed there for seven days. They told Paul through the Holy Spirit to give up his journey to Jerusalem. When we had completed the days we left and proceeded on our journey, while they all, with their wives and children, escorted us outside the city. We knelt down on the shore and prayed and bade each other farewell. Then we embarked on the ship and they returned home. We continued our voyage and arrived at Ptolemais from Tyre, and when we had greeted the brethren we stayed among them for one day. On the next day we left and came to Caesarea. We went into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him. He had four daughters who were virgins and who prophesied. While we stayed there longer a prophet called Agabus came down from Judaea. He visited us and he took Paul's girdle and he bound his own hands and feet and said, "Thus speaks the Holy Spirit. The Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man to whom this girdle belongs like this and they will hand him over to the Gentiles." When we heard this both we and the people of the place kept pleading with Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, "What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the name of the Lord Jesus." Since he would not be persuaded, we held our peace and said, "Let the Lord's will be done." After these days, when we had packed up, we set out on the journey to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us. They were to bring us to Mnason, a man of Cyprus, an original disciple, with whom we were to lodge.

The narrative is speeding up and there is an atmosphere of approaching storm as Paul comes nearer Jerusalem. Two things stand out here. (i) There is the sheer determination of Paul to go on no matter what lay ahead. Nothing could have been more definite than the warning of the disciples at Tyre and of Agabus at Caesarea, but nothing could deter Paul from the course that he had chosen. During one of the sieges in the Spanish Civil War, some in the garrison wished to surrender but one of their comrades said, "I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees." Paul was like that. (ii) There is the wonderful fact that wherever Paul went he found a Christian community waiting to welcome him. If that was true in Paul's time, it is still more true today. One of the great privileges of belonging to the Church is the fact that no matter where a man goes, he is sure to find a community of like-minded people into which he may enter. The man who is in the family of the Church has friends all over the world.

Agabus is an interesting figure. Jewish prophets had a certain custom. When words were inadequate, they dramatized their message. There are many instances of this in the Old Testament, for example, Isaiah 20:3-4; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Jeremiah 27:2; Ezekiel 4:1-17; Ezekiel 5:1-4; 1 Kings 11:29-31.

In the King James Version the antiquity of the language may be misleading. Acts 21:15 says, "We took up our carriages and went up to Jerusalem." That may sound as if Paul and his friends travelled by carriage. But in the sixteenth century, used like this, carriage meant not something which carried a man but something which a man had to carry; it meant baggage.


21:17-26 When we arrived in Jerusalem the brethren received us gladly. On the next day Paul along with us went to visit James; and all the elders were present. He greeted them and recounted one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard the story they glorified God. They said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews who have accepted the faith. Now they are all devotees of the Law. They have heard rumours about you which allege that you teach all the Jews who live in Gentile territory to abandon the Law of Moses and to stop circumcising their children and to stop living according to their ancestral customs. What then is to be done? They will be bound to hear that you have arrived. So you must do what we tell you. We have four men who have taken a vow upon themselves. Take these men and be purified along with them; and pay their expenses that they may shave their heads, and then everyone will know that the rumours they have heard about you have no truth in them but that you yourself also walk in observance of the Law. As for the Gentiles who have accepted the faith, we wrote decreeing that they should abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from anything that has been strangled and from fornication." Then on the next day Paul took the men and was purified along with them; he went into the Temple, and announced his intention of completing the days of purification until the offering was made for each one of them.

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem, he presented the church with a problem. The leaders accepted him and saw God's hand in his work; but rumours had been spread that he had encouraged Jews to forsake their ancestral faith. This Paul had never done. True, he had insisted that the Jewish Law was irrelevant for the Gentile; but he had never sought to draw the Jew away from the customs of his fathers.

The leaders saw a way in which Paul could guarantee the orthodoxy of his own conduct. Four men were in the middle of observing the Nazarite vow. This was a vow taken in gratitude for some special blessing from the hand of God. It involved abstention from meat and wine for thirty days, during which the hair had to be allowed to grow. It seems that sometimes at least the last seven days had to be spent entirely in the Temple courts. At the end certain offerings had to be brought--a year old lamb for a sin-offering, a ram for a peace offering, a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil and a meat offering and a drink offering. Finally, the hair had to be shorn and burned on the altar with the sacrifice. It is obvious that this was a costly business. Work had to be given up and all the elements of the sacrifice had to be bought. It was quite beyond the resources of many who would have wished to undertake it. So it was considered an act of piety for some wealthier person to defray the expenses of someone taking the vow. That was what Paul was asked to do in the case of these four men and he consented. By so doing he could demonstrate so that all could see it that he was himself an observer of the Law.

There can be no doubt that the matter was distasteful to Paul. For him the relevancy of things like that was gone. But it is the sign of a truly great man that he can subordinate his own wishes and views for the sake of the Church. There is a time when compromise is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

A SLANDEROUS CHARGE ( Acts 21:27-36 )

21:27-36 When the seven days were nearly completed and when the Jews from Asia had seen Paul in the temple, they stirred up the whole mob and they attacked him shouting, "Help, men of Israel! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, against the Law and against this place. Furthermore he has brought Greeks into the Temple and defiled this holy place." For they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city and they thought that Paul had taken him into the Temple. The whole city was disturbed and the people rushed together. They laid hands on Paul and dragged him outside the Temple and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, the report reached the commander of the battalion that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the commander came up to him and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He asked who he was and what he had done. In the crowd some shouted one thing and some another. When the commander was unable to discover the truth of the matter because of the disturbance, he ordered him to be taken into the barracks. When Paul came to the steps he had to be carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. For the mass of the people were following, shouting, "Kill him!"

It so happened that Paul's compromise led to disaster. It was the time of Pentecost. Jews were present in Jerusalem from all over the world and certain Jews from Asia were there, who no doubt knew how effective Paul's work in Asia had been. They had seen Paul in the city with Trophimus, whom they very likely knew. The business of the vow had taken Paul frequently into the Temple courts and these Asian Jews assumed that Paul had taken Trophimus into the Temple along with him.

Trophimus was a Gentile and for a Gentile to enter the Temple was a terrible thing. Gentiles could enter the Court of the Gentiles but between that court and the Court of the Women there was a barrier and into that barrier there were inset tablets with this inscription--"No man of alien race is to enter within the balustrade and fence that goes round the Temple, and if anyone is taken in the act, let him know that he has himself to blame for the penalty of death that follows." Even the Romans took this so seriously that they allowed the Jews to carry out the death penalty for this crime.

The Asian Jews then accused Paul of destroying the Law, insulting the chosen people and defiling the Temple. They initiated a movement to lynch him. In the north-west corner of the Temple area stood the Castle of Antonia, built by Herod the Great. At the great festivals, when the atmosphere was electric, it was garrisoned by a cohort of one thousand men. Rome insisted on civil order and a riot was unforgivable sin both for the populace who staged it and the commander who allowed it. The commander heard what was going on and came down with his troops. For Paul's own sake he was arrested and chained by each arm to two soldiers. In the confusion the commander was able to extract no coherent charge from the excited mob and Paul was actually carried through the seething mob into the barracks. There was never a time when Paul was nearer death than this and it was the impartial justice of Rome which saved his life.

FACING THE FURY OF THE MOB ( Acts 21:37-40 )

21:37-40 When Paul was about to be brought into the barracks he said to the commander, "May I say something to you?" He said, "Can you speak Greek? Are you not then the Egyptian who some time ago started a revolution and led four thousand men of the Dagger-bearers out into the desert?" Paul said, "I am a man who is a Jew, a native of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city. I ask you, let me speak to the people." When he had given his permission to do so, Paul stood on the steps and made a gesture with his hand to the people. When a great silence had fallen, he spoke to them in the Hebrew tongue.

The Castle of Antonia was connected to the outer courts of the Temple by two flights of stairs on the northern and the western sides. As the soldiers were struggling towards the steps to reach the sanctuary of their own barracks, Paul made an amazing request. He asked the captain to be allowed to address the furious mob. Here is Paul exercising his consistent policy of looking the mob in the face.

The captain was amazed to hear the accents of cultured Greek coming from this man whom the crowd were out to lynch. Somewhere about A.D. 54 an Egyptian had led a band of desperate men out to the Mount of Olives with a promise that he could make the walls of the city fall down before him. The Romans had dealt swiftly and efficiently with his followers but he himself had escaped and the captain had thought that Paul was this revolutionary Egyptian come back.

His followers had been Dagger-bearers, violent nationalists who were deliberate assassins. They concealed daggers in their cloaks, mixed with the mob and struck as they could. But when Paul stated his credentials, the captain knew that, whatever else he was, he was no revolutionary thug; and so he allowed him to speak. When Paul turned to speak he made a gesture for silence, and, almost miraculously, complete silence fell on that roaring mob. Nothing in all the New Testament so shows the force of Paul's personality as this silence that he commanded from the mob who would have lynched him. At that moment the very power of God flowed through him.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 21". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dsb/acts-21.html. 1956-1959.
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