Last leg of Paul’s voyage home
- 21:1 After we said goodbye to the Ephesus church leaders, we put out to sea. We set sail on a straight course to the island of Cos. The next day we went to the island of Rhodes. And from there we went on to the coastal city of Patara.1
- 21:2 There we found a ship headed for Phoenicia.2 So we went aboard and sailed away once again.
- 21:3 As we sailed southeast we came close enough to the island of Cyprus to see it on our port (left) side. Leaving it behind, we sailed on to Syria. We dropped anchor in the harbor at the city of Tyre. That’s where the ship’s cargo got unloaded.
- 21:4 We found some believers in the city and stayed there for seven days. The believers had a message for Paul that they said came from the Spirit. The message was that Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem.
- 21:5 At the end of the week, we went back to the ship to continue our voyage. We didn’t go alone. The believers escorted us to the ship. They brought their wives and children, too. They followed us out of the town and all the way to the beach. We knelt there and prayed and said our goodbyes.
- 21:6 They stayed with us until we had to board the ship. Then they went home.
- 21:7 From Tyre we sailed to the coastal city of Ptolemais. Believers greeted us, and we stayed with them for one day.
- 21:8 We left the next day and sailed to Caesarea.3 There we went to the home of Philip, known as the evangelist. He was one of seven men the apostles chose to distribute food to the hungry people of Jerusalem.4
- 21:9 Philip had four daughters. None were married, but all prophesied.
- 21:10 While we were staying with Philip, a prophet named Agabus5 came down from the Judean hills.
- 21:11 He came to see us. He took Paul’s belt. He used it to tie up his own hands and feet. He said, “What I just did to myself is what the Holy Spirit says the Jerusalem Jews are going to do to the man who owns this belt. The Jews are going to tie him up and turn him over to people who aren’t Jews.”
- 21:12 When we heard this, we all pleaded with Paul to stay out of Jerusalem, for heaven’s sake.
- 21:13 Paul said, “People, what’s up with all this crying? You’re breaking my heart. I’m ready for what’s coming. If they want to tie me up because I’ve been spreading the name of Jesus around, fine with me. I’ll die for Jesus if I have to.”
- 21:14 When Paul made it clear that we couldn’t talk him out of going to Jerusalem, the room fell silent. When we finally spoke, we simply said, “Whatever the Lord wants.”
Paul arrives in Jerusalem
- 21:15 When Paul was ready, we left for Jerusalem.
- 21:16 A group of the Caesarea believers traveled with us. They led us to one of our overnight stops along the way: the home of Mnason, one of the very first converts. He came from the island of Cyprus.
- 21:17 When we finally got to Jerusalem, all the believers there gave us a warm welcome.
- 21:18 The next day, Paul went with us to visit James.6 All the Jerusalem church leaders were there.
- 21:19 Paul greeted them. Then he started telling them stories—one story after another. It was his way of reporting what he saw God doing among non-Jews all over the Roman world.
- 21:20 By the time Paul stopped talking, the leaders were cheering God. Then they spoke to Paul. “Dear brother, you know that thousands of Jews now believe in Jesus. At the same time, though, they devoutly follow the laws of Moses, like other observant Jews do.
- 21:21 But some people are telling these local Jewish believers that you’re teaching Jewish believers abroad to forget the laws of Moses, skip circumcision, and retire our traditions. They say you’re telling the Jews they don’t have to be Jews anymore—that they can follow Jesus the same way non-Jews do.
- 21:22 We have to figure out what to do about this. No doubt they’ll hear about you coming to town.
- 21:23 Here’s what we’d like you to do. And we’d ask you to please do it. We have four men who have taken a vow.7
- 21:24 Go with them. All of you need to purify yourselves for worship. Paul, we want you to pay for yourself and for each of the men to get your heads shaved as part of the ritual. If you do this, Paul, everyone will see that you respect Jewish traditions and obey the laws. Then they’ll know that the rumors they heard about you are nothing but lies.
- 21:25 As far as the non-Jewish believers are concerned, we put our position in writing for them. We said they shouldn’t eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In addition, they shouldn’t eat or drink blood, or eat the meat of animals that have been strangled. And they should not commit sex sins.”
- 21:26 The next day, Paul did what the church leaders asked. He purified himself and arranged for the other four men to do the same. They all went into the Temple. Paul alerted the Temple priests about the vows the men had taken and when their commitment would end. At that point, each man would offer a sacrifice.
Jews mob Paul in the Temple
- 21:27 Paul had almost finished the seven days of purification rituals8 when Jews from the province of Asia9 spotted him at the Temple. They worked the crowd into a nasty mob that snatched Paul.
- 21:28 These Jews from abroad stirred up the crowd by screaming, “Hey everyone who’s Jewish, help us! This is the man everyone is talking about. He’s the one hurting our people with his teachings. Everywhere he goes he defames us. He defames our sacred law. He even defames this holy place where we worship. And just so you know, he has brought non-Jews into these courts that are reserved for Jews only.10 By doing that, he has spiritually contaminated our holy Temple.”
- 21:29 Earlier in the city, these Jews from Asia11 had seen Paul with Trophimus, a man from Ephesus. They assumed Paul had brought him into the Temple.
- 21:30 It seemed the whole city erupted into a mob. They grabbed Paul and dragged him out of the Temple courtyard and then shut the Temple gate.12
Romans rescue Paul and arrest him
- 21:31 While the mob was setting up to kill Paul, someone rushed to the Roman officer who commanded the soldiers in Jerusalem. The report was that the city had gone wild.
- 21:32 Immediately, the commander rushed out to the mob. He took along a unit of soldiers, including some fellow officers.13 When the mob saw the Roman officer and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.
- 21:33 The commander arrested Paul and ordered him constrained with two chains.14 Then he asked who Paul was and what he had done.
- 21:34 The crowd shouted a bunch of different things, but it wasn’t any help to the officer. Since he couldn’t figure out what was going on, he ordered his soldiers to take Paul back to the barracks.
- 21:35 When Paul got to the stairs, soldiers had to carry him because the crowd was trying to tear him apart.
- 21:36 The mob started chanting, “Death! Get rid of him!”
- 21:37 Soldiers were just about to lead Paul into the barracks when he asked the commanding officer, “May I have a word with you?” The commander answered, “You speak Greek? What’s up with that?
- 21:38 Aren’t you the Egyptian terrorist who started a revolt—the insurgent who formed that desert army of 4,000 men known as Assassins?”15
- 21:39 Paul said, “I’m a Jew. I’m from the city of Tarsus in the territory of Cilicia. I’m a Roman citizen of no Podunk of a town. So would you please let me say something to these people?”
- 21:40 The commander gave him permission. Paul stood on the steps above the crowd. He raised his hands to quiet them. There was a great hush. Then Paul began to speak. He addressed the people in their native Jewish language: Hebrew.
The islands of Cos and Rhodes and the city of Patara are all located at the southwest corner of what is now Turkey.
Phoenicia was a region in what is now the country of Lebanon.
Caesarea was a port city that King Herod the Great built on the Mediterranean coast about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Jerusalem. The walk from one town to the other would take three or four days. Herod built a huge harbor in Caesarea because the nation had no natural harbor. Herod designed Caesarea after Roman cities and he named it after Caesar because he knew who was really the boss. Romans used Caesarea as their capital in the Middle East for 600 years.
See Acts 6:5.
Agabus shows up with a prophecy in Acts 11:28 too.
This is the first time James, whom many consider the brother of Jesus, shows up in the Bible as a leader of the Christian movement. He apparently pastored the mother church in Jerusalem. He also chaired a Jerusalem Council meeting to settle problems in the church (see Acts 15). Paul called this James, along with apostles Peter and John “pillars of the church” (Galatians 2:9 New Living Translation).
It’s unclear what vow the four men took. But the Jerusalem church leaders were asking Paul to take it, too. Some Bible experts say they wonder if this vow was related to the vow Paul had taken when he got ready to return to Jerusalem (see the note for Acts 18:18). Another popular guess is that Paul and the four men with him would be going through the cleansing rituals to wash away spiritual impurities from their contact with people who were unholy—meaning they weren’t devoted to God. So the men needed to wash away the unholiness. The ritual for that seems to be the one described in Numbers 19:11-13. It’s a week-long process, like Paul’s, as reported in Acts 21:27. Non-Jews aren’t mentioned in the Numbers 19 ritual. What we find there are corpses; it wasn’t kosher to touch them without washing up afterward in a religious ritual. In time, some Jews came to think of non-Jews as equally polluting, spiritually speaking—a bit like dead meat walking.
Paul and the other four men may have been following the cleaning rituals prescribed in Numbers 19:12, which required ritual baths on Day Three and Day Seven.
In Roman times, Asia did not refer to the Far East. It was the territory on what is now Turkey’s west coast. It was home to one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire: Ephesus.
It sounds like the man was speaking in an inner courtyard reserved for Jewish men. The massive outer courtyard was open to everyone, even non-Jews. There were four inner courtyards: one for Jewish women, one for Jewish men, one for priests, and one where only the high priest could go on the Day of Atonement. That was the holiest room in the Temple sanctuary, where the Ten Commandments once rested inside a chest called the Ark of the Covenant. A short wall nearly five feet (1.5 m) high separated the outer courtyard from the inner ones. There were signs chiseled into the wall. Two have been found. They said, “No non-Jew can come past this wall that surrounds the Temple complex and the building. Anyone caught trespassing will have only themselves to blame for their inevitable death.”
Ephesus, where Paul ministered for three years, was one of the cities inside the Roman province of Asia. The Jews who condemned Paul may have recognized him from there.
The crowd may have taken Paul to the outer courtyard, where even non-Jews were allowed. Or they may have taken him completely off the hilltop property.
The “fellow officers” were centurions. A centurion commanded a unit of about 100 soldiers.
Two soldiers may have held one chain each. A chain for Paul’s left arm, and another for his right.
First-century Jewish history writer Josephus talked about an Egyptian insurrectionist who led an army of assassins called sicarri, a word that means “dagger men.” They got their name by killing people with daggers. The Egyptian threatened to bring down the walls of Jerusalem like Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho. In the late AD 50s, this Egyptian and his men attacked Jerusalem. Josephus said the Romans drove them off, killing 400 of them and taking 200 captive. Some Bible scholars estimate that Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem took place in about AD 57, when he was about 52 years old.
The writer says the believers in Tyre escorted Paul and his associates “all the way to the beach” (21:5). The writer said much the same thing about the Ephesian church leaders who saw him off: “They walked with him all the way to the ship” (Acts 20:38). Why do you think the writer added a detail like that, and then repeated it?
All along Paul’s route home, well-meaning believers tried to talk him out of going to Jerusalem, for his own safety. Was it wrong of them to press Paul like they did, even though he told them that the Spirit was driving him to Jerusalem (20:22)?
Jerusalem church leaders said that Jews who converted to Christianity were still Jews, and they needed to obey all Jewish laws. Non-Jewish Christians didn’t have to do this, but Jewish Christians did. Well, they didn’t by the end of the first Christian century: “When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete. It is now out of date and will soon disappear” (Hebrews 8:13 New Living Translation). Do you think the Jerusalem church leaders were wrong to insist that Jewish Christians obey “obsolete” Jewish laws?
The Jerusalem church leaders created what sounded like a fine strategy to refute false rumors that Paul was dissing the Jewish laws and traditions (21:24). But their plan got foiled by more false rumors (21:28). Do you think there’s anything Paul could have done to convince the Jerusalem Jews that he was still a good Jew? Or do vicious rumors always trump the truth?
Jews from what is now Turkey, perhaps from Ephesus, managed to instigate a near-riot by telling lies about Paul. Nothing new about that. Jews had been doing that to him for years. Why do you think people were so quick to judge Paul and sentence him to death—before he had spoken a word in his own defense?
The footnote to Acts 21:38 suggests that “the Egyptian terrorist” (21:38) the Roman talked about is probably the same one who attacked Jerusalem about the time this story of Paul’s arrest took place, in the late AD 50s. Does that make you feel any better about the historical accuracy of the Book of Acts?
LIFE APPLICATION. Paul said the Spirit was “driving me to Jerusalem” (20:22). Yet a group of believers in what is now Tyre, Lebanon said the Spirit told them “Paul shouldn’t go to Jerusalem” (21:4). How do you think we can tell the difference between God’s Spirit and Common Sense, Intuition, or Wishful Thinking?
LIFE APPLICATION. The writer of Acts has given us some emotional goodbye scenes in the past couple of chapters (Acts 20:36-38; 21:4-6). Are you feeling it? Is it reminding you of any goodbye’s you’ve experienced?
LIFE APPLICATION. When Christians trying to talk Paul out of going to Jerusalem realized they weren’t going to have any luck, they said, “Whatever the Lord wants” (21:14). Put a more familiar way: “The Lord’s will be done.” When have you had to reluctantly say something like that, giving something up and giving it to God?
LIFE APPLICATION. The vows that Paul and the four men took are a mystery. But it seemed to involve some kind of spiritual discipline, perhaps a bit like fasting as a way of concentrating more time and energy on a serious concern we’re praying about. What kind of spiritual vows do people make today?