Acts 21

Acts 21
by Pastor David Groendyk

Chapter 21 picks up where chapter 20 left off. Paul is leaving the Ephesian elders and setting sail for Jerusalem, continuing his farewell tour. There are many tears and hugs and prayers, but one of the more confusing parts of Acts 21 is verse 4 where it says that the disciples “through the Spirit…were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.” Wasn’t this the exact opposite of what the Spirit told Paul? In Acts 19:21, Paul “resolved in the Spirit to…go to Jerusalem.” In Acts 20:22, Paul says he was “constrained by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem. The best explanation is to look ahead to verses 11–12 and compare them to verse 4. Most likely, the disciples in both of these scenarios are seeing what will happen to Paul when he goes Jerusalem through the revelation of the Spirit, but the disciples’ conclusions are that Paul should not go to Jerusalem, whereas Paul’s response is verse 13: “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” The Spirit was not giving two different messages but rather one message that Paul and the disciples were responding to differently. And, as it turns out, it was the will of the Lord for Paul to go to Jerusalem and be imprisoned (v. 14).

So, here is a difficult question for us to answer: Are you ready even to die for the name of the Lord Jesus? Are you prepared to suffer for being a Christian? Will you choose to broad and easy road when you see potential trouble lying ahead? Will you turn your back on Christ, even for a minute, when the going gets tough? Or will you steadfastly and whole-heartedly stick with our Savior and his people?

When Paul does get to Jerusalem, it’s not long before the going does get tough for him. Verses 17–26 appear to be another example of what happened in Acts 16:1–4. Paul wanted to show that he didn’t necessarily object to following Jewish customs, so long as the customs were not a requirement to believe the gospel and join the church. He is “becom[ing] all things to all people” as far as he is able (1 Cor. 9:22). This time, unlike in Acts 16, it doesn’t work. In verses 27–39, Paul is imprisoned and nearly killed by the angry mob based on two false charges from two different parties. (Note how verse 29 implies that the Jews made a false assumption about what Paul did. Also of note, the Jewish historian named Josephus wrote about the “Assassins” group mentioned in verse 38. Literally, their name is “Men of the Dagger” and they went around stabbing Roman sympathizers under the cover of large crowds. You can see why an entire cohort of 1000 soldiers was sent out to get Paul!) There are strong echoes of Jesus’s own crucifixion here in Acts 21—an entire army out to get one man, a mob of people hot enough to kill him, false charges being thrown around, and even the specific phrase “Away with him!”

On the heels of Paul’s efforts in verses 17–26, it goes to show that we can capitulate to our unbelieving audience in every way possible and yet still be misunderstood, hated, mistreated, arrested, and beaten up. While Paul is seeing amazing fruit through the power of God in his evangelistic efforts (see verse 19), true evangelism will also make enemies. The prophets in ancient Israel experienced this same phenomenon. Isaiah was called to preach his message to an audience who would only close their ears and harden their hearts (Isa. 6:9–10). Likewise, Jeremiah was told he would be fought against when he preached his message (Jer. 1:19). Remember also the rejection that Elijah and Elisha faced many times. There is simply no magical formula when sharing the gospel. We share and preach and explain the gospel to everyone who will listen, but it is up to God for that message to be implanted in their hearts and bear fruit. Let us, then, go forth like Paul, eager to speak the good news no matter the personal cost, and trusting the Lord to give us the strength and bring success as he sees fit.