Acts 21-23

Paul’s appearance in the temple did not go as he had hoped. Having traveled as far as Achaia on his third missionary journey, Paul returned to Jerusalem with the gifts from the churches (Rom 15: 22-33; 1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15). Paul hoped that in the eyes of Jewish Christians who were skeptical of his ministry to the Gentiles, these financial offerings would validate the Gentiles as God’s people. But the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem rejected Paul in the temple and thwarted Paul’s attempt to unify Jewish and Gentile Christians there. In Acts 21-23, the Old Testament influenced Paul’s thinking and the mindset of his opponents.

(1) In Acts 21:23-24, Paul submitted to a vow as a way of showing his identification with Israel and his regard for the law. Commitments like the Nazarite vow provided a way for Israelites to show their commitment to the Lord in the community of his people. In Numbers 6, Moses prescribed that one taking the Nazarite vow was to abstain from strong drink and anything produced by the grapevine, let his hair grow, and avoid contact with a corpse. When the period of consecration was over, the person completing their vow was to bring a sacrifice to be offered at the tent of meeting (which was eventually replaced by the temple) and the person’s head was to be shaved. Some in Jerusalem thought that Paul had taken the message of the Jerusalem Council—that Gentiles should not be burdened with the Mosaic law—too far. They heard a report that Paul told Jews to abandon the law (Acts 21:21). To thus ensure Paul’s acceptance in the city, the Jerusalem leaders urged Paul to submit to ritual purity and assist those who had taken a vow by paying for them to get their heads shaved (Acts 21:22-24). The leaders of the church in Jerusalem hoped that by Paul’s public identification with these men who had taken a vow of purity, Paul would be seen as a peacemaker and not a rebel. The Jerusalem leaders said, “Then everyone will know that what they were told about you amounts to nothing, but that you yourself are also careful about observing the law” (Acts 21:24). Paul submitted to the counsel of the leaders, but it was to no avail. Near the end of the festival, “the Jews from the province of Asia saw him [Paul] in the temple complex, stirred up the whole crowd, and seized him” (Acts 21:27). They slandered Paul to the crowd, accusing him of teaching against Israel, the law, and the temple (Acts 21:28). They falsely accused Paul of bringing a Gentile into the temple complex, profaning it (Acts 21:29).

(2) In Acts 21:1-14, many warned Paul to avoid Jerusalem, echoing Jesus and the prophets who said that Jerusalem consistently rejected those who spoke for God. Jeremiah preached against Jerusalem because of the idolatry he witnessed in the city (Jer 4:3-16; 6:1-6; 11:1-13). And he suffered for it, suffering beatings and imprisonment at the hand of the city’s religious and civic leaders (Jer 20:1-6; 26:1-19; 38:1-28). The people of Jerusalem killed Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest when he confronted them for transgressing the Lord’s commands (2 Chron 24:20-22; Matt 23:35//Luke 11:51). On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus discussed with Moses and Elijah the departure he would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31) and then set His face toward the city (Luke 9:51). Along the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that Jerusalem was the greatest threat to anyone who spoke for God (Luke 13:33). When Paul and company arrived in Tyre, some disciples there “said to Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). The same counsel was given at Philip’s home in Caesarea, where Agabus—who had earlier come down from Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30)—arrived again and predicted that the Jews would bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles if he continued his journey as planned (Acts 21:7-11). Luke shared his perspective writing, “When we heard this, both we and the local people begged him not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). But Paul would not be deterred, saying, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

(3) In Acts 23:5, Paul cited Exod 22:28 to establish that he followed the law even when the Jewish leadership did not. In Exodus 22, Moses set out various laws regarding property and personal relationships. Israel was to do justice in the land, living in an orderly and respectful manner toward their brothers as a reflection of trust in God. “You must not blaspheme God or curse a leader among your people,” Moses said (Exod 22:28). When the Jews from Asia accused Paul of bringing a Gentile into the temple (Acts 21:28-29), a riot ensued and Jerusalem was in an uproar. Although the Jews risked being liable of insurrection, they nonetheless continued to rage against Paul—who “had to be carried off by the soldiers because of the mob’s violence…following and yelling, ‘Kill him!’” (Acts 21:36). Once Paul informed the Roman commander that although he was of Jewish descent he was also a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus, he was permitted to address the crowd with at least some degree of military protection (Acts 21:40-22:30). But the Jews again raged against Paul. Eventually the Roman commander in charge instructed the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin to gather and hear Paul (Acts 22:30). After Paul uttered one sentence, Ananias the high priest ordered Paul struck. Paul spoke against the high priest and confronted him for breaking the law. Those in the Sanhedrin in turn confronted Paul for blaspheming Israel’s high priest. “‘I did not know, brothers,’ Paul said, ‘that it was the high priest. For it is written, You must not speak evil of a ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5).