Acts 21:15-39 by Robert Dean
Clashing cultures are breeding grounds for chaos and violence. Listen to this lesson to learn how the Apostle Paul enters a whirlwind of rumors and false accusations when he comes to Jerusalem in A.D. 57. Hear how the Christian leaders there tell him he is being slandered for abandoning his heritage and encouraging new converts to do the same. Find out the plan the leaders devised for Paul to join a group of four men and take religious vows with them to prove he is not a traitor to everything Jewish. Hear seven possible reasons why Paul may have agreed to do this. Discover how we need to understand the priorities in the Christian life so cultural or traditional differences do not get in the way of sharing the message of the gospel.

Click here to view the information Dr. Dean added pertaining to the Temple Mount that ties in with Acts 21:28.

Grace, Law, Culture, Tradition
Acts 21:15-39

This is one of those passages where we get confronted with the reality of the difference between grace and Law. Because Paul is going to do something that has led some people to think that Paul must have been out of fellowship at this time because he took a vow and was going into the temple. Doesn't he know that the Law is dead and no longer in effect? Of course he does. So that is not what is going on here. It has to do with culture, with tradition and history. Sometimes it is not what you do, it is why you do it and how you do it. We need to look at the distinction between grace and Law and understand that there is a place for difference related to cultural observances and traditions that may not be the same as ours. It is hard for some people to grasp cultural differences. Why do those people do it differently than we do? And it is not related to whether it is better or worse, it is related to culture and history and traditions and things like that.

From verse 17 through the end of Acts 28:31 we focus on five major defenses that the apostle Paul brings—apologia, making a legal defense or rational defense of what one believes or one's position. These are somewhat repetitive. In two of them he will repeat what happened on the road to Damascus. In each of those he gives a little bit of information that wasn't included in the Acts 9 description. We learn a lot more about Paul as he presents the gospel and what God has done in his own life.

From Acts 21:17 to 23:30 we are going to see Paul's brutal beating, his subsequent arrest in Jerusalem, and the following legal hearings. Then in verse 31 they are going to move him out of Jerusalem. That begins the second section, which is going to focus on the time that he is in Caesarea—23:31 to 26:32. He spends two years there. He is still not being released and so he appeals as a Romans citizen, as is his right, to be sent to Rome to be heard by Caesar. The book of Acts ends just as he is about to be heard by Caesar. What we put together afterwards is that he is released after that first imprisonment. He probably makes his way to Spain, back over to what is now Yugoslavia and then probably back to Greece before he is arrested a second time and taken back to Rome, at which time he will be martyred. 

As we look at this first section from 21:17 to 23:30 we see that Paul comes into Jerusalem, and as he arrives he has a leadership meeting with James who is the leader of the church there. James is not an official leader; there is not a hierarchy there. Later literature refers to him as the Bishop of Jerusalem. He is never referred to by that title in Scripture. By virtue of his relationship to the Lord and by virtue of his own spiritual maturity he is viewed as the key leader among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. But there are also a number of pastors of churches. It is a very large Christian community by this time. Paul is going to have a meeting with them and one of their great concerns is that Paul has been slandered tremendously in the Jewish community. They put up an option or strategy to deal with that that involves him in taking a vow, going to the temple, and when he goes to finish the vow in fulfillment of the Law a major riot breaks out. There were probably 15, 20 or 30-thousand people in the temple precinct and they are all seeking Paul's life. He is viewed as the enemy and he is physically beaten and brutalized until he is rescued because the Roman soldiers that are stationed at the fortress Antonio are there to keep a lid on the Jewish people. Remember we are within ten years of the Jewish revolt. There were a lot of undercurrents and opposition not only against Rome but against each other. The Jewish people had fragmented into so many different groups that they hated each other as much as they hated the Romans.

Acts 21:15 NASB "After these days we got ready and started on our way up to Jerusalem. [16] {Some} of the disciples from Caesarea also came with us, taking us to Mnason of Cyprus, a disciple of long standing with whom we were to lodge." As they came to Jerusalem there was a large number of believers to welcome them. This is on the verge of the feast of Pentecost, and according to Josephus, during these major festivals—three annual feasts: Passover, Pentecost and Yom Kippur—the crowds in Jerusalem would increase to several hundred thousand. The normal population was 40-50,000. So this is a time when there were a lot of people in Jerusalem. [17] "After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly."

Acts 21:18 NASB "And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present." This is when they have there leadership meeting with all the elders. These would be the pastors of the various congregations of Jewish believers in Jerusalem.

What we have been dealing with with Paul is Paul's ministry to Gentiles. And in ministering to the Gentiles one of the major issues that came up was what was required of Gentiles in terms of their relationship with the Law. At the Jerusalem Council and in the epistle to the Galatians Paul made is clear that the Gentiles are not required to obey the Law. He says that anyone who requires that makes themselves a slave of the Law, and this is in contrast to grace. In the case of Timothy Paul wasn't mandating that Timothy be circumcised because it made him more saveable or more spiritual. The reason was culture. Paul recognized that if Timothy was going to be accepted in the religious communities of the Jews in the cities and towns they went to he would have to be circumcised. It was a cultural, traditional reason of acceptance so that he wouldn't be viewed as an unclean Gentile, and so that he could have a hearing for the gospel. It had nothing to do with a spiritual benefit.

And that is the same kind of thing we see for Jews obeying the Law. They did so not for spiritual reasons, not because it made them more saveable or made them more sanctified; it was simply because that was part of their history and tradition to follow the Torah.

Now who is this James that we find in Acts 21:18? There are four, maybe five, James identified in Scripture. The more well-known James is James the brother of John, usually mentioned first in the list of disciples. They are also referred to as the sons of thunder. But that is not who this James is because James the brother of John was killed for his faith by Herod Agrippa the first in Acts 12:1-3. The second candidate among the disciples was James the son of Alphaeus but we don't know anything about him other than he shows up in the list of all the disciples. There is another James mentioned, James the Lesser, and there is a lot of debate about him because some think that the term James the Lesser also referred to James the son of Alphaeus. Others think that James the Lesser was another individual. Nothing is really known about either, other than that their names are mentioned. Then there is another James the father of Judas.

But this James is James the half brother of the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. The date here is late May or early June of AD 57, thirteen years from the destruction of the temple and nine years from the beginning of the Jewish revolt. James will be martyred in 62, so he has five years left of his life and ministry. The other apostles have all scattered around the world. At this time they are involved in different geographical areas. Some think that James might have been an apostle because of Galatians 1:19 NASB "But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." The way that is read in the English it looks like James is part of the apostles, but that is not necessarily how the Greeks reads. It just means he didn't see any other apostles, indicating no one else. The only person he saw other than Peter was James. James is not identified anywhere else in Scripture by the title apostle. He was the leader of the church in Jerusalem.

James is listed first whenever there is a list of the half-brothers of the humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ. There were four brothers named: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. There is also reference in Matthew 13:56 to all of His sisters. So there are at least seven siblings for the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul identified James as one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem that he met with three years after his own conversion (Galatians 1:19). Then in the Gospels he is mentioned by name only twice, and that is as part of the list of the brothers of Jesus. He would have been one of the brothers who came with Mary to try to dissuade Jesus from His ministry (Matthew 12:46). He was also one of the two brothers who accompanied Him to Capernaum in John 2:12. Later on he is with the brothers who try to persuade Jesus to leave Galilee and go to Judea at the time of the feast of the tabernacles (John 7:3). At no point in Jesus life during His ministry were any of His siblings saved. James is saved, though, after the resurrection. We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:7 NASB "then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles." That is the time that James becomes a believer and becomes a leader in the church in Jerusalem. And because he witnessed the resurrection of Christ this also would give him prominence in the church in Jerusalem.  

James was known as "The Just", according to a second century writer. He was also known as Camel-Knees because he spent so much time praying on his knees that they were calloused. There are certain hyperbolic and exaggerated statements made about James but one thing we can say for certain is that he seemed to be very rigorous in his observance of the Mosaic Law—not because he was a Judaiser or legalistic, but because that was his background and tradition. When we look at the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter fifteen and their deliberations about what should be expected of Gentiles James shows a tremendous amount of grace and wisdom. Cf. Acts 21:25. So he was not a legalist, but personally he was apparently very rigorous in his observance of the Law.

Paul comes to this group and gives a report. Acts 21:19 NASB "After he had greeted them, he {began} to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry." They are very happy with what they hear about Paul's missionary journeys. Remember that they are still living in what we would call today an extremely religious orthodox type Jewish environment in Jerusalem where they don't have any context with the Gentiles, and yet they understand what God's plan and purpose is to include the Gentiles in the church and that the times of the Gentiles are underway, and so they are quite thrilled with that response. 

Acts 21:20 NASB "And when they heard it they {began} glorifying God; and they said to him, 'You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; [21] and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.'" The use of the term brother indicates again that they recognize that he is a fellow believer in the ministry. The thousands of Jews that have believed refers to those in Jerusalem at this time.

The argument here is: We have a problem. There are some radical elements here in the Jewish community that are so hostile to you that they have been spreading a big lie about you.

Acts 21:22 NASB "What, then, is {to be done?} They will certainly hear that you have come." They are setting up a strategy to counter the slander that has been brought against Paul.

"how many thousands" – the Greek word is muriades [myriads]. A myriad was ten thousand—"there are among the Jews who have believed". So they are talking about numerous Jews: "many myriads", which could be 30, 40, 50,000 Jewish Christians who are in Jerusalem at this time. At this time Jerusalem had a population of 40-50,000. It swelled to something like 500,000 to a quarter of a million during the feast days, and so as many as ten or twenty per cent of the Jews gathered for Pentecost at this time might be believers. The ones that are going to cause the riot are the ones that aren't believers. Believers aren't going to riot against Paul; it is the unbelievers who are going to riot against him. In the twenty years or so since the church began on the day of Pentecost there has been quite a growth of Jewish believers.

We are then told they not only have they believed but they are all zealous for the Law. This is not in a wrong way, not in the legalistic way of the Judaizers that were hounding Paul's steps all through his missionary journeys and stirring up opposition to him, but these are Jewish believers who are on target spiritually but they just have a tradition and a heritage a history of the Mosaic Law. They are not going to change that but they are not observing the Law for reasons that are wrong.

As they are explaining the gospel to other Jews what they are hearing back in opposition is that Paul is anti-Judaism, anti-Moses, and that Paul teaches all the Jews who are living out in the diaspora to forsake Moses. The word here to "forsake" is a word that means to apostasize from Moses. How are they to do that? Firstly, that the children don't need to be circumcised. Second, that the children don't need to walk according to the customs.

There is a little background here, part of which goes back to the phrase in verse 20, "zealous for the Law." It had a rich background and was used in one of the apocryphal books which tells the story about the Maccabean revolt when Antiochus Epiphanes who viciously persecuted the Jews. They passed laws where it was a death penalty offence if infants were circumcised or if even a scrap or torn part of a page of Scripture was sound in the home of any Jew. So those who were "zealous for the Law" referred to the faithful Jews who stood up against Antiochus and against the Jews who just wanted to assimilate with the Hellenistic pagan views of the day.

Then we have the issue of circumcision coming up. In Judaism circumcision is like a sign of patriotism. It was a sign of being a Jew; it is a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Even today the reason Jewish males should be circumcised is not because of the Mosaic Law; it is because of the Abrahamic covenant and being a descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Then the term "customs" would indicate not just the customs of Moses, it would also include for them the teaching of the rabbis and the Pharisees that came out of the time of the captivity.

So they are really accusing Paul of being more than just a religious apostate, they are accusing him of being a traitor to everything Jewish. And that is not unusual even today when somebody converts to Christianity. This was the slander they raised against Paul and in v. 22 they asked what they should do about this. They had a plan.

Paul clearly taught that the Law was good. Romans 7:12 NASB "So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Some Christians think that anything that supports the Law is legalism. It is the misapplication of the Law under religious legalism and arrogance that is bad, but inherently the Law is holy and just and good. So there is nothing wrong with obeying the Law. It is only wrong if you think it makes you better than anybody else spiritually.

Acts 21:23 NASB "Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow;  [24] take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law."

Shaving their heads meant that they had a Nazirite vow, which meant that they couldn't touch anything that was the product of the grape vine or have a razor touch their hair, and they had to maintain ritual purity for a period of time. At the end of the vow they would shave their heads and then they would offer various sacrifices. They are going to have Paul join them in going to the temple on the first day where they would identify themselves to the priest who was in charge of the vows, tell him what was going on, and then Paul would be entering into this vow. He would shave his head along with them at the beginning and then they would go through a period of various sacrifice rituals that would come up during the week.

Paul doesn't say to wait a minute, the Law is bad and he is not going to do it. He says it is fine, great, because he is not an antinomian; he is not immoral. He understands what the issue is, that this is a tradition and a history issue. (When you are witnessing to people, don't get caught up in some theological red herrings to distract you from the point of explaining the gospel to people). He recognizes that ultimately this should be a non-issue. As he states in 1 Corinthians he was going to be all things to all men. 1 Corinthians 9:20 NASB "To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law."  

There are some who have said that Paul was wrong in taking this vow: that it was legalism.

Why Paul was not wrong

1.      It was a voluntary act. He is not thinking that everybody needs to take vows in order to be a Christian or in order to live the Christian life. It is a voluntary act on his part, just as was the vow he took in Acts 18:18. It is part of his tradition and heritage.

2.      He is never ashamed of the fact that he participated in these rituals. The temple is still standing. Until the transition zone between the beginning of the church age where there Law is dying out the message still offers the kingdom to Israel and so God has not taken out the temple yet. Ritual is still legitimate if it is done the right way and not in conflict with grace or the message of the fulfillment of salvation in Christ as Messiah.

3.      It is in keeping with his policy which he states in 1 Corinthians 9:20, 21. He is not going to let a non-issue distract from getting to the point of teaching that Jesus is the Messiah and the savior of the world.

4.      Not all blood sacrifices are atonement sacrifices in the sense of picturing Jesus' payment of sin. Ritual sacrifices taught certain things about sin and about confession and about these basic principles, and so sacrifices are not inherently wrong. Sacrifices will be restored as ritual cleansing sacrifices in the millennial temple.

5.      The purpose for this succeeded because it showed the believing Jewish community that he wasn't hostile to the Law, he wasn't teaching things that were contrary to the Law; he wasn't an antinomian. So when he rain into opposition and persecution it didn't coming from the believing Jewish community, it came from the non-Christian, the unbelieving Jewish community.

6.      Paul is not compromising here; he is demonstrating that the rumors and the charges against him are completely false.

There are some principles there for us. Sometimes we have to learn that some of the things that we believe the way things should be done, certain things like that, we need to learn what is first, what is second, understand where the priorities are (in the message) and not let non-essentials get in the way of communicating the gospel. 

What we see as we come to the end of this section is that Paul allows these Jews to function as Jews.  In the very next verse we realize that James is allowing the Gentiles to function as Gentiles. They are not under obligation to the Law.  

Acts 21:25 NASB "But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication."

Acts 21:26 NASB "Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them. This first visit to the temple doesn't create any kind of a problem.

Acts 21:27 NASB "When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia …" These are the troublemakers, the Jews from Ephesus, from Lystra and Derbe who have dogged Paul's footsteps all across Greece and were constantly stirring up the Jewish crowds against Paul. Now some of these same Jews who have shown up in Jerusalem for the feast day start stirring up the crowd against Paul to attack him. " … upon seeing him in the temple, {began} to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him, [28] crying out, 'Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.'"

In this lie what we see is that they are accusing Paul of bringing a Gentile across the line and into the temple area itself. This is a falsehood and they are basing it on the fact that earlier they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian with Paul in the city and are saying that if he was with him out there he must have taken him into the temple. They are saying these things in order to create a riot. It causes a disturbance that flows out into the whole city.

Acts 21:29 NASB "For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. [30] Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut." They dragged him out because they could not shed blood inside the temple.

Acts 21:31 NASB "While they were seeking to kill him, a report came up to the commander of the {Roman} cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. [32] At once he took along {some} soldiers and centurions and ran down to them; and when they saw the commander and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul."

A centurion is a commander of a cohort, a century, 100. The commander has centurions, so that means he has more than one. They are taking at least 200 soldiers into the temple precinct in order to shut down this riot, which they do. 

Acts 21:33 NASB "Then the commander came up and took hold of him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; and he {began} asking who he was and what he had done. [34] But among the crowd some were shouting one thing {and} some another, and when he could not find out the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. [35] When he got to the stairs, he was carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob; [36] for the multitude of the people kept following them, shouting, "Away with him!"

Acts 21:37   As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the commander, 'May I say something to you?' And he said, 'Do you know Greek? [38] Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness? [39] But Paul said, 'I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city; and I beg you, allow me to speak to the people.'"