by Peter Forbes
The Acts of the Apostles tracks, by and large, the development of the first century ecclesia. The first six chapters deal with the initial work in Jerusalem, the problems caused by persecution. chapter 7 speaks of the first Christian martyr. Chapter 8, the conversion of a son of Ham and chapter 10 the conversion of the first true gentile. Chapter 9 introduces the apostle Paul and his conversion. Acts 13 marks the beginning of the record of Paul’s’ work amongst the gentiles.
The section of Acts between chapters 13 and 21 record some of the preaching of the apostle Paul. However we should not assume that Acts provides a comprehensive record of Paul’s work because the account of his tribulations [2Corinthians 11:23-27] mentions events which Acts does not record.
This point makes us appreciate that Acts is highly specific in the things it records and should cause us to ask why the record is as it is. The area of Acts that we are considering has an over riding plot which is not apparent from a superficial reading.
Acts 21 – 23 In Context
The visit to Jerusalem which is found in Acts 21 is the fourth time that the apostle has gone up to Jerusalem according to Acts.
The other three visits are mentioned thus:-
1] Acts 9:26 [after his conversion]
2] Acts 11:27-30 [Paul and Barnabas take “alms” to the “brethren that dwelt in Judea”]
3] Acts 15:4 [The Jerusalem council]
In Acts 18:21 we are informed that Paul intended to go to Jerusalem, however it is difficult to know whether this intention was fulfilled in his visit in Acts 21 or at an earlier time. The scope of this article prevents us examining the record in sufficient detail to resolve this question.
It is possible to trace the movements of Paul as he goes up to Jerusalem thus. 18:22 he goes to Caesarea, Antioch then to Galatia v23 Achaia v 27. He then went back to Ephesus 19:1Whilst he was in Ephesus he purposed to go to Jerusalem 19:21 but stayed in Asia “for a season” 19:22. departs for Macedonia 20:1 and then is in Greece for 3 months vs. 2-3. He left Philippi after Passover v6 arriving in Troas where he stayed for 7 days. Luke picked up Paul at Assos 20:14 then they passed on to Mitylene v 15 Samos and Miletus v16 where we learn that Paul desires to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost. The elders from Ephesus called to Miletus20:17. Leaving there he travels by ship to Syria where he stays in Tyre for 7 days. Whilst he is in Tyre the disciples said “don’t go to Jerusalem” 21:3 – 4 He then passes on to Ptolomias where he stays for 1 day v7. Caesarea v8 is his next stop where he remains for “many days”v10. Whilst he is there Agabus prophesied the binding of Paul at Jerusalem v11 which prompted the disciples to echo the desire of the brethren at Tyre that Paul should not go to Jerusalem v12. Nevertheless Paul set off to Jerusalem v15.
There is value in getting out your Bible atlas and tracing these journeys.
The Purpose of The Visit
We search in vain in the preceding chapters for the reason for Paul’s great desire to go to Jerusalem. He knew that great trouble awaited him there. Acts 21:13 “Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus”. Nevertheless he went. What was the motivation?
We learn of the reason for the visit when Paul is before Felix. For he says, Acts 24:17 “Now after many years I came to bring alms to my nation, and offerings”. This visit to Jerusalem was the culmination of a task that had been in the forefront of Paul’s mind since the events recorded in Acts 11. Doubtless the journeys and places he visited on his way to Jerusalem was to advance the cause of the poor saints in Jerusalem.
There were two reasons for the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. One reason was the obvious one. They were in great need. However there was another reason which highlighted Paul’s concern for unity in the ecclesia between Jew and gentile believer. Paul outlines this as a reason Romans 15:26-27 “For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things’. The collection for the Jewish believers had as a major purpose the cementing of the unity which did exist in Christ between Jew and gentile.
A realisation of Paul’s concern to collect money for the brethren in Jerusalem deepens our appreciation of Paul. Not only did he write epistles exhorting unity between Jew and gentile. He instituted, and took part in, actions which were designed to reinforce the letters.
Overtaken by Events
On his arrival in Jerusalem, where he was warmly welcomed by the brethren Acts 21:17 “And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly”. However there was a pressing matter on their mind for they had heard accusations against the apostle that they wished to have resolved Acts 21:20-22 “And when they heard [about the response of the gentiles], they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law: And they are informed of thee, that thou teachest all the Jews which are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? the multitude must needs come together: for they will hear that thou art come”.
The consequences of Paul attempting to allay the fears of the brethren were catastrophic. Whilst in the temple he is apprehended by a riotous mob and has to be rescued by the Romans who controlled the temple mount.
From this time forward the Apostle Paul was never truly free again. His missionary journeys and visits to ecclesias that he had founded were over. From this time until his death he was a prisoner of Rome. In fact the rest of the Acts of the Apostles documents Paul’s tribulations at the hands of the Romans rather than his preaching activities.
The Hand of Providence
Indeed he would not even have been tried in a Roman court had it not been for the care of the Father for “certain of the Jews” planned to slay Paul. However their plans were thwarted by “Paul’s sister’s son”. Overhearing their plot he told Paul of what he had heard. Paul then spoke to “one of the centurions” who arranged for his safe transport out of the city.
Clearly the work of the Apostle Paul was not over yet. Indeed much of Paul’s writing to the ecclesias and individuals took place after this time.
The Dangers of Hearsay
Thus we see that the Apostle’s plans were overtaken and the rest of his life changed by the actions of some brethren who misrepresented Paul.
A consideration of Paul’s teaching as seen in the Epistles indicates that Paul never taught Jews not to circumcise their children or to forsake the Law of Moses. It is clear that Paul taught that adherence to the law as a means of salvation was folly. Further he, implementing the decision of the Apostles at Jerusalem as laid out in Acts 15, did not constrain the gentiles to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses.
We know that all things are in the Father’s power. However, reading the record of the Acts, we cannot but conclude that the accusations of those brethren in Jerusalem curtailed Paul’s actions. He had come to Jerusalem to deliver the money he had collected for “the saints [which are at Jerusalem]