by Greg Williamson © revised 2022
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB © The Lockman Foundation*

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On to Jerusalem (Acts 21:1–16) | Paul's Arrival and Arrest at Jerusalem (Acts 21:17–40)

Paul's Arrival and Arrest at Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-40)

From the report to the request (Acts 21:17-40)

(17) After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. (18) And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. (19) After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. (20) 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. (22) "What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. (23) "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. (25) "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." (26) 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.

(27) When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, 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." (29) 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. (31) 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. (33) 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!"

(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." (40) When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,

V. PAUL IN JERUSALEM (Acts 21:16–40)
  A. The report (Acts 21:16–19): Upon arriving Paul reviews for James and the Jerusalem elders the many things God has done among the Gentiles through his work.
B. The rumor (Acts 21:20–26)
    1. The slander (Acts 21:20–22): Paul learns he is being accused of being against the laws of Moses and forbidding the ceremony of circumcision.
2. The suggestion (Acts 21:23–26): To counteract this, Paul is advised to shave his head and take a vow in the Temple, and he agrees.
  C. The reprobation (Acts 21:27–29): An angry Jewish mob attacks Paul in the Temple, believing that he is guilty of two blasphemous acts:
    1. That he advocated disobedience to the law of God (Acts 21:27)
2. That he brought a Gentile into the Temple of God (Acts 21:28–29)
  D. The riot (Acts 21:30–31): They take Paul outside the city gate and try to kill him.
E. The rescue (Acts 21:32–36): Paul is saved from certain death by the commander of the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem.
F. The request (Acts 21:37–40): After correcting the Roman commander's mistaken notion that Paul is a former Egyptian rebel, Paul asks and receives permission to address the angry crowd. [ref]

  • (Acts 21:17-19) Paul and his entourage visit James and all the elders of the Jerusalem church and Paul relates his successful ministry efforts among the Gentiles. Arnold: "In light of the turmoil that will follow, [in Acts 21:17] Luke stresses the fact that Paul and his eight Gentile companions receive a warm reception by their fellow Christians in Jerusalem. Certainly not all Jerusalem Christians are opposed to Paul." [ref]
  • (Acts 21:18-19) Pinter:
    The day after his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul meets with the Jerusalem church leadership. Several observations are noteworthy about this reunion. First, it is clear that James is the leader of the church. James, the brother of Jesus, has been taking a leading role for some time now, according to Luke's narrative (see Acts 12:17; 15:13-21). There is no mention of Peter or other apostles at this gathering, but they may have been included within "the elders" (presbyteroi). Second, there is a clear indication that Paul must render a detailed account of what he has been doing the past few years. Since his split with Barnabas (Acts 15:39), this is all the more important since it was Barnabas who introduced him to the Jerusalem community in the first place and vouched for his credentials. It is vital for Paul to demonstrate that what he has been doing among the gentiles is from God. Hence, in Luke's description the emphasis is not simply on what Paul has done but what "God had done . . . through his ministry" (Acts 21:19). Again, we see the divine initiative taking precedence in the narrative and in Paul's report of his ministry (see Acts 14:27; 15:4, 12). One final note is that the "we" perspective is dropped (cf. Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). The narrative now resumes the account in the third person. Presumably, Luke is still with Paul in Jerusalem, but for literary reasons the focus has now shifted exclusively to Paul. [ref]
  • (Acts 21:18)
    ■ Hughes: "Some evidence indicates there were seventy elders (patterned after the Sanhedrin). If so, a rather imposing group questioned Paul and his companions. Its leader was the venerable 'James the Just,' a brother of Jesus and a man famous among all the Jews for his piety. Eusebius said his knees were like those of a camel because of all the time he spent in prayer." [ref]
    ■ Toussaint: "Obviously Paul at this point also turned the large offering for the saints at Jerusalem (Acts 24:17) over to James in the presence of the elders. Probably because Luke’s emphasis was on the gospel going from the Jews to the Gentiles, he omitted this matter of money." [ref]
  • (Acts 21:19-20) Paul recounts the success with which God had blessed his ministry among the Gentiles.
    ■ Marshall: "The success of the mission is deliberately attributed to God: whatever doubts might still linger in Jewish minds about the Gentile mission, it was guided and planned by God." [ref]
    ■ Bruce: "Paul's narrative of all that God had accomplished through his ministry on both sides of the Aegean gave his hearers cause for joy. The representatives of many of the Gentile churches which he had planted were there with him as living witnesses to the truth of his report, and the gifts which they brought (though Luke says nothing about them) showed that the divine grace which they had received found a response in action as well as in word. So James and his colleagues praised God for his astounding grace manifested to Gentiles." [ref]
Of The Lord
William J. Larkin Jr: "Luke's phrasing [in Acts 21:19] reminds us that anything accomplished through a ministry from the Lord, for the Lord and in his name is, in the final analysis, accomplished by the Lord alone. This is a necessary reminder, for often we are so busy doing our demographics, planning our outreach strategies, preparing our people and materials for our next big advance for God that we forget that he must do the work. True ministry for him will always be ministry by him." [ref]
  • (Acts 21:20-21) While the Jerusalem leadership responds to Paul's report with no little enthusiasm, they nonetheless express their concern over a prominent misconception among the Jewish Christians regarding Paul's teaching. Regarding the Jews ... zealous for the law, Marshall notes:
    These zealots for the law were ready to believe the rumours which they heard about Paul. He was accused of advising Jews who lived in Gentile communities to give up circumcision. Since they could not very well uncircumcise themselves (although some Jews literally did this, 1 Macc. 1:15), they would refrain from circumcision in the case of their children. They were also said to be abandoning the customs laid down in the law. No doubt it was true that Christian Jews in the Dispersion were beginning to do precisely these things: a Jew who took seriously Paul's comments to Gentile Christians in Galatians 4:9; 5:6 and Romans 2:25–29 might well conclude that he too need no longer keep the law. Paul also denied that he could be described as a preacher of circumcision -- to the Gentiles (Gal. 5:11). In view of this evidence we can see how the rumours could have arisen. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn were false. Even if Paul proclaimed that Christ was the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), there is no evidence that he actively persuaded Jewish Christians to forego circumcising their children or to give up Jewish customs. The evidence of Romans 14–15 and 1 Corinthians 8–10 shows that Paul reckoned with the existence of Jews (the 'weak' brothers) who differed from the Gentiles on what they might eat, and Paul defended the right of each group to its own views and the need for each to show toleration to the other. At Corinth Paul appears to have defended Jewish habits with regard to the veiling of women at worship (1 Cor. 11:2–16). We have seen that Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3), and according to Acts 18:18 he himself undertook a Jewish Nazirite vow. The accusation, then, had no substance in it. [ref]
  • (Acts 21:22-26) The Jerusalem church leaders propose to Paul a way in which he can publicly demonstrate "his reverence for the Jewish Law." [ref] As for Paul, it appears he "was prepared to make a conciliatory gesture, although his own testimony remained that he no longer lived under the law of Moses but under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21)." [ref]
    ■ Larkin: "Paul is asked to bear the expenses of the four. This was a commonly recognized act of piety (Josephus Jewish Antiquities 19.294). To do so he must go through a seven-day ritual cleansing himself, because he has recently returned from Gentile lands (m. Oholot 2:3; 17:5; 18:6; Num 19:12). The intended result is that the rumors about Paul will be shown to be baseless and he will be seen living in obedience to the law. Lest Paul's action be misunderstood in another direction, as making Jewish custom normative for Gentile Christians, the elders hasten to add that the Jerusalem Council decree is still in place (see discussion above at Acts 15:20, 29). It is repeated here in essential detail." [ref]
    ■ Toussaint:
    Was Paul wrong in entering into this arrangement, which was a specific part of the Law? For several reasons it may be said he was not: (1) Paul himself had previously taken a Nazirite vow (Acts 18:18). (2) Later he unashamedly referred to this incident before Felix (Acts 24:17–18). (3) This action on Paul’s part only confirmed one of the principles of his ministry which was to become like a Jew to win the Jews, and to become like one under the Law to win those under it (1 Cor. 9:20). (4) One of Paul’s goals for the Jerusalem trip, along with relief of the poor, was the unifying of Jews and Gentiles. (5) Paul was not denying the finished work of Christ by offering animal sacrifices. The epistles Paul had already written by this time (Gal., 1 and 2 Thes., 1 and 2 Cor., Rom.) make it clear that such a denial was incomprehensible. He must have looked on these sacrifices as memorials. After all, this will be the significance of millennial sacrifices (Ezek. 43:18–46:24; Mal. 1:11; 3:3–4). (6) Paul later asserted he did not violate his own conscience (Acts 23:1). [ref]
For The Sake Of The Gospel
Clinton E. Arnold: "For the sake of the Gospel, it may be important for us (and our fellow believers) to engage in certain practices, wear special clothing, or wear our hair in a particular way -- as long as it is not inconsistent with the gospel. Believers trying to reach the youth culture on Hollywood Boulevard, for instance, should dress differently than those trying to share Christ in a retirement community. The goal is for the progress of the gospel to be the driving passion of every believer." [ref]
  • (Acts 21:27-30) Some Jews from Asia catch sight of Paul in the Jerusalem temple and stir up serious trouble against him -- including accusing Paul of defiling the holy temple -- to the point that seemingly the entire city is provoked, and the people rush together and lay hands on Paul and drag him out of the temple.
    ■ Pinter: "The temple in Jerusalem was not only a place of worship; it was a national symbol and the ancient seat of government. The temple was more than a place of prayer and devotion; it was a place of power and politics and, as such, often a place of protest. Protests often occurred during Jewish festivals, especially Passover, when the city swelled with pilgrims. At these times, the Romans were vigilant for any disturbances that might strike (cf. Josephus, J.W. 5.244), and even more so during this period of heightened tension under the governorship of Felix." [ref]
    ■ Bruce: "If the Asian Jews' charge against Paul had been justified, he would certainly have been guilty of aiding and abetting, and indeed participating in, a most serious crime against Jewish law, and one which was bound immediately to inflame all the Jews of Jerusalem against him. The Asian Jews were well aware of this when they raised a hue and cry against him: this man, they shouted, not content with the attacks on the Jewish people, law, and sanctuary which he made in his teaching all over the world -- an accusation strongly reminiscent of the charge against Stephen -- had actually profaned the holy place by bringing Greeks into it." [ref]
  • (Acts 21:31-36) As [the crowd is] trying to kill [Paul], word comes to the captain of the guard, "A riot! The whole city's boiling over!" He acts swiftly. His soldiers and centurions run to the scene at once. As soon as the mob sees the captain and his soldiers, they quit beating Paul. The captain comes up and puts Paul under arrest. He first orders him handcuffed, and then asks who he is and what he has done. All he gets from the crowd is shouts, one yelling this, another that. It is impossible to tell one word from another in the mob hysteria, so the captain orders Paul taken to the military barracks. But when they get to the Temple steps, the mob becomes so violent that the soldiers have to carry Paul. As they carry him away, the crowd follows, shouting, "Kill him! Kill him!" (MSG; verbs changed to present tense)
    ■ Bruce: "Northwest of the temple area stood the Antonia fortress (at one time called Baris but rebuilt by Herod the Great and renamed by him in honor of Mark Antony). It was garrisoned at this time by an auxiliary cohort of Roman troops under the command of a military tribune. The fortress was connected with the outer court of the temple by two flights of steps, so that the garrison might intervene as quickly as possible in the event of a riot." [ref]
    ■ Pinter: "[T]he Roman soldiers were not in Jerusalem to ensure that justice was carried out. Rather, the soldiers were there to keep the Roman peace. Keeping the peace in rebellious provinces like Judea meant dealing with those who were the cause of disturbances. In this instance, it was clear to the tribune that the quickest and most efficient way to quell the disturbance was to arrest one person [= Paul], not the many who were shouting and doing the beating." [ref]
    ■ Stott: "It is noteworthy that the same verb epilambanomai is used both of the mob 'seizing' Paul (Acts 21:30) and of the commander 'arresting' him (Acts 21:33), although they had opposite objectives. The crowd were bent on lynching him, the military tribune on taking him into protective custody. It is a striking example of Luke's aim to contrast Jewish hostility with Roman justice." [ref]
Paul's Imprisonment & Trials
■ William J. Larkin Jr.: "From the moment the military tribune handcuffs Paul in the court of the Gentiles, the apostle conducts his ministry as a prisoner awaiting final trial and verdict. ... Never again will Paul return to Jerusalem for worship or witness." [ref]
■ I. Howard Marshall:
With this section we begin the lengthy account of Paul's imprisonment and trials both in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and his subsequent journey to Rome to face the supreme Roman court. The account is given at such length, occupying a quarter of the book, that it is manifestly of great significance in the eyes of the author. He describes several court appearances by Paul and recounts no less than three lengthy speeches by Paul, in two of which the story of his conversion is repeated from Acts 9. Luke is concerned to present Paul not only as a missionary and church planter but also as a witness on trial for the gospel. Paul faces the accusations of the Jews and stands on trial before the Romans, and in this situation he acts as a witness to Jesus Christ. His ultimate defence is that, as a pious Jew, he had been called by Jesus to serve him, and there was no other choice open to him; and he argues that Judaism, rightly understood, should culminate in faith in Jesus. His speeches unfold this case with careful variation and development. [ref]
■ Ben Witherington III:
From now on in Acts he would be Paul in chains, and here most assuredly we see how Acts parts company with ancient novels and romances. There would be no more miraculous releases from prison or custody for Paul; rather, there would be real experiences of weakness and suffering, with no final resolution of the matter by the end of the book. The irony of all this is that Paul sees his whole experience of legal bondage as a result of and as an act of loyalty to Israel. He says at the end of the book: "For the sake of the hope of Israel I wear this chain" (Acts 28:20). He is a prisoner not only because of his fellow Jews but also for their sake. [ref]
  • (Acts 21:37-40) Paul speaks first in Greek to the commander and then in Hebrew to the crowd.
    ■ Larkin: "At the top of the stairs, just as the Roman soldiers are about to take Paul into the Antonia fortress barracks, away from the tumult of the pursuing mob, the apostle asks permission to speak with the commander. Paul's polite and polished Greek catches the tribune off guard; he replies, Do you speak Greek? He had expected the cause of such a disturbance to be a Jew of rough character and no education. Now he tries to place him among foreigners who were potential troublemakers." [ref]
    ■ Hughes: "What was it that caused the bleeding and broken apostle to ask for permission to speak? A swelling passion for his people -- the desire even to be anathema for their sake, that they might know Christ!" [ref]
    ■ Marshall: "Paul was concerned to establish his respectable Jewish background and civil status: he was not the kind of person to cause a riot in the temple. He was a Jew and a citizen of Tarsus. This is not a reference to his Roman citizenship, which does not emerge until later (Acts 22:25), but to his status in a self-governing city to which he was proud to belong. From the time of the Emperor Claudius it was possible for a man to have both Roman citizenship and local citizenship (Conzelmann, pp. 124f.)." [ref]
Persevering With The Establishment
Ajith Fernando:
Luke must surely have considered the interplay between Paul and the Jewish people as important, for he writes about it so many times in Acts. In this section, even though Paul was primarily called to evangelize the Gentiles, he never gave up trying to minister to Jews and to build bridges between Judaism and Christianity. The attempt here ended in disaster, but he kept trying to win them over. In fact, the last chapter of Acts gives considerable space to describing Paul's efforts at evangelizing the Jews in Rome. There too he had the same response, with the majority of the Jews rejecting what he said so that he turned to concentrate on the Gentiles (Acts 28:28). But he never gave up trying to win the Jews.

This pattern ought to inspire us to persevere with what may be called "the establishment" and not give up on it. Perhaps we cannot derive a binding principle here. But this section helps us appreciate the efforts of those who try to bring renewal to old structures that seem confined to traditional ways of doing things and closed to considering change.

Paul's perseverance with the Jewish "establishment" should encourage us to persevere with what we today see as the establishment. As noted above, this may not be a binding principle that applies to everyone; it may have to do with each one's individual calling. Some devout Christians, for example, leave older denominations out of a sense of outrage over the way they have compromised biblical Christianity. But other equally devout people stay on in these denominations, seeking to be agents of renewal. They will face frustration and even persecution, but that is to be expected in this fallen world (cf. Rom. 8:20). They may groan, looking forward to their ultimate redemption, which will come only in the new heaven and the new earth (Acts 8:23). Many give up because they feel it is a waste of time. But Paul was willing to "waste" his time with resistant Jews in every town he went to before going to the more receptive Gentiles and God-fearers. In most of these towns some Jews were converted.

God may be calling some Christians to attempt to facilitate a renewal of biblical Christianity within older churches that others are prone to dismiss as unredeemable. God does not call all Christians to do this. But Paul's example of persevering with the Jews should make us reluctant to criticize those who are trying to bring renewal in older churches. In fact, even those who are not called to this work ought to pray for and encourage their brothers and sisters who have stayed. [ref]


*Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.