Paul was anxious to reach Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost and, having asked to speak to the elders in Ephesus, he caused concern among them by saying that they would not see him again. Luke describes the emotional scene as Paul left them at the end of Acts 20. Acts 21:1-3 Luke gives a port to port description of Paul’s journeys. The weather conditions must have been favourable because no problems are recorded. When Paul and the disciples reached the coastal city of Patara they changed ships and boarded a large merchant vessel that would travel non-stop to Tyre, a distance of about 400 miles. We know from Paul’s descriptions that journeys by sea took several days. Ships had to have their cargo loaded and unloaded which often took several days and therefore travellers needed to find somewhere to stay.
Acts 21:4-6 A number of believers lived in Tyre. They were probably disciples who had been forced to leave Jerusalem during the persecution after Stephen was killed (Acts 7:57-60). The reference to the believers warning Paul about travelling to Jerusalem, through the Holy Spirit, reminds us that Paul too had been warned by the Spirit of the hardships awaiting him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). But, as before, he chose to go where he knew he was needed. He chose to do God’s work over his own personal safety. The believers at Tyre, like those at Ephesus (Acts 20:36-37), prayed for Paul as he departed.
Acts 21:7-16 The ship made its way south to Ptolemais, about 25 miles south of Tyre, where it stopped overnight at Ptolemais. The ship continued south, and the next day Paul’s party reached Caesarea, about 35 miles south of Ptolemais. The city had a large harbour built by Herod. It was also the Roman provincial capital of Judea. Paul and the other disciples stayed with Philip, who had been one of the seven mentioned in Acts 6:5, who had been appointed to preach to the Gentile believers and look after their widows and orphans. He was now living in Caesarea with his four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophesy.
While Paul was at the home of Philip, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Caesarea was in the province of Judea, but the city was not considered part of the Jews’ land because of its Gentile population and way of life. Agabus had been mentioned in Acts 11:27-28 when he prophesied of a severe famine that would affect much of the Roman world. Agabus then provided a visual prophecy, by using Paul’s belt, to show how Paul wouldl be denounced by the Jews and imprisoned by the Gentiles. As before Paul declares his willingness to die in Jerusalem, and to follow the example of Jesus, and will not be dissuaded by the believers in Caesarea.
Acts 21:17-26 James was a cousin of Jesus and was an elder in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13). Many of the Jews in Jerusalem were still zealous for the law of Moses and consequently were anxious to discuss the differences between themselves and the Gentile believers. The destruction of the temple, which took place in AD 70, had not yet happened so the Jewish believers still had a focus for their worship. Some mistrusted Paul and felt that he was teaching against Jewish customs, particularly circumcision, despite their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. For Paul, circumcision made no difference regarding a believer’s status before God. However, as far as we know, Paul never told Jewish converts not to circumcise their children, nor was he opposed to its practice by Jewish believers. We have already been told in Acts that Paul did not teach against the Jewish Torah. He circumcised Timothy for the sake of expediency so that he would be accepted by the Jews (Acts 16:3). The elders in Jerusalem were anxious to ensure that Paul would show, by example, that he was not asking Jewish believers to give up all their customs and beliefs. Consequently Paul was asked to take part in the purification rites that were being performed by a group of Jewish believers to show that he had not abandoned the law. Paul was aware that Jesus had said
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17-18)
By joining in the rites of the four men and paying for their required offerings, Paul would be making a public demonstration of his respect for Jewish tradition. He would be participating in a Jewish custom and no one could claim he was teaching Jews to abandon the laws of Moses. Paul always taught that Jesus had fulfilled the promises made by God to their ancestors. Although the elders had asked Paul to show everyone that he still lived as a Jew they felt it was important to explain again that no such demands would be made of Gentile believers. The Gentiles’ freedom, in not having to live their lives as Jews, had been established (Acts 15:19-22).
Acts 21:27-36 A large number of Jews were in Jerusalem who had heard of Paul preaching about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They used the excuse of Paul’s association with Trophimus, who was a Gentile, to start a riot and accused Paul of allowing Gentiles into the temple area. Under Jewish religious laws no Gentile was allowed into the temple’s inner courts. The Romans even allowed the Sanhedrin to execute the death penalty for anyone who violated this regulation. There was a stone wall separating the Court of the Gentiles from the inner courts reserved for Jews alone. At regular intervals, pillars warned in Greek and Latin that no foreigner was permitted to go into the inner courts or Holy Place. Paul was a Jew and was entitled to pass beyond the dividing wall into the inner courts. Paul was accused of defiling the holy temple by this group of Jews from Asia and they would have killed him without a trial if the Roman commander had not intervened.
The Roman garrison in Jerusalem was positioned so that soldiers could intervene at a moment’s notice if any disturbance occurred in the temple or the surrounding area. The garrison was quartered in the fortress of Antonia, in the northwest corner of the temple area. The Antonia tower overlooked the temple, and two flights of steps gave troops direct access to the court of the Gentiles. The commander of the garrison was ‘leader of a thousand’ or the head of a cohort. The Jerusalem garrison is thought to have consisted of about this number of troops. Although the mob stopped attacking Paul when they saw the soldiers he was arrested because he seemed to be the focus of the disturbance. The crowd continued to shout “Away with him,” in much the same way as a previous Jewish crowd had shouted at Jesus.
Acts 21:37-39 The commander of the garrison was confused about Paul’s nationality and particularly when Paul was able to converse with him in Greek. The commander’s query as to whether Paul was an Egyptian who had led a previous insurrection is perhaps not too unreasonable, given the circumstances. The commander may have thought that the Jews, after discovering an Egyptian in the temple, had set upon him as an imposter. However, Paul quickly identifies himself as a Jew. He wanted to be sure that the commander didn’t hand him over to Jewish authorities as a Gentile who had violated the sacred temple areas.
When the commander gave Paul permission to speak, he motioned to the crowd from the steps of the Antonia fortress. Paul began his defense in Aramaic, which probably caused the crowd to be more attentive. Aramaic was the language of Judea, and of those in the eastern Roman Empire who did not speak Greek. And so began the first speech that Paul made in his own defense.