Acts 21

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The Paul before the Jerusalem Elders

Verse 17: When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. (NIV)

  • Theoretically, this happened at the time of Pentecost (Fitzmyer 691).
  • In Paul's letters, he has taken an offering from the Gentile churches for Jerusalem in this instance, but that isn't mentioned here (Fitzmyer 692).
  • This encounter with the Jerusalem church is as interesting in what is not mentioned as in what is mentioned.
  • It is surprising here that Saul is greeted so warmly, considering the problems that many of them have with Saul and what he is doing.
  • We don't know who “the brothers” are here. It could be all of the believers, or specifically the disciples.


Verse 18: he next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. (NIV)

  • James is obviously the leader of the Jerusalem church at this point. In fact, we don't hear specifically from Peter at all here, or John.
  • With all of the elders present this seems less like a council and more like an interrogation or trial.


Verse 19: Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. (NIV)

  • It is interesting that there is no mention of what Paul was doing with Jews in those cities as well. After all, he often stopped into the synagogues first and won converts there.
  • This is the only counterevidence to the accusations against Paul that there is, and it happens before any accusations are presented.


Verse 20: When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. (NIV)

  • Praising God is the standard way in Acts of people recognizing God at work, however they did not step in to defend Paul even when they are praising God for what is going on with Paul and his work.
  • This is not James alone speaking, but the group of elders, as it says “they”.
  • Paul is called “brother” here, an indication that he is accepted by the elders here.
  • What they hear from Paul apparently does not completely contradict what they have already heard from others, it just provides news that it was worth it.
  • Their immediate reaction of talking about the law indicates that their joy was probably not about what God had been doing, but that not all of the rumors about Paul were true.
  • These are not the “zealots” here, the religious group of rebels, but people passionate about the law.


Verse 21: They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. (NIV)

  • We don't know who told the Jewish believers these things, probably from Jews from outside Judea, which means that the Jerusalem believers still had a lot of connections with non-believing Jews.
  • There is a great similarity between these charges and the charges leveled against Stephen (Fitzymyer 375). But these charges came fro much farther away, and believers are making them as well as the Jews.
  • Literally, this is “apostasies” from Moses. That is about as bad as it gets for a Jew.
  • It is interesting how serious the accusations against Paul are here, basically being anti-Jewish, considering his pedigree in Jewish learning.
  • This is not about one time actions, but about what people thought Paul was doing on a regular basis.
  • There is some truth in the accusations that are made about Paul, like all accusations.
  • Paul does not get a chance here, or anywhere in this narrative, to defend himself. The accusations against him are simply accepted as true to some extent.
  • When we read Paul's letters some of this can definitely be found. The question that isn't asked, however, is whether these things are really problems or not.
    • It is just assumed that if these things are true, then Paul is in the wrong.
    • But today, we would probably not think there is any problem with these things.


Verse 22: What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, (NIV)

  • This is a rhetorical question asked by James.
  • ”They” are not just the Jews, but the believers in Jesus who are heavily Jewish. And the leaders were still afraid of what would happen if they found out Paul was there.
  • Violence seems to be implied here as a possibility, Christian on Christian.
  • The leaders seem to both believe in the accusations against Paul and believe that Paul was justified in his actions through the results that he got.
  • The “brothers” are apparently not the mass of believers in Jerusalem as the Jewish faction has not heard of Paul being there yet.


Verse 23: so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. (NIV)

  • This is a preventive measure, almost a punishment. It is trying to make Paul acceptable to people who are extremely upset with him.


Verse 24: Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. (NIV)

  • These men are probably undergoing the Nazarite rites. Paul is probably not, however, because his time last only seven days.
    • Perhaps he is going through a cleansing to purify himself for being on Gentile land so long (Fitzmyer 694).
    • If Paul is being purified for contamination with Gentiles, that takes on a very ironic twist, and slightly humiliating for Paul.
  • Numbers 6:21 mentions Nazarites giving an offering as part of the vow, this is what Paul would be paying.
  • Paul does not get to defend himself, or to explain why these things are ok for Christians to do, if they are true.
  • This involves going to the temple, which causes a major problem when Paul gets there.


Verse 25: As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (NIV)

  • Whether this is a new decision than Acts 15, or a restatement of that one is unclear.
  • There is no mention of a new decision being made here, but it could have been left out.
  • What is odd is that the leaders are not recommending that anything that would make the accusations against Paul something that Christians shouldn't do. By the standards they set, even if the accusations had been 100% true, they should not have been wrong.
  • Sending the letter is a past tense. They already did this before Paul really got a chance to even show up.


Verse 26: The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. (NIV)

  • Paul accepts the judgment of the leaders here and does what they say apparently without complaint. That lands him in the temple.

Paul Arrested at the Temple

Verse 28: shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (NIV)

  • Massive hyperbole here. “All people everywhere.”


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