A Pastor’s Commentary
Studies in Acts
Lesson 41: “Wavering in Jerusalem”
One of the hardest things in life to deal with is being misunderstood – particularly when you are only trying to do the right thing. And yet, it seems that the more visible and the more prominent a person becomes, the more likely he is to be misunderstood. In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “to be great is to be misunderstood.” Think of all the great Bible characters who were misunderstood – Noah, David, and Certainly the Lord Jesus! Since that is the case, it is important to remember that what is important is not the misunderstanding, but how we react when we are misunderstood.
And here in Acts chapter 21 we have a good example of that. Remember that the chapter falls into 3 parts:
In verses 1 through 14 we have “The warnings about Jerusalem”
Then in verses 15 through 25 we have “The weakness in Jerusalem.”
And in verses 26 through 36 we have “The Warfare at Jerusalem”
In our last study, we looked at those “warnings about Jerusalem.” So in this lesson we will look at the second two sections of the chapter. Paul had been warned by various friends not to go to Jerusalem. And what he finds there is somewhat surprising. But he went regardless of the possibility of suffering. So let’s look now at The weakness in Jerusalem in verses 15 through 25. The section begins with the return to the city recorded in verses 15 through 17
And after these days we packed up and went up to Jerusalem (16) Also some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us and brought with them a certain Mnason of Cyprus an early disciple, with whom we were to lodge. (17) And when we had come to Jerusalem the brethren received us gladly.
The fact that harmony had been restored among the believers after the disagreements of the first section of the chapter is shown by the listing of those who went with Paul. Notice that no apostles were present, just “disciples” and “brethren” in these verses and “elders” in the next verse. This absence of apostles shows the development of the church – little by little it was being turned over to a second generation.
After they got to Jerusalem Paul gave the report to the brethren which is recorded in verses 18 and 19
On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. (19) When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the gentiles through his ministry.
Then the response of the brethren is in verses 20 through 25
And when they heard it they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law;
First notice their patronization – how quickly they dismissed his report; almost offhandedly – they immediately began to talk about their own situation. They were obviously much more concerned about the problem which was created by his presence than about his victories. The problem was that there was a rumor about Paul that was spreading in the Jerusalem church saying that Paul was telling people to “forsake Moses.” Look at verse 21:
(21)But they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs (22) What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will certainly hear that you have come.
Now the actual fact was that these Jewish believers had kept the law before they were saved, and they continued to keep it after salvation. Of course, Paul warned about the dangers of trusting in those ordinances for salvation, but he had never told them to stop doing it. In fact he was particularly sensitive to Jewish believers, Back in chapter 16 he had insisted that Timothy be circumcised so as not to offend them. But this problem developed because “they had been informed” that Paul was teaching that he wasn’t. Apparently, the accusations were based solely on hearsay and gossip. It was bad enough that the elders had let things get so far out of hand. So, the real “weakness” in Jerusalem was that the elders and other leaders hadn’t put a stop to it – or to allow Paul to confront the situation head on. Which leads to the next point. On the basis of their own concerns, they gave Paul their proposal as recorded in verses 23 and 24:
Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. (24) “Take them and be purified with them and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law.
Instead of confronting the situation head on, their plan was for him to identify himself with these men who had taken a vow (they were probably completing a Nazarite vow, as described in Numbers chapter 6) And in that way the legalistic Jews of Jerusalem would see that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Then, to make it sound pious, look at their pretense in verse 25.
But concerning the gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled and from sexual immorality
Now it was true that back in chapter 15 at the Jerusalem Conference they had written these requests to the Gentiles. But this statement was twisting the emphasis of the council. The real focus of the Jerusalem Council was on what would be the minimum they should ask of the Gentiles for the sake of the older Jews; they were not setting up a different set of standards for Jews and Gentiles. But that is exactly what these guys are trying to make it sound like – that a less legalistic approach was only appropriate for Gentiles. Their whole aim was to keep the legalists from rioting. But it was a big mistake. In the first place, their aim was simply to keep the peace, not to really quell the false rumors about Paul. And in the second place, they were asking Paul to go along with a plan that was less than Biblical. But their power is demonstrated in verse 26 when Paul went along with the proposal.
Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having been purified with them, entered the Temple to announce the expiration of the days of purification, at which time an offering should be made for each of them.
Why would Paul do a thing like this? We don’t really know, but the explanation that makes the most sense is that out of his intense interest in Jewish salvation (see Romans 9:1-3 for an example) he was willing to pacify the Jewish believers without dealing directly with their sin of gossip and rumor-spreading.
The English theologian J.I. Packer said, “It is in our moments of highest exultation that we need to be most careful against the possibility of compromise – men who would never compromise in order to save their own lives are in danger of compromising so they might win others.
Now we have seen the details of the warnings about Jerusalem and the Wavering at Jerusalem, so that brings us to the last section of the chapter. The remaining verses show us that, sadly, the efforts of both Paul and the elders of Jerusalem failed. The elders wanted to avoid a riot, Paul wanted to win Jews to Christ. As it turned out, there was a riot, and as far as we know no one was saved. So that brings us to The warfare in Jerusalem in verses 27 through 36.
The circumstances of the Warfare revolved around a misunderstanding – verses 27 through 29:
Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on them (28) crying out, “Men of Israel, Help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this place; and furthermore, he also brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (29) (For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)
They “supposed” that Paul had brought a gentile into the temple. And they exaggerated their report about Paul’s activities, which fit in with the rumors the Jews were already believing.
Many attacks, verbal and even physical, are made from supposition and exaggeration – be sure of your facts before you believe or act on a report.
The severity of the Warfare is shown in verses 30 and 31a
And all the city was disturbed; and the people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. (31) Now as they were seeking to kill him news came to the commander of the garrison that all Jerusalem was in an uproar (32) He immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and the soldiers they stopped beating Paul.
Notice that it is the Roman government that rescues Paul – the church is conspicuously absent. This is ironic, because it was persecution by the Roman government that had driven so many Christians out of Jerusalem back in chapter 8!
Actually, true of the church at Jerusalem after chapter 7 – every time it is in the context of compromise or attempted compromise. If we think back the church leaders had trouble accepting Peter’s testimony about Cornelius in chapter 11 They disputed long and loud about which restrictions to place on the gentile converts in chapter 15. By the time we get to this chapter, they had allowed Jews to become active in the church who were “zealous for the law” (verse 20)
The problem was that in their anxiousness to agree with Judaism as much as possible they lost their power to confront rumor and hearsay even when they got out of hand. You see, “political correctness is older then you thought!
The remaining verses actually fit better with the subject matter of the next chapter, so we will leave them for that lesson.