Acts 21 Bible Commentary

McGarvey and Pendleton

(Read all of Acts 21)
Verses 1-3.   The vessel proceeded by a coasting voyage along the southern shore of Asia Minor. (1) "And it came to pass, when we had separated from them, and set sail, that we ran with a straight course and came to Cos; and the next day to Rhodes, and thence to Patara. (2) And finding a ship going across to Phenicia, we embarked and set sail. (3) Passing in sight of Cyprus, and leaving it to the left, we sailed to Syria, and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload her cargo." The change of vessels at Patara must have been occasioned by the fact that the one in which they had hitherto sailed was not bound for a Phenician port. That the new vessel is said to be going across to Phenicia, and that it left Cyprus on the left, is an indication that the other was going to cling still further to the coast of Asia Minor, and was probably bound for Antioch.

Verse 4.   The time employed by the sailors in putting out freight, and taking on board a fresh cargo, gave Paul another opportunity for communing with brethren on shore. (4) "And having found the disciples, we remained there seven days. They told Paul, through the Spirit, not to go up to Jerusalem." Here Paul met a repetition of those prophetic warnings which had already cast a gloom over his feelings, and so much alarmed were the brethren at the prospects before him, that they entreated him to go no further. We are not to understand that these entreaties were dictated by the Spirit; for this would have made it Paul's duty to desist from his purpose; but the statement means that they were enabled to advise him not to go, by knowing through the Spirit, what awaited him. The knowledge was supernatural; the advice was the result of their own judgment.

Verses 5, 6.   When the seven days had passed, including, most likely, a Lord's day, in which the disciples came together to break bread, another scene of painful parting occurred, like that at Miletus. (5) "And it came to pass that when we completed those days, we departed and went our way, they all, with their wives and children, conducting us forward till we were out of the city. And we kneeled down on the shore and prayed. (6) And bidding each other farewell, we went on board the ship, and they returned home." Unlike the scene at Miletus, the sorrow of manly hearts was here accompanied by the tenderness of female sympathy and the tears of children. The tears of the company were bitter, but they were sanctified and made a blessing to each heart, by prayer. Thus, though all before the apostle, during this journey, was darkness and danger, all around him and behind him was earnest prayer to God in his behalf. Borne forward upon the current of such devotion, he was able to breast the storm, and defy all the powers of earth and hell.

Verse 7.   The journey by water was soon completed, and the remainder of the distance was performed on foot. (7) "And from Tyre we went down to Ptolemais, completing the voyage, and saluted the brethren, and remained with them one day." If the vessel had been going forward to Cæsarea without delay, they had better have continued on board than to have traveled the distance of thirty or forty miles to that city on foot.{1} We conclude, therefore, that the vessel either intended lying in port for awhile, or did not intend to touch at Cæsarea.

The fact that Paul found brethren in Tyre and Ptolemais on the coast of Phenicia, where he had never preached before, reminds us once more of the dispersion of the Church in Jerusalem, and the fact that "they who were scattered abroad upon the persecution which arose about Stephen, traveled as far as Phenicia, speaking the Word to none but the Jews."{2}

Verses 8, 9.   The single day spent with the brethren in Ptolemais was sufficient for the solemn admonitions which Paul was leaving with all the Churches, and for another painful farewell. (8) "And the next day we departed, and went to Cæsarea. And entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him. (9) Now he had four daughters, who were virgins, and who prophesied." When we parted from Philip, after the immersion of the eunuch, he had prosecuted an evangelizing tour through Azotus and the intermediate cities, to Cæsarea.{3} It was probably while he was engaged in this tour that Peter had come to Cæsarea, and immersed the family and friends of Cornelius. When Philip arrived, he found the nucleus of a Church, and here we still find him, after a lapse of more than twenty years. He seems never to have returned to Jerusalem, to resume his position as a deacon of that Church, but accepted the providential arrangement by which he was thrown out into a wider field of usefulness, and thenceforward was known as Philip the evangelist. That he had four maiden daughters, who had the gift of prophesy, indicates the strict religious training which he had given to his family.

Verses 10-14.   During the interval spent with the family of Philip, another, and the last of the prophetic warnings which Paul encountered on this journey was given, causing a scene of sorrow similar to those at Miletus and Tyre. (10) "And while we were remaining several days, there came down from Jerusalem a certain prophet named Agabus; (11) and he came to us, and took Paul's girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus says the Holy Spirit: So shall the Jews in Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. (12) And when we heard this, both we and they of that place besought him not to go up to Jerusalem. (13) But Paul answered, What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem, for the name of the Lord Jesus. (14) And when he would not be persuaded, we held our peace, saying, The will of the Lord be done."

Agabus was the same prophet who went from Jerusalem to Antioch, and announced the famine which caused the mission of Paul and Barnabas into Judea with a contribution for the poor.{4} It was a singular coincidence that the same man should now meet him, after the lapse of so many years, when entering Judea on a similar mission, and warn him of his own personal danger. The dramatic manner in which his prophesy was delivered gave Paul a more distinct conception of the afflictions which awaited him. If his traveling companions had hitherto been silent when brethren were entreating him to desist from the journey, as is implied in the narrative, their courage now failed them, and they joined in the entreaties of the brethren in Cæsarea. The fearfulness of his prospects was a sufficient trial to his own courage, when he enjoyed at least the silent sympathy of his chosen companions; but when they deserted him, and threw the weight of their influence upon the weight already too heavy for him, the effect was crushing to his heart, though the steadfastness of his purpose was not shaken. The duty imposed upon him by the fearful condition of the Church at large was paramount to all personal considerations, and he felt willing to be bound and to die in his efforts to maintain the honor of the name of the Lord Jesus by preserving the unity of his body. Upon this declaration of his sublime self-devotion, the brethren felt unable to offer another objection, and gave expression to their reluctant resignation by the remark, "The will of the Lord be done."

Verses 15, 16.   (15) "And after those days, we packed up our baggage, and went up to Jerusalem. (16) Some of the disciples from Cæsarea went with us, conducting us to one Mnason, a Cyprian, and an old disciple, with whom we should lodge." The journey had been accomplished in time for the feast of Pentecost. This is made to appear by enumerating the days spent on the journey from Philippi. Leaving that city immediately after the days of unleavened bread, which was seven days after the Passover, he reached Troas in five days, where he spent seven.{5} Four days were occupied in the passage from Troas to Miletus.{6} Two are sufficient to allow for the stay at Miletus.{7} In three he sailed from Miletus to Patara, which place he left the same day he reached it;{8} and two more days, with favorable weather, would take him to Tyre.{9} There he spent seven days, and three in the journey thence to Cæsarea.{10} Allowing two days more for the journey from Cæsarea to Jerusalem, we have enumerated only forty-two of the forty-nine days intervening between the Passover and Pentecost, leaving seven for the stay at the house of Philip. That the feast of Pentecost did transpire immediately after his arrival in Jerusalem, is indicated by the immense multitude of Jews then assembled there, and the presence of some from the province of Asia, who had known Paul in Ephesus.{11} Nothing but the annual feasts brought together in Jerusalem the Jews from distant provinces.

Verse 17.   The period which had been looked forward to for months with prayerful anxiety had now arrived, and Paul was to know, without further delay, whether or not the service which he had for Jerusalem would be accepted by the saints.{12} To his unspeakable relief, the historian was able to say, (17) "Now when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly." If Luke had given any account of the contribution Paul was bringing, we should have expected him to say something more definite about its reception than is implied in this remark. But, as he saw fit to omit all mention of the enterprise, we are at liberty to infer, from the glad reception given to the messengers, that the gift they bore was also welcome. The main object of Paul's visit and of his prayers was now accomplished. He had finished this much of his course and his ministry with joy, and his heart was relieved from its chief anxiety. Whether the Lord would now accept his prayer for deliverance from the disobedient in Jerusalem, he felt to be a matter of minor importance.

Verses 18-26.   After the general statement that they were gladly received by the brethren, Luke proceeds to state more in detail what followed. (18) "And on the day following, Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. (19) And having saluted them, he related particularly what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. (20) When they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous for the law. (21) Now they heard concerning you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles apostasy from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children, nor to walk according to the customs. (22) What, then, is it? The multitude must by all means come together; for they will hear that you have come. (23) Do this, therefore, which we tell you. We have here four men who have a vow upon them. (24) Take them, and purify yourself with them, and bear the expenses for them, in order that they may shear their heads, and all may know that those things of which they have heard concerning you are nothing; but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. (25) But as respects the Gentiles who have believed, we have already written, having decided that they observe no such things, only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication. (26) Then Paul took the men, and the next day went with them into the temple purified, announcing the fulfilling of the days of purification, when an offering should be offered for each one of them."

This I confess to be the most difficult passage in Acts to fully understand, and to reconcile with the teaching of Paul on the subject of the Mosaic law. We shall have the exact state of the question before our minds, by inquiring, first, What was the exact position of the Jerusalem brethren in reference to the law? second, What had Paul actually taught upon the subject? and, third, How can the course pursued by both be reconciled to the mature apostolic teaching?

First. It is stated, in this speech, of which James was doubtless the author, that the disciples about Jerusalem were "all zealous for the law." They recognized the authority of Moses as still binding; for they complained that Paul taught "apostasy from Moses." The specifications of this apostasy were, first, neglect of circumcision; second, abandonment of "the customs." By "the customs" are meant those imposed by the law, among which, as seen in their proposition to Paul, were the Nazarite vows, with their burnt-offerings, sin-offerings, and meat-offerings,{13} and, as seen in Paul's epistles, abstinence from unclean meats, and the observance of Sabbath-days, holy days, new moons, and Sabbatic years.{14}

Second. Our iniquity into Paul's teaching on the subject must have separate reference to what he had taught before this time, and what he taught subsequently. None of his oral teachings on the subject are preserved by Luke, hence we are dependent for a knowledge of his present teaching upon those of his epistles which were written previous to this time. In none of the specifications above enumerated did he fully agree with his Jewish brethren. True, he granted the perpetuity of circumcision; yet not because he acknowledged with them the continued authority of the law, but because of the covenant with Abraham which preceded the law.{15} As for the law, he taught that it had been "a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith, but after faith is come, we are no longer under the schoolmaster;"{16} that, "now we are delivered from the law, being dead to that in which we were held;" that we are "become dead to the law by the body of Christ."{17} In repudiating the authority of the law, he necessarily repudiated all obligation to observe "the customs." In reference to all these, he afterward said to the Colossians, that God had "blotted out the handwriting of ordinances which was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross." "Let no man, therefore, judge you in food or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of Sabbaths; which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is Christ."{18} While thus repudiating the obligation to observe the ordinances, he admitted the innocence of their observance, and forbade any breach of fellowship on account of it, laying down in reference to them all, this rule: "Let not him who eats, despise him who eats not; and let not him who eats not, judge him who eats."{19} In reference, therefore, to meats and days, he and the judaizers agreed that the Jews might observe them; and they differed as to the ground of this conclusion: the latter affirming that it was a matter of duty; the former holding that it was a matter of indifference.

Thus far we have omitted special mention of one custom, because its importance demands for it a separate consideration. We refer to sacrifices. It is evident, from the transaction before us, as observed above, that James and the brethren in Jerusalem regarded the offering of sacrifices as at least innocent; for they approved the course of the four Nazarites, and urged Paul to join with them in the service, though it required them to offer sacrifices, and even sin-offerings. They could not, indeed, very well avoid this opinion, since they admitted the continued authority of the Mosaic law. Though disagreeing with them as to the ground of their opinion, as in reference to the other customs, Paul evidently admitted the opinion itself, for he adopted their advice, and paid the expense of the sacrifices which the four Nazarites offered.

Third. The commentators uniformly agree that Paul was right, and that the rites observed on this occasion are to be referred to that class which are indifferent, and in reference to which Paul acted upon the principle of being a Jew to the Jew, that he might win the Jew.{20} This would not be objectionable, if the proceeding had reference merely to meats and drinks, holy days, etc., to which it appears to be confined in their view; for all these were indifferent then, and are not less so at the present day. Who would say that it would now be sinful to abstain from certain meats, and observe certain days as holy? But it is far different with bloody sacrifices. If disciples, either Jewish or Gentile, should now assemble in Jerusalem, construct an altar, appoint a priesthood, and offer sin-offerings, they could but be regarded as apostates from Christ. But why should it be regarded as a crime now, if it was innocent then?

The truth is, that, up to this time, Paul had written nothing which directly conflicted with the service of the altar, and he did not yet understand the subject correctly. His mind, and those of all the brethren, were as yet in much the same condition on this subject that they were before the conversion of Cornelius, in reference to the reception of the uncircumcised into the Church. If we admit that the proposition above quoted from Galatians, affirming that "we are no longer under the law," was, when fully understood, inconsistent with the continuance of the sacrifice, we make his case only the more likely like Peter's in regard to the Gentiles; for he announced propositions, on Pentecost, which were inconsistent with his subsequent course, until he was made to better understand the force of his own words. Peter finally discovered that he was wrong in that matter, and Paul at length discovered that he was wrong, in his connection with the offerings of these Nazarites. Some years later, the whole question concerning the Aaronic priesthood and animal sacrifices was thrust more distinctly upon his mind, and the Holy Spirit made to him a more distinct revelation of the truth upon the subject, and caused him to develop it to the Churches, in Ephesians, Colossians, and especially in Hebrews. In the last-named Epistle, written during his imprisonment in Rome, he exhibited the utter inefficiency of animal sacrifices; the sacrifice of Christ, once for all, as the only sufficient sin-offering; and the abrogation of the Aaronic priesthood by that of Christ, who was now the only high priest and mediator between God and man. After these developments, he could not, for any earthly consideration, have repeated the transaction with the Nazarites; for it would have been to insult the great High Priest over the house of God, by presenting, before a human priest, an offering which could not take away sin, and which would proclaim the insufficiency of the blood of the atonement. We conclude, therefore, that the procedure described in the text was inconsistent with the truth as finally developed by the apostles, but not with so much of it as was then understood by Paul. This conclusion presents but another proof that the Holy Spirit, in leading the apostles "into the truth," did so by a gradual development running through a series of years.{21}

When Paul finally was enabled to understand and develop the whole truth on this subject, no doubt the opinions and prejudices of the more liberal class of Jewish disciples yielded to his clear and conclusive arguments. But, doubtless, some still clung to the obsolete and unlawful service of the temple, assisting the unbelieving Jews to perpetuate it. Then came in the necessity for the destruction of their temple and city, so that it should be impossible for them to longer offer sacrifices which had been superseded. The destruction of the temple was not the legal termination of the Mosaic ritual; for it ceased to be legal with the death of Christ;{22} but this brought to an end its illegal continuance.

Before we dismiss this passage, there are two more points claiming a moment's attention. First, the justness of the accusation which the brethren had heard against Paul. He had certainly taught the Jews that they were no longer under the law, and that "the customs" were no longer binding, and this was, in one sense, "apostasy from Moses." But he had not, as he was charged, taught them to abandon the customs; for he had insisted that they were innocent; and, in reference to circumcision, he had given no ground of offense whatever. Hence the charge, as understood by those who preferred it, was false; and it was with the utmost propriety that Paul consented to disabuse their minds, though the means he adopted for that purpose was improper.

The last point claiming attention is the nature of the purification which Paul underwent. The statement which we have rendered, he "purified himself with them," is understood, by some commentators, to mean that he took part in their vow of abstinence.{23} But for this meaning of the term, agnizo, there is no authority in the New Testament; everywhere else it means to purify, and Paul's own statement to Felix, that "they found me purified in the temple,"{24} in which he speaks of the same event, and uses the same word, is conclusive as to its meaning here. It will be remembered that no Jew who, like Paul, had been mingling with Gentiles, and disregarding the ceremonial cleanness of the law, was permitted to enter the outer court of the temple without being purified. This purification he must have undergone, and there is no evidence that he underwent any other. But it is said that he purified himself "with them," which shows that they, too, were unclean. Now, when a Nazarite became unclean within the period of his vow, it was necessary that he should purify himself, shear his head on the seventh day, and on the eighth day bring certain offerings. Then he lost the days of his vow which had preceded the uncleanness, and had to begin the count anew from the day that the offering was presented. This is fully stated in the sixth chapter of Numbers, where the law of Nazarite is prescribed. Such was the condition of these Nazarites, as is further proved by the notice given of the "days of purification," and the mention, in the next verse below, of "the seven days," as of a period well known. Nazarites had no purification to perform except when they became unclean during their vow; and there was no period of seven days connected with their vow, except in the instance just mentioned. In this instance, as the head was to be sheared on the seventh day, and the offerings presented on the eighth, there were just seven whole days employed. Paul's part was to give notice to the priest of the beginning of these days, and to pay the expenses of the offerings; but he had to purify himself before he went in for this purpose.

Verses 27-30.   (27) "Now when the seven days were about to be completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, aroused the whole multitude, and laid hands on him, (28) crying out, Men of Israel, help! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against the people, and the law and this place, and has even brought Greeks into the temple, and polluted this holy place. (29) For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, whom they thought Paul had brought into the temple. (30) And the whole city was moved, and the people ran together, and seizing Paul, dragged him out of the temple; and the doors were immediately closed." If Paul's own brethren in Jerusalem has become prejudiced against him on account of his teaching in reference to the law, it is not surprising that the hatred of the unbelieving Jews toward him should be intense. Their treasured wrath was like a magazine, ready to explode the moment a match should be applied; and to charge him with defiling the holy place, which they believed that he had already reviled in every nation, was enough to produce the explosion. It is not the custom of mobs to investigate the charges heaped upon their victims; hence, without knowing or caring to know, whether he had really brought Trophimus into the temple, they seized him and dragged him out into the court of the Gentiles. The doors of the inner court were closed, to prevent the defilement of that holy place by the blood which was likely to be shed.

Verses 31-34.   For the second time in his history the Roman authorities came to Paul's rescue from the hands of his countrymen.{25} (31) "And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the chiliarch{26} of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar, (32) who immediately took soldiers and centurions, and ran down upon them. And when they saw the chiliarch and the soldiers, they quit striking Paul. (33) Then the chiliarch drew near and seized him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains, and inquired who he was, and what he had done. (34) But some of the multitude cried out one thing, and some another; and not being able to know the certainty on account of the tumult, he commanded him to be led into the castle." The inability of the mob to agree upon any charge against him shows the precipitancy with which they had rushed upon him, while the multiplicity of charges which they vociferated shows the intensity of their hatred. The chiliarch was indifferent through total ignorance of the case, and desired to act prudently; hence he determined to protect the prisoner, and hold him for examination under more favorable circumstances.

Verses 35-39.   It was but a short distance to the castle of Antonia, which overlooked the temple inclosure, and was connected with it by a stairway. Thither the apostle was rapidly borne, the mob pressing after him. (35) "And when he was on the stairs, he was borne by the soldiers, on account of the violence of the multitude. (36) For the crowd of people followed, crying out, Away with him! (37) And when he was about to be led into the castle, Paul said to the chiliarch, May I say something to you? He said, Do you understand Greek? (38) Are you not that Egyptian, who formerly made an insurrection, and led out into the wilderness four thousand Assassins? (39) Paul said, I am a Jew, of Tarsus, in Cilicia; a citizen of no unknown city; and I beseech you, permit me to speak to the people." This conversation shows that the chiliarch was utterly ignorant of the character and history of his prisoner. The best conclusion he could form from the confused outcries of the mob was the one indicated in the question just quoted. When he learned that he was a Jew, he was still more perplexed concerning the rage of the people, and not less astonished at the coolness displayed by Paul. In the hope of learning something more definite, he at once gave him liberty to speak, and stood by, an interested hearer.

Verse 40.   "And when he gave him permission, Paul, standing upon the stairs, waved his hand to the people. And when there was general silence, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,"

      {1} Life and Ep., vol. 2, p. 232.
      {2} Acts xi: 19.
      {3} Acts viii: 40.
      {4} Acts xi: 27-30.
      {5} Acts xx: 6.
      {6} Acts xx: 13-15.
      {7} Com. xx: 17.
      {8} Acts xxi: 1-2.
      {9} Life and Ep., vol. 2, p. 227.
      {10} Acts xxi: 4-8.
      {11} Acts xxi: 27.
      {12} Rom. xv: 31.
      {13} Num. vi: 13-17.
      {14} Rom. xiv; Gal. iv: 9, 10; Col. ii: 16, 17.
      {15} See Com. xvi: 3.
      {16} Gal. iii: 24, 25.
      {17} Rom. vii: 4-6.
      {18} Col. ii: 14, 16, 17.
      {19} Rom. xiv: 1-6.
      {20} Bloomfield, Olshausen, Neander, Hackett, Howson, etc.
      {21} See Com. x: 9-23; xi: 1-18.
      {22} Eph. ii: 14-16; Col. ii: 14.
      {23} Bloomfield, Olshausen.
      {24} Acts xxiv: 18.
      {25} The first was in Corinth, before Gallio. Com. Acts xviii: 14-16.
      {26} Captain of a thousand.