It is Thursday in our reading thru the New Testament in a year and we come to Acts 21:1-36. I'd invite you to read the Scripture first and then come back that we might think some more about what we've read.
Paul's journey was nearly over. It was his third journey and some 12-14 years had passed since he had left on his first journey. He had ended his time with the Ephesian church Elders and after a tearful goodbye boarded the ship that was to carry him to Jerusalem.
Now, as Paul journeyed south the distance between himself and Jerusalem steadily shrinks and a new dynamic begins to appear. Paul begins to experience the tension of the leading of the Holy Spirit and the concerns and advice, even warnings, that come from his friends - godly friends - who care deeply for him and want him to avoid Jerusalem.
Luke's details of their sailing are explicit. They sailed from the southeastern coast of Asia (modern Turkey) into the Mediterranean Sea, skirting the islands with favorable winds. After changing ships, they sailed south pass Cyprus where Paul's first journey had begun and landed at Tyre, a seaport city along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, in Phoenecia, just north of the borders of Israel. It was several hundred miles of sea that took about a week of time given the favorable winds.
When Luke says "We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo" (21:3), he is explaining that it took seven days for the ship to unload everything. So, Paul and his companions took this time to meet with believers that he must have known from previous journeys between Antioch, his home to the north, and Jerusalem, where he made some visits.
It was here that Paul gets his first words of advice and warning - "through the Spirit, they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem (21:4). It was conflicting advice...genuine for certain...but still in conflict with what Paul thought he had clearly heard before - "And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, (Acts 20:22). It's an interesting tension that is true on both ends. Paul knew that was leading him to Jerusalem... "not knowing what will happen to me...", and the brothers in Tyre knew that nothing good awaits him there.
Luke does not deliberate the tension any further but says when the time came to leave they continued on. As they began their journey the Christians walked with him to the ship and as in Ephesus they knelt together with Paul and prayed. It probably was the last time they all saw Paul, and he would see them.
They sailed on from Tyre and landed in a city of Ptolemais...a one-day stopover to greet the church. He didn't have to stop there, but it's indicative of Paul's heart - he loved and cared for the brothers and sisters - not church members, but family of believers in the church. Finally, they sailed the next day on to Caesarea and thus, landed in northern Israel.
They stayed with Philip, the evangelist of early church days, who now is 25 years older and has a family of four daughters. It was probably here that Luke learned much of the details (Acts 7 & 8) he would record when later writing the history of the church. When the Scripture says the daughters "prophesied" we should think of a combination of reading the Scripture and praying for wisdom and insight in how to apply it. They were "listening" to God's word, not merely reading it.
Luke doesn't tell us how long they were there except that "after a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea" (21:10). Whether he heard Paul had arrived in Israel, or just happened to be passing through (unlikely given Luke's wording), or wanted to come to visit Paul, as he traveled from Judea, the Spirit began to show him what was about to happen to Paul as he continued his journey. He arrived with sobering words of warning. Most men wore long robed (short in summer) tunics with a "rope-like" tied belt around the waist. Luke described is just like some of the Old Testament prophets, he uses a visual as a metaphor to warn Paul of what was ahead: "...he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’” (21:11). Now Paul had received two words of warning!
All around him friends began to plead with him to not continue ahead to Jerusalem. Finally, Paul broke it off: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13). We must not think that Paul wanted to be a martyr. He didn't know what was ahead, but he had clearly heard God's Spirit tell him to go to Jerusalem. Besides, he was carrying a gift from the churches of Asia and Greece to the church in Jerusalem - a gift of money that he had sought from the churches to aid the Jerusalem church. He was not to be dissuaded by the thought that he was in for a rough time.
The trip to Jerusalem was on horseback. It was about 65 miles from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and when Paul arrived, the church received him "warmly" - Paul was among brothers and sisters, his family of the church. If anything was obvious it was that everywhere Paul went he was engaged in fellowship, encouraged in fellowship, and experienced both their love and their concern for him as they strongly hoped he would not suffer harm. What is also clear is that Paul's Missionary journeys are now complete. From now on he will not be making the decision of where to go next...it will be made for him...but through the sovereign will of God.
The brothers in Jerusalem had received him but were aware that with Paul's arrival there would be tension. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "to be great is to be misunderstood". Paul worked hard at communication, but sometimes non-verbal communication is all that is necessary to get a person into trouble. The brothers in Jerusalem conceded that Paul had done great things in ministering to the Gentiles, but also knew that what he had done was going to be misunderstood - even by believing Jews in the church in Jerusalem. I've been where Paul was at - not in the magnitude of his acts, but in trying to fully communicate difficult things. I'm sure Paul was troubled by the reports that he hated the law of Moses and tried to turn people away from the law. No, as we will read in his epistle, Paul loved the Law but saw that the law served as a mirror to point people to the Gospel, not as a way of salvation. He was misunderstood, but now, here in Jerusalem, perhaps he hoped he'd be able to straighten things out. It was not to be.
It was Pentecost and Paul had arrived to participate in this ancient Jewish celebration, fully aware of how God changed it from a harvest of food festival to a harvest of souls some 25+ years before. He had brought offerings and the brothers' came up with a plan that they and Paul hoped would make a way for him - "...take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law" (21:24). It would not work.
The vow was the same sort of vow Paul had made previously. He set aside various things he could rightfully enjoy for the sake of offering himself to God. It was a Nazarite vow and it was to be concluded by shaving his hair and offering it to the Priest as a peace offering. It would show that Paul loved the Law while not abandoning his stance on the Grace of God for salvation. It was for God's Peace...that also would not happen.
Seven days of the celebration passed and all was well, and then the final day came, and as Paul walked through the Temple area, some of the Jews from Asia that he had run-ins with spotted him, seized him, and as they had done in numerous cities in Asia, stirred up the crowd accusing him of being the man who tells people to ignore Moses, and besides that, had been spotted with a Greek Gentile, thus defiling the Temple.
Of course, it was all incorrect, but nevertheless, it was effective in inciting a riot. Roman soldiers were garrisoned in a tower connected to the Temple, just for these sorts of events. They got word of a crowd trying to kill someone and came to quell the disturbance. The commander of the detachment arrived and immediately arrested Paul, thus taking control. The crowd wanted to kill Paul and began to accuse him of the same charges they had used against Stephen when they killed him - and Paul had stood nearby in agreement with them. Paul was no longer in charge...God had something else in mind.
Was it all based on misunderstandings? Didn't his friends warn him of what was ahead? "See, this is exactly what I knew would happen!" We've either all heard those words, or said them...either way, they are not helpful. Misunderstandings, especially when you're in a role that is so public, are going to happen - they are inescapable. My Seminary professor used to say, "Gentlemen, any dead fish can float downstream". It was his way of reminding us that if you are going to serve God you will have to swim upstream, against the current. The currents of culture are often at odds with God's word. If you say something to try to correct it, you will incur the wrath of those who disagree.
Yet realize, God has never taken a poll to see if what is the truth is favorable to the masses. Think: Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, the Prophets...all of them were either ignored, despised, attacked and misunderstood. The Reformers: Luther, Calvin, Knox were unpopular to everyone outside of the church. While misunderstandings are inescapable, they are also unpredictable as to both the sources and the outcomes. Paul was no longer in control...neither, often, are we. What we are in control of is how we will decide to react. Paul kept telling his friends, I'm here to allow God to use me to do his will. It was not bravado, it was his life's purpose.