What does Acts chapter 21 mean?Between Paul's three missionary journeys, God granted him rest in his home church at Syrian Antioch (Acts 14:26–28; 18:22–23). He may have also taken a trip to Jerusalem (Acts 15:1–4; 18:22), but for the most part, he was able to stay with the church that had commissioned him to spread the message of Jesus to the Gentiles in modern-day Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece (Acts 13:1–3). At the end of his third missionary journey, however, he doesn't even get a chance to visit.
In Acts 21:1–6, Paul, Timothy, Luke, and several others (Acts 20:4) leave the port city of Miletus in southwest Turkey and sail to Tyre on the Phoenician coast where they visit with the local Jesus-followers. The Holy Spirit has revealed that when Paul goes to Jerusalem he will be arrested. The Tyrians are so distraught they try to convince Paul to avoid the city and stay safe, but after seven days Paul and his companions reboard and sail south.
Acts 21:7–16 recounts an even more intense encounter in Caesarea Maritima. The team lands briefly in Ptolemais before finally disembarking in Caesarea. They stay with the evangelist Philip who first brought the message of Jesus to the Samaritans and who has four daughters who prophesy (Acts 8:4–8). In addition, Agabus arrives from Judea and confirms Paul's impending arrest by wrapping his own feet and hands in Paul's belt. The friends try to keep Paul from continuing, but he focuses on how his arrest will further the spread of the gospel.
Acts 21:17–26 sets the stage for Paul's arrest. In Acts 15, the leadership of the church in Jerusalem determined that Gentile Jesus-followers did not have to obey the Mosaic law to properly follow Christ. However, it was decided they should make minor concessions so Gentile and Jewish Christians could eat, live, and worship in unity. Paul, himself, taught the churches the council's findings in person and in letter (Acts 15:30; Galatians 3; 6:11–16). Several years later, unknown persons spread a rumor that Paul is teaching Jewish Christians to not obey the Law—a crime punishable by death (Deuteronomy 13:1–5). James, the half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the Jerusalem church, asks Paul to prove his Jewishness by helping a group of men fulfill their Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1–21). Paul agrees.
In Acts 21:27–36, everything comes to a head. Among the Gentile Jesus-followers who have come with Paul is Trophimus. He is from Ephesus, in the province of Asia, in southwest Turkey. He has brought his church's donations to James and the church in Jerusalem. At some point, Jews from Asia see Paul with Trophimus in the city. Later, they see Paul in the temple and assume he has brought Trophimus. They rile up the worshipers into dragging Paul from the temple, shutting the gates, and beating Paul. The Roman guards bring Agabus's prophecy to fruition as they bind Paul in chains and arrest him.
Acts 21:37–40 is quintessential Paul. He knows he will not be released, but he must take every opportunity to share Jesus' message—even to an angry mob that wants him dead. He asks the tribune if he may speak to the crowd. The tribune is massively confused and confirms that Paul is not, indeed, an Egyptian revolutionary who leads a pack of assassins. When Paul convinces him that he is a Jew from Tarsus, on the other side of the Mediterranean, the tribune lets him speak.
Of course, Paul's speech will fall on deaf ears. The crowd listens to his conversion story, but when he reaches the part where Jesus commissions him to spread the news to the Gentiles, they remember their initial complaint. The tribune, still confused, decides to get the truth out of Paul by flogging him, which Paul manages to avoid by reminding them he is a Roman citizen (Acts 22). The next day, Paul faces the Sanhedrin and deflects any further charges by pitting the Sadducees and Pharisees against one another. He then escapes an assassination attempt thanks to his nephew. The tribune decides his little outpost cannot resolve so much drama and sends Paul to the governor in Caesarea (Acts 23).