What does Acts 21 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Acts 21:1–6 describes how Paul and his companions finally start their way back to Judea. They sail from Miletus on the southwest coast of modern-day Turkey around the islands to Tyre in Phoenicia. Whether because the Holy Spirit informs them or Paul tells them, the Jesus-followers there realize Paul faces arrest in Jerusalem. Not understanding God's purpose, they try to protect their friend by begging him not to go. When Paul insists, they pray for him and send him on his way.
Acts 21:7–16 records Paul and his companions stopping in Caesarea Maritima. They are there briefly with the evangelist Philip before finally arriving in Jerusalem. For months, now, the Holy Spirit has warned Paul that when he reaches Jerusalem, he will be imprisoned and afflicted (Acts 20:22–23). The church in Tyre tried to stop him from going; the church in Caesarea will beg him. Paul reorients their concerns: Jesus comes first and if Jesus wants him to be imprisoned, he will serve his Savior in prison. The Holy Spirit's influence is meant to prepare Paul, not discourage him.
Acts 21:17–26 is an account of Paul reporting to the "upper management" of the early church. He has spent the last several years along the coastline of the Aegean Sea, establishing the church in Ephesus and building up the congregations in Troas, Macedonia, and Corinth. Now he returns to Jerusalem to give an account of his ministry. James and the elders of the Jerusalem church also have news: a rumor is going around claiming Paul teaches that Jews who worship with Gentiles should entirely forsake the Mosaic law. Ironically, when he cooperates with the elders' recommendation to prove his respect for Old Testament truth, Paul is again falsely accused and arrested.
Acts 21:27–36 explains why Paul's public ministry takes a five-year hiatus. He has arrived in Jerusalem only to hear a rumor that he abandoned the Mosaic law. Seeking to prove otherwise, he is then slandered with a rumor that he brought a Gentile into the temple. Before the mob can kill him, the Roman tribune takes him into custody. He will face two years house arrest in Caesarea Maritima and two in Rome, broken up by a dangerous sea voyage that ends in a shipwreck. But he will also be able to share Jesus' story with audiences he never dreamed of. These include a king and Caesar's own household.
Acts 21:37–40 explains how Paul convinces a Roman military officer to allow him to jump from a dangerous situation into something even worse. A mob at the temple has just tried to kill him. Paul, of course, wants to explain; not to defend himself against the false accusation that inspired the mob, but to share the story of his faith in Jesus of Nazareth. The tribune is confused, thinking Paul is an Egyptian revolutionary. He allows Paul to speak, and immediately regrets it.
Chapter Summary:
In Acts 21, Paul returns to Judea from his third missionary journey and promptly gets arrested. He begins by visiting Philip in Caesarea Maritima. Church elders in Jerusalem ask Paul to help men fulfill a Nazirite vow, to dispel rumors he has apostatized his Jewishness. While doing so, Ephesian Jews accuse Paul of bringing one of his Gentile Ephesian companions into the temple. The Roman military tribune keeps the enraged crowd from tearing Paul limb from limb by arresting him.
Chapter Context:
Acts 21 fulfills the fears of many of Paul's friends. Throughout the last part of his third missionary journey the Holy Spirit has been telling him he will be arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23–25). When Paul reacts to dire personal prophecy, the Jesus-followers in Caesarea Maritima try to stop him from going on (Acts 21:8–14). Through a complicated trail of rumors, lies, and wrong assumptions, things go according to the Holy Spirit's foreknowledge and Roman soldiers arrest Paul. He will face the next 5 years in custody in Caesarea and Rome, but he will spread Jesus' story the entire time (Acts 22—28).
Book Summary:
The summary of the book of Acts is provided in Jesus' words in Acts 1:8: ''But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'' In Acts 2:1–13, the Christ-followers receive the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:14—7:60 describes the rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem. Chapters 8—12 find Jewish persecution inadvertently spreading the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria. And in chapters 13—28, Paul and his companions spread the good news throughout the Roman Empire.
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