Acts21v1to21: PAUL PRESSES ON TO JERUSALEM.
(A) Introduction (Read the references.)
I address this passage with a heavy heart. It saddens me more than almost any other part of the Bible. I found it difficult to study and prepare a message on Paul's futile journey to Jerusalem. He did not travel to the Holy City with great expectations of doing good but rather with forebodings of ill - but yet he went. As I read Acts21 I feel so sorry for Paul. I see in the account both his strengths and his weaknesses.
(B)Why was Paul so determined to go to Jerusalem?
(1) He was concerned for his people, the Jews.
To gain an insight into Paul's frame of mind at this time it is important to read Romans the epistle he wrote from Corinth before setting off for Jerusalem. See Romans9v1to5, v30to32 and Romans10v1to4.
Paul writes: Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. Rom10v1. He agonises over the spiritual condition of his people: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I would wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race. Rom9v2to3.
I am most uneasy about Paul writing: I would wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers. It is a bit like a pastor saying, "I would gladly be divorced from my wife and separated from her for ever if only all the folk who attend this church were saved." It would be wrong for the pastor to break a happy, loving relationship with his wife. How would the pastor's wife feel about such a statement? God is not impressed when we do something wrong however laudable we consider the end.
I think Paul was wrong to indicate that he would forfeit his personal relationship with Jesus on behalf of his people. How did Jesus feel about that? It was pointless saying it because such a sacrifice would never bring about the desired change. It was an unhelpful, disturbing remark. However, it does indicate the depth of Paul's feeling.
Some share Paul's feeling today. It is their heartfelt desire and constant prayer that a son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, mother or father be saved. They would do almost anything for that cherished, greatly loved family member to believe.
I watched a BBC television program last night on birthmarks. An old man said that when his daughter was a little girl he would place his cheek against her cheek and long for her purple birthmark to leave her face for his. There are many fathers and mothers who long to remove a son or daughter's obstinacy and wilfulness - those characteristics that are keeping their loved one from Jesus. That is how Paul felt about his race, his beloved people.
(2) Paul hoped the gift he brought from the Gentile churches would bring Gentile and Jewish believers closer together.
I worked for 20 years as the sports organiser at Pioneer Camp without my church taking any real interest in what I was doing. I have been writing for this website without any involvement from my fellowship. Now I must confess that it is only comparatively recently that I have visited my brother's church in Clapham. It has given me greater insight into what he is doing. I am better able to discuss his work sympathetically and warmly.
(3) Paul wanted the Christians in Jerusalem to enjoy the same liberty as Gentile believers.
Paul knew that salvation was not dependent upon observing rules, performing ceremonies or fastidiously practising ritual; it was conditional upon belief in Jesus. Salvation was the gift of God's grace and received by faith. It was for everyone who believed.
This is the message we yearn those we love to accept. There are those dear to us who must repent of all that is keeping them from Jesus - their self-sufficiency, self-satisfaction, complacency, pride, intellectual arrogance, ignorance, prejudice, laziness, selfishness and anger with God. They must repent and call on the name of the Lord for salvation.
(4) Paul longed to be accepted by the mother church in Jerusalem.
The apostle could have arrived in Jerusalem, presented the Gentile offering, made his report and left. His visit need not have lasted more than 2 or 3 days. Paul lingered. There was so much he could have taught the Jewish Christians. We have only to read Romans to see how he might have enlightened them: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. Rom8v1and2.
Paul is not the only one who has been rejected by those who needed him most. Luther did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church - he wanted to reform it. John Wesley had no desire to break with the Church of England - he hoped to re-invigorate it. But Luther and Wesley were forced out of their denominations. Things don't change. There are things the Associations of Grace Baptist Churches need to hear - but they do not welcome dissidents at their deliberations - they would rather the reformers left and went elsewhere.
Paul enjoyed sweet fellowship on his way to Jerusalem.
Before setting off for Jerusalem Paul had to tear himself away from the Ephesian elders such was their devotion to him. Their love and commitment to Paul stands in stark contrast to the uneasy relationship that existed between the apostle and the elders at Jerusalem! My grandfather, Jake Hughes, was pastor of a church in Richmond, Surrey, for 38 years. The members of his church adored him - especially the ladies - something his grandson has never experienced! Late in life he moved to the Suffolk church at Otley. He found it very difficult to adjust to the more undemonstrative, cautious Suffolk folk - who did not wear their hearts on their sleeves. If we are greatly loved by one group of people we are not necessarily going to be greatly loved by everyone!
Paul and his companions found a small group of believers when they arrived in Tyre, the seaport of Phoenicia. Finding disciples there we stayed with them 7 days. v4. It must have been encouraging to find that the gospel had taken root in such unpromising pagan soil. The whole church turned out to bid farewell to Paul and his friends: All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. v5. This forms a touching and indescribably lovely picture. I don't expect the children ever forgot that prayer meeting by the seashore. I have never forgotten how my father and mother prayed for me the morning I left home to attend London University. They placed me in God's care.
After leaving Tyre Paul sailed a short distance southwards to Ptolemais where he stopped one day. He still took the opportunity to spend that day with Christians. Finally the party arrive at Caesarea where they remained several days with Philip the evangelist. We last heard of Philip in Acts3v40: Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea. Perhaps Philip settled down in Caesarea because he got married. By the time of Paul's visit he had four unmarried daughters all of whom prophesied. It is unlikely that they would have been able to do much prophesying in the Jerusalem church. It is significant that a Hellenistic Jew entertained Paul and his Gentile companions; one we know witnessed to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Eventually Paul and his companions travel to Jerusalem. Luke writes: And brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples. v15. Mnason was another Hellenistic Jew and therefore more broad minded than the Palestinian Jewish Christians. He came from Cyprus and may have been a friend of Barnabas. Mnason was willing to accommodate Gentiles. It is worth noting that this old man gets a mention in the Scriptures because of his hospitality and liberality.
There were those in Jerusalem who greeted Paul and his Gentile friends warmly. When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. v17. I am inclined to think that these brothers consisted, in the main, of Greek speaking Jewish believers - the more radical element in the Jerusalem church.
What lessons can be learned from these events:
(2) There are already hints of division among the Jewish Christians in Palestine. Paul was consorting with Grecian Jews like Philip and Mnason. The traditionalists were not so keen to associate with him.
Whenever trouble is brewing you find out who your friends are. I love the account in 2Sam17v27to29 of the generosity of Shobi the Ammonite, Ammiel from Lo Debar and Barzillai the Gileadite to David. The king was in trouble. Absalom was leading what looked to be a successful revolt. This did not stop the three admirers of David bringing bedding, bowls and all manner of goodies for the people to eat. For they said, "The people have become hungry, and tired and thirsty in the desert." 2Sam17v29.
It is good to have a few friends to rely on when up against it. Conversely it is terrible to have no-one to help in time of adversity. Between 1982 and 1994 Enoch Wang was kept in prison by the Chinese authorities because they hated the fact that a former Red Guard and Communist Youth League leader had become a Christian pastor. It was painful to be separated from his wife and three year old daughter but he expected the local Christians to take care of them in his absence. However, anyone found trying to help the family of a counter-revolutionary is accused of the same crime, and so fear of punishment kept Enoch's Christian brothers from helping his family. For years his wife raised their daughter alone, with no Christian fellowship, no husband and no money. To survive she resorted to scavenging garbage and begging.
(D) Paul received numerous warnings that his visit to Jerusalem would end in failure.
(1) Paul said, before he left the Ephesian elders, "I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me prison and hardship are facing me." Acts20v23. He is warned that his visit to Jerusalem would not be a success. He would hardly be imprisoned otherwise.
(2) The Christians at Tyre: Through the Spirit urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. Acts21v4. They could foresee his visit to the Holy City ending in disaster - as it did.
(3) At Caesarea Agabus the prophet used Paul's belt to bind his own feet and hands. He goes on to say: "In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles." v11. Agabus also indicated that Paul will fail to bring the gospel of God's grace to the Palestinian Christians or the Jewish people. Luke writes: We and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Nobody thinks Paul should go on to Jerusalem except Paul himself.
Why were these warnings given? Was it to:
God tests missionary pioneers in the same sort of way. Adoniram Judson and William Carey, pioneering missionaries to Burma and India respectively, had to over come many set backs before making progress in their chosen fields. Mr Earnest Oliver and his wife who were called to take the gospel to Nepal had to wait 19 years in North India before gaining admittance to that land.
(2) To steel Paul for the ordeals ahead. Sometimes a doctor will say to a patient, "This is going to be a bit uncomfortable." The doctor's words are a wise precaution. There is nothing worse than being caught unawares by the strange procedure for investigating prostate gland trouble. It is as well for recruits into the army to be aware of the rigors awaiting them. As a prospective teacher I was forewarned that children would need a firm hand from the word go!
I read an interesting letter in the Daily Telegraph this morning about the difficulty soldiers have coping with terrorist attacks like those perpetrated in Iraq. I will quote what is a very significant paragraph: In experiments in which rats are given random shocks, the ones given warning via a red light can brace themselves and seem to cope. The rats shocked without warning soon die of heart failure.
So it is that the Bible contains many warnings. Jesus said, "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." John15v20. He goes on to say: "All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. .... I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you." John16v1to4.
(3) Give Paul the opportunity to change his plans. The Holy Spirit tells Paul that he will fail in Jerusalem. If that is the case what is the point of entering that city? Paul could stop in Caesarea while his friends deliver the gift of money to the Jerusalem elders. On their return he could set sail for Rome a free man.
Paul's arrival in Jerusalem was not the same as that of Jesus. Both would be rejected but Jesus in being rejected finished the work God gave him to do. Jesus was ultimately successful in that he made the final, all-sufficient sacrifice for sin and God raise him to life on the third day. It is very difficult to see what Paul achieved by going to Jerusalem.
It is interesting to examine the reaction of James and the elders to Paul:
(1) After listening to Paul's detailed report of all that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry .... they praised God. v19and20. This seems to me rather perfunctory. They don't ask any questions about the Gentile churches. James and his fellow leaders do not seem too interested in the Gentiles. They have settled the Gentile question: "As for the Gentiles believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, ...... ." v25. It would not have been amiss if James and the elders had commended Paul for his efforts.
(2) No mention is made of the gift from the Gentiles. James and the elders offer no effusive expression of gratitude. I think they may have found the generosity of the Gentile churches rather embarrassing. They had not asked for financial support. Paul had gone to a lot of trouble to bring money to the church in Jerusalem. He deserved more thanks than he received.
Whenever someone is generous the best response is gratitude. It is never appropriate to try and pay a person back! In the spring I provided tea for a party of 12 from my brother's church. A few days later my sister-in-law sent me a card of appreciation signed by all the ladies on the trip. That was nice! On the first Saturday of the cricket season one of the members of our club treated both sides to dinner in a local pub. My brother and I were quite prepared to tell our generous host how much we enjoyed the occasion.
(3) James' and the elders' main interest and concern was the many thousands of Jews who had believed "and all of them zealous for the law." v20. These must have been chilling words for Paul to hear. He had travelled hundreds of miles only for James to say of the Jewish believers: "All of them zealous for the law." Paul had written to the Romans: Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. Rom10v3. The leaders of the Jewish church had made concessions about the Gentiles but they were going to make no further concessions on what was right for Jewish Christians. A yawing chasm was opening up between Gentile and Jewish Christians.
The important doctrines are those that unite all genuine Christians not those that divide them. It is a great pity whenever there is a party in a denomination or association that wishes, like James, to emphasise the distinctives.
(4) James and the elders were concerned to live in harmony with non-Christian Jews. This meant living by the Law of Moses. Paul had in fact arrived in Jerusalem at a bad time. The city was full of Jews from all over the Roman world who had come to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It was the very time that several of his enemies from the Mediterranean cities in which he had evangelised would be present in Jerusalem. So Paul's presence was a problem for James and his fellow elders. The last thing they were prepared to do was let Paul loose amongst the Jewish Christian traditionalists. They were not open to Paul's teaching on grace.
Paul was rejected in Jerusalem and in the end the Judaisers in that church won the day. It was not long before Jerusalem was destroyed. Few if any Jews remained in the Christian fold. There is an ancient Christian tradition in Egypt, Lebanon, Ethiopia and even countries like Iraq but not amongst the Jews. There is no Jewish church.
It is terrible when those we love reject all our efforts to win them for Christ. There are Christians in my little church who are heart broken over the stubborn refusal of their family members to be saved. It is a great and abiding hurt in the lives of so many who love the Lord.
(F) Was Paul right to go to Jerusalem?
This is not an easy question to answer. Paul's action did not just have consequences for him self but others. After he was imprisoned he was no longer able to visit the Gentile churches that he had established nor was he able to evangelise Spain. It is almost as if he is distracted from his calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by his passion for his own people, the Jews. Enoch Wang's actions not only resulted in him going to prison for 13 years but awful deprivation for his wife and child. This led to a painful period of readjustment when Enoch was released from imprisonment. Perhaps he should have considered the likely fate of his wife and daughter more carefully before antagonising the authorities. These are difficult issues - to say the least.
These are my concluding suggestions:
(2) God permitted Paul's visit even though his initiative was doomed to failure. Paul accomplished nothing among his own people.
(3) God may have permitted Paul to make one last attempt to preach the gospel of grace to the Jews because he understood it was something that Paul had to do.
(4) God may have permitted this final, heroic and sacrificial gesture because it showed how much the little apostle cared about his people and their relationship with Jesus. He said to the Christians at Caesarea: "I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." v13.
This sort of thing still happens to day. I know a man who was keen to establish a Christian cafe and bookshop along a busy main road as a means to win others for Jesus. He believed it was God's will and invested a lot of his own money in the venture. His church failed to support him and the project failed. I believe God allowed this Christian pastor to proceed because it showed how much he cared for the lost.
I spent five or six years, following work by the Faith Mission, conducting a Bible study for young people in Rede, the neighbouring village to Brockley. I expended much time and effort on this at a period in my life when I was extremely busy. It produced no results and finally fizzled out. Why did God permit me to waste my time? I showed by my commitment how much I cared.
(5) Finally, God may have permitted Paul to put his ministry at risk because some good proceeded from his failure. It is not easy to see what this good was but I will make two tentative suggestions. After Paul's imprisonment he could no longer visit the Gentile churches. I believe this more than anything else meant those churches valued his letters. They would never see him or hear him preach again but they had his letters. So Paul's letters were carefully preserved. They were preserved for all time and have been a huge power for good. Did Paul ever got to Spain with the gospel? Of course he did! Eventually his letters arrived there and everywhere else in the world.
Secondly, because Paul was taken into custody by the commander of the Roman troops in Jerusalem he was eventually given safe conduct to Rome and spent at least two years there with a soldier to guard him! We know that it was in the will of God for Paul to preach Christ in Rome. In Acts23v11 we read: The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify in Rome." Luke ends the Acts of the Apostles with these words: For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts28v31. It is very unlikely that Paul would have been able to do this, such was the Jews hatred of him, without the protection of the Roman authorities.
Simon Yao, who had hoped so much to be a missionary beyond the northwest frontier of China, was released from prison a disillusioned and defeated man. But he had survived and was rediscovered by the Chinese Christian church. His story has given fresh impetus to the 'Back to Jerusalem Movement' that aims to take the gospel to all the countries between China and Jerusalem. Simon Yao hadn't been defeated after all. God's purposes are past finding out but they are never, never, no never defeated.