The Book of ACTS
James J. Barker

Lesson 40

Text: ACTS 21:18-40


  1. We have noted that the apostle Paul was warned several times that if he were to go to Jerusalem he would be arrested and imprisoned.
  2. Paul insisted on going anyway, and when his friends could not talk him out of it, they ceased trying, and said, "The will of the Lord be done" (21:14).
  3. It was the will of the Lord, and for two thousand years now Christians have been debating whether it was God's perfect will or His permissive will.



  1. Acts 21:18 says Paul and Luke and some of the others went to see James; and all the elders from the church in Jerusalem were present.
  2. This Scripture as well as Acts 15:13 indicate James was the pastor of the church in Jerusalem. Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3; and Galatians 1:19 tell us James was our Lord's half-brother. He wrote the epistle of James.
  3. James told Paul that there were "many thousands of Jews" that believed in Jesus; "and they are all zealous of the law" (20:20).
  4. Many Jewish Christians were still "zealous of the law" (21:20), and God tolerated it for a while. God abolished the Mosaic dispensation when He allowed the Roman army to destroy the temple in AD 70. This made their religious observances impossible.
  5. But that was still about ten years away, and unfortunately at this time many of these Jewish believers had questions about Paul's doctrine. They accused Paul of forbidding Gentile believers to be circumcised (21:21).
  6. This is not true because Acts 16:3 says Paul took Timothy (whose father was a Gentile) and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in that area.
  7. Nevertheless, James and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem wanted to placate the Jewish believers. Their plan was for Paul to take four men which had a vow (probably a Nazarite vow) on them; and purify himself with them, and pay for their offerings, that they may shave their heads.
  8. This would be seen by the Jewish believers, and would assure them that Paul walked "orderly" and kept the law (21:23, 24).
  9. Paul was under no obligation but he went along with the idea. Paul said in I Corinthians 9:22, "To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (cf. I Cor. 9:19-21).
  10. Vows are not a part of New Testament Christianity, reminding us again that Acts is a transitional book -- Judaism was fading, and Christianity was rising. Many Jews (even those who believed in Jesus) refused to give up some aspects of the law of Moses.
  11. I mentioned earlier that Christians have debated whether it was God's perfect will or His permissive will for Paul to go to Jerusalem after he was repeatedly warned against it.
  12. Christians have also debated whether or not Paul was right to compromise and take this vow. I was surprised by some of the opinions of famous commentators.
  13. G. Campbell Morgan said, “Paul made here the greatest mistake of his ministry.” Donald Grey Barnhouse said what Paul "did was as bad as if he were to enter a Roman Catholic cathedral and receive from the priest’s hands the Mass.” I cannot agree with these statements.
  14. W. Graham Scroggie's comments are more judicious. He said, "Compromises are delicate, and may easily be dangerous things. If by a compromise, policy can be served without the sacrifice of principle, it is justifiable" (The Acts of the Apostles).
  15. It is unlikely that Paul's compromise did any good, but Paul went along with it as a gesture of fellowship and goodwill toward James and the other Jewish believers.
  16. Acts 21:23-26 does not say if this vow was a Nazarite vow but likely it was. The Nazarite was to let his hair grow long, was to touch no dead body, and was to abstain from partaking of the fruit of the vine.
  17. It seems that the four Jewish believers referred to here had taken this vow but then had allowed themselves to become ceremonially unclean. Under the Mosaic law, ceremonial defilement required ceremonial cleansing.
  18. The Nazarite remained clean for a week, and then on the seventh day he was to shave his head (21:23-26). James asked that Paul accompany these four men into the temple when they offered their sacrifice to the priests (21:26).
  19. James referred to the letter that had been written earlier specifying that Gentiles were under no obligation to observe these Jewish customs (21:25).
  20. Of course, Jewish believers were under no obligation as well. Paul wrote, "Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God" (I Cor. 7:18, 19).



  1. "And when the seven days were almost ended..." (21:27). This refers to the seven days that had to elapse before a Nazarite could shave his head and be purified.
  2. Trouble-making Jews from Asia Minor saw Paul in the temple and started stirring up all the people. They seized Paul in the temple and accused him of "polluting this holy place" (21:27, 28).
  3. Verse 29 says it wasn't even clear if Trophimus (who was an Ephesian) had even entered the temple with Paul. It says, "whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple."
  4. On the basis of this flimsy supposition, the Jews "went about to kill" Paul (21:29-31). Furthermore, they lied about Paul, accusing him of teaching all men every where against the Jewish people, and against the law of Moses, and against the temple (21:28). None of it was true.
  5. Just like they lied about our Lord, they lied about Paul. Our Lord said, "Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20).
  6. A riot broke out. Note: "all the city was moved" (21:30), and "all Jerusalem was in an uproar" (21:31).
  7. They only stopped beating Paul when they saw the chief captain and his soldiers running down the stairs unto them (21:32).
  8. In Matthew 23:37 and 38, our Lord said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate."
  9. Soon Jerusalem murdered our Lord, and after that they murdered Stephen, and now they were trying to kill the apostle Paul.
  10. And in a few years, the temple which the Jews were so proud of would be destroyed by the Roman army. Pointing to the magnificent temple, our Lord said to His disciples, "Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down" (Matthew 24:2).



  1. The chief captain saved Paul's life. He came near, and took Paul, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and demanded who he was, and what he had done (21:33). With the fanatical mob wanting to kill Paul, the chief captain probably assumed he was a dangerous criminal.
  2. Angry Jews in the unruly mob were screaming, and the chief captain could not get the facts because of the noisy tumult (21:34).
  3. Therefore, he commanded Paul to be carried into "the castle," i.e., the Fortress of Antonia. This fortress had been built by Herod the Great and he named it after Marc Antony. It was connected to the temple by two flights of stairs. It served as an army barracks for the Roman army.
  4. The furious Jews were still trying to attack Paul, so the Roman soldiers had to carry him up the stairs because of "the violence of the people" (21:35).
  5. John Phillips described the bloodthirsty mob this way: "They surged forward yelling and clutching, heaving and shoving, trying to drag Paul back to his death" (Exploring Acts).
  6. Acts 21:36 says, "For the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him." This is very similar to what happened to our Lord when He was brought before Pontius Pilate. John 19:15 says, "But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him."
  7. Luke 23:18 says, "And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas."
  8. When Paul asked if he could speak to the chief captain, the man was surprised that Paul could speak Greek (21:37). The captain thought Paul was a violent Egyptian rebel (21:38). The Jewish historian Josephus referred to this Egyptian as a false prophet who led a big insurrection, just as Luke records it here in Acts 21:38.
  9. The word translated "murderers" in Acts 21:38 is sikarios. It is a Latin word and this is the only time it is used in the Bible. It refers to assassins, cutthroats, and terrorists. Thayer's Lexicon says the word comes from the Latin word sica, which refers to the crooked dagger these assassins would hide under their clothing.
  10. The chief captain had Paul all wrong. He was surprised to see that Paul spoke proper Greek, and was polite and educated.
  11. Paul explained to the chief captain that he was a Jew, not an Egyptian, and that he was from Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, "no mean (insignificant or obscure) city" (21:39).
  12. Tarsus was an important city, and Julius Caesar had endowed the inhabitants there with all the rights and privileges of Roman citizens.
  13. Paul asked for permission to speak to the people, and his request was granted (21:39, 40).
  14. It is interesting that Paul was able to quiet this angry mob by just beckoning with his hand (21:40). This indicates Paul's authority and power as a preacher. It also signifies God's hand upon his ministry.



Dr. S. Lewis Johnson said, "If one ever needed an incident to impress upon us the fact that the world is opposed to the gospel of Christ, these chapters (Acts 21--28) will indicate it.  The world of religion and the world of politics, the world of government; these worlds are opposed to the truth of God.  Oh, there may be some exceptions in history, a few cases of this, but, generally speaking, these great human sources of power are opposed to the truth of God.  The world of politics, the world of religion and the world of government; it’s always that way for the simple reason that politics and religion and government are in the hands of, generally speaking, the non-Christian.  And non-Christians are rebellious naturally toward the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."

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