Acts 21:1-16 | Paul Goes to Jerusalem
Paul Goes to Jerusalem
21 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.
7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, 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.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “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.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge.
We are on the home stretch of Paul’s third missionary journey. Last week, we saw Paul’s final goodbye to the Ephesian elders as he set sail for Jerusalem. He’s led by God the Holy Spirit to go, even though it will include suffering. This week, we see the continuation of that journey, where me made two important stops at Tyre and Caesarea, and received a word from the Spirit at each. So, let’s look at each stop and draw some applications for us.
The Christians in Tyre told Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem. Paul said in Acts 20:23 he’d experienced in every city that the Holy Spirit testified to him that imprisonment and afflictions awaited him in Jerusalem. So, same message, different city, this time with people urging him not to proceed. We don’t know what the conversation was like, but at the end of seven days, they all went to the beach, prayed together, and Paul boarded the ship and left, disregarding their pleas.
In Caesarea, Paul met the prophet Agabus, who appeared in Acts 11 where he prophesied a famine. Here in Acts 21, he took Paul’s belt (where he kept money and other items), 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.’”
Afterwards, those watching pressed Paul not to go to Jerusalem. This urging included everyone, even Paul’s traveling companions. Verse 12 says, “When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.” But Paul plans to proceed, saying, “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.” And since he wouldn’t be persuaded, they ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
Now, let’s think this through. Two prophecies, in two cities, with Christians who said the same thing: Paul, don’t go to Jerusalem! Two questions come to mind. (1) What did the Spirit say? (2) Did Paul obey or disobey?
We have a few interpretive options:
1. The Spirt initially misspoke when he told Paul to go to Jerusalem. We must reject this outright because accepting this premise creates big problems. Acts 19 says Paul “resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and to go to Jerusalem.” In Acts 20, Paul says, “Behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit.” So, if the Spirit gives a different word now, God would be a liar, but the Bible says he’s not (Titus 1:2).
2. Paul’s friends incorrectly labeled their revelation as a prophecy from the Holy Spirit. If we say this, we’re saying Luke, the author of Acts, was inaccurate for saying it was from the Spirit. Then, we have a problem with inerrancy. It would mean the Scripture can be broken, but that can’t be true because Jesus said in John 10:35 that it couldn’t be.
3. Paul disobeyed the Spirit. This is very unlikely because we see in the book of Acts the close relationship Paul has with the Spirit. For example, in Acts 16, Paul wanted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow him to. He was so sensitive to the Spirit then, it’s highly unlikely he’d be so distant now.
4. There are different levels of prophecy in the New Testament – (1) infallible prophecy and (2) prophecy that’s generally true, but wrong in the details. The problem is that nothing in the passage indicates two levels of prophecy. Luke treated all prophecies all the same. For example, nothing in this passage is different from the way Luke spoke of Agabus’s famine prophecy in Acts 11.
However, if we keep reading, we see that Agabus’s prophecy here didn’t play out exactly as described. Paul got to Jerusalem and met with James, the Jewish Christian leader of the Church there. Paul went into the temple, and the Jews claimed he took a Gentile with him, so they arrested him, but they didn’t bind him. Paul was bound by the Romans (Gentiles), not the Jews. And it was actually the Romans (Gentiles) who rescued Paul from the Jews. So, what do we make of this? Well, if we keep reading until the end of Acts, Paul’s words in 28:17 help us see that Agabus was correct. Paul said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” So, Paul says that he was handed over to the Gentiles by the Jews. It’s in the macro view that the prophecy comes true. So, there is one, and only one, type of prophecy in the New Testament.
5. The Spirit told Paul to go to Jerusalem, and Paul alone applied the prophecy correctly. This is the best option. Paul knew what the Lord called him to and others’ application of the prophecy didn’t dissuade him, because what they said wasn’t a new word. They all said the same thing. “Paul, you’re going to suffer in Jerusalem.” It wasn’t a new word; it was just a plea not to follow through. They heard this word from God and thought, “Paul, are you crazy? You can avoid this! Don’t go. Stay here. Don’t suffer!” But Paul heard the word and thought, “God, I’m constrained by you to go. It’s going to include suffering. Everyone tells me that. You tell me that. But I’m willing to go if that’s where you want to take me.” Paul’s friends were right in saying trouble would come, but they were wrong in thinking that because trouble would come, Paul shouldn’t go. His friends couldn’t see why Paul would risk imprisonment and afflictions if they could be avoided by avoiding Jerusalem. Paul couldn’t see how he could avoid Jerusalem without avoiding Jesus.
So, the Spirit told Paul to go to Jerusalem, and Paul obeyed.
Therefore, we can apply this to ourselves in two ways.
1. First, we must help one another follow the Lord in their life, no matter the destination.
2. Second, we must follow the Lord in our life, no matter the destination.
First, we must help one another follow the Lord in their life, no matter the destination.
We’re not all called to face what Paul faced, but we’re all going to face something. Psalm 34 says, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous.” Every call of God is hard because every call of God takes us to the end of our strength and into God’s strength. We need help and encouragement from the body of Christ along the way. So, we need to learn how to help well.
Sometimes well-intentioned people can be wrong about what God desires. It’s especially hard when someone we love faces a call that includes suffering, as Paul’s did. So, we must be careful not to dismiss or proclaim a verdict too soon. We don’t want to be like the people in this passage, giving quick application to a complex issue that we have not taken time to pray or think through.
Let’s not dull the sensitive listening to the Spirit because of fear for safety. What’s safe about the Christian life here on earth? Was Jesus safe? Let’s be a church who believes in Jesus so ferociously that we become and encourage risk-taking, Spirit-led people who, by God’s grace, make an impact on the world around us. Why else has God called us to plant this church? It’s not so we can find comfort in these fold-out chairs. It’s so we can find God in these fold-out chairs and then pack them in the trailer and go out into the world as ambassadors for Christ.
We need to be humble listeners who engage with one another’s Christian life. We need to ask questions, pray, get clarification, give encouragement with gentleness and kindness, give advice (when necessary), follow up, walk alongside, weep with one another, and rejoice with one another. We need to be gospel-soaked and Spirit-filled. We should share our hesitations and help them think it through but if after much of that, we’re still worried about someone's destination, but we see a mature, prepared, and thoughtful decision from the one being called, we must, like Paul’s companions, say in the end, “The will of the Lord be done.” It’s not our place to walk another’s road. It’s our place to encourage and help them along the way, trusting that the Lord knows what he’s doing. Here’s the truth, God loves them more than we have the capacity to! He’ll be with them.
We see this play out in verse 16. Some of the people from Caesarea went with Paul to the house of Mnason. Why? Because Paul didn’t go by ship to Mnason’s house, he went on horseback, and it was a dangerous path. They wanted to be sure Paul got there safely, even if they didn’t believe he’d be safe once he got there. Isn’t that beautiful? Brothers and sisters stick together through it all! They don’t want him to go, but they trusted God’s sovereignty and supported him even still. That’s our role: to support and encourage. Leave the rest up to God.
Second, we must follow the Lord in our life, no matter the destination.
So, how can we know what God is calling us to? Discerning this isn’t easy, but few principles help.
1. Walk closely with the Lord. Read your Bible, pray, meditate on Scripture. There you’re find what God allows, what he asks of you, and the power to proceed.
2. Know your gifting. We all have some gift from God to be used for the advancement of his kingdom. What’s yours? What can you do? What do you enjoy doing? Do others affirm it?
3. Be in community. Being in fellowship with other Christians is the way God will deploy you.
But let’s not over-complicate it. Let’s not fail to do anything because we’re waiting on God’s unmistakable voice to burst through the clouds. Let’s live our lives for Christ right now, where we are, trusting his guidance. He might call some of us to a far-off place, but not everyone in Acts 21 went to Jerusalem. Most stayed home and lived for the Lord where they were. That’s one way the gospel spreads: through Christians sharing the gospel where the Lord has them. Are you living for Christ where you are? By God’s grace, you can!
Wherever God calls us, we must follow him, no matter the destination. Do you know why Paul was going to Jerusalem? He was taking an offering to poor Jews that he took up on all his journeys among the Gentiles. We see the details of this in Romans 15. Now, that seems like a weak reason to face imprisonment and afflictions, but Paul set his face like flint to go. Why? Because it wasn’t merely an offering. It was a statement. Money is worthless unless we say something with it. And God wanted Paul to say something about his kingdom through this Gentile gift to the Jews.
Do you understand the implications of that? The proud Jews despised the heathen Gentiles. Historically, the Jews faced great persecution from the Gentiles. The Jews were God’s people. The Gentiles weren’t. But it was always God’s plan to save both Jew and Gentile on the same basis: by grace through faith in Christ. Acts 15 shows us how controversial it was when the gospel starts spreading to the Gentiles. The apostles debated one another over the matter! But they finally saw that God was indeed saving the Gentiles by grace through faith in Christ. Enemies were now family.
So, this offering from the outsider Gentiles to the insider Jews was a visible display of the unity Christ created in his church. It was proof that the gospel is true. Jesus really is the Prince of peace, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, unifying every tribe, tongue, and nation. Paul was the Jewish Christian apostle appointed by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He felt weight of what Jesus was doing and he wanted the Jews in Jerusalem to feel it too. God was reconciling the world! What Paul took to Jerusalem was more than just himself. It was a visible display of the gospel. He was so convinced of the worth of Jesus that he was willing to die to bring the love of the Gentiles into the Church of the Jews. Just like Jesus, Paul was willing to die to unite the church.
Paul did this because Paul believed in the lordship of Christ. He believed God had authority over his life, to determine his role in the grand gospel cause. He didn’t know how it’d turn out, but he looked at the sovereignty of God and followed the command of God. Many of us want to rest in the sovereignty of God’s care and protection but we don’t want to yield to the sovereignty of God’s commands. But if we really believe in the sovereignty of God, it results in following God’s call on our life, no matter the destination, because we trust him. His sovereignty will go with you! Paul went to Jerusalem because he didn’t want to hear Jesus say to him, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). Do you want to hear that?
We spend our lives wondering what we should do, and when we feel God’s call, we grow afraid of what it means. But here’s what God says. It’s the same thing he said to Moses. Theologian John Frame helped me see this. God told Moses to stand before Pharaoh and demand he set the Israelites free. Moses asked, “Who am I to go?” And God answered, “I will be with you.” That’s a weird answer, isn’t it? “I will be with you” isn’t an answer to the question, “Who am I?” But, of course, it’s the only answer for the Christian. Who are you? You are the one whom God is with. Moses stood in front of Pharaoh because God was with him, and Paul went to Jerusalem because God was with him. What are you going to do because God is with you?
God will call us into hard places, but as we go, he’s going with us. We’re never alone in this life. Not as long as God is alive. And he’s already defeated death, so what’s going to take him away now? Every Christian is called to deny himself and take up his own cross. Jesus endured it. We shall too. But as we do, we will experience in our suffering the blessing of God falling on others. Hear what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Do you see that? God uses our trials to bring comfort to others because in our trials we find comfort in God. Like an explorer, our various calls reach deep into God and uncover treasures from which others benefit. By denying ourself, taking up our cross, and following Jesus, we become ministers scattered throughout the world: in the office, the home, the neighborhood, the school, everywhere! Every obstacle we face, every pain we suffer, every affliction we endure, Jesus uses as a testimony to his grace. All we have to do is follow him, whatever the call, and he uses our obedience to display his glory in the world.
In closing, let’s consider verse 13. “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Paul didn’t throw his life away. He gave his life away to the only one who could sustain it in the end. Do you know what happened when Paul was eventually arrested? He told us in Philippians, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” In his imprisonment, the gospel was proclaimed! Guys, this life is not all we have. One day, Jesus is going to make all things new. He’s going to come back and restore the world. He will dwell here with us in our resurrected bodies. Glory awaits! But if he calls us to suffering for him now, isn’t all our suffering worth it if just one person hears the gospel and comes to faith in Christ? Is it not worth it to stand next to that brother or sister for eternity worshipping the Lamb?
You can’t help but see what Paul did here is like what Jesus did in his final days. He set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what awaited him there. He prophesied his own death and met opposition from his friends. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus endured what the Father had waiting for him. He went to Jerusalem, and to the cross, and saved the world.
But while the comparison is there, we shouldn’t take it too far. Paul wasn’t Jesus. Paul followed Jesus. The only reason Paul went to Jerusalem was because Jesus already had. The only reason Paul was willing to do the hard thing God asked was because Jesus had already done the hardest thing and came out the other side. It wasn’t easy for Paul, but Jesus stood by him when everything was on the line. He told us so in 2 Timothy 4:17, “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me.”
And it’s the same for every Christian who follows God down the hard, narrow road. In those moments as we trust God and take the next step, we’re doing the same thing Paul was doing, and that Jesus was doing. We’re following the Spirit to testify to the gospel of God’s grace. And whatever happens to us, we can say, as Paul did in 2 Timothy 4:18, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”