Arrested in Jerusalem

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 21:26-39

The apostle Paul’s goal is to reach Rome with the gospel of Jesus Christ. God will see to it that he gets there, but not necessarily in the time or manner Paul might have chosen if it were up to him.

As usual, Paul was busy about the work of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Having concluded his three year long ministry in the city of Ephesus, Paul was spending the winter in Corinth, with another church that demanded a lot of his time and attention. He was also thinking a great deal about the church in Jerusalem. During this time in Greece Paul was encouraging the believers there to help their suffering brothers and sisters back in Judea. He made arrangements for a great collection of money among the Greek churches to assist the Jerusalem church.

The Jewish believers there were poor and were also experiencing the effects of a famine. Paul not only wanted the gentile churches to help relieve their suffering. He also wanted them to realize that because Christians of different countries and races are united through faith in Jesus, they ought always to be concerned for each other’s welfare. So Paul strongly encouraged the mostly gentile converts of his churches in Greece and Asia Minor to demonstrate both their compassion and the unity of the church by giving generously for the relief of the Jewish-Christian believers back in Jerusalem.

Paul also spent time that winter thinking about his own future plans. It was probably while he was staying in Corinth that the apostle wrote his great letter to the Christians in Rome. Romans is not only the single most complete and powerful statement of the Christian faith, it is also, as someone has pointed out, the world’s first missionary support letter. In this book Paul explains what his personal goals are for the coming years. He hopes finally to be able to visit Rome, the city where for some time he has been most eager to preach. He wants to proclaim the gospel there, and to teach the Romans about Christ. But Paul is also hoping that the Christians in Rome will help him with their prayers and financial gifts so that he can eventually take the gospel all the way to Spain, at the extreme boundary of the Roman Empire. Paul’s supreme ambition was to preach the good news of Jesus and his salvation to the very ends of the earth.


So Paul has a clear idea of his long-range itinerary: first Jerusalem, then Rome, and finally Spain. After leaving Greece, he stopped briefly on the coast of Asia Minor where he had an emotional farewell meeting with the leaders of the Ephesian church. Next he sailed to Syria. Finally Paul and his traveling companions landed in Palestine and made their way at last to the city of Jerusalem.

His arrival in Jerusalem after a long absence must have filled Paul with mixed emotions. There was joy, surely, to see the holy city once more. But Paul also had a sense of foreboding as he climbed the road from the seacoast up toward Jerusalem. Repeatedly during his journey, as he made known his travel plans to friends, the apostle had been warned that trouble awaited him in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 20:22-23, 21:10-14). But, like his Lord before him, nothing would dissuade Paul from following the road to its end in the city. Somehow the Holy Spirit had indicated to Paul that this was God’s will for him to do. As always, obedience was more important to this servant of Christ than even life itself.

Paul, Luke, and their other companions were warmly greeted by the Jerusalem church upon their arrival. Luke reports that the believers there “received us gladly” (21:17). But almost immediately, there was trouble.

It began innocently enough. Having arrived at the city along with thousands of other Jewish pilgrims just before the feast of Pentecost, the little band of missionaries to the gentiles gave a full report of their work to James and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. There was much rejoicing over what God was doing among the gentiles through Paul, says Luke (21:19-20).

And then the Jerusalem elders brought up a concern of their own. The Lord had also been blessing their evangelistic efforts among the Jews of Palestine, and many thousands had become followers of Jesus. These new believers were continuing to live as faithful Jews, maintaining strict obedience to the religious laws of the Old Testament. The Jewish Christians had been informed that Paul was not only converting gentiles to Christ (which was true) but also that he was encouraging Jews throughout the gentile world to abandon the law and give up their ancestral way of life – which was not true (21:21).

So James and the Jerusalem elders asked Paul to give a demonstration of his loyalty to his Jewish heritage by joining a small group in undergoing a ritual of purification at the temple (v. 26). Paul agreed. He was always sensitive to the conscience and feelings of his fellow believers and willing to go to any lengths to promote harmony so long as the truth of the gospel was not compromised (vv. 22-26).

This interaction between James and Paul in Jerusalem is an important example of the way in which Christians should behave towards one another. These two men with their associates (Paul’s gentile traveling companions and James’ Jewish elders) represented the two wings of the New Testament church. Though there was doctrinal agreement established at the council of Jerusalem some years earlier, there continued to be tension and misunderstanding between the Jewish and gentile Christians. So the meeting between James and Paul could have been confrontational, with divisive results for the church. But instead, it was marked by personal warmth, compromise and mutual acceptance. James greeted the news of success in the gentile mission with genuine rejoicing. He received the gifts of the gentile believers as a symbol of his acceptance of those who gave them. Paul, on the other hand, willingly submitted to the ceremonies of the ritual law, even though in Christ he was freed from such things. Paul’s conversion did not mean he automatically rejected all the traditions in which he had been raised. So each of the apostles showed great sensitivity toward Christians from a different culture, together with a willingness to go out of their way to identify with the concerns of others.


But Paul’s good-will gesture would cost him dearly. When he appeared in the temple near the end of this week-long ritual of purification, trouble broke out.

When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.)

The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple . .

Acts 21:27-30

Some Jews, apparently from Ephesus, who were in Jerusalem for the religious holiday incited the crowd of worshipers at the temple against Paul. They charged him with two offenses. First, that he was a traitor for teaching against the Jewish people and law and the temple itself. This charge was the same distortion of the truth which had been leveled against Stephen, the first martyr, many years earlier. For that matter, the same charge had been made against the Lord Jesus himself.

The other offense alleged against Paul was that he had defiled the temple by bringing a gentile within its boundaries. In deference to Jewish devotion, the Roman authorities had permitted a wall to be constructed around the whole temple area, with signs on it in Greek and Latin proclaiming a death sentence for any non-Jew who crossed the barrier. (This literal wall may have been in Paul’s mind when he wrote metaphorically in Ephesians 2 of the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and gentile being broken down in Christ.) Having seen a gentile with Paul earlier in the week, the Ephesian Jews jumped to the conclusion that he had violated the sanctity of the temple. But this charge was completely false.

Stirred to a frenzy, the Jewish worshipers seized Paul and dragged him out to kill him on the spot. Once again, as so often before in his missionary career, Paul stood in mortal danger at the hands of an angry, ill-informed mob. The actions of the Jerusalem crowd ought to make us pause and reflect on our own behavior. Think about the mob’s motivation, for example. These people undoubtedly believed that they were contending for the honor of God and his law when they attacked their enemy Paul. Remember how Paul himself had thought the same thing when he set out on the road to Damascus to hunt down Christians so long before.

But what really drove the mob was racist hatred of gentiles. It is significant that when Paul defended himself to the crowd they calmed down at first and listened to him – until he spoke of his call to reach out with the gospel to the gentiles, to the nations of the world. It was at that point that the mob erupted and again tried to kill him (22:22). It is easy to make ourselves think we are contending for our faith or for our God, when in fact our real motives may be far less noble. We ought to take great care to examine ourselves for prejudice, or for blind, unthinking loyalty to traditions that may not be from God at all. The other thing to note is how Paul’s accusers distorted the truth when it served their purpose in order to inflame the passions of the crowd. No one in that mob stopped to ask whether Paul was actually guilty of the things he was being charged with. How easy it is to jump to conclusions against people we don’t like. Have you ever assumed the worst about a person simply on the basis of appearances? We must take great care never to bear false witness against others -and the greatest care of all when those others happen to be people with whom we disagree or who are opposed to us.


Just as the violence of the mob reached its peak, when Paul was on the verge of being torn limb from limb, the cavalry galloped in to the rescue, so to speak. Actually, it was troops from the Roman garrison, led by a Roman officer who had come out to investigate the disturbance. They got to Paul in the nick of time and placed him in protective custody. The Roman commanding officer arrested first and asked questions later (v. 33). In fact, at first he thought Paul was an Egyptian terrorist, and only later did he learn his true identity (vv. 37-39; 22:25-29).

It’s interesting to note that this commander is the latest in a long line of Roman soldiers and other government officials whom Luke portrays in a favorable light. One of his unstated purposes in writing the book of Acts seems to have been to show how Roman law and Roman officials consistently found Christian leaders innocent of any wrongdoing. So Paul’s life here in Jerusalem is saved through Roman intervention, even though he’s arrested and taken into custody. Furthermore, his innocence – and by implication the legitimacy of the faith that he proclaimed – would eventually be established in a Roman court. Even his transportation to the capital, to Rome itself, would be in a Roman ship, at Roman expense!

God does indeed move in mysterious ways – although not always comfortable ones for us. But he accomplishes his purposes for us and through us without fail, every time. How great are his wisdom and power!