Acts 21 begins a new section of Luke’s history, dealing with a period in Paul’s life which is not as uplifting as the temptations, trials and triumphs we have looked at earlier. The missionary journeys are completed. Paul is going to Jerusalem for the last time and arrives there in this chapter. He is arrested and, so far as we know, never again finds freedom. There is an argument that Paul may have been released from prison and perhaps even traveled to Spain to found more churches. There is much to be said in its favor. But so far as we know from Acts itself or from any direct testimony in the New Testament, that was not the case. Therefore, what we have here is, in all probability, the beginning of the final chapter of Paul’s long and influential life.
When I was looking for a title for this week’s series of Bible studies, my mind ran to a book by Erwin W. Lutzer, the pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church, called When a Good Man Falls.1 As you might expect from the title, the book contains studies of Bible characters who experienced a period of great disobedience or sin in their lives. It contains the story of Moses, for example. Moses began his own private liberation movement by killing an Egyptian. It did not work. He fled the country and spent the next forty years as a refugee on the far side of the desert before God appeared to send him to Pharaoh with the instruction, “Let my people go.”
The book also contains the story of Samson, who was so bewitched by Delilah that he gave away the secret of his strength. His strength was in his long hair, and when his locks were shorn he lost his ability to defend himself against the Philistines. He was captured, his eyesight was taken away, and it was only in his death that he was enabled to destroy the Philistines who had gathered at the temple of Dagon.
The reason I thought of this book in connection with Acts 21 is that, in my opinion, in this chapter we come to a period of Paul’s life that was like this. I say “in my opinion” because, although the majority of commentators do not take such a view, I hope to show that though Paul was driven by high motives, what he did at this time of his life was wrong and, being wrong, had unfortunate consequences for him and perhaps also for other people.2
The basis for my thoughts on this is found in the fact that God had apparently warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Paul acknowledged this himself. If we look back to the twentieth chapter, which we have already studied, we find that when Paul was speaking to the Ephesian elders, he said, “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (v. 23). It is true that this verse does not say in categorical language, “Do not go to Jerusalem, Paul.” But it is a warning, and it carries weight because it was not simply that in every city Paul’s friends were warning him not to go to Jerusalem but rather that the Holy Spirit was speaking. Paul does not say how the Holy Spirit spoke in every city—perhaps through his friends or in a personal way—but the Holy Spirit was speaking. And Paul nevertheless disregarded the warning and went.
The story continues in chapter 21 where twice over in the chapter, in verses 4 and 11, we find Paul again being warned not to go. If we count the original warnings “in every city” as one warning, though there must actually have been many of them, here we have additional warnings which we can call warnings two and three.
In verse 4 we find: “Through the Spirit they [that is, the disciples in Tyre, whom he was visiting] urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” That is a bit stronger than what was said in chapter 20. In chapter 20, Paul confessed that in every city the Holy Spirit warned him that imprisonment awaited him in Jerusalem if he went there. That was not a categorical directive not to go, as I have acknowledged. But by chapter 21 the warning has become stronger. The disciples are speaking, and it is “through the Spirit.” Of even greater importance is the fact that what they say is not only a warning that Paul would be imprisoned if he went to Jerusalem but a direct statement “through the Spirit” not to go.
Then, in verse 11, there is the warning of the prophet Agabus. This man had come down to the Mediterranean coast from Judea, perhaps from Jerusalem, and when he arrived at Tyre he performed a symbolic act. He took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” This was an even stronger statement. Yet, in spite of this, Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem.
1Erwin W. Lutzer, When a Good Man Falls (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books/SP Publications), 1986.
2John Stott believes that Paul was right to go on to Jerusalem, or at least that Luke thought he was right. As far as Agabas is concerned, Stott draws a distinction between “a prediction and a prohibition” (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth [Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990], 333). Everett Harrison says, “To picture Paul as willfully disobedient through this drawn-out experience is a serious charge, for which there is no justification” (Everett. F. Harrison, Acts: The Expanding Church [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1975], 322). Blaiklock considers the matter an open question: “He [Paul] was moving forward under a deep inner compulsion, and it is not for anyone lightly to question the honest convictions of such a man. At the same time great men are not beyond the possibility of error, and Scripture is habitually frank in reporting faults and failings” (E. M. Blaiklock, The Acts of the Apostles [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963], 168).