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Acts 21:17-36 – Paul Returns to Jerusalem

Summary

Paul is warmly welcomed when he arrives in Jerusalem. Although he follows a prescribed rite in the temple so as to allay some believers' fears that he undermines the law, still a crowd is stirred up against him.

Analysis

This passage follows the experiences of Paul and those with him as they come to Jerusalem, a journey Paul undertakes to bring relief to hungry sisters and brothers in that city. Although warned by a prophet about what will happen in Jerusalem (21:10-12), Paul and at least seven others arrive there. He is "warmly welcomed" by the brothers, including James (the brother of Jesus) and the elders. There are echoes of Paul's prior experience at the council in Acts 15, for again Paul makes a report, again it is well received, and again the issue of commitment to the law (that is, Scripture) is noted as a potential problem for Paul. A strategy is developed that will allow Paul to honor God's law visibly and subdue the anger of those who hear gossip about his disrespect for the law.

Paul and the others go forward with purification rites and spend several days in this process, but a faction (divisions are indicated by the "Jews from Asia" in v. 27 and "the brothers" in v. 17) explodes over mistaken interpretations of Paul's behavior. It is at this point of uproar caused by error, ignorance, and zealotry (according to Acts) that the friendly, warm relationships are compromised and the Roman government is brought into the picture. In the verses that follow, the Roman military tries to bring order, but the whole scene is so chaotic that protecting Paul is about all it can do. In Acts 22 Paul tries to calm the crowd with a speech that highlights his Jewishness, but to no avail. The author has described outrageous reactions to positive mention of Gentiles in Luke 4:16-30, when Jesus speaks in Nazareth. Here it happens again.

This passage heralds Paul's journey to Rome. Once he returns to Jerusalem, the prophecies about him from the Lord in 9:15-16 and from Agabus in 21:11 will be fulfilled. Important leaders will hear him, and he will indeed suffer. Paul's journey will also show that he is a citizen of Rome and a fine speaker. As a trained speaker and citizen, Paul provides a symbol of the higher social level and public character of this faith (it is not some silly sect, hidden away and dangerous). He is also shown as a reasonable and responsible man, over against the disruptive and wild behavior of his opponents.

Acts 21:17-36

Paul Visits James at Jerusalem

17 When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. 18The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present. 19After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. 21They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. 22What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. 24Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law. 25But as for the Gentiles who have become believers, we have sent a letter with our judgement that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled* and from fornication.’ 26Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.

Paul Arrested in the Temple

27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, 28shouting, ‘Fellow-Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.’ 29For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. 31While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33Then the tribune came, arrested him, and ordered him to be bound with two chains; he inquired who he was and what he had done. 34Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35When Paul* came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. 36The crowd that followed kept shouting, ‘Away with him!’

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10 February 2011

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