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Acts 21:1-40

Acts 21:1-40

After speaking to the elders from the Ephesus congregation who had come to Miletus at his request, Paul, accompanied by his companions, set sail on the first part of the journey to Jerusalem. The same day as they had parted from the elders, they arrived at Cos (Kos), a small island near the coast of southwestern Asia Minor. The principal city at the northeastern part of the island was also named Cos. Likely the ship remained anchored off the coast of the island and then set sail the next day for the island of Rhodes and from Rhodes to Patara, a seaport on the southern coast of Asia Minor. (21:1; see Cos for pictures of archaeological sites and island for pictures of the island of Cos; for pictures of Rhodes, see Rhodes, and Patara for pictures of the site. Also see the Notes section.) According to seemingly the best manuscript evidence, Paul and his companions boarded another ship at Patara and sailed to the Phoenician coast (in the Roman province of Syria). On the way, the vessel passed to the south of the island of Cyprus and then sailed to Tyre, where the cargo was unloaded. (21:2, 3; see Cyprus and Tyre for information and pictures.)

At Tyre, the ship remained anchored for seven days to unload the cargo and to complete any other essential tasks. Upon their arrival, Paul and his companions disembarked and endeavored to locate disciples in Tyre and then stayed in the city during the entire time the vessel remained anchored. Through the operation of God’s spirit upon them, disciples in Tyre came to know that Paul would come into perilous circumstances in Jerusalem and, therefore, told him not to go to the city. (21:4)

When the time came for Paul and his companions to leave Tyre, the disciples in the city, including the wives and children, accompanied them to the beach. There they knelt down and prayed and said farewell to one another. Paul and his companions then boarded the ship, and the disciples from Tyre returned to their homes. (21:5, 6)

The ship sailed to Ptolemais, over 20 miles (more than 30 kilometers) south of Tyre. In the city, Paul and his associates located the “brothers” or fellow believers and “stayed with them for one day.” In connection with the trip from Tyre, the Greek text contains a form of the word dianýo, which term basically means “complete” (“having completed the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais”). There is a strong possibility, however, that (in this context) the Greek term dianýo denotes “continue” (“having continued the voyage from Tyre”). (21:7; see http://www.bibleplaces.com/acco.htm for comments about and pictures of Ptolemais.)

The next day Paul and his companions departed and came to Caesarea. If dianýo means that the sea voyage from Tyre had been completed at Ptolemais, this would indicate that Paul and his associates traveled overland to Caesarea. “The end of our voyage from Tyre came when we landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed one day with them. The next day we left and came to Caesarea.” (NJB) “The next morning we continued on foot and reached Caesarea.” (Am anderen Morgen gingen wir zu Fuß weiter und erreichten Cäsarea. [German Gute Nachricht Bibel]) With a break for sleep during the night and times for stopping to eat, the trip to Caesarea would have taken two days. Without any specific indication in the account about the nature of the journey to Caesarea, Paul and his associates may well have continued on their way by ship. (21:7, 8; see the Notes section.)

At Caesarea, Paul and his associates stayed in the home of “Philip the evangelist,” a disciple who actively shared in making known the evangel or good news about Jesus Christ to others. Philip is further identified as “one of the seven,” that is, one of the seven disciples who had been appointed to look after the needs of widows after a complaint had been made to the apostles that the Greek-speaking widows had been overlooked in the “daily service.” (21:8; 6:1-6; see http://bibleplaces.com/caesarea.htm for pictures of and comments about Caesarea.)

Philip was a family man with four virgin daughters who had the prophetic gift. The home must have been one of the larger ones in Caesarea to have accommodated Philip’s family and at least nine guests (Paul, Luke, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, and Trophimus [20:4]). (21:8, 9)

During the several days Paul and the others were staying in Philip’s home, Agabus, a prophet from Judea, arrived. (21:10) With Paul’s belt, Agabus bound his own hands and feet and then declared what had been revealed to him by the holy spirit, “The man whose belt this is the Jews in Jerusalem will bind in this way and deliver him into the hands of the nations [non-Jews].” (21:11; see the Notes section.)

After hearing these words, Paul’s travel companions, including Luke, and all the other fellow believers who were present urged him with tears not to go up to Jerusalem. “What are you doing,” Paul responded, “weeping and breaking my heart?” Aware that he was heading for Jerusalem under the impelling power of the holy spirit, the apostle’s question implied that it was making it more difficult for him to follow through on the spirit’s direction when it brought such sadness to those whom he deeply loved. It distressed him emotionally, breaking his heart. He then expressed his resolve that he was willing not only to be bound in Jerusalem but also to die there for the “name,” or the person and all the associated authority, of the Lord Jesus. (21:12, 13)

Recognizing that Paul could not be persuaded from his spirit-directed resolve, they remained silent or said nothing else in an effort to dissuade him. They acquiesced with the words, “The will of the Lord be done.” Whereas the “Lord” could either be the Lord Jesus Christ or his Father, likely the Father is meant, as believers recognized God’s will in whatever might befall them by his permission. (21:14)

“After these days,” that is, at the conclusion of the stay in Caesarea, Paul and his travel companions got ready for the journey to Jerusalem and then departed. (21:15) Some disciples from Caesarea accompanied them and conducted them to the home of Mnason, an early disciple who originally came from the island of Cyprus. With this fellow believer, Paul and the group of travelers were to stay. The house of Mnason must have been located somewhere along the route, possibly somewhere near the halfway point (more than 30 miles [c. 50 kilometers]) between Caesarea and Jerusalem. As a native of Cyprus, he would not have had the kind of reservations about accommodating non-Jews that many believing Jews in Judea seemingly continued to have. (21:16, 20, 21; see the Notes section regarding verse 16.)

The Greek word asménos describes the manner in which the “brothers” (fellow believers) in Jerusalem received or welcomed Paul and his travel companions. This Greek adverb means “gladly,” indicating that they were joyfully accepted as beloved members of the family of God’s children. (21:17; see the Notes section.)

The day after arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and his travel companions went to see James, the brother of the Lord Jesus Christ. At the time, he was not alone, but all the elders of the community of believers were present. (21:18)

Paul greeted James and the others and then proceeded to tell about the results from his service “among the nations” or the non-Jewish peoples. He apparently minimized his own role, for the account points to what “God did among the nations through his service.” (21:19)

After having heard Paul’s report, James and the elders with him “glorified God,” praising him for what he had done through the faithful labors of Paul in making known the good news about Jesus Christ among the non-Jews. Addressed as “brother,” both a fellow Jew and a fellow believer, Paul’s attention was then drawn to “how many thousands” (literally, “myriads”) of believers there were among the Jews, with all of them being “zealous for the law.” Although believers, they continued to live according to Jewish customs, observing the festivals and presenting their offerings at the temple. (21:20)

These believing Jews had heard disturbing reports about Paul, probably from Jews who came to Jerusalem from the regions where he had proclaimed the message about Jesus Christ. The talk that had circulated about Paul misrepresented him, portraying him as a renegade Jew who was teaching “an apostasy from Moses” and telling Jews not to circumcise their children nor to follow the Jewish way of life. (21:21)

“What then is [to be done]?” This question served to introduce what James (literally, “we,” but probably meaning James as the one representing all the elders present) was about to recommend to squelch the rumors that had circulated among the believers who would hear that Paul had arrived. (21:22, 23)

Among the believers, “four men” were then under a vow. Although the kind of vow is not named, the context indicates that it was a Nazarite vow, which required them to abstain from alcoholic beverages and any product of the grapevine, not to cut their hair, and to avoid touching any dead body, even that of a close relative who might die. (21:23; Numbers 6:1-7)

The basis for the recommendation that Paul purify himself ceremonially with the four men may have been because he had come from Gentile regions. According to traditional Jewish sources (Tosefta, Ahilot, 18:1, 5), the land of the Gentiles, even its virgin soil, was considered to be unclean and made a Jew who entered it by carriage, wagon, boat, or raft unclean. The Mishnah indicates that soil from a foreign country conveyed uncleanness (Oholoth, 2.3) and that a person would become unclean when going through the land of Gentiles in hilly or rocky regions (Oholoth, 18.6). So Paul’s undertaking the ceremonial cleansing could have been in recognition of the uncleanness resulting from having been in the land of the Gentiles. Another possibility is that he purified himself on account of sharing in the Nazarite vow of the four men when agreeing to pay for the associated expenses. (21:24)

The expenses would have been considerable. Upon the completion of the Nazarite vow, an individual was required to present a year-old male lamb as a burnt offering, a year-old ewe lamb as a sin offering, a ram as an offering of well-being (“deliverance,” LXX), a basket of unleavened baked items, and the accompanying grain offering and libations. (Numbers 6:13-17) Ancient Jewish sources indicate that others could share in paying the expenses. The Tosefta (Nezirut, 2:4, 7) refers to volunteering to present specific offerings or half of the offerings. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, XIX, vi, 1) mentioned that Herod Agrippa I “ordained that many of the Nazarites should have their heads shorn,” which appears to have involved his paying for the required sacrifices. (21:24)

When the period of the vow ended, the Nazarite would shave his hair at the sanctuary and present it as an offering to be consumed in the fire under the sacrifice of well-being. (Numbers 6:18) By personally undergoing ritual purification and showing himself supportive of the regulations applying to the Nazarite vow, Paul would have demonstrated that he did not teach Jews an apostasy from Moses. So the recommendation that had been made to him would have served to demonstrate that the rumors about him were false and that he conducted himself in harmony with the law. (21:24)

Adherence to the law, however, did not apply to non-Jewish believers, and this is the apparent reason for mentioning the decision about the things from which they were to abstain. Paul had been present when this decision was reached and had shared it with non-Jewish believers. To disciples from the nations, the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem congregation had written that they should avoid things sacrificed to idols, blood, meat from strangled animals or those not properly bled, and sexual immorality. (21:25; see the Notes section and http://wernerbiblecommentary.org/?q=node/592 for details.)

The next day Paul acted on the recommendation, doing so in harmony with what he had earlier written to believers in Corinth, “To the Jews, I became as a Jew.” (1 Corinthians 9:20) He took the four men along, cleansed himself ceremonially with them, and entered the temple precincts to give notice when the “days of purification” would be fulfilled and the required sacrifices would be presented for each one of the men. (21:26)

The Mosaic law does not mention a purification period prior to the termination of a Nazarite vow. A Nazarite who defiled himself when inadvertently coming in contact with a dead body did have to shave his hair on the seventh day and then offer specific sacrifices on the eighth day. (Numbers 6:9-12)

Moreover, the law does not stipulate that persons under a Nazarite vow had to inform a priest beforehand when the period of the Nazarite vow would end and the required sacrifices would be presented. This is what some have understood the Acts account to indicate to have been the practice then. “The next day he fulfilled the purification requirements and, together with the men, went to the temple. There he gave notice to the priest that they had fulfilled their vow. After the prescribed time of seven days, an offering was to be brought for each one of them.” (Am nächsten Tag erfüllte er die Reinigungsvorschriften und ging dann zusammen mit den Männern in den Tempel. Dort meldeten sie dem Priester, dass sie ihr Gelübde erfüllt hatten. Nach der vorgeschriebenen Zeit von sieben Tagen sollte dann für jeden von ihnen ein Opfer dargebracht werden. [German, Hoffnung für alle]) To establish a more direct link to the regulations in the book of Numbers, others have concluded that the four men had inadvertently defiled themselves. Even in this case, though, the book of Numbers does not say anything about reporting this to a priest seven days before the hair was to be cut. (21:26)

Before the seven-day period ended, certain Jews from the Roman province of Asia who doubtless had come to Jerusalem to observe Pentecost saw Paul. They laid hands on him, and stirred up the crowd in the temple precincts, shouting, “Men, Israelites, help! This is the man who everywhere teaches everyone against [our] people, the law, and this place, and he has even brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” These hostile Jews from the province of Asia recognized Paul, for he had proclaimed the message about Jesus Christ in their synagogues. They misrepresented his teaching that, on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death, both Jews and non-Jews could be forgiven of their sins and have God’s approval. In their estimation, he was speaking against his own people, putting them on the same level as the unclean Gentiles. His teaching was regarded as being against the law, probably because they thought that what he said conflicted with the commands that directed Jews to remain clean from the defilements of people of the nations. They also perceived his message as being against the temple. Likely this was because he did not teach that non-Jews would have to come under the law, a prominent feature of which involved the temple services at Jerusalem. The Jews from the province of Asia falsely claimed that Paul had brought Greeks into the temple. (21:27, 28)

They had seen Paul in Jerusalem with the Ephesian Trophimus, one of his non-Jewish travel companions. It may well be that among the Jews from the Roman province of Asia were individuals from the city of Ephesus, and they may even have recognized Trophimus as a resident of their city. Based on having seen him with Paul, they wrongly assumed that Paul had taken him into the area that non-Jews were not allowed to enter, thereby defiling the sacred precincts. (21:29)

In view of the large number of people in the temple precincts, it would have appeared that the “whole city” was in turmoil on account of the shouting against Paul. People came running to the location where the commotion had started. Certain ones seized Paul and dragged him outside the sacred precincts. The presence of the crowd would have slowed the progress in dragging him outside. In their rage against him, some of the Jews likely started beating him along the way, further delaying the effort to take him out of the sacred temple precincts. To prevent any additional uproar in the sacred area, likely the captain of the temple or, at his direction, a guard or guards shut the doors once Paul had been taken outside. (21:30)

Roman soldiers were stationed at the Tower of Antonia, a fortress that Herod the Great had built to the northwest of the temple complex. According to Josephus, this fortress had all the conveniences of a palace and “resembled a tower,” with “four other distinct towers at its four corners.” From the tower situated in the southeast corner, the temple area could be seen. This particular tower was connected to the “two cloisters of the temple” and had passages down to both of them. A Roman legion was always stationed in this tower, and soldiers, especially when many Jews and proselytes were present for the festivals, would make their rounds over the top of the cloisters to watch for any unusual developments among the people. (War, V, v, 8) Therefore, once the commotion involving Paul started, a member of the guard would quickly have been able to communicate this to Claudia Lysias, the commander (chiliarch), telling him that the “whole of Jerusalem” was in uproar. With soldiers and centurions under his command, Claudius Lysias immediately ran down from the tower to quell the disturbance. The time it took for the hostile Jews to get Paul outside the sacred temple precincts would have given Claudius Lysias sufficient time to arrive on the scene while certain Jews were seeking to kill Paul. As soon as these Jews saw the commander and the accompanying Roman soldiers, they stopped beating him. Apparently they did not want to become involved in a confrontation with the well-armed Roman military. (21:31, 32; 23:26; see Tower of Antonia for comments about and a picture of a reconstruction of the fortress. Also see http://holylandphotos.org for a model of the temple [type “second temple model” in the search box] and Temple Mount].)

The number of Roman soldiers may well have been around two hundred or more. Likely the centurions (of which there were at least two) were accompanied by all the men under their command. The commander approached, arrested Paul, and ordered that he “be bound with two chains.” Likely Paul was chained to a soldier on his right and his left. The commander then inquired of the Jews about the identity of Paul and what he had done. (21:33)

Some in the crowd shouted one thing but others something else. On account of the noisy confusion, the commander could not find out anything and ordered Paul to be taken to the quarters inside the Tower of Antonia. (21:34)

When the Roman military headed back to the Tower of Antonia, a crowd of Jews followed and began to direct their violence against Paul. Arriving at the steps leading from the outer temple court to the quarters where the soldiers were stationed, the crowd became so violent that the soldiers, to prevent an incident, appear to have lifted Paul over their heads and then carried him. (21:35) The crowd continued to shout, “Away with him!” (21:36)

Apparently once he was out of the reach of any of the people and no longer being carried but about to be led into the quarters of the soldiers, Paul, speaking Greek, asked the commander, “Is it permissible to say something to you?” (21:37)

The fact that Paul spoke to him in Greek seems to have surprised the commander, prompting him to ask, “You know Greek?” (21:37) It seems that the violent reaction to Paul had led the commander to conclude that he might have been the Egyptian who had earlier incited revolt and “led 4,000 Sicarii [sikárioi] into the wilderness.” The fact that Paul spoke Greek appears not to have fit this identity. (21:37, 38)

The Greek term sikarioi is derived from the Latin sicarii, which designation incorporates the word sica, meaning “dagger.” According to Josephus, they were named after the sickle-like dagger they carried hidden under their garments. At the Jewish festivals, they mingled in the crowd and, thus without being detected, assassinated those whom they had previously targeted. (Antiquities, XX, viii, 5, 10) To divert attention away from themselves, they joined the crowd in expressing anger about the killings. (War, II, xiii, 3)

The incident involving the Egyptian had occurred not long before Paul’s arrest. It took place during the time Felix was procurator of Judea, and Paul was arrested about two years before Festus replaced Felix as procurator. (23:26, 37; 24:27) In his writings, Josephus mentioned the Egyptian. A man claiming to be a prophet came to Jerusalem from Egypt, and he deluded a considerable crowd to follow him, taking them into the wilderness, the barren region of rounded hills not far to the east of Jerusalem and which extended to the Dead Sea and then along its west coast. The Egyptian deceiver wanted his followers to accompany him to the Mount of Olives, from where he claimed he would show them “how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down.” They would then be able to enter the city through the breach (Antiquities, XX, viii, 6), proceed to vanquish the Roman garrison, and establish his control over the city. (War, II, xiii, 5) When the procurator Felix learned about this, he ordered a military force to attack the Egyptian and those with him. “Four hundred” of those whom the Egyptian had deluded were slain and “two hundred” were captured alive, but he escaped. According to the extant text of Josephus, the Egyptian had a following of 30,000 men, but the more reasonable number of 4,000 in the Acts account is to be preferred. (Antiquities, XX, viii, 6; War, II, xiii, 5) The Greek letter symbol for 30,000 (the capital letter lamda [L] preceded by a left keraia) and the one for 4,000 (the capital letter delta [D] preceded by a left keraia) are very similar. (21:38)

In response to the commander, Paul identified himself as a Jew from Tarsus (not an insignificant city) in Cilicia and asked for permission to speak to the people. (21:39)

The commander granted the request. Standing on the steps, Paul gestured with his hand, indicating that he wanted to address the people. Once the crowd had quieted down, he began to speak in Hebrew (the language of the Jewish natives of Judea and Galilee). (21:40)


In verse 1, a number of manuscripts add “and Myra” after “Patara,” but what appears to be the superior manuscript evidence does not support this addition.

In verse 8, the words “the ones around Paul” (meaning his travel companions) do not have the support of the oldest manuscripts but are found in a number of translations. “On the next day we who were Paul’s companions departed and came to Caesarea.” (NKJV)

The prophecy of Agabus (verse 11) illustrates that the message (not specific details) is the principal aspect that commonly figures in the fulfillment of prophecies. It was not the Jews who literally bound Paul, but their actions toward him resulted in his being bound and coming into the hands, or the authority, of the Romans. Therefore, with reference to biblical prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled, one needs to exercise care not to draw conclusions that reflect a strict literalism and an understanding of these prophecies as if they were detailed future histories that were recorded in advance centuries ago. At the same time, the prophecy of Agabus reveals that it represents his words, for a prophecy written after the fact would reasonably have matched the actual specifics more precisely. This example clearly does not support the claim of those who maintain that biblical prophecies reflect what happened after the fact.

According to an expanded manuscript reading of verse 16, the disciples from Caesarea brought Paul and his associates to the place where they would lodge for the night. At a certain village, they then stayed with Mnason.

Verse 17, where the reference is to the welcome Paul and his associates received from fellow believers in Jerusalem, serves as an introduction to the discussion that follows. Their hearty welcome provides a strong contrast to the later reaction of hostile Jews from Asia Minor.

In verse 25, an expanded manuscript reading says, “But concerning the believing [people of the] nations, they [Jewish believers] have nothing to say to you [Paul],” the reason being that the written decision had been provided. The reference to “things strangled,” however, is not included.