In this essay we are studying 21:17-36, which tells us about two things. First it tells us about a conference that Paul and his team had with James and the Jerusalem elders (vv. 17-26). And second, it tells us, and about Paul’s arrest at the temple (vv. 27-36).
We begin with the conference. As you can see in verse 17-20, the Jerusalem believers warmly received Paul and his team (v. 17). The next day Paul and the team met with James and the Jerusalem elders (v. 18). Luke’s “we” passage ends at verse 18, and the next “we” passage doesn’t begin until 27:1. This suggests that Luke laid low during Paul’s several trials and hearings before Roman and Jewish officials. He only comes back into the picture when Paul was being sent to Rome to have his case heard there. Then we are told that both Luke and Aristarchus booked passage on the same ship that Paul was on as a prisoner in order to accompany Paul to Rome.
The James here was James, the brother of Jesus, who had become the leader not only of the Jerusalem church, but also of Jewish Christians everywhere. By this time Peter, John and the other members of the Twelve had left Jerusalem mostly to do missionary work. So James had taken on the role of leading the thousands of Jewish believers in the Jerusalem area.
The first thing done at the meeting was a report by Paul of all the wonderful things that had happened during his ministry among Gentiles (v. 19). And as the first part of verse 20 tells us they, that is the Jerusalem church leaders, praised God. Obviously, they were delighted at Paul’s success in converting Gentiles to the faith.
Interestingly, the money collected from the Gentile churches is not mentioned until 24:17. We would expect the giving of that gift to have been one of the first items of business at the meeting with James and the elders, but Luke does not mention it. Perhaps by not mentioning it, Luke was downplaying the significance of money in the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile parts of the Church. We have no way of knowing.
In the middle of verse 20 there is a shift from Paul’s well-received report to a statement by the Jewish leaders, probably voiced by James, that their conversion success among Jews had produced thousands of Jewish believers who were zealous for the Jewish law. And then he shared with Paul a concern among the Jewish believers regarding Paul’s ministry.
In verses 21b-22 we learn that certain rumors about Paul’s ministry among Jews had come to their attention, and James asked Paul about them. Now let’s be clear about what the problem was. It was not about Paul’s ministry to Gentiles. How to deal with Gentiles had been settled during the so-called Jerusalem Council, when Paul and other representatives of the Antioch church met with Peter and the Jerusalem leadership on that matter. Luke recorded that back in chapter 15 (also see 21:25). These rumors had to do with what Paul was teaching Jewish believers converted in his ministry.
There were two or three rumors, depending on how one counts them. I see two. Both of them are seen in verse 22. First they had heard that Paul was teaching Jewish believers to “forsake Moses.” If that had been true, it would have been a very serious matter. To forsake Moses would have meant that to forsake the Torah, the Old Covenant scriptures. Paul never would have done that, but that’s what they had heard he was doing.
Second, they had heard that Paul was teaching Jewish believers not to circumcise their children or to observe other Jewish customs. Paul certainly had taught Gentile believers that circumcision was unnecessary, and perhaps that had led to the rumor that he also was teaching Jewish believers that it was unnecessary. But Paul was not guilty of these rumors. I doubt that James ever thought that he was guilty of them, and a simple denial by Paul would have been adequate to end the matter for him.
Now then, James knew that the anxious Jews would need something more, so he asked Paul, “What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.” Then in verses 23-26 James offered a suggestion.
Four men had taken a vow. It appears that the vow in question was a Nazarite vow (Num. 6:1-21; Luke 21:24). A Nazarite vow was a vow of self-dedication for a stated period of time (in the first century usually 30 days) that involved not cutting one’s hair, not drinking any wine or strong drink, nor eating anything originating on the grapevine, and not defiling oneself by coming in contact with a dead body. At the end of the period, the Nazarite cut his hair and offered it to God as a sacrifice.
It appears that the four men mentioned had been defiled, perhaps by accidental contact with a dead body. Therefore they had to go through a seven-day ritual of purification (Num. 6:9-12). James suggested to Paul, who most likely had become ceremonially defiled in one way or another since he left Jerusalem on his third journey, that he go through the purification process with the four Nazarites and pay their expenses (the cost of the proscribed sacrifices) to demonstrate that he still was a good Jew who followed Jewish law. Paul agreed to the idea, and the next day he went to the temple with the Nazarites for that purpose. Unfortunately, the plan did not work.
I believe James’ handling of the situation is a good example to all of us. Christians too often avoid dealing with issues like this. Oh there’s plenty of talk, but it is not face to face with the one who supposedly offended. Some will go so far as to pronounce the offender guilty as charged, not only with no proof that it is true, but also without even asking the person if it’s true. Indeed we see that happen in verses 27-36.
Near the end of the seven-day purification ritual, Jews from Asia saw Paul in the temple and stirred up a big ruckus by seizing Paul and shouting out accusations. The accusations were two. First, they shouted that he had taught, “everyone everywhere against our people, our law and this place,” meaning the temple. In other words, with no evidence they were publicly accusing Paul of actually doing what had been rumored and more.
Second, they accused Paul of defiling the temple by bringing a Gentile into it (v. 28). Luke explains that they had seen Trophimus the Ephesian (a Gentile believer) with Paul the city, not in the temple but in the city. And they assumed that he had brought Trophimus into the temple (v. 29). It is rather ironic that Paul was arrested for defiling the temple while performing a ritual that would have enabled him not to defile the temple. This is an excellent example of wrongly about jumping to conclusions.
The actions of the Asian Jews got the whole crowd in an uproar, and the mob dragged Paul out of the temple and began to beat him to death. Luke notes that someone closed the temple doors to keep the riot from spilling back into the temple. The Roman garrison, which was quartered at the fortress Antonia at the northwest corner of the temple, heard the commotion and moved into the situation in time to save Paul’s life. However it was Paul whom they arrested (v. 33).
The Roman tribune tried to learn what was going on, but he heard so many conflicting stories from the out of control crowd that he gave up and took Paul to the Roman barracks (vv. 33-34). In the meantime, the violence of the mob became so great that when the soldiers came to the steps of the barracks, they had to carry Paul up the steps to keep him safe (v. 35). And the crowd kept shouting, “Away with him!” This cry by the crowd was eerily similar to the shouts lifted up by another crowd towards Jesus some thirty years earlier.