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Acts 21:1-16: The Depth of Paul's Devotion

June 5, 2022 Speaker: Josh Tancordo Series: Acts: You Will Be My Witnesses

Passage: Acts 21:1–21:16

Acts 21:1-16: The Depth of Paul’s Devotion

We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Acts, and today the next passage we come to is Acts 21:1-16. It says,

1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 15 After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. 16 And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge. 

May God bless the reading of his Word.

Let’s pray: Father, we know that in order to rightly understand both what this passage is teaching and how it connects to our lives, we need the Holy Spirit. So please, send your Spirit to minister to us through this passage today in a most powerful way. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.  

One of the most basic instincts we have is the instinct of self-preservation. We’re naturally wired to do almost anything we have to do in order to protect ourselves from harm and ensure our survival. One example that comes to mind is the movie, based on a true story, called 127 Hours where an outdoor adventurer goes out by himself to a remote canyon in Utah without telling anyone where he’s going. And as he’s climbing in the canyon, this guy accidentally slips and falls down into a very large crevice in the rock. And during his fall, he dislodges a boulder which falls down after him and smashes his arm and traps his arm against the canyon wall. So now, he’s stuck, and nobody knows where he is. So, for the next 127 hours, this guy desperately tries to get himself free in a variety of ways and eventually uses a dull pocket knife to actually amputate his own arm. Then, after doing that, he rappels down a 65-foot cliff and walks 7 miles before being found and rescued. This man had an incredible will to survive. That’s how strong our instinct for self-preservation can be.  

Yet, that just makes the attitude that the Apostle Paul exhibits in our main passage all the more remarkable. And, before we dig into this passage of Acts 21:1-16, I’d actually like to revisit a few verses from the previous passage that are closely related to and have direct bearing on what we’ll be discussing this morning. Back in Acts 20:22-24, Paul tells the Ephesian elders just how far he’s prepared to go in his service to the Lord. He says, 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

So, Paul describes himself in verse 22 as “constrained by the Spirit.” In the original language, that word translated as “constrained” carries the idea of being bound—like when someone’s bound with a rope. When a person’s hands are bound, they don’t have the ability to a lot of things with their hands, such as pull them apart. They don’t have a choice—they have to keep their hands together. Similarly, the Holy Spirit had such a grip on Paul’s heart and was giving him such a powerful desire to minister to his fellow Jews in Jerusalem that Paul, in a manner of speaking, was bound or constrained to do that. He couldn’t stop himself. And it’s not like he wasn’t aware of the risks, either. In verse 23, he states that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Through prophetic revelations, Paul was well aware of the dangers that awaited him in Jerusalem. Yet, remarkably, he declares in verse 24, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” 

What a statement! What an example of the single-minded devotion Paul had to the ministry Jesus had given him of spreading the gospel. Paul was so devoted to that cause that he was ready to be persecuted and even killed for it. Let me ask you something: have you discovered something to live for that’s worth dying for? So often, it seems, we tend to get caught up in such trivial things. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying hobbies or leisurely activities, of course, but there comes a point when we spend so much of our time pursuing so many of these things that it begs the question, is that what we’re living for? Are we living for trivial things? Hopefully Paul’s words in these verses challenge those of us who call ourselves Christians to make sure that what we’re living for is truly worth dying for. And that means, of course, devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord and, more specifically, to the same thing Paul identifies here as the grand ambition of his life—“to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” 

And then, this attitude and commitment of Paul continues to be revealed in our main passage in Acts 21. Look with me at verses 1-4: 1 And when we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. 2 And having found a ship crossing to Phoenicia, we went aboard and set sail. 3 When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo. 4 And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 

So, these Christians in the city Tyre are telling Paul—“through the Spirit,” which we’ll talk about in a few moments—not to go to Jerusalem. And if you look at the original language, the verb tense that’s used indicates that they keep telling him this repeatedly. Yet, what does Paul do? He keeps right on going, of course. Look at verses 5-6: 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. 

Then, at the next city, called Ptolemais, Paul receives yet another warning. Verses 7-12: 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 

So these warnings keep coming to Paul from Christians with prophetic giftings in the church. And, at first, it can be a little confusing—because Paul doesn’t listen to what these prophets are telling him, does he? He just keeps right on going to Jerusalem. So, that naturally raises the question, is Paul disobeying God by not listening to the warnings of these prophets? I especially think not only of the prophet Agabus in these verses but of the prophets of Tyre back in verse 4, where it says that “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” So they weren’t just giving Paul warnings about what would happen in Jerusalem but were explicitly telling him not to go there. And it says that they were telling him this “through the Spirit”—which seems to be a pretty clear indication that they were operating in the gift of prophecy. So, what’s going on here? Is Paul disobeying the Holy Spirit?  

And, at this point, it really helps to understand a few things about the gift of prophecy in the New Testament. Now, there are different ways of viewing the New Testament gift of prophecy—even within our church and even among the elders of our church. Different people view it in different ways. But, as I frequently do, I’m just going to teach the Bible as I understand it and hope that the Lord will help everyone see that my view is indeed the correct one. 

I believe that the most important thing to understand about prophecy in the New Testament is that it’s quite different from prophecy in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, prophets of the Lord spoke infallibly, which means that they were incapable making a mistake or being wrong. They were able to rightly declare “Thus saith the Lord” and then proceed to share the very words of God himself. However, we’re given several indications that the gift of prophecy in the New Testament isn’t like that. One of those indications is in our main passage, where Paul doesn’t do what these prophets in verse 4 explicitly tell him to do. And I just have a hard time believing that the Apostle Paul would disobey something that he regarded as a direct order from God. So that’s one indication.

Also, with the prophet Agabus in verse 11, a close study of Acts reveals that his prophetic prediction actually wasn’t entirely correct. Agabus predicts that that the Jews would be the ones to bind Paul and deliver him over to the Gentiles. Yet, if you read ahead in Acts 22, you discover that it was actually the Roman soldiers who bound Paul and led him away from the Jewish mob that was trying to kill him. So, the overall thrust of Agabus’s prophecy is correct, but some of the more minor details of the prophecy appear to be incorrect. 

In addition, in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, Paul writes, 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. These instructions imply that some aspects of prophecies are “good,” while others may not be quite as good. That would never be said of an Old Testament prophet. I mean, can you imagine King Hezekiah, for example, listening to the prophet Isaiah deliver a prophecy from the Lord and then trying to “test” that prophecy and distinguish what was “good” from what wasn’t good? No, that’s not that way it worked in the Old Testament. Yet, it apparently is the way it works in the New Testament. We also find additional confirmation of this in 1 Corinthians 14:29, where Paul says, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” Again, that’s not something that would have been appropriate for God’s people to do in the Old Testament. If someone was recognized as a genuine prophet of the Lord in the Old Testament, there was no weighing what was said, there was just obeying what was said. 

So, all of this demonstrates—quite conclusively, I believe—that those with the gift of prophecy in the New Testament didn’t speak infallibly. Although they received genuine revelation from God, they sometimes made mistakes in their report of that revelation. That’s why I appreciate the way a New Testament scholar named Sam Storms defines prophecy in the New Testament. He defines it as the human report of a divine revelation. The human report of a divine revelation. So, the “divine revelation” itself would, of course, be infallible since God doesn’t lie or make mistakes, but the “human report” of that revelation would not be infallible. Perhaps a helpful comparison would be me purchasing an A5 grade Wagyu filet mignon but then then leaving it on the grill too long so that it was overdone or, at least, not as good as it could be. The flaw, of course, wouldn’t be with the A5 Wagyu filet mignon but rather with me. And that’s sort of the way the New Testament gift of prophecy works. There’s never any error in the divine revelation, but there can be error in the human report of that revelation. 

And that’s what I believe is happening back in our main passage of Acts 21. These prophets are receiving genuine revelation from God that Paul’s going to experience severe difficulties in Jerusalem, but they’re incorrectly assuming that God’s point in revealing that to them is that he doesn’t want Paul to go to Jerusalem, which isn’t true at all. So, Paul isn’t disobeying God; he’s just disregarding the erroneous assumptions and interpretations of these prophets that are interwoven with their prophecies. 

Now, by the way, in New Testament times, there were people who were able to speak the very words of God in an authoritative and infallible way. Those people, however, weren’t called prophets but rather apostles. So, if you’re looking for a New Testament counterpart to Old Testament prophets, it would be apostles. They were the ones in the New Testament who could rightly declare “Thus saith the Lord.”

And I can’t spend too much more time on this, but I also do want to note that, from the biblical data we have, it seems that New Testament prophecies aren’t doctrinal in nature but rather practical in nature. These prophets in the New Testament and anyone who may have the gift of prophecy today aren’t receiving any new doctrinal revelation. The Bible is God’s complete word to us. All of the theological truths that we need to know and that God purposes to reveal to us are contained in the pages of Scripture. By contrast, any prophetic revelations aren’t doctrinal but rather practical, such as the revelation Agabus receives about Paul being bound in Jerusalem. And, as you may have picked up on by now, I am open to the possibility of the gift of prophecy functioning today, though I’m admittedly very cautious in approaching it and believe we really do need to “test everything” and only hold fast to that which is good. And if you want a biblical defense of the view that the New Testament gift of prophecy and the other so-called “miraculous” gifts still continue today, feel free to go online and listen to the sermon I preached last year on Acts 2:1-21. 

But, returning to the narrative of Acts 21, that’s why Paul continues his journey to Jerusalem even after being warned by these prophets not to do so. And again, the thing I really want us to observe from this passage is Paul’s commitment to continue spreading the gospel even if he’s martyred in the course of doing so. We saw him state that commitment powerfully back in Acts 20:24, and, as we move forward in our main passage, we find him stating it again in verses 13-14. After Agabus prophesies about Paul being bound in Jerusalem, the Christians of the church in Ptolemais and even Luke himself urge Paul not to go. Yet look at how he responds: 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” 

So, it’s quite clear that Paul’s ready to die for the sake of the gospel. He’s resolute in his determination to continue his gospel ministry regardless of what happens to him. And I don’t think we’d be doing this passage justice if we didn’t ask ourselves how Paul was able to have this mindset. What led him and enabled him to be so committed to spreading the gospel that he was willing to die if it came to that? 

Well, I believe there are two things that are worth mentioning. First, for the Christian, death isn’t something we need to be afraid of. The Bible’s very clear that, because Jesus has resurrected from the dead, death has been defeated and that we’re therefore able to live not in the fear of death but rather in the hope of eternal life.

Now, for someone who’s not a Christian, it’s a lot different. That person has every reason to fear death—because they’re going to stand before God and face God’s judgment for every sin they’ve ever committed. And the sentence pronounced upon them, the Bible says, will be eternity in hell. That’s what sin against an infinitely holy and worthy God deserves. The severity of the penalty is determined by the severity of the offense, and any offense committed against such a holy and worthy God is infinitely terrible and therefore deserving of infinitely terrible punishment. 

Yet, the good news of the gospel is that God hasn’t left us to face that horrifying ordeal. Instead, in his astounding love for us, God the Father sent Jesus his Son to come to this earth in order to rescue us. Jesus left the glories of heaven in order to come to this sin-cursed world and voluntarily allow himself to be crucified on a cross in order to atone for our sins. Jesus endured the judgment on the cross that we deserved to endure for all eternity in hell. He suffered in our place. Then, three days later, he defeated sin and death by rising from the grave. And those who put their trust in him get to share in that victory. So the most important question for you to answer this morning is, have you done that? Have you renounced your sinful way of living and put your confidence in Christ and Christ alone to rescue you from your sins and give you the free gift of eternal life? Are you ready to stand before God? 

So, the mentality Paul demonstrates in Acts 21 ultimately comes from the fact that he was ready and that he did have the confident expectation of being with Jesus in heaven when he died. That’s the only way his willingness to die in Jerusalem makes any sense. Regardless of what the Jews of Jerusalem did to him, they couldn’t take away Paul’s heavenly inheritance or diminish it in even the slightest degree. His future was secure. It’d be kind of like if you had a hundred million dollars in the bank and someone threatened to steal the spare change under the seats of your car. Who cares? They wouldn’t be robbing you of anything that’s valuable to you. Likewise, Paul was able to continue his journey to Jerusalem with the confidence that nothing that happened there could take away what was supremely valuable to him. 

Also, in addition to that, Paul’s willingness to die was simply a manifestation of him embracing Jesus as his “Lord.” That’s the title used to refer to Jesus throughout the New Testament but especially in the writings and language of Paul. Notice Paul’s use of this title back in Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” Also, in Acts 21:13: Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 

So what does the word “Lord” mean? You know, we sometimes talk about receiving Jesus as our “Lord and Savior,” but do we really know what it means for Jesus to be our “Lord”? Well, the word translated “Lord” is the Greek word κύριος, which literally refers to someone who’s the owner and master of a slave—someone who has absolute authority over someone else. Notably, Paul also frequently refers to himself as a “slave” of Jesus—δοῦλος in the Greek. To avoid confusion with modern slavery, most translations translate δοῦλος as “servant,” but the word literally refers to a slave. That’s how Paul speaks of himself in just about every letter he writes. And, as you know, a slave has no rights and is bound to give himself entirely to the will of his master. So, whether we see Paul referring to himself as a “slave” or to Jesus as his “Lord,” that’s the imagery being evoked. That’s one aspect of how Paul saw his relationship to Jesus. 

And, as we see in the verses we’ve been looking at, that’s the mentality that led Paul to be so ready to die in Jerusalem for the name of Jesus. Paul’s life wasn’t his own any more. Jesus was his Master. As a result, Paul didn’t waver in his commitment to keep going on the mission Jesus had given him regardless of the dangers he faced in Jerusalem. So the main idea of this passage is that Paul was fully devoted to Jesus as the Master of his life. Paul was fully devoted to Jesus as the Master of his life.

And I’d like to remind you this morning that that’s not just a mentality that Paul happened to have. It’s a mentality that we’re called to have as well. In fact, I think we could even say it’s a mentality we must have in order to be saved. As Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Yielding to the total lordship of Jesus over your life is an essential component of saving faith. 

So have you yielded to the lordship of Jesus? Are you living that out on a daily basis? I appreciate the statement made by a missionary named Hudson Taylor, who said that “Christ is either Lord of all, or is not Lord at all.” “Christ is either Lord of all, or is not Lord at all.” Is Jesus the Lord of everything in your life?

I also appreciate the way F. B. Meyer describes surrendering completely to the lordship of Jesus. Meyer was a Baptist pastor in London during the nineteenth century. And listen to the way he describes an interaction he had with Jesus while he was praying on one occasion. He states: “I gave Him [Jesus] an iron ring, the iron ring of my will, with all the keys of my life on it, except one little key that I kept back. And He said: "Are they all here?" I said: "They are all there but one, the key of a tiny closet in my heart of which I must keep control." He said: "If you don't trust Me in all, you don't trust Me at all." I tried to make terms; I said: "Lord, I will be so devoted in everything else, but I can't live without the contents of that closet." I believe, young friends, that my whole life was just hovering on the balance, and, if I had kept the key of that closet and had mistrusted Christ, He never would have trusted me with His blessed Word. He seemed to be receding from me, and I called Him back and said: "I am not willing, but I am willing to be made willing." It seemed as though He took that key out of my hand and went straight for that closet. I knew what He would find there, and He knew, too. Within a week from that time He had cleared it right out. But He filled it with something so much better! Why, what a fool I was! He wanted to take away the sham jewels to give me the real ones. He just took away the thing which was eating out my life and instead gave me Himself.”

Friends, that’s what Jesus wants to do in your life as well. So, what key are you holding back from him this morning? What room or even what closet have you marked as private and off-limits? Could it be a relationship that you know isn’t pleasing to the Lord? Are you refusing to forgive someone for an offense against you? Are you relating in an unloving way to your spouse, if you’re married, perhaps with an overly critical spirit or a pattern of careless words or outbursts of anger? Or could it be something related to money—a pattern of overspending, perhaps, or hoarding the financial resources God’s entrusted to your care and failing to be generous or just a general mentality of greed where your love of money overshadows your love of God? Or could it be your pursuit of social acceptance that you’re keeping off-limits from the Lord, manifesting itself in numerous ways such as neglecting to share the gospel with someone because you’re afraid of what they might think of you?  Or could it be an addiction that you’ve declared off limits to Jesus—an addiction to pornography perhaps, or to alcohol or pills or excessive eating or even to excessive entertainment? What key are you keeping back from Jesus? Will you let Jesus do for you what he did for F. B. Meyer and take that key out of your hands this morning and clear out that room and replace whatever’s been in there with something so much better? 


In Acts 21, we see in the Apostle Paul’s life the highest and most dramatic expression of what surrender to the lordship of Jesus looks like—being willing to lay down your life for the sake of the gospel. But don’t miss all of the ways in which we’re called to surrender to the lordship of Jesus in our everyday lives—giving him the key to every room so that he can replace our fake jewels with real ones and our shallow joy with real joy. Jesus wants to give us the greatest blessing in the entire universe, which is more of himself—more of a sense of his presence, more of a vision of his glory, more of a knowledge of who he is. But before he gives himself to us in that way, he first requires that we give ourselves—and our whole selves—to him in total surrender to his lordship.

More in Acts: You Will Be My Witnesses

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