Acts 21:17-40: Courage in the Midst of Chaos
Topic: Default Passage: Acts 21:17–21:40
Acts 21:17-40: Courage in the Midst of Chaos
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Acts, and today the next passage we come to is Acts 21:17-40. It says,
17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. 18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. 25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself along with them and went into the temple, giving notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for each one of them. 27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them.
And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting 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. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!” 37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language…
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, what a privilege it is to open and study your word. We understand that these words come from your very mouth. They’re God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. So help us, by your Holy Spirit, to be thoroughly equipped for each of those things and ultimately to come to a deeper knowledge, a deeper love, and a deeper relationship with you. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
One of my most interesting memories from high school was something that took place on the eve of my graduation at the baccalaureate service. Actually, it was something that I did. Since I was the leader of a Christian club at my high school, the class president, who was in charge of planning the baccalaureate service, asked me if I’d like to say a prayer at the service. So, I agreed to do that. But then, I started thinking about it and decided that there really needed to be a clear gospel witness at this baccalaureate service. Since it was a public high school and the class president was rather nominal in her Christian affiliation, I was pretty sure that the only way that the gospel would be shared at this service is if I was the one to do it.
So, when the time came and I was called up to the podium in front of five or six hundred people in order to say my prayer, I kind of hijacked the service a little bit. Instead of leading in prayer immediately, I first spent around ten minutes giving a very clear gospel presentation—telling people of their sin and warning them of God’s judgment and appealing to them to put their trust in Christ for rescue. Then, after communicating these things for about ten minutes, I finally led everyone in prayer as I’d been asked to do. Needless to say, my little speech made quite an impression. I don’t think the class president ever talked to me again, and I’m sure it also ruffled some other feathers as well. Looking back, I’m not sure whether what I did was the best way to give a gospel witness or not, but that’s what seemed best at the time.
Yet, the courage I exhibited at that baccalaureate service pales in comparison to the courage Paul exhibits here in Acts chapters 21-22. And, by the way, I want to make it clear that, when it comes to being a courageous witness, I’ve probably failed far more than I’ve succeeded. Yet, even at what was perhaps my most courageous moment, I didn’t even come close to exhibiting the level of courage Paul exhibits in this passage. If there were a Christian version of the Medal of Honor, I think we’d certainly have to nominate the Apostle Paul for that honor in light of the way he conducts himself here.
Now, Jen stopped reading at the end of chapter 21 just as Paul was beginning to tell the crowd about Jesus—we’ll see what he actually says to the crowd next week when we look at chapter 22. But already in the text, we can observe and appreciate the remarkable courage Paul exhibits in his decision to view this chaotic situation as a gospel opportunity.
I know, for me personally, when I think about the way Paul conducts himself here and the courage it must have taken for him to talk about Jesus even in the midst of such hostility, I can’t help but be challenged to exhibit more courage in my own gospel witness. I imagine that, for most of us who are Christians, the biggest hindrance to telling more people about Jesus—when you get right down to it—is that we’re, to some degree, afraid. We’re afraid of what people might think about us or of how our attempt at sharing the gospel might be perceived or how it might affect our relationship with the person. Or maybe we’re afraid of what questions they might ask or how good of a job we’ll do. So how, then, can we overcome these fears and have the kind of courage Paul exhibits in this passage? Well, that’s what we’ll discuss this morning. And I’ll give you a hint: it’s not just about us working up the courage to talk to someone but, even more fundamentally, about us changing the way we think.
But before we get into that, let’s take a look at how this chaotic situation in Acts 21 comes about. In verses 17-26, Paul arrives in Jerusalem, goes in to see the leaders of the church there, and is told that a significant portion of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are highly suspicious of him and perhaps even a little hostile because of some reports they’ve received about him. They’ve heard that Paul’s been going around the Roman Empire teaching Jews to forsake the Old Testament Law. And that doesn’t sit well with them because, even though they’ve embraced Jesus, they’re still quite devoted to the Old Testament Law and to the Jewish customs that have been passed down to them. They aren’t viewing the Law as a means to salvation any longer, but they’re still very passionate about it.
So, the leaders of the church of Jerusalem advise Paul to demonstrate that he doesn’t have anything against the Old Testament Law. And the way they suggest he demonstrate that is by participating in a ceremonial purification at the temple and also sponsoring another ritual associated with the Law related to what was known as a Nazarite vow. Even though these rituals aren’t necessary for Christians to do, they don’t contradict the gospel either. So, Paul agrees to participate. In addition to going in for his own ceremonial purification, he sponsors four men who had taken the Nazarite vow and helps them to complete the requirements of that vow. The goal was to demonstrate that the rumors about him opposing the Old Testament Law were false.
However, things don’t really go according to plan. Look at verses 27-29: 27 When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
So, while Paul’s at the temple trying to demonstrate his regard and appreciation for the Old Testament Law, a group of Jews from Asia—not Jewish Christians, but just Jews—whom Paul had severely upset in the course of his gospel ministry see Paul at the temple. And they falsely accuse him of several things, including bringing a Gentile into the temple, which was a big “no-no.” For some reason, these Jews assumed that, because they saw Paul with a Gentile associate of his named Trophimus in the city earlier, that Paul must have brought Trophimus into the temple.
We then read this in verses 30-31: 30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. So, talk about something that blows up in your face! This visit to the temple did not go the way Paul intended. In response to the false accusations that the Jews from Asia make, the crowd is infuriated and starts savagely beating Paul and seeking to kill him. And they would have succeeded, except that the Romans intervene. The city of Jerusalem, of course, was under the control of the Roman government. And just outside the temple grounds was Fort Antonia—the headquarters of the Roman occupation force in the region and home to as many as a thousand Roman soldiers. And the chief commander of these soldiers—called a tribune—sees what this Jewish mob is doing to Paul.
We then read this about his response in verses 32-36: 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting 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. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”
So, just pause right there. Imagine what it must have been like for Paul in that moment. He had just been savagely beaten by an angry mob for who knows how long before the Roman soldiers put a stop to it. And now, he was in Roman custody and unsure of what was going to happen to him. Don’t forget how Pontius Pilate had let the Jews have their way in crucifying Jesus, right? So, this tribune could have easily done that very same thing. Paul had no way of knowing what was going to happen. And, of course, the mob is still trying to get to him and calling out for his death. If that were you, what would be at the forefront of your mind in that moment? Probably surviving, right? If it were me, I’m sure I’d be thinking, “What can I do to survive this situation?” Well, let’s see what Paul does.
Look at verses 37-40: 37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language…. And then, the next chapter records what he said. Basically, Paul told them about how Jesus changed his life. We’ll look at what he actually says next week. But, for today, it’s enough to know that he tells them about Jesus and the way Jesus radically transformed him. Like I said, if there was a Christian version of the Medal of Honor, I’d definitely nominate Paul to receive it for the way he calms this angry mob and proceeds to tell them about Jesus.
And that, I believe, is the main idea of this passage. Paul courageously bears witness about Jesus in the midst of a chaotic situation. Paul courageously bears witness about Jesus in the midst of a chaotic situation. And there are two elements of Paul’s witness that I’d like to explore in the remainder of our time together. First, the driving force that compelled Paul’s witness. And, second, the established mentality that enabled Paul’s witness.
The Driving Force That Compelled Paul’s Witness
So, first, the driving force that compelled Paul’s witness. Paul makes it clear in many of his writings how he feels about the Jews who continue to reject Jesus. Perhaps the clearest instance is Romans 9:1-3, where he states, 1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. That’s how he felt about his Jewish kinsmen who hadn’t yet embraced the gospel. He was burdened for them and grieved over their spiritual condition—almost to the point of wishing that he himself could switch places with them and be “cut off from Christ” if it would mean that they’d be saved. Obviously, that kind of thing isn’t possible, but that’s the way Paul felt toward them. That’s the love he had for them. So, back in Acts 21, I believe we can confidently say that the courage Paul exhibits in telling this hostile Jewish crowd about Jesus is an outgrowth of his deep love for them.
And think about the people he was loving. Remember, this was the crowd that had just beaten him to a bloody pulp. Yet Paul nevertheless loved them—so much that he seeks to tell them about Jesus. It reminds me of what Jesus teaches in Luke 6:27-28: 27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. That may very well be the most radical teaching in the entire Bible. We have a hard enough time loving people who sometimes get on our nerves. But to love our enemies? That radical. Yet that’s what Jesus calls us to do.
I remember hearing about a Christian back in the 1500’s who lived in Spain. And the Spanish authorities were, at the time, extremely hostile to the Protestant Reformation. And one ruler in particular, the Duke of Alba, was determined to do everything he could to oppose the Reformation. He persecuted Protestants to such lengths that his rule was called the “Reign of Terror” and his governing council was called the “Bloody Council” since it ordered the executions of so many Protestants. However, this one Christian, a Protestant, who was sentenced to die for his biblical beliefs managed to escape the prison where he was being held. His escape took place in the middle of the winter. And as this man was being pursued by a single soldier, the man came to a lake that had been partially frozen over. However, he didn’t really have many options, so even though the ice was thin and cracking, he ran out onto the ice and somehow managed to get safely across. However, right when he reached the other side, he heard the soldier who was pursuing him calling out for help. The man turned around and saw that the soldier had fallen through the ice and was very likely about to drown. So, at the risk of being captured again and eventually killed—of even of drowning himself—the man went back onto the ice in order to rescue his enemy.
Brothers and sisters, that’s the kind of love Jesus calls us to exhibit—and that we see Paul exhibiting back in our main passage. Obviously, this isn’t the kind of thing that we’re able to do through our own natural abilities. It’s a supernatural love that the Holy Spirit puts into our hearts and enables us to carry out.
And I believe this is something we really need to take to heart—especially with the way things are in our society right now. We live in a society in which people are often, unfortunately, quite hateful in the way they interact with each other. There’s an incredible amount of venom and vitriol in our society that’s being exchanged on a regular basis—to the extent that such discourse is now regarded as relatively normal. Ripping your opponents to shreds on social media is now considered to be a normal way of interacting with them.
Yet, that actually presents those of us who are Christians with an amazing opportunity—an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the world in a powerful and compelling way by loving our enemies. In fact, I’d even say that loving our enemies might very well be the single greatest way in which we can win a hearing for the gospel in our society. Remember that the next time someone publicly misrepresents your views as a Christian—just as the Jews misrepresented Paul’s views in Acts 21. Remember that the next time they slander your character—just as the Jews slandered Paul’s character. Remember that the next time someone insults you, mocks you, or ridicules you. Whenever any of these things happen to us, of course, our natural tendency is to lash out and repay tit for tat. Yet, that’s not the way Jesus tells us to respond. He tells us to love people even when they’re hateful toward us. So, maybe the next time you’re reading that latest news article by a journalist who obviously despises Christians and Christianity, take a moment and pray for that journalist. Pray that God would reveal himself to them and open their eyes to the gospel and rescue them from their sin. And if someone ever treats you poorly to your face, do the same thing—and also see if you can’t find a way to serve them and bless them and demonstrate the love of Christ toward them.
Because, you see, this isn’t just a love Jesus commands. It’s a love he exemplifies. Jesus was slandered in his show trial, subjected to unimaginable suffering in his flogging and crucifixion, and publicly humiliated and ridiculed as he hung on the cross. Yet how did he respond toward those who did all of that to him? He prayed in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” So the ultimate example of love for our enemies is Jesus himself, as he hung on that cross, praying for the forgiveness of the very people who were crucifying him. And, of course, the reason he even allowed himself to be crucified in the first place was to redeem sinners—to pay for the sins of the very people who had so outrageously rebelled against him. Romans 5:8 tells us that it was “while we were still sinners” that “Christ died for us.” That’s the love Jesus has shown to us and that he calls us to show toward our enemies as well. And, back in our main passage, that’s what we see Paul doing. The driving force that compelled his courageous witness even in such an extreme situation was the love of Christ for his Jewish kinsmen.
The Established Mentality That Enabled Paul’s Witness
Then, secondly, not only would I like to note the driving force that compelled Paul’s witness, I’d also like to say something about the established mentality that enabled Paul’s witness. As I mentioned before, if I were Paul and found myself in that situation—a bloody mess from being severely beaten and in the hands of pragmatic government officials and with a mob calling out for my execution—my main thought and perhaps my only thought would be, “How can I get myself out of this situation?” I probably wouldn’t be thinking very much about telling folks about Jesus because I’d likely be too wrapped up in saving my own skin.
Yet, Paul’s mentality is a lot different than that. He actually views this situation as a witnessing opportunity. His primary concern isn’t his own survival or self-preservation but rather sharing the gospel with the crowd. And I believe the reason he was not only willing to do that but even able to have the presence of mind to do that is because he was surrendered to the sovereign purposes of God. That’s the mentality that enabled his witness. Paul was surrendered to God’s will—whatever that will might be.
And, make no mistake—Paul was well aware of the dangers. If you remember from the past several weeks, Paul had been warned on at least three separate occasions that severe danger awaited him in Jerusalem. We saw that in Acts 20:23, 21:4, and 21:11. Yet, his mind was already made up. Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem regardless of what happened to him. As he stated 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.” Paul didn’t care whether he lived or died—he just wanted to testify to the gospel. He also says essentially the same thing again in Acts 21:13, “I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”
And listen to what he writes in Galatians 2:20. This is perhaps the most revealing statement of all as we seek to dissect Paul’s mentality. He declares, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So, in a sense, Paul regarded himself as already dead. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he writes. His old self that pursued its own agenda and operated independently from God’s will was no more. It had come to a decisive end. It was dead—having been “crucified with Christ.”
I’m reminded of the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” about a group of men who fought in World War II. If you’ve seen it, you may remember this one battle scene where the Lieutenant, Ronald Speirs, finds one of his men cowering in a foxhole in the midst of intense combat all around them. This man was so paralyzed with fear that he wasn’t able to shoot his gun and could barely even put his finger on the trigger. So, Speirs stoops down and locks eyes with the soldier. And he says to him, “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function.”
And that same basic statement can be said of Christians as well. It’s only when we reckon ourselves as dead that we’re able to function the way we’re supposed to function. That means giving ourselves to God in absolute surrender—with the mentality that we don’t belong to ourselves any longer but now exist for God’s will, God’s purposes, and God’s glory. That’s the mentality Paul had. He lived as one who was “crucified with Christ” with the result that it was now no longer he who lived but Christ who lived in him.
So, when Paul finds himself in the midst of the chaos of Acts 21 with an angry mob demanding his execution, he’s able to view that situation as an opportunity to testify about Jesus. In his mind, he doesn’t have anything to lose. He’s already died and can therefore tell that crowd about Jesus without being afraid of what might happen to him.
So, I wonder, have we surrendered ourselves to God in a similar manner? That’s what we have to do in order to be a faithful and courageous witness to the people in our lives. And there are numerous aspects of that surrender. For example, we have to surrender our desire to be popular and accepted and to have a certain social standing. Really, all that is is pride anyway. So, we have to surrender our pride the Lord. We may also have to surrender a certain dream or ambition that we have for our future. You know, if it becomes widely known at our workplace that we’re a devoted Christian, there’s a chance we might not get that promotion we’ve been hoping for. Yet we have to surrender that desire to the Lord. Or maybe there’s a relationship with a particular person that we have to surrender to the Lord and be willing to share the gospel with them and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, it won’t damage the relationship, but surrendering that relationship to the Lord means being willing to be a faithful witness regardless of what ends up happening. So, ask yourself, what are you still holding onto that’s keeping you from being a faithful witness for Jesus and that you therefore need to surrender to the Lord? All of this is what it looks like to live as one who’s been “crucified with Christ.”
Another way of saying it is in the words of Romans 12:1, where Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Think about that… “a living sacrifice.” You know, I’ve heard it said that the thing about a living sacrifice is that it has the tendency to crawl off the altar. So, we have to keep offering ourselves as a living sacrifice day after day after day—giving ourselves totally and completely to the Lord. That’s the mentality that enabled Paul to be so courageous in our main passage and that should inspire us toward similar courage in our lives as well.
And the reason we give ourselves to the Lord in this way is because he gave himself for us. Jesus gave all he had to give—his very life—on the cross to redeem us from our sins. He suffered the punishment we deserved. Our sins cried out for God’s judgment, yet Jesus took that judgment in our place. He then resurrected from the dead with the result that he’s now able to save everyone who looks to him for rescue. That involves renouncing our sinful ways and surrendering our lives—handing over our lives—totally and completely to God. So, if you haven’t yet done that this morning, I invite you to do so even this very day. There’s nothing you can do to get right with God on your own. But Jesus stands ready to save you even today if you’ll put your trust in him.