Understanding Paul - in Acts 21
Question: Why did the Apostle Paul enter the Temple in Jerusalem, to do a blood sacrifice sin offering of a lamb, to show the Jews that he kept the law, when Jesus Christ had already offered Himself as the final sacrifice; to fulfill the law and to end all blood sacrifices?!
First a little historical background…
Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected in 33 A.D. or C.E.
Acts chapter 21 is approximately 59 – 60 A.D.
James – half-brother to Jesus and ‘chief’ bishop or elder of the Jerusalem Church – is killed by a mob, in 62 A.D.
Jerusalem’s civil war – Jew vs. Gentile – was in 62 A.D.
The Jewish wars began in 66 A.D.
The Apostle Paul is executed at Rome in approximately 68 A.D.
The Temple and Jerusalem were decimated in 70 A.D. after General Titus with a Roman army surrounded it.
As we can clearly see, at the time of Acts chapter 21: Jerusalem is a trembling, smoking volcano about to blow.
Before we can move on though, let us quickly review a couple of things, to make sure that we are on the same page.
The Book of Acts is a book of the history of the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. It covers the time period between the Gospels and the Epistles, which is why its placement in the Bible is where it is.
The Book of Acts is mostly about showing us how the Church grew from its initial existence, by giving us the 'illustrative history' of its development. Though the ‘Book of the Acts of the Apostles’ was penned by Luke, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and contains some good doctrine, it is more to be viewed as an historical book, kinda like the Book of Judges.
To help make sense of Acts chapter 21 and the individuals involved, we must first begin at Acts chapter 4. Being very brief, we will pick-out specific instances to help us understand what Paul had happened himself into. As well as to get a sense of the predicaments, that the Apostles and others were dealing with. And to envision the culmination of circumstances that led into Paul finding himself in this entangled dilemma.
Chapter 4 – Peter and John were called before the Council, which included the high priest and his entourage. Their crime: A lame man had been healed in the Temple and about 5,000 were Born-Again.
Verse 21 – "So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people; for all men glorified God for that which was done".
The Council would have punished them further, but – the majority of the people were not on the Council’s side at that time (But, they would work on it!). Oh yea, they also, “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus”.
Chapter 5 – Many were Saved and multitudes were healed. The high priest and his convoy were filled with indignation and imprisoned the Apostles, for their insensitive atrocities.
But the angel of the Lord let them out of the prison, and told them to go and preach in the Temple.
So when the Council assembled and summoned the 'prisoners', they found them not in the prison - but in the Temple! So the Council sent officers to bring the Apostles before the Council. Then, having half-heard them, decided to slay them!
BUT, the respected professor of the Pharisees, Dr. Gamaliel (5:34) who had taught this Council their heresies – stood up. He stated that they ought to let this go for awhile, to see if the work of the Apostles be of man or of God. To Gamaliel, the Council agreed. So they then beat the Apostles, and again ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Then finally, they were let go.
Chapter 6 – at verse 7, we find - "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith".
Now… many priests are starting to defect! And obviously when a priest defects – he takes many of the congregation with him.
Verse 9 – we see Alexandrians and others disputing with Stephen. Then they "suborned" (secretly paid) men to stir-up the people and say lies about Stephen’s message.
So then Stephen was brought before the Council, and the paid liars were brought forth to testify against him.
But here-in is the key to understanding the situation that was developing in Jerusalem...
While fitting these 2 - verses into the puzzle that we call the Book of Acts, we can safely come to the following conclusion…
Woe to that man who challenges the superiority of Jerusalem, the Temple, the Law and/or Moses. The Hebrews had for many centuries developed a contentious unbridled belief, that they were a superior race – for they were the chosen people of God Himself!
Now think about it: how could Stephen possibly make reasonable sense with people like this?! It would be like attempting to use logic, to teach the equality of the races, to a convention of white supremacists, prior to 1965. You would never have made it off the property alive… and neither did Stephen (!).
With Stephen’s death, Satan gained a measure of control. The Council had finally gotten a large segment willing to fight on their side. So now that they had their machine fired up and running, they were going to plow under as much Christianity as they could…
You can ultimately see, just how absolutely hardened these Hebrews were in their belief system, by what it took for God Himself, to bring Saul/Paul to the understanding of the Truth.
Chapter 9 – as Saul/Paul was on the road to Damascus (Syria), Jesus Christ had to supernaturally come upon him in a very unique way. Jesus blinded him at high noon, which drove him face first to the ground, then speaking directly to him [in Hebrew, Acts 26:14 – not Aramaic]. Jesus then made him to stay blind for 3 days… to fracture his pride and for him to evaluate circumspectly all the circumstances of his life, and also to re-evaluate his proud religious paradigm.
As we saw back in Acts 8:1, God protected the Apostles at that time so neither Saul/Paul nor anyone else could get at them. But in a few years, after Paul had been Born-Again and God had changed his name from Saul, then Paul came to Jerusalem from Antioch.
Chapter 12 – As Paul was in Jerusalem with Barnabas to bring relief unto the brethren, because of the great dearth (famine and no rain) which was prophesied by the prophet Agabus in Acts 11:28 - Herod killed the Apostle James, the brother of John with the sword.
So at this point, the rest of the Apostles knew that God had lifted His hand of complete protection, and that their time could be around the next corner. Maybe God was 'encouraging' the Apostles who were remaining around Jerusalem to disperse to lands yonder.
Now that we have reviewed a few instances in the Book of Acts prior to chapter 21, we can have a feel for the pressure that was brewing in the city of Jerusalem.
So let us now go, and find out what was going on with the Apostle Paul, prior to his showing up in the city of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 21.
We must begin at Acts 19:21, where Paul decided to go to Jerusalem…
Here we see that "Paul purposed in the spirit… to go to Jerusalem". Most importantly notice that the word "spirit" is a small -s- and not a capital – S. Therefore, it was Paul who decided this, not the Holy Spirit.
But to better understand what was going on at this exact moment in Paul’s life, we must go to the Book of Romans. The Book of Romans was written while Paul was in Corinth, and sent by Phebe, servant of the church at Cenchrea which is just down the road from Corinth. And Paul was just at Corinth in the previous chapter of Acts, chapter 18.
We can see now a clear picture here in Romans, of what factors entered into Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem. He had contributions from Macedonia and Achaia that he wanted to personally deliver to Jerusalem.
Now let us go back to the Book of Acts, to see the next mention of Jerusalem…
Here we see another factor: Paul wanted to be there to celebrate Pentecost. But the next reference to Jerusalem is extremely interesting…
Notice that the word “spirit” is another small – s, clearly meaning that it is Paul’s spirit, again. But especially notice that God – the Holy Spirit (or in this case Holy Ghost is used), is beginning to warn Paul – not to go. But Paul has obviously convinced himself to go to Jerusalem. I really believe that the reason His name - Holy Ghost - is used, at least in this instance, is to very clearly differentiate the Holy Spirit, from Paul's spirit.
The next reference to Jerusalem is a real mind blower!
Notice the word “Spirit” is a capital – S. This means it is the Holy Spirit, not Paul’s spirit or even the spirit of any of the other disciples there at Tyre. God flat-out gave Paul a severe warning, not to go… yet Paul was going anyway!
I seem to remember back in the Old Testament a real familiar phrase, "Thus saith the Lord". I also seem to remember that when that phrase was invoked by one of God's own prophets, great and terrible things were about to happen. And woe to whosoever it was against, or, went against it! Here in the New Testament we see, “Thus saith the Holy Ghost”.
The Holy Spirit sent Agabus to Paul with a final warning. This is the same Agabus, the servant of God who prophesied the great dearth that came to pass, in the days of Claudius Caesar (Acts 11:28). Yet Paul, seems oblivious to the warnings of the Holy Spirit, ever since he made up his own mind (doesn't this sound like us?), to go to Jerusalem. It is very plain to see that it was not God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem. Paul is not only resisting God’s will, but he totally ignores it! Why?!
Moses committed a sin against God's command in the Old Testament and God did not allow him to take the people into the Promised Land. David sinned so many times in presuming what God wanted, that he penned the words...
It would seem that Paul had not memorized this verse, nor come across it recently in his studies. Because Paul’s violation of “presumptuous sins” is on a roll that won’t quit; right up till he finds himself in chains. Oh, but it gets worse, as we shall see in a moment.
At any rate, Paul had this unshakable resolve that he had to go to Jerusalem. One of the reasons was his obvious determination to deliver in person, the contribution. The bigger picture doubtlessly included the many widows and orphans that Paul had a hand in making, all around Jerusalem back when he was Saul. When he "made havoc of the church, committing men and women to prison", and "breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord". God had moved on from this, but I am certain that Paul’s mind had at times, got stuck back there... like a terrible re-occurring nightmare.
Still, I would think that Paul could have given the contribution to Agabus or Phillip to take to Jerusalem. Then Paul could have went on to Rome as God wanted him to, and let God continue attending to the mess that Paul had made when he was Saul.
Paul could even have written a report of all that the Lord Jesus Christ had accomplished by way of his ministry throughout Europe and Asia, and also sent this report with them… but no, on we go to Jerusalem.
Notice especially that verse 20 has not a period, "they glorified the Lord, and said unto him (comma)". You would think that they were going to say something positive about what Paul had just declared unto them. But glorifying God seemed to be on the back-burner, apparently they had something more important on their minds.
They (most certainly James) launched without a period or break, straight into rebuke and accusations of Paul’s ministry to the Jews. I would assume that James is the spokesman, for James is the only name mentioned, and he was also the one who had been running things in Jerusalem for over two decades now.
So James launches from Paul’s missionary adventures and successes in world evangelism (especially to the Gentiles) immediately to... postulating that what was being said about Paul was true, and condemning Paul for not teaching the Jews to continue in following the customs and traditions of the Elders; including blood sacrifices, as we shall soon see.
James states directly to Paul, "Thou seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law". Since James was the chief bishop or elder in Jerusalem (he went by the title, James the Just) – WHAT was he teaching these people, and WHY?!
Also, none of the Apostles are mentioned and Luke had used the term, apostle(s), many times in this Book of Acts. In fact, Luke used the term over 30 times. Had they abandoned James and his teachings? More on that later.
Then in verse 22 James states, "What is it therefore?" This is a stern rebuke at Paul which in today’s vernacular would be, "What is it with you (?), you’re bringing these attacks upon yourself(!)".
To get another revealing glimpse of the teachings of James, let us go briefly to the Book of Galatians…
Especially notice the words, "For before that certain came from James". The word "certain" seems to imply that they were messingers on a mission. That news had reached Jerusalem of Peter's open fraternization with Gentiles, and that they were sent to rebuke Peter. Because Peter was immediately intimidated, and dramatically changed his behavior; along with the other Jews.
Side note: Paul is in the Book of Galatians recollecting a set of circumstances that had happened a few years before this current encounter with James.
My take on this portion of Galatians is that Peter believed and taught the same as Paul. Because if you remember the vision that Peter had on the roof top, 3 consecutive times back in Acts chapter 10, and that he immediately went to Caesarea; to preach the Gospel before the gentile household of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. Then the Holy Ghost fell on them, and that the door to the Gentiles was opened…
So then we see proof positive that Peter had evidenced that he properly understood the Word of God here in Acts, and Paul also saw confirmation of that at Antioch, “before that certain came from James”. But going back to Galatians, I believe Peter was apparently concerned that word would get back to James by these 'disciples of James', and that it would be condemned as Peter sowing discord amoung the brethren; by going against what James was teaching in Jerusalem.
But now Paul on the other hand, was not afraid of any quarrels having to do with Truth and the Gospel. Paul rebuked Peter directly, and all those that followed this dissimulation – whether directly or indirectly.
I personally wonder what other admonitions, Paul contends to them about the teachings in the region of Jerusalem, and James’ name being wrapped up in it? You just know that there had to have been much more said at this occasion, than only what is recorded in Galations.
I am also convinced that this rebuke of Peter and the others, did get back to James, and there had to have been discussions about it in the church at Jerusalem. So probably, James felt that this was his chance to rebuke Paul, in return. Or in other words, possibly a vindictive desire for personal retribution?
So… going back to Acts chapter 21, why did Paul not rebuke James in a similar manner as he did Peter?! Then Paul should have left town -- immediately -- and headed on to Rome, to where he was supposed to be heading.
But this is why at the beginning of this article, I started out by trying to give you a feel for what it was like in Jerusalem at this time. It spiritually was a smoking, trembling volcano!
The Civil War (Jew -vs- Gentile) would begin in a couple years and James would be murdered by a mob at the Temple. Also, 6 years from now the Jewish Wars would 'officially' begin. Then 4 years of the Jewish War, would end with the Temple being decimated and Jerusalem destroyed.
That’s when the Edomites (Idumeans – Mark 3:8) in the surrounding areas of Israel, would be allowed to move in, by the Roman government to occupy the land. This was their reward for helping the Romans to dispense with their Jewish 'problem'…
Today, in the 21st Century we know them as: the Palestinians. And yes, God has targeted them for destruction. (More on this in our Prophecy articles)
Now back to Paul in the 1st century…
Therefore: Why did Paul not rebuke James to his face, and why did Paul not leave? Excellent questions!
For one thing, it seems that Christians were intimidated by James because he was the Lord’s natural half-brother. Moreover, this would be a very unconventional dynamic for one to encounter. They in their minds, probably regarded him as if he were Jesus, in a symbolic sorta way. They may have also in their minds, been afraid that if they went against James, 'big Brother' might back him up. Remember previously that Peter went against what he knew to be right in Antioch, but “when certain came from James” - Peter cowered! Now here, Paul goes against what he knows to be right!
I also personally believe that Paul saw with his eyes and felt in his heart, what it was all coming down to, in Jerusalem. All Judea was in a downward, spiraling turmoil, and Paul did know the prophecies.
Then as James had already said, "many thousands of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law". These "believing Jews" were fanatical about the Law, so how could Paul ever straighten out the heresy of James and his thousands of compromisers?! Paul had to remember what happened to Stephen when he tried.
Paul may have thought of…
Others could be; Romans 9:3-5, Romans 11:14, Romans 14:12-21, I Corinthians 9:19 - 22, etc.
But Paul would have been taking all these passages out of their proper context and application, in the circumstances he is currently in. But, when you boil it all down... Paul is just a man.
The most important thing to remember here, is that Paul came to Jerusalem against the will of God. Therefore, Paul was making any decisions that he made in Jerusalem, without the leading of the Holy Spirit. Paul also had "quenched the Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 5:19) therefore the Holy Spirit remained silent. Or, in addition to all this: had Paul now realized his mistake, and just felt spiritually weak or maybe defeated?
The lesson the Holy Spirit is teaching us here in the Book of Acts is this: whenever we venture outside the will of God, the decisions we make are our own – not God’s. Another lesson is that you cannot be bold in the Word, nor in the Lord, without the Holy Spirit to give you that boldness (Acts 4:29-31). One can be brash and obnoxious, but that just indicates that God is not involved in that particular venue.
No matter how spiritual one may seem, or how many times God may have used us, when the Holy Spirit warns not to do something – we have got to listen and be obedient. For disaster can happen around the very next corner, when we 'presume' what we think God wants.
These failings can happen to the best of us; it happened to the Apostle Paul. And now, the plight of Paul descends into ruin…
Here is further proof to condemn the teachings of James. He already had 4 "believing" Jews who were following the Old Testament Law, and utilizing the Old Testament priests, in the Old Testament Temple! Within 8 days they would be involved in the performance of blood sacrifices of animals – one of which is a sin offering!
To better understand what was going on here, turn to the Book of Numbers 6:1- 21, and read about the law of the Nazarite vow.
Now when Paul had “shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow” back at Acts 18:18, I’m confident that he just did an abbreviated version of it, without the sacrifices. Besides, it was about that same place and time that Paul wrote the Book of Romans, and maybe that’s what he did when God had him write something important.
Why Paul did not leave when he was being asked to do this, knowing that it was going to end in obsolete, blasphemous sacrifices, is beyond me. Except that the Holy Spirit was being silent and not communicating to Paul, because Paul had tuned Him out.
Let us pull over and put it in Park…
Again, it just seems that the other Apostles were long gone from Jerusalem, for they are not mentioned directly nor indirectly. It just says in verse 18, "James; and all the elders were present". No Peter, John, Apostles, etc.
My conviction is that they had left James to his own devices, and we documented earlier that Peter and James were not on the same page. Additionally, Peter in neither of his two epistles mentions James, but he does jump on Paul’s bandwagon. Peter made it crystal clear, which doctrines that he was embracing and the ones he was rejecting; for all to read and know...
Peter is here speaking of Paul and states, “As also in all his epistles”, so Peter confirms that he is aware that his conflictions with James teachings, and also James disputing the teachings of Paul are out in the field and being copied, and Peter establishes for posterity that he and Paul are united and on the same page.
Peter begins this second epistle declaring in the very first verse, “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”. So from this declaration we distinctly comprehend that Peter is speaking to both Jew and Gentile, not one or the other, but viewing both as the same.
Peter also states: that the unstable wrest the scriptures unto their own destruction, without directly naming anyone; but knowing that the disputings of James and his 'disciples' against Paul is common knowledge when he wrote it. More insight into this later.
Having stated all that, let us put it back in Drive.
In verse 25 of Acts 21, we have a reference to the Council at Jerusalem and the letter sent out by them to the Gentiles, as also found in Acts chapter 15 (in which this same James did all the decision making). But that letter just states in essence that they are not going to extend Hebrew/Jewish rituals (the O.T. Laws) to Gentile believers.
There was nothing stated about the obsolescence of the law, nor that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of those things. Especially not mentioned, was that when a Hebrew (Jew) became Born-Again, that they were to stop all participation in blood sacrifices and rituals.
When you study James, the man who was half-brother to Jesus... it becomes obviously apparent that James did not understand how the New Testament Church and the Old Testament Laws were supposed to work, harmonize or segregate. In fact, it almost seems that he chooses not to understand these significances, nor care. He obviously did not spend much time around Jesus during his ministry.
Now things get really ugly…
UNFATHOMABLE – Paul follows James’ advice?!
The lesson that the Holy Spirit is teaching here is this: when man is not being obedient to God - the Holy Spirit, he will then follow his flesh, and be obedient to that. Or, he will follow another man or men – who claim to be spiritual, and some even have degrees – but these person(s) are not necessarily following the Holy Spirit either.
Jesus taught His Apostles to learn from and rely on the Holy Spirit, just as they had learned from and relied on Him. If you have any doubt, go back and read the Book of John, chapters 14 – 16 and Acts chapter 1.
Take note of verse 27, "and when the seven days were almost ended". Here is where God intervened, to keep Paul from the completion of this blood sacrifice sin offering of a lamb in the Temple.
[- I’m almost certain that Moses would have wished that God would have intervened to stop him from smacking that rock the second time, which kept him out of the Promised Land.-]
Paul would have completed this vow at the conclusion of the 7th day. Then the 8th day would have been the commission of heresy, sacrilege, abomination... whichever, it was bad.
At any rate, God cut things short so that Paul could not complete what was now a heretical religious ritual at best, and an abomination at worst! Then God, after allowing Paul to be chastised (Hebrews 12:11), sends in the 'cavalry' to rescue Paul from being killed.
So now Paul will go to Rome, as was the Lord’s will in the first place. But, now it will be in chains.
Then, after more than two years (Acts 24:27) Paul leaves Caesarea "bound" for Rome (Acts 27:1) and nowhere is there even the suggestion of James or the Jerusalem church helping Paul in any way.
Therefore Paul while in prison in Rome, got a chance to contemplate all that he did, and all that he saw happening in Jerusalem, Judea and throughout the Roman Empire. So after Paul and the Holy Spirit got everything straightened out, the Holy Spirit prompted Paul to write the Book of Hebrews.
Sometimes the best preaching is that which we direct at ourselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the Book of Hebrews gets really deep. Maybe the reason that Paul did not sign it, was because he knew that as soon as an un-saved Jew, or a disciple of James were to know that he wrote it, they would immediately reject it. These were the two main intended groups of Jews that Paul was striving to persuade with the Book of Hebrews.
Paul had a habit of dictating his letters, and another writing them down (an amanuensis or personal scribe). In this case it was Paul’s understudy, Timothy.
Let us now go back to James, the half-brother of Jesus...
During his time as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, he began to be referred to by his disciples as: James the Just. He was much revered by a Christian sect known as the Ebionites.
The Ebionites were a Jewish Christian group that existed from the 1st Century, originated in Jerusalem and continued on for a few centuries. It flourished between the years of 35 – 80 A.D. Though regarding Jesus as the Messiah, they rejected his Divinity. They also emphasized that the following of Old Testament Jewish Laws and Rituals were essential; for they taught that a Jew could not be saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. They reverenced James the Just, while rejecting the Apostle Paul as an apostate.
Irenaeus (2nd Century) was a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn was a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus described the Ebionites as a heretical judaizing sect, that was stubbornly clinging to the Law…
Now armed with this understanding... a great deal can be explained. This article also helps a person to comprehend what the Modernist/Liberal so-called scholars use, to insist that Jesus and Paul had two totally different concepts of Christianity. Or, when they allege that Paul changed Christianity, or corrupted it, or that he developed his own system of religion that was contrary to the teachings of Jesus. They use this split between Paul and James 'the Just' to make their point.
Let us take a last moment here to discuss the Book of James…
Many or most people will say that this same James, the half-brother of Jesus wrote the Book of James. But I am firmly convinced that James - the brother of John wrote the Book.
Yes James Bar-Zebedee was executed in Acts chapter 12, but that was over a decade after the Resurrection, it was even a few years after the conversion of Paul. Jesus was resurrected in 33 A.D. and general consensus has the Apostle James being killed in 44 A.D. Put another way, Acts chapter 9 begins with the conversion of Saul to Paul, then the Apostle James is not killed till Acts 12:2, followed by Herod Agrippa I, dying at Acts 12:23 - which was 44 A.D.
James was also part of Jesus’ inner circle of 3 (Peter, James, and John) among the Apostles; and... the Book of James definitely seems to have been the 1st New Testament book that was written and circulated. Also from what I’ve studied, the date of its writing was in the early 40's A.D. (CE)
When you read the Book of James, it fits the "sons of thunder" image of James (Mark 3:17) - the brother of John, sons of Zebedee; rather than the heretical (at best) compromises of this, James 'the Just' who ran things in Jerusalem.
Also, in the Book of James it spends 2 - whole verses (5:17-18) on the prophet Elijah, and James the son of Zebedee seemed to have a fixation about Elijah, if you look back in Luke 9:54. To this observation you can attach whatever weight you want.
We also know that Peter and John had much significance upon the New Testament church, and I firmly believe that James significance was the Book of James. I would further speculate the possibility that James, was the one Herod chose to kill, because he had the 'audacity' to write a book.
-- by Ed Elkins