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The Spreading Flame - Series 6: Episode 5

Opposition to Paul in Jerusalem

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 21:17-36

Paul and his companions met with James and other leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Paul was asked to perform a Jewish ritual to please those Jewish Christians who followed Jewish laws. In the Temple, Jews from Asia Minor stirred up a riot against Paul in which Roman soldiers intervened.

Paul and his companions met with James and other leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Paul was asked to perform a Jewish ritual to please those Jewish Christians who followed Jewish laws. In the Temple, Jews from Asia Minor stirred up a riot against Paul in which Roman soldiers intervened.


In this episode we’re continuing with Paul on the epic journey that we have been tracing during the last few episodes, as he has been travelling from Greece through Turkey, or Asia Minor, and then by sea to Israel and ultimately to Jerusalem.

Background and Introduction

If you have been following the previous episodes, or if you are familiar with the story, you will know the background. This is Paul’s third missionary journey and he is changing focus. He has decided that he ultimately wants to go to Rome and Italy, to move the location of his missionary work away from Greece and Asia Minor, or Turkey. But before he does that, he has a particular obligation that he wants to fulfil, and that is to bring some financial support to the church in Jerusalem and the churches in the surrounding district known as Judea. This has been described in previous episodes but briefly, the believers in Jerusalem, and surrounding area, were experiencing economic hardship at this time. There are two possible reasons, one is persecution and the other is a shortage of food supply or even a famine, but more likely a shortage of food supply. This was a common experience in the Roman world. The Roman authorities had a particular way of dealing with the food supply issue and particularly grain. They imported a lot of grain to Italy and Rome, to support their own population in the heart of the Empire, particularly the sprawling city of Rome. Grain was imported from the provinces, especially from Egypt. This meant that the provinces like Judea were sometimes left short of food and it wasn’t a high priority for the Romans to resolve. This may lie in the background of this particular issue, and this is one of the reasons why Paul has come to Jerusalem.

We saw in the last episode that one of his stopping points was the city of Caesarea on the coast, he stayed in Caesarea for a number of days with Philip the evangelist and his family. During that time, the prophet Agabus had come from Jerusalem and had prophesied to Paul that trouble was going to beset him when he got to Jerusalem and he needed to be ready for it. Paul decided that he was going to continue the journey.

Arrival in Jerusalem

Let us pick up the story by reading a couple of verses from our last episode and then moving forward into our present episode. Acts 21:15 - 19,

15 After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem. 16 Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples. 17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

Acts 21:15-19, NIV

It took two days travelling from Caesarea to the home of Mnason. Mnason probably lived in the area around Jerusalem. He was a believer who had been a disciple for many years, he was one of the early disciples, so probably for twenty years, so a mature believer with some degree of wealth because he probably had a big home and that’s where Paul and his friends stayed during the time that they were in Jerusalem, until Paul was taken into custody as we will see shortly.

It was an incredible moment when Paul first got to Jerusalem. The church there was so excited to see him and so there was a joyful meeting with the church in the city. Paul hadn’t been in Jerusalem for a very long time. Lots of things had happened in the intervening years. The most important meeting was between Paul and his colleagues, and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, who are described as the elders of the church. Some of the early Apostles would also have been there, no doubt but the focus was on the leaders of the local church and on the particular leader of the local church who is James. Which James are we talking about here? This is James the half-brother of Jesus, not James, the brother of John, one of the early Apostles. You will remember Peter, James and John being the inner circle of the twelve Apostles, but James the Apostle had been martyred, as we see in Acts 12. This James is a different James - the half-brother of Jesus. It appears, from 1 Corinthian 15: 7, that this James had had a resurrection appearance of Jesus and had been appointed to join the group of Apostles by Jesus himself. This is the same man who is the author of the letter, which we call James, in the New Testament. He was a person of considerable authority. They met together, and Paul thoroughly enjoyed telling them stories. Paul was a great storyteller, and all the way through this journey he’s been stopping off at different churches, talking to people. He stopped off at Troas, Ephesus, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and everywhere he went he would be telling stories of the things that God had done. He reported in detail what God had done; he described every single place he went, and how his journeys had taken place, and what God had done in cities like Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, and other places as well. What an amazing story that must have been.

A Request from the Church

Let us read Acts 21:20 - 25,

20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the Law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the Law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.”

Acts 21:20-25, NIV

The leaders in Jerusalem were very concerned about a risk to them. Amongst the Jewish believers, and there were many thousands in Jerusalem as stated in this passage, there were those who still very much respected the Old Testament laws - what’s described here as the Laws given to Moses - the religious laws of the Jewish people. They mixed their genuine faith in Jesus with obeying some of these religious laws. Paul had taught the Gentile believers in other places, not to get involved in the Jewish Law. So there was a risk that people might think that Paul was somehow anti-Jewish and disrespected the tradition of obeying those rules. The leaders were worried that Paul’s visit could be tense, people could misunderstand him. This is why they suggested that he get involved in a religious ceremony that was going on at the time, something that he wasn’t going to do himself, but they suggested, “Why don’t you join these people, these men who are going for purification rites in the Temple?” This was a tradition and a law from some teaching in the book of Numbers, and they suggested that Paul should be seen with them to show his respect for the religious traditions of the Jews. That was their plan. They said to him that they had made a decision earlier on about what to do about this Jewish law, as far as the Gentile believers are concerned. This is a reference to the Council of Jerusalem. This is the last time Paul was in Jerusalem, the same issue came up. Let’s pause and go back in our minds to that issue, which I described in an earlier episode and appears in Acts 15.

The context there was that Paul and Barnabas had been planting churches in southern Turkey, an area called Galatia in Asia Minor, and some rumours had spread around that they disrespected the Jewish tradition. These rumours had got back to the believers in Jerusalem and the leaders. So, they convened a meeting because there was a risk that the Church was going to split over this issue. There would be a Jewish church, following some of these regulations, and a non-Jewish church which didn’t, and that Paul would be the leader here, Peter and James would be the leader over here. So, in Acts 15 they met together. Paul and his colleague at the time, Barnabas, travelled down to Jerusalem and had a high-level discussion with James, Peter, the Apostles, the elders and indeed many church members. The outcome of that meeting was that James, as stated here in verse 25 in summary, had given a ruling, with the agreement of everybody else, that the new Gentile believers should not obey Jewish traditions or rules, but just gave them four guidelines: to

‘abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.’

These four guidelines essentially related to idolatrous practices in the Greek and Roman temples and the sexual immorality that went alongside it. So, they’d settled the issue before, but it was still in the background. Some of the Jewish believers were not yet entirely clear in their mind to what extent they were freed from the Law of Moses. There was a risk of cultural tension between Paul and his friends on the one hand, and some of the more conservative members of the church in Jerusalem, who had a Jewish background. So, they said, “Why don’t you go to the Temple and take part in a ritual ceremony, not because you have to, but to show respect for that ceremony.” Paul said, “I’m happy to do that. No problem.” That should have been a positive demonstration that there wasn’t really an issue to be concerned about. However, it didn’t work out that way. Some trouble started when he was in the Temple.

Religious Laws and Beliefs

Before we get to that part of the story, let us think more about the context and about the Jewish Temple itself. Here we are in Jerusalem. The Temple is the huge dominant building at the centre of the city and has been the focus of many key issues in the life of Jesus, and in the Early Church. It is the place that Jews always wanted to come to, to worship. There were three main festivals every year, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, to which they would make pilgrimage. They would come from other countries to make sacrifices and follow various rituals, traditions and prayers, with the priests leading them. The whole structure of Judaism was still in place and the Church had grown up alongside it, from the Day of Pentecost onwards. The Temple had a huge compound, a very big social area around and the church had actually used that social area as its primary meeting area in the early days, when its numbers were so great. Respect of the Jews for the Temple was very high. They were sensitive about how Paul would relate to the activities of the Temple, in this context. Paul was aware of this and very sensitive to it, and wanted to do something that would reassure them.

Paul’s Beliefs

But what was his actual theological position? What did he actually believe about the Law of Moses? It is probably a good time in our studies to think about this in more detail. In order to do that, I am going to read and comment briefly on a couple of short passages from the book of Romans. Romans 3: 21 - 25:

21 But now, (that means in the time of Christ,) apart from the Law, (that’s the Law of Moses,) the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24> but all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. Romans 3:21-25, NIV

Sitting alongside that, Romans 10 verse 4:

4Christ is the culmination of the Law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4, NIV

As far as the law of the Old Testament, the Law of Moses goes, Romans 3:21 says that God has revealed the Gospel, in a sense, apart from the law. It is a new revelation, and Christ is the culmination, or alternatively translated ‘the end’ of the law. So, the Law of Moses, the function of the Law of Moses to hold the Jewish people together and to give them a structure until the time of Christ, has now been fulfilled. The old covenant, the Law of Moses, has been replaced by the new covenant. This is Paul’s thinking. Because it was such a sensitive cultural issue, though, his policy is described in 1 Corinthians 9: 19 - 23,

19 Though I am free, and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I become like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I become like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I become like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV

In this passage he says, when he is relating to the Jews, he becomes like a Jew, he enters into their cultural world. But when he is with the non-Jews, he throws off all that Jewish background and he engages in their different world. When he is with weak people, he gives up his strength of character and personality; he tries to feel what it is to be weak and vulnerable, maybe the slaves or some of the people on the outside of society. Can you see what Paul does? He modifies his behaviour according to the context, in order to build a bridge of communication. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:23, ‘I do all this for the sake of the Gospel.’ He wants by all possible means to save some. That is his policy. Therefore, when he is in Jerusalem here and people say, “Be careful, the Jews are very sensitive about the Law.” What is Paul’s policy? Become like a Jew. Respect the fact that they still feel that these rules and regulations are necessary. That is why he willingly said, “I’ll go up to the Temple. I’ll fulfil the purification rites with these men. I’ll even pay their expenses to show that I’m involved in that process.” Paul was wanting to build a bridge to the Jews at this particular point.

Jews Riot in Reaction to Paul

However, it didn’t prove to be very easy and we will see why in these next verses. Acts 21: 27 - 36,

27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the Temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the Temple.) 30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. 35 When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. 36 The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Get rid of him!”

Acts 21:27-36, NIV

Things didn’t go so well, did they? Paul was coming in openness and humility, making a sensitive cultural gesture. He had spent several days coming in and out of the Temple compound in peace without any difficulty until somebody, who had seen him in the province of Asia, saw him. In other words, in one of those cities where Paul had planted a church, a city like Pisidian Antioch, for example, this group of people, misunderstood Paul’s message. They said that he was anti-Jewish and was disparaging and despising all the things to do with Judaism when he was in Asia. They also accused him of bringing one of his friends, Trophimus from Ephesus, who had been travelling with him and was a Gentile, a Greek speaking person, into the part of the Temple which was reserved only for Jews, which was against the regulations. Neither of these accusations were true. Paul had not been disparaging Judaism in preaching in Asia Minor, in Galatia, in the places where they would have met him, nor did he bring Trophimus into the area which was restricted access. Trophimus had been travelling and walking around with him, in the city, where he was perfectly free to wander. These people stirred up trouble, made two false accusations against Paul, and as a result stirred up a riot very quickly.

The Jews are very sensitive to anything that is disparaging of the Temple or their religion. People are easily stirred up. They had heard about Paul. He had previously been in Jerusalem, had studied under one of their religious teachers, Gamaliel. He’d previously been a Pharisee, and he had gone over to Christianity. Some people would be aware of that. We don’t exactly know what the crowd were thinking because even when the Roman commander asked them, they couldn’t give a coherent answer as to what was going on - they just got stirred up. You know what it is like with riots, people get stirred up, they get very emotional about things without really understanding what i going on. That s what took place here.

The Romans, generally speaking, didn’t send their soldiers into the Temple compound. It was agreed with the Jews that this could be policed by the Temple guard, and we have met the Temple guard in earlier episodes. But the Romans had the Antonia fortress right next to the Temple, actually overlooking the compound. There were always soldiers there. As soon as the commander heard that there was something going on in the Temple, he immediately intervened because the Romans were keen to maintain public order. That is why the soldiers came rushing in and prevented Paul being literally beaten to death. They saved his life and couldn’t work out what the accusation was against him, so the officer really had no choice but to remove him and take him into custody. This is a very dramatic episode and some of those prophetic words are being fulfilled, People warning Paul, “There’s going to be trouble for you in Jerusalem.” The trouble had started and now he is in custody, he has lost his freedom; he is in the hands of the Romans; the Jewish religious authorities are stirred up against him; and trouble lies ahead.


As we conclude now, a few thoughts by way of reflection. The most obvious issue that arises out of this text concerns religious laws. This is a sensitive area in this particular text. It makes us think, ‘What is the New Testament position about religious rules and regulations? Which ones do we have to follow as Christians and what is their origin?’ There are four things to say about this: Number one, the Old Testament laws in the Law of Moses are not applicable to Christians, unless they have been restated in the New Testament by Jesus or the Apostles, as part of Christian discipleship. For example, do not murder, do not commit adultery - those commands are carried forward. But very few are. We assume the laws in the Law of Moses are not applicable to Christians unless a specific one is carried forward. That is really important as a foundation for our understanding. This is because the old covenant with Moses, has been replaced by the new covenant in the death of Jesus. The second thing to say, is that the New Testament commands, in terms of church life and Christian discipleship, are applicable to us. Those commands given by Jesus and the Apostles are applicable to us. We need to work out how to apply them, which can be a little bit complex, but we should assume that what the New Testament teaches are regulations and principles for us. Thirdly, we should not create our own religious rules about our conduct in our life and impose them on all people in our churches, or in our communities. We don’t have any permission to do that. We might want to have guidelines to help people in certain cultural situations, like certain dress codes, and so on, which should be respected but they never become rules for all Christians everywhere. The fourth point is that the New Testament tells us that in order to know what to do, what is the right thing for us to do, we not only have the New Testament, but we have the Holy Spirit living within us. So many moral or ethical decisions about behaviour cannot be made purely on the basis of a text from the New Testament, it doesn’t cover most situations in life. But Paul says in Galatians 5:16,

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

Galatians 5:16, NIV

and verse 25:

25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25, NIV

The implication of this is, that if we ask God to fill us with his Holy Spirit then we will have an internal sense of right and wrong, which is something we can add to the teaching that comes specifically from the New Testament.

Thanks for joining us for this episode. The story is dramatic. The story is only halfway through, there are more things to be said, more complications for Paul, and they come in the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How do/would you react to people who do not tell the truth about you?
  • Discipleship
    1. Give practical examples of things you need to respect for the sake of the gospel.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to help explain the difference between Old Testament laws and New Testament laws.
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