Arrival and Arrest (Acts 21:17-22:29)

Arrival and Arrest

Difficult choices and harsh injustice, yet God’s will is accomplished

Acts 21:17-22:29

Have you ever done the right thing and got punished for it anyway? You sacrificed for others, but they disliked you even more? You humbled yourself, and as a reward they yell at you? You were obeying God, but it seemed like He allows others to punish you for it? Possibly you were obeying the law, but it wasn’t good enough? You forget to wear your mask in a store and a Karen verbally lets you have it–you’re six feet apart, but Karen didn’t think it was far enough. Have you gotten a, “Don’t stand so close to me”?

It’s times like those where certain passages of Scripture must guide your response. “The brothers” were going to kill him, but settled on selling Joseph into a life of slavery. But what does Joseph say? Genesis 50:20, “ ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.’ “ God allowed the evil–very bad things happened. He was a slave. He was put in prison. He was forgotten. It was not pleasant, it was not comfortable, it was very unfair, it was not nice—”but God meant it for good.”

Only for Christians–but do you really believe Romans 8:28? “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” We are going through a lot as a culture and as a church–is it for good? Yes! Does it always feel good? No! Does it always appear God is in control? No!

To trust God, you often have to ignore the visible and believe the invisible. To not be fearful, we have to trust what we don’t see and not be fazed by what we see. To see good in our situation, we have to recall God’s secure love, depend on His indwelling Spirit, stand on God’s promises and not listen to the lies we’re being told.

And today’s passage in Acts reminds us of God’s bigger will, God’s providential purposes, God working in the midst of unjust treatment. There’re situations when it looks like God is losing, when in fact there is a bigger goal, a higher plan that God is working out. Will you trust Him, even when what you’re going through is unfair, painful, even wrong? Just like Joseph, it was evil–but God meant it for good.

Turn to Acts 21 and follow along in your outline. God told Paul he would face trials once he went to Jerusalem. Paul’s fellow-Christians warned him not to go because of it. But deeper still, in the midst of all the coming struggle, God would accomplish His overarching will, His bigger will for good. As a church, we had an article written about us in a local newspaper–we were concerned it might result in protesters, or cause us to lose this MVHS location. But the end result was six families visiting us for the first time the following Sunday.

If you know baseball, you know what a sacrifice bunt is–a player intentionally bunts the ball in order to advance a baserunner. But in the process, he gets himself out. He loses, but a game-winning run is advanced on the bases. What happens to Paul with his arrival and arrest seems like a loss, but it is actually advancing God’s purposes in a big way for God’s glory and the establishment of the Church.

#1  ARRIVAL in HUMILITY  Acts 21:17 to 26

Read verse 17, “After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.” Paul finally arrives for Pentecost–we assume the church was grateful for the generous financial gift Paul brought in order to meet the increasing needs of the Jerusalem church, and to encourage the difficult unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Luke tells us they “received us gladly”–not just a, “Hey,” or “Welcome back,” but the Greek is a thorough, over-the-top reception.

Paul is not interested in their esteem or affirmation–he desperately wants the Gentiles to be welcomed into the assembly of Christ. Paul wants the Gospel to be seen as a message to the nations, to all peoples, Jew and Gentile, every culture. Paul wants the Gospel to be understood as not belonging to Jews only. Paul desires the Gospel to be by grace alone, in faith alone, through Christ alone and not dependent on becoming a Jew first, in order to be saved. So he invests his time giving . . .

First  CREDIT to God  Verses 18 to 20a

Verses 18 to 20, “And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard it they began glorifying God.” The next day, Paul shares with James and the elders, telling us the leadership of the Church is already changing–moving from the apostolic era to our day.

First it was apostles, then apostles and super deacons, then apostles and elders, and now James and all the elders of the Jerusalem church. By now, most of the apostles have left as missionaries to the world. James the brother of John has been killed already in Acts 12, so this is the other apostle James who remained in Jerusalem, and here speaks for the elders. As the book of Acts closes, it becomes just the elders, as the Church of Christ is overseen by a plurality of qualified men who each function as shepherds, each using their unique giftedness in service and each seeking the one will of Christ for the Church together in unanimity—unanimous, one heart and one mind. Not one guy.

Unanimity emulates the oneness of the triune God, is an encouragement to believers and a protective procedure for the Church. But it is not a guarantee the elders will always be right, or do what is best in every case. Elders are still sinners saved by grace. Elders can still be blinded by their own culture or background, which will be obvious in just a moment.

Verse 19 says they spend some time catching up by greeting one another. Then Paul launches into a very detailed, verse19 says, “one by one”–meaning every single person and every single event, “God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.” As you minister, it is what God does that matters. I serve, but God changes lives. You minister, but God does the work. You share, God saves. You tire, God transforms. Colossians 1:29, “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Paul says, “I lovingly work to the point of exhaustion, but it is God’s power which mightily makes it all happen.” Humility is seen in pointing to God’s power over your efforts.

And here in Jewish Jerusalem, in the home church, Paul wants to make certain the leadership knows it’s God alone doing mighty works, verse 19, “among the Gentiles.” God is saving the Gentile dogs. They are not becoming Jews–but they are coming to Christ alone, by grace alone in a big way. And the leaders get it and rightly, verse 19, give God all the glory. They celebrate God’s power and God’s grace in salvation. God alone saves sinners. But along with celebrating God’s greatness and grace, they express . . .

Second  CULTURAL concern  Verses 20b to 22

Listen to their preferential concerns over Paul, his Gentile companions and the Gospel being preached to the Gentiles in verse 20b. “And they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law.” They are not keeping the Law to come to Christ in salvation, but they are keeping the Law as they live in Christ. Why are they keeping the Law? The Law comes from God and they were never taught not to try to follow the Law to please Christ.

Nowhere in the New Testament are Jewish believers condemned for observing Jewish ceremonial and dietary law–Paul actually teaches Gentile believers to tolerate Jewish Christians who do keep ceremonial laws and treat them as weaker brothers until they come to the place where they understand their freedom and can choose to not follow those laws with a clear conscious. James and the elders continue in verse 21, “’And they have been told about you, [what?] that you are teaching all the Jews, who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.’”

The first Church Counsel in Acts 15 had already determined that a Gentile dog didn’t have to become a Jew first in practice in order to become a Christian. But this is upsetting to a Jewish believer who has turned to Christ in faith, but in their heart they are seeking to maintain the dietary/ceremonial law as a way to please Christ. And because their entire life and their entire culture is immersed in following the Law, it would be upsetting for them to hear that the one guy, the one minister responsible for teaching Jews and Gentiles everywhere that they don’t need to follow the ceremonial Law to come to Christ, and especially to live for Christ, is now in Jerusalem. This could cause a riot.

And they will hear that you, Paul (the one they think is against Moses) are here in our city–the center of the world for all Judaism. Verse 22 asks, “What then is to be done?” What’s going on? There are at least three different types of people making up this huge Jerusalem church. There are 1) genuine Jewish believers who are born again, yet following the customs and ceremonies of the Jews, then 2) there are sincere, self-deceived, unsaved, Jewish Christ-followers in the Church, and 3) there are legalistic, distorting-the-Gospel, making-salvation-by-works Judaizers. They are all claiming Christ and they are all following the traditions of the Jews.

All of this exposes, like an x-ray, one of the biggest failures of the Church today and one of the most painful struggles between believers, even between missionaries. Here is the failure of the teachers of Jerusalem to deal with this issue head-on. This shows the power of a culture, and an upbringing, to distort your understanding. This proves the blindness of prejudice and the power of tradition. What is going on? The leadership of Jerusalem needed to work harder, teach better, disciple pointedly at separating preference from principle. Healthy Christians and healthy churches know the difference between truth and tradition, principle and preference, conviction and culture.

Principle, be a good steward of the Lord’s money—preference, gamble a little. Principle, never get drunk—preference, drink a little wine. Principle, worship fully from your heart—preference, dress up or down for church. Principle, spank your kids when they disobey—preference, don’t let them watch TV, ever. The Jerusalem believers were wound pretty tight over Jewish customs, like ceremonial law, dietary law (not moral law repeated in the New Testament) which were all preferences in Christ. So something had to be done about the preference-breaker, Paul, who was now in town–and whose presence could not be kept a secret.

Third  CONDUCT over preferences  Verses 23 to 26

When you read verses 23 to 26, you see what the Jerusalem leadership asked Paul to do and how he responds to their request. Paul demonstrates his humility by temporarily choosing to embrace unnecessary preferences. Imagine this–maybe you are not a mask-wearer, but then the leaders of your church reluctantly ask you to wear a mask to and from your car, to the place of worship, in order to please those who oversee the venue, and you do it. Then you know how Paul felt.

Paul took on some Jewish disciples, separated himself from his Gentile friends, participated in Jewish customs–fasting, praying, and even went into the Temple. It’s like Paul normally wore a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, but for them he wore a suit. Paul did all that to not offend, to not make waves–Paul arrived in humility and it worked. Until the fifth or sixth day, when the providence of God took over. Paul arrived in humility and was . . .

#2  ARREST in HERALDING  Verses 21:27 to 22:29

Read verse 27, “When the seven days were almost over, the Jews from Asia, upon seeing him in the temple, began to stir up all the crowd and laid hands on him.” Some Jews who had met Paul on his missionary travels, recognize this so-called Moses-hater. Exactly what his companions had warned, Agabus had prophesied, and the church leadership in Jerusalem were trying to avoid, happened. And it happened because of . . .

First  Presumptions  Verses 27 to 38

In verses 27 to 38, there were two major presumptions–number one is in verses 28 to 30.

#1  The unsaved Jews presumed two things. 1) Paul was preaching against the Jews and they assumed Paul had violated Jewish Law, by bringing a Gentile into the Temple area. Verse 28, “Crying out, ‘Men of Israel, come to our aid! This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place; and besides he has even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.’ 29For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with him, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the Temple. 30Then all the city was provoked, and the people rushed together, and taking hold of Paul they dragged him out of the Temple, and immediately the doors were shut.” The Jewish crowd presumed Paul was an anti-Jew who violated Jewish law. What was the second presumption?

#2  The Roman Commander assumed Paul was an Egyptian terrorist. In verses 31 to 37, the Jewish crowd tries to kill Paul but is stopped by the Romans, who end Paul’s beating and took him to the Roman barracks. Unable to get clear details from the crowd, the commander presumed Paul was leading some sort of revolt. Read verse 38, “Then you are not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?”

This is amazing to me. Paul has just been beaten in verse 32, but regardless, he sees this chaotic moment, even after being beaten and almost killed, as an opportunity to preach the Gospel to this huge, hostile crowd of Jews who just beat him. Paul is the herald. Paul understands why the Lord left him on Earth.

Second  Proclamations  Verses 21:39 through 22:22

Paul will herald the Gospel. In verse 39, Paul clarifies he is not an Egyptian revolutionary but is from Tarsus—”no insignificant city.” Then Paul begs the Roman commander to allow him to speak to the crowd. The Greek word beg is like begging for a life preserver when drowning, or begging for food if you were starving. It is for something most necessary.

Feel the moment, experience the hush in verse 40. “When he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the stairs, motioned to the people with his hand; and when there was a great hush, he spoke to them in the Hebrew dialect, saying,” Now look at chapter 22, like a good preacher, there are four points to Paul’s sermon . . .

1)  In verses 1 to 2, Paul honors the listeners first by calling them “brethren and fathers”, and second by speaking to them in their native tongue–Hebrew.

2)  In verses 3 to 5, Paul speaks of his past and his behavior before his conversion to add credibility to what he will say about Jesus–he gives his credentials. Paul–by birth a Jew, born in Tarsus, raised in Jerusalem, educated under Gamaliel, zealous for God and the main persecutor of Christians and their assemblies. Paul was so zealous, he not only persecuted men–but this is radical, also women.

3)  In verses 6 to 16, Paul describes how everything changed on the Damascus road. This is Paul sharing his testimony. Paul told them what he was before Christ, and now he tells them how Christ transformed him while he was on the way to persecute more Christians. Paul was dramatically converted by the Lord to the very faith of the ones he was attacking. Then Paul describes how Christ removed his sight. Then how the Lord Jesus restored his sight.

4)  In verses 17 to 21, Paul describes his special calling from God. The apostle tells the crowd how he returned to Jerusalem and while he was praying, God commanded him to leave Jerusalem as quickly as possible. Christ gives Paul a reason, verse 18, “They will not accept your testimony [witness] about Me [Christ].” They won’t listen. But in verse 19, Paul answers back to the Lord saying, “They will hear me because I used to imprison and beat those who believed in you, Lord. And I was the one who was in charge of Stephen’s stoning–they will listen!”

But God commands Paul again, “G, get going, start traveling.” Why? Paul shares the reason–Paul tells them what God commissioned him to do, This Jewish crowd hears what God sends Paul to accomplish. Read verse 21, “And He said to me, ‘Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” Now that’s hot–skip my chosen people, Israel, and go preach to the Gentile dogs? No devout Jew would have anything to do with the Gentiles. And by the 1st century, the nation of Israel had lost its purpose to dispense the knowledge which leads to faith.

Remember Abraham was called to become a blessing to the nations–not call them dogs. Israel was to be a witness to the nations of the One true God, but had forgotten. Paul was not allowed to finish his sermon over this one comment–which leads to God’s over-arching, big picture. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

Third  Providences  Verses 22 to 29

Read verse 22, “They listened to him up to this statement [about Gentiles], and then they raised their voices and said, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!’” They were angry, friends. The Greek word away means to lift up and may be a reference to crucify–but it certainly means kill him, terminate him. This crowd wants to murder Paul.

Picture this scene in verse 23, “And as they were crying out and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust into the air”—let me help you, everyone look at me. When I say, “Go,” for one second only, all of you on the left side shake your fist. You on the right side stomp your feet. And all of you on the track toss something up in the air. And all of you, scream like you’re mad—for one second only. Look around you—ready, 3-2-1, go!

Now multiply our crowd by ten, and you will understand why, verse 24, “The commander ordered him [Paul] to be brought into the barracks, stating that he should be examined by scourging so that he might find out the reason why they were shouting against him that way. 25But when they stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?’ 26When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and told him, saying, ‘What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman.’ 27The commander came and said to him, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ 28The commander [Acts 23:26 tells us his name is Claudius Lysias] answered, ‘I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.’ And Paul said, ‘But I was actually born a citizen.’”

Paul is loving the commander by telling him he is a citizen of Rome, since if Claudius carried out the scourging on a Roman citizen, he would be guilty of a capital crime and sentenced to death–which is why Luke tells us in verse 29, “Therefore those who were about to examine him immediately let go of him; and the commander also was afraid when he found out that he was a Roman, and because he had put him in chains.”

Don’t you love Paul’s humble heart? He arrives in Jerusalem and is willing to do anything–participate in any preference in order to be a peacemaker. And just after a savage beating, Paul doesn’t miss the opportunity to herald to his people and share the Gospel with his lost Jewish brethren.

A.  God is not sleeping when your life becomes UNJUST

Paul’s life takes a big turn in this section. From appearances, it looks like God is losing–Paul is arrested, almost beaten to death, then taken captive. But God will accomplish his sovereign purposes and His perfect plan. From the very conversion of Paul, God told him that he would suffer, but also use him to proclaim the only truth to the leaders of the world. Acts 9:15 and 16, “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.’”

This 5-year arrest will allow Paul to share the Gospel to the leaders of the world. Paul’s arrival and arrest is all a part of God’s perfect, sovereign plan. And it is the same with you–no matter how tough it gets right now for you. If you’re a born again Christian, God causes all things to work together for good.

B.  God’s main purpose in your life is not your COMFORT

We tend to look at our bad circumstances as some sort of discipline. Yet Paul never saw his suffering, beating or arrest as God punishing him. He saw them as opportunities. Yes, this world is more obviously evil. Yes, God is punishing the world by letting people go into greater depths of sin (Romans 1). Yes, there is injustice and pain and hurt and unfairness.

But even though others mean it for evil, God means it for good. God has bigger purposes. The vast majority of those plans you already know. He wants to display His character, He wants to proclaim the Gospel, He wants to make His Son known, He wants to accomplish great good in your life. What is good in your life?

First is for you to come to Christ in salvation, for you to turn from your rebellious sin and trust in the work of Christ, who is God–who was born a man, the God man, who took your punishment for sin on the cross as man, satisfied the Father’s holiness as God and rose from the dead. You must follow Him as Lord to be saved–He is your life. Ask Him to open your heart to believe in Christ and be born again.

Second is for you to grow to be more like Christ–to see less sin and more of Christ, to see less of your will and more of God’s will, to see less of what you think and more of what God says in His Word. What is good? Come to Christ and become like Christ. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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