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ACT 21 Commentary

December 28, 2010

To Jerusalem–By Sea to Palestine
Patrick Henry’s rallying cry in the American Revolution, “Give me liberty or give me death!” captures the essence of the determination needed to pursue a goal no matter the cost. This Paul displays on his way to Jerusalem. Following in the steps of the Lord Jesus, Paul by his life sets the seal of authenticity on the gospel (Lk 9:22, 44, 51/Acts 20:22-24; 21:4, 10-11; compare Lk 18:31-34; Mt 16:23/Acts 21:4, 12; compare Lk 9:45). So far the only reason Luke has given us for Paul’s willingness to embrace danger is his determination to complete “the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24).Miletus to Tyre (21:1-6)
Paul completes the Aegean/Asia Minor leg of his journey to Jerusalem by sailing south and east on successive days to the islands of Cos and Rhodes, probably stopping at the ports of the same name, then on to Patara. Patara was a major port of Lycia and a favorite haven for large vessels traveling from the eastern Mediterranean to the Aegean. Headquarters of the Roman governor of Lycia, it was celebrated for its oracle of Apollo. Romans would have been familiar with Cos as a health resort with a salubrious climate, hot ferrous and sulfurous springs, medical school, and sanctuary of Asclepius. Emperor Claudius, influenced by his own physician, Xenophon of Cos, had recently made the port a free city and conferred immunity from taxation (A.D. 53). Its own Cassius had plundered Rhodes (43 B.C.), which was now “little more than a beautiful city with a glorious past” (Couch 1988:183).
Paul and his party change ships at this point because (1) their sailors know only the Aegean, (2) the ship is a small coastal vessel unsuited for the four-hundred-mile trans-Mediterranean route to Phoenicia or (3) it is committed to taking the slower coastal route east (Lake and Cadbury 1979:265). Two-thirds of the way into their journey, Cyprus, the site of Paul’s first missionary campaign (13:4-12), comes into view. They pass it and leave it behind, literally “on the port side.” After a journey of five days (so Chrysostom Homilies 45) they arrive at Phoenicia, the seacoast of central Syria between Mount Carmel on the south and the Eleutherus River on the north. They put in at Tyre, a city built on an island with its port on the south side. An earthen mole constructed by Alexander the Great connected the city to the mainland, and subsequent action of the harbor waters had left a sandy beach.
Paul’s party uncovers (compare Lk 2:16) the whereabouts of a church, probably founded by Hellenistic Jewish Christians scattered in the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 11:19; see the positive disposition of Tyrians to Jesus’ ministry, Lk 6:17; 10:13-14). Paul may have previously visited this church at least twice (12:25; 15:3). Here the party stays a week, either during the unloading and loading of their vessel (Bruce 1990:440) or until they can find another ship (Haenchen 1971:600).
The fellowship Paul enjoys at many stops on his journey illustrates Barclay’s maxim “The man who is in the family of the Church has friends all over the world” (1976:154). For Paul “the church has become a countercultural, global network of communities caring for their own subversive missionaries who are now traveling to and fro throughout the Empire” (Willimon 1988:159).
As Paul said happened in every city, the Holy Spirit predicts his coming suffering. This time the disciples conclude that the prediction is not just a warning but actually a prohibition. So Luke expresses it: through the Spirit they urged (literally, “were repeatedly saying”) Paul not to go on to Jerusalem (compare 20:23). Since the same Spirit has compelled Paul to go to Jerusalem (19:21; 20:22), we would be confronted with a contradiction if the prediction were actually a prohibition, but such need not be the case (see note). Paul, then, is not disobedient to the Spirit by disregarding the prohibition. As with all the Spirit’s predictive warnings, it is intended simply to stiffen his determination as he once again realistically counts the cost (20:22-24).
Sometimes the counsel of friends, filtered through the grid of their fears and concerns for our safety, can be misguidance. Like Paul, we must determine to “do the right thing” even when outward circumstances and projected outcome do not appear to be stamped with the blessing of God.
As the whole church, including women and children, escorts the party to the port via the beach, they kneel in a solemn prayer of committal reminiscent of the leavetaking at Miletus (20:36-38). The bonds of Christian fellowship forged in this short week are strong, and they cannot but help give strength to the apostle as he continues down the road to certain suffering. We too should never miss an opportunity, by fellowship and prayer, to strengthen the determination of fellow Christians as they face hard tests.Tyre to Caesarea (21:7-14)
The party makes a voyage of twenty-seven miles to Ptolemais, situated on a small promontory on the north side of a broad bay between it and the modern city of Haifa. The site of ancient Acco (Judg 1:31) and modern Acre, Ptolemais, a prosperous metropolis and Roman colony, had the best anchorage on that part of the central Syrian coast. Here during a one-day stopover Paul and his party greeted the brothers in a church probably planted at the same time as Tyre’s (Acts 11:19).
Though they could proceed by road to Caesarea, skirting Mount Carmel (forty miles), probably they go the thirty-two miles by sea. Caesarea, with its magnificent harbor and city built by Herod the Great to serve as the port of Jerusalem, was also the Roman provincial capital of Judea. This is the third time Paul has passed through Caesarea (9:30; 18:22). Philip the evangelist and his four unmarried (literally, virgin) daughters host his group. Philip is identified according to function, if not office, not only to distinguish him from the apostle of the same name but probably also to bring to mind his chief work, the early evangelization of Samaria to the coast (8:4-40). This is one of the three occurrences in the New Testament of the title evangelist (Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5). Our modern appropriation of the term may be too specialized, applied only to those gifted to proclaim the gospel to the unconverted. Pastors who like Timothy preach the Word must remember that they too do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:2, 5). And evangelists must aim for pioneer crosscultural church planting, the missionary work of apostles. Philip’s daughters with the gift of prophecy are a reminder that in fulfillment of Joel 2:28/Acts 2:17, without regard to gender, God is pouring out his Spirit in each spiritual generation of the time period called “the last days.”
It is not Philip’s daughters but Agabus (compare 11:27-28), come down from Judea–that is, Jewish territory–who in an acted prophecy offers another opportunity for Paul to renew his determination to go to Jerusalem. The action and word together communicate the effective and self-fulfilling word of God (Is 55:11; Bruce 1988:401; see Old Testament examples: 1 Kings 11:29-40; Jer 13:1-11). Agabus takes Paul’s belt, probably a long strip of cloth which he would wrap around himself several times and in which he would fold money (Mt 10:9; m. Sabbat 10:3; m. Berakot 9:5). He binds himself hand and foot and says, The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”
Though neither of these actions is recorded, both are assumed in what Luke tells us of the Jews’ treatment and the Romans’ handling of Paul (21:30-33; 24:1-9; compare 28:17). We do not need to conclude, as many do, that based on Luke’s report of the arrest, Agabus is mistaken. The prophecy’s wording, especially hand him over to the Gentiles, parallels Jesus’ predictions of his suffering (Lk 9:44; 18:32; 24:7). The theological significance is similar. It is neither the desire nor the just deserts of a righteous person to be given over to the power of enemies (Ps 26[27]:12; 40[41]:3; 73[74]:19; 117[118]:18; 139[140]:9). That is what God has determined as the fate for Israel in punishment for its sins (3 Kingdoms 8:46; 14:16; 2 Chron 25:20). So for this to be prophesied of Paul points to his innocence. As Peter will point out later, Christians are called upon to suffer for the right reason (1 Pet 4:15-16).
If anything divides Christians today, it is this question: Is the miraculous–signs and wonders, the gift of healing or prophecy–intended to continue beyond the apostolic age or the closing of the canon of Scripture? Some who answer in the affirmative with regard to prophecy use this passage to argue that New Testament prophecy is qualitatively different from the prophetic revelation reported in the Old Testament. They define it as simply “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind” and claim for it an authority less than Scripture’s and even less than recognized Bible teaching (Grudem 1988:29-30). They reason that Paul disobeyed the prophecy of Acts 21:4; Agabus was wrong when his prophecy is compared with Acts 21:30-33; and the daughters of Philip may have prophesied, but as women they would not have been permitted to teach authoritatively (1 Tim 2:12).
We have already seen that these assessments of Acts 21:4 and Agabus’s prophecy are not the preferred ones. The distinction between prophecy and teaching and the implications for 1 Timothy 2:12 for Philip’s daughters’ ministry activity are well taken. Still, for Luke a New Testament prophet
is the Lord’s instrument, one among several means by which Jesus leads his church. As one who makes known (gnostos) the meaning of Scripture, exhorts and strengthens the congregation, and instructs the community by revelations of the future, the Christian prophet manifests in the power of the Spirit the character of his Lord, who is the Prophet of the end-time. (Ellis 1970:67)
This is the standard for defining and testing all alleged prophetic utterances in our day.
The prophecy triggers an interaction between Paul and his fellow believers, including members of his traveling band. With tender affection the believers pleaded (better, “were pleading,” imperfect) with Paul not to go up (better as a present prohibition, “cease going up”; Bruce 1990:442) to Jerusalem (compare 20:37-38; 21:4). They want to preserve the beloved apostle from physical harm, possibly death, and so keep him for themselves and the church’s mission.
Paul responds with unwavering determination as he seeks to help them sort out the will of God in this matter. In such a process he recognizes the effects of their emotions on him. They are weeping for him as the women did for Jesus on the way to the cross (Lk 23:28). They are breaking [his] heart, his resolve, as stone is pulverized. He reaches back for the rationale that guides his whole life: for the name of the Lord Jesus. The One under whom he serves (Acts 20:19, 24) and in whose name he preaches, heals and baptizes (9:27-28; 16:18; 18:15; 19:5) is the One for whose name he is willing to suffer, even die (9:16; compare Lk 21:12; Acts 5:41). He reaffirms his resolve: he is ready . . . to be bound (21:33) and, like the prophets and Jesus before him, to die in Jerusalem (Lk 13:33-34).
In devout resignation, unable to persuade him otherwise, they gave up (literally, “became quiet”; Lk 14:4; Acts 11:18), saying the only thing a Christian can say in such perplexing circumstances: The Lord’s will be done (Lk 22:42).
We learn from Paul that suffering for the right reason, for the Lord’s sake, is the key to a determination that correctly sorts out God’s will. From the Christians we are instructed positively and negatively. Negatively, we must ask ourselves, “Has our own fear of radical obedience ever prompted us to crush someone else’s determination to do the Lord’s will? Has tender affection ever been substituted for courageous love in wanting God’s best for someone else?” (Ogilvie 1983:298). Positively, do we know when to cease striving with one another and in humility, recognizing our lack of definitive knowledge of God’s plan for the other, start asking God to carry out his desire for their lives?Caesarea to Jerusalem (21:15-16)
Having prepared for the sixty-four-mile journey overland, and comforted by the presence of some from the Caesarean church, Paul went up to Jerusalem (compare Lk 18:31; 19:28). He is received by Mnason (an authentic Greek name, but possibly a Hellenization of Manasseh). Luke identifies him as a Cypriot Christian and one of the early disciples. He may have been among the original 120 or, at least, part of the converted Pentecost throng (Acts 1:15; 11:19-20). His Hellenistic Jewish Christian background makes him the ideal host for Paul’s party of Jewish and Gentile Christians.


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