Paul's Captivity

Acts 21‑28  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
Chapters 21:18–28:31
In this last section of the book, Luke gives us the circumstances of Paul’s capture and the sad consequences. It covers a period of about 4½ years (A.D. 58-62). This can be computed by adding the twelve days after his capture (chap. 24:11), the two years in Caesarea (chap. 24:27), the fourteen days when Festus came into office (chap. 25:1, 6), the certain days and the many days when Agrippa visited Caesarea (chap. 25:13-14), the many days of sailing to reach Fair Havens (chap. 27:7-8), the spending of much time there (chap. 27:9), the storm lasting fourteen days (chap. 27:33), the three months on Melita (chap. 28:11), the couple of weeks of travel from Melita to Rome (chap. 28:12-16), and the two years in Rome in a rented house (chap. 28:30).
It is sad indeed that this book which has been an encouragement to read—with blessing in the gospel going out in all directions—should close on such a note as this where the chief proponent of the glad tidings is found in confinement, unable to go forth to preach, and that on account of his own failure! It reminds us of Samson. The man who had unparalleled potential to deliver God’s people from their enemies, ends up captive to the enemy! (Judg. 16) This mis-direction and capture of Paul is a mirror image of the declension that would mark the Christian testimony historically, resulting in its being captive to the Church of Rome in the Dark Ages.
Paul With the Elders at Jerusalem
Chap. 21:18-25—The day following their arrival in Jerusalem, Paul and those of his company (“us”) met with “James and all the elders” (vs. 18). Paul rehearsed before them the working of God’s grace among the Gentiles through his ministry, and they all rejoiced to hear of it (vss. 19-20).
Paul is Given Bad Advice
There was, however, one issue which was a concern to the elders at Jerusalem. There were “many thousands [myriads] of Jews” who had believed, and were “zealous of the Law,” who had been told that Paul was teaching “the Jews which are among the Gentiles (Hellenist Jews) to forsake [apostatize from] Moses” and not to “circumcise their children,” nor “walk after the (Jewish) customs” (vs. 21). The elders did not question Paul on this, assuming that his beliefs were the same as theirs. Their solution to this was to have Paul demonstrate publicly that he was a good Jew who walked according to the Law and the customs of Moses. They advised him to identify himself with “four men” whom they had there, who had “a vow” on themselves to perform certain Judaic rites in the temple (vs. 23). By going with them into the temple and making an offering, he could show the people that “those things” which they had been “informed” of him were not true (vs. 24). But this was not wise counsel (Job 32:99Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment. (Job 32:9)).
In chapter 15, James gave good advice concerning the Law of Moses and the rite of circumcision, but here in chapter 21, he and the elders gave bad advice concerning those things. The difference between the two incidences is that in chapter 15, it was in connection with Gentiles who believe, here it was in connection with believing Jews. James could understand that Gentiles didn’t need to subject themselves to those things, and he advised accordingly. But in connection believing Jews, James and the elders thought that those things still applied. Hence, they felt that since Paul was a believing Jew, he was to honour those things as well and make it known that he had not given up Judaism, but that he walked orderly and kept the Law.
It is clear from this that James and the elders at Jerusalem had not laid hold of the truth of the believers’ identification with the death of Christ, which severs him from all those things (Rom. 7:4-64Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. 5For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. 6But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:4‑6)). They evidently did not see the distinction between Judaism and Christianity. In those days, the Jewish saints were in a phase of transition, and thus were still wearing many of the graveclothes of Judaism. Not having the full light of the truth of Christianity, they thought that Christianity was an adjunct to Judaism. God graciously bore with it for the time. But Paul knew the full truth, and thus had much more light than they did. He had been given an “abundance of revelations” concerning the Church and the Christian’s standing before God (2 Cor. 12:77And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. (2 Corinthians 12:7); Eph. 3:3-43How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, 4Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) (Ephesians 3:3‑4)). He said on another occasion that though “they” (the leaders in Jerusalem) “seemed to be somewhat, in conference, added nothing to me”—so far as the knowledge of the truth was concerned (Gal. 2:66But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: (Galatians 2:6)). The epistle to the Hebrews makes this distinction between Judaism and Christianity clear (especially chapter 13:10-13), but it had not been written yet.
Paul Providentially Preserved From Making a Colossal Mistake
Chapter 21:26-30—Paul acted immediately on their advice, and “took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them entered into the temple, to signify the accomplishment of the days of purification, until that an offering should be offered for every one of them” (vs. 26). What strikes us here is that while Paul was given good advice repeatedly along the way to Jerusalem (and that by the Holy Spirit), he wouldn’t take it. But here, he is given bad advice—and there is no mention that what they said to him was by the Spirit—and he takes it immediately! In doing so, he was making a colossal mistake. To offer a sacrifice in the temple was to go against everything he had lived for and taught concerning the finished work of Christ! (Heb. 10:10-1210By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 11And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: 12But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; (Hebrews 10:10‑12)) But he went forward with no questions asked, fully intending to do what James and the elders told him to do. Thus, he submitted to the preliminary ceremonial “purification,” a process which took “seven days” and made one fit to approach God with an offering (vs. 27a). What could we expect? He was in a wrong place, and being there, he was bound to do the wrong thing—which he did.
Since Paul understood the truth of the believer’s identification with Christ’s death, and knew that Jewish and Gentile believers alike are thereby delivered from the Law and its customs and rites, why did he do this? Doubtless, the principle he acted on was that which he states in chapter 9 in his epistle to the Corinthians: “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the Law, as under the Law, that I might gain them that are under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:2020And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; (1 Corinthians 9:20)). But winning the Jews with the gospel was not his real motive here (though he may have thought it was)—it was to show himself to be a good Jew who kept the Law. Such is not the gospel. J. N. Darby said: “He does not follow these Jewish forms and ceremonies that he may thereby attract his countrymen to the gospel, but was persuaded into them by the elders and James, in order to show that he was himself a good Jew, faithful to the Law, and to Jewish customs. It was precisely this that threw him into the hands of the hostile Jews, and then into those of the Gentiles ... .Paul accedes to their proposal; and we encounter a strange spectacle of the apostle offering sacrifices, as though all such had not been abolished by the Lord’s death. He neither upholds nor wins the Jews” (Collected Writings, vol. 25, p. 427).
The problem was that Paul went too far with the principle he stated in 1st Corinthians 9:20, and in doing so he was deceived. In attempting to make a sacrifice, he was not becoming “as” a Jew, and “as” under the Law—he was becoming a Jew literally and was literally putting himself back under the Law! The lesson here, is that we need to observe the balance of Scriptural principles in the Word of God, and we should not stress one principle to the point where we violate another.
Paul’s attempt to pacify the Jews proved to be futile, and the plan failed. God could not bless it. Some of the unbelieving Jews from Asia Minor “saw him in the temple” and “stirred up all the people,” who “laid hands on him” (vs. 27b). This fulfilled the first part of Agabus’ prophecy—namely, that the Jews would take hold of him and “bind” him (vs. 11). Thus, he lost his liberty. From here to the end of the book, Paul is a captive.
The unbelieving Jews not only charged him with teaching things contrary to the Law, but they also accused him of defiling the temple by bringing Gentiles into its inner courts (vs. 28). Luke explains in a parenthesis that this was a mistaken assumption of the Jews. They had seen Paul in the city with a Gentile (“Trophimus an Ephesian”) and thought that he had brought him into the temple (vs. 29). The charge was false, but it served their purpose of condemning him. Thus, they “took Paul, and drew him out of the temple: and forthwith the doors were shut” (vs. 30).
God was behind this providentially. Paul’s capture prevented him from making the offering, which would have been a colossal mistake that would have falsified his testimony in the gospel. This is another example of how God can, and does, make “the wrath of man” to “praise” Him (Psa. 76:1010Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain. (Psalm 76:10)).
Paul Taken Captive by the Romans
Chapter 21:31-40—The noise of the uproar around the temple drew the attention of the Roman “chief captain [chiliarch]” in the tower of Antonia (the fortress), adjacent to the temple. He quickly intervened with his centurions and soldiers, and rescued Paul from being beaten to death (vss. 31-32). He took Paul as a prisoner, and this was the fulfilment of the second part of Agabus’ prophecy—namely, that the Gentiles would take him captive (vs. 11). This was another act of divine providence; their intervention saved his life! He remains a prisoner of the Roman authorities to the end of the book. But he never spoke of it as such; he gave it a more dignified name, calling himself “the prisoner of the Lord” (Eph. 4:11I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, (Ephesians 4:1)). In doing so, he recognized the Lord’s hand in it all.
He was “bound with two chains” and carried by the soldiers into the fortress “on account of the violence of the crowd” (vss. 33-35). While “upon the stairs” of the fortress, Paul saw a golden opportunity to preach to the people and asked permission of the captain to do so (vs. 37). The captain was surprised that he could speak Greek for he had supposed that Paul was “that Egyptian” who had before “raised a sedition and led out into the wilderness the four thousand men of the assassins” (vs. 38). Paul corrected his misunderstanding and explained his background as being “a Jew of Tarsus, a city of Cilicia” (vs. 39). The captain then gave him licence to do so, and Paul “beckoned with his hand to the people.” “A great silence” came over the crowd, and he proceeded to address them “in the Hebrew tongue” (vs. 40).
This began the final phase of Paul’s witness for Christ. The Lord had said that he would be called to bear witness before the Jews and the Gentiles, governors, and kings (Acts 9:1515But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: (Acts 9:15)). In the closing chapters of the book, we see this happening—albeit it was not as a missionary who was at liberty, but as a prisoner of the Roman Empire. As far as Paul’s safety from the violence of the Jews was concerned, he was in the safest place that he could be!