Away with Him (Acts 21:1-36)
Fellowship and Farewell (verses 1-6)
Continuing the farewell scene from chapter 20, Luke writes that Paul and the others “parted” from the believers in Ephesus, which can be translated more literally as “tore themselves away” (v.1). A similar scene is repeated in verse 5. Paul understood that these farewells were farewells forever, which made them difficult for him. Ministry was not merely a profession to Paul, but a personal engagement of his own life marked by sacrifice and hard work. He shared genuine and intimate fellowship with those to whom he ministered.
Warning of Arrest and the Will of the Lord (verses 7-14)
The Holy Spirit was predicting through those who spoke to Paul that “bonds and afflictions await” him (Acts 20:23), and the disciples kept telling him “through the Spirit” not to set foot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). But at the same time, rather than the Spirit prohibiting Paul from going, He was saying through Agibus that Paul would be bound by the Jews and delivered over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). The Holy Spirit isn’t contradicting Himself—forbidding Paul from going to Jerusalem at one point and then predicting that he will go to Jerusalem and that he will be arrested at another. The warning about what awaited Paul in Jerusalem was divine, but the urging for him not to go was human. To Paul, the Spirit was both compelling him to go to Jerusalem, as well as warning him of the consequences. Yet, Paul was motivated by his devotion to Christ to suffer “for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). Self-preservation wasn’t a part of Paul’s plans (c.f. Acts 20:24). Like his Savior, his only desire was that the “will of the Lord be done” (Acts 21:14; c.f. Luke 22:42).
Confusing Doctrine and Clarifying Duty (verses 15-26)
While James and the others rejoiced at the things “God had done among the Gentiles,” they also had some concerns to bring up to Paul—concerns that were based on confusion. The accusations brought against Paul by Jewish Christians was that he spoke against the law, and James and the others recognize that for the good of the gospel, a solution needed to be determined. Paul’s agreement to join the four men in observing a Jewish custom was not a compromise, but a concession. The issue with Gentiles had been settled in Acts 15, and James and Paul were agreed already about justification by faith. This current issue is not a matter of salvation, but of culture, ceremony and tradition. Paul never taught that all Jewish believers must cease all Old Testament customs and practices in order to be saved; nor did he ever teach that all Gentile believers must observe all Old Testament customs and practices in order to be saved. He drew a very clear line between what was necessary for salvation and what was permissible devotional observance for Jewish Christians. He was able to accommodate the likes and dislikes of others—without compromising the gospel—in order to avoid any unnecessary cultural or religious obstacles with his hearers. He was motivated by love, and not merely by the desire to be right.
Fabricated Accusations and False Arrest (verses 27-36)
There is a noticeable contrast between the response of James and the elders, and this group of Jews visiting town for the holiday. On the one hand, James and the elders conversed with Paul and worshiped with him at the things God was doing among the Gentiles, even though they had certain concerns based on the confused reports they had received. But on the other hand, this group of Jews responded by stirring up the crowds, seizing Paul, and attempting to put him to death. Ironically, Paul was in the temple undergoing purification so that he would not defile it, and yet he was arrested for teaching against the temple. The very people Paul had sacrificed everything for, his own kinsmen, now turned on him once again. Their fabricated accusations and half-truths were enough to stir up the masses to a frenzy, leading to Paul’s arrest. Similar to the cry made against Jesus, the crowds cry out against Paul, “Away with him!” (v. 36). From this point on in the book of Acts, Paul is never a free man again.
– When it came to non-gospel issues, Paul was more concerned about being right than he was about being loving. In what ways are you tempted to be more concerned about being “right” than being “righteous”? What is the difference between accommodating people for the sake of the gospel, and compromising the gospel? What does biblical accommodation look like in your relationships with specific individuals?