ACTS 21. PAUL’S ARRIVAL IN JERUSALEM AND HIS ARREST
[21:1-20a]. Paul’s last dramatic journey to Jerusalem.
Many tried in various ways to dissuade Paul from moving towards definite martyrdom (vv. 4 and 11-14), but Paul did not even consider such a possibility: «I do not account my life for any value […] if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus» (20:24). «What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus» (21:13). It is clear how this last journey of Paul impressed those who listened to him, making them understand more deeply the value of a “servant of Christ” unlike any other.
Paul stayed at Philip’s «many days», while had been only one day with the brothers he had met before there (vv. 7-10): a sign that between Paul and Philip there was a deep friendship, which honoured Paul, and perhaps for this reason Luke make a note of it. It takes little to imagine how “explosive” the house of Philip was. We have seen that he (ch. 8) had been used by God in the most disparate circumstances. Now in the house there were four unmarried prophetess daughters and, as if that were not enough, other prophets like Agabus made an entry, finding very active groups like that of Paul at their ease.
Philip, at one point, had been God’s chief instrument for advancing his “strategic plan” (expansion of the Gospel in Samaria, Ethiopia, and the Mediterranean coast). Then it is as if God had set him aside, calling in the work other characters (Barnabas, Paul). It may seem that God treats people like they are lemons, that are first squeezed and then thrown away, but that’s not the case. In fact, Philip first experienced exceptional service to God, followed by a long period in which he enjoyed an extraordinary presence of God in his home. Let us ask ourselves: do we serve God to have human glory or to please him? Do we love more to work for God or to be with God?
Having arrived in Jerusalem with his collaborators, Paul was welcomed by believers «gladly» (v. 17) and this undoubtedly rewarded him for the difficulties he had encountered the first time he had landed there (9:26-30). Paul immediately went to James, clearly considered as the main point of reference; this is confirmed by the fact that it was at James’ that all the elders of Jerusalem also gathered. In the story, Peter is not even mentioned, and it is even more evident, compared to Acts 15, how James was now entrusted with the functions of government of the church. James and the elders also rejoiced over all that God had done through Paul, who was now related with them on equal terms and without the guardianship of Barnabas.
[21:20b]. The Jews who had become believers practiced the law of Moses even more.
These verses are difficult to accept and therefore to understand; they begin with the description of reality, which is presented to Paul in this way: «You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law» (21:20). In Christianity there is a widespread and deeply rooted idea that when a Jew believed in Christ automatically began to distance himself from the law of Moses, that is, from the sacrifices of animals, from the rites and from the Temple: the more he understood, in other words, the less Jewish and the more Christian he would become. The above verse says exactly the opposite of what Christianity believes, indeed it says something that terrifies Christianity, to which the few words of explanation that we will try to offer will certainly not be enough.
For a Jew, understanding that the Passover lamb was a representation of Christ, made the Passover ritual more precious to him, not less. If we are rightly attached to bread and wine as symbols of Christ, why did the Jews have to repudiate those symbols that God himself had given them? Circumcision was a cleansing of the exterior that, as Moses had taught, was to be the symbol of an inner cleansing: «These words that I command you today shall be on your heart»; «Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart»; (Deu 6:6; 10:16).
For Jesus the Temple was the house of his Father, therefore his house (Luke 2:49). A house of God that had been distorted by a perverse use (Mt 21:13) that would destroy it (Mt 24:1-2). A house that needed to be cleaned and used according to God’s will, but certainly not to be abandoned. Indeed, just as when a family member is sick we feel we ought to be closer to him (or her), the Jews who had become Christians became even more attached to a Temple of which they understood the great value in itself (the dwelling of God in the midst of his people) and its great value as forerunner of Jesus: the true Temple. Those who are fond of a person are also fond of what resembles them, so believing in Christ brought them closer to the Temple.
But it is now an unquestioned and unquestionable conviction that the New Covenant abolished the Old Covenant, as would be written in Hebrews 8:13. On the Letter to the Hebrews there is Link No. 6, so we do not dwell on it here, pointing out only that it does not compare two opposing things, as one being good and the other being bad, or one right and the other wrong; Instead, he compares two things both good and from God: one good and the other better, one inferior and the other superior (Heb 8:6).
Let us introduce another perspective with an example. A man had a machine that he was very fond of, but that he destroyed in an accident. One tried to console him by telling him that it was much more important that he had not been hurt and that, after all, a car is not a person! This is to say that, if the Letter to the Hebrews, as everything suggests, was written shortly before 70, and so shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, then it had the central purpose of preparing the Hebrews (even those who had believed in the Gospel!) to the great loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, consoling them of the destruction of a reality to which deep hopes and memories were connected.
With these reflections we certainly do not exhaust the problems that arise in wanting to reconcile Christianity with Moses, but we wanted to indicate the method by which we try to overcome the apparent conflicts between various parts of Scriptures. It has been pointed out at other times, however, that God speaks first of all with facts and then with discourses based on those facts. Whether or not the explanation convinces us, everyone who says they believe in the Bible should take note that, towards the end of the apostolic time, THE JEWS WHO HAD BELIEVED IN THE GOSPEL WERE ALL ZEALOUS FOR THE LAW OF MOSES, both moral and ritual, as you can see below.
[21:21-26]. The FALSE accusation against Paul, however sustained by Christians!
It is a widespread and deeply rooted opinion that Paul taught the Jews to put aside the law of Moses and he himself had by now abandoned it. It is argued that the moral law was certainly still valid, but the ceremonial (priests, sacrifices, and various rites) was now regarded by Paul as a “rubbish” to be thrown away in order to gain Christ (Phil 3:8). The present passage of Acts says instead that in this widespread and deeply rooted conviction THERE IS NOTHING TRUE: NOTHING is a huge word and it means that it is a completely wrong concept. The disturbing consequence is that, when in Christian theology there is NOTHING true in some of its “supporting concepts”, then the whole structure cannot only be revised, but must be deeply restructured.
Placed in these terms, the stakes are not small, but let’s now focus on the content of the FALSE rumour about Paul: «and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs» (21:21). The whole book of Acts shows instead that Paul (like Peter) asked the Jews to accept Jesus as Messiah, continuing to remain Jews.
Paul, in harmony with what Peter did with Cornelius and with the decisions of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), taught that non-Jews who accepted the Gospel were not obliged to observe the law of Moses. But since the pagan converts were in fact more numerous than the believing Jews, then in the new group of Gospel believers a situation was being created that would result in the absolute pre-eminence of Christians of pagan origin, a category to which Christianity now belongs. The new factual situation, however, cannot be transformed into a theology by right.
To refute the false accusation of no longer observing the rites, Paul agreed not only to perform a rite himself, but also to show himself as one who taught them to four other Jews (vv. 23-24). Of course, when living as Paul among pagans and caring for their salvation, one tends to neglect what is less important, as Peter did when he went to Cornelius, but for Paul, as for Peter, the Hebrew precepts remained important and, as far as possible, he tried to put them into practice and thus keep their being Jewish.
Jesus had said, «If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother […] he cannot be my disciple» (Luke 14:26). Did it mean that those who followed Jesus had to throw their parents in the garbage? That hatred of parents had the meaning of a “lesser love” and had to emerge only if they placed themselves as an obstacle to following Jesus. Jesus himself gave the example when his mother and other relatives wanted him to stop his public commitment and he exclaimed before the disciples: «Who are my mother and my brothers?» (Mk 3:21-33). But this did not prevent relations with that mother and with those brothers from lasting to the cross and beyond (Jn 19:26-27; Acts 1:14; Gal 1:19).
Paul went so far as to use language that seems “excessive” when everything interposed not only between him and Christ (Phil 3:8-9), but also between those he had evangelised and Christ (Gal 2:11-14; 5:12). So even the law of Moses, if used improperly, had to be set aside (Gal 3:15-18; 5:2-4). It was not, however, the law of Moses in itself that was negative (to the one who says he believes in the Bible should this not appear obvious?), but the abuse of considering it as a means of salvation: a function that it had not performed even before Christ (Gal. 3:15-18). The whole of the Old Testament was edifying and useful, if seen with the eyes of Jesus, as the two disciples well understood on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-32).
Some object that Paul practiced these rites because he tried to adapt himself to everyone, making himself «a Jew with the Jews» and «to those outside the law […] as one outside the law» (1 Cor 9:19-23). It is true that, as far as possible, Paul sought to meet each [in their circumstances], but not to the point of encouraging practices that he believed to be wrong and contrary to the work of Christ. To draw a parallel, he certainly did not go to make a sacrifice in a pagan temple in order to please the pagans!
Some Jews who had believed in Christ disapproved of Paul only because they had been misinformed (21:20-24) and should not be confused with other Jews who, instead, had not believed in Christ and slandered Paul in search of excuses; those people, above all, did not bear the extension of God’s work to the Gentiles, a question on which they would then stop listening to Paul, trying to kill him (22:21).
[21:27-40]. Begin of the final rupture between Paul and the Jews of Jerusalem.
The strategy put in place to dismantle the false accusations against Paul seems to proceed in the right direction, then some Jews lit the fuse with false but credible accusations. Luke points out that they were «Jews of Asia», that is, of the region with Ephesus as its capital and in which, in order to oppose the Jewish brothers who had recognised Jesus as Messiah, the accusers had not hesitated to ally themselves with idolaters, worshipers of the goddess Diana (19:8-33).
In summary, all the crowd hurled at Paul with the intention of killing him, but the arrival of the Roman soldiers saved Paul who, as usual, did not avoid the clash and asked permission to speak to the people. Once again, on the political level, it is noted that the Roman authorities were better than a people of God who was increasingly degenerate and easy prey to unjustified murderous impulses (as, after all, it had been for Jesus).