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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament
Acts 21

 

 

Verse 1

The latter end of the foregoing chapter acquainted us with the sorrowful and heavy parting of the elders and church of Ephesus from the holy apostle.

Now, the first verse of this chapter informs us, that it was not less sorrowful on the apostle's and his companions' part. So much the word here imports, after we were gotten from them, apospasthentas ap' auton: "After we were torn from, and pulled as it were limb from limb from each other;" intimating the mutual endearments which were between them whilst together, and that inexpressible sorrow which was found amongst them at their parting.

Verily, there is no stronger love, nor more endearing affections, betwixt any relations upon the earth, than betwixt the ministers of Christ and such of their people as they have been instrumental to bring home to God. Spiritual affections are stronger than natural; the removing of a spiritual father by death, or otherwise, is like tearing limb from limb; yea, like rending the head from the body.

Lord! with what great difficulty and deep reluctancy did the holy apostle and the church of Ephesus here part from one another! They were pulled and torn one from another, as the word imports.


Verse 3

The divine providence is not more signally discovered in governing the motions of the clouds, than it is in ordering the spirits and motions of his ministers. The motion of the clouds is not spontaneous and from themselves, but they move as they are moved by the wind; neither can the ministers of Christ choose their own stations, and govern their own motions, but must go when and whither the Spirit and providence of God directs and guides them; as evidently appears by St. Paul's present voyage to Jerusalem; though the journey was full of danger, yet his spirit was fully bent and set upon it: I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem.

It was happy for the apostle, and his great advantage, that the will of God was so plainly revealed to him, touching this his journey to Jerusalem; for no sooner did he prepare himself to obey the call of God, and to undertake the journey, but he is presently assaulted by many strong temptations to decline it. The first rub he met with in his way, was from the disciples at Tyre, who spake by the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.

But did not the Spirit of God then contradict itself, in bidding the apostle go, and then speaking to him by those disciples not to go?

Not at all; St. Paul by extraordinary revelation was commanded to go to Jerusalem; these disciples by a spirit of prophecy, only foretold the difficulties and dangers that would attend him in his journey, and so, through kindness and human affection, they dissuaded him from undertaking it.

We must distinguish between the prediction of trouble, and the counsel of safety.

The prediction of trouble; so they said through the Spirit, that it would be dangerous for Paul to go to Jerusalem.

The counsel of safety proceeded from their private love and affection to him; whereby they dissuaded him from going to Jerusalem.

Learn from hence, 1. That divine precept, and not providence, is to rule our way to duty.

Learn, 2. That no discouragements or hindrances whatsoever will justify our neglect of a commanded duty. Whatever difficulties or discouragements lay in the way of the apostle's duty, he overcame them all with an heroic and truly Christian resolution, saying, ver. 13. I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem, for the name of Jesus.


Verse 5

Observe here, 1. That nothing could divert the apostle from his intended journey to Jerusalem: the report of sufferings was no discouragement to him, nor could the persuasive intreaties of his friends prevail with him. Seeing therefore he was resolved to go on, they all of them with their wives and children, to testify their great respect and affection to him, accompany him out of the city; and he and they kneeling down on the shore, pray together, and take their farewell of each other. The loving communion of saints, and prayer, are the marks of Christ's true disciples.

Observe, 2. The apostle's next remove towards Jerusalem was from Tyre to Cesarea, where he lodges with Philip the Evangelist; that is, one of them who were sent forth as itinerary preachers, here and there to dispense the gospel, and to confirm the churches. And one of the seven; that is, one of the seven deacons, Acts 6:1.

Here note, that this Philip, in whose house St. Paul now lodged, was before driven out of his house by Paul's persecution. Acts 8:1, &c. There was a great persecution against the church, and they were all scattered abroad; and Philip went down to Samaria.

This Philip, who was driven out of his house by Paul, when a persecutor, gladly received him into his house, being now Paul a convert; and this without any upbraiding, yea, without the least mention of what he had formerly been or done. It is an ill office to rake in the filth which God has covered, and to reproach men with or for the sins which God has pardoned; it argues some degree of envy at the grace of God, to upbraid men with the sins committed before conversion.

Former miscarriages and injuries should be forgiven and forgotten upon true repentance, and we should receive them into our embraces whom Christ has taken into his bosom: Paul went into the house of Philip the Evangelist.


Verse 10

Observe here, 1. That during the apostle's stay at Cesarea, in Philip's house, a certain prophet named Agabus comes thither, and prophesieth of St. Paul's bonds at Jerusalem.

Where note, that though Agabus was a prophet, yet by what appeareth of him in scripture, he was always a prophet of evil things, and bad tidings; he foretold the famine before, Acts 11:28 and Paul's bonds now. Such messengers of God. as give warnings of judgments to come, should and ought to be accepted, as well as they that bring us hopes of mercy and deliverance; that message may be true, which yet is displeasing.

Observe, 2. Agabus useth a sign after the manner of the old prophets, who often prophesied by symbols and significant expressions, that they might the better imprint their predictions on the hearts of men. Thus Isaiah went naked and barefoot, to show what the people of Israel should meet with under the king of Assyria, Isaiah 20. And Ezekiel was to pack up his stuff, and remove, to signify the people's removal into captivity, Ezekiel 12:1-7.

It pleased God to teach his people by visible signs, as well as by word of mouth; that what was received by both senses, seeing and hearing, might make the deeper impression upon their minds. In like manner here Agabus uses a sign; he takes St. Paul's girdle, and binds his own hands and feet with it, signifying, that after that manner the Jews at Jerusalem would bind the apostle, and deliver him to the Gentiles; first to the Roman Governor of Judea, and afterwards to Nero the Roman emperor.

From whence we may remark, The great goodness and condescension of God, in giving the apostle of many warnings of his bonds; the Holy Ghost first made it known to him, That bonds and afflictions did betide him. Acts 20:23

The disciples at Tyre prophesied the same, Acts 21:5 And here Agabus, by a sensible sign, makes it known to him; and all this, that he might thoroughly be prepared for a suffering condition.

God doth not love to take his children unprovided; St. Paul therefore was not surprised, but had warning upon warning of his present danger.

If a sudden and unexpected flood of miseries and calamities break in upon us, for afflictions seldom go single, it is not because we want warning, but because we are not so wise as to take warning. When we are well and at ease, we will not think of death and the cross; and therefore, if we be surprised and unprovided, we may thank our own security. Our apostle here being fore-warned, was fore-armed.


Verse 12

Observe here, 1. The entire affection of the disciples to the holy apostles; Both we and they of that place besought him, that he would not go up to Jerusalem.

Learn, That the lives and liberties of those who are eminent instruments of God's glory, are very dear and precious to the faithful servants of God. Who can blame St. Paul's companions or the disciples here, for desiring and endeavouring the preservation of so precious an instrument as the apostle was? and yet it is not improbable but Satan might have a hand in this matter, and endeavour by the apostle's friends' persuasion to weaken his resolution; for the devil oft endeavoureth to take us off from our duty by the entreaties of our friends, who mean well in what they say.

Thus when St. Peter lovingly advised our Saviour against his sufferings, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee, Matthew 16:22.

Get thee behind me, Satan, says Christ. It was Peter's tongue, but Satan tuned it. Who would have thought that Christ's disciples would have been Satan's instruments? We must not measure our friends' counsel by their good meaning, but by God's word; we must be deaf to all relations, that we may discharge our duty to God.

Thus we find the apostle here, He would not be persuaded, but expostulates with them, What mean ye to weep, and to break mine heart?

Observe, 2. St. Paul's entire affection to God, and his firm resolution for his duty: He would not be persuaded. But did the apostle do well in this, to withstand all the importunities, and reject the unanimous advice, of all his friends? How doth this carriage agree with that character of heavenly wisdom, That it is easy to be entreated? James 3:17

I answer, To the practice of our duty, it is praise-worthy to be easy to be entreated; but not from our duty. St. Paul knew his duty, and understood the will of God: and therefoe his friends might sooner break his heart, than break his purpose.

Learn hence, That no persuasions of friends, no apprehensions of danger, should ever be able to turn us out of the way of our duty. When Peter dissuaded Christ from suffering, our Saviour rebuked him with the same indignation as he did the devil tempting him to idolatry.

Observe, 3. How the apostle lovingly and gently rebukes their fond and inordinate sorrow for his departure: What mean ye to weep, and to break mine heart? As if he had said, "What mean these passionate tears and entreaties? Alas! whether you think it so or not, they are but so many snares and temptations of Satan, to turn my feet out of the way of obedience: you do as much as in you lies to break my heart; but, by the grace of God, nothing shall break me off from my purpose, nor weaken my courage and resolution for God." When a saint is once satisfied in the call and command of God to any duty, he fears neither impending nor approaching dangers in the way of duty.

Observe, 4. The apostle's quieting and calming arguments, with which he labours to charm their unruly passions: I am ready both to be bound, and to die for Christ.

I am ready, 1. That is, God hath fitted me for suffer-work; flesh and blood is overruled in me by the Spirit of God; I am prepared for whatever God pleaseth; be it a prison, be it a scaffold, be it life, be it death, I am provided for both.

Liberty is dear, and life is dear, but Christ is dearer than either: therefore what mean you to work against the design of God, who hath fitted and prepared my heart for suffering-service?

I am ready, 2. That is, my will and resolution stands in a full bent: my heart is fixed,-- my friends, my heart is fixed; do not therefore disorder and discompose my spirits, by casting such temptations and stumbling-blocks in my way; for I am come to a point, nothing shall divert me from this noble enterprise for God.

I am ready, 3. That is, fully determined to comply with the call and command of God; whatever befalls me, I am not so solicitous about that: my Captain that leads me on, I am sure, will bring me off safe, either dead or alive. Therefore all your tears and entreaties are but cast away upon me; ye had better be quiet, and cheerfully resign me up to the will of God; for I am ready both to be bound and to die.

From whence learn, That it is a blessed and excellent frame of spirit, when the servants of God are prepared and ready for the hardest services and sharpest sufferings, to which the Lord may at any time call them: I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.

Observe, 5. The disciple's discretion: When he would not be persuaded they ceased; that is, they gave over their importunities, and urged him no farther beyond his own inclinations and resolutions.

It is the disposition of humble spirits to submit to those that are wiser than themselves, and not to be too stiff and peremtory in their own opinions and conceits; a lesson which most men have great need to learn.

Observe, 6. The pious ground of this their discretion; namely, acquiescence in the divine will: The will of the Lord be done. They refer the event to God's determination, and submit all to his sovereign pleasure.

Thence learn, That it is the duty and desire, and ought to be the care and endeavour, of all the children of God, to be willing to submit themselves and theirs to the dispensation of God's providence, in whatever befalls either them or theirs.

For this we have Christ's example, Father, not as I will, but as thou wilt. Matthew 26:39

The example of David, Here I am, let him do what seemeth good in his sight. 2 Samuel 15:26

The example of Eli, It is the Lord, let him do whatsoever he pleaseth. 1 Samuel 3:18

Such is his justice and righteousness, that he can do his children no wrong; and such is his tender mercy and loving kindness, that he will do them no harm. The absolute sovereignty of God over us, and the sight of God in all his providential dispensations towards us, influences at once our judgments, our wills, and our affections, our expressions and actions, that we neither dare to think, speak, or act any thing in contradiction to, or in opposition against, the wisdom and will of God.

That which is oft against our will, is not always against our interest; but if we belong to God, all afflictions upon us are federal dispensations and covenant blessings to us, and either are good or shall work for good; therefore it is both our duty and interest to submit to the wisdom of Providence, and say with these disciples, The will of the Lord be done.


Verse 15

The apostle having boldly resolved, that come life, or come death, he would be obedient to the call of God by his Spirit, and that nothing should divert him from his intended journey to Jerusalem, sits forward from Cesarea to Jerusalem, accompanied with certain disciples of Cesarea, who brought him to the house of one Mnason, even that of being an old disciple; to be an old man is an honour, but to be an old disciple is a double honour: it has a resemblance of him who is the Ancient of Days. Where antiquity and piety, where agedness and holiness, do concur, it renders a person as like the Divine Majesty as can be expected on this side glory. To be an old disciple is a greater honour than to be a king or emperor.

Observe next, the apostle being come to Jerusalem, is kindly received of the church there: he enters the house of St. James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, where the elders that were present congratulate his arrival, and he relates to them what great things God had wrought by his ministry, and they all gave praise to God for the great and glorious success of the gospel.

Learn hence, That all Christians in general, but the ministers of Christ in special, ought to make a particular declaration of the great and marvellous works which the Lord hath wrought for them, and by them. Thus did St. Paul here; he was very particular, no doubt, in relating the mighty works of God in the conversion of the Gentiles by his ministry from time to time, and from place to place; and all this, not to extol himself, but to exalt God for receiving the Gentiles into the faith and fellowship of the gospel.


Verse 21

We had Paul's report to the church at Jerusalem, of the success which God had given him in his ministry amongst the Gentiles; this is related in the foregoing paragraph of the chapter.

In these verses before us, we have the church's reply to the apostle's relation, They glorified God; first, for the great success given to the word of his grace amongst the Jews: Thou seest, brother how many thousands of Jews there are which do believe; the original runs, how many tens of thousands do believe; which intimates the great and wonderful success of the gospel.

Well might our Saviour compare it to a grain of mustard-seed, seeing it had spread itself far and near in so short a time. If we consider the smallness of its beginning, the despicableness of the instruments, the shortness of the time, the obstinacy and prejudices of the Jews against the gospel, and yet remark the vast number of thousands and tens of thousands of the Jews that did already believe, embrace, and entertain it; we need not wonder that St. Paul, 1 Timothy 3:16, reckons it as one of the greatest mysteries of godliness, that Jesus Christ was preached to the Gentiles, and believed on in the world. That is, that so many thousands both of Jews and Gentiles were brought to own him, and submit to him as Lord and Saviour.

Observe next, the advice given by the church at Jerusalem to St. Paul, concerning the Jews which did believe in that place. It seems the Jews, though they had received the gospel, yet thought that the ceremonial law must still be observed; therefore, in condescension to their weakness, and to prevent their taking offence, they advise the apostle, not as a thing necessary in itself, but as an expediency in reference to their weakness, and to conform himself to some of the Jewish ceremonies and purifications; for though they were not then needful, yet they were not then unlawful; they might then be used, when the use of them would any ways conduce to the gaining and bringing over the Jews to a love of Christianity. The synagogue was not hastily to be cast out of the church, like the Heathenish superstitions; but to die by degrees, and be decently interred.

Here note, That the law of Moses, as to its moral part, Christ continued as his law: the ceremonial part, as to the use os types and ceremonies, signifying him that was to come, this was abrogated at Christ's coming; and the political part ceased, when the Jewish polity was dissolved: but the abrogation of the whole was not fully made known at the first, but by degrees; and the exercise of it long tolerated to the Jews.

Observe, lastly, The particular advise which they give the apostle, to go into the temple, and perform the legal ceremony of purification: We have four men which have a vow; them take, and purify thyself, that all may know that thou walkest orderly, and keepest the law. That is, "Seeing we have four men here which have a Nazarite's vow upon them, the time of which vow is now expired, and they are to shave themselves ceremoniously in the temple; go thou with them, and perform the legal ceremony of purification there, that the people may know that the report of thee is not true; but thou, being a Jew, dost thyself keep the law."

Here we may observe the truth of what St. Paul elsewhere declared, that to the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews, yea, become all things to all men, that he might gain some. A noble pattern for the ministers of the gospel to write after, in yielding, so far as we may without sin or scandal, to the weakness of others, in order to the furtherance of the great ends of our ministry among our people: To the Jews I became as a Jew.


Verse 26

Observe here, 1. That at the instance and importunity of his friends, St. Paul is persuaded to purify himself in the temple; partly to gain upon the affections of the believing Jews, who were still zealous of the law; and partly to confute the false aspersions of them that reported him to be against all ceremonial observances. If any had grudged that, after the coming of the gospel, so much cost should be bestowed on the law, and say, with murmuring Judas, To what purpose was this waste? the law might truly answer with our Saviour, and say, "He did it for my burial, and for the more solemn interment of me."

Observe, 2. How blind was the zeal, and how furious the rage, of the unbelieving Jews, against the apostle! They seek, and because they could not find, they take an occasion to vent their malice upon him; accordingly they put the whole city of Jerusalem into an uproar, upon a pretence that he had brought Trophimus, a Gentile, into the temple, to profane and pollute it; and in their blind rage they dragged the apostle out of the temple, as a profaner of it.

Well might the apostle say he was in deaths often, 2 Corinthians 11:23. He was now in danger to be pulled in pieces by this tumult, and of being made a sacrifice to the fury of the rabble; but God, who never wants ways or means for the seasonable succour and relief of his faithful servants, in an unexpected manner, and by unthought-of means, rescued the apostle from the jaws of death and danger, as the next verses inform us.


Verse 31

Note here, 1. How the great and gracious God provideth seasonable rescues for his persecuted and perplexed saints and servant: When they went about to kill Paul, God raises him up a deliverer.

Note, 2. The unexpected instrument of the apostle's deliverance, and that was an heathen governor. The Romans never durst trust such vast multitudes at Jewish festivals without a strong garrison to be a check upon them; accordingly the governor, having tidings of the tumult, brings down a band of soldiers, to see the peace kept; he rescues the injured apostle out of their hands, commands him to be bound with two chains, as Agabas had foretold, and the soldiers bear him up in their arms from the violence of the people.

Hence we learn, 1. That a bad government, even an heathenish government, is better than anarchy. Under a tyrannical government many may be uneasy, but under popular rage none can be long at rest.

Learn, 2. That heathens are oftentimes the protectors of Christians against the blind rage of those that profess to worship the same God. St. Paul and thest believing Jews worshipped the same God, and yet the heathen soldiers were fain by force to carry and guard the apostle from the fury of the bloody unbelieving Jews.

Thus God raiseth up what instruments he pleaseth to subserve his own gracious ends and designs in the preservation of his people. The barbarous heathen soldiers protect St. Paul, and keep him from being torn in pieces by the Jews, who worshipped the same God with him.


Verse 37

Observe, 1. The justice which the chief captain, though an heathen soldier, doth St. Paul: he demands what he had done, before he punishes him. An heathen would hear the cause before he condemns the person; a piece of justice which the law of nature requires and obliges to.

Observe, 2. The unjust suspicion which the chief captain had of St. Paul's being a very bad man: Art not thou that Egyptian which madest an uproar, and leddest four thousand men that were murderers? Here St. Paul without cause is suspected for a rebel, a seducer, and a murderer, by the chief captain. It is not in the power of the most unspotted innocency to protect from jealousies and suspicion, from censure and calumny, from slander and false accusation. The peaceable apostle is suspected for a turbulent incendiary, Art not thou the Egyptian that madest an uproar?

Observe, 3. The just and necessary apology which St. Paul makes for himself: I am a Jew of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city.

Where note, 1. He describes his original; I am a Jew, not that wicked Egyptian which you expected me to be, but a Jew of a religious and noble ancestors, is a desirable privilege and singular prerogative. St. Paul was a Jew, descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy patriarchs.

Note, 2. He describes the country where he was born: he was born in Cilicia, a rich and fruitful country in Asia.

Learn thence, That to be born in a rich and fruitful country (if godly and religious) is a very desirable favour and privilege: it is not blind chance and fortune, but a wise and merciful porvidence of God, which appointed both the place of our birth, and determined the bounds of our habitation. What mercy is it that we were born, not in Spain, not in Turkey, not in a land of darkness, but in a valley of vision! If the Spaniards have the golden mines, we have the golden treasure of the scripture, more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold, Psalms 19:1.

Note, 3. He describes, not only his country, but his native city, and the dignity of it: he was born in Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city, it being the metropolis or chief city of all Cilicia: in this famous city was the apostle born.

Learn thence, That to be born in a noble, free, and famous city, especially if privilege. St. Paul was born in the noble city of Tarsus; but how could he then say as he did,, Acts 22:1 that he was a Roman?

Answer, So he was; but not by birth, but by immunity and privilege. Tarsus was invested with the Roman privileges, and made free of Rome by M. Antonius: thus Paul was free born, and declared that they ought not to scourge a Roman citizen.

Note, lastly, That though the forementioned privileges are considerable privileges, namely, to be descended from noble ancestors, to be born in a famous country, and in a free city, (passages of divine Providence not to be overlooked or disregarded, but very highly valued and thankfully acknowledged;) yet must it be remembered, that all these are but outward and temporal privileges, common to the worst, as well as the best of men; such privileges as a man may enjoy, and yet be under the wrath of God, and the guilt of eternal damnation. Let us labour to be nobly minded, as well as nobly descended-- by regeneration born from above; otherwise we are low born, mean born, be our parents never so high.

Thus the chapter concludes with an account of the apostle's imminent preservation in a time of imminent danger: when likely to have been torn in pieces by the riotous rabble, God stirs up the chief captain, an heathen, belonging to the bloody trade of war, to rescue oppressed innocency; and the guard of soldiers, who had no manner of affection for Paul, God sets as a life-guard upon his person, they bear him up in their arms, give him liberty to speak for himself; and his apology, or defensive plea, we have recorded in the following chapter.

 


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Bibliography Information
Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Acts 21:4". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/wbc/acts-21.html. 1700-1703.

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