21 November 2021
Series: Acts

Acts 21:17-39 Paul's Arrest

Speaker: Andy Yip


In today’s passage, we will focus on four main points:

  1. The Old Testament Law cannot bring salvation to those who keep them.
  2. Be all things to all men to win them for Christ.
  3. Anarchy arose from the most severe criticism.
  4. On Christian Courage.

But before we begin, please join me in prayer and ask God to open our hearts and ears to accept his words. Heavenly Father, may your seeds in the Scripture be planted in the hearts of your people, and Lord, please grant me a clear speech to preach your word faithfully to the congregation. May your Spirit fill with every one of us here to put it into practice. Amen.


1) The Old Testament Law cannot bring salvation to those who keep them

The Scripture records that after Paul and his company returned to Jerusalem from their mission, the brothers and sisters received them warmly. This is what God’s church suppose to do. After the missionaries were sent out and returned, welcome them warmly, as one family of Christ. It was a joyful gathering as a church because God has brought the Gentiles to Christ through Paul’s mission. Thousands of Jews have also believed in Christ in Jerusalem. However, there are also controversies in the early church. The year was probably between A.D. 56 to 57, a time of tremendous Jewish nationalism and anti-Gentile attitudes. Many of the new converts were zealous for the law, having been influenced by the remaining Judaizers. The same group challenged Peter upon his return from Caesarea in Acts 11. Word went out all over the city that Paul had been turning Gentiles away from the Law of Moses. And he cancelled other Jewish customs; namely, the Jewish Christians are no longer required to circumcise their children, for salvation comes through believing in Christ alone, not by work of obedience to the Old Testament law. And many Jewish people saw it as disobedience to God’s Word. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem seemed so deeply concerned with public relations. At the same time, Paul and his missionaries had risked their life all over the Mediterranean world for the cause of evangelism. So, what should we do as a church when controversial issues arise against the church’s tradition? We can learn from the early church. Let’s have a look at Acts 21:22-26, “22 What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23 so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24 Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. 25 As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” 26 The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.”

Paul willingly submitted to Jewish custom to show that he was not working against the council’s decision and that he was still Jewish in his lifestyle. Similarly, sometimes we must do what is required to avoid offending others, especially when doing so would hinder God’s work. Some of the old Chinese church traditions might seem unnecessary to us, the new generation of the church. Still, for the sake of not hindering God’s work in the faith of older people, we obey and follow some old church traditions to avoid offending the older generation. Remember that they have been following some rules in the church for a long time. And for sure that as Gentile believers, many of the Old Testament traditions like the food law or circumcision of Moses no longer binds us. But when we eat with others bound by these traditions, it might be better to follow the customs not to offend others, which might hinder the Gospel. The Gospel of Christ saves people, not by following the laws or doing what is required in the Old Testament. But we don’t want people to be offended by our deeds. People might turn away from the Gospel of Christ because of our misbehaviours.

For example, when I first went to Israel with my wife Kylie on our honeymoon, we refrained from eating pork, ham, bacon, or medium-rare steaks with blood in Israel to not offend the Jewish people with us in the tour. We also followed the tradition of washing ourselves at the Temple Mount basin to purify ourselves before visiting the Western Wall, where the Jerusalem temple is located. We are not required to do this as tourists. Still, we just followed it so that the local people don’t feel offended as we represented Christ as his ambassadors. We acted and ate appropriately to show that the followers of Christ are God-fearing people in terms of obeying their local customs to the Jews at Jerusalem. I even walked backwards when I left the Western Wall to show respect to the Lord as other religious Orthodox Jews so that I didn’t turn my back to the temple wall. And in return, the Jewish rabbis were interested in my observation of their tradition, they were willing to talk to me rather than other tourists that offended them at the holy site, and I was able to mention to the rabbis that I believe in Jesus Christ, who is the Messiah they have been waiting for.

Similarly, avoid wearing thongs when you go to this church. Instead, dress appropriately and be modest when we have physical meetings again to respect the older generation of church members. I remember seeing a young member at another church who did not dress appropriately in Sunday Worship. They got into trouble with the elders because of the provocative way they dressed. Just do everything for the sake of others rather than for our rights so that we will not hinder the Gospel or weaken others’ faith because of our behaviours. And again, I would not eat pork or anything not halal when I dine with Muslim friends so that I will not offend them by my eating habits, which might hinder the Gospel when I tell them about Jesus. Sometimes people look at what we do more than what we say in sharing the Gospel of Christ, and we do our best to avoid offending them that might turn them off by our habits.


2) Be all things to all men to win them for Christ

So, today’s focus in this part of the passage is this, “For the sake of the Gospel and win people from every context”. Paul felt free to follow Jewish ways in the Jewish community, but not with the Gentile believers. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

These are certainly words of wisdom in Paul’s approach to be all things to all men to win them for Christ. Paul submitted himself to this Jewish custom to keep peace in the Jerusalem church. In the Old Testament, Numbers 6:1–21, there is a provision covering accidental defilement (Numbers 6:9–12): This called for a period of purification lasting seven days, at the end of which, on the seventh day, that man shaved his head and on the following day offered the appropriate sacrifice in the temple. We can see in verse 26 that although Paul was a man of strong convictions, he was willing to compromise on nonessential points. Paul has become all things to all people so that he might save some. Often churches split over disagreements about minor issues or traditions. And believe me, many Chinese Churches have experienced that. Like Apostle Paul, we should remain firm on Christian essentials but flexible on nonessentials. Of course, no one should violate their true convictions, but sometimes we need to honour Jesus by mutual submission for the sake of the Good News. Mutual submission is the key to unity in Christ’s church. When you love people, you are naturally willing to serve them in mutual submission out of love. It is not about the right to do certain things but love and mutual submission that we live to serve one another and help each other, as Christ has served us. I pray that our congregation will always be able to put others first before our own, think from others’ perspectives first and be considerate in everything we do and say so that we will remain in unity as one body of Christ out of love and mutual submission.


3) Anarchy arose from the most severe criticism

And after seven days, when the purification rites were over, Paul took the Greek believers to the temple. Let’s have a look at what’s happening from verse 27, “27 When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, 28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.) Acts 21:30 The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. 31 While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.”

Well, a Roman commander and his troops’ timely intervention had saved the day. Otherwise, Paul and his men would be beaten to death. However, it would cost Paul his freedom for some years to come.

In this scene, we learnt from Paul’s example that serving faithfully to bring the Gospel in the world will not always end up in a good ending in the present age. The world outside God’s kingdom is still in darkness, and people who live in darkness are still under the devil’s grasp. Satan blinds them to the truth of the Gospel of Christ. The most severe criticism of Paul’s message had caused an outcry in Jerusalem. They were starting a riot at the temple in beating up the servant of Christ in public daylight because they refused to transit from the old age of Old Testament Law to the new age of the salvation of Christ. Salvation came through faith alone in God’s kingdom. The Jews have been exclusive to outsiders who were not born with their traditions; they also thought that Paul brought the Greeks into the temple. They used it as an excuse to start an uproar to bring anarchy into the city. Brothers and sisters, this passage can also serve as a reminder of a negative warning to us. Do not reject those who are different to us come to church, those who have not been brought up from the same religious tradition or cultural background. Instead, we should test them by God’s Word rather than our standards.

These people persecuted Jesus before his execution. Like the master who was persecuted like a criminal, the fellow servants who follow Jesus’ footsteps are expected to be persecuted in Jerusalem. If the people had rejected Jesus and the Gospel when he came, they would certainly reject Apostle Paul as well. But there is a twist on the fate of Paul. Instead of being crucified like Christ, this time, the Roman commander and soldiers had come timely to rescue Paul from the mob’s beating. However, the commander knew that Paul was the cause of the trouble, so it was Paul whom he arrested and not his attackers. The soldiers handcuffed Paul, and the commander naturally assumed that Paul was a criminal.


4) On Christian Courage

In the following verses, we see that instead of hiding in the barrack under the Roman soldiers’ protection, we see Paul’s courage, “37 As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?” “Do you speak Greek?” he replied. 38 “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?” 39 Paul answered, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people.” (Acts 21:37-39) And then he went outside to speak to the angry mob in Aramaic, giving an account of his encounter with Jesus Christ as a testimony. In this dialogue, we can see the Christian courage of Paul in the face of opposition. He spoke in Greek to the Roman commander in full confidence, showing that he was an educated man from the city of Tarsus, the capital of the province of Cilicia, not a rebel from Egypt. It was similar in saying he is from Melbourne or Canberra in Australia, not from a small town. He was no ordinary man in Roman society with status. Then later, when he spoke to the crowd, he spoke in the local dialect of Aramaic in Jerusalem. Paul showed them that he was a devoted Jew and telling people broadly about his conversion on the road to Damascus. When the time of opposition comes against the Gospel of Christ, we need to stand firm like Paul, as a Christian soldier. Never hide your faith from the oppressors. As Christ spoke a long time ago in Matthew 10:22, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Jesus told us to stand firm when we are under persecution. And sometimes, he might use the local government to give us the chance to speak out the truth of the Gospel. So if there are any opportunities that the Holy Spirit is leading you to share your testimony of Jesus in public, do not run away, do not be silent. Be faithful to Jesus and tell people about Jesus even though people might hate you because of it. Always be ready to share the Gospel like Paul, in season and out of season, so that the Gospel might save someone who hears it. And this concludes the final point of today’s sermon. Be ready and have the Christian courage like the saints before you, willing to bring the Gospel of Christ in any situation that God might put you into.

It is my privilege to preach God’s Word to you at the Campsie Church. And as many of you might have already known, next month will be my last sermon as your English Pastor preaching from the Book of Acts. Next year Kylie and I will move to a local church near our suburb in Greater Western Sydney, but I will still preach here a few more time as a guest preacher early next year. So thank you very much for your support and help in partnership of serving Jesus and serving the church in the past couple of years. It was my joy to see many of you have grown and serve the Lord wholeheartedly. Now, let us reflect on some questions that can help us to digest today’s passage in our lives.

  • What is the most difficult thing you have ever done for God? How did you get the courage and strength to do it? What resulted from your doing it?


  • Can you imagine a situation where you might have to die to serve Jesus? Are you willing to die for Jesus?


  • What does it mean to be all things to all people in order to win some? Have you ever had to make a compromise in order to lead some people to God? Where would you draw the line and refuse to compromise?


Prayer: Father, thank you for giving us your son Jesus. Give us the courage to face whatever you have in store for our lives, knowing that the hand of God controls all human events, even the behaviour of people who do not recognize you. Amen.

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