Acts 21:27–36 (ESV)✞: Paul Arrested in the Temple
In the last passage Paul had arrived in Jerusalem, even though he had been warned by the Spirit that he’d be imprisoned there. There had been a misunderstanding with some of the Christians in Jerusalem about whether he (and others?) were forbidding folks from a Jewish background from following certain Jewish customs or practices—which wasn’t the case—so to show that the rumours were overblown he had been assisting some folks with a Nazarite vow. Ironically, a misunderstanding about this exact act is what leads to him getting arrested in this passage!
Interestingly, we see in verse 27✞ that it’s Jewish leaders from Asia who cause the problem; they see Paul in the temple and immediately start stirring up the crowd against him. There is confusion in what they’re charging him with, however, with claims that: 1) he’s teaching against the practices of Judaism, which, from a certain point of view, is kind of correct; and 2) that he has brought Gentiles into the Temple, which is not true at all, it’s just a misunderstanding because they saw him with some Gentiles earlier and are assuming those Gentiles are now with him in the Temple.
30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.
A couple of quick points on this:
- Shutting the gates was probably to prevent further “contamination” of the Temple – to keep any more Gentiles from getting in
- According to the ESV Study Bible, “bound with two chains” probably means a soldier on each side of Paul
The tribune wants to know what’s going on—who Paul is and what he’s done—but can’t get a clear answer from the crowd since different people are shouting different things, so he decides to have him brought to the barracks, presumably hoping to figure out the exact charges later. By the time they get there they’re actually holding Paul above their heads, trying to protect him from the violence of the crowd.
In the next passage Paul will address the crowd but even in this story of his arrest there’s an interesting point about the Jewish religious leaders, as well as some further thinking I wanted to do on what Paul “forbids” vs. what he “allows” (though I’m not sure he’d phrase things that way).
The Religious Leaders
I’ve pointed out before (and will probably continue to do so) that the New Testament sometimes uses the phrase “the Jews” when it’s really referring to the Jewish religious leaders. I think this would have been obvious to original readers of the books of the New Testament but now, a couple of millennia later and reading the text translated into English, there are a lot of racists out there who already have problems with “the Jews,” so seeing the phrase in the New Testament can potentially cause them to redouble their hate and their conspiracy theories. So I try to avoid it when I can, and keep explaining it over and over when I can’t.
But the more I see mention of the Jewish religious leaders who are opposing Paul and his work, I’m also noticing that it seems to be specifically the Jewish religious leaders from Asia who are causing so many problems. (Once again, remember, in this context “Asia” is a province of Rome, we’re not talking about the modern-day continent of Asia.) I’ve long had a view of Paul’s relationship with the Jewish religion whereby he kept reaching out to his fellow laypeople while the religious leaders opposed him, but I’m now developing a more nuanced view where it’s only the Jewish religious leaders from certain communities who are vehement in their opposition to Paul’s teachings and to Jesus. The religious leaders in Jerusalem are definitely against Christianity—at least, they were in the Gospels and at the beginning of Acts—but over the last few chapters of Acts it seems as if there were some specific Jewish leaders from the province of Asia who were following Paul around, and every time he’d start to make headway they’d show up and try to stir up the crowd against him. It’s not that local religious leaders in every community were against Paul, it seems more like the folks from Asia are following him around.
Now, in this passage, even the local religious leaders of Jerusalem aren’t actively trying to thwart Paul—yet?—but it’s the people from Asia who show up once more to cause problems. In this case I didn’t get the impression that they followed him to Jerusalem, but once they found him there they started up their usual opposition. As I continue my way through Acts I’ll have to start paying more attention to which people from which areas are the ones who are most vehement in their opposition. (Are the Jewish religious leaders the ones who are going to follow Paul to Rome? We’ll find out later…)
Why such a big deal about circumcision and Jewish practices?
Modern Christians might ask why Paul was trying so hard to placate the believers from a Jewish background. Why didn’t he just tell them to do away with circumcision and any other rituals that were purely Jewish (and not carried forward into Christianity)? What’s so special about Judaism, now that it’s been replaced?
And I’d have two answers to that, which, even to me, seem contradictory, but still make sense:
- In a sense Judaism is special because Christianity has its roots there, it’s not something to just be thrown away, and
- In another sense Judaism isn’t special, and Paul is no more telling them to keep or discard their culture than he’s telling anyone else
Judaism is Special
I’ve been calling out, over and over as I’ve been blogging through Acts, that there really is a special relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Not just in terms of history—Christianity didn’t come from nowhere—but also in a very practical way: Christians study the Old Testament1 Scriptures, we get a deeper knowledge of who God is by seeing what He had done in the past and how He related to His people, and we learn a lot about ourselves (and our relation to Him) by reading what happened throughout the history of the Israelites. For example, we don’t sacrifice, but we learn something of God’s Holiness by reading about the sacrificial system and it helps us to understand what Jesus did on our behalf, and why his death was necessary for us to have a relationship with God.
Part of the reason Paul is not telling his fellow Jews to just throw everything away is because it’s important to Christians; the same God who interacted with His people in the Old Testament is interacting with His people since the death and resurrection of Jesus; the same creation story that shaped the Israelites shapes modern-day Christians – and similar for the story of the flood, and the life of King David, and everything else that happened in the Old Testament. (That’s not even getting into how much comfort we get from Psalms!)
As I’ve pointed out a number of times throughout Acts Paul would have called himself a Jew, and felt comfortable going into the Temple and assisting with a Nazarite vow because he was Jewish, and therefore permitted to be there. He emphatically did not decide that because he was now following Jesus—which he definitely was—he was no longer Jewish. Paul’s writings make deep, heavy usage of Old Testament quotations and concepts because he viewed Christianity as a continuation and deepening of God’s relationship with His people, not as a matter of God throwing out the old and starting over again.
Judaism is the Same as Other Cultures
But even aside from that, being Jewish was more than a matter of religion2, it was a matter of culture. So when Paul became a Christian he still considered himself to be culturally a Jew – just like there were Roman citizens who became Christians but still considered themselves Roman, and Greeks who became Christians who still considered themselves Greek, and I myself became a Christian but still consider myself Canadian.
Are there times when I have to be a Christian “first” and a Canadian “second”? Sure! If there are ways in which my Canadian identity would conflict with being a child of God then I’d have to set aside those aspects of my Canadian identity. But for the most part that doesn’t actually happen. As a Canadian I can celebrate Thanksgiving, for example, and birthdays, and Canada Day, and New Year’s Eve, and I can enjoy eating poutine and maple syrup, and do pretty much anything a Canadian person would do, and the vast majority of those activities are perfectly fine as a Christian. My American brethren will still be American and do American things, and my Ghanaian brethren will still be Ghanaian and follow the traditions and practices they follow in Ghana, etc. etc.
So there’s also a sense in which Paul is saying to his fellow Jews—just as he would to Roman or Greek or other Christians—that becoming a Christian isn’t forcing you to change every aspect of your culture. For sure, there are fundamental ways in which you become different, the fruit of the Spirit will change you in very fundamental ways, but not in ways that will typically mean you need to change your cultural practices. (See related thinking in Galatians 5 (ESV)✞—especially vv. 16–25✞—where Paul tells the Galatians that there are no laws against the fruit of the Spirit.) Again, yes, there may be individual parts of your culture you feel you need to reject or can no longer be part of, but in my experience those are the exceptions, not the rule. Christianity calls us to be different by being righteous, not just by making ourselves stand out by taking a stand against our cultures, unless that stand is specifically called for.
So there are Jewish practices and customs that they’d have been following and Paul is telling them that it’s perfectly fine to do so. Even circumcision! If they’re circumcising their boys as part of their culture, Paul has no problem with it; if they’re taking part in Nazarite vows, Paul has no problem with it; if they’re celebrating Passover, Paul has no problem with it. If they’re trying to force anyone else to do those things, and claiming you can’t be a Christian unless you do them, Paul (and the other Apostles) have a problem with that, but that doesn’t mean they were trying to forbid any Jewish customs or practices.
- Not that Paul or his contemporaries had a concept of “Old” and “New” Testaments, the putting together of Christian writings in a “New Testament” and creation of a canonical “Bible” that includes the 66 books we know today (more if you count the Apocrypha) wouldn’t be happening for quite a while. Paul just had the “Scriptures,” which more or less (but not quite) aligned with what we now call the Old Testament. But we have the “Old” and “New” Testaments now, so I can use them in this discussion. ↩
- I don’t know if this is true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Paul would have said Judaism wasn’t actually a “religion,” just like modern-day Christians would say that Christianity isn’t a “religion.” ↩