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32. The Giving and Taking of Advice (Acts 21:1-40)


Advice can be a wonderful thing … or a disaster. I remember once advising my sister, as she was making ginger snaps. I told her that she should sift the flour and the molasses together into the bowl. I’m sure that a moment or two of thought on your part could bring back memories of bad advice you have heeded in your life, and hopefully some good advice as well.

In our text Paul is given advice by two groups, each of which had considerable influence. The first group was a fairly large group of those who knew Paul, who cared deeply about him, and who urged him not to go to Jerusalem, where bonds and affliction awaited him. Paul rejected this advice, even though it was apparently given by those who traveled with him—men like Luke (see 21:12). The second time Paul was advised in chapter 21 it was by the elders of the church in Jerusalem, who urged Paul to do as they suggested, so that it would convince the Jewish saints in their city that Paul had not utterly renounced his Judaism personally, nor was he advocating that other Jews who had come to faith in Messiah do so. This advice Paul followed.

First impressions might incline us to conclude that Paul made the wrong choice in both cases. In going on to Jerusalem, that which had been prophesied about his being bound and handed over to the Gentiles came to pass. And, from a human point of view, it happened because Paul took the advice of the elders in Jerusalem, worshipped in the temple as they suggested, and was mistakenly accused of wrong-doing in the process.

There is yet one more “mistake” which Paul will appear to make in these final chapters of the Book of Acts: He will appeal his case to Caesar, and thus require that he be held in custody and taken to Rome.

All of these apparent mistakes are simply that—apparent mistakes. The bonds and afflictions which awaited Paul at Jerusalem, along with his subsequent appeal to Caesar, were God’s means of proclaiming the gospel to “Gentiles and kings,” just as God had purposed and foretold (Acts 9:15). In a similar way, the advice given Paul by the elders at Jerusalem was intended to enhance the gospel in one way, but God used it in a very different way to propel Paul and the gospel to the very court of Caesar, in Rome. It is, in fact, fitting that the gospel which, in Acts, was first proclaimed in Jerusalem (Acts 2) and last proclaimed in Rome (Acts 28) should find its way to Rome via Jerusalem (Acts 21-22).

Christians are just as inclined to give advice today as they were in Paul’s. Unfortunately, much (if not most) of the advice which is given by Christians is like that which the saints along the way to Jerusalem give to Paul—well-intentioned, but wrong. In our study, we will take note of the two very different forms of advice given to Paul in this chapter—that given by the saints in the cities on the way to Jerusalem, and that given by the elders in Jerusalem. We will characterize each of these, and then compare and contrast them. Finally, we will seek to identify some principles governing advice which may guide us in the advice we give as well as in the advice we choose to follow.

The Structure of the Text

The structure of chapter 21 is geographical in nature. Verses 1-6 take us from Miletus, where Paul met with the Ephesian elders, to Tyre, where Paul and his party will look up the saints and stay with them for seven days. Verses 7-14 take us from Tyre to Caesarea, where Paul and the others will stay at the home of Philip the Evangelist. And verses 15 through 40 are the description of the arrival of Paul and the others in Jerusalem, where they will meet with the elders, where Paul will worship, and finally where he will be taken into custody, accused of a “crime” which never occurred. The last verse of the chapter takes us to the beginning of an address by Paul to the Jews who had gathered. The address is recorded in chapter 22.

The chapter can be outlined as follows:

  • From Miletus to Tyre—verses 1-6
  • From Tyre to Caesarea—verses 7-14
  • From Caesarea to Jerusalem—verses 15-40

Paul’s reception and report to the elders—verses 14-19

The elders’ response and recommendation—verses 20-25

Paul’s compliance, the Jews’ charges, and the consent of the commander—verses 26-40

The Importance of our Passage

Our text is a very important one in Acts for it tells us how it was, in the plan and the purpose of God, that the gospel made its way to Rome. It was a way that no one would have expected, and many of the saints were trying (unwittingly) to prevent. But it was God’s way. The very thing which God was going to do, and which Paul was committed to do, the saints were seeking to turn around, to do the very opposite. Our text has a great deal to say about suffering, and about the will of God, about the giving and receiving of “advice” and “council,” and about standing alone. Let us listen well to Luke’s words, for they contain the inspired instruction of the Holy Spirit, and let us look to Him to make the message and meaning clear to us, as it relates to our daily walk of faith.

From Miletus to Tyre

With tears in their eyes, Paul and his companions “tore themselves away”465 from the Ephesian elders at Miletus and set sail for Jerusalem, where Paul knew that suffering and bondage awaited him (see 21:22-23). Luke’s account quickly moves about, informing us of their making port at Cos, and then Rhodes, and next Patara,466 where they found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia.467 As they headed for Syria, they sighted the island of Cyprus on their left, and landed at Tyre,468 where they ship had to unload its cargo.

One incident at Tyre is reported by Luke, which was typical of what took place in every city Paul met with the saints (20:23). He tells the reader, in very brief terms, of the prophecy concerning Paul’s fate in Jerusalem, and the response of the saints to this revelation. Looking up the saints at Tyre, Paul and the rest spent the week with them. During this time, the Holy Spirit revealed Paul’s bondage and suffering in Jerusalem. The result was that the saints persisted in urging Paul not to continue with his journey to Jerusalem.

It would appear, from the words of verse 4 alone, that the Holy Spirit not only revealed through one or more prophets that Paul was to suffer in Jerusalem, but that it was not God’s will for him to do so. Luke’s terse report, “they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem” (verse 4), seems not only to allow for such a conclusion, but to require it. Later revelation in this chapter makes this impossible. We are apparently faced with choosing one of these three explanations of Luke’s words:

(1) These saints not only understood Paul’s future, if he pressed on to Jerusalem, but the Spirit revealed to them that Paul should not go. Thus, Paul was “out of God’s will” in pressing on to Jerusalem.

(2) The Holy Spirit not only informed the saints at Tyre of Paul’s fait in Jerusalem, but “led them” to advise against it, so as to test or demonstrate Paul’s obedience and faith in pressing on anyway, in spite of the dangers and warnings.

(3)These saints were correct in understanding that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem, but they were wrong in their conclusion that Paul should not go. Paul, on the other hand, was correct in pressing on to Jerusalem.

I find only the third option acceptable. I believe we must conclude that the Holy Spirit revealed only the fact of Paul’s fate, and that the conclusions drawn from this were not those which came from the Spirit, and were not the will of God for Paul.469 The expression “speaking in the Spirit” (New Jerusalem Bible) or “speaking through the Spirit” (NASB) must refer to the fact that the words spoken “through the Spirit” were the words pertaining to Paul’s bondage, while the words spoken urging Paul not to go were not spoken “through the Spirit” but were spoken out of the loving and well-intentioned hearts of these mistaken saints.

Paul did not take their advice, for when the ship was ready to sail, he was on it. Sadly, no doubt, these saints and their families escorted Paul to the ship, where they knelt down on the beach and prayed with these travelers before they departed. The party then boarded ship and set sail for Ptolemais, while the saints at Tyre returned to their homes, probably thinking that they would not see Paul again (see 20:25).

From Tyre to Caesarea

From Tyre, the party sailed to Ptolemais,470 a distance of some twenty miles.471 They spend a day with these saints, the following day departing for Caesarea, some forty miles away.472 Here, they stayed in the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the “seven” deacons appointed to supervise the feeding of the widows (Acts 6:1-6). He later played a significant role in the evangelization of Samaria and was God’s instrument in the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:5-8; 26-39). He also evangelized the coastal cities between Gaza and Caesarea (Acts 8:40).473 He seems to have settled in Caesarea and lived there for a number of years. He married and had four daughters, all of whom were virgins and had the gift of prophecy.474

It was not through these daughters that God spoke to the church at Caesarea, but through a prophet from Judea—Agabus (verse 10). This is the same Agabus who came to Antioch, to inform the saints in this church that a world-wide famine was to come upon the whole earth (Acts 11:27-29). In a dramatic fashion, similar to that of some of the Old Testament prophets,475 Agabus took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands.476 He told the church477 that Paul would be bound by the Jews at Jerusalem and would be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. What Agabus said was new to the Caesarean saints, but not to Paul or those with him.

It is what Agabus did not say which is of greatest interest to us. Agabus, through the Holy Spirit, told only of Paul’s bonds and affliction, which awaited him in Jerusalem; he gave no inspired instructions to Paul about turning back or avoiding Jerusalem. The Caesarean saints did so, along with all those in Paul’s traveling party, including Luke it would seem (21:12), just as the saints of Tyre had just done previously. The saints from both cities came to the conclusion on their own that Paul should stay away from Jerusalem, a conclusion based upon the prophecy of Paul’s treatment in Jerusalem, but not because the prophecy specifically indicated that Paul should turn away from Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit indicated to Paul and to the rest what was going to happen to Paul in Jerusalem; the saints concluded, on their own, what Paul should do about the Spirit’s revelation. And these saints were wrong, even though they were unanimous in their conclusion! Paul’s response to their advice will convince these well-meaning saints that he was right and that going to Jerusalem was the will of God. They respond to Paul’s insistence that he is going to Jerusalem by saying, “The will of the Lord be done!”

Let us consider why the majority felt that Paul should turn back, and afterwards we shall consider Paul’s reasons for refusing to do so.

Reasons for Trying to Turn Paul Back

The following reasons seem to emerge from our text as the basis for seeking to turn Paul back from pressing on to Jerusalem:

(1) These Christians cared much for Paul and did not wish for him to have to suffer. I am convinced that the motive was that of genuine love and concern. Who wants someone they love to suffer?

(2) These friends of Paul probably concluded that imprisonment might not only lead to suffering, and perhaps death for the apostle, but would also spell the end of his ministry. How could the apostle minister from prison? How, indeed!

(3) These seem to have understood that the prophecy of Paul’s fate in Jerusalem was revealed to them, and thus they were obliged to do something about this. Mistakenly, they concluded that it was their calling to turn Paul from his course.

(4) These saints may well have thought that this prophecy was not a revelation of what God had destined to happen, but of what He threatened would happen, unless Paul’s course changed. There were different types of prophecy in the Old Testament. If we were to divide prophecy into two categories, it would be (a) that which God had purposed, and was going to happen, regardless of men’s actions; and (b) that which God promised on a conditional basis, unless men’s conduct changed. An example of the first type would be Pharaoh’s dream of seven years of feast, followed by the seven years of famine (Genesis 41:32). An example of the second would be Jonah’s threat, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4), based upon God’s words in texts such as Jeremiah 18:5-10. No doubt, these well-meaning saints saw this prophecy as the second kind, and thus they set out to change Paul’s actions, in order to change his fate.

Paul’s Reasons for Pressing on to Jerusalem

Paul was not about to change his mind. He was convinced that he was to go to Jerusalem. I believe that his reasons can be seen from this text, as well as from the account of his life and ministry as outlined by Luke in the Book of Acts. Consider the following reasons for Paul’s determination to press on to Jerusalem.

(1) Paul was given a very clear understanding of the will of God for his life, including his calling to go to Jerusalem to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” Acts 9:15-16).

“And a certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law, {and} well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing near said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very time I looked up at him. “And he said, ‘The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will, and to see the Righteous One, and to hear an utterance from His mouth. ‘For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard’” (Acts 22:12-15).

“‘But arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you; delivering you from the {Jewish} people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.’ “Consequently, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but {kept} declaring both to those of Damascus first, and {also} at Jerusalem and {then} throughout all the region of Judea, and {even} to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:16-20).

(2) Paul’s ministry was characterized by suffering, and the threat of death, from the very outset. Luke’s account of the conversion of Saul informs us that Paul was immediately opposed and persecuted by the Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah, so that Paul had to secretly leave Damascus, lowered from a wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). So, too, in Jerusalem, Paul was in great danger and had to leave (Acts 9:29-30). In Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead (Acts 13:19). In his epistles, Paul referred to a number of other incidents of his sufferings which were not recorded in Acts (see Romans 15:31; 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; 6:3-10). Paul was no stranger to suffering. Would they seek to turn him from suffering in Jerusalem, as though this would be some new experience? Paul’s whole ministry had been marked by suffering.

(3) Paul was not only willing to suffer; he was ready to die for the sake of the gospel. Paul rebuked those who tried to turn him away from Jerusalem, assuring them that he knew well that he would be bound and would suffer when he arrived there. But even more than this, Paul was ready to die there, if necessary. Having dealt with the greater issue of his death, suffering was really of little concern to him. Over and over we see Paul’s willingness to die, if need be. For him who could say, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), suffering was not a problem, but a privilege. He, like the saints in the “hall of fame” of Hebrews 11, was looking for a city that was not of this world. Death would not keep Paul from his reward, but would hasten him to it.

(4) In short, Paul saw suffering more as a privilege than as a problem, and as an inseparable part of his calling to proclaim Jesus as the Savior. In the Book of Philippians, Paul spoke of suffering as that which God graciously granted, along with believing in Christ (Philippians 1:29). He also understood that his suffering, in a special way, drew him into a more intimate understanding knowledge of his Lord (Philippians 3:10), as God’s way of encouraging the spiritual walk of other Christians, and of promoting the proclamation of the gospel (Philippians 1:12-18).

(5 ) While it is not stated, I believe that Paul understood that the prophecy of his being bound in Jerusalem was more for the benefit of the saints than for him. He knew that God was telling these people something important. Just what it was that God was doing is our next concern.

God’s Reasons For the Prophecies of Paul’s Bondage in Jerusalem

The more one reads Luke’s account of the Holy Spirit’s revelation of Paul’s fate in Jerusalem, in virtually every city where he stopped along the way to Jerusalem, the more obvious it becomes that the Spirit was not informing Paul of his fate so much as He was informing the saints. But to what end? If the Spirit did not want the saints to try to stop Paul (as they mistakenly concluded), then what was the Spirit seeking to do? What were the saints to learn? What was the reason for these revelations? I believe that the following statements help us to clarify the purpose of the Holy Spirit in giving the repeated revelation of Paul’s fate in Jerusalem to the saints in those cities along the way.

(1) The revelation was not given “to Paul” but to all. The prophecies were given publicly, to the saints and churches where Paul stopped on his way.

(2) The prophecies were not given to change Paul’s course or direction.

(3) The prophecies did reveal the differences in Paul’s attitude toward suffering and that of many of the saints.

(4) The advice of these saints is contrasted with the advice of the Jerusalem elders, later in the chapter. The first advice was bad; the second was good. We will consider the differences later in this message.

(5) The prophecies did reveal Paul’s commitment and dedication to his calling.

(6) The prophecies would reveal that Paul’s suffering was to be for the advancement of the gospel, and due to his obedience, not his sin. How many saints do you know who think that we suffer for making the wrong choices?

(7) The prophecies are the occasion for listening well to Paul, whose face they might not see again. Paul’s words to them would be viewed as his final words, and would have greater weight.

(8) The prophecies will incite these saints to prayer and care for Paul while in prison.

(9) These prophecies will result in Paul’s “prison writings” having much greater impact. This, in my opinion, may be the most important reason of all for the revelation of Paul’s bonds and afflictions which were awaiting him in Jerusalem. The prophecy of these things showed that Paul was a hero of faith, willing to suffer and to die for the sake of the gospel. A man who is sent to prison for a crime, or for his foolishness is not a man whose “prison epistles” would be sought, read, and preserved down through the ages. But a man who, like Paul, was imprisoned for his faith and his obedience to the command of Christ, was a man worth listening to. These prophecies along the way to Jerusalem were both publicity and a divine commendation, which paved the way for an even greater ministry from behind the bars of a prison.

(10) The prophecy of Paul’s bonds would be a further evidence of the sovereignty of God, who would use this bondage to proclaim the gospel even more broadly, to kings, as far away as Rome. Did some saints think that the gospel would be kept behind bars? Did they think that Paul could work most effectively outside prison walls? Then they were wrong. God’s ways are always higher than our ways. God’s work is often done in a way that defies our understanding, and thus brings Him the praise and the glory.

From Caesarea to Jerusalem,
and From Jerusalem to Jail

Paul was not turned from the course which God had appointed for him, a path which led to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to Rome. Mnason, a Cyprian disciple of long standing (had he been saved at Pentecost?), put Paul’s party up in his home, either at Jerusalem or (as seems more likely) on the way there.

Paul and the others received a warm welcome. No mention is made of the gift from the Gentile churches to the poor in Judea,478 but this was certainly delivered at some point in time. Such a gift must have helped greatly to create a bond of love and unity between the Gentile churches and the church in Jerusalem.

The following day, a meeting was arranged between Paul and others (“us,” verse 18) and James and all of the elders of the Jerusalem church. Paul reported to them in detail how his ministry had resulted in the salvation of many Gentile believers. They responded to this report with great joy, glorifying God for the salvation of these Gentiles saints.

Having done so, there was a matter of considerable concern to them which they shared with Paul, along with a specific recommendation. While there were many new Gentile converts, living in far away places, Jerusalem had thousands of Jewish believers, who were still “zealous for the law.” These saints had been distressed by (false) reports that Paul had been teaching Jewish converts to turn from the law and from all of their Jewish practices and rituals, as though this was not profitable, and perhaps even wrong.

It was apparently of no concern to the elders or to these “zealous for the law” Jewish Jerusalem saints that the Gentiles would not observe the law. After all, this was what the church had decided, some time ago, at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The only requirement placed on the Gentile believers was that they “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (verse 25). The problem seems to be in what the Jerusalem Council did not say about Jewish practice. The Jerusalem elders probably clarified the fact that Jewish Christians could continue to keep the law, not as a means to salvation, but as an expression of love and obedience. They could delight in the law, not because it gave them any merit or standing before God, but because it had been fulfilled in Christ, and because they were now righteous in God’s sight. The standards of righteousness which the law upheld were now no longer a cause of fear, but the basis for rejoicing and worship. They once were frustrated by their own failure to fulfill the laws demands, but now they rejoiced because Christ had fulfilled the entire law and they were not under the curse. And the kingdom to which the Old Testament saint looked forward was a certainty, which Jewish and Gentile saints would receive together (see Hebrews 11:39-40).

The question which remained was now what the Jewish Christian was free, as a believing Jew, to observe, but how Paul stood on this matter. Did Paul agree with the position taken by the Jerusalem elders, or did he reject this position, teaching Jewish Christians to discard the law and Old Testament Jewish rituals, as thought they were worthless, perhaps even evil, as some rumors had it? Paul could settle this matter once and for all, by publicly worshipping in the Temple, as a Jew, and as the Jerusalem Jewish Christians did. This is what James and the elders proposed, and what Paul did. This is also what got Paul into trouble, so that he was placed under arrest. This is what would eventually take Paul to Rome.

The main question for us is this? Were these elders wrong for asking Paul to do as he did, and was Paul wrong for doing it? I think that the answer must be a categorical “NO!.” The elders were not wrong in asking this of Paul, nor was he wrong in doing so. Paul’s very strong words in the Book of Galatians were addressed to those who would impose the law and law-keeping on Gentile believers, not toward those who were true believers and who wished, as Jewish Christians, to continue to live in accordance with the law and to observe Old Testament rituals. It was one (damnable) thing for Judaisers to insist that Gentile saints must keep the law in order to be saved, and quite another for Jewish Christians to keep the law because they were saved. Even Gentiles were not turned away from the law, but were enabled to fulfill its requirements:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).

Paul was not asked by these elders to do something against his doctrinal beliefs or his convictions. In fact, Paul was only encouraged to practice publicly that which he already did. In what seemed at the time to be a most parenthetical and unnecessary comment, Luke said this of Paul: “In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow” (Acts 18:18).

Would they ask Paul to participate in worship with some of his Jewish brethren from Jerusalem, pertaining to a vow? This was something which Paul could gladly do, for he had done so himself as a Christian. Paul elsewhere indicated his desire to continue in some of those practices and rituals which he had observed (ignorantly) as a Jew (see Acts 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:8). Paul did not need to do this reluctantly, but he could do so gladly, with conviction and with joy. Paul was only being urged to practice what he (along with these elders) believed, and what he (along with the Jerusalem Jewish saints) practiced.

It was not because this was the wrong thing to do (any more than going to Jerusalem was wrong) that everything seems to have fallen apart when Paul did it. Even when Paul attempted to demonstrate his continued commitment to (true) Judaism, his unbelieving brethren would have no part of him, of his teaching, or of his practice. Note however that it was not the Jerusalem Jewish believers, nor even the unbelieving Jerusalem Jews, who caused this trouble for Paul. It was the “Asian Jews” (verse 27) who created the uproar, and all because of their own hasty and inaccurate conclusion—that Paul had brought a Gentile into the Temple, so as to defile it. Their conclusion was wrong, but it did not take a great deal of evidence to convince these folks, who were predisposed to believe such a thing of Paul, that he was guilty.

Paul took the four men who were “under a vow” and participated with them in temple worship. I am not clear as to the precise ritual, though it at least resembles that described in Numbers 6.479 When the seven days of this ritual were nearly completed, some of the Asian Jews, who were familiar with Paul and with Trophimus, and who recognized them both, falsely concluded that Paul had brought him into the temple. This was a horrifying thought to them, and one which stirred them to act, dragging Paul out of the temple and closing the doors behind him.

Removing Paul from the temple was not nearly enough. For this supposed evil he should die. They were on their way to achieving this goal—of putting Paul to death—when the Roman commander and his cohort came on the scene. He had heard a report of this confusion and was intent on quickly bringing the situation under control. It was not that he knew anything of Paul, or that he came to save his life. But it did work out that way. When the Jews saw the troops arriving, they quickly ceased their brutal beating of Paul, pretending to be good, law-abiding citizens.

The commander quickly sized up the situation, or so it seemed. He realized that Paul was in the middle of the chaos, and so he ordered him to be bound with chains, and started to interrogate him, assuming that it must have been his fault for all this trouble to have resulted. There was no way of unraveling the situation by listening to the crowd, for few seemed to know what was going on. Various charges and explanations seemed to have been shouted out by those in the crowd. The commander wanted to get this man away from the crowd, and in a more calm and quiet atmosphere, get the truth out of him. The conduct and the words of the crowd (“Away with him!”) are reminiscent of the words of the crowd when Jesus was put to death (compare 21:36; Luke 23:18; John 19:15).

On the way to the barracks, Paul spoke to the commander in Greek, asking if he could speak to him. This caught the commander off guard. He had come to the conclusion that Paul was an Egyptian revolutionary, who had previously led a revolt and then led 4,000 men into the wilderness. Paul convinced him that he was a Jew, not an Egyptian, and that he was from the “north” (Cilicia) and not the “south” (Egypt). This caught the commander off guard, so much so that when Paul asked to address this hostile crowd, the man gave him permission. Here was Paul, standing before his Jewish brethren, under the protection of the Roman army as he gave them his testimony and shared the gospel with them one last time. In the sovereign purposes of God, Paul was being handed over to the Romans by the Jews, but in doing so the gospel was not silenced, it was proclaimed to an ever increasing audience. The content of Paul’s speech will be the subject of our next lesson.


The geographical sequence of the proclamation of the gospel was given to us in the first chapter of this book. Let us refresh our memories as to where the gospel was to be proclaimed:

“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

As the Book of Acts has unfolded through the pen of Luke, the historian, the gospel has been proclaimed in just this order. As the book begins in Jerusalem, so it will end in Rome. The chapters which we are currently studying make it very clear that the unbelief of Jews who were in Jerusalem was directly linked with the proclamation of the gospel in Rome. The charges which are to be leveled against Paul in Jerusalem will lead Paul to appeal to Caesar, and thus to go to Rome, care of the Roman army. In the sovereign will and purposes of God, things are working out just as He planned and promised (Acts 1:8). It surely has not worked out the way which we would have expected, or the saints of that day either, for it was they who urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

If our text serves to illustrate, once again, the sovereignty of God in the outworking of His plans and purposes, it also serves to clarify the role of the law in the life of the Christian. There are many who would think that Paul did teach that of which he was falsely accused—the utter rejection of the law by the Jews and everyone else. This is simply not true. Paul fought hart against legalism and against the use of the law which made law-keeping a means of earning God’s favor. But Paul loved the law (as did David, see Psalm 19; 119, etc.), and he found great joy in observing its commands and rituals, as an expression of worship, not as a means of earning favor with God. We would do well to re-think our view of the law if it does not conform to the view of the elders of the church of Jerusalem, and of Paul.

In this message I have chosen to focus on the advice which was given to Paul, that which was given by the saints in the various cities—not to go to Jerusalem—which he rejected, and that which he accepted from the elders of the church at Jerusalem—to worship in a way that showed he was still zealous for the law. As I conclude, I would like to contrast the “advice” of the saints in the churches along Paul’s way to Jerusalem with that of the elders in Jerusalem. I believe that the text indicates the first advice is wrong, while the second it right. What makes bad advice bad and good advice good? Let’s take a look, and see if the text, viewed in the light of the Bible as a whole, does not tell us what makes for good advice.

(1) Good advice is not lightly or hastily given. It is an inference from the text, I admit, but it seems that the problem the elders were addressing was one which had gone on for some time. These men did not give Paul this advice without having given it much thought in advance, and even when he arrived in Jerusalem, they gave him time to give a detailed report of his activities among the Gentiles, before they made their recommendation. The saints in the churches, on the other hand, gave their advice immediately upon hearing of Paul’s future. They seem to have spoken immediately after the prophet spoke, and before Paul was consulted. Paul had to interrupt them, it would seem, in order to give them his perspective. They were too quick to speak, and not very slow to hear.

(2) The advice of the elders was based upon principle, while that of the saints was based more on their subjective feelings. The counsel of the saints was very emotionally oriented—they cared for Paul, and they did not wish to see him suffer. The advice of the elders was rooted in truth. They saw a problem, and they based their advice on the principles laid down at the Jerusalem Council. How easy it is to let our well-intentioned concern carry us to ill-conceived advice.480 If doctors are reluctant to perform surgery on those who are close to them, we need to be cautious about giving advice to those close to us, for our advice may be colored by our desire not to see them suffer, more than on our desire to see them do the will of God.

(3) The advice of the saints sought to avoid suffering, while the advice of the elders sought to urge Paul on to doing what was right.

(4) The advice of the saints urged Paul to look out for himself, to avoid personal pain and adversity, while the advice of the elders urged Paul to act in a way that would benefit others. There is a world of difference between advice which puts self first, and that which puts others first. Few seek the path of suffering for the sake of self-interest.

(5) The advice of the saints sought to turn Paul away from a course of action which he believed was the will of God; the advice of the elders urged Paul to do that which he was already convinced of and committed to doing. The elders’ advice was encouragement; the saints’ advice was discouragement.

(6) The elders’ advice was for Paul to do that which would promote the gospel; while the saints’ advice (unknowingly) was that which would hinder the gospel.

(7) The elders’ advice was that which, in the sovereignty and power of God, caused the gospel to be promoted and Paul’s ministry to be expanded, while the advice of the saints would have greatly limited the gospel and Paul’s ministry.

(8) The elders’ advice required faith in God, while the saints’ advice betrayed a lack of faith in God’s ability to work through opposition and suffering, and even limitations such as imprisonment.

Advice on Giving Advice

I think that my first “advice” (forgive me), based upon our text, would be that Christians should give much less advice than they do. My second exhortation would be that we advise people only to the degree that we have a clear biblical principle underlying our advice, and that our counsel does not encourage others to act in a way that is contrary to principle, but rather on preference and self-interest.

Advice on Taking Advice

(1) Each individual must decide for himself what the will of God is for his or her life. Even when others are inspired of the Spirit to speak of our future, it may well be in more general terms than in the specific.

Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery (1 Timothy 4:14).

(2) The Christian may have to reject the advice of others, even when they present a majority view. Here, Paul must reject the advice all the rest, including Luke (21:12).

(3) The advice of others may be given to us with the full conviction (at the time) that the Holy Spirit has directed them to so advise us, even when it may not be so. We may be given the distinct impression that God has spoken to us through others, when He has not. How easy it is when we give advice to think God is on our side.

(4) The bad advice of other Christians is often occasioned by suffering in the life of the saint.

(5) The bad advice of other Christians is often well-intentioned and based in their love for us, and for their desire for us not to suffer. It would be hard to overestimate the number of times Christians have been counseled by other Christians, based upon the assumption that God does not want us to suffer.

(6)This passage is not teaching that Christians should live autonomously, independently of others and of their counsel, only that we alone are responsible to determine God’s will for our lives, and that not all advice is good advice. Good advice will stand on Scripture, and not apart from it.

465 Such is the sense of the expression, and this is the way it is rendered in the NIV.

466 “From Miletus they sailed to Cos, one of the islands of the Dodecanese, famed as the home of the medical school founded by Hippocrates in the fifth century B.C. The following day they put in at the harbor of Rhodes. ‘Rhodes’ is here the city rather than the island of the same name (the largest island of the Dodecanese). . . . From Rhodes they turned east (formerly the port of Xanthus, capital of the kingdom of Lycia, and now the headquarters of the Roman governor of the province).” F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), pp. 397-398.

467 “Paul was still in a hurry with the limited time available (20:16) and therefore chose a ship which would sail direct across the open sea, a journey of some 400 miles (644 km).” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), p. 388.

468 “According to Chrysostom, the voyage from Patara to Tyre took five days.” Bruce, p. 398.

469 In the Book of Acts, Luke speaks several times of prophecy being revealed, which tells of a future event, but which does not include any inspired application. This will be the case later on in Acts 21, as it was also the case in Acts 11:27-29.

470 “Ptolemais was perhaps the last port at which their ship was due to put in; it is not clear whether they took another ship to Caesarea or went there by road.” Bruce, p. 399.

471 Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 318.

472 “The following day they departed for Caesarea, a distance of some forty miles, which probably occupied about two days’ travel time. . . . Thus the long voyage “that may have begun about April 15 . . . finally terminated about May 14, two weeks before the Pentecost festival that Paul wanted to spend at Jerusalem.” Carter and Earle, p. 318.

473 See Carter and Earle, pp. 318-319.

474 It is not without significance that it was through Agabus, and not these daughters, that the prophecy of Paul’s fate in Jerusalem was revealed to Paul and to the others at Caesarea. It would seem that such a revelation, coming through these women, to Paul and to the other men present, would have violated the Scriptures which prohibit women from taking a leadership role over men (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40; 1 Timothy 2:8-15).

475 “The mode of his prophecy is reminiscent of much Old Testament prophecy; it is conveyed in action as well as in word. As Ahijah the Shilonite tore his new cloak to show how Solomon’s kingdom would be disrupted (1 Kings 11:29-39), as Isaiah went about naked and barefoot to show how the Egyptians would be led into captivity by the Assyrians (Isa. 20:2-4), as Ezekiel mimicked the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem by laying siege himself to a replica of the city (Ezek. 4:1-3), so Agabus foretold the binding of Paul by tying himself up with Paul’s girdle. The action was as much part of the prophecy as the spoken word; both together communicated the effective and self-fulfilling word of God (cf. Isa. 55:11).” Bruce, p. 401.

476 How ironic, indeed, that Paul was bound, the one who, in Acts 9:2, bound saints, to carry them away to punishment for naming Jesus as Messiah.

477 The language of Agabus, recorded in Acts 21:11, makes it quite clear that the Holy Spirit was not speaking to Paul, who knew all too well of his coming bondage in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23), but to the church, who were not yet aware of what was to befall him when he arrived there.

478 “Paul was accompanied by the representatives of the churches who had come up to Jerusalem with him. We may assume that the presence of the latter was connected with the presentation of the collection to the Jerusalem church, although Luke lets this motive for Paul’s visit appear only later in an incidental comment (24:17) addressed to Felix.” I. Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint, 1987), pp. 342-342.

479 “The termination of their vow would be accompanied by the offering of a sacrifice at the temple, and it was proposed that Paul should pay the expenses of the sacrifice on their behalf. This was an accepted act of Jewish piety; Josephus relates that Herod Agrippa I directed many Nazarites to have their heads shaved, the implication being (according to Bruce, Acts, p. 393 n.) that he paid their expenses. The problem is that Paul is directed to purify himself along with them. The circumstances are far from clear.

Paul’s action would make it clear that he lived in observance of the law, but many scholars have doubted whether the historical Paul would have agreed to this proposal. A. Hausrath put the objection most vividly by saying that it would be more credible that the dying Calvin would have bequeathed a golden dress to the mother of God than that Paul should have entered upon this action. Luke, it is claimed, has invented the incident to show that Paul was a law-abiding Jew.” Marshall, pp. 345-346.

480 “How often has human sentiment and solicitation, growing out of personal friendships or relationships, served to deter God’s servants from His higher will.” Carter and Earle, p. 320.

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