Acts (Part 31) - Paul to Jerusalem
After Paul’s farewell to the Christians in Troas, he continues on his journey to Jerusalem. He is trying to make Jerusalem by Pentecost, which is roughly 50 days following Passover (“roughly” because technically it is 50 days following the wave offering of the 1st day of the week following the Passover). We’ve already learned in 20:6 that Paul left Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which encompasses the 7 days following Passover. So we are at least a couple of days or more into the 50 at that point. It took 5 days to sail to Troas, and 7 more for the Troas visit (20:6). Another 3 or 4 days was involved in getting to Miletus (20:13-16). Therefore, almost half the 50 days is already consumed, and Paul is still floating around the Aegean. He needs to make serious headway toward Jerusalem. He knows that if he stops in Ephesus, a week or two of visiting will go by before he has the chance to slip away. So he decides not to stop in Ephesus. Instead, he calls for the Ephesian church elders to meet him in Miletus so that he can give them some final instruction before he departs. He needs to do this because he knows something which the rest of them as yet don’t know. He knows he will not be back to Ephesus again.
The elders make the 46-50 mile trip to Ephesus to see Paul. And Paul addresses them in chapter 20 verses 18 through 35. A surface-level reading of this address might leave one with the impression that Paul merely talks about himself. And many people have criticized Paul for just that. But a careful reading of what Paul has to say not only provides a different understanding, but shows Paul’s intent to be completely opposite of arrogant self-focus. Paul’s message is that it isn’t about him.
His address, although short, can be broken into five distinct segments: The Past, The Present, Transition, The Future, and Summation. In each of the three major sections of Past, Present, and Future, Paul emphasizes both activity and attitude in ministry. Remember he is talking to the elders of Ephesus here. These are people who have given themselves to serving the church at large. Such a different concept of ministry has grown up in generations succeeding the first century church. The terms overseer and shepherd have dominated our thinking so that those we consider clergy (for lack of a better term) are 1st class in spirituality, while the laity is somewhere behind and/or below. Although mouthing the words that pastors share mere fallible personhood with the rest of us, we, perhaps subconsciously, tend to venerate pastors because of their commanding public persona. But Paul’s idea was different. These overseers were not there to hold the reins in control of the church. They were there to minister—to serve—the church. And this is the point of his address.
Paul begins with the Past, recounting his attitude with them. He served “with all humility,” not lording it over them and not with swelling pride at the attention given to him. Rather, he labored “with tears.” In other words, his was a labor of love—a desire to give of himself (selfless giving) for the benefit of others. It is the outward look that Paul writes of so often in his letters (e.g., Ephesians 5). Paul also served “with trials,” which surely shows his selfless care as persecution as well as routine difficulties (need for supplies of life) constantly presented themselves as obstacles to his ministry. And this attitude he maintained throughout the activity of his ministry, which he tells us in verses 20 and 21 were the declaring of the profitable, teaching privately and in public, testifying of “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, Paul lays the foundation by recounting his ministry in action and attitude among them.
Paul then moves to the Present. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. And Paul makes very clear that he is going not for vacation, not just for a visit, not to present some dutiful offering, but rather he is constrained, or compelled and impelled, by the Holy Spirit. Why else would he avoid those loved ones of the Ephesian church to whom he ministered with tears for three years just to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit’s coercion that drives Paul to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost. Why by Pentecost? Paul will be arrested in Jerusalem. The arrest will occur largely because of the accusation of Jews from Asia (21:27). The Asian Jews are there in Jerusalem only because of the feast of Pentecost. So the Holy Spirit wants Paul to be in Jerusalem at that precise time because this is the will of God for him. We see clearly from this event that Paul’s arrest is no accident of circumstance, unthinkingly fallen into. It is clear direction from our sovereign God.
That is Paul’s action of the present. Paul’s attitude is shown as he lets the elders know that he is not going blindly to Jerusalem. Although he doesn’t know exactly what will happen, the Holy Spirit makes clear to him as he travels that persecution and imprisonment await. But that persecution and imprisonment—that care or concern for his own safety and well-being—is not a factor in Paul’s consideration for following the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Paul’s only concern is that he finishes his course and ministry. Thus, attitude and action here in the Present mirror what Paul has practiced in the Past.
I call the next three verses—verses 25 through 27—Transition. It is a transition from focus on his attitude and actions to the attitude and actions of the elders. First, Paul sets it up by telling them that he will not see them again. This is not just a determined plan Paul has come up with. He speaks from the Holy Spirit’s instruction. But Paul tells them that it is okay that he won’t see them again, because they have everything they need. He has given them the whole counsel of God—exactly what they require so that they may minister to those in Ephesus.
And then Paul moves to the Future. In verses 28 through 31, Paul tells them that they must now focus their attention on the service of oversight, remembering that oversight is not mediation or lordship, but rather care for the church. Immediately, then, Paul focuses on their attitudes, offering the same example of attitude which he had provided in the Past. He emphasizes first humility, reminding them that the church is not theirs, but bought with the blood of Christ (20:28b). (Note that he says it is bought with the blood of God, identifying Christ as God.) He tells them that they will face trials, being opposed by false doctrine from within and without (20:29-30). And he urges them to love those they serve just as he served them “with tears” (20:31).
Paul sums up his instruction in verses 32 through 35. He reiterates the tri-fold attitude of humility, commending them to God and his Word (20:32); perseverance in trial, just as he worked avoiding saddling them with his burden (20:33-34); and love (20:35).
This message to the elders of Ephesus is instruction for all elders (overseers, bishops, pastors). The ministry is of teaching the whole counsel of God—right doctrine—and watching out for the twisting, distorting encroachment of false doctrine.
Paul leaves Miletus and sails to Jerusalem. Luke recounts the several stops on the way, but the direction is sure and the timing is of importance. They arrive in Jerusalem by Pentecost.
Acts 21 provides much drama. On the way to Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit makes known to Paul’s friends what he has already told Paul: Paul would be arrested in Jerusalem. That the information is from the Holy Spirit, we learn in 21:4. The urging of his friends to avoid Jerusalem is not the Holy Spirit’s message. That is their conclusion based on the revelation of awaiting imprisonment. Even the prophecy of Agabus in 21:11 is only that Paul will be imprisoned; it is not that Paul should avoid Jerusalem. Finally, his companions realize the Holy Spirit’s intent as they relent to “let the will of the Lord be done” (21:14).
Verses 17 through 26 provide us with the attempt by the Jerusalem elders with Paul’s cooperation of avoiding attack by the Jews. The rumor is that Paul encourages Jews to forsake the old covenant ritual of circumcision and temple offering. That has not been Paul’s message. We have already discussed that in this overlapping time period of old and new covenants (Resurrection to AD 70 temple destruction), the continued practice of covenant Jews of old covenant activity, while understanding the only true sacrifice for sin was through Christ and that the old covenant was, as Hebrews expresses, merely type and shadow, was not a practice to be denounced. So Paul does participate in supporting the offering of the four Jewish Christians under a vow.
Some people have labeled Paul’s action here a sin. I don’t think so. Three perspectives, I think, argue against any wrong-doing on the part of Paul. The first perspective is one already discussed in part in this summary. The Holy Spirit appears to be guiding Paul to just this conclusion. Paul has demonstrated that he always moves from city to city and enjoins the work under the Holy Spirit’s direct guidance. We know that the Holy Spirit directed him to Jerusalem at just this time (19:21). And even though attempt was made by friends to divert him, Paul resolves to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Even his friends realize that this is the will of God (21:14). Therefore, although this does not prove Paul has committed no sin in this regard, we know the Holy Spirit directed him to Jerusalem for the purpose of this arrest.
The second perspective provides greater proof that there is no fault in Paul for his participation in this temple offering. Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians (prior to the Jerusalem trip) that in his service for the Lord he always acts without concern for his own advantage. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s leading is of preeminent importance to him (1 Cor 10:33). Furthermore, after his arrest, the Lord encourages him with the words, “As you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (23:11). There is no qualification such as “…except in how you wrongly testified through temple offering.” And Paul can then testify without qualification in Acts 24:16 that he “always takes pains to have a clear conscience before God and man.” Of course, he is a man, and therefore sins. But in his ministry for God, he has a clear conscience. (That is also supported by his later letter to Timothy—2 Timothy 1:3; 4:7.) So, with the Holy Spirit’s guiding him to this place for this purpose and Paul’s testimony that he has acted with clear conscience, I believe we should not consider his action in Jerusalem as incorrect.
Finally, the picture Luke presents necessarily incorporates his action of temple offering. In volume 1 (The Gospel According to Luke) we see four major events in the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry: the Last Supper, the Gethsemane Prayer, the Arrest and Trial, and the Ascension. The activity of Paul’s concluding ministry as a free man in Luke’s volume 2 (The Acts of the Apostles) mirrors that of Jesus in volume 1.
At the Last Supper in the upper room, Jesus ate with his disciples, had extended discussion with them, and then broke bread again instituting what we call the Lord’s Supper or Communion. In Troas (Acts 19), Paul ate with the Christians there, had extended discussion with them, and then after the picture of death and resurrection (in the incident of Eutychus), Luke again mentions that Paul broke bread, a probable reference to sharing the communion rite with them (19:11).
At his arrest and trial, Jesus was falsely accused, was beaten, and then came under Roman control. In Acts 21, we see that in Jerusalem Paul was falsely accused (21:27-29), was beaten (21:30-32), and was taken under Roman control (21:32b-38). Notice particularly that Paul is taken to the steps of the Fortress of Antonia which is the Roman garrison at the northwest corner of the temple mount. This is the same garrison to which Christ was brought as Pilate examined him. And just as the Jews cried out then, “Crucify him!” they cry out against Paul “Away with him!” (21:34-36).
Christ gathered his disciples to him after his resurrection to give them final instruction, telling them that he would be going, but that they would witness of what he had taught them. We saw the same gathering of elders by Paul at Miletus as he instructed them that they would not see him again, but they had the whole counsel of God to continue in ministry.
Finally, the point for this perspective is in the similarity to the Gethsemane Prayer. Jesus prayed (1) if possible that God would let this cup pass, but (2) not his will, but God’s be done. In parallel, Paul sought that passing of the cup in his temple purification rite with the four Jews under a vow. But Paul was not shirking following the Spirit. We learn in the first part of chapter 21, that he was “ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13). And by this witness, his friends understood that Paul intended to “Let the will of the Lord be done” (21:14).
This activity of Paul that parallels Christ’s ministry end is not intended to say that Paul is just like Christ. Obviously, Christ’s activity was in establishing the New Covenant—activity that no one but the God-Man Jesus could do. But the point here by God and through Luke is that the Holy Spirit that led Christ in establishing his kingdom church also worked through Paul to develop this established kingdom church to the praise of his glory!