I recently watched a few episodes of Netflix’s series Greatest Events of World War 2 in Color. The series is actual footage from World War 2, but the footage, which was originally in black and white, has been colorized. If you’ve ever watched black and white newsreel of events in World War 2 it can appear distant and detached, almost as if you’re watching something that wasn’t fully real. The colorized version brings new life to World War 2, forcing the viewer to confront the fact that it really happened.
There really was a guy named Adolf Hitler who led a Nazi regime to slaughter millions of people through war and through genocide. One of those people who lost his life was a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As I studied Acts 21, which this week’s series of posts cover, the events of Acts 21 reminded me of something Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Intense, right?
Turn to Acts 21, and I think you’ll see what I mean. Last week we heard Paul’s final teaching to the elders of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. Go ahead and read Acts 21, verses 1-16 as Paul and his companions continue their journey to Jerusalem.
In verses 1-3 they sail from Miletus to Syria, where verses 4-6 tell us they spend seven days with Christians in Tyre. Then in verses 7-9 they travel from Tyre to Ptolemais (staying with Christians for a day) and then to Caesarea where they stayed with Philip and his four unmarried prophetess daughters! We first met Philip in Acts chapters 6 & 8.
They stay at Philip’s house for a few days, we learn in verses 10-14, and another blast from the past shows up. The prophet Agabus, who we met briefly in chapter 11, arrives from Judea bringing a prophetic word saying that the Jews in Jerusalem would arrest Paul. Hearing this, the Christians in Caesarea plead with Paul to not go to Jerusalem. His response in verse 13 is astounding, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” There it is. That’s what had me thinking of Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany.
But what does that have to do with Americans in 2020? Hold that thought. We’ll come back to that. True to his word, in verses 15-16 we read that Paul and the group travel from Caesarea to Jerusalem. This brings us to the second section of the text, verses 17-26. Go ahead and pause reading this post and read Acts 21:17-26.
How about that! Things in Jerusalem start off great. Did Agabus get his prophetic signals crossed? In verses 17-19, Paul and his entourage visit the leaders of the church and give a report of their missionary work. The leaders and church praise God. Then in verses 20-26, the leaders change their tune a bit. In order to avoid controversy, the church leaders ask Paul to go through a Jewish purification rite. This is an interesting section that reveals the cultural/theological differences in the church: Jewish culture vs. Gentile culture. We’re going to talk more about that too, as it seems to me there are some interesting parallels to that aspect of the early church and our American church. So to keep the peace, we read that Paul endures the purification ritual. I suspect that might have been frustrating for Paul, but so far things are going pretty smooth in Jerusalem.
But not for long. In the final section of Acts 21, verses 27-40, the city of Jerusalem is thrown into frenzy, and guess who is in the middle of it? No surprise. Paul. Read verses 27-40.
What happened? The prophetic word from Agabus was right on the money. Look at verses 27-29. Asian Jews seize Paul. It is important to note that these Jews are not Christians. What is going on, then, is not a church matter anymore, but a Jewish theological matter. The Asian Jews accuse Paul of false teaching and defiling the temple. Of course, Paul had taught Christ, which the Jews would call false teaching, but it is highly unlikely that he defiled the temple.
Things go from bad to worse in verses 30-32, as the city erupts and the Jews start beating Paul, until the Romans show up. The Roman commander tries somewhat unsuccessfully to understand what the Jews are concerned about, as we read about in verses 33-36. Then in verses 37-40, Paul and the Roman commander have a talk, and the commander gives Paul permission to address the crowd.
With that, we hit the pause button. Next week we’ll have our next current events sermon, and then the following week, we’ll continue with Acts 22 to learn what Paul says to the crowd.
For the rest of this week’s five-part series, we’ll reflect on what we can learn from the events of Acts 21. Check back in tomorrow as we start looking deeper at Paul’s apparent death wish in Acts 21:13.