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Acts 21:17-26

When in Christ...

  • Samuel Wilson
  • Weekend Messages
  • October 16, 2022

  • Sermon Notes
  • Scripture

When in Christ…

Acts 21:17-26                                                      


Intro: What to do?


This morning, we come to Acts 21:17-26, where Paul the Apostle will finally arrive to Jerusalem. We looked last week at the beginning of Acts 21, where we saw Paul’s determination to head to Jerusalem according to the will of the Lord, but when it becomes clear to the people in the cities he visits and also those with whom he is traveling, that there is difficulty and tragedy ahead for him in Jerusalem, they begin begging him not to go. In verse 10, we saw a prophet named Agabus arrive in Caesarea, which was the last city Paul would stay in prior to heading to Jerusalem. When the prophet arrived to the place Paul and his companions were in Caesarea, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘in this way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When Paul’s traveling companions and those in the city heard that, they began begging him not to go.


Acts 21:13-14


Paul was aware of what awaited him in Jerusalem. He did not think that the messages and prophecies concerning what was ahead for him were inaccurate. He himself was the first to acknowledge in Acts 20 that chains and afflictions were awaiting him in Jerusalem. But he also stated that he was bound by the Holy Spirit to head to Jerusalem…He was walking according to the will of the Lord.

Both in chapter 20 and in chapter 21, Paul pointed people to the direction he was headed in, and then to his life in Christ:


Acts 20:24, But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of God’s grace.


Acts 20:13, …I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”


Paul’s determination and willingness to walk according to the will of the Lord ultimately made way for his traveling companions to get on board and in verse 14, they went from begging him not to go to Jerusalem, to understanding that Paul would not be persuaded and saying to him, “the will of the Lord be done.” From there, they were on board with Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, and headed there with him willingly.

In verse 17 of chapter 21, we see Paul and company arrive in Jerusalem and it is there that Paul will be faced with a “when in Rome” type moment. Not because Paul was in Rome, though he would soon be taken there, rather, it was that type of moment because when people learn of Paul’s arrival, there is a problem. Specifically, they had heard some rumors about him. Due to the rumors, the leaders at the church in Jerusalem have something to ask of him, but there have been many different views and problems with this text from certain commentators because they assert that it is a display of Paul doing something he should have done, that is conforming to a law keeping ceremony in order to keep the peace at the church in the city of Jerusalem.  

My initial title for this message was, “When in Jerusalem,” a play on the famous phrase “when in Rome,” but I chose instead to title it “when in Christ,” because I believe the example we will see by Paul in the Scriptures we study this morning is an example from Paul to me and you that shows us “when in Christ, do as Christ would do.”

The text causes us to look at the lines that we define in our lives. It causes us to grow in the things that we know, and allows us the opportunity to ask the question, how am I to live, and what am I to do no matter what city I come to, when I am in Christ?


  1. Let Your Steps Reveal Your Zeal for Him


Acts 21:17-20, After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard about them, they began glorifying God…


  • We looked last week at the fact that Paul has been talking about heading to Jerusalem since Acts chapter 19. He refers to it again in chapter 20, he knows it is where he needs to be, and now he arrives.


  • Those in Jerusalem received him gladly.


  • There is more than one reason why the church in Jerusalem received him gladly.


  • First, would be his ministry and reputation. He had gone throughout the known world telling of Jesus. He had established churches, ministries, and had seen many throughout the Roman world comes to salvation in Jesus Christ. There were even some who had come to Christ through his ministry with him as he arrived in Jerusalem.


  • Secondly, Paul had with him a monetary gift because the church in Jerusalem was in need.


  • While not mentioned by the writer of Acts, we know from some of Paul’s writings in other books of the Bible that he had taken collections of money from various churches to bring to Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8:13-20; 9:12-13).


  • The following day, Paul and the others go to meet with James, and the elders of the Jerusalem church. This would have been the official reception from the church leadership in Jerusalem.


  • This James is James the half-brother of Jesus, he is the leader of the church at Jerusalem at this time. We saw him as the one making a ruling decision regarding whether those coming to Christ needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.


  • Here he is, still the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and after greeting him and the others, Paul began to recount all that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.


  • “All that God had done” carries the idea that Paul recounted every single thing. He gave the specifics, all of them.


  • In response, they begin to give a report of their own to Paul. Thank you for sharing the good news with so many, thank you for sharing the good news of how God used you, now Paul, we have some news for you.


Acts 21:20-22, And they said to him, You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. So, what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.”


  • What they want Paul to see is the situation in Jerusalem which for him was both good and not so good news.


  • The good news is, there are many thousands, or “myriads” which means tens of thousands who have given their lives to Christ, that is the good news.


  • The not so good news is, “there is a false rumor going around about you, that you are telling people to abandon Moses, and forbidding them from circumcising their children, or keeping customs associated with the Old Testament.”  


  • First off, the rumors were untrue. The information they were receiving was false.


  • While we don’t know exactly where the rumor began, we do have some information from a previous trip Paul took to Jerusalem.


  • You might remember from Acts chapter 15, that there was a group called the Judaizers that was going around saying this.


  • Paul was preaching grace and mercy, freedom in Christ.


Acts 13:38-39, Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.


  • After Paul goes around preaching this message, after many Gentiles had believed in Jesus, the Judaizers came to town and teach differently.


Acts 15:2, And after Paul and Barnabas had a heated argument and debate with them, the brothers determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.


  • The Judaizers were essentially saying, that a Gentile can be saved, but they must first become Jews before they can become Christians.


  • Paul stood against that, there was a heated debate with them, and they took the issue to the church at Jerusalem.


  • A decision was made there.


Acts 15:19-20, Therefore, it is my judgment that we do not cause trouble for those from the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols, from acts of sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood.


  • It was James, the half-brother of Jesus, who Paul is with again in Acts 21, who made a two-fold decision.


  • The first was for the legalists: Do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles. In other words, don’t put anything in the way, or a stumbling block before them.


  • The second is to the new converts, and he is essentially saying, be sensitive. There were practices that were offensive to the Jewish converts…They all needed to learn how to be “one” in Christ. Stay away from these things, these practices are offensive. Don’t put a stumbling block in their way either.


  • Perhaps this situation in Jerusalem, the heated debate Paul had, his willingness to take the case all the way to Jerusalem, was how the rumor got started.


  • In response to the rumor, the myriads of zealous Jews who had been saved in Jerusalem were offended.


  • There is good news given to start, the people believe in Jesus. The not so good news is they believe some of the false information they are receiving about Paul.


  • Romans 14:4-6, Paul did not have a problem when people from a Jewish background wanted to continue in certain customs. Even Paul himself in Acts 18, took a vow of consecration, likely a Nazirite vow.


Romans 14:1-4


  • Paul was okay with people practicing customs, as long as they do not think it makes them more righteous before the Lord, or be the source of Salvation.


  • Paul stood and taught against these teachings and beliefs by the Judaizers, but if in honor of God’s Word they wanted to practice them, it was alright with him as long as they did it for the right reason.  


Illus. Practice.


2 Corinthians 5:21, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin in our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.


  • The people are referred to here as zealous for the law, they were Jews who had received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, yet they remained devoted to the ceremonial aspects of keeping the Law of Moses.


  • They had a background, some customs they were clinging to. They were customs that had been established by God. After coming to faith in Christ, they did not do away with the customs, in fact it may have motivated in them an even greater zeal.


  • And Paul, these people are offended by you because they are zealous for the Law, but there are some rumors, what are we going to do about this?  


  • “Paul, rumor has it, you are pushing against and forbidding the practices of the people here in Jerusalem, what should we do? They are going to find out that you have come.”


  • The word “zeal” refers to an eager desire, it speaks to one’s fervor for a person, cause, or object.


  • Zeal was a term that Paul knew quite well.


Galatians 1:13-14, For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.


Philippians 3:4-6, I myself could boast as having confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he is confident in the flesh, I have more reason: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.


  • Paul knew zeal, he particularly knew misdirected zeal, his zeal was previously for traditions, his zealous desire was directed toward the persecution of the church.


Romans 10:1-4, Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.  For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.


  • Paul knew zeal personally, and he knew that there was a misdirected zeal amongst many.


  • The reality was, though Paul was once zealous for wrong things, he was now zealous for one thing, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


  • He makes it clear in Romans 10:1, brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire is that people would be saved.


  • He was willing to contend for what was right. He was more zealous for Christ, than customs. But in no way had he forbade people from Jewish customs.


  • Paul had shown that he was zealous for Christ. He had an eager desire for Him. To do as Jesus had directed him. To go where he led him. I love that about Paul.


  • You can look back on his life since he came to Christ and see his zeal for Jesus. Everywhere he went you would see his zeal for Jesus, and one could expect, that his steps forward would reveal his zeal for Christ.


Illus. Zeal.


  • The reality was Paul’s arrival came with controversy. This brings us the next point to consider… “When in Christ…”


  1. Rightly Divide What He Desires


Acts 21:23-25, Therefore, do as we tell you: we have four men who have a vow upon themselves; take them along and purify yourself together with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and then everyone will know that there is nothing to what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also conform, keeping the Law.


  • Essentially, they tell Paul that they need him to demonstrate that he is not against custom keeping. Here is what you are to do…


  • There were four men in the church who had taken a vow upon themselves. Paul was told to go along with them and purify himself together with them, and then pay their expenses so that they could shave their heads.


  • After Paul did this, everyone would know that there was nothing to the false rumors being told about him, but rather that he himself conformed to keeping the law.


  • Paul’s response has been a problem for some, and in verse 26 we see him go ahead and commit to what they asked him to do.


Acts 21:26, Then Paul took along the men, and the next day, after purifying himself together with them, he went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.


  • The reference to the shaving of their heads, gives indication that the four men had taken a Nazirite vow. It is details in Numbers 6, and it symbolized total separation to God.


  • When taking a Nazirite vow, the person would abstain from drinking alcohol and all other product that came from grapes, they would let their grow long, and avoid contact with dead bodies. The usual length was 30 days, but we know that Samson (Judges 16:17), Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), were Nazirites for life.


  • To prove that he was not against the practices of the Jerusalem believers, he purified himself along with them, paid the expenses associated with their vow.


  • The vow was voluntary, a free will endeavor of dedication to God. And what I appreciate about Paul in this, is that he was able to rightly divide between what was essential, and non-essential.


  • The vow was not essential for salvation, they did not have to do this, but Paul was flexible, it was important to them. It was not a salvation issue, it was a secondary issue, Paul seems to take the approach of “whatever I can do” regarding the people who might be potentially stumbled over him.


  • Paul conforms, for the sake of compromise. He was not compromising truth for the sake of expediency, but he was willing to sacrifice self, for the purpose of peace, and the building up of the Jerusalem body of believers.


Romans 14:13-19


  • Paul could have responded differently. He could have said, no way. He could have responded by saying, “tell the people to tell the rumormongers that I am forbidding no such thing, and as for you James, I will do no such thing!”


  • Some say Paul badly erred in conforming to keeping with the practices of the law.


  • But I see him modeling something that shows self-sacrifice for the cause of Christ, and for peace and unity in the church community.


  • Paul’s participation did not compromise biblical truth, rather it showed his posture in matters of Christian liberty.


Quote – In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, in all things, charity.


  • What is essential and non-essential requires rightly dividing the Word, which it seem to me, Paul had done.


  • What I see here, was Paul doing what he wrote about in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21.


1 Corinthians 9:20-21, For though I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may gain more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the Law, I became as one under the Law, though not being under the Law myself, so that I might gain those who are under the Law; to those who are without the Law, I became as one without the Law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might gain those who are without the Law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.


  • In reading a text like this, it is important to ask what exactly it means.


  • Does Paul mean I just go with the flow wherever the flow goes? Just kind of a Christian chameleon, changing depending on the company I am in?


  • Not exactly. Paul is not saying “when in Rome, do exactly as the Roman do,” or do as “exactly as those in Jerusalem do.”


  • He didn’t say, to the Jews I become a Jew, he said “as a Jew.”


  • Rather, when Paul wrote, “though I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all so that I might win more to the Jews I become as a Jew,” he is saying, “I am not bound to the law of Moses, but I am bound to the law of love and the law of Christ. So, I am sensible and sensitive when with them.” He knew their language, and their customs, and he would relate to them so that he might win them to Christ.


Illus. Examples: Acts 15 and 16; Acts 18 and 21; Galatians 2.


  • This is seen throughout Paul’s ministry. Paul, in various situations was willing to divide out what was true, and then do as the Lord desired.


  • Paul became all things to all people, so that he might win some. Verse 23– “I do this for the gospel’s sake, that I may be a partaker of it with you.”


  • In response to the false rumors, and the proposed approach toward the people, Paul could have said, “no.”


  • But he didn’t. Paul went along with this so that he would not stumble tens of thousands of people who misunderstood him.


  • Paul was dividing out what Jesus desired him to do, then he went ahead and did it. It is in line with what we see in and from his life. It is in line with his personal philosophy when it came to his life in Christ.


III.   Only Conform to What Jesus Would Do


Romans 8:29


Philippians 2:3-8


Illus. When in Christ.

Acts 21:17-26
17After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us gladly. 18And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard about them, they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to abandon Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22So what is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23Therefore, do as we tell you: we have four men who have a vow upon themselves; 24take them along and purify yourself together with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and then everyone will know that there is nothing to what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also conform, keeping the Law. 25But regarding the Gentiles who have believed, we sent a letter, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and what is strangled, and from sexual immorality.” 26Then Paul took along the men, and the next day, after purifying himself together with them, he went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.


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